Investigating visualisation tools: big data, photography and presenting

Photo: Vegetation intensity throughout the year for Africa by mikea0228

You may or may not know my featured image is from “Data is beautiful”., a sub-reddit on reddit. So before I write this post, we’d better clarify one thing… I won’t deny that was my inspiration. If you know it, then how could it not be? But just to be sure, I’d like to credit reddit (and the reddit community) for teaching me about the beauty of data.

As I’ve already begun to talk about it, I’ll start with data for this 23 things post. As you can probably tell from the paragraph above, I’d already shown an interest in visualising data way before 23 things. Sometimes even the most “boring” data-sets can be made to look wonderful and inviting with the right presentation.

For visualisation, I didn’t like the idea of not being able to export data from Googles public data explorer so therefore I decided to explore Gapminder, a non-profit Swedish organisation with an aim of breaking down misconceptions about global development, providing innovative teaching materials and visualisations of global data. As well as providing wonderful representations of global data, they also allow you to use their programs to represent your own data. I think that’s really cool so I’ll definitely try and integrate it into my work someday.

On the topic of making and sharing media, I’m afraid I don’t have much enthusiasum and honestly, I’m not too fussed. I’m quite a shy person and would never in a million years create a video where I’m front and centre. Likewise, I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to listen to me rant on through a podcast, so I won’t be doing one of those either.

But, since living with my girlfriend, I’ve grown quite a fondness for photography. It’s quite a common thing – to see a millennial taking photos, I mean I can already name a handful of people from my childhood who have tried and failed at making photography their career. I’m not one of those. I’m not looking to scrap my EngD to jump into a new suit, I honestly just like taking pictures of birds, trees and wildlife in the British countryside. I’d probably like taking pictures of birds and trees and the such like in far-away tropical countries too, I just haven’t had the chance to go.

Jo - filmography - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo: filmography by Jo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’d like to be able to utilise my photography in my research. Many children growing up only get told about “engineers” and “scientists”, they don’t get told that engineering is not just for boys and its not just about fixing pipes and tightening valves.

I’m a research engineer, but I’m also a thin-films expert and scientist. My role spans a variety of disciplines such as solid-state physics, plasma physics, nanophotonics, chemistry and electrical engineering. And even though from afar the warehouse looks boring, when you do catch those unique photos, with the right angle and perfect light, it really makes you see what I do from another perspective.

I’d really like to continue taking photos, making them available for people to see and maybe get involved with some STEM outreach work where I can use them to teach others about what I do.

I also really love the idea of infographics. I think they’re a great way to visualise data, or alternatively (& better in my opinion) to visualise a certain concept and act like a fact sheet. They really get to the bottom of the message you’re trying to convey in a unique way. I’ve used Canva before to make some simple infographics and although you have to pay for a lot of customised content, what’s included is definitely enough to help you along. I’d like to use it even more in the future and combine it with my photography to make cool STEM materials.

When it comes to sharing my media, I originally decided to sign-up to Slideshare, but as their servers were being extremely slow and weren’t allowing me to sign-up, I decided to go to Speaker Deck instead. When navigating the website, I’m finding it a little light. Although there are lots of presentations to choose from, a lot of them are quite basic and a lot of them are written in another language. This doesn’t really bode well and is making me wish I did sign-up to Slideshare.

I like the format of Note & Point. No accounts, no subscriptions, just a search button. So I tried to search for a few topics relevant to my work but they retrieved nothing useful. Not even the keyword “electric” produced anything even closely related to electricity. So, Note & Point was a little disappointing. This presentation thing isn’t going very well…

On the other hand, the variety of templates available in Prezi are very attractive, but come at a bit of a cost. £7 per month is the cheapest membership they do, which is still a bit steep for a fancy version of powerpoint. Maybe if I do more STEM work I’ll consider paying for a membership.

So, rounding this up, I think it’s best to summarise my findings. If you’d like some inspiration for media and data, then look no further than:

  1. – a subreddit dedicated to visualising data, provided by a community from all over the world.
  2. Gapminder – a “good-egg” company who make engaging data visualisation tools that you can play with to view global data from a new perspective. Also allows you to use their tools with your own data.
  3. Canva – a company offering the tools to make engaging infographics. Includes both free and paid content.
  4. Speaker deck – Not very “UK” friendly. A lot of presentations are in other languages and there isn’t a lot to choose from.
  5. Note & Point – No account required but limited resources for the science and technology industries.
  6. Prezi – Looks very good from the outside, but requires subscription.

Utilising the digital commons: Wikipedia, Images and Podcasts

Photo: Community by judy_and_ed on Flikr. Shared under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence. 

Long has it been taught that Wikipedia, (the online, open-source and collaborative encyclopedia) is not to be trusted. This is built on the belief that the editor’s behind the site do not have the necessary experience or qualifications to warrant giving an accurate explanation of expert subjects. If you make a simple google search of “Wikipedia + inaccurate”, 748,000 results are produced. Ironically, the top result is from Wikipedia itself, titled “Reliability of Wikipedia”. This goes into great depth about perceptions and studies conducted on Wikipedia’s reliability as an accurate encyclopaedia.*

Personally, I love Wikipedia. As a bit of a self-proclaimed nerd, I’ve always loved all manner of knowledgeable books that I can sponge information out of. Dictionaries, thesauruses, fact-sheets, encyclopaedias, on topics ranging from Greek mythology and British history to the animal kingdom and natural sciences. This lust for knowledge was initially satisfied by the creation and mass-distribution of Encarta95, the first digital encyclopaedia developed by Microsoft. If you have any recollection of the 90’s and life before the interweb then you’ll know of Encarta95 and the impatient wait you had to make while it booted up from a probably-scratched and slow CD-ROM.

Then came Wikipedia – the god of all encyclopaedias and the dominating database on the world-wide-web. Whilst it may have been inaccurate in its adolescence, numerous studies have now been conducted that prove its accuracy*, over a range of mainly health related areas. Personally, I still use it and trust it. As I’ve heard others say, it’s a great tool to get you started and raise awareness of other references that may provide more detailed explanations. From my experience, the only topics you’re likely to find that are limited are very specific theoretical physics topics, such as some areas of quantum physics. For these and topics of similar detail in other disciplines I recommend reading relevant publications and textbooks that get to the heart of your problem. Mind you, I’m not saying that I reference it in my research work and certainly would never dream to, but it’s good enough to help you along your way.

When looking into photos, I decided to start with Flikr, as I’d already used this once or twice as a teenager. I was surprised by how many photos are removed from your search when you filter with creative commons. Obviously it’s a shame, but there’s still tonnes of images available with easier-to-deal-with copyright, such as this lovely photo of a hedgehog, which I proudly found through a creative commons search on Flikr.


Photo: DSC01709cr by batwrangler on Flikr. Shared under a (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. 

**With this cute picture of a hedgehog firmly in your mind, I have to stress how endangered hedgehogs are becoming in the UK. Unfortunately, due to the increased fencing off of our gardens and destruction of habitats due to development, hedgehogs are on serious decline. But you can help! Fostering a hedgehog is a great way to ensure they stay happy in your area. For the Hampshire, UK area, you can find out about fostering one here: **

To be honest, I’ve never really paid much attention to where my photos are coming from. It’s bad, but its a habit picked up through a social view that everything on the internet is freely available to anyone. Obviously it’s not an excuse, but in the future I will aim to  find the copyright associated with any images I use from the internet and in doing so, will only use and credit images that allow me to do so.

I already listen to a few podcasts, so this topic shouldn’t be too difficult. For me, it was working in a noisy warehouse that led to me hunting out something new to block out the sound. Initially, this started with a download of Podbean, a free app that provides podcast hosting and streaming. At first, I googled “top 10 podcasts of 2018” to see what might float my boat. I’ve definitely tried listening to way more than I’ve actually stuck with. I tend to like a discussion of some sort, something that doesn’t run too quickly (just in case I get distracted) and which doesn’t concern too heavy a topic. My research is pretty heavy already – I don’t need something else to get confused about. After using Podbean for a few months, I then moved over to Spotify, where I already hold a Premium account anyway. But that’s me, I like podcasts to be easy-going, funny but also informative.

My favourite podcasts at the moment are:

  1. Under the Skin by Russell Brand 
  2. No such thing as a fish by QI Researchers
  3. Natures voice by RSPB

In regards to other audio/video mediums, I occasionally use YouTube to search for explanations to physical concepts but have previously used it more for maths tutorials. A few years ago, I also signed up for a free course in cryptography using Coursera. Unfortunately, I couldn’t commit to to the work at the time and had to stop. I was honestly gutted as it seemed like a really interesting topic so I’ll definitely consider doing something similar in the coming years.

Now, I better get back to Wikipedia and that report I’m supposed to have written…


*Mind you, taking data about Wikipedia, on Wikipedia is a bit of a conflict-of-interest and kind of ruins my reliability. Let’s just assume Wikipedia is accurate about this, at least.

From a book signing to plastic free: how sustainable thinking changed everything

With the current media-frenzy around the damage of single-use plastics, it’s hard not to get frustrated, whether it be by the extreme lateness associated with the discussion (I’ve seen plastic-free articles and photos of devastation from over 10 years ago) or solely because its highlighted the damage being done. Whether continued coverage gets irritating or not, the subjects of single use plastics, product life-cycles and a circular economy are all very important and need to be discussed.

Although most of what I’ve seen is online and on TV, I’ve also been exposed to various educational and professional discussions around those very topics – climate change, the problem of plastics and the circular economy. The first of these was a lecture and book-signing held by Kate Raworth, a forward-thinking economist, author and campaigner who promotes the Doughnut Economics model, one which holds human prosperity within planetary boundaries and material consumption at its core. Although the intense subjects of economics and social policy seem heavy compared with my plastic-woes, both Kate’s lecture and the book itself have acted as catalysts for a change-of-view and and represent significant turning points in both my lifestyle and moral choices. I do actually plan on writing a review of Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, so if you’re interested in knowing more then watch this space.

Kate’s lecture had only just touched the tip of the iceberg. I wanted more. And in particular, I yearned to know what my industry were doing about it. How were the materials industry reacting, to the sudden dislike and discourage of manufacturing materials, processes and final products? To do that, I booked onto the Materials Protecting the Environment seminar held by the Institute of Mining, Minerals and Materials (IOM3), Britain’s national institute for all things materials related and one that I’m proud to be a member of.

Unlike the business and policy focused book-signing, the IOM3 seminar was focused on technology and innovation in a slightly more formal environment. Individuals representing a range of both small and large businesses and universities from all over the UK came together to talk about climate change, plastics and the circular economy. It was a really great day, with loads of engaging speakers that cleared some much-needed fog over my understanding of current developments. It’s really positive to see the range of businesses that want to get involved and who realise that sustainability within industrial strategy is advantageous, both for the long-term prosperity of the business in a world with defined limits, as well as financially – by profiting from a growing “green market”. Whether these “green capital markets” can even exist in a sustainable world is another topic altogether and one I think is best suited for a not-too-long away rainy day – lets just stick to fixing one thing at a time.

Back on topic – these talks made me realise a lot. In particular, they made me realise that I had to do something at home. One statistic really hit home – just 10% of all food waste thrown away by people in developed countries could feed all of the malnourished human beings living elsewhere in the world. Isn’t that astonishing? Just 10%! What about another – 90% of all plastic pollution in the worlds oceans originate from 10 rivers, most located in Asia. 10 rivers?! How can such a small proportion of the human population produce that much plastic waste?

But it’s not just plastic in the sea, there is a colossal amount of plastic and toxic waste finding its way into our ecosystems, on land, near rivers and in our cities. Although there’s lots of groundbreaking research going on in the development of biodegradable plastics, the real problem is what we already have. What do we have to do to clean up and prevent further waste both on land and at sea?

The power of people really can change consumer habits, just look at the shift to supermarkets and now to amazon, Ebay and other online marketplaces. And that’s where we’ve decided to play our part. For the whole of March (and maybe forever), we’ve been buying plastic-free and hopefully if more people follow suit we might just have an effect on the way businesses think and the way they process, package and sell their goods to a community that want natural, eco-friendly and sustainable products.

To get our food, we decided to go to a local farm shop, conveniently named The Good Life, as you can see in the featured photo above. They stock local, fresh and seasonal goods with a lot being available in paper bags. They also have a butchers which provides meat in paper bags, as well as a range of frozen loose food like potato wedges, pastries and frozen fruit, which can all be bought in paper bags too. They still sell a lot in plastic, but it’s miles away from the excessive plastic packaging of large supermarket chains and obviously, we’re not buying these products anyway.

plastic free food

There are other advantages to this plastic-free life too, it’s forced us to find-out where our food has come from and has raised awareness of food quality, as well as packaging and has even unintentionally stuck us on a unhealthy-food diet. Most junk foods are wrapped in single-use plastic, so they’re out, as well as unhealthy take-away meals and packaged sandwiches.

But I’ll finish on my favourite switch. In the quest to find plastic-free alternatives to the modern poly-bottled milk, I stumbled across Peak House Farm, a local dairy farm with an incredible uniqueness. They provide fresh, raw milk through a raw milk vending machine located on the farm. Refillable glass bottles were available to buy, as well as raw milk by the litre. The sense of satisfaction we got after picking up 3 litres of raw milk straight from a farm was astonishing. I’ll leave with that for now, but more about our plastic free journey as the weeks go on…

milk edited

Mendeley and Creative Commons: My review

Photo: MA Literary Studies 2018 © Goldsmiths University of London 

Lets be honest, I’m not an expert on reference management tools by any means. For my undergrad degree I barely touched any citing software. I think I may have used RefWorks following a library workshop once but after finding it painstakingly hard to integrate with Microsoft word, that was about as far as it went.

But last week I did something to change my ways. I downloaded Mendeley – a seemingly versatile tool for any researcher looking to manage their literature in an organised way.

First impressions: It’s got an easy and simple layout, with a surprisingly small number of potential settings, something that works well for a novice user like me. You can import references by using the options provided or even simpler by “dragging & dropping” the files from your file explorer on your PC. For users that don’t want references hogging their drive space, you can also import references online through a handy google chrome extension. You can also sync your library in one place with the library on another pc, perfect for those moments when you’re doing some late-night researching at home, a handy tool for researchers like myself.

I like the idea that all my references are in one place. I can sort them by themes of my own choice, by the day I added them or even by the authors that wrote the paper. For writing tasks such as literature reviews, this can be extremely handy and for a recent review I’ve been carrying out its proved to really work well. Another additional and great tool is the ability to annotate PDF’s within the main interface itself. This is useful for highlighting specific findings that are important or for writing notes that link a particular set of papers together.

To test the Word-Mendeley functionality, I decided to start a new bibliography, inserting references by using the Mendeley word plugin…

For someone that in the past has meticulously added in each citation individually, it worked a dream. Just think, no more editing every reference when you change something at the top, no more having to search documents for volumes, issues or pages and no more slow referencing. Kah-ching!! 

All-in-all, this thing has been incredibly useful – I’ve picked up a tool that I probably never would have otherwise. Now I can relish in the amazingness that is Mendeley and cite until my hearts content.

Now, for the boring bit. Lets talk copyright. Creative Commons is a non-for-profit organisation that assists people in legally sharing their knowledge and creativity. Anyone can use a creative commons licence to ensure their work is shared or reused correctly, with due credit given to the licensor.

There are 6 licenses in total, ranging from a very allowing licence, with the minimum number of restrictions, to a very restrictive license with only allows for limited sharing or distribution of work.

In my case, I’ve decided to use the Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence, which looks like:


Using this type, others are able to remix, tweak, and build upon my work non-commercially, as long as they credit me and my licence under their new creations under the identical terms. I chose this licence in particular because a lot of my blog posts are personal, with photographs that are my own and posts that are my own words. Although it’s unlikely to happen anyway, I’d like to think that these will not be used commercially for business and when they are used non-commercially, I am duly credited.

The rural dream

Photo:  Devon and Cornwall Longwool 2018 © RBST

The soft, poetic sounds of rustling leaves and bird song hover in the background; this regularly occurring background noise is seldom interrupted unless night falls.  A low rumbling murmur of a nearby tractor cuts through the peace like a knife cutting through butter, getting progressively louder as it makes its slow journey past my house. Even as the sun sets and the songbirds go to bed, life still manages to make itself known. Twit-twoo, the sound of a Tawny Owl is a common outside my bedroom window, sometimes waking us up with its alarm clock call but never to be seen in the feathers.

Sunset at Our house

My humble abode, in the beautiful Hampshire countryside.

I hear and see so much of the natural world and always have. I grew up in rural West-Country England, surrounded by acres of English fields boasting wild meadows, woodlands and agricultural land. As I’ve gotten older, a lot of that land has now gone to make way for new houses and our unstoppable population boom. The picturesque scenery that once housed  millions of insects, rodents, birds and mammals has been replaced by an uninviting, man-made urban landscape.

Although my childhood home may not be so rural anymore, I still live a rural life. My adult house is nestled in the heart of the Hampshire countryside, not far from the ex-capital, historic city of Winchester (although never quite as rural as Somerset. You can still hear the hum of nearby A-roads). The every-day utilities that city-goers take for granted, I don’t have. There’s no fiber broadband, no village shop and even no mains gas supply. We collect eggs from our next door neighbor, buy pheasant and partridge from the local butchers and eat venison at the nearest pub. It really couldn’t get anymore rural.

We do have a bigger rural dream though. One of those wispy dreams that could genuinely become reality but only after many years of waiting patiently – something I’m not so good at.

We want to become farmers. Own a small farm, no bigger than say 20 acres and farm organic food and rare breeds of British livestock.

We could have free-range corn-fed chickens, fed with corn we’ve grown ourselves. There could be Leghorn varieties to provide us with a wholesome supply of eggs, both in summer and winter. Or we could have a North Holland Blue (now a very rare breed), Welbar Bantam or Norfolk Grey, all birds that could do with a little helping hand.

Norfolk Grey

Photo:  Norfolk Grey 2018 © RBST

We would heard some sheep, such as the Castlemilk Moorit or the Devon & Cornwall Longwool, producing and weaving our own wool to be sold on. Not forgetting a heard of cattle; maybe a small heard of original Lincoln Red, another RBST registered breed that is prized for its meat but is friendly, maternal and also hardy, being able to survive it out in the harsh British winters.

Castlemilk Moorit ewe & lambs

Image result for Lincoln Red

Photo Top: Castlemilk Moorit 2018 © RBST, Bottom: Lincoln Reds 2018 © Linconshire County Council

Numerous studies show that living a rural life relieves stress, anxiety and can possible lead to a longer life. Being outdoors is associated with lower blood pressures, better general health and an appreciation for the world around us. I’m not sure about you, but my anxiety can sometimes shoot through the roof. Stressing about work, money, travelling, all things that might not necessarily be such a problem in rural life.

We would produce the majority of our own food and would try to be as self-sufficient as possible, have a water-wheel electricity system (if we have a stream) as well as solar panels on the roof – the water providing more power in the winter and the solar panels in the summer. We would milk our own cows for tea in the mornings, collect eggs from our hens for a well-needed breakfast and bake our own bread every day.

The days would be long, but so much more worth it. This is our dream and our good life, I think I can wait a little longer.

Exploring LinkedIn, Academia and ResearchGate

Photo:  2017 © Pixabay

This week, I’ve been tasked to explore the benefits and drawbacks of using the professional networking sites, LinkedIn, Academia and ResearchGate.

Being the one I use the most, I will start with LinkedIn. LinkedIn offers two modes – a free limited service and a much more comprehensive premium (pricey to say the least) membership. Luckily for me, I’m currently on the home straight of a LinkedIn premium trial and have been playing around with a few of the benefits for the last couple of weeks. For a “small” sum starting at £24.98 per month (with an additional 20% saving annually) you can send 5 (yes 5! *sarcastic tone*) private InMail messages per month, supposedly see who has viewed your profile and get your hands on statistics that tell you your chances of nabbing that dream job. If that wasn’t enough, you can pay a whopping £99.98 per month for an extra 25 InMail messages per month and a load of other functions that are largely useless to me or you.

By and large, you get the point. Although I’ve really enjoyed having the ability to use LinkedIn Premium, in all honestly, the only part I care about is being able to see who’s viewed my profile and even then, that’s broken. If you do have premium, you’ll know that you also have the option to make your profile private – a wonderful function for the nosey, but a significant loop-hole for the “profile-views” function of LinkedIn Premium. Even if I do want to see who’s been browsing, if they were smart enough to use Private Mode then I’ve got no chance.

Although as a service LinkedIn Premium isn’t the best, LinkedIn’s main function, to act as the world’s professional networking site, is done with excellence. The site is vital in making and keeping connections within a professional environment and allows you to connect with both colleagues and companies alike. There are, however, various other functionalities of LinkedIn that make it more than just a digital CV.

Groups are a great way to network and connect with others in your organisation or industry. They allow you to get involved in debates and conversations, as well to find out about industry-specific events. I’m a member of a hand-full of groups such as one for my University, one created for professionals of sustainability and one for jobs in the aviation field – not quite relevant anymore but still rather interesting.

That leads on to the next useful feature of LinkedIn – the ability to post and search for jobs that are relevant to your experience. Even though I’m in no position to get a new job, I regularly pop onto the job search to see what’s out there. It’s good to stay up-to-date with your industry, find out what you could be going for in the future or to discover what you should be working on now.

Researching about LinkedIn has made me think. What could I do better to improve my LinkedIn experience? For me and I think for most other people too, LinkedIn is hard to stay on top of, to keep updated and to remain engaging. Once I’d got my job and didn’t necessarily need LinkedIn anymore, I stopped updating it. So for me, it would be to keep it updated and to keep it fresh.

But, all-in-all, get LinkedIn. It’s a great tool.

Unlike LinkedIn, I have barely used Academia or ResearchGate, largely because they centre on sharing and reading research papers from connections you know and currently, I don’t have any papers. I’ve read various blogs about these sites and unfortunately have some biased, negative views. Although they provide a great way to share papers, they also regularly break copyright laws and are largely owned by massive global publishers. This negative impression leads many academics to view them as capitalist-driven sites that are skewed and edited to suit their organisations unethical ventures.

Of the two, Academia is my least-favourite. But this dislike is not fuelled by the functions it provides, but rather the impression they give off. Since signing up to Academia in November, I’ve not used it once. Since then, I’ve received 3 emails encouraging me to sign up to premium, with promises of a website, domain and personalised services, to name just a few.

On the contrary, ResearchGate have sent me 100’s of emails, all providing updates on research in my industry and of updates on Q&A’s. For me, this kind of promotion and communication is what I’d want to receive – information that may prove useful.

There you have it. LinkedIn is awesome – go use it. Academia is rubbish – delete it now. ResearchGate – well honestly, I’m not really sure. Give it 6 months and we’ll see, you never know all my opinions may have changed.


A bad day for the otters was a good day for the birds

The sun was beginning to make it’s final show. When we arrived, it was just about high enough to still enjoy, leaving a yellow mist hanging over the hills. As the time passed at Chilbolton Cow Common, the sun slowly faded until its last remaining rays were piercing through the naked trees and reflecting effortlessly off the River Test.

Chilboton common sunset

The initial attraction to this beautiful spot was the taunt from Countryfile (see link above) that we may see some wild otters. My girlfriend and I had just bought some new binoculars – a pair of Hawke Nature-Trek 10×50 beauties. Most decent binoculars are well over £200 – a small fortune for a student and amateur birdie. But these were £150, a bargain price for a complex bit of kit. They’ve got an incredible magnification and a very large field-of view, perfect for wide landscapes and tiny birds in giant trees. Although they’re 100x better than any we’ve had before, we wanted to test their range, both with a mixture of wildlife and in low-light levels.

They didn’t disappoint. First, we saw a Goldcrest. It was the probably the 5th or 6th Goldcrest we’d ever encountered and was just as lovely as the first, darting from branch-to-brand and never in the open marshland. A tiny (approx. 9cm) bird that displays a bright yellow stripe across its forehead – almost like a small superhero, darting around its resident bush as if it were physically impossible to stay still.


Amongst other more common birds, next was a Little Egret, a beautiful water bird donning a a bright white cloak that has a spiky decoration on the breast, forming an exquisite, all-white bird-tuxedo. A lone wanderer, the Little Egret is one of the easier and calmest birds to spot, endowed by its natural behavior to watch and wait for nearby fish that might provide the evenings meal. Its distinctive and bright-yellow feet can also give it away, if you’re lucky enough to spot it in flight.

Chilbolton common little Egret

But still no otters. We didn’t mind, mainly because as with all wildlife trips the otters were our target bird (or in this case, target mammal). If you’re confused, lets refer to another bird blog,  The Accidental Birder, who has described them perfectly…

“Target birds are different than long lists of required birds for a tick. Target birds are something to hope for- to turn a trip or vacation into a quest where you don’t know how it will turn in the end.”

For us, that’s where the otters sat. It would have been a dream to see these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. We don’t have many large wild mammals in England and that makes spotting them even more rare and even more worthwhile.

As the sun started to set and the evening light began to restrict our view, one such target bird (that IS actually a bird this time) did get seen. A rare sight that stands as the jewel of the English bird-scene. One that is becoming increasingly rarer as time goes on and one that questions all stereotypes about the appearance of the seemingly standard bird-set the UK has. The Kingfisher. A very shy, very beautiful and, unmistakable bird that is the standalone reason why we love birding so much. Although hard to see these days, they live alone and in the same location for most-part of their lives, primarily eating a fresh-fish diet.

We weren’t planning to see one and certainly didn’t think we would. But as with most glancing instances of fate, we didn’t even see it at first and it was literally fate that we did. Staring intently down the binoculars, we’d spotted a thrush – a song thrush we thought, but a mistle thrush we hoped. Then I heard “What is that blue thing behind the Thrush?” Blue. It was the biggest giveaway there could be, perched on a reed behind the thrush sat a female Kingfisher – the Queen of the river and jewel of all birds.