Sunday 30 May 2021

The Biggest Twitch by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller


 Subtitled 'round the world in 4,000 birds' this is the story of one couple's attempt to break the world record of the most species of birds seen in one year. Ruth and Alan travelled through more than 20 countries including Spain, Ecuador, South Africa, Malawi, India and Australia to find as many birds as they could. (They found over 4,000!)

The result is an entertaining travelogue that includes stories of generosity from strangers, bouts of sea sickness, wildfires and problems exchanging money as well as many many wonderful encounters with birds and other wildlife. 

Ruth and Alan take it in turns to narrate each chapter and both of them have nice chatty writing styles, though the name dropping of both birds and ornithologists can get a bit tiring at times. I find it astonishing how easy so much of their birding seems, several times they say something such as 'as we walked towards the entrance of the nature reserve, we saw rare bird A to our left, rare bird B to our right and 25 rare birds C flew over our heads.' In my experience it's often much trickier than that to see rare birds! It would also have been more meaningful if I had had field guides to the birds of all the areas the couple travelled in, so I could look them up and see what they look like rather than just relying on the descriptions given.(I have a field guide to the birds of Europe and this made the European sections of the book more meaningful than some of the others.)

This isn't my style of birdwatching, I'd find it exhausting (plus see my note below this review). However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and can recommend it to anyone who loves travelling and birdwatching. 

The Biggest Twitch by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller published by AC Black. 


My biggest issue with this sort of birding is the amount of travel involved, including several flights, which leads to a very large carbon footprint. People who love nature should be aware that regularly flying round the world to see birds or other animals is not sustainable! On the other hand eco-tourism can provide vital income for poor communities in areas of wildlife interest, so it's not an entirely simple issue. You can find out more about how to make birdwatching more sustainable in the Low Carbon Birding website.

Thursday 27 May 2021

War Graves Week

 War Graves Week (21 – 28 May 2021) organised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission encourages communities to find out about the World War heritage on their doorstep. Your local cemetery probably contains the final resting places of some of the men and women who fought and died in the two world wars. Certainly both our local cemeteries (that we have discovered to be such wildlife havens since we started walking around them at the beginning of lockdown 2020) contain a number of such graves. 

To mark War Graves Week, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Scotland are running small, socially distanced guided tours of Edinburgh's Comely Bank Cemetery


This is a lovely wooded cemetery that I have often admired from the bus but have never before visited. So today I went along to find out more and enjoyed a fascinating guided tour that took in the sad stories behind some of the many war graves in this site, which sits next to the Craigleith Military Hospital (now the Western General).

If you don't have the chance to visit the cemetery in real life, you can experience it a virtual guided tour here.

Saturday 22 May 2021

Enjoying the rain


A garden snail in North Merchiston Cemetery yesterday. It's sunny today!

Friday 21 May 2021

Swifts return

grey skies -
the first swift
of the year 


 Swifts returned to the skies above our area of Edinburgh yesterday! 

Swifts only visit Scotland for just over three months in the year (May to August) and spend the rest of the year flying down to Africa and then round and round Africa before coming back to the same nest site. They only land when they're nesting, when the young leave the nest they remain airborne for three or four years before they make their first nest! Swifts are declining in the UK for a number of reasons but one is the lack of nest sites - they nest in holes in walls and under roofs and these days these holes are often blocked up when buildings are renovated. The City of Edinburgh Council (and some other councils in the UK) advise that swift bricks be used in new buildings over a certain height (a swift brick is a brick that is hollow inside and includes an entrance hole so that the swifts can enter the nest) but they can't enforce this. You can read an article about swift bricks in the Guardian newspaper here.

Some links about swifts

Swift starter kits and how adding ‘nest forms’ to swift boxes makes common swifts more than four times more likely to use the boxes - read more on Mark Avery's blog here.

Celebrating swifts with the RSPB here.

Instructions on how to make a nest box for swifts from the RSPB here.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Photos from recent days

 I've not blogged for a while, as I seem to be really busy. Here are some photos from the past several days! 

I've been leading some birdwatching walks again, now that the council is allowing outdoor organised activities again. Yesterday's group were excited to see this mute swan family in Figgate Park 

There are actually five cygnets, one was hiding behind its parent. There were two pairs nesting on the pond this year. Bonnie and Clyde were the regular pair, but another pair moved in from another pond in Edinburgh and the male from that pair attacked Clyde who had to be put down and also drove out Bonnie's youngster from last year. The photo shows the new female with her brood. Meanwhile we saw a nest with four eggs, no swan in sight, so we're not sure whether Bonnie was just off the next looking for food or whether she's actually abandoned the nest. 

The weather was lovely and warm in Figgate Park, but by the afternoon when I'd walked over to Portobello to facilitate a creative writing workshop, it had become cold and windy and some people were struggling to write. This is one of the problems with holding outdoor creative workshops in Scotland, though the views are always nice and it's lovely to spend time together out of doors...


I went for a long walk with a friend recently, starting in Musselburgh and ending up in Dalkeith Country Park. It was lovely to see this family of Canada Geese at the River Esk in Musselburgh

and lovely to walk through Dalkeith Country Park, where the wild garlic (ransoms) and bluebells are beautifully in bloom

and I was interested to find that there are brass rubbing plates along the Esk, similar to those that are found along the Water of Leith. 

Plus a beautiful mural of a kingfisher 

I also recently had a meeting with Edinburgh Council about the management of North Merchiston cemetery, where I'm on the committee of the Friends Group. 

It seemed to be a productive meeting, with the general consensus that the council are moving towards a more nature aware management of Edinburgh's cemeteries. It will be interesting to see how things develop in the future as our cemeteries are vital wildlife havens but not always entirely appreciated as such. It does at least look as though when the grass was mown a few days ago, the mowers left some areas to grow longer, which is ideal for pollinating insects such as bees and hoverflies (though at the moment the cold weather seems to be stacked against most insects). 

Sunday 16 May 2021

Stories and Poetry about Cats

 I'm delighted to say that one of my poems has been commended in the Dead Cat Poetry Contest. You can read the winning poems here

I have a short story in a forthcoming anthology of feminist SF about cats and bicycles in space. The book isn't due out until next February, but you can pre-order by following this link - the cover is amazing! 

Though not about cats, I also have a haiku in an anthology to celebrate International Dylan Thomas Day. You can download the anthology here.

Monday 10 May 2021

Wild Garlic everywhere and other signs of Spring

 In many places wild garlic (ramsons) is being crowded out by few flowered leek. 

This photo shows the two plants together (few flowered leek on the left, wild garlic on the right). 


The few flowered leek comes into flower earlier and has narrower leaves that soon turn yellow. The wild garlic has very distinctive flowers and wider leaves. 

It's very noticeable that wild garlic is still thriving in many parts of Colinton and Craiglockart dells along the Water of Leith. Here are some photos to show just how much of this lovely plant grows in some areas. In Colinton Dell (which is upstream of Craiglockart Dell and therefore at a higher elevation) the wild garlic isn't yet much in flower

while in the downstream area of Craiglockart Dell, more of it is in full bloom (though still not all of it) 

It's also lovely to see that large patches of lesser celandines are still in bloom 

and small patches of bluebells (which look like native bluebells or possibly hybrids with Spanish bluebells) are coming into bloom 

Crab apple trees, laden with lichens, are coming into bloom too

and the leaves on the beech trees are unfurling beautifully (all these photos below are of leaves on the sane beech tree and were all taken today!)

For Nature Notes.

Saturday 8 May 2021

Tree Following - May Update

For Tree Following this year I'm following one of the several wonderful old silver birch trees on North Merchiston Cemetery in Edinburgh. Crafty Green Boyfriend and I started walking round this cemetery (and the nearby Dalry Cemetery) every day for our #DailyExercise during the first UK lockdown last year. And we're still doing the same walk almost every day as lockdown continues!  

As I mentioned in my last update for Tree Following, a pair of blue tits has been checking out the nest box in the tree! In the photo below you can see one of the blue tits entering the nest box, while a long tailed tit looks on 

Because the blue tits are nesting there, I often feel shy to go too close to the tree. This is what it looked like from a distance on 20 April 

and here is the tree yesterday



but for the close ups below, I chose another old silver birch in the cemetery

Thursday 6 May 2021

Four Seasons in One day

 Yesterday I visited Craigmillar Castle Park. I was facilitating a creative writing workshop there as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. However, as I hadn't visited the park for a long time, I arrived over an hour early so I could do a bit of birdwatching and take some photos of this beautiful historic park.

Craigmillar Castle is probably most famous for Mary Queen of Scots having stayed there briefly.

Legend has it that while she stayed there she planted a sycamore in the castle grounds. This tree below may be the one! 

There are some lovely wooded areas to the park


and some wide open spaces

The woodlands are in part carpeted with violets and lesser celandines

while in the trees several birds were singing including blackbirds, blackcaps and chiffchaffs. A buzzard was flying around and landed at one point only to be chased off by some jackdaws. A female kestrel flew in front of me and when I followed her with my eyes I saw her land on a nest box. I could see the grey head of the male kestrel inside the nest box so I walked quietly away from the site (I wasn't particularly close in the first place, but the female seemed nervous to see me). 

The sunshine that you can see in the photos above didn't last, the clouds came in and there was a hailstorm while I was birdwatching. 

The writing workshop went very well, though the weather wasn't particularly kind to us - there was another hailstorm during the class! Luckily this didn't stop people from writing!

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Blossom Watch!

 Edinburgh has many beautiful cherry trees and other blossoming fruit trees and this year they've been magnificent! Though last night's rain and wind have meant that these trees are now well past their best. So really this post is a little late! 

Here are some photos of cherry blossoms in my part of Edinburgh. The trees below are at the West End of Edinburgh, I love the contrast between the white cherry blossom and the dark pink blossom

and a close up

There's a lovely row of trees very near where we live 

and a beautiful huge cherry blossom in North Merchiston Cemetery 

There are wonderful blossom trees in good number in the Meadows (see photos from 2019 here), Princes Street Gardens, the Dells along the Water of Leith and Lauriston Castle grounds (see photos from a previous trip here). 

There are also lovely individual trees around town including this one near Craiglockart Parish Church. 

The National Trust have been asking people this year to join in their BlossomWatch - just share your photos of blossoming trees on social media using the hashtag #BlossomWatch. For more information, including other ideas on how to get involved, see here.

Sunday 2 May 2021

Walk This May - National Walking Month

May has become National Walking Month with Living Streets running their Walk This May campaign and the Tree Council running their Walk Where You May campaign

For those who are able to, walking is the most affordable and accessible form of transport and exercise. Many people over the past year of lockdown have discovered the benefits of walking through their #DailyExercise, one of the few reasons we in the UK were allowed to leave our homes during the strictest periods of lockdown. 

Walking is very good for our mental and physical well-being and can help us cut down on our carbon footprint and reduce pollution.

The Walk This May campaign is asking people to pledge to go on a short walk every day during the month. You can find out more and pledge here. Living Streets also have some ideas here on how to include more walking in your life, whether by holding a walking meeting (which I've done plenty of times during lockdown!) or walking to enjoy local green-spaces (which has been a habit of mine for many years). 

The Walk Where You May campaign encourages us to specifically appreciate trees while we're out and about walking and to share photos of the trees we see on social media. You can find out more here

You may not need to go far to see beautiful trees at this time of the year, these cherry trees are very close to where we live in Edinburgh! 

Where is your favourite place to walk?

Saturday 1 May 2021

The Cemeteries are in Bloom!

 Our local cemeteries are beautiful at the moment, with wildflowers and trees coming into bloom. Here's just a selection! 

In Dalry Cemetery, the crab apple tree is just coming into bloom

 as is the garlic mustard 

and the green alkanet (it's called green as its leaves stay green all year round) 

and the bluebells (though these are Spanish bluebells rather than native bluebells, or possibly a hybrid between the two)

Over in North Merchiston Cemetery, the cherry tree is looking magnificent 

as are several elm trees, now just coming into leaf, though several of them have been flowering for weeks

and the horse chestnut tree (which I studied for Tree Following last year) is in bloom 

There are also bluebells (again Spanish rather than native) in North Merchiston Cemetery, growing in profusion among the few flowered leek 

There's a nice patch of wild garlic in the cemetery, which will be in bloom soon. Few flowered leek, pretty though it is, takes over from wild garlic. 

There are lots of dandelions in this cemetery! It's easy to overlook dandelions or to dismiss them as weeds but pollinators love them (though the red tailed bee I tried to catch on camera, eluded me!). 

Meanwhile in our flat, our cactus is coming into bloom

What's in bloom in your local area?