Why you should try birdwatching.

BirdwatchingHello. My name is Vicky, and I am a birdwatcher.

I have many and varied interests (well, don’t we all?), but one thing that makes my heart go a-flutter more than most is grabbing my binoculars and keeping tabs on the local birdlife. It started as out a necessity, a university research project mapping the food web of an intertidal mudflat. Just work out who eats what…, and my interest grew slowly from that.

I’ve watched spear-sharp gannets dive for fish on the Scottish coast as I sailed by. I’ve hiked into a kauri forest in New Zealand at night searching for kiwis shuffling through the undergrowth. I spotted an improbably balanced toucan in a kapok tree as I set up a bivvy in the Belizean jungle. And every autumn I watch out for skeins of brent geese, like squadrons of aircraft, returning from the Arctic to my local coast.
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What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?

David Attenborough

Birdwatching brings all kinds of small pleasures; spotting something new and exciting, or something friendly and familiar; being outdoors and feeling the wind and weather around you; becoming attuned to the surroundings and focusing on observation. For me, it beats any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice.
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Five tips for beginner birders

  • Begin at the beginning. Start by noticing what’s going on in your garden or local park. You can even put some feeders out to encourage birds close to where you can see them. Observe things like size, colour, behaviour; think about how you’d describe them and start to put some names to the regular visitors. The RSPB Bird Identifier is great to help get you started.
  • Get some gear. Basic birdwatching doesn’t need much; just looking and listening can often be enough to get you started. A field guide will help with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch what you’ve seen. Good walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing will make your life more comfortable out in the field. Investing in pair of binoculars is the next step. Beginner level binoculars can be picked up for between £50 and £100, and decent pairs are often available second hand. Look for a good balance of magnification, field of view, and weight; I’d recommend going for 8×42, like my Opticron pair.
  • Find a birding buddy. One thing I found that helped most to build my confidence was to ask other birders to show me what they were looking at, and share any tips they had that would help me remember the bird for next time. Most birders are friendly and love to share their passion with others, so say hello next time you visit a hide. Twitter is also a great way to find people; follow your local nature reserves, and you’ll soon pick up other birders that will help build your skills.
  • Get to know your local patch. Find a nearby area that looks likely, such as your garden, a nature reserve, a stretch of coast, or any green space, and visit it often. You’ll soon start to see patterns and changes in the birds you see, and their behaviours, as the seasons change around you.
  • Swot up on species. Most nature reserves and hides have a sightings board or book with the birds that have been spotted recently. Match up the list with the pictures in your guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also find online lists that tell you what to expect in your area, and any recent sightings of interest. There may also be a local ornithology group that you can join.

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The best books and guides for budding birdwatchers

  • How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. A bad birdwatcher is a good thing. This book is a brilliant introduction into why watching birds is about tapping into your joy in the natural world.
  • The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Killian Mullarney. The most comprehensive and current book covering British and European birds, and worth investing in if you’re keen to improve your ID skills.
  • RSPB Bird Identifier. A feature on the RSPB website which suggests what you might have seen by answering a few questions, e.g. Where did you see it? What colour was it? What was it doing? and so on.
  • Identifying Birds by Behaviour, by Dominic Couzens. This book will supplement your field guide, and gives an interesting background into bird behaviour.
  • Birds Britannica, by Mark Coker and Richard Mabey. A rich study of the cultural and social connections between birds and people through history, filled with fabulous pictures.

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There are also a number of apps you can download to help with identification and recording species while you’re out and about.

Do you like to spend time birdwatching?
What’s been the most interesting bird you’ve seen on your travels?
Let me know in the comments below.
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Photo Story: Greenland Tundra Hike

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

Qaqortoq_0_smallThe colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s fresh water supply.

The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty  H sound, like that in loch or Javier.

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We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.

Barry Lopez

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The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog.  This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.

At first glance the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.

tundra_1_smallThere is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.

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I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.

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How to care for your hiking boots

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-YAs a ranger I practically live in outdoor gear, and everything I own gets pretty heavily used and abused through my usual working day. Like my hiking boots, which I wear most days (if it’s not hiking boots, I must be in either wellies or sandals. Roll on summertime!). But I do like to get the best out of my stuff, so that means I also take a bit of time to care for and maintain my gear to make sure it lasts well and keeps performing at the standard I expect it to.

These are my top tips for caring for hiking boots, and ensuring happy feet when you head out hiking:

 

Keep them fresh. Take out your insoles when you take off your boots. Most good quality boots have removable insoles for easy cleaning (and so you can replace with custom orthotics), and these can become warm, sweaty sponges swarming with bacteria. Eventually they’ll start to smell and it can also degrade the materials of the boot. Let them dry out overnight next to your boots between uses, and they’ll be good to go.

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Keep them clean. Mud can ruin the outer material of your boots if it stays on for too long. If the mud has dried, I knock off as much as I can before washing my boots, including digging out muck from the cleats on the sole. I rinse off as much as I can under a tap or hose, and have an old dish scrubbing brush to get the last of the mud off.

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Dry carefully. It can be tempting to just drop your boots by the radiator or in front of the fire, but too much direct heat can crack leather and even melt the sole. Instead, let them dry in a warm and airy place, like a drying room, airing cupboard, or even outside in the sun.  Leaving the fire free for you to lounge around in front of.

Deal with soggy boots. Sometimes you just get completely saturated, whether its from ridiculously heavy rain or wading through a bog (or both. Hello, Glen Quoich!), and they’ll need to be dealt with before you store your boots. Take out the insoles, and rinse out the inside, giving stubborn dirt a light scrub.   Give your insoles a good scrub with soap, working it into the material with your fingers, and rinse well. Stuff the boots with newspaper, and leave to dry in a well-ventilated area. You might need to replace the paper several times. Sprinkling a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda into each nearly-dry boot will kill the stink before it starts.

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Keep them waterproofed. Repeated immersion in mud and water starts to ruin the waterproofing on your boots, whether they’re leather or synthetic, so you’ll need to reapply a waterproof treatment occasionally. Nikwax Fabric and Leather Proof is my usual choice, as I can treat my leather boots and synthetic trail running shoes with the same product. It doesn’t need much, just a thin layer will do the trick.  I’ll also use dubbin or wax on my leather boots regularly to keep the outers supple and comfortable for walking in.

Avoid seawater. Getting your boots wet at the beach can start metal grommets and hooks rusting, and saltwater isn’t great for the condition of leather either. Rinse your boots in freshwater as soon as you can, and dry them as described above. Giving the metalwork an occasional spray of WD40 will also help if you visit the shore regularly.

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Do you have any tips to add? Let me know in the comments below.

What I’ve loved this winter

Well hey, fellow vagabonds. I hope that you’ve managed to make it through our recent cold snap with a smile on your face.

The unexpected sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow over the past week (even here on the Isle of Wight, where THE SEA ACTUALLY FROZE), have been very much in-keeping with what I’ve been up to over the rest of the winter.

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Travels

I had a trip up to Scotland to spend Christmas with my family, where I was able to go for long walks along the Angus coast, followed by lounging around in front of the log burning stove in my pyjamas with a selection of Scottish gins to try.

In early January I went to catch Death in the Ice, an excellent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, presenting the story of the lost Franklin expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. It presented items recovered from the shipwrecks of the Erebus and the Terror, as well as artefacts and testimony detailing Inuit experience of life in the high Arctic, contrasting the European perspective of a bleak and empty landscape with one that is familiar, that provides, that is home.

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Death in the Ice at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

I managed to fit in a couple of days exploring Cambridge while on a project management training course, where I visited the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute. It houses a detailed collection of equipment and artefacts charting the history of polar exploration, including some personal journals kept by expedition crews, both successful and tragically unsuccessful.

Then at the end of the month, I had a few days visiting friends in Cornwall and working on the restoration of their new (more than a hundred years old boat), the Irish Mary.  She’s currently lying up in the edge of a saltmarsh in a hidden creek in the River Tamar, near a collection of other traditional wooden boats.

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In February I took a day trip off the island to see the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth, to visit the museum housing the Mary Rose shipwreck, and take a tour of HMS Victory, two of the most famous ships in British history.  It’s been a very nautical winter, and it’s starting to look like spring might be very similar.

 

Adventures

I’ve been out and about exploring the Isle of Wight over the winter, discovering new walks up on the downs and walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Compton Bay.

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Another highlight has been meeting up with an awesome group of ladies through the Love her Wild facebook group for a couple of hikes, and to make plans for some wild camping adventures in the spring.

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Passing Times

Winter is always a good time to enjoy the pleasures of curling up with a book, film or podcast by the fire while the rain beats against the window. Here’s my current obsessions:

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What I read: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, as part of a cosy Midwinter Eve read-along on Twitter, prompted by Robert Macfarlane and Julia Bird.  Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman. A collection of essays, talks and articles on the power of a well-told tale by one of my favourite authors.Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

What I listened to: The Wine and Crime podcast. Three sassy lassies from Minnesota telling tales of drunkeness and cruelty, paired with a fine wine so you can drink along at home.

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What I watched: Oran na Mara* (Song of the Sea). We have a Scots Gaelic / Gáidhlig television channel in the UK, which I’ll occasionally watch and pretend I understand far more than I actually do. But this beautiful animation has such a compelling story that language isn’t really necessary. *The original Irish / Gaeilge version is called Amhrán na Mara.

What I played: My cousin introduced us to the board game Pandemic over Christmas, as a variation from our usual Trivial Pursuit obsession. After we worked out the aim is collaboration and not cut-throat competition, we really loved it.

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Thank you for bearing with me on These Vagabond Shoes. I’ve had a bit of a faff playing around with the look and feel of this blog, and I hope it will all start to seem worth it over the next few months. You can also keep up to date with my adventures (or meanderings and rambling thoughts as it’s mainly been recently) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

 

Here’s to spring and the return of the sun!  What have you been up to over the winter?  Let me know in the comments below.