Thursday 9 March 2017

John Muir Award Diary - part two

Way back last June I wrote a blog post about the John Muir Award I was doing on my Scottish highlands trip in April. At the time I wrote it, I was intending to follow it up quite quickly, but unfortunately I got distracted. That post looked at who John Muir was and why he was important. This one will talk about what I actually did on my trip. I'll be trying to link it in with the John Muir award's conservation theme throughout.

Abernethy forest is one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. It feels ancient, mysterious and very, very alive. Red Squirrels dance around the base of twisting Scots Pines, White-faced Darters dart around bog pools and Golden-ringed Dragonflies race down forest rides. Ospreys soar overhead. It's a lot more open and light than the forest plantations I'm used to in Northumberland, with its twisting trees and heather and bilberry under canopy.

I've camped there twice now, the first time in a tent, the second in my hammock. It's one of those places that really shows you the advantages of hammock camping, as you don't have to worry about tree roots, spiky pine cones or uneven ground. My favourite spot is on the north bank of Loch Mallachie, which I've shared with a family of Goldeneye and some Common Sandpipers. Sandpipers make for noisy neighbours!

Wild camping is legal across most of Scotland, but it's very important that campers behave responsibly. Being in one of the few remaining fragments of the old Caledonian forest, I avoided having any open fires, just using my camping stove and even then placing it on top of a large boulder that became my combination chair and table. I also made sure I took any rubbish away with me, and buried any human waste well away from water sources.

The basic principle I always like to stick to is to leave the place looking like I'd never been there at all. That seems to cover all of the bases. With a tent, it's important to move it every few days to allow the ground beneath it to recover. That's probably less critical with a hammock, but I tend to move every day or so anyway. The beauty of wild camping is that it lets you move from place to place at a steady pace, though it's also nice to be able to leave most of your heavier equipment in one place while you go chasing dragonflies in the bog pools.

Abernethy is an important site for Capercaille. The RSPB do great Caper-watch events each spring, and they encourage people to come to these to try and see lekking Capercaille, rather than seeking them out themselves which can disturb them. Sleeping in the forest made it easier to get there for 5am, and a helpful Tawny Owl acted as my alarm clock, getting me up in plenty of time. I was eventually rewarded with an excellent view of a displaying male.

A lot of the Scottish specialities can be seen from hides, a great way of getting close to wildlife while minimizing disturbance. Speyside Wildlife run dusk trips to a fantastic hide near Aviemore, where I got incredibly close to my first ever Pine Martens and Badgers.

They do put food out to encourage the animals. I discussed this with the guide, and he explained that they are careful about the quantities they leave, doing everything they can to ensure the animals don't become dependent on them as a food source.

After the highlands, I went up to the Black Isle, where I stayed with a family friend for a few days. She put me in touch with a friend of hers, who runs Ecoventures, in Cromarty, and I arranged a boat trip with them into the Cromarty Firth, where I got to see dolphins, Long-tailed Ducks and nesting auks.

Ecoventures are part of the Dolphin Space Programme, an accreditation scheme that ensures that the dolphins aren't bothered or hassled by boat trip operators. They'll often come very close in to boats of their own accord, but shouldn't be followed as that can put them off feeding and end up being quite dangerous. Programmes like the DSP are a really good way to ensure that any guides and tour operators you use are putting the interests of the animals first.

The Scottish highlands are a truly special place, for watching wildlife and for getting back to nature. Taking a little care of what you do will help to ensure that they are still there to go back to, again and again.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.
 - John Muir. 

Friday 6 January 2017

Rewild a Child

My children are wild!

This is a good thing, a really good thing. Research has shown that contact with nature and the wild world around us is excellent for a child's development. It builds confidence and curiosity and reduces stress and anxiety levels. We fit as much wildness as we can into their everyday lives, though it can be hard around school, homework, friends and sleepovers, dance classes and circus classes. What was a real treat was to be able to take them away for a week in the summer for a truly wild week in the Lake District.

To make it a little more exciting, we combined the trip with a Family John Muir award. I find kids love having that kind of recognition to motivate them, and the idea of getting a certificate at the end of it would keep them energised and focused. Actually, I'm just the same too, and relished the idea of adding another piece of paper to my wall. We worked on our proposal as a group, and the kids really contributed to the list of activities we were planning.

One thing that this trip really emphasised for me is the kind of wild creatures that really capture children's attention. I'm a very keen birder, and I'm trying to encourage them in that direction. Sometimes it's very successful. Last year they had wonderful trips to see a Starling murmuration and a harrier roost, where they saw their first Hen Harriers (a species they'd learned about at school as part of the skydancer project) before the sky filled with swirling snow and swirling Marsh Harriers. They also loved watching half a dozen Red Kites soaring together along the Derwent Valley, a trip my seven year old son had requested after seeing one of the birds painted on the side of a bus! They do well with those kinds of big spectacles. They also love any opportunity to get close to birds, as they did with the Kittiwakes on the Baltic and the Chaffinches we saw perching on the hide windowsill at Kielder. However, outside of these encounters it's hard to generate a lot of enthusiasm for the kind of birding that makes up a large proportion of my life, trying to id waders or ducks on a large pond or picking a warbler out of a leafy canopy. This is understandable, they are still young and that is a lot of effort for not a whole lot of reward if I am honest.

What my kids love is creepy crawlies, bugs, insects, minibeasts, and things of that ilk. They've been going pond dipping and rock pooling for years, and it does allow them to get really close to the creatures they are looking at, literally hands on in some cases. This was something we were very prepared for on this trip. The holiday lodge we were staying in is a few minutes walk away from the Cumbria Wildlife Trust's Barkbooth Lot reserve, a fantastic, quiet little nature reserve that combines woodland, a stream and an open fell top area with an excellent selection of butterflies and dragonflies.

 We spent several days there, armed with our new sweep net, butterfly net, pooters and collection jars. Before they went too wild, however, I gave them all strict instructions around the proper use of the equipment, including not to try and catch any of the rare and protected Fritillary Butterflies we might see, and to be careful around the ponds with leeches. They learned about teneral dragonflies and to be particularly careful with them. They learned to stick to the paths, such as they were through the ferns, and not to disturb the anthills that dotted the landscape.

As it happens, it was one of the quietest summers I've ever seen there for butterflies and dragonflies. The only large dragon we saw was a single Emperor, none of the other hawkers or chasers seemed to be present. Likewise, last summer I saw three different Fritillary species in one afternoon. This year I saw none, though my daughter was thrilled that the first butterfly she managed to catch was a Gatekeeper, a rare species that I got rather excited about.

 The lack of "rares" didn't bother the kids at all, and all day long I was being presented with minibeasts of all descriptions, with Shield Bugs, moths, Ladybirds and my first ever dung beetle. Some of them I could identify, but many others were photographed for future reference.

 A core part of my child-rewilding project has been the National Trust's 50 Things to Do Before You're 11 3/4, and I took an idea out of their Extra Messy edition. Each child had a jam jar, that they collected berries, petals and anything else they found to make a smelly potion (that was NOT for tasting!). Back at the lodge we added water, and then baking powder and vinegar to make bubbling smelly potions. This was great fun and I'll definitely try it again. We had a lot of debate about who had the best smelling potion, the nicest looking potion and the bubbliest potion and there was a surprising amount of variation on every count.

Of course the National Trust aren't the only ones who promote wild experiences for children, and it just so happened that we were away over the weekend of the RSPB's Big Wild Sleepout. my kids tried this last year with a tent in their back garden. They must have liked it because they ended up sleeping out there for almost a week. Last year I started getting into microadventures and wild camping though, and I wanted this year's to be a proper wild sleepout. So after a bbq dinner we headed up into the woods opposite our lodge to find a decent spot to camp. We'd been for a walk there earlier in the trip and found an excellent clearing near the top, but walking up in the dusk we settled for a smaller but just as serviceable clearing that wasn't nearly as far. There was a nice, flat grassy area for the kids to pitch their tent and a wide choice of trees for my hammock. Everybody slept really well up among the trees, giving me the confidence to try slightly wilder sites in future, and my older two are quite keen to give hammock camping a try, after climbing into mine the next morning.

 It was nice to be able to pack up in the morning though, and be back at the lodge ten minutes later for breakfast. Maybe in 2017 we'll just try hammock camping in the same bit of woods, and build up from there.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Damsels in Distress

A couple of days after my butterfly hunting trips, I was planning a quiet day in getting caught up on housework, but the sun was shining so I forgot all about that and went to Gateshead looking for dragons instead!

I started with a bus to Derwenthaugh to look for Banded Demoiselles, one of our most beautiful insects.  I had a great day here last year, when I saw them at three different points along the river with the help of local guide and expert, Alan Mould.  Alan's blog, found here, is essential reading for anyone interested in seeing dragonflies in the Gateshead area.  This year was a very different story though.  I started near the bridge where I'd seen several Demoiselles last year, but the winter floods had washed away most of the vegetation that had been here and what had replaced it didn't look at all promising. Giving up here I walked along to the outlet at Clockburn Lake, which had been turned into a muddy mess, apparently by the Council.  I checked out the river before the outlet, which held nice numbers of Blue Damselflies, but no Demoiselles could be seen.  I headed back downstream to a small outlet where I'd seen my first Demoiselle last year but that too was bare and unpromising.  I finally gave up, disappointed at not seeing this lovely species and disheartened at what had happened to their habitat.

Three buses later, I was at Kibblesworth Village, a short walk from the excellent Bowes Valley Nature Reserve.  I'd been here in June, when there were plenty of 4-Spotted Chasers around and a single Broad-bodied Chaser, but today I was hoping for Emperors and Black-tailed Skimmers, a dragon I'd never seen.

The large pond looked quite quiet at first.  The first indication of anything bigger than a blue damsel was a large silhouette over the surface.  I was able to pick out a couple of Emperors, a year first for me, and there was something else smaller flitting around that I couldn't quite catch.  Someone else appeared out of the vegetation on the far bank then, someone who was able to guess who I was.  It turned out to be Rob Stonehouse, a keen birder who I'd spoken to a lot on Twitter but not actually met.  I showed him the Emperors I'd seen and we talked about how odd it was that 4-Spot numbers seemed so low when there had been plenty around earlier.  As we were doing another circuit of the pond I spotted a powder blue dragon that I called as a Broad-bodied Chaser but which Rob correctly identified as a Black-tailed Skimmer, and I had my lifer!

I'd told Rob about my lack of success with the Demoiselles, and he suggested a different site, at nearby Lamesley Pastures, and then proceeded to drive me down there and point out a couple of female Demoiselles to me, sitting just below the bridge.  One was doing flying runs off the vegetation a little further up, and kept settling on the water and floating down with the current before flying up again.  The beauty and charm of these lovely insects won me over all over again!

Butterfly fly away

Two days, 
two counties, 
three sites,
and a whole lot of butterflies!

I had actually been planning this trip for about a year now.  Last summer I was just getting into butterflies, and I discovered that Wingate Quarry in Durham had a colony of Marbled Whites, a butterfly I'd never seen but which looked quite special.  Then I discovered that Bishop Middleham Quarry, nearby, had a colony of Northern Brown Argus, another one I'd never seen.  It was late in the summer when I finally got down there last year, and not a particularly good day.  I made it as far as Wingate and found a single Marbled White before the rain started.  So it went onto the list for this year.  I got down there in mid-July for a day out with my mum.

The weather didn't look quite perfect, but certainly good enough; dry with sunny spells.  It turned out to be a lot better than that.  It was lovely and sunny at Wingate Quarry.

It clouded over and even threatened rain when we stopped at Castle Lake to look for Corn Buntings and I was starting to feel a bit doubtful about Bishop Middleham Quarry at that point but when we got there the sun came out again for a brief, glorious ten minutes, only to start raining when we got back to the car.

The butterflies were wonderful.  Wingate Quarry was alive with Common Blues (my first of the year), Meadow Browns and Ringlets, and on the small hill near the entrance I found a good half dozen or so Marbled Whites showing beautifully.  After seeing one last year, I'd declared this to be my favourite butterfly and seeing so many more only strengthened its position!

Blue butterflies come very close though.  They are so photogenic and bright.  Before this month I'd only ever seen a handful, so it's been lovely seeing them in much greater numbers.

Castle Lake was harder work.  The whole area seemed overrun with thistles and I couldn't get a clear view of what was on the lake itself with my binoculars, maybe because I didn't know the area.  There was only one significant target here though: Corn Bunting.  I'd actually had Corn Bunting on my life list for a while, as I'd identified a bird along Druridge Bay as one back in April 2014, right when I was starting to get back into birding.  I later took it off when I learnt a bit more and decided that it probably hadn't been what I'd thought.  I'd known about the Castle Lake birds since the start of the year but even though it was a potential lifer I'd been putting off a trip there until I could combine it with the butterfly hunting at the nearby quarry.  A good walk around the western half of the lake revealed nothing though, and I met up with my mum again on a hilltop and declared myself defeated.  We started back for the village when I spotted something sitting on a wall nearby.  A quick check with the binoculars and I was ticking my first Corn Bunting.  It's not the most spectacular of birds, but is rather nice in its own way and I was happy to finally see one and put that earlier error to rest.

On to Bishop Middleham Quarry, where the gathering gloom gave way to a brief spell of sunshine.  We didn't stop long here, because we were getting hungry and the weather didn't look promising, but it looks like a really lovely place to come back to for a longer walk.  Luckily there were plenty of butterflies near the entrance and I put my mother to work trying to spot one that looked like a Northern Brown Argus.  Several dozen Ringlets later, I realised that wasn't really working as a tactic.  Meanwhile I was carefully checking female Blues, though more than a little uncertain what I was actually looking for.  Then I realised that there were a lot of small butterflies flitting around that I hadn't really noticed at first.  They were brown, but significantly smaller than the Ringlets and had been overlooked by the both of us as probably moths.  I was pretty sure these were my Argonauts and when one stopped long enough for me to get a decent photo the white spots seemed to clinch it!  My third butterfly lifer of the year!

The next day was another nice, sunny day.  After a morning appointment with my work advisor I headed up for a new site for me at Cambois.  Someone on Twitter had told me about this when I was asking about his Grayling sightings, and it was just as well he'd given fairly detailed directions or I never would have found the place.  I walked through from Bedlington Station, a couple of miles towards the North Blyth coast.  Then in the middle of the Cambois Industrial Zone, where the power station once stood I left the road, pushed through some shrubs and weeds and climbed up a small bank.  At the top I was genuinely amazed.  The landscape just opened up in front of me with a long grassy path stretching north.  On my left were enough trees to hide the post-industrial landscape.  On my right was another bank leading up to a similar path on a higher level.

I've seen Grayling once before.  I was at St Bee's last summer on the Cumbrian coast, looking for Black Guillemots without my binoculars, a truly fruitless task!  Unable to see many of the sea birds, I instead borrowed my dad's camera and took photos of the many butterflies on the coastal path.  Most of them were Meadow Browns and Ringlets and it was only later that night in my tent that I realised that one of my shots was actually a really bad photo of a Grayling.  So it wasn't a lifer, strictly speaking, but it was definitely one I really wanted to see again properly.  And Cambois didn't disappoint.  After a few common species and some nice Damselflies, a Grayling settled on the path in front of me and started tilting its wings into the sun, behaviour I'd only read about.  It kept flitting away and then settling in more or less the same spot, though it proved very difficult to photograph.  I had a walk further along the path, where I saw plenty more Common Blues and my first ever Green Tiger Beetle.  Then before I left I climbed up to the top path and immediately in front of me I found a pair of Grayling settled together.

Funnily enough, the best views I had of this difficult butterfly were on my way home, when one kept flying just ahead of me and landing on the steel fence of the industrial zone and then on the kerb!

Tuesday 5 July 2016


I'm going to sneak in one last blog post for 30DaysWild because I never got around to writing this one up and I rather enjoyed doing it.

This was from the Saturday after the referendum, when I was feeling a little low in mood and not particularly well either.  Various plans I'd had to go out had fallen through and to be honest I was feeling a little sorry for myself.

As beneficial as a day's birding would have been, I wanted nothing more than a day on the sofa catching up with Netflix.  But I also had to get in something for my 30 Days Wild, so I decided that I'd see what I could see out of my window.

Now, I really don't have much of a view out of my living room window.  Its an upstairs flat in central Newcastle and looks out onto a back alley and the roofs of the terraced houses in the next street along.  There's not a trace of any greenery.  It really doesn't look very good for birding.  It's certainly not like my last garden; a large, wild space backing onto a train line and then a golf course, birding gold!

So I wasn't too hopeful.  This started out as something of a throw-away gesture.  But I surprised myself.  Once I'd set myself this challenge I started paying a lot more attention to what was out there.  It started out strongly with some Swifts soaring high.  Herring Gulls were also passing over and wheeling around pretty regularly.  There were also occasional feral Pigeons flying straight over.

Then a Jackdaw came and sat on the chimney pots opposite.  A Carrion Crow found something to eat at the top of the neighbours' roof, dropped it and chased it all the way down the tiles.  Starlings gathered on the wires and descended en masse into the alley to scavenge among the bins.  A couple of fat Woodpigeons found a chimney to shelter on for a little while.  Magpies soared overhead.  As I got my eye in I was able to pick out the occasional Lesser Black-backed Gull among the Herring Gulls.

One of the biggest challenges was that I could only see a relatively small patch of sky, and often a bird would be past as soon as I saw it.  I learnt how to pick them out quickly, or I missed them when I waited to see them from the second window and they never appeared.

Pelagic cruise

Come sail with me
Come sail with me
Come sail away with me
You guys

Last Friday I went on my third boat trip of the year, and my first pelagic.  The trip was run by Martin Kitching of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, and I'd booked through the Northumberland Wildlife Trust.  Martin turned out to be an excellent, friendly and knowledgeable tour and for four hours he took us out to sea and up the coast as far as Cresswell.

Unfortunately we didn't see any dolphins on my trip, and there was no sign of the Sperm Whale that had been seen on the Wednesday, though we did get a tantalising single large splash at or around where it had been seen, though nothing else was spotted there.  There weren't many skuas or shearwaters around yet either, still too early in the season.  These are what I'm really hoping to see, because I've only ever seen them as dark splodges far out at sea, but I've already got two more boat trips booked in September that hold more promise and I'm very tempted to book again with Martin.  We did get a handful of Manxies though, including excellent views of one shearing around not far from the boat.

We did get plenty of auks and gulls.  As is usual with these trips, we got excited at the first Puffin or Guillemot, and then pretty soon they were everywhere, though never in the numbers you get around the islands further north.  This was more than made up for by some of the best views of Gannets I've ever had, including several swimming on the sea.

We were also followed continuously by Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, who would hang in the air just behind the boat.  One of the other passengers, David, noted a particular Lesser Black-backed Gull was constantly flying alongside us, landing, waiting for us to move on and then catching us up to repeat the whole exercise.

One of the absolute highlights of this trip was this scenery.  I'm a big fan of the Northumberland coastline, and it was quite special to see it from a whole new angle.  The weather added to the whole effect.  When we set off, the shoreline was black with storm clouds.  These slowly cleared and a narrow band of rain went over the boat.  On the way back south the sun was setting behind the cloud, giving some truly spectacular skies.  And it's not often you can see The Cheviot, Simonside, Spanish City and Souter Lighthouse at the same time!

Despite the lack of target species sightings, this was an excellent trip, and one I'd love to repeat later in the season.  I'm also rather tempted by the ten-hour version!

Thursday 30 June 2016

30 Days Microadventure

Last night I slept in the woods.

This wasn't something I'd been planning, but it made sense for two reasons, two challenges. The first is Alastair Humphreys' microadventure challenge, or rather his Great British Summer Microadventure Challenge (linky) where he's trying to get an overnight microadventure happening in every county of the UK in June.  A microadventure can be as simple as spending a night sleeping on a hill, a beach or in a wood, preferably without a tent. Now, I've already done one of these, with my overnight stay in North Yorkshire, but last week I discovered that Tyne and Wear hadn't been done yet.  I could hardly leave my home county as a blank space on his map, could I?  Plus, Alistair has prizes to give away, and I could really do with the kit!  (Did I mention his excellent blog? Just follow the link above, and if you like the idea of microadventuring, he's also written a book on it).

The second challenge is the Wildlife Trust's 30 Days Wild challenge, which is coming to an end today.  I've loved doing this but have been struggling a bit for the last week, so I really wanted to finish it off with something special.

Now this was the fourth night this year I've spent sleeping in the wild, but it was very different to the others.  This is because there was no other purpose to it.  I wasn't backpacking and spreading my trip over multiple days.  I wasn't there to see any nocturnal wildlife or to get an early start on a day's birding.  I was purely there for the fun of a night in the woods.  I didn't even take my binoculars or camera! I was also pleasantly surprised how much lighter my pack was without my cooking kit, so maybe it's time to shop for a lightweight stove!  I arrived at the woodland centre at about ten o'clock at night, walked up to a nice, remote spot where I'd actually practiced with my hammock one afternoon in March, spent the night and came home on the first bus at half past five.

Just like in Yorkshire I took my hammock but didn't bother with a tarp cover.  It really makes a huge difference to the feel of it, you feel so much more open and not at all like you would in a tent.  Obviously there's also a big difference in how sheltered you are and I certainly wouldn't fancy a wet or windy night without it, but one of the beauties of microadventuring is that you can easily base it around the weather.  This time though I did throw my new bivvy bag in on top of my sleeping bag for some protection in case of showers.  I discovered it kept me a lot warmer, even if I didn't need the waterproofing.  My hammock has a built-in mosquito net that I hadn't used before last night but that got used too as the midges started biting as I was setting up.

One thing I love about hammock camping is that it totally changes how you look at camping sites.  This is particularly useful in woods, where it's hard to find an open spot that's level and clear of roots and stumps.  With the hammock I don't even need to clear the pine cones away!

I was far from alone in the woods.  There were at least two Tawny Owls calling earlier on, a deer barking off in the distance, and then I was woken shortly after three by a roding Woodcock flying, grunting and whistling over my head.  Shortly after this, the Song Thrushes got the dawn chorus started, with the Woodcock joining in as best he could, before everyone else joined in.  It was a really special treat to be able to just lie there, snug and warm, drifting in and out of sleep to that orchestra and a wonderful way to start the last day of my 30 days wild.  It was made even better when a gorgeous young Fox wandered along the path just a few metres away, totally oblivious to me.

Sleeping up there, I felt like I was somewhere remote, somewhere wild.  It was actually quite startling to see that just five minutes walk had me back at the bus stop on a fairly busy road, and to be back in Newcastle in twenty minutes.

It felt like quite a big leap doing this, in some ways a bigger leap than backpacking across the Highlands or the North York moors, because I was still so close to urban centres, but it's definitely something I'll be doing again!