Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Think Before You Let Go: the Dangers of Releasing Balloons

I was asked by Emma Websdale, creator of "Rants for Change", if I wanted to film a 2 minute rant on a subject I am passionate about and want to see change in. Now, there are a whole host of areas that I would very much like to see changes made in so it took me some time to decide which one to focus on but in the end, I went with helium balloon releases. You can watch the video below but there is a whole lot more I have to say on this subject, so do please read on!

Unbelievably, releasing balloons is not currently classed as littering because they're not being directly dropped on to the ground. That to me sounds like the most ridiculous piece of legislation, as if whoever passed it forgot that such a thing as gravity exists on our planet and, as the old saying goes, "what goes up must come down". The Marine Conservation Society is one of the organisations working hard to get this changed and to ban all intentional releases of balloons and paper lanterns in the UK. I think there is a lot of ignorance surrounding this issue, particularly when it comes to the biodegradable aspect.

A quick Google search for biodegradable balloons brings up producers claiming that their latex balloons are 100% natural and will break down within six months or "as fast as an oak leaf in your back yard". Six months is a long time and leaves a huge window of opportunity open for wildlife to consume the latex debris. Just because the balloons explode into tiny particles at a particular altitude does NOT mean they instantly become harmless to animals. Those particles, however small, have to land somewhere and wherever that is, there will be some form of living creature drawn to the colours of the pieces and tricked into consuming them.

It's a sensitive subject when the occasion being marked with balloons or lanterns is the passing of a loved one. Understandably, families and friends want to do something special and memorable to say goodbye to the deceased but is the best way to do that really by organising a mass-littering event? When it comes down to it, that's all a balloon release is. Just because the objects are going up instead of down doesn't change the outcome. As I say in my video, people may as well dump a whole load of plastic on the ground and walk away because that's where the balloon debris will end up eventually, a tempting yet deadly meal for some unsuspecting animal. I'm certain no loved on of my mine would want to be remembered in this way.

Balloon release
A balloon release marking the vicitims of Shoreham air crash in August 

Perhaps grieving communities could be partially forgiven. However, huge corporations can in no way be pardoned. ITV's popular talent show The X Factor is one such example of a company that should know better. To mark the first episode of this year's series back in August, the show televised a mass-release of red balloons. I actually haven't watched the show for a couple of years but I just happened to catch a clip of this balloon release online and thought it was a new thing they did this year. After some more searching, I came across the below clip posted on YouTube which was filmed at the Birmingham auditions two years ago, suggesting that hundreds of balloons are being let loose by the X Factor team in each of the audition cities every year. That equates to thousands of balloons. 


Around 7.6 million people watched the opening episode this year and a huge percentage of viewers are teenagers and young adults who follow along with the events of the show eagerly each year. In my mind, the ITV and show's producers are are extremely irresponsible to give off the impression releasing balloons like this is acceptable. They should be showing consideration for the environment and setting an example, not completely disregarding the science that categorically states any form of litter poses an enormous risk to the natural world.

So let's talk about what those risks actually are. As I mentioned earlier, a latex balloon takes six months to biodegrade. That gives wildlife around 180 days to eat the fragments that drop to the ground. Plenty of time to do plenty of damage. Obviously plastic and latex contain absolutely no nutritional value for animals, so the energy they expend consuming the materials is wasted. Some animals don't even get as far as swallowing the remnants; instead, they get pieces tangled around their mouths and beaks, preventing them from eating anything at all and resulting in them starving to death, a truly horrific way to die. 

The ribbons are just as bad as the balloons themselves as these can get wrapped around feet, rendering the animal helpless, and often they struggle so much to get free that the ribbon eventually cuts into their skin, giving them nasty wounds that can lead to limbs becoming partially or wholly detached.  Balloons don't only have an effect on the terrestrial environment. Those fragments that don't land on the ground end up in the ocean where marine mammals, such as seals and turtles, and seabirds will eat them. It is estimated that 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. That kind of statistic is sickening and shows just how much of an impact we humans have on wildlife.
I am grateful that, so far, I haven't come across any injured or dead animals during my beach clean ups. That being said, I have picked up countless pieces of balloon and ribbons from Worthing beach and I have wondered what damage the missing pieces have done elsewhere. These occurrences are 100% preventable if the people responsible for organising releases put an end to any future events. There are many other ways to mark special occasions or to show you are thinking of a loved one, without causing any damage to the natural world. 

Many councils across the UK have already banned balloon and paper lantern releases on their land. However, there are still many, many more that have yet to do so. Click this link to see if your council has already banned the release of balloons and lanterns and if they haven't, get in touch with them, via Twitter, Facebook or email, to ask them why and persuade them to reconsider. My council isn't on there, so I intend to get in touch and voice my opinion. I hope you will do the same. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

"Every Child Wild": The Wildlife Trusts' Campaign to Reconnect Children with Nature

When I was volunteering in the visitor centre of RSPB Pulborough Brooks recently, two young girls came bursting through the door with pink cheeks, big grins and a bug pot clutched tightly in their hands. They rushed up to me and held the pots up saying "Look what we found!" Their enthusiasm was infectious and had me grinning away with them. I peered inside each pot to see a red beetle and a small spider but, since my insect/arachnid fact pool is pretty sparse, I couldn't tell them specifically what they had caught. Despite this, the girls remained giddy with excitement, showing me what they had ticked off on their spotting sheets while they had been on the reserve. They both went home with stickers, still laughing and talking animatedly about what they had seen. I was left glowing in the knowledge that there were two more children who got close to nature, learnt something and took away a wonderful experience.
Connecting children with the natural world is one of the challenges of our modern, technologically-advanced world and it's one that is close to my heart. It's also very close to the heart of The Wildlife Trusts who today launched their new campaign "Every Child Wild". Their goal is all in the name: to get every single child in touch with nature in some way. On the campaign page of their website (visit this link: they say:

"Children are happier, healthier and more creative when they are connected with natural world. This should be an option not just for a few, but for every child in the UK."

It seems like an obvious concept but, unfortunately, it would appear that there is a severe lack of "wild play" in the lives of children nowadays. As we all know, there is a lot of focus around smart devices and many kids spend most of their time staring at a screen of time kind, both at home and at school where tablets are being introduced more and more as a learning tool. Of course, there are plenty of benefits to using these devices for learning but too much screen time is preventing children from getting fresh air, exercise and from experiencing the wildlife on their doorsteps.

The Wildlife Trusts commissioned a report this year to find out exactly where children and nature stand together and they came back with some worrying statistics. They said that 27% of 8-15 year olds had "never played outside by themselves, beyond their house or garden" and of those children, 37% had not played outside in the past 6 months. When I think back to when I was that age, I have clear memories of spending the warmer evenings playing games on the local green with the neigbouring kids, having water balloon fights and constructing unfeasibly long daisy chains. In fact, the memories that have stuck in my head are the ones I spent outside. 

Naturally, parents face a number of worries over letting their children play outside, busy roads and stranger danger being two of the biggest. Green spaces are much less abundant now, with so much housing development going on, and for those children living in more urban areas, finding an outdoor place to play is even trickier. That's why a campaign like "Every Child Wild" is so vital. It's working hard to get round the challenges of modern Britain and find new and exciting ways for kids to involve themselves with wild activities. 
A big part of this campaign is targeted at schools. Children generally spend five out of seven days of the week at school, so a large percentage of interaction with nature has to be undertaken there. The Wildlife Trusts are already reaching 300,000 school children each year but there are 500,000 still to be reached. In the Trusts' report, they found "only 24% of children said their school had an indoor nature display area like a nature table" and just half of children said they have a nature area outdoors. More of an emphasis needs to be put on nature at schools, so that they can develop a proper respect for the environment and discover new and exciting facts about wildlife; this is where the conservationists of tomorrow will be inspired.

The importance of encouraging children to get outside cannot be stressed enough. There are so many benefits to connecting with nature, not only for young people but for all ages; both physical and mental health can be vastly improved, as well as knowledge. The "Every Child Wild" campaign is working to inspire children, parents and teachers together through nature clubs, reserve visits and plenty of fun ideas to have a wild adventure! The image of myself and my brother running through woods filled with bluebells, dragging around huge sticks and getting covered in mud when we were little is one that I'll always have. Children of this generation need similar images of their own so that they can look back when they're older, as we do, and remember what nature meant to them. 

You can follow the campaign on Twitter using the hash tag #EveryChildWild and share your own thoughts and ideas there too. 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Disconnecting to Reconnect

I've been reveling in the glorious colours of autumn over the past week or so. It's really one of the best displays of turning leaves I've seen in a long while! Driving down the A24 is a real treat at the moment, with the bordering trees either side showing an array of golds, reds and russets that look stunning in the sunshine.

I spent the morning at Pulborough Brooks as a hides and trails volunteer again. This is the first time I've gone out on my own as I've had Graham, a much more experienced and knowledgeable volunteer, showing me the ropes these past few weeks. I was glad of the chance to see how I got on with identifying trickier species without a seasoned birder to help me. Of course, I had my Collins guide tucked in my backpack but I didn't need it today. So far I've been lucky with the weather on the days I've been on the reserve and today was particularly lovely; what I'd call a proper autumn day. There were a few raptors about, including a couple of sparrowhawks and male kestrels, and one female peregrine bathing in a small pool in front of Winpenny hide.

That is a peregrine-I promise! These terrible photos were snapped on my phone through the scope.

I had an especially close encounter with a pair of goldcrests which were busy picking insects of leaves only a couple of feet above me. I was close enough to see the reflection in their eyes and that fantastic streak of yellow on their heads. They weren't fazed at all by me stood so near which is pretty unusual for what is normally a very shy bird!

At Hanger View, I stood with a group of visitors and watched two healthy-looking male bullfinches flicking between the sloes. A buzzard circled over the pools for a while but was seen off by a rather brave and determined lapwing. From Nettley's hide, I managed to identify five black-tailed godwits which I was pleased with as I'd never seen them in the flesh before, although I knew they were about having checked the sightings book when I arrived. Myself and the visitors in the hide also picked out three snipe with some difficulty; boy, those birds blend in! It certainly helped to have the scope with me.
Fuzzy Snipe.
Black-tailed Godwits

When I got back to the visitor's centre, it occurred to me that, apart from taking a few photos, I had just spent four hours completely away from technology. I'll openly admit that I use my phone far too much normally and it's become one of those bad habits that I hate but find very hard to break. Part of the reason I use social media a lot is to do with my portrait business as I always have messages to reply to and I don't like to leave those too long. However, I know full well that I check Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Insert preferred platform here too many times in a day and it's something I try hard to avoid. The fact that I didn't once feel the need to hop online while I was out and about on the reserve today proves that I am capable of cutting back. I actually felt really good about having been off grid for a short while and just spending time in the fresh air doing something I genuinely enjoyed, something that didn't involve a screen. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Greeted by a Grey Wagtail

The weekend just gone was rather a busy one for me. As I discussed in my last post, I held another beach clean-up in Worthing for the MCS Great British Beach Clean on the Saturday which was a great success all round. On Sunday morning, my legs were aching from walking on the pebbles but despite this, I headed over to Pulborough Brooks to start another new volunteer role. I've been a volunteer in RSPB Pulborough's visitor centre since 2013 which has been instrumental in the building of my wildlife knowledge and communication with the public. The opportunity recently came up to join the hides and trails team and I thought it would be a great chance to branch out a bit and get myself more involved with a different aspect of the reserve.

I was taken round the reserve by Graham, another H&T volunteer who has many years of experience and knowledge, and was happy to share it with myself and Ben, another new volunteer. We were extremely lucky with the weather as Saturday's beautiful sunshine carried on which meant there were a few raptors about, using the thermals to their advantage. Our first spot was a sparrowhawk, though we were initially unsure as it was a fair distance away and its flying pattern was slightly out of character. It appeared to be catching insects in flight which is behaviour one would normally expect to see in a hobby, although the wings were the wrong shape for that. In the end, Graham managed to glimpse it in his scope and confirmed it as a sparrowhawk. Obviously one having a funny turn!


My birding knowledge has certainly expanded over the past couple of years but I am nowhere near competent in identification, so I'm always quite pleased when I spot a bird that is a bit trickier and correctly I.D. it straight away. This happened a few times on Sunday; one was a blackcap which generally isn't hard to identify but I don't see them very often; another was a female shoveler nestled among a group of mallards. We had some exciting sightings across the course of the day and the majority of these were at Hanger View where we spent quite a bit of time. Several kestrels were seen flying past and hovering over the North Brooks and one perched itself at the top of a berry-laden bush right in front of our position. It was a pleasure to observe this beautiful raptor bathed in sunlight, calmly preening itself and stretching its wings. I actually didn't realise kestrels had such vibrant orange legs until I saw this one through my binoculars. 

A kingfisher made an appearance, the blue iridescence of its feathers contrasting against the red reeds it was hiding in. Another kestrel was dive-bombing a gliding buzzard in the distance. Two green sandpipers occupied the pond closest to us and we were able to watch them for at least an hour. At one point, they had a bit of a tiff and were chasing each other around in sweeping circles, half flying and half running. The shrubs closer to us were shaking with starlings and juvenile goldfinches, as well as a willow warbler. A couple of jays were picking acorns off the oaks and a green woodpecker flew from one side of the view and back. A cacophony of noise from the canada and greylag geese formed the afternoon's soundtrack. In the furthest pond, huddled between a group of lapwings were at least three dunlin, though the heat haze made it hard to focus on them, even through a scope. 

By far the spot that I was most thrilled about was a grey wagtail. A few visitors had reported seeing a yellow wagtail or two nearby, but the grey appeared in the same pond as the green sandpipers and was easily distinguishable from its yellow cousin. I observed the comical dipping and lifting of the rump that gave the wagtails their name and saw how bright the yellow of its lower belly was. Even though the bird itself wasn't visible without optical assistance from where we stood, the sun kept catching that yellow belly as it moved about, pecking at the sand. It was quite unusual to see the grey wag in a location with still water; they are more commonly found near moving water, such as rivers.

The oak trees directly above us were full up with song birds, including blue and great tits, a nuthatch that could be heard tapping energetically, several long-tailed tits and at least two goldcrests, who's calls were first recognised by Gordon, another volunteer at the reserve who is particularly good with his bird sounds. It seemed as if the nearby robins never stopped singing. 

I was pleasantly surprised with how much we saw and heard in that four-hour period. I'm very much aware that we are entering an exciting time of the year when it comes to birding, with many migrating waders and wildfowl returning from their summer holidays. In that respect, it is a brilliant time for me to be starting on hides and trails. In terms of the temperatures and the high chances of more rain, it isn't! I don't mind that though; if it means I have the chance to be out and about, learning more about wildlife and being able to share my passion with the public, then I'm definitely going to be happy. 

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Great British Beach Clean in Goring

There have got to be worse ways to spend a Saturday than strolling along a beach in the blazing sunshine while looking after the environment at the same time. For me, it doesn't get any better. Today was my beach clean up event for the MCS Great British Beach Clean weekend. I have held two other clean ups at this beach this year and I was fortunate enough to have fantastic teams of volunteers for both. Today's team was no exception!

In total, there were 25 of us scanning the length of the survey area, including five under-18s. I'm always extremely pleased to have young people taking part in these cleans, particularly when I see that they are enjoying themselves. Getting children and teenagers interested in their environment is absolutely vital and events like these are a brilliant way to make learning about nature into something fun and engaging. Of course, I love to have volunteers of all ages taking part! I spoke to several of the adults helping me today who all expressed amazement at what gets washed up on the shores and dropped by the public. It fills me with hope whenever I come across people who care as much as I do about looking after our planet.

As there were so many of us, it didn't take us long to cover the 100m survey area. Much like the clean I did back in June, there wasn't a massive amount of litter to be collected, not in terms of weight anyway. Generally, Goring-by-Sea is a pretty clean beach from first glance but once you really start looking closely at the pebbles and in between the groynes, all of the small pieces of twine, fishing line and plastic start appearing. One of the teams recorded a large piece of carpet, which we were all hoping had not been used for disposing of anything untoward! The same team also found a large, plastic receptacle that looks as if it was used as a marker buoy. I picked up my first shoe; it was a Croc, so no great loss there! (Please don't take offense if you're a Croc-wearer! Each to their own...)

The last time I was down at Worthing, I nearly got blown off my feet by the strength of the breeze so I came prepared today with my rain mac. I would have been better off dressed in a swimming costume I think, so I could have had a quick dip in the sea to cool off! It was absolutely roasting today and there was quite literally not a breath of wind. I'm certainly not complaining but it was most unexpected, especially after the lack of summer we've just had. 

Several of my volunteers expressed interest in the results of our collection and what the data gets used for, as well as when I will be holding future events. Beach-cleaning is such a great way to not only do some good for the environment but also to get some fresh air and exercise. Living on a small island as we do, none of use are ever too far away from some form of coastline and if we could all pick up litter each time we visited a beach, it would make the world of difference. 

The results from today's clean were as follows: 

-32 metal items
-32 sanitary items
-38 paper items
-20 wood items
-539 plastic items
-21 rubber items
-32 cloth items

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Adventures in Wales: Dyfi Osprey Project

I'm certain I've mentioned this before, but I'm going to go ahead and say it again anyway; the best experiences are unplanned. The Wednesday of my week in Wales with my parents had been our planned day to visit Skomer Island but we discovered that strong winds meant the boats weren't running, and so we found ourselves up and abluted very early with no destination. Rather than waste the opportunity, we decided to head north towards Aberystwyth with the intention of visiting the Dyfi Osprey Project. This was around about a two and a half hour drive from our campsite in Haverfordwest so we had originally deemed it too far to travel when planning the holiday but since we'd made an early start and had a picnic already packed, it seemed silly not to go for it. 

I can't express how excited I was at the prospect of seeing ospreys in the flesh. They have been my favourite bird of prey for a while now although I always felt like a bit of cheat saying that when I'd never actually seen one! I follow all of the monitored osprey sites on social media, including those at Rutland Water, Dyfi and the Lake District but from where I live in West Sussex, they are all too far away for me to visit for the day. It had become a dream of mine to see the birds in the flesh, one that I hadn't anticipated fulfilling any time soon. 

The project is located on the Cors Dyfi reserve managed by the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, on the A487 north of Aberystwyth. The reserve itself is not huge but it's beautiful, with lots of vegetation and very dense reedbeds, perfect for spotting warblers. We arrived in the car park and were lucky to find a space, given that it only facilitates 50 cars. When I was speaking to one of the staff there, he did tell me that they are hoping to expand the car park in the future to stop people parking on the main road during the busy season. There is a hide just outside the visitor centre where we spent some time watching the feeders being mobbed by a variety of song birds, including siskins and redpolls, which were both first-time spots for me. 

After some time in the hide, we made our way along the raised wooden walkway, listening to the popping of seed pods as they opened in the heat. The forecast had been spot on; it was a baking day and there was no breeze at all where we were. The skies were clear and perfect for spotting birds of prey. I spotted my first meadow pipit and reed bunting on our walk to the 360° hide, their chirps mixed in with the songs of reed warblers.

Meadow pipit

As we neared the osprey hide, we stopped to watch a reed bunting singing at the top of a shrub. A movement in the sky caught my eye and I brought my binoculars up to focus, and as the sun highlighted a white head, I realised I was seeing an osprey for the first time. I'm not at all ashamed to admit that a shiver went through me as I watched this beautiful bird gliding through the air. It's the first time I've ever had such a strong physical reaction when seeing a new species; it was just so surreal and very special. 

I didn't think to take a photo of the 360° hide which is a shame as it's an impressive structure, constructed from wood and featuring expansive windows giving views of the entire reserve, as the name suggests. When we got there, we were told that Monty, the male, was perched above the nest and that it was Glesni, the female, that we had seen soaring outside. Monty and Glesni have both featured on Springwatch and Autumnwatch in the past, so it was almost like seeing a celebrity, but much, much better! I tried my best not to hog the scopes but I found it almost impossible to tear myself away from the fantastically close view of Monty guarding the nest, where the heads of the three juveniles were just visible. 

Monty perched abover, Glesni on the nest and two of the juveniles either side of her.
The three juveniles, photo courtesy of the Dyfi Osprey Project

We stayed for a long time in the hide and had several enjoyable conversations with the staff and volunteers there. It's wonderful talking to people who are so passionate about birds and wildlife and who really know their stuff. The most fascinating thing I picked up was that the juveniles, once fledged, will instinctively know that they have to migrate, they aren't taught or encouraged by their parents. I find the concept of instinct extremely interesting, especially in a situation like this where these animals just know they have to fly thousands of miles at a certain time without any prompting. 

The juveniles spent some time flapping and stretching their wings. I was told that they were approaching their fledging period and funnily enough, exactly a week after our visit, the oldest chick took her first flight from the nest, closely followed by the other two. It remains Monty's job to continue to bring in fish for feeding until such times as they are ready to migrate; Glesni more or less has no more part in their upbringing. 

There's an open deck area at the back of the observatory, where we sat and had our picnic with undisturbed views of the reserve and surrounding hills. We watched Monty take off and fly towards the left bank of hills before he disappeared over the top, most probably to go fishing again. I was hoping we might see him return with a catch before we left, but he was still gone by the time we came to leave. 

I'm so pleased that the boats to Skomer weren't running that day. Apart from the fact that I think we would have absolutely roasted in the heat had we made it to the island, it meant that I was able to fulfill a dream that I hadn't imagined I'd be able to fulfill for quite some time. The osprey is such a majestic bird and being able to see the Dyfi family in the flesh has just cemented their place at the top of my raptor list. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

Adventures in Wales: Skomer Island

I am sneaking in some long-overdue blogging time, in between the 2nd and 3rd modules of my Zoology course. It's been just over a fortnight since I returned from my camping holiday in South Wales, although it feels like an awful lot longer than two weeks and I miss it a huge amount. Honestly, what a place. For a lover of wildlife and the outdoors, like myself, there is no shortage of places to visit, things to do and experiences to have. It's a shame we only had a week there; I would gladly have put up with the wind a little longer if it meant I could have had more time there. 

Although, I confess, I missed my bed a LOT.

Once we'd settled on Pembrokeshire as our destination (I went away with my mum and step-dad), a visit to Skomer Island was top of the list of things to do. Everyone I've spoken to who has been there has told me what a remarkable place it is, that a trip there is an absolute must. It wasn't only the prospect of seeing puffins up close and personal--though that was definitely a source of a great excitement--but also the chance to spot razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and other wildlife I've never seen in the flesh before. 

We went away from 11th-18th July and my birthday was on the 13th so it would have been perfect to visit then. Sadly, Mondays are the only day the boats don't run to the island, so we chose the Wednesday which looked to be the least rainy, according to the forecast. Once again, despite the sun and high temperatures, our plan was foiled, this time by the strong winds; thankfully I discovered this on Twitter rather than when we arrived! A top tip for anyone visiting in the future; follow the Skomer Boat Info account. They post around 8am every day with updates on the boats; very handy!

I was beginning to feel like we'd never make it to the island. They do say "third time's a charm" and in this particular scenario, that turned out to be true as we arrived on the Thursday at 9am and managed to get on the 11am boat. We had some time to kill beforehand, so we took a walk in the deer park just across from the ticket office. This turned out to be a bonus for me in terms of birds. I spotted a male and female stonechat, both clutching caterpillars in their beaks, a linnet and a rock pipit, none of which I'd ever seen before.
Male stonechat

We climbed to the very top of a rather steep, rocky outcrop and were rewarded with a brilliant view of Skomer. Directly below, in the clear water of the Celtic sea, there was a group of guillemots busy diving for fish and a couple of lone puffins only identifiable from that distance by the flash of colour on their beaks. 

By the time we got back to the meeting point for the boat, we were exhausted but I was buoyed up at the thought that we would shortly be disembarking on the island. The boat seemed rather small for transporting 50 passengers plus crew across the short stretch of sea and once we were all loaded on, it was quite cosy! As we approached the island, the skies above us were suddenly filled with noise. Looking up, I saw hundreds and hundreds of puffins, swooping and darting like tiny fighter jets. They filled the surrounding water too and kept growing in number as we reached the jetty. Everywhere I looked, there were puffins. Each rocky ledge and grassy tussock either side of the steps as we began to climb was occupied by the birds. It was very surreal. 

After a brief talk by one of the island Wardens, we were left to explore for the next 5 hours, until our return boat at 4pm. We chose to go clockwise around the island which turned out to be a good idea since the wind was blowing with us, and when it started raining later in the day, we weren't walking into it. Skomer is an extremely exposed place, with no trees or shelter of any kind, save for the bird hide and farm buildings in the center. Be prepared to get wet! The benefit of such a wide-open space is that the views back to the mainland and of the neighbouring islands were stunning. We were able to enjoy these for the first half of our visit, before the weather closed in, blanketing everything in grey cloud and left us feeling like we were in another world. 

The Wick is one of the most popular spots on the island, as there are a huge number of puffin burrows here, as well as kittiwakes nesting in the cliffs. The trail is narrow and it is extremely important to remain on the designated tracks at all times, a rule that applies to the entire island. This is because three of the species breeding on Skomer (puffins, manx shearwater and rabbits) are burrowing animals and therefore it has very unstable, honeycombed foundations. One foot off the path could result in a crushed puffin nest and a broken human ankle. 

There were lots of people stopping to take photos at the Wick and for good reason. The puffins were quite literally everywhere and many less than a meter away from my feet. At one point, I was snapping away at one particular bird when I heard my mum say "Em, don't move. Turn around slowly" and when I did, a particularly brave individual was stood by my leg. Seeing them at such close proximity really demonstrated to me just how absolutely tiny they are! I had heard before our visit that they are smaller than most people realise, but I really wasn't prepared for the level of truth in that statement. 

We stood for quite some time watching one puffin desperately battling against the strong winds to land, his beak absolutely crammed full of sand eels. It took many attempts to get the above photo and even though it isn't quite in focus, it's not bad considering the speed he was zipping by at! I'm still not sure whether he made the landing or not; he could still be going for all I know. 

As well as sea and song birds, Skomer hosts several birds of prey. They have peregrine falcons nesting on "the Neck" (a portion of the island where nest colonies are being monitored to compare the effects of being "visitor-free" on breeding) and kestrels, buzzards, little owls and short-eared owls elsewhere. Everywhere I walked, I noticed remains of raptor meals. Most of them looked to be manx shearwater carcasses, with only the wings, feet and occasionally the skulls left behind. We came across a large scattering of pellets and bones on one group of rocks, evidence of it being an owl's favourite eating spot. I even noticed a headless great-spotted woodpecker near to the visitor center which I assume had been caught on the mainland and dropped, because, as I mentioned earlier, there are no trees on Skomer for a woodpecker to utilise.

As the weather closed in around lunchtime, we took shelter in the covered picnic area attached to the visitor center and spent some time drying off and eating our picnic. It wasn't cold but the relentless gusts had left us feeling a little windswept after walking round half the island already. Given its remote location, the facilities on the island are limited, as you would expect. I used one of the composting toilets (which appeared no different to a regular toilet apart from the draft that came up the tube!) and had a bit of shock when I walked into the cubicle to find a mud nest attached to the wall, complete with brooding adult house martin! The martin looked at me for a few moments, blinking, before deciding to give me some privacy and swooping low over my head and out the door. Four gaping, yellow beaks poked out from the vacated nest. I'll admit, it felt slightly strange sharing my toilet cubicle with house martin chicks but hey; there's a first for everything!

After lunch, we headed over to Garland Stone at the North of the island. We didn't venture any further East as we only had a short time before we had to catch our boat back but at Garland Stone we were greeted by more puffins as well as a couple of lounging grey seals. I had my eyes peeled for choughs as we walked through the thigh-high ferns but had no luck there. 


When we originally planned our trip and I saw we would be on the island for 5 hours, I had thought that seemed like an awfully long time. In actual fact, that time completely flew by! There is so much to see on Skomer and with us constantly stopping to take it all in, it actually wasn't possible to cover the entirety of the trail. A good excuse to go back, I say. 

Climbing back down the 80 or so steps to the waiting boat, it seemed as if the puffins were all lined up to say goodbye as they perched on their rocky ledges. To have them so close and completely unfazed by our presence was a real joy. I even managed to see a few guillemots and razorbills up close on my descent. 

One thing on my mind after my visit here is this. Being able to see these creatures at such close proximity is a privilege and we should respect that. We don't automatically have the right to interact with wildlife in this way, it is something that we have to earn and it can't be abused. I strongly believe that projects such as this one are a fantastic way to get people interested in wildlife, particularly young minds. I think so many people don't respect or have any interest in the natural world because they don't understand it and can't appreciate how important it all is. 

Visiting Skomer was truly a unique experience. An element of being a birder is being prepared not to see anything, or to only catch a glimpse of a species before it's gone again; this is just something we automatically accept, it comes with the territory. Coming to a place like this is just overwhelming, like a reward for all of that patience and waiting done in the past. This isn't a zoo or a conservation park. This island is wild, the animals are wild. That we are lucky enough to experience that wildness, to immerse ourselves in it for the day and share that space with these animals, is not something to be taken for granted. 

I have a few tips that might come in handy if you visit in the future:

-It may sound obvious, but PLEASE wear decent footwear! I actually saw several people wearing flip flops/ flimsy sandals. I don't think they knew just how uneven some of the terrain would be.

-Bring cash for the boat. You can pay your landing fee by card in the mainland lodge but the boat and car park only take cash. 

-Don't choose the sunniest day. I'm quite thankful we weren't able to go on the Wednesday as I think we would have suffered with the heat. Remember, there's nowhere to shelter and that means no shade. It's better to get a bit wet from the rain than get sunstroke!

-I already mentioned this but just to remind you: follow Skomer Boats Info on Twitter so you can find out if the boats are running before setting out for the day.

-Be prepared to walk. It's quite a tough day out, especially if you are a little uneasy on your feet. A few people I saw seemed to be struggling and, again, I don't think they'd done their research on the island beforehand. 

I spotted a total of 14 new species on my holiday, one of which was a complete dream for me and had me feeling a little emotional (blog post to come). I wonder if you can guess which one from my list of "firsts" below?

Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Reed Warbler
Reed Bunting

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Letter to the BBC Re: Jeremy Vine's "Killer Seagull" Segment

Last Friday, I happened to be listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 while myself and my family were in the car travelling around South Wales. One of the articles was discussing the unfortunate story of a woman's dog that was pecked to death by seagulls in her back garden. I use the word "discussing" with some sarcasm as it very much was not a discussion; it was commpletely one-sided and definitely not impartial, as the BBC are supposed to be. There was not a single wildlife or ornithological expert representative on during the segment and I really felt quite angry that the gulls were more or less being attacked by people with nothing to go on but their bad experiences with them. I decided to write to the show this morning, as I only got back from Wales over the weekend, to express my frustration at the lack of facts and proper information provided. Here is what I wrote:

Dear Mr Vine and team,

I am writing in response to the segment on your 17th July show regarding the dog pecked to death by seagulls. I listened to the entirety of the segment while driving round South Wales where, I will point out, there are a number of gulls. I found myself extremely disappointed and frustrated by the end of the segment as I was waiting for the moment when you would speak to someone on the other side of the argument, someone who wasn't just a caller complaining they couldn't drink a cup of tea in their garden without harassment, but that moment never came. 

The reason I expected to hear from a professional who could give some insight into the gulls' behaviour and the reasons behind it is that your show, as you know, is part of the BBC. I was under the impression that the BBC are all about impartiality and therefore don't take sides in debates. If this is indeed the case, then I would like to know why you failed to provide the other side to this gull debate; where was the representative from any of the wildlife organisations in this country? There are any number of callers or speakers you could have had speaking on this issue which could have perhaps balanced out what seemed like a complete attack on the gulls themselves.

I am in no way condoning what happened to the dogs and tortoise discussed on the show; what a horrible experience for the owners and as a owner of pets myself, I know the heartbreak they must have felt. What absolutely needed to be emphasised further was the fact that these birds do not go around pecking dogs for fun. It was mentioned but very briefly that the gulls were extremely likely to have been nesting nearby to the gardens in question and therefore will have been naturally and instinctively protective of their nesting area. If they think their eggs or chicks may be under threat, they will act to defend them, the same as any wild animal would, because we must remember we are sharing this planet with wild animals, or even as any of us humans would. 

When it comes to the aggression of gulls on the seafronts and beaches, well, we can only blame ourselves for that behaviour. Ever since visits to the seaside became popular, as far back as the Victorian era, we have fed gulls with scraps from our picnics. These are scavenging birds, I would like to point out, not fishing birds. They are found in various habitats across the country, not only the coast; they will simply go wherever there is food to be scavenged, just like corvids (crows, rooks etc.) So we have spent countless decades tossing chips and sandwich crusts to these birds, encouraging them to hang around the coastal areas and to gather when they see a group of humans with greasy paper bundles on their laps. They are only acting on the instincts developed due to our misguided encouragement. I would like to say that, during my recent trip to Wales, I spent a lot of time on various beaches and saw flocks of many different species of gulls but not once was I or a member of my family swooped on, even when we had food with us. None of which we fed to the gulls, obviously. 

I was sorry to hear some of your callers referring to gulls as 'pests' and 'vermin'. It's the same way feral pigeons often get spoken about. These birds are thriving in urban environments because they are intelligent and have worked out their best chances for survival are in these towns and cities where the scraps of food are abundant and tourists will happily share their lunches. No, it isn't pleasant to be dive-bombed while you're trying to enjoy an ice cream and it certainly must have been terrible for the pet owners to lose their animals in such a way, but none of this behaviour is for fun. They are acting on instinct. They are wild animals and we have to find a way to live in harmony with them. 

I am by no means an expert on these matters, however I do feel it is important to make sure the public have a clear understanding of the natural world they are surrounded by. Perhaps if you had bothered to have an expert on during the segment last Friday, much of this information and more could have been imparted and your listeners may well have gained new insight into the behaviour of the gulls. I feel the article was nothing but an attack on the gulls and it was the language used by Mr Vine himself that bothered me, when he referred to the birds as "killer gulls". That certainly doesn't sound like impartial language to me. This isn't a plague of gulls going round pecking people for fun and it is certainly nothing like Hitchcock, as one caller suggested. 

I really feel strongly that if you had invited an expert caller on to the show, the debate could have become exactly that which, by definition, should be two-sided. Instead, it sadly came across as a complete bombardment of "gull haters" with absolutely no factual basis. I would hope, should you feature such segments on your show in the future, that you might give a little more thought to the impression you are putting across. Wildlife is extremely important. Every species serves a purpose but without education in cases such as these, the public will never learn to understand and respect that.

Kind regards,

Emily Summers

I'm not expecting to hear back from them really, as it aired several days ago now, but I really felt the need to express my opinion. So many people don't understand wildlife and situations such as these really don't help. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

30 Days Wild Days 27-30: The Last Few Days

Well folks, we have officially entered July which means 30 Days Wild is at an end. I haven't had much time to dedicate to wild acts in the last few days of the challenge but I managed to sneak moments here and there. Here's a summary of what I got up to:

On Saturday, I allowed myself a lazy morning in bed. I took my cup of tea and breakfast upstairs, opened my window wide and listened to the screechy chirps of the goldfinches in the oak tree directly outside my bedroom. The sunlight was glinting and caught the yellow bars on their wings as they picked at the leaves in search of insects.

The whole of Sunday was spent working on portraits so I took a few minutes in the evening, just as the sun had dipped, to stand in the bridleway next to our house and listen to the birdsong. The songs of blackbirds, song thrushes and robins floated on the air, layered on top of each other and a few rabbits hopped along the bridleway, unaware of me stood very still at the end.

Monday heralded the start of our "heatwave" and at eight in the morning, the temperature was already high. With another long day of work planned, I took the opportunity to sit out in the garden while I had my breakfast, wriggling my toes in the grass and listening to the dunnock calling from the hedge, one long, high-pitched squeak.

Enter the 30th of June, the final day of 30 Days Wild and I was to be found volunteering at Pulborough Brooks. Boy, was it a hot one! One of the members of the volunteer work party asked me if I wished I was working out on the reserve on a day like yesterday and I in all honesty was quite glad to be inside. Partly because I burn so easily, so extended time in strong sun is never a brilliant idea for me. During my lunch break, I sat outside by the pond next to the visitor centre and listened to the sparrows, blue tits and the clucking of a moorhen. A male blackbird landed in front of me with his beak stuffed full of small morsels. I think there were some fledglings sparrows still in the nest boxes, poking their heads out and squawking to their parents.

Although I had quite a lot of work and volunteering keeping me occupied during June, I still just about managed to have my moments with nature each day and even learned a few new things. The campaign was a very effective way of encouraging us to engage with the natural world more often and I intend to keep it up wherever possible, by visiting new places and continuing to educate myself, particularly on bird songs and calls which remains my weakest area. 

Stay wild everybody!