Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mediterranean Gulls

Following on from yesterday's post regarding the increasing numbers of Little Egrets, another bird with an expanding range and numbers is the Mediterranean Gull, or 'Med Gull' as birders refer to it. In appearance the adult has been aptly described as being like a Black-headed Gull with a Barn Owl's wings! They really are beautiful birds and it's reckoned that our birds probably breed in Central Europe. I first saw them in Southend some years ago, and the Southend RSPB group have a short, but interesting, overview here.

We have a very healthy winter population here in the West Wight, with 230 birds being noted in one place during a recent count. What I love about these birds at this time of year is their fascinating nasal 'yeah' call, as one person describes it, which they make whilst on the water or in flight.

The video sequence below consists of a number of birds repeatedly calling whilst circling over the Western Yar Estuary a few days ago. You won't see a lot, but you'll understand what I mean about the call!

Little Egrets

Yesterday I spent some time watching 3 Little Egrets feeding in a field alongside the Western Yar Estuary. I love the way they stride from one point to another as they spot invertebrate prey on the surface - look at the way the individual I'm filming spots a juicy worm and hones in on it at about the 1 minute mark.

Little Egrets were spotted in the UK in the 1980s and started to breed in Dorset in the mid-1990s. What I confess I hadn't realised was that they used to be very common here. Today Justin Welby will be enthroned as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and I've just found out that, when George Neville was enthroned as Archbishop of York in 1465, a 1000 egrets were on the menu!

That seems to have been a high point, though, and their numbers began to diminish rapidly over the following centuries. The coup de grace occured from the 18th century onwards. Notice the neck plumes of the two adults in the video (the other bird is a juvenile which won't breed until its second year). According to the British Trust for Ornithology website, 'The elegant neck plumes of an egret in breeding plumage were once more valuable than gold, smuggled into Europe they fetched £15 an ounce or 28g (about £875 at 2000 prices), each Little Egret producing about 1g of plumes.'

 In fact, it was the plight of this bird - among others - that lead to the formation in 1889 of 'the Plumage League' by Emily Williamson, which eventually became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Searching for the local Otter II

Much as I'd love to be able to say that I managed to get some footage of the local Otter during our break in Suffolk last week it didn't happen....and I confess to being a bit surprised because the bridge was obviously so well used, though I know that dog Otters can patrol really long stretches of river and visit some areas more infrequently. Below is the set up with the trailcam set on a baited area alongside the wall of the bridge.
The fish that Carole gave me turned out to be smoked Mackerel. I pegged the pieces down and added a tin of salmon cat food....and a couple of apples just to vary the food!
I consoled myself by watching, once more, my video clips from the River Ouse in Bedfordshire last April as I followed an Otter downstream for an hour or so early one morning!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Searching for the local Otter

"I'm just going to stop and check out this bridge!" In the passenger seat I could feel Carole resign herself to another session of Kindle-reading as her husband searched for Otter signs, and somewhere to put the Trailcam for the night.

I really miss Otters on the Isle of Wight, though I'm hoping that they will become a regular feature of my walks along the Western Yar at some point in the not-too-distant future! In the meantime, I'm hoping to get some footage during our brief holiday break in Suffolk.

This bridge came up trumps - under the partly-dry arch below the car in the photo above, I came across Otter prints and fresh spraint on a small log:
No success with the Trailcam yesterday evening, but Carole is very generously going to give me a bit of Mackerel this evening to bait the area with, so here's hoping!

People struggle to 'get' my interest in the various mammal deposits that I actively search for. I felt vindicated this morning as I read these words from one of my favourite authors, John Lister-Kaye:

'Otter spraint conspicuously in the same places over and over again. I know a stone at the water's edge just under the bridge over the burn where I will always find a fresh, black, slightly oily, fish-smelling deposit. At the head of the loch there is a large, mossy, bank-side cushion in the marsh where the bright green of the moss has been entirely burned back to a lifeless grey by the trampling and strongly nitrogenous sprainting of the otters over many seasons. They also raise their tails and spray their urine against way markers - a tree stump or a boulder - to leave a lutrine signal and a lingering scent that wafts off around the loch or is carried downstream by the movement of the water to greet any other otter passing through....We can only guess at what the full sentiment of the otter's message might be.
Scent is multi-dimensional. All I can see as I stroll my way through the many territories of the wildlife around my home are the visible signs - a pine marten scat parked prominently on a stone, the twisted cord of fox faeces very ostentatiously left on the path, roe deer and badger paths winding through the woods - but I am conscious that I am also perpetually trespassing. I wend my way through uncharted waves of scent too refined for my feeble and inchoate olfactory equipment. If only we could somehow colour each animal scent with wisps of smoke: red for roe deer, green for badgers, yellow for wildcats, blue for pine martens, brown for foxes, orange for stoats, purple for the red deer...the land would become a perpetual rainbow of magical, interwoven lattices, an intricate sunset of spectral beauty, twisting and turning with the contours like a mad Van Gogh painting.'
[At the Water's Edge, pp.151-152]

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Foxes & Badgers

We're off to Suffolk for a week's holiday tomorrow (via an Amy MacDonald concert at the London Palladium), leaving John in charge of the fort. We'll be staying at Kersey, a beautiful little village, and I'll be hoping to catch up with a few different mammal species.

In the meantime, here's a bit of footage from yesterday evening at Sett C.

Firstly, a couple of Red Foxes. Note the first Fox, a very confident male that scentmarks the elder on the right as it moves out of shot. A few minutes later a very shy Fox appears on the scene. Finally the male reappears and spends a bit of time scent-marking the area, both by defaecating and urinating!

I've had a few instances of the 2 Badgers here engaging in mutual or allo-grooming over the last few days. Last night they spent at least 3 minutes doing this without pausing, a few minutes of which can be seen in this sequence:

What I'd really like over the next few days is a bit of nice Otter footage from the local's hoping!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Small Mammal Nest

This is the entrance to the Badger sett that I have been surveying with the Trailcam over the past few days. Notice the small nest-like structure, only just discernible, at the top left-hand corner of the brick.
It's a small mammal nest of some kind, about 8cm x 7cm, with no obvious entrance hole, and constructed almost entirely of grass stems. But how did it get there and what exactly is it? I think that the answer to the first question was revealed with a very brief bit of Trailcam footage a few nights ago showing a Badger disappearing backwards into the sett dragging a pile of fresh bedding. I reckon that this nest has probably rolled free from a similar wad of material as the Badger has shuffled past.

As to what exactly it is, that is a more interesting question. The two obvious contenders are Harvest Mouse and Dormouse. Sue Eden, in her brilliant book Living With Dormice, notes that Harvest Mice 'have a habit of finely splitting the grass leaves longitudinally'. There seems to be some evidence of that here. With no local Harvest Mouse signs yet being recorded in this area the money seems to be on Dormouse. Indeed, it looks very similar to the Dormouse hibernation nests in Sue's book, though there was no Dormouse inside and I'm sure the badger would have torn the nest apart if it had spotted it. So I guess it's most likely an old Dormouse summer nest. Whatever the answer, the owner is obviously very local to the sett and I'll be on the lookout for more signs as the year progresses!