Spring draws to a close

I’m currently writing a Slow Travel Guide to North East Scotland, which will be out next spring. The thing about writing this book is I’m spending every working moment on it but won’t have anything to show for my efforts until it’s published. Until then it looks like I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. As we’re almost at the end of spring, I thought I’d finally resurface and reflect on what I’ve been up to over the past couple of months.

Inchrye Lodge

At the start of April I travelled down to Fife for a week. This was a particularly special holiday as I returned to the same cottage in the first part of Scotland I ever visited, back when I was eight years old. It was fantastic to be back and I realised just how much my wildlife knowledge has improved since that first visit. During my time in Fife I also visited the Audubon exhibition in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cites, and the incredible Topping bookshop in St Andrews.   

Stonehaven

On my drive back up from Fife I got into Book Mode again and stopped off in Stonehaven, a beautiful harbour town south of Aberdeen. I walked around the harbour and along the coast path and found a stone igloo decorated with thousands of shells hidden within Dunnottar woods.

Cairngorms Trip

At the end of April I was off on another book trip, this time back to the Cairngorms. This has been my favourite section to visit and write about so far. Although I’m very attached to my home in Moray and have been so impressed by Aberdeenshire’s coastline, it’s the ancient Caledonian pine forests of the Cairngorms that have really taken hold of me. During my time in Boat of Garten and Newtonmore I visited the amazing Highland Folk Museum, discovered the Green Lochan – so named because the fairies wash their green clothes in the water – and had an incredible hide encounter with four badgers!  

Mindful Creative Retreat

At the start of May I had a brief break from book writing to take on another exciting project. Last summer I co-hosted a Mindful Creative Retreat on the Moray Coast. It was a great success so we held another one this year. The guests really enjoyed unwinding from their own work and commitments and dedicating time to nature writing, mindful photography, breath work and even outdoor yoga each morning. I benefitted from the experience too and found the process of slowing down and being in the present moment so rewarding.

Peterhead

And finally, last week I had another book trip back to Aberdeenshire. My friend Kim, who I co-hosted the retreat with, kindly offered me a place to stay in Peterhead, which was a great base for exploring more of my new favourite coastline. I visited Peterhead Prison Museum and Slains Castle (which was inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula castle), walked barefoot through the wind-sculpted dunes of Forvie and even managed to see a couple of distant puffins.

As we move into summer and I carry on beavering away with my book, I hope I can maintain the mindful practices I explored during the retreat and make them a regular part of my routine.  

My Top Wildlife Sites

Last night I had a lovely meal at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey before seeing a talk by Iolo Williams. Despite current news and hysteria, the lecture room was full to the rafters and extra chairs had to be squeezed into gaps.

Iolo’s new book is called “The UK’s Top 40 Nature Sites” and highlights natural gems up and down the country from the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall all the way up to the Shetland Islands. Naturally, Iolo said that every site in England, Scotland and Ireland paled in comparison to those in Wales, “God’s own country”.

Iolo is such an inspiring speaker, sharing his stories with the confidence and laid back attitude of someone chatting in a pub. His passion is palpable and easily transfers to his audience. As well as golden eagles and puffins, Iolo was keen to highlight smaller and lesser known species. I learnt what the lion’s mane fungus looks like, and discovered just how beautiful the marsh fritillary butterfly is.

As I sat listening to Iolo’s favourite wild places, I realised that I’d actually been to quite a few of them myself. It gave me the idea of gathering my own list. Some of them are in Iolo’s book but some are my own additions. I’ve chosen places that offer almost guaranteed sightings of a particular species or the opportunity to get lost in secluded wildness. Either way, I hope people discover and fall in love with them as I have.

Anagach Woods

Iolo included Anagach in his book but I had to as well. I visited a few times when I was staying at the Grant Arms for the Wildlife Book Festival last spring and was absolutely captivated. I’ve never been in such a vast area of woodland. Although you will often see dog walkers at the edge of Anagach, as soon as you press further in and choose one of many winding trails, you quickly forget about cars, roads and people. Anagach is full of wildlife, from common coal tits and relatively easy to spot red squirrels to far rarer Scottish icons such as pine martens. Listen for crossbills flying over and look for the elusive but gorgeous crested tit, which is only found in the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland. One of my favourite sounds is a trickling stream running through a forest and I indulged my love for it in Anagach – perching on a rock watching water bubble past me between the trees. Unsurprisingly, it is easy to get lost in this sprawling forest, but that’s half the fun.

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Goldcrest

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Treecreeper

 

Farne Islands

The Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are notorious for grey seals and I had the privilege of snorkelling with them in June 2018. It was during this visit that I had a seal swim up to me and wrap its front flippers around my leg, which is something I wish I’d photographed but will still never be able to forget.

But despite the excellent views of seals, I’ve chosen the Farnes for their astonishing bird life. Moments after disembarking from the boat we were carefully weaving around nests positioned just off the path, our ears slammed with the onslaught of squawking from razorbills, guillemots, cormorants and everyone’s favourite, the puffin. I’d seen glimpses of puffins between waves before, but on the Farnes you can watch from a front row seat as they go about their business of hunting sandeels and dashing into burrows. For anyone wanting to see their first puffin, the Farnes are the place to go.

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Puffins

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Razorbill

 

Burghead Backshore

It is only recently that I’ve discovered just how special the Burghead Backshore is for wildlife. In just two weeks of living on this small peninsula jutting into the Moray Firth, I’ve seen plenty of cars parked along the bank with binocular-clad birders clambering out to scan the shore. People come from all over, including paying customers on Highland Safaris from Aviemore.

I can’t speak for every season, but so far during late winter I’ve had almost daily sightings of goldeneye, long-tailed duck, eider, red-breasted merganser, turnstone and redshank. For such a small area, the Backshore is bursting even during the lean winter months.

And of course, there are more than birds to be found around Burghead. The Moray Firth is one of the best places in the UK for bottlenose dolphins, and basking sharks and minke whales have also been seen, as well as grey seals. I can’t wait for the proper dolphin season to kick off in May, as I haven’t managed to spot any yet. This weekend I’m going to Inverness to become trained as a Shorewatch volunteer for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, so I can carry out official cetacean surveys in Burghead. I can’t wait to learn more about my local marine wildlife and contribute to conservation.

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Cormorant

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Redshank

 

Isle of Cumbrae

In May 2018 I attended a Field Studies Council weekend course on the Isle of Cumbrae in Ayrshire. It was a jump into the unknown that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was standing spread-legged in the shallows peering down into rockpools and glancing at a sheet of paper I didn’t really understand. The course taught us how to identify biotopes – the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community that lives in it – and although I certainly enjoyed staring down microscopes and poring over textbooks that weekend, the highlight for me was spending two full days on the beach looking for creatures in rock pools. We saw beadlet anemones, a stunning dahlia anemone, acorn barnacles, hermit crabs and common prawns. Every rock revealed a different discovery. Despite spending plenty of summer days at the beach in the past, I’ve never done so much rock pooling before and the FSC course started a new fascination for marine wildlife that I’m hoping to return to now I’m living on the coast.

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Beadlet Anemone

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Star Ascidian (a type of sea squirt)

A Day at Sea

Like almost every other visitor to the Isles of Scilly, I had my sights set on puffins during my stay, not to mention razorbill, guillemot and perhaps a seal or two. I’d planned on joining the afternoon Sea Safari around Annet, known as the bird sanctuary island, and the Western Rocks.

I wandered down to St Mary’s Quay to check it was going ahead and saw there was a trip to Annet in the morning too. I stood at the harbour and pondered what to do. The weather didn’t look promising – the looming clouds threatened to burst at any moment. So, somewhat recklessly, I bought a ticket for the morning trip and boarded the Sea King. As St Mary’s drifted slowly out of view, I hoped I’d made the right decision.

By the time we reached St Agnes the sun was doing its best to break through. As we headed out towards Annet, our guide pointed out the rock called the Cow, a smaller rock named the Calf beside it. When the tide came up, the Calf disappeared completely, only emphasising the fact that boatmen on Scilly needed their wits about them when navigating such challenging waters. Shags were perched on the Cow with wings held wide. The structure of their wings reduced buoyancy, which made it easier for the birds to chase fish underwater. As a result of this adaptation, however, their feathers were not truly water-repellent, so they needed to hold them up to dry them. Although, I doubted these shags would have much luck drying them in the current temperature. Perhaps it was for another reason; spread-wing postures aid digestion. Birds that adopt this position have low metabolic rates and high rates of heat loss. By positioning themselves with their backs to the sun, shags could increase the rate of thermoregulation, absorbing solar energy to increase their metabolic rate.

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Lesser black-backed and great black-backed gulls wheeled overhead, mouths open as they wailed at us. I had my binoculars scanning the rocks and nearby surf for a glimpse of vibrant, toucan-like beaks and droopy, clown eyes. The skipper slowed the boat suddenly and I sat up straight – a sure sign he’d seen something. A pair of great northern divers cruised into view when a wave subsided – beautiful grey birds not yet in their summer plumage. The divers, as a group, were extremely glamorous, with sleek heads and slender necks and bills.

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A while after our divers had swum further away, I suddenly found myself looking at my first puffins. Two of them, perhaps a breeding pair. Down the binoculars, all concept of scale was warped, and it was impossible to see how small they were – just 12 inches tall! After a few moments they took to the air and, flapping rather ungainly, they gathered enough momentum to carry them off across the water. I was thrilled.

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Leaving Annet behind, we moved into choppier water, the boat swaying beneath us as it negotiated unsteady waves. I was reminded again of how wild and isolated Scilly was, and it was this seclusion that protected and enhanced its flora and fauna. It was an island paradise.

A razorbill – a member of the puffin family – flew into view, wings beating rapidly either side of a stout, monochrome body. It wheeled in a wide circle, zooming back around the boat and away again; a bird’s second glance, too quick to photograph.

Just before it was time to turn back, a vast herd of forty grey seals appeared, some sprawled across the rocks and others bobbing in the water, long dog-like noses pointing in our direction. There were a range of ages, with some of the seals still sporting very lightly coloured coats and juvenile, inquisitive expressions. They continued to gaze after us until the rocks obscured us from their view, and the skipper took us back to St Agnes.

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Once we had all disembarked from the Sea King, it wasn’t long before the Spirit of St Agnes had taken its place, ready to take more eager birdwatchers out to sea. I decided that I rarely had the opportunity to go looking for puffins, so I bought a ticket and left dry land again, excited to be back out on open water.

Amongst the blue-green waves were the white outlines of gannets, looking like swans of the sea with their slender necks and stocky bodies. Britain’s largest seabird, with a formidable wingspan of six feet; not only did they have beautiful plumage and facial markings, but they were truly built for a life at sea. Gannets can dive into the ocean from heights of 40 metres, hitting the water at speeds of almost 60mph. To withstand the pressure of such a dive, gannets have “airbags” that protect their organs on impact. They also breathe through slits, situated where the upper mandible meets the head, which are covered by flaps of hard tissue that prevent water from entering them.

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These gannets weren’t diving, but they were soaring low over the boat, providing beautiful photo opportunities. It was always a challenge trying to focus a fully extended 400mm lens on a rocking boat, but I kept the camera as steady as possible and followed the birds as they glided majestically overhead.

The last bird to make an appearance was a special one; the Manx shearwater. Belonging to the order Procellariiformes along with albatrosses, these birds can live for some sixty years. They only produce one egg a year, so are highly susceptible to predation by rats. To combat this, the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project was established to eradicate rats from St Agnes, as it was suspected that they could swim the reasonably short distance to Annet, where the Manx shearwater bred. The project was successful, St Agnes was declared rat-free and the birds are now breeding successfully. In 2015, a total of 28 Manxie chicks were seen to be fledging from St Agnes and Gugh. These birds only breed on Scilly and Lundy in the UK, emphasising the importance of protecting the Scillonian population.

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Before long it was time to leave rugged Annet behind and return to (scarcely) populated St Agnes. Although we’d had Manxies and gannets on this trip, the puffins had eluded us. I spoke to the guide on the journey back and she said they didn’t like bright sunlight. As the clouds had shifted and it had turned into another beautiful day, the puffins were obviously finding shade elsewhere. Later, as I looked through my photos, I felt very fortunate to have gone down to the harbour earlier than planned.

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Living off the Scilly Land

For my final major project at university, I am journeying to the Isles of Scilly for a photography project on this wildly diverse archipelago. My focus is currently the unique wildflowers of the islands, some of which are not found anywhere else in the UK such as the dwarf pansy. However, to broaden my understanding of Scilly (and also because it recently snowed there which has made me question my chances of seeing wildflowers next month), I have been researching how the first human residents used the land and its resources, which in some cases are vastly different ways to today.

  • During the Neolithic period, tribes were known to mark their presence on the islands using large stone monuments known as megaliths. These were for ritual or territorial purposes.

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A megalith at Castle Down, Tresco (Source: The Megalithic Portal)

  • Wars and disputes subjected the inhabitants of Scilly to poverty and famine. One method of surviving such lean times was to forage seaweed. In 1684, production of soda ash from seaweed began, a material used to make soap, bleach and glass for the mainland. This practice lasted well over a century, and must have had disastrous impacts on wildlife.
  • The Bronze Age saw the first permanent populations arrive from west Cornwall. They fished, farmed, hunted and scavenged all sorts of foods to make their living. Birds such as razorbill, guillemot and even ravens and swans were hunted for their meat. Seals and the occasional whale were hunted to supply oil used for lighting.

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  • Fishing was a vital source of food all year round, and once caught the animals were dried by the wind or salted for preservation. A vast amount of limpet shells suggests they may have been used as bait, and scallop shells to hold lighting lamp oil.

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  • By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, red deer had disappeared and dogs and rabbits were introduced. The birdlife grew in variety, suggesting the environment was changing. New bodies of water attracted fowl such as bittern, heron, snipe and more excitingly, evidence of chough. Remains of what are believed to be these birds and dating back to the 2nd century AD were discovered on St Martin’s.

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  • The Duchy of Cornwall was established in 1337, when the title of Duke was granted to the Black Prince. Payment for a ledger dating from that year was 300 puffin, giving the impression that these coastal birds were a lot more abundant than in modern day. The puffin was highly valued, considered a fish instead of fowl, which allowed it to be eaten during Lent. Five hundred years later, although the monetary value of Scilly hadn’t been altered, the exchange rate for puffin had surged by 600% to fifty birds.

Incidentally, all of my photos in this post were taken in Scotland, but here’s hoping next month I’ll be capturing some Scillonian versions!