Bristol and the Clifton Suspension Bridge

P1130288 - Bristol
As a lover of history, architecture and all things Brunel it seems almost sacrilege that right up until a few weeks ago I'd never been to Bristol. Home to some of the engineers finest works I think Bristol has always suffered in terms of location in that it's usually been on the way to somewhere I've wanted to be, not the destination itself. Clearly this needed to change. So it was that we found ourselves high above the Avon Gorge on an overcast morning in early February, one of the world's great bridges spread out before us.

Slimbridge - Peregrines, Cranes and Geese

P1130422_2 - Peregrine Falcon, Slimbridge WWT
It was with a sinking sense of inevitability that Saturday dawned wet and wild, conditions which stubbornly remained until early evening by which time it was too late for much of anything. Thankfully the forecast for Sunday looked a whole lot more promising so we took the plunge and headed cross border to Slimbridge, flagship reserve of the WWT. It’s been a good couple of years since our last visit but the feelings of familiarity came flooding back as soon as we arrived thanks in no small part to a relationship with this site stretching back over thirty years (and yes I do feel old writing that). Such traditions dictate we park on the far side of the car park, pop into the loos on our way past and then head straight for Rushy Hide which often has the best photographic opportunities for those of us packing smaller lenses. Today was no different. With temperatures barely above freezing there were masses of waterfowl present including hundreds of Pintail, thirty or so Bewick’s Swans plus umpteen Pochard, Tufted Duck and Lapwing, just a small taster of what was to come. I took my fill with this worm pulling Lapwing probably pick of the bunch.

Long-tailed Duck, Sandy Water Park

A day off work on Friday gave me the perfect excuse to go and track down another long staying local rarity. Yes I probably should have been doing chores instead but who can resist a Long-tailed Duck, especially one which has chosen to take up residence on a body of water small enough to make photography a distinct possibility. So it was that I found myself at a cold and blustery Sandy Water Park just after lunch, a good selection of waterfowl on offer but only one real target in mind. Reports from earlier had put the bird at the Pwll end of the lake so that was where I headed, eyes open all the way just in case it had migrated. In fact I was so confident that finding the bird entirely absent came as something of a surprise and I spent a good while checking and re-checking the female Pochard just in case I'd made a mistake. No such luck. Things hadn't improved by the time I'd made it back to the car at which point I very nearly headed for home, only deciding on another loop at the last minute. What a good move that turned out to be!

P1130353 - Long-tailed Tit, Sandy Water Park

Ynyslas Queen Eider

There’s no better way to kick start a new birding year than with a lifer. And what if that lifer could be a species which you’d never expected to see in Britain? Well, that would be just dandy!

So it was that we found ourselves at a freezing Ynyslas on the second weekend in January, weak winter sunshine barely making a dent on the biting northerly serving as a timely reminder that this was far from peak season for this isolated corner of Ceredigion. Even so we weren’t the only hardy souls out and about, dog walkers and other early morning risers joining us in making the most of the unusually bright conditions.

P1130240 - Ynyslas

With the tide low acres of mud were left exposed providing ample feeding opportunities for upwards of two hundred Wigeon. Their high pitched calls drifted towards us on the breeze, Curlew and Oystercatchers adding their own voices at regular intervals. Behind us a pair of Stonechats hopped through the dunes whilst Common Gulls passed overhead, lovely both but not our main target today.

Instead we set our binoculars on the main channel, searching through rafts of Wigeon for something a little more unusual. Initially nothing stood out until in the distance, preening on a sand bank, sat a large duck which just looked that bit special. Closing the distance its features slowly became clearer. Warm brown overall, richer than a standard female Eider and with a buff spot at the base of the bill and a just about distinguishable eye ring of similar colour. That bill was noticeably more concave than our Eider’s as well and together confirmed that this was indeed our quarry, a female King Eider here on the banks of the Leri.

P1130230 - King Eider, Ynyslas

In truth I was pretty amazed that we’d managed to connect given how long this bird has been around for. First sighted way back in July we thought we’d long missed our chance but I’m happy to report otherwise. Indeed she’s still there today though not always easy to see given the size of the expansive estuary. We very much lucked out on this occasion as although never what you could call close we were probably about as near as you could get without a boat.

King Eider under our belts we headed out onto the beach proper to see what else was about. A lone Gannet, small flock of ten or so Common Scoter and steady passage of Cormorants were pick of the bunch.

The previous day had arguably been even more successful as although conditions has been distinctly damper we’d had a stellar few hours exploring the RSPB reserve at Ynys Hir. There was the usual selection of waders and waterfowl but we were over the moon at finally managing to see a flock of thirty overwintering Greenland White-fronted Geese for which this area is famed. I’ve probably been visiting for a decade or more and had, until now that is, drawn a blank each and every time. Picking up a limited edition pin badge of the very same species seemed the ideal way to celebrate.

Elsewhere a trio of male Pintails were looking as stunning as ever but the lack of Lapwings was stark. In previous years we could have expected hundreds but managed only a couple of individuals on this occasion.  Roaming flocks of Redwing were much more numerous and where would we be without another fruitless search for the mythical Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. There’s always next year.

2018 - Plans, Plans, Plans

It’s probably not escaped your notice that we’re now well into February and I’ve yet to publish my plans for 2018. Indeed I’ve yet to publish much of anything. I’d love to say that we’ve been on some crazy mad adventure which has kept me away from the interwebs but I'm afraid the truth is rather more mundane. I’ve been using these past few weeks to simply recharge following the hectic end to last year, concentrating on a few of my other interests which had been sorely neglected of late. The end result is that life feels a whole lot more balanced right now leaving us perfectly poised to crack on with making 2018 another year to remember.

So what will we be getting up to? A lot hopefully but as always these plans are not set in stone and if previous years have taught me anything it’s that they’ll almost certainly change. Even so it’s nice to have a few goals in mind though it’s hard to imagine how we could cram in more than we did over the last twelve months. Nevertheless, we’ll try! A couple of these you may recognise as hangovers from previous such ramblings and one in particular has the potential to change our adventuring fundamentally and open up a whole host of new opportunities. Appetite’s suitably whetted? Then let’s get into this.

P1050987 - Climbing Ben More, Isle of Mull
Looking forward to more views like this in 2018

Walk the Gower Coast Path
I make no excuses for including a circumnavigation of the entire Gower coast for the third year running because it’s the one walk which keeps bubbling away in my imagination. All I need are three days of semi-decent weather and those forty six miles will finally be conquered. We’ve probably walked just about all of the route in sections by now but that feeling of accomplishment at doing the lot in one go is very appealing indeed. I still think we’ll probably tackle each day via the use of two cars as public transport is a hassle I could just do without, unless of course we choose to wild camp. My experience to date where canvas shelters combine with exposed coastlines however tends me to consider caution in that regard but we’ll have to wait and see.

Van Conversion
This is the big one. For a while now I’ve been looking longingly at those who have done self-build campervan conversions thanks to various Facebook groups and the ever expanding community of Van Life vloggers on YouTube. The sense of freedom on offer and opportunity to explore more of this great country appeals to everything that I and this blog stand for and this year, we’re finally taking the plunge. All being well we should be the proud owners of our very first van come the end of February and then the fun can really start. I’m planning on doing most if not all of the conversion myself and will likely be making a series of videos as we go. Probably less of an instructional nature and more the “don’t make the same mistakes I did” kind of thing. Of course the real joy will be found in actually getting out in the van be that for weekends or longer breaks. A trip over to Norfolk is already on the cards even if it’s just a case of chucking our sleeping bags in the back and roughing it. The whole idea excites me massively and I can’t wait to take delivery and get cracking. I will of course be blogging the whole thing as well so stay tuned. I have a feeling that this is going to be very good indeed.

This will be our second year taking part in the walk 1000 miles challenge having racked up a little over that during 2017. We found the whole thing a great way of banishing lazy evenings in front of the sofa and reaped the rewards in terms of increased fitness and a general uplift in mental wellbeing. The benefits of getting outdoors are starting to be better understood and more widely publicised and I for one can vouch for them wholeheartedly. Our mileage target? More than last year for sure but I’m happy to let nature take its course and we’ll see where we end up in twelve month’s time.

Get Kayaking
Last year saw our first full season with the kayaks and we managed to spend some great days out paddling. Exploring a waterfall in Tobermory Bay comes to mind as an immediate highlight and I want more of those kind of experiences in 2018. We’ve already scoped out a few new spots which look ideal for relative novices such as ourselves and this dovetails nicely with the arrival of our van. Using the car has so far been ok but all that extra space and larger haulage capacity will prove invaluable in us getting out a whole lot more. Just as soon as the sea warms up a little of course.

P1100127 - Calgary Kayaking, Isle of Mull

Explore New Walks
If you didn’t catch ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite Walks” last week then you missed out big time. Two hours spent counting down the public’s top 100 routes culminating in an unexpected winner (I won’t say which just in case you want to catch up). Inevitably I found myself ticking off those we’d done as the evening wore on and finished with a respectable tally of thirty. That does of course mean there’s plenty that we’ve yet to tackle and I’d love to get a few more under our belts before the year is out.

There’s more than enough there to keep us going, especially when you consider that birding is still high on my list of priorities as is Geocaching, cycling and camping. All tie in perfectly with the above and frankly, I can’t wait to get going. Daylight hours are starting to lengthen, temperatures are rising (let's count today's snow as an exception) and I’m itching to get out exploring once more. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride as 2018 promises to be another epic year of adventure.

Snow Up North

As is now our annual custom we spent the final few days of December visiting family up in Leeds. Food was eaten (a lot), walks were had and most importantly I reigned supreme at Trivial Pursuit. The icing on the cake though has to be the couple of inches of fresh snow which greeted our wakening on the final Friday of 2017. A pristine white blanket which for once had almost managed to silence the background roar of this northern powerhouse, planes grounded thanks to blocked runways and commuters safely tucked up at home. To make the most of conditions we headed for the hills behind Horsforth where the landscape was simply spectacular.

P1130188 - December Snow in Leeds

P1130199 - December Snow in Leeds

At this point snow was still falling heavily and by god it was some of the best snow I've ever experienced. It managed to walk that fine line between too wet and too cold producing a perfect consistency for construction. We thought our resultant snowman pretty impressive, right up until we spotted the eight foot monsters that others had managed to erect that is. None though were as pleasing on the eye as the giant snowball that had been rolled for long enough that it only just fit beneath a football crossbar. There was sledging too, probably hundreds of people queuing up to take their turn down the by now well defined run on what is clearly a favoured hill. I though sought peace and quiet away from the crowds finding this Robin amongst the trees. It was too dull really but I'll never pass on an opportunity to try and photograph one of these typically seasonal birds.

P1130206 - December Snow in Leeds

By midday there was a perceptible drop in temperature resulting in the snow losing some of its earlier building brilliance but as we explored further the views continued to deliver.

P1130200 - December Snow in Leeds

P1130193 - December Snow in Leeds

P1130203 - December Snow in Leeds

It was only with the arrival of some weak winter sunshine that things began to change dramatically. Walking through nearby woodland we were surrounded by the sound of dripping water as trees shed their new-found coats before springing back to full height. A Great-spotted Woodpecker made its way noisily overhead whilst small flocks of Tits moved around us, out of sight in the failing light but bringing with them a little of the backing track which had for much of the day been silenced.

P1130209 - December Snow in Leeds

People often ask me why I love snow so much and I think days like this sum it up perfectly. When else does a natural event transform a landscape for such a brief and temporary period of time rendering the familiar at once less so? What else brings so many people into the great outdoors, many of whom perhaps would not have been so on any normal day? Snow of course, a fleeting visitor to this island nation but one which I welcome with open arms each and every time.
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