Salty Paws

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.

Anagach Woods

After one day of the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival, I had already ticked off 27 species. The morning started off gloomy so I wrapped up knowing that the Highland air would bite without a little sunshine. After a delicious breakfast I met my guide Sue and we set off. Our destination was Anagach Woods, only a five minute walk from the hotel. I knew it was my kind of place from the first glimpse: dense evergreen trees, a winding trail and the lyrical murmuring of birdsong. The harsh, icy breeze that made the eyes squint and the neck shorten completely disappeared once we strolled past the first few trees.


Anagach Woods were planted in 1766 using young pine trees dug up and transported from the old Caledonian pine forest of Abernethy. A few of these original trees are still standing today; wizened goliaths surrounded by waxy saplings. Throughout Anagach are deposits in the form of fluvio-glacial ridges, raised beach sands and gravel deposits dating back 10,000 years to the Ice Age. “Fluvio-glacial” refers to the meltwater created when a glacier melts.

Within ten minutes of entering the woods, I had my binoculars trained on a red squirrel -tail and hands poised in the classic pose as it nibbled on a peanut. A completely peanut-based diet causes a deficiency in red squirrels, so the rangers fill their feeders with a special mix to keep the squirrels’ diet balanced. Whether the animals follow the regime is another thing entirely, and they don’t. They prefer to pick out the peanuts with the steely determination of a child eating around their vegetables.


It’s impossible to dislike red squirrels. (Personally, I have no quibbles with greys either – they’re not inflicting reds with the pox with any malicious intent, nor did they ask to be brought here.) Reds have the eye-watering cuteness of babies their entire lives, coupled with boundless energy. We watched two up in the tree, neither tolerating the other’s presence. After a brief, silent stare-down, a ferocious squabble broke out. In the blink of an eye, two orange flashes flew up the tree, twirling around the trunk with scrabbling claws. The victor was soon perched proudly on the feeder shelf – stuffing head, front legs and one back leg inside to grasp the prize.

We ventured further into the forest. Each time a branch quivered or a chirrup sounded, I scoured the canopy for a particular little bird with a very impressive Latin name. Lophophanes cristatus is mostly confined to ancient Caledonian pine forests and Scots pine plantations. On the RSPB map of the UK, this bird’s presence is indicated by only a small patch in the Highlands of Scotland. A member of the tit family, it sports a magnificent punk hairdo.

Photo: RSPB

I had my sights set on the crested tit. As small as the far more common blue tit, the “crestie” is a firm favourite among Grant Arms guests and features on many wish lists including my own. My main objective during my time in the Cairngorms was to see a pine marten (dream big, I say). Or, if that dream turns out to be a little too big, I will happily settle for any new species.  I kept my eyes peeled for cresties but sadly they eluded us that morning. Sue said that at this time of year they would be right at the top of the trees gathering nest material. When those trees stretch to dizzying heights of around twenty metres, spotting a tiny bird in the dense canopy would certainly be a challenge.


Despite the crested tit playing coy, we were treated to a lovely showing of a buzzard. Buzzards are one of those species that I sometimes underestimate. They don’t tend to get me too excited – especially for that one split second when you think you may have found an eagle – but that morning in Anagach I saw a buzzard land for the first time. Up in the air and bleached out by the sun, it can be hard to make out specific detail, but as the raptor perched in the pines, I could admire its snowy white chest – as soft as an owl’s – with speckled markings that gave it the air of a regal monarch’s gown. The buzzard preened its feathers for a while before taking to the air and melting into the trees. It was a fitting way to summarise the forest habitat: a creature can be there one moment, and vanish the next. Forests are irresistible to me, and Anagach easily became my new favourite.




An Unscheduled Spring

It seems as if spring has come early, and I’m certainly not complaining. For the past few days I’ve been stuck indoors trying (and mostly failing) to write through an infuriating case of The Block. Multiple times I’ve caught myself gazing outside at the gorgeous sunshine, listening to the spring sounds of birds and bees that come drifting through the open window. I decided that it was time for a break, so I arranged to meet my friend Chloé for a walk. Chloé is an artist and writer with a deep love for wildlife like me. She recommended a local patch of woodland that I hadn’t even heard of before. I love discovering new wild places, especially ones I’ve driven or walked past without realising they’re there!


Heading away from the noise of the road and nearby school, we set off into the park. Chloé pointed out the numerous trees that could be found here, and I was surprised to see such a variety of species in a relatively small area. I’ve always struggled to identify trees, especially during winter when there are no leaves to study, but Chloé said that leaves can actually be a distraction. She showed me the large clumps of hanging seeds that can be found on ash trees, the dark bobbles along the boughs of larches and the vivid red branches of dogwood. There is another delightful clue with dogwood – the buds have two tiny prongs that look a little like Viking helmets. I had no idea that looking at the buds of a tree could help so much when trying to identify it. Hopefully I’ll start to notice these clues more often when I’m out and finally begin to recognise some British trees.

We headed into the open and followed a path that threaded up a hill, giving us a great vantage point over the countryside. A skylark swept across the sky, flying in large undulating dips before settling on the grass. I saw my first cherry blossom of the year: a stunning spray of white blooms that had attracted the attention of dozens of bees. We stood quietly and listened to the steady, buzzing drone as the bees threaded their way between the flowers in search for pollen – an indisputable sound of spring.


Further down the hill we were just inspecting what we thought was a beech tree when I glanced up and saw a red kite wheeling overhead. We took it in turns watching through the binoculars. It was fascinating to observe the bird’s flight pattern – it moved across the sky in gentle loop-the-loops, following the shape of a tightly coiled telephone cord, all while barely flapping its wings. Its red feathers looked magnificent in the sun, its forked tail silhouetted against the sky.

After the kite had drifted out of sight, we heard a soft clicking noise coming from a nearby evergreen. I started scanning the branches for birds, but Chloé told me that the noise was in fact the pinecones cracking open. It was a surreal sound that I couldn’t quite believe at first. Having always assumed that pinecones opened gradually like flower petals, it was incredible to actually hear them popping as they dispersed their seeds. Apparently, the scales of seed-bearing pinecones flex in response to changes in humidity. When it is warm and dry like it was yesterday, they pop open. In cool, damp conditions, they close up. I found this absolutely fascinating.


Further on through the park we came across my first butterfly of the year: a stunning comma basking in the sun. With unusual, scalloped edges to its wings, the comma is a master of camouflage, using its mottled colouring to blend seamlessly into dead leaf litter. Its larvae are equally well disguised, with brown and white flecked markings that give them the appearance of bird droppings. This individual was lounging on a leaf with barely a twitch of its wings, allowing us to get lots of photos and observe its beautiful markings up close. Its furry body almost looked iridescent in the sun. After a while it turned round, positioned its rear end over the edge of its perch and released a small black blob before settling again. This was another first, not just of the year but also of my life: watching a butterfly poo!


Eventually the comma took to the air and fluttered up into the sky. The shadows were lengthening and the warmth was slowly ebbing from the afternoon, so we began to loop back through the park towards Chloé’s house. It was so refreshing to be able to exchange wildlife knowledge with someone. I pointed out birdsong while Chloé helped me with trees. It really is true that walking outside is a form of natural therapy. When I returned home I was inspired to write and reflect on the day. I’ve also been motivated to start up painting again, after seeing some of Chloé’s work. I dug out my watercolours and acrylics and can’t wait to get back outside while spring is here in full force.

To Spy a Hawfinch

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.

Hawfinch (RSPB)

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.

Not exactly Bird Photographer of the Year

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.

On the Hunt

After watching Chris and Michaela hunt for great grey shrikes on Winterwatch, I realised what stunning birds they were and that I’d quite like to find one for myself. I asked Cain if he knew of any recent sightings and of course, he did. There was one of these beautiful shrikes in a patch of rural Newcastle that had remained in the area all winter. So, early on Friday morning, Zahrah and I set off to try and track the bird down.

As we made our way east towards Newcastle, the combination of pouring rain and sleet filled me with dread. As usual, the weather forecast had gone awry, and I hoped the grisly sleet would clear up by the time we arrived. Luckily it did, and once parked and heading down the track with eyes peeled, we stayed dry. We were looking for a patch of stark white at the tops of the bare trees. Every so often we would stop and peer across the field, binoculars meticulously scanning each tree. Unfortunately, great grey shrikes are not vocal birds, so there was no telltale call we could listen out for. This would be a case of sharp eyes.

We came across a group of bullfinches – a handsome male and two females – as they foraged in the bushes. I have a soft spot for these vibrantly coloured birds, so stopped to take photos, trying to manoeuvre myself to sneak a clear glimpse of the male through a break in the tangle of twigs. This was only partially successful.

Bullfinch pair

As we trudged up the track, the only sound to be heard was the mud as it sucked on our boots. I found it a challenge to survey the trees for signs of movement while keeping an eye on where my feet were landing. After no sign of the shrike, we decided to try the other stretch of track that hugged the same field. At the crossroads we encountered a vast flooded patch of grass. At first glance it seemed empty, but a look through the binoculars revealed a large gathering of lapwing and golden plover huddled together. Further up the track, a hubbub of activity surrounded the bird feeders hanging from a tree. Great tits, blue tits, robins, a ground-foraging blackbird and a special sighting: a willow tit. I’d never seen one so close – a bird that I find indistinguishable from the marsh tit. According to the BTO, the most reliable way of telling these two species apart is by listening to them, as the birds’ most common calls are quite distinctive from each other. While marsh tits make a sneeze-like “pitchu” call, willow tits have a nasal “chay chay” sound.

Willow tit
Great tit

We had come to the joint decision that our shrike would sadly not be making an appearance today. The needle was well hidden in the haystack, and we made our way back to the car. A little way further out was another reserve that we decided to visit. By this time, unexpected sunlight was filtering through the dissolving clouds, and gleamed on the pond, illuminating a flock of wigeon. They chatted to each other but were otherwise motionless. High up in the trees was a buzz of excitement, and yet more beautiful bullfinches! These ones were silhouetted against the sky, so their smart plumage was diluted in the sun. Accompanying them were great tits, siskin and a few goldfinches. A magpie was perched in the topmost branches, feathers ruffling as the wind caught him.


Before long it was golden hour, where the sun began to vanish behind the pond. The trees took on a shimmering glow, every hue heightened. A group of blue tits fluttered around, barely perching for a moment before swooping in another direction. I thought I saw the fluffy brush of a red squirrel’s tail disappearing between two boughs, but after waiting stock-still for it to emerge, I thought perhaps it was just a trick of the golden light.

Golden hour

Species seen

Blackbird (Turdus merula) Black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus) Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) Buzzard (Buteo buteo) Carrion crow (Corvus corone) Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) Great tit (Parus major) Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) Magpie (Pica pica) Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) Reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) Robin (Erithacus rubecula) Siskin (Carduelis spinus) Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) Wigeon (Anas penelope) Willow tit (Parus montanus) Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

The Beginnings of Winter

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.


Chesters: Day Two

As I peeked out the window this morning, the sun was just beginning to shine. It looked like a promising day and I was glad, as we would be walking ten miles around the Breamish Valley.

First things first though: check the Longworth trap for any visitors. Heather retrieved the trap and carefully emptied it into a paper bag. Along with the hay and leftover oats and apple chunks was a bank vole, gazing up at us with its beady black eyes.

If we were carrying out a proper small mammal survey we would attempt to sex the vole and perhaps snip a small section of fur from its back. The purpose of this is for re-trapping, so we’d know if the same vole came back. However, we were just trapping to see what mammals were in the area, so these procedures weren’t necessary. We observed the vole for a little while longer before Heather released it back into the dry stone wall alongside the bothy, where it slipped out of sight in seconds. We also left the remaining food for the vole to feast on – it was only polite.


After eating a hearty bowl of porridge and making sure we had everything packed for the day ahead, we set off across the fields and down to the first plantation. Heather told us the habitat had been classed as “felled”, but there was nothing felled about it now. Trees loomed above us, and with foliage on all sides it felt like we’d wandered into an enclosure at Jurassic Park. My overactive imagination thought the grating screeches we heard were those of Velociraptors, but sadly were just squabbling jays.


I led the group down the hill, taking care over crooked roots and dislodged rocks. I was just negotiating a particularly steep section when Cain called us back. I knew he’d seen something so I rummaged for my telephoto lens while scrambling back up to where the others had binoculars trained at the very top of a large conifer. There was a loud chirruping, and among siskins and chaffinches was a larger finch with a forked tail and an unmistakable bill that had the upper mandible overlapping the lower: common crossbills. There were several up in the tree, and as I zoomed in I saw that a male was being pestered by a begging juvenile, its pale wings flapping ten to the dozen in an attempt to catch its parent’s attention. The male, and another a few branches away, were plucking cones from the tree and holding them aloft like they weren’t quite sure where to put them. It was fascinating to watch such a strangely designed bird negotiate its food.


We wandered on, breaking out of the trees and beginning the first ascent of the day. The trail wound through an ocean of bracken, and I soon found myself chest-deep. When I glanced behind me I could only see everyone’s heads and shoulders as they waded through. The resident skylarks joined us, as well as a distant buzzard that I’m sure the skylarks were keeping a close eye on.


The sun sunk in and out of the clouds as we made our way through the valley, stopping every once in a while to photograph a mysterious fungus or watch a bird through binoculars. By lunchtime, just as my stomach was rumbling for my sandwiches, we arrived at Branton Nature Reserve. The first sound that greeted us was the noisy gabble of greylag geese as they fought for space to sit down on the crowded island. There were dozens of birds here; groups of lapwing, snipe, goosander and moorhen. There was minimal mingling between the species, reminding me of a school canteen full of cliques. Suddenly there was a commotion and many birds took to the air. The source of the panic was a heron, gliding in with broad wings and a curled neck. As he landed with spindly legs dangling, the geese gabbled uncertainly and gave him plenty of space.

We slunk as inconspicuously as we could into the hide and tucked into lunch while keeping one eye on the lake’s activity. A cormorant surfaced a few feet from the window, and paused long enough for a few breaths before diving back down, emerging moments later in a completely different place and with a wriggling fish in its bill, which was swallowed up in the blink of an eye.


Soon it was time to start heading back. It was trying to rain, and as we were making our way back past the village of Ingram it succeeded, so I hastily packed away my camera and bins. Later, once Cain had got a fire going, we’d rested our aching feet and eaten dinner, we pottered into the garden with the bat detector, to see if any bats were passing through. Before we heard any clicks though, there was a flash of white wings and a barn owl swooped out into the open. Shortly after, a second owl appeared some distance from the first, which was even more exciting. We ventured a little further up the hill and the detector started clicking. That evening we heard both common and soprano pipistrelles, and although we were leaving the wilderness behind and heading back home tomorrow, just these two days have been enough to remind me once again how important it is to spend time in nature.


Species Seen: Adder (Vipera berus) Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) Black-Headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundusBuzzard (Buteo buteo) Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Coot (Fulica atra) Eurasian Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculusEurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus) Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) Goosander (Mergus merganser) Greylag Goose (Anser anser) House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) Jay (Garrulus glandarius) Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) Lesser Black-Backed Gull (Larus fuscus) Lesser Redpoll (Acanthis cabaret) Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollisMagpie (Pica pica) Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) Red-Legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) Robin (Erithacus rubecula) Rook (Corvus frugilegus) Skylark (Alauda arvensis) Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Teal (Anas crecca) Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Bike Ride in the Woods

Another visit to one of my favourite wildlife places: Watchtree Nature Reserve. Zahrah and I hired bikes and set off through the reserve, taking a leisurely ride away from the hubbub of the café and car park to the quieter open fields and woodland.

The lake was fairly busy. A pair of Mute Swans and their two cygnets glided silently to and fro in one corner, shaking heads and rustling feathers. The youngsters were almost fully grown, their juvenile grey foliage blending to pristine adult white. When one stretched his wings, bright white armpits showed. Elsewhere on the lake, three Tufted Ducks were feeding, golden eyes blinking as they came up for air. A lone Little Grebe dived under the water and popped up again several metres away. As agile as a fish, the tiny bird curled its body and slipped silently beneath the surface.

Suddenly, as I was scanning the feeders for any birds joining the Tree Sparrows already tucking into the feast, my eye caught on a brown shape nestled amongst the grass. From my vantage point on the top storey of the hide I could see the Brown Hare perfectly as it chewed, hunkered down. I called in a hushed whisper to Zahrah, who’d been watching the pond from the bottom level, and she darted up to see.


The hare was beautiful, with rich, brown streaked fur and piercing eyes. Its ears were pinned tightly to its nape, in an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but the creature was still brave enough to forage out of the cover of the long grass. We watched it for a few minutes, before it turned and hopped back into the grass. After waiting a while to see if it would re-emerge any closer, we accepted our hare was long gone.


Leaving the lake behind, we looped around the reserve and cycled back through the woods. Once again, I was distracted by fungi, and Zahrah amused herself while I crawled around on the floor with my camera. Today, as always, there was plenty to see. A huge troop of Stump Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme, the only British Lycoperdon to grow exclusively on wood) stood to attention on a fallen log, their portly bodies stood side by side.

Stump Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme) 

The delicate Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) stretched out of the wood, tiny black spindles dipped in white. Just as I had finally put away my camera and climbed back on the bike, I was greeted by three Shaggy Inkcaps (Coprinus comatus) stood on either side of the path like security guards. I hadn’t seen this fungus since autumn last year so it was a treat to photograph them again, and provided a satisfying end to our cycle in the woods.

Candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon) 
Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus)

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.