Winning tip: Hitching chicks, Exeter
Our daily lockdown walk took us along Exeter’s urban flood defence channel, where a pair of great crested grebes have kept the whole family entertained. Starting with amazing mating dances in March, nest building throughout April and then two broods of chicks throughout the summer months. The narrow, manmade channel with clear waters allows views of the grebes diving under water, catching a range of fish, as well as hungry black and white striped chicks, riding on their parent’s backs.
A raptor calls, Nottingham
We were in lockdown in Nottingham city centre, so my travel tip is to look out of your kitchen window and you’ll be surprised what you see. We live in a former Victorian convent with courtyards and very high walls that can only be penetrated by birds, normally pigeons, sparrows, tits and jays. In April we spotted a rather gruesome but fascinating sight: either a sparrowhawk or peregrine falcon that had caught a pigeon and was feasting on it for about half an hour. There’s a peregrine falcon nest on top of one of the university buildings in the city centre, with a webcam, so it’s possible it was the mother. Definitely our lockdown nature highlight.
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Ancient peat bog, Powys
Ancientness seeps up through the moss of the peat bog at Cors-y-Llyn national nature reserve in Powys. It’s always silent, a hidden gem that shifts from mystical Merlin mistiness to Jurassic Park, depending on the weather. Although it’s small, it has micro-habitats, so the short walk around it takes you through stunted Scots pines and starry carpets of sphagnum moss. With the Cambrian mountains on the horizon, you’re likely to see red kites circling overhead. In spring we found froglets and in summer we saw carnivorous sundew eating flies, spotted an emperor dragonfly and watched bog cranberries ripening. The boardwalk is wheelchair friendly and the perfect length for a walk with toddlers.
Goes the weasel, Cumbria
Driving slowly through Temple Sowerby in the Lake District at 5am one day I came across a family of weasels. A parent with four babies. They ran across the road in what can only be described as a daisy chain of weasels, because each baby was holding the one in front’s tail with its teeth. I felt privileged to see them and I still do. I’m so sorry I didn’t have a camera, but that moment will stay with me forever.
A walk-on part in Bambi, Kent
I recently stayed in Sevenoaks with friends and one hungover morning (to blow away the cobwebs), we traipsed to Knole deer park. It is a short walk from Sevenoaks town centre but it feels like stepping into a Disney film, more specifically Bambi. The beautiful landscape is a mix of twisting forest, undulating hills, wildflowers and the manicured lawns of a golf course straddling the park. Tame deer roam, at ease with the public strolling among them. Passing the grandeur of Knole House, a medieval archiepiscopal palace, made us feel like guests of Henry VIII.
Gannet island, Firth of Forth
The Bass Rock. Over 150,000 gannets nesting on an ancient volcanic plug, rising majestically 315ft out of the sea in the Firth of Forth. It is an assault on the senses for sure; the noise and smell of so many seabirds is intense, and it’s quite a spectacle to see them filling the sky overhead, before diving like arrows into the water around the boat. The lower ledges of the Bass are home to kittiwakes, shags, guillemots and razorbills. There were seals frolicking in the water around the base. It’s a truly fantastic place and a rare chance to see such amazing wildlife in its natural habitat. Boat trips are run by the Scottish Seabird Centre.
Sailing past sheep, Pembrokeshire
We took a boat trip from Tenby harbour towards Caldey Island (£12). The Island is closed to visitors this year, and the wildlife is flourishing without them. We headed to the back of the island and saw seals basking on rocks and dolphins playing in the waves. Nestled in the cliff face were cormorants, black-backed gulls and razorbills, diving elegantly for their next meal. As we sailed towards the lighthouse, we could see Soay sheep running wild through the fields, all following one another in a line so they don’t get lost, and making zigzag patterns throughout the long grass and gorse bushes.
Living the dream, New Forest
I live in a small village within the New Forest. There is one shop, one pub and one hotel. As we are two miles from all of these, at night there are no streetlights and the sky is deep black with many star constellations to spot. We have badgers, which visit nightly to pick up fallen apples, and birds of prey including goshawks that swoop through the oak trees. Down the road there are wild ponies, donkeys and cows, which are free to roam through the forest at their will. It’s a magical place one could only dream to live in.
Hedgehog hotel, West Midlands
In July we spotted a hedgehog in our tiny courtyard garden. The mum did a recce, then brought three babies at dusk. A mix of dry (good for their teeth) and wet meat (not fish-flavoured) cat food on separate saucers supplements their slug diet, and lots of fresh drinking water. Leave a gap in the fence so they can get in and set up a “Snufflecam” for maximum fun. They check into the wooden hog hotel for daytime naps. Plenty of straw or shredded paper bedding so they can burrow, and leave some logs and leaves out for hibernation next month.
Those dam beavers, Devon
Beavers had been extinct in Britain since the 16th century, until Devon Wildlife Trust started a project of re-introduction on the River Otter a few years ago, and a great place to spot them is around Otterton Village where they’ve built dams. We find early evening is the best time for spotting them, especially in autumn, as the young kits have now sufficiently found their feet and are bravely exploring and getting a sense of their environment. If you don’t spot a beaver immediately don’t be too disheartened – you’ll certainly come across the otters and kingfishers who also make the area home. If you find yourself thirsty I recommend the Kings Arms at Otterton.