I haven’t posted anything up for ages, so I thought I’d be terribly clichéd and get a bit retrospective. Avoiding a few unfortunate political events (biggest understatement of 2017 so far), 2016 was actually a pretty good year for me. Graduating with a first class undergraduate Master’s degree in Zoology from the University of Sheffield and gaining a brand new nephew were definitely two of the highlights.
But casting my mind back over the last year, four particular periods stand out for me, all of them involving wildlife:
Science!- my stint studying bird behaviour in the field
For my masters year I was supervised by the wonderful Prof. Ben Hatchwell, an esteemed scientist in the world of behavioural ecology and the world expert in long-tailed tits. He and his team have been studying a population of long-tailed tits in the Rivelin Valley, Sheffield, since 1994, amassing an incredibly detailed data base of the breeding habits of these intriguing little birds.
Long-tailed tits are worth all this effort because among the UK’s avifauna they are entirely unique in the way they bring up their young. They are cooperative breeders, meaning that some adult birds will help to raise their relatives young rather than raising their own. Thanks to Ben’s study we now know a huge amount about the cooperative system of these birds. But for my project, I focused on a different element of these birds breeding behaviour… their sex lives!
Using genetic information from over the entire span of the study, I went all Jeremy Kyle on 248 long-tailed tit families to sniff out any suspicious behaviour. Jeremy would have had a field day with this lot, as just over a quarter of nests contained at least one chick that was the illegitimate offspring of a neighboring male, and not the females partner! Such ‘cheating’ is actually pretty common in the bird world and this level of promiscuity isn’t even that high compared to some very frisky species.
I ran many more analyses looking at why infidelity happens in this species, but all the time staring at spreadsheets, numbers and statistical code won’t be what I remember from this year. It was the time I spent in the field that was really special. For about a month I went out almost every single day with the PhDs and research assistants to collect data on mate guarding- essentially seeing if males were trying to keep tabs on their females to stop them from copping it off with the next door neighbour.
This involved spending lots of time just sitting and waiting for the long-tailed tits to turn up at their nests. Followed by 40 minutes of hurling myself through bushes, hurdling dry-stone walls and squinting through binoculars in order to follow the pair and record their behaviour. It wasn’t always easy and it was never glamorous, but it was an amazing experience. Spending days in the same place, just sitting, watching and listening, you gain a far greater understanding of the wildlife that lives their than on a passing visit. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time for photography. But one free afternoon I did manage to grab some footage of nest-building and chick-feeding behaviour by leaving my camera next to a couple of nests.
Diving the reefs of Croatia
In between my field work, I did however manage a week off diving in Croatia (the reason why I really didn’t have much time for photography in the field!). I had never dived abroad before, so diving in clear blue waters was a real treat compared to the green murk of the North Sea. We dived on some really spectacular reef walls, covered in sea-fans, sponges, a plethora of nudibranchs and with shoals of fish in every direction. On my last dive one of my friends lent me their little compact camera to take down with me, wetting my appetite for hopefully more underwater photography to come! Read more about my trip to Croatia here.
A day in seabird paradise- The Farne Islands
After a couple of days of amazing diving getting to know the seals of the Farne Islands, I waved goodbye to my diving club and I spent an extra day getting to know the top-side wildlife. Visiting the incredible seabird colony of the Farne Islands is a must do for anyone even vaguely interested in wildlife. It really is just spectacular to get so close to so many incredible species of bird.
I’ve already done a blog post including many of the puffin shots I took, so here are a few shots of the beautiful Arctic terns that breed on the islands. As you walk among the colony the terns defend their nests by dive bombing, pecking and pooing on intruders. There’s nothing quite like jousting with a dive bombing arctic tern with a camera lens!
Photographer turning filmmaker
Now I’ve graduated I have finally come face to face with the, once distant, prospect of jumping on the career ladder… Well kind of, it was always my plan to take a gap year after university to see some of the world. So I’m in some sort of student-adult buffer zone right now. But I’ve decided that I have to give my dreams a shot and go for a career in wildlife filmmaking. Attending Bird Fair last summer I was fortunate to meet and chat with one of my heroes, John Aitchison, a cameraman that has worked on many of Attenborough’s incredible TV series. His most prominent piece of advice was to just get out there make a short film. So that’s what I’m doing!
My short film will be based on the wading birds that can be found at my local seaside town, Cleethorpes. The beach at Cleethorpes has been a regular haunt for me for both landscape and wildlife photography. I have always found the contrast of Cleethorpe’s cheesy seafront and the great natural beauty beyond the promenade oddly compelling. So I knew it was the perfect place to try and put something together. I’ve been heading out on weekends in between work for a couple of months now and I’ve finally now got a rough cut together, so soon I should have something to show for it. Stay tuned!
As I mentioned earlier, I’m on a ‘gap year’ of sorts and I am, thankfully, reaching the end of the dull earning money phase. I’ll be jumping on a plane to Bangkok on February 5th and I cannot wait! Backpacking around Indochina, diving in the Philippines and exploring Australia will consume much of the first half of my 2017. For the second half of 2017, well, I’m waiting on something, so only time will tell!