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Young badger at the west end of the sett

I suppose this is a badger, watching man...

It’s been a confusing day.  It’s October, but it’s felt like July.  The hottest day in October ever, apparently.  Mrs BWM and Scarlett are away, so I’ve been doing what any man would do – cutting the grass, tidying the vegetable beds and visiting plumbing shops.  And, what with it being such a nice day, watching badgers.

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This is late in the season for me to be badger watching, but I haven’t been out much lately so I took the opportunity.  Partly to see how the badgers are doing, partly just because it’s nice to be out in the woods.  It may have felt like a summer’s day, with the warmth and the smell of fresh-cut grass, but it is definitely autumn.  The wheat field on the way to the wood has been sown with winter wheat, and it is already a couple of inches tall.  In the wood itself the trees were alive with the scurrying of squirrels, busily gathering food for the winter.  Having now seen red squirrels I can allow myself to feel a little blase about ordinary grey ones.  The badger sett is surrounded by chestnut trees and the squirrels were working them hard.  The still evening was punctuated by a steady rain of chestnuts dropped from the treetops above.

I was interested to see that the western end of the sett is in active use again, as so far this year the badgers have confined themselves to the east end only.  At 6.10pm the young badger emerged from the west end, had a good scratch and a snuffle about, and went back in.  It looks very much like the cub has moved out of the parental home and set up on his or her own.

Young badger at the west end of the sett 2

Young badger at the west end of the sett

The movement of badgers within the sett continues to fascinate (and puzzle) me.  This is as clear an example as I’ve seen of this movement, made more visible by the low number of badgers this year, but I still don’t know what drives a badger to change from one hole to another.

At 6.16 a badger emerged from the east end of the sett, followed a minute or so later by another.  My best estimate is that there are only three badgers in residence this year, so here they all were – daddy badger, mummy badger and baby badger – a proper family unit.  Here’s hoping that the numbers continue to build up next year.

I sat for a while against a tree and watched the badgers foraging as the light faded, getting bitten by late mosquitoes and half-expecting to be hit by a chestnut dropped by one of the squirrels.  Despite having watched badgers for some years now, I never get tired of sitting in a wood at dusk, sharing the evening with badgers as they go about their business.

Adult badger at the east end of the sett

Adult badger at the east end of the sett

I sat and watched as one of the adults slowly snuffled closer and closer.  When it reached about 20 feet from me it stopped and sniffed the air before trotting back to the sett.  There was no wind, but it had obviously got my scent.  I took this to be my cue to leave.  So ended a pleasant evening – sitting out in just my shirt, watching badgers in October.

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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.

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Alder tree by the brookThe snow has finally melted.  Today has been a balmy 7 degrees and beautifully sunny.  It may not sound very warm, but compared to the past weeks when the temperature didn’t rise above freezing for days on end it feels positively spring-like.  I took advantage and headed out for a stroll in the (slightly soggy) countryside.

I had no particular aim in mind, but with a vague idea of looking at the birds I headed over to the lake.  I don’t go there very often, but there is always the chance of visiting waterfowl.  As it happened the lake was still iced over with not a bird in sight, but the hedges were alive with blue tits, great tits, chaffinches and sparrows.   My personal favourites were a flock of long-tailed tits working their way through the trees.  These are delightful birds but absolutely impossible to photograph.  They are always on the move, flitting about from branch to branch as they forage, never staying in one place for long.  One of these days I’ll be in the right place and get a picture as they travel past.

Talking of ambitions, there is one animal that I’ve been quietly trying to photograph for a while now, and that is the black squirrel.  The black squirrel is the melanistic (black) version of the common grey squirrel.  There are populations of black squirrels in a number of places around the country, and some experts believe that the black coat is genetically dominant and will eventually replace the ordinary grey colour.  This hasn’t happened yet, or shown any signs of doing so, so black squirrels are still fairly uncommon.

There is a known population of black squirrels centred on Woburn in Bedfordshire.  I’ve only seen one once before, and it was very striking – a squirrel, but with a black coat.  Ever since then I’ve wanted to get a picture of one.  Today, I got my chance.

Black Squirrel

The almost legendary Black Squirrel of Woburn

Unfortunately the squirrel was quite distant so it was at the very limit of my camera zoom, but it is unmistakeably a black squirrel. I feel a little bit like those people who photograph Bigfoot, only to get home and find the picture only shows a dark blur in the distance, but at least I know it was there.

Black Squirrel

NOT a Bigfoot, but a black squirrel...

I walked home along the brook.  Halfway down I came across a clear animal path running from an old, disused little quarry into the fields.  Now, this looked to me like a classic badger path.  The old quarry was a perfect spot for a badger sett – they love places like this where they can dig sideways into the side of a bank, and the soil is usually dry and well-drained.  There were signs of digging and spoil heaps in the quarry, so something was burrowing there.  In short, it looked exactly like a badger path, except it ran across a 6″ deep fast-flowing brook.

Brook crossed by a badger path

The brook crossed by a badger(?) path

Could this really be a badger path?  Would the badgers really wade across the brook every night to get to the fields?  There were no really conclusive tracks so it is difficult to be sure either way.  Something had made the path, but I don’t know what.  Since the brook is close to my house it looks like an ideal place to make a track trap – to spread some sand and see what tracks I can get.  If it is a badger path then I’ll be back in the summer to see if I can stake it out and get a picture of an aquatic badger.  Remember, you heard it here first!

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I had been getting a little perplexed by the behaviour of my badgers; in particular I was worried that they had been driven to eat bark by the recent dry weather.  However, the more I looked at the problem, the less sure I became.

Thanks very much to everyone who shared their experience with me here.  Spiney, for instance, sent me a picture of bark-eating near a badger sett in Yorkshire.  This looks like a beech tree – another tree with quite a sugary bark.

Bark eating - picture by Spiney - thanks!

Bark eating - picture by Spiney - thanks!

John from Badgerpics.org.uk very helpfully supplied information on the bark-eating habits of different animals, whilst on a related topic Josie was very helpful with further details of the badger ‘nests’.  Thanks everyone – it’s great to have this sort of assistance.

To try and settle the matter I spent the evening down at the Pine Tree sett.  My plan was to lurk around and see if I could catch the culprit in the act.

When I arrived I realised that it was even less likely that badgers were to blame.  The bark-eating had spread to the neighboring trees and extended far up into the branches.  There is no way a badger could get so high on such a thin branch.

More bark damage

More bark damage

In fact, the only animal I know that can reach these branches is a squirrel.  This seems to be the only possible explanation.  It is far too high for deer, rabbits, badgers or even voles.  The toothmarks on the high level damage are the same as on the ground level damage, so the same animal is responsible for all of it.

Bark tooth marks

Bark tooth marks

There were indeed squirrels in the area, and they were feeding in the sycamore trees, but I couldn’t quite see exactly what they were feeding on.

To make sure, I sat well back from the area and waited, just in case a badger came out and had a quick nibble on a tree.  I was sitting far back from the bank so I couldn’t see the hole, but at 8.50pm I heard the unmistakable sound of a badger scratching, and then a few seconds later the badger itself ambled into view.  Before I could even raise the camera it trotted off towards the southern end of the sett.  It walked past the freshly gnawed tree without even a second glance.

So there you have it.  Two hours of sitting in a wood for one 15 second view of a badger.  It was worth it though.  The bark was a mystery, but it’s been an interesting challenge to work out what was going on.

So, to conclude, it seems that badgers can and do eat bark, particularly sycamore.  However, on this occasion it looks like I have one or more rogue squirrels in the area who have taken a liking to it.  The fact that they started to eat the bark at ground level and right outside a badger sett put me on the wrong track for a while, but the true facts emerged.

Like I said, it keeps me out of mischief!

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