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.
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?