A Wild Summer Summary

My last diary entry was back in July, and I was filled with silly optimism that I would post an individual entry about all the exciting places I had visited and wildlife I’d seen. Sadly, I have been busy busy busy and so this did not happen. To make sure it doesn’t get missed completely, I thought I would wrap it up in one entry – it’s time for a summer summary!

30 Days Wild

Eider duckling © Catherine Leatherland

After Orca Watch, my next wild adventure came in the form of the annual challenge set by The Wildlife Trusts- 30 Days Wild. As I currently live in Scotland, I signed up with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and got lots of tips and hints about what to do. This is the second year I have completed the challenge, the aim of which is to complete one random act of wildness for each day in June. I must confess, this year I had a couple of days where I didn’t complete an activity. But by committing to the challenge I was once again more mindful of my usual interactions with nature and ended up having more encounters than I otherwise would have done. This year some highlights were: exploring new wild places at lunch time; meeting some ducklings; spotting a wood mouse; finding an art trail in the sun; making some plastic switches and having a go at a lunchtime litter pick at work. I also like the community feel – the fact that everyone else is having a go at the challenge the same time as you. You can great ideas just by following #30DaysWild on social media. 

Isle of Eigg

Northern Eggar caterpillar © Catherine Leatherland

I am very lucky, in that my work takes me all over Scotland – so I get to have wild adventures during my working week as well as my time off! Once again, our team headed to the Isle of Eigg to help with their Hen Harrier Day (which is earlier than the national day, because the Hen Harriers nest earlier on Eigg). We watched a beautiful sunset, chuckled at the rabbits and sheep that would be in our garden at breakfast, enjoyed sharing amazing facts about Hen Harriers, saw the caterpillar of a northern eggar moth, and experienced a fantastic guided walk with the Scottish Wildlife Trust Ranger – Norah. You know you’re in a beautiful place, when it still looks amazing in the rain!

Isle of May

Puffins © Catherine Leatherland

From the west coast of Scotland to the East, a week or so later I was off on a day trip with friends to the Isle of May, a little island in the Firth of Forth. I was very excited about this day because I know the island is an important site for nesting seabirds, and I love seabirds – especially puffins! We enjoyed the boat ride over to the island, the sun was shining and the gannets were flying above our heads. As we approached the island we could see pufflings (young puffins) swimming in the water, and could hear the sound of the seabirds from the cliffs. 

Before we got off the boat, the crew advised us that we needed to be mindful as we walked along the path. This is because of all the nesting terns, which at the time had very adorable chicks to protect. And I have to hand it to the adult terns, they take their role as defenders very seriously! I put my cap on, and my hood, and walked calmly up the path. I could hear (and feel) how close the adult terns were getting as they warned us to move away. Later, on the way back to the boat, I had one particularly determined bird dive at my head about five times – I have to say I sped up a little bit to get back to the boat!

Young (left) and adult (right) arctic tern © Catherine Leatherland

As we walked around the island I was simply overwhelmed with the sight of puffins. Puffins here, puffins there, puffins everywhere! It was amazing! I took so many photos that I hardly know what to do with them all. Many of the puffins had been off catching fish and were standing calmly with their beaks full.

Puffin with fish © Catherine Leatherland

There were, of course, many other lovely seabirds and their adorable chicks. Those that caught our eye in particular were the chicks of the great black backed gulls – because they are quite large and fierce looking, but also cute and fluffy. They look a bit like grumpy balls of fluff which are constantly asking to be fed. 

Great black backed gull chick © Catherine Leatherland

I will definitely be going back to the Isle of May and can recommend it to any seabird fans. 

Chanonry Point

Bottlenose dolphin © Catherine Leatherland

In August, my sister came to visit me for a holiday so we spent the week out and about and having fun. I booked us into a B&B in Fortrose, near Inverness, so that we could try and spot the dolphins at Chanonry Point. I have seen dolphins in Scotland a lot, but my sister (who loves dolphins even more than me) has never managed to see them on any of her visits. So this was going to be the trip!

We headed along to Chanonry as soon as we had got to Fortrose, and we spent a few hours watching. We scanned the sea constantly, with eyes and binos, but there was no joy. So we shrugged it off to fate, decided we had had a nice day anyway, and headed back to the B&B. However, as I’ve mentioned before in these entries I tend to feel disappointment very deeply! So we hatched a plan to change the next day’s plan completely, and go back to Chanonry and try again. 

This time, we parked in Rosemarkie and walked along the beach. It was a lovely walk but about halfway along we could see a crowd gathered, and could see their camera flashes. “They’re watching dolphins!” I said “let’s go!” and quickened my pace along the beach. It took longer than we thought it would to reach the point (optical illusion of a curved beach!) but when we got there we were so relieved to see the dolphins hadn’t moved away. 

We had the best sighting of dolphinsn I’ve ever had, let alone my sister who was witnessing Scottish dolphins for the first time! They come so close in at Chanonry, that we could see their colouration, their eyes, their blow holes and almost (if you add a bit of poetic license) their expressions. We couldn’t help gasping and cheering with the rest of the crowd as the dolphins leapt out of the water, tail slapped, spy hopped, and chased fish. At one point three leapt out of the water together, it was like watching dolphin gymnastics!

I tried to take photos and videos on my camera at first, but soon realised I was not likely to get a good shot, and so decided to simply enjoy the moment instead. I did however take one photo (above) on my mobile phone and I love it – it shows a happy dolphin, wild and free.

I can’t describe how this encounter made us both feel – we were absolutely buzzing. We just jabbered excitedly for a good chunk of the journey back to Edinburgh and were riding on the feeling of happiness for a few weeks afterwards. It was, quite simply, pure joy.

Bird Fair

Bird fair © Catherine Leatherland

Around this time I realised that a work commitment had moved, meaning that I could go to the annual event that is Bird Fair – a massive gathering of all things bird related, and many things to do with wildlife, along with their respective enthusiasts at Rutland Water Nature Reserve. 

I looked the programme up online and planned which talks to go to, and which stands to try and visit. We made a journey plan and then on the Saturday, my Dad and I headed to the reserve. After squelching through the muddy field in our wellies and walking boots we were both very mud splattered – but that just helps you fit in at these events! We got to the events tent just in time to see Iolo Williams’ inspiring and entertaining talk. Then we got some seats ready for Chris Packham’s session, which included a debate about driven grouse shooting. It was good to see that both sides of the argument were getting a fair chance to speak, although I will pin my colours to the mast and say I am against driven grouse shooting and have signed the petition proposing a total ban. 

At the end of this session, a group of young people who have been taking part in the School Strikes for Climate came onto the stage. They each gave a short talk about what they had been doing, why it mattered to them, and why it needs to matter to all of us. Some of them had some great ideas for the next steps and how governments and individuals need to act in order to tackle the climate crisis. Their words filled the tent with inspiration and at the end of their speeches they received a very well earned standing ovation. If they can do it, so can (and should) we!

Also at bird fair – we had a yummy plastic free lunch (all the food providers are plastic free); saw a brilliant demonstration of bird ringing from the BTO; spent so much money at the book stand I got a free cupcake (which was yummy by the way) and enjoyed a great talk in one of the smaller lecture theatres all about seabirds in Shetland. All for the entry ticket price of £15 (cheaper if you book online). Absolute bargain. Dates have already been announced for next year: you can experience this wonderful event for yourself between 21st and 23rd August 2020 – pop it in the diary!

While the adventures continue, the summer is for most of us over for another year. It has been my busiest, and wildest summer yet – going to be a tough one to beat (but a challenge I readily accept) next year!

Orca Watch 2019

After what has been an incredibly busy few months for me, I finally have some time to write up my adventures. So let’s start with a very good one – Orca Watch 2019. Some of you might remember that last year I attended this event for the first time and saw my very first orcas (yay!). This is an annual event that takes place in Caithness, and is organised by the Sea Watch Foundation and WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation). This year promised to be bigger and better than ever before, with watches and events simultaneously taking place in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. So, having had such a good time last year, and with such promises of more fun on the horizon, how was I to resist? I booked a holiday cottage, counted down to the end of May, packed my bags and then with two good friends (and lots of Percy Pigs) I headed to John O’Groats. 

Now, Orca Week is an organised week – however, you have to be prepared for a lot of waiting. There is not a schedule of big family events, nor are there many facilities, ice cream vans etc – it’s not that type of week! Patience, persistance, communication and a healthy dose of luck is the combination needed for success. With that in mind, we went to the first night of talks, and we spent a lot of time at the headland – Duncansby Head. We also bought the wristbands (the money raised from which goes towards WDC and SeaWatch) which meant we could get the ferry at a very good discounted price, and get yummy discounted food from the Cabin. We checked the Facebook group regularly and we met up with our friends and chatted to new people. All of this helps to make the most out of the experience and to have fun, as well as increase your chance of getting a sighting.

Duncansby Stacks

There is a daily cycle of hope, watching, hope, watching, doubt, watching, disappointment, and hope again. If someone sees a sighting which you miss, dare I say it, there’s a bit of good natured jealousy too! It can’t be helped, it’ll be your turn next time, just keep going. 

As it happened, this year I saw my first orcas very quickly. On my second day there, I went with some other friends to Orkney on the ferry, where we got off to have a walk, a watch, and some lunch. My two good friends who I was staying with decided to stay in John O’Groats and explore the coast. The group I was with were watching off the South of Orkney when information came through (I think by a phone call, though it might have been whatsapp) that Orca had been seen around the other side, near where the ferry stops, a place called Burwick. Well as you can imagine, that’s high alert for orca watchers – action stations. We lined the coast and waited, hoping that the orca would come our way.

It was very foggy so we weren’t sure how lucky we would be. Some of the group had spread out, so we weren’t all together, but we were all watching the same bit of sea and scanning furiously for a glimpse of a fin. Then, out of the mist came a booming shout of “ORCA” from one of the group – he had seen the orca. We couldn’t really hear anything else, nor could we see him, so the rest of us just kept scanning and asking eachother excitedly what was going on. Then, sure enough they appeared. Dark, tall fins out of the misty sea – like something from television (but this was real life – I was actually here).

Orca move very quickly, and I often find it hard to find them and keep sight of them through my binoculars. But thanks to the help of the others, I saw three individuals (I think there were a few more than this in the pod) as they swam along the coastline. I almost can’t describe to you the feeling – except that it took my breath away and left me speechless. Our group spent the rest of the day in what can only be described as merriment, especially when we caught up with the watchers who had first seen the orca and given us the tip off. It was a very happy day. 

However, it was not such a happy day for my two good friends who had missed it (remember what I was saying about luck). So, I was on a total mission to see orca again this holiday, and for my friends to see them. Sadly we did miss them again – there was an incredible sighting from the morning John O’Groats ferry on the Tuesday of that week. Lucky early birds certainly caught the worm that day, with amazing photos appearing on Facebook as we were just waking and eating our porridge! “Oh darn it” I said and then gave my friends the good/bad news. Still, there was still time. 

Orca seen from the ferry © Steve Truluck

We spent the week watching and waiting, watching and waiting, laughing and joking, watching and waiting. It also started to get quite wet – so we  spent the week in our waterproofs. That didn’t stop us though. We did our orca dance in the rain at our favourite watching spot, and had a look around the nearby town of Thurso (in the rain) when it really was hopeless watching weather. We even kept catching the ferry, even on the Thursday afternoon, when the waves were so high that they splashed over the side of the boat! Why? Because you need persistance (and it is also a bit addictive  – like a lottery, so be careful of that; make sure to save up your pocket money!).

A rocky ferry ride!

Finally on the Friday night, it looked like it was not to be. We got off the last ferry with my friends not having seen orca. We decided to forget about it, say “we tried our best” and go and have our meal which we had always planned and booked in. We enjoyed an amazing meal at the wonderful Stacks Coffee House & Bistro and joked about how orca watch was great except for there being no orca. During the meal, I went outside for a little bit of a break, and noticed that there was something different about the sea and the light. In that moment I wanted to go to Duncansby Head. So I went back in, we finished our meal, and we headed up there. If nothing else, it meant we could say goodbye to our friends, as we would be heading off first thing the next morning. 

The moment I wanted to go to Duncansby Head

We got to Duncansby Head and it was a little bit bizarre. There were discarded drinks and plates, jackets and hats. No-one was sitting inside their cars or vans. I joked that I was going to go and watch from our favourite spot, and my friends got out of the car at that point and insisted that I shouldn’t do that (they were right, it was getting dark and it would have been unsafe). As I turned back towards them, I could see lots of people arriving in cars and running off the other way across Duncansby Head. Something was going on. “Guys, I think we need to go that way” I said, and so we went. 

Once we were over the hill, we could see loads of people lined up along the fence line all looking one way. That can only mean one thing at Orca Watch: Orca. I rang my friend Steve, who helps to organise the week as I knew he would be down there. Steve answered and I said: “Steve, are you watching orca?”. I can’t actually remember exactly what Steve said, but it will have been some sort of excited way to say “yes!!”. Now, I don’t run, not even for a bus, or an ice cream van – but I ran when I knew Steve was seeing orca! We all ran – with full bellies, full rucksacks, full layers, and bobble hats, we ran across that headland because we were not going to miss these orca!

And we didn’t miss them! They had first been spotted very far out, by someone with a powerful scope. Because there are so many skilled watchers at this event, and everyone communicates, it really helps make sure as many people catch the sighting as possible. These people then helped everyone to spot the orca as they got closer. At one point, Steve stopped watching, and walked down the entire fence line to make sure everyone could see. That is a unique kind of atmosphere – being part of a group of people, helping each other to experience an amazing moment together. 

We watched in awe as a large group of orca – I think at least 9, made their way around Duncansby Head. Once they had gone past us everyone ran back up the hill (towards the car park) so that we could try and see the orca again as they headed around the top of the headland. When you all do a run like this, it is known affectionately as the orca sprint. As I said, I’m not used to running, so I did have to take a little pause during my orca sprint, but I got there in the end!

We all gathered to watch the orca as they passed us again, heading off North across the sea towards Orkney. At this point, the sun had gone down and we struggled to see them in the fading light. After having watched them for just over an hour, the crowd celebrated and shared their joy. We cheered and hugged, and smiled big beaming smiles. “This was the best week ever!” said my friend Sally – the waiting, waterproofs and the rain had all been worth it for that moment, that shared experience, that sight, and that feeling.

orca watch last night (C) Sally Tapp
Having just seen orca © Sally Tapp

I have now had two amazing holidays during my time spent at Orca Watch. Both years I have had the privilege to see these beautiful, masters of the sea at home in their natural environment – I’m an observer in their world, and witnessing a moment in their life. While it takes a lot of patience, persistance, and luck for it to happen – it is unequivocally worth it for that experience. 

Orca from the ferry © Steve Truluck

If you would like to attend Orca Watch, keep an eye out on the Sea Watch Foundation’s website and social media towards the end of the year, which is when they tend to announce the dates. Other good social media sites to follow for sightings in the North and East of Scotland are: Orca Watch; John O’Groats ferries; Orca Survey Scotland; Shetland Wildlife; Caithness and Moray Cetacean Sightings.

Give it a go – but be warned: you may become an Orcaholic!

The Climb

A few weekends ago I was getting cabin fever; for various reasons I hadn’t managed to get out and about, so I determined that I would go out on the Sunday and it was going to be fun! I went to one of my regular places – Loch Leven.

The route along Loch Leven is managed by different organisations, and part of it includes an RSPB reserve. The reserve has a number of trails, which due to the nature of the site are mostly uphill. I had tried the woodland trail before, but not quite managed to reach the top – I was just too tired! I decided today was the day for a challenge  – I was going to complete that trail and get to the top of the hill, no matter what.

I set off on my walk at my usual pace. This was a mistake, and one I often make when it comes to hills. I can walk for hours and hours at this pace on flat ground, but as soon as there’s an incline I find walks much more difficult (I’m sure I’m not alone!). The path to the top was very steep and I told myself to slow down, or I’d never make it. It was not busy, no one was going to get held up if I kept stopping in the middle of the path. So that’s what I did – I kept stopping. In some parts of the path, which are essentially sections of steep steps, I would take a couple of steps and stop for 5 minutes, before going on to the next few steps and so on.

Aside from giving me chance to recover, these rest breaks allowed me to see more of the World around me. As I was on my way through the woods I heard a robin singing. I managed to trace the sound to the little bird itself, and watched him/her as it sang away. I heard the cawing of crows which were (because it was a hill) level with my eyeline as they flew from the branches of the trees. I watched smaller birds, like blue tits, flit between the trees and I gazed outward at the ever expanding view. All of this helped me appreciate the beauty of the day, and motivated me to keep going!

As I neared the top, I reached the point where last time I had given up. It had always bothered me, as I am not someone who gives up on a mission. But this section tricks you into thinking you are nearly at the top – then when you reach that point, you see more steps! Last time, this got the better of me, but not today! I took a look around me, and a deep breath, and marched (slowly) on. As I took my little stops, I listened to the skylarks and watched them as they descended into the slope all around me. Then I could see it – the real top of the hill. I sped up, ploughing on up the last section of the path. I could see the ground level off, and a pile of stones to mark the top – I had made it.

The elation I felt at having reached the top of this hill, which had previously defeated me, is almost indescribable. For a few minutes I was the only person there, and as I looked around at the beautiful view of Loch Leven, with singing skylarks in the foreground and snow topped mountains in the back, all bathed in sunshine, there was an indescribable feeling of happiness which I could not manufacture or recreate, no matter how much I wanted to. I had almost not gone out that weekend. I had decided on this destination at the last moment – and here I was, feeling on top of the World.

I stayed at the top of the hill for about half an hour, before heading back down (going down a big hill is tougher than you think!). I then enjoyed the usual walk around the Loch, which I usually make – although this time there were quite a lot of midges.

A week or so later, I had the chance to climb another big hill –  Knockan Crag, near Ullapool on the west coast of Scotland. Usually I would have had no confidence at all in managing this, and might have given up half way up. But as I had recently climbed the hill at Loch Leven, I felt I could do it. It was in incredible walk, and I just had to be honest and say when I needed to stop and have rests. I asked the others to carry on and I would catch up. After lots of happy talking, walking, and resting, we all made it to the very top of Knockan Crag. As with Loch Leven, we were rewarded with the most spectacular of views. Once again I felt a buzz of happiness, that I can’t compare to any other feeling.

These two walks have helped me cross a mental barrier – I don’t have to avoid hills! I might need to prepare more, plan the route, think about time, make sure I take breaks, snacks and a drink – but I don’t need to avoid them. All I need to do is take my time, and I will get there. I also understand the reasoning behind it more; it’s not just about wanting to quickly get to the top, it’s about the whole walk and the feeling once you’ve got there – what matters, is the climb.


Birthday Birding 2019!

Recently, it was my birthday, and over the past few years one activity has become a bit of a tradition either on or around the day: birthday birding! This year, myself and two members of my family went to Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, which is one of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves.

When I go birding with my family, or friends who don’t necessarily do a lot of wildlife watching, I go to a big reserve that has a visitor centre and a cafe. This is so that everyone can take the day at their own pace, we have the facilities we need, and we can all warm up and grab some tasty treats! I had never been to Brandon Marsh before but after spending the day there I will definitely be going again! It is packed with wildlife, and there are a number of different trails to try. We also had a lovely lunch in the cafe (called Badger’s Tearoom) and we finished the day by having a good look around the gift shop (I bought a hedgehog keyring…because why wouldn’t you?!).

Robin © Catherine Leatherland

As it was winter, most of the trees had shed their leaves – on the down side you miss all the colour, but the positive is that the birds are much easier to spot! We used our ears to follow the sound of the birds into the trees and ended up seeing loads of robins and blue tits as a result. As we went around the trails of the reserve we saw many other birds, both from the trail and the hides, including:

  • Carrion crows
  • Buzzard
  • Canada geese
  • Mute swans 
  • Teal
  • Pochard
  • Tufted ducks
  • Mallard
  • Shelduck
  • Shoveller

As we all know by now: I love ducks – so I was particularly happy with how many were using the pools on this reserve!

At lunch time, we were lucky enough to get a table by the window, which looked out at the feeders. We enjoyed spotting all the birds that were tucking into their very own tasty lunch. All of a sudden there was a commotion and something hopped into view – a rabbit! I thought it looked huge, but that’s probably because I haven’t ever been so close to a wild rabbit before. I put my cup of tea down, grabbed my camera, and started taking photos. You can’t miss an opportunity to capture a moment like that! There was something comical about watching a rabbit hop around amongst a load of birds, and I wanted to remember it.

Rabbit © Catherine Leatherland

The feeders were of course worthy of watching on their own merit (rabbit or no rabbit). Here are the species we saw at the feeders, with no effort at all, while we munched on lunch:

  • Blue tit
  • Great tit
  • Long tailed tit
  • Reed bunting
  • Woodpigeon
  • Nuthatch

We all had a lovely time at Brandon Marsh, and after all the excitement we decided it was time to head home for a cup of tea – and, of course, some birthday cake!

Find out more about The Wildlife Trusts and the reserves that you could visit, by heading to the Wildlife Trusts website.