Outer Hebrides: A day on Mingulay

I’m so far behind my blogging at the moment that I’m writing a post about a previous holiday when actually on the next one. This current trip follows on from so many now to the west coast of Scotland; a place I’ve grown to love for its remote and stunningly beautiful islands. Sat inside sheltering from wet and blustery autumn day on the Isle of Skye, it’s seems hard to write about a summer’s day back at the beginning of July – although that day did have a hint of autumn about it, come to think about it.

Staying on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a week, we wanted to take a boat trip to an even more remote island. There are a few to choose from including St Kilda but we decided instead to go to Mingulay at the southern tip of the archipelago (only Berneray is further south).

First we had to make a 40 minute ferry journey between Eriskay (joined to South Uist by a causeway) and Barra. Usually this crossing of the Sound of Barra would have provided great views of the islands but due to COVID-19 restrictions passengers had to stay within their cars for the entire trip. Not that walking around the ferry would actually have given us much of a view, however, as the clouds on this summer day were shrouding the ferry and the surrounding sea and land.

On arrival on Barra, we drove one half if the road that loops around the island and arrived in the main town of Castlebay still cloaked in cloud. This didn’t look promising for our trip but as we waited at the small marina the cloud started to lift a little; the gloom remained but it didn’t obscure every view.

We were welcomed aboard ‘Spirit of the Hebrides’ by the Hebridean Sea Tours crew for 30 minute from Barra to Mingulay. The boat was comfortable and stable as it powered across the open sea, helped by the good conditions. The water was almost bubbling with birdlife all the way to the island with auks, cormorants and gulls flying in groups or fishing alone on the surface. There were lines of gannets too, skimming low over the sea and we had a glimpse of a possible albatross tagging on to the back of one of those groups.

As we neared the island, we entered Mingulay Bay and moved slowly over towards the rocks on the northern tip of the beach. Anchored to the seabed, the boat sat still as the crew unloaded an inflatable at the back and half the passengers disembarked and were taken across to the shore, making the sometimes nervy step onto rocky land. We immediately headed up the grassy slopes above our landing place to seek out the puffins. Once halfway up the hillside we sat and waited for them to come in to land. They almost immediately started to appear but flew onwards, both above and below us, and sometimes straight past our heads. It took a while for them to get confident to land with people close by but eventually they were popping into and out of their burrows all around us.

After a while, we decided to take a wander down to the beach and up to the abandoned village. The island has no resident population after the final permanent inhabitants left in 1912. The island was not cleared like so many old communities around the Highlands and Islands; this was a much later and voluntary, if to some reluctant evacuation, when the last remaining families decided that a better and easier living could be made elsewhere. Mingulay was a tough place to live and as numbers dwindled the living became even harder. Other nearby islands had natural harbours and landings from which to load and unload boats; Mingulay does not and could be cut off for months at a time.

I find the old abandoned islands and villages of Scotland, as can be seen in some of my other posts, fascinating and hugely magnetic. There is something I can’t quite explain that draws me to them. I find silence where communities used to thrive, or survive, is almost tangible. There is a spirit to these places where the human past is being claimed by nature as the signs of former habitation slowly melt into the landscape.

The island around the bay is one large amphitheatre with four peaks along its outer edge. The sandy beach at its centre, on a clear day, reflects turquoise up through the lapping water but for most of our four hour stay, the sea remained a dark steel blue grey. Occasionally, the sun would start to break out through the dominant cloud to reveal the true colour of the bay but it was soon obscured again as the cloud got its way. As we sat having our lunch by the old school house, a sailing ship came in to moor while we were distracted by the old village, giving the island an even greater feel of times long gone

All too soon, the time had come to return to the boat but having made a more confident return by the inflatable, we didn’t sail straight to Barra but had a tour around the other side of the island, unseen as we approached in the morning. Away from the green eastern-facing slopes of Mingulay, the island is rocky with high, precipitous cliffs, towering dark and foreboding over passing boats and ships. I’ve seen quite a lot of sea cliffs around the UK and further afield and Mingulay has some of the most spectacular I have been fortunate enough witnessed. They seem almost endless at times and so steep that you have to be careful not to fall backwards as you stare vertically upwards. They are covered in seabirds from guillemots and razorbills, fulmar and kittiwakes to shags, cormorants and puffins. The cliffs are patrolled by gulls and great skuas picking on unsuspecting nests as they pass. Just as we left the island behind a white-tailed eagle appeared and made is purposeful way along the cliffs looking for its next meal.

The sights, sounds and smells of the cliffs were a spectacle like few I’ve seen and the cliffs made all the more ominous by the dark looming clouds above. As I’ve written before of other sea cliffs, these are probably not the spectacle they once were with many seabird populations in serious decline compared to the historical scales but it was a privilege to see such a place while such large numbers of birds are still there.

Just to add to the great day, the cliffs were not the last spectacle. As we made our way back to Castlebay, we were joined by a pod of common dolphin, playing in our wake and riding the waves alongside us. They were distant at first but as we slowed, they soon caught up and we had a good ten minutes of action. Unfortunately, we had eventually to leave them behind and return to the marina – some of us had a ferry back to Eriskay to catch. 

As we retuned to the ferry slipway and waited for our crossing, the sun started to break through the cloud and patches of the Sound of Barra took on its stunning turquoise shimmer. In the distance, the were grey seals hauled up on sandbanks and we could hear their eerie calls washing over the water – quite a lovely way to end a day in the wilds of the southern Outer Hebrides.

P.S. Whilst this post is really about the Mingulay and it’s wildlife, I can’t not mention that up on that grassy slope watching the puffins, I proposed to my girlfriend, Sarah, and got a positive answer! Mingulay will therefore always be an even more special place to us and this gives us another reason to return in the years to come.

A Hebridean ferry crossing

We’ve just got back from a week’s holiday on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Hopefully more blog posts to follow but I had to write about the ferry crossing on the way home; I don’t think I’ve had a more lovely one!

We caught the very early morning ferry from Lochboisdale to Mallaig, getting up at 4:30am to pack the last bits into the car and make the 15 minute drive to the port. The day started dull and cloudy but as the ship (the Lord of the Isles) pulled away the sun started to break through the cloud, although the thick haze never lifted completely. The Sea of the Hebrides was as flat calm as I ever recall seeing open water. The ripples weren’t strong enough to break the surface and it had taken on a liquid glass appearance. This meant that we could see far further across the water than normal and the wildlife wasn’t obscured behind waves as it so often is; even individual birds hundreds of metres away could easily be picked up with the naked eye.

Having seen cetaceans before in this sea, including on the way across at the beginning of the week, I was hoping for more and there was no disappointment. We saw common dolphins four times during the crossing and a couple of pods of porpoise. The dolphins were leaping clear of the water as they chased across the flat calm sea while at times they circled around catching fish. The porpoise, however, we more subdued in their movement, simply breaking the surface and rolling down again, often barely noticeable. 

The birds were equally special. At first there was some arctic terns slowly flying out to sea but there were many more birds to come. I saw my first ever storm petrels, as they darted swallow-like, close to the surface of the sea. I’ve helped to install nest boxes for them but never seen one before – they were lovely and so much easier to pick out against the calm waters.

More spectacular were the Manx shearwaters. Large flocks of them sat on the sea, feeding on the surface but they lifted almost swarm-like as they were harried by the skuas after their catches. They raced across the water, escaping their tormentors and eventually settled back on the surface again.

The were groups of other seabirds, often gulls and fulmar, fishing around concentrations of fish, with gannets plunging in from above. There were also auks everywhere; individuals fishing, sitting on the surface and long chains of birds racing across close to the water. We saw guillemots, black guillemots, razorbills and puffins for much of the way across, often dipping below the surface as the ship passed by.

All the sea life was laid out in front of the stunning backdrop of Skye and the small isles (Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck) as well as the Outer Hebrides disappearing in the mist behind us.

I generally love a ferry crossing but this was was spectacular!

Something new…

I wildlife and I like gadgets, so what could be better than combining the two? So I bought a new bat detector recently to cheer myself up and it works a treat!

I bought an Echo Meter Touch 2, which slots into the bottom of my iPhone, along with a couple of books about British and European bats. The big difference between the new gadget and my old bat detector is that it automatically recognises the type of bat producing the echolocation calls it records. This enables a novice (basically) like me to easily note the bats in an area without the need to gain specialist knowledge around calls and call frequencies, which will take a some time to develop.

However, it has spurred me on to learn more about bats and to spend more time outside at dusk and into the night to see and hear them. It is now quite a few years since I went out with a couple of friends, who are much more knowledgable than me, to do some Daubenton’s surveys along a nearby river. I loved doing the surveys and seriously considered getting my own survey spot and maybe I should do actually do it this time – but first, I think I need to do more reading around the subject and testing out my new kit.

Over the first two nights of using the detector, I was amazed to recorded four species of bat in our garden, both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle and Brown Long-eared and Noctule. I’ve never recorded Soprano Pipistrelle or Noctule before, which was particularly pleasing, but simply to record four species at all was great. I’m planning to take a few nocturnal walks around the village soon to see what else I can pick up and I also want to find a nice stretch of water to see if I can find some Daubenton’s too.

Unfortunately, on searching the Bat Conservation Trust’s website, there doesn’t appear to be a Northamptonshire bat group but I’m hoping there may be some opportunities to undertake bat surveys in the surrounding area once I’ve gained some more knowledge and skills.

Lifting the spirits

Despite still recovering from COVID and glandular fever, I’ve started to get itchy feet and have a growing urge to get out into the countryside around our new home in Northamptonshire. We woke this morning to a sunny spring day and headed out to a newly-found favourite spot nearby.

Hanging Houghton is only a ten minute drive away; it is a small, picturesque village sitting at the top of the wide shallow valley, the other side of which our village sits, albeit a couple of miles to the south. At the bottom of the hill on which the village ‘hangs’ is a small car park from which walks can be had along the Brampton Valley Way or along tracks across the open countryside. Today we walked out into the fields, only a short distance in total as tiredness soon prevailed over itchy feet. However, the walk lifted spirits more than I thought it would.

As soon as we left the car behind the songs of skylarks filled the air above the sprouting crops. A bringer of spring, the song is like no other, called from often unseen heights against the blue sky, a rapid succession of undulating notes, more complicated than the human ear can perceive. There must have been skylarks in double figures along the track, each marking out its territory and spreading the message of the new season and warmth to come.

They were, however, only one of the birds along the track. A pair of buzzards cried out as they circled above the narrow strip of woodland and red kites floated on still wings as they passed over head. A kestrel completed the raptors, hovering over the longer ditch-side grass, hunting for a vole or two from a hover or a nearby stubby hawthorn tree.

Out in the fields, the skylarks were joined by meadow pipits, also starting to display, calling as they parachuted to the ground with outstretched wings and upwardly pointed tails. A solitary reed bunting chirped from a stand of teasel and yellowhammers flitted from tree to tree.

As we returned to the car, far sooner than usual, there was a pied wagtail picking about the gravel and a stock dove cooing from within the farm buildings. Despite looking again, there was still no sign of the barn owl, though, the old brick barn in the middle of the fields still not providing a view despite the numerous visits.

A new start in Northamptonshire

Finally, after five and a half months since putting an offer on a house, we moved home in early February. We have combined my house in Cheshire and my girlfriend’s flat in Kew into one by moving to rural Northamptonshire. Once offices fully reopen, I will be working in Birmingham (instead of Manchester) and Sarah will continue working in central London. Whilst this will entail quite a lot of travelling, although for fewer days per week than before the pandemic, we both wanted a move into the countryside and we’re already seeing the value in that decision – albeit without any of the long commutes yet.

This post has taken quite a while to write, on and off over the last few weeks. Moving house, obviously, has taken precedence over blogging, and almost everything else, but we’ve also been hit by a double illness of COVID-19 and glandular fever. One is bad enough, but two has really taken the wind out of us. Fortunately, Sarah has had less severe symptoms but for me it’s been the worse illness I’ve ever had. The COVID symptoms themselves were not particularly bad, like a strong flu, but the combination with glandular fever has left me in almost continuous pain and discomfort and I don’t know how long I will be laid low for. With lockdown still in place, our travel restricted, we haven’t been able to explore widely around our new home area anyway but I’m hoping I get over this in time to take advantage of the relaxations of restrictions as they come over the course of the spring.

Anyway, that’s enough writing of illness, that’s not the purpose of this post. The move to the countryside and to an entirely new and unknown area of England has been a huge change for both of us, particularly Sarah who has lived in London for the past 14 years. Whilst I have spent so much of my time over many years in the countryside, living on the edge of rural Cheshire, it is very different to live in a village some distance from the nearest major town. 

Neither of us knew anything about Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. In fact we really stumbled across the area after failing to find anything we liked in neighbouring Warwickshire. To me, the county has just been somewhere to pass through on the M1 or A14 but on our first visit to view a property we found a hidden gem of a county. We have moved to a small village north of Northampton itself in an area of countryside that is not unlike the Cotswolds. The land is rolling, steeply in places, dotted with old ironstone villages and farms, with hedges and drystone walls enclosing a mixture of large arable fields and small pastures. There is not a great deal of woodland, a bit like my former Cheshire home, but as spring brings the trees into life, I’m sure the area will be swathed in green cover of trees. We’re also close to a number of reservoirs which contrast to the rolling agricultural land and provide different environments for the wildlife we search for.

Our house is down a quiet dead-end village lane with very little traffic save for the occasional tractor and passing ponies. We are sheltered by a hill from any noise from the relatively lightly-trafficked main road that passes the village and the area is so quiet that at night we can hear a single car as it drives between our village and the neighbouring one a couple of miles away. In fact, standing in the back garden at any time of day, the dominant sound is of birds, not traffic – a very different situation to the flat in Kew with the constant passing of vehicles on the road and planes overhead on way into Heathrow.

So far, the birdlife has been great at the cottage and in the surrounding countryside. Our newly erected birdfeeders have a constant passing trade of sparrows, tits and finches, with collared doves and wood pigeons clearing up beneath. We also have regular visits from rooks which seem to have taken a liking to the seed feeders but haven’t quite worked out how to get at them. The most entertaining birds so far have been the starlings which appear to be nesting in our eaves, in at least three spots. Their calls are so varied and often mimic those of others including blackbirds and buzzards, but their songs also frequently seem to end in a fight amongst themselves across our rooftop.

Sitting at my desk I can hear green woodpeckers in the neighbouring gardens and fields as well as the great spotted variety drumming on nearby trees. At night, lying in bed, we’ve also frequently heard tawny owls and the occasional barn owl. The latter we have also seen in broad daylight perched on a fence post as we drove down a country lane. We have had raptors in and over the garden including kestrel and sparrowhawk passing through and buzzards and red kites soaring overhead on nice days.

We haven’t had many walks in the area yet, and I’ve only been for a couple of cycles, due to unpacking and setting up home, illness and the very wintry weather when we first moved in. However, we have found some nice spots already and the birdlife has been great. There are plenty of footpaths in the area as well as a dismantled railway and a number of cross-country tracks. Walking along these has revealed a quiet and unspoilt corner of rural England with birdlife I rarely saw in my former home. The real stars to date have been skylarks and yellowhammers, in a level of abundance I don’t think I have seen anywhere before and so early in the spring that I would not have expected to have heard them sing. 

So far, we have only had very limited insights into the nature of Northamptonshire but over the coming weeks and months, I can’t wait to get out there and visit new places to the experience wildlife around our new home.


A final fox?

Despite all I wrote in my last post about lockdown foxes, we haven’t seen one for a couple of weeks. Yesterday, however, we saw one in Kew Gardens in broad daylight, wandering around the southern, wilder, area of woodland. There were plenty of people about but he (assuming he was a he) seemed quite unconcerned. We stopped and watched him while other visitors walked past quite oblivious to his presence. I could quite easily have missed him as he at first appeared to be a log lying in a dip but he obviously wasn’t when he moved and trotted through the grass.

He had a very distinctive white tip to his tail so he could have been one we have seen a few times from the flat. The white tip stood out particularly at night; a furry beacon at the end of a darker tail and body enabling us to track him through the shadows of the neighbouring front gardens.

Unless we see another fox today, he will have been our last fox sighting in Kew. Today we are packing up the flat and tomorrow moving to Northamptonshire – hopefully with more fox sightings to come! The former owner of our new house actually mentioned she had foxes in the garden when we had a viewing of the property, so there’s a good chance!

Lockdown foxes

After spending so much time in rural and semi-rural areas during of my life, I thought being locked down in Kew would limit my wildlife-watching opportunities. However, I have been pleasantly surprised. The birds have been as plentiful in species as my home in Cheshire; more plentiful in fact, as the habitats are actually more varied with gardens, parkland, lakes and the River Thames providing a variety that I don’t have at home. As I wrote a few blog posts ago, my mammal-watching at home had been pretty poor up until finding badgers coming into my back garden in the autumn. I can’t say that the mammals of Kew have been particularly spectacular but there is one species that has given us almost constant sightings and entertainment throughout the different stages of lockdown – foxes!

I find something particularly exciting about a wild species of dog living amongst us. Our country is so denuded of its nature, particularly its large wild mammals, that knowing that there is one particularly charismatic species wandering around right outside in our streets and gardens brings quite a thrill. I have a bit of a thing for wolves and have travelled abroad to see them, and foxes bring a little bit of that wildness of wolves to our towns and cities, as well as our countryside. They don’t have the majesty of wolves or the power to bring out the most visceral of feelings that their larger cousins do, but they’re now, unfortunately the closest thing to wild wolves we have, and they’re living right here amongst us.

We have seen foxes in both daylight and night time, heard them calling through the darkness and we smell their musky scent often as we walk around the streets for our daily exercise. They are usually oblivious to our presence as we look down from the windows of the second floor flat – even when we’re standing outside on the balcony. One night I whistled out of the window at one as he trotted up the road. He stopped, looked back for a while, and then happily trotted off again on his nightly business. However, not all our sightings are from such distance. I was out running a few days ago and saw a tail disappear into a driveway. As I approached, I came across him standing on the brick paving only a metre of so away, waiting for me to pass, before carrying on way.

I particularly like animals that are active at night, they have dimensions that we don’t, they live at times we prefer to be settled down inside the comfort of our homes, they have that added bit of mystery and are hidden from our view so much of the time. The calls of nocturnal species have always given me a thrill to hear as I lie in bed and the cries of foxes are no different. Sometimes in Kew it’s been just a single far off bark but other times they’ve been right beneath the window, shrieking. There was one late autumn night when an almost painfully high-pitched yelping could be heard in far off streets but it came closer and louder until the fox ran past the flat and onto other streets continuing its noise as it went – took me a while to get back to sleep after jumping up to look out of the window at some silly time in the early morning.

It isn’t just night-time sightings we’ve had. In the early days of the first lockdown I got a surprise when I saw one running up the road in the early afternoon but we have regularly seen them during the daytime and there was one that frequently sat on the grass outside of the flats taking in the early evening summer sun.

Across the road from us, Kew Gardens has been particularly good for foxes over course of the last year. At the height of the first Lockdown we would often walk past and look in through the gates; wishing we could go in. On one evening amble we saw a fox wandering close to the Elizabeth Gate; it turned to look back at us and then, gambling behind it, was a youngster, and off they went, deeper into Gardens amongst the darkening and silence lawns, trees and flowerbeds. They must have enjoyed the lack of people when the gates were closed for so long but perhaps they missed some of the leftover food too.

As soon as we were allowed back in, we went at least a couple of times a week. On one of the first trips, we were there just before closing time and came across a fox in the naturally wooded area. It stood and stared back at us and then disappeared into the undergrowth, waiting for us, and everyone else, to leave him to roam in peace when then gates closed for the day. We also saw another young fox playing in the grass just outside a small group of trees but again, we were soon spotted, and it loped off back into the cover, away from human eyes. In recent visits, as we’ve been walking close to the Thames end of the lake, we’ve seen a fox amongst the visitors in broad daylight, with seemingly little concern about the people around it and often not being spotted it trots past.

There was one particularly memorable sighting, however, just a few weeks ago. We were wandering in the Gardens close to the outside wall when a fox suddenly appeared alongside us busily running around the base of some some bushes. We heard a crow calling and it swooped down to mob the nervous looking animal and it was soon joined by a second. Over a period of a minute or so, they played cat and mouse with each other. The crows calling angrily and flying fast down to the ground, sometimes landing, while the fox either ignored them or prepared to duck and dive its way to avoid being attacked. As a crow landed on the grass, the fox stopped and then ran towards it but only for the crow to be easily launch itself back out of reach. 

We have even started to recognise some of the individuals with a small and pale female seen regularly early in the first Lockdown and more recently fox with a brightly white-tipped tail who likes to walk along garden walls and an impressively large male we’ve named FBF.

It’s common for one of us to call ‘FOX’ across the flat in the evening as we look out of the window and looking out for them is last thing we do before we go to bed; one final bit of wildlife watching before closing the curtains on the day. They have become part of Lockdown life in a way that no other wildlife has, bringing a bit of natural thrill each time we see one.

With only a couple of weeks now until we leave Kew behind and move to rural Northamptonshire, I hope we get as good and as frequent views of foxes at our new home – they have really brightened up our days and nights and brought much needed bursts of nature into our lives over the past few months.

Lockdown at the lowest ebb

I haven’t resurrected my diary for this third, and hopefully last, in the series of COVID-19 lockdowns. Well, I didn’t for the short second lockdown either, but sometimes I do still feel the need to write something about the experiences.

I always find the post-Christmas period difficult, those dark, cold and bleak months of January and February when festivities are over and the bright days of spring seem a long way off. The dark  mornings and the early arrival of night-time each afternoon, alongside the often cloudy and drizzly weather does little for my sense of wellbeing and over the years, I’ve often been at my lowest at this time. Usually, this has felt like a period to tolerate and get through rather than welcome and embrace. The new year is something to celebrate but for me the positive feelings often evaporate very quickly once the decorations have come down and we all return to our normal weekday lives.

The first lockdown started just a couple of months later in the year than now but our forced isolation was helped by nature; the light was quickly returning to the days, the early spring flowers were out and the weather was exceptional. We were blessed by the bright, sunny and unseasonably warm weather that lasted for months and what felt like almost every day. The second lockdown was much more limited and while the autumn was upon us, the days growing shorter, it was in the run up to Christmas, and the novelty of the coziness of darker evenings was new and comforting. Now, though, those dark nights and poor weather, seem a drag on life and the days until those warmer and brighter days of early spring seem painfully far away.

Some years ago, I wrote a post about life at this time of year, mid-January towards early February, being at its lowest ebb, the coldest weeks of the year and with little sign of the life that nature will one day over the coming months bring back. During this third lockdown, life in general now seems to be at an even lower ebb than usual, making life much more difficult than during the first lockdown that started nearly ten months ago. 

It would be easy to descend into a very dark mood, and in some ways it’s very tempting to my personality to do so. However, with so many bad things happening right now, this would, of course, be the worst thing to allow. I have it relatively easy compared to many; I’m not on the NHS frontline, I’m not a key worker of any sort, I’m not in a high risk group and I don’t have to home school any children. All I have to do is sit tight, work from home, take some daily exercise and wait for this to pass. I also can be massively thankful that my situation changed in the year leading up to the first lockdown; going from living by myself to being in a couple and sharing lockdown together, means that I almost feel we benefited from the situation; life would have been incalculably harder if we had both spent the period alone.

Having said all that, it is still a struggle at times, compared to the other lockdowns and taking positive steps to both accept that and try to make it easier has been making a difference and maybe there’s more that I can do.

I’m missing the countryside more than I did during the other lockdowns, perhaps because it’s harder to see nature when I’m not working; it’s dark both when I start and finish work. However, I have a new desk, in a different position, now overlooking gardens behind my computer screen. This means I can see wildlife throughout the day. This often comes in the form of flocks of winter thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, which spend the day moving from one berry tree to another. There are also the urban foxes, which we see both at night and in the day time, and the ring-necked parakeets which often dominate the other natural sounds in the area.

The odd sunny day also makes a massive difference, at least for a few hours. Today has been lovely and not as cold as of late, so we went for a walk around our local patch – the Royal Botanic Garden is literally across the road. My list of birds is already growing reasonably just on the visits there and on walks along the Thames Path on the other side of the wall. We have also taken to walking at lunchtime, to get some air during daylight hours.

I have also, and perhaps most importantly, tried to change my outlook on this time of year, to embrace it rather than fight it. We have kept some lights up after Christmas, not a tree or a huge amount of decorations, but a few to bring more comfort and brightness into the evenings. I’m also trying to relax more, not over think things, not long too much for times that are yet to come. Whilst exercise is still very important, I’m also not going to push my running too much as part of my routine and perhaps put off some of my goals until we are released from these restrictions

Perhaps the biggest change I want to make, though, is to stop looking at my phone every time there’s a moment of silence – over stimulation at a time when my mind is already full of so many challenges is just adding to the stress and angst. I’ve found Twitter particularly bad for stopping me relax. I’ve sometimes gone from calm to internally raging in a matter of seconds after tapping on the app. The government’s shambolic handling of both Brexit and the pandemic are so often brought instantly into sharp and excruciating focus by those little but hugely impactful, messages of a few words. I’ve ‘muted’ so many words on Twitter to stop the endless battering of painful messages cascading through my phone but that isn’t enough. I’ve now decided to stop picking up my phone at every opportunity and leave it out of reach as much as possible. This should give me more time for more calming activities; reading, writing, looking out of the window and maybe just staring blankly at the wall from time to time. 

Being physically isolated from family, friends and colleagues has made me feel I need to be more digitally connected to the world but, actually, this has just led to more difficulty in coping with this situation we all face. Perhaps writing a blog post about this is slightly odd, but just sitting still, focusing on one thing for a while, and putting thoughts to digital paper, has really helped.

Looking forward to 2021

Reading my equivalent post for 2020, it is full of hope for many great things to come and I really don’t want to temper that hope too much at the beginning of this year. Whilst we no doubt have many months to come under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic and some very difficult news will undoubtedly come, I can’t start 2021 without talking about my positive hopes for the year. 

I have to say that being positive at the moment isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’m in a constant state of disillusionment at present where the country is concerned. I did start to write a few passages here about this but it just makes me angry and disappointed, and I don’t want to turn my blog into a space for unheard political rantings. Instead, I want 2021 to be a year where I refresh my blog and find my nature mojo again, building on my experiences of 2019 rather than 2020. How realistic this is, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

If all goes well, January, or possibly early February, will see us moving to a new home in the Midlands. We’re buying a house in a village north of Northampton in a lovely area of rolling countryside. After living in South Cheshire for the past 40 years, I’m really looking forward to exploring somewhere new; all the roads, lanes and footpaths, all the best spots for wildlife and views. Being more central in the country, we’re going to be closer to areas which have been out of reach of day trips from Cheshire, so hopefully a few trips to the eastern side of the country and further south.

Depending on what happens with COVID-19, there are the plans for trips that were put on hold in 2020 to take in 2021; I could almost cut and paste this part of last year’s post into here. In June we’re planning to go up to the Outer Hebrides to stay on the Isle of Harris at Luskentyre. At that time of year we’re hoping that the machair will be blooming and we can take a trip out to one or two of the outlying islands, possibly St Kilda or the Shiants.

In July I’ve got my name down for a week back volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but whether the island will be open to visitors and volunteers at that time is anyone’s guess. The following month we might have a trip across to Sweden to visit family but also spend some time out in the countryside.

Our biggest plan for the year, and hopefully far enough away that COVID will not interfere with it, is a trip to Zambia for a camping safari in the South Luangwa National Park. After having limited opportunities for wildlife watching in 2020, a chance to go back to Africa for a safari would be very welcome.

Given we are moving to a new house and new area, many of my volunteering activities of recent few years are now, sadly, in the past. Many of the activities I’ve been doing since 2011 including local volunteering with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers, bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and osprey nest protection shifts for the Glaslyn Wildlife. However, the move perhaps presents new opportunities to try different volunteering. I hope I can get a new BTO survey site in Northamptonshire and hopefully there may be a local group or two I could volunteer with but I’ll have to do some digging to find out what opportunities there are.

I’m not sure how much of the above is just wishful thinking, given what happened in 2020 and settling into a new home could easily take all of our time for quite a while. However, I’d rather be ambitious and optimistic with plans for 2021 at the start but not be too surprised if I need to change things as time moves on. Anyway, with most of the country in virtual lockdown for the coming weeks, there’s plenty of time to think it all through.

Looking back on 2020

The corresponding post to this one from 2019 talked about my three month sabbatical from work to long term volunteer on RSPB Ramsey Island and how, even after five months since leaving I had still not fully settled back into my usual life. I said that it had made a very big impact on my life and that I did not want that to diminish. However, looking back a year later, that hope has not been fulfilled. Maintaining it was an impossible task and it has been consumed along with many other hopes that have been lost amongst the myriad of competing challenges that 2020 has thrown at all of us.

The subsequent post, looking forward to 2020, was full of hope for new experiences, holidays and conservation volunteering. As I wrote that post, the COVID-19 virus was spreading around the world but I didn’t have a clue of the scale of impact it would have on all our lives as the subsequent months passed. 

This has certainly been a year like no other in my lifetime but it started quite nicely. We spent New Year with a group of friends in the Devon countryside and later in January we spent a long weekend wandering around the North Norfolk coast seeing a great selection of wildlife. February and March were quiet but included what may have been my final day volunteering with my friends at the Crewe and Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (with whom I’ve been spending every other Sunday since Autumn 2011).

With the news steadily getting worse over those early months it wasn’t until mid-March that it all came to a head. I caught what was most likely COVID-19 around the 14th March but didn’t show symptoms until 16th when I isolated for the week. At the end of isolation, I travelled down to my girlfriend’s flat on 23rd just a few hours before the first nationwide Lockdown was announced. Life then changed completely.  

I wrote a series of ‘lockdown diary’ blog posts over the course of the first national lockdown and I won’t go through all that now as there is a summary post here.

I normally do a list of my year in numbers but I think it would be somewhat lacking this time – I’ll leave that to my 2021 end of year post. However, one list, or set of lists, which I always reflect on is that of the species of wildlife I have seen over the course of the year. I’ve seen or heard 131 species of bird and seen 11 species of mammal. Given much of my time has been spent under COVID restrictions, I don’t think this is bad and the bird list is only 20 or 30 behind some recent years when I’ve been abroad. What surprised me most about these lists is that I managed to record over 70 species of bird during the long first lockdown when I was staying in London. Being in a more leafy part of the city, and close to the River Thames, meant that there was a range of habitats and this variation brought quite a variety of birdlife. Being locked-down in a very urban environment was difficult for me, someone who usually has easy access to the countryside, but the wildlife and other natural elements of my lockdown surroundings certainly helped to keep me a little more sane. However, overall, 2020 has been a year where I, and many other people, have not been able to connect to nature as much as they would normally like.

Between lockdowns we spent some time back at my house in Cheshire and it was here that I had my most memorable wildlife experience of the year. We had badgers coming in the garden over several nights and actually being only six inches or so away from each other, either side of the glass kitchen door. The fact that they have started appearing in my garden now, when I’m shortly moving, has left me with a sense of sadness. However they have given me a boost to connect even more with nature in 2021 and rebuild some of the effects of my stay on Ramsey Island that has diminished somewhat over the last 12 months. Perhaps that can start by attempting to encourage equally special wildlife into our new garden (when we eventually move in!).

At the end of my 2019 post, I said that year was probably the best year of my life. Well, 2020 may not have been the best year I’ve had, for such obvious reasons, but it will certainly be one of the most memorable. The biggest change of the year without doubt has been moving in with my girlfriend, not just for Lockdown but permanently. As someone who’s lived the bachelor life for many years, it’s a change that I never expected to happen. That bachelor life enabled me to do all the things I’ve blogged about over the last few years but the fact that we both like so many of the same things and share a passion for nature, photography and travel means that I will not only share these things with her but I will also continue blogging about them for some more time to come.