Tag Archives: Birdwatching

Canoeing and Wild Camping

To celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary this year Rob and I left the kids with the grandparents and embarked on a canoe expedition course to learn the necessary skills to head off on our own adventures. In that week we fell in love with canoeing and on our return invested in two canoes and the various paraphernalia required such as life jackets, dry bags and so on. The kids have been desperate to get out on the water with us but I’m in the final stages of dissertation writing for my MSc and with weather and tide considerations a couple of weeks passed before we had a chance. That chance came last weekend and we went for it, full bore!

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We set off just before high tide going up stream with the flow which made for easy initial paddling. Although as we rounded a corner the wind caught us and with only my 8 year old in the front of mine we were much lighter than I had anticipated and we kept getting turned. Even with the camping kit there wasn’t a lot of weight in the canoe and it was very much in the middle (kit) and back (me)… first lesson learned in terms of kit positioning.

drifting paddling

Eventually after spinning in the water for a while and even walking along a stretch of shore until we were past the bend in the river that was catching the wind, we were back on route and arrived at our camping spot.

tide going out drying sicks high tide

Traffic on the river was busy around high tide and we didn’t want to draw too much attention so we didn’t set up the tarp until much later but we set about collecting and processing firewood. We lit the fire with a flint and steel using tinder we found around us and the kids played in the water before the tide went too far out. Rob strung them up a simple rope swing which proved fun for hours (and also caused irritating “my turn” arguments!!)

processing wood

Boys processing wood for a fire

rope swing water fun summer fun whittling

Dinner was a basic chicken curry and here I learned another lesson… when taking curry powder in a pot seal the pot in bag or decent container… the curry powder spilt in one of the dry sacks and covered EVERYTHING! I salvaged enough for dinner and sucked up the lesson. We had taken about 10 litres of water with us but actually on such a hot day and with cooking dinner and washing up this was only just enough. On our course we had learned about finding water on an expedition, filtering and sterilising but the river we were on is largely salt water so that wasn’t an option. There was a stream feeding into the river nearby that we could have got water from had we been desperate and next time we’ll take a suitable filtration system in case we need it.

cooking dinner

Cooking dinner on the fire


Curry with a view

After dinner and some bird watching we set up the tarp and as the sun set we got the kids to bed and us shortly after… we had to be up at 5am to catch the outgoing tide back home or we would be stranded until mid-afternoon!

bird watching setting up tarp camp sleepign babies

The early start was brilliant, we had the camp packed down and ready to set off in half an hour and we made sure that we left no trace that we had been there… an important principle we are pressing hard on the children!

early morning

Up and ready to set off at 5.30am

The trip back was effortless on a mirror still river drifting with the tide. Of course at 5.30am we were the only human life on the river but it was teeming with bird life and the beauty of a canoe is that you can silently drift along without disturbing them.

morning shot misty morning one of me still waters

We were back at the car by 7am and heading home for a big old breakfast and a nap.

heading home for breakfast

heading home for some breakfast

2015 – Bushcraft and Bird Watching Adventures


Well, it’s been some months since we returned to the UK and in that time I’ve worked harder than I thought possible, publishing my book, putting in funding bids, attending awards dos and holding conferences, oh and doing the odd TV and radio appearance too… There hasn’t been much time left over for adventure and fun. But now it’s a new year that is set to change.

Me on This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby talking about hyperemesis gravidarum

Me on This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby talking about hyperemesis gravidarum

This year, instead of the massive, all consuming adventure of travelling the USA, Team Dean is going to have a series of mini adventures closer to home and fitting around school and work so as to balance the load a bit better. Last year was a year of extremes, the first half on the road, juggling work and adventure, writing and blogging from tents and motels. The second half of the year was so utterly consumed with work that there was no time left for adventures, let alone writing and blogging about them! How I wish I could type in my sleep, or simply not have to sleep at all…

So what new adventures in 2015? Well, we want to focus on bird watching this year and have already started with a day at Slimbridge Wetland Centre on Sunday. Now I’m going to be honest… Bird watching with three small kids isn’t quite what it was in the pre-parenthood days, where we could settle into a hide and wait patiently for the birding experiences to come to us. The days when we had the time to accurately identify birds we were unsure of in our books and then listen and learn their sounds too. Oh how I enjoyed those days…

A Bewick Swan at Slimbridge. The bill markings on Bewick's are all individual so birds are identifiable as individuals!

A Bewick’s Swan at Slimbridge. The bill markings on Bewick’s are all individual so birds are identifiable as individuals!

A black headed gull (their heads aren't black in winter though!)

A black headed gull (their heads aren’t black in winter though!)

The boys (Rob included) go through a whole "don't say boo to a goose" thing, every time we see a goose... it never seems to get boring!

The boys (Rob included) go through a whole “don’t say boo to a goose” thing, every time we see a goose… it never seems to get boring!

Bird watching with three kids in tow is more a matter of taking it in turns to either briefly attempt to spot and identify something interesting or attend to the varying needs of the younger two… who want to take their shoes off the moment they’re in a (freezing cold) hide, then want snack, then want to climb the wooden walls and play post box with the little viewing slits and need picking up when they trip and then have snot pouring from their nose, then one needs a wee and the other needs a poo… you get the gist.

It was hard to get this bank vole in focus as he moved so quick, the light was low and I couldn't use the tripod where we were standing

It was hard to get this bank vole in focus as he moved so quick, the light was low and I couldn’t use the tripod where we were standing

On the plus side all three kids were impressively quiet in the hides, much to our amazement and admiration. For those who know our kids, “quiet” is not a word that would generally be associated with them (or us for that matter). But in and around the bird hides they really did do well!

I focused on photography for the day and despite it being a cloudy, dull day I was pleased with some of the shots I got. Alfie did exceptionally well and was interested and engaged all day which was rewarding.

This water rail was cool to see but again I couldn't get a shot in focus as it was too crowded to use the tripod needed for the low light.

This water rail was cool to see but again I couldn’t get a shot in focus as it was too crowded to use the tripod needed for the low light.

Another area we plan to focus on this year, like last year, is our bushcraft skills. Alfie’s fire lighting is excellent now and he’s really good with the axe he got for Christmas, chopping most of our kindling for us and lighting the fires most evenings.

I’ve booked myself on a carving master class with Ray Mears, which I’m mega excited about and hope that I can then relay techniques to Alfie, who is also getting pretty good with his knife. I’m hoping to do a family bushcraft course with Alfie in the summer and I’d really like to learn tracking skills which we can practice in woods close to home.

The tricky part is going to be finding a balance between work and play. I’m so passionate about the work I do helping women with hyperemesis that it can be hard to switch off and say no… I’m always so aware that there is always more I can do and stopping is hard when you haven’t finished. But I’ll never be “finished” and accepting that will help with stopping from time to time, it’ll be there to start again on Monday.

Boys at Golitha Falls

Boys at Golitha Falls

So I’m going to balance it… I’ll work hard in the week while the kids are at school and come the weekends it’s bushcraft and birdwatching time. And in the holidays we’re booking things to do. At Easter we’re going to travel the Wild Atlantic Way along Ireland’s west coast in a camper van. Before that we need to book something for the Feb half term… suggestions welcome. And then we’re heading into Summer where our outdoor kitchen can house us for periods of times and we can live off our own land away from the house…

2015… it’s going to be a great year!


Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan

I asked Alf if he could guess why a tufted duck was called a tufted duck... "Because they are really tough?" he asked!

I asked Alf if he could guess why a tufted duck was called a tufted duck… “Because they are really tough?” he asked!

Pigeons are pretty up close

Pigeons are pretty up close

Goliatha falls... I plan also to try to improve my photography this year.

Goliatha falls… I plan also to try to improve my photography this year.

Achieving our goals


This week Alfie achieved something amazing. He carved a spoon from a piece of wood using his pen knife. It took this determined 6 year old three whole days of fairly constant work. He has blisters on his little hands and his arm is aching. But it was worth it. It is beautiful. And it is practical! Rob and I supported him, we helped a little with the curvy neck bit and I gouged out the bowl with the finger slicing crook knife but ultimately he did it himself through his own focus and skill. He listened when we gave him instruction and he worked carefully and safely with his penknife.


Early on with his lump of wood – a half log you would likely throw on the fire – it didn’t resemble a spoon in the slightest and the task looked almost impossible, he didn’t lose hope. He just sat by the fire and pressed on. And with each stroke of his knife on the hard, dry wood the spoon came a little more into his sight. In the middle, when you could sort of see the shape but there was still an awfully long way to go doing more of the same, he didn’t get bored, he kept on carving, through snow and wind and hail, warmed by the fire he worked thoughtfully. Towards the end when the spoon shape was there but he then had four rounds of sanding to go before it was finished he didn’t give up, or try to rush through it. He worked carefully with the different grades of sand paper to get the beautiful smooth finish it deserved.


The long sanding process


When it was finally finished I helped him carve an A on the top for Alfie, we stained it with charcoal to make it stand out. We washed the spoon, oiled it and he ate his dinner with it that night. We are going to buy him a proper bushcraft knife for carving when we find the right one for him, he has earned it. And he has decided that when he grows up he wants to be an instructor at Woodlore, Ray Mears’ school of bushcraft.



Reflecting on our goals from my post back in January we are all managing to do the things we came here to achieve. We’ve seen wildlife ranging from coyotes and moose to chipmunks and marmots. We’ve encountered bald eagles and golden eagles, mountain blue birds and road runners. Bats and owls, lizards and alligators, we really have seen so much! Robs doing well with identification and both boys are great with binoculars. Admittedly though Orla is louder than ever so we have a little work there still!

The geology we’ve experienced has ranged from the northern forests in the depth of a snowy winter, southern swamps coming to life in Spring, deep red canyons and bleak and scorching deserts with giant cactus. We’ve driven high winding passes on the snow capped Rockies and long straight highways across the Great Plains. We’ve smelled the Californian orange blossom and explored deep caves created during the birth of mountains.

Our children have witnessed fire produced from friction and developed skills in wildlife watching. They are resilient and developing skills in self reliance. They are great spotters and have such an interest in the sights were seeing… “Woooooowwwww” and “quick look” comes frequently from the back seat. They recognise deer, elk, turkey vultures, American robins and dozens of other species of mammals, reptiles and birds. They even spot tracks and signs along the way. Although I must admit the “home schooling” has rather gone out the window and there’s a fair amount of bickering in the back too (they are kids after all). But they’ve met people from all sorts of cultures and religions, they’ve learned about race issues and seen the place Martin Luther King died. They’ve learned about history and conflicts and witnessed the differences in nations.

Yet as we cross the continent for the second time we remain excited about what is yet to come. Tracking skills in Yellowstone, ranching in Montana, taking part in a charity run in Washington DC, eventually seeing a bear and crossing back across the length of Canada, and so much more!

A Bird Watchers Paradise – The Great Salt Lake


Almost by accident we stumbled upon the Salt Lake. I had intended that we drive that way, partly out of necessity and partly curiosity having seen footage of the brine flies and subsequent bird life on a nature program. We were utterly unprepared for the delicious feast of wildlife our eyes were about to gorge upon.

Antelope Island is the largest Island within the Great Salt Lake, accessible via a causeway about 45 minutes drive north of Salt Lake City. It is 28,000 acres and stretches for 15 miles. The lake is apply named as it is as much as 27% salt in places (compared to the ocean’s average of 3.5% salinity). As a result there are no fish in this entire massive lake. There are however billions of brine shrimp and brine fly which support a vast amount of birds in turn.

In addition to Antelope Island being a birders idea of heaven it also offers plenty of mammals. I am literally reeling still from the spectacular views we got of coyotes trotting along the shore line. We had resigned ourselves to being satisfied with spotting dead coyote road kill and hearing their waling calls at night as the chances of spotting these elusive scavengers is slim. Well not, it seems, on Antelope Island. We also saw pronghorns and bison (or as the Americans call them, antelope and buffalo as they seem determined to call things names which already have been assigned to completely different things). Sadly we were eluded by the resident big horn sheep and the bob cats, which I am determined to spot at some point.

I made a decision there and then… I need a bigger lens. I know I’m only an amateur but it’s a natural progression from binoculars and scopes into wanting to photograph your finds. Without a suitably big lens the results are frustrating. So we stayed the night in Salt Lake City in order to get to a camera shop in the morning and then return to the Island to try it out.

We had thought about camping on the island but discovered on arrival that only hard-core nutcases do that at this time of year due to the ferocious bombardment of gnats. While Rob and I may well fall into that hard-core nutcase category, sadly our small children do not and we opted for a Days Inn as so far our experience of this particular chain has been very positive… Well, in hindsight I wish we’d taken our chances with the gnats.

As it turned out we found ourselves staying in the arsehole of Salt Lake City, with a fair proportion of the City’s arseholes arguing right outside our room, plus on either side and above also! For most of the night. We did consider bundling the sleeping children in the car and fleeing but in the end we got a few hours kip and survived.

Having got my new lens (at a fraction of the UK price and a great exchange rate to boot) we headed back to the island… and here are the results. As an amateur I would love comment, constructive criticism and advice from more experienced photographers. I know I could tweak all of these in photoshop but with three kids in tow I barely have time to take them so these are as shot, some with a bit of cropping.

American Avocet, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

American Avocet


American Avocets Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

American Avocets

Bison Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake




Coyote Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

Coyote licking her lips

Coyote Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake



Thousands and thousands of eared grebe


Eared grebe

gull Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

Gull in flight



Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

The lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains


On our first day the water was still. It is highly reflective due to the shallowness of the lake and it’s salinity. The next day it was really choppy. In high winds waves on the lake can reach 10 feet.

Western Meadowlark on Antelope IsLakeland, Great Salt

A Western Meadowlark

Bison Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

A lone bison on the salty beach

Pronghorn Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

A Pronghorn


Road on Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

The road along the South of the Island

Pronghorn Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

The Island was named after these, but clearly they are not antelope… they are pronghorn. One of many naming anomalies in America (It started with the “Indians” and has carried on from there)