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Archive for the ‘That’s not a badger!’ Category

Blimey.  Three posts in a week!  Don’t worry, it’s only a short one.

I think I’ve just seen a Sika deer.

I was driving home from work at about 7.40pm tonight, and just as I passed the small wood that contains the Hawthorn Tree Sett a deer crossed the road in front of me and paused on the verge by the hedge.  This is quite a regular occurrence.   On most days I see a Muntjac or a Chinese Water Deer when I’m driving, occasionally a Fallow.  But this deer was different.

It was dark in colour, a dark grey.  It was a stag with medium-sized antlers, but they were rounded antlers, not the flat palmate ones of a Fallow stag.  It had a blunt face with a prominent broad nose, not the more refined features of a Fallow. And last but not least, it had a distinctive, heart-shaped, white rump patch, with a black tail that was noticeably much thinner than a Fallow’s.

I think, all things considered, that it was a Sika stag.  It could have been an unusually coloured Fallow, but taking everything together it fits better as a Sika.  The reason I am writing this is because although there are many deer in this part of the country, Sika are rare.  I’ve only heard of two or three other Sika sightings.  This is the first and only Sika I’ve ever seen.  That’s what makes it worth recording.

Not a bad sighting for the drive home from work.  If only I had that camera ready in the car like I said I should…

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A break for a biscuit

A break for a biscuit - the best part of any walk

A Greek legend describes how Milo of Croton performed a famous feat of strength by carrying a fully grown bull on his shoulders.  He did this by first picking up the bull when it was a new-born calf.  Every day, he would pick up the calf and carry it.  As the bull grew in size, so Milo grew in strength, and by the time it was fully grown he was still able to pick it up and walk with it.

I have tried something similar with young Scarlett (although I would never compare her to a bull, even a small one).  Ever since she was born I’ve been carrying her in my walks around the countryside, firstly in the baby sling and latterly in the backpack carrier.

Canada Geese on the lake

Canada Geese on the lake

She’s been getting bigger, and I’ve been getting stronger.  Unlike Milo, however, I’m beginning to flag a little.  She weighs about 15kg now, which is about the same as my rucksack when I used to go on winter backpacking trips, and I’m starting to feel the weight.  But I don’t begrudge it.  I really enjoy the walks we have together – it gives both of us the chance to get out and experience the countryside.

Today has been a warm, bright autumn day – far too nice to stay indoors.  We went for walk up to the lake and beyond.  I don’t come here very often, so it was a good excuse to have a look round.  Unfortunately, it is one of those ironies that bright sunny days are not the best for seeing wildlife – that seems to happen in the dark, the rain or the cold, when no-one else is around.  But warm days are so much nicer for a walk.

Robin in Crab Apples

Robin in Crab Apples

There are signs of badgers in the area round the lake – paths, latrines and snuffle holes – but I’m damned if I know where they’re coming from.  There must be a sett somewhere, but it must be away from the paths somewhere.  The ground seems too low-lying and damp to me, but the badgers must be here somewhere.  The lake is a noted birdwatching spot, but there was not much here today.  Some Canada Geese paddled serenely near the far bank, and a pair of buzzards circled overhead.  A robin was singing heartily from the top of a crab apple tree.  Nothing special, but good to see nonetheless.

Nesting Ladybirds

Nesting ladybirds on a hazel leaf

The signs of autumn are all around.  One unusual thing I noticed was a cluster of ladybirds on the underside of a hazel leaf, presumably getting ready for winter.  I always thought all ladybirds hibernated on our window frame, but now I know their natural habitat.  Do they stay there when the leaf falls off, I wonder?

As it was a nice afternoon, I kept on walking.  I followed the path for a few miles, through the woods and into the next parish where the paths are strange to me.  It is wonderful how many footpaths there are in Britain, so that I can be only a couple of miles from my home and yet be in unfamiliar country.  There’s definitely scope for more exploring over the coming months.

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St Cwyfan's Church - the Church in the Sea

St Cwyfan's Church - the Church in the Sea

I went back to Newborough Forest again at dawn this morning, and although I spotted the red squirrels again they weren’t any more obliging for pictures.  This afternoon I decided to try to find another Anglesey mammal, the grey seal.  Like the red squirrel, it’s one that I’m unlikely to see in landlocked Bedfordshire*.

A few miles up the coast from Newborough is Aberffraw, rightly famous for its wide, pristine sandy beach and extensive dune system (and for being the site of the palace of the dark age princes of Gwynedd).  North of the beach the landscape changes to a rocky shore dimpled with small bays.  It is a pleasant walk from Aberffraw along the coast to Porth Cwyfan, the ‘Church in the Sea’ beloved of artists.  On a windswept day like today it is a wild and lonely walk – in an hour and a half I saw only one other person, a chap collecting driftwood.

Carreg-y-trai off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Carreg-y-trai off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Halfway between Aberffraw and Porth Cwyfan is a small rocky islet called Carreg-y-trai (roughly translates as ‘low-tide rock’).  It is here that I come when I want to see seals.  There are usually one or two in the area, and on calm days they often haul out to bask undisturbed on the rock. Unfortunately today the sea was still rough and there were no seals in evidence.  For a seal it must have been like swimming in a washing machine.  Instead, the tiny islet was home to a ‘flock’ of cormorants – 23 in total – plus a solitary greater black-backed gull.

Cormorants off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Cormorants off Aberffraw

The coast here is a fine spot for birdwatching.  Oystercatchers, curlews andredshanks worked the shoreline, with a lone razorbill bobbing on the waves.  In the past I’ve watched ravens and choughs flying over the low cliffs, with flocks of lapwings in the field behind. 

It’s a shame the seals didn’t make an appearance, but watching the birds made up for it.  And to answer my question ‘where do seals go when the sea is rough?’, I guess they go wherever they want – it’s a big sea and they’re good swimmers, so they can head out where it’s calmer or find an even more secluded spot somewhere to lie up.

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*but not impossible.  A seal took a wrong turning up the River Ouse a few years ago and ended up in Bedford town centre, to much local excitement.

Scarlett on the Beach

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All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient, rocky, druid shore
                                                              William Blake

Newborough Forest in Anglesey at daybreakI’m on holiday on Anglesey at the moment.  We arrived at the same time as the tail end of Hurricane Irene from across the atlantic, which means that the island is being lashed by rain and strong winds, adding a touch of grandeur and romantic drama to the rocky coast.

We won’t be doing any sunbathing, but then there are plenty of other things to keep a (very) amateur naturalist occupied here.  Looking back through this site I’m suprised to see that it was three years ago that I went looking for the red squirrels in Newborough Forest on the south west of Anglesey.  Time has flown by.

On that occasion I didn’t see any squirrels, despite walking for miles and miles (it’s a big forest).  Today I went back to Newborough to try again.  This time, I was (by my standards) more prepared.  I read in Simon King’s Wildguide that the best time to see squirrels is at daybreak, so I set the alarm for 6.00am.  By 6.20 I was walking quietly through the woods, the bracing sea air and the smell of the pine trees as invigourating as any breakfast.

There is a network of paths through the forest, and I stalked along as stealthily as I could in the gloomy half-light, scanning the swaying treetops for any signs of movement.  After 45 minutes and no sign of a red whisker anywhere I was ready to concede defeat again and headed back to the car park, where – sod’s law – two red squirrels were scampering around the trees.  There are squirrel feeders near the car park.  I suppose I frightened them off when I arrived but they returned as I was wandering about deep in the woods.

These were the first red squirrels I’ve seen, and delightful things they were too, from the tufts on their ears to their bushy tails.  The situation wasn’t great for photography, what with it being half-dark and the squirrels too far away.  To give you an idea, there’s a squirrel in this picture (I’ll give you a clue – it’s three-quarters of the way up the big tree):

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - Far Away

 

Can you see it?  Perhaps if I zoom in a little:

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - a little closer

How about now?

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - closer

Here it is, enlarged as much as the photo will take:

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - expanded

OK – it won’t win wildlife photo of the year, but if you’d seen this picture first you’d have been disappointed.  At least now I’ve built some suspense and you’ll understand the circumstances it was taken under.  And I hope you’ll agree it’s definitely a red squirrel.  I’ll try to get a better picture if I can get out of bed early again, but at the moment this is my own little record of my first sighting of a red squirrel.

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Walking through Woburn Deer ParkWoburn Abbey is not very far away from where I live.  Every now an then I like to go for a walk through the deer park.  I know they’re not real wild deer, but the park is a great place to watch deer at close quarters and in fairly natural surroundings. Put another way, it is 3,000 acres of grassland, trees, small copses and lakes – although it is managed habitat it offers a chance to see all manner of wildlife.

If you look back at previous years you’ll see that I make a point of visiting the Deer Park in October for the Red Deer rut, and this is truly a spectacle to behold.  I recommend it to anyone if they’re able to travel to Woburn.  But actually, the park is a good place to visit at any time, especially with the attached safari park and zoo.

It is perfectly possible to visit the Deer Park and see plenty of deer without even having to leave your car.  There is a public highway that crosses the park – you can drive through (carefully, mind) and the deer are there either side of the road.  But this isn’t the best way to see it.  There is a whole network of public footpaths that means you can leave the car in one of the neighbouring villages and stroll through on foot.  You can even work out a big circular walk on the paths that takes you well away from the road and into some lovely hidden spots.

Scarlett and I took a walk through the park to visit the monthly farmer’s market in Woburn village.  I like doing this, as it gives me a chance to combine a bit of wildlife with some local shopping, although the highlight of the day is usually in the crypt of Woburn parish church, where they serve tea and home-made cakes.   What more could you ask for in a walk?

The park is home to Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, the last three species having inevitably escaped and become naturalised in the local area.  A fifth species, Pere David’s Deer, have so far remained in the park.  They have the distinction of having been made extinct in their native China but were preserved in Woburn and a few other places, so successfully that they have now been re-introduced back in their homeland.

Pere David's Deer at Woburn Deer ParkPere David’s are slightly odd-looking, vaguely cow-like deer.  They can be identified quickly by their backward-pointing antlers (the points of Red Deer antlers face forward).  In their breeding season they gather foliage on their antlers as a display, which is quite a distinctive feature.

Pere David's Deer in a pond at Woburn Deer ParkWhen we visited, the Pere David’s were congregated around and in one of the ponds, standing up to their knees in the water.  I’m not sure why – it wasn’t that hot.  Perhaps it is another of their odd behaviours.

Red Deer Stags at Woburn Deer ParkThe Red Deer are almost ready for the rut now, but the stags are still in groups.  Soon they’ll separate and start calling to attract their own ‘harem’ of females.  The ones in the picture above are still quite young.  As they grow older they will develop more points on their antlers and lose their spots.  There are some real monster stags at Woburn.

Fallow Deer at Woburn

Fallow Deer, like the ones above, were introduced to Britain by the Normans.  They are easily identifiable by their ‘palmate’ antlers (which are flat, like the palm of your hand, I suppose).  Colour is not an absolutely reliable feature for any species, as a rule, but Fallow Deer are typically much lighter than other species, being spotted or even entirely white (a pure white deer was frequently seen running wild around our village a few years ago, a bit like a deer version of Moby Dick).

The deer were the main feature of our walk, but there was plenty more to be seen.  Scarlett enjoyed seeing ducks on the ponds and rabbits on the grass.  I enjoyed finding a wasps’ nest dug out by a badger (so there are badgers about even here, in this managed park!)  But the church in Woburn deserves a mention too, from a naturalist’s point of view (and not just for tea and cakes).

St. Mary’s church is relatively modern, being built by the 8th Duke of Bedford in the 1860’s to replace the older church in the village.  It is handsome enough though, with some fantastic gargoyles.  The vicar, Steve, is a nice chap too.  For me, though, one of the most interesting features is inside: a window commemorating Mary, the ‘Flying Duchess’.  Mary is a fascinating character.  She was a noted aviator, hence the name, and she was lost without trace in a flying accident over the sea in 1937.  During the Great War she set up a hospital for servicemen at Woburn that still bears the name ‘Marylands’, although it is now in the process of being converted to luxury flats.  For more information on Mary, see Wikipedia.

OK – fascinating history lesson, BWM, but where is this actually going?  Well, in addition to her other interests, the Duchess was also a keen birdwatcher.  After her death, she was commemorated with a large stained-glass window in the church depicting St. Francis of Assisi (“Whose work was in the hospitals, whose delight was in the birds” – very fitting).

The St Francis of Assisi window in St Mary's Church, WoburnAnd this is the point I’m slowly getting to.  The artist of the window decorated it with birds found in Woburn Abbey and the park.  An idea is forming in my mind – the ‘Flying Duchess Challenge’.  If all these birds are local, then why don’t I set myself the target of seeing them and ticking them off a list?  Following in Mary’s footsteps, if you will.

This is where it gets tricky.  The picture above is a big, hi-res image so you can zoom in on the birds.  Some are common enough – magpie, tawny owl, heron and so on.  Some are much more challenging.  That looks like a chough in the top right.  I’ve seen these on Anglesey, but they vanished from southern England a long time ago.  Some birds are downright difficult.  There’s a hoopoe in there, and they’ve been recorded in Bedfordshire fewer than half a dozen times since the 1940s.  It will definitely be a challenge, firstly to identify all the birds on the window, and secondly (and more difficult still) to actually see them, particularly locally.

I like the idea of it, even if it is nearly impossible.  I’ll keep you posted.

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I’ve just spent a very pleasant weekend with my parents up in Cheshire, so the badgers have been undisturbed this week.  But this evening I have opened another chapter in the sandpit story.

Remember the saga of the tracks in the sandpit a few weeks ago?  Remember how what I thought was a mouse turned out to be a lizard?  And how the dried-up lizard (after a very sensible suggestion from Steve) turned out to be a newt?

I planned to examine the dessicated little corpse to see if I could make a clear identification, but to be honest I left it outside, it rained and the once dried body went a bit mushy and unpleasant.  Not conducive for a close investigation.

Today, however, the sandpit claimed another victim.  It wasn’t good news for the newt but it gave me a chance to examine the body in more detail.  Firstly, here is the fatal sandpit:

The Fatal Sandpit

Just an excuse to show off our new play area, really.  The sandpit has a fairly close-fitting lid that keeps the cat out but obviously allows newts to creep inside.  The sides are smooth plastic, 6″ tall.  It seems that the newts can climb in but not climb out.  I’m going to have to build some sort of ‘newt ladder’ so that any future visitors can escape.

Anyhow – the more I look at this one, the more it looks like a smooth newt:

Newt - top view

Look at the spots on the underside:

Newt - underside

And here’s a close-up – note the absence of claws on the toes:

Newt - close up

It all fits.  The newts in the neighbour’s pond must have be breeding.  According to Wild About Britain, “when [young smooth newts] leave the pond they are about 3 cm long. They then spend two or three years on land as terrestrial juveniles, and don’t return to the pond until they are ready to breed“.

But as I said, I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again.  If anyone has any alternate identifications, please do let me know…

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Yesterday I found tracks in Scarlett’s sandpit and tentatively identified them as coming from a mouse.  Well, I was wrong.  Not the first time, won’t be the last either.

The tail drag was the clue, but I didn’t think it through enough.  One animal consistently leaves a tail drag – a lizard.  I thought about this, but I ruled out a lizard as the source of the tracks because the tail drag was too small.  Lizards don’t just drag their tails, they walk with their legs sprawled so their whole body drags on the ground.  This means that their footprints are spread wider than the body and that they leave a fairly broad drag mark.  In other words, like my tracks, but smaller.

I should have paid more attention to the shape of the trail, and less to its size.  Let me pose the question: what leaves tracks like a lizard, only smaller?  The answer: a small lizard.

Obvious really, in hindsight.  The tracks were made by a small lizard.  How can I be so confident now?  Well, I found the poor little chap in the sandpit this morning, dead.

Common Lizard

It’s a Common Lizard, I think (slightly less common now…) and only a tiny one. He’d obviously climbed in and couldn’t climb out up the smooth sides.  It was a hot day, and he must have succumbed to the heat.  Despite Scarlett and I playing in the sand for half an hour yesterday, we didn’t see him.

Perfectly obvious, with hindsight.  The lesson for me is to think through possibilities when tracking, not make assumptions.

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