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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.

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I think it’s time I got back to some serious badgerology.

I was up at the wood on Saturday, and an interesting evening it was too. Firstly, the badgers have started feeding on the wheat in the wheat field.  This seems to become a regular food source as soon as it ripens.  The badgers seem to have a simple way of getting at the wheat – they trample down the stalks and then pull off the grain.  You can see the patches where they have been feeding.

Badger feeding signs in wheat

Badger feeding signs in wheat

These feeding signs are accompanied by fresh dung, full of wheat.  In this case, there is quite an impressive amount.

Badger dung in wheat

Badger dung in wheat

The badgers use this field all year (I see their tracks), but the latrines only appear when they are feeding on the wheat.  Now, it could be that wheat has an effect on their digestion that makes latrines necessary, but my guess is that it is probably territorial.  The wheat fields are a major food resource, so it makes sense that each badger clan will try and claim it as their territory, marking it out with latrine sites.  When there is no food, there is no need to mark it, hence the latrines only occur when the wheat is ripe.  I must get round to some more of the latrine sites to see which ones contain wheat.  That would be interesting, to find out which badgers have been feeding here.

When I arrived, the local buzzard was flying from tree to tree, calling all the time.  I could see it through binoculars, perched high up on a branch.  I don’t know why buzzards call like this.  It is too late for mating, so perhaps it is a territorial display.

I tried to record the sound using the video function on my camera.  You can’t actually see the buzzard on the video, but turn the volume up and you should hear its cry.  It kept this noise up for over an hour!

At 8.30 a badger emerged briefly from the western sett entrance and then almost immediately went back underground.  Ten minutes later the cub did the same.  They seemed nervous.  It sounds strange, but badgers seem to be afraid of buzzards.  A buzzard would have no chance of carrying off even a half-grown badger, yet I’ve seen an entire family of badgers dive for cover when one passed overhead.

Five minutes later a badger came out and trotted off to the west, followed five minutes later by another, and then another and another, all at five minute intervals.  None of them stayed near the sett entrance.  This means that there were at least four badgers in this half of the sett.

Another ten minutes passed and badgers five and six emerged from the same hole.  As they did so, the badgers at the east end of the sett came out into a clearing, foraging, playing and, amusingly, trying to climb trees.  I counted five badgers in the group, which, plus the two at the west, gave a total of seven badgers visible at the same time.

One noteworthy behaviour was a fight that developed between two adult badgers.  Badgers will usually engage in some rough and tumble play or play-fighting, but this was more serious.  It ended with one badger running off, hotly pursued by the other.  I could hear their noises at least a hundred yards off; for them to go this far meant it was serious.  Perhaps this was an issue about dominance being acted out.

The other interesting event of the night was a fox that trotted past.  This must one of the cubs from earlier in the year.  I tried Pablo’s trick of calling in a fox by making a high-pitched squeaking noise (see here for a very impressive video), and blow me, it worked!  The fox changed direction and came trotting up to the base of my tree!

It obviously felt that something wasn’t right, but I was sitting very still and was well camouflaged.  So the fox did a very cunning thing – it walked round my tree in a big circle.

I’ve read about this behaviour but never seen it before.  It happens when an animal such as a fox is not sure about you, so they circle round to get downwind  so they can check you out.  Clever little fox!  Since I was in a tree and there was virtually no wind I must have passed the test, for the fox carried on wandering about.  It was too dark for pictures, but I watched through the binoculars.  The fox was young – its coat sleek and perfect, quite unlike the scruffy urban foxes we got in London.  I know that foxes aren’t everyone’s friend, and I know the damage they can do, but they’re still beautiful creatures when you see them in their element.

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Autumn dawn

Autumn dawn

A couple of days ago I saw my first Sparrowhawk.  I’ve been looking out for Sparrowhawks for a while now.  I know they’re found in my area, and I know the habitat around our village is perfect for them.  I’ve got friends who regard them almost as pests as they prey on the birds attracted to their bird tables.  I’m not a twitcher by any means – I don’t have list of birds to tick off – but I’ve got a thing about birds of prey and I’ve wanted to see a sparrowhawk.

The irony is, that after countless hours spent in the fields and woods, I saw my first Sparrowhawk sitting on the top of a lamppost on the outskirts of our local town, Bletchley.

In a way it was a little disappointing, but it’s got me thinking about urban wildlife in general and how resilient nature is.  After all, many species are adapting and living alongside man. When I lived in London I had dozens of urban foxes in my garden, but here in the country I’ve only seen a handful.  There are urban badgers in some places, and even reports of urban otters.  And what about the pigeons?  How many people have seen a proper wild Rock Dove, compared to the millions who see urban pigeons every day?  Not to mention the colonies of wild budgies living in South London.

I suppose it is all rather encouraging.  Although the urban landscape is spreading, the wildlife is adapting.  Sure, there are probably as many losers as winners, but it is adapting nonetheless.  The first Red Kite I ever saw was on a bleak mountain in a spectacularly remote part of Wales, four or five hours walk from the nearest road or house.  The last Red Kite I saw was over a dual carriageway off the Oxford ring road.  Perhaps you can’t compare the two experiences, but I’m glad to see the Red Kites flourishing in all areas.

Hopefully I’ll now see more Sparrowhawks, in more aesthetically pleasing surroundings.  I’ve noticed that once you’ve seen one example of a particular bird, or animal, or plant, you tend to see more.  Take Buzzards for example.  When we moved to the village I was convinced that it was the right environment for Buzzards.  I spent hours staring distractedly at the sky hoping to see one, yet it took me two years before I finally got my first sighting.  Now, of course, I see and hear them all the time.  I can take you to four or five spots that each have their own local Buzzard, all within walking distance of my house.

Did my village suddenly get overrun with Buzzards two years ago?  Of course not.  I think what happened was that I became more tuned in to the Buzzards.  Once my ‘Buzzard-sense’ had developed it allowed me to see them much more easily.  The same thing is happening now as I learn to track mammals.  I am seeing vole runs and badger latrines that I must have walked past a hundred times without realising, but now I’m tuned in they stand out clearly.

If there is a meaning to this story, I guess it’s that you should be aware of your local environment.  It’s fine to dash around to new places looking for new wildlife, but spending time getting tuned in pays dividends in the long run.

Here’s to more Sparrowhawks, whether they be urban or rural!

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The tiny badger cub foragingOn the face of it, it wasn’t the best of days. The wind was gusty and the dark clouds threatened rain, as if a summer storm was brewing. But it had been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down to the wood, so I went anyway. A short (but very enjoyable) walking holiday and the inevitable long hours at work have conspired to keep me away until this evening.

One of the fields I walk through on my way to the wood has wheat in it this year, and there are signs that the badgers are already starting to feed on the ripening grain. Feeding on cereals is often seen as something that badgers do in drought conditions when worms are hard to come by. This year hasn’t been especially dry, so I imagine the worms must still be fairly plentiful, yet they seem to be eating the corn anyway. Perhaps it is just an easy source of food. Perhaps they just like it.Badger dung showing cereal diet

The best indicator of cereal eating in badgers is to examine their dung. I’ve never stooped so low as to start poking around in it, but you can tell a lot about what the badger has been eating just by looking at it. I took this picture this evening. The dung is green and full of cereal grains, in clear contrast to the brown, earthy dung you typically get with an earthworm diet.

The wind was blowing from an odd direction, so I had to approach the sett from a different way to usual. I’ve mentioned before that you should always approach a sett quietly and from downwind. This proved to be very true today, since one of the badgers was out and about early. I arrived at about 7.00pm, and since the badgers have usually been emerging about 8.00pm or so, this one was very early.

With my best attempt at cat-like stealth I crept up behind a tree about 20 yards from the sett. I was downwind, so I was pretty safe from discovery, and if I didn’t make any noise the badger was unlikely to notice me.

It was a badger cub, and from the size of it, it was the tiny cub I had noticed last time. It was busy foraging, pushing its nose into the leaf mould and grubbing about; indeed the ground all around was pock-marked with dozens of little snuffle-holes where it had rooted out worms or bugs. I don’t know if it is the runt of the litter. Do badger litters have runts? Is its small size connected to the fact that it was out early, and obviously feeding with some enthusiasm? Perhaps it is a younger cub from another litter and has some catching up to do before the lean months of winter. I have a lot of questions, but no answers yet.

I peered out from behind my tree and took a quick video. It became clear to me now I was here that the wind was entirely wrong for any decent badger watching tonight. There was nowhere downwind that offered me any cover and yet allowed a view of the sett. The only cover available was virtually on top of the sett, or nearly as bad, right next to the main badger paths. If I stayed there until the rest of the family came out I was certain to disturb the badgers in one way or another, so reluctantly I backed away and left the little cub to it.

Click here to visit YouTube and click on ‘watch in high quality’ for a better view.

It was frustrating not to get my fix of badger watching for the night, but that’s how it goes. There was no point in staying and trying to make the most of a bad situation.

As a consolation I sat in the field for a while and watched the local buzzard performing acrobatics, swooping and diving in the strong wind. All buzzards are quite spectacular birds, looking as they do like little eagles, but this individual is quite a show off. I’ve watched it before as it’s flown through the wood itself, swerving and dodging around the tree trunks and crying out its mewing call, and that’s a sight to see.

I watch the buzzard slowly disappear eastwards, and for a change I walk home while it is still light.

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