Tuesday 31 December 2019

End Of A Decade, And An Era.

It's the last day of the year, of the decade in fact, and I felt it was perhaps time for a post, summing up my feelings on what has been a grim year for me personally, but also to lighten that mood with some wonderful encounters with wildlife, over the last few months. Some readers may wish to skip over paragraphs, as perhaps I'm using this post to aid my grieving process.

My last post was covering the Mull Summer Photography Tours, which given events since then, feels like a lifetime ago. As ever, Mull produced the goods, all the clients were happy and for Andy and me, it was a success, yet again. Leaving the island on a bit of a high, the world came crashing down when I saw my Dad afterwards.

He had been struggling with pains from the cancer that had returned, and had decided to abandon the treatment for it, as it was making him feel utterly miserable, so had made the choice to try to enjoy what he had left with just the usual levels of pain and discomfort. When I had left for Mull, he was looking thin and gaunt, but he looked skeletal when I saw him on my return, though still managing to look after himself at his home.

Normally the weeks after the Mull tours are filled with action, antics and amusing behaviour from the little owls, but it was clear when I visited the farm for the first time in late July that something was wrong. The adult was out as he usually is, but he wasn't taking the food I was putting out back to the nest, just gobbling it down himself. The nest that had been developing before I went away, had failed for some reason.

No owlets meant much reduced action, and while I managed to get some clients some good sessions with just the adult, the lack of young caused a great number of people to cancel. More disappointment for me, and I was sad for the owls too, as they had followed the national trend, where their numbers are falling. There was no apparent reason for the failure, and of course the nest is in a location I can't access to take a look.

With the lack of action at that site, I started to look elsewhere, and visited Grimley a few times. It's a fantastic site, though the recent addition of a lot of new fencing has restricted photography somewhat, but back in early September it was being visited by a couple of hobbies. I love watching these dashing falcons, as they accelerate and swoop to catch insects on the wing.

One seemed to favour a stretch along a tree line, which meant I could tuck myself into the vegetation to attempt to capture shots as it fizzed by. I won't disclose my success percentage!

The other liked hunting over the reeds on the main lake, and perching in one of the trees, always that bit too far off for a clean shot.

But they were fun as usual, and the distraction I needed at that time. As was another bird, the kingfisher. It's funny, to me at any rate, how you have periods where you fail to connect with certain species then have one chance encounter, and see them frequently thereafter. I'd not had any decent chances to photograph a kingfisher for years, then one landed in front of me at Grimley, and the spell was broken, seeing another one close up at Upton Warren days later.

A call one afternoon at the end of the first week of September was the beginning of a weekend that will be etched in my mind forever. It was one of the nurses that had been calling over to Dad to ensure he had everything he needed, and she was with him at his home. He wasn't coping any longer, and he had decided to move out and into a hospice. The nurse explained that we might have to wait for a few days for a bed to be available, but it was a horrible shock to my system, and the reality of it all set in again. The following morning, I received a call from the hospice to say a bed was available, and could I arrange for my Dad to be with them by midday.

There was no reply when I rang my Dad's doorbell, so I let myself in. Upstairs he was asleep, thankfully, though you can imagine my dread when I walked into his room after he'd not replied to my voice. I don't have many regrets with regards to how I spent time with him, what I did for him over his last few years, but I do feel strangely guilty at how I tried to rush him out of his house that morning, to get to the hospice on time. For me, perhaps I was remembering when Mum had gone in, they'd helped her to a point where she actually came home where she died, but to Dad he must have known he was leaving his home for the last time. It breaks my heart thinking about it.

The staff at the hospice were as wonderful as ever. He was tucked up in his bed in no time, with attentive nurses at hand for anything he might want. My sister and her husband had joined me by then, and we chatted to Dad, when the doctor was in seeing him. Dad was well aware of his condition, and was typically matter-of-fact about it all. We left him, promising to return the following day with one of my older brothers.

That morning, I was back at Grimley, trying my hardest to keep my mind off what was going on. My brother and I visited Dad early afternoon. He seemed more alert and in comparatively better spirits during the visit, asking me to bring in his electric shaver as he was starting to grow a beard, and he was chuckling at my description of myself being dressed in camo at Grimley, and looking like a massive tit, for want of a better term.

Just two hours after we left, as I was driving back from the local country pub I received a call from the hospice. By then I knew the number, and I knew before the lady told me, what had happened. The nurses had apparently checked in on him, got him another drink and made sure he was comfortable with pillows, and had shared some banter with him, then returned just an hour later and he'd died. I try to make light of it by saying he timed it so my brother and I had had time for a pint before the dreadful news came through, which is the sort of considerate thing he'd have done.

The hours, then days and weeks that have followed have been a blur really. I have since spent three weeks on Mull, initially running a bespoke one-to-one tour, then the fortnight of Otter Photography Tours with Andy. As usual, the wildlife on Mull shone, and the clients left with oodles of images of what they had perhaps hoped for.

We even had a pretty good encounter with a golden eagle on one of the days during the first week, on a day we had set aside for raptors. Hen harriers, buzzards of course, plus kestrels too.

Plenty of otters, despite us having to contend with difficult tides and wind direction. Experience, local knowledge and determination certainly pay dividends.

Closer to home, more kingfisher encounters kept me entertained, capturing images of them both perched and in flight.

With some glorious light too. I know there are paid hides for such things, but seeing them in the wild is pretty special.

Plus a brief sighting of a cattle egret, standing perfectly between two cows!

A couple of trips to the Highlands, a place I never visited with Dad in tow, so holds no such memories, was rewarding. I got to see a red squirrel kit that was so small and adorable, it had Lyndsey and me cooing over it like idiots. She named it Peanut, which seemed appropriate.

After last winter's nightmare with crested tits (too warm for them), it was wonderful to see several visiting the feeders at Andy's site, and with the heather in bloom, we managed some lovely images in and around the woodland floor.

And on my last visit, we managed to catch up with a flock of waxwings, which is never a bad thing. Forres always seems to get them, every winter. I don't think any have arrived in the Midlands yet, which is a shame, as I love the sound of them, as well as the sight.

So here I am again, on the last day of the decade. Next year should see some big changes for me, but more on that as and when it happens. 2019 has seen me lose my biggest supporter of my choice of career and life-style. Dad was always immensely proud of my decision to make a career out of something I love doing, despite the financial risks involved. He was always interested in what I had been up to, what wildlife I'd seen and photographed, and what plans I had. While I consoled myself initially after he'd died with the fact that all of my memories of being with him were happy ones, I'm really missing chatting to him, joking and learning from him, from his life experience and wisdom. And I'm sure that feeling will continue, as it has for Mum, who we lost at the beginning of this decade.

Dad had said to me on numerous occasions towards the end, that he'd enjoyed his life, made the most of it, with family and friends, and had no regrets. He was eighty when he died, so in cricket terms (a sport he'd played as young man and watched avidly always as a fan), he had made a decent innings. As a father one couldn't have asked for anything more, nor as a friend and in his twilight years, my companion for some of my most cherished memories, away looking for and photographing wildlife.

This past decade has seen me walk away from a successful career in IT to one where I love what I am doing, and I hope the next decade will see this choice blossom, especially if I can follow my Dad's example, and make the most of every single day.

Happy New Year, sincerely.