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Archive for the ‘Thoughts and Musings’ Category

Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle 

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Splashing in Puddles

Splashing in puddles - the fun side of rain

Most of the time I like to think I’m a positive chap, or at least I’m generally cynical in a cheerful kind of way.  But every now and then I have one of those moments of clarity that makes me question just what the hell I think I’m doing for a hobby.

Take this evening, for instance.  It’s been raining all day and I’ve been digging the vegetable garden, taking time out to splash in puddles with Scarlett (an activity she absolutely loves).  But seeing how it’s the last day of the holiday, and that I’ll be back in the office tomorrow, I’ve had an irresistible urge to go out and watch badgers again before I swap my camouflage clothes for my pinstripe suit.

6.30pm saw me sitting against a tree at the north side of the sett.  I don’t often sit here as the wind is usually in the other direction, but today it was blowing from the south of the wood, and the north side gives a good view of the big new spoil heap.

The rain was steady.  I sat on the damp ground with my camera tucked into one side of my open coat and my binoculars tucked into the other.  My gear was nice and dry while I was getting nice and wet.  I’d brought my camouflage umbrella with a vague idea that I’d set it up and sit under it, but I was sitting closer to the sett than I planned so I opted for a damp and inconspicuous low profile rather than comfort and left the brolly down.

I sat there for an hour, getting steadily wetter.  I really must get myself a pair of decent waterproof trousers one day (prospective sponsors please note!)  The badgers failed to make any appearance.  Badgers don’t seem too bothered by rain when they’re out foraging, but it does seem to keep them indoors later.  Sensible beasts.

By 7.30pm the light was failing, as were my hopes of an award-winning photo, or even of seeing a badger.  I confess I was thinking of home, when the wind suddenly blew up, the rain started hammering down and somewhere in the wood there was a tremendous crash and clatter as a substantial branch broke off in the wind.  Never mind the badgers – it was definitely time to head for home, through fields lashed by wind and rain.

As I walked I thought about what I needed to do to make badger watching in the rain a more practical option.  I could rig up a small hide from my umbrella with my camouflage tarp over the top – very snug.  I’ve made a waterproof cover for my camera out of an old dry-bag with the end cut off and the lens poking through the drawstring top, so I could put that into operation.  I could store my gear in a dry-bag in my rucksack, rather than under my open coat.  I could…

Hang on!  Wait a minute!  What am I doing?  What am I thinking?!  The obvious answer to badger watching in the rain, BWM old chap, is NOT TO DO IT!  Stay at home.   Drink tea.  Watch TV.  Read books.  Don’t sit in a cold, dark, wet wood.  They’re only badgers, after all.  In the midst of this stark moment of clarity my beloved camouflage umbrella snapped in a gust of wind, and my disillusionment and misery were complete.

Don’t worry.  It’ll take about a week for me to dry out all my gear and by then I’ll have forgotten about the discomfort and I’ll be ready to do it all again.  I’ll repair my umbrella (epoxy and aluminium bar should do it).  I’ll try out the umbrella/tarp hide idea.  I’ll get a pair of waterproof trousers and I’ll do all the other things I planned, and I’ll be out in the wood again, come rain or shine.  The call of the wild is too strong to ignore for long…

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When you look at glossy pictures of wild animals in books, magazines or on the internet, spare a thought for the photographer.  I’ve decided that consistently taking good  pictures of wildlife is a lot more difficult than it looks.

Photography has been on my mind today, for two reasons.  Firstly, I’ve just bought myself a new camera.  Secondly, by coincidence, I was asked by a publisher if they could use some of my pictures in a book on British mammals (and since the publisher is a wildlife charity, I’m happy for them to use what they want).

The new camera is probably overdue.  All the pictures on this site have been taken on my medium-sized ‘compact bridge’ camera.  It’s a great piece of kit – an Olympus with an 18x zoom lens – and it’s given faultless service for the last four years and is still going strong.  But I’m afraid that I do push it to it’s technical limits and beyond.  The problem is that most of my photographs tend to be taken at long range and in poor light conditions.  It’s a challenge for any camera, and although I don’t like to blame my equipment for my failings, I have to admit that the quality does suffer.

So I’ve bitten the bullet and bought a new camera.  It’s a Sony DSLR with an extra 70-300mm zoom lens (I say ‘new’, but it’s actually an old model bought second hand – I’m a real cheapskate).  Now I’m ready to join the big league of wildlife photographers!

I’ve had a little play with it, and a few things have instantly struck me.  It is insanely complicated, compared to my little fully automatic compact.  Sony should have put the words ‘don’t panic’ in large friendly letters on the back.  I’ve actually bought a whole book on how to use the thing.

It is a different beast to use too.  It’s quick – you can fire off pictures as quickly as you can press the button (and if you keep your finger on the button it keeps shooting, like a machine gun).  It doesn’t have the little delay before taking a picture that most digital cameras do, or the pause afterwards.  This can only be a good thing when trying to capture animals in action.  The magnification is not much more than my 18x Olympus, but I’m hoping the images will be better.  Here’s some pictures that I snapped from our bedroom window of some of the birds in the garden as a test:

Blue Tit

Starling

Collared Dove

So – so far, so good.  Does this mean I can retire my Olympus?  Well, yes and no.  The Olympus is portable and easy to carry.  It is also versatile – I can photograph anything from close-up of an insect to a distant bird.  To do that with the Sony I’ll need to change lenses (and carry them round with me). The Olympus shoots video too, which is handy, and it even records sound.  With the long lens, the Sony should be good for distant shots, which is what I want it for, but it’s a specialised piece of kit.  I think I’ll hang on to the Olympus for a while yet – it’s still useful.

I can see how people become quite obsessed with photography.  Before you know it you start adding extra lenses, extra flash units, extra accessories and you stagger around the countryside under a mountain of gear.  And the perfect shot will still elude you, even after you’ve bought that £1,500 telephoto lens…

Let’s see how it goes.  I’m looking forward to trying the Sony in the field and seeing how it performs.  At least I can’t blame my camera for my bad pictures any more…

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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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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 been thinking about the badgers at the sett, and how there seem to be much fewer of them than in previous years.  I’ve been rolling a plan around in my mind that may help me to understand what’s been going on.  Bear with me, and I’ll try to explain my train of thought.

1. The number of badgers has reduced.  This means either a number of badgers have died or they have left the sett.

2. If they have died, this could be due to coincidence (i.e. they all died of old age or unrelated accidents) or due to some catastrophe (disease, interference etc).  I need to have a look round the sett for bodies, but there is always the chance that if they died they did so underground and I might never find any remains.

3.  Based on the work of Hans Kruuk, if they left the sett then they are unlikely to have gone far.  Kruuk found that badgers leaving the clan only went to neighbouring clans, no further.  There won’t have been a long-distance ‘Watership Down’ style exodus.

Following me so far…?

4. So, by monitoring numbers at the neighbouring setts I should be able to get a better idea of what has happened at the main sett.

In other words…

5. If the numbers of adult badgers at the neighbouring setts have increased significantly, this will suggest that badgers from the main sett have left and migrated there (although it wouldn’t prove it).

If the numbers in the neighbouring setts have decreased significantly, it will suggest that some sort of wide-ranging mortality has affected badgers in the area.

If the numbers have stayed the same it will suggest that no major migration has occurred and the reason the badgers in the main sett have decreased is due to death.

Now, the logic of this seems pretty sound to me.  It won’t give definite proof (how do I account for migration to and from the next setts in the chain?), but it may help guide me in the right direction.  However, there is one major and probably fatal flaw in putting the idea into practice: I don’t actually know the number of badgers in all the neighbouring setts, either last year or this year.  This means that I don’t know whether the population has changed or not.  The sett to the west of the main one is the Pine Tree sett.  This had one badger in residence last year, so a big increase in numbers here will imply migration.

The sett to the east of the main sett is about 500 metres away as the badger runs.  Let’s call it the Beech Tree sett, after the vast and ancient specimen of that species nearby.  I’ve known of the existence of this sett for a while (I found it through mapping badger latrine sites) but I’ve never actually sat and watched it.

This evening I decided to have a look at it.  I wouldn’t be able to tell whether the number of badgers had increased or decreased, but the sooner I get some data the sooner I can start to build up a picture of the population in the area.  I arrived at 7.45pm and watched until 9.20pm, but I saw no badgers at all.  I may have arrived too late or disturbed them somehow.  In an ideal world I’d have surveyed the site properly in the winter before the bracken grew up so I knew the location of all the holes and could get a rough idea of how many were active.  I was lazy – I didn’t do this.  I may have been watching the wrong part of the sett for all I knew.

So I’m no further on in my thinking at the moment.  I’ll try to get back to the Beech Tree sett again soon and also to the Pine Tree sett, and see if I have more luck.

As a consolation, as I walked home down the pasture field a badger came bouncing up the path towards me, saw me, and dashed off.  In years gone by I’d have been happy just to see a badger going about its business.  Tonight though I found myself wondering which sett it had come from.  I’ve gone from wanting to see badgers to trying to work out the population dynamics of the whole area.  Perhaps I’m taking all this too seriously.  Perhaps I need to lighten up a little.  After all, a day when you see a badger in the wild can’t be an altogether bad day.

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BadgerWatching badgers, in theory, should be quite simple.  All you need to do is to find an active sett and be there (suitably downwind and out of sight) when the badgers come out in the evening.  I’ve covered the first part – finding an active sett – in an earlier post (see How to Recognise a Badger Sett).  Now I’ll say a little about the second part – when the badgers come out of their sett.

Badgers are nocturnal: they sleep during the day and are active at night.  They emerge from their sett in the evening to play, socialise and forage.  Unfortunately for the badger watcher they don’t come out at exactly the same time every evening.  They vary  the time of emergence from day-to-day and month to month.

Generally speaking, the time that badgers come out is governed by the time of sunset, earlier in winter and later in summer.  It is a little more complicated than this though, as they will often emerge while it is still light.  Badgers need enough time to find food, so during the summer when nights are short they will come out before the sun has set to give them sufficient foraging time.  In winter, when the nights are longer and the badgers are less active, they will emerge well after dark.

There are other factors that affect the time of emergence though.  Neal and Cheeseman, in the classic book Badgers, list a number of these. For example, badgers will come out later when there is more light.  Those in a sett that catches the light of the setting sun may well emerge later than those in a sett that is in shadow.  Nights when there is a bright moon may also mean the badgers come out later.

Weather plays a role too.  Badgers may come out later in strong wind or heavy rain, probably because they cannot detect danger as well in these conditions and they feel less secure.  Linked to weather is the availability of food: damp nights are better for catching worms so the badgers may come out earlier to feed.  On the other hand, a prolonged dry spell may also see them coming out earlier as they are under pressure to find food and need to spend longer foraging.  The same may be true of sows with cubs, who according to Neal and Cheeseman are often the first to leave the sett in the evening, presumably to get as much food as possible.  Lastly, human disturbance may keep the badgers underground for longer.  Setts that are subject to regular human activity tend to emerge later.

All of this means that whilst it is possible to estimate the general time that the badgers will emerge, predicting the precise time is much more difficult.

Here’s where this blog comes in.  The  main reason for writing this blog is to provide a journal for my experiences, to record details that hopefully will prove useful at some point in the future.  Since the beginning, one of the things I have been careful to record is the time that the badgers emerge from the sett.  My hope was that by keeping track of these I’d be able to find a pattern and be able to predict their movements much more accurately.  I’ve now had a chance to look back through the archives from the last two years and plot a graph of badger emergence times at different times of year.

Each point on the graph represents a time when the first badger emerged from the sett.  To show how this varies across the year I have split the graph into half-months.  I obviously don’t do enough badger watching before April and after August!

Time when badgers come out of the sett

The first thing to notice is that there is a wide range of times in each month, so there is a lot of variation in times of emergence.  In June, for instance, the badgers have come out as early as 7.00pm and as late as nearly 9.00pm.  The 7.00pm event may have been an anomaly – it was an undersized cub that acted strangely – but there’s still a big variation.

The data set for the graph is statistically too small to support firm conclusions, but it still helps to build a picture of emergence.  For instance, it does seem that the badgers come out slightly later in May and June than they do in August.  The graph also shows that in almost all cases the badgers emerged after 7.30pm and usually around 8.00pm, so it does at least allow me to judge the time I need to arrive at the sett.

Neal and Cheeseman have a much better graph in their book, based on hundreds of observations.  Anyone interested in the subject would be well advised to have a look at it.  Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of this little graph of mine.  It’s based on my own fieldwork and the records I’ve kept of my own experiences.  If you are thinking of going to watch badgers I hope it is of some use to you in planning your visits.

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Where have all the badgers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the badgers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the badgers gone?
Hiding from me, every one
When will I ever learn?
When will I ever learn?

(Apologies to Pete Seeger)

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I promised myself that I wouldn’t go badger watching this evening.  I really did.  And yet somehow 7.45pm saw me sitting in my favourite tree looking out over the sett.  My recent visits had only whetted my appetite to find out what the badgers were doing and to check that they were OK.  Be warned – badger watching is addictive – don’t start!

The wind was in just the right direction, although a little strong, and I had high hopes that I’d see more of the badgers.  I was at the west end of the sett, facing a cluster of obviously active holes.  But the evening wore on, as they say, and no badgers appeared.  Finally, at 9.00pm exactly, I heard badgers whickering from within the undergrowth in the middle of the sett.  Even at this time of year, this tangle of nettles and elder forms an almost impenetrable screen and the holes inside it can’t be seen from any angle.  I caught a glimpse through the leaves of a couple of badgers that might, from their boisterous behaviour, have been cubs, but I wouldn’t like to bet on it.  If the badgers have taken up residence in this middle part of the sett it might explain why I haven’t seen much of them on the last two nights.

This movement of badgers within the sett is one of the big questions I have about badger behaviour, but after four years of watching and studying them I’m still no nearer to an answer.  The main sett I watch is a big one, with maybe a dozen or so active holes at any one time.  But the badgers move between these holes, not just from year to year but from week to week.  I’m sure that I could class the west end of the sett as an outlying sett to the larger east end, but it seems to have its own residents most of the time, just as the east end has too.  But are there really resident badgers in each end, or do they move randomly between them?  And sometimes, like now, the badgers will move to one end or the other.  What is it that determines which holes an individual badger uses, and why don’t they all live together all of the time?  I can understand pregnant sows moving away from the rest to have the space and security of their own burrow, but why is there this distribution across holes for the rest of them?  I suspect it has something to do with clan relationships and hierarchy, but I honestly don’t know.  Perhaps someone has done a study on it.  If I could reliably identify individual badgers I could start to understand it more, but I’m still rubbish at recognising them.

Anyway, there I was, sitting in my tree and getting colder as the light faded.  I didn’t fancy staying up there until it got dark with only a limited chance of seeing the badgers.  Sod it.  If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, the badger watcher will have to go to the badgers.

I climbed down and crept as quietly as I could in a big circle around to a point where I could see the holes at the east end of the sett.  There were still not badgers in sight, but the odd yip told me they were still in the middle of the undergrowth somewhere.  The clouds were gathering and darkness was drawing in.  Defeated, I turned for home.

I am definitely not going badger watching tomorrow.  I’m going to do what normal people do for a change.  I’m going to stay at home, get a Chinese takeaway and sit and watch TV with my wife.

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