Eye in the Wood

Yesterday, I nearly overtook a stubbornly tinkling ice cream van while walking down a lane feathered with shed leaves. And today it rained from a clear-ish sky before the west was underlit with pink as if the clouds were full of rosewater. Windy? Sunny? Puddles? The seasons seem uncertain where they are heading, like so many of the people wandering beneath them.

I’ve got a couple of trail cams out at the moment, and they too are having unpredictable times. As the temperature drops, so does the activity of our summer specialists: bats, hedgehogs, and above all dormice. I don’t know what kind of summer dormice have had; covid put paid to the nestbox surveys. This one at least looks well fed and ready for a good winter’s hibernation.

I catch footage of dormice every now and again, but it’s not easy. Not only are they a nationally threatened species that exists at low numbers even in the best habitat, but they also tend to keep high in the trees. This one was relatively low down on a fallen trunk, possibly searching for a hibernation spot. They weave winter nests at ground level where the temperature stays steadier.

At the other end of the size scale, this ghost of a deer.

Fallow deer. I did a double take but no, it’s a definitely a fallow deer, of what’s called the ‘menil’ colour type. Fallows can in fact be almost white, almost black, or (more commonly) sandy-brown with white spots, but they are very rare visitors to my part of the hills. A mature buck sports massive palmate antlers but this is only a ‘teenager’, and he’s probably on his way out of the valley by now. 

Not to be outdone, kingdom bird offered a woodcock in the fallow’s wake. This desperately shy woodland wader is another species that I stumble across only rarely. Like dormice, they are mostly active at night, and like fallow deer, they are on the move; this one probably flew in from the continent. 

Tawny owls, however, stay put.

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As the trees grow bare and the foxes start courting, owl cries echo in the night – they search for mates from autumn onwards. 

Nature tries to keep to some of its old patterns, even as we wonder about ours.

 

The Maverick

We may call it a moment of genius. It takes an object – a rock, a stick, a tool – and applies it to purpose never before imagined. We admire crows that use traffic to crack open nuts, elephants that swat flies with branches, and badgers that convert trailcams into toys.

Okay, maybe the last one is less brilliance than simple mischief. Be that as it may, Trailcam2 is gone. The strap has been chewed through by badger cubs and the camera dragged underground!

Lost camera

And there it will stay, at least until the badgers shove it outwards during their regular sett cleaning forays. I hope I do see it again eventually because I’m sure the footage that it has obtained during its captivity is spellbinding. Otherwise, an archaeologist in a few centuries’ time will ponder the meaning of a small rectangular camera deep inside a Surrey hill.

But even when the path has been trodden before, nature has the feeling of a pioneer. A toadlet venturing from its breeding pond into the wood cannot guess how many generations have preceded it.

Toadlet2 Jun 20

It is the first of its journeys, after all. Not like the rain, which is evaporated and precipitated over and over again.

As for the badgers, they write their stories in rocks as well as on trailcams. Scratch marks on chalk tell of their travels.

Badger scratches on chalk 14 Jun 20

Here’s a still that I got from Trailcam2 last week.

Badger 9 Jun

It was a good camera, and it will be missed – and replaced, of course.

But the badgers will still play whether they are watched or not.

Wild Child

Or wild children, as it happens. Hetty and Dyson continue their visits to the garden, but out in the countryside, another badger family is growing up. Social grooming is an important badger ritual – one presumes that this cub will eventually realise that the idea isn’t to sit on your parents.

A small family, with just two adults and three cubs. Here’s the father on babysitting duties.

The dry May has cooled into an unsettled June, and not a moment too soon. The earthworms that comprise such an important part of badger and young fox diets have been deep underground, and some of the other badgers that I’ve found have been severely underweight.

And rain will help our wildflowers too.

Sainfoin

Sanfoin May 20

Wild mignonette

Mignonette May 20

Wild columbine

Columbine May 20

Raindrops

Not many of them – yet – but they are beautiful.

Raindrops.jpg

Cracked leaves, dusty footpaths, yellowed fields: they’re all waiting. 

Fox in grass 27 Jul 2018

There are always winners and losers with weather. Week after week of exceptionally high temperatures and almost no rainfall have boosted butterfly numbers, but everything that depends on earthworms is having a tough time finding them in iron-hard earth.

Badgers thrive on earthworms, but they are omnivorous and will take insects, bee nests and carrion too. This one was visiting a water dish that I’ve had out in the woods for the last week. (Ignore the date – camera was not set correctly.)

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Potentially, foxes may be impacted more than badgers – earthworms are a big part of the diet of cubs.

Shrews are surviving at high speed, as they always do. Pygmy shrews need to eat up to 125% of their body weight each day. That’s 125% of not very much, admittedly; at 2 to 6 grams, they’re our smallest terrestrial mammal.

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One of the most frequent of my thirsty visitors is the bank vole. The trail camera caught one drinking for a full twenty seconds without a pause.

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They’re clinging on. The rest of us are watching the sky in hope.

Dawn sky 27 Jul 2018

Spain: Pieces of the Puzzle

Andújar practically means lynx to the travelling wildlife watcher. But wild cats can only stand balanced on top of an ecosystem. Lynx fall and rise in sync with their rabbits, and the rest of the natural web dances nearby.

Looking for wild cats is a painstaking, perplexing and humbling business, but as the hours pass in waiting, other stories whisper from the rocks. Look closer, and even in this thin carpet between cold rock and fickle sky, life wins a foothold.

Lizard

Lizard Sp 1

Natterjack toad

Natterjack toad 2 Feb 2018

Some of it is in the water – a carp of this size is a handsome prize for an otter.

Otter Andujar 6 Feb 2018

I heard it eating, eating, munching and crunching, long after it vanished from sight into the rocks.

Some of it is in the sky, on massive wings. Griffon vultures circle lazily in thermals, or rest with kingly distain on cliffs.

Griffon vultures1

Vulture in Andujar2

Some of it is more controversial; numbers of deer are artificially held at absurdly high numbers by deer hunting estates, which must be having a significant impact of the rest of the ecosystem through overgrazing. That is a political problem; it is hardly the fault of the deer. Magnificent red deer abound.

Red deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Fallow deer are also a common sight.

Fallow deer SP 4 Feb 2018

Just occasionally, a third hoofed mammal shows itself: Andújar is home to the mouflon, the rare wild ancestor of the ubiquitous domestic sheep. This ram was travelling with two red deer.

Mouflon and red deer

Their wariness is instinctive, but the real ruler of this ecosystem – the Iberian wolf – has sadly vanished despite strict legal protection; the suspicion has fallen on illegal killing by deer hunters.

But one more predator does survive in the mountains’ quieter corners. I put out a couple of trailcams on the off-chance, and was thrilled to catch an Iberian wildcat! This is related to the Scottish wildcat but is noticeably larger.

Snapshot_16

Spain clearly has serious conservation challenges, but the battle to save them will be worth the fight.

Romania: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

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Red fox

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Wild boar

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Roe deer

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Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

Snapshot_8

Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

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And…

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After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Malancrav – The Woods Today…

June – August 2016

Everyone who’s set up a trail camera has had a ‘what in the name of all wonders is that?!’ moment. Malancrav is up there with the best of them.

It is not that there is no wildlife; we even have a blurry clip of red deer, the largest mammal in Transylvania.

Snapshot_0

And a pine marten puts on a welcome show.

Snapshot_2

It is also one of the few places where I’ve caught a buzzard on a cam.

Snapshot_4

And then the monster strolls by.

Snapshot_5

In the mammal book? No. Wikipedia tells me that it is a corb, also known as a Romanian raven shepherd dog, best described as a gigantic, rambling, black St Bernard. It is indigenous to Brasov where it has been driving bears away from cattle for centuries. What it is doing roaming around Malancrav’s outback by itself is a mystery. Romania has a serious stray dog problem that is not only a hazard to people, but also to wildlife – in fact sadly we see one guard dog run down and kill a hare on the outskirts of the village.

The corb is a little strange, but Trailcam 7 wins the prize. I’ve been having arguments with this camera all season; it seems to have some kind of power leakage and is chomping through 10 AA batteries a week. It buzzes, glitters and goes flat. One of my colleagues has kindly offered to leave it in front of a moving bus. But, alas, first it is stolen…by ants.

Snapshot_6

The photograph does not do the crisis justice – there is a video clip on YouTube here.

Gingerly, very gingerly, we put Trailcam 7 into a Ziploc bag, spray it with mosquito repellent – the only weapon at hand – and carry it three miles back to camp.

Thieves, corbs and ants – who would be a trail camera?

But our next stop is the remote village of Daia, where cams keep the royal company of bears.