Dawn Chorus Walk 2017

There are few people for whom I would gladly get up at 4am, but I would make an exception for Ian Boyd, Director of Arc Consulting, a non-profit company that promotes the re-utilization of public spaces and buildings for the benefit of the community, both humans and wildlife.

ian boyd, artecology, arc consulting, ecology, wildlife expert, entomologist
The Infectious Enthusiasm of Ian Boyd
It's his wildlife knowledge and in particular his ability to identify countless bird songs with infectious and inexhaustible enthusiasm that gets me up at that hideous time on a Saturday morning and keeps me returning year after year for his dawn chorus walk.

The overnight rain filled the air with the earthy fragrance of petrichor as12 welly-clad and bleary-eyed figures met at the start of the Sandown to Cowes cycle path at 4.30am for the Dawn Chorus Walk, part of the annual Isle of Wight Walking Festival.  Each time I've been on this walk, I've learnt some amazing things about the wildlife on my doorstep.

12 bleary eyed and enthusaistic dawn chorus walkers
12 bleary-eyed and enthusiastic dawn chorus walkers
 Why do the Birds Sing?

The answer it seems, could be one of several.  It may be too dark to forage making insects and seeds harder to find; it could also be to attract a mate and define their territory, as it's only the males that perform a dawn chorus in the UK.  It may also be beneficial for them to sing in low light because they will be less visible to predators.  If they've had a good feed the day before and made it through the night, many birds are lost overnight if they've not eaten enough the previous day and it turns cold during the night, they play out a glorious orchestrated and choreographed dawn chorus.

Despite the light rainfall, blackbirds, robins and wrens started first."The ones with the largest eye size to body ratio," Ian told us.  A dunnock followed the song thrush and as we walked along the old railway track from Sandown to Alverstone, blackcaps and chiffchaffs joined the feathered alarm clocks as the initial choristers went off in search of food.

Shortly after the mill at Alverstone weir, we arrived at some coppiced woodland and scrubby thicket, an ideal habitat for a nightingale.  The nightingale had only been heard once on the dawn chorus walk in the last 6 years and I was lucky enough to be present that time.  I hadn't realised  how unusual it was to hear a nightingale and it had been so long, I doubt if I would have recognised it again had Ian not suddenly stopped us and excitedly pointed out the incredibly varied song of the nightingale.

We listened in silence for over 5 minutes, amazed at the sometimes electronic sounding trills, runs and embellished warbles from the nightingale.  I peered longingly in the direction of the song but despite sounding tantalisingly close, he remained concealed.

On the return loop, we spotted a beautiful chaffinch singing from the branch of an oak tree, a cettis warbler blasted his song as we neared his territory and a lesser white throat played the finale to another delightful dawn chorus walk.  None of those birds would I have been able to identify had it not been for the expertise of Ian Boyd.

If you ever get the chance and have the least bit of interest in birds then you must make the effort, and it is an effort, to get up at 4am on the day of the dawn chorus walk.

Top Tips for May

Australia's Natural Wonders 

I was a bit of a weird child.  Like many of my peers, my grandmother looked after me during school holidays while my parents went out to work.  But unlike my friends who were content to play with dolls  and prams and have imaginary tea parties, I fantasised about far off countries. Places where adventures took place with mountains and wild animals and lots of caves to explore.  Of course, I hadn't even been out of the UK by then and it would be many years later before foreign travel was not the norm.  But I'd heard about Australia, a relative had moved out there.  I knew of its vast red deserts and its incredibly warm climate, the kangaroos and koala bears and I was enthralled by the book Walkabout, which we all read in school.

tasmania, australia, wild seas, waves, nature
Wild Seas - Tasmania
It was during one of those endlessly long summer holidays that I decided to do a project on Australia.  I asked my grandmother to take me to the library where we chose some books on Australia and an atlas to help me find it.  I studied the political maps with unpronounceable names and wondered at the height of the shaded brown mountains on the physical ones.  I followed rivers from source to sea with my finger and so when my grandmother bought me a notebook with coloured blank pages, I set about writing stories based on what I'd read and imagined I'd read in the books and maps of Australia.

Australia, maps, books, project
Project Australia

My love for Australia has never waned and as an adult I have been lucky enough to spend a total of 7 months exploring that wonderful continent.

This month, the Royal Geographic Society in London are presenting Australia's Natural Wonders on 25th May telling the story of how Bush Heritage created a network of Australia Conservation Reserves.  It will be led by Dr Jody Gunn and Chris Darwin, Charles Darwin's great great grandson.

The Hebridean Way Walking Route

Having finally achieved an ambition and walked the West Highland Way last year after a 30 year wait, I'm looking forward to experiencing The new Hebridean Way walking route which officially opened at the end of April.  It is a long distance walking route of 156 miles,covering10 islands, 6 causeways and 2 ferry crossings.

Hebridean Way Walking trail
Hebridean Way

It looks like you will be treated to some of the best views in the world, if the weather is kind, as you walk along white sandy beaches.  Stunning mountains will be your backdrop as you pass ancient burial grounds and stone circles while wallowing in wilderness walking like you've never experienced.  The walk starts, or ends, at Vatersay, the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides and finishes, or begins, in Lews Castle in Stornoway. The visit Highlands website has some very useful information and the walk has been planned out in 12 daily sections.

Castles, standing stones, myths, legends
Castles, Standing Stones, Myths and Legends

I just hope it's not another 30 years before I finally get round to experiencing this one.

Electronic Devices Banned on Inbound UK Flights

The UK has followed the US in banning electronic devices from hand luggage for passengers flying from certain airports.  Here's how it will affect you.

Any device larger than 16cm x 9.3cm x 1.5cm will have to go in the hold if you are flying to the UK from:
  • Turkey
  • Lebanon
  • Jordon
  • Egypt
  • Tunisia
  • Saudi Arabia.  
Most smart phones do not fall into this category but laptops, tablets and even e-readers do and will need to go in with the hold luggage.

Personally, I never put anything valuable in the hold and since I once saw a pile of dusty lost luggage almost as large as a Scottish mountain, at one of the UK's well known airport terminals, I have tried to fly with hand luggage only.  This ban on laptops in the cabin will not change my habit, I'll just need to be more creative with my phone when I'm travelling and writing.  I've known people write whole novels on their phone and other produce videos worthy of awards; so I see no reason why I can't write, photograph and video edit on my phone too.  Of course, there is always the option of using paper and pen and reading from a real book.

Luckily the ban does not seem to affect games consoles and DVD players but it does affect any electronic devices larger than the stipulated measurements that you buy at duty free shops.

If you are flying to the US, they have applied the new regulations to 10 different airports including Casablanca in Morocco and Kuwait International Airport.

You can find out more details about the UK ban on the gov.uk website

Reptile Centre - Reptilarium & Terrapin Sanctuary at Fort Victoria

The opening day of the Isle of Wight's newest reptile attraction at Fort Victoria, The Reptilarium and Terrapin Sanctuary, saw the staff nervously excited and the visitors curious and interested as to what lay ahead of them in the old fort's tunnels.

Through an unassuming entrance lies 4 rooms of biodiversity: Desert, Jungle, a Terrapin Pool and a Nocturnal Room with reptiles as rare and diverse as Moroccan Uromastyx to Painted Wood Turtles.

Entrance to Reptilarium and Terrapin Sanctuary
Entrance to Reptilarium and Terrapin Sanctuary

With anticipation, I stepped through the green doors to find myself in the desert with some living stones, South African succulent plants with a stone-like appearance.

Living Stones display
Living Stones display

To my left and right was a row of vivariums, each one individually climate controlled to the ideal temperature for its inhabitants.

I peered into the enclosure at hollowed logs strategically placed in the wood chip, vines angled against the wall for optimum climbing and perfect camouflage, succulents taking root in their new environment. Something on the branch moved then froze again.  An untouched bowl of food lay at the front of the vivarium and then an eyeball looked around and I noticed just how effective the camouflage was as I followed the eye of the tiny lizard down to the tip of his tail.

"Ah he's out now," said one of the friendly, green t-shirted volunteers.  The volunteers were extremely helpful and knowledgeable.  They turned what at first appeared to be a lifeless glass box into a world full of interest and on almost every occasion could spot the resident or residents inside. 

One of the residents popping out for a look
One of the residents popping out for a look

Luckily, the reptile centre operates a hand stamp system allowing visitors to return as often as they like throughout the day so they can pop back and see if the spiny-tailed monitor has crawled out from under his rock or the hispaniolan curlytail lizard has been tempted by his leafy lettuce.

Individually Climate Controlled Vivarium
Individually Climate Controlled Vivarium

In the large terrapin pool, there are currently 30 terrapins of varying ages and size and it is hoped that they will be able to rescue up to 100 yellow-bellied slider turtles altogether.  The terrapins will not be allowed to breed but they can lay their eggs in a sand box at the side of the pool allowing them to lead as natural a life as possible and prevent them becoming egg bound.

With so much to see and do at Fort Victoria, including the Planetarium, The Sunken Secrets Archaeological Centre and the Model Railway, you can easily spend a whole day there, exploring the beaches for fossil turtle and alligator, following the nature trail through the country park or taking in the views over The Solent to Hurst Castle and Lymington from the roof of the old fort batteries giving you plenty of opportunity to pop back to the Reptilarium to see if that elusive snake, lizard, cockroach or scorpion has ventured into view.

Alligator and Turtle murals on the Fossil Art Trail at The Reptilarium at Fort Victoria
Alligator and Turtle murals on the Fossil Art Trail at The Reptilarium at Fort Victoria

You will also find another part of the Fossil Art Trail on show at the reptile centre.  A mural by Tony Trowbridge depicting images of the turtles and alligators that used to swim in the waters in that area and whose fossils can now be found on the beaches around the fort is on show in the gift shop of the Reptilarium.

A New Willow Wetland Walk in Sandown

Where there’s a willow there’s a way.  

Determination will overcome any obstacle says the saying and that’s certainly what Arc Consulting have done when they enlisted the help of the Community Payback Service to create the Willow Walk, Sandown Bay’s newest wetland walk.

Willow wetland walk winding woodchip path
Winding Woodland Walk

Wyatt & Jack Upcycled Bouncy Castle Tote Bag

When Wyatt and Jack asked me to road test their bouncy castle tote bag, I literally jumped at the chance.

The white PVC tote (also available in 13 other colours including tangerine, cherry and purple) arrived in a strong brown paper envelope with no extra packaging to throw away, no plastic bags or bubble wrap around it  - a feature, I was to discover,  in keeping with the reusing and recycling message promoted by the company.

coloured PVC tote
Other colours of Totes are available

Yestival – A Festival for Adventurers & Adventurous Thinking 20th - 22nd October 2017

Have you ever fancied going on an adventure but don’t know where to begin?  Do you dream of living an adventurous life but are too scared to take that first step?

Yestival could have all your answers.  Yestival started in 2015, the brainchild of adventurer, TED Ex speaker and author, Dave Cornthwaite, following a summer of SayYesMore campouts where total strangers met at an agreed location, chatted around a campfire, spent the night out in the wild and left as friends the following day.

The first year of Yestival saw over 30 experienced adventurers share their secrets and tales and dish out help with the same amount of enthusiasm as they put into the adventures themselves.

Yestival Promo Pic 23rd to 25th October

Facing my Fears & Climbing out my Comfort Zone at Sandown Rocks

An unexpected invitation to tea took me to a new high when I agreed to meet my friend Matt at Sandown Rocks 45ft climbing wall the other day.

“Right, what I thought we’d do is climb to the top, tie ourselves in and have tea.  What do you think?”  Suggested Matt.

“Of course we will,” I said dubiously.  “Who wouldn’t drink tea at the top of a climbing wall? It’s not like Mary Poppins has exclusivity on lofty tea parties.” I joked nervously.

Sandown Rocks Climbing Wall