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

After I described my roadkill polecat (I’ve had it confirmed as a ‘pure’ polecat by the County Mammal Recorder, by the way) Pablo took the time to comment, saying “I suppose you didn’t take its pawprints before you disposed of it?

Pablo – I like the way you think!

As a tracker you get used to seeing partial or distorted prints, and for many of the rarer ones you’re never quite sure what made them.  The chance to get perfect prints from a known species is too good to pass up.  Well, I didn’t take pawprints but I was on the same wavelength as Pablo.  I took pictures instead.

Here, for the record, is what a polecat’s paws look like.  Here’s the fore paw:

Polecat fore (front) paw

Polecat fore (front) paw

Here’s the hind paw:

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Note the five toes on each foot.  Polecats are members of the mustelid family, just like badgers, and they share the same basic foot structure.

Here’s a badger foot for comparison:

Badger fore paw

Badger fore paw

So, now we know what we’re looking for, it’s time for us all to go out and start looking out for polecat tracks.  That’s the beauty of tracking – it allows you to find out about the local wildlife without needing to see the animals yourself.  It’s a great tool for the naturalist to have.

I’ll keep you posted on my results.

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In yesterday’s post I described how I came across a polecat that had been killed on the road just outside our village.  Polecats still being quite rare in these parts, I was quite pleased to have found one so close to home (obviously the circumstances were less than ideal from the polecat’s point of view).  I ended by saying I’d like to see one some day.

Well, this morning I drove to the tip again (I told you it was a regular activity for me) and as I neared the spot where I found the dead polecat, a live one ran across the road in front of me.  It paused to sniff at a parked car and then disappeared into the woods at the side of the road.

It was definitely a polecat, or at least it was definitely the same species as the one I examined yesterday. A beautiful, lithe, sinuous creature.  If I was pleased to see a dead polecat, I was positively ecstatic to see a live one.

It goes to show that where there’s one animal from a species, there will be more.  Fair enough, this was only a fleeting view, but it’s a start.  The next stage will be to try and observe a polecat properly, and to get a photo or two if possible.  Given my lack of success with finding and watching the polecat’s near relative, the stoat, this may be difficult.  In theory, knowing the area where they live, the best thing would be to find a spot with plenty of rabbits (the main prey) and sooner or later I should be rewarded with decent polecat sighting.

And do you remember BBC Springwatch last year?  Simon King (my hero!) had waited 46 years to see a polecat.  With the finest camera equipment available (including multiple night vision cameras), a whole team of people and the pick of polecat hotspots to choose from, it still took them the best part of a week to get any good footage.  Never mind.  One of the good things about being a (very) amateur naturalist is that I’m in no hurry.  I have no deadlines to meet, no live programmes to fill.  It may take a while, but sooner or later I’ll get that picture of a polecat.

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Polecat road casualty in BedfordshireThis morning I was driving to the tip with a load of rubbish (a regular weekend activity when you’re renovating an old house) when I noticed a dead animal on the road about a mile and a half away from my house.  Dead animals are pretty common around here, mostly rabbits and pheasants with the odd muntjac or chinese water deer too.  This animal was different though.  It tells you something about my character that I stopped the car and walked back for a look.  My curiosity overcame my general repugnance at looking at a dead animal on a hot summer day.

I’m pretty sure that the animal was a polecat.  The polecat is one of the success stories of British wildlife, in a slightly topsy-turvy way.  Once commonplace, they were wiped out from most of the country until by the 1930s they were limited to mid-Wales.  Since then, with the decline of gamekeepers and large-scale shooting estates, the polecat has been re-colonising England, and the speed of their spread eastwards seems to be increasing.  Most of our knowledge of polecat distribution in the UK comes not from sightings but from road kills – they’re quite an elusive and inconspicuous species.  Polecats are not unknown in Bedfordshire by any means (my wife saw one crossing a road last year), but they aren’t common either.

This animal had the classic ‘bandit mask’ dark markings around the eyes that are characteristic of polecats. However, Polecat facial markingshaving never seen a polecat before I can’t be 100% sure.  The problem is that escaped ferrets (which are basically domesticated polecats) will revert to polecat-like colouring after a few generations in the wild.  These are known as ‘polecat ferrets’.  But let’s be realistically optimistic about this.  Polecats are expanding across the country and there are confirmed records of them in Bedfordshire.  Unless someone more expert than me can give me evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume that this animal was a real, bona fide polecat and this means that polecats are established in my local area.  It isn’t a major scientific breakthrough, but it’s another piece in the jigsaw of our local wildlife, and it gives me hope that I might see one in the wild one day.

Incidentally, I don’t really think I should be encouraging people to start messing around with dead animals by the roadside, but if you really do want to, please make sure you stay safe.  Always, always watch out for traffic, and if the road isn’t safe then don’t put yourself at risk.  You’d look pretty daft ending up as another casualty alongside the animal you’re supposed to be looking at.  And please do follow some basic precautions if you want to handle dead animals.  I keep a box of disposable gloves and a bottle of hand sanitiser permanently in my car for just this sort of situation.  Don’t even think about handling wild animals without them.

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I’ve been busy lately – working in the garden and down in Wiltshire for the solstice – so I haven’t had a chance to get out to the woods for a couple of weeks.  However, I’d like to get a few minor experiences on the record.  They aren’t really enough for a post on their own, hence I’ve brought them together into a collection of short tales.

A Very Regular Owl

Tawny Owl on the RoofEvery summer we get a visit from the local tawny owl.  We have a lot of tawny owls in the area.  For the last three years there has been a nest in a small copse about a quarter mile from our house.  You can year the young owls (owlets?) calling as they start to fly from the nest.

This is a picture of the owl that sat on our roof on June 12th.  Looking back through the archives, I note that I had taken similar pictures of the owl on June 12th 2008 and June 2nd 2009.  It isn’t a very frequent visitor, and it only seems to come in early June.  Clearly an owl of very regular habits!

So why does it only visit the house at this one time of year?  Is it something to do with having young in the nest?  Or is it that I only see it in the long evenings of June?

A Family of Wrens

I was walking through the wood the other day when I disturbed a family of wrens.  They were obviously nesting in an ivy-covered tree stump.  As I walked past, three of the tiny birds flitted out and perched on nearby trees, apart from one of them which perched on my arm.  It was only there for a few seconds (long enough to poo on my sleeve!) but it was fantastic to have one of these delightful little birds so close.  Thinking about it afterwards, I was in a fairly remote part of the woods and the wrens had quite possibly never seen a human before.  Truly a new experience for both of us.

The Bedfordshire Red Kites

Regular readers may remember my quest to see Red Kites in our village.  I haven’t seen them for a while.  I don’t know if this is because they haven’t been in the area or because I haven’t been out and about so much since Scarlett arrived.  Anyway, I was pleased when my wife came home last week to say that she’d watched one of the kites as it glided low over the end of our road.  I’ll have to make an effort to get out more and try and get a photograph, but at least I know they’re still in the area.

Graveyard Hedgehog

I have a soft spot for hedgehogs.  We still get one coming into the garden occasionally (I see the poo on the lawn) but I don’t see them very often out in the wild.

I was walking through the churchyard in the village the other evening.  It was about 7.30pm and still very light.  There, sitting on the path in front of me was a hedgehog, large as life.  Before I could take out my camera it had raised itself up on its little legs and trotted off to a gravestone by the path.

This gravestone dates from the mid 19th century.  It’s a large horizontal stone slab, raised up on blocks on each corner like a low stone table, about 4″ off the ground.  Without pausing, the hedgehog ran straight underneath it.

I lay down on the ground and peered in.  There was a clear run worn into the grass, and under the stone was a wide hollow space, clear and dry.  The hedgehog obviously has its home there, and a perfect home it is too.  I don’t know what the rightful owner of the grave (one Mr John Francis) would say about having a lodger, but the urchin isn’t doing any harm so I hope he wouldn’t mind sharing too much.

Incidentally, I was walking through the churchyard the day before and a kestrel flapped up from where it had been perched on the grave next to this one.  I assume that kestrels don’t hunt hedgehogs, so perhaps it was just a coincidence.  It seems that even in a pretty rural village like ours the old graveyard is still a haven for wildlife of different kinds.

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More Stoats

I have a fascination with stoats.  They are cute, lethal, little predators.  Last Saturday I drove the long way home from the library in town, along the little country lanes rather than the main road.  I’m glad I did, because I came across a stoat on the roadside verge.  It was dancing around in true stoat style, and I got a good, if brief view as I passed.  This was a couple of miles away from my house, but it shows that stoats are active in the area.

This morning, my wife came across a dead stoat at the end of our road – another road casualty.  Being a good wife, she took a picture on her phone and showed it to me (we obviously share an unhealthy interest in roadkill…) and it was definitely a stoat, right down to the black tip on its tail.  Weasels lack this black tip.

It’s a shame, as this is the second stoat killed on the road in this spot that I know about.  On the plus side, it does mean that we have a population in the area.  Despite wandering around here regularly on my Sunday walks I have yet to come across a stoat in it’s natural habitat.  This has to be a definite goal for this year – to find and observe a stoat – even if it means sitting out all day.  Sooner or later I’ll spot one.

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The weekend before last I went out into the snow, and amongst the tracks were a set that puzzled me.  The gait was very like a rabbit or a squirrel – a bounding gait with all four paws together in a group.  The size as very small though – bigger than a mouse (and a mouse wouldn’t bound) and yet much smaller than a rabbit or even a squirrel.

I have been consulting the guidebooks and I think I have a suspect.  Bang and Dahlstrom’s Animal Tracks and Signs has this to say about stoat tracks “Walking prints are very rare, as they move exclusively by jumping.  On reasonably hard ground, such as solid snow, the tracks in jump groups may be four and four, often similar to a small hare.”   The Hamlyn Guide to Animal Tracks, Trails and Signs, adds that the stride length for a bounding stoat is typically 30cm.  Weasel tracks are smaller with a stride of 25-30cm.

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

The stride length of my tracks is about 20cm, so a little short, but otherwise the size and gait fits a stoat or weasel.  I can’t find anything else that fits the tracks, so at the moment I’m settling for stoat or weasel as a tentative i.d.

This is exciting stuff.  I have a thing about stoats (and weasels).  I’ve only ever seen these secretive little mustelids a few times, and any evidence that they’re at large in the area is good news for me.

I must be the only person in Britain at the moment wishing for more snow so that I can go and look for more tracks…

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Alder tree by the brookThe snow has finally melted.  Today has been a balmy 7 degrees and beautifully sunny.  It may not sound very warm, but compared to the past weeks when the temperature didn’t rise above freezing for days on end it feels positively spring-like.  I took advantage and headed out for a stroll in the (slightly soggy) countryside.

I had no particular aim in mind, but with a vague idea of looking at the birds I headed over to the lake.  I don’t go there very often, but there is always the chance of visiting waterfowl.  As it happened the lake was still iced over with not a bird in sight, but the hedges were alive with blue tits, great tits, chaffinches and sparrows.   My personal favourites were a flock of long-tailed tits working their way through the trees.  These are delightful birds but absolutely impossible to photograph.  They are always on the move, flitting about from branch to branch as they forage, never staying in one place for long.  One of these days I’ll be in the right place and get a picture as they travel past.

Talking of ambitions, there is one animal that I’ve been quietly trying to photograph for a while now, and that is the black squirrel.  The black squirrel is the melanistic (black) version of the common grey squirrel.  There are populations of black squirrels in a number of places around the country, and some experts believe that the black coat is genetically dominant and will eventually replace the ordinary grey colour.  This hasn’t happened yet, or shown any signs of doing so, so black squirrels are still fairly uncommon.

There is a known population of black squirrels centred on Woburn in Bedfordshire.  I’ve only seen one once before, and it was very striking – a squirrel, but with a black coat.  Ever since then I’ve wanted to get a picture of one.  Today, I got my chance.

Black Squirrel

The almost legendary Black Squirrel of Woburn

Unfortunately the squirrel was quite distant so it was at the very limit of my camera zoom, but it is unmistakeably a black squirrel. I feel a little bit like those people who photograph Bigfoot, only to get home and find the picture only shows a dark blur in the distance, but at least I know it was there.

Black Squirrel

NOT a Bigfoot, but a black squirrel...

I walked home along the brook.  Halfway down I came across a clear animal path running from an old, disused little quarry into the fields.  Now, this looked to me like a classic badger path.  The old quarry was a perfect spot for a badger sett – they love places like this where they can dig sideways into the side of a bank, and the soil is usually dry and well-drained.  There were signs of digging and spoil heaps in the quarry, so something was burrowing there.  In short, it looked exactly like a badger path, except it ran across a 6″ deep fast-flowing brook.

Brook crossed by a badger path

The brook crossed by a badger(?) path

Could this really be a badger path?  Would the badgers really wade across the brook every night to get to the fields?  There were no really conclusive tracks so it is difficult to be sure either way.  Something had made the path, but I don’t know what.  Since the brook is close to my house it looks like an ideal place to make a track trap – to spread some sand and see what tracks I can get.  If it is a badger path then I’ll be back in the summer to see if I can stake it out and get a picture of an aquatic badger.  Remember, you heard it here first!

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Actually, there hasn’t been any wine.  But I have been getting into the spirit of the season and collecting mistletoe.

I find mistletoe fascinating.  There is such a lot of folklore attached to it, dating back to the Roman Pliny and his account of druids collecting sacred mistletoe from the sacred oak with a golden sickle at full moon, catching it in a white sheet before it hits the ground or else its magic is lost.

The mystery of mistletoe for me was perhaps made greater because it was very rare in the north of Britain where I grew up.  This means that when I come across it in the wild I feel that I have to get a closer look.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives on trees.  Apart from the obvious traditions of kissing under the mistletoe it seems to fit this time of year very well.  Firstly, it produces its berries very late in the year, so they are out at Christmas time.  Secondly, when the leaves are off the trees it becomes much more visible and obvious as one of the few sources of green foliage in the wood.

Today I took a walk with the family through the woods in Ampthill and I was pleased to see some very healthy bunches of mistletoe on many of the trees.  Obviously the conditions for it are just right in this area.

This may look like a normal tree, but the foliage is actually all clumps of mistletoe – huge amounts of it.  The only other time I’ve seen it in this amount was almost exactly a year ago when driving through Herefordshire.  It’s good to see it here in Bedfordshire too.

Further on down the path I came across a branch that had been blown down in the recent high winds that had a decent clump of mistletoe attached, so now I have some to decorate the house for Christmas.  Picking it from a fallen branch was perhaps not as effective as using a golden sickle, but an awful lot easier.

And yes, before you ask, Mrs BWM and I did have a brief kiss underneath the tree…

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I’ve just got back from a fascinating little night-time walk around the fields behind my house.

Scarlett has been a bit unsettled and grizzly this evening, so in an attempt to calm her down and bring some peace to the house I put her in the baby carrier, grabbed a torch and went out into the dark for a stroll.  At the top of the field the torchlight picked up the eyeshine of a small group of animals.

Spotting wildlife after dark can be easier than during the day, provided you have a torch, as the eyeshine is visible at long distances and even in quite thick undergrowth.  Nocturnal animals have an extra reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum at the back of the eye to capture all available light.  This helps them to see better in the dark but it also makes them more visible.  The exact colour of the reflection varies with species, and experienced observers can identify animals solely from the colour of their eyeshine.  Non-nocturnal animal such as humans do not have this reflective layer, so in a strong light their eyes will tend to reflect the red of the blood vessels at the back of the eye, hence the familiar ‘red eye’ effect in flash photography.

I had no camera, binoculars or any of my usual wildlife watching kit with me, but for the sheer fun of it I decided to see how close I could get to these animals.  It seemed odd to be stealthily stalking animals at night while shining a light in their faces, but they were remarkably unbothered by it.  As I got closer I was surprised to see that the animals were five Chinese Water Deer.  I’ve always thought of these as a solitary species.  You sometimes see two in the same field, but they tend to maintain an air of indifference to each other.  Yet there they were, five of them clustered together and looking and acting for all the world like a small herd.  This was definitely new behaviour to me.

Despite the torchlight they were feeding happily – content but still wary.  They’d graze for a few seconds and then raise their head to check around them.  Either by chance or design there was always at least one deer in the group scanning for danger at all times.  Over a space of ten minutes or so I managed to get within 50 yards of them, which is closer than I could do in daylight, before a muntjac barked a few fields away and they all bolted.

It was an interesting little walk that opened up all sorts of possibilities.  I learnt that deer are much more approachable after dark.  I learnt that Chinese Water Deer seem to have a more complex social life than I’d suspected.  Most importantly I learnt that going out for a stroll is a good way to get a grizzly baby to settle down.  I suspect there’ll be a few more of these short nocturnal walks over the coming months.  Next time I’ll remember to take a camera.

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Chinese Water Deer in Bedfordshire

Chinese Water Deer in Bedfordshire

Just a picture of a Chinese Water Deer that was in the field behind my house this morning.  Now the wheat has been harvested they’re much more visible.

These little deer are a naturalised species here in Bedfordshire, having escaped from the nearby Woburn Deer Park.  This is a female – the males have impressive ‘tusks’, actually long canine teeth.

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