North West Way: One week to go

Exactly one week today, I will be setting off on my North West Way walk from Preston to Carlisle. At the moment, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in and enjoying all of the fantastic scenery and places that I’ll pass along the way. The thought of spending all day, every day outside for 10 days is exciting and I look forward to birding along my way. The walks route will take me through some superb areas of countryside. From along the Ribble Way, Malham Cove and areas of the Yorkshire Dales. Many of the areas and paths that I’ll follow are ones that I haven’t before, therefore I’m very excited.

On the other hand, it’s going to be a challenge. The walk is 191 miles long and I will be doing this over 10 days. Meaning that after I include all the times I’m likely to get lost, on average, I’ll be walking 20 miles a day for 10 days. Along with this, I’ll be stopping in different accommodation every night and have to carry all the clothes and equipment that I’ll need for the 10 days in a rucksack. Physically and mentally, it’s going to be very tough. However, not only will I get to experience and visit some incredible areas, but I’m raising money for a very worthy cause. A cause which I’m very passionate about.

Swifts are superb birds. My favourite! However, this wasn’t always the case. There seems to be a story behind everyone’s favourite bird, by that I mean, why that bird is their favourite. For me, this is due to my trips to Spurn. Spurn is a brilliant place to see swifts on migration. In fact, right now great numbers are passing through daily. I remember on my first trip to Spurn, I joined other birders up at one of the points used to observe visible migration, known as Numpties. Within an hour, I’d seen more swifts then I’d ever seen in a single space of time before. This passage of streamline squawkers sent me into a phase of awe as I began to realise how brilliant they are.

There is no better way to spend a day then counting swifts on migration. Bird after bird, you never get bored, but in fact, more excited as the numbers increase and the thought of where they’re going curdles your mind. When I was revising for my A levels, there was no better way to encourage and motivate working then opening my window and listening to swifts.

It would be a real shame to see a bird favourited and enjoyed by so many decline further. Therefore, the research and work being done by the BTO is incredibly important. I am very pleased with the amount that I have raised so far and very thankful for all the donations I have received. If you haven’t yet, you can donate by clicking this link.

Fair Isle trip: Killer experience

The population of Fair Isle is around 55. On the day that I arrived on Fair Isle, two guests stopping at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory accommodation were getting married. The whole island was invited to their wedding. The turnout was good, but not half as many as those who appeared when a pod of eight killer whales were sighted off the coast of Fair Isle on Wednesday afternoon.

They were first spotted in an area known as North Haven at around 14.20. At this time, I had just finished my lunch and was sat in the Observatory lounge drinking a cup of tea and contemplating what to do with my afternoon. All of a sudden, around the waters’ edge at North Haven, a couple of folk started running back and forth and making a fuss. We knew that something was up. At this point I had no idea what was going on, until someone shouted through the Observatory building ‘Killer Whales, North Haven’.

I had never been in such a panic in all my life. I grabbed the necessaries, my binoculars and coat, and fled down to North Haven. In doing so I tripped over multiple times, there was no time to do laces! The rush was surreal. Trying to describe the excitement at this point is impossible, I was about to see my first killer whale! Not only this, but the pod was only around 100 metres from where I stood. ‘Where I stood’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I could barely stand up, keep still or shut up.

We observed the pod in North Haven from 14.30 until 14.35. In swimming out of view, they left behind a bunch of giddy and breathless observers. Along with an injured seal, which towed itself across the bay before dunking out of view.

15 minutes later, we were treated to a second experience. The pod swam around the headland and into South Haven. There they displayed around the perimeter of the bay before carrying on south. Here, me and my friend Sarah watched from the headland above, meaning we got a bird’s eye view of the whales moving through the water. Flat areas appeared on the surface of the sea, we knew that an appearance was looming. The suspense was unbearable. You knew at any moment one would come into view.

In South Haven, we watched them for around 20 minutes before they continued moving south. This time around, we drove to the south point of the island, where it was highly likely they were going to pass. And there they were. We scrambled down the cliff and across the rocks to get as close as possible to the waters’ edge. Again, they were a matter of metres offshore. Here we had the privilege of watching them for 25 minutes until they disappeared.

The excitement and hysteria of seeing such a fantastic species, and so close, was incredible! Perhaps one of my greatest wildlife experiences.

You can view photos of the pod, taken by FIBO staff, by clicking here.

A video recorded by the FIBO.

Back from the text books

On Thursday morning, I had my last A Level exam. Meaning that I have officially finished school. After spending the last two years pushing and shoving myself through lessons and to commit to my A Levels, this is a huge relief and incredibly exciting. I’m now looking forward to not only what the next few months will hold, but what I’ll be doing post-school.

Over the last few months, I’ve felt as though I’ve been very quiet. Thus, I’ve felt quite guilty about this. Very few and no regular blog posts or writing elsewhere, spending fewer and fewer hours a week on my local patch as the weeks went by and the constant pressure to give up doing the things I love doing to stick my head in text books for hours on end instead. Although this was the ‘necessary’ thing to do so that I could succeed in my revision, pressure so bad that you have to give up what you enjoy doing altogether has its toll. However, it’s all over and hopefully the struggle will have paid off.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that exam results don’t represent anyone’s true intelligence or what they’re capable of achieving. This is a key lesson that I’ve learnt over the last two years. All the information that I retained in my lessons will never match what I’ve learnt when I’ve been out birding, using trail cameras or out walking. If you ask me a question related to what was in my English exam on Thursday in a month’s time, I could almost guarantee that I won’t have a clue what the answer is. Something that reflects this is my predicted grades. In English, I’ll be lucky if I get a C grade, however in a project I completed as part of an AS level (known as an Extended Project Qualification) about the impacts of Nature Deficit Disorder, I’m predicted to get an A grade. The difference being, although I enjoyed English as a subject, I was forced to retain information that may appear in my exam but for my EPQ, I wrote about something that really interests me.

However, I couldn’t keep myself completely absent from everything over the last few months. For a starter, I’ve been practising for my 191-mile trek that I’m doing next month to raise some cash for the BTO’s swift project. Practising has been a great excuse to take a break from my revision, get some exercise and spend some quality time outdoors. From cycling the lanes close to where I live in Staffordshire to long distance practise walks every few weekends. And since the beginning of May, these outings were made even more delightful by the accompaniment of swifts.

So far, I’ve raised over £1000, which I’m thrilled about. This cash will go towards funding the BTO’s swift project, which includes tagging and monitoring them to find out the reasons for the decline that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s incredibly important work. You can read more or support my walk by clicking here.

A momentary moment for me in the last few months, which I didn’t get the chance to blog about at the time, was voting for the first time! Some may remember my multiple blog posts around the time of the EU referendum last year and the 2015 General Election. I wrote about how the way in which the country voted was important when it came to future protection of the natural environment. I also wrote about my disappointment in not having a voice due to not being able to vote. The argument to be able to vote at 16 is a very valid one. Although many believe that young people are either not educated enough about politics or simply don’t care enough to make the right decision, I think after the results of the recent General Election, young people are beginning to prove those who doubted them wrong.

I was pleased with the result too. It was a rare occasion as I felt positive. After losing her majority, Theresa May’s attempt to repeal the Hunting Act has now been torn apart and with rising popularity of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, it gives a glimmer of hope as the end of the Tory government and chaos might be within reach. This could spell the end to the badger cull, bring better protection for the environment post-Brexit and bring in a government that understands and realises the importance of the natural world. Unlike last week’s events when Michael Gove was made secretary for the environment. A man who believes that environmental protection is a nuisance, attempted to remove climate change education from the curriculum whilst he was secretary for education and doesn’t see a problem with pesticides.

In the run up to the General Election, I did manage to attend a few rallies and demonstrations. A few weeks before the General Election, there was a debate on the badger cull following the success of Simon King’s petition that reached over 100,000 signatures. Although it was certain that the result of the debate was unlikely to bring any positive change, I was desperate to make it down to London so that I could join others outside the Houses of Parliament before the debate began. Unfortunately, the attendance of ministers and MPs was as it was expected to be, very poor. As was any ‘debating’ or any outcome. Following the overall uncertainty in the UK and for the government over the last few months, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the cull this year. A few months back, it looked as though it was going to be the worst cull yet with further cull zones across the UK and more freedom for land owners. However, recent events and challenges facing the government could force them to change their minds.

Another interesting march I went on was one of the ‘March for Science’ events that were taking place across the world. The one I attended was in Bristol. It was another excellent day and I was surrounded by passionate individuals fighting for the sake of science and in response to recent actions and comments made by certain individuals, in particular, Donald Trump.

After the success of my peregrine watch at Lichfield Cathedral last year, I decided that it would be wrong not to repeat the events this year. Thus, I put a poster together, sorted some dates and managed to get hold of some optics. This was all with the help of some lovely local birders. We organised three mornings in total, all of which were very successful with many coming to have a look. We were also treated with some brilliant views of the birds. I absolutely loved being out doing these watches. It was brilliant to engage with people who had no idea about the birds being there. But when we told them what they were and after they had a look through the scope, the look on their faces was the best!

Unfortunately, I won’t be in Lichfield to do the watch events at the cathedral next year but I’m sure that they will be taken over by others. This is because I’ll be a student at Hull University from September. Those who know me fairly well will be aware that a reason why I’m so excited to go to Hull is because I’ll be within stones throwing distance of one of my favourite places in the world, Spurn. Whilst taking my exams and during times of intense studying, I spent a lot of time at Spurn. I could revise, take very effective breaks and enjoy decent bouts of birding. On my last trip, a week before my exams started, I had one of the craziest days ever. From sat at a desk revising for my English exam, I walked a matter of steps and saw my first Honey Buzzard! My reward for a mornings hard work.

Now my exams are all over, I have a lot planned over the summer. In fact, whilst writing this post I was on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland on the way to my first stop: Fair Isle. Where I was supposed to arrive this afternoon but due to weather conditions, I won’t be able to get there until Monday at the earliest. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring Shetland, where I’m currently ‘stranded’, tomorrow.

Double mustelids

It hasn’t been since the spring that I’ve properly used my trail cameras and got stuck into filming nocturnal wildlife with them. When I got my first trail camera it started off with filming hedgehogs in my garden, which are still visiting, then moved onto filming at a local badger sett. It then progressed to filming anywhere I thought something interesting may be lurking. This has also included otters, foxes, garden birds and so on. My favourite time to film wildlife with my trail cameras though is overnight. Partly because one of my favourite animals is the badger and it’s also fascinating to know what’s about behind the scenes.

After spending the last few years actively filming a badger sett which was quite a way from my local patch, earlier this year in July whilst exploring a woodland on my patch I was delighted to come across some strange mounds of earth and a selection of holes. Badgers! I was so thrilled to find a sett so close to my house, just a ten minute walk in fact! Unfortunately over the summer I’ve spent more time away from home then I have at home so haven’t had many opportunities to spend time setting trail cameras up at the sett or spend time sat there. However now I’m back at school, I have more time to do so.

The time I spent on Thursday evening on my patch was a bit surreal. Now, my patch isn’t the most interesting place in the world. It’s an area of woodland and farmland that is just on the outskirts of the city I live and backs onto a housing estate. Nevertheless it’s my patch and I enjoy spending time there so to find a badgers sett on it was one of the best moments ever! On Thursday night though, I set out with the intention to put my trail camera up quick then get home as it was already getting dark. Instead of walking through the woodland I decided to cut off onto the field which runs along side as visibility was getting very poor. As soon as I scrambled under the barbed wire fence and brushed myself down, a barn owl appeared in the sky above me. Amazing, the first time I’ve seen a barn owl on my patch for quite a while.

By the time I got to the top of the field and made my way into the woodland where the sett is, it was pretty dark. Whilst I glared at the tree trying to work out how I was going to sett my camera up, at the base something moved. A badger. It looked right at me. Two metres away. Our staring competition must of lasted about 30 seconds before it furiously smelt the air. This continued for about 4 minutes before it established it could relax. I stood solid. The animal sniffled around in the overgrowth around the sett then came back into my view. It was that relaxed it decided to have a wee before rolling over to scratch its belly.

This experience lasted about ten minutes before it casually returned down the sett. I continued to stand still for around five minutes, just encase it decided to return back to the surface. It didn’t so I quickly strapped my camera to the tree and trembled down the path whilst trying to be as invisible as possible. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Not until I got home and sat down did I get my heart rate back to normal.

I was up early yesterday morning to collect my camera. On my way to the sett  I spotted a Goldcrest. I don’t see them very often on my patch. Perhaps one of the first autumn visitors. I didn’t see very much on my way though. Not because it wasn’t there but because I was so eager to collect my trail camera. I do remember a Chiffchaff was still calling though!

Once I’d collected my trail camera this continued as I sprinted home, impatient to see what I’d recorded overnight. Even though I knew it would only be badgers, it was still very exciting. Are there more animals around compared to the last time I filmed them? Have I captured some interesting behaviour? What direction were the animals going off in?

Just my luck, the batteries had played up over night and only recorded five 30 second long videos. Still, I impatiently and randomly made my way through the clips. What was that? Polecat! A Polecat, I’d recorded a Polecat! I couldn’t believe it! A Polecat came into the frame, sniffed around then disappeared behind the left-hand side of the camera frame. This is the first time I’ve recorded one on my trail camera and recorded one on my patch. However I did know of them being in the area. In fact they have quite a healthy population. Quite a few times I’ve seen road casualties on nearby roads, plus I know local wildlife trail cammer’ Kate MacRae has also filmed them around her garden.

Why am I so excited to see that polecats are active on my patch though? Well only recently have Polecat populations began to increase which has resulted in them spreading across England, from Wales. North Wales was once the only stronghold of Polecats as up until the 1930s they were persecuted by gamekeepers due to being considered as a pest. So with numbers bouncing back, it’s important to celebrate a success story.

Here’s the video I got.

And a badger.