First signs of spring

The weather yesterday morning was absolutely lovely for what is approaching the latter end of January. It wasn’t warm, far from it, but the bright sun and the clear skies made the world around me a lot happier and colourful. For the first time this year, in fact for several months, I got my bike out and went for an easy pedal around the area. This part of Northamptonshire really is a pleasant place to cycle, there isn’t much traffic on the small country lanes and there’s plenty of choice in avoiding the busier, more major roads. The countryside is hiller than I was used to in my former cycling area in Cheshire but they add more challenge and interest, once my legs have got back into the swing of things. There is also quite a lot to look at as I pedal my way past, whether it be the great array of country houses and village churches, the scenery in general and, of course, the wildlife, of which there is nearly always something to be seen.

By the time of arrived home, surprisingly less frozen than I was expecting, the skies were starting to cloud up and by the time we went out for a walk in the afternoon, a dark, overcast murk had descended. This was a bit more like it for January, these last two weeks of which month, along with the first two of February, being statistically the coldest of the winter; and it really did feel cold with the sun behind the clouds. We went for a walk along the Brampton Valley Way, the former Northampton to Market Harborough railway line, which is a great place for wandering, running or cycling, with various points of access along its 14 miles. We decided to join at Hanging Houghton and northwards but only went about a mile before turning back. However, during that short walk, despite the gloom and presence of winter-visiting redwings and fieldfares, it did seem like there were some of the first signs of spring in the wildlife. A pair of buzzards were calling to each other within the way-side woods, pairs of red kite circled above the village and a woodpecker could be heard hammering, a little tentatively perhaps, on a nearby tree. These sights and sounds were coupled with us seeing blue tits prospecting our garden bird box earlier in the day, to give the impression that the new season might not be far away. However, I had to remind myself just how long we could have yet to go in winter. Iin two week’s time, it will be a year since we moved into our new house; it was a snowy and icy day and that weather stayed around for the rest of the week and it certainly wasn’t the last time we saw that kind of weather.

Looking forward to 2022

This post two years ago had no sign of what has occurred since, both in terms of COVID-19 but also my life in general. Now at the start of 2022, there are all sorts of hopes in my head that could make this year one of the brightest after two very hard years for everyone.

Two weeks into the new year, there are already some glimmers of hope that we are approaching a new phase in the pandemic, Omicron may be subsiding in the UK and becoming somewhere near endemic. Later this month, many of the remaining restrictions may be removed and a greater level of normality returned to us. Finally, there may be hope that, while COVID-19 may not disappear, we can move on and live with it like we do so with many other similar viruses. I’m not daft enough to think there aren’t still risks ahead, especially the emergence of further variants, and people will still die from being infected with COVID-19. However, there is very much more hope now than in this equivalent post from a year ago.

My life has changed such a lot since my 2020 post, so much for the better, and I aim to build on that. Now firmly settled into our new home in rural Northamptonshire, I’m keen to keep exploring the area, looking for wildlife, finding new walks and cycle routes and returning to the places we already like to spend time. The county really is lovely and we’ve very happy to have found somewhere that provides so much for us to enjoy.

Even with the restrictions placed on us last year, we still managed to do quite a lot with it and we have even more planned for this year. One thing that is close to the top of my list of things to do is finding some new volunteering opportunities after I left so many behind when I moved away from Cheshire last year. I did visit a bird ringing group late last summer to see if there was a chance I could join and start training. However, I just couldn’t commit the amount of time they required. I’m very sad about this but perhaps this is something I could consider again in a few years’ time. There are other opportunities I’m considering and I really do need to make some efforts to get involved again. At very least, I would like to get a new BTO Breeding Bird Survey site to do and I need to get on and make enquiries before it’s too late.

Away from home, as usual there are a few trips away planned. For what is becoming an annual occurrence, we may head across to Norfolk for a short break at the end of the January or in early February; it’s such a wonderful place for winter wildlife. We have a holiday to Sweden in late April/early May, to see family particularly, who I haven’t seen in over two years, but to also show my girlfriend places I have come to love and are very close to being like another home. There is also hope that I can return to Ramsey Island to stay for the first time since my three months there in 2019; a week in September would be great, spending time in another place that feels like a home. Our trip furthest away from our real home will hopefully be to Zambia in October. This has been postponed twice due to the pandemic and we’re hoping it will be ‘third time lucky’.

Lastly, but very much not least, is our biggest event of the year; we are getting married in the summer. As readers of my blog might expect, nature will be fairly central to the location, the day and the ceremony and I’m in no doubt that our plans will make it a day, and couple of weeks, that will be unforgettable. 

A frosty walk around Pitsford Water Nature Reserve

Today we had a sunny and frosty wander around the nature reserve at Pitsford Water. We’re fortunate that the reservoir is only a 10-minute drive away, so is one of our most common spots for a quick walk as well an occasional longer circuit. Today we decided to do the seven mile round trip of the nature reserve. The reserve covers one half of the reservoir’s 14 miles of shoreline and there is a lovely walk that can be started at either end of the causeway that cuts the water in half.

We parked on the Brixworth side of the water at the junction of the old road towards Walgrave that was severed by the building of the reservoir. Walking down what is now a track towards the water’s edge there were nice frosty views across the surrounding countryside and our first encounters with birdlife with reed buntings and yellowhammers feeding on the seed put out for them close to the gate onto the reserve. The signs here are very clear that a permit is needed to visit the reserve, which is amazingly quiet compared to the country park half of the shoreline. The permits can be obtained for free if you are a member of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust or a day permit can be bought at the fishing lodge on the Holcot side of the causeway.

Starting out on our clockwise walk, we passed through the low, wet meadows on the water’s edge with good views of the water birds immediately with great gatherings of duck, a few flocks of greylag and Canada geese and good numbers of mute swans. The ducks were dominated by wigeon and teal but as we wandered on there were plenty of others including mallard, tufted ducks, pochard, shoveler, pintail, and eventually towards the end of the walk, a few gadwall.

The landscape then changes into shoreline woodland and open rides with intermittent views of the water. It is like this for much of the rest of the walk but views of the wildlife are helped by a number of good hides at irregular intervals. The woodland provided views and sounds of a different variety of birds with plenty of tits and finches flitting about the leafless branches. The trees right by the water also host a number of cormorant colonies and provide perches for herons and great white and little egrets.

About halfway around the walk, there is a spot overlooking the water with a picnic bench. This is a lovely place to stop and usually there is no one else around. In the summer, it’s nice to have lunch there watching and listening to common terns over the water. Today it was quiet but still nice to sit there in the sun, out of the cool breeze.

In the last of the bays, before getting to the causeway, we came across a new species for us, another duck; smew. Two males were hanging out with some wigeon and mallards on the other side of the water but we still had good views as they sat on the water between dives below the surface. The males are rather a flamboyant black and white bird and very easy to spot amongst the others. We had learned that they had been seen in the Holcot Bay area of the reservoir from a great local birdwatching website (Northamptonshire Birding), which is now one of our go-to places for news of wildlife around the area. Usually, things have disappeared by the time I get anywhere near where they might be, but this time, they were in the right place.

To end the walk, a chilly stroll across the causeway was needed, back onto the main road and close to the more public side of the reservoir. It’s amazing how quiet the reserve is and it’s easy to forget how popular the other half is. Usually, we barely meet anyone as we walk there but today there were a few more about, perhaps this is peak season for watching wildlife at Pitsford with the winter wildfowl being a particular draw.

After seven miles of relaxed walking, a few stops in the hides and occasional chats with fellow walkers, we got back to the car, having seen 52 different species of bird as well as our first hare and muntjac of the year. This really is a very special place to have almost on our doorstep and a great way to start the year of wildlife watching.

Starting as I mean to go on…

At this time of year I usually do a review of the previous 12 months and another looking forward to the next 12. I may get around to writing them but I really want to get blogging more and rather than waiting for those longer posts, I thought I would start 2022 with something shorter.

After Christmas as home, we spent New Year with friends renting a couple of cottages on the South Devon coast. We’ve done this before and South Devon was no less lovely, despite not having the best weather. We stayed close to Noss Mayo and just a few metres from the South West Coast Path. Down the hill was Stoke Beach which had some spectacular rock formations and crashing waves racing in with the tide; these photos taken on New Year’s Day…

After the walk on the beach, some of us went for a further walk on the Coast Path and while short, it gave me a chance to see some of more wildlife on the first day of the year, adding to the seabirds seen on the beach. In addition to the hovering kestrel in the image below, at Stoke Point we also saw a long sought-after bird for my UK list – Cirl Bunting. They’re very rare in the UK with the only populations being on the coast around where we were staying and a little further down into Cornwall. We didn’t have great views as the flock of birds was mostly feeding in a stubble field and when they were airborne, they weren’t so for long and the light was really poor but a great bird to see in the new year. On the walk we also saw a whinchat, which is the first time I’ve seen one for a few years.

Hopefully, this year will be full of wildlife and the first day won’t be the high mark for the 12 months!

Northamptonshire – raising hope for nature in our rural places

Come the early days of February, we will have lived in our cottage in a quiet Northamptonshire village for a year. So much has happened and so much has changed over the 12 months that I could write about but I want to get back to the basics of my blog; my love of nature and my concern for the natural environment.

As I have written previously, we knew very little of Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. I’d only ever passed through the county, racing through by train or car, usually on the West Coast Mainline or along the M1 or A14. It came as a surprise to us when we started looking at the county, having first focused on Warwickshire, just how lovely rural Northamptonshire is. 

Our part of the county, particularly, is rolling, steeply in places, with a patchwork of large arable fields for growing grains and smaller pastures primarily for sheep and beef cattle. The fields are bounded by both mixed hedgerows and dry stone walls and the area is criss-crossed by a network of country lanes and relatively quiet more major roads. The west of the county is very lightly wooded for a rural area, with West Northamptonshire having only 5.6% woodland cover, less than some cities, but what it is missing in trees it makes up for with water. 

We have a good selection of open water around us with Ravensthorpe, Hollowell, Stanford reservoirs close by and the much larger Pitsford Water a ten minute drive away. There is also the River Nene, which passes through Northampton a few miles to the south of us and makes its way through the county and onto Cambridgeshire, briefly into Lincolnshire, before it meets the North Sea at The Wash. As it meanders through Northamptonshire there are groups of lakes, many being former gravel pits, that have increased the water habitats through a large area of the county.

This wold-like landscape, with its mixed farming and its range of water habitats has had a particular positive effect on me. It holds a range of wildlife, birds, mammals and insect life, that was so often missing from my former home in South Cheshire. It is altogether a richer place in nature terms and in being so has rekindled some hope that rural England doesn’t have to be so nature-depleted, that it can mix farming with wildlife and that man’s impact on the land doesn’t all have to be bad.

I won’t pretend that everything is as it should be in rural Northamptonshire; that would be very far from the truth. Only in the last month have I seen flood water inundating rivers with soil from autumn-ploughed fields, turning them to the colour of fudge. Chalara die-back is taking many of the ash trees which are so widespread around the edges of the county’s fields. I also expect, like so many other places, that the wildlife I am seeing now is in a very much diminished state compared to earlier decades. However, what wildlife I have seen over the last 11 months has been in a positive contrast to where I used to live.

In that time, we have recorded 53 bird species seen in or from the garden and a further five heard. We have also had 11 species of mammal, including six species of bat over the garden, as well as 11 different types of butterfly. I could only dream of such richness in my old garden (although I do still miss the badgers that suddenly started sneaking in under holly hedge in the last few months before I left).

Almost from the moment we moved in to our cottage, the wildlife was evident. From the owls calling during the first night, to a kestrel landing on the telegraph post next to the house the following snowy morning, it was immediately clear that this might be a better place for wildlife.

That owl on the first night wasn’t the last. We hear tawnies almost every night and in the spring we heard little owls nearby and as well as a barn owl once or twice in late winter. During our first drive around the area after we moved in we saw a barn owl in broad daylight sitting on a post and also saw one in an old barn at Hanging Houghton, a place we have come to love for a walk when we have a spare hour or so. This was also the first place we heard skylarks this year and we saw upwards of a dozen at a time on some of our spring and summer walks there. I love to just stand or sit, eyes closed, listening to the skylarks; a perfect way to meditate for a while.

Working from home for so much of the year, wildlife has been a release, during the working day as well as after it. Red kites and buzzards frequently fly over the house and I hear them from my desk. I also often hear green woodpeckers from the same spot yaffling away in the nearby gardens alongside their great spotted cousins hammering on the trees down in the shallow valley beneath us. There’s usually a few birds flitting about in the trees and bushes behind the drystone wall opposite my home office but the best view I had this year was a fleeting one, of a spotted flycatcher perching on the telegraph wire just outside my open window.

Some of the flora has also been notable, particularly in the hedgerows. During the spring there was a procession of blossom over the months with apple and cherry coming first followed by the blackthorn and hawthorn, then the elder and finally the bramble. With such a display of flowers we expected, or rather hoped, for a great glut of berries and we weren’t disappointed. Several autumnal walks resulted in good harvests of sloes, blackberries and elderberries and our hedgerow gin has just been decanted and kicked off a few festive evenings.

My cycles around the local countryside were accompanied in the spring and summer by yellowhammers and whitethroats, as well as more skylarks. In some spots it seemed as though they were in every hedge and tree; a continuous calling as I pedalled along the country lanes. As summer started to fade and the crops were harvested, I got frequent views of groups of red kites feeding on the creatures exposed in the stubble left behind by the combine.

It’s not just our walks that have revealed the richness of nature in the area; there are quite a few nature reserves too and our favourite to date has probably been at Titchmarch. In the eastern half of the county, it is one of those series of lakes on the Nene and our first spring time walk there was lovely with a wide range of warblers calling from the reeds and undergrowth. We also saw a cuckoo for the only time this year, standing in clear view in a stand of poplar calling out over the water.

We have visited a few of the reservoirs and particularly like Pitsford and Ravensthorpe, which are so close by. A walk around the nature reserve half of the former is always very quiet despite the number of bird hides provided. I particularly loved watching the common terns which nest there, a species I never saw in Cheshire. The autumn and winter have revealed a place for thousands of waterfowl of a wide variety. Ravensthorpe on the other hand, whilst also good for ducks and swans, gave us views of hundreds of hirundines hawking over the water as they arrived for the breeding season and we’ve also seen a small starling murmuration over the reed beds and grey wagtails on the dam.

Returning to home, we also have a grey wagtail visiting our often waterlogged patio at the moment and our bird feeders have more visitors than I can remember seeing at any other. We often have a dozen or more goldfinches supported by a cast of greenfinches, chaffinches and a range of tits.  

Good numbers of my favourite bird, swifts, appeared around the village in the summer. The Chairman of the parish council not only has his own swift boxes on his house, he’s installed some in the village church tower along with speakers playing recordings of swifts. Often on a spring lunchtime walk around the village I would stare upwards expecting to see them flying above only to (again) realise that it was just the recording. However, one late spring day they were actually chasing around above my head and I stood watching as they raced between the steep roofs of the ironstone houses, my heart lifted by the sight of them. Over the course of the next few weeks we regularly saw them around the village and could lie in the back garden watching them wheel and dart above us.

Perhaps, however, the birds that has most made an impact on us in our new house have been the starlings. They were calling in their slightly crazy way from tree tops and TV aerials around the house when we first arrived in but then they moved in too. We have had three pairs nesting in the eves of the house and we regularly hear them in the morning before we get out of bed and during the rest of the day. When they had chicks, we heard them grow; their calls starting as quiet ‘cheeps’ but developing into raucous screeching to wake us every morning for two weeks running before they fledged. They then had creches in the back garden, the fat balls on the feeders being rapidly devoured each time we put them out. Now we are at the quiet time for them but some are wintering in our roof and we still hear them as they chatter and slide down the sloping section of the eaves.

Despite all the above, the view that pleased me most was a very recent one. As we headed down the hill for our usual walk at Hanging Houghton, we saw four roe deer feeding quietly in one of the fields. We stopped the car and watched them for a moment and they looked back at us. I never saw free-roaming deer in Cheshire in the 40 years I lived there, but these roe add to the muntjac we have seen on several occasions at various places in the county. I love seeing deer, they remind me of wllder places, particularly of my trips to Sweden where they are so often seen in forest glades at dawn or dusk, and seeing them in my new home county really lifted my spirits on an otherwise gloomy day.

I’m sure we have only just touched the surface of Northamptonshire’s wildlife and I can’t wait for the new year to start and to see what else we can find out about nature in this quiet and so little known county. If we find even more, this place will make that hope for a better future for nature in our rural places even stronger.

Something new…

I wildlife and I like gadgets, so what could be better than combining the two? So I bought a new bat detector recently to cheer myself up and it works a treat!

I bought an Echo Meter Touch 2, which slots into the bottom of my iPhone, along with a couple of books about British and European bats. The big difference between the new gadget and my old bat detector is that it automatically recognises the type of bat producing the echolocation calls it records. This enables a novice (basically) like me to easily note the bats in an area without the need to gain specialist knowledge around calls and call frequencies, which will take a some time to develop.

However, it has spurred me on to learn more about bats and to spend more time outside at dusk and into the night to see and hear them. It is now quite a few years since I went out with a couple of friends, who are much more knowledgable than me, to do some Daubenton’s surveys along a nearby river. I loved doing the surveys and seriously considered getting my own survey spot and maybe I should do actually do it this time – but first, I think I need to do more reading around the subject and testing out my new kit.

Over the first two nights of using the detector, I was amazed to recorded four species of bat in our garden, both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle and Brown Long-eared and Noctule. I’ve never recorded Soprano Pipistrelle or Noctule before, which was particularly pleasing, but simply to record four species at all was great. I’m planning to take a few nocturnal walks around the village soon to see what else I can pick up and I also want to find a nice stretch of water to see if I can find some Daubenton’s too.

Unfortunately, on searching the Bat Conservation Trust’s website, there doesn’t appear to be a Northamptonshire bat group but I’m hoping there may be some opportunities to undertake bat surveys in the surrounding area once I’ve gained some more knowledge and skills.

A new start in Northamptonshire

Finally, after five and a half months since putting an offer on a house, we moved home in early February. We have combined my house in Cheshire and my girlfriend’s flat in Kew into one by moving to rural Northamptonshire. Once offices fully reopen, I will be working in Birmingham (instead of Manchester) and Sarah will continue working in central London. Whilst this will entail quite a lot of travelling, although for fewer days per week than before the pandemic, we both wanted a move into the countryside and we’re already seeing the value in that decision – albeit without any of the long commutes yet.

This post has taken quite a while to write, on and off over the last few weeks. Moving house, obviously, has taken precedence over blogging, and almost everything else, but we’ve also been hit by a double illness of COVID-19 and glandular fever. One is bad enough, but two has really taken the wind out of us. Fortunately, Sarah has had less severe symptoms but for me it’s been the worse illness I’ve ever had. The COVID symptoms themselves were not particularly bad, like a strong flu, but the combination with glandular fever has left me in almost continuous pain and discomfort and I don’t know how long I will be laid low for. With lockdown still in place, our travel restricted, we haven’t been able to explore widely around our new home area anyway but I’m hoping I get over this in time to take advantage of the relaxations of restrictions as they come over the course of the spring.

Anyway, that’s enough writing of illness, that’s not the purpose of this post. The move to the countryside and to an entirely new and unknown area of England has been a huge change for both of us, particularly Sarah who has lived in London for the past 14 years. Whilst I have spent so much of my time over many years in the countryside, living on the edge of rural Cheshire, it is very different to live in a village some distance from the nearest major town. 

Neither of us knew anything about Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. In fact we really stumbled across the area after failing to find anything we liked in neighbouring Warwickshire. To me, the county has just been somewhere to pass through on the M1 or A14 but on our first visit to view a property we found a hidden gem of a county. We have moved to a small village north of Northampton itself in an area of countryside that is not unlike the Cotswolds. The land is rolling, steeply in places, dotted with old ironstone villages and farms, with hedges and drystone walls enclosing a mixture of large arable fields and small pastures. There is not a great deal of woodland, a bit like my former Cheshire home, but as spring brings the trees into life, I’m sure the area will be swathed in green cover of trees. We’re also close to a number of reservoirs which contrast to the rolling agricultural land and provide different environments for the wildlife we search for.

Our house is down a quiet dead-end village lane with very little traffic save for the occasional tractor and passing ponies. We are sheltered by a hill from any noise from the relatively lightly-trafficked main road that passes the village and the area is so quiet that at night we can hear a single car as it drives between our village and the neighbouring one a couple of miles away. In fact, standing in the back garden at any time of day, the dominant sound is of birds, not traffic – a very different situation to the flat in Kew with the constant passing of vehicles on the road and planes overhead on way into Heathrow.

So far, the birdlife has been great at the cottage and in the surrounding countryside. Our newly erected birdfeeders have a constant passing trade of sparrows, tits and finches, with collared doves and wood pigeons clearing up beneath. We also have regular visits from rooks which seem to have taken a liking to the seed feeders but haven’t quite worked out how to get at them. The most entertaining birds so far have been the starlings which appear to be nesting in our eaves, in at least three spots. Their calls are so varied and often mimic those of others including blackbirds and buzzards, but their songs also frequently seem to end in a fight amongst themselves across our rooftop.

Sitting at my desk I can hear green woodpeckers in the neighbouring gardens and fields as well as the great spotted variety drumming on nearby trees. At night, lying in bed, we’ve also frequently heard tawny owls and the occasional barn owl. The latter we have also seen in broad daylight perched on a fence post as we drove down a country lane. We have had raptors in and over the garden including kestrel and sparrowhawk passing through and buzzards and red kites soaring overhead on nice days.

We haven’t had many walks in the area yet, and I’ve only been for a couple of cycles, due to unpacking and setting up home, illness and the very wintry weather when we first moved in. However, we have found some nice spots already and the birdlife has been great. There are plenty of footpaths in the area as well as a dismantled railway and a number of cross-country tracks. Walking along these has revealed a quiet and unspoilt corner of rural England with birdlife I rarely saw in my former home. The real stars to date have been skylarks and yellowhammers, in a level of abundance I don’t think I have seen anywhere before and so early in the spring that I would not have expected to have heard them sing. 

So far, we have only had very limited insights into the nature of Northamptonshire but over the coming weeks and months, I can’t wait to get out there and visit new places to the experience wildlife around our new home.

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A final fox?

Despite all I wrote in my last post about lockdown foxes, we haven’t seen one for a couple of weeks. Yesterday, however, we saw one in Kew Gardens in broad daylight, wandering around the southern, wilder, area of woodland. There were plenty of people about but he (assuming he was a he) seemed quite unconcerned. We stopped and watched him while other visitors walked past quite oblivious to his presence. I could quite easily have missed him as he at first appeared to be a log lying in a dip but he obviously wasn’t when he moved and trotted through the grass.

He had a very distinctive white tip to his tail so he could have been one we have seen a few times from the flat. The white tip stood out particularly at night; a furry beacon at the end of a darker tail and body enabling us to track him through the shadows of the neighbouring front gardens.

Unless we see another fox today, he will have been our last fox sighting in Kew. Today we are packing up the flat and tomorrow moving to Northamptonshire – hopefully with more fox sightings to come! The former owner of our new house actually mentioned she had foxes in the garden when we had a viewing of the property, so there’s a good chance!

Lockdown foxes

After spending so much time in rural and semi-rural areas during of my life, I thought being locked down in Kew would limit my wildlife-watching opportunities. However, I have been pleasantly surprised. The birds have been as plentiful in species as my home in Cheshire; more plentiful in fact, as the habitats are actually more varied with gardens, parkland, lakes and the River Thames providing a variety that I don’t have at home. As I wrote a few blog posts ago, my mammal-watching at home had been pretty poor up until finding badgers coming into my back garden in the autumn. I can’t say that the mammals of Kew have been particularly spectacular but there is one species that has given us almost constant sightings and entertainment throughout the different stages of lockdown – foxes!

I find something particularly exciting about a wild species of dog living amongst us. Our country is so denuded of its nature, particularly its large wild mammals, that knowing that there is one particularly charismatic species wandering around right outside in our streets and gardens brings quite a thrill. I have a bit of a thing for wolves and have travelled abroad to see them, and foxes bring a little bit of that wildness of wolves to our towns and cities, as well as our countryside. They don’t have the majesty of wolves or the power to bring out the most visceral of feelings that their larger cousins do, but they’re now, unfortunately the closest thing to wild wolves we have, and they’re living right here amongst us.

We have seen foxes in both daylight and night time, heard them calling through the darkness and we smell their musky scent often as we walk around the streets for our daily exercise. They are usually oblivious to our presence as we look down from the windows of the second floor flat – even when we’re standing outside on the balcony. One night I whistled out of the window at one as he trotted up the road. He stopped, looked back for a while, and then happily trotted off again on his nightly business. However, not all our sightings are from such distance. I was out running a few days ago and saw a tail disappear into a driveway. As I approached, I came across him standing on the brick paving only a metre of so away, waiting for me to pass, before carrying on way.

I particularly like animals that are active at night, they have dimensions that we don’t, they live at times we prefer to be settled down inside the comfort of our homes, they have that added bit of mystery and are hidden from our view so much of the time. The calls of nocturnal species have always given me a thrill to hear as I lie in bed and the cries of foxes are no different. Sometimes in Kew it’s been just a single far off bark but other times they’ve been right beneath the window, shrieking. There was one late autumn night when an almost painfully high-pitched yelping could be heard in far off streets but it came closer and louder until the fox ran past the flat and onto other streets continuing its noise as it went – took me a while to get back to sleep after jumping up to look out of the window at some silly time in the early morning.

It isn’t just night-time sightings we’ve had. In the early days of the first lockdown I got a surprise when I saw one running up the road in the early afternoon but we have regularly seen them during the daytime and there was one that frequently sat on the grass outside of the flats taking in the early evening summer sun.

Across the road from us, Kew Gardens has been particularly good for foxes over course of the last year. At the height of the first Lockdown we would often walk past and look in through the gates; wishing we could go in. On one evening amble we saw a fox wandering close to the Elizabeth Gate; it turned to look back at us and then, gambling behind it, was a youngster, and off they went, deeper into Gardens amongst the darkening and silence lawns, trees and flowerbeds. They must have enjoyed the lack of people when the gates were closed for so long but perhaps they missed some of the leftover food too.

As soon as we were allowed back in, we went at least a couple of times a week. On one of the first trips, we were there just before closing time and came across a fox in the naturally wooded area. It stood and stared back at us and then disappeared into the undergrowth, waiting for us, and everyone else, to leave him to roam in peace when then gates closed for the day. We also saw another young fox playing in the grass just outside a small group of trees but again, we were soon spotted, and it loped off back into the cover, away from human eyes. In recent visits, as we’ve been walking close to the Thames end of the lake, we’ve seen a fox amongst the visitors in broad daylight, with seemingly little concern about the people around it and often not being spotted it trots past.

There was one particularly memorable sighting, however, just a few weeks ago. We were wandering in the Gardens close to the outside wall when a fox suddenly appeared alongside us busily running around the base of some some bushes. We heard a crow calling and it swooped down to mob the nervous looking animal and it was soon joined by a second. Over a period of a minute or so, they played cat and mouse with each other. The crows calling angrily and flying fast down to the ground, sometimes landing, while the fox either ignored them or prepared to duck and dive its way to avoid being attacked. As a crow landed on the grass, the fox stopped and then ran towards it but only for the crow to be easily launch itself back out of reach. 

We have even started to recognise some of the individuals with a small and pale female seen regularly early in the first Lockdown and more recently fox with a brightly white-tipped tail who likes to walk along garden walls and an impressively large male we’ve named FBF.

It’s common for one of us to call ‘FOX’ across the flat in the evening as we look out of the window and looking out for them is last thing we do before we go to bed; one final bit of wildlife watching before closing the curtains on the day. They have become part of Lockdown life in a way that no other wildlife has, bringing a bit of natural thrill each time we see one.

With only a couple of weeks now until we leave Kew behind and move to rural Northamptonshire, I hope we get as good and as frequent views of foxes at our new home – they have really brightened up our days and nights and brought much needed bursts of nature into our lives over the past few months.

Looking forward to 2021

Reading my equivalent post for 2020, it is full of hope for many great things to come and I really don’t want to temper that hope too much at the beginning of this year. Whilst we no doubt have many months to come under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic and some very difficult news will undoubtedly come, I can’t start 2021 without talking about my positive hopes for the year. 

I have to say that being positive at the moment isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’m in a constant state of disillusionment at present where the country is concerned. I did start to write a few passages here about this but it just makes me angry and disappointed, and I don’t want to turn my blog into a space for unheard political rantings. Instead, I want 2021 to be a year where I refresh my blog and find my nature mojo again, building on my experiences of 2019 rather than 2020. How realistic this is, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

If all goes well, January, or possibly early February, will see us moving to a new home in the Midlands. We’re buying a house in a village north of Northampton in a lovely area of rolling countryside. After living in South Cheshire for the past 40 years, I’m really looking forward to exploring somewhere new; all the roads, lanes and footpaths, all the best spots for wildlife and views. Being more central in the country, we’re going to be closer to areas which have been out of reach of day trips from Cheshire, so hopefully a few trips to the eastern side of the country and further south.

Depending on what happens with COVID-19, there are the plans for trips that were put on hold in 2020 to take in 2021; I could almost cut and paste this part of last year’s post into here. In June we’re planning to go up to the Outer Hebrides to stay on the Isle of Harris at Luskentyre. At that time of year we’re hoping that the machair will be blooming and we can take a trip out to one or two of the outlying islands, possibly St Kilda or the Shiants.

In July I’ve got my name down for a week back volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but whether the island will be open to visitors and volunteers at that time is anyone’s guess. The following month we might have a trip across to Sweden to visit family but also spend some time out in the countryside.

Our biggest plan for the year, and hopefully far enough away that COVID will not interfere with it, is a trip to Zambia for a camping safari in the South Luangwa National Park. After having limited opportunities for wildlife watching in 2020, a chance to go back to Africa for a safari would be very welcome.

Given we are moving to a new house and new area, many of my volunteering activities of recent few years are now, sadly, in the past. Many of the activities I’ve been doing since 2011 including local volunteering with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers, bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and osprey nest protection shifts for the Glaslyn Wildlife. However, the move perhaps presents new opportunities to try different volunteering. I hope I can get a new BTO survey site in Northamptonshire and hopefully there may be a local group or two I could volunteer with but I’ll have to do some digging to find out what opportunities there are.

I’m not sure how much of the above is just wishful thinking, given what happened in 2020 and settling into a new home could easily take all of our time for quite a while. However, I’d rather be ambitious and optimistic with plans for 2021 at the start but not be too surprised if I need to change things as time moves on. Anyway, with most of the country in virtual lockdown for the coming weeks, there’s plenty of time to think it all through.