On The River

As habitats go, a river is a particular favourite of mine. Not only does it make one of nature’s most soothing sounds, but it’s usually a hub of wildlife activity.

When I arrived, the first bird to catch my eye was a blue tit, which was loudly serenading everyone around it with its ‘tea-tea-lily-lily-lily’ call. Beneath it, flickering from rock to rock, was a grey wagtail. Similar to other river-dwelling birds, grey wagtails have a high-pitched call that cuts through even the chattiest of rivers. 

On the calm pond beside the stream, a pair of mallards swept around in slow circles. Surely one of our most under-appreciated beauties, the male mallard shimmers in direct sunlight.

I’d come to the river especially for dippers. This patch has a Rocky Road structure of stones, logs and twigs jutting out of the water, providing countless opportunities for perching and dipping.

On some occasions, I’ve had to settle on the bank and wait a while for the flash of brown and thrum of stumpy wings as a dipper zoomed by, but today I timed my visit perfectly. Just as I was peering along the water channel for a white bib, a dipper came zipping past me and landed several feet away.

I crept closer and watched as it ducked down behind its perch until only the top of its head was visible. It emerged holding an enormous clump of moss in its bill. With another dip, it sped back downstream, returning minutes later without its foraged cache.

For the next hour I watched a pair of dippers gather moss almost continuously. I’m always heartened and impressed by the diligence of some bird parents. Chicks were obviously on the way, and they would have a luxuriously cosy nest ready for them when they arrived.    

 

The Whisper of a Stream


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.

A very Scottish landscape!

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.

Up in the Air

The plane roared to life and I experienced the age-old feeling of excitement whenever I fly. As we chased the runway and the plane slowly lifted, I pressed my face to the window to see the ground fall away. I will never tire of that feeling of utter weightlessness – the peculiar thought of something so bulky taking to the air.

I’d been invited onto my boss’s plane for a morning trip to Naples, a city in southwest Florida looking out onto the Gulf of Mexico. We were flying to break in a new engine, and planned to refuel in Naples before returning to Yulee. It was a whistle-stop state tour, a four hour round trip that would take twelve in a car.

Within moments of take-off we were over the beach – long piers stretched out into the sea like the teeth of a comb. At 9am on a Saturday the beach was almost deserted. It was a treat to see so much uninterrupted sand before the tourist tide came rushing in.

We curved back inland and passed over a maze of river and marshland that I had already explored by boat, but this time we were too high to look for egrets. The only movement was the white streak of a lonely boat as it navigated the watery trails. I wondered how many alligators were down there, then decided not to think about that.

The marshy solitude of Amelia Island dissolved into towering office blocks, and I soon recognised downtown Jacksonville. There was the Landing, where I’d been just a week before the shooting. It had been enough to dissuade me from visiting downtown again, but I still had fond memories of the river walk, the MOSH museum and the topaz blue water of Friendship Fountain.

Leaving vast, sprawling Jacksonville behind, the landscape was soon dominated by trees again. Green was undoubtedly a primary colour in Florida – a patchwork quilt of field and forest stretched as far as the eye could see. In some places the trees were confined in tightly packed cubic parameters. In others, they were sprinkled sporadically. Criss-crossed over it all were the highways, dead straight lines in parallel and perpendicular.

Fluffy cumulus clouds were gathering, and a rather ominous feeling began to grow in my stomach as we bumped over them. Sunlight poured into the stuffy cabin, which did nothing to suppress my queasiness. Because of the new engine, we had no choice but to fly low. While the views were still stunning, I was somewhat distracted by the turbulent ride, and as Naples came into view I couldn’t help feeling slightly relieved that we’d be getting out of the clouds.

Once down on the ground, we stopped just long enough to stock up on drinks – fuel for the plane, a Gatorade for me – before taking off again, back through the spectrum of concrete jungles and green wildernesses.

Stop and Look

In our bittersweet digital age, it’s so easy to be lazy. As a photographer who has tried using film but undoubtedly prefers shooting digital, I have the ability to take thousands of photos of the same thing if I want to. Once I have a camera and hard drive, there are no other essential expenses or materials required. While I personally didn’t enjoy the process of developing film, I commend those who gather all that equipment and spend hours in the darkroom bringing their images to life. I’ll admit it is dedication beyond what a lot of digital photographers put in.

It got me thinking how I can see more when I explore my surroundings. I often leave my camera at home and just watch for a change, no longer distracted by adjusting settings and looking at yet another screen. But I still want a permanent memory of what I discover. An answer to this that I am trying to introduce into my routine is drawing.

I’ve always enjoyed art but never possessed any genuine talent for it, which is perhaps why it never became more than an occasional hobby. Whenever I see someone drawing or painting I feel an overwhelming urge to join in. I could do this at any time and yet never do. What starts as an “inspiring new project” eventually fades into a half-full notebook.

I was in Tampa this weekend visiting the Florida Aquarium, and I packed my (so far untouched) sketchbook and pens on a whim. On the first evening, I wandered along the riverside just as the sun was setting. Across the water I noticed an incredible building with bulb-like turrets and crescent moon decorations. It looked like an Indian temple; I had no idea what it really was but I retrieved my sketchbook and began to draw it.

Twenty minutes later I had drawn my impression of the scene: the turrets, a large gathering of palm trees and the restaurant in the foreground. During this time three different people approached and asked me about what I was doing. Copying as closely as I could provided an opportunity to observe a level of detail that is far harder to notice when taking photos. I finished with something I was quite proud of, not to mention a talking point with passers-by and a souvenir of my evening.

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I later discovered that the exotic building was the Henry B. Plant Museum. I was somewhat disappointed to find out that it wasn’t a museum full of plants as I had originally thought.

Exped in Miniature

Last week Heather and Cain dropped into uni for a mini exped around the local area. I welcomed any chance to learn more fieldcraft from them and it was also good to spend time with Zoology and other Wildlife Media students – there are fewer and fewer of us wildlies out there so it’s great to meet up every once in a while!

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We began following the river through the park, spotting the first sand martins of the year swooping over the water. A jay darted into the small wooded copse in front of us and cormorants zoomed up the river, wings flapping furiously.

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As cities go, Carlisle is one of the few that still has many pockets of wilderness nestled amongst the urban landscape features. It’s that combination of having everything I need close by but still being able to escape to a new wild place is what attracted me to studying here. I never thought I could see roe deer with a Virgin train zooming past in the background, but I’ve been proved wrong by wildlife encounters like these all year.

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We carried on, walking along the Eden as it snaked through the golf course and reached the suspension bridge. Here we went off-road and found some truly amazing discoveries. On a sand bank tucked away from the heavy footfalls of regular dogs and their owners, we found a wildlife metropolis. There in the sand, perfectly imprinted, were dozens of tracks, bird and mammal alike. There were the broad irregular squares of mallards, tiny pin lines of grey wagtails, even tinier fingers of brown rats and the very dog-ish prints of otters! I practically jumped down into the sand to photograph them – not only were there prints but also a lonely otter spraint, deposited in full display of every visitor as an indication that this territory was claimed. It was fascinating to see just how many species had paid this relatively small sand bank a visit. I vowed to return very soon with a camera trap and see if I could get better acquainted with them!

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Spot on the Eden

A hundred steps from my house I can be part of a different world for a while. This far from the city I can only hear nature. The ripples of the river Eden, the busy buzz of honeybees savouring the last light, a lone robin serenading the dusk.

A heron stands motionless, his body and mind trained solely on the river’s surface. As the light dies his form dissolves into silhouette, gangly neck and ungainly legs.

Would that I knew what that bird was, a staccato thrum of high-pitched notes somewhere above the water. The birds taunt me, concealing themselves in the slumbering trees. Like so many other keen naturalists, I fall foul to the obstacle course of birdsong. As I strain my ears, each sweet voice bleeds into the next to form a melodious haze of blissful bewilderment.

A sudden rippling in the water tugs my attention.

otter?otter?otter?

But no, perhaps an energetic fish or disturbed weeds. My Eden otters continue to elude me, revealing themselves to the select few. The irony is, their closest companions are the fishermen, those who compete with the mustelids for the river’s inhabitants. Show me your faces little ones let me see you swim!

Jackdaws chatter in dispute above, quarrelling amongst themselves before settling in to roost.

Ah! The unmistakable ferocity of a bat’s flight. Leathery wings carry him down to the water and back up almost too quickly for the eye to catch. Midges swarm, bats follow.

Another, this little rascal zooming close over my head. I wish I could hear your voice, pipistrelle. That delicious clicking that Homo sapiens will never hear without the code breaker, the magic machine that translates silence into echolocation.

A magpie cackles, as if at me. These pesky bats are too fast to watch; the midges had better be wary. Some swarm toward me, others risk the open air while the bats dart in every direction like miniature Spitfires. Such beautiful creatures, denying mammal custom and taking to the air. Who needs legs when you have wings?

First Signs of Spring

Typically, I write this as the heavens reopen and the sky is grey and dreary once again, suggesting that spring has in fact come and gone already. Blink and you missed it.

Whenever I’m early for my piano lesson, I venture down to the nature reserve belonging to the Watercress Wildlife Association. This really is a jewel in the crown of the city. Up until recently I haven’t dared wander down to the river for fear of sliding in mud and falling in. Last week, however, the sun was shining and I took my chances. As usual, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Occasionally there are parents taking their stomping children across the bridge but today, a racket-free zone. I sat on the bench overlooking the river and felt completely in my element. This was what spring and summer were all about.

Not my best quality photograph, but here’s a shot from my phone, taken from my Instagram. I was enjoying myself so much I almost forgot to go to my music lesson.

https://instagram.com/p/0Ib8xTi1so/?taken-by=beccagibson28