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 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!!