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.

Frosty hare dawn

We couldn’t resist heading out this morning before the sun had risen to wander across the fields at the end of our lane. Under clear skies and with frost under foot, we crossed a few fields and then stood watching the sun rise over the distant rolls of the Northamptonshire countryside. As we were about to head back, a hare jumped up from its hiding place and ran off across the arable field.

Isle of Skye: A solstice wedding in nature

On the summer solstice, on the side of a hill, surrounded by stunning scenery and the calls of birds, I got married to my amazing and lovely wife, Sarah. Anyone who has glanced at a few of my blog posts won’t be surprised to read that nature was at the centre of our wedding and that we chose to marry on an island.

Sarah and I met in February 2019 on a holiday in the Kalahari. We were friends immediately and started dating within a week of returning home. Living 180 miles apart, we didn’t manage to see each other very often before I disappeared to volunteer for three months on RSPB Ramsey Island. This might have been an issue for other new couples but it wasn’t for us: we kept in touch and Sarah visited twice. We met up increasingly frequently when I left the island, including an autumn week on the Isle of Mull, and by early 2020 we saw each other almost every weekend. In the March we both went down with COVID and on leaving isolation I travelled down to see Sarah, expecting to stay about a week. That evening, the first lockdown was announced, and we’ve lived together ever since. 

In February 2021, we bought a house together in a Northamptonshire village and I popped the question on the Isle of Mingulay at almost the southern-most tip of the Outer Hebrides. On our way home we decided on a small wedding and to make the day unique to us. We soon decided on an elopement to the Isle of Skye (although our families and many of our friends were aware). We stayed on Skye, at Stein, for a week in October last year, looking for places to marry, as well as introducing the island to Sarah. After looking at a number of spots, we finally chose the most spectacular of all the locations on Skye; The Quiraing. 

The 21st of June dawned gloomy and damp with low cloud blanketing the small hills visible from our cottage above the banks of Loch Dunvegan. I had woken to the distant call of a cuckoo and as we had breakfast, we watched an otter fish in the water below the cottage. Lynne, our photographer, arrived at 7:30 and we spent a while having photographs, including at the ‘first look’, the moment we both saw each other for the first time in our wedding clothes. The weather looked a little brighter as we left the cottage for the drive to The Quiraing but as we drove up into the higher hills the cloud enclosed around us and our hearts started to sink a little at the prospect of a dark and wet ceremony. However, as we dropped over the eastern lip of the line of hills on the Trotternish Peninsula, we ducked beneath the cloud and the view opened up in front of us.

We met our celebrant, Sonja, and her husband, Chris, at the side of the road by the small cemetery and we walked a couple of hundred metres to a stunning spot in a natural ampitheatre below the dark, brooding crags looking both ways along the majestic Trotternish ridge. The Quiraing is one of the most spectacular spots I know with the black jagged rock pinnacles standing high above the plain stretching out to the coast below.

There, on a spot out in the open, we prepared the space and ourselves for the moments ahead. We both walked a small distance away from the others and Sonja chimed two small bells to mark the opening of the ceremony. We walked to join them and the wedding began. At that moment a cuckoo started calling joined by a skylark and occasional chirping meadow pipits. The sky was still overcast and the low cloud lightly dropped moisture on us but the air was almost still.

The ceremony was a mixture of formality, readings to match the surroundings and the solstice, Sonja’s words defining our story to get to that moment and our own personally-written vows. The moments that stick particularly in my mind are many.

Writing our own vows made the moment even more personal and brought some laughter as well as the seriousness of the commitments we made. As I spoke, the rain started to come down a little stronger, fine drizzle flowing into my face as I read my chosen words. I promised to steer around sheep in the road while Sarah promised to put lids on jars (but not necessarily screwing them on properly). As Sarah finished the sky brightened a little and the dampness relented.

We exchanged rings that had been specially made for us, cast in sand from beaches that had marked moments in our lives, including one we would visit on Harris later in the following week.

We drank from a quaich. We individually poured whisky into the small two-handled hand-carved oak bowl, symbolising two people coming together as one, and we took turns to drink from it. We then poured the last remaining drops to the ground, to nourish the land around us.

Moving on from the quaich, we also included the ancient handfasting ceremony where our hands were tied together with a length of ceremonial ribbon. This ‘tying the knot’ moment again symbolises two people coming together and at the end when the hands are parted the knot stays intact and should remain so. 

The final act of the wedding, with Sonja proclaiming our marriage, brought to an end what seemed like a both only a few seconds and an age in time. So intense was the ceremony that time  appeared to both stretch and contract, but there was also the constant marking of the seconds as the cuckoo continued to call all the way through those 25 minutes. It became the symbol of our wedding and the two weeks in Scotland. We heard their calls frequently over the days that followed and, finally, as we wandered around a quiet, abandoned village on the east coast of Harris, we saw one speeding along above the shore, being chased by a meadow pipit or two.

After signing the paperwork, we eventually had to say goodbye Sonja and Chris, and we spent the rest of the day with Lynne, taking photos at various spots around the Trotternish Peninsula. We spent a while around the wedding spot, then moved on to Loch Langaig, Duntulm Castle, the old chapel at Bornesketaig, and the nearby Camas Moor Bay, with a view over to the Isle of Harris, and back to the top of the Trotternish Ridge with views over the Sound of Raasay to the mainland mountains of Wester Ross beyond. 

Our day finished back at our cottage overlooking Loch Dunvegan and a meal at the fantastic Three Chimneys Restaurant below.

In our preparations, we tried to keep everything as local as possible. Our amazing and talented photographer, Lynne Kennedy, lives just across the Skye Bridge on the Kyle of Lochalsh, the lovely flowers were grown locally on the island by Catherine Matheson at Waternish and our fantastic picnic lunch was prepared by Isle of Skye Seafood. Our quaich was hand carved in Scotland, the whisky we drank from it could only really be Skye’s own Talisker, the hand fasting ribbon was in McKay tartan (there are McKays in my family) and my jacket and waistcoat were both made from Harris Tweed.

Starling sunset

With starlings nesting in our loft in the spring, generally making a noise up there much of the rest of the time, and frequently taking over the bird feeders in the garden, we tend to forget the winter spectaculars they are famous for.

However, one of the local bird blogs revealed last weekend that there is a starling murmuration at one of our nearby nature reserves, Summer Leys. After a day of DIY, we headed over there late on this afternoon.

It was a bright, completely clear evening as we stood by a gate overlooking some pasture and a reedbed in the distance. It took a while for the first groups of starlings to come into the area but then they just kept on coming…

Zambia: Nkonzi Camp, South Luangwa National Park

We had a long-awaited return to Africa in October. We booked a trip to Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park almost three years ago, expecting to go in the Autumn of 2020, but of course world events got in the way. 

The journey was long and multi-staged, starting with an evening flight from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Dubai, arriving in the early morning after seven hours in the air. We had a three hour layover and an easy passage through the airport for the flight to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. That second seven hour flight was a bit chilly at times but arrived mid-afternoon and we had just under two hours to wait for the final one-hour flight to the small town of Mfuwe. Passport control was very easy in the new International terminal at Lusaka and the checks of our COVID passes were very cursory. We had to walk the short distance to the old terminal (now for internal flights only) and the expected heat was quite comfortable, much to our surprise. However, the one hour flight in a Jetstream was rather sticky and we were glad to get off at Mfuwe into cooling air just as the sun was setting. We were met at the airport by Gavin Opie, our guide and host for the week, and some of his camp team, who took our baggage to the safari trucks. After a brief intro talk, we were off into the growing darkness of the Zambian night and out towards the South Luangwa National Park.

Our journey to Nkonzi Camp took us through Mfuwe itself, a scattering of mud-brick homes and shops spread along miles of smooth tarmac road. The village and the road were busy with people walking and cycling in the quickly fading dusk, with huddles standing outside shops and homes, with light and music coming from many of them. We picked our way around human and vehicular obstacles in the road and eventually the tarmac gave-way to dirt track after what seemed like passing through an endless linear village. Eventually, we passed across the bridge over the Luangwa River, the western boundary of the National Park and we left the hustle and bustle of the village behind. We soon saw our first animals of the trip as we spotted hippos out of the river eating grass around one of the safari lodges. We headed deeper into the wilderness and left other habitation behind, eventually coming to the deep sand of a dried-up riverbed. After a few more twists in the track we spotted the light of the camp and we trundled in to be met by Bev and the camp staff.

We avoided the next encounter with the local wildlife by having dinner as soon as we arrived. There was an elephant in the camp, moving slowly past the row of six tents laid out along the edge of the same river bed. By the time we had finished our meal, the elephant had moved through far enough that some of us, but not all, could go to our tents and unpack. At night, we weren’t allowed to wander through the camp alone and always had to be escorted by the camp staff. So once we were in our tent, there we stayed until morning as we settled into an already familiar safari camp routine.

As the camp is permanent for the eight months of the tourist season, the facilities were much better at Nkonzi than the temporary campsites I’ve stayed at in both the Okavango Delta and Kalakari. The tents were similar but larger, with a separate storage area at the back, and had a full-size wooden-framed double bed with very comfortable mattress. The was an ensuite bathroom at the back of the tent, with reed screens on all sides and reed flooring under foot. Amazingly, there was a flushing toilet (far better than the long drop equivalents from the other camps) and solar generated electricity. We had lights both in the tent and bathroom and a double plug socket for an electric fan and for charging devices and camera batteries. At the front of the tent was an awning and two camp chairs to sit under shelter during the hottest part of the day. However, the coolest place to stay at those points was the large open-sided dining shelter which not only had a large dining table but also a bar and several sofas, as well as a water cooler providing much welcomed refreshment when it was most needed.

Each morning we would be supplied with fresh water into the ensuite by the camp staff; we had to stay inside the tent until they arrived at 5:00am. It was clear why; during the first night and most of the other six, there were hyenas wandering around the camp, their calls echoing through the tents. We also heard the local elephant in the camp that first night too but didn’t hear the lions pass through a few nights later. 

The call of a hyena echoing around the camp at night (you may need to turn the sound up!)

After getting ready for the day ahead, we walked in the growing daylight to the dining shelter and down onto the sand of the dry riverbed to have breakfast out in the open. Only on that first morning did I feel the need to wear a jumper at breakfast but it was soon discarded. Each morning we had a choice of cereal, bread toasted on a wood fire, and a hot drink, before heading out at 6:00am on the first of two game drives of the day.

We would stay out on that first drive until around 10:00am, having stopped for a drink and biscuits around 8:00am. We then spent the hours before and after lunch trying to keep cool. We would vary our methods, from sitting out at the front of the tents, lounging in the dining shelter or, the best solution of all, soaking the provided body-length scarves in water and lying under them on the bed with the electric fan on. The latter kept us remarkably cool despite the daytime temperatures in the shade reaching the low to mid-40s Celsius and much hotter inside the tents.

As the sun began to drop we headed out on the second game drive of each day at 4:00pm. As we set off the heat was always still quite intense but as the four hour drive went on it cooled somewhat until becoming comfortable again arriving back into camp at 8:00pm. One of the highlights of each day were the sunsets where we stopped for liquid sundowners, usually overlooking a flowing river or dried river bed. They were followed by night drives back to the camp, usually with Dixon doing an amazing job finding animals with the spotlight, including my first views of spotted hyena. On arrival back in the camp we would soon return to the dining shelter for dinner; three courses of European-style food washed down by a G&T, beer or wine from the free bar. After such a nice end to the day, it didn’t usually take everyone long to disappear back to their tents after dinner and not be seen again until the next breakfast.

Despite the camp being pretty special, it wasn’t what we primarily came for: the scenery and the wildlife were our real focus and they didn’t let us down. 

Compared to the Okavango and Kalahari, the scenery of South Luangwa is ever changing, from one mile to the next. Set in a wide river valley, it is very flat, although it is possible to see distant hills many miles away. The dominant features are river itself and the dry riverbeds that adjoin it. Whilst the Luangwa River was still very much flowing, the other rivers run in the rainy season, which starts around November, and water flows for around four months before becoming dry again. Some of the trees were already breaking out into leaf in advance of the rains but the wider landscape was very dry with the last few waterholes nearly empty. Around the camp was largely scrub with occasional open areas but as we travelled further from camp the landscape changed frequently; more dense scrub, dry dustbowls with lifeless trees, wide open grasslands and wonderfully green mahogany woodlands. Some areas had similarities to the Okavango, some similar to the Kalahari, some were more like the savannah further north in Africa and some were desolate moonscapes. However, wherever we went we were never far from a riverbed and it was clear to see in some places that once the rains arrive, the national park transforms from the hot and dusty valley we saw into into a wet and lush landscape, if only for a few months.

We recorded over 100 different species of bird during our trip including over 30 that were new to me (finally taking the number of bird species I’ve seen in my life to over 500). Of those birds, the raptors were particularly notable, seeing eight different species of eagle including my favourite African bird, the Bateleur. I also saw my first ever African Skimmer, flying down the river with its long bill dipped into the water searching for fish. We had a great sighting of a Verraux’s eagle owl one night as we packed up after a sundowner and other birds included a great range of rollers, kingfishers, hornbills and bee-eaters. It was one of the bee-eaters that provided the most spectacular avian sight of the trip as we visited a southern carmine bee-ester colony at two separate dusks.

Southern carmine bee-eater colony at sundown

The mammals were just as varied as the landscape and birds, and we saw a great mix of large and small, and herbivore and carnivore including 29 mammals in total. The antelopes were plentiful with impala, puku, reed buck, water buck being seen most days and we saw the much smaller common duicker and the tiny Sharpe’s Grysbok. There were larger antelope too including a few kudu and a short glimpse of red hartebeest before they did their usual thing of legging it before you can get a good photograph. We also had really good views of giraffe including two males fighting over a female, clashing necks and legs. The zebra were also frequently seen including some very small foals and we saw a bit of fighting over harems.

We saw very good numbers of elephants each day including loose groups and large families. One evening, close to sunset, we watched one family with five small calves as it made its way over a river bed and into the bush, which was particularly memorable. We always tried to give the elephants a wide berth as they can get angry quite quickly and we were challenged and chased by one female after we stumbled across a small group in the growing gloom one evening.

Of the smaller carnivores, we saw civets and large spotted gennet, three types of mongoose (banded, white-striped and slender) plus quite a few four-toed sengi and some southern lesser galligoes (bush babies), scrub hares and ground squirrels.

Of the big carnivores, I saw leopard twice (others saw another on a drive I missed). The first was a surprise as we spent a little while watching a family of elephants by the road side, waiting for one to join the group so that we didn’t drive between them. Suddenly the elephants reacted to something and we saw a leopard disappear into the undergrowth having leaped down from the tree it had been resting in directly above the elephants’ heads. The second leopard was a night sighting. Just after getting back into the truck after our sundowner, we came across another truck shining a light into some long grass. Suddenly a leopard sat up and wandered off into the undergrowth.

Whilst the leopard sightings were fairly fleeting, the lions were very obliging. We saw them on three days of the six full days we were there. We found them on our morning drives including a group of three females resting on the dry riverbed just around the corner from the camp. The first group we found including three females and a male, resting but keeping an eye on the nearby antelope. We sat and watched them for 30 minutes or so as the relaxed in the morning sun and gradually moved through the area, a few metres at a time, in between dozing and stretching.

A highlight of the trip was my first ever walking safari. A small group of us walked from the camp straight after breakfast, led by Jabo, the armed Park Ranger, followed by Gavin, and then the guests, Bev and Dixon. We walked in single file, to appear a less threatening presence to any wildlife we came across, and soon crossed the river bed and walked out into the scrub. We came across the burrows of aardvark; Gavin approaching them cautiously as they can be used by a range of other animals including hyena and warthog. We then saw an elephant in the distance and made a large detour to avoid spooking it and eventually crossed the riverbed again towards a dried up waterhole. We found the bones of a hippo and the dung of crocodile in the area as well as the similarly white hyena dung. We eventually stopped for a drink and rest in the shade before the final leg back through the scrub and another crossing of the riverbed. Whilst we didn’t see a lot of wildlife while walking, it was amazing to be out of the truck and on our own feet out in the African wilderness. It would have been quite easy to forget how exposed we were and as we entered the last section of long grass, I had to remind myself that there could easily be something hiding just behind the next corner.

Alongside the sundowners at the southern carmine bee-eater colony, there were two other moments that stood out more than any in the trip. The first was actually a few minutes rather than a moment. Having not seen African buffalo before, it was quite a sight to come across over 150 strung out in a slowly plodding line in a large open grassland area. One by itself is quite an imposing view but the weight of buffalo in one place was something to behold. 

The second moment was as we were about to sit down for dinner on the penultimate evening. There were sounds of quarrelling hyenas a short distance away across the dark dry river bed. The camp team shone lights out into the darkness and we tracked the two hyena chasing each other and fighting over what appeared to be the hind leg of an unidentified animal (probably an antelope). At one point, our hearts may have skipped a few beats as they both turned and started to run directly at us but fortunately they soon changed course and ran off into the darkness. They then spent the next few minutes running around the camp and we later found their footprints in the sand outside our tent. The video below gives a snippet of the excitement.

Hyenas at dinner

As they always do, the trip came to an end far too quickly. Some of our group were heading off to Malawi for a few more days and left in the morning while three of us had one more morning drive in the National Park before heading back to Mfuwe airport for an early evening flight. The heat was particularly intense on the way and it felt almost like constantly driving through the first waft of heat as you open an oven door. Fortunately, both the airport and first flight felt cooler and by the time we checked in at Lusaka’s international terminal we were back into an air-conditioned world, bringing some relief from the unseasonably hot weather we had been having for the previous week.

Overall, this was a fantastic trip that met and exceeded expectations, in terms of the camp, the scenery and the wildlife. I have yet to stay in a safari lodge so I can’t give an honest comparison, but surely camping on safari is the best way to get into the heart of the wilderness and surround yourself with African wildlife.

We have to thank Gavin, Bev, the other guide, Shadi, and the camp staff including Jacob and Dixon, amongst the others, as well as Jabo the National Park Ranger. They all worked so hard to make our stay as comfortable and safe as possible and to ensure we had as good a chance as possible of seeing the wildlife we were all so keen find. The knowledge and guiding skills were some of the best I’ve come across and they showed a great passion and care for the area and its wildlife. They all contributed to making it one of the best trips I’ve had.

We booked the trip with Naturetrek, our usual wildlife holiday agent of choice. Naturetrek we’re excellent as always and especially good in keeping us informed as we had to postpone the trip twice due to COVID. The link to their webpages for this trip is here.

As we got back home, we discussed when we would next return to Africa and initially it looked like it could be quite a few years until we do. However, we soon resolved to fit another trip in within the next three years, sandwiched by a couple of important birthdays. We simply can’t stay away from Africa for too long – it has so much more to show.