Sunday 28 January 2024

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2024

This year's Big Garden Birdwatch  took place with the thawing remnants of the last snowfall on the ground, a cold wind, cloudy sky with occasional hazy sunshine, and a temperature of 4.5C. 

There weren't as many birds as we've seen most days this winter. The total number was just one more than last year. There were with two more species this year but no greenfinches. Last year we didn't see house sparrows, blackbirds, or sparrowhawks. The first two of these we've seen almost every day this winter, often up to ten at a time. A sparrowhawk has often been around too. Other than the last all the species are ones we've seen every day this winter. Most days we also see greenfinches, goldfinches, siskins, and wood pigeons but none turned up during the hour of the birdwatch.

Here's the full list:

Coal Tit                                 9
Chaffinch                               5 
Blue Tit                                 4
Great Tit                               3
Great Spotted Woodpecker    3
Robin                                   2
Dunnock                               2
Blackbird                              1
House Sparrow                     1
Sparrowhawk                        1

Photo note: The picture was taken immediately before the birdwatch. It's not very good as the light was not ideal, being low on the feeders but bright in the background and quite flat overall. I should maybe have used a faster shutter speed than 1/250 sec and a higher ISO than 1250 (lens was the Sony E 70-350mm @ 120mm, f stop was 5.6.). Anyway, I wanted to show the birds and feeders at the time of the birdwatch rather than post a better photo taken at another time.

A Look At The March Issue Of The Great Outdoors

This is the first issue edited by Francesca Donovan and I think it's excellent. It's also the first with David Lintern as Deputy Editor.

Of course as a regular contributor (and the grand title of Gear Editor) I am biased! However I don't see the issue or any of the contents until it's published and I read it just like anyone else.

My main contribution to this issue is a trip report and gear review of an overnight snow camp high in the Cairngorms. I also review the 66 North Hengill Insulated Jacket. 

Also in the gear section Lucy Wallace and Alex Roddie review three down jackets apiece and David Lintern reviews the interesting Durston X-Mid 1 tent.

The main features cover City Breaks -outdoor areas easily and quickly accessible from major UH cities; David Lintern backpacking in the SE Cairngorms - illustrated with his usual superb photos; Tom McNally explaining how the Abraham brothers set the scene for modern outdoor photography, with some great photos of modern climbers in Victorian garb on Napes Needle and Needles Ridge by Nadir Khan; and Alice Morrison walking in the deserts and canyons of north-west Saudi Arabia.

The issue opens with a wonderful photo of trees covered in hoar frost in Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands with Ben Nevis in the background by Fiona Campbell. 

Inside there's a list of the contenders for the The Great Outdoors Awards 2024 which you can vote for online here.  

Also in this issue Creator of the Month is 'The Urban Wanderer' Sarah Irving. The Opinion piece is by Right to Roam Campaign organiser Jon Moses who says the idea of a new national park is a diversion from the need for better access to the countryside in England. Tim Gent looks at walks you can do on a weekend in Postbridge in the middle of Dartmoor. Francesca Donovan reviews Merryn Glover's The Hidden Fires - A Cairngorm Journey With Nan Shepherd, a book I've just started reading. Jim Perrin's Mountain Portrait is The Stiperstones in Shropshire. In her notes from her coastal walk around Britain Emma Schroeder says she's become a big fan of birds, especially pigeons! The Hills Skill section has Alex Roddie looking at how to avoid fatigue when hillwalking.

Wild Walks ranges from the Northwest Highlands to the Brecon Beacons. Alex Roddie goes up Quinag in Assynt and Glas Maol in the Mounth. Also in Scotland Ian Battersby climbs Beinn Sgulaird in the West Highlands. There are five walks in the Lake District with Vivienne Crow undertaking the Deepdale Horseshoe and the Gatesgarthdale Round, James Forrest walking the Fusedale Round and the Dodds Round, and Ian Battersby going up Whinash from Bretherdale. In the Peak District Francesca Donovan traverses the Edale Skyline while in the Brecon Beacons Fiona Barltrop strides out along the ridges of the Black Mountains. 

Thursday 25 January 2024

Photography Gear: My Lenses

Having been asked recently what lenses I used with my Sony cameras I compiled a list and thought about whether I needed all these lenses. Here’s what I came up with. Note that my cameras have APS-C sensors so the focal lengths need multiplying by 1.5 for the full frame/35mm equivalent

Sony 18-135mm f3.5-5.6        My most used lens, sometimes the only one I take on walks, due to the      
                                            wide focal range.

Sony 10-20mm f4                  The second lens I take on walks - for wide angle shots.

Sigma 18-50 f2.8                   My newest lens, an alternative to the 18-135mm - less reach  but                                             better in low light.

Sony 11mm f1.8                    The third lens I often take on overnight trips, for night shots and       

Sony 70-350mm f4.5 - f6.3      For wildlife, 525mm 35mm equivalent at long end! Quite heavy so                                             local use and occasional day walks. 

Sony 30mm f3.5 Macro          Mostly used for photographing slides on a lightbox.

Sony 50mm f1.8                    Portraits & sometimes low light shots of gear and other items. My               
                                            only full frame lens – it works fine.

Sony 35mm f1.8                    Low light lens - often used for gear photos and on evening walks.

Sony 55-210mm f4.5-f6.3        My oldest lens (2010), much lighter but less reach and poorer      
                                            quality images than 70-350mm.
Sony 16-50mm f3.5-5.6          Tiny & ultralight kit lens that came with the a6000 camera in 2014.
                                            My main lens for a few years but poor quality compared to 18-135 and   
                                            18-50 lenses.

The last two are the only lenses I could easily dispense with.

I’m not thinking of any new lenses this year as I bought three last year – the 11mm, 10-20mm, and 18-50mm, the first two to replace a 12mm and a 10-18mm, which I sold. The only lens I’d really like doesn’t exist and probably never will – an 18-135 f2.8 that doesn’t weigh much more than the f3.5-5.6 one. Oh, and it would be nice if it was 16-135! 

That said, a macro lens with a longer focal length would be nice. 30mm can be hard to work with. Maybe ........

Saturday 20 January 2024

Images And Some Words From A Week Of Snow

The snow started to fall a week ago. Today a slow thaw started. For the previous six days the temperature has never risen above freezing and the snow lay thick. Not as deep as sometimes but enough to make walking a little difficult and enough for a ski tour, the first of the winter.

The snow soon made the estate track to the house impassable at the steepest spot. I’ve failed to get up that section and had to slide back down, sometimes ending up in a ditch and having to be pulled out, too many times in the past. It’s easier just to leave the car at the bottom by the road.

That single track road has been icy and slippery too. I only ventured out in the car twice, to drive the five miles into Grantown-on-Spey to collect the post from the sorting office – no deliveries in this weather – and buy groceries, which I then hauled up the track on a very old plastic sledge.

With snow falling most days, sometime heavily, and road conditions variable I didn’t want to drive beyond town in case I ended up stuck somewhere. Driving on snowy and icy roads isn’t pleasant anyway.

It’s been a week of local walks (and one ski tour) then. This is always fine, especially when there’s snow as it changes the landscape so much. The woods feel more mysterious, more other worldly. The snow clouds wreath thick patterns over the white hills. The light glows ethereally.

There hasn’t been much sunshine, just the occasional burst, sometimes blinding the eyes, sometimes making a distant peak shine. Underfoot the snow crunches.

In the fields rabbits have been digging through the snow for patches of frozen reeds or grass. Those in the garden eat peanuts and sunflower seeds. Red squirrels come to the rapidly emptying feeders, scaring away the birds, of which there are many. Coal tits and chaffinches are the greatest in number, as usual. There’ve been more blackbirds than ever before, with as many as ten at a time. Great spotted woodpeckers, siskins, greenfinches, house sparrows, robins, dunnocks, sparrowhawks. The garden is alive with life.

Now the snow is wet, heavy, and thawing. By tomorrow most will probably have gone. Then comes high winds and heavy rain with Storm Isha.

Once the weather settles I’ll be heading for the hills. I hope. Unless the snow returns.


Thursday 18 January 2024

Mountaineering Scotland Writing Competition 2024

The Cairngorms: always inspirational

Mountaineering Scotland's Mountain Writing Competition returns with new prizes and a youth category. This year I am one of the judges and I'm greatly looking forward to reading the entries. The standard has always been high and I've been impressed by the winning entries I've read (they're published in Scottish Mountaineer Magazine and online). So please get writing so I can enjoy your work!

In a press release Mountaineering Scotland says "the Mountaineering Scotland Mountain Writing Competition is open to anyone living in the UK, and entries can be fact or fiction, just so long as the subject matter has a connection with the mountains/ any aspect of mountaineering, rock climbing, walking, trail running or skiing/ski-touring. The competition is open to both Mountaineering Scotland members and non-members".

Entries for the 2024 Mountaineering Scotland Mountain Writing competition are open from 9am on 18th January and close at 5pm on 1st March 2024. Winners will be notified in April 2024.

Entries can be made through the online application portal, with an entry fee of £7.50 per entry (adults), per category, and £5 for the young poet category. 




Monday 15 January 2024

A New Book Project & Covers To Consider

On a long walk, long ago

I've been having discussions with Andrew Terrill about relaunching some of my long out-of-print books and we've decided to go ahead with two of them (and one may become two with a new second volume). They'll be published by Andrew's imprint, Enchanted Rock Press. 

Andrew is the author of the wonderful books The Earth Beneath My Feet and On Sacred Ground about his amazing 7,000 mile walk from the toe of Italy to the North Cape, and I'm delighted to be working with him.

Andrew Terrill in the Colorado Rockies

After considering several new covers for the first book, designed by Andrew from my photographs, we've decided to ask other people for their opinions. Andrew has posted about this on his Facebook page and has set up a private Facebook group called Enchanted Rock Press Book Covers. If you're interested in commenting on the potential covers please ask to join the group. There is one condition. We're asking people not to say which book it is for the moment. But only for a short while!

Thanks to everyone who shares their opinion on the covers. We really appreciate it.

Thursday 11 January 2024

First Camp of the Year: In the snow in the Cairngorms

Before sunrise

First camp of the year, first snow camp of the winter, first camp since October. So many firsts for this overnight trip! The last was the most significant, the first time with a big pack for nearly three months and the first since my operation in early November. With snowbound hills and a pack full of winter gear it wasn’t the easiest way to return to wild camping. But the forecast was for sunshine and I was excited to go.

On the ascent: dusk over Strathspey

I wasn’t planning on a long first day with the big pack. A strong, cold south-easterly wind discouraged me from heading up to the Cairngorm Plateau, so I stayed a bit lower and camped at 950 metres below a bank that gave some protection from the wind, though a few gusts were enough to have me closing the tent doors.

Frosted tent by lamplight

With over twelve hours of darkness ahead I went for a short walk in the dark after supper. That’s too long to spend inside a small tent. Stars shone overhead, bands of mist raced past. The temperature was well below freezing and the wind bitter. Maybe the hours in the tent weren’t that unattractive after all. I was soon back inside.

Pre-dawn light

I woke over an hour before sunrise but the sky was already beginning to lighten. At this time of the year there’s only seven hours between sunrise and sunset this far north. However an hour or more of twilight either end of the day extends the time when a headlamp isn’t needed to nine or ten hours.

Coffee soon!

The overnight low was -7°C. There was frost inside and outside the flysheet. But the inner tent was dry and my sleeping bag warm. The stove fired up first time and boiled water fast despit having stood on the snow all night. Coffee! The combination of the MSR Reactor and Primus Winter Gas is always excellent. I’d brought it because I thought I would probably need to melt snow. Higher up that would have been the case. Here a stream was just flowing, oozing through frozen moss.

Another use for an ice axe

Venturing out into the cold world I realised the sun would not reach here for many hours as it was rising just where the wind was blowing from. The bank that kept off the latter also kept me shaded from the sun. The tent was frozen to the ground. I had to use the ice axe to dig and lever the pegs out of the ground.

Sunny but cold

I only reached the sunshine after I set off, crunching fast through the snow to warm up. The brightness was welcome though there was no heat in it. The cold wind saw to that. Looking down the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru I could see thick mist blanketing the glens to the south. No sunshine there.

View down the Lairig Ghru

On the first steepish slope I had one slight slip then stopped to don crampons. The day before I’d kicked steps across some slopes thinking I should have had them on. I wasn’t making that mistake again. I ended up keeping them on all day. I didn’t need them all the time but repeatedly taking them on and off was just too much hassle. I got the ice axe out too. The snow was firm and crisp in places, soft and deep in others, with some breakable crust, making for reasonably easy walking.

Winter essentials

I saw no-one until I reached Cairn Lochan where climbers were packing up their gear after finishing a route on the cliffs that abut the summit to the north. I’d guessed that in these freezing conditions and sunny weather there would be many climbers in the Northern Corries. Later I was to see even more on Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, which is more accessible. The cliffs were plastered in snow. The view was tremendous, the air sharp and clear.

Cairn Lochan

Half a dozen ski tourers arrived, and Cairn Lochan started to feel crowded, very unusual on this hill, which I usually have to myself. I hadn’t considered bringing skis as I didn’t want to carry them to the snow on my already heavy pack. I also hadn’t realised just how extensive the snow cover was.

View to Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor

I’d considered going to Ben Macdui but time was slipping away and I could feel the effort of carrying the pack. For this first overnight trip for so long and with the snow and the winter gear as well over the Northern Corries – Cairn Lochan and Stob Coire an t-Sneachda – would be enough. I saw no-one else with a big pack though I guess some of the climbers’ loads were as heavy as mine.

Cairn Gorm viewed over the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda with the tiny figures of mountaineers on the latter

I reached the big cairn on Point 1141 at the top of the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais with just enough time to descend to the car before darkness fell. In summer the start of this descent is on stone steps through a fairly steep boulder field. In winter hard snow and ice builds up between the rocks and ice on the steps makes them dangerously slippery. I’ve often put crampons on for this section in both ascent and descent. Today I was already wearing them but could probably have got down safely without them. For the first time I can remember the top of the ridge was a simple broad snow slope, the rocks and steps completely buried, making the descent easy.

Beinn Mheadhoin

After the trip my legs told me they weren’t used to this level of exertion and my feet told me they weren’t used to walking for hours with crampons on. They ached! But it had been a successful trip in glorious weather and a great start to the year. 

Cairn Toul


Friday 5 January 2024

A Look At The February Issue Of The Great Outdoors

 This is the last issue edited by Carey Davies, who is leaving after five years at the helm, and it's an excellent finale. 

Carey has done a great job, maintaining and enhancing the standards of the magazine. He is handing over to Francesca Donovan, who has been working on the magazine for some time and who I'm sure will be a great editor too.

In this issue I have a big feature covering 38 pieces of gear, all photographed by James Roddie on trips we did back in October (see here). I also review the Fjallraven Vidda Pro Lite trousers and the Keen Zionic Mid WP boots and Andrew Terrill's wonderful book On Sacred Ground. 

In the main features Francesca Donovan talks to eight outdoors people about their high points and what keeps them motivated when the going gets tough, Sarah Jane Douglas has a winter walk and camp around the Glengalmadale Horsehoe on the Morvern peninsula, there's a photo essay on Eryri by Hollie Harmsworth, and Lisa Morris explores the high-altitude mountain deserts of Dolpo in Nepal. 

The magazine opens with a lovely and dramatic photo by Verity Milligan of a snowy Skiddaw catching early sunshine under a blanket of dark cloud. Creator of the Month is psychologist Dr Jade Adams-White, founder of The Jadeite Project which teaches the benefits of time in nature. In the Opinion piece Mary-Ann Ochota says we have to fix the problem of too many deer. In his Mountain Portrait Jim Perrin revisits Lord's Seat in the Peak District. In a Life Hacks piece Alex Roddie gives some advice on staying healthy and happy over the winter months. And in her Notes from the Edge about her walk round the British coast Emma Schroeder reflects on stories from Britain's lighthouses.

The ten walks in the Wild Walks section range from the Cairngorms to Dartmoor and all have the theme of pubs as well as hills. Stefan Durkacz explores a hilly spur of the Speyside Way running from Ballindalloch to Tomintoul. Alex Roddie has a winter pub walk from the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe up Sgurr na h-Ulaidh. In the Lake District James Forrest climbs Mellbreak from the Kirkstile Inn, Vivienne Crow climbs Barton Fell from the Sun Inn, and Francesca Donovan climbs Kirk Fell from the Wasdale Head Inn. Not far away in the Howgill Fells Roger Butler sets off from the Cross Keys Inn for The Calf and Cautley Crag. In the Yorkshire Dales Ian Battersby explores Arkengarthdale from the Tan Hill Inn and walks the Monk's Road and Mastiles Lane from the Falcon Inn. Over in Wales Andrew Galloway climbs Cadair Berwyn from Llanarmon, which has two pubs, The Hand and The West Arms. Finally on Dartmoor Tim Gent goes up Great Links Tor from the Fox and Hounds.

Thursday 4 January 2024

Favourite Photos I took in 2023

Allt an Dubh-lochain & the Dividing Buttress, Beinn a' Bhuird, Cairngorms. Sony a6700 & Sony E 10-20 f4 lens at 15mm. ISO 100, f8 @1/250 sec.

Going through the images I take each year to select favourites is a pleasant if time-consuming task. It's a useful way of analysing my photography too and considering if any themes or changes from past years emerge. Looking at the photos I chose a year ago I noticed an interest in complex cloud landscapes and tree details. I wondered if this would continue in 2023. It did!

Walkers & clouds, Cairn Gorm. Sony a6000 & Sony E 18-135mm lens at 105mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/1250 sec

In 2022 my favourite images were all taken with my Sony a6000 camera and Sony E 18-135mm lens. These 2023 images come from four cameras and seven lenses! With the cameras this was because for the first time in many years I bought new cameras (for details see here, here  and here) to replace my ageing ones before they stopped working completely. I also replaced some lenses with newer versions.

View down An Garbh Choire from Braeriach, Cairngorms. Sony a6600 & 11mm lens. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/500 sec

Focal lengths of the images range from 11mm ultra wide angle to 200mm telephoto, a far greater spread than last year's 43mm to 135mm. I don't know why! The 18-135mm was still my most used lens, used for ten of the photos. Second was the Sony 11mm for three images. I suspect this will change  with a whole year with the new lenses.

Mist in the forest. Sony a6700 & 18-135mm lens at 45mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/15 sec

As every year these are images I like because I can see new details every time I look at them. I like the complexity.  

I also took many photos of camps. Some of the first can be seen in my post on favourite camps of 2023. Several of these could have featured here. 

The Barns of Bynack, Cairngorms. Sony a6600 & 18-135mm lens at 105mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/160 sec

View west from Meall a'Bhuachaille, Cairngorms. Sony a6700 & 70-350mm lens at 200mm. ISO 125, f8 @ 1/200 sec

I always shoot raw files and much of my processing is now done in DxO Photolab. The latest version, Photolab 7, is especially good for converting images to black and white, as in the two photos above.

In snow. Sony a6700 & Sigma 18-50 f2.8 lens at 47.3mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/320 sec

Under storm clouds. Sony a6600 & 11mm f1.8 lens. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/640 sec

In mist at dusk. Sony a6000 & 18-135mm lens at 87mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/100 sec

I've been photographing a lone birch tree in the field opposite my home for over three decades. In 2023 I took three of my favourite images of this favourite tree.

Goosander family, Loch Morlich, Cairngorms. Sony a6600 & 18-135mm lens at 135mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/140 sec  

I'm not a wildlife photographer but I do take wildlife photographs when the opportunity is there. The above image is cropped as I didn't have my 70-350 telephoto zoom with me when I saw this goosander family on a rock in the loch (if I was a wildlife photographer I would have had it with me!). As it is the cropped image is still fine.

Anyway, here's a final selection of images.

River Luineag exiting Loch Morlich, Cairngorms. Sony a6700 & Sigma 18-50mm lens at 18mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/125 sec

Lochan na Cruadach & Ben Aden, Knoydart. Sony a6600 & 18-135mm lens at 24mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/1000 sec

Loch Morar, Knoydart. Sony a6700 & 11mm lens. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/200 sec

Oak sapling in the mist, Anagach Woods, Grantown-on-Spey. Sony a6700 & 18-135mm lens at 42mm. ISO 400, f8 @1/25 sec

Sgor Gaoith, Cairngorms. Sony a6600 & 18-135mm lens at 42mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/100 sec

Pool on the Cairngorm Plateau. Oppo Find X5 Pro, 5.97mm.  ISO 64, f1.7 @ 1/2000 sec

Sunset, Strathspey, Cairngorms. Sony a6700 & 18-135mm lens at 18mm. ISO 100, f8 @ 1/125 sec

I wrote a piece last September about all the photographic gear I've used over the decades. A few of the cameras became favourites for a while., The Sony a6700 has joined them.

I dabbled with film again after discovering some unused rolls for a few months a year or so ago. It reminded me why I like digital so much! In this piece I said I'd post some results from those films. I never bothered. I lost interest too quickly. What I will be doing this year is photographing more of my film slides and prints and posting some of those.