Winter 2020/2021 has been, for many, one of the toughest in years. I’m going to start this off now by saying that I spent two months at my parents’ home over winter, for the goodness of my health and wellbeing. So the wildlife in this entry, is not from my usual patch – but it is all local to my parents’ home, in the midlands, in England.
While lockdown was tough, there was still so much joy to be gained by nature. We made efforts every day, no matter how glum we were feeling, to do something nature related. It’s not a magic fix – the World is tough right now and its normal to feel sad or down about it. But nature provides a way to take your mind off it, to focus on positives, and to be mindful that life is continuing – and that can all help to alleviate some of the heightened emotions that we’re pretty much all feeling!
A winter surprise
When I’m at my parents’ home I do a lot of garden birdwatching. I don’t have a garden where I live – so I make the most of theirs! Just after Christmas, it got very cold and we had several days of snow. I always look out more in this weather, because often you can see more birds than usual, and more species. This is because the cold weather makes it harder for birds to find food – so they often try new places and travel a bit further.
I have to say though, I’d given up and was happily reading when my sister called me into the room which looks out onto the garden. “There’s a bird in the tree and I don’t know it what it is” she said. Now my sister is still a beginner when it comes to ID but in terms of spotting birds she’s incredibly skilled – I always see something I’d have otherwise missed when she’s around! At a glance I could see a medium sized brown bird, a bit like a thrush but not quite. “It couldn’t be a…surely not a…we never see them…” I ran to get my binoculars so that I could be sure. There it was, clear as day – a redwing! A single, beautiful, redwing just randomly sitting in our tree in the garden.
Redwings are members of the thrush family, and they can be distinguished by the white stripe above the eye and patch of red under the wing. They are winter visitors to the UK which migrate from their breeding areas in Iceland and Scandinavia. I normally make special birding trips in the countryside to try and see them – to see one without even leaving the house, was just amazing.
Eating out of the palm of my hand
One of our frequent places to walk was the local park, known as the Washlands because it’s next to the river. Part of the path is surrounded by trees and overgrown shrubs; this is where we see the robins!
One particular robin, whom I have named Robbie, is really quite tame. People bring him food, so he’s very used to people and knows that its often worth his while to hang around. I should say – I don’t actually know that Robbie is a boy; male and female robins look very similar!
So one day, me and my Mum decided to take some seeds for Robbie. We whistled next to his usual tree (sounds a bit silly but it works!) and Robbie appeared. I held out my hand with my palm open, full of seeds, and waited. Robbie kept glancing and edging slightly nearer. My arm started to ache; I was beginning to wonder if this was going to work. Then all of a sudden, Robbie flew into my hand! It was the quickest of moments, he just picked up a seed and flew back to the safety of his branch; but the feeling of his little feet on my palm, his small weight, and the elation of the moment is one I will never forget.
A very grey day
As is normal for winter, quite a few of the days were cold and/or grey. One particular walk by the river was very grey and drizzly – almost foggy. It was the kind of rain the slowly makes you soaking wet without you realising it, until you’re too wet to do anything about it!
I glanced over to the other side of the river, and there on the bank was a grey heron. It was huddled up on the bank, shielding itself from the rain, resting. In terms of heron watching I’ve had more exciting views – they’re great fun to watch while they’re hunting and flying. However, there was something very peaceful about just watching it be; putting up with the grey day and waiting for better, just as we were.
Grebes – little and great!
There are certain species that I commonly see on this stretch of river: Mute Swans; Canada Geese; Black Headed Gulls; and Mallards. I am however always open minded to the fact that something else might pop up! And its a good thing too, because on two separate occasions I spotted Great Crested Grebes, and Little Grebes!
As it was winter, both were in their winter plumage (the feathers in winter). They were still wonderful to watch, and it was exciting simply because I don’t normally see them there. As I was taking a video of the Little Grebes, a woman walked past and loudly said to her partner “I don’t know what exactly she’s trying to take a photo of” as if I was being silly, because all she could see was the river. It’s such a shame, because had she just asked me, I would very happily have shown her!
My first top tip for wildlife watching: keep both your eyes, and mind, open!
Summer of 2020 was, like the rest of the year, unusual. However – at the time, restrictions were starting to ease and looking back on it, it was a time when I had the most freedom since the Covid pandemic hit. Able to travel further and see family and friends, this was a comparatively happier time. Unsurprisingly, it also resulted in some of my favourite wildlife encounters of the year.
As soon as we were allowed to travel, I headed up to see some friends in Aberdeen. We enjoyed some lovely coastal walks, and spent a morning at Torry Battery – one of the best places in the UK to spot dolphins. It’s normally quite cold and windy there, so you have to layer up and be prepared to stick it out. But this day was beautifully sunny and not too cold. More to the point, almost as soon as we arrived, the dolphins appeared. A huge group of more than twenty, stayed for around an hour. We watched happily as they jumped out of the water with infectious joy.
I know better than to try and take photos when this is going on – I’m not a good enough photographer and I don’t have the right kit. The best thing to do is to not worry about photos, and just enjoy the moment. I watched through my binoculars, and felt so happy. Even in this rubbish year, I had seen dolphins. The World was not so bad.
In August, my family came up to visit me. We spent a week going to local attractions and wild places around Scotland – it was the month where Scotland had the fewest restrictions and looking back on it I’m so glad we had this time. My family come from the midlands in England – so any trip to the seaside is a treat! We spent the last day of the holiday in North Berwick, and went on a boat trip run by the fantastic Scottish Seabird Centre.
The boat took us around Bass Rock, an island which is home to the World’s largest colony of gannets. I always love watching these impressive seabirds, especially watching them dive down into the water for fish. But I have never been this close to them! The first thing you realise as you get close, is that the rock is not white – it’s just absolutely covered in gannets. Then the smell hits you (the smell, you know, the smell of seabird poo – called guano). After that it’s the noise – thousands of gannets calling to each other, with nothing else around. With all of that going on, it’s hard to know where to look. Every gannet is doing something – flying, preening, diving, displaying, fighting, feeding a chick; you can give yourself neck ache trying to see it all.
It was a very memorable wildlife experience for me, and for the price of the trip it’s an absolute bargain – if you get chance to book a boat trip next summer, do it. I’ll definitely be going again!
Regular readers of this diary will know I love ducks, and therefore I love ducklings even more! Not just ducks actually, swans and cygnets are lovely too. Who can deny it? I got through the spring and summer by taking regular walks, often to areas with a river or pond. These are prime duckling and cygnet months, and I saw the young of many species, including: mute swan; mallard; goosander; and eider. Just being near water can calm you down. Being near water, and seeing little bundles of fluff, is enough to cheer anybody up!
It was on one of these routine walks along a nearby river, that I had one of the best surprise wildlife encounters of my life – I saw an otter. I was just returning from a stretch where I photograph the ducks and swans, and looked across at the river by habit – it’s a spot where I always look. As I turned my head, I saw something brown disappear into the water. My brain was working faster than I could consciously think – and I instinctively knew it was something interesting, before I could work out what! I quickly whittled it down – there are not many large, brown animals that you can see in UK rivers. “Oh my goodness it’s an otter” I thought, and scrambled for my camera.
At that point, the otter popped back up, and looked straight at me. It didn’t seem bothered by me at all. I was still careful not to disturb it, and just calmly watched, and started filming. It was such a sunny day and the otter was foraging for fish. I was so close to this otter – I could not believe my luck. I had already seen otter cubs on the canal in the city back in February, and I felt this was absolutely a bonus to be seeing one again a few months later!
As I watched, people naturally started to wonder what I was looking at. I helped another person to see the otter, and we watched as it caught and ate a fish. Just as the otter was munching away, my camera died! That’s what happens when you spend hours taking photos of swans and ducks, only to have a surprise otter at the end of the walk!
I did manage to get one photo before the camera died – it’s a little fuzzy but I love it. The otter is looking straight at me, and it’s a memory of a moment that I shall remember forever. A surprise otter in the sunshine, it doesn’t really get better than that!
Like everybody around the World, I have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic in the past few months. For around 10 weeks Scotland (the country where I live) has been in lockdown. This has meant we could only go out for food, medicines, to care for someone, and for exercise at a place we could walk or cycle to. Yesterday, the 29 May, Scotland lifted some of the lockdown restrictions – which meant I could take a short drive (within 5 miles of home) and walk somewhere new. This entry will look at how I coped through those 10 weeks, how wildlife helped me, and what it felt like to be able to go somewhere new yesterday.
As the disease spread through Scotland, I became unwell. At this point, we had not gone into lockdown, but the advice was to self isolate if you had Coronavirus symptoms. So, I spent about 17 days (because that’s how long it took me to feel completely well) self isolating. I do not know if I had Covid 19 or not as there was no testing – but I don’t normally get ill, and I would suspect it was, given that it was at the height of the high transmission rate in Scotland and I had the mild symptoms associated with the disease.
During those 17 days, the World turned upside down. The UK went into lockdown, making it a reality that I wouldn’t see my English family and friends for a long time. Our office closed and everyone who could, was asked to work from home. In the next few weeks many people would be furloughed. Our roles changed. For me – my life had gone from being busy, happy, full of people, purpose, adventures, and laughter with family and friends to sitting on my own all day every day in a flat.
Regular readers of the diary will know I do a lot of wildlife watching, and make regular trips to favourite places. Sadly, I couldn’t do that during lockdown. I live in the middle of a city – so the only thing for it was to find some parks. I used google maps, and took tips from friends. I found a local park which I could walk to in 20 minutes. Initially, when we had an hour long restriction on exercise, this was still a bit far…so I tried to walk quickly! I also re-discovered a site which overlooks the Firth of Forth – this was a lifeline because I could see the sea! (Well, a big part of the river Forth as it nears the sea). Finally, I found a cycle path – this was quite funny because it is literally behind the main road; I just didn’t know it was there before!
In addition to these three green places, I tried to focus on birdwatching from my window. I have had a lot of fun watching the Lesser black backed gulls and given them little characters. They seemed to be loving the new quiet roads, and were strutting around like they owned the place! I also took solace from watching the beautiful colours of sunset (and the sunrise – once). I can’t see it fully from my windows, but I can see the colours. I watched the stars and the moon, and the patterns of the clouds in the sky. I listened to the sound of the wind and of course of birdsong – which again was mostly gulls!
On my walks I became even more mindful than I ordinarily am. I loved the colours, and the sounds – the birdsong was incredible. I was going to the same places day after day, so I literally watched spring happen. How often do we get the chance to do that in our busy lives? I saw the wild garlic, the crows gathering material to make nests, the blossom come and then go, the bluebells emerge, the flowers of trees begin to bloom, and eventually the chicks begin to appear – I saw it all when I possibly wouldn’t normally notice.
As time went on I was finding the mental and emotional challenge of the whole crisis very difficult. I was getting bored and lonely – I was missing the freedom of choosing a place to go, and going. I realised there was a park behind one of the local supermarkets. So I switched to doing my shopping there. After I had done a shop (or before) I would go around the small park near the shop. Crucially, this park has a pond – so I was able to see all the waterbirds I love so much. I saw swans, ducks, gulls, coots, a heron and even ducklings! Just seeing water is therapeutic in itself.
At this point, England started to lift some lockdown restrictions but Scotland remained in lockdown. This created a bizarre mix of feelings – I was jealous, sad, disappointed, confused, worried (because I think it was too soon to do this in England), and frustrated. It also heightened my feelings of boredom and loneliness. I couldn’t change the situation; but I could change how I was approaching it. I continued to focus on nature, and on me. I tried to read more, watch some films, do some drawing, phone people more and I’ll admit, I’ve done a lot of online shopping! I also tried to remember that this is not permanent – that all the things I miss seeing and doing, I will see and do again. That, is key.
A week ago, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced how Scotland would start to come out of lockdown. As long as things continued to improve, the first restrictions would be eased on 29 May. I immediately knew what I was going to do, and it was great to be able to look forward to doing it!
When the day came, I took some time off work. I drove my car for 15 mins, a distance of about 4 miles, near to where my office is. Firstly – it was nice to be in the car long enough to listen to the radio! It was such a sunny day, and I had a sense of summer freedom that I used to get when going on holiday. I parked and took a walk along a river that I used to go to regularly. I can only describe the feelings I felt as elation and joy. To see that the World was still there, that people were still happy, that wildlife was still there, that the sun was still shining – I could feel the anxiety of the past 10 weeks easing. To top it all off I saw more different types of ducklings and cygnets in one short walk than I’ve seen in a few years!
The past 10 weeks has been one of the most difficult times of my life – aside from the things I’ve described, I’ve had personal events which have been made worse by the necessary restrictions of the crisis. Nature, friends, and family have got me through it and I will be forever grateful to them all and mindful not to return to old habits when we go back to some kind of normal.
Here are a selection of photos from my time in lockdown:
Autumn and Winter are my favourite seasons. I love the colours, the sunsets, the feeling of the cold air on my face, the crunching of the ground beneath my feet, and the sights and sounds of visiting wildfowl. It’s also a time when I get to see more of my family and friends. So while I have a lot that could go into this diary entry – here are some of my highlights!
In late October 2019 I went along on a foraging trip to Lunan Bay with friends from work. Even though I have worked in Aberdeen before, and often been to Montrose, I’d never before visited this beautiful part of the East coast. Even on a rather chilly day, the beach was dramatically beautiful, with areas of rocky shore and a picturesque walk along the river beneath a castle ruin.
I must admit I arrived a bit late and had missed the morning’s seaweed foraging, but a friend kindly took me round again and told me a bit about each seaweed and what it’s useful for. Had I written this entry sooner I could have relayed this to you, but sadly I will now need to look it up again! It was very interesting, and I was looking forward to trying some later in the day.
As we walked along the beach we did come across a sad sight – a dead juvenile gannet. Gannets are large seabirds which can dive at around 60mph for their fish. Unfortunately, this young bird may have got confused and dived into shallow water. I don’t know that’s what caused its death, but it’s my assumption.
Back at the hostel where we were staying, everyone laid out the items they had found and labelled them. It was great to see how many species there were along one patch of the coast! Some people had also foraged for mushrooms, so these went out on display too. My favourite was the Hedgehog mushroom – purely because I love hedgehogs!
In the evening we had what can only be described as a foragers’ feast! People had brought in things they had made at home from foraged items, and we tried some of the stuff people had found on the beach. It was all delicious and an incredibly fun way to learn new things!
If you would like to have a go at foraging I would highly recommend it – but please, be careful and go with someone who is knowledgeable and experienced. Our work friends who organised this trip know what they’re doing – and I wouldn’t have eaten anything unless they advised it!
I often go back to my local sites, particularly for birdwatching, but sometimes I just want to explore somewhere new! I got a bit stuck for inspiration, so used a new app on my phone called Where to Watch Birds in Scotland, created by the Scottish Ornithologist’s Club. It is incredibly useful – with maps, species lists, and directions for how to get to each site. By using it I selected Blackness Castle as a place to visit.
It was a freezing cold November day, so I wore layers and packed my hat to keep warm. When I got there I was lucky as there was one car park space left, so I squeezed my car in, put my boots on and headed along to the castle.
The castle itself is owned by Historic Environment Scotland and there’s a small entry fee to go and have a look around. I didn’t have time on that day (I had birdwatching to do!) but I will definitely go back another time. I followed the path shown on the app, walking round the back of the castle and ending up at the shore which looks out over the Firth of Forth.
It was an amazing view – the water was really still that day and I could see the bridges clearly. I tried to take a few photos, but I’ve yet to get a photo of the bridges that captures how impressive they look with the eye! Anyway, bridges aside, I was here for the birds and the noise of one particular species snatched my attention straight away: wigeon!
I like swans and ducks, and my favourite duck is the wigeon. I love the male’s toffee coloured head stripe, the dainty blue bills and most of all I love their whistles! Once you hear a whistling wigeon, you’ll have that sound identified for life. I watched the wigeon moving around and interacting with each other and as I did so enjoyed watching the other birds that were resting on the rocks along the coast.
I was just about to say I can’t remember what I saw – but I appear to have made a list in my phone! So, here is what I saw at Blackness Castle:
Great crested grebe
Knot (I think)
Black headed gull
I was having a great time, but sadly I was getting very cold! I searched in my bag for my gloves and realised I had made a very silly rookie birdwatching error – I’d forgotten them. I couldn’t hold the binoculars anymore because my hands were so cold! So I decided to say goodbye to the wigeon and head back to the car.
If you would like to give the “Where to Find Birds in Scotland” app a try, you can find more information about it here.
In late November I headed up to the Moray Coast for the annual Christmas Social, held by the Shorewatch team from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, for whom I’m a volunteer. While I was there I stayed with a good friend of mine and we decided to have a go at some birding – we were going to try and find some waxwings!
Waxwings are occasional winter visitors to the UK, migrating from colder countries, like those of Scandinavia and Russia. I first saw them in 2013 in Reading and I had not seen them since. I knew they had been seen in Moray, so I was hoping we would be able to find some during my visit.
My friend knew exactly where to look, and with this bird the trick is to go where the berries are! In this case, that was two housing estates in towns in Moray. We headed to the first of these, but could not see any waxwings anywhere. So off we went to the next town and we parked in the middle of a quiet residential area.
We waited and waited and waited. Then we could see a little flock of birds that my friend thought were waxwings, but they wouldn’t stay still! So we drove around the different streets. We waited some more. We followed some more and then eventually we found the tree they were resting in (we had actually been right in front of it earlier on, but it was behind us so we couldn’t see!).
I watched the birds happily through my binoculars, taking in their colourful feathers and listening to their distinctive sound. I even managed to get a few photos (although they aren’t great, you can at least tell they are waxwings!).
Now, sometimes, when you have binoculars and big cameras and you’re parked in a quiet residential area, people get a bit suspicious. We did have one concerned member of the public approach us, and we simply explained that we were looking at the birds in the tree (and we pointed to the tree). I’m not sure if he believed us…but there’s not much more we could say! It’s something to be aware of when you’re birding, but at the same time if you’re not disturbing anyone or getting in the way, then if you can cope with the slight embarrassment of attracting attention then it’s worth sticking it out!
I definitely felt that way on this occasion – we had pulled off a bit of what I call ninja birding, and I was delighted to have seen these birds again after 6 years!
Visiting Nature Reserves
I like to visit nature reserves all year, but on my holidays I like to go with my family. On these occasions I like to pick ones that everyone can easily enjoy – it helps if they have a visitor centre, cafe, toilets, and paths for example. So, over Christmas, we headed to The Wolseley Centre (Staffordshire Wildlife Trust) and Attenborough Nature Reserve (Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust).
The Wolseley Centre is always a treat. There are a few very simple walks, with garden, wooded, and river habitats to enjoy. I always like walking over the boardwalks and seeing the swans and ducks! We also saw lots of chirpy robins – perfect for the festive season. You can buy safe bird food from the centre and feed the birds, which is a really nice idea. We had a lovely short walk, as we had my Grandma with us, and then we headed for a yummy lunch at the cafe.
Attenborough Nature Reserve is a place I hadn’t been to before, but it’s only about 40 minutes from where my family live, so it was easy to get to by car. I was really looking forward to going – I always like exploring a new place!
We firstly headed through the visitor centre to one of the hides which looked out over the water. I couldn’t believe how many different species of ducks and other waterbirds I was seeing! We were having fun watching and counting the different species, when some other birders came into the hide. My Dad has developed the nifty skill of asking other people if they’ve seen anything interesting – I sometimes joke with him that it’s cheating, but actually it’s a very useful way to make the most out of your birding trips and people are usually friendly enough to have a chat and let you know of any sightings. Surely enough, they had seen a Slavonian grebe, and they had seen it just in front of the centre. So, we quickly thanked them and said goodbye and then hurried along to the front of the visitor centre!
Slavonian grebes do breed in the UK, in parts of Scotland, but there aren’t many of them and they are a fairly rare sight. In winter, they can be seen around the UK, usually along the coasts – so it’s quite unusual to see one on a reserve in the midlands!
Without even trying at all, I saw the bird. I didn’t even spot it – I was alerted to it by my sister’s calm statement of “there it is” and followed the direction she was pointing in. It all felt like a very easy sighting, but I wasn’t complaining. I got the binos out and had a look – it was beautiful. The winter plumage is a lot less colourful than the summer plumage, but you could still see its winter colours and shape, and its bright red eye! It was also quite fun watching it dive and trying to guess where it would pop up next – just like other grebe species.
We continued our day with a walk around one of the trails and a nice lunch in the cafe. Before we left, we headed out to the fields to see if we could spot another bird that people had been talking about – the Cattle egret. I have seen both Little and Great white egrets in the UK before, but never a Cattle egret. They are starting to visit the UK over the winter in increasing numbers and now was my chance to see one!
As we approached the field we could see a cluster of birdwatchers. We stopped near them and pointed our binoculars in the same direction as theirs (again, it feels like cheating but it increases your chances of success!). One of the birdwatchers with a scope kindly asked us if we had seen them, and if we would like to look through her scope. I obviously said “yes please!” and had a look – there they were, two cattle egrets, picking about in the mud for worms. They look quite like little egrets, but they are smaller and have a yellow beak and yellow legs. There was no mistaking them and I felt the thrill of seeing a new bird for the second time in one day!
Going to nature reserves like this is a fun and accessible way to have a go at wildlife watching. There are always people to ask about sightings, whether it’s the staff and volunteers or other friendly birdwatchers. Reserves with centres usually have toilets and are easy to get to, and there’s often somewhere to warm up and get a bite to eat or a drink. So if you’re looking for a simple wildlife watching day, a way to start your hobby, or a place to take the family for a day out they’re a great place to go. Check the Wildlife Trusts’ website for a reserve near you.
Now, I’ve given you a bit of a clue about this bit in the title. In January lots of otter sightings were being made along the Union Canal in Edinburgh. This canal comes right into the heart of the city centre, so it was incredibly exciting to know that there are otters there, both from the point of view of being able to see them and also the fact that they’re able to make their home in our urban environment!
I had to go and see them, so I set off with a friend along the Union Canal to give it a go. I knew that there was a family with three cubs and I knew where abouts they had been seen, from sightings that had been posted previously on social media. As we were walking along we kept an eye on the water, but also along the towpath and the plants on the other side of the canal.
As we were approaching the known sighting area, we could see some people trying to take photos of something on their phones. They were in the bushes along the side of the towpath, so I thought they must be looking at the birds and said we should carry on. Almost as soon as I said this, my friend said “No look! There it is!” and a little baby otter scurried across the towpath and plopped into the water!
The young otter was calling out for its mum, making a repetitive squeeking sound which, had I not seen the otter, I might have mistaken for a bird. I managed to take a photo of it, and a short video, while it travelled back along the canal to the bank on the opposite side. I presume it found its family and/or its holt, as it did not come back out.
I was absolutely thrilled. I have seen adult otters in the wild twice before, but it’s still a rare sighting for me and I’ve never seen a cub before! It was simply adorable and a sighting that I will always remember.
I’m very conscious of not wanting to disturb wildlife, and I would never advise following an animal into a place it has retreated (such as the bushes) for example, in pursuit of a photo or a sighting. However, these otters have taken up residence in a busy urban canal and are used to people walking past. Therefore, walking along the towpath (as we did) and quietly watching the otters is unlikely to cause disturbance.
Otters used to be a rare sight in UK waterways, after population declines caused mainly by polluted water. As our rivers and canals have become cleaner, they have begun to provide the habitat that the otters need and they are returning to sites, even in very urban environments. It is a positive turn of events, and one that will hopefully continue.