Lockdown puts Steve’s life in sharper focus

SOMETIMES it takes a crisis to make you look at the world in a different way.

That was certainly true for Steve Gozdz. He and his partner Billie O’Connor relocated from Surbiton to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature, but he was due to head back into corporate life when Covid-19 struck.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

Despite years working as a contracts manager, Steve had always had a keen interest in wildlife, especially birds.

And as he explored the local countryside during the initial lockdown taking pictures of the wildlife he saw and sharing them with others on social media, he was taken aback by the level of appreciation of his photographs – and later, by requests from people to join him on his walks.

OUT AND ABOUT: Steve’s guided walks proved increasingly popular

After setting up a Facebook page encouraging local people to engage with nature, as lockdown restrictions bit hundreds of followers starting to share their own photographs from their walks.

Could wildlife tour guiding provide a new career for the 46-year-old entrepreneur? Goring Gap Wildlife Walks was born.

GAP IN THE MARKET: Steve realised his hobby could provide the basis for a new business

“We agreed now was the time to swap that corporate lifestyle for my passion,” says Steve, whose friends dubbed him ‘The Bird Whisperer’ for his ability to help them seek out and enjoy the local wildlife.

On holidays abroad, the couple would often pay a guide to show them the sights and wildlife of different countries, from Gambia and Senegal to Portugal. Why not try running similar guided walks closer to home?

SNAP HAPPY: a pair of pheasants put on a show PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “I have always been fascinated by wildlife and having moved to the Chilterns, I was able to really indulge in my “serious hobby” of wildlife photography and walking in our amazing countryside.”

Part of his mission is open people’s eyes to the area’s natural wonders, and the couple could hardly be better placed, given the unique Thameside location of the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

RIVERSIDE RAMBLE: Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Here two national trails intersect (the Ridgeway and Thames Path), making the villages a popular stopping-off point for those on long-distance walks, with ready access to both Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

While the immediate surroundings were ideal for guided tours, the area covered by his walks was soon rapidly expanding over neighbouring counties, with options ranging from short family walks geared towards children to private tailored walks for those interested in more specific “sightings”.

BALL OF FLUFF: a tawny owlet PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” says Steve. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.

“I spend most of my time outdoors. I really believe in the power of nature as a healing agent and to bring about calm and balance. Scientific studies have certainly proven the power of fresh-air therapy – being in the outdoors, walking, and taking in nature.”

FRESH-AIR THERAPY: a firecrest poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Current lockdown restrictions may have prevented Steve from running walks for customers, but he has kept up his daily exercise walks and has been taking plenty of photographs to share across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“Winter brings a number of birds only seen this time of year such as fieldfare and redwing; both quite shy but beautiful birds, they winter here to escape the harsher climate of their mostly Scandinavian homes,” he says.

“We have also seen small groups of lesser redpoll feeding in the silver birches and alder, and flocks of goldfinch have made their way into our gardens to feast on feeders of nyger and sunflower hearts.”

WINTER VISITOR: a redwing among the rosehips PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

With kingfishers posing obligingly at various places along the river and the signs of spring all around, there’s certainly no shortage of sightings to write about, much to the delight of his social media followers.

“The birds are now more vocal, especially at dawn as they re-establish existing pair bonds and last year’s young are ready to become parents themselves,” says Steve. “We are fortunate in this area of the UK to have four types of owls we could see, especially during the stage of post-fledgling until the end of the summer; my owl walks prove extremely popular from June to August.”

LOCKDOWN ALBUM: a nuthatch PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Steve’s clearly itching to get back out and about as soon as the restrictions allow, having organised walks for more than 200 people since starting the business in July 2020.

Future events include the Chilterns Walking Festival, more family-friendly wildlife walks with spotting guides, and partnerships with local hotels who want to offer wildlife tours and photography sessions for their guests.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: the barn owl is one of four species of owls found locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Many walks take place on private land, allowing the small groups to be genuinely alone with the wildlife they come across.

“The children really love it and you never know whether you might be inspiring the next Chris Packham,” says Steve.

“I started out thinking this would be a temporary business to see me through lockdown but now I’m hoping to earn a permanent living from my passion. I feel very lucky with the success I’ve had so far.”

For more details see Steve’s website and follow him on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Picture of the week: 08/03/21

IT’S not every day you come face to face with a weasel.

But that’s certainly one of the most memorable wildlife encounters enjoyed by Nick Bell, the Maidenhead photographer whose pictures have been in the spotlight on this page for the past couple of weeks.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a weasel pauses long enough to be pictured PICTURE: Nick Bell

Stoats and weasels aren’t that unusual in the British countryside, but you don’t get to see them very often other than a quick flash as they streak for cover.

Nick recalls: “I was walking along a path in Ockwells Park, early on a crisp, beautiful March day, when the weasel ran across the path right in front of me.

“It jumped up onto the bottom rail of the fence and, when it came to a break in the undergrowth, stopped and looked at me, no doubt wondering if it could make it past me with no undergrowth to hide it, just long enough for me to get its photo.

“I wasn’t sure if it was a stoat or a weasel, so I did some research. I discovered that a stoat is the size of a cucumber and a weasel the size of a sausage. Stoats also have longer tails than weasels.”

HIDE AND SEEK: a grey squirrel appears to be in playful mood PICTURE: Nick Bell

Some animals are more obliging when it comes to posing for the camera, like the inquisitive grey squirrel which looks as if it’s playing a game of hide and seek.

Mustelids like stoats, weasels, badgers and otters all pose more of a challenge because they generally tend to be active at night, which makes them elusive.

Foxes and deer are timid too, but a little easier to stumble across if you are light on your feet and approach quite cautiously.

FUN AND GAMES: young foxes at play PICTURE: Nick Bell

“I get to see occasional foxes during my walks,” says Nick. “The day that I saw two was unusual, though. They were a couple of young foxes. I watched them play fighting for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a complete delight. They were at the far end of a field, so I couldn’t get the best photos of them, but it was still a great experience.”

WATCHFUL EYE: a fox appears to be staring straight at the camera PICTURE: Nick Bell

Our previous selections have focused on Nick’s pictures of insects and birds, taken in a variety of locations near his home patch in Maidenhead. He was born in Cookham and moved back to the area after taking early retirement at the age of 61.

But mammals pose their own challenges – and rewards.

SPRING SETTING: a roe deer in the woods among the bluebells PICTURE: Nick Bell

Says Nick: “There are some spots in and around Ockwells Park where I know you are likely to see deer. The great thing about photographing them is that they usually stand absolutely still, no doubt thinking that that will prevent you from seeing them.

“My favourite time to photograph them is when the bluebells are out in the woods. Sometimes, they decide to run for it, and leap in the air as they run, which is great for photos.

ON THE RUN: a deer scampers for cover PICTURE: Nick Bell

“One of my most disappointing ‘near misses’ in a photo was when I spotted a very young roe deer kid standing in front of its mother in the woods. I had time for one photo only before they were gone. The photo was, sadly, not in focus. Oh well; you win some and you lose some.”

BALL OF FLUFF: a gosling among the daisies PICTURE: Nick Bell

From cute goslings to fast-moving dragonflies, Nick’s broad range of subjects have provided a lot of pleasure on local wildlife forums.

“I have heard it said many times during the coronavirus pandemic that many of us are using nature for relaxation during lockdowns. That is certainly true of me,” says Nick.

“Wildlife photography has undoubtedly helped with my mental health during these difficult times. Being outside with nature helps to ground me and to relieve stress. I usually get home with a great sense of well-being.”

NATURAL CURE: an early morning walk provides great stress relief PICTURE: Nick Bell

Picture of the week: 01/03/21

THE great thing about wildlife photography is the extent to which it immerses you in the landscape.

Capturing the perfect shot means being in just the right place at the right time – and no one knows that better than Nick Bell, whose stunning insect photographs were in the spotlight last week.

BIRD ON THE WIRE: birds silhouetted against a huge sun PICTURE: Nick Bell

This week the focus is on Nick’s bird photographs, starting with a quite extraordinary silhouette taken on one of his forays into the countryside around his Maidenhead home.

The picture was taken at dawn in Ockwells Park, part of which is a local nature reserve.

“I think of each trip out as an opportunity to relax with nature, but also as an opportunity for exercise, so I tend to walk two to four miles on every trip out,” says Nick.

MOUTHS TO FEED: a pair of young kestrels PICTURE: Nick Bell

“This means that I move through different types of habitat – eg by water or through woods – and so see different types of wildlife. Get out there early, ideally for sunrise, when there are fewer people around and the wildlife is most active.”

Although Nick is a relative newcomer to wildlife photography, he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into it since his retirement a couple of years ago and has been a prolific contributor to online nature groups like Wild Maidenhead, Wild Marlow and Wild Cookham.

EYE FOR DETAIL: Cliveden House viewed through a water drop PICTURE: Nick Bell

He has also quickly demonstrated his extraordinary eye for detail and for pictures with dramatically different perspectives, like his unusual portrait of Cliveden House in a water drop or of his own reflection in a horse’s eye.

“Look for slight movements or variations in colour, constantly,” he advises like-minded enthusiasts wanting to capture the natural world on camera.

SELF-PORTRAIT: the photographer reflected in a horse’s eye PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Look up, look down, look to both sides. Look in the distance and also look nearby. You can so easily miss a photo opportunity if you’re not constantly alert,” he says. “Don’t be disheartened if you don’t seem to be seeing much. I can walk for two miles without seeing anything. Then, there’ll suddenly be a flurry of activity.

“In time, you’ll get to know where you’re most likely to see wildlife. In these areas, move slowly and quietly. In the best areas, stand still for five or ten minutes or so. The wildlife will come to you. Always creep round corners, in case there’s something just round the other side. Have your camera ready, just in case.

FLYING HIGH: a Canada goose in transit PICTURE: Nick Bell

“When you see something, photograph it immediately, even if it’s far away. Then gradually creep closer, taking more photographs every few steps.

“Photos are more interesting if the subject is doing something. So, for example, when I photograph a robin, I wait for it to start singing before I press the shutter button. A singing robin makes a better photo than a silent one.”

VALENTINE’S DAY: a robin in the snow PICTURE: Nick Bell

It helps if your subject is prepared to pose in just the right place long enough to provide you with the perfect Valentine’s Day portrait too!

But a closer look at some of Nick’s most striking pictures shows that there always seems to be something happening to capture our attention, whether that means a bird gobbling a tasty treat or red kites swooping and tumbling against a clear blue sky.

CHILTERNS FAVOURITE: red kites at play PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Eyes are everything!” Nick is keen to emphasise. “I rarely keep a photo of any animal if I don’t have its eye clearly visible or well illuminated.

“Goldfinches can be quite a challenge, as their eyes often don’t show up well. The same goes for blackbirds and crows. Try to photograph them with their eyes in sunlight. When focusing the camera, try to focus specifically on the subject’s eye.”

THE EYES HAVE IT: a little owl perches among the branches PICTURE: Nick Bell

A zoom lens makes all the difference, he admits: “I started with a 16-300mm lens, then moved onto am 18-400mm lens, then onto a 150-600mm lens. Each lens change resulted in great improvements in my photos.

“I now use the 18-400mm lens for subjects that are close to me, like insects, and the 150-600mm lens for anything further away. 600mm lenses are heavy! I bought a dual camera harness that puts all of the weight on my shoulders, rather than on my neck. It makes carrying two big lenses (one on each side) relatively easy.”

ON SONG: a yellowhammer provides a rousing chorus PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead. He was born in Cookham, but lived in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire from 1994, until moving back to Maidenhead and taking early retirement at the age of 61.

An active marathon runner, he took up modern jive dancing in 2009. “I have been hooked on it ever since, competing in national competitions the last eight years or so,” he reveals. “I’ve been lucky enough to compete at Blackpool Tower Ballroom several times.”

KNOCK, KNOCK: a green woodpecker searches for food PICTURE: Nick Bell

In comparison, wildlife photography must seem positively sedentary, though Nick will happily roam a few miles in search of the perfect subject.

“Every day out gives me great pleasure,” he confirms. Thanks to his photographs, those are special moments we can all get a chance to share.

TASTY TREAT: a song thrush rustles up breakfast PICTURE: Nick Bell

And that is particularly valuable when such snapshots frozen in time are often hard to capture on family rambles, when our conversation may scare wildlife away, or a sudden rustle in the bushes is the only evidence that an insect, bird or tiny mammal is close at hand.

Depending on the available light, Nick will use a high aperture or fast shutter speed to freeze a movement, especially when dealing with fast-moving insects or birds like goldcrests, which never stop moving.

COLOUR CONTRASTS: starlings stand out against bright red berries PICTURE: Nick Bell

Insects and mammals feature just as frequently in his pictures, but sometimes it can be the early morning sky or the shadows in the woods at dusk that catch his eye.

“Those are the best times,” he says. “When you can stand silently, enjoying warm early morning sunshine, and being alone with nature, with no other people around.”

EARLY BIRDS: geese at sunrise PICTURE: Nick Bell

Next week: Our final selection of Nick’s pictures turns the spotlight on mammals

Picture of the week: 22/02/21

NICK Bell’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.

His participation in no fewer than 18 London marathons can testify to his energy and a more recent fascination with modern jive dancing has seen him strutting his stuff in national competitions at the famous Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that taking up a new retirement hobby a couple of years ago would see him throwing himself with just as much enthusiasm into the world of wildlife photography.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: a southern hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

His output has been prolific, encompassing such a broad range of subjects that it needs a three-part series to do justice to his new-found passion, starting with a selection of photographs this week focusing on the smallest details of insect life.

“I took early retirement at the age of 61 two years ago,” says Nick. “With the start of the first lockdown, I took up wildlife photography and bought myself a 600mm lens, which I now couldn’t be without.”

That lens has allowed him to capture some extraordinary sights – none more dramatic than our picture choice this week of a southern hawker dragonfly in flight, captured at Stonor Park.

Nick recalls: “There were two or three of them flying over the ponds. They just wouldn’t keep still, so it was really difficult to photograph them. That photo was the best one from thirty minutes of attempting to photograph them. The great light that day helped, too. It was bright enough for me to us a very fast shutter speed – 1/4000th second.”

The large inquisitive dragonflies differ in colour between the male – dark with blue and green markings and the female, which is brown with green markings.

Common across the Chilterns, hawkers prefer non-acidic water and may breed in garden ponds but hunts well away from water, often hawking woodland rides well into the evening.

POLLEN COUNT: fine detail captured on a visiting bee PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other attention-grabbing shots range from flies, beetles and bees to a startling close-up of a wasp spider dangling by a thread.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

For the technically minded, Nick explains that the lens which helped to transform his photos is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens.

READY TO DROP: a bee captured over a poppy PICTURE: Nick Bell

“I also use a Tamron 18-400mm lens for close-up photography. I haven’t really got into macro photography, but it’s something that I want to do,” says Nick.

His studies capture a glorious range of colours and fine detail, as in his portrait of a banded demoiselle damselfly, a large fluttering insect with butterfly-like wings and spectacular metallic colouring.

METALLIC GLINT: a banded demoiselle damselfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other insects to catch Nick’s eye include the common darter, one of the most common dragonflies in Europe, but not always as obliging about posing for photographs as this one.

PERFECT POSE: a common darter dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead, with the surrounding fields and woods sometimes taking centre stage too, providing a gorgeous backcloth to the fine detail of the insect, bird and animal studies.

SHADOWLANDS: local woodland provides an atmospheric backdrop PICTURE: Nick Bell

Dramatic colour contrasts range from tiny green aphids exploring a yellow rose to the distinctive body colouring of the wasp spider, a recent arrival in the UK from the continent which has slowly spread over the south of England.

TINY TERRORS: aphids on a rose PICTURE: Nick Bell

It builds large orb webs in grassland and heathland, looking just like a common wasp to keep it safe from predators, even though it is not dangerous itself.

That clever disguise may work with predators but it’s no defence for male spiders coming into close contact with their much larger female counterparts, who are prone to eat the males during mating!

CLEVER MIMIC: a wasp spider keeps predators at bay PICTURE: Nick Bell

Some of the fastest-moving insects and birds pose the biggest tests of both camera and photographer. But then that just adds a bit of spice to the chase for someone who has risen to the different disciplines of marathon running and jive dancing.

“I love taking challenging photos – like fast-moving dragonflies and birds,” says Nick. “In my retirement, I run, dance and take photos – not a bad life!”

Next week: Nick’s focus switches to local birdlife

Capture the magic of the moment

ONCE upon a time, on her holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, a young girl grew up sketching the plants, animals and insects she stumbled across with a particular eye for detail.

From those humble beginnings, Beatrix Potter would go on to become one of the most famous and successful children’s authors of all time, renowned for her precise and enchanting illustrations reflecting her fascination with the natural world.

She became particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the turn of the century produced hundreds of finely detailed and botanically correct drawings of fungi.

She also visited her former governess, Annie Moore, and would send letters with amusing anecdotes to the Moore children, often illustrated with pen and ink sketches, which would provide the basis of some of her later books – including one about a particularly naughty rabbit named Peter.

Flash forward a century and a half, and a new generation of young people are exploring their interest in the natural world through art, painting and photography.

SNAP HAPPY: foliage in Penn Woods PICTURE: Sahasi Upadhya (11)

This week our Picture of the Week featured photographs by 11-year-old Sahasi Upadhya taken on family walks around the area.

And if one good thing has emerged from the pandemic lockdowns, it might be the number of young people and their families reconnecting with nature.

Adults too have found local landscapes a continuing source of inspiration and delight, with more than a dozen professional artists featuring in recent Beyonder articles about their work.

On social media too, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with nature journal entries, sketches and photographs recounting people’s encounters with the natural world.

OUT AND ABOUT: Jules Woolford’s nature journal @DrawnIntoNature

In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife.

“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.

WILD ENCOUNTERS: nature comes alive in words and pictures @DrawnIntoNature

“Our modern lives are so frantic, often filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, (try to) worry less, be more grateful, and kind.

“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I’m trying to keep going. Nature is a great healer, teacher and an inspiration to me. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for the earth, and all its life forms. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”

ARTIST’S YEARBOOK: Stewart Sexton reviews some of the highlights of 2020 @Stewchat

Up in Northumbria, naturalist Stewart Sexton is a bird enthusiast whose paintings and photographs attract plenty of attention on Twitter @Stewchat, although he modestly claims: “A Northumbrian born and bred, I have been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember. I take photos but I’m no photographer, I paint but I’m not an artist either.”

That’s all very well, but if you lack Stewart’s obvious talent but still want to explore your artistic talent through nature, how do you get started?

Maureen Gillespie, an Oxfordshire artist whose chilly lockdown walks at Blenheim Palace saw her singled out as The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week recently, has some advice: “Probably the easiest way to develop your artist talents is to get outside and really observe nature.”

LOCKDOWN LANDSCAPE: one of Maureen’s series of wintry scenes at Blenheim Palace 

Not that you have to go far to find inspiration, she stresses. “Your local park, trees on your road, flowers in your garden or window box, all these amazing things are there to see, smell and touch and when you really study them you can bring them to life in a drawing or painting.”

Fellow Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side agrees: “I focus on close looking with my young learners. We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture,” she says. “The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.”

INTO THE SHADOWS: a moody shot at Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Photographer Graham Parkinson found his lifelong interest in wildlife was sparked as a six-year-old by the popular I-Spy books – and the fact his gran had a large garden with a field behind it to explore.

He wasn’t alone. The famous spotter books were first published in 1948, with Mansfield head teacher Charles Warrell the man behind the publishing phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s.

A believer in active learning who devised the spotter guides to keep children entertained on long car journeys, he saw the idea rejected by eight publishers and could hardly have known quite how popular they would prove when he set about self-publishing them (just like Beatrix Potter).

“Spotters” gained points for finding the contents of the books in real-life situations. On completion, they sent the books to Big Chief I-Spy, as Mr Warrell had become known, for a feather, an order of merit and entry into the I-Spy Tribe – which by 1953 had grown to half a million members.

The 40-odd titles went on to sell some 25 million copies by the time Michelin relaunched the series after a seven-year gap in 2009-10. Big Chief I-Spy himself died in 1995 in Derbyshire at the ripe old age of 106.

So it might be a modern I-Spy book that ignites today’s youngsters’ interest in nature – or any one of a dozen quizzes, scavenger hunts or nature guides produced by a variety of organisations from Wildlife Trusts to the Chiltern Society. and Chiltern Open Air Museum.

I-SPY OUTDOORS: there are plenty of family activity ideas at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The National Trust lists keeping a nature diary as one of its “50 things to do before you’re 11 and three-quarters”, whether that means finding an old notebook or making one out of an old cereal box and decorating it with doodles, paper, leaves, feathers or any other natural items you can find nearby.

You certainly don’t need to have any specialist equipment to have fun – and who knows, the next Beatrix Potter could just be out there somewhere!

See The Beyonder’s Nature guides page for some more activity sheets, and check out the Local landscapes feature to meet more artists who have found inspiration in the Chilterns landscape. If you are a photographer, we welcome contributions to our monthly Chilterns calendar feature. Just drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk

Picture of the week: 21/12/20

THIS week’s picture choice is an extraordinary portrait of a hungry kingfisher by local wildlife photographer Will Brown.

The 19-year-old spends as much time as he can outdoors with his camera photographing wildlife in their natural habitats around his home in Hertfordshire.

TASTY TREAT: a hungry kingfisher by Will Brown

He recalls taking his first picture using his dad’s camera at RSPB Rye Meads, a local wetland reserve beside the River Lee which is a firm favourite with walkers, birdwatchers and photographers thanks to its many trails and hides.

That picture was a kingfisher, and these birds remain his favourite subjects, even though his growing portfolio includes owls, kestrels and small garden birds, as well as foxes and other mammals.

“Kingfishers have always been and always will be my favourite subject to photograph,” he says.

His striking shot was taken in October this year in Hemel Hempstead, when the bird was particularly obliging.

“Hemel has the canal, rivers and lakes with lots of access so it is ideal,” says Will. “It was posing beautifully for me on the bridge, hardly disturbed by people which is very unusual for kingfishers as they are usually quite nervous birds.

LATE BREAKFAST: a short-eared owl hunting by Will Brown

“Owls are my rarest and most challenging subject, and another one of my favourites,” says Will.

His striking owl pictures here were both taken on the same evening in November this year.

“By far the best owl experience I have ever had. Quite amazing,” he recalls. “The type of owl is a short-eared owl. They only stay here during winter months. In the summer they migrate to colder climates, such as Scandinavia.”

Still photography remains his main love at the moment, although he has experimented with video footage of owls and kingfishers. “I’m sure in the future I will do this more often,” he adds.

And to answer some of those technical questions about equipment, he explains: “When I first started getting into photography I used the Canon SX50 for the first couple of years. Then I moved on to the Canon 7D Mark II with a Canon 100-400mm Mark II. However, occasionally, depending on the situation I am in I sometimes use the Sony RX10.”

FAMILY PORTRAIT: fox cubs in Hemel Hempstead by Will Brown

Foxes are the main mammals to feature in his portfolio, including an eye-catching picture of cubs taken in Hemel Hempstead back in August 2018. “It is very rare to have them all out at once in the right place!” he says.

Clearly patience is a virtue when it comes to widlife, and that hasn’t always been easy to cultivate, he admits.

“Patience is a skill which has taken me years to develop. When I was about 10, I used to sit around in a bird hide with my dad, bored and uninterested as to what was going on with the wildlife. I use to drag myself along with him because we would always go and get a KFC after.

“After a while, I started to become more and more interested. Patience is a skill which requires the right mindset as well. These days, I am more than happy to wait around all day for a particular bird or animal to show and would not feel fustrated at the end of the day if I produced no results.

“I just enjoy being out and around nature. I never thought all those years ago I would be where I am now, sitting in a hide waiting for my dad to leave and get me a KFC!”

ON THE WING: another shot of a short-eared owl by Will Brown

When lockdown restrictions allow, he hopes to take a part-time photography course at college to help improve his skills and learn more about the industry.

For the moment, his main plans are to keep working on building his portfolio and continuing to sell his photos and reach as many people as he can.

“When someone buys some prints from me, I don’t get a buzz from the fact that I might be making money, I get a buzz from the fact that my photo is in someone else’s house,” he says. “That’s what I love about what I do.”

Framed copies of Will’s prints can be obtained from his website or follow him on his Instagram account.

Rachel relishes a taste of the wild

LOOK at a hedgerow and what do you see? Rachel Lambert sees a feast – or a satisfying meal, at any rate.

Nettles and elderflower, dandelions and heather tea, gorse and seaweed – no wild flower is too much of a challenge for Rachel to rustle up a hearty meal, it seems, and the recipes all look frankly delicious…

From pink elderflower and rose cordial to gorse flower ice cream, wild moorland tea and home-made blackberry jam, this is all about harnessing the extraordinary colours and unique flavours of nature, and Rachel’s prolific foraging has seen her featuring as a guest on morning TV and her recipes popping up in every food magazine from Sainsbury’s to Waitrose.

Her wild food journey started many years ago by a crumbling Devonshire stone wall where friends introduced her to edible pennywort. “It quenched my thirst and tasted as fresh as peas – and my world changed forever,” she recalls.

“To me, foraging is a fun and enlivening way to appreciate the environment and access to fresh, seasonal food. It’s also an excuse for outdoor adventures, as well as quirky and labour of love investigations in the kitchen.”

It was back in 2007 that she started teaching other people about foraging, with that early discovery of pennywort building up into an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to harness the best of more than 100 other edible wild plants and weeds.

“Foraging is the glue that brings together the things that I love; nature, good food and people,” she says.

On hand to capture something of the atmosphere of her unusual lifestyle was Rick Davy, a photographer also based in Cornwall who has produced an extraordinary visual documentary of the lives of dozens of local people from different walks on life, featured on his A Day In The Life Of website.

His pictures – some of which are reproduced here – capture Rachel on a couple of foraging expeditions, including one to pick gorse flowers.

She recalls: “Last winter I went crazy about these flowers. I even made a little video about Foraging Gorse in Winter – such was my love affair with them.

“In my first foraging book I share a Gorse Flower Rice Pudding recipe, and I’ve made so much more with them since then. That day I was trying to perfect gorse flower truffles, and also wanted to dry some flowers for future syrups and cocktails. La, la, laaaa, the joys of foraging for gorgeous drinks and food.

“Those days that I shared partly with Rick are the good days – the outdoor days. As a forager I manage to get outdoors everyday, into nature. The rest of my time is spent cooking, preparing, writing, doing administration and contemplating new ideas and adventures.”

She published her first foraging book in 2015 and it sold out withing six months. She promptly created a second a year later focusing on edible seaweeds.

Having learned from many skilled nature teachers and previously worked within the arts, health and environmental education and community food projects, she was well placed to lead group foraging expeditions with adults and children from all walks of life – some even laced with the odd song or two.

“You may also find me singing my heart out (if no one’s listening) on clifftops and beaches and occasionally sharing one of those foraging songs on courses. It is a new love; that makes me, the plants and others smile (or so I’m told!).

“Joy and pleasure are key to my teaching style and life as a forager. With a self-confessed sweet-tooth, wild desserts and sweet treats made from foraged ingredients feature regularly in my courses and blog posts, as well as savoury delights!”

Rick didn’t need much convincing about the merits of foraging. “I’d be the first to admit that I do love a bit of foraging,” he writes in his photo-essay about Rachel. “Foraging for Rachel has brought together many different things she loves, walking, nature, plants, food, the senses and creative cooking.

“I joined Rachel foraging one early spring morning. She started picking stuff from the hedgerow and to you and I it might pass off as nothing other than weeds.”

Back in her kitchen the wild alexanders were transformed into sweet filo tarts, while she uses bright yellow gorse flowers in jewelled savoury rice, sugar syrups for ice creams and rice pudding, powdered sugar for truffles and cocktails.

“I enjoyed furthering the art of foraging and discovered some new recipes and food along the way,” says Rick, who has lost count of the number of “lives” he has featured on his site, from a beekeeper to a wildlife artist.

“The project will continue to evolve – it has no end,” he says. “I’ve shot and documented the coastal lives project for the love of it. I love what I do for a living.”

Rick Davy is a creative commercial and lifestyle photographer based in Cornwall. All the photographs in this feature are reproduced with his kind permission from his website documenting the lives of individuals living and working by the Cornish coast.

Rachel Lambert is an author and forager based in Penzance who runs wild food foraging courses for groups, families and couples.

Postcard from . . . Chartwell

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…

Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…

Secret wonders in the woods

BACK in 1990 the bare field next to Roy and Marie Battell’s house didn’t look too promising as a potential nature reserve…

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But anyone sceptical about the couple’s plan to transform around two acres of cow pasture north of Milton Keynes would be amazed to see just what can be achieved when you undertake a labour of love.

Flash forward more than a quarter of a century and today there are around 800 trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife. What’s more, over the years the ‘Moorhens’ website depicting life in the Battells’ nature reserve has developed something of an international reputation.

Moorhens were the first waterbird to adopt the ponds that were dug to encourage wildlife – hence the name chosen for the website.

“They successfully raised one to three broods each year from 1991 to 2011,” Roy explains on the site.  The delight of all that activity earned the shy water birds the URL ‘dedication’ for the website – which since then has attracted more than 94,000 visitors intrigued by different aspects of the project the couple were undertaking.

“Planting, digging and caring for this lot has provided more, and more interesting, exercise than ever before in our lives,” says Roy.

Roy and Marie in front of Round Mound(r+mb Sample@576)

When the couple started to dig out the ponds they vaguely anticipated that this would attract the sort of visitors – ducks, coots and dragonflies – that they had been used to seeing at their previous homes, from Watford to Welwyn Garden City.

A then-and-now picture sequence chronicles the development of the reserve from early 1991 to the summer of 2007 – starting with fencing and hedge-planting and moving on to plant bare-root stock and digging out the ponds.

“The first 10 years were very slow with basically a sea of plastic tree shelters in grass that needed endless mowing,” Roy recalls. “But the trees suddenly took off and have become a dark canopy in summer.”

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The hedging is predominantly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose, elderberry and blackberry, but the native hedging of the area includes a lot of elm, which shoots and dies in rotation.

“Of the 50 or so chestnut and hazel trees we planted on the site, the squirrels do not leave us a single nut!” says Roy. “However nothing can decimate the blackberries we hack back each year and Marie makes gorgeous jam from the crop.”

‘The Field’ quickly evolved into an intriguing wooded area providing a surplus of wood for willow wands and similar coppice products, as well as offering home to all types of birds, wildlife and insects, from bluetits and swallows to foxes, badgers and the tiniest insects.

“The sky too is full of interest with breeding by corvids and occasional visits by buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawk and kestrels,” says Roy. “Of course we are delightfully infested by tits, finches, thrushes, robins, sparrows and in recent years tawny, barn and little owls.”

An avid photographer, Roy has not only posted a series of animated sequences showing the landscape and flowers changing through the seasons, but has been systematically chronicling visiting wildlife in a weekly newsletter distributed to dozens of loyal followers

His archive of daily wildlife pictures – including birds and insects in flight – dates from 2005 and has attracted more than 2,500 visitors since 2016.

His latest selection is pretty representative, it seems – from a young magpie with downy feathers to a hungry badger, a little owl, bustling butterflies and dragonflies, clustering rooks and feeding woodpeckers.

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But the event of the week was the repeated appearance over one night of a polecat on the hunt – possibly moving a kit in her mouth and then then carrying two dead rabbits back into her burrow.

It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.

He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, some of whom are in regular contact. The couple also receive numerous requests from around the world for the original pictures.

“Our pictures are in about 10 wildlife textbooks,” he reveals. The couple are also in regular contact with the Bucks RSPB and other local enthusiasts and supply images to a variety of non-profit organisations and for use in museum displays and educational spreads. There is usually no charge, although those making commercial use of the images are asked to donate to the RSPB or Woodland Trust.

Vegans since 1972, the couple used to grow much of their own food in an allotment area: Marie is a painter who is also mad about gardening – as well as “collecting scruffy old books about the world before it was shrunk by modern communications”.

In recent years that became a little too much to maintain with all the rest of the maintenance and photographic work, and a third of the area has become a little apple orchard using 100 unwanted trees rescued and replanted from a nearby farm.

“We have a little salad bed near the house that used to be a huge cage for a golden
pheasant and his girls (that we inherited with the house 27 years ago),” says Roy. “We enjoyed their company for a couple of years before a fox tunnelled in and killed them.”

The Battells’ website is a modest one, but the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the natural world around them – and an inspiring pictorial backdrop to the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep.

Wake up with a smile

JAMIE ROSS WINNING BANNER PICTURE OFR THE DISCOVER BRITISH NATURE GROUP
LEAP OF JOY: Jamie Ross’s winning banner picture for the Discover British Nature Group

WHAT do you wake up to in the morning? For many of us it’s a news feed, TV breakfast show or radio news bulletin – and sometimes that can prove a pretty depressing start to the day.

Fake or otherwise, news can be bad for our health. The dangers were highlighted rather neatly a few years ago in an essay by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who uses some pretty stark adjectives to describe our standard daily diet of toxic, stress-inducing snippets of irrelevant gossip.

With Dobelli’s warnings in mind of the damage this diet does to our ability to think creatively by sapping our energy, we at The Beyonder have been engaging in a detox with a difference.

Part of Dobelli’s cold-turkey approach involved ditching news in favour of magazines and books which explain the world and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – go deep instead of broad, he advised.

That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t always want to sit down for a lengthy or complicated read, so what alternatives are there to the standard news feed?

In The Beyonder’s facebook group – still at the time of writing a very select gathering of a handful of like-minded souls – we’ve been exploring groups, pages and websites for outdoorsy people which might help us start the day in a more positive way than the conventional tabloid diet of death and destruction.

So, here are a handful of our suggestions which might provide a handy starting point for anyone wanting to start the new day with a jaunty spring in their step and a smile on their face…and we are only too happy to have suggestions of other groups that might be added to the list.

Of course the starting line-up of possible sites is almost too long to contemplate, from charities and country parks to heritage sites and TV naturalists. And there are those which might be a touch too specific for more general tastes, like Emmi Birch’s 1200-strong group of red kite enthusiasts or the 5000-strong followers of a group sharing locations of starling murmurations, or David Willis’s uplifting exploration of bushcraft skills.

So difficult is it to narrow down our top six feel-good sites, that it’s worth highlighting a few more which are calculated to bring a smile to the face before homing in on our top recommendations…

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CREAM OF THE CROP: Sandy Lane Farm in Oxfordshire

For those who like a regular update of life on the farm which doesn’t begin and end with The Archers, there’s always the news feed from Sandy Lane Farm, just a few minutes off the M40 in Oxfordshire.

This family-run farm is home to Charles, Sue and George Bennett and has been growing organic vegetables for over 25 years and raises free-range, rare-breed pigs and pasture-fed lamb. The farm shop is open on Thursdays and Saturdays for those wanting to visit in person, but for 1300 online followers there are regular updates of what they might be missing out in the fields.

Over in West Berkshire, a similar number of followers enjoy regular updates from Aimee Wallis and partner Dario at the Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue Centre. The centre’s work, focused particularly on corvids, formed a full-length Beyonder feature back in May and the news feed provides regular pictures and video of rescued birds’ progress.

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KEEPING IT CLEAN: volunteers in Kidderminster

There’s nothing nice about litter, but a couple of inspiring community websites provide regular reminders that for every thoughtless or selfish individual treating the countryside with contempt there are a dozen highly motivated volunteers behind the scenes doing their best to make their local neighbourhood a better place to live in – and none more so that Michelle Medler and her pick-up team in Kidderminster.

On to our top five, then – and the 1800-strong Discover British Nature Group which describes itself as a place for members to share photos, ask for help with identification and to share their common interest in British nature.

Apart from hosting a friendly banner competition – for which Jamie Ross’s memorable shot above was a recent winner – the daily feed of spectacular shots of birds, insects and other wildlife is always a delight.

A similar website with a bigger 11,000-strong following is UK Garden Wildlife where foxes, hedgehogs, deer and badgers are in the spotlight, alongside a full range of birds, butterflies and other insects.

Given the sheer quality of many of the photographs on all these sites, there’s no such thing as an outright winner here, but in terms of the sheer amount of pleasure given on a daily basis, a clear contender is UK Through The Lens, a Facebook group with 23,000 members and a broader remit for photographs to share landscape and outdoor photographs.

Unlike some of the other groups, this provides scope for sharing pictures from urban and industrial landscapes as well as coasts, wild places and rural backwaters. It is also an excellent place to learn more about photography and is open to all, from outright beginners to full-on professionals.

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FROZEN IN FLIGHT: Alan Bailey’s spectacular group header for Nature Watch

It’s a tough call to name a winner, then, but top of the tree of our photo-feeds for nature and animal lovers is Nature Watch which has a dedicated following of 31,000 members and a steady stream of inspiring photographs uploaded by enthusiasts across the country.

Another delight is The British Wildlife Photography Group, whose 21,000 members share very similar interests – and an equally stunning selection of photographs.

Of course this isn’t about choosing one website at the expense of the others, thankfully. It’s the combined input of all our contenders that helps to lift the spirits – and provides an inspiring and uplifting alternative news feed to those coming from the politicians, pundits and traditional news providers.

In the weeks and months since we have been following these pages (or joined the relevant group), the most noticeable thing about the vast majority of posts has been a real sense of humanity at its best.

Apart from the technical photographic skills of many of those contributing, it’s clear that these are people who care deeply about the environment – and what happens to it.

There’s plenty of scope on other sites to rage about climate change or animal cruelty or all the other things that are wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s important just to sit back with like-minded souls and marvel at the wonders of nature, from fluffy duckings and cute fledglings to stunning birds of prey, from some of the more elusive or nocturnal wildlife of our islands like moles and weasels to the less obviously breathtaking moths and beetles.

So, thank you to all those individuals on these websites whose startling snapshots of the natural world provide such a regular and genuine source of delight – and make each and every day just that little bit special.

We will be only too happy to extend our list to include further recommendations if appropriate – bearing in mind, of course, that membership of any of the closed groups mentioned is subject to acceptance, and abiding by the rules of that group.