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!

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Healing Touch of the Wild

Last Wednesday morning I left a work programme workshop feeling rather anxious. There was no real reason for it, just that frustrating and faintly ridiculous feeling that something is wrong based solely on someone's innocent comment.  There was only one thing for it: spending the afternoon walking in one of my favourite parts of Northumberland, Druridge Bay.

I started at the excellent Drift Cafe just outside Cresswell, and then after a delicious scone it was on to Cresswell Pond where a couple of pairs of Avocets were still trying hard to breed and looking as elegant as ever.  A pair of Knots were also present, though it took me a little while to convince myself that they weren't the Curlew Sandpipers that were listed on the board for a few days earlier.  They steadfastly refused to fly and show me their tail patterning and I finally gave up when they fell asleep.

Druridge Pools was fairly quiet, the main highlight being some colourful Black-tailed Godwits, a Brown Hare on the far side of the Budge field and large numbers of Blue-tailed Damselflies all along the path.  The ponies were also looking rather lovely from the Budge Screen.  I do love seeing these ponies grazing on the Budge field, something so natural and right about that kind of land management technique.

Last time I was at Druridge Pools I was lucky enough to have a pair of Swallows perch right in front of the hide for some simply stunning views.  This time all of the hirundines kept perching on the fence to the right of the hide.  They were mostly Sand Martins with a few Swallows and looked lovely enough for me to wish I'd had a better view of them.

I had a quick look at the fields leading over to Chibburn Preceptory, hoping to maybe catch a Yellow Wagtail among the cattle there, but the grass in the fields was really long and didn't look too promising, so I headed straight up to East Chevington.

The wild flowers between Druridge Pools and East Chevington were one of the real highlights of my day.  I really don't know much about flowers, but I've learnt enough to identify the Bird's-foot Trefoil (an excellent butterfly resource) and Northumberland's county flower, the Bloody Cranesbill, some of which was starting to show the red leaves that give this purple flower its fantastically gory name.
I didn't stop for long at East Chev because I was started to get concerned about bus times home, but while I was in the middle hide I picked up a Marsh Harrier on the far side that circled around and then flew the whole length of the North Pool before dropping into the reeds.  Seeing these fantastic raptors in Northumberland still thrills me, even after seeing them in much greater numbers already this year at Blacktoft Sands and Leighton Moss.

Hurrying back to Cresswell for the bus I nevertheless had to stop when, passing Druridge Pools again, something flew straight across the road in front of me.  I raised my binoculars thinking "Sparrowhawk or Merlin?" only to find that it was a Cuckoo, one of my key target species left for this summer.  It was being harrassed by Meadow Pipits, and perched on a fence post on the edge of the dunes where I got the best views of this lovely bird I've ever had, and then flew north to another post further away.
I managed to make it back to Cresswell just in time for my bus home.  Heading back to Newcastle, I felt so much better within myself than I had when I first set out.  The natural healing touch of the wild had worked its magic again.

Cuckoo takes my year list to 217.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Bee Safari

Two bee days or not two bee days?  That is the question.  Because technically this act of wildness took place over two days and an additional evening.

with apologies to Bill Shakespeare.

This one started totally by accident.
Last Tuesday I was at my mum's with my youngest child, (preschool age) while his brother and sister were at school.  For some reason my mum's conservatory is totally entrancing to bumblebees so I ended up rescuing several of them with a shot glass and a bit of paper.  Then I discovered that you could feel their buzzing through the paper, which we both really liked.  That led into seeing what different types of bees we could find in the garden.

This is where my lack of preparation revealed itself.  Last year I learnt to identify some of the commoner bee species and I've got a lovely FSC chart showing two dozen of them.  Unfortunately as with so many of the summer species I'd forgotten most of what I'd learned about identifying bumblebees and my fancy chart was sitting on a shelf at home.  So we didn't get much further than recognising that there were a lot of different types of bees in the garden and that they were pretty cool.

We carried on this activity with the other two when they got back from school, once they'd eaten and while they were playing with bubble mixture in the garden.  My daughter also had a bee chart back at home and we both promised to check it later (neither of us ever did though).

As the afternoon turned into evening, the sun came out and it was glorious.  Rather than staying in the garden or risking them turning towards the TV or iPad for further entertainment, we went around to the Iris Brickfield, a few streets away, for some outdoor play and a bit of wild time.  We'd been here earlier in the day with my youngest and they've added loads of pretty cool play equipment to the place, including an obstacle course that I really wanted to see how my older two would handle.  It's also a lovely little spot for wildlife with lots of long grass, flowers, a pond that looks like it really should have dragonflies and a mix of trees and shrubs.  There were hirundines swooping all around us while we played, and then, while I was sitting chatting to my older son on the platform of a slide I spotted something small and yellow land.  We jumped down to check it out and it was an Orange Ladybird.  I've only ever seen this species once before, two years ago, funnily enough also in a park with the kids, and then it totally blew my mind.  I knew you got different species of Ladybird and they weren't all red but I really wasn't expecting this lovely little orange-yellow thing with white spots.  It was great to find one again and this time to get photos!

On the evening of day 20 I was walking home from my mum's late in the evening (10-ish) thinking about how I hadn't really done anything wild all day.  Then I passed a large bush by the side of the path with globular orange flowers, and despite the time this bush was covered in bees!  None of them seemed to be doing very much at all, most just sat there, upside down or right way up, with one of two moving around a little bit.

I spent ages watching them, fascinated to see behaviour on a city street from such a common insect that I've never witnessed before.  When I got home and shared this on Twitter I learnt that it is a fairly common thing.  I'd just always assumed bumblebees slept in some kind of hive somewhere, not just hanging upside down on a flower!  Nature always finds new ways to surprise us, it really does.

That led nicely into day 21's planned activity, a re-run of our bee safari but this time with the right tools to actually identify the bees.  Well, some of the tools.  I had the chart but I forgot my sample pots and I still need to order the nets.  Together we managed to identify four different bee species in my mum's back garden, with White-tailed, Buff-tailed, Common Carder and Early Bumblebees busily buzzing around her flowers.  We also found an unfortunate Tree Bumblebee that had become squished in the window frame.  After tea we headed back around to the Iris Brickfield, where we were going to be foraging for elder flowers, and I set my daugher a challenge:  to find a Red-tailed Bumblebee.  She was absolutely delighted when she found not one but two right outside my mum's front door.  We also found a much more alive Tree Bumblebee in the front garden and then a Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee, one I don't recall ever seeing before.

What was really nice about this was that when I first proposed it, my daughter really couldn't be bothered with it.  She's also doing 30 Days Wild, but was quite happy having the foraging as her wild thing for the day.  On the way home she said that it'd been her favourite part of the whole evening.  I think this is largely because I set her a challenging but achievable task that she managed to accomplish.  Red-tailed Bumblebees are probably the easiest bumblebee species to identify but finding one herself made her feel really good.

Foraging for elder flowers was really good fun, and then, while the kids went off and had a play I followed a moth around that I'd spotted.  It finally landed and I got a decent shot of its nicely marked wings.  It was only later that night when I was looking at the photo that I suddenly realised what it was.  Its wing markings distinctly resembled the face of a wizened crone, which meant that it could only be a Mother Shipton Moth.  A quick Google search confirmed it and I had a nice new moth to add to my list.  Another one I found in a hedge as we were walking home has been identified by more experienced eyes than mine as a Lesser Treble Bar Moth, which is also a new one for me.

The elder flowers are being turned into elder flower champagne, but that's a story for another day!

Its...Its a Bio Blitz

And the man in the back said everyone attack
And it turned into a bio blitz
And the girl in the corner said Boy I want to warn you
It'll turn into a bio blitz

(with apologies to The Sweet)

Saturday night was my very first bio blitz, at the National Trust's Souter Lighthouse.  It was actually over a considerably larger area since the National Trust team there manage Whitburn Coastal Park and the Leas up as far as Trow.  It was a 22 hour bio blitz, starting at 8 pm on Saturday night and therefore obviously finishing at 6 pm on Sunday.  Unfortunately I had other (Fathers' Day) plans starting at about 10 am on Sunday morning, which would mean that I'd miss out on a lot of the fun, but with moth trapping, bat walks and Storm Petrel ringing happening overnight I was definitely up for a rare all-nighter. 

This was a really big commitment for me.  These days I'm very much early to bed, early to rise, something that's only really come about over the last few years, and I start struggling at about 10 pm.  Also, as I was travelling there by Metro, I really was stuck there until about 6 or 7 am on Sunday!  But I've never seen a Storm Petrel so that was a major draw.  I'm also finding myself increasingly drawn to moths and bat walks are always cool.

I started with a walk down the Leas before I got to Souter.  This section of coastline is one I've only discovered in the last year or two and I love it.  The twisty cliffs are so different to the long sandy beaches I'm used to in Northumberland.  It's also great for migrants and one of the best places I've found to watch Fulmers as they keep soaring up over the edge of the cliff right in front of you.  The birds were singing, the seabird colonies smelt magnificent and I found a rather faded looking Painted Lady.

I arrived at Souter Lighthouse at about 7ish, and met some of the team there.  Jason, Doug, Trevor and John were all really nice lads and great fun to knock about with for a while down there.  They were also really informative and supportive.  I got to have a wander around some of the areas of the coastal park that are normally off-limits to the public, and set small mammal traps with them through the shrubbery on one of the mounds and then around one of the ponds where I found one of my best sightings of the night, a Ghost Moth in the grass.  It was before 8 pm though, so didn't count towards the bio blitz.

When 8 pm came we started counting the bird species we could see, and then got the ringing nets for the Storm Petrels set up with another really nice, friendly couple of people, Andrew and Georgia, a regular ringer and ringing-viewer.

Things seemed to go pretty quiet for a while after this.  Andrew, Georgia and I stayed by the nets at the cliff top, while everyone else seemed to vanish off somewhere.  I occasionally got the feeling that maybe something exciting was happening elsewhere, but didn't have a clue where.  Maybe this is one of the problems of it being such a big site.  It turned out I wasn't really missing out on anything other than getting the moth traps set up.  

It was finally turning dark and Souter Lighthouse at sunset was looking rather lovely. The sky to the north was cloudy, though the nearly full moon to the south was shining brightly in a fairly clear sky.  We also managed to spot and identify three different planets, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, though we couldn't make out any moons as it was still fairly light.

We managed to get the tape lure working for the Storm Petrels, and then fancying a bit of a change I had a drive around with Doug and Trevor, looking for Hedgehogs and Foxes, without any success.  They dropped me off with Jason, who was doing some newt surveying in the pond near where John was keeping an eye on one of the moth traps.  He'd caught what he called another Ghost Moth but which could well have been the one I'd found.

The newt survey picked up well over a dozen Palmate Newts, as well as leaches and lots of little fish that would be identified the next day when pond dipping.

This leads neatly on to one of the problems with my night-time adventure.  Because I wasn't there on the Sunday I felt like I was missing out on an awful lot.  I was there to set the mammal traps up, but not there to check them.  Likewise with the moth traps, which would be checked next day.  I was also missing out on bees, butterflies and dragonflies.  Next year I'm going to make a determined effort to be there for the full thing!

We all headed back to the bird nets at the cliffs where we found that nothing had been caught at all.  This wasn't really a surprise at this point, because all night people had been giving me reasons why we wouldn't catch any Petrels: it was still early in the season; the moon was too bright; the sea was too rough and loud; it was too clear.  There'll be other opportunities though, this year, and as I said at the time, even with all those factored in, my chances were a lot better than if I'd stayed in bed.

It was getting on for 1 am by this point, and it was looking like things would be relatively quiet until 6.30 by which time I'd have to be thinking of leaving, so I cut my losses and managed to blag a lift home with Andrew who, as luck would have it, was dropping Georgia off a few streets away from my flat.

Just as we were leaving, Andrew got a call from Jason at the nets, and we ran back, thinking he'd maybe got lucky as soon as we left him alone.  It turned out that he hadn't caught a Petrel, (they were at it until 3.30 and never got one) but a Pipistrelle Bat had flown into the net, so we got a good close look at that as he released it. 

Despite the relative lack of sightings, it was a fantastic night.  I met some lovely people and made some great contacts, and I'll definitely be back down there to try for Petrels again.  I'll also know who they are next time I see them out and about on the Leas, which is always nice.  Also, how many people can say they spent a night at Souter Lighthouse and saw a genuine ghost?

Monday, 20 June 2016

The Stars Aren't Coming Out Tonight

I was pretty busy most of day 16 finishing off a play-house project for my kids in my wife's garden in Blyth, and then settled in for a film night with my mum, when we watched Stardust.
Afterwards, while Take That were belting out the end credits theme, I decided that since I was still quite awake and as it was a lovely summer's evening, I'd sit out in her garden for a while with a wee dram.

Disappointment followed on almost every count.  Firstly, there was but half a dram left in her whisky bottle.  Secondly, there was not a star to be seen.  I really shouldn't be surprised by this.  After all I grew up in Newcastle, and have lived there most of my life apart from a few years in central Liverpool and a time in Blyth.  I've often said in this very blog that there is a surprising amount of nature to be found in our cities and other urban environments, but one of the main drawbacks of urban living is found whenever you look up at night.

Light pollution is such a problem that even at midnight on a fairly clear night you get nothing but a dull, colourless haze.  Now that I've got my hammock, and my bivvy bag has just arrived too, I'm definitely going to get out and spend the night at a few of Northumberland's dark sky sights.  I want to see the stars.  I want to see other planets and other moons.  I really, really want to see the Northern Lights.  What I don't want to see on those rare occasions when I stay up late is reflected lights on the clouds and precious little else.

Some more whisky would be nice too!  Luckily my lovely mother brought me a one litre bottle of Jameson's back from her recent Ireland trip and I still have my whisky flask tucked away somewhere.

Oh, and in case you were wondering... Here is the play house, now finished.  I still think it would be better if you removed the swings, hung some bird feeders up on those hooks and used it as a bird hide, but my wife and three kids aren't having any of it!

Fields of Gold

I had quite a busy day for day 15, with a Work Programme appointment in the morning, followed by a far from pleasant trip to the dentist in the afternoon.  You know your dental appointment isn't going well when the dentist's assistant steps back and looks away and your dentist says to her "You're not keen on gore, are you?"  It makes you wonder just what is going on in your mouth.

But enough about that...

I had to sneak in what wildness I could between appointments.  Luckily, despite living in the middle of a busy city, that isn't really a problem.  The route from my house to my dentist takes me right across Newcastle Town Moor, a vast open space of grassland just north of the city centre, which has Skylarks ascending and hirundines swooping across it.  On this particular wet and murky Wednesday it was pure gold.  There were buttercups everywhere.  It felt like the only sunshine to be found was growing straight up out of the grass.

With cows grazing in the background it was hard at times to believe that I was still in the city, and the flowers really brightened up my day.  I also noticed that the few Swallows that were out were flying very low to the ground, which made me wonder if this is related to the weather at all?  Maybe the insects don't fly as high in the damp?

After the carnage at the dentist, I walked through Jesmond Dene to my dad's house.  Hidden away at the top of the dene is one of my favourite places in the whole city, St Mary's Chapel.  Believe it or not, at one time this small chapel was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the whole country and brought religious people flocking to Newcastle.  Now it's been left to go wild and this little corner of the dene always seems very quiet and seldom visited, unlike some of the main paths.

There were plenty of birds singing, though I didn't manage to see or identify many of them.  Just walking through there though, I could feel my soul being restored.  Maybe it's finding that connection with nature, or maybe there is something of power lingering in these old sacred stones?

Here Be Dragons

Or The Day I Gave In and Started Listing Moths

The sun was shining, and I'd been stuck in a workshop all morning, which meant one thing: Dragon-hunting in Kibblesworth.

Kibblesworth, or  the Bowes Valley Nature Reserve as it's also called, is my favourite local site for Dragonflies, and is easily accessible by bus from Newcastle, making it perfect for a few hours on a sunny afternoon.  I only really got into Dragonflies and Butterflies last summer, and this was the first time I'd gone looking for them this year, though I had run into a couple of Large Red Damselflies and a stunning Beautiful Demoiselle already.
When I arrived at Kibblesworth, I started with the flower meadows, where I quickly found my first Small Heath Butterfly of the year.  There were also several decent sized moths flying around.  I've always resisted getting into moths.  There's something quite off-putting about the sheer number of species you get, and I don't have and can't afford the moth trap I'd need to see many of the species, but on day 8 of my 30 Days Wild I finally gave in and had a go at identifying some of the moths flying around me.  

In many ways it makes a lot of sense to keep a list.  There are so many species and it can be so hard to keep track of which ones I've seen that writing it down somewhere can only help.  After all, I can remember every species of reptile I've seen in the UK with ease (Common Lizard, that's it!) but I can only remember a couple of the moths I saw last year.  I'm pretty sure this one is a Silver Ground Carpet Moth.  

I also saw a couple of Silver Y Moths, one species that I know I saw last year in Gertrude Jekyll's garden on Lindisfarne, a Chimney Sweeper, and this one which I think is a Common Carpet Moth.  If anyone knows better, please feel free to correct me in the comments section!  The other reason behind starting this list is the rather lovely Angle Shades Moth I found on day 7.  There weren't many butterflies around, just the Small Heaths, a few Whites and a Blue that had to go unidentified when it soared past me and up into the trees.

Then it was on to the ponds and the true stars of the show, the Dragons!  Over the winter months, I'd forgotten most of what I learnt last year about dragon identification, and it took me a worryingly long time to work out that most of the dragons I was watching whizzing over the ponds were Four-spotted Chasers.  I'd forgotten just how frustrating they could be to watch, never seeming to stay still long enough to focus on, and only ever perching at the most frustrating angles.  I persisted though, and finally got some great views, which isn't particularly impressive when you take into account the fact that there were dozens of them soaring around. 

There were also plenty of blue Damselflies around the ponds too, many of them mating.  I saw Azure and Common Blues and at least one Blue-tailed, a very nice little Damselfly.  

The small ponds further around the site looked a lot more promising this year than last year.  Last year they were mostly dried up but now they seem to have a decent amount of water in them.  Here I found a Large Red Damselfly, some more 4spots, and then one which was very obviously different.  I was hoping for a Black-tailed Skimmer, one I'd never seen before that is apparently found at Kibblesworth, but when it stopped right behind me I could tell it was actually a Broad-bodied Chaser, though it was gone again by the time I got my camera out.
So a decent start to my dragon hunting for the year.  Next on the list is a trip along the Derwent for Banded Demoiselles, one of the real stars of the region.

Stolen Moments of Wildness

I was challenged last week by a good friend of mine, the Sedgedunum Warbler, (check out his blog here) as to whether I could count half an hour of sitting on a wall in Killingworth new town as "wild".  As ever, he had a point.  Compared with spending 24 hours in a remote forest or backpacking around the Scottish Highlands, it didn't really feel particularly wild.  But we can't have big adventures like that every day.  In fact, I've found that a lot of my bigger plans for June's 30 Days Wild have been curtailed or at least postponed because the Work Programme has finally caught up with me and filled my diary up with meetings and workshops.  This has left me with a random selection of free mornings, afternoons and evenings, but very few full days or longer periods to get away somewhere truly wild in.

Given this suddenly relatively busy schedule, I've found myself relying more and more on small patches of "wildness", which are generally urban.  These provide a valuable break in my day and I think they are just as important in their own way as the bigger adventures.  Besides, there's something lovely about being able to get close to nature in the middle of a city.  It feels almost like cheating, connecting like that so close to home.

Day nine saw me heading up to Killingworth, a new town built on the outskirts of Newcastle.  Despite growing up in the city I'd never visited Killy before the start of this year, when I headed up to see a Smew on the lake there.  There are actually two lakes, one fairly large and a smaller one just across the main road from it.  It's actually a lovely little oasis in a rather built up area.  My main reason for this visit was the report of some Great Crested Grebe chicks.  I love grebes, but I've never actually seen these little "humbugs" before, though I have seen Black-necked Grebe chicks.  The sun was shining, as I started with the larger of the two lakes.

One of the first things I found was a Great Crested Grebe sitting on a nest ridiculously close to the bank, being watched by three other people.  I learnt that one there were three eggs in the nest, two of which had been laid that morning.  I spent a very pleasant hour or so sitting watching the grebes, who swapped places a couple of times, while chatting to a fellow birder, Brian, who I'd never met before.

These are really beautiful birds, and the opportunity to watch them so closely was superb.  I'll definitely be coming back to see how they get on.  It was also a pleasure to meet Brian and to swap birding stories with him.  There was another Grebe with a chick on the smaller lake, but it was fairly distant and unfortunately I didn't get a very good look.  Hopefully this pair will be successful and I'll get to see some humbugs next month.

Mallard ducklings and Mute Swan cygnets added to the baby bird list.  The cygnets were the first I've seen this year, and a picture of them went straight to my sister in London, as we have an informal annual competition for the cutest baby bird pictures.

Day ten ended up being another quickie.  On the way to my mum's house in Heaton I took a small detour and spent half an hour sitting by a stream reading my butterfly book.  I grew up near Jesmond Dene and the Ouseburn will always have a place in my heart.  One of my favourite stretches of the river (apart from the bit with the pubs on it!) is the section between the Cradlewell Bypass and the culvert, because it's relatively cut off and quiet.

There's a bridge that goes over the river below the bypass, with a small trail down to the bank and it's a lovely little spot to sit, with the traffic well overhead and very few passers by.  I always think it would be a good spot to take the kids to play along the river, and maybe build a troll den (one of the National Trust's extra messy selection of 50 things to do before you're 11 3/4) as the river level here is very low and there's a lot of exposed stones.  It made a lovely place to sit and read about the butterflies I'm still hoping to get out and see this summer, if my diary and the weather forecast ever align.

I didn't see any Dippers or Kingfishers, two of the star species of the Ouseburn, but I did see a lovely colourful Grey Wagtail on the other side of the bridge.

On day eleven, I went out with my mum for a bit of a twitch.  There's been a Red-necked Phalarope on Grindon Lough for a few weeks now, a bird I've never seen before.  I've tried for it once before, on the way down to the Dales with some friends, but we dipped on that occasion, possibly because a farmer on a quad bike flushed everything just as we arrived.  It had been reported again though, so I managed to persuade my mum to drive up there and spare me the long uphill walk from Haydon Bridge.  I got pretty decent views of the bird, considering I didn't have a scope.  It was close in to the bank on the western end of the lough, and easily distinguishable by shape, size and behaviour though I couldn't see the colours or markings in the poor light.  I'm not sure I'd really call this an act of wildness though, as all I really did was drive up, get out, look at the bird for a few minutes and then head home.

What was truly lovely and probably a lot more in line with the Wildlife Trust's aim for this campaign was the hawthorn hedgerows we drove past the whole way there and back.  These were in full blossom, a gorgeous mix of white and pink flowers covering every tree and made the drive up to Grindon Lough a pleasure in its own right.  This transitory beauty is one of the things I find so special about early summer.  These flowers are everywhere for a few days and then they are gone again for another year.

Red-necked Phalarope:
Life list - 255
Year list - 216.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Wild film night

On a wet and miserable Monday, after spending all morning sitting in a waiting room, I decided to settle in for a wild film night.

I watched three films, all based on true memoirs of "wild" expeditions.  Touching the Void, 127 Hours and Wild.  Of the three I've only seen Wild before, and I've also read the book.  I've read the book of Touching the Void, but knew very little about 127 Hours.

Touching the Void was first up.  Its style was very different to the other two films.  It was filmed in a drama-documentary way, with interviews with the three characters being delivered direct to camera, interspersed with dramatisation of the events and the stunning scenery of Peruvian mountains.  It's the story of a mountaineering trip gone badly wrong.  Joe Simpson was attempting to climb a previously unclimbed west face of a mountain in Peru, Siula Grande, with his friend Simon Yates.  They reached the summit but as they were following the ridge Joe fell and badly broke his leg.  Simon then attempted to lower him the whole way down the mountain on two knotted together climbing ropes.  This went well for a while until Joe went over an overhang and couldn't support himself for Simon to switch the ropes over.  After some time, Simon was left with no alternative but to cut the rope and let Joe drop into a crevasse.  Thinking him dead, Simon then descended himself.  Joe survived, and over the next three days dragged himself out of the crevasse, across a glacier and back to their base camp.  It is one of the most incredible survival tales in mountaineering, as well as posing a challenging moral dilemma.  Not many climbers or mountaineers could read it or watch it without wondering what they themselves would do in either Joe or Simon's positions.

The film is well made, though I prefer the book as it has a lot more depth to it about what they were thinking and also about the perils of mountaineering, with its stories of other mountaineers who don't come back down their mountains.  One of the most interesting things in the books is glossed over somewhat by the film, which is the explanation as to where they went wrong.  It seems that it wasn't when Joe slipped and broke his leg, though that was certainly the obvious turning point.  It was actually when they first set off and didn't take enough gas with them for their stoves.  This simple error of judgement left them unable to melt any snow to drink after day three, led to dehydration, and from there to various mistakes.  It also forced them to keep going in conditions when they should really have hunkered down in a snow cave and waited for the weather to pass.

127 Hours is a much more glossy film, though I think it suffers in comparison for this.  It doesn't feel as real, and is much more Hollywoody.  It's the story of a canyoneer and climber, Aron Ralston who takes himself off alone to Blue John Canyon in Utah, where he gets his arm trapped under a rock.  Unlike Touching the Void, which is about how to overcome adversity and get down the mountain, most of 127 Hours is about the madness and hallucinations that set in while he is trapped for an extended period of time.  In fact, I couldn't really make much sense of what he was doing with the various ropes and pully systems as these seemed to take second place to confusing flashbacks.  One clear message that came out of the whole film though was that you should always let other people know where you are going.  Aron realised that there would be no-one coming to look for him because no one would have any idea where to start if they even realised that he was missing.

I've seen Wild a few times and read the book too, and absolutely love both.  I found it an incredibly inspiring piece of work.  Unlike the other two fihlms, this depiction of Cheryl Strayed's 1,100 mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington doesn't have a critical accident at its core, though various things could (and do) go wrong for Cheryl.  She takes the wrong fuel for her stove, her boots don't fit properly and (one of my favourites) she starts her trip with a compass and a book on how to read a compass.  Somehow she gets the hang of it all before it kills her.  For Cheryl, her trip into the wild is a desperate last ditch attempt to fix a life that's become badly broken.  It's a hymn to the restorative powers of nature and how alright it is to be alone.

Funnily enough, I first read both Touching the Void and Wild while on trips with an outdoors experiences company to Glenridding in the Lake District.  Touching the Void was particulary memorable because I read it the night before and the night after a November trip up Helvellyn in gale force winds and driving rain, where we came down in the dark.  That type of full immersion really added to my reading experience!

Together these three films tell me this:  Respect Nature.  She's big, she's tough and she's merciless.  She will kill you if you aren't careful.  But that said, make your preparations properly, know your kit, know your needs and your limits and let people know where you'll be.  Then get out there and do it!  It's particularly telling that both Joe Simpson and Aron Ralston are still climbing today.  That may be why I can sit and watch films of the most horrendous accidents, and then pick up a map to plan my own mountain ascents.