sun sun sun sun sun sun sun

This blog has been silent for a while and I blame the weather here in Ireland. No, really, it’s been unbelievably hot and sunny EVERYDAY. We’ve had continuous rain-free epic weeks. The ground is so dry that I can kick dust with my summer shoes. I actually get to wear my sunglasses every day now. I am trying to spend every minute awake outside soaking up the rare Irish sun.

Yesterday I got sunburned after we spent six hours swimming in natural pools at the foothills of the Maumtrasna mountains. River Strahnalong cascades down the steep slopes into the valley below in a series of waterfalls that create very deep pools. The pools are fantastic for swimming and jumping into. Only one needs to “clear the rocks and clench buttcheeks” as one girl put it before she plunged from the highest point into a pool. This place is a gem off the beaten track and it’s where you can still see local lads journey to sample beer and talk about cars (my guess) in privacy after work.

Not sure if my phone camera captures how totally stupendous the views are, but here we go anyway.

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We’ve been back to the nest in Sorrel Woods several times and the female is still sitting on eggs. But now it won’t be long before the little sparrowhawks hatch and it will be time for our wild take! Because of this amazing hot early summer many of the passerines have hatched and even fledged and so the sparrowhawks’ diet is changing too – from old birds to fresh meat. Last time we visited the nest we found this. Can you guess what this is?

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It’s a wing from a fledgling that a musket snatched from a nest. It was left on one of the plucking posts and a slug was tucking in for its share of tender remains. Yum.

We’ve also been enjoying new foods in our diet – fresh summer salads from my veg patch!

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The long summer evenings are spent outdoors gardening, walking, swimming, foraging, bird watching, and frying things on fire with friends. This blog might be silent for a while, but soon, hopefully, I will post an update with photos of the wild sparrowhawk chick.

Happy summer frolicking!

x.

 

 

 

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walking up a tree

The sparrowhawk nest we found a few weeks ago is about fifteen meters off the ground. It is a tightly woven conical shape structure made of sticks close to the trunk of a typical sitka spruce – the kind a tree surgeon friend calls a “pole”. The tree is so straight, so tall, and so covered in thin dead branches sticking out in all directions from the main trunk, that I just can’t get my head around how on earth I am going to climb it?

This is a rather blurry photo of me pointing my binoculars at the nest in horror.

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And this is what I can see through my binoculars – you can see clearly the nest is surrounded by lots and lots of sharp branches!

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Tree climbing isn’t on the list of my hobbies as I am terrified of heights to the point of panic, but for some reason we decided earlier on that it will be me climbing the tree to take a spar chick from the nest. I think we both thought it’ll be hilarious and will make good tape. Yes, I can just picture the drama – me hugging the tree paralysed with fear, unable to move up or down, in tears, terrified and begging to be rescued, and yet having to complete the mission.

But also deep inside I want to be the one climbing the tree and taking the chick. This is a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and face my phobia.

So yesterday I did a trial climb of a sitka spruce but in a different location to avoid disturbing the nesting spar. Our colleague and friend is a professional tree climber and has all the gear. He tried to talk me through the technical names but somehow it didn’t stick and all I can say is there is a harness, a rope, carabiners, and spikes for shoes.. But it is really amazing how few things one actually needs to climb a tree!

The idea is simple – you have spikes on your shoes and they help you grip to the tree but if you slip you won’t fall because you have a rope that wraps around the trunk and keeps you secure. You move the rope higher with your hands, then make small steps up the trunk with your feet and then move the rope higher again and so on.

Essentially you are slowly walking up a tree.

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So as I watched in slight panic and anticipation I had many disaster related thoughts, like what if a squirrel suddenly jumps out and startles me? What if I need to pee as I am half-way up?

But I’ve reached the point of no return, and unless I was prepared to face the shame of being another scared weakling, I just had to get on with it.

So here I was all geared up ready for that tree.

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Something amazing happened when I started my ascent – very quickly I fell in love with the process. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be so high off the ground, to be close to the mossy trunk, smelling resin in the moist folds of the tree. To be able to see the land and people below and to get that one long uninterrupted view from the height is just so precious. And I can see how tree climbing can become addictive.

My progress was slow, I didn’t climb very high, maybe only six meters. And I did have a few moments of doubt and fear, but they were quickly gone because I had to focus my thoughts on the immediate task of putting each foot higher and moving the rope.

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A very blurry photo of me smiling.

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In a few days I will try climbing higher and hopefully will take better photos of how magical Irish woodland looks from above.

x

 

wild food: beware of hemlock

We camped out on an island on Lough Corrib the other day. There is a myth that Lough Corrib has 365 islands – one for each day of the year, but in reality there are probably over 1000 islands. Some are homes to huge heronries in spring and if you are lucky you might see something like this peaking at you from a nest:

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This is a young black-crowned night heron from the BBC Wildlife magazine spring issue. Ireland has grey herons but they look just as scary as babies.

Islands are magical places especially on a rain-free spring evening.

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While on this island I quickly tried to identify plants around me. I found nettles and water mint and then another plant that looked and smelled like celery or parsley. I had my Food for Free guide and I identified it as Alexanders – an edible herb similar to parsley. I was very close to tasting it, but then decided to research more. When we got home the following day I did a quick search and discovered that in fact I was close to eating the deadliest plant in Ireland -Hemlock Water Dropwort. A tiny amount can kill you in a few hours.

Apparently this plant was used in the ritual killings of elderly in the Phoenician Sardinia. People who were too old and could no longer take care of themselves “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death”. Fun fun fun. The plant is called “sardonic” because one of its side effect is so-called “sardonic grin” as it paralises face muscles. Oh dear…

And this case study describes how eight young adults on holiday in Scotland cooked a curry that included water dropwort roots. Of course it was all party time after a few hours when one in the group experienced a “grand mal seizure”, whatever that felt like. Pure evil. 

So for now, I will stick to wild garlic and water mint because they are easy to identify.

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I’ve also gathered a lot of nettles to make nettle wine.

I used store-bought yeast this time, but wild fermentation works really well too if you want things to progress more naturally. One of my favourite books Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is fantastic if you feel creative and would like to experiment a bit, make unusual but tasty food and rewild your gut.

At the moment I have mead, blackberry/apple, and banana/coffee wines during various stages of fermentation.

 

Safe foraging to you!

 

x

more nests more bones

We found two more sparrowhawk nests since my last post!

The first one we discovered accidentally by following a sparrowhawk who flew across a woodland track in front of our bicycles. The woods there are absolutely stunning – nicely spaced sitka spruce, moss, and wood sorrel everywhere.

We called this Sorrel Woods.

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We heard sparrowhawks calling almost immediately after entering the woods and also it didn’t take long to find several plucking posts.

Some contained fresh fathers.

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The Sorrel Woods Spars liked rodents too! Sparrowhawks do not frequently eat ground mammals, but in this woodland we found a plucked vole and even its fresh guts on a mossy stump. Very exciting indeed.

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We found woodcock bones and feathers which were clearly broken or pulled off. Perhaps it was a fox, or perhaps it was a female sparrowhawk?

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And of course we found multiple old tiny skulls and bones – possibly a blue tit?

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The nest itself is nicely built, perhaps you can spot it on this photo. Draw a straight line down from X towards the middle of the photograph. You will see a small round mass to the right of the line and almost in the middle of the photo.

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It’s is a little higher than the nest in The Garden and will require climbing gear, which will be an adventure! We have not seen any activity there, but we are planning to revisit this spot early in the morning soon. Females will be laying eggs in May and we might see a tail sticking out of the nest or a male flying in with food.

The other nest is located in the Mossy Woods – everything here is padded with greenest moss.

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A few weeks ago we found feathers of a tree creeper.

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Then we were told that a sparrowhawk was heard calling and so we revisited and this time we found a foot of a freshly killed blackbird.

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And most amazingly we found a half-plucked and eaten thrush! Something must have spooked the sparrowhawk to leave so much meat behind.

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We also found an old egg shell belonging to a medium size bird. A sparrohawk perhaps?

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I didn’t take a photo of this last nest but it’s a solid platform made of small sticks two-thirds way up a tall pine, close to the trunk, and partially hidden by ivy – similar kind of structure as the other two nests we found.

We will revisit The Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods soon and will hopefully spot a female on eggs!

x.

 

 

 

we found a nest!

The big news is that we found an active sparrowhawks’ nest.

It’s in a small pine woodland near a house and two people we know took a wild sparrowhawk chick from this very spot sixteen years ago under a license. On our previous visit there weeks ago we found feathers from many recent kills. Sparrowhawks who occupied the woods had a varied diet – magpies, water rail, smaller garden birds, and we even found feathers belonging to a long-eared owl! We knew we were going to return to this spot.

In the most recent episode of the Wild Take podcast Ed and I mention this particular spot which we call The Garden.

So two days ago we revisited The Garden to see if we can hear sparrowhawks. And we did pretty much as soon as we stepped out of the car. Their high pitch call stood out against the chorus of garden birds. When sparrowhawks call you know its not a blue tit or a black bird having a screaming match. A musket, a male spar, might call when he returns with food for his mate. He will scream a little and the female might call back indicating that she understands he’s got treats for her – the usual couply interactions. The calls can mean that the nest isn’t far.

So I went into the woods towards the area where we heard them in hope of sighting a nest. The ground was so dry and a wren angrily alarm called as I clumsily stumbled past her home in the bushes. Wrens are tiny birds but are terrifying when angry, no wonder they are called the King of Birds. The air was so still, I could hear my own heart beat.

Suddenly a sparrowhawk called and another replied as they came in to land very close. I was under a pine tree that had a nest we had spotted on our last visit. The nest didn’t impress us as being particularly “sparrowhawky” as it was only about ten meters off the ground and rather small.

But several seconds after the calls, and to my complete surprise and shock, a female sparrowhawk flew right above my head and landed in the nest. This was the most unexpected thing. I decided to lie down under the tree to get a good view of the nest and wait. This is the view, it’s difficult to see the nest itself but it’s a dark mass of twigs slightly below the centre of the photo.

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And this one is a close up, not as good quality but gives you an idea of what it looks like.

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I called Ed for advice but was too afraid to move so not to spook the bird who kept silent. Then about ten minutes later I heard another high pitch “ke-ke-ke-ke” call coming from a different tree nearby and a few seconds later I heard the sparrowhawk stir in the nest above. Perhaps the call was her mate saying he caught a tasty something for her, perhaps it as to let her know it was safe to fly, I really don’t know. But a second later I witnessed something very special.

The sparrowhawk jumped to the edge of the nest, spread her wings wide and then she simply glided down and away in a swift silent movement.

The words are not enough to say how it felt and what it meant. It was like being in the presence of a goddess. I cried, I wept actually. My tears were like a river bursting through a dam in a rush of emotions and happiness, completely uncontrollable and disarming.

I replay the image of her flying above my head in my mind trying to recall and memorise every little detail – her twig-thin feet as they gave her a powerful push from the nest, her light colour and barring under the wings and tail, her perfect feathers as they spread wide against the sky. I wish I could relive this moment over and over again.

I felt so peaceful afterwards, it was the most amazing moment ever.

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x.

 

 

 

 

 

feather obsessed

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There is something very satisfying in finding feathers. Perhaps like foraging the practice of finding and making sense of an object appeals to my inner hunter-gatherer. Feathers are also beautiful and they smell lovely of everything old and comforting.

My husband Ed has been collecting feathers for years from various trips and countries we visited. When we began our search for sparrowhawk nests our collection has expanded to include some amazing examples. Hopefully the photos below convey how incredibly beautiful and fresh the feathers were when we found them.

Blue tit, most likely plucked by a musket, a male sparrowhawk:

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Water rail beak and feathers, most likely plucked by a female sparrowhawk. These were so fresh with bits of sinew still attached to the beak:

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Tree creeper, most likely plucked by a musket:

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Long-eared owl, maybe plucked by a female sparrowhawk:

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Magpie, possibly plucked by a female sparrowhawk (note broken ends):

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We don’t always take feathers with us, sometimes they are better left behind. But we always take feathers that we can’t identify. There is one particular book we use which is amazing if you would like to become a wildlife detective:

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Ever wondered which animal poops on the path where you walk your dog? Or wanted to identify a feather or wild tracks? This book is full of information and photographs to guide you.

Many birds will start their molt this time of year – a process when they shed old feathers and replace them with shiny new ones. It takes place over spring and summer months when food availability and daylight are at their optimum. This means that when you are in the woods you are bound to find feathers, even if it’s just pigeon fluff.

Look for mossy stumps in mixed woodland too and you might even find feathers of a sparrowhawk kill. It looks something like this:

But I have to warn you that finding feathers is addictive! Once you start you will never be able to walk in the woods without constantly looking under your feet for new finds.

I admire people who know trees and plants and especially who can identify birds and their different songs. To me it’s like being fluent in a language that most people cannot understand.

Our survival does not depend on being able to know the birds or on being able to read the landscape. On our way to work we don’t have to identify signs and landmarks to find our way back. We don’t need songlines to guide us. But I think it’s great to know who we share our gardens with and what they are up to.

x.

 

 

 

a trip to the coast

We live in Ireland’s Lake District near two enormous bodies of water – Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. There is also Lough Coolin a short hike from our house up Mount Gable. The mountain itself is a soggy giant covered in bell heather and bog. There is so much fresh water around, above and below and so little land to absorb it it seems.

But even though we are literally surrounded by water, there are days when I long to see the Ocean, the craggy and dramatic Atlantic coast.

Yesterday we went to my favourite village of Roundstone. It’s one of those places that has the best of everything. My favourite pub, O’Dowd’s, serves the best lobster and mussels I’ve ever tried. These come fresh from the tiny cute harbour opposite, which itself is a treat for the eye with its colourful nets, ropes, lobster pots, and electric pink sea boyes. 

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Errisbeg hill towers above the village and stunning beaches of Gorteen and Dog’s Bay. 

The beaches are pure white sand punctuated by turquoise ocean on one side and muirbheach or machair, a smooth carpet of grass kept trimmed by grazing, based on densely compacted sand, on the other.

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As you walk on the beach you are unaware that you are strolling the length of a vast necropolis of dead organisms. Tim Robinson in Connemara describes that the sand at Gorteen and Dog’s Bay consists of shards of mollusc shells and exoskeletons of the single-celled sea-creatures called foraminifera.

Foraminifera, or forams, when alive build a unique shell and under the microscope they look just amazing. Of course forams are only visible under a microscope, but each one would have had its own life-history, defined by its DNA. 

West of Ireland has so many types of sand. A few weeks ago we went to Corral beach near a small settlement of An Cheathrú Rua to the west of Galway city. Here the beach was covered in tiny multicoloured coral fragments. When picked up they felt like bones or something entirely edible like a crunchy breakfast cereal.

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The wind-swept Gorteen beach was dramatic and wild. The waves made amazing patterns in the sand that looked like stepping stones above tiny rivers that hurried back to the ocean. 

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There were some unexpected finds too.

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After our walk we ate scones with butter and drank orange juice at a picnic table in the carpark. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but later I recalled reading in Connemara about “soot blackened ‘soil horizons’” in the sand banks above the beach. What Tim Robinson refers to are blackish layers of coal and shell middens – periwinkles, dogwhelks, mussels and limpets in the dunes above the beach. These are remains of meals from Neolithic people who gathered here to enjoy fruits of the sea together, a veritable “kitchen refuse” as he calls it in the book.

It really is amazing, I think, that there we were sitting, eating our scones enjoying the views, unaware that thousand of years ago humans just like us did exactly the same, only their lunches were more interesting, something Bear Grylls would have loved to sample.

These layers in the dunes above Gorteen beach have sadly eroded from winter storms and constant stream of beach goers like myself, but I still remember them being visible during our last visit in the summer of 2015.

Tim Robinson also writes that there is evidence that in Ireland dogwhelk (Nucella lapillus) were used as a source of dye similar to the way Murex shell was a source of famous Tyrian purple in the past. Large concentrations of dogwhelk shell found in dune systems in the west of Ireland may suggest a whole dogwhelk dye industry in the early Christian times. This is what the tiny things look like:

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Of course it would be unimaginable to sacrifice thousands of dogwhelks for a drop of dye these days. But molluscs are not the only source of colour on the coast. There is also colourful plastic items and some blend in rather well, they almost look beautiful.

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Groteen is anglicised for Irish Goirtín, meaning ‘small field’, which perhaps refers to the original use of machair near the ocean as grazing commonage and for growing potatoes. You can still see potato ridges from pre-famine Ireland.

As I walked on the beach it was easy to forget the past, all these thousands of years of human impact on this short stretch of coast were buried or will be buried eventually under the sand. Rain swept across sandunes and wind drove tiny sanderlings away from water, the whole scene felt untamed and unaffected by our presence. This is probably why I love coming here – to clear my head and to refocus my attention on what is under my feet.

x.

wild food

There is a brilliant book by Richard Mabey called Food For FreeIt’s an absolute treasure if you like foraging and eating wild food. It inspires me to look under my feet when I am out and about in the woods and there is so much edible stuff around.

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Wild garlic is in abundance this time of year. It’s hard to miss large colonies of this tasty herb in the woods. The smell is unmissable as you approach the area and get your nose closer to the ground.

Wild garlic can be used raw or cooked and has a mild taste when raw. I add it to everything I eat. It also makes a delicious pesto.

And sometimes conventional food items can go wild when cooked or consumed outdoors. For example take bananas and chocolate buttons, add to burning logs in a splendid clearing in the woods on a sunny day and voilà – you have a bananachocolatebuttons gone wild and out of control tasty. 

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This was our breakfast a few days ago when we spent the night bivvying in the local woods. As chocolate melted and bananas got softer the whole thing turned into a gooey sweet delicious mess. It tasted absolutely divine.

Growing food can also turn wild when you have a full-time job and little time or energy to look after the plants. They just grow while rain and sun look after them and what looks like neglect can be also labeled as some kind of fancy unintentional experimental gardening.

For four years I’ve had various plants growing in small containers with a different degree of success. I’ve grown tomatoes, salads, peas, beans…

This year I am planning a proper serious garden with plenty of space to experiment thanks to my diy-savvy husband Ed who put together four beautiful raised beds.

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My friend Magda helped me fill one of them with last year’s compost and it’s ready to receive tenants. Those pretty Sungold and Tumbing Tiger tomato plants will be moving in as soon as they are tall and strong to battle through the rainy Irish weather.

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We shall see how this year’s experimental gardening turns out and whether I will retain a degree of control over the unruly plants or whether my garden will continue to be a little bit wild.

Happy foraging and experimenting!

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x.

 

 

rewilding

In previous blog posts I’ve written that we’ve been granted a license to take a wild sparrowhawk chick from a nest this spring for the purpose of falconry. Of course to take a chick you need a nest first and searching for a nest of one of the most illusive birds of prey in Europe is a difficult task. We’ve looked for signs and clues in several places, searching mostly mixed woodland around where we live and work.

Often when searching for the signs of sparrowhawks deep in the woods we find remains of plucked birds – their bones, beaks, and feathers.

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Sometimes we are lucky and we find a whole skull too.

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These trophies are hard won and every our outing is comparable to detective’s work – looking for small feathers on mossy ground in a large woodland isn’t an easy task. Feathers are usually arranged on a plucking post or several plucking posts – usually a stump of a fallen tree trunk where a musket, a male sparrowhawk, plucks small birds before taking them to feed his female.

Can you spot a plucking post here?

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Finding feathers, at least in theory, means there might be a nest nearby. But sparrowhawk’s rituals are complex, their habits are not rigid, they don’t obey the written text in the books about falconry.

But the act of searching has an enormous pleasure for me. The place comes into clear focus as I near the ground and as I observe the details up close.

I often end up crawling on my knees through densely planted sitka spruce to get to some beautiful clearing with promising stumps I’d spotted earlier. I scan every inch through my imaginary “feather goggles” as I go along. Sometimes I find spar’s castings, a mass of feathers that she regurgitates before she kills and plucks another blackbird.

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The intensity of search means it’s not always easy to mentally “come back” from the land of sparrowhawks, to fully “exit” the woods. I feel like part of me remains in the woods when I leave. A part of me goes wild.

But after every outing we also bring nature home indoors and into our human world – we return with feathers, skulls, bones, photographs, audio recordings, and of course stories which we document in the Wild Take podcast.

The boundaries between our human and non-human worlds become less pronounced as we progress in our search. “Rewilding… is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way”, writes George Monbiot in FeralI feel that nature has certainly found its way into our lives and our lives are becoming more connected to this illusive and almost mythical sparrowhawk we are seeking from the wild.

x.

 

 

 

 

spring has arrived

It’s hard to write something meaningful when you have this view in front of you.

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We’ve enjoyed some epic weather here in the west of Ireland. There has been not a drop of rain, no, not even a little. The smell of rot and damp in the air are gone and there is a foreign smell of fragrant grasses and new vegetation all around. Tiny lambs in the fields sleep under the hot welcoming sun. Spring is officially here!

Our  colleagues took advantage of this heat wave and took five hawks up to the mountains nearby to enjoy the views and to let birds stretch their wings.

Here is Maya and Inagh

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It was so beautiful to see the birds soar and play in the wind.

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It’s wonderful to be alive this time of year. I’ve never felt spring’s presence as strongly as I do this year, perhaps this is because we spend most of our days outdoors.

There are birds visible everywhere at the moment, giant rookeries have sprang up almost overnight with some nests precariously hanging above country roads. I’ve seen rooks carrying big sticks and food to their nests to their mates who are already patiently sitting on eggs. There are groups of overexcited starlings beatboxing on every roof, fat pigeons are noisily courting each other. And even seagulls are singing in large gangs in the fields nearby rising and landing as they perform their sun salutations each morning.

There is nowhere to hide from sudden chatter and noise, from this shifting, rushing, moving, and living.

We’ve been also moving and exploring a lot these past few weeks on foot and on our canoe.

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The weather is of course going to change soon, but I am so grateful that we’ve all had a break from storms, wind, and rain. That we’ve been able to shake winter off and had a chance to just be outside and play under the hot smiling sun.

Happy spring!

x.