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I went out with Scarlett to the lakes at Woburn Deer Park on Sunday to look for ducks.  She insisted that we bring bread to feed them.

There weren’t many birds – a couple of pairs of Tufted Ducks and Coots.

Tufted Duck

Tufties used to be a real scourge when I was fishing a lake in Kent, years ago, but they’re a new tick for me here in Bedfordshire.

Oh yes, and there were a few pairs of Mallards, who were very grateful for some old crumpets.

Feeding the ducks at Woburn

Throwing bread to ducks isn’t quite hardcore birdwatching, but do I have to admit that it was fun.

OK – Scarlett and I did the hour-long birdwatch while enjoying a late breakfast.  The idea is record the maximum number of each species seen (to avoid counting the same bird twice).

I’ve submitted the results to the RSPB website.  The final score was:

  • Goldfinch 4
  • Blue Tit 5
  • Collared Dove 2
  • Blackbird 4
  • Sparrow 4
  • Starling 1
  • Robin 1
  • Great Tit 1
  • Dunnock 1

Disappointingly, the Greenfinches and Chaffinches we regularly get in the garden didn’t make an appearance, nor the more unusual species such as Woodpeckers and Jays that occasionally pop in.  But that’s how it goes with any sampling technique – the data all evens out if enough people do it.

 

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

Robert Frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GoldfinchJust a quick note to remind you about the Big Garden Birdwatch.  If you haven’t done it today, there is still time tomorrow.  Scarlett and I will be doing it tomorrow morning.

It only takes an hour, it gets you closer to your local wildlife and you’ll be helping to monitor bird numbers across the country.

See http://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/takepart.aspx for full details of how to take part.

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…

Goosanders on the lake

Goosanders - female on left, male on right

I’m afraid I’m not a very good birder.

I started keeping my list of Bedfordshire birds about two and a half years ago (see Birds of Bedfordshire: No.45 – The Dunnock).  At that time the list stood at 45 species positively identified.  I totted up the list again today, and in the intervening time it has only risen to 54.  Some people see that many birds in a morning, so I’m obviously taking it slowly.

Ever since I visited Malltraeth I’ve had birds on my mind.  I had an hour or two free this afternoon, which wasn’t enough time for any serious badger watching, so I decided to head up to the lake to see if there were any birds around.  After a mere 45 minutes of enthusing, cajoling and finally bullying, I managed to get Scarlett into her shoes and coat and into the backpack baby carrier, and we set off.  At which point she promptly fell asleep.

For some reason I associate the lake with birds.  It may be because it’s a different habitat to the rest of the local area and so attracts different species than the usual hedgerows, fields and woods.  This was the case today, as there was a small flock (10 or so) of Goosanders in residence.  Goosanders are fish-eating ducks with long, thin and slightly hooked bills.  I’ve seen their relatives, Mergansers, in Wales.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get very close as they were quite wary, and I wasn’t helped by a pair of Canada Geese on the bank who seemed to have taken on the role of sentries and honked crossly at me when I tried to come near.

Now, my (somewhat short) list of birds represents only those species that I have positively identified.  There’s loads more that I’ve seen and not taken notice of or not known what they are.  For instance, there was a flock of small, sparrow-sized birds in the top of a tree near the lake.  I disturbed them by getting too close, at which point they flew off to another tree.  I’m not familiar with birds that flock and perch high like this (most that I know stick to hedgerow height), but they were too far away and the light too poor to get a good view.  They could be a great rarity.  They could just be sparrows.  If anyone has any ideas, based on the  photo, please do let me know…

Unknown birds by the lake

Unknown birds by the lake

This is what makes birding interesting for me.  I have need yet to go dashing off to places to see a rare visitor (though I perfectly understand those that do, and I’m certainly not criticising them).  No, there are still plenty of birds within walking distance of my house yet to find and identify, and I can have the pleasure of discovery within my local patch.  It’s an advantage of starting at the bottom – I have so much more work to do!

(Should anyone want to check my progress or have a go themselves, here’s a copy of the British Bird List I found/stole on the internet.  Note that it goes up to 591, but it does include some rare birds.  Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, for instance, is only found in Bedfordshire, but it is secretive and there are only about three left.  And what on earth is a Brown-headed Cowbird?  Anyway, it’s the official list if you’re interested.)

British Bird List

*Edit – I think, after playing around with enlargements, the unknown birds may be Greenfinches.  But I may be wrong.  I’ve never seen a flock of Greenfinches before, but they seem to be the best fit.

Unknown Birds Enlargement

Mind you, I’ve been wrong so many times before…

Sika Deer?

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…

‘Nature is lavish with her riches for those who have eyes to see’

Charles Tunnicliffe

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Bedfordshire Sunrise - red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning

Bedfordshire Sunrise - red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning

It was as if Bedfordshire was fighting back, making a point about my birdwatching trips to other parts of the country.  It was saying ‘look – we have birds here too!’

I’ve had a thing about Red Kites for a while, ever since I saw my first one in Bedfordshire a couple of years ago.  They’re a real success story – a bird driven to the edge of extinction, clinging on as a few pairs in Mid-Wales, only to be re-introduced and make a real comeback in England.

The Kites we have here won’t be from the original Welsh stock, they’ll be outliers from the Chilterns, where they’re almost as common as Sparrows.  Nevertheless, it is good to see them spreading our way.  I can watch them as they re-colonise the countryside.

Bedfordshire Red Kite

Bedfordshire Red Kite

I’ve been trying to get a picture of one of our local Kites for ages, but they’ve always managed to elude me for one reason and another.  Until this morning, that is.  I took Scarlett to the nursery at 8.00am and drove home along the back lanes.  There, above me, a pair of Red Kites was cavorting on the breeze.  Now, as chance would have it I had my camera in the car – I’d brought it along to photograph the sunrise.  I pulled over onto the verge, wound down the window and got off a few quick snaps.

And there you have it.  My first picture of a Bedfordshire Red Kite.  You can just about make out the white bars on the wings, but the silhouette and the forked tail are unmistakable.  Maybe I should carry the camera in the car more often…

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

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

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

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

The Estuary at Malltraeth at Sunset

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

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

Malltraeth Cob with the flock of Lapwings

Malltraeth Cob with Lapwings

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

Flock of Lapwings

Flock of Lapwings directly overhead

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

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

Teal

Windswept Teal

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

Scarlett in the Field Behind My HouseOK, I haven’t done much for a while, I admit.  Mrs BWM has been working at the weekends (including a practice event for the Olympics – she’s a volunteer announcer and they were having a dry run) so I’ve been on parenting duty and confined to home except for the odd short walk.  I remember the good old days when Scarlett was little and she’d happily be carried for hours.  Not any more.

But this is still my diary, so I have a few things to note.  Firstly, I came across another dead badger on the main road.  I saw it this morning on my way to the shops, in almost exactly the same place as the road casualty of July 23rd.  On that occasion the dead badger vanished, causing me some confusion.  I looked closely at this one, to make sure that I wasn’t imagining it.  Good thing too, as by the time I came back an hour or so later, the badger had disappeared.  There must be a sett around here somewhere; and I can only imagine that, being a main road, the bodies get picked up pretty quickly.  I wonder how many road casualties occur that I don’t notice, even in our village?

While we’re on this morbid subject, we’ve had some trouble from a fox attacking chickens lately.  There are at least a couple of foxes locally – I see their tracks regularly – but not nearly so many as we had in London.  This is pheasant country, and there are rearing pens around the village.  The keepers are not fond of foxes.  Probably not fond of any other carnivores either, but certainly not foxes.  Incidentally, a couple of years ago a fox got into the penguin enclosure at the nearby safari park and wreaked terrible havoc among the young penguins.  Foxes were even less popular around here after that, I can tell you.

Anyway, our neighbour lost one chicken last week, killed in daylight.  A couple of days later, our own Mabel went the same way, a patch of feathers telling the story.  Poor Henrietta had a narrow squeak but escaped with cuts and bruises, only to fall victim on Friday.  So it’s RIP Mabel and Henrietta.  They’d had a good life – four and a half years – with no trouble.  They have a fox-proof house in which they sleep, but this is the first time we’ve had a fox in the daytime, hence their run is not fully protected (which takes either a 6-foot tall dug-in fence, or an electric one).

On the whole, I like foxes.  They are attractive, interesting to watch and great survivors.  They do what they do, not out of spite or malice, but to eat and live.  But I love them a little less after this.