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Thursday, 25 April 2013

Toads, Red Kite & a Badger Sett in a Car...

Finally. The weather is ideal; comfortably warm enough to sit outside in the morning with a cup of tea, squinting slightly in the bright, low sunlight. Blackbirds and song thrush fill the air with their wonderfully refreshing song, whilst tits call with cheerfully repetitive phrases. My room is now warm enough in the evenings to leave the window slightly ajar, allowing me to hear the faint high-pitched squeak of echo-locating pipistrelle bats, as they hunt for insects that have taken flight in the night. The sudden change from the freezing conditions that gripped the country, to the warmer days of spring has unleashed all plants and animals that have laid dormant over winter. 

Common Frog

Walking through Whipsnade was impossible to do so without coming across toads every yard or so. On a short walk through the zoo at night, we counted well over 80 toads. A mixture of males and females, chirping  furiously in an attempt to locate a mate and produce young.

The horny toad

Males, wisely, often ride on the back of females and get carried to their ancestral breeding grounds. Males will mate aggressively with females, latching on until she releases eggs for fertilisation, sometimes drowning them. In their somewhat blind desperation to reproduce, they will also attempt to mate with deceased females, or, if you are Rachael, a human hand moving them to safety from a busy road. Chirp!

Toad face

To Dunstable Downs. My new favourite place to visit. Already violets scatter the steep chalk hillside here. Never have I enjoyed being and feeling so intimately close to wild birds of prey. Not for the first time, I pulled up in the National Trust car park, and being a big fan of the odd nap, I wound the seat back, and nodded off for half hour or so (Not bad for a 24 year old!). When I woke, as I opened my eyes, a red kite with its wings arched into a 'W' formation, forked tail balancing it in the strong winds, bombed directly across the front of my car. What a sight. 

Red kite above

Rich red and brown in colour, grey heads and with white undersides to their primaries.That classic and diagnostic forked tail makes them easily distinguished from other large birds of prey. 

Another red kite rose on the wind forced up against the side of the downs. Holding its wings stiff, the kite reached down to its talons mid-flight and tore scraps from the prey it most likely scavenged. 

Feeding mid-flight

The red kites are a conservation success story, being brought back from near to extinction in the UK. And it is not just the red kites that love patrolling these hills. Kestrels hover, head motionless in the wind. Whilst buzzards soar in a circling fashion, with their wings stretched wide. 


Olivia joined me after work for a walk on the downs, where we investigated some of the woodland in the area. Immediately, we stumbled across some entrances to what turned out to be a huge badger sett. The entrances appeared to have been used recently, nesting material strewn messily around the site, latrines full of their messy tar-like faeces, scratches set into the bark of nearby trees, and even badger hair caught onto branches by some of the entrance holes. 

Curiously, the remains of an old, rusted car sat amongst the woodland. Slowly it has been reclaimed by the land, filled with dirt and tangled by new growth. What was strange, was to find an entrance to the badger sett  underneath where the drivers seat would have been. 

Rusty old car in the woods

Hair was caught on the shard of metal that hung from just above the sett entrance. There is something fascinating about the idea of human waste being claimed and used to the advantage of wild plants and animals. Something that would have been an appalling act of littering and dumping, has conversely become what appears to be a useful shelter and protected entrance to the badgers sett.

Sett in the car

Even stranger, was the discovery of three skulls, amongst a heap of bones from a range of animals. Rabbit, as you would expect from an area prowled by aerial and terrestrial predators. Then what looked like the jaw of a cow, possible due to the grazing that has occurred on sites nearby. Two badger skulls, fairly close to the sett. And a third, very similar in size and shape as the two badger skulls; it had the same dentition, but lacked the sagittal crest that runs along the centre of the two badger skulls, instead fused by two separate fibrous joints. Confusing indeed.

The three skulls

Whilst eating sandwiches, a spotted wolf spider came crawling out of the undergrowth.

Spotted wolf spider on the chalky downs


Back in Langford, and a red lily beetle perched on a blade of grass in the garden. Luckily flying off before I cut the grass. Apparently they devastate lilies and are a burden to gardeners.

Red lily beetle, poised on the end of a blade of grass

Little beauty!
Quite frankly, I am a red lily beetle fan. A very good-looking insect, that can ruin any of my lilies any day.

Back at Whipsnade, and a metallic trill echoes through the woodland. Faster paced than the cackling of the green woodpecker, and a lot tinnier. A bird lands on the trunk opposite. The wonderfully slate grey back, separated from its chestnut orange underside by a black eye band running back from its bill. Reaching its head out, it eyes up its nest hole. Then dashes into the nest hole where a branch used to be. Packed with dirt, the hole is now only big enough to fit the nuthatch through.

Reaching out

Eyeing up its nesthole before entering

Nuthatch are hot on the heels of the treecreeper for their amazing ability to effortlessly scurry both up and down tree trunks and branches.

Calling from the top of a tree

Collecting dirt

And just below this wonderful bird, the newborn wild boar piglets charge around and snuffle through the mud, imitating their boisterous mother. Cute or what!? 


And I shall end with this photo of Ellie, enjoying the cool River Ivel on one of our sunnier days....

Expect some butterflies and some bloody faetus' in the next blog.... Bet you can not wait!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Isle of Wight: Red squirrels, a bluethroat, and Easter eggcases with a chick...

I pull the arm chair up against the glass balcony doors. Sitting down, I rest my feet against the glass. I take a sip of earl grey before dunking a milk chocolate hobnob, taking care not to hold it in for too long. Rachael joins me for morning tea, looking out over the crashing waves of the English Channel beyond the small patch of shrubs and trees below. Greenfinch flutter between branches. A blue tit begins taking nest material into the box that it has claimed. The wind pushes the cumulus across the sky. Sunlight spills through gaps between the clouds, creating shimmering pools of light that cruise across the surface of the sea.

Morning tea

I do love being by the sea, and long for the day I can spend more than just the odd weekend or week away at the coast. Before we set off, we had checked for bird sightings on the island. Conveniently, a subspecies of bluethroat, the white-spotted, had been hanging around, attracting box tickers from all over the country to come and tick another rarity off of their list. We made this our second port of call, particularly because it was an opportunity to see a fairly rare bird, that, more importantly, is an extremely good looking one. Wintering in Northern Africa, these normally only migrate north as far as central and eastern Europe.

But first, being in the Isle of Wight means one important thing - red squirrels!! Borthwood Copse, an ancient oak woodland, a mysterious and charming place to explore. Every turn through the wood was greeted with another more magnificent tree than the last. The bark providing the rustic and wrinkled appearance of something that has lived on this earth for centuries. Plenty of rotting fallen branches and old trees retire their resources to an array of insects within the woodland.

An ancient oak in Borthwood Copse

Stopping to watch the life within the woods revealed lots of bird activity. Goldcrest, the UK's smallest bird, and treecreepers moved from tree to tree.

Spot the tree-creeper!

The first summer migrant to make an appearance; rummaging amongst the spindly branches in the more open area of the copse.

Wonderful little willow warbler!

A jay called from the canopy tops, whilst buzzards soared high above the wood.
Just as we thought our luck had ran dry, and our lips had turned blue with cold despite the glorious sunshine, Rachael spotted a red squirrel dashing behind the bushes behind a clearing into the woods. We followed and found. Rich, rusty red, the squirrel climbed up an old oak, stopped for a groom, ran back down, leaping with great agility through the air across onto another tree, using that great bushy tail to balance beautifully.

Hanging on

The tufts on the squirrels ears are still long at this time of year

The next day, after another dose of tea, biscuits and the crashing sea, we headed over to St. Helens Duver. This was where the bluethroat had been spotted. If anyone has seen the film 'The Big Year', you would have immediately been familiar with the sight that greeted us at this wonderful national trust site; small groups of binocular cladded people in their dark olive-green attire, slowly moving between the tufts of bushes, hunting the bird down.

A pied wagtail forages in the grass

We joined them, and as we moved around the edge of a bush, it was there. Right in front of us. Casually foraging in the undergrowth along the edges of the bushes. Wonderful looking little bird.

Bluethroat; with a white spot under its chin

My enjoyment of the bird did not extend far beyond the fact that it is really good looking. Even its call was rather dull. And its behaviour rather ordinary. Yes, I enjoyed the fact it is quite rare in this part of the world, but I can honestly say that I would have been just as happy, if not happier, watching the blue tits collect nest material, or dunnocks flirting with each other before the male cleans the females vagina out of other males sperm before mating. I can not deny the fact that I did enjoy the moment, the bluethroat is attractive, but feel that it just reiterated my feelings towards actually enjoying nature, opposed to the cold sport of ticking off how many species you can see.

Ticked off!

After about 20 minutes, the interest in the bluethroat dwindled, and we headed around along the coast to the woodland on the beach. 

Beach at St. Helens

Suddenly, the black-headed gulls settled onto the water, whilst the larger gull species took to the air, rising well above the woodland. A peregrine, head into the wind, silhouetted motionless against the bright sky. If I was a gull, I know where I would rather be with a peregrine around! 

Crashing waves

Here, the wind forced waves crashed against the sea wall. The sound of stones grinding along the concrete edge. Salty spray showered the coastal path.

The remains of the church at St. Helens
Another of my favourite things to do, is to track animals. And after seeing Ray Mears tracking a 10-metre long reptile off of the coast of the Isle of Wight, I could not resist in giving this a whirl! After sunrise, and breakfast, we headed to Compton Bay.

Sunrise from the balcony

Unfortunately the tides were not the best we could have had, but we managed to find a few of the footprints. Of course, these are fossilised tracks of a now very extinct Iguanodon species. Just the thought of an animal huge enough to leave footprints like this is beyond exciting. To think of one roaming, grazing on tough grasses, keeping an eye out for the odd Tyrannosaurus really does capture the imagination. Memories of my childhood favourite 'Jurassic Park' came flooding back.

Iguanodon fossil footprint

From signs of an ancient and extinct species, to more obvious signs of living and yet even more ancient animals. Shark and ray eggcase hunting! These fish existed long before the dinosaurs, and have survived to the modern day.  The washed up, tough collagen egg cases of some shark and ray species wash up along our shoreline, providing evidence of what lies beneath our waves, without having to even get wet.

Chick enjoying a good easter egg-case hunt! Includes small-spotted catshark, thornback and spotted ray!

The following day, the wind howled against the balcony, shaking it on occasions. The grey clouds and chance of icy showers loomed. Sitting slightly closer to the radiator, we enjoyed tea with our chocolate Easter egg remains, and prepared for a trip to Newton Estuary. Another National Trust site I would highly recommend; much more rugged, with a wind swept and excitingly raw feel.

The old boathouse at Newton Harbour

A nationally rare site for its natural transition from ancient woodland to salt marshes and estuarine habitat, making it a haven for birds, particularly as a winter feeding ground for species like brent geese and black-tailed godwits (very handsome birds!).

Brent goose


Black tailed Godwit

I was tempted to shame Rachael with a photo of her poking her head out of a hole in an old, dead tree like some sheltering squirrel. But being the kind soul I am, I spared her, and thought I would go for the shot of myself from furthest away. Furthest away so you can not properly see my face looking miserable in a place that should be unbelievably fun. Smiling is hard enough for me normally, let alone with a numb face from icy winds...

Cold day inside a tree

Later that night, we cooked our freshly caught and locally sourced dover sole and pollock, covered in Isle of Wight garlic butter. The skin had crisped perfectly, the meat tender and oozing with juices. Just as I cut into the sole, about a hundred tiny eggs spilled out. Clearly, this was a female, bursting with eggs ready to be fertilised by an appropriate male. My heart sank. Guilt stricken we regrettably removed the two egg sacs running down the length of each side of the sole's body. Packed with probably millions of eggs, we disposed of them and continued our meal, but not before having a good look at these sacs and admiring the effort she had gone to to produce so many.

Egg sac of dover sole

On our last day we decided to ditch the car, and just walk along the coast, back up the cliff through the botanical gardens and through some beautifully daffodil laden woodland.

Daffodils in the Woods

As the ferry pulled in to Southampton in the early evening, just as the sun began to dip behind the clouds on the horizon, the starlings murmerated before steadily settling down to roost. A wonderful treat, and a wonderful way to end a cracking week away in the Isle of Wight.

A murmeration coming to roost

The murmeration left us wondering if there was a similar hierarchy among starlings as there are in corvid species, whereby the more highly ranked individuals get to roost at the top of the structure, while lesser individuals spend the night getting covered in the faeces of the ones above....

Roosting hierarchy?

 Hope you enjoyed! Next blog includes toads, badger skulls and a sett inside a car...