Return of the Fish Hawk

It’s that time of year again! One of my favourite things about spring is watching ospreys plummet into the water and emerge carrying huge flatfish, with the suave flourish of a magician extracting a rabbit.

I’ll be honest – I rarely get excited about larger raptors as they’re usually just a hazy speck in the sky. But ospreys bring all the drama, sometimes appearing out of nowhere and sending nearby herring gulls into a flap.

An osprey will hover high over the water, using its incredible eyesight to track a fish. Then it sidles down through the air, finally slamming into the shallows talons first.

It’s often a game of luck if you’re standing in the right place when they dive (and if you’re nimble enough to catch the actual dive, which I regrettably wasn’t), but you’ll hear the splash even from several hundred yards away.

Elsewhere on the water, I was watching a heron minding its own business when it was mobbed by a couple of common gulls. Despite the size difference, the heron was shooed off its patch and raced past me with a reptilian squawk and a sweep of its vast grey wings.

An Easter Weekend of Firsts

Despite the cocktail of sun, rain, hail and snow all in four days I managed to have an excellent Easter weekend of wildlife watching. I heard my first chiffchaff this week, which can only mean spring is on its way despite the occasional blizzard!

Osprey season has begun and I spotted my first of the year on Saturday. That was the hottest day in a long time and sunglasses were essential for squinting up at the sky. As well as seeing this stunning male osprey hovering over the estuary, I saw my first sand martin of the year (too nippy for a photo) and my first ever grey plover, which was a rare visitor to the area.

Grey plover

That evening the excitement continued with my first gannets and bottlenose dolphins of the year! It was a gorgeous evening with a cracking sunset, made even prettier by the appearance of three dolphins that cruised all the way around the headland. There were a couple of distant breaches too far away for a photo but it was so lovely to see dolphins again. I can’t wait for the season to kick off properly when there will be sightings on most days!

But the most exciting encounter happened on dry land.

I knew there were hares nearby as I often saw them dashing across the open fields, too fast and far away for a photo. I wondered if I pulled up with the windows down safari style whether they might appear a bit closer. For a photographer, a car can be an excellent wildlife hide.

I passed the time watching pheasants foraging. Every now and then the male would do his screech call and flap his wings, which looked lovely in the early morning light.

I waited for him to do it again but he wasn’t playing ball. My hands were going numb and I was just about to put the camera down when a hare appeared behind him.

I froze, actually hearing my heart thud as it padded towards me. Once it was ten feet from my lens it sat and stared right at me before lolloping back behind the bales. Even though it could see me, there was something about me being in the car that had relaxed it enough to check me out.

Once I was sure it had gone I checked the photos and actually cried looking at them, which has never happened before. The combination of shock, joy and relief was overwhelming and I almost couldn’t believe what had happened.

It’s been an Easter weekend full of treats, from soaring ospreys to sunlit dolphins to breathtaking views of one of the most iconic Easter animals: the gorgeous hare. Thank you Mother Nature!

The Greenway

The Egan’s Greenway is an unexpected jungle in the middle of smoke-belching industry and deckchair tourism. The mundane sounds of traffic are deafened by the furious chatter of cicadas – enormous insects that seem prehistoric. Their strange call is like the sound of angry water sprinklers, growing louder and faster until it reaches an alarming tempo, then abruptly stops.


At first light the Greenway is sharply divided into light and dark. The dense, impenetrable forests are still cool – the trees in muted greens – but out on the marsh the grass is alight with fiery golds and oranges. Naked trees poke the sky with sharp limbs white as bone, while beside them sway lush evergreens. It is a land of stark contrast, a spectrum of vitality and decay. Time passes here with the tick of the cicadas.


The day warms up, throwing a shimmer onto the surface of the creek. Here there be dragons, some cruising between reeds on transparent wings, others scrambling up trees with long claws. A flash of movement and then a disappearing act, they blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Just a flick of the beady eye will give them away, and then they will shoot off into the undergrowth.


Other beasts can be found higher up. Perched on the skeleton fingers are ospreys, scanning the creek in every direction. One takes to the air and its mate follows. Together they wheel in deep circles, overlapping in smooth figures of eight. A wood stork, large enough to be unfazed by the raptors, joins their sky with dark wings barely flapping.


Then, a real dinosaur. A creature that survived what forty-metre sauropods could not, almost unchanged for millions of years. This one is only small, an arm’s length perhaps, but even so it floats beneath the water’s surface with the stealth of an adult, startling green eyes always watching. A glance away and back again and it has disappeared, moving across the creek without a sound.

Where is mum? Perhaps it is best not to stay and find out.


Searching for Spoons

After so much excitement, I’ve neglected my camera recently and wanted to finally spend some proper time searching for Florida’s wildlife. I’d been told about a good spot for wading birds, and knew that the inhabitants included my new favourite bird, the roseate spoonbill. I set out before sunrise and reached the water just as the sky was beginning to lighten; pinks and oranges blending with blue.

My first sighting was almost immediate. Perched on a branch overhanging the lake and peering curiously as I wound down the window was an anhinga. With both heron and cormorant-like features, anhingas spear fish under the water with their long, sharp bills. The name originates from the Brazilian Tupi language and translates as “devil bird”. I don’t quite see the devilish resemblance – I found the anhinga delightful, especially when it shook out its striped wings. Like cormorants, anhingas hold out their wings after swimming to dry them. This one looked like either a female or a juvenile, as males are jet black with silvery streaks.



Soon the anhinga was joined by a yellow-crowned night heron, shoulders hunched down as if with cold. With a white cheek patch and a pale crown of feathers that looks more white than yellow, the yellow-crowned night heron is actually nocturnal, so I must have been really lucky to catch a late glimpse just before the sun emerged.

Yellow-crowned night heron

Elsewhere in the tree was a green heron, who was more brown than green so was perhaps a juvenile. Apparently, green herons are known to throw insects into the water to encourage fish to the surface, which is genius and must look amazing to see.

Green heron

Suddenly a snowy egret burst into view, legs dangling and panicked wings flapping. There was a deep, kronking call as more birds surged upwards. Puzzled, I glanced around for signs of a raptor, when a disturbance in the water caught my eye. There, gliding without a sound, was an alligator. My first alligator! I could hardly contain myself. All I could see of it was a pair of eyes and nostrils, so I had no idea how big it was, which was perhaps more nerve-wracking than seeing the whole animal. Even from the safety of the car my paranoia imagined the alligator leaping headlong at the open window, but it just cruised out of sight and the birds soon calmed down.


I wandered further on to try and find a spoonbill. There was a loud rustling above and I looked up to see the trees absolutely covered in white ibis; wading birds that gather in large groups all across Florida. I was spoilt for choice for photos. Although they’re not the prettiest of birds, their long, red bills still looked impressive, especially when they all took off in one simultaneous swoop. In the absence of car engines and people this early on a Sunday, the only sound to be heard was the wind in their wings which sounded so magical.

White ibis


After watching them leave I wondered what had scared them off. Once again I scanned the trees for signs of a raptor and this time I found one: a stunning osprey with a fish in its claws! I’d only seen ospreys once before in Scotland, all the way across a loch that made taking photos quite the challenge. This osprey, however, was a tree’s height away and sat in a perfect patch of sunlight that made its yellow eyes dazzle. It spotted me straight away and watched as I took photo after photo. Eventually it gathered up its breakfast and took off, just as the first dog walker came into view.



At 9:30am it was already getting too hot to be out without a hat, and my hastily eaten bowl of cereal at 6am seemed far away. I’d loved to have found my spoonbill, but having seen a bonus osprey and alligator I was far from disappointed. I’d just got back to the car and was fumbling for my keys when I glanced up, and by some miracle there was a spoonbill perched at the very top of a tree. It was the pink cherry on an incredible cake.

Roseate spoonbill


Beaver Expedition: Day 4

Another sunrise start for our final chance of watching the beavers. This morning the sun was visible, and when we set out it was a pale orange splotch hovering over the river, sending orange lines criss-crossing over the water as the wind stirred it. We made a beeline for our usual spot, slowing down as we approached the patch of rhododendrons in case the beavers had already emerged. Settling down and standing up tripods, the waiting game began. Infuriatingly, my hay fever chose this moment to launch its morning attack, and as my eyes streamed I fought the overwhelming impulse to sneeze and startle everything within a twelve-mile radius half to death. Not today hay fever.


The morning continued on with no visitors. Slowly but surely the sun climbed higher, bleaching the blue water with white highlights. The usual breeze whistled under the overhang of the trees and made them wave and rustle; the only movement in sight. A pied wagtail landed on the dead wood, tail bobbing as it turned on the spot. Deep in the woodland thicket a thrush sang, while the jackdaws chattered noisily in the distance.

Suddenly a beaver appeared, cruising silently from under the bushes and into the light. It made its way upstream, to where the river weaved between clumps of reeds and grasses. There it disappeared, but soon we heard quiet chomping noises and knew it was breakfast time.


In contrast to yesterday morning, the lone beaver wasn’t joined by any companions. It was possible that they had fed well late last night and did not need to venture out. Before long Heather and Cain headed off to get started on assembling the expedition vlog. As they made their slow way back over the water, Cain stopped and gestured into the reeds. I suddenly realised we hadn’t seen the beaver swim back, and while he could have easily dived under and passed by unnoticed, he could also still be feeding. Sure enough, Heather set the scope up to film again. Not wanting to miss the action, I treaded up the grass path nearly doubled over, until I saw what they’d spotted.

Just at the water’s edge, behind a layer of long grass like a bead curtain, was our beaver. Hunched up, the grass trembled as he chewed, shifted his body and chewed again. Squatting down, I got as close as I dared and peeked between the blades of grass to try and get a clear shot. The beaver paused, looked right at me – so much for my attempts at stealth – and carried on chewing. He stayed for a while longer until eventually stepping forward out of the grass and slipping back into the water, gliding down and out of sight.


Once I’d got a few more hours’ sleep and eaten a hearty breakfast, it was time to check the camera traps. After the efforts of finding the right spot, setting them up and waiting for any visitors, retrieving the trap was the best bit. I retrieved my laptop and we all huddled around the table, eager to see if we’d got any beaver footage. After the first trap only showed clips of grass blowing in the wind, we were a little disappointed. However, on the trap that we’d set on a post in the river, pointing towards a mud slope, there were multiple clips of beavers waddling in and out of the water! First a male coming and going, dragging his paddle of a tail behind him. Then another clip showed a much wider animal – the female – following the same route. It was so great to see, especially since we’d only seen the tops of the beavers’ heads as they swam on our morning stakeouts. To see their whole body and capture moving footage was a fantastic end to the expedition.


All too soon it was time to leave the site, and as we drove back down the gravel track the sun continued to shine. We decided to go back down south via the Loch of the Lowes, a Scottish Wildlife Trust site, to try and see some ospreys that were nesting there.

The loch was the largest I’d ever seen, looking more like an alcove that led into the ocean. The water was sparkling blue under the still beaming sun, surrounded by trees of every shade of green. We set up in the hide and the reserve guide pointed the nest out to us. On the far side of the loch, high up in one of the trees, was a clustered pile of branches and twigs, inside of which perched an adult osprey and two scruffy chicks. I’d never seen an osprey before so was thrilled to see such a fabulous raptor on the nest. As I watched them down the scope, the adult tended to her chicks, which were peering over the edge of the nest at the world around them.


Before long it was time to hit the road again, and after such a packed weekend I couldn’t stop myself dozing off in the car. I arrived home with my pockets filled with beaver chippings, woodpecker feathers and endless pages of notes – sure signs of a good expedition.

Species seen: Buzzard (Buteo buteo) European beaver (Castor fiber) Great tit (Parus major) House martin (Delichon urbicum) Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) Osprey (Pandion haliaetusPied wagtail (Motacilla alba) Song thrush (Turdus philomelosSwallow (Hirundo rustica)