This list started with my top 5 moments, but after about thirty seconds I gave up and extended the list…
10. The Only Birder in the Country to get a tick, Flamborough Head, Yorkshire
The Rare Bird Alert Pager was flashing on the sideboard. Swiftly I was bundled into a car full of birders and heading north up the A1. This wasn’t just a mega; this was phenomenal (apparently…): a possible Atlas flycatcher hanging out in Yorkshire.
We arrived, and the bird was easily visible. Beautifully black and white, small, elegant. There was debate – An Atlas flycatcher was one option, a hybrid collared flycatcher was another frustrating possibility, but either way it was one of the best days birding I’ve ever had, being my first visit to a seabird colony – puffin, guillemot, razorbill and gannet, as well as my first tree sparrows. Conveniently, the Flycatcher was caught in a mist net, and even more conveniently, a couple of feathers fell out in the hand and were swiftly dispatched to be tested. No one would have guessed the results ten days later… a simple, humble (and common visitor to our shores) pied flycatcher. No matter for me – either way it was a tick, not to mention a fantastic day out. I’m not sure anyone else agreed….
It appeared quite suddenly from beneath the hide. Surprisingly (usually my powers of observation are slight), I was the first to spot it, and even more surprisingly, I squealed the correct species. ‘Pine marten!’
It had been beneath our feet the whole time. Now it glided out into the open, advancing on the artfully arranged logs that made up the feeding station at the Aigas Field Centre. I was struck by the aesthetics of this slender creature. It is one of the largest mustelids found in the forested areas of Britain (in this case in Scotland) as well as being arguably the most beautiful. The colouration reminded me of an orange cream Quality Street, with a deep cocoa body, and a tangerine-apricot bib dribbled with splodges of molten chocolate.
As the light faded, so did the marten. As all wildlife encounters draw to an inevitable close, you can be left with many emotions. With the pine marten, it left me with a feeling of contentment, gratitude, and even though it had stayed upwards of ten minutes, also melancholy, of wanting just one minute more, a few second even to appreciate every little bit of this creature.
8. Making a Splash, Fort George, Inverness
The dolphins of the Firth of Forth are famous for their easily accessible acrobatics, but still nothing could have prepared me for the stunning spectacle that was to unfurl before my eyes. We were, unfortunately, poorly positioned, having chosen an area close to the airport, but the experience was no less dramatic. Several, maybe eight or nine bottlenose dolphins, breached, either one after the other or in groups, and then, without warning, they began to hurl themselves out the water. Never have marine mammals been so accessible, nor so showy, to my eyes. Grey, mysterious and sleek shapes spinning and turning, dancing, rising, sinking. A privileged glimpse into a watery world, two strangers meeting if only for a moment.
7. The Curious Incident of the Toad in the Night-time, Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, Norfolk
North Norfolk, a warm summer’s evening sometime in July, with the sunset casting long shadows in the sand. Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust is our precise location, right by the entrance to the reserve; we’ve only stepped out of the car briefly to scan for bats, and to take a last look at the beautiful shifting seascape before heading back to Leicestershire. The last visitors to the reserve are drifting away to their own homes, or no doubt to the nearest pub.
Incidentally, my evening had consisted of prioritising the aforementioned pub over my natural history and two pints no longer seemed like such a good idea.So I did what any true naturalist would do: followed the path into the increasingly dark dunes, found a secluded spot, and (at the risk of sounding crass) dropped ‘em.
The first two points of my strategy went according to plan; the third, however, caused something of a predicament. As I lowered myself (it’s a lot more difficult for girls), a slight movement caught my eye in the sand no more than a foot away. It was squat, dark, and crawling very rapidly towards the sound of running water. I swung the light of my phone up, and there before me was one of Britain’s rarest amphibians: the natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita) .
6. BTO 79th Annual Conference, Swanwick, Derbyshire
The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, was transformed into a delectable mishmash of innovative ideas, dynamic discussion and inspirational individuals, all brought together in the BTO 79th Annual Conference. The talks were interesting and informative, the company was witty and intellectual (I exclude myself here – I was slurred to say the least), the wine was fine and the whisky flowing in copious quantities.
The BTO is an example of an NGO working to accommodate new audiences. Their science is accessible, and I am well aware that by understanding their work I can improve my own. There is another element as well, involving their attitude towards younger members, but more of that tomorrow. They are dynamic in their attitudes towards other NGOs, as demonstrated by Debbie Pain’s Friday evening talk, Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which highlighted the partnership between many organisations. There is something a little bit sexy as well about the BTO; when you approach their stand at Birdfair, you feel as if you are being welcomed as a long lost friend, and it is a great credit to any Director who stands alongside his staff and volunteers in the same poloshirt, ready and willing to talk to as many different people as possible.
5. A Magical Moment at Midnight
Well not quite midnight, but close enough. I’ve always been a staunch supporter of combining nature and socialising, especially in pubs, and a summers evening in Compton Martin near Chew Valley Lake was no exception. This time, after chatting to our neighbours on the next table, we discovered to our delight that they had a roost of Lesser Horseshoe Bats in their outhouse.
On our following trip, we stopped by their beautiful rectory house as the sun was setting. We were led swiftly to the back garden, and peered into the growing darkness; in the shadows we couldn’t make out the animals, but being conscious that it is illegal to disturb these little creatures, we were cautious with our torch. Instead, an outside light was turned on, as well as a borrowed bat detector. The high-pitched chattering emitting from the box was like nothing I’ve ever heard before; unrelenting, chaotic and hypnotic. As the bats moved closer to the entrance, we began to make out their forms; they hung like plums from the ceiling, spinning slowly with their tiny eyes catching the light. We turned off the light and the detector, and stood motionless and silent. Starting as a trickle, and then turning into a flood, the bats streamed out, inches from our faces. Darting shapes and a slight breeze as they zipped past was all that we could see, before they dispersed into the night.
4. Taming of the Shrew, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly
‘We’ve got one’.
I had never moved so fast. I was dressed within minutes, and hurrying out of the door and into the pounding rain. You see, with the aid of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, I was about to get my first glimpse of a Lesser White-toothed Shrew, or ‘Scilly Shrew’, a long desired encounter that I had worked bloody hard for. Calls had been put out on the local radio station, amusing anecdotes from locals exchanged, and I had now resorted to begging random strangers in the street for any information. But now, it was happening – my friend had a Scilly Shrew. Even with a licence we had to be swift, so within seven and a half minutes I was knocking on her front door. The tiny, yet ferocious creature was examined from a distance (I valued my fingers too much to go near), before being carefully re-released where we had found it.
And now the irony – possibly the most location specific shrew living in Britain, was the first one I have ever had a good look at.
3. Karma Lutra Lutra, Aigas Dam, Beauly
There are few things that I’d get up at 04:15 for, but it just so happens that my first sighting of a wild otter is one of those things. The fog was thick over the river and the dam, so that we could only just make out the opposite shore. Foolishly, my companion and I split up to search. I was scanning along the banks when I was alerted a short sharp whistle from near the dam, and I rushed as quietly as possible along the path. For a few seconds we lost the creature in the water; dejectedly I peered straight down, and less than twenty feet below me perched on a smooth rock was the sleek mustelid, clutching a large salmon in its paws.
We watched the creature for hours as it patrolled the waters, disappearing a couple of times for many minutes, before reappearing as a dark shape slicing through the river. This was a moment I had waited for since childhood, since I had first read Tarka the Otter, and it couldn’t have been more intimate, secret and natural if it had been staged.
2. Birdfair 2012, Egleton, Rutland Water
If I were to describe the whole of Birdfair it would take a book, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Birdfair is one of the highlights of my summer, and this year was extra special as it was the launch of A Focus On Nature. Fantastic company, informative lectures, amusing events, a well-stocked bar, delightful stands and most importantly a gathering of friends. I’m already plotting and planning for Birdfair 2013 – I can’t bloody wait!
1. A Badger Sniffed My Toe, Aigas Field Centre, Beauly
…And the best bit: I’m not even exaggerating.
I caught my breath as my black-white companion ambled into the open. Either he was not aware of my company or he did not mind it. He pottered about in front of me, working his way logically across the lawn in my direction; he stopped short at about five feet to play tug-of-war with a juicy earthworm. The badger triumphed, and the worm snapped out of the ground. Delicious. Bumbling closer – three feet: I could see the individual hairs, hear his low, foraging grumble; two feet: his large paws and claws were clear against the grass; one foot: I didn’t dare knock away the midges. My legs were crossed, one foot hanging over the wall. The badger raised his head, cocked it to one side enquiringly, and sniffed the air. A step closer – he sniffed my toe.
The moment seemed to last an age, but seconds later the sound of voices sent my companion scurrying for cover. His cuddly form moved with surprising agility across the grass, and his outline melted away into the dark. It took a minute to recover myself, and realise that my hair, arms, face and legs were crawling with midges, an unpleasant annoyance certainly, but a necessary one for such an intimate moment.