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Well, Mrs BWM and Scarlett are still on holiday in Anglesey, braving the gales, but I’m back in Bedfordshire.  I’m here alone with just a somewhat neurotic cat for company.

Anyway, I have another badger road death to record.  I came across this one on the way to work this morning, in a wooded area to the south of the village.  I didn’t have time to look closely (especially not in my best suit), but it was a fully grown adult.

I’ve never seen any signs of badgers in this area before, but it’s a badgery sort of place – woods and fields and no houses.  My long-term plan of logging badger deaths in the area is meant to give me a record that I can refer back to and look for patterns, but it also helps to track badger setts too.  If my mapping of territories is correct, badgers around here control an area with a radius of 350-500m from their home sett.  This means that every time you see a dead badger on the road, there is probably a sett within 500m.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?

St Cwyfan's Church - the Church in the Sea

St Cwyfan's Church - the Church in the Sea

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

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

Carreg-y-trai off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Carreg-y-trai off Aberffraw in Anglesey

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

Cormorants off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Cormorants off Aberffraw

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

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

.

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

Scarlett on the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - Far Away

 

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

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - a little closer

How about now?

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - closer

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

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - expanded

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

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.

On Saturday night Mrs BWM kindly offered to put Scarlett to bed, so I seized the chance to pop up to the wood.  I jumped into my camouflage clothes, crammed a crust of bread and a piece of cheese into my pocket for supper, and headed off.

Summer is marching on into autumn now.  The wheat in the wheatfield has been harvested and the whole field harrowed over.  Not only is it an absolute bugger to walk over until the footpath is trampled down, it means that the badgers have to look for other sources of food.  At the top of the field there was a fresh badger latrine that showed that not only were they still marking out the field as territory, they are making use of other food resources.

Badger dung with fruit stones

The dung is full of fruit stones.  I thought at first that these were cherry stones, but on reflection they may well be sloes, which are fruiting now.  If you’ve ever eaten a sloe you’ll know how incredibly tart they are, but since badgers will cheerfully eat wasps I am beginning to think they don’t have a sophisticated palate.  As a good (albeit very amateur) scientist I know what I need to do now.  I need to go back and get a sample of the dung and compare the fruit stones to sloes and cherries, and then I’ll have a definite answer.  It may not sound pleasant, but I feel I need to do it – another piece in my badger jigsaw.  This is why my house is well stocked with latex gloves and carbolic soap…

Now, it’s always been a principle of mine when badger watching to approach and leave the area of the sett as quietly as possible.  You never know when the badgers will be around, and even if the badgers are not in the vicinity you can still scare them by setting off a ‘chain reaction’ by scaring other animals – you approach noisily, you frighten a deer, the deer bolts past the sett and frightens the badgers.

My stealthy approach to the main sett is made easier by a large fallen ash tree (ash trees seem to have a habit of falling down – remind me never to camp under one).  I can walk along the trunk silently rather than rustling through the undergrowth.  On this evening, halfway along the trunk, I caught sight of a deer in the direction of the sett.  This is exactly the situation I mentioned above, and it calls for extreme caution.  But it got worse.  As I froze in my tracks, I noticed movement in the undergrowth at the far end of the tree.  It was the badger cub from two weeks ago – out of the sett early and foraging further afield.

There was nothing I could do but remain motionless and pretend to be a tree.  Badgers are a bit like T-Rex – they can’t see you if you don’t move (mostly).  Of course, staying still while perched on a fallen tree trunk is easier said than done, but the badger didn’t notice me.  When it moved out of sight I took my chance and very slowly sat down.

For the next 40 minutes I sat on my fallen tree as the badger snuffled around within 20 feet of so of me.  The light was bad in the middle of the wood so none of my pictures worked, but I took a short video (video works better in low light on my camera).  It isn’t great quality, and it doesn’t shed any light on badger behaviour, but it will remind me of a fascinating evening watching a badger foraging at close quarters.

The badger came closer and closer but still didn’t seem to be aware of me.  At one point it was only six feet or so away from me as it crawled under the tree I was sitting on.  It wasn’t what I planned for the evening, but a memorable encounter just the same.

The badger was clearly foraging, but I couldn’t make out what it was feeding on.  I could hear loud cracking, crunching noises every now and then, as if it was chewing on dry sticks.  This was puzzling.  It was louder than the noise of a snail shell breaking, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.  When the badger had moved off I eased my cramped legs off the tree and went for a look.   The tree overhead was a hazel, and spread around the area were broken hazelnut shells.

Broken hazelnut shells, possibly eaten by a badger

Now, I can’t prove that this is what the badger was crunching on, but it seems likely.  A badger’s jaws are certainly strong enough, and hazelnuts are nutritious.  There are references in the literature to badgers eating hazelnuts (in 1935!)  However, the shells could have been there before the badger came – squirrels crack hazelnuts and they’re plentiful in the area.  I tried to find evidence that the badger was responsible – a shell with fresh badger spit on it, for instance, but there was nothing definite.

All in all, a fascinating evening and one that provoked all sorts of thoughts about badgers’ diet.  I can’t prove the badger was eating hazelnuts but there’s no reason why not.  What with the sloes and the nut shells I can see some sort of badger dung analysis project to keep me active through the autumn.  This is what I like about badgers.  Even though they’re a common species, living side by side with humans, there is still a chance to add something, however small, to what we know about them.  Just don’t tell Mrs BWM.

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

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

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

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

The Fatal Sandpit

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

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

Newt - top view

Look at the spots on the underside:

Newt - underside

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

Newt - close up

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

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

Badger CubSaturday evening was warm without being oppressive, with a light breeze blowing.  Around the world financial markets crashed.  Tanks rolled down Syrian streets.  London was in flames as rioters burned and looted.  And me?  I walked up to the wood to watch badgers.

The wheat in the wheat fields is ripe now.  The badgers are making full use of this seasonal resource, with all the latrine pits full of wheat-filled dung.  They’ll need to make the most of it quickly, as the farmers are starting to harvest.  They’ll carry on late into the night while the dry weather lasts, with spotlights on the combine harvesters.

By 7.35pm I was happily sitting up a tree at the main sett, listening to tractors in the distance, muntjacs in the wood and the buzzard in the trees.  You see, it isn’t that I try to escape from reality by watching badgers.  It’s just a different reality – one that’s been here far longer than the troubles of our modern world.

Having had little luck with the badgers at this sett I wasn’t expecting too much – maybe a quick glimpse.  But it turned out to be a very good evening of watching.  At 7.45 there appeared a badger cub.  It ambled over from the east end of the sett and snuffled contentedly around my tree as it foraged in the undergrowth.  This was good news indeed!  Remember that a couple of years ago I regularly saw 8-10 badgers at this sett, which has gone down to just 2 or 3 this year.  I’ve been concerned about them, to be honest.  A cub is an excellent sign that things are picking up again.

I thought I saw a cub last time I was here, but I only got a brief look so I wasn’t sure.  This time there was no doubt.  Here’s a quick video of the badger cub foraging:

As the cub was under my tree I could hear the whickering sound of badgers at play from the other end of the sett, so that makes at least another two badgers in residence.  At 8.00pm I saw another badger walking off from the east end of the sett, which confirmed things.

The cub spent the next half-hour foraging, snaffling up the odd morsel of food from the ground.  Apart from the delight of getting a good look at a real live badger for the first time in ages, I also got a few new insights.  At one point the local buzzard settled into a tree overhead, calling loudly.  The badger cub reacted visibly to this – it scampered to a disused sett entrance at the west of the site and crouched there.  A badger – even a half-grown cub – has nothing to fear from a buzzard, whose food is mostly carrion and small creatures such as worms, but this one looked visibly nervous.

Badger cub crouched in sett entranceAfter a few minutes the cub disappeared underground, only to reappear from the middle entrance to the sett five minutes later.  This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it means that the middle and the west of the sett are linked underground.  They’re at least 25 yards apart, so there must be a fantastic network of tunnels underground.

All in all, a very satisfying evening.  It must be a record for the latest view of a badger cub (I normally see the first in April) but it was good to see it nonetheless.  It’s a good sign and I feel like a proper badger watcher again.

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

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

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

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

Common Lizard

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

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

I’m on parenting duty again this weekend, so no badger watching.  But there’s always something wildlifey to be seen out there.

Take these tracks for instance.  They appeared overnight in Scarlett’s sandpit (yes, I really have used my daughter’s plaything as an impromptu tracking box.

Possible Mouse Tracks

The scale is in centimetres, so the tracks are small.  I’m thinking they’re from a mouse from the size and the trail pattern.  These tracks have alternate footprints and an obvious tail-drag.  The guidebooks are a little unclear on mouse tracks: some say that a tail-drag is present, others not, and the gait of a mouse can be either walking (alternate tracks) or jumping (parallel tracks).  Since I can’t think of anything else that could have made them, I’m going for mouse anyway.

I’ve spent most of the day laying the paving on the new play area in the garden, but since it was a nice evening I took Scarlett out for a short stroll.  It occurred to me that it’s been a little while since we’ve been for a walk, so I took the opportunity.  It’s a longer business now, walking with her, but fun.  She alternates walking and being carried, and she insists on stopping to pick up interesting sticks and stones (where did she inherit that habit from, I wonder…?)

We were accompanied on the walk by a Green Woodpecker that kept flitting ahead of us, from treetops to the ground and back again.  I’ve seen these in the garden a few times, but oddly, I’ve never seen one in the wild, even though I hear their distinctive ‘yaffle’ call most times I visit the wood.  This one was obliging enough to pose for a long-range photograph.

Green Woodpecker

The highlight of our little walk came as we headed back home.  A sparrowhawk flew past us along the lane, swooping below the level of the hedgerows on either side.  Gripped in its talons was a sparrow-sized bird – it had obviously just caught it and was taking it to secure place to pluck and eat it.  A splendid sight, and one that made me glad I’d got outside, even if it was just a brief walk.

One the way back from the library this morning I came across a dead badger by the side of the main road, about half a mile west of my road.  I went back this evening to check it out and note any details for the record.

When I got there the badger had gone.  All I found, among the litter, fast food wrappers and wheel trims, was a decomposing deer (not pleasant!).  As I was in the area, I walked down the verge for a hundred yards or so to see what I could find.  The verge here is substantial, varying from 20-40 feet wide, with the road on one side and a boundary wall on the other.  There are mature trees and varied undergrowth, from grass and bracken to big patches of nettles and brambles (not the place to be wearing shorts, as I found out).

Wasps nest dug out by a badgerIt was a fascinating little area.  I doubt if anyone has walked there or even seen it for years, even though thousands pass by on the main road right alongside.  I doubt if there is enough space for full badger sett (they would need to cross the road to reach a decent foraging area, and if this was the case I’d have seen more casualties) but there was a network of paths.  Following these, I came across a huge wasps’ nest that had been dug out, so there are obviously badgers in the area.  There were wasps still present, so it had been dug out recently, possibly by the same badger that was killed on the road.

I don’t know if this means there is a sett nearby and the verge is part of their territory, or whether this was a lone badger, but it’s given me more clues about the badgers in the area.  One thing still puzzles me though – the missing body of the badger.  I mean, what sort of person goes round picking up dead badgers off the road?  Apart from me, obviously…