Usually around Girton

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#30DaysWild – Days 4 & 5

There isn’t much to show for Day 4 as I spend much of the day out in the garden without my phone or camera. However, I did pop out for a bit and I saw a family of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on the river. Look at how cute and fluffy the cygnets are!!!

I was working on Sunday (day 5), but still managed to squeeze quite a lot of wildness in! We have Swallows (Hirundo rustica) nesting in the stable block at Wimpole and I finally saw one of them with nesting material. Until then, I had only seen them flying about and chattering away.

It was relatively quiet at work that day as the county show was occurring nearby (on Wimpole land, but not run by Wimpole). I popped over to give someone a new radio, and walked through the gardens to get there. I was thrilled to find Yellow Rattle () in the gardens, as it is one of my favourite wildflowers, (a) because it is very pretty, (b) because you can rattle the seeds around and (c) because it is a hemi-parasite on grasses and thus it is brilliant for turning an area of grass into a wildflower meadows!

The wildness continued after work as I was able to fit in a short wander whilst I waited for Matt to pick me up from Wimpole. I’ve not identified the white flower or the white moth just yet, though I am taking an educated guess and saying that it is a White Plume moth  (Pterophorus pentadactyla). The other moth is a Blood-vein moth (Timandra comae), a species that I was very excited to find as I have admired in the book for ages and hadn’t actually seen one before!

For both days, I then spent the evening as a volunteer on the @30DaysWild Twitter account (whilst someone else volunteered on the Facebook group). I knew in advance that it was going to be quite busy – but I hadn’t realised quite how busy it would be! I barely had time to take a sip of water or to eat snacks during the four hour sessions. Whilst it was quite hectic, it was very enjoyable and so inspiring to see what everyone has been up to for #30DaysWild

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#30DaysWild – Day 3


Like the first two days of June, Day 3 was grey and drizzly first thing in the morning. And it didn’t change all day, except for occasionally giving us a break from the drizzle every now and then. Fortunately, we were doing the perfect thing at work – teaching children how to light, cook on and be safe around a fire! All outdoors of course (thank goodness for waterproof trousers!).

You will be envious to discover that we roasted marshmallows, made pancakes and popcorn, and have lovely hot drinks too. Plus as I was working all day, I did everything twice – so twice the amount of marshmallows, pancakes, popcorn and hot drinks! I actually had a moment of disbelief / amazement when I thought to myself “I’m getting paid to do this?!”

And I wasn’t the only one to enjoy myself. The children and their parents loved it too. I think the children especially enjoyed it as it isn’t often that children can work with fire, let alone be the ones to light it and cook on it. There were a few that were initially quite afraid of being so close, but by the end, everyone was feeling quite confident and comfortable with controlling the fire and being safe around it. The marshmallows and pancakes probably helped with that quite a lot!

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#30DaysWild – Day 2


Oops, day 2 passed without me posting my 30 Days Wild! However, I did go out and connect with nature on Day 2. In fact, I even managed to do it before work! I was at Wimpole early yesterday, so I went for a short walk around one of the nature areas looking for insects, flowers and generally getting rather soggy knees. And even a nettle sting when I wasn’t careful enough!

Even in the drizzle, there was plenty to be found, especially because there were so many nettles! I have decided that big patches of nettles are one of my favourite habitats as I find so many interesting insects on them!

I was also thrilled to find some Jelly-ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae), Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), a huge carpet of bright yellow buttercups and to hear and see a little Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) darting around the trees and singing away very loudly!

A most excellent start to the day!

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#30DaysWild – Day 1

day 1

At last! 30 Days Wild is back! It was so much fun last year, and the campaign is a great reminder that it can be so easy to connect with nature every day. Fortunately for me, I work in two beautiful locations – NT Wimpole Estate and NT Wicken Fen, so it is even easier for me to connect and discover something marvellous each day.

Day 1 of 30 Days Wild dawned wet and chilly, and most certainly classified as a good day for a ‘duvet day’. Nonetheless, I figured I ought to be a good employee and I headed off to NT Wicken Fen where I was due to be doing den building as a half term activity. My colleagues and I were wondering just how many children and parents would turn up, but actually we had about a 95% turnout. I do love it when families decide not to care about the weather and are determined to head out and have a good time.

Despite the drizzle, we had a fantastic time! We practised tying knots and learning about camouflage before building large enough dens for the children to sit in. It was great fun! Before coming to Wicken, I hadn’t done den building since my university placement with the Field Studies Council in 2011 / 2012!

We were practicing our knots by one of the ponds, where we were surprised to see a dragonfly on one of the reeds. It must have emerged relatively recently as it hadn’t yet opened its wings. And you can see an exhuvia on the opposite side of the reed to it, most likely the one that it had come from.

PS – I know I haven’t blogged regularly in the last couple of weeks. Now that I am working at Wicken Fen as well as at Wimpole, I am effectively working 6 days / week. This is on top of running the social media for A Focus On Nature (plus planning the social media for the launch of the VisionforNature report), attempting to do gardening (actually very time-consuming) and generally having lots of things to do – so my usual blog posts are a tad sporadic currently.

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Just Another Way To Die

A warm sunny day kicked off the start of May, although a fair few layers were still required to protect from the occasional chilly breeze. Matt and I headed over to RSPB Fen Drayton with some family friends for a relaxed wander.

There were plenty of birds, but they were far too quick to take photographs of. Swifts (Apus apus) shooting past in quick succession, Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) flitting between vegetation and even a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) floating smoothly but speedily across the sky and into a tree, where it perched out of sight but calling loudly. Speaking of calls and songs, Matt proved himself useful as usual by identifying a variety of bird songs as we wandered – Blackcap, Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), Sedge and Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus and A.scirpaceus), and even my first Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)! It was such a thrill to stand amongst the vegetation and listen to the beautiful songs of so many birds.

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I had great fun finding, photographing and trying to identify insects. There were some of the usual suspects, such as 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) and Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni). Plus some species that were new to either myself or my company, including Cream-spot Ladybird (Calvia quatuordecimguttata) and Common Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus vespillo). I was particularly excited to find my first Orthoptera of the year – a very tiny and adorable Dark Bush-Cricket nymph (Pholidoptera griseoaptera)!

I also found something rather odd, perched motionless on the top of a plant. A very strange-looking fly. As you can see in the photograph below, its abdomen is very swollen and cream in colour, and it doesn’t look at all healthy.

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I was able to find out the cause of this unhealthy look. The fly is actually infected by a parasitic fungus which has made it crawl to the top of the plant, and die there!


The location of the death is to maximise dispersal of the fungal spores – this webpage has some more details should you want to further gross yourself out. The fungus is apparently a type of Entomophthora, most likely E.mascae but I can’t be sure without looking under a microscope at the structure of the fungus.

All very interesting – nature can be cruel, but it sure is fascinating.

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How A Nomad Helped My Confidence

This week saw my first office day at the Wildlife Trust BCN as a Volunteer Communications Officer. Alongside writing a piece for their blog, assisting with a competition and learning more about how the communications team functions, there was a particular aspect to the day that has since become very memorable. The lunch break.

Now I didn’t have a very exciting selection of food for my lunch, but it was eaten outside in the beautifully warm spring sunshine. Brimstone butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni) flitted through the garden, bees worked hard to collect pollen and a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) called from a nearby tree. Being the keen naturalist that I am, I was mentally noting down the different species about – Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), Red-tailed and Early Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius and B.pratorum), Rosemary Beetle (Chrysolina americana), 7-spot Ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata) and so on, all of which would be put into my wildlife records notebook. Further to being a naturalist, I am a pan-species lister which means that I am extra excited if I see something new to me. And during this lunch break, I did just that.

I was watching and photographing some bees on the rosemary (NB: I need some for my garden, it is brilliant for pollinators!) when I noticed another insect nearby. With its wicked looking markings, I thought that it was probably an ichneumon wasp species (Ichneumonidae). I snapped a few photos, taking care to get it from different angles, before it wandered off into the undergrowth. I decided against potting it, I didn’t think I would be able to identify myself and figured it would be better off in the wild.

So that was my lunch break, all in all, the type of lunch break I love. Warmth, sunshine and wildlife. I didn’t think much more of it until later. I got home and downloaded the camera photos onto my laptop, whilst flicking through my insect book to find Red Mason Bee (Osmia rufa), a species that I had seen for the first time recently and needed to put a tick next to in the book. I was in the Hymenoptera section (bees, wasps, ants) and as I flicked through, I saw something vaguely familiar – a group that looked like that insect from earlier. But it wasn’t the ichneumon wasp section, it was the Nomada bees group.

After a bit of thinking, and a sip of tea, I decided I would give the identification a go. If nothing else, it would show me whether this group is ever ‘doable’ from photos alone. Immediately I felt a little overwhelmed … the Nomada bees do look pretty similar to each other! Rather than trying to focus on each species at a time, I drew up a shortlist of potential species, casting aside species that I decided against – too much yellow on the abdomen, stripes on the thorax and other such characteristics.

I ended up with a shortlist of 6 potential species, and I turned to a more detailed, and wonderful, book (Falk – Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland) to examine each of these species in turn. I slowly read through each description, flicking back to the anatomy page when confronted with technical terms (tergites, labrum, pronatal tubercules), crossing the species off if the description didn’t match the photograph in front of me.

In the end, I was left with one, Nomada ferruginata also known as the Yellow-shouldered Nomad Bee. The technical bits in the description matched up:  the pronatal tubercules were yellow (i.e. small yellow circular lump on the thorax), there were yellow spots on the tergites 2 and 5 (i.e. the yellow spots on different sections of the abdomen) and the antennal scapes were black (i.e. the first section of the antennae, closest to the head).

Nomada ferruginata ID features

I posted my thoughts on the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group and on Twitter, and received confirmation that my ID is correct! Having looked on the NBN gateway, I can see that it is not a new species to Cambridgeshire, but it may be a new species for Cambourne. I shall dig further and find out.

Having identified the bee as N.ferruginata, I did some reading about it. Bees in the Nomada genus are commonly referred to as Nomads or ‘homeless bees’. This particular species seems to be quite a rare bee, listed as endangered in the Red Data Book but this probably needs to be revised. It is either being identified correctly more often, or actually experiencing a population increase with more records the last couple of decades (a new species for Worcestershire in 2008). It is a cleptoparasite on another solitary bee species, Andrena praecox, although one website refers a source that suggests that A.varians might also be a host species. A.praecox also seems to be quite a rare species as apparently the females are very dependent on willow catkins.

In conclusion – what I have learnt from the Nomad ID?

  • That not all wicked-looking Hymenoptera are ichneumon wasps.
  • That it is worth taking notice of the small, quiet insects that aren’t buzzing or fluttering about.
  • That some Nomada species can be identified from photos only, but only if photos are taken from lots of angles (I could have done with more angles). However, not all of them are as there can be some slight differences that require closer examination.
  • That a good field guide can make all the difference. Whilst my general insects book (Brock) led me to the correct group, the bee book (Falk) provided the technical expertise to narrow it down to the exact species.
  • That it is worth pursuing identification and I shouldn’t give up on species identification just because it looks difficult! I.e. I should be more confident in myself and my ability to work through the process of identification.
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Bugs For My Birthday

It was my birthday at the beginning of this week – not a big birthday, but a high enough number to make me realise that 30 is creeping closer. Although to be honest, I’m quite excited. They (the mysterious ‘They’!) say that your thirties are better than your twenties!

No matter my age, I was determined to have a nice nature-filled day. Originally I had planned to spend the day at RSPB Minsmere, but then Storm Katie arrived with howling winds and plenty of rain. Instead I had a relaxed morning at home, eating homemade cake (made my Matt) and drinking many cups of tea!

Once the weather had calmed itself down in the afternoon, a few friends and I visited a local nature reserve, Overhall Grove. It was a really sweet reserve, apparently both an Ancient Woodland and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and I look forward to returning there again over the coming seasons. Some of the friends accompanying me are also into nature, so we got stuck in with trying to find some good species. I’ve added a few more species to my pan-species list – including Cauliflower Fungus (Sparassis crispa), a new beetle species (Abax parallelepipedus) and Median Wasp (Dolichovespula media). Although I haven’t identified everything just yet, I am getting there gradually.

In addition to the new species, there were a number of 7-spot Ladybirds (Coccinella 7-punctata) about. I am always thrilled to see them as they are a sign that winter is over! Spring has started and summer is not too far away! There was even a butterfly – but it flew away from us and we couldn’t identify it. It was quite a funny sight, particularly for my friends that aren’t into nature – 4 adults running across the field after a butterfly! Bring on much more butterfly (and moth!) chasing this year.

There’s not so much else to add. I had hoped to hear a Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), which would’ve been my first of the year. But no luck, and I still haven’t heard one since. As I have said above, I look forward to returning there across the current seasons so I am sure I shall hear one there at some point!

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Hare Again, And Again

After last week’s literal ‘Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow’, I was keeping a keen eye on the fields of Wimpole Estate for some live and happy Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus). Before that though, Matt and I found another hare on the road. Unlike last week, this one had already dead, rather than suffering a prolonged and painful decline. Being me, said hare is now in my freezer. It may be a bit unusual, and a tad gross, but I hope to dissect it in order to study its anatomy.

Anyway, back to the world of the living. Fortunately I have seen some hares that are very much alive. I usually see them at quite a distance, and usually in bad light, so my photos aren’t too good. But I have managed to catch a couple of half-decent photos of them, and they even appeared in my short article in Wimpole’s internal newsletter ‘The Herald’.

Something that has amazed me has been how much they can hunker down into the grass when they want to disappear! The photos below show this very well. The first photo is taken from my car, whilst the second one was taken just after I had gotten out of my car. It took me a while to refind them amongst the grass!

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Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow

Sadly the title of this blog post is very literal. Late on an evening this week Matt and I were driving back home when we spotted a Brown Hare by the side of the road. We knew immediately that something must be wrong as it wasn’t moving, but we when circled back, we saw that it wasn’t dead as initially supposed.

Chucking the hazard lights on, we went over for a closer inspection which confirmed our thoughts that something had to be seriously wrong as the hare did not even attempt to move away. If it had been a rabbit, our guess would have been myxomatosis. I’ve since learnt that although hares don’t get myxomatosis, they can be vectors for it.

With no plastic gloves with which to handle it, I resorted to using my jumper to pick it up. Again no attempt to move or escape, but it was definitely alive. We jumped back into the car and sped (although not over the speed limit of course) home, during which time it urinated on me – lovely!

We weren’t entirely sure what to do with it next, neither of us having had much experience with injured wild animals. We popped into a cardboard box with some water, and closed the door so that Mowgli (the cat) wouldn’t get to it and scare it even more. I phoned the RSPCA, and with all the local vets being closed, an officer was despatched out to us.

Sometime later, the RSPCA officer turned up, having somehow managed to actually find our little cottage in the middle of nowhere. Upon inspection, it was revealed that there was a large swelling and the pelvis was shattered beyond possibility of healing, probably due to being hit by a car.With such an awful injury, the hare was put down humanely by the RSPCA officer.

I won’t lie, I did find it very upsetting. Some of you may question why, since I deal with skulls and have dead birds awaiting taxidermy in my freezer. I suppose it is because I had seen the hare alive and worried over it. I knew that putting it down was the right thing to do, and although it was upsetting, I knew that I had down the right thing (in terms of animal welfare) by picking it up. It would have had a very slow (and cold because it was a very very cold night) death.

Despite the sad outcome, the experience was a little bit exciting at the same time. I had never been so close to a hare before, let alone having picked one up! They are absolutely huge! Of course, I knew they were big animals – rabbits have nothing on them, but it was still very much larger than I thought. And so utterly beautiful.

To end, I shall put up a nice photo of a hare that I saw last summer at Chesil Beach from the Fleet Observer boat. Albeit that this photo makes me a little sad because look at how much litter there is on the beach!!

Brown / European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

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Owl have some of that!

I was going to write a post introducing you to the garden at the new house – the little beasties that I have found whilst digging up the vegetable patch, the birds on my new garden bird list and the Lepidoptera that I’ve found hibernating in the shed. However, that shall have to wait and something so wonderful has happened that I am bumping off that topic and devoting a whole blog post to it.

My current work rota at Wimpole is little bit skew-iffy, as I work one day every weekend – and that day varies, and as a result, I get a day off during the week – again, variable. This week, my day off during the week was Thursday, which dawned chilly but bright. Like everyone, I had some urgent tasks that needed doing, but once those were out of the way, I was free as a bird. That is, I was free if I ignored the rest of my To Do list. I had a choice before me, spend the afternoon working through my To Do list or make the most of the sunshine and visit a nature reserve. As a naturalist, there really was no choice. So off to a nature reserve I went, which in this case, was RSPB’s Fen Drayton Lakes.

You may remember that I’ve been there a few times, spotting Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) from the car park, protecting Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillars (Phragmatobia fuliginosa) from cyclists and generally having an all-round lovely time. Which I expected again, although I would have to be lucky to spot a Bittern again and it would be very worrying to spot a Ruby Tiger Moth caterpillar at this time of year, but you know what I mean. I expected to have a charming wander around a couple of the lakes, watching Coots (Fulica atra), Widgeon (Anas penelope) and the other inhabitants. I hoped for a stroke of luck, perhaps seeing a butterfly or one of the Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) that I had failed to spot when I visited in January, maybe even the Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus) which had been reported and would be a life tick for me.

So, how did my afternoon go, I hear you asking. It started well with a Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) on the Ferry Lagoon (nb: the biggest lake at Fen Drayton), which was in non-breeding plumage but was beautiful nonetheless. Upon deciding to make a real go of it, I headed off on the long trail around Ferry Lagoon. Walking up the road past the car park, I was forced to stop a little while as Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus) shouted their presence in a nearby tree. I always love to see these birds, bouncing here and there, making the most adorable racket. It was by pure chance that during my regard of them, I spotted a much quieter bird, weaving its way vertically up a tree in its silent way. A Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris), and the best (and closest) view of one I had ever had. As I watched it through my binoculars, and occasionally camera lens, another little bird darted briefly through my field of view. Even smaller than the Treecreeper, but not as a quiet, it was a Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a Goldcrest or Treecreeper, so by this point in my visit, I was already a very happy naturalist!

Leaving them to their foraging, I set my boots back onto the path and struck on. Struggling to wade through mud around the top end of the trail, I succeeded in startling a flock of Widgeon who took to the skies in loud whistles and flapping wings. The bird list continued to grow as I added Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Canada and Greylag Geese (Branta canadensis and Anser anser), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). A bright colour caught my eye, albeit partially hidden by a tree trunk. Vivid blue amongst the brown and green, and a scan with my binoculars confirmed my excited hunch, it wasn’t a piece of litter but an actual Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Quickly whipping out my camera, I managed to take my first ever (and very blurred) photo of a Kingfisher before it flew off down the river!


What a day this was turning out to be. If I saw nothing else that afternoon, I would still return home absolutely thrilled. But more was to come.

Reaching the northeast corner of the Lagoon, where the path turns at a right-angle to follow the edge of the Lagoon, I was diverted from this route by a glimpse of something just over the ridge, flying low along the edge of the River Ouse. A large and brown bird, gliding smoothly and I must say, rather majestically. I almost stopped breathing when I realised what it could be. I practically ran across the little bridge, and skidded to a sitting position on the other side of the ridge, frantically grabbing my binoculars to get a better look. Yup, no mistaking it, there, flying not 50m away from me in the late afternoon sun, a Short-eared Owl hunting above in the long grasses. Seriously, it was one of the best birding moments of my life to date. Sure, I’ve seen Short-eared Owls before. But it’s always been at such a distance and / or in really bad light. This was remarkable in comparison. It must have known I was there, but it seemed to totally disregard me as it swooped around the field.

Minutes later, whilst I was still not breathing properly, it headed through a gap in the trees to the next field over. I went to get my notebook out and write it down, when a lighter flash amongst the trees caught my eyes. Up went the binoculars again, pressed against my eyes, in a moment of confusion, for I knew it couldn’t be the Short-eared Owl, it was much too light in colour, and smaller too. Wait a minute, could this actually be happening? For before me, now in the same field as the Short-eared Owl had been moments before, there was a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) hunting! Flying slightly higher than the Short-eared, it glided silently, occasionally with a light flutter to the ground – although I didn’t see it catch anything. Again I almost stopped breathing, as it flew closer and closer, until it flew by my position at a distance of what must have only been 10m!

My mind was in a state of bewilderment. Such brilliant birding was unheard of for me – best ever views of so many birds and my first photos of Kingfisher, Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl in the space of less than 2 hours?! What was happening?!?! And then, you’ll never guess what happened next. Well, unless you saw my tweet on the day. Both owls were hunting in the same field, seeming to ignore each other (do either species care about other owl species hunting in the same place? Do they eat the same prey?). At one point, across a distance of around 300-350m, I managed to get a couple of (blurry) photos where they were both in the same frame!

They headed their separate ways, disappearing behind different stretches of trees and I think I managed to start breathing normally again at that point. I attempted to phone Matt to excitedly tell him about what had happened, but of course, he was at work and couldn’t answer. So my mother got the call instead, where I babbled down the phone something about owls and 10m and best views ever and first photos and omg I love this reserve and so on. Thankfully my mother is used to such outbursts from me, and coincidentally she had heard something about Short-eared Owls in the Fens that afternoon on the radio. Now whilst we were on the phone, I was still looking about and actually spotted the Short-eared Owl again, in a scene that will forever be imprinted in my mind. It flew over the ridge running alongside the river, about 200m or so from where I was and what looked like about 20m behind someone walking along the ridge! Moreover, due to its quiet flight, that person didn’t even notice! As soon as the person got close enough, I went over and told them all about it. She was equally amazed and baffled, and promised that she would keep an eye out for it in future, thanking me for telling her about it.

Now I would have happily stayed there for much longer, but I needed to head off to pick up Matt and besides, as the sun dropped lower in the sky, I was absolutely freezing! A brisk walk back to the car, obviously with occasional pauses to look at birds and take photos of the lagoon, and before long, I was driving down the track to leave the reserve.

I pulled over by the field where many of the birdwatchers are to be found recently, it’s a field with excellent views of a Short-eared Owl. At the time of leaving, I learnt that the owl there had been showing itself quite well and was currently resting in a tree on the far side of the field. I could just about make it out in my binoculars. Beautiful, but nothing on the one I had seen earlier.

And so I headed home – content, thrilled, still a tad bewildered. Looking back on it, I know that the afternoon will become one of my favourite birding memories. Something has struck me since. I love going bird / wildlife watching with Matt, other naturalist friends and even those that aren’t that into wildlife, but I am glad I saw those owls alone. There is something about connecting to nature when you’re alone. More than usual, you become part of the landscape and can connect even more closely than when accompanied. That’s not to say I won’t return to Fen Drayton Lakes with company. Of course not, I love being with other people and seeing wildlife with them. However, I will always savour solo adventures into nature and the special feeling I get in my heart when I’m sitting alone watching something wonderful.