A weekend’s camping at Knepp – Buzzards, pigs, deer and a kestrel?

This was our second trip to the Knepp re-wilding project in West Sussex, the first was an afternoon’s dusk safari, whereas this time we went for a weekend’s camping with a self-guided wall around the project.

We arrived on Friday evening and quickly set up our tent. We bought some firewood and kindling from the on-site store, so we could get a fire going in the fire-pit that comes provided with each pitch.  On the way back to our tent we saw a bird of prey hovering and hunting over the heath-land next to the campsite, we’d left our camera and binoculars with the tent so couldn’t identify it in the dusk light, but hoped it would come back the next day.

We got up early on Saturday morning, had a shower in the great facilities and made breakfast over the camp-stove. We decided to do a walk round the grounds to, see what we could find for ourselves. Last time we camped we did the “country-pub walk”, so this time we chose the Castle loop, which is about 8.8 km long. The site provides some handy printed maps of the walks you can do around the grounds and the way is marked with colour-coded stripes on sign posts along the way.

Almost as soon as we first strode on to the trail, we saw (and heard) a couple of common buzzards, soaring and circling looking for prey. Not long after, we came across a couple of Tamworth pigs, fast asleep by the path. They woke up when we approach, but didn’t seem too bothered, and as they stirred, a piglet came trotting on to the scene.

Dotted around the project are a number of wooden viewing platform, built into the boughs of trees, acting like high-rise hides over the ranges and we climbed up into a view as we trundled around. We stopped for lunch at the Countryman Pub in Shipley around half-way round for much needed refreshments. After lunch we passed the Shipley windmill and on to Knepp castle. Close to the castle we saw a large herd of fallow deer, complete with very impressive antlers.

There was also another tree-top viewing platform near the castle and as we descended we heard a deep, rumble coming closer. Soon a Lancaster bomber came past us, low and slow. I believe there are only 2 of these incredible aircraft left flying and only 1 in the UK, so this was probably the rarest sight we would see all year!

We were on the home stretch now, dipped into a bird hide overlooking the mill-pond, which seemed well stocked with swans and coots, before seeing the single-wall that is left of the Norman keep at the old Knepp ruins. We arrived back at camp for a bit of a rest before making another well-earned supper on the fire-pit. Luckily the mystery bird of prey did make a comeback that evening over the heath and I had my camera ready. The light was failing and it was at the extreme range of my 300mm lens, but I fired off a few shots and am pretty sure it was a kestrel. The first time I had ever seen one.

Knepp is one of our favourite places to visit whether its camping or safari and I’m sure we’ll go back again. I think we may try glamping next time!

 

Back to Blandford – Is that an Otter? No, it’s a mink!

So, yesterday we had a free Sunday and made the drive down to one of our favourite haunts in Blandford in the hope of seeing some otters and maybe kingfishers too. We arrived late in morning, bought some supplies and set up some camp chairs by the river in a spot where we had some success previously.

Before long a loud splash was heard to our right. No otter, but a dog jumping in, chasing a tossed ball and cooling itself in the river. This was repeated throughout the day,  with various pooches. We began to think that this was not to be our day, there is no way an otter is going to come out when the river is full of dogs! Or maybe it was just too hot?

Late in the afternoon, we strolled to a few other points along the river, but no sightings. Finally, we tried one last spot, more secluded and with more shade. Moments after we sat down by the bank, some dark, willowy shapes appeared on the opposite bank, slivering down into the water and beneath an overhanging outcrop of rocks. 1, 2, 3? Are they otters? Aren’t they a bit small? Are they pups?

I fired off a few quick shots before they disappeared and zoomed in on the screen. No, not otters. Are they weasels or a stoats? Hmm, don’t think so. With the aid of a google search, it turns out they were mink. A non-native species, now found over a lot of England.

We headed off for home, happy that the day wasn’t a complete blank and then also spotted a little egret, before it was scared off by another dog jumping in the water.

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Brownsea Island & Jurassic Coast – red squirrels, seabirds and peregrine falcons

So, last Friday evening, we took the train down to Poole for the weekend. We arrived at around 9.30pm and made the short walk to our accomodation. We were staying at the RNLI college and to be honest, we were not sure what to expect. Would it be like university dorms? We were wrong to worry, it was really nice en-suite accomodation with a view over Poole Quay. There was a nice restaurant and a bar and balcony also looking out over the quay. We’d definitely stay again.

The next morning, after a good buffet breakfast (they even had veggie sausage), we walked a short 10 minutes to the harbour to catch the ferry to Brownsea Island. There are a couple of companies that run the ferry, but we got our tickets with Brownsea Island Ferries. The trip is only 20 mins, with commentary along the way of various sites around the harbour (although the trip back takes 40 mins, going round the other side of the island and round the rest of the islands in the harbour).

Go to Brownsea Island, go now! It’s beautiful with shady woods, wild beaches and is also home to a nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. It’s owned by the National Trust, so if you’re a member its free to enter, otherwise you’ll be asked to pay £8 on arrival. We looked round the ubiquitous National Trust shop and then bought some drinks and snacks to take with us as we explored the island .We made our way to the south shore path, past the church and the visitor centre (with peacocks and chickens strolling around outside).

We soon found a lovely wild beach on the shore of what is known as White Ground Lake. We laid out a blanket, had our lunch and watched the oystercatchers picking in the mud and pebbles for food. After this short rest, we resumed our walk back in to the interior of the island, passing through the campsite first used by Baden-Powell when he set up the scout movement and still used by scout groups from all over world to this day.

After about half an hour walking we came across some red squirrels, which is what we were really looking for today. We stayed and watched them for a few minutes, until they finally climbed up in to the trees and out of view. We only had a short time before the last ferry was to leave, so quickly entered the DWT reserve (suggested donation £2) and visited a couple of the hides to see what we could see, which was mostly black-headed gulls with a few oystercatchers in the mix.

After the ferry back to the harbour (again with interesting commentary, we headed straight out on another boat trip, again with Brownsea Island Ferries, but this time on one of their Puffin Cruises, which they only run a handful of times during the year. Puffins, this far south? We’d seen puffins in Skomer and the Farne Islands, but I was a little skeptical that we’d see any. the boat had some experts on board from the Birds of Poole Harbour charity, who provided insight to what to look for and knowledge of their behaviour. The boat took us out past Studland Beach, the Old Harry Rock, past Swannage and to and area known as Dancing Ledge. As we motored along we saw numerous guillemots, dotted with the odd razorbill, gulls and terns, including sandwich terns.

Sure enough, soon found some puffins both in the water and on the ledge, around 4 in total (there are apparently 4 breeding pairs in the area). No, it’s not the thousands that you see in the Farne Islands, but these are just 2 and a half hours from London!

To add to the excitement, we also saw a family of peregrine falcons, the first time I had seen the fabulous birds. We saw a mother and 3 or so juveniles being fed on the ledge. Amazing.

We headed back to Poole, having dinner at the Banana Wharf restaurant before heading to bed for a decent nights sleep.

Back to Burnham – Will there be seal pups?

So, only 2 months after our last trip, we’re back in Burnham-on-Crouch to see the common seals. The difference this time is that there might, just might be a chance to see some pups, even opthough they’re often not born until July.

We stayed the night before at our usual haunt, the White Harte Hotel, for a comfortable nights stay and some poached eggs for breakfast. The day started with some bright weather, but just before 11.00 when the boat (Discovery Charters 2 hour boat trip) was to pick us up to begin the trip, the clouds darkened and we felt a few spots of rain on our faces. There was also a strong, constant breeze coming in off the sea, but this helped to drive the clouds away and it thankfully stayed dry. We were accompanied on the trip by Noodles, the boat’s resident dog, complete with his own little life-jacket. Noodles takes a keen interest in the seals and seems to love the tours.

As usual, the trip started off with an update on the work to develop the RSBP reserve at Wallasea Island. This area is becoming an increasingly important area for seabirds and waders which was evidenced by the large numbers of black-headed gulls we saw, along with some common terns, Canada geese, brent geese, oyster catchers and little egrets. We even saw 5 avocets on route to and from the seal area.

We soon saw our first solitary seal on the bank of Wallasea Island before heading further along the river and spotting a group of 12-15 on the Foulness side. As we neared the group, what looked to be bits of driftwood next to the seals, sure enough, turned out to be seal pups. There were 4 or 5 in this group, with the bigger ones only 48 hours old and the smaller ones, according to our skipper Steve, only having been born the night before. The pups were incredibly cute, and both mothers and babies didn’t really seem too bothered by us being there.

We stayed slowly cruised a couple of times past this group, before heading a little further up, back on the Wallasea side, to see another group of 12-15 seals which, again, had a few tiny pups with them. We another cruise past them, so both sides of the boat could get a good view, before heading back to to the harbour past the other seals.

It was another lovely trip with Discovery Charters and great to see pups for the first time on our trips to Burnham. I’m sure we’ll be back again in the future.

Knepp Safari – Red Deer, Rabbits & Bats

It was Heather’s birthday at the weekend, so as a surprise I took her to one of our favourite places in the UK, the Knepp rewilding project near Horsham in West Sussex.

Knepp is one of the largest lowland rewilding projects in Europe and they operate safaris from Easter to October. As the land is also crisscrossed with public footpaths, you can also explore much of the area by foot. As it was a special treat, we stayed at the lovely Ghyll Manor hotel in Rusper, but Knepp also has a camp site, (which we enjoyed last year) as well as some cool glamping accomodation.

This year we did the 2-hour dusk safari, starting at 8pm. We arrived a few minutes before it was due to start and had a quick briefing with the guide about the project, what we might see and the usual health and safety stuff before joining the other 10 visitors in bundling into the Austrian Pinzgauer (an ex-army 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle) in our tour round the southern range of the project.

Soon after setting off, we saw Exmoor ponies (obviously no-longer in Exmoor) along with a load of rabbits. Rabbits seemed to be everywhere around the estate, which I’m guessing is one of the things that attracts the many birds of prey that inhabit the estate including buzzards, barn owls, osprey and goshawk. Although, we only saw a buzzard on this occasion, swooping low through the trees.

There are a few tree-top platforms around the estate and we stopped at a couple as we went round, with the great elevation giving great views of the environment and allowing you to fully appreciate the size of the estate. The guide was a keen birder and when we were on the first platform he pointed out all the birdsong we were hearing, including nightingales, robins, whitethroats, blackbirds, cuckoos and owls. We descended the platform and strolled into one of the fields to see if we could get closer to the cuckoos. As we stood there, one of the group spied some massive antlers belonging to a red deer sticking up from behind some scrub. Soon another huge stag appeared from the tree-line, followed by another. The dusk light made for a beautiful viewing and a good photo-op!

Back in the vehicle we made our way further round the estate, seeing more red-deer and some roe deer. We were also lucky to see a couple of turtle doves, one just strolling along the track. At another field we got out and checked on some corrugated-iron sun-traps to see if we could find some reptiles. No luck on the first one, but at the second we found a slow-worm and grass-snake. Some adders have also been reported at the estate, but we haven’t seen any on our three visits.

We ended the tour as the sun-light was almost gone with a sun-downer drink of white wine (or an elderflower soft-drink) and some home-baked cheese nibbles overlooking the pond. the guide also had a bat-detector which we used to track bats as they flew from a nearby house to the pond and back.

It was a great end to a beautiful early-summer day and we are planning to return to Knepp later in the year for the deer-rutting safari.

Planet Earth 2, in concert at the Royal Albert Hall

Everyone loves Planet Earth 2 right? No one can forget the incredible images of the baby iguanas in the Galapagos emerging from their burrows and being locked in a deadly chase with racing snakes across the sand to the safety of the rocks. How could this show be enhanced?

Well, one way is to go and see a screening of the best bits of the series, with live music from the show being performed by the BBC concert orchestra, who performed the score for the TV series.

Can it get better than that?

Well yes. Add in introductions to each sequence from Mike Gunton,  executive producer and creative director of the BBC’s multi-award-winning Natural History Unit; then have Hans Zimmer Oscar award-winning film composer and creator of Planet Earth 2’s main theme come on stage and introduce Jacob Shea (composer of the original music for each episode) who then conducted the “opening number”.

All of this in the regal surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall. What a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Amazing.

 

https://www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/events/2018/planet-earth-ii-live-in-concert/

 

Gibraltar – the Rock and monkeys

A 3.30 am start is early by anyone’s standards, but I think the opportunity of seeing Europe’s only wild monkeys makes it worth the effort.

We flew out of Gatwick, jetting off to Gibraltar International, with a runway that bisects the main road in and out of Spain.

Gibraltar is tiny and the rock dominates the peninsula. After checking in at the stuck-in-time Bristol Hotel, we headed straight to the cable car for the trip up to the top of the rock. By the way, it’s well worth booking your tickets online to beat the queue for tickets.

We had a quick lunch at the Mons Calpe Suite at the top of the rock. It has amazing views, but the service was slow and they seemed to run out of a lot of stuff even though it was only 1pm.

After lunch we started our walk around the top and immediately came across some monkeys or barbary macaques as they are properly known. They have no fear of people, will gladly get close to you and even steal the food out of your hands if you’re not careful (especially ice cream if today is anything to go by).

As we came to the Skywalk, a steel and glass walkway that overhangs the rock, we saw group tours blocking the roadways and the guides were encouraging monkeys to climb on their backs and arms so their groups could get good photos. We didn’t really like this and also the fact that many tourists didn’t really respect the monkeys (let alone other people looking at the apes). As you walk around the rock (and there is a lot of walking, with a lot of up and down) you will come across the macaques and have opportunities for photos. They are fascinating creatures and really do seem very human-like at times.

There are many places to visit on the rock which are included in the price of your cable car ticket, including St. Michael’s Cave (impressive, but doesn’t need the flashing lights and dance music), Apes Den (disappointing), the suspension bridge (good views and great photo op), the Siege Tunnels (educational and interesting, Heather thought so too) and the Moorish Castle (also interesting with nice views). The WW2 tunnels could also be good, but are an added extra and had closed (@17.00) by the time we got there.

In the evening we headed out to the Queensway Quay which has a number of restaurants alongside the marina. We settled on The Landings and had a nice sunset meal looking out over the boats. They have a fish and chips ‘deluxe’ where the cod is replaced by battered scallops and linguistine in full pastry.

Unfortunately, on this night we learned that our whale watching trips booked for the following day in Tarifa had been cancelled due to strong winds. What are we going to do, this was whole reason for this trip?