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So Mrs BWM and Scarlett are off in the west of Ireland for a long weekend, visiting a friend.  I’m left here alone in Bedfordshire.  Am I despondent?  No.  I’m doing what any other re-blooded male would do when his wife goes away and he’s suddenly relieved of family duties.  I’ve been out looking for badgers!

Coincidentally, the weather this weekend has been fantastic.  The first nice weekend of spring is always a great time in the village as people emerge after winter.  You bump into people you haven’t seen in ages and the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly cut grass fills the air.

So, Friday evening.  The closest badger sett to my house is also one of the least accessible.  It is on the edge of a small private wood.  I’ve asked for permission to go there, but evidently not asked the right people yet because I haven’t got it.  However, you can sit on a footpath and look out over a small valley and watch the sett.  The only problem is that it is about 350 yards away, so it is only really possible with a telescope.  This is probably the longest range badger watching ever, and to be honest not the easiest, but for an hour or so after work it is only a very short walk and a pleasant diversion.  The badgers were not entirely obliging, two emerging at about 7.15pm and disappearing into the wood rather than staying in the open, but at least I was outside and watching badgers.

The badger sett across the valley

The badger sett in the hedge line across the valley – real long-range badger watching

On the way home I passed the village notice board, and saw an leaflet for a talk on ecology to be held in Ampthill on Saturday by the CPRE.  Being wholly without commitments this weekend, and open to a chance to learn something new, I went along – how decadent – and a fascinating talk it turned out to be.

The speaker was Hugh Warwick, hedgehog expert, who spoke about the issue of fragmenting habitat and its impact on a range of species.  He is a very entertaining and informative speaker, so if you ever get the chance to hear him, do so.  As well as some solid ecological science and wonderful wildlife anecdotes he had some interesting observations on badgers.  For instance, the folk tale that if you have a lot of badgers in the area then you won’t have a lot of hedgehogs is confirmed by research.  But it isn’t just that badgers eat hedgehogs.  It is more complicated.  It seems that if resources are plentiful then the two species co-exist in  competition, but if resources dip below a certain level the relationship becomes predator-prey.  Interesting stuff!  I bought a couple of his books from him too, so I’ve got some good reading to look forward to.

Inspired by this I went up to the badger sett on Saturday evening.  There was evidence of activity – fresh spoil and the like – but I only saw one solitary badger that emerged at 7.40 and ambled off straight away.  At least it was a badger though, and I can’t complain, seeing as how I haven’t been up there for almost a year.  I really should get here more often…

Badger in the distance

There is a badger in here, if you look closely!

Sunday was too nice a day to waste too.  After working the garden for most of the day I took a stroll to the lake in the evening, just to be out in the spring countryside.  One of the local buzzards was making the most of the fine weather too.

Buzzard

Buzzard in the blue sky

The lake was home to a flock of geese – Greylags and some Canada Geese – nothing rare but good to see nonetheless.  There’s been a flock of these in the neighborhood lately, so the lake is obviously their current haunt.

Greylag Geese on the lake

Greylag Geese on the lake

Here’s something I haven’t noticed before.  These are holes in a dead ash tree.  I’m assuming they were made by a woodpecker (they were 25 feet off the ground).  Do they nest in these holes?  They’re too big to be just in search of food.

Woodpecker holes

Woodpecker holes, I presume

I lingered around a bit after sunset in the hope of catching the Barn Owl that lives around here, but with no luck.  And it’s chilly after the sun goes down!  It was just me in a field with just Chinese Water Deer for company – six of these little deer, all dotted around in the growing cereal.  Oddly, they didn’t seem to interact with each other at all, they all kept separate.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – they always look slightly startled

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t the most exciting walk in terms of wildlife seen, it was nice to just be out and about on a nice spring day.

Alert BadgerIt’s the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend, and the weather has been glorious.  The village open-air swimming pool opened for the summer today, and it’s been warm enough for Scarlett and me to have a splash around.  In fact, it’s the first weekend for ages that it’s been both light enough in the evenings and pleasant enough weather to go out.

I haven’t been out lately, due to family commitments.  Badger watching time coincides neatly with bedtime for a three year old, so that’s curtailed things a little.  But today was too nice to miss.  Mrs BWM wasn’t working, so I asked her to take my parenting duties and headed off to the wood to see if the badgers were still around.  After successfully breeding last year I’m less worried about them, but I still wanted to get out.  The bluebells are out, cuckoos are calling and it’s generally a nice time to be in the woods.

http://badgerwatcher.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/foraging-badger-11.jpgHaving been away from the sett for half a year I didn’t know what to expect.  There were signs of active digging at both the east and west ends, but the badgers still surprised me.  At 7.30pm five badgers popped out of an unremarkable hole at the south side of the middle of the sett.  I haven’t seen any serious badger activity at this hole before, but it is the same hole in which the fox reared a litter of cubs four years ago (see http://badgerwatcher.com/2009/05/10/fieldnotes-10th-may-2009-more-fox-cubs/).  Blimey, four years, hasn’t time flown…

Badger foraging under fallen logs

Anyhow, I counted five badgers, including at least one cub.  Why do I say ‘at least one’ cub?  Well, as always, badgers are damn difficult to count.  They don’t stay still, they hide in undergrowth so you can only see part of them, and they’re constantly nipping off and coming back again.  Hence I can be sure there was one cub, but there may have been more.  The maximum number of badgers I saw at one time was five, so that’s what I’m calling.

The badgers were relaxed and happy.  There was a lot of grooming, playing and play fighting.  This got quite funny and endearing, for instance two badgers chasing each other around the trunk of a tree, or one badger climbing on a fallen tree and jumping on another as it walked underneath.  I know that play has a serious purpose in training animals for the real world, but badgers often seem like they’re playing for the sheer joy of it

Badger foraging in leavesAfter half an hour or so the play stopped and serious work began.  The badgers were collecting a lot of bedding, shuffling backwards with paws full of dead leaves.  It occurred to me that this is the first dry spell we’ve had for a while, so they may have been taking advantage of the warm weather to get a clean, dry bed.

As well as the bedding, they spent a lot of time foraging for food.  This is always fascinating to watch.  The badgers were snuffling in the leaves, digging out the soil and turning over dead wood to get at insect underneath.  In the soft leaf mould they often seemed to be ploughing furrows with their noses to get at choice morsels.

I was treated to some good close-up views.  I was sitting in a tree with badgers snuffling around and underneath me - Badger - view from abovehence the unusual top-down view!

As the church clock struck nine the badgers moved off.  Time for me to go too.  It’s good to know that the badgers are healthy and happy, and very good to spend time with them again.

OK, yeah.  I know.  It’s been a while.  I can’t make excuses, other than to say that running a family and career takes almost all my time these days.

Anyhow, something happened this morning that is worthy of recording for posterity.  Mrs BWM left for the early shift at work.  About half a mile from the house she came across the body of a dead animal by the side of the road.

Now, roadkill deer are pretty common in these parts, mostly Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, and you quickly get used to them.  But Mrs BWM has obviously picked up some of my roadkill obsession because she had a good look as she drove past.

And it wasn’t a deer.  It had a big long tail.  And little short front legs.  In her words “there’s a bl**dy dead kangaroo on the road!”  She’s a great wife and she snapped a pic with her phone.

Bedfordshire Wallaby

Bedfordshire Wallaby

Yup – it’s a dead kangaroo.  Actually, I’m no expert, but I’m guessing it’s a wallaby.  I’m also guessing that it’s an escapee from the nearby safari park.  There’s a rumour that there are a fair number of them living wild in the local area.  This isn’t so far-fetched – there are a number of naturalised wallaby colonies in the UK, and frankly so many species have escaped from Woburn over the years and become naturalised (from Muntjac to Wels catfish) that one more isn’t surprising.

Mind you, if there were more of these in the area then I’d have expected to either have seen one or heard about them.  If wallabies are hopping across the main road like this one did (albeit unsuccessfully) then you’d think more people would notice.  As it is, there is someone in Bedfordshire now who is trying to explain that they got the dent in their car from crashing into a kangaroo last night…

 

 

 

 

Woburn Red KiteI count myself fortunate to have witnessed the re-establishment of Red Kites in this part of Bedfordshire.  I saw the first one here only a few years ago, and it was a real event for me.  Now, while not exactly abundant, they are more common.  There have been times over the summer when I’ve watched a kite from the comfort of my sofa through the french windows.  However, we’ve recently discovered a spot not too far away where you can see the Red Kites almost on demand.  It’s only in one small localised area, and it’s a great example of how habitat and food availability shapes the distribution of a species.  I’ll explain.

We’ve recently got a season ticket for Woburn Safari Park.  It’s on our doorstep, they offer a good deal on an annual ‘toddler pass’ and Scarlett is old enough now to appreciate the animals (and the indoor play area).  It means I can go with Scarlett to the library on a Saturday morning and drive home through the safari park, just for the fun of it.  The carnivore enclosure is always a favourite, with bears, wolves, tigers, lions – and Red Kites.

Yes, the kites seem to have taken up residence here.  On my last visit there were three of them, circling and swooping low over the park.  Why do they gather at this spot, and not anywhere else in the vicinity?  Here’s a clue:

Wolf with meat

The wolf has just picked up its breakfast.  The animals in this part of the park are fed on meat – it’s the carnivore enclosure.  Red Kites are carrion feeders.  Obviously the wolves and bears and lions leave enough scraps for the kites to feed on.  They’ve found a regular source of food and are making the most of it, hence we’ve got a concentration of them in this small area, whilst my house (which is no distance at all away for a kite) gets relatively few.

It seems a bit odd to have to go to a safari park to see a wild bird, but it shows that nature finds a way, and it has helped me to get my best picture of a Red Kite so far.  I did have to take it through the car window though – getting out for a closer view wasn’t really an option…

Wolf - looking menacing

Just a few quick notes to show that I’m still here, and I haven’t been killed off by bovine TB or a virulent disease caught from a dead animal by the roadside.  But another month has gone by and what’s the closest I’ve got to a badger?

Shaving Brush

That’s right, the nearest I’ve been to a badger is my shaving brush.  And even that isn’t very close (arguably the finest shaving brushes are made from badger hair, but mine isn’t – it didn’t seem right somehow).  Anyhow, suffice it to say that I haven’t been near badgers lately.

Actually, this isn’t strictly true.  There’s been a couple of road casualties, one of which I had to move off the road.  This was an adult female in the spot that I saw a live badger in February last year. The other was in the usual spot for road casualties around here, the big wood where there have been most of the deaths.  There must be a very substantial sett in this wood to sustain this number of road casualties over the years.

What else has happened?  I got an unexpected parcel through the door the other day.  It was a book – ‘Urban Mammals – a concise guide‘ by David Wembridge.  It’s published by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and it’s a great book – a thoughtful and informed look at the common, and not so common, urban species, from foxes to bats.

Urban Mammals by the People's Trust for Endangered Species

Why did it come through my door?  Well, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, to be honest.  I was contacted by the Trust a few months ago who had found this blog and asked me if they could use some of my pictures in the book.  Of course I was happy to help a worthwhile charity, they used the pictures and in return they sent me a copy of the book.  I’m very grateful, and it is a very good book.

What else?  There have been a lot of buzzards flying over the house lately – I hear them mewing as I sit in our living room.  One day I looked out to see what looked at first sight to be a seagull, but on second glance seemed to be a very pale, almost white, buzzard.  It had drifted out of sight by the time I’d dashed in and returned with the camera.  There were reports of a white buzzard in the area a while ago, so perhaps this was it?

What else?  On the subject of birds, I took Scarlett to the lake at Woburn to feed the ducks today.  There’s a family of black swans in residence that are interesting to see.  Black swans are introductions from Australia, which fits with them being on an estate lake (and given all the other species the Dukes of Bedford have introduced…). The RSPB website says they rarely breed in the UK, but these ones obviously have done.

Feeding the black swans at Woburn

Anyhow, after throwing in bread for a good five minutes I looked to the side and there was a heron perched on a tree, quite oblivious to us.

Heron

There’s a lesson to me to be more observant next time!

I’ll be back soon – there’s a whole bunch of correspondence I need to catch up on too, so bear with me…

A professional case of great gravity was engaging my own attention at the time…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Case of Identity

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Badger cubsWell, I’m back.

I’ve been neglecting my badgers again lately.  I can’t believe I haven’t been to see them since April.  Partly this has been due to a demanding schedule at work.  In the last couple of months my work has taken me from the heat of Saudi Arabia to the cool opulence of a boardroom by the lakeside in Zurich and the offices of the United Nations in Vienna.  It’s been good work and nice to see the world, but it’s also good to take time to reflect every now and then.  Partly it’s been due to an even more demanding two and a half year old daughter, who is now old enough to prefer playing with her toys to being taken out into fields, and who is also quite capable of saying so.  Throw in Mrs BWM’s shift schedule and holidays and social events, and there has been no time to get out to the woods.

But tonight I had a free evening, so it was time for a long-overdue trip to the badgers.  The day had been sunny and warm but with a threat of rain.  I don’t get to pick and choose the days of my visits at the moment, so I picked up my (now repaired) umbrella and was off.

To refresh the memory, the main sett I watch has had a bit of decline over the past couple of years, going from at least twelve badgers down to just three.  But on my last trip I saw a new cub, so it looked like the numbers were increasing again.  Would there be more cubs to be seen this time?

The sett is in it’s full summer undergrowth, so it is impossible to see all of it.  There were signs of activity (fresh spoil and discarded bedding) at the west end where I saw the cub, so that’s where I sat.  But there was also a lot of fresh spoil at the east end, so it looked like multiple holes are in occupation.

Badger cub

I arrived at 7.45pm and settled down, and at 8.20 the first badger emerged from the west end, joined quickly by two more.  One adult and two cubs!  This was good news, as it meant the cub I saw back in April has a brother or sister.  Things are looking better for the clan.

The three badgers did all the proper badger things – scratching, grooming, play-fighting and collecting bedding.  Despite watching badgers for some years now I still enjoy watching a relaxed family group like this.

At 8.30 the sound of whickering drew my attention to the east end.  There, by the new spoil heap were one, two, three, four badgers – two adults and two cubs.  This was even better news!  They were too distant for photos in the dim light, but clear enough through binoculars.  The badgers at the west end disappeared underground, and shortly afterwards I counted seven badgers at the east end.  I’m inclined to believe that this was the west end badgers joining the social group, having made their way their by some devious underground route (I know the west end holes are linked to the centre holes of the sett – the tunnels may well go further).

The adult badger and cubs at the west end of the settIt was a fine display of badger behaviour, with all seven snuffling and playing and scratching.  I crept down from my tree and stalked over for a closer look, but it was still impossible to get decent photos.  I watched for half an hour until the rain finally started and then headed home.

All in all, a good visit.  There are at least four cubs this year, which makes the clan stronger and more stable – hopefully a good sign for the future.  Interestingly, the cubs are clearly from two separate litters; and more interestingly, the mother of one litter has obviously separated herself to the outlying west end but without and sign of being distant from the rest of the clan.  Fine badger watching, and another aspect of badger behaviour for me to ponder.

The landscape on Adakoy

The landscape on Adakoy

At the end of May last year I was off on holiday, wandering around Turkey looking for wild tortoises.  Well, we’re creatures of habit here in the BWM household, so guess what?  I’ve been doing the same thing this year.

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks in Turkey again, in a place called Adakoy near Marmaris.  It’s a fantastic place – mountains and pine woods sweeping down to the sea, and all pretty unspoilt still.  Our hotel was on a small island  about five miles across, which apart from a few other houses was entirely deserted.   I doubt if many people have ever walked for fun across the island, but the craggy rocks, steep hills and pine trees were crying out to be explored.

Once again, I found tortoises.  Lots of tortoises.  I came across a dozen or so on an afternoon’s walk.  They’re still odd things to come across in the wild, but I’m getting more used to them now.

Wild Turkish Tortoise

Wild Turkish Tortoise

On a slightly more scary note, I also came across a snake crossing one of the rocky paths, black in colour and at least three feet long.  I was too slow to take a picture, and at the time I had no desire to plunge into the undergrowth after it.  Looking it up on the internet later, it seems to have been a type of whip snake – impressive but not venomous.

Here’s an interesting creature which was quite common – the Dung Beetle.

Dung Beetles

Dung Beetles

You see, I didn’t lose my fascination with poo just because I was on holiday…

This is the scarab of Egyptian mythology, the kheper hieroglyph.  The Dung Beetle builds itself a round ball of dung, which it then pushes into a hole in the ground and into which it lays its eggs.  The larvae hatch and feed on the dung.  To the Egyptians it symbolised life, and the sun was sometimes thought to be pushed across the sky by a huge dung beetle.  They were fascinating to watch, particularly since they seemed to have no scruples about stealing the dung ball off another beetle.

The hills were home to a variety of birds.  Buzzards were common, soaring on the thermals, as were a group of Ravens.

Raven in Turkey

Raven in Turkey

The whole landscape was very interesting.  Whenever I go on holiday, I’m amazed that so few people ever set foot outside their hotel or off the road.  I had a great time and got to see a whole new part of the world.

Anyway, I’m back in Bedfordshire now and catching up on work, correspondence and general chores.  The weather has obviously been good here because everything in the garden seems to have grown by a couple of feet.  After all my travels lately it’s good to settle down for a long weekend.

 

 

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