Garden Surprise

As I looked out upon my garden, something caught my eye as it ran up stones, grass and a wall and finally rested on a stone right in front of me. My brain took some time to accept what my eyes were seeing. A Red Squirrel. It sped across my garden and it was gone as quick as it had arrived.

Red Squirrels can be found throughout forested areas in Ireland but have a much smaller population than the invasive Grey Squirrel. I have only ever seen Red Squirrels in Castlewellan Forest Park and Kilbroney Forest Park which both have old growth woods, mostly Oak. I know that a breeding pair were reintroduced in Silent Valley Mountain Park to encourage a new population in the area. I never expected to spot one of these amazing creatures so close to home. I live in a mostly agricultural landscape, I am surrounded by farmland with few large, old growth trees. It is not the usual habitat for Red Squirrels so this was definitely a pleasant surprise.

What made this moment even more special, was that I shared it with my 2-year-old nephew. I have been taking him out into nature all Summer long, showing him everything I possibly can and trying to pass on my love for the outdoors. When I squealed with excitement about the Red Squirrel, so did he and he couldn’t wait to get outside and see if we could find it. So of course, we got on our boots and grabbed our binoculars (Yes, he has toy binoculars to match mine) and went out in search of our new garden visitor. We were unsuccessful in tracking it, but I am determined to keep my eyes peeled for it again and would love to get a photo.

I love that you will always find something new, even in the places you think you know. No matter how many times you look at the same view, there will be something different, you might just have to open your eyes a little wider to notice it.

International Bog Day 2020

Yesterday, 26th July was International Bog Day so to celebrate properly I went for a rather late evening hike up a very boggy Slieve Muck. Slieve Muck is in the Mourne Mountains between two reservoirs, Spelga Dam and the Silent Valley. I have previously attempted to summit this peak but was unsuccessful because I was getting some hassle from Ravens and I chickened out. By heck I am glad I went back because it was amazing.

I think it is safe to say that this peak offers some of the best views of the Mournes with the least amount of effort. It only took me 35 minutes to reach the top, not a difficult climb, just often wet and slippery but worth it. I parked along the road close to Spelga Dam, climbed the stile and started following the famous Mourne Wall. At times I had to drift away from the Mourne Wall as the ground was very wet, moving into the Heather and Sphagnum Moss was usually muddy and there was also some outcrop that couldn’t be passed. As you climb higher, you get a spectacular view of Spelga Dam and the surrounding area. As I finally reached the top I was excited to spot an OSNI Triangulation Pillar, I was unaware that there was one on this peak so it was a nice surprise. The Mourne Wall meets in 3 directions at the top of Slieve Muck and standing atop the stile over the wall I was treated with an amazing view. Standing in one spot, I could see all of the Mourne Mountains, The Irish Sea and the entrance to Carlingford Lough and it was pretty spectacular. I walked a little further, and thankfully I did because now I could see both Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs and the fantastic Lough Shannagh. It’s in the moments like these that you completely forget the tough hike and wet socks and you would be ready to do it all over again just to see this view. I met one other hiker and we chatted a little about the weather and the view and I brought up how wet and muddy the climb was, to which he replied “Sure it’s not called Slieve Muck for nothing”, he couldn’t be more right.

I always wanted to summit Slieve Muck, not just for the view but for the history. The mountain goes by another name locally, Poverty Mountain. Some believed that they can literally see Poverty wrote out on the mountain, and I must admit, I have definitely noticed a P-O-V standing out to me but no more than that. It was also named this because the locals lived in tough conditions and hard times, most of which were sheep farmers and one of those sheep farmers was my Grandfather. My mother tells me stories of her father going to the mountain with his sheep and it was always Slieve Muck. The sheep would be left there to graze for some time and then he would have to round them up again and bring them back to his farm. Walking up these slopes was exciting as I thought about how many times he would have taken these same steps. It may seem silly, but it made me feel a little closer to the man that I never got a chance to meet. He was supposedly a true mountain man who would sing and play his accordion for whatever audience he could find.

Of course, I was checking out the local flora and found some interesting things. The slopes were covered in Bell Heather, Sphagnum Moss and Bog Cotton, it is mostly the Blanket Bog form that occurs across the uplands of the Mourne Mountains. The Sphagnum Moss holds a lot of water and with a constant flow of water down this mountain the Sphagnum is working hard. It is quite amazing that you can hear the flow of water on the mountain, either the dripping along the outcrop or the gushing of the stream beneath the Mourne Wall. The landscape was also covered in the Yellow-flowered Tormentil and some small red and blue flowers that I have yet to identify in some of the wetter parts. I was incredibly surprised to find pond weed growing in a pool of water on the lower slopes. The water was only a few inches deep and was flowing quite quickly, but it was definitely a species of Potomageton which I believed only grew in lakes. As I was returning down the mountain, close to the bottom I saw something very special to me, a Peltigera Lichen. I squealed a little I was that excited. I have only ever seen Peltigera Lichen in Alberta in Canada, and they were mostly on the bases of large trees but here I found it on a small granite rock. It was only a small Peltigera but it meant a big deal to me. I also spotted some Cladonia Lichen and lots of Moss species on the granite rocks that make up the Mourne Wall. The landscape is not very diverse, it is exclusively used for grazing by sheep and I didn’t see much fauna, only a few small birds, one Raven and very few insects.

I spent Bog Day just as it should be spent; with squidgy footsteps, soggy socks and a happy heart.

Day trip to the North Coast

I recently went for a trip to the North Coast of Ireland to meet up with some friends. I studied at the Coleraine campus of Ulster University, living in the beautiful seaside town of Portstewart for a few years, so this area is very special to me and I try to visit when I can.

Of course, I went to Portstewart first, went for a walk on the promenade with an ice-cream as usual. The whole town was buzzing with people and Covid-19 or not, I always crave a quieter experience on the North Coast so I jumped in my car to get away someplace else.

I made a quick pitstop at the lovely Bothy Cafe for a latte and it was just the cutest little place, I would highly recommend checking it out. The coffee was great, but honestly it was the location and decor that won me over. Firstly, I love the name; a Bothy is a hut or cottage used for refuge by the public on mountains, although this is usually a Scottish tradition. Secondly, the rural setting of this coffee shop is so perfect, as I was sitting drinking my coffee, I could hear the sheep in the field next to me and that was just amazing. The decor of the outdoor seating area was extra special to me because it was filled with old farmyard collectibles, most of which my dad has collected over the years and fills our garage and garden. The best part was that my stool was made from an old tractor seat, which is something that I have been begging my dad to make with his.

All fueled up with my coffee, I was ready to hit White Park Bay for the first time and it was beautiful. As I got out of my car, I could hear the waves and could immediately sense the power of the ocean. As I walked down towards the beach, I was greeted with a fantastic view of sand dunes, wildflowers, white sand, cliffs, the open ocean and a lot of sea fog which made the whole place look quite mystical. I won’t lie, I was very disappointed that there were no cows paddling on the shore as I have seen in many photos of this beach, but the sea views made up for it. I really enjoy just being by the water, watching and listening as the waves flow from crest to trough. After a while appreciating this beautiful beach, taking lots of photos, having lots of laughs and nearly getting caught out by a rogue wave, we decided to move along the coast and visit Ballintoy Harbour.

Ballintoy Harbour was a very cute, small harbour that is located down a narrow windy road that you would barely even notice. That is until it became the Iron Islands of the global sensation Game of Thrones. Now this little gem is a massive tourist attraction and is always busy but it was a delight to visit just as the sun was going down. I like to explore as much as possible, so I clambered up the rocks to get higher and higher and it was just an epic feeling. That feeling of standing on the edge and listening to the powerful waves crash beneath me was just what I needed. I felt free in that moment, vulnerable and small but calm. Everything went quiet in my mind as I focused solely on those waves and I wished that I could just sit there for a long long time.

I was very sad to say goodbye to the North Coast that evening and I already can’t wait for my next visit.

Stay-cationing in Ireland

I am happy to see everyone embracing the idea of a stay-cation this Summer. With travel restrictions and worries, a lot of people are swapping the sunny Spanish beaches for Donegal. A big part of the appeal of stay-cationing is showing support to the local areas that have been suffering from a lack of tourism in recent months. I live in a beautiful country with lots of hidden gems to explore.

I may be a little biased, but Ireland is the most beautiful country, it is only missing one thing of course…… dependable weather!!

Whether you are a camper, glamper, BnB-er, hotel-er or just a day tripper, try to get out and explore locally if it is safe and wise to do so.

I have only camped a few times in Canada in recent years, the last time I camped in Ireland was at the Oxegen festival about 9 years ago, so I am trying very hard to make camping my new thing. I have been slowly collecting camping gear throughout lockdown, which has been fun but also a learning curve. I finally had all the basics and was ready to test it all out as soon as my camping stove arrived but of course the weather had other plans.

I finally got out for my first little stay-cation last week in my tent. I didn’t care that I was only a 10 minute walk from my house, it felt like a world away when I was there. As I walked through the meadows I was surrounded by Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons, Wrens, Grasshoppers, Ladybirds, Cinnabar Moths and Meadow Brown Butterflies. I set up my tent in the meadow, cooked my dinner, went for a little walk to find wildflowers and birds and as I got tucked in for the night the rain started. It rained all night, the wind really picked up in the early hours, I barely got a wink of sleep and had to pack up my tent in the rain the next morning, but it was all still worth it. I felt so refreshed and satisfied that I had got out of my comfort zone, even if it was only for one night. I didn’t even mind the rain, I found it to be such a calming sound to fall asleep to, but I woke up to a little rain puddle in the tent, so I have to figure out how to fully waterproof my tent next time.

Hopefully the next time I will be venturing a little bit further.

My first true ramble of Summer 2020

I am lucky enough to live in the Northern Irish countryside and have been out enjoying nature as much as possible during Covid-19. It has been great for exercise but mostly for my mental health during these stressful and uncertain times.

I have been out a lot on short, local walks but have mostly been focusing on running so I haven’t been on many hikes, so I finally made time for a proper ramble last weekend. It rained all day, of course, what else would you expect during June in Ireland, but there was a break in weather in the late afternoon so I jumped at the opportunity to get outdoors. I headed to Kilbroney Forest Park with the aim of reaching the Trig Point on the summit of Slieve Martin. The weather was fair; mostly dry but windy. I felt the full force of the wind as soon as I reached the Trig Point, and it was one of those experiences of quite literally being knocked back on my feet and taking my breath away. The view was beautiful, no matter the weather and was well worth the sparse rain I had to walk through. The skies were dark and moody over the shores of Carlingford Lough, threatening lightning that never came.

I was overcome with a strong sense of calm, gratitude and curiosity, I knew that I wasn’t ready to head home so I spotted a small trail among the Bog-Cotton filled Heather and began to follow it. I started to spot beautiful wildflowers like Common Cow-Wheat and Heath Speedwell and most exciting of all was the Lichen. I spent a lot of time last Summer collecting Lichen in Canada and it has really sprouted a passion to explore the species we have here. The Cladonia Lichens are the most interesting and my favourite so it was great to spot some Cladonia chlorophaea, Cladonia coniocraea and Cladonia floerkeana on tree stumps along the path. I followed this path, not knowing where it would lead and it was beautiful but after a while, I realized that it was a mountain biking trail so I shouldn’t have been walking on it but couldn’t find away off without heading back the whole way. Luckily it was late in the evening and there were no bikers using the path so I had it all to myself. The dark clouds cleared up and the wind died down a little as I carefully continued on. I watched the birds flying high above me and the ones that flew out of the heather close to my feet. I finally found myself on a forestry road, which took me through a sea of tall Pine trees and eventually led me back to where I had parked my car. I must admit, I wish I was brave enough to be a mountain biker because they have some of the best trails in Kilbroney Forest Park.

My own definition of a ramble is going out for a walk or a hike and just letting your curiosity control your destination. I like the feeling of not knowing exactly where I will end up and what I will find.

Get outdoors. Get a little lost. Find your path. Repeat.

Aurora Borealis: The true colors of the wind

I am lucky enough to have witnessed the Northern Lights twice in my life and both times where some of the most memorable moments in my life. First in Northern Ireland and then in Canada, the memories of both will forever be so vivid in my mind.

The first time was a few years ago while I was driving to my university house. It was late on a Sunday night, maybe 10 or 11, and I was travelling the lonely, dark section of road between Belfast and Coleraine. The road was pitch black beyond my car lights, the sky was dark and clear and something in my gut told me to just look up. I will never forget thinking that the sky seemed a little odd, and a thought ran through my head…….” Are the Northern Lights about to start?” and then I laughed at myself, thinking I was just imagining it all. And that’s when it happened. The whole sky turned green. The sight literally took my breath away. The lights danced across the sky for 10 minutes, fading in and out across the darkness. It felt like the longest time, but as soon as it stopped it, it wasn’t enough. There was roadworks along the stretch of road, leaving only a single lane and nowhere to pull over so the few cars that shared the road with me were all travelling at a snail’s pace.

Even though I spent many a night out looking for the lights, it was more special to be surprised by them, although I would have loved to try and get a photo of them.

The second time was while I was living in Lac La Biche, a small lakeside town in Alberta, Canada. It had been a great day; I had been out canoeing with friends and spotted my first ever beaver which I was very excited about. It was the night of the finale episode of Game of Thrones, a night that I had been waiting for, for a long time, as did many people around the world. So, me and a few friends gathered in a small living room, with a projector and watched the episode. When it was finished there was much to discuss, and many emotions entailed; anger, disappointment and confusion. As one guy decided to head to bed, he walked outside and returned within 30 seconds, running and shouting “NORTHERN LIGHTS”. Immediately we all leapt to our feet and ran outside to see. As I looked up, I saw that familiar green dancing across the sky. It was amazing to share this experience with others, seeing the awe and excitement in everyone’s faces made it all the better. We decided to hop in a few trucks, and travel to a local park to find darker skies. The next hour, maybe a little longer was one of my favourite experiences in Canada so far. The park we went to, was along the shores of a large lake, and we found a pier to lie down on. Laying on our backs, side by side, we just stayed in silence for a while, watching. The green faded further and further until it was a pale white, but it still danced just as vividly across the sky. I knew Gabe had grew up in Northern Canada, seeing the lights his whole life, but I thought he was just pulling my leg when he said that they will get stronger if you sing or whistle to them. I can neither whistle or sing and didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I pushed him to prove it. The lights were well dimmed down when Gabe started to whistle and suddenly that strong green flashed across the sky again. It was magic. And just like before, the Northern Lights took my breath away. Gabe continued to whistle, and the lights danced to his song.

If you are ever lucky enough to see the Aurora in your lifetime, sing to them and see if the myth is true.

Don’t forget about the birds during Winter

I woke this morning to a heavy frost outside, the first frost of the Winter in Northern Ireland this year.

I love the frost, it highlights the different aspects of my garden and is truly beautiful.

As I drank my first coffee of the day, I watched the flurry of birds around my feeders. A mixture of playful Finches and Tits and of course the territorial Robin. Throughout Autumn there were very few garden birds spotted around my feeders. During Autumn, berries are extremely abundant and so birds feed on them when available. But now, as the weather turns colder, the berries are gone, the leaves have shed and the earthworms are protected by the hard, frost-bit soil.

So, I urge you to put something out for the birds. They aren’t a fussy lot; they like various nuts, seeds and breadcrumbs. I always make sure to put out Niger Seeds which always attract the Goldfinches.

Trust me, it’s pretty nice to watch them flutter around whilst you have the first coffee of the day.

What do you do when it rains; stay inside or grab a raincoat?

Most people hide from the rain, taking shelter indoors but I find that it makes me want to go exploring.

My ultimate favourite place to be when it is raining is along the beach. Any beach. There is something very special about it. There is usually very few people about, if any. I suppose it sounds very selfish, but I love having the beach to myself so this is perfect for me. I studied at the Ulster University Coleraine Campus, so I was very lucky to be surrounded by Northern Ireland’s beautiful North Coast and I used to visit the local beaches quite often. My favourite was Portstewart Strand, a 5-minute walk from my house, which I used for escaping the stresses of university of life. Quite often I woke early to head out there, especially when the weather was unfavourable. My housemates always thought that it was strange of me to enjoy the beach whilst the wind and rain hammered down on me, but after months I finally convinced one of them to join me, and he instantly understood why it appealed to me so much. He realised how refreshing and calming it was to stand on the open beach and to be truly surrounded by nature as it reached out to all of your senses. 

Rain in Northern Ireland usually comes with some pretty strong winds so the waves are usually crashing along the shoreline. It is these kinds of conditions that remind us of how fierce and powerful the ocean can be. I could sit on the shore for hours listening to the waves and watching the birdlife. 

So last week I had a free day, it was raining and I wanted to get out of the house, so I ventured to Murlough Nature Reserve outside Newcastle in County Down. It’s a place that I visited when I was younger but it has been some time since I have been there, so I am glad I thought of it. There were a few cars in the carpark so I wasn’t the only one brave enough to face the stormy weather.    

As I walked through the 6000-year old dune system I couldn’t help but watch the birdlife flying above me. The birdlife in this area is very interesting with many species to be found; Buzzards, Red Kites, Greybacks, Magpies, Oystercatchers and of course a few species of Gulls. It was amazing to watch these birds soar along with the strong winds, swooping in and out of the dunes with such ease. The closer I got to the shore, the louder the waves got and when I finally left the dunes behind and stood on the open sand the noises of nature were deafening, the waves, the winds and the calls of the birds. I took a few moments to take it all in. Then I began to try to capture the beauty before me, which often proves to be very difficult. As I looked along the shoreline towards Newcastle, I noticed how the mist had moved in around Slieve Donard. The Mountain was engulfed in white. Looking out towards the Irish Sea, it could have been a colour chart filled with greys displaying every grey you could imagine from the sky to the sea.

It is very difficult to portray the beauty of a dull, grey stormy scene through a camera lens, so I urge you to grab your raincoat and go out and experience it for yourself. 

Heather in the Mournes

During the Summer months Heather grows rapidly amongst the mountains. The three species found in my area are Ling Heather, Bell Heather and Cross-leaves Heather, all of which boast beautiful purple hues when in bloom. Up high in the Mournes and the Ring of Gullion, the Heather is widespread and lies like a deep purple blanket upon the hillside. It is truly beautiful but also shows that the mountain side it a healthy heathland. Heather grows in bog ecosystems, with peat souls and lots of water. With such a dry Summer this year, it is encouraging to see the Heather continue to flourish throughout the Mournes. A lot of hard work has been carried out to maintain the condition of the upland bogs in this area and it has been a success.

Bogs are a common sight throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom and are key to the great biodiversity found there. Along with Heather, many plants like Bog Cotton, Bilberry and Mosses will be in fluxed by insect life. On a recent hike up Slieve Binnian, I was surrounded by Bumblebees, Flies, Midgets and Butterflies. Specifically, I spotted a few Tortoiseshell Butterflies fluttering around the Heather.

Even now as the Summer is ending and the Heather begins to die off, it still bears its beauty, as it now shows off a new orange shade. This orange symbolises the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumnas the leaves of other plants and trees will start to change colour and eventually shed and fall.

Blackberry Jammin’

I recently went for a walk along the Mourne Coastal Path close to Bloody Bridge in County Down, Northern Ireland. I had left thick mountain mist surrounding Spelga Dam to find beautiful clear skies along the coast. As I walked along the path I took in everything and it was a pleasure for my senses. I could hear both the crashing of the waves at the shoreline and the rush of water from the Bloody Bridge River. There were many tourists out visiting the beautiful spot, taking in the beautiful views and capturing some photos. I, of course, had my camera at the ready and was snapping away at everything and anything. I spotted a beautiful Peacock Butterfly and was lucky enough to get a great close up photo before it flew off. Then I spotted something that instantly brought back some amazing memories.

Blackberries.

A simple berry, so common to my home but continues to put a smile on my face. I snapped away at the berries, marvelling at the different colours displayed. I recalled how my friend and I used to love picking blackberries, always trying to find the biggest and juiciest ones on offer. Instead of eating the berries, we mashed them up and created our own jam. We didn’t use a kitchen or utensils, we just used the garden. A rock made a great replacement for a scone and who would have known that a leaf could really be a slice of toast. We would have played café nearly everyday of the summer, picking the blackberries throughout my garden until they were gone. My mum, dad and anyone nearby would be offered the appetising treat of a rock covered in mashed berries and luckily enough they had a great sense of humour and always pretended to love my baked goods.

What always makes me laugh is thinking of my mum’s face when I would walk in the door after a long hard day of smashing blackberries. She would look me up and down and just let out a long sigh as yet again I had completely destroyed another outfit.