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Posts Tagged ‘Woburn’

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.

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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.

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More Waxwings

A few days after I went to see the waxwings in Woburn the flock finished eating the berries on that particular tree moved on, so I saw them at just the right time.  Mind you, there have been reports of waxwings from all across the UK, so this definitely seems to be a ‘waxwing winter’.  I came across another flock myself a couple of days before Christmas, 30 or so birds in a tree by the industrial estate on the A507 in Flitwick, Bedfordshire.  Unfortunately the snow and ice made it impossible to stop (and it is a busy main road), but it gave me a quiet sense of satisfaction to have found my own flock.  Following the paparazzi is one thing, but finding your own flock of waxwings is somehow better.

On the same subject, one of my fellow watchers in Woburn found the post and got in touch.  Richard has taken some absolutely stunning pictures of the Woburn waxwings, and with his permission I’d like to post them up here.  Click on the pictures to see the larger versions – you won’t be disappointed, these really are excellent photographs of truly stunning birds.  The copyright of these pictures belongs to Richard Gleave.

Waxwing by Richard Gleave

Waxwing by Richard Gleave

Waxwing flock in Woburn by Richard Gleave

Waxwing flock in Woburn by Richard Gleave

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Red Deer Stag at Woburn

Red Deer Stag at Woburn

 

Today was one of those days when various threads come together in a fortunate way.  Firstly, I have now finished my professional logbook – a task that I’ve been working on, on and off (mostly off) for the last three years – so I have some free time again.  Secondly, it was a nice day and I was looking after Scarlett, so I had the perfect excuse for a walk.  Thirdly, it was the third Sunday in the month, which meant that the Woburn Farmers’ Market was on.  Lastly, we’re in October so the Red Deer in Woburn Deer park are starting their rut.

It was too good an opportunity to pass up.  I put Scarlett in her buggy and took a walk through the deer park to visit the farmers’ market and have lunch in the tea shop in the crypt of the church.

As I’ve said before, the Woburn Deer Park is a great place to visit.  It is crossed by public footpaths so you can stroll through at your leisure (stick to the paths though please).  I’m very lucky having it on my doorstep as I can walk there in the evenings when it’s quiet.  The Woburn estate has had a big influence on the wildlife in the local area, particularly the 11th Duke, who was responsible for introducing almost every non-native species at large in the UK.  From muntjac to wels catfish, if you can think of an alien species it’s a fair bet that it was originally introduced in Woburn by the 11th Duke and subsequently escaped.  One of these days I really will write a book on the subject.

 

Black Squirrel at Woburn

Black Squirrel at Woburn

 

One of the animals allegedly introduced into Woburn is the black squirrel.  This is not a separate species, it is a melanistic version of the common grey squirrel.  They’re something of a local speciality here in Bedfordshire and I’ve seen a few now.  I’ve been trying to get a picture of one for a while – a clear picture that doesn’t just show a black blur like a snapshot of bigfoot or the Beast of Bodmin.  Today I got my chance, right in the heart of the Woburn estate where the black squirrels originated.

The real attraction were the deer though.  The Red Deer are starting their rut.  Over the past few weeks the stags have been getting increasingly territorial.  They each find a space of their own and start to call out to the females, who have banded together into small groups or harems.  The Deer Park is dotted with very impressive, testosterone-fuelled stags, each sporting a fine set of antlers and bellowing out their calls.  These calls are very atmospheric as they drift across the park, each stag roaring out his challenge.  If one stag enters the territory of another they’ll face each other off until the less dominant one turns and runs.  As the rut progresses the stags will become more and more aggressive until they come to physical blows, heads down and antlers locked in a violent pushing contest to see who will win the right to the females.

The deer were some distance away from the footpath, which was fine because I don’t like to get too close to the stags when they’re in this sort of mood.  I managed to shoot some video which is as good as I could get with my little camera (I really must get around to building that parabolic microphone one day, but that’s another story).  The video gives you an idea  of what happens with the deer but doesn’t really capture the full spectacle.  For that, there’s no substitute to getting out and experiencing it for yourself.  If you have a deer park nearby, now is a perfect time to go out and pay it a visit.

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Things have been busy at work and home lately, and with the nights drawing in it has meant that I’ve had less time for wildlife.  Nevertheless, there was one spectacle I had no intention of missing, and that was the Red Deer rut.

Red Deer Stag

Red Deer Stag

Last Sunday I took a trip to Woburn Abbey, our nearest deer park.  You may think it’s cheating, watching the deer in a park instead of in the wild, but as an experience it was hard to beat.

The good thing about the deer park at Woburn is that it is criss-crossed by public footpaths.  If the Duke of Bedford should ever read this, I’d like to say thanks for this generous and far-sighted move.  It means that you can get close to the deer and also walk through the park in the afternoon when it is quiet.  Whilst the deer are by no means tame, they are habituated to people to a degree, so they are not as shy as their wild cousins.

This was the first time I’d spent any length of time in the park during the rut (I’ve been trail running through it during the rut before, but that’s a different story) and the experience was absolutely fantastic.  I deliberately went in the late afternoon, so I had the park pretty much to myself.  Even as I walked up to the gates I could hear the Red Deer stags bellowing.  The stags had spaced themselves out around the park and were calling to attract mates and challenge other stags.

Red Deer stags are truly impressive beasts.  With a full set of antlers, and charged up on testosterone, they seem even bigger than they really are.  The still evening air was full of bellows and grunts, giving an unreal and almost prehistoric feel to the situation.  They may have been park deer, but this evening they were as wild as any others.

Fallow stag at Woburn

Fallow stag at Woburn

I stuck firmly to the paths and gave the stags as wide a berth as possible.  My second-worst fear was that they would somehow mistake me for another male deer and take offence.  I was carrying a walking stick, but I doubt it would help in a fight, and I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of those antlers.  I’ve seen the stags when they clash antlers, and it’s incredibly fast and ferocious.

My very worst fear was that they would somehow mistake me for a female deer…

In all, I spent a couple of hours in the park.  Like I said, it was an incredible experience, and I’d whole-heartedly recommend a trip to Woburn for anyone.  Make the effort and get out of your car and you’ll be amply rewarded.  I’ll certainly be a regular visitor over the winter months.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer

In passing, Woburn is the home to many other species of deer, including the odd-looking Pere David’s Deer, now extinct in their native China.  Another deer from that part of the world is the Chinese Water Deer.  I mentioned these a couple of posts ago.  Like the Muntjac they were originally brought to Britain by the Duke of Bedford and subsequently escaped and bred in the wild.  To make up for not getting a photo of a wild one, here’s one from the park.  Note the large canine teeth.  Even so, these little deer are much cuter (and far less intimidating) than rutting Red Deer.

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