As diluted sunlight comes streaming through the window I’m awoken by the squalling of gulls – a tangled symphony of disgruntled burbles, high-pitched cheeps and open-throated cackles from chimney top perches.
The weather in the Scottish Highlands is always a lucky dip. Some days I wake up to driving rain and moody skies. Today the sky is bright, streaked only by wispy cirrus clouds. Despite the sunshine, there’s a bracing wind skirting up over the waves and whipping them up into frothy white peaks.
A gaggle has assembled on the beach while the tide is far back. Common sandpipers hurry across the sand, weaving their way between bunches of seaweed strewn around like abandoned clothes. A handsome oystercatcher kicks up a fuss, its shrill piping call spreading far along the beach. House martins swoop like missiles over puddles left behind by the tide, their inky blue plumage gleaming in the sun.
There isn’t a soul here. On a warm, sunny day like this in the south, the beach would be clogged with sun-bathers and a garish patchwork of multi-coloured towels. Here, the beach is my solitary refuge. The water may be icy, but the views are stunning.
After weaving my way through assorted rocks worn smooth by the ocean and abandoned shells lying chipped and half-buried, I clamber up the steep dune running the length of the beach. My boots sink and sharp grass brushes my legs but I finally reach the summit and slide down the other side. The coastal wind instantly dies like a door has been slammed against it. The forest is sheltered and muffled against outside noise. Seclusion is one of the habitat’s best qualities. There is a feeling of anticipation upon entering a forest. It’s full of surprises.
The dog wanders off by herself, true to form. The forest fragrance is too hard to resist. Her light fur flashes in and out of view behind the trees, their trunks as straight as the lines on a barcode.
I know there must be red squirrels in this forest, perhaps even pine martens. So far I haven’t seen either, but that is no guarantee of absence. It’s what I love about wildlife: it can never be rushed.
We pass another dog walker and for a while the only movement in the forest is the flurry of fur in a rambunctious chase. There will be no wild sightings this morning – martens are sleeping and squirrels are out of sight in the enclosed canopy. The dogs dash around blissfully, but eventually we pull them apart and I loop back towards town. Sounds of civilisation begin to permeate through the trees; car doors slamming, human voices, a distant bus. It’s like the sensation of ears popping and I’m back in the open, leaving the forest behind me. Until tomorrow morning.
As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I’ve recently been experimenting with the lensball, which is a simple and effective tool to give photos a new perspective. I tried it out in the garden first with mixed results, but once I ventured further from home and found more intriguing subjects to capture, I began to really see the appeal with lensballs. The following shots are my latest creations.
After spending far too much time on Photoshop – I never like to over-edit my wildlife photos as I think they look far better natural – I decided that a quick and easy way to remove my hand from the image was to take an additional photo of the scene out of focus, which provided the background to the final shot. Then I placed one image over the other and erased my hand. I think the pieces with slightly more complex backgrounds are more effective than those with a plain one such as the blue sky, which make the already obscure subject look perhaps a little too surreal.
I love seeing a whole new perspective through the lensball, and I can’t wait to continue exploring my natural surroundings with this additional piece of kit!
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.
Today marks the beginning of a new project: learning to birdlisten. It’s a much-used cliché but I have been an avid birdwatcher since I was a child. I’d sit out in the garden, hold as still as I possibly could, and after a while birds would begin to show, hopping out from under bushes and descending slowly from the treetops. This gradual emergence, the steady drip-drop of birds, was so exciting to me. The species would usually be very common – robin, dunnock, blackbird – but occasionally a blue tit or great tit would appear, and to my amateur eye these were very special indeed.
As my knowledge gradually improved, I began to notice more species and although the trusty robin and dunnock never grew boring, they lost their shine among more colourful or charismatic varieties. One by one I added birds to my repertoire, and although I didn’t notice my mental list growing, soon I could identify a wide range of species. Although waterfowl and waders had their charm, my favourites were always the passerines, or “perching birds”.
Passerines include a subgroup of species we call songbirds but are more accurately named oscines – birds that establish their territories by means of musical vocalisations. It never occurred to me why the singing birds attracted me most, until I turned my attention to listening for birds instead of looking for them, and then it became abundantly clear.
Birdsong is the soundtrack of nature. Even for me, a keen bird enthusiast, birdsong had blurred into the background of my time spent outdoors, nothing more than a pleasant backing track that accompanied my attempts to birdwatch. Why on earth did I let birdsong become such an unimportant feature of the landscape, no more significant than hold music? It was high time that I paid more attention to it, instead of letting it wash over my ears without acknowledgment. It is so true that we see but don’t observe, but it is also the case that many of us hear but don’t listen.
Author of “Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed” Simon Barnes points out that understanding birdsong allows us to see around corners. There’s a bird hidden up in the canopy somewhere, but unless you know its song you’ll never know what it is. I’ve had this frustration many times, when I see the distorted outline of a bird but no characteristic features that give it away. If I hadn’t neglected my auditory senses, I wouldn’t have been disappointed when the bird hopped further out of view.
And so begins my journey to learn the language of birdsong. It seemed a daunting prospect at first; to my untrained ear all chirrups and whistles sounded identical. However, like any problem, it is imperative to break it down, and that makes it far less intimidating.
I have already made progress. First was the robin: an unmistakable bird in appearance, and a good place to start when learning birdsong because of its presence all year round. During the usually hushed winter months, the robin still sings, an isolated soloist filling cold air with thin, gentle melodies. Spring is by far the most frustrating time to begin birdlistening, so to hear the robin on a chilly February morning with no other avian distractions allows us to begin to tune into this new world I for one took for granted.
The wren also sings in winter, but has a far louder song bordering on rowdy. For such a small bird, the song bursts out of hedgerows, with a telltale trill at the end of some phrases, like a twirl of icing atop a cake. Then there is the two-note song of the great tit, like the squeak of a saw being pulled back and forth.
And so on. Already my ears are filling with birdsong and I’m really listening this time. Acquiring the skill of understanding this rich and varied language will not only help me become a better birdwatcher, but it will pave the way to a clearer understanding of nature as a whole – appreciating nature’s vibrant soundtrack.
After our great grey shrike stood us up last week, I was determined to tick a bird off my wishlist. I did some digging and found there were a few good spots for hawfinches down in Kendal. Zahrah and I picked the best day of the week and headed down, this time with Kacper. As usual, when the alarm sounded I was struck by an overwhelming urge to leave the hawfinches to their business and dive back under the covers, but when I snuck a glimpse out the window and saw the bright promise of a beautiful day, I knew we had to go for it.
Despite the rather vibrant sun, a sharp chill met us as we left the warmth of the car, reminding us it was still February. Clutching my fists together in my Sealskinz gloves, we made our way up the track, away from people and towards wilderness. The path wound through a small wood, dappled by sunlight filtering through overhead. What had been squelchy mud was now frozen hard as concrete, and crunched under our footsteps. We were initially prevented from entering the open field due to a very restrictive swing gate. My bulging rucksack got wedged and I had to hold my tripod flush to my chest and reverse through – far from a sophisticated entrance.
The frozen ground stretched further, blades of grass as solid as real blades, and it was strange not to feel the gentle give of soft earth. The sun was trying to warm the landscape, taking every opportunity the clouds allowed it to reach us. Once back in the woods, it was shadier. Muffled conversations sounded in every direction; the proud song of a robin and the chatterings of crows all mingling together. We tried to ignore all of these and listen solely for a piercing whistle. This was the call of our target: the hawfinch.
Hawfinches are beautiful and unmistakable birds with striking colouring and formidable conical bills. Usually secretive and shy, they spend most of their time in the topmost branches, making the UK’s largest finch difficult to spot. Typically found in mature deciduous and mixed woodland, hawfinches regularly frequent hornbeam trees. The bill of a hawfinch is highly specialised to cope with the hard seeds and cherry stones that form much of its diet. Once a bird reaches maturity, its skull ossifies and two hard knobs form within each mandible, which are essential for holding a seed still while it is cracked. Findings from an experiment showed that hawfinches can exert a pressure of 60-90 pounds of force, which isn’t bad for a bird smaller than a blackbird.
As hawfinches frequent the tops of trees, spotting them can be a challenge, not to mention their timid calls are often lost among those of the more plucky birds. Although I never want to criticise the sun, it was shining at a rather inconvenient angle, so gazing up meant we could barely see the treetops, let alone brown birds. So, we tried to climb as high as possible to get a better vantage point. Soon we found a large clearing that gave us a 360° perspective of the forest. Seeming like a good place to set up shop for a while, we perched on a fallen tree and scanned with our binoculars.
There’s nothing quite like sitting in silence, listening to wildlife. Upon arrival you think the forest is a quiet and secluded place, and it would be to a person used to the thrum of cities and traffic. But to sit still and listen in a wild place is to hear a whole new language. I don’t understand it yet – something I’m hoping to soon rectify – but I could listen to its lyrical beats and rhythms all day. Understanding birdsong brings a whole new dimension to bird watching. Cain Scrimgeour, someone I consider a bird connoisseur, can hear the slightest chirrup up in the trees and tell you who made the sound. Sure enough, moments later that bird emerges. To me it’s magic. I consider my knowledge of British birds to be competent, but to know their sounds as well as their appearances is a truly incredible skill.
I heard a soft crunching of leaves as Kacper made his way towards me.
“What’s this?” He whispered, holding his camera up for me to look at the image on the screen.
My eyes popped and I bit back a loud gasp, “That’s a hawfinch! Where is it?”
He led me back to where he’d been standing and pointed up. Now began the near-impossible task of explaining to a person which tree in a hundred trees you are looking at. After a painfully long-winded ordeal I found where he was pointing, and with binoculars trained I saw my first hawfinch. Females are only slightly less brightly coloured than males, so to my eye I couldn’t tell which this one was. The bird was perched looking straight towards us, feathers hunched up. It was foraging, and I saw it pick a seed from its branch and arrange it in its bill to crunch down with that extraordinary force. The bill almost seemed too big for the bird’s body. It was like a person with a party hat positioned over their nose and mouth, almost comical.
Zahrah was a way off, so I was incredibly patronising (though I believed it was necessary in this occasion) and made several hasty finger clicks to get her attention. Once she’d arrived Kacper explained the bird’s location again and we all watched. I made the mistake of retrieving my camera from its resting place by the log, and when I returned the bird had retreated to a tree further off. It was joined by three more, and although I tried they were too far off to photograph. This, to my shame, was the result.
There was another rustling of leaves and we turned to see an elderly man making his way down the bank.
“Seen any?” He asked, knowing exactly why we were gathered there.
“A few!” I replied excitedly, and once again Kacper directed the man’s view to the right tree.
“There were 43 here yesterday, so I’m told,” the man said, “The reserve ranger and volunteers saw them, couldn’t believe their eyes.”
Forty-three hawfinches. For a moment I cursed myself for not thinking to come a day earlier, but as I watched a pair perched way up in the topmost branches I was grateful we’d seen any at all, even if the photos were incredibly dodgy.
After a while the finches flew off. I glanced up in our immediate surroundings, wondering if the elusive birds had gathered directly over our heads – it’s something I would do to birdwatchers if I were a pretty finch – but the branches were bare.
“There’s another good spot back the way you came,” the man told us, “In the clearing. I’m walking back home that way I’ll show you.”
So we headed up the track, which by now had begun to thaw, the mud regaining its sticking power. Back in the open field, we were reminded again of the chilly February breeze, and willed the sun to make a reappearance.
We thanked the man as he went on his way, then we settled down to eat our lunch overlooking the open fields. Every time one of us spotted a dark patch in the treetops, we hastily studied it through the bins. But the hawfinches had headed off, submerged once again in their woodland domain.
There was no frost today, but the sun was shining brightly and I knew the larches on the hills would be lit up like fiery beacons. We only had the morning, as we were leaving the bothy just after lunch, so first I headed out with Cain to pick up the camera traps. I was wrapped up in my fleece but was soon peeling layers off – the weather was surprisingly warm today with such bright sunshine and little wind.
Just before we returned to the bothy to check the footage, Cain took me to see the huge troops of orange fungi up the hill by the clearing. I’d just been saying how little fungi I’d seen, but I was soon proved wrong when I saw how many there were up here. Sprinkled all the way along the track were small orange bulbs of every shape and size. Some were illuminated in patches of sunlight, which made their colours shine even brighter.
As I was stooped on the ground photographing the fungi, I heard a bizarre sound that reminded me of an angry cat. I turned and saw the outer layer of trees swaying in the growing wind, releasing the most peculiar creaking noises. Cain explained how these trees would usually grow on the inside of the forest, but due to felling they were now on the outer layer and were struggling to cope with the battering elements. Some had already succumbed, and we passed gigantic trees lying flat on the forest floor, their roots larger than tractor wheels.
Out in the open, the wind was a lot stronger, so we ducked back down and sought the shelter of the forest. We gathered everyone in the bothy and had a look to see if the traps had been successful. Sadly, the two I had put out only had footage of my bobble hat as I attached and detached the trap from its post. However, Cain had put one in the garden and this had filmed several clips of a bank vole darting in and out of the rock pile. Later in the night, a wood mouse joined the scene, distinguishable by its longer tail and much larger Mickey Mouse ears. So, the traps weren’t a complete disaster, but certainly no pine marten footage.
When I woke up the blinds were bright. I had a peek outside and was thrilled to see there was a frost clinging to the grass. I hurried into clothes and headed out into the garden. It had been a full year since my last frost and I was eager to capture some macro photos again. Leaves, twigs and thistles were all coated in a fine layer of silver crystals that, when hit by the sun, twinkled and shone like last night’s stars. Soon I had wet knees from crouching in the grass and the beginnings of a crick in my neck from getting as close as possible. My plan was to crop the photos in to create a repeating abstract texture. As usual, I took far more than I probably needed.
After relaxing for a while in the bothy I headed out again, down one hill and up the next. I passed the tyre swing, but the lack of decent light meant the shots weren’t quite what I imagined. I knew I had to photograph the bright yellow and orange larches that had taken my breath away on the drive in yesterday. Unfortunately the sun that I’d wanted to shine was well and truly concealed behind thick clouds; the light was so diluted I could gaze in its direction without difficulty. However, when I began to shoot, the rusty warm hues still popped. I began to experiment with positioning individual subjects like stray grasses in front of the camera, so the trees bled together and created a vibrant background.
The rest of the day was spent writing beside the fire and recording what I’d seen during the day. I had a sneaky look at my photos so far and was pleased with some of the outcomes. Hopefully there’d be more opportunities on our last day tomorrow.
Before I’d even got to the hide there was a chirruping in the bushes and I turned to see a group of juvenile yellowhammers mobbing their parents, hopping between branches for attention. Three birds flew past overhead and I caught the triangular shape of starling wings as they soared over me.
The lake was quiet – a pair of mallards floated in circles on the far side, while mute swans waddled along the bank. Once I was settled inside, they appeared by the feeders, accompanied by the juvenile swans I’d seen last time. The whole family loitered beneath the swinging seed canisters, mopping up anything dropped.
The feeders themselves were a flurry of activity. As usual, the nearby bushes were full of house sparrows, fighting to snatch a mouthful. Blue tits and great tits waited in the queue and I was particularly excited to see a lone greenfinch among the group too; back home in Hertfordshire these birds are becoming scarcer and scarcer.
After watching the birds feed for a while, I wandered on. It was a lot colder than usual – dew covered the grass but it wasn’t quite cold enough to freeze it, though perhaps this may soon be the case on early mornings. There were other signs of winter too; bursts of red berries and a fat robin perched on the fence. Even though these birds are around all year, somehow a day in early winter feels like Christmas is a lot closer when you spot one.
As I made my way to the wood the only sound was the usual “whizz-burr” of the turbines as they swung. There was a break in the clouds and beautiful streaks of sunlight shone through at jaunty angles. The forest was gloomy but still inviting, and as I walked round I scanned both sides of the path to see if any fungi were sprouting up. The ground was boggy in places, and when drops of water fell in the puddles, the reflected trees twitched.
Suddenly, just as I was looping back round to the gate, a woodpigeon exploded out of the trees and made me jump a mile. Why do pigeons love doing this? It must give them a wicked satisfaction to see me clutch my chest and try to get my breath back to normal.
Once I was back in the open, the chill was even stronger. I wrapped my coat tighter around myself and hurried back to the cafe to warm up.
It’s soon to be prime fungi season and I can’t wait to see what will start to emerge over the next few months. I find identifying fungi a real challenge, and recently I’ve mainly been interested in tracking fungi and photographing it. As with all wildlife though, I think every photographer should know exactly what it is they’re pointing the camera at. So, after consulting the “Fungi Bible” – otherwise known as the Collins Fungi Guide – I made my best guesses at what species I’d seen. Then, I consulted with a local fungi expert in my area, and was pleased to discover I’d got most of them right!
Here is a selection of the species I’ve seen so far, some in Carlisle where I’m studying and others at home in Hertfordshire. Hopefully this list will triple in size during the autumn!