The Wildlife Hotel

On The Wing has been quiet recently, not for lack of inspiration but for lack of time. Over the past few months I’ve been busy with a few different projects. I’m close to finishing an annual report for SEZARC, outlining the highlights of their work in 2018. I’ve also moved part-time into the library where I’m filling notebooks with scribblings about Siberia, Russian megafauna, native tribes and the mysteries of shamanism. All this is for my book idea and the more I read, the more I need to read. It’s a constant cycle of finding a book, reading something fascinating and looking up similar books to find out more. I’d love to eventually start the actual writing process, but so far I’m waist-deep in other people’s books and loving every minute.

All of this work has meant that I’ve neglected my camera and seen most of my local wildlife from behind glass recently. However, this week brought the perfect opportunity to get back outside and into nature. It’s the Wildlife Book Festival at the Grant Arms in the Cairngorms. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms is a beautiful Victorian building within easy reach of dense pine forests, boulder-studded rivers and sweeping mountain valleys. In other words, the perfect place to celebrate British wildlife.

It feels fantastic to be back out there with binoculars around my neck and a crumpled notebook in my hand. It also helps to be in such a stunning location. St Albans is nice, but when you’re woken to the sound of squealing oystercatchers and only need to walk for five minutes before hitting a thousand acre wood (check mate Winnie the Pooh), there is simply no contest.

It’s so easy for me to get caught up in work. I get so engrossed that I forget to ever switch off, which makes this week a very important break. It’s a little telling that I need to travel five hundred miles from home to take that break, but when the scenery is this pretty, I’ve figured it’s alright.

Why are Island Tortoises so Large?

New research has shown that giant tortoises may not be large because of their island lifestyle, as previously thought. A team of researchers has gathered extensive genetic data from both living species and fossils of extinct species to discover the truth of how tortoises have evolved, in an attempt to answer the question of how they have become such giants.

Tortoises are an extremely diverse group of animals, ranging in size from 8cm long to one metre long. The largest species is the Galápagos tortoise, which can weigh nearly 500kg. So why has gigantism evolved in tortoises? Despite studies on these fascinating animals since Darwinian times, the answer is still unclear. It was thought that, like many species, tortoises followed the “island rule”: a tendency of dwarfism among large animals and gigantism of small animals living on islands. For example, in mainland Florida the white-tailed deer is abundant, but in the Florida Keys – a tropical archipelago of islands off the south coast of the state – a dwarf version of the mainland deer is found, known as the Florida key deer.

It is thought that island dwarfism is caused by limited resources, while a reduced pressure from predators triggers island gigantism. However, in the case of tortoises, it was suggested that these animals were already large in size before colonising remote island habitats. With so many giant tortoise species now extinct, it is impossible to uncover the reason behind gigantism in these animals without using the fossil record.

Galapagos_giant_tortoise Matthew Field
A dome-shelled Galápagos giant tortoise (Credit: Matthew Field)

Now, Dr Evangelos Vlachos from the Paleontological Museum of Trelew in Argentina and Dr Márton Rabi from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg put together the most complete family tree of both extinct and surviving tortoise species so far, in an attempt to piece together the reasons for their variation in size. Interestingly, it was discovered that gigantism occurred on the mainland too, in Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America. Interestingly, all of these mainland species became extinct.

“The fossils highlight a great number of extinct mainland giant species and suggest that the evolution of giant size was not linked to islands,” says Dr Evangelos Vlachos, “We expect that warmer climate and predator pressure plays a role in the evolution of giant size but the picture is complex and our sampling of the fossil record is still limited.”

So what led to the extinction of these giant mainland tortoises, and why have their island variants survived? It is thought that predation and climate change contributed to these extinctions, but it is intriguing to think that the island rule may not be the overriding factor for giant evolution, calling for more research into what causes such variation in size among these animals.

Tortoises have roamed the planet for over 55 million years – they survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, but now face an even graver threat: people. Human-induced habitat loss is the most significant threat for tortoises today, and they face an uncertain future. Thanks to research such as Vlachos’ and Rabi’s, we are able to better understand how these successful animals have evolved, and will hopefully continue to evolve for many more years to come.

To read more on this research, visit Science Daily.

Eleanor Oliphant Is What We Need

In 2017, 40-year-old author Gail Honeyman entered a story about a lonely and damaged young girl into a writing competition. Now winner of the Costa First Novel Award and scheduled to become Reese Witherspoon’s next film project, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become a triumph for modern literature.

Our heroine, Eleanor, is evidently not at all fine. She often goes home from work on Friday and doesn’t speak to another person until she arrives at work on Monday morning. She is a source of amusement amongst her colleagues, and many modern advances are completely lost on her. “D’you like a smoky eye?” The makeup assistant at Bobbi Brown asks, to which Eleanor replies, “I don’t like anything to do with smoking.”

At the background of it all, her manipulative mother is an ominous presence looming at the end of the phone, hinting at a darkness in Eleanor’s past that may be the explanation for her isolation and uniqueness.

When Eleanor and Raymond, an IT consultant in her office, witness an elderly man falling unconscious in the street, an unlikely friendship begins to form between them. Somewhat hesitantly, Eleanor opens up to the possibility that people genuinely want to spend time with her, and with Raymond’s friendship comes a growing sense of self-assurance.

As we are introduced to Eleanor’s quirky persona, she initially appears very hostile to strangers and speaks her mind with seemingly no understanding of the consequences: “You’ll die years earlier than you would have otherwise, probably from cancer…you’ve already got the smoker’s characteristically dull, prematurely lined skin.” However, as we spend more time with Eleanor it becomes very clear that she has had nobody to help her align with societal norms – she was a confused child passed from carer to carer until university at seventeen. How can anybody blame her for reacting how many of us would were it not for our awareness of social politeness? Not only that, but being surrounded by unkindness and ridicule, it must be a natural reaction to close up and use that barrier of separation as a form of protection.

While Eleanor’s confidently naïve observations of the world can be enormously funny, the humour is threaded with heartbreak. At seeing her reflection after a new haircut she thanks the stylist for “making her shiny”. Having been surrounded by damaging and neglectful people all her life, becoming introduced to kind individuals is a foreign but welcomed concept for her.

Honeyman has created a character that is somehow completely fresh and new among literary heroines, and yet can be related to in countless ways. It has been commented that chronic loneliness is a very real problem for elderly people, but it never seems to be addressed among younger generations. Why must age be a contributing factor to a feeling of isolation? Eleanor has had a very troubled childhood and adolescence, but even those of us with caring families are capable of feeling lonely. In fact, according to a 2018 report by the Office for National Statistics, almost 10% of people aged 16-24 said they “always or often” felt lonely. This statistic was over three times higher than for those aged 65 or more.

This novel undoubtedly speaks to many young people, including myself. I have struggled with loneliness in the past – a desire for new friends coupled with fierce insecurity in social situations has made meeting new people a real challenge, and it is something I continue to struggle with. Loneliness can be incredibly upsetting, and is often hard to recognise in someone experiencing it. Honeyman has succeeded in raising awareness of the issue with her original and deeply moving novel, outlining the importance of kindness and compassion.

Minimalism in Photography

Recently I discovered a photographer called Petros Koublis during research for my photography project. In preparation for my upcoming trip to the Isles of Scilly, I was exploring the theme of isolation, as on Scilly geographical isolation has resulted in extraordinary diversity of both flora and fauna. So, I want my images to convey this seclusion without the subjects looking barren. When I found Koublis’s work I thought how beautifully minimalist the images were, and yet still varied and intriguing. The beauty was its simplicity.

Petros Koublis 11

So I set out and tried to capture my own images where the subject looked isolated but was still thriving. Inspired by Koublis’s minimalistic approach, I concentrated on simple colours, repeating shapes and uncluttered compositions. Using my 60mm macro lens, I de-cluttered the frame even more and filled it with my subject while washing out any detail in the background.


I almost always zoom in as tight as I can, especially when doing macro photography. There is a great urge to make your subject as large and detailed as possible, but often I’ve found that this removes all context from the image and it loses some impact. While it’s always nice to have a little mystery in photography, revealing a few secrets can bring even more magic to an image. For example, the lichen on the twig below was only a few centimetres in diameter, but with nothing to compare it to, all scale is lost. Now the image has been taken, the lichen could be any size and the challenge of getting such a tiny plane of detail in focus doesn’t seem as significant. Although the texture is still intriguing, the presence of something more familiar could only have added to the effect.


So on another trip out I began to step back. Although I couldn’t achieve the same crisp detail with more distance between myself and the subject, I could begin to introduce context and place the subject into a scene. An isolated section of this terracotta brick could have been taken in a garden or even at a construction site, but with the border of dry pebbles and the blurred suggestion of ocean, the subject is put in a time and place. As all photography is subjective, those with a fine art approach might say context isn’t necessary, but I like the way this image is clearly of the coast but it isn’t conventional in its composition or choice of focus. It suggests the theme more subtly. Also, the absence of any other noticeable features conveys the isolation I’m interested in showing, and shallow depth of field draws the eye immediately to the subject.


I’ve always been interested in shapes and lines in photography. Although perhaps a beginner’s cliche, a leading line is undeniably pleasing to look at. Here, the point of focus is the very centre of the image, with the tide line leading the viewer directly to it. It is loosely symmetrical, a technique I like to use to show balance and calmness in a scene. Here, there are two clear halves; one is almost completely lacking in detail except thin lines of movement from the tide, and the other has extensive detail. To emphasise this contrast even further, I desaturated the right half so even colour was absent from the water. I never excessively manipulate my photos as I like to replicate the true scene as much as I can, but subtle changes like this (when the colour of the water was almost grey anyway) can draw attention away from certain aspects in the frame to others.


My Scilly expedition is fast approaching. I can’t wait to see what opportunities arise during my week’s stay on such a diverse archipelago. I think practice shoots like these will help broaden my creativity in preparation for a whole new environment.

The Legend of Jokul Frosti

The frost coated everything in sight. Like a shimmering white blanket it lay draped over leaf, twig and soil. The spectacle brought a hush to the usual bustle of early morning; for the brief time that the frost was here, a silence that only winter could bring hovered in the air.

There were leaves scattered over the roots of the trees from which they were shed, curled and dry and chattering every time a breeze stirred them. Jack Frost had traced every vein with white crystal, setting down each cold stone beside the next like lines of silver beads. A knot in the wood of a fallen log had been sprinkled with frost too. The perfect cubes of ice were arranged in clusters like the hidden crystals that form inside a geode, except this display was here for everyone to see.


Frost has been a source of delight for thousands of years. Over the course of a few hours, the sleeping streets are transformed into a stunning white sculpture. Perhaps the most magical of all is how fleeting it is; when the sun rises, the silver art melts, disappearing until the next freeze.

Formed from water vapour clinging to freezing surfaces, the white colour of frost is brought by air bubbles that have become trapped in the ice crystals. Hoar frost is the frozen version of dew, formed when water vapour transforms directly to solid ice. Its magical swirling patterns and shapes are perhaps what sparked the deep-set Norse mythology that gave frost a far greater meaning. According to legend, it was in fact the artwork of a mysterious character we all recognise: Jack Frost.

“Then he went to the mountain, and powdered its crest,

He climbed up the trees, and their boughs he dressed

With diamonds and pearls…”

Extract from “The Frost” by Hannah Flagg Gould (1789-1865)

Hannah Flagg Gould’s poem about Jack Frost is a playful representation. After painting the mountains and trees with an artistic flair, he causes mischief in a house by “biting a basket of fruit”, spoiling the food for the occupiers of the house to find the next morning.

It is thought that the legend of Jack Frost originated from Viking folklore. His modern name is an Anglicised rendition of Jokul Frosti, meaning “Icicle Frost”. The son of the Nordic wind god Kari, Jokul was a nymph-like creature who painted beautiful frosty patterns on windows during the night. He was the personification of the chill that arrived with winter and nipped the noses of children with his icy bite.

Ice Crystals

While Jack Frost is often depicted as a playful sprite with innocent intentions, other cultures recognised Jokul as a more sombre figure – one that was feared and respected. Scandinavian mythology paints a picture of a frost giant that brought not only bitter cold but the black doom of winter that symbolised the end of the world. In northern Russia and Finland, an almighty deity known as Frostman commanded the weather, and was given sacrifices by reindeer herders to persuade him to lessen the severity of blizzards. The villagers would leave bowls of porridge for the Frostman to ensure their crops weren’t touched by the damaging frost. Elsewhere in Japanese folklore, Frostman was a malicious character, the brother of Mistman, who were both keepers of the frost and dew.

Jack Frost is well known but barely understood in modern culture. Most people envisage the elfish creature that decorates the night with beautiful silver patterns that melt with the sunrise. Over time, he has shed the fearsome demeanour that came with the frost giants of Norse mythology. Something as beautiful as sweeping hoarfrost or delicate ice crystals surely couldn’t have been summoned by a menacing omen of everlasting winter. Frost, like the Aurora borealis, is a natural wonder. Although it may not be as sought after as dancing green skylights, it is a microscopic miracle. Whether it is the handiwork of Jokul Frosti will forever be a mystery.

Foraging Foray

Almost all of the natural habitats that can support life are inhabited by fungi. While some species are only found in particular habitats, such as Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans) on oak wood and Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides) on beech, other species can thrive in many different types of habitats – coniferous woodland, broad-leafed woodland and heathland to name a few.

Autumn is one of the best times to see fungi in its prime. September rains bring the varied and often vibrant fruiting bodies out of the leaf litter and into the open. With a broad range of habitats and often wet weather, Cumbria is a fantastic location for finding fungi. I set out to several different locations to record the species that were in fruit at this time of year. Identifying them can be a challenge, so I enlisted the help of Paul Nichol from the Cumbria Fungi Group to help me with the trickier varieties. After just a few walks I’d seen dozens of species of different colours, shapes and sizes. Of these, there were four that stood out: the Common Puffball, Ochre Brittlegill, Sheathed Woodtuft and Artist’s Palette.


1) Black Bulgar
Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans)
2) Purple Jellydisc
Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides)

Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

With a season spanning from July to November, the Common Puffball can be seen regularly in a broad range of habitats, from the leaf litter of broad-leafed, coniferous or mixed woodland to pastures and heathland. Although these Puffballs can be seen growing individually, they are frequently found in groups.

Young specimens are white and covered with tiny, pyramid like spikes all over the spherical cap. As the Puffball ages, its flesh begins to turn brown, and mature specimens have a circular hole on the top, which is used to release the spores in a ‘puff’ of brown powder.

Common Puffballs range in size and shape; while some are small with a stem that is barely visible beneath its low-lying cap, others grow larger with a thick stem sometimes reaching 9cm high.
I’d seen puffballs before, but never one this size; the stem was around 7cm long so the fungus protruded high up out of the ground. There were other Puffballs close by, though the stems of these were barely visible and hidden beneath the cap.


Ochre Brittlegill (Russula ochroleuca)

The Brittlegill family is an extensive one – there are over a hundred species in the UK alone. Of these, almost all have white gills and stems. The gills of this group are particularly interesting because they’re not varied in size with some small and some long, as is common in a lot of mushrooms, but all stretching from the stem to the edge of the cap in a uniform arrangement. While some are edible, others can make you very ill indeed, the Geranium Scented Russula (Russula fellea) being the nastiest of these.

Every tree you see will have a fungus growing on it somewhere. While some species are parasitic, there is often a very heart-warming relationship between the two. When a fungus grows on the root tips of its tree host, it is nourished by the tree’s photosynthesis. In response, the fungus absorbs the minerals produced, and passes on the excess back to the tree via its roots. This is an example of symbiosis between the tree and the fungus, where both species are benefitting from the interaction.

I’ve seen quite a few Brittlegill now. This one is Russula ochroleuca, the Ochre or Yellow Brittlegill. With a bright yellow cap and snow-white stem, it’s an extremely pretty mushroom, but with a distinct peppery taste so is not usually eaten. This chilli taste is typical of several varieties of Brittlegill, and can be used as an indicator of its species.


Sheathed Woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis)

This impressive-looking mushroom is one of the largest I’ve seen, and stood proudly with its troop amongst the nettles. After first consulting my fungi guides, I thought I’d found Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes). The bright orange, two-toned colour was consistent, along with the trooping. However, this mushroom was a lot waxier than the specimen I’d found, not to mention the size difference. While Velvet Shank stems can reach 10cm in length, these mushrooms were nearly double that. Stumped, I showed my photos to Paul, who informed me that in fact I’d found the tufted toadstool named Sheathed Woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis). Halfway down the stem was a clearly visible ring, which is present on a lot of mushroom stems, and is a mark of its development. When the fungus first emerges above ground, the cap is ball-shaped and attached to the stem. As it grows, the attachment breaks and the cap stretches into its mature umbrella shape, leaving the ring mark behind.

Artist’s Palette/Bracket (Ganoderma applanatum)

The Bracket family of mushrooms is a peculiar one, and quite often seen climbing trees in a ladder-like fashion. This particular troop of Ganoderma applanatum, or Artist’s Palette, was very impressive. A parasitic species with a creamy white pore surface and a red-brown upper surface, the fungus takes a host tree and slowly depletes it of nutrients, until it eventually grows on the deadwood alone. The vast slabs were longer than my hand and extremely tough. The fruit body grows perennially – producing new spores from the same fruiting structure over multiple years, as opposed to one (annual) – and the spores fall as a fine, rusty brown powder. This means it is essential for the Artist’s Palette to grow horizontally, to ensure maximum spore dispersal. Some of the individuals we saw lower down the tree were covered in a brown snow of spores from the brackets above them.

8) Artists Palette9) Artists Palette

After just a few weeks studying fungi in Cumbria, I’ve seen just how many species there are to see, from vast, hard Brackets to tiny, squishy Puffballs. With plenty more chilly autumn days to come, I can’t wait to see what else begins to emerge.

Summer Back Home

Blogging has been slow recently – I’ve taken time out to relax now I’m home from university. I have an infuriating habit of constantly looking for work to do, and often forget that it’s okay to do nothing for a little while.

So here I am at home, and after being busy for so long I’m secretly wondering how to fill up all my time, because sitting idly and enjoying the summer just wouldn’t do. I brought home my troupe of cacti in an attempt to revive them; they all looked a little sad so I sought help from my nanny in the form of good compost and bigger pots. I’m so scared of killing them – alas I’m not a very good Mother of Plants – so now they’re repotted I’m hoping they can recover and I can be one of those women I find incredibly suave with houseplants flourishing on her windowsills.

As summer projects go (because I must have some form of work to get stuck into) I’m on the lookout for third year themes for my photography and writing. I’d love to have a concrete idea by September so I can jump right in when lectures start up again.

I’m also using the summer to refresh my Spanish. After seven years of tuition at school, I’m a little rusty since A levels. And seeing as I spent so long slaving over dictionaries and gazing quizzically at Spanish news coverage, it’d be a real shame to let it slip. So before I came home I got a novel from the library written entirely in Spanish on a motivated whim. It may be ridiculously complicated, but there’s no harm in tackling it.

And of course, I have my internship at Student and Graduate Publishing to look forward to, starting on Monday, so that’ll be something to keep me busy.



Camera Trap: A week in January

In many cases, wildlife can only be truly photographed without the photographer. After falling in love with Kingmoor South, Zahrah and I decided to set up camera traps to see what we could find. We had just attached all three traps when we realised we’d forgotten to bring bait, but decided to leave them a week and hope for the best. When we returned, we were thrilled to discover we’d had some visitors.

European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)


I reckon we’ve found a good patch for traps, so I’d love to plan a second trip and set them up again. I’ve got my sights set on catching a badger…

Vlog The First

First uni assignment is finished! It’s been a real learning curve creating a vlog; for me the main challenge was addressing everything I wanted to cover in under two minutes. It’s true that it’s a lot easier to make a long film than a short one. Still, I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved and above all, I’ve learned a thing or two about both Adobe editing software Premiere Pro, and also kit used for filming. As a photography gal, I’ve often shied away from filming due to a lack of both interest and skill. But, by adopting a casual, vlog approach, I’ve been able to experiment without the daunting prospect of producing a full feature length.

The task was to produce a two minute vlog on a photographer of our choosing, then take three photos inspired by their work. The whole process was to be filmed, from research to final edits. This was easier said than done when you were only given 120 seconds for said masterpiece.

My chosen photographer was Albert Renger Patszch, a German artist whose prime era was 1920s and 30s. His work was incredibly striking and caught my eye instantly, so I knew I wanted to explore his life and work in depth.

After swatting up on Renger-Patzsch I got down to the business of taking my own photos. I knew I wanted to do macro photography, a style I’d only used rarely up till now. So, I checked out a macro lens from the uni store and set about finding something to take. After a while I found the sea urchin shell I’d kept from the Isle of Carna, and thought I could really go to town with colour and texture. I then went on a hunt for other natural trinkets and collected a discarded conker shell from the park and a scrap of really intricate moss from the garden. I’d found my three subjects.

Conker Shell Monster


I wanted to photograph insignificant objects that people hardly notice and transform them into something unrecognisable, using a macro style to disguise reality. Renger-Patzsch’s focus was definitive shapes, so I captured this conker shell from a low viewpoint to give the vertical spines a dramatic outline against a blurred background. To do this, I used a small aperture (f/5.0) to isolate a single spine and create depth within such a small space. I kept the rule of thirds in mind and positioned the shell in the bottom third to keep the image balanced.

Sea Urchin Spaceship


In the 1920s, Renger-Patzsch could only photograph in monochrome. This emphasises contrast between shadows and highlights, but I wanted to approach his geometric style with bold colours to achieve a more diverse tonal range. I loved the texture of this sea urchin shell, so I captured a small section in sharp focus, drawing the eye to it. I used a flash to prevent the image from being underexposed, due to the small distance between camera and subject. This diluted the hues slightly, so in post I boosted contrast and increased saturation to make the colours vibrant, giving the image a dramatic edge, emphasised by crisp textures.

Miniature Moss Forest


I found some moss in the garden and wanted to see how it looked up close. Again, I used a relatively fast shutter speed (1/100) and a low aperture to prevent camera shake and give the image a shallow depth of field. Afterwards, I increased the orange hues to accentuate the tiny leaves on the second vertical third line and make it the focal point in the frame. Although I like the leaves’ intricate shapes, the colours are quite monotonous. The busy, repetitive subject matter is similar to Renger-Patzsch’s image “Needles”, but this shot may be more effective with multiple colours.

Here is my finished vlog piece: enjoy!