wet woodland, a stately tree

It rained non-stop on the second day of our trip to Scotland. Not wishing to spend the whole day indoors kicking our heels, we went in search of a short local walk.

Balmorino is a small village that sits on the southern shore of the Firth of Tay in Fife. Parking near the ruins of the 13th century abbey, we followed a path past a large barn, behind which stood another ruin – an unidentified if impressive bit of industrial/agricultural machinery.

Following the path, we soon entered woodland that follows the shore of the Firth westwards from Balmorino. The wood is a mix of Scots pine and other coniferous species along with broad-leaved trees such as Beech, Sycamore and Sweet Chestnut, some of them truly impressive specimens. We had also read that red squirrel can be seen here, so we kept our eyes peeled, which presents a challenge as you can’t look up at the trees and look where you are going at the same time. Fortunately there were no twisted ankles, but sadly no squirrels spotted either.

The tide was out so at various points we were able to get down onto the beach. Because of the rain, visibility was not that great, but we could see across to Dundee. We did an out and back walk, backtracking on our route, partly because the rain came on heavier and we preferred the shelter of the trees, partly because we just liked the woods. Should we ever come back the area would be worthy of much further exploration – the walk can be extended, and then loop back inland, for example.

We had a quick look around the abbey ruins, but what really got our attention was a magnificent Sweet Chestnut, standing on the edge of woodland behind the abbey. Said to be about 430 years old, this is one elder statesmen of a tree, all twists and bulges. Sweet chestnuts have a tendency to produce a beautiful twisting pattern in the bark – this one is no different and the urge to touch it is irresistible. I love the way an ancient tree like this evokes a sense of awe.

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a short walk in Aller & Beer Woods

Overlooking the Somerset Levels, this stretch of broad-leaved woodland is both a nature reserve and SSSI.

Making the most of a nice morning for a walk, this is the first time we’ve visited Aller & Beer Woods. A few woodland flowers were showing themselves, including what we think is Toothwort.  An unusual looking plant, it is parasitic, living on the roots of other plants – my wildflower book says it particularly likes Hazel, of which there was plenty. The adjoining Turn Hill affords great views across the Levels. Lots of bird activity, including Song Thrush, Green Woodpecker, a pair of screeching Jays, and as a bonus, we heard our first Blackcap of the year.

More info at the Somerset Wildlife Trust website here.

mass movement

Last Thursday morning, as the confluence of ‘The Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma came about, we noticed Lapwings moving westwards. The weather was worsening, snow was starting to fall, and we knew a lot more was on the way.

I watched them on and off throughout the morning – in ones and twos and small ragged flocks. I should think hundreds passed by, presumably seeking unfrozen ground for feeding and roosting.

We just don’t get that many around here. I tweeted about it. Then I started noticing other Twitter users mentioning similar observations. A more thorough search revealed comments such as this one from the Dorset coast and another from the Axe estuary in Devon.

Evidently, a mass movement of birds was occurring, predominantly ground feeding species such as Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Redwings and Fieldfares. From what I can garner many found their way to tidal estuaries, where conditions were better. No doubt for some birds it will have been too much.

It’s a privilege, moving even, to see an event like this. In it’s indifference, nature is both beautiful and brutal. This morning, with temperatures up and the snow melting, I watched a flock of Lapwings heading back eastwards.

sand dunes and skuas

Sitting amongst the dunes at Druridge Bay, I am scanning the sea with my binoculars. From my elevated position here, gulls and terns show up well against the backdrop of the sea as they fly back and forth, working close into the shore looking for food. Every now and again a tern pauses, and makes a sudden dive into the water.

We are camping in Northumberland – it’s late afternoon in August, the sun is warm and I’m looking more with idle curiosity than any degree of seriousness.

I make another sweep of the coastline, and in that moment my casual hope for the unexpected becomes reality.

An unfamiliar shape hoves into view; easy flight on long, swept wings, and at this distance, the unknown bird looks black in its entirety. This is something different. Then a second appears further away, while the first swoops on a gull or tern, I can’t tell which. A brief conflict ensues, both birds twisting through the air. Then they are lost from view.

My mind goes back two days prior to this, when we were visiting St Abb’s Head, on the Berwickshire coast. I saw in the visitors book someone had noted seeing a juvenile Kittiwake attacked and killed by a skua. I get the bird book out, and sure enough, these are what I’m looking at. I can’t say with absolute surety what kind of skua they are but most probably Arctic, on their migration route to warmer climes for the winter. Described as ‘piratical’, these birds attack other seabirds in order to force them to drop food they may be carrying, so that they in turn can eat it.

I catch sight of both skuas a few more times as they move down the coast, before the dunes obscure my view entirely and they are gone. It’s a treat to have had a snapshot of these ocean-going travellers, on their journey from their breeding grounds high in the Northern hemisphere to the Southern Atlantic. The whole sequence has probably lasted no more than a minute, but the thrill of it will stay with me for days.

Getting outdoors and exploring the landscapes and natural world around us has always been important to me. It’s encounters like this which offer a tantalising glimpse into a much bigger story, and I hope some of that comes through in this blog.