It’s about this time of year that I turn into an excitable child again. The moment we cross into November, my mind’s full of frost, knitwear and Christmas. I think it’s linked to the clocks going back. While getting up before the sun can be horrid, I love that my afternoon walks are in the dark now. I’m sure it won’t be long before Christmas lights start appearing up and down the village.
Last winter I was spoilt rotten with over a week of thick, persevering snow. It was unheard of in Burghead, seeing as we jut out into the Moray Firth and the salt air usually prevents anything more than frost from settling. I know I shouldn’t expect another wonderland like that again this year, but the aforementioned excitable child has her fingers crossed!
The natural world is stunning throughout the year but in winter I believe it becomes even more special. Here are some of the things I love most about the silver season.
Frost and ice
Frost is what first got me interested in macro photography. The sparkly sheets covering the ground look pretty even from afar, but getting right up close to shards of microscopic ice is completely addictive.
It’s not all sharp and jagged either – in the past I’ve photographed a huge range of shapes including swirls, ribbons and bubbles.
At this time of year the sun takes on a milky, diluted glow which is just delicious to photograph. I’m not much of a landscape photographer, but on my recent trip to Portknockie I spent hours on the beach capturing Bow Fiddle Rock as the light dimmed.
Initially the rock was bathed in gold but once the sun sunk below the horizon, the sky behind Bow Fiddle glimmered with pinks and blues. It’s a chilly image and I’m really pleased with how it came out.
I count myself extremely lucky to live in a part of the UK where the northern lights occasionally show up. The displays here aren’t as elaborate as they are in Norway or Iceland and they can be tricky to make out with the naked eye, but last weekend there was a particularly good show and I managed to catch a few pillars on camera.
The northern lights remind me of His Dark Materials, which remind me of witches and animal dæmons and all that good stuff. I also believe the aurora is the closest thing to magic we can physically see, and it’s one of my ultimate winter highlights. Even if you don’t live in an aurora zone, you can still watch it real time on this Shetland Webcam. There’s the added bonus of not having to get freezing cold!
Summer and winter are great times to be a birder as there are new faces to see. While I love the ospreys, swallows and whitethroats that accompany long summer days, I have a soft spot for the winter migrants. I managed to see waxwings last year and I’ve got everything crossed that we’ll get another royal visit from them this time round, but some years they just don’t show. Even without waxwings, we have redwings, fieldfares, bramblings, eider ducks and long-tailed ducks on the cards. So many photo opportunities!
I know a lot of people struggle with the long nights during winter and this is definitely a challenge, but I hope this list will provide some wintery inspiration. There’s plenty still to enjoy in the dark half of the year.
Day one of the Mindful Creative Retreat was a huge success and I was looking forward to kicking off day two with my own writing workshop. We met outside Roseisle Forest in Burghead and spent the morning wandering along winding trails within the 1700 acre Scots pine woodland. It was a boiling hot day so we kept to the shade beneath the trees.
For me, good nature writing uses all the senses. Although describing sights is the most obvious, incorporating sounds, smells and textures really brings a piece to life. I encouraged everyone to look down as well as up, noticing the way the sun shines on spiderwebs and pinecones scuff underfoot.
I was pleased to see the fungi in Roseisle was already abundant – a welcome reminder that autumn is nearly here. Beside every tree was a fungus of some sort, varying widely in colour, size and shape. We spent a lot of the morning crawling around on the ground getting photos!
As well as fungi, we found a small wood ant nest right by the path. These red and black insects play an important role in the forest ecosystem, helping with seed dispersal, hunting damaging pests and acting as a food source for badgers and pine martens. Wood ants also provide a parasite removal service for birds, which deliberately scratch the surface of the nest to encourage the ants to spray their feathers with formic acid. This kills the birds’ parasites!
By midday the sun was scorching so we headed to the beach for a paddle. After cooling down, we sat on the sand to write about the morning’s discoveries.
By evening the temperature had cooled and we met up in Hopeman for a walk along the coast. We were lucky enough to have another gorgeous sunset, which lit up the beach and turned the cliffs to gold. There were plenty of juicy blackberries to be plucked and we stopped for a rest in a sheltered cove. Here we enjoyed some rock pooling and I found some tracks in the sand. They were too big for rats so I guessed mink, which I’ve occasionally seen darting over the rocks.
We explored the cove until 9pm when the sun eventually set. Golden colours blended to corals and crimsons and we watched the exact moment the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. Jen commented that it was a special thing to witness because it was a rare occasion you could see the earth turning.
And so we reached the end of another full-on but rewarding day on the retreat. The third and final day featured even more creativity and mindfulness. Coming soon!
Last week I took part in my first ever retreat. Back in June I met Kim Grant from Visualising Scotland when she attended my event in the Moray Walking and Outdoor Festival. Afterwards, she invited me to run a writing workshop in her upcoming Mindful Creative Retreat in Moray. Also helping out was Jen Price from Mindful Routes. I’d just got back from a six week trip to England so the retreat came at the perfect time for easing me back into the wild Scottish landscape I’d missed all summer.
The retreat began in beautiful Forres. As well as writing down our intentions for the next few days, Jen led us through some breathwork exercises. Several ladies in the group had yoga experience so were used to noticing their breathing. I, on the other hand, was a complete beginner so initially found it challenging to ‘belly breathe’ from the diaphragm. One of my intentions for the retreat was to notice my breathing more and to hopefully see a change in it.
After a peaceful morning session we walked back through the forest, listening to woodpeckers and spotting fungi and red squirrels along the way.
In the afternoon we had lunch at Logie Steading and visited Randolph’s Leap – a dramatic river surging through a hilly valley just outside Forres. Kim led us on a mindful photography walk, encouraging us to experiment with light and notice how the water changed from crashing to standing still at different points along the river.
After breaking for dinner, we met in the evening at Findhorn, where the sky tempted us with silky clouds and hinted at an impressive sunset. Here we did some more mindful photography. Kim asked us to explore different parts of the beach and take more creative images. I loved inspecting the barnacles and mussels attached to the rocks exposed by low tide.
The evening was so lovely we had a sea swim! Seeing the scarlet sunset rippling on the water while actually in the water was a totally new perspective. Oystercatchers flew over our heads and terns dived just a few metres away.
Swimming at sunset was such a peaceful and mindful way to end the first day of the retreat. Have a read of what happened on day two here!
I’m thrilled to announce that my first ever calendar is now available to buy!
I’m sorry the blog has been quiet these past few weeks. I’ve been smacking my head repeatedly against a wall getting my calendar design finalised and sorting out payment. And now I’ve finally got there.
Over the past couple of years I’ve had some amazing feedback about my wildlife photography. It’s been a real confidence booster so I’ve decided to put together a calendar of my favourite photos throughout the seasons. All of the images were taken in Scotland, including a fieldfare in the snow and a red squirrel in the sunshine. You can see previews of all 12 months below.
This would be the perfect gift for lovers of the wilder side of Scotland, providing a snapshot of the natural world for those who live there or perhaps those who haven’t been able to visit recently.
Size: A4 (21cm x 29.7cm)
Paper: FSC-sourced 300gsm artist paper
Delivery: Free for UK orders, an additional £4.00 each for international orders
Thank you for your support during a very trying time for freelancers. It makes my day reading your kind comments.
I can’t believe we’re almost halfway through the year already! June has flown by…
I spent the whole of last week on the west coast of Scotland for an MA assignment. I had to organise a self-led trip and two of my previous plans had already been cancelled, so it was a relief to finally go!
And what a week it was. I stayed in a chalet belonging to friends of mine, which stands on stilts at the edge of a loch. I woke up to ravens outside the front door and on two occasions an otter swam past! It was so refreshing to have a change of scenery and spend time with different wildlife.
One of my highlights has to be the divers. On the first day I spotted a distant red throated diver, but the great northern and black throated divers were particularly photogenic and wandered close to shore. Before my trip I hadn’t seen any divers in breeding plumage so struggled to tell them apart, but after watching them daily at the chalet I soon learnt which was which. And what stunners they were in their monochrome harlequin costumes! On several occasions I saw five black throated divers at once, and even across the loch I could make out their gorgeous barcode plumage.
The bird excitement continued even closer to the chalet. Visitors to the feeder included goldfinches, greenfinches, siskins and lesser redpolls. I’d never seen such a glittering display of birds while sat on a sofa before! I’d also never seen a feeder being emptied quite so quickly…
I really was surrounded by wildlife. One evening as I was getting ready for bed, I peered out the window and saw a stag munching on bracken right next to the washing line! Worried he’d bolt if he saw me, I crept outside and peered round the corner. He glanced up briefly mid-chew but continued browsing almost straight away. I’d forgotten he wasn’t a camera-shy roe deer that scarpers as soon as it senses me. This was a bolshy red deer, and he let me watch him munching his way through the garden for half an hour.
And speaking of munching, I was thrilled to also be visited by a pine marten! The little scamp came almost every night and I had no trouble recording its visits on my trail camera, but seeing it in the flesh was a lot trickier. Despite staying up until 2am on some occasions I didn’t manage to see it, but on the fifth night at 11pm I was watching a field mouse on the decking when the marten appeared, still in moderate daylight! The mouse was just as shocked as I was and sat frozen for several hairy moments before racing for cover. The marten didn’t even look up – obviously peanut butter was more enticing!
Although the wildlife was incredible, the weather left a little to be desired. Streaming rain blurred the loch some days, and there was a determined wind that kept the midges away but prevented me from ticking a particularly exciting task off my bucket list: wild swimming. I’d brought my wetsuit and was really looking forward to going for a dip, but the wind was chilling and I wasn’t feeling up to it. Before long it was my penultimate day in Assynt and I was disappointed that I might not be able to get in the water.
I went for a walk along the beach, scavenging for sea glass and other treasures. Almost next to the road was a tiny tube with a clear orange tint, looking to the untrained eye like a bit of plastic. But I lunged to pick it up because it was a mermaid’s purse! These extraordinary objects are the egg cases of sharks and after asking around on Instagram I was told that this one belonged to a dogfish.
I’ll admit, I saw this as a sign. Especially when the sun broke out and I felt a smidge warmer. I’d found a mermaid’s purse and I was going to swim. The water temperature was 14° and with my wetsuit on I was just fine. It was my first time swimming in Scottish waters and I fell completely in love. Watching the waves from wave-level is quite a surreal experience, and I loved that I was right where the otter had been just the night before.
It was the perfect way to end a trip full of wildness and nature. I was really quite sorry to leave, but I had over 1000 photos to edit and dozens of note pages to go through…
What a month! It’s usually birds that take up most of my camera’s memory card, but over the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to get some fantastic mammal sightings, including the second rarest carnivore in Britain…
Recently I visited a friend’s private hide. I arrived at 2:30pm and enjoyed squirrels, siskins and jays. Seven hours later, I glanced up and saw this badger approaching the clearing. You know that jolt in your chest when you see something absolutely incredible and rush to get your camera ready but your hands seem to move at half speed? That was me. Luckily this little one was in a meandering mood and took its time snuffling along the grass towards me. Obviously I kept as quiet and still as I could (despite the manic joy) but it still glanced over at me. There’s no fooling wildlife!
Roe deer prefer the seclusion and shelter of trees. Although they meander into open fields, they rarely stray far from the woodland edge. They are associated with Cernunnos, a Celtic horned god of wild animals and fertility. Deer were thought to have the power to pass to and from the Otherworld! Their antlers, shed each year, represent rebirth and rejuvenation. I saw this gorgeous buck from the same hide as the badger, which allowed me to get such intimate views. For me they’re one of Britain’s most magical creatures.
I’d been filming seals hauled out on the beach but there were some very grumbly clouds heading my way so I quickly packed up and hurried back to the car. Just beyond the sand was a dense area of gorse so as I walked I kept an eye out for stonechats and linnets. But instead I spotted a rabbit feeding out in the open. I was just marvelling over how darn cute he or she was when something caught my eye and this bundle of perfection appeared at the mouth of the warren. I’ve never seen a baby rabbit before and it was just as eye wateringly cute as I imagined. As a result of me stopping to take these photos I got caught in an absolute downpour before I made it back to the car, but getting soggy was totally worth it.
I haven’t posted a squirrel photo since January so this is way overdue! I’d just enjoyed a swelteringly hot day in the Cairngorms. Aviemore was swarming with tourists so I made a hasty retreat back home. On the way I popped into my all-time favourite forest. It’s the sort of place you can get hopelessly and wonderfully lost in. I was tired and hungry after a long day but I thought I’d have a quick wander in case I spotted a squirrel. I walked for less than five minutes before I heard a crunching to my left and turned to see this little cutie at eye level, positively glowing in the sun. It was one of those right place right time moments.
Although I wish I could open my window and draw in all the animals with my angelic singing (while a pie cools on the windowsill), I’m not actually Snow White and the real world isn’t like that. For certain creatures, a little more effort has to be put in and a hide is the only way to go! The pine marten belongs to the mustelid family with stoats, weasels and otters. They’re Britain’s second rarest carnivore after the Scottish wildcat, making them (in my view) as special as unicorns. I’ve been lucky enough to see them twice in the past, but both times were in the dark so photos were impossible. Recently I achieved a huge goal of mine and got my first images of a pine marten! Despite their leisurely-looking lollop, these cat-sized animals shift at a fair pace. Luckily I managed to catch this lovely female running straight towards the hide.
Since posting this photo on Instagram, I was approached by Countryfile who then shared it on their account! I was incredibly chuffed.
Once restrictions were eased in Scotland and I was given a precious piece of freedom to venture outside of my county of Moray, I planned a day trip to the Cairngorms. One of my favourite sounds is the whisper of a stream in a forest – it’s the epitome of fairytale magic for me. So when I arrived at Inshriach Forest on the western flank of the Cairngorm plateau and heard that incredible sound, I made a beeline for it. I passed other people heading up a rocky hill trail that would take them into the mountains. But I’m more forest sprite than mountain goat – my place is at ground level.
Inshriach is part of one of the Cairngorms National Park’s eight National Nature Reserves. As well as ancient Caledonian pinewood it contains mountainous and heather moor habitats too. Scottish rarities such as crossbills, red squirrels and crested tits are found there. There’s also the possibility of seeing golden eagles over the mountains, but I had my eyes on the ground rather than the sky.
A trodden grass trail broke away from the main track and I followed it, only briefly distracted by chaffinches and a characteristically vocal wren. The sound grew louder until eventually I was close enough to see the water sparkling in the bright sun. It was gorgeous. Allt Ruadh it was called – a tributary of the River Feshie.
Dumping my rucksack, I knelt at the edge and dipped a hand. Just as icy as I suspected. I always feel an urge to swim in wild water or at least wade knee-deep, but even with the sun it was far too cold for me on this occasion. Still, just to see and hear all that stirring water was a treat. I settled on the bank and crossed my fingers for dippers.
I spent several hours there, reminded of the time only by my rumbling stomach. As I leant back against the rocks with my soup flask and watched the rapids churn up white froth, my gaze caught on a flash of yellow. A grey wagtail! It was standing in the centre of the river, bobbing its tail and fluttering from rock to rock. After examining each one around me, it flew to the top of a Scots pine and began to sing. I’ve seen many different birds using treetops as a singing perch but never a wagtail, so it was both a surprise and a privilege. Its song was so loud I could hear it above the stream.
I suppose this is how I meditate. I can’t sit in a lotus pose, close my eyes and listen to drum music – my mind just wanders to deadlines and errands. But if I disappear into the wild and fill every one of my senses with nature, I forget all the admin and sink into the closest meditative state I can manage. It helps if there’s no service because it means my phone is useless. Having no connection to the material world could be scary I suppose, but if I stay safe and pack accordingly I can enjoy complete solitude and peace, if only for a morning.
I’ve been a busy, quite tired bee recently! April has gone by in a flash and no matter how long I spend at my desk, the length of my to-do list never seems to change. This month I’ve been hard at work on a few different projects which I can’t wait to share. Fortunately I still managed to squeeze in some much-needed nature time, so here are some of my recent highlights.
I was thrilled to have a second article accepted by Oceanographic magazine. In July last year I visited Troup Head near Aberdeen, which is home to a vast colony of gannets. Soon afterwards I met Tim Marshall, who first visited the site in 1988. Back then there were just four gannet nests – by 2013 numbers had reached 2885 occupied nests! I was so excited about seeing these gorgeous seabirds up close that I wrote a story about them, which is now published on Oceanographic’s website alongside my photos.
There’s been a running joke for a while that I have awful luck when it comes to seeing roe deer. For many people, in Scotland at least, roe deer seem to be ten a penny. They’re one of my favourite animals but for some reason my sightings are very rare – I’ve actually seen more crested tits than roe deer! As for photos they’ve been disastrous, either dark and noisy or almost indistinguishable behind a thousand branches.
So managing to photograph not just one buck but two simultaneously was an exceptional bit of luck for me. I’d been strolling along the river when the first buck appeared on the far side. Moments later a second buck joined him. It was intriguing how one still had all his antler velvet and the other had none. With the river between us they seemed comfortable grazing out in the open, giving me the clearest daytime views I’ve ever had of this gorgeous animal.
I shared my frankly miraculous encounter with a hare in my last post. That same morning, I also had a run-in with a very handsome male pheasant. I’ve heard pheasants call hundreds of times – that screeching grate echoes through open fields everywhere. But it was only the other day that I discovered what a pheasant does while it calls.
This male was foraging right next to my car window. Every so often he’d stand up straight and lift his head to release that banshee scream, scaring me half to death each time. After calling he would flap his wings, almost like he’d startled himself too. As I hadn’t taken the time to notice pheasants calling before, I hadn’t realised what an excellent opportunity to train my reflexes it was. I had great fun photographing these glamorous poses. Say what you like about pheasants but they’re suave looking birds!
I’ve saved the best wild encounter until last. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my most exciting bird encounters ever, and it happened only 200 metres from my front door. As I was having dinner I got an alert from a fellow photographer telling me there was a Slavonian grebe in the harbour!
Pasta forgotten, I raced down and lo and behold there it was. A harbour was the last place I thought I’d tick off my first Slavonian grebe. About the size of a moorhen, these birds are extremely rare in the UK. They can be seen on a few Scottish lochs but spend most of the year at sea. I felt incredibly lucky to have seen one at all, let alone a stone’s throw from home.
Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll be sharing photos from my first trip out of Moray this year. The day featured a trio of herons, a serenading grey wagtail and a mallard making a splash!