Posts Tagged ‘Bedfordshire’

OK, yeah.  I know.  It’s been a while.  I can’t make excuses, other than to say that running a family and career takes almost all my time these days.

Anyhow, something happened this morning that is worthy of recording for posterity.  Mrs BWM left for the early shift at work.  About half a mile from the house she came across the body of a dead animal by the side of the road.

Now, roadkill deer are pretty common in these parts, mostly Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, and you quickly get used to them.  But Mrs BWM has obviously picked up some of my roadkill obsession because she had a good look as she drove past.

And it wasn’t a deer.  It had a big long tail.  And little short front legs.  In her words “there’s a bl**dy dead kangaroo on the road!”  She’s a great wife and she snapped a pic with her phone.

Bedfordshire Wallaby

Bedfordshire Wallaby

Yup – it’s a dead kangaroo.  Actually, I’m no expert, but I’m guessing it’s a wallaby.  I’m also guessing that it’s an escapee from the nearby safari park.  There’s a rumour that there are a fair number of them living wild in the local area.  This isn’t so far-fetched – there are a number of naturalised wallaby colonies in the UK, and frankly so many species have escaped from Woburn over the years and become naturalised (from Muntjac to Wels catfish) that one more isn’t surprising.

Mind you, if there were more of these in the area then I’d have expected to either have seen one or heard about them.  If wallabies are hopping across the main road like this one did (albeit unsuccessfully) then you’d think more people would notice.  As it is, there is someone in Bedfordshire now who is trying to explain that they got the dent in their car from crashing into a kangaroo last night…





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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…

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

Charles Tunnicliffe


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…

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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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Monitoring Badger Setts near Ampthill

Monitoring Badger Setts near Ampthill

According to the news it was the UK’s worst storm this year.  Heavy rain and gale force winds, gusting up to 70mph and causing damage in exposed places.  This was the weather forecast for Saturday, coincidentally the date of the long-planned field trip of the Bedfordshire Badger Network.

In the event, the rain eased off on Saturday morning, and although the wind was still strong it was a bright, clear day.  The plan for the field trip was to visit and monitor the badger setts in a wood near the town of Ampthill.  Unfortunately the wood is on top of a high ridge and exposed to the full force of the wind, which meant that there was a significant risk of falling branches.  In fact, members of the network had been visiting this wood under similar conditions on a field trip last year, when a full-sized oak tree had come crashing the ground.  They wisely decided to beat a retreat.

Common sense prevailed again this year.  Instead of visiting the wood we elected to drop down off the high ridge and visit the known setts in the more sheltered valley below.   This area is well known to the committed members of the network as it was the site of their large-scale bait marking study, which over ten years mapped the territories of badger clans across a wide area (see the Bedfordshire Naturalist 2007 for details, available from the Bedfordshire Natural History Society).  The full story of the study, and how the badger territories changed over time, makes fascinating reading and is a tribute to the hard work that went into it.

If the setts in the area are well known, why did we need to visit them?  Well, for me it was a chance for a walk in the countryside, to get some fresh air and talk about badger-related matters.  On a more serious note, although badgers will stay in the same territories and setts for hundreds of years, they are rarely static.  Setts become more or less active over time as the populations change and shift.  Regular monitoring helps you to understand these changes.

We visited a dozen or so locations and looked for evidence of recent activity.  New setts and new holes were mapped using GPS (this is real high-tech badger watching), and other evidence such as dung pits was examined.  Individually, each observation doesn’t mean much, but the network has been monitoring the area for years and these little snippets build up into an impressive record of badgers in the environment.

We enjoyed the bracing wind and clear skies for most of the morning until, as we headed home, the clouds rolled in and the torrential rain came down (or rather sideways).  Nevertheless, it was a very good way to spend a day, and it was good to get back amongst badgers again.

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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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It’s confession time again.

I’ve been guilty of occasional birdwatching for many years.  Nothing too serious – putting out food in the garden, listening to birdsong, watching the buzzards over the fields – the usual stuff.  I thought I could handle it.

But now I’ve crossed a line.  I’ve joined the hardcore of birdwatching.  I’ve become a twitcher.

There is something about birds that seems to affect men of my age (no 1970s sexist pun intended!), and we seem to get strangely obsessed by ticking them off lists.  There are people who take this to extremes, attempting to see every single bird species in the world (seriously), and many more that will travel across the UK to see a rarity that has been blown to these shores by freak winds or got badly lost while migrating.

I’m not in this category, but I have developed the list-ticking habit.  I’ve been looking at the birds in my local area, and idly wondering how many different species there are, and how many I’ve seen.  One thing led to another, and I downloaded the county bird list from the Bedfordshire Bird Club.  Birdwatchers keep many lists, so there are lists for each county as well as for the UK as a whole.  A bird that may be commonplace in one area may be a rarity in another, so there is a challenge to ticking off these county lists.

I’m not at the stage yet where I’m prepared to jump in the car and dash off to the other end of Bedfordshire to tick off a Siberian Lesser-Spotted Gronky Bird or some such rarity that has just arrived, but I am working my way through the list, ticking off the species as I see them in the course of my usual rambles.  As a very novice birdwatcher, the challenge for me is not so much spotting a rare bird, it’s identifying the common ones that are all around me.  There’s an awful lot of birds out there, and ticking off the list helps me to learn to recognise them, particularly the little brown ones that all look the same to me.

So how am I doing?  Well, I’m afraid I’m not going to have Bill Oddie knocking on my door any time soon.  There are 292 birds on the Bedfordshire county bird list.  So far, as the title of this post suggests, I’ve seen and positively identified 45 of them.  I have some way to go yet!


Dunnock in my garden

This is the 45th bird on my list – the Dunnock.  Not a great picture, but you get the idea.  The Dunnock is a small, brown bird that looks pretty much like a sparrow to the novice.  In fact, I’ve probably had them in the garden for years without noticing.  The defining features are the orange legs and the row of pale spots on the wings.  Dunnocks also tend to keep low, and they are happy to hop around the garden and flit from bush to bush.

You see, not only can I tick off number 45 on my list, but the list itself is encouraging me to learn more about my local birds.  Bird lists are good things!

Now, where was that Siberian Gronky Bird reported…

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It’s always the way.  You wait for ages for one Red Kite, and then three turn up at once.

On  Sunday I got up early, packed up a flask of tea and some food, and went out for an early stroll and a picnic breakfast.  I sat under the big oak tree and looked across the valley, drinking tea and watching the antics of a Chinese Water Deer in the field below.

At 7.40am three Red Kites rose up from the woods on the other side of the valley.  They circled slowly, gaining height, and then soared away in different directions.  Within five minutes the valley was empty again.

It was as fine a view for breakfast as you could hope for.  The Red Kite is now definitely ticked off my local species list.  I need to find something else to focus on.

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The Red Kite has been preying on my mind.

After my wife saw it, and after I saw it myself from my car, I just had to get a better view of it.  Like I said, it isn’t a great rarity, but it is unusual for this area, and for me that’s a good enough reason to try and track it down.  I resolved to get outside and find it.

I’ve got friends who live in the Chilterns who would be perplexed by this.  Over there the kites are almost as common as sparrows and it isn’t unusual to have ten or more in the sky at one time.

But as far as I know we’ve only got the one kite around here, and this makes it special.  So what are the chances of finding one individual bird?  I love a challenge so this is just the sort of thing I enjoy, and it gave me a perfect excuse to get out and about.  I was a naturalist on a mission!

Half past seven this morning saw me wandering the countryside, binoculars in hand.  I concentrated on the road where I saw the kite, and followed a big loop all around it.  The road itself is at the bottom of a broad, dry valley, so I followed the footpaths on either side of it.

Two hours and five miles later my breakfast was calling me, and I conceded defeat.  Perhaps looking for a single bird, one that could effortlessly cover a territory miles across, was a bit far-fetched after all.

But the idea wouldn’t go away.  By early evening I had finished what I needed to do around the house, so I grabbed the binoculars and headed out for a short walk.  It was a beautiful evening to be out, so it seemed a waste to be sitting indoors.

Half a mile or so from my house there is a large oak tree where you can sit and look out across the valley.  I sat and scanned the landscape slowly, and there, perched on a tree about 500 yards away, was a large bird of prey.  As I watched it slowly flapped off and glided into a patch of woodland.

I couldn’t see the shape of the wings or the tail as it was flying directly away from me, but it was a reddish brown colour with a distinctly pale head.  It was my Red Kite.  I had managed to find it.

The reintroduction of the Red Kite has been a phenomenal success story, and the rate at which they are spreading across the country means that they are likely to be commonplace here within a few years.  Nevertheless, I’ll always be able to think of the time when I tracked down the first Red Kite I saw in Bedfordshire.

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