A week in Shetland

Ampm around 325BC the Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas made a remarkable voyage to Northern Europe. Although his account hasn’t survived, it appears that he navigated round the British coastline and then sailed further north to encounter Arctic ice and the midnight sun. Pytheas used the word ‘Thule’ to name a distant land he visited. There have been centuries of debate about the identity of Thule – Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Shetland?

The author Joanna Kavenna visited all these places and many more in search of Thule. In her book The Ice Museum she recounts her journey from Aberdeen to Lerwick in Shetland on the ferry MV Hrossey. Over a decade later my friends and I travelled on the same ferry on our way to a holiday in Shetland. Like Kavenna, we didn’t find Thule but we loved our time there.

I’ve often written about the power of wild landscapes. The approach by sea to Lerwick was inspiring. Alongside the larger islands there were small uninhabited islets and tall rocky stacks. Finally, we approached Lerwick Harbour:

I quickly became obsessed by Shetland’s seabirds and I am grateful to my friends for putting up with me! A couple of us took a small boat trip to see the noisy seabird colonies on the island of Noss. What an experience! Escorted out of the harbour by seals we soon arrived at the colonies where we we were just a few feet from these young Gannets:

And this very large Great Skua

Later in the week we searched for Puffins and found this pretty little creature at the RSPB reserve at Sumburgh Head on the southern tip of the largest island in Shetland, the Mainland:

We had quite a surprise when we walked to the Head. A group of Arctic Terns flew angrily around our heads, with a few diving down on us. No doubt they thought we’d stumbled too near their breeding colony. Luckily they didn’t make contact. I’ve seen a video of Arctic Terns attacking a polar bear and drawing blood!

This experience made me think about when I’d last been attacked by a wild animal. Here in the UK we’ve wiped out the majority of the animals that might do us harm. I’ve been stung by wasps and bees and been hissed at by swans and pecked by greedy geese. After I returned home, I dreamt of being attacked by a Razorbill! This seabird has a large bill but normally uses it to catch fish.

Our last day on Shetland turned out sunny, and we visited the beautiful Banna Minn beach and loved the clear blue-green water.

Leaving Lerwick on the ferry that evening was both sad and hopeful. We were accompanied by Skuas, Fulmars and this Gannet which flew high over the ship in the late evening. Was it giving me permission to come back one day?

My last photo was of this sunset:

If I returned to Shetland, could I go in the winter? The writer Amy Liptrot, while recovering from alcoholism, spent a winter in on the tiny island of Papa Westray in her native Orkney. The winter would be dark but what’s wrong with that? Darkness protects me because it conceals the dangers of the world. When it’s bright and sunny, I feel that I am expected to be cheerful but darkness allows me to be who I want to be. I can hide in quiet corners feeling much safer in the dark than when I am being exposed to the harsh brightness of the normal world.

And if I went to Shetland in winter I could see Slavonian Grebes and Long-Tailed Ducks – what could be better than that?



I have become obsessed with birds. Often it is difficult for me to think about anything else, and I feel bitter when life forces me to do so. I expect everyone else to take an interest in birds too. I assume that all my friends will be interested in listening to me talking about them. No doubt they have better things to do.

My obsession has become clear on recent walks in Kent. Over the last year or so, I’ve paid more visits to the county than ever before. A group of friends and I are gradually walking the 163 mile Saxon Shore Way, which begins at Gravesend and works its way round the coast to Hastings. Near the beginning, this Mute Swan refused to let us on its jetty.

Last spring we had a wonderful day following the Way through the RSPB Northward Hills nature reserve. We were delighted to hear singing nightingales, along with the distinctive two-note call of the cuckoo. The cuckoo always sounds very innocent, even though it lays its eggs in other birds nests.

Here’s a view over Northward Hills reserve. You can see a few of the huge number of Rooks that breed here.

On a separate trip, Dad and I walked from the reserve to Egypt Bay on an isolated stretch of the Thames Estuary. This small bay was made infamous by Dickens in “Great Expectations”. It was one of many locations along the Thames used for ‘prison hulks’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. These were old Navy and merchant ships used to hold convicts, some before being transported to Australia. The conditions on board the overcrowded hulks must have been appalling. Outbreaks of typhus and dysentery were common.

When Dad and I visited Egypt Bay, it was difficult to imagine all the pain and suffering. Everywhere was quiet and calm. Avocets were striding gracefully along the water’s edge and a pair of Oystercatchers were busily flying around, calling. Here’s the Bay with the much more industrial Essex coast in the background:

Back on the Saxon Shore Way, we passed Rochester and walked alongside the Swale Channel. By this time the winter migrant birds were arriving. I found myself getting well behind the rest of the group as I looked out for wintering ducks and waders and these rather distant but beautiful Brent Geese:

If I lead a walking group, I don’t like people lagging far behind, so I was surprised that I let myself do so. This is a sign of my obsession. If there’s a chance of seeing a bird I like, then nothing else matters. It’s not that I’m looking out for rare birds. If I found one, I probably wouldn’t recognise it.

A few months ago we were walking along the Kent coast, and I caught a glimpse of some birds in a pond just inland. I tried to ignore them but a glimpse out of the corner of my eye suggested that they were something interesting. They turned out to be a group of roosting Redshanks. I didn’t want to disturb them so I crept quietly towards the pond. All this took time and on my way back I was stopped by a man who insisted on telling me all about his bird sightings. The group had to wait for me and I felt ashamed.

But I don’t regret the wonderful wildlife encounter I once had as a result of being behind the group. I was suddenly aware of an unusual shape in the sea and looked up to see a seal! It kept diving and coming back up. Each time it stared at me with its large eyes, and I stared back with my binoculars. I felt a connection with the mammal. We were both curious about the other. It was a strongly personal experience from which I still take strength.

My mind is on a bird’s back – by Ruth

My friend Ruth is in a hospital ward at the moment. She has kindly contributed this post about how mindful birding is helping her. Ruth’s previous guest post is here.

I cling on to the back of the sea bird and feel the wind on my face as we soar through the sky narrowly missing the jutting out rocks of the sea cliffs. I can smell the salty sea below and feel the wind rush on my cheeks. There are cries of the nesting sea birds all around and the scream of the gulls fighting for their dinner. As we come into land on the glimmering beach the tide laps at my feet, the water warmed from the days sun. I step away from this scene and back into the moment.

I’m in an eating disorder ward sat at a table with 8 other patients. The emotion of everyone’s difficulties fill the room. As I sit in my own turmoil I often like to take myself back to the moment on the sea birds back. It evokes memories of where I feel most at peace. In the sea, held by the tumultuous ocean. The force taking over my emotions, holding my skin – there is no space for thought here. For the first two weeks of my hospital admission I’ve not been allowed to leave the hospital ward, accept to sit in the garden. The hospital surroundings are amazingly birdy and I’ve spent a lot of time sat in the garden listening to bird song. There are two great tits who sit on the fence each day feeding on the insects and every day my room is filled with the sound of gold finches chattering on the trees outside. I don’t feel sad that I can’t see them as somehow their song is keeping me company and is a treat in itself. The garden also has many wildlife watching opportunities, from the cheeky squirrel who has made his nest in the pagoda, who brazenly stood by the backdoor this week eating a bulb he’d dug up for us all to see to the gulls who sit up on the roof making all manor of squarwks and parading themselves up and down. The other day I stood close to a female blackbird, the closest I’ve ever stood, whilst she looked at me in the eye for a good 5 minutes. It felt like a profound moment, until she did a poo and I wondered if perhaps she was just constipated.

During darker moments I often hear a robin singing outside, the robin for me is a symbol of hope and it comforts me when I’m feel hemmed in and isolated to hear it’s friendly song. The pinging of the starlings remind me of walks home as they often sit on the electricity lines close to our house and there’s always a good chorus of sparrows chattering on. As I sit in the ward garden with my eyes closed, barefoot, with the gulls wailing in the background I close my eyes and I am back on the seabird, smelling the ocean and at peace with myself.

Snowy birdwatching

Is your mental health affected by the weather? Mine certainly is. I prefer the weather to be cold rather than hot, and I enjoyed the snowy week at the end of February.

In my last post I included some snowy scenes from Essex taken some years ago. I didn’t really expect snow to return so soon! Seeing the lake in St James’s Park covered with ice was quite a surprise for me and these Black Swans:

I was very aware that some birds would have struggled or perished during this cold, especially the small song birds. The birds in Kensington Gardens were fortunate that their feeders were full. This Great Tit looked healthy as did the Starling above it:

This Ring-Necked Parakeet had found a feeder in Hyde Park:

Parakeets are very hardy birds which seem to have no problem with the English winter.

In my last blog, I wrote about the pleasures of standing still listening to birds. This experience took on a different quality during the heavy snow. The wind was very cold, but I was able to accept it rather than fight to keep it out. Apart from the wind, there wasn’t much noise, even in the central London parks. The snow muffled the sharpness of everyday sound (see here for an explanation). And the song birds were quieter. The week before the snow fell had become quite warm, and many song birds started singing and chasing each other round the bushes. After the snow fell, they focused their energy on uncovering food. They fell very quiet and the silence felt strange.

Many birds flew away from their normal frozen feeding grounds, and Lapwings were recorded in my local parks. My father and I made a trip to Bowers Marsh in Essex on the last day of the cold weather. We found a large flock of Fieldfares displaced from their normal fields. There was also a good flock of Avocets, although they had moved out by time I took this photo:

At the end of the walk we looked over the sea wall from Canvey and saw this tanker through the mist:

There was a bitterly cold wind blowing but I still loved the moment. Any time that I spend in the Thames Estuary is special and my favourite wading birds were calling. This was my sort of weather. I often feel rejected by the hot weather that most people like. In contrast, the cold welcomes me and makes me feel alive.

Birdwatching in Essex

Why does Essex have such a bad reputation? This entertaining BBC article discusses the 1990s jokes about ‘Essex girls’. Some TV series haven given the impression that Essex is an ugly angry place. This is not the county I was brought up in, with its quiet countryside and gently rolling fields.

I’ve always loved the Essex coast, whether it’s the peacefulness of Frinton’s greensward, or the much livelier beach at Southend, with its remarkably long pier. In recent years, I’ve discovered Essex’s birding treasures including its muddy estuaries, winding creeks and marshes, empty of humans but full of the piercing cries of the Redshank and the haunting bubbling call of the Curlew.

A few years ago, the last time we had proper snow, I found this pretty Turnstone on an outside pub table in Leigh-on-Sea. These birds are often found on pebbly beaches looking for food, but this one had perhaps been driven further inland by the snow.

And this icy scene was at nearby Two Tree Island

More recently I have had three visits to Essex at weekends to look at birds. My father and I went on a further trip on the river Stour on an old barge – see this older post for more about these trips and some more snow pictures. Dad and I also went to Tollesbury Wick, and a friend and I walked along the Thames to the RSPB reserve at Rainham Marshes.

Spending all this time time outside is really good for me. I enjoy my job but it involves a lot of time inside, sometimes in basement conference rooms. I need to spend more time in the open air, feeling the late winter winds and enjoying the still low sun. Being outside is really good for my state of mind. Recently I have spoken about my experience of mental health in a couple of events at work. This is a stressful experience as it is, but being stuck in a windowless room makes it worse. I would have been less nervous if I could have glanced outside the window and seen a gull, crow or even a pigeon. Completely losing any connection with nature, even for a few hours, drags my mood down.

My recent trips were therefore very welcome and here are a few pictures from them:

Tidal mud at Mistley, as seen from the barge:

Tollesbury Wick:

And a ‘concrete barge’ on the Thames at Rainham in Essex:

These barges were used as fuel supply vessels in the D-Day landings in Normandy, then were towed here in 1953 to shore up flood defences after the major flooding that year.

While walking on muddy estuaries or round marshes, I sometimes stand still and just listen to the birds’ calls, without looking for the birds themselves. If I focus carefully, feeling the wind but ignoring all my other senses, then I can slowly distinguish the calls of the individual species. Often I hear the Lapwing squeaking shrilly, sometimes saying its old folk name ‘peewit’. If I’m lucky, I will hear the evocative bubbling call of the Curlew.

Listening to the birds is my form of mindfulness.

The Wandle Delta

Over the last few months, I’ve been coping with a very sore knee. This been caused by too much running and also by age. Coping with this is difficult for me, because I need exercise to maintain my state of wellbeing.

The next step may be an X-ray. My physio would like me to replace running with swimming but I’m too frightened. I love being by water or on it, but not in it.

As I can’t run, I’ve tried to find the time to walk over some of my running routes. This gives me more time to search for birds. As I’ve written previously, I love the River Wandle in south London. I find many calm, safe spaces there, even in the middle of urban ugliness.

A Twitter acquaintance kindly told me about an 1895 book by C R B Barrett, called ‘Surrey: highways, byways and waterways’. He visited the Wandle at the point where it reaches the Thames, at Wandsworth. He wasn’t impressed, describing it as ‘a somewhat dreary and not altogether a savoury spot”. That’s the sort of place I like!

I wandered down there a few weeks ago and found that Mr Barrett’s description isn’t entirely unfair. The railway arches he mentions are still there, accompanied by a council depot and works for the Thames Tideway sewer. The river splits into two untidy channels. But its final few yards are much more appealing. A landscaped viewpoint allowed me and this Black-headed Gull to watch the streams join together:

This area is sometimes called ‘Wandle Delta’. It’s a rather grand name, but the river meets one of the criteria by depositing silt at its mouth. Recently some of this silt has been removed along with an unused tidal weir, creating a mini nature reserve.

A small flock of Common Teal was enjoying the newly cleaned water: some are just visible as dots in the picture. I love these wintering ducks’ soft whistling call.

Leaving the river mouth, I then walked (I wish I could have run) to nearby King George’s Park. Although the Wandle runs along its edge, the park’s most attractive feature is this lake:

It’s the kingdom of these two swans which sometimes nest in the the reeds.

Watching these brilliant white birds feeding was a relaxing way to end my short trip. I wish I knew when my knee will next let me run along the Wandle.

More news about Black Swans

Since my last post, four new Black Swans have arrived in central London! They are young birds which stick closely together and appear to be siblings. I’d love to know where they came from! Black Swans breed at Dawlish in Devon but that’s a long way away.

The swans initially came to Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens but have since flown over to St James’s Park. They took the existing Hyde Park bird with them, so there are now ten Black Swans at St James’s Park. When I’m there, I feel like I’m in Western Australia! Here are two of the young birds in Hyde Park:

And all four of them today in St James’s Park:

Black Swans

Black Swans have played an important part in my birding and emotional lives in recent years. But it’s nothing to do with the bird’s unexpected appearance in management theory. This Wikipedia article explains Black Swan Theory, which is about dealing with unexpected events. An essayist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, wrote a popular book about the theory. This in turn refers to the philosopher Karl Popper’s discussions about falsifiability. A statement that ‘all swans are white’ can immediately be proved wrong by the appearance of a single black swan.

All these discussions appear to suggest that black swans are a rare freak of nature; in fact, they are a separate species from our well -known Mute Swan. All Mute Swans are white, whereas all Black Swans are black with white flight feathers. There are many other swan species: what would the logicians and theorists make of the Black-necked Swan?

The Black Swan is native to Australia, and is particularly associated with Perth. Its beauty means that it is a popular bird in British collections. Inevitably, some escape and breed in the wild. Unlike other introduced waterfowl such as the Egyptian Goose, it’s not a successful breeder and the UK population is still quite small.

I’m very privileged to be able to see Black Swans on a regular basis. I know of eight in London’s Royal Parks, including five in St James’s Park. This is one of them, showing its red beak and eyes. You can also just see the edges of its white flight feathers.

There is a particularly fine bird in Hyde Park which is reasonably tame but only on his own terms:

This picture shows the fine ruffles on its back. I have seen its feathers described as “curiously corrugated’ but I prefer to call them “ruffles’.

Here he is again, perhaps a little too close for comfort:

Although I love and celebrate these birds, I still associate them with personal sadness. They just seem unable to breed successfully. One year, I watched a Black Swan pair nest in St James’s Park. The female had spent weeks incubating her eggs, but then the pair suddenly disappeared. I’ve no idea what happened to them.

Earlier this year, I found out on Twitter that there were six Black Swan cygnets in the park! By the time I managed to get there, there were only five:

And sadly, one by one they died. When there were three, I watched a parent bring one right up to the edge of the lake. The cygnet was calling normally, but was making no effort to feed. The next day it had gone. I then went on holiday for a week and when I got back, the remaining two had died.

They may have problems finding suitable food, or they may have been predated. I was devastated by the loss of all these cute little birds over such a short time. Do the parent birds grieve as well? They spent all the time with their chicks, escorting them to safe feeding places. Are swans purely emotionless? What do you think?

To my dismay, another pair of Black Swans has started nesting at the Buckingham Palace end of the Park. I fear the worst.

Some birds that cheer me up

In this post I talk about two species I particularly enjoy seeing, and one recent birding occasion which cheered me up. Does anyone else have any favourite birding experiences?


The Rook is a particularly distinguished member of the crow family. I see its relatives, the Carrion Crow and the Magpie, every day. If I travel a short distance east or west from Croydon, I can find Jackdaws. But if I want to see a Rook, I have to leave London. It doesn’t like the big city.

Apart from its paler beak, the Rook looks very like a Carrion Crow. However its behaviour is rather more refined. Rooks nest in colonies at the tops of tall trees – rookeries. Their baleful cawing calls have been used in rock music to create an eerie atmosphere, including in Pink Floyd’s 25-minute epic Echoes

I found this Rook at WWT Slimbridge, hoping to snatch food intended for the ducks.

Little Grebe

Unlike many of the birds I write about, the Little Grebe isn’t well known to the general public. People may perhaps have seen the courting dance of the Great Crested Grebe, but its tiny relative never does anything so spectacular. This photo, in St James’ Park, shows how small they are:

Even though it’s tiny, it has a loud carrying call (listen here) which has been compared to a whinnying horse. Its chicks seem almost too small to function but they quickly grow to their parents’ size. How do Little Grebes cope in when they are so much smaller than the other birds in their world? Surely they are frightened by swans which might be six times their length and 60 times their weight! We are used to other creatures being smaller than us. But the Little Grebe dashes around a lake unconcernedly. It just ignores the massive swans, while diving for small fish for itself, or tinier creatures for its chicks.

Do you remember the Magic Eye pictures that were popular in the 1990s? We had to stare at colourful blurry patterns in a certain way, and all of a sudden a 3D picture would miraculously emerge from the page. Well, that was the theory: it never worked for me. However I can sometimes find Little Grebes in the same way: I stare at a riverbank for some minutes and then suddenly a Little Grebe materialises, sheltering in the vegetation. Its ‘powder puff’ rear end is often a give-away, or its chestnut-red head contrasting against the green plants. It’s such a delight to seen one.

A wet visit to St James’s Park

This central London park is full of birds but at this time of year they are outnumbered by the huge numbers of tourists. These crowds block my views of the birds. The other day I went to the park in the rain and the tourists had disappeared! So I had the birds to myself and enjoyed watching this preening swan family:

And a heron looking at a tree stump:

Grieving for pigeons

I find it impossible to cry, to weep. Even in the saddest situations such as family deaths or funerals, I can’t weep. My psychiatrist says it’s likely to be because of my anti-depressants. If the tablets are saving me from deep unhappiness, then that must be good. But I worry that I will longer be able to feel proper human emotion. Or perhaps I never have done?

In recent years, I’ve been moved more by tragedies involving birds rather than humans. I realise that it is wrong to think like this. I was upset by seeing a crushed Rook on a road, knowing that its chicks would be expecting food. I was really shocked by reading about the extinction of a whole species, the Passenger
Pigeon. Of all the sad bird-related stories I’ve read, this is the worst. This article on the Audubon web site describes how this American species once numbering over three billion was driven to complete extinction. The bird used to flock in millions but was hunted to death, often through inhumane methods. For example sulphur was burned at the bottom of the tree to asphyxiate the birds above. These events happened well over 100 years ago but they still shock me every time I read about them. Reading about the Passenger Pigeon nearly, but not quite, drives me to tears.

Luckily, there are plenty of pigeons and doves in London to enjoy. The most common pigeon in the city is the Feral Pigeon, derived from the wild Rock Dove. Ken Livingstone was wrong to describe them as ‘rats with wings’. I enjoy watching these attractive birds as they try to live their lives around us. I saw this bird in Beddington Park in south London:

As much as I like pigeons, I don’t think I’d want to get quite as close to them as this woman!

This Grey Heron looked irritated by the pigeons scrambling over food behind him:

Woodpigeons with their distinctive five note call are also very common. This one was looking over the lake at Waddon Ponds in Croydon:

While I was in St James’s Park the other day, I was delighted to find this pretty pair of Stock Doves. They look very like Feral Pigeons but are genuinely wild woodland birds which are easy to overlook:

Unlike Ken Livingstone, I believe we should cherish the variety of pigeons and doves in the UK. The man-made extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is a warning about how easy it is to lose things we take for granted.