A little visitor

We were just relaxing in the shade of our magnolia tree when we heard a rustle in the undergrowth and there popped up this little chap.

It’s years since I saw one, in fact it’s so long I can’t think when it was. So this is another mammal to add to the ‘seen’ garden list on top of our nightly hedgehogs and less frequent foxes plus loads of bats.

Just hoping he’s not going to destroy our lawn like the last two did over winter.

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 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…

Amazed by the Nene Washes

I’ve been to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Welney reserve a few times, including late last year and the Ouse Washes on which it sits have been spectacular when I have visited in autumn and winter. However, I’m not sure I have ever really heard of the Nene Washes before but today has changed that as we spent a few late morning/early afternoon hours there.

Both ‘Washes’ are huge winter flood storage areas for their neighbouring rivers with the Nene site extending to 1,522 hectares, bounded by large embankments to keep the water from flooding the surrounding flat and low-lying fenland. The RSPB manages a portion of the site, amounting to around 280 hectares and it was this part of the Washes we visited today.

Walking routes from the car park are limited to heading east or west on the southern embankment overlooking the Washes. It gives great views over the site, from an elevated position, although it was particularly windy today making the use of a telescope and binoculars quite challenging.

We started off heading in the direction of a group of people looking into some fields and found them watching three short-eared owls. Two were hunkered down in a small hawthorn tree beside an old barn while the third was more in the open, perched on some logs in the middle of a neighbouring field. After watching them for a while we headed west and were soon told of a particularly special bird that had been seen to fly over and into a small, waterlogged copse. We quickly made our way down and it wasn’t long until we saw it on the woodland edge – a glossy ibis!!! I thought it might have been the first time I’d ever seen one; checking later, I had seen one before when in Botswana, but this was definitely a first sighting in the UK for me, of what is a comparative rarity.

After watching a the ibis for a little while and wandering a little further west to see what other birdlife was in the flooded fields, we headed back east towards the car. Walking east beyond the car park we had great views of perhaps the most lapwings and golden plovers I’ve ever seen – several thousand of each have been recorded there in the last few days. They were constantly being spooked by birds of prey and lifting in great clouds. Long broken flocks of lapwings headed along the Washes leaving behind the golden plovers which circled, rose and dived, shimmering as they caught the sun on their wings.

Of the raptors, we saw five marsh harriers in one binocular view, causing other flocks of birds to lift, including big groups of wigeon. There were also buzzards, red kites (of which we saw plenty more on the way from Northamptonshire) and a stooping and chasing kestrel.

Our main reason for going was to get a chance of seeing common cranes. It’s now well over two years since I last saw any, on my final trip to Sweden before the pandemic hit. For me, they are some of the most wilderness evoking birds, particularly their calls crying out across the landscape. There are very few in the UK compared to Sweden, where I have seen many thousands coming in to roost at the start of their autumn migration. I also frequently see pairs in the countryside when I visit family out in the Swedish countryside and hear when I sit in the summerhouse garden. Today we had very distant views of them out across the Washes landscape and heard them call momentarily before the strong wind whipped the sounds away. We saw at least 25 in a loose group; the wind was just too much to get a stable enough view to count more.

This really was a fantastic first visit to the Nene Washes and hopefully more visits will come.

Summer Leys in Winter

We’re very lucky to have a lot of wetland nature reserves close to us in Northamptonshire; they’re great locations which for winter wildlife. After visiting our nearest sites of Pitsford Water and Ravensthorpe Reservoir over the last couple of weeks, we went a little further afield to Summer Leys today. The national nature reserve, run by Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust is a large, flooded former gravel pit about 25 minutes from us. It is located alongside the River Nene, south of Wellingborough and is one of a large network of lakes by the river as it passes through the county.

Parking in the Wildlife Trust’s car park, there is a good circular walk around the whole site and it took us around two hours today. We weren’t racing around, instead, we took our time to stop at most of the viewpoints over the water and we had lunch on a bench at the far end. We also stopped in the various hides, which were all on the second half of the walk (taking a clockwise way around).

It was a quite a dark and gloomy day and it didn’t take long to get quite cold when we stopped but not too cold to shorten our stay. The large open lake, with little bays here and there, is the winter home to a large selection of waterbirds. There were good numbers of duck, with mallard, gadwall, wigeon, teal, tufted duck, goldeneye and pochard all present in varying numbers, as well as small flocks of greylag and Canada geese and some mute swans. We had views of limited numbers little and great egrets, and a grey heron or two, plus quite a few cormorants on the low islands in the centre of the lake.

The most spectacular view on our walk was of a large flock of lapwings and smaller flock of golden plovers which settled on one of the small central islands. There were more lapwings at the reserve than I can remember seeing anywhere for a long time; they seemed to be everywhere. Every so often they would lift as they were spooked by something, with the flock on the central island being particularly large. We didn’t get a good view of what was causing them to lift, but they frequently rose in alarm, circling above together or splitting and taking dramatic evasive action. The lapwings were always the first to return to ground while the golden plover stayed in the air, often much higher, waiting for things to calm down again.

The bird feeding station was also very good with loads of tits, finches and reed buntings coming in and out to take the food put out for them. Someone told us they had seen a brambling but we had no luck. However, the good close views of bullfinches made up for it, with more in one place than I have seen for quite some time. Just around the corner, after hearing them several times on the walk, we saw a green woodpecker feeding on the ground in the open grass between the path and the lake.

In all we saw nearly 50 species during our easy walk around the reserve, almost as many as we saw in the much longer walk around Pitsford, which has a lot more variation in its habitats. It won’t be long until many of these species move on as the winter visitors move back north, and then replaced as summer visitors move in. However, there should be time yet to visit more of the wetland sites nearby and slightly further away before the winter is over.