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Spring lambs

Spring lambs

Today has turned out to be a glorious, sunny spring day.  A day for being outdoors, if ever there was one.  Mrs BWM kindly took parenting duty and I headed off up to the wood.

It’s definitely spring now.  The first leaves are on the trees, the lambs are playing in the fields and the primroses are in flower in the glades in the wood.  We’ve had a week of warm, sunny weather, and everything seems to be bursting into life.

By way of a contrast to my usual pictures of badger poo, here’s some fox poo instead.  At the top of the wheat field there is a large stone, presumably thrown there after being uncovered by the plough.  It’s a very handy stone for knocking the mud off your boots after the walk up the field.  A fox has chosen it as a place to deposit its poo.  Like badgers, foxes use scat as a territory marker.  Unlike badgers, who put their dung in holes, foxes invariably choose prominent places such as stones, molehills or tufts of grass.  More extrovert, I suppose.

Fox poo

Fox poo on a stone

The wood itself was busy, with muntjac and fallow deer, plus a hare that I startled out of cover.  Hares are usually thought of as a species of open fields and grasslands, but I’ve seen them quite a few times in the middle of woodland now, and they seem perfectly happy there.

The badger sett also seemed to be doing nicely, with signs of activity at five of the holes at least, including one with a huge new mountain of a spoil heap at the east end.  I’m hopeful that there’ll be cubs this year, so this sort of excavation is a good sign.

At 6.20pm a good hour or so before dusk,  a badger appeared across the ravine at the east of the sett and was soon lost among the trees.  A good start.  At 6.54 another badger appeared briefly by the big new spoil heap.  It sniffed for a minute or so before vanishing back underground.

Badger by the big spoil heap

Badger by the big spoil heap

At 7.40 the badger reappeared, accompanied by another.  One badger trotted off to forage; the other stayed by the hole.  So far, so good.  All three badgers at the sett ticked off, albeit at a distance and quite briefly.

Badger on the move

Badger on the move

One minor mystery remains.  All three badgers were in the east end of the sett.  The west end holes, however, showed clear signs of activity, with fresh spoil and dung pits visible.  Does this mean that one of the badgers is spending time here as well as at the other end?  Or might another badger be in residence?  This goes right to the heart of my ongoing questions about movement within a sett, but as always, only time will tell.

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Snowdrops in the churchyardThe steady rain that had drizzled down for most of the day cleared up in the afternoon to leave sunshine and a clear blue sky.  Shortly after 4.00pm I left Scarlett and Mrs BWM having a quiet nap on the sofa and set out for the wood.

After the snow and the cold weather of the last few weeks (down to -11 last Friday here) there are the first hints of spring in the air.  The snowdrops are out on the verges and in the churchyard, which is always a good sign.  The walk up to the wood was livened up by a flock of Greylag Geese grazing on the young winter wheat.  They have been hanging around the village recently.  Of course, they would be here when I didn’t have the long lens for my camera with me, so I had to be content with a more panoramic shot of the flock rather than a close up.Greylag Geese

The first two weeks of February are significant in the badger’s year, as it is now that the cubs are born.  Thanks to delayed implantation, badgers can mate at any time of year but the cubs are always born at the start of spring.  I’m hoping there’ll be cubs at the main sett this year, as the numbers are still low.  I’m as certain as I can be that there are just three badgers, including one cub from last year.  That means there’s at least one breeding pair, so hopefully there’ll be more little ones on the way.

The badgers have been active, certainly.  The field was pock-marked with fresh latrine sites, the dung characteristic of badgers that have been feeding on earthworms.  I take this as a good sign too.

Fresh badger latrineThe wind was blowing in an odd direction, so to keep downwind I settled at the east end of the sett.  This is where the active holes are, but it’s also difficult to watch from because of the uneven ground.  Never mind – it would have to do.  Part of the pleasure of badger watching for me is simply being out in the wood, and today was no exception.  I came across two small herds of fallow deer on the walk in, and I also sat and watched a Chinese Water Deer as it browsed across the small valley.  I was pleased to see that it was the same deer I’d seen and photographed 18 months ago (see Fieldnotes: 15th August 2010), easily identifiable by the split in its ear.  There’s something satisfying about being able to recognise individual animals.  I’ve never really managed to do it with badgers.

The light was fading when another visitor arrived.  A man in a camouflage jacket walked across the pasture field near the wood and sat down behind a fallen tree.  I was slightly alarmed to see that he was carrying a rifle.  I don’t really have a problem with hunters, but I did get nervous when he was looking in my direction*.  I hoped he was just a chap with an airgun after rabbits, but there’s a few deer hunters around here and that means proper high-velocity bullets.  I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of the fallows in the dusk.  To be honest, he probably never saw me.  I was a hundred yards away, dressed in drab clothing with my silhouette hidden by the tree I was sitting against, and unlike him I was wearing a balaclava and gloves to hide the obvious face and hands.

Just as the church clock struck six, a badger appeared, followed shortly after by a second.  I watched them through the NV scope as they pottered and foraged for 15 minutes or so before trotting off.  There was nothing very noteworthy to be seen, just normal relaxed badger behaviour, but they were still good to see.

I only saw two out of the three badgers.  Does this mean the third was underground with her cubs?  I have no way of knowing, but I’ll be optimistic.  I left them to it at about 6.30 and crept off as quietly as I could.  Just to be on the safe side I walked home the long way around the hill rather than across the firing line.

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*with some justification.  A few years ago a badger watcher with night vision goggles was shot dead by a hunter who was out lamping and mistook him for a fox(!)

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Finally, a Badger Sighting on my Road

There’s a badger sett near my house.  I don’t know where it is (although I have my suspicions) but I know it is there and I know it is near.

For some years now, I’ve been tracking a badger across the field behind my house, where at least one has a regular foraging route.  There have been a couple of dung pits here too.  And finally, there have been three dead badgers in a small patch just down the road over the past three years.  All of this points to an active sett in the near vicinity.

Finally, this morning, I caught sight of one of my local badgers.  As I started my drive to work at 6.00am, a badger was digging a snuffle hole on the verge by the road.  It was in exactly the same spot where the road casualties occurred, showing what creatures of habit they are.  I slowed down for a quick look – eye to eye a few feet away – and then I was past and on my way to work.

It’s nice to get another piece in the jigsaw of my badger map of the area.  I knew from the tracks and signs that I’d see a badger here eventually – it just took longer than expected.

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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I don’t know if Robert Frost ever watched badgers.  Probably not, but he knew the lure of the woods and, like me, was kept away from them.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in the woods, partly through work commitments, partly because I’ve been on parenting duty as Mrs BWM has been working weekend shifts lately (apart from last weekend, when she went for a night out with the girls).  Anyhow, it’s been a good while since I’ve seen a badger, and since Mrs BWM was home to baby-sit and I had no other promises to keep, a trip to the main sett was in order this evening.

Now, this winter badger watching is a far cry from the warm, golden evenings of summer.  It’s dark and it’s cold, with an icy wind blowing chill across the fields.  If I was going to sit still (and have an enjoyable evening) I needed to dress up warmly.  Since I’ve never done a guide on ‘what to wear when badger watching’, and as a record for myself, here’s what I wore today, from the bottom up:

  • Leather mountain walking boots  (overkill for the rolling fields of Bedfordshire, but warm and comfortable and sturdy enough to go stumbling over rough ground in the dark)
  • Two pairs of thick wool boot socks
  • Thermal long johns
  • Army surplus thick wool trousers  (c. Korean War vintage, a bit itchy but very warm and utterly silent)
  • Thermal T-shirt
  • Thick brushed cotton ‘farmer’s shirt’
  • Fleece jumper
  • Fleece jacket
  • Waxed cotton jacket
  • Fleece gloves, balaclava and headover

In addition I had my camera and binoculars, and a rucksack with the night vision scope, inflatable cushion and – to fortify the inner man – a jacket potato from the kitchen and flask of hot tea.  It is no wonder I was feeling a little warm after walking the uphill mile to the woods!

Mind you, I was glad of all the clothes when I sat down near the sett.  As I’ve said before, badger watching means always having the wind in your face, and a raw, cold wind it was too.  But I was feeling quite cosy, since the only bit of me exposed to the wind was the inch or so around my eyes.

I settled down with my back to a tree with a good a view of the sett.  The advantage of this time of year is that there is no undergrowth, so the parts of the sett normally hidden by elder and nettles were visible.  I arrived at about 4.45pm while there was still some light and sat cross-legged under my tree like a contented Buddha.  It was good to be back in the woods again, to just sit still and listen to the owls and the pheasants around me.

After 20 minutes or so a Chinese Water Deer picked its way slowly through the woods, passing within 20 feet of me without alarm.  It shows how effectively you can hide in plain sight by sitting very still with suitable clothing and a tree behind you to hide your silhouette.

The minutes ticked by until I heard more rustling in the dead leaves.  Two badgers appeared out of the gloom and stopped – again about 20 feet from me – for a short grooming session.  One of the badgers let out an odd purring sound, which I haven’t heard before.  Mind you, I’m not normally this close to them, or it may be something to do with the time of year: female badgers should be ready to have cubs in a week or two now.

To my mingled delight and horror, one of the badgers started plodding off the path in my direction.  It was looking right at me, and seemed to want to investigate further.  It got to within about five feet of me before obviously catching my scent and bolting, the other following.  This is the double-edged sword of watching badgers from the ground (as opposed to from a tree).  You get thrilling close-up encounters, but there’s always a danger that you’ll be discovered.

I obviously had been discovered, so I crept off to another tree a bit further away.  I never like disturbing the badgers.  It was 5.38pm.  Thinking the badgers wouldn’t be back for a while, I poured myself a cup of tea and took out my baked potato supper, when I heard the purring noise again.  One of the badgers had come back to the tree where I had been sitting and was sniffing around the spot I had sat on.  It didn’t like what it found and scurried off again.

With that, I thought it best to call it a day and leave the badgers in peace.  I didn’t want to risk disturbing them further.  Still, I had satisfied my urge to sit in a dark wood again and I’d got close to the badgers, so it was a good evening.  The purring noise is new to me, so I’ll have to investigate that.  I like it when I learn new things, and all before six o’clock.

And no.  I didn’t use my new camera.  Didn’t even take it out of its case.  All the gear and no idea…

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Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Happy New Year!

It’s been a hectic Christmas, but I saw in the New Year in my own style.  While the rest of the world was sleeping off the excesses of the night before, I was up before dawn on January 1st, sitting in a forest waiting for Red Squirrels.

I was back in Anglesey and the weather was wild and stormy with a big south-westerly wind pushing waves up the beach.  Not the sort of weather for building sandcastles, but it gave the landscape a lonely winter grandeur that I like.

I’ve got the hang of the squirrels at Newborough Forest now.  The trick is to be there at first light, wait by the feeders at the Llyn Parc Mawr car park, and hopefully they’ll oblige.  It wasn’t an arduous wait: I was kept entertained by the range of birds that visited the feeder, including three Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a friendly Robin that perched on the wing mirror of my car and kept me company.  A pair squirrels arrived at about 8.30am.  The perfect picture still eludes me – the light was still poor and the wildness of the shot was compromised by the squirrel sitting on a picnic table – but I’m getting better.

I had another reason to visit Newborough.  I’ve been re-reading Shorelands Summer Diary by Charles Tunnicliffe.  Tunnicliffe was an artist and birdwatcher who came to live in the village of Malltraeth in 1947.  Malltraeth is only a mile or so from Newborough Forest, separated by a broad estuary and marsh.  Tunnicliffe watched and painted the birds he saw there.

Shorelands Summer Diary is an exquisite book.  It is a record of the first year that Tunnicliffe spent in his house by the sea.  The paintings are beautifully done, with a certain humorous charm (for instance, his sketch of a woodpecker in his garden includes himself in the background watching through binoculars), and it is easy to recognise the locations today.  The writing too is charming.  Tunnicliffe describes the birds he sees, from Shelducks to Peregrine Falcons, as real characters.  He was not just ticking birds off a list, he really saw them as individuals.  And he was an excellent birdwatcher.  He could recognise a Roseate Tern from a Common Tern at a hundred yards.  For more information on Tunnicliffe, and examples of his work, see http://www.thecharlestunnicliffesociety.co.uk/.  Should you find yourself on Anglesey, the Oriel Ynys Mon art gallery in Llangefni has a permanent Tunnicliffe exhibition that is well worth a visit.

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

So having enjoyed the book, I just had to experience the real thing for myself while I was in the area.  Malltraeth is an interesting spot.  On the landward side of the estuary is the grassy bank of a sea wall – the ‘cob’ – with a pool behind, so it’s really three habitats in one.

Now, I must confess that I’ve never really appreciated birdwatching on estuaries and marshes.  We just don’t have them in landlocked Mid-Bedfordshire, and the appeal of standing by a large patch of mud was lost on me.  But standing there in grey light of morning, with a gale blowing in my face, I was struck by the elemental combination of land, water, wind and sky.  This was no tame hedgerow or copse.  But it was when I looked at the birds that I really understood estuary birdwatching for the first time.

There were birds everywhere, of all kinds of species.  Lapwings, oystercatchers, redshanks, curlews.  A trio of little grebes dived in the river.  A heron flapped slowly away, mobbed by two gulls. Further out, on the mudflats, an immense flock of unidentified brown waders stood stoically in the cold wind.  It was an embarrassment of riches for someone used only to the birds of field and wood.  At that moment, I understood the attraction.

The Estuary at Malltraeth at Sunset

The estuary at Malltraeth at sunset - land, water, wind and sky

High tide on New Year’s day coincided with sunset.  I just had to come back again to see more, and I was not disappointed.  When I arrived a huge flock of Lapwings was wheeling and circling around the bay, breaking apart and coming back together, trying to land on a tiny island.  I couldn’t count the numbers, but a conservative estimate would be at least 300-400.

Malltraeth Cob with the flock of Lapwings

Malltraeth Cob with Lapwings

The Lapwings were quite a spectacle.  I sat and watched them, with a couple of hardy birdwatchers.  Even the locals walking their dogs in the chill evening stopped to look at them.

Flock of Lapwings

Flock of Lapwings directly overhead

I don’t know why, but I really like this picture of the Lapwings overhead.  They were strangely soothing to watch as they floated on the wind.

Out in the bay, Teal and Pintail ducks bobbed on the waves.  Beyond, in the distance, were thick dark lines – flock after flock of waders waiting for the tide to ebb.

Teal

Windswept Teal

It was freezing cold but I was enjoying being out in the fresh air and seeing new birds – and so many of them.  I may not have the talents of Tunnicliffe, but it was satisfying to be following in his footsteps, literally and figuratively.  I have no idea what half the birds were, but that didn’t matter.  I think I understand birdwatching by the sea now.

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‘Wrong estimation of the intelligence of animals, and the inability to sit without making any sound or movement for the required length of time, is the cause of all failures when sitting up for animals.’

Jim Corbett, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag

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Oh, my hat is frozen to my head,
my feet are like two lumps of lead.
I’m stuck out here, half-drenched, half-dead,
from standing under your window.

Cold, Haily, Windy Night, trad. folk song

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The winter badger watching at the Hawthorn Sett is turning into a bit of a challenge.  I spent a couple of hours up there last night, and still didn’t see a badger.

To be honest, I don’t think my heart was in it, hence the title of the post.  I’m discovering that it takes a certain amount of mental effort to go out and sit in the cold and dark, quite different to the long, warm evenings of summer.  I left home later and planned to stay later in the hope of catching the badgers if they’re emerging late, which meant that it was dark when I set out.  It was a bit of a wrench to leave the warmth of home and go out into the cold, foggy darkness (our village has no street lighting, so it really is pitch dark).  I take a shortcut through the churchyard to get to the Hawthorn Sett, and the fog drifting through the ancient, tottering, century-shadowed gravestones gave a touch of gothic horror to the night.

I planned to stay until 9.00pm or so, but I was cold and fidgety and I couldn’t settle.  Since badger watching depends on sitting still and quietly, this is never good.  I stuck it out for a couple of hours until the church clock struck 8.00 and then I headed home through the fog-shrouded trees.  Once again, no sign of badgers.

As I’m writing this in the warmth of my living room on Sunday I’m inwardly cursing myself for packing up early.  But at the same time I have to admit that it takes effort to sit out and maintain the level of focus required.  Now, don’t get me wrong – we’re talking about watching badgers here, not climbing Everest or playing Kasparov at chess.  Nevertheless, sitting in a dark wood, keeping alert for the slightest sound while remaining motionless, does require you to be in the right state of mind.  And last night, I wasn’t.  Maybe I’ve been distracted by my new job and had too many other things on my mind.  Maybe it was just cold.

Of course, let’s keep a sense of perspective.  They’re only badgers, after all.  I wasn’t even expecting to get a very good view of them, or learn anything very new.  But the very act of just getting a glimpse of them has become a goal in itself. Perhaps this is the point of my badger watching: to give myself a challenge, intellectually and physically.  To – like Sherlock Holmes – ‘escape from the commonplaces of existence’.

Sorry about the introspective nature of this post.  Sitting alone in the dark for protracted periods in a lonely place tends to do that to you.  I’ll take a few weeks off from watching this sett.  I’ll give the vegetation time to die down so I get a better view, dig out my Swedish army parka (a wonderfully warm garment – like a duvet with sleeves) and then I’ll be back – focused, alert and warm as toast – and I’ll show these stripey fiends who the boss is!

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OK.  So far, I haven’t much success with the badgers at the Hawthorn Sett.  I have yet to answer the fundamental question of how many badgers there are.  If I can find this out, I can see how it changes over the year to come. It’s part of my overall master plan to understand more about the badgers in the area, and how the different setts relate to each other.

But first things first.  I’d be happy at the moment just to see the badgers.

My last trip wasn’t very successful.  I spent an uncomfortable evening in a tree without seeing the badgers emerge.  I have an idea that the badgers are late to emerge here.  I decided the best way to test this idea would be to lay siege to the sett – to sit and wait until the badgers finally came out.

This evening I came prepared.  By 5.00pm I was sitting comfortably on an inflatable cushion (on the ground!), night vision scope ready on a tripod, flask of hot tea handy for morale purposes.  I was nicely downwind of the sett and well camouflaged.  It was textbook badger watching stuff.

Unfortunately, no badgers appeared.  I had a fallow deer stag walk past, it’s broad antlers silhouetted against the sky.  I see female fallow deer quite often, but stags only rarely.  But this was the highlight of the evening.  No badgers.  I watched and waited until a little after 8.00pm.  I had planned to stay later, but it was difficult to stay alert after watching and listening in the dark for three hours, straining eyes and ears for any signs of badgers, and the light and warmth of home were beckoning to me.  Badger watching in the dark months of winter obviously needs more dedication than the summer sessions that I’m used to.

So I still don’t have an answer to my question, and I still don’t know when these badgers come out.   But they should come out by 8.00pm, shouldn’t they?  Neal & Cheeseman report an average emergence time of c.5.45pm for early November, so for no badgers to show by 8.00pm is odd.  It’s obviously a badger sett (and I have seen a badger here before) otherwise I’d be doubting whether there are badgers at all.  I’ll maybe give it another try this year, or I may put this sett on the back burner until spring.  Perhaps in the meantime I’ll make a few trips in the daylight to get positive signs that the badgers are still in residence.

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