Zooming in on the rain

We were going to go for a local walk today but the weather is pretty awful and by time we drove the 10 minutes to the start of the walk the rain was coming down – we aborted the idea. However, on arriving home we spent some time in the garden using our new phones to do some macro photography of the water droplets on the flowers. I don’t do much macro photography but I’m pretty pleased with these…

A close beaver encounter

We’ve just returned from a week in the Swedish countryside, staying in a summerhouse amongst the lakes, meadows and forests. Over the past 20-odd years I’ve been a frequent visitor to this stunningly lovely country but this was my first since the summer of 2019; COVID getting in the way of seeing family for far too long. I will write a more comprehensive post about the wildlife encounters during the trip but just had to start with the beavers!

Close to the summerhouse is a small lake teeming with wildlife above, on and below the water’s surface. Over the course of my previous stays there, I have made almost daily trips down to the lake to see the family of beavers that live there. Most often, the views are distant, across the lake, around their large lodge, and are certainly not guaranteed. However, this trip was very different, at least at the end.

We saw one or more beavers everyday and up to three at once but the penultimate night of our stay was particularly special. As usual we walked down to the lake towards dusk (although you can often see the beavers during the day) and we stood where the little jetty reaches out into the water. Going any further onto the jetty itself risks its clanking frightening off the animals and sending large ripples rolling out across the lake.

Soon after we arrived a beaver approached us. Not swimming far off on the other side of the lake but within five metres. Judging by its size it was likely to be a youngster from last year, coming up to take an inquisitive look at us. At first it swam into the little bay by the jetty, floating and turning for a while as its beady eyes kept a watch on us. It then suddenly splashed its tail and disappeared under the water. However, it wasn’t gone for long as it reappeared towards the little bay beside us and came back for another look.

Seeing one beaver so close was incredible but once the first had eventually made its way back to the other side of the lake, a second came in for a look. Similarly, it was likely to be a a kit from last year and it was equally as inquisitive and spent as much time floating about watching us and making several passes. Eventually, it too made a final pass and disappeared into one of the channels they have dug a the edge of the lake.

The sightings of these two beavers was made all the more special by the other wildlife in the surroundings and the sunlight as the dusk came in. The background sounds were of calling cuckoos, chattering fieldfares, several roding woodcock, numerous smaller songbirds and some croaking frogs in the lakeside reeds. The clouds lit up by the setting sun as well as the light on the trees gave the water a golden shimmer as the gentle breeze broke the glassiness spread across much of the lake.

This was not only one of the most memorable wildlife moments I’ve had in Sweden but one of the most memorable I’ve ever had. Fortunately, I have some photographs and video that captured the moments.

Neighbouring wildlife

We occasionally get asked by our neighbours to feed their cat and chickens while they are away. This weekend after closing the chickens into their coop for the night, we stayed in the paddock for a little while to see what wildlife would turn up.

Our neighbour’s paddock is often used for sheep but we know from signs we have previously seen that there may have a variety of wildlife visiting each night. As we sat with our backs to the hedge, we waited in the cooling evening air for the wildlife to turn up. It didn’t take long for the first to make an appearance; two types of bat flying over our heads hawking for insects along the hedgeline. Shortly afterwards, the sheep started to make quite a lot of noise and they moved up towards the top of the field. Soon afterwards, a fox trotted past us and down the field, probably having been to see if the chickens were still up.

In the distance we could hear a little owl calling in the growing darkness and we eventually saw a brief glimpse of our main target for the night, a badger breaking cover but soon disappearing again before we could get a good look. We eventually had to wander back home but on the way we heard a rustling in the undergrowth and found a hedgehog out for his evening rounds.

That wasn’t the end of the wildlife, however. For two nights I put out my new trail cam to see what else uses the paddock at night. Whilst my trail cam skills haven’t got any better, I did manage to get reasonable images of badgers, a fox and, slightly more surprisingly, a muntjac. This last find must been in the field only moments before I turned up to release the chickens and pick up the camera.

A nice morning for a bird survey

This morning I got up early a bank holiday Monday to do my first of two dawn visits to my Breeding Bird Survey grid square. It was a sunny and cool spring morning as I set out, having let out our neighbour’s chickens for the day (more of that in my next post).

As mentioned in my previous post, my new survey location is in and around the village of Clipston, just a 15-minute drive from home. I’m glad it is only that distance away as I realised that I had left the survey forms behind as I arrived at the car park. Half an hour later I was setting off on the survey having been home and back again. Setting off across the playing fields, it was a quiet start but bird numbers soon picked up as I entered the sheep fields and made my way up the hill above the village. Still relatively early in the season, there weren’t too many spring migrants to be seen and it was only after I had finished the survey that I saw a swallow, my second of the year.

The first 1km transect finishes in a wide open sheep pasture and I then had to head down towards the hill and into lower fields to start the second transect. This one is a bit more mixed with sheep fields mixed in with the urban fabric of the village itself, including the church yard and then out into more sheep fields. The central sections in the village were pretty hectic with birds on all sides of me but the survey became easier, from a counting perspective, once I was back in the fields. However, my task in the last section of the survey was made impossible by a field full of ewes and lambs. I tried to stick to the footpath but the sheep surrounded me, both young and old, making a racket and making it pretty clear I wasn’t welcome. So I had to make a retreat and finish the survey before I could walk the last 100m or so.

Overall, the birds found at the site were those I would expect to see and hear in the countryside and villages around here but, hopefully, the second visit will provide a few more including a wider range of spring migrants. I’m also hoping the sheep and been moved on to another field by then!

A new Breeding Bird Survey site

After moving house last year I had to give up my old Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) grid square in Cheshire but finally I have got a new one and yesterday I did a recce.

I’ve been doing the British Trust for Ornithology’s BBS since 2014 and have really enjoyed it. My old grid square was beneath and on the slopes of the Cheshire Standstone Ridge (hopefully soon to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) about 25 minutes from my former home. It had a mixture of landscapes with cottage gardens, horse and dairy pasture, a flower meadow and wooded hillside. The site gave me plenty of sightings and from looking at the previous records, I found more birds, and more species, than other surveyors who have held the grid square.

With taking a three-month sabbatical in 2019, I could only do half the survey that year and in 2020 I was locked-down in London and couldn’t do the survey at all. After moving home last year I had to give up with lovely site but early this year I secured a new site not far from my new home.

The new site is in and around the village of Clipston, about a 15-minute drive away, and I spent part of yesterday morning walking the route to get to know it and do the habitat recording part of the survey. The survey itself requires two, very roughly, parallel 1km transects to be walked, with notes taken of all the birds noted by sight or sound. The first transect starts in sheep pasture at the bottom of the low rolling hill looking over the village and then passes through the village itself, including through the churchyard, before finishing in what appear to be horse fields. The second transect starts in the village playing fields, before crossing a road and heading up into more sheep fields and finishes just down the opposite side of the hill from the village.

The pretty village and great views across the Northamptonshire landscape, it’s a nice spot for a bird survey and will hopefully present provide plenty of birds to record. There were certainly quite a few around yesterday but it was the bird I didn’t see that was most notable. Not far from the end of the route, at a cross-road in the public footpath, I found a little owl pellet lying on a fence rail. The glistening of the beetle shell casings was a give-away that it was from a little owl and it was smaller than tawny owl pellets I’ve seen before. I’ve been hearing little owls calling at night quite a lot recently in the valley below our house and it’s nice to know they are at my BBS site too.

For me, there are few nicer things to do in spring that get up early and head out to do a BBS – wandering through the countryside listening to birdsong is a pretty relaxing thing to do.

A dusk moment…

After a walk in the last of the sun this evening, as we returned to our car, we saw three roe deer grazing in the open arable fields. We stood and watched them for a few minutes as they grazed on the new shoots, well aware of our presence and looking up in our direction every so often. A blackbird and a small flock of yellowhammers provided the backing music to the view as the sun brought a orange hue to the greening fields and hedgerows.

It was exactly for moments like this that we moved to the countryside, fleeting moments that being a connection to nature. In the 40 years I lived in Cheshire, I didn’t once see roe deer in the surrounding countryside. We’ve now seen them twice in these fields below Hanging Houghton and plenty of muntjacs a number of times in various places across the area.

We eventually drove away after the three deer moved into the hedge line, only to find there were actually four together in the fields, a buck and three does.

Not the best image from my phone; three deer just visible at the bend of a hedge.

Surveying badget setts

My first post of the year made an aim to get back into conservation volunteering after leaving so much of it behind when I moved home last year. I’ve already made a good start with a breeding bird survey grid square secured for this spring and a week on RSPB Ramsey Island in September.

I may have said before that whilst my wildlife interests are wide and I spend a fair bit of time focused on birds, I’m particularly interested in mammals. I’ve tended to find that volunteering opportunities for mammals are much more difficult to come by. However, after following the local badger group on social media for a while, I decided to join and see how I could get involved. The first step has been to get training to do sett surveys and to look for setts when out on our walks around Northamptonshire as well as closer to home.

A few weeks ago on a chilly Saturday morning I attended a training session provided by Northamptonshire Badger Group. Run outside at a live sett, the morning of training gave me a very good introduction to many aspects of badger’s lives. The purpose of the training was to introduce me and the other attendees to badger ecology and how to undertake surveys of their setts. We learnt about the different types of sett, how to know whether they are in use including the the field signs to look out for, some of the legal background and how to spot a blocked sett. I have also bought a couple of books to widen my knowledge of badgers and booked myself on a day-long course on badger-related crime provided by the Badger Trust.

Since the training we have been out for a few walks around the Northamptonshire countryside and have surveyed seven setts so far and provided the details to the country badger recorder. In just one walk yesterday we found four setts on a six mile route. It’s unwise to provide details of the locations in the public domain as there are plenty of people out there who wish harm to both setts and the badgers living in them, so I will be careful with any information I post on here..

However, below is a photo of the fourth sett we found yesterday. It included a huge hole in the middle of a crop field with other holes on the edge of the planted area and some more in the adjoining copse, all within a short distance of the public footpath we were walking on. The farmer had avoided the huge hole and planted around it. It is illegal for anyone to interfere with a sett, so ploughing over the hole would have been an illegal act, but I’m hoping the farmer did this out of care for wildlife. The hole was so big that it could also have damaged the tractor if they had tried to go straight over it.

I’m hoping this is the start to being able to do more to help the wildlife of Northamptonshire after being very pleasantly surprised at how rich nature in the county is compared to my former home are in Cheshire.

On the border of winter and spring

We had a quiet walk around part of Pitsford Water Nature Reserve today on what was a very bright and cloudless afternoon. There was some warmth in the sun and in sheltered spots it felt later in the year than the end of February. However, out in the open there was a chilly breeze, particularly across the reservoir, that took us back into winter.

Even the wildlife was a mixture between the two seasons. Along some of the tree-lined rides were some remaining winter thrushes feeding on the ground, the redwings and fieldfares ‘seeping’ and ‘chuckling’ as they flew off before our approach. Out on the water there were diminishing flocks of wintering wildfowl including wigeon, pochard and goldeneye. However, sharing the water were tentatively displaying great crested grebes and there were some springtime calls from a range of passerines in the surrounding woodland. A song thrush called loudly from within a thick hawthorn, and great tits sang amongst mixed flocks of other tits. I saw my first willow tit in a couple of years as well as the first tree sparrows of 2022 in their usual spot on the entrance to the reserve.

Finally, today it did seem that spring is just around the corner and the season is starting to turn, even if there is still plenty of time for cold days to take us back to winter again.

Our nocturnal garden visitor…

It was only in the last 6 months of living in my previous house, where I’d been for over 20 years, that I started to get badgers coming into the garden. It was a joy to have these amazing animals visiting on a regular basis and I was a little sad to leave them behind when we moved to Northamptonshire.

I did have a little hope that we might have badgers visiting the garden at our new house but so far none have appeared on our camera trap. Instead, we’ve had a much wider list of mammals over the past year with a semi-regular fox, a daily squirrel, six species of bat in the warmer months, as well as mice, voles and moles. However, the stars so far have to have been the hedgehogs.

From spring onwards, we had started to see their dropping around the garden but it took a while to actually see one. We put food out for them and left out the camera trap. We soon captured videos of them coming wandering around the patio and eventually saw one as we looked out of the window one evening. Front then on, we saw them almost nightly and up to three at a time. They often quarrelled over food and we could sometimes even hear them snorting at each other when we went to bed at night.

As summer turned into autumn, a small hedgehog started to appear, one of the year’s young. We saw the hoglet grow and after a time it was difficult to tell him (or her) apart from others. He eventually disappeared with the others as the colder weather came in.

A little while later, we saw a very small hoglet in the garden, much smaller than the previous small one we had been seeing. Being November, it was possible that this little one had been abandoned by its mother before it had weaned. We saw it for a couple of nights and were concerned but when we saw it out in the daylight, seemingly desperately hungry, trying to eat the empty food bowl, we had to act.

We picked it up and put into a box with straw and a warm hot water bottle and blanket, to keep it safe while we found a rescue centre. We found that the centres closest to us were full, so we had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest one with any space. We left him (he was confirmed as a boy) there with quite a few others and hoped for the best. We heard he had survived the first few days, which gave us hope, but after a few weeks we learned that he had not made it after all.

We had been told we would get him back to release in the garden when he got better but this wasn’t to be. However, we were offered another youngster instead to set fee. We went to pick him up and bought a second hedgehog house (we already had one which is hopefully in use) and a feeding station (to stop the cats eating all the food). Arriving home we waited until night had arrived before releasing him outside his new home and waited for him to go inside.

Over the last few weeks we have regularly seen him as he gets to know his new home. With the relatively warm winter, he’s unlikely to hibernate, and is out foraging most evenings, taking food we leave out for him.

It was great to get a happy ending to first year of hedgehog watching and feeding in our garden – and hopefully we get even more in the garden this year.

Freezing and freeing sunset

For the first time in ages, possibly even this year (apart from a Friday or two), we went for a post-work walk down at our favourite spot below Hanging Houghton.

A sudden return to cold weather came during the day with some sleet showers in mid-afternoon following a sunny start. I began my morning listening to a song thrush calling from a nearby garden but that moment was soon pushed away by the working day.

Heading out for the walk it was time to put on the heavy coat and big woolly hat. Getting out of the car after the short ten-minute drive, I was very glad I had. The freezing wind blows mostly unimpeded in that spot once out of the cover of the trees. The walk was cut short at about half the usual distance as the cold began to bite and the peace was disturbed as a rumbling 747 trundled slowly across the sky.

Nearly back at the car, we stopped to stand on the little bridge over which the dirt farm track crosses a stream, watching the orange glow of the sunset beneath the darkening blue above. This time it was a mistle thrush calling from a nearby stand of trees, heard clearly over the lightly babbling water. One of the usual local buzzards broke the spell momentarily but then a sudden dart appeared, racing towards us. A kingfisher flew beneath the arch of the bridge and away behind us into the darkness around the first meander.

Quite a lovely moment of release to end a working day…