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

Well, I got out of work on time, and the dead polecat was still there, so I stopped the car on my way home and had a look.  The genteel folks of Bedfordshire were probably surprised to see a smartly-dressed chap in a pinstripe suit and trilby hat walking down the verge, gingerly carrying a manky dead polecat by its back leg.  Well, that was me.

Unfortunately, it had suffered under the wheels of cars.  The head area – which is key to identifying polecats – was pretty messed up.  However, there was enough to show the dark fur around the eyes and the pale fur around the muzzle – both polecat features.

On this basis I’m calling it a polecat rather than a ferret.  And why not?  My last dead polecat, only a mile away, was positively identified by the County Mammal Recorder.  There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be one too.  It looks like polecats have re-colonised this part of Bedfordshire.

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Newt I.D.

Not being a newt expert, the identity of the little chap in the last post has got me consulting the reference books.  It seems that newts are complicated.  Males and females can look quite different, and they change colouring for the breeding season.  Our three species of native newts can therefore have twelve different appearances!  But by some detective work I think I can identify this one.

I can rule out the Great Crested Newt, which is bigger with knobbly skin, and the male has a distinct jagged crest at this time of year.  Plus they’re quite rare.  That leaves the Smooth Newt and Palmate Newts.  The males of both of these develop spots in the breeding season, so it could be either of them.  The Smooth Newt has spots on its underside, whilst the Palmate Newt does not, but unfortunately I didn’t pick this one up and have a look.  The Palmate Newt has a tail filament (a short thread on the end of the tail) while the Smooth Newt doesn’t, but again, I didn’t know about this feature or look for it.

There is one clinching feature though.  Apparently the male Palmate Newt has webbed rear feet in the breeding season.  My newt did not.  This means it isn’t a Palmate and must be a Smooth Newt.  It makes sense, they are our most common newt and known for living in small ponds.

So there you have it – a Smooth Newt. and a new species for me here in Bedfordshire.  I told you that newts were complicated…

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Beautiful warm night tonight, which is fitting for the spring equinox, I suppose.  I happened to take a visit to the vegetable garden tonight (I’ve been hard at work there lately, digging and planting) when I heard a commotion from the pond in our neighbour’s garden.  Shining the torch, I could see that there were dozens of toads sitting on the damp grass and splashing in the water.

Common toad - Bufo bufo

It is obviously toad mating time again – there was no doubt what some of the toads were doing.

The fascinating thing was the noise they were making.  I’ve never heard toads sing like this before, but they really did make quite a noise.  Here is a recording I made (turn your volume up) that captures the sound:

I’ve seen toads mating here in previous years, but the sheer number this year made it quite a spectacle.  For a species in decline it was good to see them obviously thriving here.  Hats off to my neighbour for having such a good wildlife pond in his garden.

Mrs BWM made the find of the evening when she came across a small newt on the edge of the pond.  I’m not a newt expert by any means, so I’m not sure what species it is.  I’ll look it up in the guidebooks when I get a chance.

NewtI remember reading somewhere that newts will eat frog- and toad-spawn, so perhaps it wasn’t as innocent as it looked.

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It’s been a quiet weekend because the whole family has been poorly with another cold.  I haven’t ventured far out at all, despite the nice weather, opting instead to sit inside under a blanket and feel sorry for myself.   We used to be so fit and healthy, but as soon as young Scarlett started going to nursery we’ve succumbed to every single bug and virus that’s gone around.  ‘Scarlett fever’ – ha ha!

As a result of my moping, the only little snippet I can add to the body of naturalist knowledge this week is a picture of the droppings of a Chinese Water Deer from the garden.  It isn’t much, but they’re not a common deer species so it’s useful to have a record.

Chinese Water Deer Droppings

Chinese Water Deer Droppings - scale in cm

The Handbook says this of the scat of Chinese Water Deer: ‘Usually1.0-1.5cm long x 0.5-1.0cm wide; not normally aggregated, black or dark brown, cylindrical, pointed at one end, rounded at other.

So now you know, should you ever come across any…

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A pool in Folly Wood

A pool in Folly Wood on Flitwick Moor

Despite persistent rain yesterday, this morning was bright and clear.  There was definitely a more spring-ish feel to the day.  I still want to continue my surveys of the local badger setts but today I decided to venture a little further afield for a change.

Flitwick Moor has been called Bedfordshire’s most important wetland site.  I’ve never actually visited it, which is inexcusable since it isn’t very far away.  It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a nature reserve, comprising woodlands, peat bog and grassland, with the little River Flit adding an extra element.  A peculiarity of the site are the springs of iron-rich water – iron oxide gives the streams and pools a vivid orange colour.  The water was believed to have health-giving properties and there was once a small but flourishing industry bottling it for sale.

Stream in Folly Wood

A stream in Folly Wood - note the orange iron oxide

I took Scarlett for a walk.  An actual walk, not just in the baby carrier (not all the time, anyway).  She’s got the hang of the whole bipedalism thing now and she wants to practice as often as she can.  The latest piece of outdoor gear that I bought was a one-piece waterproof suit for her (in green camouflage, no less) so I can now let her roam happily and not worry about her getting muddy when she falls over.

Walking on Flitwick Moor

Walking on Flitwick Moor

And it was a grand morning to be out for a walk.  For once the sun was shining and signs of spring were all around.  I heard my first Great Spotted Woodpecker of the year drumming, while a Green Woodpecker yaffled somewhere deep in the woods. Great Tits and Chaffinches chattered among the trees.  In a pond by the path were dozens of frogs, with clumps of frogspawn showing what they were doing.

Frogspawn

Frogspawn

But I must confess that there is another species that I really wanted to find signs of.  The moor is home to otters – only a very small population, I believe, but otters nonetheless.  Otters are high on my still-not-written-yet list of wildlife ambitions for the year.  I’ve seen signs of otters in Wales but I never thought the day would come when I’d have a realistic chance of coming across them in Mid-Bedfordshire.  It’s an indication of how far the species has recovered, although they’re not common yet.

The River Flit

The River Flit

I didn’t think I’d see an otter but I kept my eyes open for tracks.  The muddy ground along the river was perfect for tracks, but it’s also a popular walking route and was covered in thousands of dog tracks, including a lot from otter-sized terriers, so picking out individual prints was difficult.  I can’t claim to have seen any prints or scat that looked ottery, but I had fun looking.  I did follow the trail of a badger for a hundred yards or so along the river.  This was odd – I wouldn’t have expected to find badgers in such a low-lying and boggy place.

So, no otters but an enjoyable walk in an interesting place.  And after all, this was only my first visit.  I’ll be back here again, I’m sure.

Off the beaten track

Like father, like daughter - wandering off the beaten track

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Chinese Water Deer in the garden

The Chinese Water Deer in the garden

I’ve been laid up with the ‘flu for a few days so I’m taking it easy at the moment.  Fortunately the wildlife seems to be coming to me today.

We often sit in our living room and watch the birds on the feeders.  Today, the usual tits, goldfinches, blackbirds and robins have been joined by a new visitor.  A Chinese Water Deer has taken up residence on my lawn.  It’s been sitting there for the last hour or so at least, quietly chewing the cud.

Chinese Water Deer are fairly common around here.  They’re scarce outside Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, but they are slowly expanding their range.  They are yet another foreign species that escaped from the Woburn Estate.

Chinese Water Deer at the bird table

Feeding under the bird table

This one is a shaggy old beast.  I don’t know if CWD grow a winter coat, but this one certainly seems to be hairier than most.  It is difficult to tell males from females with CWD (i.e. I can’t do it) as they both have the same tusks.

I like this.  I can now watch the local wildlife from the comfort of my sofa, so the deer is welcome to stay if it wants somewhere peaceful to sit and digest.  On the other hand, perhaps this is just a reflection on how much of a wilderness my garden is at the moment.

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Red Deer Stag at Woburn

Red Deer Stag at Woburn

 

Today was one of those days when various threads come together in a fortunate way.  Firstly, I have now finished my professional logbook – a task that I’ve been working on, on and off (mostly off) for the last three years – so I have some free time again.  Secondly, it was a nice day and I was looking after Scarlett, so I had the perfect excuse for a walk.  Thirdly, it was the third Sunday in the month, which meant that the Woburn Farmers’ Market was on.  Lastly, we’re in October so the Red Deer in Woburn Deer park are starting their rut.

It was too good an opportunity to pass up.  I put Scarlett in her buggy and took a walk through the deer park to visit the farmers’ market and have lunch in the tea shop in the crypt of the church.

As I’ve said before, the Woburn Deer Park is a great place to visit.  It is crossed by public footpaths so you can stroll through at your leisure (stick to the paths though please).  I’m very lucky having it on my doorstep as I can walk there in the evenings when it’s quiet.  The Woburn estate has had a big influence on the wildlife in the local area, particularly the 11th Duke, who was responsible for introducing almost every non-native species at large in the UK.  From muntjac to wels catfish, if you can think of an alien species it’s a fair bet that it was originally introduced in Woburn by the 11th Duke and subsequently escaped.  One of these days I really will write a book on the subject.

 

Black Squirrel at Woburn

Black Squirrel at Woburn

 

One of the animals allegedly introduced into Woburn is the black squirrel.  This is not a separate species, it is a melanistic version of the common grey squirrel.  They’re something of a local speciality here in Bedfordshire and I’ve seen a few now.  I’ve been trying to get a picture of one for a while – a clear picture that doesn’t just show a black blur like a snapshot of bigfoot or the Beast of Bodmin.  Today I got my chance, right in the heart of the Woburn estate where the black squirrels originated.

The real attraction were the deer though.  The Red Deer are starting their rut.  Over the past few weeks the stags have been getting increasingly territorial.  They each find a space of their own and start to call out to the females, who have banded together into small groups or harems.  The Deer Park is dotted with very impressive, testosterone-fuelled stags, each sporting a fine set of antlers and bellowing out their calls.  These calls are very atmospheric as they drift across the park, each stag roaring out his challenge.  If one stag enters the territory of another they’ll face each other off until the less dominant one turns and runs.  As the rut progresses the stags will become more and more aggressive until they come to physical blows, heads down and antlers locked in a violent pushing contest to see who will win the right to the females.

The deer were some distance away from the footpath, which was fine because I don’t like to get too close to the stags when they’re in this sort of mood.  I managed to shoot some video which is as good as I could get with my little camera (I really must get around to building that parabolic microphone one day, but that’s another story).  The video gives you an idea  of what happens with the deer but doesn’t really capture the full spectacle.  For that, there’s no substitute to getting out and experiencing it for yourself.  If you have a deer park nearby, now is a perfect time to go out and pay it a visit.

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Crayfish?

crayfish remainsLast night, I popped up to the lake I mentioned in the previous post in the hope of spotting and photographing the Barn Owl again.  The owl was there, but I only got a brief view and no pictures.  It’s a great place, though.  There was a Green Woodpecker, a flock of geese on the stubble in the field, and a number of Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer around the field edges.  I should definitely come here more often.

At the lake I came across evidence of a new species for the area – new to me, anyway. Other people have probably known about it for ages.  On the grass by the bank of the lake was the shell of a crustacean of some sort.  It had obviously been there a while, presumably caught and eaten by a heron or other predator.  I’m not an expert, not a crustaceanist, but I assume it is a Signal Crayfish. Either that or someone’s been dropping scampi.  We’re far too far away from the sea for any marine species, and from what I know of our native crayfish they like to live in clear running streams, not muddy old estate lakes.

The Signal Crayfish are spreading quickly across the UK, but it’s still a bit of a mystery how it got here.  This lake is pretty isolated.  It isn’t connected to any significant watercourses other than a very small stream, too small to have much an ecosystem.  No-one even goes fishing here (which is a shame).  Perhaps the crayfish arrived as eggs on the legs of waterfowl (the often-used explanation for fish spreading to new lakes)?  Perhaps someone with a taste for crayfish tail and rocket sandwiches put them in?  Who knows?

If anyone is a crayfish expert, feel free to shed some light.  Otherwise I’ll just file this away as one more species for the area.

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“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”

Sherlock Holmes

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Here’s another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my tracking the stoats in my neighbourhood.  I took a stroll through the field behind my house this evening.  I didn’t see any stoats, and my carefully smoothed patches of loose sand showed no clear tracks.  But I did find something very interesting indeed.  It goes to prove my maxim – ‘there’s always something to see, even when there’s nothing to see’.

What I found was a patch of black feathers, evidently from a crow.

Crow feathers - feeding signThe crow had obviously met a sudden end to have lost this many feathers, presumably from a predator of some sort.  Nothing too unusual there – we have a lot of crows around here.  But can we tell what predator was responsible?

A close look at the feathers gives us a clue.  The quills of many have been bitten off cleanly near the bottom.

Feathers with bitten-off quillsA look through the guidebooks when I got home confirmed my suspicions.  A bird of prey will remove the feathers from a bird that it has killed, but it does so by grasping them in its beak and pulling them out.  The feather gets mangled, but otherwise stays in one piece.  These feathers were bitten off so it was no bird of prey that did this.

Stoat feeding sign on feathersNo, the guidebooks were clear on this point.  Both the Hamlyn Guide and Bang and Dahlstrom agree that bitten-off feathers are the work of a mammal.  According to the Hamlyn Guide ‘Small carnivorous mammals, such as mustelids, bite the feather off so that most of the quill is missing. Larger carnivores pull out mouthfuls of feathers.’  Bang and Dahlstrom go one stage further and have an illustration of a feather that has been bitten off by a stoat (page 159), and it is identical to the ones that I found.  I’m pretty confident based on the guidebooks that a stoat was the culprit here.

Alongside the scats I found the other day, this is more evidence that a stoat  is in residence in this corner of the field.  Sooner or later I’ll catch sight of it.  In the meantime I’m having great fun finding these little signs of its presence.

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Summer sunsetIf you’re looking at this page in the hope of reading about badgers, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid I’ve been very busy lately.  We had Scarlett’s Christening on Sunday, and a very pleasant day it was too, but it did take a certain amount of time in preparation.  I haven’t had a chance to see how the badgers are doing lately.  All I had time for over the weekend was a gentle stroll in the field behind my house.

The field behind my house is in most respects an ordinary field, much as you would find anywhere in lowland Britain.  It is a big field, about a quarter of a mile on each side.  A road runs up the south side, a hedgerow and a footpath on the west, another footpath and a small copse on the north. The hedges are interspersed with grand old oak trees.  My house and garden is on the east.  The hill is on a low rise, the soil on the lower slopes being sand with clay; on the higher slopes it is almost pure sand.  At the moment the field is under oil seed rape, but it was under wheat last year.

It’s an ordinary field – you probably drive past hundreds just like it – but it’s special to me because it is next to where I live.  More than that, though, I’m always surprised by the wildlife that either lives in or passes through it.  I regularly track a badger that walks a beat up the northern path.  The edges of the field are home to numerous rabbits, and the runs and latrines of voles can be found in many places.  Chinese Water Deer are common inhabitants (invisible now that the rape has grown up) as are muntjac near the hedgerows.  A herd of fallow deer passes through every week or two, and we even have the odd roe deer, quite a rare species here in Bedfordshire.

This is what makes it special.  It’s an ordinary field but I’m starting to learn its secrets.  I’d recommend this to anyone.  Find a local patch, even if it’s in a park or a piece of scrub, and keep visiting it.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the wildlife it holds.

It’s been gloriously sunny for almost three weeks now.  The ground is parched (as is my vegetable garden) and baked hard.  A better tracker than me, or one with more patience, could maybe track animals in the dust, but I had neither the time nor the skill on Sunday evening.  I think I’ll have to get out one evening and just spend an hour or so lying down and looking at the ground.  I’ve found that when tracking it always takes me a little while to ‘get my eye in’.  It isn’t something you can rush.  The neighbours will think I’m even more mad than usual, but an evening of lying in a field sounds quite enjoyable at the moment.

One thing that I did come across on my stroll was quantities of dung.  I suppose I should use the correct tracker’s term and call it scat.  Usually I only see the scat of rabbits, voles and foxes in this field.  Fox scat is quite distinctive because they tend to leave it in conspicuous places as a territorial marker – on a rock, a molehill or a tuft of grass.  But on Sunday I came across some new scat that I hadn’t seen before.  The scale in the pictures is in cm.

Unknown scat 1

It was from a carnivore.  You tell that by the thin shape and the pointed ‘tail’ at the end.  It was similar in shape to a fox’s, but much smaller.  There were five or six individual droppings spread out over an area of a few square yards at the top of the field.

Unknown scat 2Taking a stick, I teased one apart (first dead polecats, now poo.  I get through so much anti-bacterial handwash you wouldn’t believe it!)  The scat was composed entirely of hair.  It looked like rabbit hair to me.  There were no bones, so whatever made it hadn’t been eating mice or voles.  I’d expect to find bone fragments if they had.

Unknown scat 3Why so much fascination with animal poo?  OK – follow my reasoning here.

The animal that left these was a carnivore.  It was significantly smaller than a fox, and it had been eating rabbit regularly.  I’m familiar with domestic cats, and it didn’t come from one of those.  This narrows it down to one of the small mustelids – weasel, stoat or polecat.  There are no other possible predators it could be from.

Weasels will eat rabbits, but they more commonly prey on mice and voles.  Since there were no mouse or vole bones in the scats I examined, I think we can rule out weasel.  Besides, they were a bit big for a weasel scat.

That leaves polecat or stoat as the only serious candidates.  Both of these will take rabbits regularly, particularly stoats.  The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails & Signs has this to say about stoat scat:

‘Dark, irregular and elongated.  They are 4-8cm long and there are characteristic twists of fur at each end of the faeces, which are coiled and twisted within themselves.  They have a strong, musty smell when fresh but weather to an odourless grey with time.  They contain a wide variety of mammal, bird and reptile remains’

And polecats:

‘Slightly coiled, often twisted and with tapering ends.  Up to 7cm long, about 0.5cm in diameter.  Contain bone and fur fragments.  Often in regular latrines’.

Very interesting. Either of these could fit the bill perfectly.  My money would be on the stoat, simply because they are much more common than polecats.  I’ve been fascinated by stoats for ages, and I’ve love to get a good look at one.  Based on the evidence, it seems that I’ve at least one stoat resident in the field behind my house.

And this is the point of this post really.  It shows what can be discovered if you’re patient and prepared to look.  I had a gentle stroll on a summer evening and by the end of it I had strong evidence of stoats in the neighbourhood.  OK – I had to sift through a certain amount of animal poo to find it, but it was there.  Now I have a spot I can focus on and hopefully get to see the stoat properly one day.  As I always say, the wildlife is out there.  It’s just a question of finding enough pieces of the jigsaw.

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