2017 – A Very Eventful Year

2017 has gone by so quickly – it doesn’t seem a minute since I was writing a similar blog post on 2016.
Here’s a blog post on everything that I got up to over the year – all events listed in chronological order.

Surrey Wildlife Trust Promotional Video
In January, Surrey Wildlife Trust released a promotional video, and asked if they could borrow some of my footage for it.  It included two videos of mine – one of badger cubs playing in the woods, and one of tawny owlets emerging from their nest. Unfortunately it seems to have been taken down from youtube now, but if you want to see the videos they are hidden in the ‘films’ section of this website.

Mammal Photographer of the Year Competition
To my amazement, I finally won a prize in a national photography competition this year. I have been entering since I was something like 8, and have never won any – until this year, when persistance finally payed off.
I won first prize in the 15 and under category of the competition for this photo of a pipistrelle bat…

If you want to know how I took this photo take a look at the link below.

To receive the prize, I went to Robinson college in Cambridge. There not only did I get my prize, a signed copy of Simon King’s latest book, ‘Nature Watch’, but I also got to meet the man himself, and listen to a free talk on fieldcraft and watching wildlife after the awards ceremony.

I also met a few other people that I partially knew through twitter, several of whom I have met again more recently, which was nice. The competition got quite a lot of media coverage afterwards, and my photo featured on TV for a grand total of 19 seconds!

To read more about it, click this link

Cairngorms 2017

One of my highlights of the year was a trip to the Cairngorms National Park in the Easter holidays.
After going up the previous year, we decided as a family that we’d like to go again.
We had an amazing time, and saw plenty of exciting species, such as Dipper, Brambling, Red Squirrel, Wheatear  and, thanks to Stuart Benn, Golden Eagles, Slavonian Grebes and Mountain Hares.

Read more about it here

Documentaries
Unfortunately, because I have been so busy, I have only managed to produce one proper documentary.
I was quite pleased with it though, and although I’ve still got a long way to go, I can definitely see an improvement from my previous videos.

Here it is – a short documentary on the lifecycle of the Hairy-footed flower bee and the sinister creatures lurking in the walls… hope you enjoy.

A lot of people left really nice and helpful comments -thanks so much, I really appreciate it. Chris Packham, a great inspiration to me, even gave me some advice which is really encouraging.

This year for Christmas, I was given a proper microphone, so hopefully the quality of the recording will be significantly better next year, when I plan to make a lot more.

Birdcamp
Credit: Toby Carter

And not long after I had finished the documentary, I got to spend a weekend away in Norfolk with some other young naturalists at the BTO’s Birdcamp.
It was an amazing opportunity to meet other like-minded people my age, learn from them and from BTO volunteers and employees, and do some really cool stuff that I wouldn’t normally get to do.

For example, we ringed a nightjar, learnt techniques for finding and monitoring bird nests, used moth traps, and visited a bird observatory. I also saw a ton of new species.
It was an absolutely incredible weekend and I highly recommend any teenage wildlife enthusiasts sign up for next year.

Read more about it here

Iceland

I was also lucky enough to visit Iceland with my school on a GCSE geography trip. Although our time was spent on geography rather than wildlife, the waterfalls there were spectacular, and I had to take some photos! I also got to walk on a glacier, which, although amazing, really opened my eyes as to the affects global warming has already had on our planet. The amount that the glacier has receded in recent years is extremely disturbing.
However Iceland itself is a leader in green energy, and it was very interesting to see how they put some of the natural geology to use.


Read more about it here

Countryfile Live

I spent a day of my summer holidays volunteering for the RSPB at Countryfile Live. I’d never been before, and the sheer scale of it was overwhelming. I spent 7 hours dissecting barn owl pellets with children, during which we found vole, shrew, mouse and rat skulls, and produced a range of entertaining reactions from parents. On the day before, someone had even found a water vole skull, which was incredibly different in size to the other vole skulls.

In my time off the stand, I walked around the fair and saw a falconry show, as well as a short talk on some wildlife by Ellie Harrison. It is a very family-orientated event, and it was great to see so many young people get interested in the outdoors.

Read more about it here

Macro Photography
Last Christmas, after a lot of thinking, I decided to spend all my money on a macro lens instead of a better zoom lens. It was a great decision – I have derived so much enjoyment from it this year, and it allows me to access another world of photography that I had simply not been able to with  my standard lens.
Here are a few of my favourite pictures that I have taken with it in the last year…

Macro Photography

Cornwall
As well as Iceland, I went to Cornwall twice, once on a (remarkably cheap) scuba diving course, and another time with my family for a holiday.
The scuba diving course was brilliant, and as well as achieving my Ocean Divers license/qualification I saw a spectacular array of UK marine wildlife, which is a lot more vibrant than people think. In just a few sessions in a small bay, I saw small shoals of fry shimmering in the seaweed, colourful wrasse, a large dark predatory fish which I couldn’t identify, several spider crabs the size of bin lids, and nearly knelt on a well-camouflaged cuttlefish!
This was probably the single wildlife highlight of the year, as you’ll see later on, the cuttlefish is an animal I have always wanted to see.

With my family, I went during a very wet week in which there was a significant flash flood – not too far from where we were staying – that made national news.

However I did still manage to do a bit of surfing, birdwatching, and unsuccessful rockpooling.

Birdfair
My favourite event of the year was the Birdfair. It’s a fantastic event, where I get to listen to some great talks, meet some great people, and catch up with friends that I only meet at the Birdfair every year.
Again I spent half my time on the RSPB stand volunteering, but I still had plenty of time to enjoy the fair.

This year Steve Backshall turned up, and so an inevitable tide of children swept into the rather middle-age dominated Birdfair population (it was nice to have some more young people). I have to admit, having watched all of the Deadly 60 episodes (and most more than once) I also turned up to his talks, and got a signed book afterwards.
In addition I met Nick Baker for the first time, another hero of mine, because Alex Bayley (another young naturalist – see my links page) and myself had been invited by Speyside Wildlife to help do a prize draw with him. Again, I had to buy a signed book! It’s called Rewild – and it’s a great book, all about rewilding yourself, how to attune your senses to the natural world in the way that our ancestors used to, and techniques for deriving full enjoyment from a walk in the woods.

To carry on with the theme of signed books, I should also mention Bill Oddie, and his rather ludicrous book…And of course, there were all the old faces from AFON!
A particular highlight was the fact that my old acting teacher turned up to this year’s Birdfair, not only to have a look around but to be part of a panel talk on ‘The Politics of Wildlife Protection in Britain’ where she showed her amazing short film about elephant extinction – ‘Grey Future’. I only found out that she was passionate about wildlife protection last year, so it was a brilliant surprise to see her talk at the Birdfair.

Read more about it here

Then, in early autumn, I made an extremely exciting discovery…

THE SMOOTH SNAKE

This is an animal I have been searchimg for on my local heath for nearly 8 years. And finally it happened!
Together with the almost equally exciting SAND LIZARD I saw for the first time earlier this year, this brings me up to seeing every single UK Reptile at the age of 15!
For me, I feel a real sense of achievement, and I know many people have spent much larger parts of their life trying to achieve a similar goal. I consider myself very lucky to live in a location such that I can see all of them within walking distance of my house.

Badger Conference
In October, I was lucky to be invited to be a part of a panel at the Badger Conference in Lancashire. It was a long drive, but it was worth it.
I gave a short presentation about myself and what I do, and answer some questions from the audience.
It was amazing, and I got to meet some other wildlife enthusiasts on the panel (see above) which is always nice – my favourite aspect of any event.

I also received a signed copy of Ashley Cooper’s ‘Images from a Warming Planet’ which he kindly donated to myself and all the other ‘Young Wildlife Ambassadors’ as a thanks for what we’re doing. It’s an amazing and very powerful book with some incredible images of what impacts we are ALREADY having.

You can see some of the videos from the talk on my blog post about the event… click this link

BWPA Awards
Within a week of the Badger Conference, I also went down to the Mall Galleries in London to collect a prize for one of my photos that received a Special Mention (the smallest prize you can get, but still something!) in the British Wildlife Photography Awards competition. This was the photo in question…
It may look familiar if you saw the documentary above – it’s a Ruby Tailed Wasp in a wall. As you can see, the colours on its face alone are stunning – that, contrasting with the bright scarlet abdomen, make it incredible.

The photos that won first place in all of the sections were absolutely incredible, and my goal for next year is to try to raise my standard of photography to anywhere half as good as that.

I also got to chat with Miranda Krestovnikoff very briefly, as she was the one who was giving out the awards. It was really nice to catch up with her.

Art 2017

AND FINALLY…

Top 1o Wildlife Encounters of 2017

1) Cuttlefish
(sorry, no photo) 🙁
The most exciting animal I saw this year was the Cuttlefish – actually right at the top of my list of all animals to see in the world, ever. I had no idea I would have the opportunity to see them so early in life, so I’m extremely happy. It has got to make it to the top of the list, despite not having an underwater camera to take photos of it with.

I saw 3 in Cornwall on a scuba diving course, and nearly knelt on one that decided to rely on its camouflage (it worked too well!) They were all sand-coloured, and unfortunately very shy, so I didn’t really get extended views – you only noticed them seconds before they realised that and jet-propelled away incredibly fast.

2) Smooth Snake

As mentioned above, the smooth snake was the final reptile species that has evaded me in the last 8 or so years of searching, and so its discovery marked the occassion of having seen every single British Reptile.
What’s more, every single one of these 6 reptiles I have found on my patch, within walking distance of my house!
The snake itself was beautiful – adder-like but the round pupil makes it look a whole lot less malicious (sorry for the anthropomorphism, harsh on the adder bit true). I don’t think its the first record for my patch but certainly one of very few.

3) Sand Lizard

Another one of the 6 UK reptiles, I found this one on my patch in Spring, by waiting next to a sheet of corrugated iron. It was a stunning male in vibrant green regalia, ready for mating. Again, this was a species I have wanted to see for ages now, so I was incredibly excited to be lying under half a metre from it, while it sunned itself completely oblivious to my presence.

4) Cuckoo

After not having seen a single cuckoo for 15 years (although I had heard a few) this year I must have seen 7 or 8 in the space of a few weeks. At Birdcamp, in Norfolk, we saw plenty up in trees and flying past, CUCKOOing at the top of their voices. We even saw a rufous-morph female!
Then afterwards, at Thursley Common, after two hours of waiting, I got extraordinary views of a cuckoo from just a few metres away. It was kind of cheating because it was a very tame cuckoo that comes down to eat food left down by photographers, but it was still an incredibly close encounter that very few people get.
On the whole I think cuckoos are really nice-looking birds, with the tiger-striped chest, bright yellow eyes and sleek raptor-like profile, and I love to see and photograph them.

5) Bearded Tits
Just a few days ago, I was treated to privileged views of a group of 5 Bearded Tits at Farlington Marshes. I don’t often visit coastal and reedbed locations, and I haven’t spent much time looking for Bearded Tits, so on this occassion, I was extremely lucky. Within 20 minutes of waiting, I had extroardinary views from under 10 metres away as they hopped between reeds on the edge of a reedbed!
This was my first sighting of a Bearded Tit, another bird I have really wanted to see for ages now, so at the last moment, they have swooped into 5th place on my list.

6) Serotine bat

Having only seen pipistrelles around me at night (although there’s nothing wrong with pipistrelles) I was very excited to see some significantly larger bats darting among the usual crowd. I took some photos and a film, but had to rely on twitter’s many bat experts to tell me it was a Serotine bat!
Very interesting to learn that our local bat population was more varied than I had thought!

7) Evarcha Arcuata Jumping Spider

I am an arachnophobe with an irrational interest in spiders – an unfortunate situation to be in.
I am somehow repulsed by most spiders, even the small and harmless variety that we get in the UK, but I am also interested in a lot of them.
Fortunately, there are a few groups of spiders that are both extremely interesting and not repulsive at all – and one of those is Salticidae – the Jumping Spiders.
Small, furry, with four big anterior eyes, they’re actually quite cute. And it comes with a host of interesting biology.
They have the ability to jump between 10 and 50 times their bodylength to catch their prey (hence the name), they can jump off vertical walls and land back on them (as if by magic) and they have remarkable intelligence for their size.
I spotted one species, Evarcha Actuata in the brickwork of a wall in our garden and followed it around the lawn with my macro lens for over half an hour, and was gifted a half hour insight into its world – 30 minutes well spent, especially as I was meant to be gardening.

8) Cuckoo Wasp
Despite having seen them on the walls of my house in previous years, the Ruby-Tailed Wasp (or cuckoo wasp) is a species I only really fully appreciated this year. They are so stunningly beautiful, and for me quite nostalgic, evocative of summer days in the garden. I love them – they have to be one of my favourite animals, despite their dark and sinister habits (see above documentary).

9) Glow Worm Larva
Surely the most surprising find of the year, I turned over a log on the local heath and saw this really weird-looking beetle larva thing.
As one does in this situation, I took photos and stuck them on twitter with a plea for ID help. Luckily a lot of people got back to me, including fellow young naturalist James McCulloch (see links page), and told me it was a glow worm larva.
To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t really thought of glow worms as living in the UK, imagining that they were some miracle of nature that was only found in exotic locations, far beyond my reach until later life.
But no – they are present in the UK, although very rare and not doing very well.
So I sent my sighting of the the Glow Worm  Society, and waited a few months until June, when I intended to go out looking for the glowing adults. As things worked out, I completely forgot. At least that’s something new to look forward to next year!

10) Dipper

As an apparently very common bird that I simply did not live in the right place to see, the Dipper was a great discovery for me this year. Within minutes of arriving in the Cairngorms on holiday, I went on a walk in the last evening light to get to know the surrounding area and discovered a bridge across the river Spey. I knew that Dippers loved building nests under bridges, so I had a poke around, and, sure enough, a little bobbing brown and white dipper was foraging for insects by the bank. I used the struts of the bridge as a makeshift tripod to reduce camera shake (it was dark) and got some provisional pictures to wave under my parents’ noses excitedly.
Over the next few days, I got some better stuff, including some footage of it singing, swimming under water (its most exciting attribute) and feeding chicks in its nest.

Special Mentions – sorry, there’s a lot…

Slavonian Grebes – thanks to Stuart Benn we got great views of Slavonian Grebes bobbing about on a loch, with stunning orange crests and deep red eyes – absolutely beautiful birds and a privilege to watch
Although I have seen nightjars locally last year, this year I had much better views, took some reasonable footage (coming out soon) and even had the amazing opportunity to ring them with the BTO. Stunning bird – even going as far as to say my favourite bird!
All the moths we caught at Birdcamp – including the extraordinary Cream Spot Tiger (pictured) Elephant and Poplar hawk moths, Buff Tip and Peppered moth.
Red Tipped Clearwing – apparently quite rare, and the first one recorded in the Nunnery in Norfolk, where I found it on the Birdcamp. Unfortunately my glimpse was too fleeting to get a good photo, but still very exciting

 

The endearing Red Squirrel – although I did catch a brief glimpse of one last year, we had much better views this year
Painted Lady – after having seen them in the garden for several years and, I’m extremely ashamed to say, mistaking them for Red Admirals when I was younger, I only fully opened up my eyes to the exquisite beauty of this butterfly, and the incredible journey which it undertakes annually
Dartford Warbler – I saw my first Dartford Warbler in Norfolk this year, and since then have seen two more – one on Thursley Common and even one on my own patch in Blackheath. A rare bird living right on my own patch that I have never seen until this year!
Stonechat – embarrassingly, never seen one before this year, and now I see some practically every time I walk on Blackheath. I don’t know how I ever overlooked them before
Red-veined Darter – an apparently reasonably rare migrant species we saw in Norfolk. Whether rare or not, a very beautiful dragonfly
Ringed Plovers – got the best views I’ve ever had of these fantastic little birds (although that’s not saying much to be honest) in Norfolk at the Birdcamp
Redstart – had amazing views of my first ever male while waiting for the cuckoo. Striking bird
Saw my first ever (albeit distant) Bittern in Norfolk

THANKS VERY MUCH FOR READING – I hope you’ve had an equally good year, and thanks very much for any support you may have given me over the last 365 days.
Happy New Year!

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