Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chandos Road, Ampthill

A Happy Christmas to everyone who happens to stop by here...can't believe how inactive I've been over the past few weeks, but looking forward to 2010 and trying out my new small mammal traps, joining the local Bat Group in their hibernation surveys, travelling to Scotland, and doing lots of other wonderful things.

I've got a few of my animal friends to put together a winter video for you:


Friday, November 27, 2009

Otter vs Mink - who's winning?

Carole and I have just got back from a week away at our little cottage tucked away in Lower End, literally on the Bedfordshire/Buckinghamshire border (our front room is in Buckinghamshire and our front door opens on to Bedfordshire!). Frustratingly, I've left the camera/computer lead there, so I'll pop back to get it tomorrow and, hopefully, post something then.

In the meantime, and following on from my last post, there is a fascinating article by Andrew & Lauren Harrington in November's BBC Wildlife magazine exploring the relationship between Otters, Polecats and Mink now that the former two mammals are, once again, on the increase in our countryside - this is certainly true of Bedfordshire.

I love the opening paragraph: 'Like Goldilocks, American Mink moved into an empty house - and ever since they've been breaking the furniture, sleeping in the beds and eating the porridge (well, Water Voles). They've done very well for themselves in Britain. But, over the past few years, the local 'bears' - Otters and Polecats - have started making a comeback. The stage is set for a kind of modern day 'war in the willows' and the battle is on. Or is it?'

Andrew and Lauren are well-placed and well-qualified to comment, working for Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and having studied Mink on the River Thames at Oxford since 2003.

In recent years there has been encouraging news circulating in various circles involving naturalists and other wildlife enthusiasts, particularly those individuals who have rued the decimation of our Water Vole population. The hopeful talk has been of circumstantial evidence confirming that our returning Otters are, indeed, beginning to displace Mink. But Andrew & Lauren's research seems to suggest otherwise. Although Mink scats are not being encountered as often as in previous years alongside their riverine habitat, healthy Mink are still being trapped as frequently as ever on 'Mink rafts'.

I find the theory as to what is going on fascinating. Let me quote the relevant paragraphs:

'The Mink appeared to be occupying the same waterside real estate, in the same general pattern as before the arrival of Otters, with several non-overlapping female territories being overlapped by that of a single male. They ate a little less fish and a few more birds, but otherwise nothing much seemed to have changed. However, when walking the river by day to search for Mink dens, we came across a Mink swimming.
This was not unusual in itself (though we would have expected the nocturnal Mink to be sleeping). Mink are as adaptable in their habits as in habitat. But it became more noteworthy when our teams of volunteers went out at night wielding radio transmitters and antennae, all set to track several Mink that had been fitted with tiny radio-transmitters on collars, only to find them all sleeping, safely tucked up in their dens.
We followed our Mink intently, around the clock, and confirmed that they were now sleeping at night, but active in the middle of the day. Curious, we dug through old files to find radio-tracking data from the 1990s, before the Otters had returned, and discovered that in those days Mink behaved as expected: they were active at night (generally for only a couple of hours) and mostly slept during the day. It would seem that our Mink have changed their activity patterns to avoid the large nocturnal Otters...The strange disappearance of the Mink scats may simply mean that the Mink are less keen to advertise their presence now.'

It may be that the Mink are avoiding the nocturnal Polecat, too, and it has been noted that Mink today are on average 100-200g lighter than those caught and examined in the 1990s, which could be a result of the new challenges they're facing in the face of the return of our Otters and Polecats.

The article concludes, '...in the intensely farmed landscape of southern England, where Mink are confined to narrow strips of riverside habitat, it is harder to avoid competitors, and so other strategies may be necessary for them to live side by side with their relatives. it is also possible that more subtle effects, such as decreased body weight or increased stress, may cause a decline in Mink numbers in the longer term.
This, as you can probably see, is only the beginning of the story. A field biologist's job is never done - only time will tell what will happen on our rivers over the next decade.'

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Priory Country Park - Finger Lakes

I found a few remains of old Otter spraint earlier today....David Barnes found a whole Otter!

This is one of several of David's brilliant photos that you'll find on the Priory Country Park blog (see the link on the right-hand side) following his brilliant encounter with an Otter in the Finger Lakes this morning.

Priory Country Park was one of the places that I'd considered visiting earlier - there have been Otter sightings there on and off for the last few years and I've spent many hours in the Kramer Hide on cold, frosty mornings....hoping!

The good news is that we seem to be getting more Otter sightings in Bedfordshire and, interestingly, more during the daylight hours. This has been noted elsewhere, too, and may be down to the fact that the Otters are beginning to realise that they're most likely not going to be shot, or set on by hounds!* In recent weeks, a dead Otter was picked up close to Broom Gravel Pits, a mother and cubs has been spotted on the Ouse at Kempston, and there have been other sightings on the Ouse at Great Barford, and at Stewartby Lake and Harrold Odell Country Park....and I'm determined to get my own sighting before Christmas!

* I'm hoping that someone will buy me Kruuk's book - Otters: Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation - for Christmas. I think that he talks there about experiments that have established that salt water fish are more active at night, whilst the situation is reversed for coarse fish. This is posited as one reason why our inland Otters are more nocturnal compared to the Otters in Scotland, which seems to suggest that our local Otters will continue to spend a lot of time night-fishing!

Marston Vale Country Park - Wetlands

This morning I finally got out after being all but stuck inside for several weeks….oh, how I needed it...and enjoyed it!

I spent a few hours walking around the wetlands at MVCP. There were lots of finches about: Bullfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch & Greenfinch, and Redwings were everywhere, stripping the Hawthorns of their berries and constantly calling to one another.

At the Wetland Hide, I was really encouraged when I heard, and then saw, a Cetti’s Warbler flitting through the Reeds on the island. The waterfowl are building up on The Pillinge. I couldn’t find a Scaup amongst the rafts of Tufted Duck, but there was a solitary female Red Crested Pochard on the west side.

I was looking around for Otter spraint and, after a muddy scramble, I was really pleased to find some on the square stone at the end of this culvert on the right-hand side.

It was not fresh, but the smell was still obvious…sweet & fishy!! It looks like this piece of stone may have been placed here specifically for this purpose.

I came across this feather underneath a Tawny Owl nesting box. I’ve seen the like before and I should know what it is….but I just can’t get my brain to stump up the answer….any ideas?
Update: Steve Blain, our Bird Recorder, is fairly confident that this is one of the wing coverts from a female Pheasant.

I’m fairly sure that this is the Brown Rollrim (Paxillus involutus), the cap margin being inrolled. It’s not one to take home and include with your salad because it has been known to kill people when eaten over a period of time!

And this is the local millinery store for the little folk who come out at night and dance around the wetlands when we’re all tucked up in bed….Fairy Inkcaps (Coprinus disseminatus)!!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lower School, Ampthill

“It’s the first time that he’s sat through an assembly!”

The teacher’s words this morning regarding one of her more challenging pupils, and coming at the end of an assembly on the topic of migration, were a real encouragement. Every few months, I lead a wildlife assembly at one of the Lower Schools here in Ampthill. It started with an assembly that a group of us at the Bedfordshire Natural History Society put together, and the relationship has continued and grown. Sadly, the vast majority of our children seem to be losing touch with our local wildlife. When I held up a photo of a Swallow and asked if anyone knew what it was, the answers ranged from Blackbird to Magpie. It's the same story at the other schools I’m involved with, including the local Middle School, so it's a real privilege to be able to help at least some enthusiastic young people re-connect with their natural heritage, if in a small way.

The children range from pre-school to nine years of age, and I find it a real challenge to include all of them. I think good teachers earn every penny they make! This morning I began by telling the exciting story of Doug Holden’s discovery of the Eastern Crowned Warbler in Trow Quarry last month. We thought about just how far this bird had been blown off course from its home in Asia, and then considered the deliberate migration of a number of our birds.

We thought about how the Swallows that grace our skies in the summer are now catching insects on the wing some 6000 miles away in South Africa, and followed their journey across Europe and southwards through Africa, with many avoiding the Sahara by flying down the western coastline, or alongside the Nile.

We paused to consider how people used to believe that Swallows spent the winter hibernating alongside Frogs in the bottom of ponds, and I asked how it is we now know what really happens. “Because people on the telly tell us,” one young boy responded wisely! I talked about how, in the past, White Storks in Germany were sometimes found pierced with African arrows, and went on to discuss the importance of bird-ringing studies today.

We then thought about the House Martin, a bird that has built its delicate mud nest under the eaves of several of the homes represented in the hall. The children were amazed to learn that, out of some 3,000,000 birds ringed over the years, only one has been recovered south of the Sahara – in Nigeria, though small flocks have been observed in the mountainous regions of Zambia.

The next bird we considered was the Cuckoo. Asking the children if they knew what sound a Cuckoo makes was a masterstroke - there was a spontaneous chorus of mellifluous 'cuckoos' from all over the hall as both the youngest and the eldest children joined in! One of the younger children told us about the way in which the female Cuckoo lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, which helped me to emphasize just how amazing it is that a young Cuckoo never even sees its parents and yet, in August, migrates all the way to Africa. But it’s another mystery as to where they spend their winter because their familiar voice is silent there, and only a solitary ringed individual has been recovered – in Cameroon.

Our birds don’t only migrate to Africa, of course…and so I told the story of the Manx Shearwater that flies all the way from our coastline to the ocean waters off Brazil and Argentina.

The children were amazed as I went on to discuss a few species of insects, too, that make amazing journeys year on year. There were oohs and aahs as I showed them a photo of a Painted Lady butterfly. Millions migrated to the UK earlier this year…from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa! And only in the last few weeks has the return journey finally been proved thanks to the observant viewers of BBC's Autumnwatch. It involves several generations, but it's an amazing journey nevertheless. And the same can be said for the Monarch Butterfly whose annual cycle takes it from southern Canada to Mexico and back, though the returning insects are the ‘great-grandchildren’ of those that set off.

Until this year, the journey of the Monarch Butterfly was believed to be the longest round trip by any insect in the world – some 7000 km. But we finished the assembly as we thought about how this has been trumped in an amazing way this year with news of the migration of the Globe Skimmer dragonfly, and the work of the biologist, Charles Anderson. Charles lives in the Maldives and, after years of research, has all but confirmed the migration journey of these amazing insects between India and eastern & southern Africa, an incredible round trip of some 14,000 to 18,000 km!

Wow! Isn’t wildlife amazing!! That’s my strap-line for all of these assemblies and, judging from the round of applause and whistles, and the excited comments and “thank-you’s” of the children as they made their way out of the main hall and back to their classrooms, they thought so, too!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chandos Road....inside!

I came across a Thoreau quote earlier:

'Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always'

I think I'm going mad....I need to get out into the countryside....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chandos Road, Ampthill

This is my back garden - the wooden box is my moth trap. The following is an article published in this Autumn's edition of Muntjac, the newsletter of the Bedfordshire Natural History Society.

Trapping the fly-by-nighters
by Stephen Plummer

Have you ever thought about setting up a regular moth trap in your garden? It’s something that I’d wanted to do for years but never got around to. I’d built up a small list of moths over the years, including a Swallow-tailed moth discovered in the bathroom, and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth that had somehow wandered into the kitchen, both recorded in the autumn of 2005. But I confess that I doubted whether my very small, mostly paved rear garden here in Ampthill would actually yield much.

Then last December I came across an email that Andy Banthorpe had forwarded to the Beds Moth Group from a representative of the Garden Moth Scheme (GMS), encouraging new people to get involved. After running in the West Midlands from 2003 to 2006, the GMS now has people all over the UK recording moths in their gardens once a week between March and November, and sending the results to the GMS on a spreadsheet for analysis.

This was the nudge that I needed. I contacted one of the Scheme’s representatives and was delighted to be offered a free 15W Actinic Skinner Moth Trap and accessories, one of 10 available to be given to new members.

In March of this year I started putting the trap out every Thursday night. After a few disappointingly empty traps, I was really excited on March 19th to find my first six moths: four Common Quakers, a Small Quaker and a Clouded Drab. Lift off! From then on the species list started to grow. Some of my favourites during those early days included The Streamer, a beautiful violet-tinged specimen, and the dramatic Nut-tree Tussock.

But I guess it’s the Hawkmoth family that has the biggest ‘wow’ factor for most of us. I just didn’t think I would ever get any on my little patch. Then on May 14th, I peered into the trap to find a stunning bright Lime Hawkmoth clinging to the sides. I couldn’t believe it!

And things got even better. On May 26th I put the trap out as usual, but awoke in the early hours to the sound of heavy rain outside my window. It was 2.30 am but I reluctantly decided to get up and move the trap into the garage, getting soaked in the process. In the afternoon I brought the trap out into the fresh air to dry and was overjoyed to find a Small Elephant Hawkmoth inside. A few days later I caught my first Elephant Hawkmoth and, since then, I have also added Privet Hawkmoth and Poplar Hawkmoth to the list...so I’d happily been very wrong in my assumptions!

By now, much to my wife Carole’s despair, I was getting hooked, and the trap was being set up several times a week! Throughout June the number of species recorded continued to rise: Figure of Eight, Bird’s Wing, Lime-speck Pug, Spectacle, Bee Moth, Brown China-mark, Common Emerald, Smoky Wainscot and other marvellously named specimens visited my tiny patch. One night towards the end of June I had over 100 moths in the trap comprising 43 species! Those that I didn’t know I photographed and put on my Blog. Our recorders, Andy and Melissa Banthorpe and David Manning, would take a look and help me ID them to species if my - admittedly poor - photos showed the relevant detail.

July was a memorable month. On the evening of July 2nd I joined Andy and Melissa who were running a few traps at Maulden Wood. It was the most incredible night and I managed to see most of the record number of over 160 species that were recorded! The highlight for me was the stunning black and white spotted Leopard Moth which fluttered to the light fairly late on. Andy and Melissa gave me permission to take it home to photograph. When I got home in the early hours, I wandered into the back garden to see what was in my own trap before turning in...only to find two Leopard Moths resting on the egg boxes!

It’s always exciting to find something rare. A neat but relatively featureless moth in my trap that same night turned out to be a Fen Wainscot, the 15th Bedfordshire record, and a small micro-moth that turned up on August 17th was identified by David from my Blog as Aroga velocella, only the 3rd Bedfordshire record. I reckon this one must have come from Cooper’s Hill where it was recorded in 1997.

So far my little patch has recorded 173 separate species: a real revelation to me. Let me encourage you to get yourself a trap and have a go if, like me, you’ve been putting it off for some time. Maybe you’d like to become a part of the Garden Moth Scheme. Our Recorders are always really helpful in giving advice and helping with identification, and your records are always appreciated. There is a Beds Moth Group on the Internet where you can learn how other people are getting on, and there are lots of other helpful websites to inspire you.

You just never know what will be there when you peer into the trap in the morning. But I warn you now: it’s addictive!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Millbrook Warren

Just after dawn this morning I went for a walk in Millbrook Warren, just a little way west of Ampthill. This is designated to be the next Centre Parcs complex with some 700 lodges planned. For obvious reasons, I’m one of the local NIMBY folk who would rather Centre Parcs chose somewhere else to build…Once the fences are up, one of my favourite local wildlife havens will be out of bounds!

I’ve had some great close views of Red Fox, Chinese Water Deer and Muntjac in the past and, some years ago now, I used to have regular brilliant views of a male Lady Amherst’s Pheasant in Moor Plantation, but that bird is long-gone and we only know of some half-a-dozen or so male birds remaining in the whole of Bedfordshire.

But this is a Pheasant wood and there are Common Pheasants a-plenty. Alongside the game strip in the adjoining field (the brown area above) there were good numbers of Pheasants, and I counted at least 21 Red-legged Partridge, too. A Buzzard mewed overhead and an unseen Skylark on the ground practised a few phrases intermittently.

As I left the Plantation, I had a look under a corrugated tin refuge left behind by a wildlife consultant. An obviously-surprised Bank Vole stared up at me, wondering where his roof had gone. After a good 4 or 5 seconds he disappeared into the long grass. A few metres away there was another refuge and, lifting it up, I spotted this character giving me the once over – I think it was the same individual!

Close to the main road there is a large area bounded by white plastic sheeting. It is within this area that all of the Common Lizards caught in the wood have been placed prior to the possible destruction of their habitat. Several log-piles have been constructed within the perimeter. I didn’t see any Lizards, but what was almost certainly a Field Vole sought cover within one of the piles as I approached.

Other highlights:

Tuesday 27th October – Goldington Road, Bedford.

Whilst watching the Bedford Blues train this evening there was a constant stream of ‘tseeps’ heard from flocks of unseen birds passing over the tops of the floodlights – evidence of thousands of Redwings heading south.

Wednesday 28th October – Wavendon Heath.

I was passing the Heath and so parked up the car and went for a quick lunchtime walk. The highlight was a flock of a dozen or so Crossbills flying overhead and calling. I disturbed a pair of Muntjac deer which bounded into thick cover.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ampthill Park

‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose.’

I’ve always wanted to forage for Chestnuts and do something creative with them, so when I went for a walk over Ampthill Park first thing this morning, I made sure that I took a bag with me to collect some of the burgeoning harvest.

There are Sweet Chestnut trees all over the Park, but the one with the biggest specimens that I could find was situated almost on the very crest of the Greensand Ridge. It’s the tree in the photo above, to the left of the Beech tree. I wonder if its position results in more sunshine and warmth, assisting in the development of the nuts. In the distant past Sweet Chestnut trees originated from Greece, but the Romans were very fond of them and planted them for their food value all over the Empire. The nuts are different from the norm in that they are a rich source of carbohydrate, rather than protein.

I might try making some into soup, if these are big enough and suitable…..but what I really want to do is roast them in our wood-burning stove one romantic evening in the winter…watch this space!

I’m pretty confident that this Chestnut had been dealt with by a Woodpecker or, maybe, a Nuthatch, jammed into a crevice in the deeply-fissured bark and emptied of its core before falling to the ground.

And this is my haul. I could easily have filled several bags….and I could easily have been hurt: a number of the spikey 'hedgehog' cases plummeted to the ground even as I searched around under the canopy. One group just missed my head and hit the ground with a thump as I bent over to pick up a good-sized Chestnut…this particular form of foraging really isn’t for the faint-hearted!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bedfordshire Roads

I’ve been going stir-crazy here. I haven’t been out in the countryside since my last post over a week ago now. Things have been really busy after the holiday and a series of migraines haven’t helped (I only normally suffer just a few times a year for no more than a day).

It’s at times like this that I’m particularly scouring the local verges whilst driving to and fro. It really is a fascinating way of catching up with those mammal species that are only rarely seen during the day. And today I caught up with two of them.

Driving to visit someone at Bedford Hospital this morning I came across this dead Polecat in the driveway of a long-gone business on the Ampthill-Bedford Road. It did seem very small with shorter fur and a bit more white on the facial features than I’m used to seeing so I decided to bag it up for further examination. I went to the driver’s Reception of a local concrete factory and asked if they had a couple of plastic bags for a Polecat corpse…not the sort of request they get every day! I’ve dropped it off at Richard Lawrence – our Mammal Recorder’s – workplace so that he can have a look at it when he gets back…apparently they’re used to receiving corpses! I think this is probably a particularly small young female rather than a Polecat-Ferret hybrid, so it will be interesting to see what Richard thinks. If Richard can get a photo and pass it on, I’ll upload it over the next few days.

Over the past few years I’ve come across the following Polecat corpses on the road:

20/7/2003 – Barton By-pass.
24/9/2004 – A600 Shefford-Barton Road.
25/3/2005 – B655 Hexton.
26/5/05 – Husborne Crawley.
6/3/2007 – A600 Shefford-Barton Road (almost exactly the same place as the individual above).
10/6/2007 – A6 Silsoe-Barton Road (lactating female).
25/9/2007 – A6 Silsoe-Barton Road (the same place as above – a young female)

Of course, my most exciting sighting was 30th May this year when I watched the three very-much-alive Polecat kits from the Woodland Hide at College Lake Nature Reserve in Herts (I've written about the encounter under that date)!

And species number 2: This afternoon on a visit in the opposite direction…to Barton-Le-Clay…I came across this dead Mink close to The Grove Restaurant on the A6. There was a well-vegetated ditch with a shallow water-course nearby. I’m fairly confident that it’s another young female.

UPDATE (Wednesday).
Richard e-mailed and informed me that the Polecat corpse was crawling with ticks today. I must have picked it up relatively soon after its demise and, now the blood has started to clot, the ticks are looking for a new home...ugh! Anyway, it's been put into a freezer to deal with them and will be examined in a few days. Both Richard and I are feeling itchy...I hope Carole doesn't find out about this or else she'll never go in the car again! :-)

UPDATE (March 2010).
Richard is a very busy man, but has now been able to examine the corpse properly and share what he thinks. He writes, 'Unfortunately it was a Hybrid, there was just too much paleness on the face and body. It was also very small but looked adult, I couldn't be sure of the gender due to the damage to the abdomen. I collected some of the ticks for ID but they are all nymphs which present more of a challenge!'

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ampthill Park

Back home now, I went for an early morning walk over Ampthill Park, enjoying the ‘soft, refreshing rain’.

A Sparrowhawk over Laurel Wood was being mobbed by a couple of Carrion Crows. A little earlier, I’d felt like I was being mobbed by a couple of Jays. It happened as I wandered beneath some tall Oak trees, suddenly finding several acorns thumping the ground around me as they fell from above. I looked up to see two Jays amongst the branches. As I watched, one of them pecked at a twig bearing several acorns…again the acorns fell, just missing me.

The Jay’s Latin name, Garrulus glandarius, roughly translates as ‘noisy acorn eater’, but these individuals seemed to be ‘furtive acorn throwers’! Were they being capricious, or simply incompetent?

The answer is that they were probably being choosy. Experiments have shown that Jays tend to prefer acorns that are both ready for picking and undamaged, and that size probably matters, too! I guess the acorns peppering the ground at my feet were simply not up to it!

After seeing so many Jays in France, it was good to catch up with them just down the road from home, too. This is the best time of year for seeing them as they collect their acorn harvest and carry them for burial. If the burial site is some distance from the trees, they will probably carry up to five acorns: several stored in the throat with the largest gripped in the beak.

The most amazing thing about these ‘colourful crows’ as far as I’m concerned is their astonishing memory. Each individual Jay can collect nearly 5000 acorns, and these are not buried in a cache, but one-by-one, ready for retrieval during hard times. Of course, a number must get missed, but many are re-located by memory alone, even from under a covering of snow.

The Jays weren’t the only birds out harvesting this morning. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew into the topmost branches of a dead tree with a sprig of Beechmast. After extricating the nuts it threw the remains nonchalantly over its shoulder!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Friday 9th October: Campsite

The last day of our Ardeche holiday.

First thing this morning, I made my way through the scrub to retrieve the mammal traps and crayfish net, not expecting to find anything, especially after a day of heavy rain yesterday. The mammal traps were indeed empty but, when I got to the riverbank and looked down, I was delighted to see this in the Crayfish net.

Here it is on dry land. I’ll have to check, but I’m assuming that it's a White-Clawed Crayfish, the same species that we had in one small stretch of our Bedford river system until, in all likelihood, it became extinct a year or two ago. The pincers were white underneath, though this specimen was a little larger than I would have expected, so it wouldn't surprise me if it turns out to be one of the dreaded American Signal Crayfish which have infested our European rivers. As I held it, it waved its pincers and kept snapping its tail in a whip-like action, presumably to try to shock me into dropping it, or in an attempt to dislodge itself from my grip.

Close by was this: a Wild Boar mud wallow that I discovered a few days ago at the same time as the Beaver signs. I should have photographed it then because it was just thick mud, with lots of signs of activity, but yesterday's storm has filled it up – now it’s a Wild Boar swimming pool!

Following my close encounter with the Wild Boar a few nights ago, I found these droppings. I did bait a quiet area of the campsite with apple quarters yesterday evening, and sat close by until it began to rain at about 12.30am, but didn’t spot anything. The apples were still there this morning. I’ve put them in a fragrant pile close to where I first heard the Wild Boar. I’m sure he, or she, will appreciate them later.

This afternoon, I was walking along the river bank looking for a nice bit of driftwood to take home to remember our holiday by (inspired by the chapter, Driftwood, in Roger Deakin’s amazing book: Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, which I’ve been reading this past fortnight). I picked up a piece that had been gnawed and dropped by a Beaver further upstream. As I began picking up other bits of branch and twig, I suddenly realised that nearly all of the pieces snagged in the rocks were, in fact, of a similar origin. It starkly emphasized just how much Beaver activity there is taking place in this area. I stumbled back to our flat with a big armful of ‘Beaver-wood’ and sorted out some of the best pieces. Some had the bark totally stripped away; here and there the clear marks of molars were apparent with their patterns indented into the soft wood. Some of the wood had bright red lines running along it like blood-vessels. I made up my first driftwood sculpture, which you can see above, and entitled it ‘Lodge’….

….and Carole can’t stop laughing!!

I walked down to the river again at dusk this evening and savoured the ambience until night fell. The hoarse cries of the Herons gradually faded. Fish were jumping all over the river, including a large one that hit the water with an intensity of sound exactly like someone dive-bombing a friend in the campsite pool! I could still hear the constant, but now comforting, buzz of the Honey Bees in their nest within the large tree against which I was sitting. A deer barked in the scrub a few hundred metres downstream. Bats flew so close to my face that I could feel the wind from their wings. I slowly picked my way back through the trees in almost total darkness…tomorrow night I’ll be back home.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wednesday 7th October: Close Encounter

My children have always been disappointed that they haven’t been able to scare me. Hiding behind doors and leaping out, or creeping up behind me and then jumping on me has no effect.

But I admit to having been a bit scared tonight. Soon after 11pm I decided to go for a walk around our pretty much deserted campsite, planning to wander down to the riverside. As I walked past a raised earth bank, I heard a rustle and what I thought was 2 exhaled breaths from the belt of trees just beyond (see photo above taken later). My immediate thought was ‘Wild Boar’ - or 'Sanglier' as the French call it - and I stopped and listened, but there were no further sounds.

Had I imagined it? I knew that I had to check it out, just in case, so I proceeded to slowly walk up onto the top of the bank, quietly making my way step-by-step along the level and grassy top. It was almost completely dark, so I jumped when I disturbed a large animal in the wood right next to me. There was a loud rustle of leaves and I heard the sound of its feet as it crashed through the undergrowth to my right. It was obviously much too heavy and cumbersome to be a deer.

I stood stock still in the darkness, and waited. Eventually, I heard the sound of the animal about 25m to my right. I cupped my hands to my ears, magnifying the sound of the rustling leaves and snuffling. That was pretty awesome, but it became particularly scary when the Wild Boar, for that’s what it obviously was, slowly made its way back close to where I was standing. I stood there, my heart pounding in my ears, tempted to retreat, but determined that I would remain there whatever….though I had no idea what ‘whatever’ might be! Wild Boar are said to be potentially dangerous, especially when alarmed. The French sometimes hunt them with dogs kitted out with Kevlar vests, so I felt particularly vulnerable dressed in a light shirt and shorts!

The animal must have been less than 10 metres away from me now. I couldn't see a thing, but I could hear it snuffling and blowing, together with the sound of the saliva in its mouth as it chomped away, cracking acorns from time to time. I felt a real sense of numinous awe…a feeling of the unknown as I waited just a few metres from this strange beast, imagining its heavy bristly frame and large tusks. Any moment, I expected it to suddenly walk right up to me or, worse still, rush at me with tusks bared…but I persuaded myself that it’s this kind of wildlife encounter that I dream of, and so I forced myself to stay where I was, though it was all I could do not to turn and beat a hasty retreat!

It truly was the scariest quarter of an hour of my life.

Was it a convenient excuse to decide to slowly back away and then hurry off to fetch my DSLR and video camera...at least to try to record these amazing sounds for posterity? Probably, if I'm honest. Back at the flat I reassured Carole that I would be ok, with more outward confidence than I actually felt. But I did return...only to find the Monsieur le Sanglier had moved on. Nothing moved, except the massive 9" toad pictured below, a grotesque alien shape in the half-light of a lamp.

I returned to the flat and wrote up the experience in my notebook, my hands still shaking with the buzz of it all!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wednesday 7th October: Ardeche River & woodland

All of the traps were empty this morning. I was surprised that there wasn’t anything in the crayfish trap….until I discovered that I’d left the main zip open so that anything that got in…could get out! Hopefully I’ll have something to show for my efforts – and a closed zip – tomorrow!

But I did find this beside the path not far away from the river. I recognised it immediately as the work of a Beaver. I had been told that Beavers are not found in this part of the Ardeche but, as I penetrated deeper into the thick scrub alongside the river, I found a number of saplings that had been shorn off by a Beaver’s industrious incisors.

Unfortunately I’ve been at quite a disadvantage for watching mammals on this holiday. During our past French holidays, I’ve had the greatest success during the hours of darkness, and have seen Badger, Red Fox, Beaver, Wild Boar, and Roe, Red & Fallow Deer. Travelling by air means that I’ve been limited in terms of what I can bring. Carole did allow me to pack a very bright torch…and went without her hair-dryer so that I could. But, when I arrived, I discovered that the it didn’t work. Actually, if I’m honest, I remember now that it hasn’t worked for some time!! Fortunately, Carole has seen the funny side of this…and her hair looks lovely!

So, it’s nearly 8.30pm and it’s pitch black outside (but still very warm). Beaver-watching is out…so we’re going to climb over the wall and have a sneaky swim in the pool (always wanted to do that!).

Tuesday 6th October: Aven d'Orgnac

I was really pleased this morning to find a Wood Mouse in one of the small mammal traps, and 4 small fish inside the Crayfish trap….well, it’s a start!!

With dark clouds threatening for the first time during the holiday (though rain never materialised in the end) we decided to visit the Aven d’Orgnac, a cave complex fairly close to where we are staying. This is advertised as a Grand Site de France and we found it the most amazing experience. The Cavern complex was discovered by Robert de Joly and his team of potholers on 19th August, 1935. The stalagmites and stalactites in the first of the 3 caverns open to the public made amazing shapes. The large stalagmites are called plate stacks because the drops that form them have dropped from a great height and splashed outwards, as opposed to the finer stalagmites that form under lower roofs.

This is a photo of the Organ Chest. You can just see a large urn in the middle. It contains the remains of Robert de Joly – he died in 1968 and requested that this be his last resting place! After descending some 700 steps over the hour’s guided tour, and enjoying a constant refreshing 11 degrees C temperature, we found ourselves in the last cavern and what followed was a dramatic music and lights show such as only the French can organise! I would’ve loved to have climbed the stairs back to the surface and taken in even more of the amazing grandeur of this experience, but there was a lift waiting for us, and we slowly ascended back to the surface where the warm sunshine enveloped us as we stepped outside!

Monday 5th October: Gorges de l'Ardeche

The crayfish net and small mammal traps were empty this morning, so I’ve left them in situ.

We spent a leisurely day making our way down the dramatic Gorges de l’Ardeche. Following Saturday’s raptor-fest I had been hoping for great views of various species of birds of prey, but it wasn’t to be. The Booted and Short-toed Eagles were probably well south of the Med by now, and no Bonelli’s Eagles were seen. But it was a great day, nevertheless, and the raptor highlight turned out to be a Peregrine Falcon that I found perched close to a cliff-face at the most famous viewpoint, seen in the photo above, overlooking a meander of the River Ardeche far below. It remained there for 1 ½ hours or more, and I really enjoyed pointing him out in the ‘scope to the various people who turned up. There were various cries of delight and everyone was really appreciative.

Everyone, that is, except a couple who were adamant that they didn’t want to look down the ‘scope. I couldn’t understand it until, later on, I realised that the sign on the riverside beach far below announced it as a ‘Plage Naturiste’. Now I know exactly what they were thinking!!

Sunday 4th October: Campsite & Bois de Paiolive

I was over the moon this morning to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling and exploring the Walnut trees just 20m or so from our accommodation! We then drove down to the road to the Bois de Paiolive, a predominantly stunted Oak wood on the thin soils of a limestone plateau where the limestone formations form fascinating shapes.

Here is the Rocher de l’Ours et du Lion. Use your imagination and you can see the Bear on the left grappling with the Lion on the right! It was here that I saw my first Firecrest of the holiday – a real beauty!

This afternoon we spent several hours sat on the small beach by the Ardeche River on the campsite. A soaring Buzzard landed on a cliff-face tree and we watched it for some time. This was the first Buzzard I’ve seen in this area, and I was really pleased because the person in charge of the campsite told me that Buzzards have been the subject of a local re-introduction programme for the last few years after dying out due to the use of pesticides.

Both White and Grey Wagtails flew to and fro down the River. The flightpath of the Jays was perpendicular to this, as they crossed the river, returning with acorns lodged in their bills. A Grey Heron caught and downed a large fish, and a Kingfisher zipped past right in front of our knees! A Little Egret and Yellow-legged Gull patrolled the far bank.

I walked down to the end of the boulders to find that there was no new Otter spraint present. But I did catch up with my 59th bird species of the holiday: a small flock of Linnets were feeding on the seeds between the stones.

Other birds encountered included Chaffinch, Wren, Robin, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Mallard.

This evening I used my Crayfish net for the first time, baiting it with half a sardine and dropping it into the river. I also set 4 small mammal traps, though all I’ve caught so far is a Garden Snail – perhaps Hamster food isn’t appreciated by the local rodents!

Saturday 3rd October - Parc Naturel Regional des Monts d'Ardeche

Today has been one of those red-letter days right there amongst the top few days of my life so far! It wasn’t just the wildlife, but everything about the day that has made it so special, but here are a few of the amazing wildlife highlights:

We had travelled north into the more mountainous area of the Ardeche. I had been inspired by a poster advertising a Birdlife Migration Event at Col du Pranlet near Lachamp Raphael. Because of the distance and the mountain roads, we arrived at 1pm, just as most of the birders were leaving. As we parked the car a Red Kite flew overhead. I reckoned that the Col must be a brilliant birding site but, when I talked to one of the birders, he informed me that they’d had a really bad morning and that the kite was the first raptor they’d had!!

We didn’t hang around but continued to drive into the mountains, past the strange hump of Mont Jerbier de Jonc (1551m), and on towards the highest peak, Mont Mezenc. On the way we were going up a steep incline when Carole suddenly pointed out a large bird just a little way out from us. Stopping the car, I found myself looking at a Bonelli’s Eagle, just a hundred metres or so away, and then flying right past the back of the car before trying to land in a conifer, failing and disappearing over the hill. A little while later we saw it again, even closer as we drove further up the hill! We stopped at the top of the area and looked back, spotting the Eagle flying in the distance. A Buzzard was also spotted on a telegraph pole, and then Carole spotted another bird just below us….a Peregrine Falcon! It was turning into a raptor-fest!!

To cut a long story short, we enjoyed a truly wonderful day in warm sunshine. On the way back down from Mont Mezenc (which I climbed to the summit while Carole relaxed in the car park) we stopped by a large field littered with boulders and with cows dotted around grazing on the long grass. A large female sparrowhawk took off from by the side of the road and we watched it as it boulder-hopped across the field. To the right I picked out another raptor flying low and quartering…a female Hen Harrier. Then a Buzzard was spotted in the far corner, perched characteristically on a fencepost. A Wheatear and a number of Black Redstarts were darting about on the boulders. After some time, and with dusk fast approaching, we decided to move on and, as we got to the far corner of the field, a large falcon took off and disappeared at high speed into the distance….an immature Peregrine Falcon!!

So, a brilliant day, including a wonderful list of raptors: Red Kite, Buzzard, Bonelli’s Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk, and Hen Harrier!

And the journey back was wonderful, too, with a massive moon…and even my first live mammal of the holiday….a Red Fox which leapt from the road onto the verge just in time as we sped past!!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ardeches, France

The Pont d'Arc, the Ardeche's most famous landmark...and just down the road from us in the Ardeche Gorges.

Top wildlife sightings so far:

Number 1) Day 5: Watching a plane coming in to land from Sampzon, high above our campsite, we both suddenly spotted a big bird right in front of us as the plane banked away. It was a Bonelli’s Eagle – the signature bird for the Ardeche and the no.1 species I was hoping to see! It filled the binoculars as I watched before going into a stoop and disappearing at speed below the lip of the cliff in front of us. Wow!

Number 2) Day 3: Carole and I spent a few hours on the beach beside the region’s famous Pont d’Arc, the massive stone bridge formation in the Ardeche Gorge. I was watching a few Crag Martins flying to-and-fro in front of the rock wall opposite when they were suddenly joined by 2 large Alpine Swifts for several minutes.

Number 3) Day 5: Late afternoon I spent an absorbing few hours by the River Ardeche alongside the campsite. Highlights included Kingfisher, flypasts by Little Egrets and a Raven, but most exciting was the discovery of several patches of Otter spraint at the far end of the ‘boulder field’, some of them just a few days old….I shall be now be out early morning hoping for a live sighting.

Number 4) Days 1-5: The variety of butterflies, even for this time of year! We’ve seen Swallowtail, Wall, Grayling, Adonis Blue, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Clouded Yellow, Large & Small White (or their equivalents down here) and a number of others that I haven’t identified yet.

Number 5) Days 1-5: A Black Redstart in Bedfordshire results in ‘scopes being thrown over shoulders and birders heading for the site where it’s been seen. Here I’ve seen them in more places than any other bird, both in towns in valleys and in scrub at the top of hills. We saw 3 feeding together on berries today. They’re one of my favourite birds and I hope we see many more over the coming days!

Number 6) Day 5: 2 Great White Egrets noticed flying really high over Roc Sampzon. They looked really dramatic against the blue sky.

Friday, September 25, 2009


We're off on holiday to the Ardeches in France for a fortnight in the next few hours - I'll try to post some reports from France if I can. We're going by plane to Nimes, so I've got a bit less space available than usual....but I've still managed to pack my scope & tripod, bins, several small mammal traps, deer decoy, crayfish net and a few other bits and pieces. Unfortunately, my portable hide will be staying at home! :-)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Duck End Nature Reserve, Maulden

This afternoon, Sue Raven and I joined our BNHS Mammal Recorder, Richard Lawrence, in a Water Vole survey at Duck End Nature Reserve.

At Pond 1 were were encouraged to find these lengths of grass leaves under some vegetation. Water Voles & the much smaller Field Vole both make these little piles. Field Voles are more likely to be found in the meadow area and Galler's Pasture next to the main reserve, but they will travel and use areas like this, so we needed more evidence.

This looked really promising - some nice lengths of plant material found in some vegetation at the side of the Pond 4 boardwalk. Surely not Field Vole - we needed some droppings to confirm the presence of Water Voles.

Then things really got exciting as we discovered a run next to the water with lots of grass piled up in equal lengths...we just needed some droppings to confirm Water Vole and congratulate one another....

And, yes, there were some droppings further down the run...but they were too small for Water Vole. Well, at least we've confirmed Field Vole!

This looked promising at Pond 2...right next to the water...but it was too big and not fibrous enough....Muntjac!

At Pond 3, we found this run with puddled droppings...classic Water Vole, except the droppings were too small again! This must be a Field Vole having fun with us!!

After Richard & Sue had gone, I went back to Pond 4 and sat on 'Stephen's bench' overlooking the northern end. It would have been great to end the day with a photo of a live Water Vole....but this was all I managed: a Dunnock enjoying a drink. The Grey Squirrel was too quick for me!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Maulden Heath

Arriving at Maulden Heath late afternoon after warm sunshine for most of the day, I knew there was very little chance of catching up with any adders. But you never know, so I wandered around the brash heaps....and came across this beauty!

This Ichneumon Wasp spent some time exploring this log before inserting its ovipositor in search of some unfortunate grub...I hadn't realised that the ovipositor is usually enclosed in a sheath. Before witnessing this, though, it did occur to me that that what I thought was the ovipositor looked a bit thick and blunt for this kind of work!

There were a number of flies around, including this Noon Fly (Mesembrina meridiana), one of several on a farm gate - all the information I've seen says that the larvae develop in cattle dung, but there's only horses and sheep around here!

The Noon Fly is unmistakable in its dramatic orange and black livery. Here's another view - it's blowing a bubble, something that flies often engage in!

This was also on the gate enjoying the sunshine. It's the Kite-tailed Robberfly (Machimus atricapilllus) - you can just see the 'tab' of hairs towards the end of the underside of the abdomen.

But this was the best find of the day. I had been examining a Badger path that led under the fence when I suddenly noticed this Hoverfly on a Knapweed bloom. It's Rhingia rostrata, a scarce species that has only recently been found in Bedfordshire. It's reckoned that the larvae develop in Badger latrines!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Amazing bat photos!

I was stunned when, last week, I came across these photos of bats taken by Kim Taylor over his Guildford garden pond. According to The Times, Kim, a wildlife photographer said, "I was playing badminton in the garden with my children and I saw one (bat) dive to the pond. That gave me the idea."

The top photo shows a Brown Long-eared Bat assuaging its thirst. Then there's a dramatic photo of a Daubenton's Bat, a species that is renowned for hunting over water. The last photo shows how he does it...incredible. Well done, Kim!

[Photo source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1213851/Stunning-shots-thirsty-bats-swooping-lick-water-garden-pond.html]