Yesterday I went on a Saturday morning cycle in what has to have been the loveliest of sunny mornings for a very long time. It was chilly but with a cloudless sky and light wind and there was even a bit of warmth in the February sun.
I, like many others, suffer from the winter blues during the dark days of January and February. However, yesterday’s cycle seemed to lift a weight off my shoulders and afterwards I was almost bouncing as I walked down to town.
Unfortunately, today is stormy with strong winds and driving rain – what a difference 24hrs makes.
At the end of last month (I’m getting behind with my blog writing!), we had a long weekend on the north Norfolk coast, staying in the lovely village of Blakeney. This is the second year in a row that I have taken a long January weekend in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it’s the perfect place to spend an early-year few days outdoors surrounded by nature.
Blakeney itself is a stunning little harbour village, about three kilometres from the sea up the River Glaven. The village is typical of this part of Norfolk with it’s few streets lined by flint-faced cottages. Our retreat for the weekend was a cottage in the old granary on the river front with great views across the wide and open salt marshes.
The two and a half days were spent walking along beaches, across the marshes and around some of the best nature reserves I know. This time of year on the north Norfolk coast is full of winter bird life with their sounds an almost constant accompaniment to any time spent outdoors. The richness of the wildlife is revealed by the figures; in just those short days in the area, we saw 80 different species and some huge flocks of wintering geese and ducks.
Over the weekend we went to the coast at Holkham, had two visits to RSPB Titchwell, walked from Blakeney to Cley and back again, walked around the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley and made a dusk visit to the steep pebble beach at Weybourne. Through each of these places we saw a great amount of wildlife; from the large flocks of wildfowl and waders, the geese being my favourite, to the smaller birds gathered together to forage in the dunes and fields. The best sights were of hundreds of scoter off the coast at Holkham, the pink-footed geese in the fields alongside the main road, the flock of snow buntings behind the Holkham dunes, the mixed flock of curlew and ruff near to Cley, the dusk gathering of marsh harriers at Titchwell, and the hares running down and across a darkened back road.
The place is so rich in life that I yearn for a winter day wandering the area and I’m never in doubt that I will return many times again.
Today was a proper dark, gloomy and chilly winter day and it was perfect for a walk around Wybunbury Moss. The wander was given an eerie and slightly spooky feel with the fog hanging heavy in the dormant trees and over the open, silent bogland.
Yesterday we headed up to north Lancashire for an afternoon at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve. After what has seemed like a never ending streak of gloomy days (or have I just spent too long in the office, far from natural light), it was a relief to be outside on a fabulously sunny day, even if there was a distinct chill in the air.
The reserve, nestled on a floodplain between the low hills of the Arnside & Silverdale AONB, is a patchwork of large lakes and reedbeds close to the shores of Morecambe Bay. The network of trails and hides puts you right in the middle of the reserve, giving great chances to see a whole range of wildlife from many different vantage points. Since my last visit, a new tower has been installed, giving visitors a view across the whole reserve.
Being a wetland reserve in winter, the lakes were the home to a large number of water birds with a good variety of ducks, geese and egrets. The tree-lined edges to the reserve were also good for woodland species with a good range of tits in particular seen during our five hours.
The day ended with a dusk spectacular with a murmuration of tens of thousands of starlings swirling above the reserve. We started to think it wouldn’t happen as the darkness descended and no birds had been seen. However, what began with a single bird, then a group of five, eventually became great rivers of starlings passing over our heads as they came in from spending the day foraging inland. Before they made their funnelling plummet to their nocturnal roosts, there was a mass of life swirling and waving over the reedbeds. It was just a pity the main body of the murmuration was a good few hundred metres away, but I still managed to get a bit of video…
I spent New Year with my girlfriend and her close friends in South Devon and on the last full day, the two of use headed up to Dartmoor on what was a dark and damp day. We took a wet walk out to Wistman’s Wood which lived up to its spooky reputation.
The old gnarly trees and moss-covered rocks really do give the place a brooding atmosphere which was made all the more sinister by the dark winter day on which we visited.
With four days already gone in the new year, I’m a little late in looking forward to 2020. What’s more, I’ve already had my first nights away and done my first bird survey.
In my last post, I said that 2019 was very probably the best year of my life but I didn’t intend for it to be a high-water mark. To ensure that is the case, I’ve already got loads planned for the year ahead.
Like last year, there will be a long weekend in Norfolk this month to kick off my wildlife watching year but it won’t be until May that I have my first proper holiday of 2020. We will be heading up to the Isle of Harris for a week, returning to Luskentyre Beach where I spent a lovely week in 2018, although this time there will be the two of us and we’ll be in a different cottage. Up there, we hope, in particular, to visit some of the outlying islands; possibly St Kilda and/or the Shiants.
In July, I will return to Ramsey Island where I spent three months last year. Sadly, it will be for just two weeks this time and it may be a little odd to be the short-term volunteer again. Hopefully, this will be followed by a short stay in Sweden in late July or August. At the end of the year, we’re also hoping to see in 2021 in Devon, from where I have just returned from doing the same for 2020.
The biggest trip of the year will be back to Africa, in September, this time to Zambia, where we will be camping in the South Luangwa National Park in search of all the usual beasts and birds on safari.
I’m hoping these highlights will also be mixed in with plenty of conservation volunteering, as usual, with osprey and peregrine nest protection shifts, bird surveys and local practical conservation tasks. I also need, urgently, to get back into regular and intense exercise; walking, cycling, running and swimming, in fact I’m making a start on that in a minute with a long cycle out into the countryside. Work, illness and time away from home, as well as plentiful festive eating, has left me heavier than I have been in many years and I need to get it shifted or I’ll struggle to fit into my clothes!
For me conservation volunteering is becoming even more important in the face of such catastrophic news about the climate and species. Even someone working full-time can find space in their lives to contribute. I also want to look at my life more broadly and see how I can reduce my carbon emissions and wider use of resources – a challenge it will be but it’s one we all need to face if the battle against climate change and species extinction is going to be won.
In the past, I may not have been alone in meeting a new year with a certain amount of dread; a whole new 12 months in which bad things could happen. However, my outlook on life, and on new years, has gradually changed, and for the last decade or so I have looked on each new year with expectation and excitement of great experiences to come. I now just need to make sure I put the effort in to make sure those experiences are delivered.
What a year!!! It’s been 12-months of great experiences and unexpected changes.
The year started with an award – one of my photographs from my 2018 trip to Poland won the Naturetrek image of the year. This was followed by a chilly January weekend in Norfolk helping to ensure I got a bit of wildness into the beginning of the year.
The first big trip of the year was to Botswana, camping in the Kalahari Desert. The wildlife and scenery was great and, among many other things, I won’t forget the race to see painted wolves, a day spent with lions and a huge overnight thunderstorm. It all further whetted my appetite for more African adventures.
Next came the biggest adventure of the year, and one of the biggest of my entire life, three whole months on RSPB Ramsey Island. I took a three-month sabbatical from work to be the long-term volunteer supporting the wardens with species monitoring, visitor management and practical tasks. I could write many paragraphs here about the stay and I’ve blogged a lot about it already (including a summary here). In summary, it was a absolute joy – the people, the island, the work, everything really and it was very, very difficult to leave. It wasn’t until two months later that I felt settled back into my normal life again although even now, five months on, I still feel odd working in a city centre and not living close to the sea. The experience has had a very deep impact on my life and I really don’t want that to diminish too much over time.
Between my return home at the end of July and the final days of the year, I had a short stay with family in Sweden, several trips to London, a long weekend on the Suffolk coast at Aldeburgh and a New Year trip down to Devon with a day in Cornwall. However, the biggest post-Ramsey trip was a week on the Isle of Mull spending the time travelling around watching wildlife and looking at the spectacular scenery.
This really has been a year of creating great memories including the funniest birthday ever, spending the evening swimming around with a giant inflatable flamingo in one of Ramsey Island’s bays. This reveals another great experience for the year, swimming. Before my stay on Ramsey, I hadn’t been swimming in over 25 years and couldn’t actually do it really. However, after sitting out of swims a couple of times, I was persuaded to enter the water and haven’t looked back since. I’m quite proud that, in just a few weeks, I went from not being able to swim to doing 50 lengths of the Nantwich outdoor pool.
Here is my year in numbers:
1 photography award
1 osprey protection shift
1 Michelin-starred restaurant
1 week on a Scottish island – Isle of Mull
1 clip of film in a BBC documentary
2 magazines containing my photographs
2 stays on Ramsey Island (kind of)
2 trips abroad – Botswana and Sweden
2 beer festivals
4 holidays – Botswana, Sweden, Mull and Devon
4 ferry journeys
7 weekends away – Norfolk, Aldeburgh, London/Salisbury and London x4
8 local bird surveys
9 counties stayed in
38 species of mammal including 14 new ones
48 blog posts
94 days volunteering – Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers, Glaslyn Ospreys and RSPB
139 nights away from home
230 miles run
240 species of bid including 36 new ones
331 sessions of exercise
954 miles cycled
5,600+ blog views
…and here are some photo highlights…
Not everything was wonderful in 2019, however. It seemed to be a year of illness and injury with only my three months on Ramsey Island being a period of prolonged healthiness. Early in the year I had a bad allergic reaction to a household cleaning product which left me with quite bad asthma and I hurt myself coming off my bike at around the same time. I then felt rubbish using the antimalarials associated with my trip to Botswana and had a reaction to antibiotics following some dental work. Following my return from Ramsey I’ve generally been feeling run down and had a virus which left me with dizzy spells. I’m certainly hoping I have a healthy start to 2020.
The year ended on a sad and reflective note. My grandmother, Nanna, passed away in early December, one month short of her 101st birthday and her funeral was just after Christmas. She was the last of my grandparents to pass and for my family this almost marks the end of a truly remarkable generation that lived through remarkable times. I will miss her enormously.
Despite this sadness, the year ended on a hopeful and positive note too as there was another big change for me in 2019. I’ve lived a bachelor life for quite a while, living alone in my house for the best part of 20 years, although the bikes were banished from my kitchen a while ago. This way of life has seemingly enabled me to do so many of the things I have blogged about over the past few years. However, I met someone on my trip to Botswana and she has transformed my life. Sarah has brought a new dimension to everything I do and we share a love for wildlife, photography and travel. We now do together so many of the things I’ve blogged about; I just need to ensure I put ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in more of my posts!
On reflection, I can truly say that 2019 was very probably the best year of my life. However, I don’t intend it to be a high-water mark…see my next post!
It’s taken me an age to get around to writing this post – must try harder! Towards the end of October I returned to the scene of some of my happiest times during my year off in 2011/12; the Isle of Mull. It wasn’t the first Scottish Island I’d visited, Islay and Jura came first, but this really was the place that kicked off my long, interrupted, odyssey around the Hebrides and Northern Isles.
I had promised myself not to return to previously visited islands until I’d been to all the larger islands or archipelagos but I had a choice – Shetland in October or a return trip to a previous spot. Of those I’d been to before, Mull was an easy choice; it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s less exposed than others to those autumn storms, and it’s just that little bit more cosy than some of the others.
I’ll stop talk about ‘I’ now as there were two of us on this trip, and that was another reason for choosing Mull. One of us hadn’t been there before and it was somewhere I had a good chance of playing the ‘Wildlife Guide’ for a week having previously spent a fortnight getting to know the place very well, or at least some of the best wildlife-watching spots.
The route to Mull was quite simple for us, up the M6 to the Border, past Glasgow and over the Erskine Bridge and then alongside the lovely Loch Lomond. Just past the northern shoreline, we turned left and headed west to Oban, where was found a lovely bright autumnal day. Having arrived early for our booked ferry we tried to get on an earlier one but in the end we were grateful that we didn’t. The short crossing to Craignure, only an hour, was spent up on the deck and we were given a spectacular view towards the setting sun with light shining between the heavy, brooding, rain-laden clouds.
Another reason for deciding on Mull was the cottage we found. I can very honestly say that it was the best holiday cottage I’ve stayed in and by quite some margin. That’s no reflection on some of the other great places I’ve stayed, rather it’s just that the Old Little Theatre at Dervaig is unique. We arrived as dark was descending so we didn’t get a great view of the outside but on opening the front door and walking in, it was even better than the photos had shown. It was once the smallest professional theatre in the world and, essentially, just a small stone garage-type building. Now it has been extended with the addition of several modern rooms at the front and sides, to make a stylish but quirky holiday home. Whilst it is in many ways very modern, it still has little touches of its old use with theatrical flourishes and artefacts dotted around the inside. The single bedroom has a huge floor to ceiling picture window which enables you to lie in bed looking out across a lovely wide, flat-bottomed river valley. The place is just about perfect!
With six full days on the island, we spent them looking for wildlife and at the scenery, despite the mixed weather. The rain and wind with some occasional sunnier weather were not exactly unexpected conditions for the Hebrides in the autumn. Our first full day was our only really perfect one, weatherwise, and our visit to the main town, Tobermory, included a sit on a quayside bench in the surprisingly warm autumn sun. We then did a big loop of the island driving around clockwise on the main road down towards the Ross of Mull before turning right onto the north side of Loch Scridain. There are actually two loops, a northern and a southern, which intersect at a short cut-through from Salen on the east coast to Gruline on Loch Na Keal on the west coast. On that first day, we did both loops, driving almost the entire road around the island but missing out the Ross. This then became a familiar route with parts of the loops done most days in amongst other activities.
For much of the route around the island, the road picks its way along the edge of sounds and lochs, sometimes coming inland to rise up through mountain passes. The road is often just a single track with passing places but there are sections of standard single carriageway along the east and southern sides of the island, making journeys a little quicker than along the west and north coasts. The scenery is dominated by hills and mountains as well as the hugely indented coastline. There is a mixture of green pasture and high grassy hillsides with many of the valley bottoms swathed in damp oak woodland. The autumn had brought an orange and yellow tinge to the views with the oaks and larches vibrant amongst the rusty-turned grasses and bracken.
For me, the most memorable moment of our rambling journeys around the island was on the last day. We were getting a bit desperate in our searching for an otter; we’d looked in all the places I’d had success before but without even a momentary glimpse. My otter-sense, which has worked very well on Mull and Skye preciously, was letting me down. We’d stopped at a pull-in to the north of Salen quite a few times, or so it seemed, but we had to give it one last chance. The conditions were just about perfect for otter spotting; a low tide and still, calm waters. We spent a little while scanning the water and were just about to give up when I spotted some movement in between some little, seaweed topped islets. I thought it would probably be just a rock, again, or another sea-going Mallard but after blinking a couple of times I was sure. The three little blobs in a row were unmistakable; an ottery head, back and tail. It didn’t take long for it to roll head first/tail last down under the surface and disappear. We thought that might have been it but we spotted it again a minute or two later coming around the far side of the larger of the islets. There we watched it for what must have been at least an hour; otters seem to have some kind of time-bending capabilities. It spent a lot of time climbing on and off the seaweed covered rocks and fishing in the shallows. At one stage a group of Brent geese approached but were soon paddling off when they spotted the otter close by. Eventually, we had to leave and we moved on as the otter disappeared below the surface and behind the islets again.
That spot north of Salen was like looking at one of those nature reserve information boards that has the view painted behind a selection of all the creatures you had even a slight chance of seeing but usually don’t. In this case, we were blessed with a view of so many of those creatures actually out there where they are supposed to be. In addition to the otter was a wide selection of birdlife. From the waders feeding at the water’s edge, curlew and redshank, and the range ducks, including mallard, widgeon and a solitary eider, to a few gulls and the ever-present herons. The corvids were there too with quite a few hooded crows picking amongst the seaweed and a raven cronking overhead. A few more water birds were dotted about with red-breasted mergansers in the outfall from the river into the sea and that small group of Brent geese passing through on migration. In the trees around where we were standing were newly arrived winter thrushes, with the redwings ‘seeping’ and fieldfares cackling. I have to admit, I do keep a record of the wildlife I see, not just birds but mammals, butterflies and amphibians too. I do so, not simply to have a ever-growing list of ticks, but to note just how rich, or otherwise, an area’s wildlife is. At that particular spot, I could see from all the species, just how rich in wildlife a place Mull really is. All the scene really needed was an eagle or two to fly across above us, and it would have been complete; if we’d stayed a bit longer, maybe we’d have see one!
The other memorable mammalian moment was on the second full day on the island when we went on a three hour boat trip from Tobermory Harbour out into the Sound of Mull and and beyond towards and past Coll. We spent quite some time looking for groups of feeding seabirds and finding many, with large groups of gulls and auks feeding on fish at and below the surface. Suddenly there appeared a minke whale amongst them and we watched for quite a few minutes while it surfaced and dived. The scene of the whale and the feeding birds was made even more wild by the sense of being surrounded by so many of the Scottish islands; Jura, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Eigg, Muck, Rum and Skye as well as the Ardnamuchan Peninsula.
Our trip was slightly hampered by me being ill throughout the stay and we didn’t do much walking at all because of that but it was lovely just to drive around the island stopping at familiar spots to look at the scenery and watch the wildlife. Eventually, our time on the island had to come to an end and it was with heavy hearts that on a dark morning we closed the door to the Little Old Theatre behind us. I usually avoid talking about the journey home from holidays but this one was particularly memorable. The sun rose just as we got to the ferry terminal and the light revealed glassy still waters and snowy mountain tops. As we pulled out of Craignure, Mull looked fabulous in its autumn finery. Once on the mainland, the scenery was just as spectacular with deep valleys swathed in rusty yellows and oranges with snow scattered over the peaks. It was hard not to want to stop every mile or so to get out and stare at the views but it was a long journey home and we had to press on.
I don’t like to pick favourites amongst the Scottish islands, they are all beautiful in their different ways. However, Mull was an easy choice to return to and it turned out just about a perfect decision.
Sitting on the doorstep of the Bungalow, the silence washes over me. Not a total silence but an absence of manmade sound. Nature is here, all around, and the calls of the birds fill the landscape, from the sheep-clipped pastures to the hazy sky. It is so quiet at this spot, that I hear a swallow’s wingbeats as it urgently flies past gathering food in preparation for its long journey south. Behind me, above the rocky hillside, comes the harsh bullet-ricochet cry of a chough, eventually it descends past down to the drystone wall and further to forage in the grass.
The busy meadow pipits scurry amongst the other chough, feeding around the tussocks while family groups of linnet chatter on their way above them. Two crows harshly call to each other from opposing sides of a field while an autumn robins sings a soft melody from a wall-top perch. A raven on the wing cronks and croaks as floats its way towards the peak and a gull yelps in amongst a flock gliding above the bay. Deep below from amongst the rocks and boulders, the cries of seal pups rises up the cliff face and spreads out across the island, with their mothers bickering as the tide rises around them.
In the distance, the rolling breakers rumble into the shallow-sloping beach as my focus is sharply brought closer as bee bumbles past my eyes, after the last flowers of the slowly fading summer. The peace is abruptly broken by the sudden burst of rabbits boxing in front of the narrow field gate and now I notice the only human sounds; the passing of a high-level airliner to the new world and a conversation drifting across the still waters from the mainland.
The bright September sun is burning off the cloud and reddening my skin. The landscape of the St Davis’s Peninsula laid out in front of me has the first hints of autumn. The heathland heather is losing its purple haze, the patchwork of fields have been stripped of their crops and are now dotted with bales, and the banks of bracken are starting to rust as their stands dry and slowly topple.
I could sit in the spot forever but time has come and I need to make steps down to the harbour and return to the human cacophony of the outside world.
Last weekend I popped back to the island for just one more night, to take part in the annual Ramsey Island 3 Peaks Race. It was my first ever competitive run and I came third of the normal people who only did three peaks. I did for a moment, not far from the end, consider joining the nutters and doing another lap but my body decided against it.
After a late night to follow, in the morning while Alys, who took over from me as long term volunteer, and the three shorter termers left the Bungalow to start their day’s work, I stayed behind to sit and contemplate on the Bungalow doorstep.
Sitting there for half an hour, I immersed myself in the surroundings; my favourite view laid out in front of me and almost only natural sounds around me, save for a plane or two. My home life isn’t exactly noisy but it’s impossible to get away from manmade sounds and my worklife, in the centre of Manchester, is by comparison surrounded by a loud medley of urban intrusions into my hearing.
Oddly, maybe, I find absolute silence slightly unnerving, especially when accompanied by the pitch blackness of a remote night-time hour. I sleep with a window open at home and the distant hiss of road noise is in some ways comforting.
However, sitting on that doorstep for those few minutes, I came to the realisation of one of the things I miss the most about the island; that silence from manmade sounds.