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’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.
Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund. I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavnfor a week longer than expected.
The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales. Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars. And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.
I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now. I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town. And Portuguese food is pretty good too.
Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.
What I’ve done:
Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park. It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.
I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month. So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing. Watch this space for more news.
I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter. I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.
Do bears run in these woods?
Parkrun timing chip
My autumn love list:
Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read. But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind. An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.
Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin. Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history. With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period. Which brings me on to…
Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews. The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.
Dressed for the chill
What I’ve loved this autumn
Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season. That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab. I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.
Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most. As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.
I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about. It’s one of my cold weather essentials.
Treats: Autumn always means mince pies. They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season. I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.
I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family. I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.
I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides. In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east. Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two. This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. Let me know in the comments below.
The name Norway derives from Nordvegen, the north route, a network of sheltered sounds, straits and fjords along the country’s coast providing a shipping route protected from the wild North and Norwegian Seas. Karmsund, the narrow channel between the mainland and the island of Karmøy, a Viking stronghold, was the final part of the route we’d follow before emerging into the open water of Boknafjorden, north of Stavanger.
We make our approaches to Haugesund shortly before 4am, following a couple of large supply vessels into the port, and picking up the sector lights of the first of the channel markers. Unlike previous night’s sailing, this was pilotage, picking out lights marking the edge of the channel and counting off the buoys, and in familiar water (I sailed here on Draken Harald Hårfagre in the summer of 2013).
Skudeneshavn lies less than 30km as the crow flies from Utsira island
The wind strength beginning to build through the day
The wind had died away in the evening, and Karmsund was millpond flat in the lee of the island. With first light we picked up the beginning of the open water swell, rolling in across from the North Sea ahead of the coming weather system, and at the 7am watch change, we handed over a slate grey sea streaked with white horses, and the news that we’d put into Skudeneshavn rather than try to run ahead of the storm for Lerwick or Peterhead.
Entry into Skudeneshaven is through a channel, only 30 metres at the narrowest just past the lighthouse at Vikeholmen. After a couple of hours punching into the swell we find our line into the harbour, and start dropping sails for arrival. I’m sent to the bowsprit to call distances and look out for traffic in the harbour (I’m rubbish at estimating distances) as rain starts to sheet down.
Skudeneshavn was bustling herring port in the 18th and 19th century, a boom town during the age of sail, where fishing and shipping brought wealth to the locals and drew in workers from the rest of the region. Now traditional herring drifters in the harbour have given way to vast oil rig supply ships and small leisure boats.
We slide into the wind shadow of an immense oil rig supply ship with a helipad several stories above the tip of our mast, and try to find a berth big enough for the ship. The harbour narrows down, lined with old buildings, and small boats are tied up on every quay. The wind pushes us to one spot, and we quickly make fast, though this involves running up one lane and down another, and hopping into a garden.
The old town, Gamle Skudeneshavn, is a winding warren of narrow cobbled lanes, quays and jetties, and traditional whitewashed timber buildings, built by the master boatbuilders that were based here, in a tight jumble around the water’s edge. The town still bustles through the summer, as a popular holiday getaway from nearby Stavanger, and the host of several heritage festivals, including Skudefestivalen, the largest traditional boat gathering in western Norway.
In late autumn, the streets and the shore are far quieter, as weather systems sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean bringing regular wind squalls and rain showers. Coastal walks become bracing, but there’s always a cosy corner in town to find hot coffee and waffles to warm up.
As the crow flies, we’re less than 15 nautical miles from the island of Utsira, imagined remote and stormbound yet so familiar from the Shipping Forecast, that regular incantation that masters the weather for mariners. Violent storm 11 is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. We’ll be staying here in harbour for some time.
This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of vitamin sea.
Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end. So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…
Sailing Alone Around the World – Captain Joshua Slocum
The single-handed circumnavigation of the globe Slocum made on his sloop Spray was the first time such a voyage had been made. Sailing more than 46,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once, long before radar and satellite, the understated and direct writing isn’t overwhelmed by the extraordinariness of the achievement.
The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl
This is my most favourite book ever, and I first read it when I was around 10 years old. More about the adventure than sailing, this is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions taking a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Peru to the Tuamoto archipelago. I was really interested by the way the crew handled the challenges, excitement, danger, and boredom of the voyage.
We, the Drowned – Carsten Jensen.
I loved this book, but I think it will be a challenge to explain why. The story of the seafarers of Marstal, Denmark, from the golden age of sail to the end of the Second World War, from Scandinavia to North America to the islands of the South Pacific. Despite the epic scope of the book, the pacing is tight, and twists and turns in the plot unexpected. The writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the book is rich in historic detail, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
A classic children’s book set in the English Lake District in the 1920s, this is the tale of an idyllic summer of adventures, friendship, and imagination for the children of two families and their sailing dinghies. Nancy Blackett is my childhood hero, and after watching the film so many times, I can’t run through a meadow without throwing in a tack.
The Brendan Voyage – Tim Severin
Using medieval texts as a guide, experimental archaeologist, adventurer and writer Severin constructed an ox-hide curragh and traces what may have been the first European landfall in North America, around 500 years before Norse settlements and a thousand years before Columbus. Weathering storms and treacherous conditions, close encounters with marine life, and living in the most basic of conditions. A truly remarkable undertaking, and an insight into medieval boatbuilding technology that is little heard about.
The Last Grain Race – Eric Newby
In 1938, Newby, then aged 18, quit his job at an advertising firm, and signed-on as crew on the windjammer Moshulu, to sail from Ireland to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back again via Cape Horn. The Great Grain Race of 1939 was the last, with the outbreak of war later in the year. Life at sea was hard, physically and mentally, and tensions grow with the weather. Bawdy anecdotes of brawls and benders are balanced out with lush, lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The book helpfully includes a sail plan and rigging diagram so you can keep track of topgallants, flying jibs and spankers.
One Wild Song – Paul Heiney
Writer and broadcaster Heiney’s son Nicholas, a keen sailor and poet, took his own life aged 23 after years of living with depression. Together with his wife, journalist and sailor Libby Purves, Heiney pays tribute to Nicholas, and aims to connect with happier memories, by setting out for Cape Horn, considered the Everest of sailing. A powerful and moving account of processing grief, beautifully written and thought provoking.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – Dava Sobel
For centuries seafaring navigators could fix their latitude accurately with a sextant, but the calculation of longitude was far more prone to error. The British Admiralty established a prize for the first person to develop a technique, thus ensuring their continued naval superiority, leading to John Harrison’s forty-year quest to build the most reliable chronometer of the time. A classic of the history of science.
This Thing of Darkness – Harry Thompson
A fictionalised life of Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Royal Navy, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, this superbly written book is captivating from the start, and filled with historic details. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to chart the coasts of South America, and introduces a young Charles Darwin, trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss, debate, observe, and speculate, on a range of themes, until profound differences in their beliefs eventually drives a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their receptions by society on their return.
Against the Flow: The First Woman to Sail Solo the ‘Wrong Way’ around the World – Dee Caffari
More people have walked on the moon than have made a successful solo westabout circumnavigation, against prevailing winds and currents, and in 2006 Dee Caffari was the first woman to do so. Stepping out of the comfort of a secure job, to face physical hardship, sleep deprivation, and the unpredictability of the weather, this is an inspiring account of her adventure.
Have you enjoyed any of these books?
Which salty adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
You’ve booked a once-in-a-lifetime voyage on a beautiful sailing ship, and started dreaming about life during the golden age of sail or even rounding the Horn in a force nine. But as your date of departure cruises closer, what do you actually need to pack?
I’ve sailed on a few tall ships; short voyages around western Europe, island hopping in the Pacific, on long ocean crossing passages, and in the Tall Ships races, so from my experience, here are some recommendations to add to your packing list.
How to pack
Space on a sailing ship is limited, so think carefully about what you bring, and how you bring it. Forget stuffing things into a hard-shelled rolling suitcase, there’s usually nowhere to stow it onboard. Instead, pack a collapsible holdall or duffle bag, which can be rolled up when not in use. Waterproof bags aren’t usually necessary, but it might be worth investing in one if you sail on smaller vessels too. I love my Helly Hansen 90L duffel bag. It’s big enough for everything I need, plus things I pick up on the voyage, and being orange, I always find it on the luggage carousel at the airport.
Packing cubes or small lightweight drybags help keep things organised inside your main bag. I have a variety of sizes and colours; it’s not the most coordinated look, but I can easily grab what I need.
What you might need
Each ship is different, and it’s important to keep in touch with the organisation after booking to get the best understanding of the set-up on board. They should all be able to provide you with a kit list to help you prepare.
Some ships provide hammocks for sleeping while others have bunks; most will provide you with the bedding you’ll need, although some smaller boats may ask you to bring a sleeping bag. Most training ships will also have sets of foul weather gear and waterproof boots for you to borrow for your time on board.
All the safety gear essential for your voyage will be provided by the ship.
There’s several things that I always take on my sailing adventures, but things to keep me warm, dry, and comfortable are the first to go in my bag.
Foul weather gear. I have a Helly Hansen sailing jacket and salopettes. Fisherman-style oilskins are great for keeping you dry, but lack the insulation of sailing gear, so you’ll need additional warm layers underneath.
Waterproof boots. Dry, warm feet make life better, without question. Most ships also insist on closed-toe shoes on deck, and sturdy soles are better for climbing in the rigging, so I usually pack a pair of trail shoes too.
Windproof jacket. It’s always a bit cooler at sea, and a lightweight windproof jacket will make watches more comfortable when there’s not quite the need for full foul weather gear.
Hat, scarf, and gloves. Night watches get chilly, especially when you’re not moving around much. A hat and scarf or buff keep out the cold, and are easy to take off again when the sun comes up. I don’t like wearing sailing gloves to handle ropes, but warm gloves make steering more comfortable when its windy.
Sunglasses and sunblock. Sunlight still passes through cloud cover, and it gets reflected back off the water, so you get a much higher exposure than usual. I use factor 30 sunblock minimum, more usually factor 50 (I’m very pale and Scottish), and wear sunglasses most of the time. I also take a stick that I can slip in my pocket to reapply regularly to my lips, nose and ears while I work on deck. Use a cord to secure your glasses, especially if you’re keen to climb in the rigging.
Towel. For shore leave on a deserted island or drying off after a mind-blowing swim hundreds of miles from land. It’s best to leave the fluffy towels at home and find one that’s quick drying and/or lightweight, like my hammam towel.
Headtorch. An important item for moving around the ship on night watches. One with a red light is recommended to preserve night vision.
There’s also a few additional things that can make life on board more comfortable.
Refillable water bottle. The combination of sunlight, wind and salt air is really dehydrating. While at sea you get an idea of the scale of the plastic problem in the world’s oceans, so taking a refillable bottle is just a small step you can make to help.
Sleep mask and earplugs. Sleep is so important, especially if you’re waking up for the midnight to 4am watch. I find that silicon earplugs are more effective than synthetic, blocking out more of the surrounding sound, and a buff does a great job doubling as an eye mask.
Power bank. Not all ships have a 24-hour power supply for charging devices, so a power bank will provide the juice needed to keep your phone, camera, kindle, e-cigarette and so on from running out just when you need them most. An international adapter is essential if the ship’s home port is in a different zone to where you purchased your electronics.
Something to read. A kindle, tablet, or a real book; something to get lost in between the busy periods on board. A book has the added benefit that you can swap it with others in the crew once you finish. Try one of these suggestions.
A journal. I always keep a travel journal, and it’s a wonderful way to record and reflect on your experiences. Write, sketch, and note information from the ships’ log to add to your own memories of the voyage.
Travel insurance. Look for one that specifically covers tall ship or offshore sailing.
A knife. Sailors should always carry a knife (according to a colleague, a sailor without a knife is just a spectator). Just be sure to leave it out of your hand luggage if you have to take a flight to meet your ship.
Things you enjoy. Knitting needles and yarn, a sketchbook, twine for practicing knots, playing cards, binoculars and a wildlife guide. Something to do in your downtime.
For many voyages it’s not a problem to pick things up locally in ports on the way, letting you cut down to just a few essentials in your backpack. On longer passages you may be at sea for a considerable length of time between ports, with little chance to pick up things you might forget, so products need careful consideration.
All but the smallest of ships have showers on board, however the availability of water may be limited on longer voyages by the size of water tanks or the capacity of the water maker. I pack a reusable cleansing cloth and bar soap with my usual toiletries to keep fresh, rather than single-use wipes that result in more waste.
Although washing water can be restricted seawater is abundant, and I love to swim, so a leave-in conditioner spray keeps my hair manageable between washes, protecting it from the salt and sun.
When it comes to sanitary items, it’s important to think carefully about the products you bring. Waste management is an important matter onboard a ship, and nothing should be flushed in the toilets (sanitary waste really should not be flushed at home either). If you use applicator tampons, then they should have non-plastic applicators, which are easier to dispose of, and don’t contribute to plastic waste generated every day.
Comfort moving around the ship is your main priority, so take things you feel good in. It’s always more exposed out at sea, so ensure you pack long-sleeved shirts or sweaters and long trousers, even if you’re heading for a sunshine destination to meet the ship.
Take a set of thermal tights and a long-sleeved top for blue water passages and colder climes. Even in the height of summer it can be chilly around the British and Irish Isles.
Flip flops or sliders are great for below decks, going back and forth between showers and bunks, chilling out in the saloon or bar, and shore visits to the beach. I usually live in my flip flops, but many ships discourage open shoes and bare feet on deck.
If you’re going to be working on the ship, helping out with the repairs and maintenance that keep the vessel going, be sure to pack clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. There’s always a good chance that a job might involve paint, rust treatment, tar or grease. Some ships may also ask you to bring your own safety footwear for this kind of work.
This is what I can’t do without, but is there anything you think I’ve missed?
What do you consider essential for a sailing trip?
For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.
Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.
So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…
The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive. Find it here.
Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell
I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental. You can buy it here.
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery
Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world. Get the book here.
Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare
I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist. You can find it here.
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot
It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile. Buy it here.
Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey
Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters. Find it here.
Winter Count – Barry Lopez
This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature. Get the book here.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this. Buy the book here.
The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky
I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography. Get it here.
My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one. Pick it up here.
Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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?