Sunday, January 16, 2011

Badger Group Survey

Yesterday morning, the Bedfordshire Badger Group conducted a survey of some woodland in the west of the County in order to establish whether Badgers are present. We split up into 3 teams and fanned out into the surrounding area.

Barbed wire fences are always worth a look to see what’s been passing underneath. This fence was between the woodland area and an old pasture…so I wasn’t surprised to come across this Badger hair on one of the lower strands.

As I was examining the hair, the other members of the team searching the woodland directly behind me came across a well-established sett with at least 7 entrances in use….result!

This is my favourite photograph of the day – the white object is a golf ball, just to the left of a several latrines. Badgers will bring objects back to the sett – I can just imagine last year’s cubs having fun playing with this!

The state of this log is most likely the result of Badgers ripping it apart in their search for grubs and other invertebrates. Another fallen log close by had a number of scratch marks on its surface.

Rabbits and Grey Squirrels were also seen during the survey, together with several Red Fox scats. And here’s something to look out for – a small, almost square leafless area amongst the leaves where a Muntjac has been scent-marking. It’s difficult to see in the photograph, but two trails could be made out leading from this patch to either side of the silver birch tree and through the wire fence to the deep cover on the other side.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pine Martens are heading our way!

I’d really hoped to get out a bit more this week but, in the event, it has not been possible. I did manage to watch a few episodes of the BBC’s Lost Land Of The Jaguar, though, which I missed first time round. The team spend their time searching for flora & fauna in the pristine wilderness of Guyana’s tropical rainforest. In the final episode, Steve Backshall climbs the vertical rock face of Mount Epuigma to explore the wildlife at the summit. One of his discoveries is a tantalising set of footprints belonging to some kind of mustelid, probably new to science.

[Photo credit: Nature Library]

Exciting stuff….and I guess that Kevin O’Hara, the Conservation Officer of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, must have got similar goosebumps when, last year, he found a Pine Marten scat on a den box in the Kidland Forest. Although there has been a lot of anecdotal evidence, it’s the first confirmed evidence of Pine Martens in England for a long time! Kevin said, “This is the holy grail for myself and many others!”

I remember a magical evening spent watching a female with two young kits at the Speyside Hide near Aviemore. The short video clip above is someone elses experience at the same location. But what would I give to see Pine Martens in Bedfordshire! Maybe it will happen one day as they slowly spread south (and east following the discovery of similar evidence in Wales a few years ago!). A few decades ago, who would have thought that Polecats would ever be seen in the County again, but now they're relatively common once more!

They used to be present, of course. Recently, we became aware of a copy of The Victoria History of the County of Bedfordshire online, via Cornell University in the United States! It was published in 1904, and below is the fascinating account of Pine Martens found there:

During the early years of the (19th century) the pine marten was still in evidence in our county, but was more particularly confined to the larger woodlands. A rapid extermination must have however followed soon afterwards, as records of a more recent date seem entirely absent, and at the present time I do not suppose there is anyone living who has any local knowledge of the marten except from hearsay. Davis, in his History of Luton (1855), refers to it as ‘rare,’ and in his second edition (1874), ‘almost extinct,’ whereas there seems little doubt that it had been exterminated even long before his first edition. Mr A. Covington remarks that he has heard his uncle speak of having occasionally obtained it around his home in Bolnhurst, and his mother when a girl had a cape made of marten cat skins and a muff of polecat skins. The animals had been caught by her father and brother in the locality. The last two that he ever heard of were one trapped in a fir tree at Sandy, and of more recent date one seen by a Mr Ruff. It had been trapped at Keysoe Wood (then of far greater acreage than now) and suspended to a hazel in one of the ridings. He also adds that keepers generally used to sell the skins of both these and polecats to the furriers. In a conversation I had some years ago with an old keeper, named Franklin, he assured me his father once killed a marten cat at Haynes about 1840, and he had heard of it being obtained at Wootten. In the Field (1859) is to be found an interesting account of the capture in Odell Wood of a pine marten and four kittens by an old gamekeeper in about the year 1819. The old cat brought up the kittens successfully in confinement, and although the mother was never tamed the young became as docile as domestic cats.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Stunning webcam

If it's dark outside and you'd like to do a bit of wildlife watching from the comfort of your armchair, and with your computer warming your lap, can I recommend you try two of the streaming webcams at

The site is a wood in Estonia. Last night on Forest Camera 2 I watched a large group of Wild Boar feeding. It's fascinating to watch the relationships between the animals.

Forest Camera 1 was even better. When I first looked, there was a Roe Deer feeding in the clearing. A little later a group of 6 Wild Boar were foraging, now and again chasing away a group of Raccoon Dogs that were gathering in the background. A little later on, 7 Raccoon Dogs were hoovering up what had been left by the Wild Boar and they, in turn, were making sure that a Red Fox didn't get any of the spoils!

Fascinating - Wild Boar, Roe Deer, Racoon Dog & Red Fox, and all from the comfort of home!

Have a look and let me know how you get on!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Steppingley - alien creature!

This strange creature is the result of me trying to get a photo of a Chinese Water Deer near Steppingley in the early hours of this morning from inside the car. I promise you that there is only one and not a herd! I can't use the flash setting. What kind of settings should I be thinking about in order to get a half-decent photo? Or should I just give up? Any help gratefully accepted!

Steppingley-Eversholt Triangle

Yesterday evening was one of those crazy nights when I finally stopped working after 3.30am. I was then left in a dilemma: should I go to bed and risk waking Carole up or not. You have to understand that, when Carole rises from her deep slumber, she sits up, looks at the clock and then wonders why she can't get back to sleep again! So, there was no dilemma really. I put some warmer clothes on, crept silently down the path and got the car out from the garage as quietly as possible.

It was just after 4am and, for the next hour, I drove up and down the deserted country lanes in what I call the Steppingley-Eversholt Triangle. There were rabbits everywhere, scampering across the road in front of the car and leaping head first into the hedges. I was looking out for deer, though, and my first sighting didn't disappoint - a Roe Deer in the field between Flitwick Wood & Steppingley. Roe Deer have only started to colonize Bedfordshire in recent years and remain relatively scarce, so this was a great record. When I slowed down it bounded off into the distance.

Over the next hour I had the following sightings:
Kingshoe Wood verge - Muntjac.
Eversholt Village - Chinese Water Deer.
Eversholt Village - Male and female Muntjac browsing together.
Woburn Abbey wall - Muntjac.
Eversholt Lake entrance - Muntjac.
Milton Bryan East - Muntjac.
Milton Bryan West - Muntjac.
Road parallel to M1 - Chinese Water Deer (very comfortable in the car headlights).
Back road to Steppingley - Chinese Water Deer.

That's 7 Muntjac, 3 Chinese Water Deer & 1 Roe Deer during a relatively brief drive in a limited area. I wonder how many there are in total?

There were also a number of moths flying around (almost certainly Winter & November Moths), and 2 Barn Owls at Berry End. I wish I had a pair of military spec night vision binoculars...I wonder how much I would see then!

2010 - a special mammal year!

2010 was the year in which I finally got to do something that I’ve been planning for some time – to attempt to see as many of Bedfordshire’s mammals as possible over the 12 month period. Here's a brief overview of just how it went.

The first mammal was never in doubt and, as expected, a number of Rabbits (1) were picked up in the car’s headlights on the way back from the Bedford Blues RFC’s New Year’s Eve party!

Later, another New Year's Day species was added when I came across Chinese Water Deer (2) in the fields adjoining Flying Horse Farm near Ridgmont. A walk over nearby Millbrook Plantation on the second day of the year added Grey Squirrel (3) and Muntjac (4) to the list. This was followed a few days later by a hungry Red Fox (5) walking on top of the ice at Brogborough Lake. Earlier, two starving Bitterns had also been wandering around, and what happened next was one of those events that will remain forever in my memory. As I watched one of the Bitterns in the scope, another one flew over the top of it and, at that moment, was hit by a Peregrine Falcon, resulting in a 'featherburst'. The Bittern dropped into some reeds below and I wondered whether it had survived. The answer came 20 minutes later when the Red Fox stuck its nose where the Bittern had disappeared, which was followed by the Bittern flying into the air and eventually landing in a quieter patch of reeds! Amazing!!

Brown Hares (6) were seen in their regular haunts to the north of Ampthill Park before what turned out to be another red-letter day: the 13th January. I joined members of the Bedfordshire Bat Group in a Hibernation check of several ice houses and another premier Bedfordshire site. Four species of Bats were seen throughout the day: Brown Long-eared (7); Natterer’s (8); Barbastelle (9) – the one I’d really been hoping for (see photo above); and Daubenton’s (10).

Two days of small mammal trapping at Westminster Pond, Ampthill Park in mid-February added Common Shrew (11), a diminutive Pygmy Shrew (12) and Wood Mouse (13) to the growing list. Ampthill Park has given me some amazing Stoat sightings over the years so, as dusk began to fall on 24th February, I made my way down to the epicentre of their activity: The Rezzy. Within 20 minutes a Stoat (14) suddenly ran out from under a bramble and down the path. Incredibly, it turned out to be the only Stoat I saw throughout the year!

As March arrived, my attention turned to Stewartby Lake. Early in the month I lifted a piece of strategically-placed tin to reveal a confiding Bank Vole (15), the first of many through the year. There had been reports of an American Mink frequenting the lake shore close to the gull watchpoint so, early one morning, I got into position and soon spotted the Mink (16) swimming right in front of the watchpoint. It didn’t re-emerge further down the shore and, searching the bank, I’m fairly confident that I found its den under a large fallen log. When it comes to Water Shrews the RSPB HQ at The Lodge in Sandy never disappoints. At Jack’s Pond my patience was rewarded when a Water Shrew (17) appeared and spent some time swimming and diving, at one point consuming its prey right beneath my gaze! I thought I’d got some stunning video footage…until I discovered I hadn’t switched the recorder on!

The 24th March was another red-letter day. In the morning I followed a Water Vole (18) making its way some hundred metres along a brook. Then, as dusk was falling I made my way along to Warren Villas Nature Reserve and sat on the path some 20m away from the point where Otters crossed from the lake into the River Ivel. I thought I was too late but, less than 10 minutes later I looked up to find an Otter (19) staring at me at that very spot….Wow! Before this I had spent many early mornings fruitlessly searching for the Stewartby Lake Otter!

It was to be another month before I was able to add to the list with an inquisitive Weasel (20) spotted crossing the main ride at Chicksands Wood. A night taking part in a bat survey in another wood resulted in a Common Pipistrelle (21) being examined in the hand. But even better was a big Serotine Bat (22) that hawked for insects right around me as I stood at the woodland edge.

A visit to Priory Country Park on the way back from watching the Bedford Blues train on 10th June gave the opportunity to catch up with a large number of Soprano Pipistrelles (23) and, on the way back to the car, I came across a Hedgehog (24) snuffling in the grass.I thought it was about time I added Badger to the list and, the following evening, I had some great views of two growing Badger cubs (25). On 28th June I joined a bat survey at Stockgrove Country Park and we managed to net a big Noctule (26). The evening got even better when a Roe Deer (27) was spotted in the verge alongside Kingshoe Wood on the way home, a species that is only just starting to colonise Bedfordshire and remains fairly scarce.The next day I finally caught up with Brown Rat after searching in various places. Following a tip-off, I visited Wardown Park in Luton. I walked from the car to the lake shore….and looked down to see a Brown Rat (28) only a metre or so away from me. Within 10 minutes I had two feeding on the seeds I was throwing to them!

Field Voles seem to have been at just about the lowest point of their population cycle these last few years, so I was really pleased to find a Field Vole (29) in the Longworth Trap set in grassland just north of Redbourne School in Ampthill on 1st July. And a fortnight later I made my way up the ladder and into the permanent stand at Potton Wood to be rewarded with great views of a Fallow Deer (30) and her accompanying fawn.

I knew that it was going to be a real challenge to add any further species to the list from here on in, which made every one really special. My surveying group had missed Hazel Dormouse during the Maulden Wood box-checks, so I was really grateful to the Studham group for allowing me to join them. It wasn’t without incident though – I got into the car to find that I wasn’t going anywhere because the brake-shoe was jammed onto the drum. 3 cheers for Liam of Tavistock Motors who came out and sorted it for me (with the help of a massive hammer!). I got to Studham just in time to see the Hazel Dormouse (31) above. She was in rude health but, sadly, the House Mouse (32) died soon after I had left Sue’s house, probably as a result of imbibing poison elsewhere.

I can’t do justice here to the Edible Dormouse (33) encounter that David Anderson and I had on 17th September. You’ll have to look it up below but, suffice to say, the young animal not only mistook David for a tree, but found what it thought was a cosy nook, too! I still can’t believe that David didn’t have a heart attack! On 30th September my night-time forays turned up a Polecat/Polecat-hybrid (34) in the verge at Kingshoe Wood in the early hours but, unfortunately, it was only a view of the shoulders down as it leapt into the longer grass.

But November brought some great views of two mammals that could so easily have been missed. After Dave Parsons’ turned up at Richard Lawrence’s office with a dead Yellow-necked Mouse caught in his garage in Haynes, I set a number of Longworth Traps. Sure enough, a few days later on 11th November, two traps in the roof space contained big, bouncy mice with attitude: Yellow-necked Mice (35). And, two days later, having put down a number of traps in the vicinity of empty Harvest Mouse nests on Flitton Moor, I came up trumps when, in the last trap on the last day, there emerged a beautiful Harvest Mouse (36).

It was the first one I have ever seen and it was the cherry on the cake at the end of a brilliant year. I was really pleased with 36 species. There were 2 ‘that got away’. While I was in Israel in May, Bob Cornes caught a Brandt’s Bat in a wood where they have occurred before. And, believe it or not, I never did see a Mole! Oh yes, I saw plenty of molehills appearing and moving, and I spent some time during the final week of the year gazing at lumps of brown earth at Duck End Nature Reserve, but it wasn’t to be. Richard Lawrence also found a dead Red Deer close to the Cambridgeshire border, but a live one would always be very much a chance sighting. I did search for signs of Sika Deer, and listened for their singular screams during the rutting season in the Briar Stockings area, but found no evidence. It’s been a number of years since a small herd was last reported in the County.

I’d love to do this again now that I’m armed with more knowledge as to where a number of these species occur and the best opportunities of seeing them. But maybe I will concentrate on studying a few of these mammals more closely this year. Now I know where there are Harvest Mice, I’m pretty sure I can rig up something so that I can watch them….and then there’s that Otter – I’ve got a feeling that I’ll be spending a few late nights and early mornings at Warren Villas this year!!