The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides washes up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of north western Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.
In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree reconts a number of alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War. This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.
The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer. Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid. The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.
Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.
The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood. From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.
Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months. Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.
Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family. The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens. And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.
There was also enough time for a visit to Dundee to explore the new V&A museum, as well as some of my old favourite destinations in the city, like McManus Gallery, Clarke’s bakery and RRS Discovery.
Back in Bedfordshire, I got out and about in the Chilterns often, especially around Dunstable Downs and Ashridge Estate, for long walks, trail runs, and the pleasure of just spending time in the woods, watching the turn of the seasons.
What I’ve done
I set myself a challenge to start the year; undertaking to make time every day to get outside and do some kind of physical activity for Red January, and at the same time to fundraise for Mind, the mental health charity. I live with depression, and through the winter often find there can be more bad days than good, so try to take steps to manage my condition. I’m extremely pleased to say I met both of those goals, and discovered a real love for my weekly Parkrun at Rushmere Country Park at the same time.
In mid-January I headed to Wiltshire, to the Team Rubicon UK HQ, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, on what was possibly the coldest night of the year to pitch a tent. Team Rubicon are a disaster response organisation, working around the world in communities devastated by natural disasters to aid in the immediate aftermath, and to help build resilience against future events. In an intense few days I completed my basic induction to TRUK, and the Domestic Operations training course. I’ve got a blog post coming soon about the experience, and what it might lead to next.
Unseasonably warm weather in late February (as much as 18C, just a week or so after the snow) made it easier to continue getting outside for runs and walks almost every day, and to try my hand at a new pastime; forest bathing, spending time immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland. It was the perfect way to remedy to a stressful couple of weeks while I moved into a new flat.
The first brimstone butterflies, nuthatches tapping on tree trunks, jays, hazel catkins bursting open, showers of hawthorn blossom, and the very first leaves. On warmer, damp evenings frogs and toads are on the move to the nearby pond, and I’ve been out with the local Toad Patrol group, rescuing amorous amphibians attempting to cross the road. Spring is well and truly on the way.
My winter love list
Books: Winter is always the best time to get lost in a good book. Dark evenings and wild weather teamed with a cosy spot to sit and a wee dram. Over the last few months I’ve read Erebus by Michael Palin, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Phillip Hoare, and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Film: The Little Prince, an excellent animation based on the classic children’s book (and standard text for studying French) by Antione de Saint-Exupéry, that explores the idea of wonder, exploration and excitement and how it changes as we grow older.
Clothing: I’m still rocking those toasty warm White Stuff flannel pyjamas at every opportunity, usually teamed with the biggest, softest blanket scarf that my sister got me for Christmas. Its a combo that’s been especially welcome after REDJanuary runs in the rain and sleet.
Equipment: I picked up a new tent in preparation for the TGO Challenge in May. After researching various possibilities and budgets, I decided on the one-person Robens Starlight 1, which seemed ideal. Unfortunately, there was a manufacturing flaw in the tent delivered to me, so after a bit of faffing around trying to get a replacement, I’ve actually ended up with a Wild Country Zephyros 1. I’m hoping to get out soon to put it through it’s paces.
Health: I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements, which have been suggested to help lift a low mood at this time of year. We naturally get it from exposing our skin to sunlight, something that can be hard to come by in higher latitudes in winter.
Treats: My winter treat has been finding a cosy spot to curl up and read, along with a cheeky glass of amaretto and ice. I’ve also found a shot in a flask of coffee is lovely on a cold winter day on the coast (a tip from Ebby the kayaker on the Isle of Wight).
I’ve got a few things already planned for the spring, starting with my first experience of leading walking tours. I’ll be exploring trails in the South Downs National Park and surrounding areas, and sharing the experience with a group on a walking holiday.
Then the TGO Challenge is quickly approaching , with just over two months to train for a self-supported crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east. I’m planning on a few nights of camping, testing out different food for the trek, packing and re-packing my backpack, plus plenty of walking days in preparation.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds in spring.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.
For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.
The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.
Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.
The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.
So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…
…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.
The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.
The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.
Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.
Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.
We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.
As a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there’s a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.
I have several of these stretchy fabric tubes, and they’re some of the most useful things I own. For keeping my ears warm when it’s just not quite a hat day; stopping cold wind creeping down my neck; covering my face as I watch birds through my binoculars on a frosty morning; making sure my windswept hair under stays under control; or just wiping damp camera or phone lenses.
A food flask
After a long day outside in low temperatures, there’s nothing better than a hot, home-cooked meal. Well, perhaps something warm to eat to keep you going during the day, or as you sit out to watch the winter sun go down. I have a wide-mouthed Thermos food flask, which comes with a folding spoon and a large lid. Perfect for soup, stew or a curry.
A portable battery pack
It seems like the cold drains the life from my phone at a ridiculous rate. It’s part of my lone working policy to have a working phone to check-in through the day, and I’d never want to be caught out at the end of the day without a way to call for help if I get into trouble. Plus, I use the camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.
I love my Houdini Sportswear insulated jacket, with primaloft insulation. It’s a perfect mid-layer between my branded ranger polo shirt and outer two-part coat (softshell inner and waterproof outer) for early mornings and late evenings when temperatures drops, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.
Merino wrist warmers and gloves
I need to keep my hands warm while I’m using my binoculars or telescope to watch birds, but also be able to do little fiddly jobs like fastening zips or adjusting focus on my camera easily. So I layer my Rab knit gloves over a pair of merino wrist warmers from Finisterre. Both are fine enough that I could wear under my ski gloves if temperatures really drop, and the wrist warmers keep me warm and let me pick up shells and other strandline treasures from the beach without getting my gloves covered with sand.
In winter I upgrade my usual hiking trousers for a pair of softshell trousers, currently a pair of Craghoppers Kiwi Pro Stretch pants. The water resistant, windproof finish of the fabric makes a huge difference when you spend most of the day out on the coast, with the chance of drizzle, windblown sand, and low temperatures.
What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?