Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 11, 2017

From Forest to Mountain to Coast

Due to my, shall we say, sporadic blogging during the Big Trip (due to hit-and-miss access to the internet and a Luddite approach to cutting edge mobile technology!) and bearing down as I now am on the splendours of the West Country, I thought a whistle-stop tour, for those who are interested, through the rest of Scotland and the North might be in order as I struggle to catch up with myself.

From the Loch of Lowes and its beaver we found our way to the Cairngorms…

Cairngorms from Glenmore (scaled)#

The Cairngorms are a very splendid range of mountains on the eastern side of the Highlands, a constant and towering presence over our base for a few days in Glenmore Forest Park.

Cairngorms 8 (scaled)

Their lofty elevations mean that the highest reaches are the haunt of many a creature closely associated with our montane habitats. This mountain pass – Lairig Ghru – echoed to the croaking calls of Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta – that so very hardy member of the grouse family) and did we hear the piping strains of that montane plover, the Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus), ringing out elusively above us as we ascended?

Ring Ouzel - male 2 (scaled)

The Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) is less restricted to mountainous terrain, but is very much a bird of the uplands, weather mountain or moor.

Glenmore - native pinewood 3 (scaled)

Glenmore itself, while much planted with alien conifers, still contains remnants of beautiful Caledonian Pinewood. This indigenous woodland, dominated by native Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), would once have covered vast tracts of the post-glacial Scotland.

With some deliberation on where to head next, the draw of the west was too strong.  Via a detour through the exceedingly beautiful Glen Affric we pitched up at Glenuig, a tiny village on the west coast…

Glenuig 2 (scaled)

The view from the van pretty much says it all.

Glenuig 5 (scaled)

It is a place of surprises, where the rugged hills may give way to verdant woodland and even the odd sandy beach.

Common Gull (scaled)

Being so used to seeing the Common Gull (Larus canus) as a wintering bird on the Essex coast at home, the appearance of the clean-cut, rather elegant summer bird took a bit of getting used to. Not seeing them for yourself and being accustomed to the more ruggedly attired winter gull, Seton Gordon’s (a 20th century Scottish Naturalist) description of “fairy-like grace” could seem a bit of a nonsense.

We hauled ourselves away from Glenuig and made for wonder that is the fabulous Glen Coe…

Glen Coe 8 (scaled)

Glen Coe is just magnificent mountain country, of which the pass of Allt Coire Gabhail is just a small and stunning part. It is the realm of Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), which we have been fortunate enough to watch twice here.

Red Deer - Glen Coe 2 (scaled)

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) inhabit the glen occasionally allowing for excellent photo opportunities, like this stag developing his velvety antlers.

Loch Leven sunset 2 (scaled)

And the sunsets from the village……!!

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 17, 2017

The Big Trip visits Beaver Country

Loch of Lowes (scaled)

Loch of Lowes, Perth and Kinross. Ross Gardner 2017.

The first port of call heading north out of Edinburgh was the Loch of Lowes.  The Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve here is justly well-known for its breeding Osprey, which indeed was a principle reason for our visit.  When chatting with a member of staff at the visitor centre we were somewhat surprised to hear that, along with a wealth of other wildlife, there are Beaver here too!

The formally indigenous Eurasian Beaver has been reintroduced to Scotland (as well as parts of Devon), after 500 year absences, having been hunted to extinction in the 16th Century.  Despite some concerns over negative environmental impacts as regards tree damage and flooding as a result of their dam-building activities, following an extensive trial they have been officially welcomed onto the British mammals list.  Their effects on the countryside are actually potentially hugely beneficial.  The gnawing and felling of trees is essentially one of nature’s own ways of coppicing and can favourable modify the wider landscape by helping to naturally create diverse habitats for wildlife.  Also, the dams which they build can help to moderate water flow and help to ameliorate the risk of flooding for human populations down-river.  There are apparently  now some 200 living happily in the Tayside area of Scotland, with others elsewhere in the country.

Imagine our delighted surprise when we managed to lay eyes on one of these huge rodents as it swam across the lock that evening.  We resolved to return again early next morning and were reward again for our 5 o’clock start with even better views close to the hide.  It was just a shame that in my continued getting used to the new camera I had it, without realising, on the wrong setting and so the photos aren’t what they might have been.  But hey-ho, it’s all about the experience – the pics are really just a bonus.

Castor fiber

Eurasian Beaver (Castor fiber) at Loch of Lowes. Ross Gardner 2017.


Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 11, 2017

Take a seat

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. Ross Gardner 2017.

The presence of Arthur’s Seat (alongside the rocky face of the Salisbury Crags) in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park has long intrigued me.  It may rise only to 251metres above sea-level, but other than this modest altitude it assumes a shape and presence every bit as mountainous as many more lofty summits further north.  That such a wild and rugged place should be located in the middle of a capital city is wonderfully incongruous, all the more so when one considers that it is actually the remnants of a long-extinct volcano.  Rock samples haver been dated back to more than 300 million years ago.

What remains is somewhere in the city inhabited by kestrel and crag-nesting jackdaw, even haunted by the occasional buzzard.  With gorse scrub home to stonechat and summer-visiting whitethroat and where weasel maraud the small mammal residents.  That gorse, by the way, was a spectacle in itself on our early-May visit, a swathe of yellow blossom like we could scarcely remember seeing before, punctuated only by the movements of chaffinch and linnet among the spines.  The scent of coconut was rich in the air.

Arthur's Seat view (scaled)

View from the summit with gorse-clad slopes. Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 5, 2017

Across the border

St Abb's Head

St Abbs Head, Scottish Borders. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

The first port of call having crossed into Scotland was the craggy coastline of St Abbs Head, not much more than a dozen miles out of England.  The village of St Abbs is named after St Aebbe, the daughter of Aethelfrith, a 6th/7th century king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernica.  After he was defeated and killed in battle the family fled in exile to Western Scotland, where Aebbe and her brothers were later converted to the Christian faith.  She went on the found two monasteries near the Scottish town of Coldingham, one of which became St Abbs

After probably the briefest of whistle-stop histories, it was to the towering cliffs of the National Nature Reserve that drew us to the historic little village.  We had already seen some fine cliff-top scenery on our journey up.  St Abbs though, has a particularly rugged quality to it, with its robust-looking, weather hardened rock faces, that almost seem clenched into the face of the weather and waves

It is well known for it’s seabirds colonies.  At the beginning of May it was still a little early for breeding to be full swing.  A few Herring Gull looked to be sitting on nests while others we saw were collecting nesting material from nearby fields.  A Shag had taken up residence in a small, almost made-to-measure alcove in a sheltered face of the cliffs.  All the while Kittiwake and Fulmar wheeled over the waves, no doubt in the process of initiating their own preparations.

For others it was a time of reconvening social habits in readiness for season ahead.  Guillemot were the most numerous bird here.  Many hundreds were already gathering on the cliffs and on the swell below them.  There were a few Razorbill too, but it was their close cousins that dominated the scene.

Uria aalge

Guillemot (Uria aalge) – a bird with a head for heights. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Unlike the Razorbill, Guillemot are true cliff-edge nesters, favouring some of the most precipitous ledges on which to lay eggs and brood young.  Their eggs are famously and distinctively adapted for such heady situations.  The bottom-heavy, pointed shape means that if the egg is disturbed, rather than drop off onto the rocks below, it instead rolls safely in a tight circle.

Uria aalge en masse

Guillemot crowding onto the guano covered cliffs. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner

Posted by: Ross Gardner | June 2, 2017


Dunstanburgh Castle

As my blogging catch up with The Big Trip continues I was going to make literary haste up the coast from Yorkshire to north of the border where we have spent most of the last month.  It would though, be remiss of me to pass along the Northumberland coast without mention of the Razorbill.  The Razorbill, for those unfamiliar them, is species of auk.  They are seabirds with a penchant cliff ledges and rocky crevices on or within which the female will lay her single egg.  Despite a recent decline in numbers there are still 130,000 pairs breeding around the coasts of Britain where sufficiently rocky coastlines are to be found.

Our close encounter with them however, was rather a surprise.  It was to Dustanburgh Castle that we had walked, a very pleasant mile stroll from the village of Craster.  On gaining entry we were informed of the whereabouts of the seabird colony where we could get good views of the birds, with particular mention of the Kittiwake.  Interesting!  The fairly intact ruins of the castle are a striking feature and a most worthwhile diversion in their own right, but I was, perhaps unsurprising, quite excited to spot a Razorbill within camera range.

I struggled to get a close as I could within plummeting into the waves and was moderately satisfied with my slightly hazy shots.  These, it turned out, would become quite academic.  A short way along the cliff path and behind the safety of the fence I found myself within 10 metres of the birds, which allowed for many happy minutes catching the following images.

Razorbill (scaled)

Razorbill (Alca torda) – the origin of the name can clearly be seen. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Razorbill billing (scaled)

Razorbills pair for life and engage in much courtship during breeding periods. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Alca torda

Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Alca torda group

It’s not all peace and harmony though. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 29, 2017

The Big Trip

The Van

Our home for the summer. Ross Gardner 2017.

My first post for many weeks, but this time with a better excuse than simply not getting round to it.  On April 29th the big trip began!  A year’s worth of travelling, first of all touring the UK living in our camper van, and then heading out in the autumn to Borneo, New Zealand and beyond.  We have spent May mostly in Scotland, where coinciding decent Wi-Fi connectivity and electricity connection proved tricky than expected, especially being the smart phone luddite that I am.  A shall attempt to make up for lost time.

A swiftish journey up the east coast was the way forward, which took in the wonderful landscapes of the North York Moors and the Northumberland coast and hill-country.  The first experience of the former was at the very fine coastal scenery of Ravenscar, with its clifftops overlooking the famous Robin Hood Bay.  The plan was to walk up to and around said bay,  but for something of a distraction.  It turns out that there is something of a seal colony at Ravenscar, which we decided to investigate along our route.  Now, I have seen many a seal over the years and while I always enjoy a good seal sighting, this turned out to be something rather different.

Phoca vituline

Common Seal (Phoca vitulina) close-up. Ross Gardner 2017

Having come to the rocky shore at the foot of the cliffs you find yourself quite literally among the colony.  Within a few moments we passed within metres of one Common Seal and clambering among the rocks soon discovered that there were dozens scattered all over.  I frequently found myself apologising as blundered too close to a hidden animals which was quick to express its chagrin at my intrusion.  It felt rather wrong to be within such close quarters with these wild animals.  It just so happened that we bumped into a Marine Mammal Medic and very much an expert on his charges.  I expressed my concerns, but he put my mind at rest.  He explained that it’s about people experiencing things, being educated and passing on their knowledge.

We do though, need to apply some common sense.  He reminded us that the seals will soon let us know if we’re too near to them and that they should not be approached too closely.  This is for their benefit and ours; they are wild, predatory animals that are quite able to defend themselves.  There were both Common and Grey Seals present.  We were told that there is a problem with the tourists getting to close to pups of the latter.  Common Seals are born ready for the sea.  The Greys however, are not.  They must be weaned.  Folk often like to have their picture taken with a cute, white furry seal pup, but when tainted by the scent of humans the mother will desert the young, helpless seal.  Clearly not good!  Both species, just like anything else, deserve our respect.

It was a different and fascinating experience of animals I have often be fortunate enough to see, enhanced further by meeting someone so knowledgeable and enthusiastic to share what they know.

Halichoerus grypus

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) bull – not to be messed with. Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 24, 2017


The splendidly open landscape of West Canvey Marshes bears the change of season into the now firmly entrenched spring as much as any.  The thick thorny hedges belong now not only to the Dunnock, Reed Bunting and other small birds that stayed put through the winter, but also the Africa-returning Whitethroat bringing their scratchy but no less appealing warble once again to the soundscape.  The wandering trill of the Skylark may have been drifting above the open fields since the spring opened an eye during those bright days of late-February, but now they may be joined by the twitter of Swallows, swooping and scooping up the tiny insects that abound.

And the gatherings of wintering duck are no more.  The 700 hundred odd Wigeon have altogether disappeared and there isn’t a Shoveler to be seen, while Teal numbers are reduced to a straggling few.  It is easy to sound as if all this is somewhat regrettable, but not a bit of it.  Spaces and vacated just as others are filled.  The few Teal that remain might soon be gone to their breeding grounds, but the others may well stick around, or find some other corner of these of these Thames-side marshes that thankfully spread further even than the bounds of this RSPB nature reserve.

Anas crecca

Teal (Anas crecca) – male. Ross Gardner 2017.

A bright spring sun gleams the chestnut and green head colours of the little drake Teal dabbling on the open freshwater, as indeed it also does for the more uniform green of the Mallard’s.  More so in terms of the very familiar latter, this can be somewhat overlooked beauty.  A pair of Gadwall float by and the apparently duller grey plumage of the drake is given sharp relief, revealing a delicacy of texture belied by first impressions.  Once again, his (and indeed hers) are perhaps qualities easily overlooked, but lifted and brought more clearly by the easy warmth of the spring sunshine and the time and inclination to not take things too much for granted.

Anas strepera

Gadwall (Anas strepera) – male. Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | April 12, 2017

Various Leavings


Various Leavings

Outside my door I sometimes find
A curlew gargling in some
Marshy corner I can’t quite see.
Or a woodpecker exchanging trees
For telegraph poles.
Or a time-machine and listening
For a World War bomb
Plummeting to earth.
Or just a starling splattering
Guano over my car.

Starling on aerial 3

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Ross Gardner 2017.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 29, 2017

The never humble bumble

Whilst walking the other day and enjoying the many and various delights of spring’s beginning getting into full swing it was the bumblebees, on this occasion, that caught the imagination the most.  To read the natural history texts of the late-19th/early 20th century would find mention of the humblebee, as was the term back in those days.  I am quite sure nothing derogatory was implied by the name.  Indeed, rather than being drawn from any perceived lowly position within the web of life, it has been suggested and without to much of a leap of conjecture, that it could have been derived from the Latin term humus (the earth, ground) or humi (on the ground) as an observation of many species tendency to nest under, on or near the ground.  It might even have simply been a reference to the loud humming sound they make when they fly.

Whatever is the truth of the matter, humble they are not.  They are, after all and like many other insects, the pollinators of many a food-crop.  And while they might not create quite the architectural wonders of the wax-sculpting honey bees and the paper-forming wasps, their own rather more homely jumble of waxen cells still allows the wonders of insect society to develop and flourish just the same.

The queen bumblebees are on the very pictures of seasonal diligence during these early weeks of spring.  Having mated the previous year before going into hibernation, they emerge first to feed and replenish and then to search out a place to found a colony.  For some this will be a hole in the ground, for others perhaps dense, grassy tussock.  Hence we see them scouring the ground and searching among the topographies of the landscape invisible to mere human eyes.

Bombus terrestris

The pollen-smothered Buff-tailed Bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) might seek out an old mouse-hole for a nest-site. Ross Gardner 2015.

Bombus hypnorum

The Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) prefers to nest away from the ground, such in the cavities of trees and even vacant bird nest-boxes. Ross Gardner 2009.

Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 16, 2017

The meaning of frogness

The frog rises to the surface

By the strength

Of its non-attachment.

Naito Joso, 1662-1704

Rana temporaria

Common Frog (Rana temporaria): a spring return – spawn and all – to the garden pond. Copyright 2017 Ross Gardner.

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