Wednesday, 21 December 2016

With a Few Good Friends and a Stick or Two - Explorer Belt, France 2016

Hi folks, sorry I haven't posted in a while.

As you may or may not know, I am a keen member of Network, the section of The Scout Association for 18-25 year olds. As part of this I am involved in helping the Lendiniae Explorer Scouts. An award able to be achieved in Explorers and Network is the Explorer Belt. For our Explorer Belt, we planned to travel to the Poitiers region of France, East of Tourist destination La Rochelle, and walk around the region and discovering the French language, culture and cuisine.

We set of from Yeovil and drove past my hometown of Southampton, down to the ferry terminal in Newhaven, in East Sussex, for the ferry to France. The ferry takes 5 hours and arrives in Dieppe on the northern coast of France. While on the upper deck of the ferry a moth landed on me, which I was able to identify as a Silver Y moth. It was then a 6 hour drive to our final destination at La Grimaudiere.

The teams, one junior team and one senior team arrived and we unloaded the vehicles and pitched tents and planned what we would do for the rest of the evening. Dinner was cooked before we met some local scout leaders, traded scarves and planned some accommodation for future nights on our expedition. We then got some sleep before our first day of hiking.

Our first day of hiking saw us walk from Quincay, where we were dropped off by our Explorer Leaders, to Beruges. For our first night sleep on the hike we came across a scout campsite, which turned out to be the same campsite we would be going to for a subcamp of the Roverway Event in France. On the way, I did a bit of navigating, and took the team to a town in a different direction to the way we were hoping to go. I was sacked and never did any navigating again. At the scout campsite we helped load the bin lorry with quite a few bin bags and helped carry a fridge across the site. This ticked off one of ten mini projects, helping the local community. We set up camp, cooked dinner and took a stroll along a stream to Beruges and had a look around but the museum was closed.

The next day we awoke, striked tents, had breakfast and got underway early in order to avoid the vicious midday sun. We walked from the campsite to Saint Benoit where we were met by Sylvian and taken to a horse sanctuary to camp a for the night. That night we  pitched tents, cooked dinner and played some games that my team-mates learned at the World Scout Jamboree last summer in Japan. 

The following day we walked from St Benoit to the outskirts of Poitiers where we took the bus to the city centre. There we had a look around at the buildings, and navigated the city using Pokemon Go. We went in several churches, including a massive cathedral which is difficult to get in one photo. We wrote in the visitor book in the cathedral. We also found the Mairie (Mayor's office), Law Courts and Post Office. At the train station we were collected by the leaders and taken to the Roverway event at Boussais. Before then, while we waited to rendezvous with the leaders, one of my team-mates were able to take over the PokeGym at the train station.

At the Roverway event we met up with Scouts from all over Europe, with delegates from Norway, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Britain and of course from the home nation of this Roverway Event, France. There we learned about French sign language and learnt games from the French and the Norwegians and taught a game to the Norwegians. We ate some local food and chatted to the international scouts and gained some important links. We ate some French cheesecake made from goat's cheese called 'tourteau fromage' which was really nice. We also learned the scout promise in another language; French!

The next morning we woke up, had breakfast and left for our next destination called Charasse. We walked to Charasse really quickly so we decided to keep on walking to get to a campsite in Saint-Georges-Les-Baillargeaux, which is linked to the Futuroscope tourist attraction and, most importantly, has a swimming pool and showers. On the way we passed through a village called Le Peu, which we all giggled at. That night, after watching the sun set over the horizon, we decided to walk into the neighbouring town and check out a glowing orb. We then walked to a KFC. On the way we saw Asia, or at least a restaurant called Asia.

At KFC, we walked in to be greeted by a woman on the counter who spoke very good English. She told us that the counter is closed so asked us to go through the drive-thru. As we had no car we walked through it. Yes you did read that right. We walked through the KFC drive-thru at midnight. We sat outside and ate our food before heading back to the campsite. We got back to the campsite at 1am.

We slept and then walked to a place called Champ De Gain via a supermarket to buy some more food. At Champ De Gain there was a playing park, which we played at, including our Explorer Leader. That afternoon were collected and brought back to the campsite at La Grimaudiere. We spent that night sleeping in an old style patrol tent; because why not?

We were in La Grimaudiere for what is known as 'Vide Grenier', and is a market that is held in the village. One of our explorer leaders thought it would be a good idea to give us 5 euros to buy something to sell for a profit. Instead, we bought kids tricycles and rode them down a steep road in the village. When we showed our purchases to our leaders they were slightly bemused but found it a bit funny which was nice. As for the locals, they gave us some very strange looks. I managed to pick up a nice multi-tool for €1. Absolute bargain in my opinion. That afternoon one of the local scout groups took the whole group rafting, which involved raft wars and stealing paddles. Back at the campsite, with the other group, we turned benches upside down to form a 'benchfort', which amused the leaders upon their discovery.

On Day 7, we were dropped off at the supermarket at Saint-Georges-Les-Baillargeaux and walked to a campsite at a lake at St Cyr. On the way we found a sign which had 'Dorset, England' on, so we had a selfie with it. We went on pedalos on the lake and then had a drink before I went and explored the local nature reserve while the rest of my team went back on the pedalos. I had a lifer in the form of Turtle Dove (sadly not a British record so doesn't count on my UK life list) and saw .

Day 8 consisted of walking from St Cyr to a small village called Thure, near the town of Chatellerault, which we popped into. Chatellerault is a quiet and quaint french town on the Vienne river. It has a nice bridge, two beautiful churches and a museum. That evening at the campsite for the night we hatched a crazy but yet genius plan. Walking at night. How hard can it be?

We set off on our wild plan to a, avoid the sun, and b, surprise the leaders. We went to bed at 8pm an woke up at 1am, struck camp and left at 2am. We walked under the stars, along the roads to La Grimaudeire, for all or a whopping 25 miles. On the way we stopped for breakfast (supernoodles and wraps) by a 'Mairie' in a town, and walked past some hot air balloons taking off. Sunrise was absolutely glorious that morning. We walked some more until we reached the house of the father of our Explorer Leader at La Grimaudiere at 12:30pm. For the last two day's walking I used some walking poles (hence the "stick or two" in the title of this blog post), which helped me complete our hike for the day a lot faster than it would normally take me. We really surprised our leaders when we knocked on the door asking for our water to be refilled. That night, a local scout leader took my group, and our explorer leaders to go see a gig by a band called Pony Pony Run Run. We all have never heard of them even though they were quite big in France. The gig happened at St Cyr, the very same place where we were a few days ago. The gig was awesome, and was made better when one of our explorer leaders let whatever hair he has left down. We made the agreement that if he didn't mosh, we didn't walk the following day.

Our last day of walking was a simple stroll along the river with the other group of explorers. This gave me the opportunity to look at the wildlife. I saw some western demoiselles and lots of butterflies which was nice.

The journey home was smooth, and we had a few hours in Dieppe so we went to the beach, where I tried to take a picture of a cool little stack of pebbles that I constructed complete with the sunset over the channel behind it. on the drive back through England, one Explorer Leader took a small detour through Brighton.

All in all, I had a fantastic time with my friends learning lots and discovering another country whilst having lots of fun. I would definitely do it again without any hesitation what-so-ever. Huge thanks goes to my team-mates for putting up with me for nearly two weeks and a huge thanks to the leaders for initiating the plans and helping us all the way from planning to completing our expeditions. Also thanks to the contacts and scout leaders for welcoming us so warmly and helping us on our expeditions.

As my favourite YouTuber, Ben Brown, says:
"Work hard, be nice to each other, and try not to get lost or killed" - Ben Brown, 2016

Bye for now!

Monday, 5 September 2016

An Adventure Of A Lifetime - Fair Isle, Shetland - 2.7.16-23.7.16

I was fortunate to volunteer for the duration of 3 weeks in July 2016. It was an opportunity for me to gain some experience in bird monitoring, surveying, ringing and habitat management, as well as obtaining contacts which could be essential in searches for employment later on in life. Furthermore, I was able to grow my knowledge of wildlife and improve my skills in wildlife identification.

Leaving home for 3 and a half weeks was always going to be strange. Independence is something I am trying to learn, ready for when I (hopefully) go to university.

In order to get to Fair Isle I had to take the train to London, then the coach to Aberdeen, in Scotland, then the ferry to Lerwick in Shetland, which is Britain's most northerly town, the bus to the southern tip of mainland Shetland, and finally the tiny Good Shepherd IV(see picture below) ferry to Fair Isle, Britain's most remote inhabited island. In Aberdeen I met up with Sam Hood who I would be spending some of my time on Fair Isle with. We travelled the rest of the way together.

At the observatory I was made to feel very welcome by all the staff as well as the guests. Food was cooked by the wonderful chef that is Orlando, who on one occasion managed to make carrots taste like cider because he put them in with the pork cooked in cider for dinner one day. That was a taste from home!

Whilst on Fair Isle, I helped in the ringing of the birds, as well as did some work on habitat management and bird surveying and monitoring. I ringed 18 storm petrels, c.20 puffin chicks (or, pufflings) (by putting my hand in their burrows), 3 herring gull chicks and a meadow pipit. All is valuable experience as I become a trainee ringer. Here is me holding a meadow pipit in the special ringer's grip:

A short video clip of me releasing a storm petrel in the early hours of the morning:

On 10th July we were clearing the scrape just outside the observatory and came back to the obs for a drink as it was a warm day. Chris (also known to the staff team as Doddy) and Ciaran came to check out our handy-work. whilst stood on the patio, Doddy noticed something in North Haven. "Orca." Doddy mumbled to himself, unsure what was lurking beneath the waves. "ORCA!!!" Doddy, now confident in his discovery, yelled to alert everyone present. Shaking, I raised my binoculars to my eyes, and was greeted with a truly magnificent spectacle of a pod of 5 killer whales in close at North Haven. I was so excited to see this! A once in a lifetime experience. To this discovery, Doddy ran through the observatory, alerting guests on his way, with Ciaran and us volunteers following behind. I rushed to put my wellies on and ran out the door and across to Buness for a closer look. Peering over the cliff edge we saw the orcas within 60ft from us. They proceeded to hunt and kill two grey seals right in front of us. That definitely made my time on Fair Isle brilliant. Here is one of Sam's photos of the killer whales:

(Taken by Samuel Hood)

During our stay the Euro 2016 was on so a few times us staff, as well as a few guests, all huddled in the warden's flat to watch the football games. this was great fun because we had a few passionate German fans in the obs. Also on the theme of football, a game took place on the island between a team from the observatory and a team of islanders and those on a National Trust for Scotland work camp. I think the final score was OBS 12 - 9 ISLANDERS. Here's a group photo:

In preparation for the match, us volunteers decided to have a kick about when all of a sudden burst a Fulmar out of under a van. it didn't have enough room to take off. It proceeded to vomit on the drive. Our bird was successfully caught by Sam and was ringed and safely released. Fulmars are seabirds who use projectile vomit as defence from predators. Here is a picture of a very photogenic one I saw on Fair Isle:

At the end of my stay we took part in the sheep round up and shearing. This was a new experience for me. Each crofter on Fair isle has 20 sheep that roam all over the island and then are rounded up by the locals and other volunteers (e.g. us volunteers)

We did a lot of fencing, trap repairs, food sampling, bird monitoring and scrape management as well as some gardening for one of the islanders.

One day Oli Beacock, one of the volunteers found a long eared owl in the obs garden which was very wet from the rain. On another occasion we found a grey heron in a trap and it was brought back to the obs to be ringed, and was released after.

We spent most of our free time chilling in the lounge, catching up on sleep and going out across the island watching the wildlife and practising taking photos of many, many wheatears (I must have a few hundred wheatear photos) Here is a good take off shot I got:

The puffins on Fair Isle were extremely brave and I was able to get close to them.

Here are the best of the rest of the photos:

Great Skua looking angry as ever

Angry Arctic Tern as I walked through it's territory

House Sparrow on stone building

I would like to thank the observatory staff for accepting me onto the team and making me so welcome. To achieve this I used the John Harrison Memorial Fund at Fair Isle Bird Observatory, as well as the BTO Young Bird Observatory Volunteer Fund.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

NGB Sandwich Bay - 4-8th April 2016

Monday 4th April

Taking an earlier train to the one I was planning for meant that I was in Sandwich an hour early. Hiker me decided to walk the half hour trek from the station to the observatory with about 15kgs of clothes and equipment on my back. it seemed longer from the glorious yet punishing heat of the sun. I was greeted at the observatory by Sorrel Lyall and George Dunbar, two fellow NGB members and my companions on this trip. I sorted out my stuff while we waited for the other participant, Sophie Barrell, to arrive. Then, Sophie and I had a tour of the premesis, That evening we went out for a walk around the Elms for firecrests and then to Worth Marshes to find the short eared owl.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Twitching in Hampshire and Dorset - 12/3/16

Saturday 12th March 2016

The long billed dowitcher is a strange bird. A cross between a snipe and a sandpiper with an elegant body but such a long thick bill. This bird seems a bit funny to me.

My best friend Oli picked me up at 7am and he drove to Keyhaven Marshes in Hampshire, a long 2 hour drive through Dorset and into Hampshire. A short walk through the fog produced gulls, mute swan, mallard and blackbird. further down the path is an area of gorse bushes. Darting around these bushes was a pair of Dartford warblers. A short stroll took us to the lagoon there. We stopped to look at a little egret. Suddenly, in flew the long billed dowitcher. After much confusion I locked eyes on it. A dog came running towards us and we thought it might fly away, instead it came closer to the path. Passing Oli my binoculars (my scope was already set up on the tripod), I shuffled down the bank onto a lower river's edge, clutching my camera. I got 5 meters from it! 5m from a rare bird. Not everyday that happens.  This was why I love birding. Here's a photo of it:

We then drove to Blashford Lakes. Parking there was interesting as Oli misjudged the distance and we crashed into a wall, slightly denting the car (whoops!). There we heard two green woodpeckers and saw gulls, little grebe, mallard, pintail, shoveler, teal, great crested grebe, Egyptian goose, Canada geese, cormorants and a slavonian grebe (another first for me).

Next, we drove to Lodmoor in Weymouth to see the Spoonbill where we saw lapwing, marsh harrier, tufted duck and my first cetti's warbler (finally!).

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Ninesprings Country Park, Yeovil - 18/2/2016

I think it is fair to say that I have had worse days birding. It is also fair to say that I underestimated how much I would see today. Just mallard, gulls, moorhen, and mandarin I thought. Boy was I wrong!

It's a short walk from my house to my local park, Yeovil Country Park, or Ninesprings to the locals (for the park has 9 water springs). Ninesprings is an area of wooded terrain, surrounding the course of the River Yeo at the south side of Yeovil. There is a large pond and a vast array of streams and brooks which all contribute towards the River Yeo.

Most of the time the pond is populated by black headed and herring gulls, moorhen and mallard, with an escaped/released population of mandarin ducks. In the summer months, doves, pigeons and more gulls visit the park to feast on the vast amount of bread left by the human visitors to the park. Most of which is ignored by the already full ducks, pigeons and gulls to sink to the bottom of the pond. Heaven knows what in on the bed of that pond!!!

Observing the handful of ducks, I heard a small 'peep' coming from behind me. Spinning around I noticed what it was. "Oh, just a moorhen" I thought to myself. Hang on a sec, slightly different colouration, longer and different colour bill. "WATER RAIL!" I gasped. My friend Oli who joined me on this excursion rushed over. He was trying to photograph a distant gull. "Nice find!" Oli replied, hurrying to take a photo of it. I was very proud of my work.

A walk around the pond produced another water rail on the other side of the pond. Here, however, the path was muddy and the soles my shoes caked in mud. A wipe on some grass cleared the majority of the mud.
Elsewhere on my walk around Ninesprings produced the standard moorhen, mallard, black headed gull, herring gull, woodpigeon, carrion crow, blackbird, robin and wren, along with two little grebes, two lesser redpolls, two buzzards, great tits, coal tit, grey wagtail and a handful of mandarin from an originally captive group.

I returned the next day to check out my new scope, a Barr and Stroud Sahara 20-60x80 spotting scope. Didn't see the water rail again.

Here are a few photos from the two days:

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The things I do for a lifer!

This morning I joined my friend Oli and his Dad to twitch the Green-Winged Teal and the Glossy Ibis at Seaton in Devon. There was one small issue, the weather. It was chucking it down and very, very windy! It still is while I am writing this.

Arriving at Black Hole Marsh I grabbed my rucksack and headed to the reserve. Initially we visited the Island Hide. There were a few birds to be seen there. Then to the Tower Hide, and to the platform near the Field Studies Centre. Next, we drove to Seaton Marshes. A walk around there produced se more birds.  In all we saw Canada geese, teal, wigeon, shelduck, black headed gulls, herring gulls, common gulls, black backed gulls (including a 4th year), lapwing, redshank, curlew, crows, pheasants, Robin, blackbird, mallard, great tit, 3 bullfinches and a Glossy Ibis. No Green-Winged Teal for me today!

Returning home, I had a well deserved nap in the car

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

NGB in Norfolk - January 2016

At the end of January 2016 I was fortunate enough to visit Norfolk in a Trip with Next Generation Birders. This was set out to be an exciting weekend of twitching. I was expecting to see 100+ species of birds.

Friday (29th) was mainly spent travelling. Leaving my home town of Yeovil at 8am, I travelled to London Hammersmith on Berry's Superfast Coach (a double decker too!), caught the tube to Victoria and caught the 12 o'clock National Express Coach to Norwich. I narrowly caught this coach because I was late to the coach due to a combination of  delays and a lack of adequate signage between Victoria tube station and coach station. On board the coach I met two great naturalists, also on their way to Norfolk, Caleb and Gideon Knight ( (who, if you're wondering are cousins). The journey's birds consisted of kestrels, magpies, starlings, feral pigeons and pheasants (one was road kill). That evening we took the bus to the Best Western Brook Hotel where we would be staying. There we met the great naturalist that is Jonathan Scragg (@scraggybirder on Twitter). That night we visited the bar at the University of East Anglia where we met the rest of the NGB clan. We played pool over pizza and alcoholic beverages (ciders for me seeing as I'm from Somerset).

On Saturday, we went to Flitcham to find the pallid harrier, which we missed, Holkham for the Shore Larks (dipped that but saw twite for the first time), Titchwell where I saw a ringed robin, redshank, lapwing, black headed gull, little grebe, and ringed plover to name a few, Horsey for rough legged buzzard (which we missed), and finally to a hen harrier roost on the north coast. We had cracking views of hen harriers plus a pair of barn owls. On the way to Titchwell we flushed up a woodcock near the road. Roadside birds included crows, partridges (both grey and red legged) and pheasants. That night I watched telly and ordered in a Chinese takeaway to eat in the hotel room.

On Sunday we waited to see how many people weren't hung-over and fit to bird. Then we went about the day's birding, firstly in Great Yarmouth where we saw a humungous Glaucous Gull and a Mediterranean gull (both of which I have never seen before). Then we went to Breydon water to look for Lesser Yellowlegs. We didn't see it but did see a great pair of bearded tits and a lot of ducks, gulls, and waders, including knot, lapwing and some 25,000 teal and a whole island made of 35,000+ widgeon. I have never seen so many widgeon in my life. Finally we tried to go for
the pallid harrier but missed. Hen harrier, Egyptian goose and brambling were spotted however, along with hearing a very loud marsh tit. Sunday evening was spend travelling home on the train from Peterborough to London, tube through London and coach home. On the train home I felt scruffy and underdresses wearing my hiking clothes and boots whereas everyone else was wearing suits and on their laptops.

The total bird count for the weekend was 65 species and 17 new species for my life list.

So yeah, it was a great weekend. maybe even the best weekend in a long, long time.

Me birding in Bristol

Me birding in Bristol
Me birding in Bristol