First new bird of the year

2022 was quite a good year for me in terms of seeing new birds and mammals. Helped significantly by a trip to Zambia, I added 34 birds to my list with only two of those being in the UK (smew and jack snipe). This took me over the 500 birds mark and adding 14 new mammals took that list to over 100.

After look at a local bird blog this morning we knew there was a possibility of a first new bird of the year at nearby Ravensthorpe Reservoir. Having had a walked there last weekend we went elsewhere for a bit of a wander first but on the way home stopped at the reservoir car park for a quick look to see if the bird was there. Amongst all the other ducks, including the similar-looking female tufted ducks, was a female ring-necked duck. This might have been a vagrant from North America or, just as likely an escapee from a collection, but I’m still going to count it.

A dusk wander for owls

After seeing reports of owl sightings in the countryside beyond a nearby village, we headed out there late on Sunday afternoon to see if we could locate any. The frost of earlier was still clinging on in shady areas where the winter sun was unable to reach but where the ground had thawed, the footpath we walked along became increasingly muddy. As the sun started to dip, a mist started to rise up from the cold wet ground, shrouding some of the fields.

The low rolling countryside in the Brampton Valley, with large arable fields and low hedges, has quite a few areas set aside for wildlife, with margins left uncultivated and areas sewn for winter bird food. We scanned a few of these areas with our binoculars in hope of seeing the owls but even with their longer grass, perfect for small mammals, we didn’t see anything on the outward leg of our walk. We did see, however, a good number of lapwing in some of the open fields, a bird we haven’t seen much of in the valley before.

On the homeward leg, we had almost given up hope of seeing any owls but as we neared the end we caught sight of another nocturnal animal instead. In the growing gloom of dusk, a fox wandered across an open field and into a small copse. We then noticed at the far side of the same field, a muntjac feeding in the field margin. Just as we turned to walk the last few hundred metres, a white bird appeared in the distance and looped around another small copse, disappearing at one end and reappearing at the other. The barn owl did one more loop of the copse and then flew off into the field behind, not to be seen again.

January has been a good month for owls. At the Nene Washes we saw both short-eared and long-eared owls, while at the same location, as well as Welney and now closer to home, we’ve had good views of barn owl. Having said that, the tawny owls at have been very quiet in the trees surrounding our house over recent weeks but as winter comes to an end, hopefully we will start to here them again as well the little owls we often hear in the spring.

A frosty wander at Raventhorpe Reservoir

This morning we woke to a bright but sub-zero, frosty and misty Sunday morning. Instead of saying inside in the warm we decided to go for a walk around one of the nearby reservoirs; Ravensthorpe.

With a haze over the sun, what warmth there was from above didn’t melt the ice and our hour-long walk was surrounded in crystal. What can be a very muddy loop around the lake was instead solid as the ground remained frozen for all but last little stretch.

Usually, a visit to Ravensthorpe means looking for waterbirds but today we spent much more time taking photos of the scenes, both landscapes and up close. That’s not to say we didn’t see quite a lot of birds and there seemed to be a gathering of great crested grebes. While on the water they seems to be the essence of elegance but up in the air, they seem odd and awkward but a view of them we don’t seem to have very often.

Here are few fruits of our labour…

Still amazed by the Nene Washes

Last January we spent a day at the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire and were amazed by the wildlife we saw. So, today we decided to take another trip across from Northamptonshire to see if it would be as good for a second time.

Well, we weren’t disappointed!

As soon as we arrived, we could see a few groups of people with cameras and scopes peering into some bushes. As we walked up we almost immediately saw a short-eared owl perched with a clear view in the front of a bush. A little further on there was a long-eared owl in another bush, although much harder to see as (my digi-scoping, as shown below, doesn’t improve). There were four long-eared owls altogether in the areas.

A little further down the embankment we tried to see a tawny owl in a large hole in an old tree but it wasn’t visible at all but as we turned back we had great views of a barn owl hunting over the tussocky grass.

We then spent a little while looking over the huge embankment-bounded flood plain of the River Nene and saw plenty of other birds including massed swirling flocks of wigeon, lapwing and golden plover. There were other raptors in the area including buzzard, kestrel, red kite and a mash harrier but we missed the hen harrier that had been seen earlier in the day. The other highlight for us was the sight of more than a dozen common cranes amongst the wildfowl flocks.

The Nene Washes really is a great place for winter wildlife and we might have stayed longer but for the strong, freezing wind. We had similar weather last year so hopefully next time it might be a little kinder to us.

Another winter visit to Summer Leys

This post could almost mirror a similar one I did in late January last year after a walk around one of our nearest nature reserves. After spending most of yesterday doing household chores, it seemed a waste of a weekend not to go for a walk somewhere. We did wonder whether we should head out today as the weather looked pretty awful, with wind and rain forecast but, actually, we had a dry visit to Summer Leys, although the wind was both strong and cold.

So many of the nature reserves in Northamptonshire are wetland, with the Nene Valley lying across the country as well as the area being dotted with reservoirs, both small and large. This gives the reserves two very distinct sets of wildlife with large congregations of wildfowl and waders in the autumn and winter months and visiting migrants taking advantage of the varied watery habitats in the spring and summer.

In January, Summer Leys is right in the middle of its big wildfowl and wader winter. We saw large groups of a range of ducks, particularly mallard, teal, wigeon, pochard and gadwall, as well as some nice spinning groups of shovelers and a few goldeneye. Just as last year, there were also flocks of lapwing and golden plover constantly being put up but we didn’t see what by.

We spent a little time at the bird feeding station and saw our first bullfinches of the year and we were told there was a yellow-browed warbler nearby, but we failed to see what would have been a first for us. We finished our walk having seen 40 species of birds in a walk of a little over an hour.

Whilst this time of year isn’t my favourite, the long, cold and dark nights seemingly stretching on into the far distance but there are some real wildlife spectacles to see, even relatively close to my doorstep. Summer Leys so far this winter has provided both starling murmurations and wildfowl congregations and perhaps there will be time left for another visit this season to see what else it can conjure up.

A gap in the rain for a wintry wander

With a day to spare between getting home from our New Year trip to Devon and returning to work, we did plan to go on one of our favourite local walks. However, the weather was pretty awful so we spent the morning de-Christmasing the house. The afternoon looked little better but with the rest of the week likely to be spent working in my office at home (due to the train strikes), I decided I had to get out of the house, even it is was for a short while. We’re lucky to have Pitsford Reservoir about a ten minute drive away and it’s our nearest nature reserve, With a gap in the rain, I jumped in the car and headed that way.

After all the hot weather and the drought over the summer, the water has been very low, even with significant local rainfall over the course of the autumn. However, on my first trip to the shores this year, the water is now back up to its high winter levels. This means that there is now very little exposed mud around the lake therefore little space for waders to feed; I saw only a handful of lapwing on my short walk.

On the other hand, the wildfowl are at very large numbers around the site and they gave me a good start to my year list of birds I’ve seen. There were good numbers of wigeon, mallard, teal, gadwall, tufted duck, and great crested grebe alongside smaller numbers of pochard. Thankfully, I didn’t see any signs of avian influenza; last time I counted 11 dead mute swans around the lake edge but I saw none today.

Elsewhere away from the water, there we plenty of fieldfares and redwings alongside groups of finches, tits and yellowhammers as well as tree sparrows in their usual place at the bottom of the track down from the main road to the western shore. Overall, I added 33 birds to my year list, not bad for an hour’s wander along the short of Scaldwell Bay.

The two images below are the same spot in the bay, looking from the Bird Club Hide, taken just over three weeks apart; the lower and partly frozen water in the first compared to the much higher water levels in the second.

Blowing away the cobwebs

I woke this morning feeling a little more fresh than I expected after a late New Year’s Eve night. The first walk of the year was along the coast path around Prawle Point in Devon. After the storms we’ve been having over the last few days, keeping us inside much of the time, iT was great to be out and to see the size of the waves coming into shore…

Looking forward to 2023

Now that one year has turned to another, it’s time to start looking forward to what the next 12 months may bring. Last year was so great for us (see previous post) that 2023 could easily look like it’s going to be a bit of an anticlimax of a year. However, I’m trying hard not to look at it like that.

We’ve started the year down in Devon staying with a group of friends in a holiday home nestled in the folds of land above Slapton. We then seem to have a long gap waiting for the spring to arrive and the light to return to the evenings. First, however, we’re planning a long weekend away at the end of January, possibly to Norfolk, to make the most of the winter wildlife. We’ll also try to have more winter walks around our Northamptonshire home and to nearby nature reserves.

Our first bigger trip of the year will be back down to the South West and a week in the far west of Cornwall. After that, the only certainty is another August Bank Holiday week back on RSPB Ramsey Island, for what might become my ‘usual week’, making the most of the extra day off and the two volunteering days my company gives me to stretch my annual leave as much as I can.

Unusually, our plans for the rest of the year are a little vague. We were planning a fortnight in the far west of Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way but we might leave that for another year. We might instead head up to Norway for the midnight sun in June, followed by a return to rural Sweden for a week of so. I normally have my holidays all planned for a whole year, well in advance, but, actually, it’s quite nice to have a bit of uncertainty and to take a little more time to find what we want to do.

I’ve still yet to find any suitable local volunteering opportunities to replace those I used to do when I lived in Cheshire but there are one or two things that I might have to give a try. However, I will be looking forward to doing my second year of Breeding Bird Surveys on my new site in the countryside just a little north of where we live.

Finally, I really do need to build my fitness back up after rather a big slump in my activity levels over the past couple of months and a very indulgent Christmas. I need to get back into the routine of running, cycling and walking more regularly and taking lunchtime walks when I’m working at home. In some ways, I still feel I need to break out of some of the pandemic-related behaviours and a new year gives me a chance for a fresh start on the activity front.

Looking back on 2022

This is my annual post looking back at the year as it comes to a close and reflecting on my interactions with nature over the past 12 months. Personally, this has been the most momentous years with nature playing a pivotal part throughout. 

The year started, as it is now ending, with a short break with friends in Devon. On our first walk of the new year my bird watching got off to a good start with a whinchat and a flock of cirl buntings seen as we walked along the very blustery coast path. January also brought a visit to the Nene Washes; this large nature reserve in the Fens in Cambridgeshire is an easy drive from our home in rural Northamptonshire and was a revelation. Over the course of a couple of hours we had great views of flocks of lapwing and golden plover, a large flock of common cranes, some hunkered down short-eared owls and quartering marsh harriers and, surprisingly, a glossy ibis.

After a third bout of COVID delayed our trip, we eventually got to Sweden in May, a week later than planned. With family living there, I’ve made many trips to the country over more than 20 years but the pandemic put a halt to that and this was the first visit since the summer of 2019. It was an excellent trip for wildlife with the Swedish spring in full swing. Over the week we spent staying out in the countryside, we saw 80 species of bird and had some excellent wildlife moments. While grilling sausages in Fjarnebofjarden National Park, we were flown over by a white-tailed eagle which was then mobbed by an osprey, and each evening we watched beavers in the lake close the the summerhouse we stayed in. The scenery was also as lovely as ever, with the spring flowers bursting into life with wood anemones spreading in vast carpets in the forests.

Then came the biggest event of the year. We travelled up to Scotland, onto the Isle of Skye, to get married on a remote hillside on the Summer Solstice. The wedding was set in nature, in the most spectacular of locations on the Trotternish Ridge overlooking the Sound of Raasay and to Wester Ross in the distance. Ceremony was set in nature with it playing its part in making it the most memorable of days. As the wedding started, a cuckoo called and continued to call throughout, with backing from an occasional skylark and meadow pipit. We spent the rest of the day travelling around the surrounding countryside and coast having pictures taken in some of the most lovely locations Skye has to offer. A week on Skye was followed by a further week on the Isle of Harris and together they made a fortnight of ceremony and time in nature.

As August changed into September, I finally made a trip back to stay on Ramsey Island, my first stay since my three months there in 2019. As summer makes way to autumn, the island transitions from a breeding site for thousand of birds to a pupping site for hundreds of Atlantic grey seals. My week was spent monitoring the seal pups as well as all the usual tasks welcoming and introducing visitors to the island. Sadly, that was to be my last time with Dewi, the island’s sheepdog, who passed away later in the autumn. He was the best dog in the world, both very good at his day job rounding up the sheep and as soft as a brush – there will be a lot of people missing a cuddle with Dewi.

October brought the biggest wildlife event of my year with a weeklong trip to the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Returning to Africa felt like the closing of a circle in some ways. Having met my wife, Sarah, on my previous trip to Africa, to the Kalahari, in 2019, and all events that have happened since, not least the pandemic, the trip signalled a return to normal, but in a very wild way. We had some great sightings of both mammals and birds; prides of lions resting in the dawn, large families of elephants wandering through the scrub, a huge herd of buffalo slowing walking to a watering hole, colonies of southern carmine bee-eaters swirling over our heads at dusk and the eery calls of spotted hyenas echoing around the campsite in the pitch black of an African night.

Now as the year ends, we are down in Devon again to mark New Year’s Eve and another wild year is ending. Over the course of 2023, I’ve seen or heard 257 species of bird and now have house list of 66 since we moved in at the beginning of February 2021. This year also brought me my 500th bird species and my life list stands at 522. I also saw 54 species of mammal, more than any previous year and 14 species of butterfly. 

This has, without any doubt, been the best of years, for so many reasons, but none can match getting married standing on a wild hillside on a Scottish island on the summer solstice – the perfect spot for the perfect moment.

I’ll end my post with a picture from just down the road from where we are staying – taken at dusk on the beach at Slapton.

Isle of Harris: Harris in the summer

After getting married on the Isle of Skye in June, we caught the ferry from Uig and crossed the Minch to the Isle of Harris for a week-long honeymoon. The islands had been a distant backdrop to parts of our wedding day in the knowledge that we would be spending a special time out there.

We went to Harris for the solitude, landscapes and wildlife and we weren’t disappointed but there are other sides to the island that are very worth exploring, and I’ll start with those first…

Harris is foodie heaven with all sorts of local produce to sample. One of the island’s most recent and increasingly famous exports is its gin. The distillery is nestled in Tarbert, the largest village on the island, and stands proud as a welcoming sight as passengers disembark the ferry. The gin’s bottle is as well-known as the very good gin itself, the glass designed to reflect the scenery of the island and the colour of the seas washing over the spectacular beaches. We had a tour around the distillery which primarily focused on the main reason for the place’s existence; to produce whisky. However, the first releases have yet to become available as the distillers are waiting for perfect moment when the maturing process had brought the flavours they have been waiting for. In the meantime, the much quicker to produce gin has been doing a roaring trade. The tour was excellent, with an opportunity to try the unaged whisky spirit and an existing whisky produced elsewhere which is similar in flavours to the one the distillers expect to release. I can’t wait for the first bottles of the Harris whisky to become available to the public but there’s no sign of it yet – I suspect it will sell out very quickly.

There’s more to Harris food and drink than just gin (and eventually whisky), however. There is a great range of small producers selling directly to the public and new and novel ways to buy it. Croft 36 is a particular favourite, selling a range of homemade, and very high quality, ready meals and baked goods out of a shed at the southern end of the island at Northton. We had quite a few meals from honesty box-style shed and were very grateful to them for setting some meals aside for us so that we could pick them up on the day we arrived – they often sell out very quickly each day, so if you leave it late, you may miss out! 

We also visited Lorna’s larder for lunch. What looks to be a typical road-side food van actually serves outstanding seafood to its very plentiful customers who pop-in as they pass or travel some distance especially. When we called by, one of us had monkfish, chorizo and scallop skewers and the other had a seafood tasting box of monkfish, haddock and calamari, both served with great and plentiful chips.

The other gastronomic highlight of our stay was an evening at Flavour; it is an usual restaurant out on a business park on the road between Tarbert and Scalpay. We managed to book the only taxi on the island (it would serve anyone well to book early!) to take us from our cottage to the restaurant meaning we could have a drink with the food that thoroughly deserves to be accompanied by a good glass or two. The restaurant is unusual in that diners all sit down together, in one sitting, all at shared tables in the kitchen. The five tables of four get to watch the chef (Chris Loye) and his team prepare an eight-course tasting menu in front of their eyes and Chris takes his time to both explain each of the dishes to the guests and then wander between the tables for a chat. I have to say, the food was spectacularly good and worthy of top restaurants in major cities, so to find such greatness in a business unit on the outskirts of a village in the Outer Hebrides was a very pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable surprise to the say the least. 

Since I was last on Harris some of the local shops have improved and the community shop down at the southern end of the island, at Leverburgh, was great. It sold a mixture Co-op branded products and great local produce meaning that my expectation that we should take a lot of food with us from Skye, was totally misplaced. Through a combination of the community shops, small pop-up shops and a variety of eateries, you can eat very well on Harris and there’s much that you will want to cram into your luggage to take home with you too!

Moving on from the food, most people must surely go to Harris for the scenery. Having been to all of the larger Outer Hebridean islands, and quite a few of the Inner Hebrides and Orkney, I think it’s true to say that Harris has a landscape all of its own (although with hints of elsewhere). There are two distinct parts of Harris; the North and the South. North Harris appears to be part of the much larger Isle of Lewis but the landscapes of the two islands are vastly different. Lewis is largely flat, or, at least, very lightly rolling but North Harris is the most mountainous part of the Outer Hebrides with a high, winding mountain pass connecting South Harris to Lewis. Whilst South Harris has hills, they are generally not as high as in the North and the landscape is much more varied. A large proportion of the South is moorland which appears to be mostly more rock than vegetation, and this is particularly marked on the east coast as you drive up the Bays Road and Golden Road. This deeply indented eastern coastline, dotted with small villages and hamlets, is where many families wear cleared to from the much more green and lush west coast. The west is where you find the fabulous beaches of Scarista, Mhor, Borve, Lar, Niosaboist, Seilebost and, most famous of all, Luskentyre. This last beach is simply spectacular and, perhaps, by my experience, the best beach in Scotland. Its shallow gradually sloping sands are vast when exposed as the tide goes out but when the sea comes back in, the blue, greens and turquoises of the water lapping over the light-coloured sand are something anyone who loves beaches should go to see. At the western end of the beach, the views are provided with a backdrop of the North Harris mountains, which together with the beach, has to be one of my favourite views.

On Harris, you very much feel at the edge of the world; facing west, only St Kilda sits between Harris and North America. Travelling around the island, there are constant glimpses of the other Outer Hebrides, Skye, other Inner Hebrides and the mainland behind. These are places of big skies and big seas. Being on Harris in June, the daylight hours were long and the full darkness never descended across the land. The days could be warm with the strong sun beating down and any shelter making the sun’s rays felt. However, rough weather is never far away and it changes almost by the minute. My two stays on Harris have coincided with lovely hot weather at home in central England but that never quite reached where I was staying. This time on Harris, we sat out on the cottage decking with evening G&T’s and had sunny walks along the beaches but we also had to pack and wear our full wet-weather gear; packing for all four seasons is a must for a trip to Harris.

An island on the edge means that it has the wildlife of the edge. Our times spent watching that wildlife started with that ferry crossing and it continued each day afterwards until our crossing back. There were more seabirds around that I’ve seen before on a crossing of The Minch with razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots, cormorants, shags, kittiwakes and other gulls, gannets, max shearwaters and puffins aplenty. There were also several pods of porpoise breaking the surface of the water but most memorable of all were the three separate minkie whales, including one that leapt almost clear of the water before landing with a large splash not far off the port side of the ferry’s bow.

Once on land, we saw a good range of birdlife counting nearly 60 species combined with those seen at sea. On top of the seabirds, we saw golden eagle several times including watching one being mobbed by two (possible) merlins as we walked the Coffin Road. On the same walk we also had great views of a greenshank mobbing us as we crossed the moorland. On the beach at 

Scarista we came across both arctic and little terns nesting on the sand above the high tide line. They were very much out in the open and we had to be careful to choose a path around them to avoid the nests; unfortunately other walkers seemed completely oblivious, even when being angrily attacked from above as they strolled through the nesting sites. Finally, sitting on the decking at the front of our cottage the common gulls would swoop across the sheep pastures, the snipe would occasionally drum above our heads and a concrake would often calls from the roadside marshland 100 metres or so away.

We hoped to see more wildlife on a boat trip around Harris but the one disappointment of our trip was its cancellation. It was meant to do the almost complete circumnavigation of Harris, starting in East Tarbert and finishing in West Tarbert, each side of the narrow piece of land separating North Harris from South Harris. However, the state of the sea was too rough and didn’t improve for the rest of the stay, so we will have to try again on our next trip to the Outer Hebrides. This was the second holiday on Harris where the boat trip has been cancelled, so boat trips are booked more in hope than expectation.

One place that will stick in my mind that we visited is Rhenigidale – the last village in the whole of Scotland to be joined to the road network. Prior to 1990, the village was only accessible by boat or by hill track from Tarbert. However, the memory isn’t actually of Rhenigidale; instead, it is of another village slightly back from end of the road, Gearraidh Lotaigear. Now long abandoned, the village reignited by slight obsession with dereliction. I find landscapes of former settlements and industrial places, particularly of more recent centuries, very drawing, both fascinating and melancholic; cleared and abandoned settlements on the Scottish islands feed this interest like few other places I’ve been to.

A short walk from the road, down that narrow rocky hill track, the village is laid out below, set on the south-east steep slopes of Todun, as the mountain’s streams fall down into Loch Trolamaraig. The stone buildings and walls are very clear to be seen, with the landscape slowly reclaiming them, its progress only kept in check by the grazing sheep. While most of the buildings look many centuries old, there is one which looks much newer and actually looks similar to other buildings on Harris and Scalpay that are still used or in a much earlier state of dilapidation. There are even remains of household furniture on the surrounding grass, evidence that the previous inhabitants lefts no so many decades ago. Each time I have visited an abandoned village in the Hedbrides I have been flown over by an eagle (and sometimes by up to four!) but it was not to be this time. Instead, we had a cuckoo flyby, which was quite fitting given one had called constantly during our wedding on Skye the previous week.

As it was our honeymoon we decided to pay a little more for our holiday cottage than we normally would and the Sheep Station 2 was an amazing small home of luxury. From our research, Harris has a great array of accommodation for a range of budgets, from high end holiday homes to hostels, and campsites that must have some of the most spectacular views in the UK. Combined with the food, however, Harris has a very high quality tourism offer and this is supported by other products we took away with us. We brought home some of Harris’ most famous export, its tweed, having also worn it for the wedding. Our cottage had smart notes of tweed in the wall art and furnishings and we couldn’t resist buying a throw and cushion to give our bedroom a few signs of our week on the island. We did resist bringing more art home with us, but we did buy a copy of the amazing photography book we found in our cottage. ‘Saorsa’ by Ian Lawson is a very high quality book depicting the landscapes, people and wildlife of Harris and it will keep our memories of our honeymoon alive for many years to come.

Overall, then, Harris is a place of wild landscapes and nature, of fine dining and drinking, of excellent and famous local produce, and provides a very high quality holiday experience. Harris also provides a choice of how and where to stay, whether on a budget or wanting to spend a bit more for an even more special time away. It’s not just for honeymooners but for anyone who loves wild, remote and beautiful places but also wants to eat well and take something of Harris home with them.