Out and About

It’s a long while since I caught up with WordPress. In fairness, a unusual number of things have happened lately:

  • My book  Hidden World of the Fox was released in mid-October! 🙂 Lots of excitement and press interviews, and a great opportunity to discuss foxes with a wide audience. You can listen to one of my radio interviews here.

It’s selling well with lots of good feedback, which has been lovely.

Fox in snow

  •  I went outside the known universe in early November. That is, I went to Iceland, the raw, otherworldly, superheated slab of geology that sits atop the North Atlantic Ridge. I should probably write up the experience in normal fashion, but here are a couple of photos for starters.

Iceland3 Nov 19

Aurora3 Iceland Nov 19

  •  Iceland, while dramatic for the mind, is brutal to cameras. My 200-500mm Tamron zoom lens, my long-suffering workhorse of the last 13 years, died in quite spectacular fashion literally seconds before I saw a minke whale. So while I saw plenty of cetaceans, I have no photos. I did manage to take this starling singing on a Christmas wreath…with my iPhone!

IMG_0580

  • Back in the UK, suspecting that iPhones might be insufficient for my future mammal photography, I set about acquiring a new camera lens. I settled on the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary 5 – 6.3, and while it weighs more than the Tamron, I am pleased with it so far. The extra reach makes all the difference when the foxes are on the far side of the meadows.

Fox1 BL 30 Nov 19

And although it’s not as fast as a Canon lens, it’s doing fine with nocturnal garden foxes too. I did consider a Canon prime, but having the flexibility of zoom is nearly essential with wild mammals because they are so mobile.

Big fox 29 Nov 19

Here’s in hope it won’t be another couple of months until my next post!

Curtain on the Mountain

The drama has two acts, and a curtain is shaking between them in the wind. Down there – a long way down – are people, railways, and dreams.

Monte Rosa cross Jun 19

Above them, above me, are the kings of the Alps, the greatest mountains this side of the Caucasus. Most of the highest summits are within a few miles, splitting the clouds and cradling their glaciers.

Matterhorn from Monte Rosa Jun 19

Mattertal mtns Jun 19

And that curtain – it’s made of trees. It might be valley meadows and alpine crags that dominate Switzerland’s image, unsurprising given their wholesale assault on human senses. But between them are the trees, a forest sweet with pine sap and scurrying with life.

Forest CH Jun 19

In fact, about a third of Switzerland is forest, and when the mountains start rising it is conifers that dominate. In them, beech martens bounce and red squirrels bury pine cones.

Red squirrel2 CH Jun 19

It is quiet, footsteps on fallen needles –

A raven barks.

For a moment I’m remembering Canada, being alerted by ravens to a nearby cougar. Ravens and large carnivores are linked together as much as the mountains and the river. Cougars are not indigenous to Europe, but we do have one large cat: the Eurasian lynx, snowshoe-pawed and ears flagged with tufts. A much larger species than its North American counterpart, it preys mostly on roe deer. Lynx were reintroduced to Switzerland fifty years ago and have a small presence in the Alps. So do wolves, which returned of their own accord from Italy.

Like large carnivores almost everywhere, their relationship with rural communities is not easy, but conservationists try to find ways for people and nature to coexist. Perhaps in the future, ravens will not have far to look.

In the here and now, the forest floor is growing sapphires. Wild gentians abound.

Gentian CH Jun 19

And amethysts; I’m not sure about this one, unless it is a mountain pasqueflower.

Mountain pasque flower CH Jun 19

It is the pattern on the curtain – the complex threads of landscape and life.

Ray of Hope

Springtime is a tenuous thing. Hard to judge, if you’re a dormouse. Today there are blue skies and misty lanes; this time last year, we were being freeze-dried by bitter snow. To sleep or to wake? My guess is that some of our dormice are awake.

Dormouse photo2

Hazel dormice have a message about the British countryside: about woods and hedgerows, flowers and fruits. Do we want to hear what these exquisite little creatures are telling us?

Perhaps not. For all their gold-plated national and international legal protection, dormice continue to slide towards extinction in Britain. We’ve pulled the rug away by wrecking the hedgerows that support them, and isolating and ruining woodland. Flaying, over-cutting and removing hedgerows where dormice are present is dangerously close to a criminal offence – and there is no legal defence for killing a dormouse of ‘incidental result of a lawful operation’. To my local district council and everyone else who manages Surrey’s surviving hedges: please note.

But there is a ray of hope.

Dormice can survive us. My village proves it. We thought we were preserving our historic landscape by turning our wooded lanes into a conservation area, but we accidentally saved our dormice too. This road is home to dormice – and people.

Light beams lane 23 Feb 19

Thick, wide hedgerows, trees with branches that provide bridges over roads, ancient woodland with a jumbled understorey of hazel and bramble – they’re all things that dormice need.

I’ll be looking for them again in the spring. For nests like this, bound with hazel leaves and honeysuckle.

Dormouse nest 28 Nov 2017

And maybe – just maybe – some of these.

Dormouse6

Let’s keep hold of the hope. Surrey must always remain good enough for dormice.

All dormice in this post handled under licence. It is against the law to disturb, handle or harm dormice without a licence in the UK.

The Sleeping Fox

fox vixen sleeping 23 jan 19

My original blog on the much-missed Opera Community was called ‘The Sitting Fox’ in honour of a vulpine cliché: when watching something that they’re not sure about, they sit down.

But outright relaxation is not unknown. This vixen from the Across the Road Group dozed peacefully in the garden last week while her mate and a low-ranking male raged in mock battle – biting the hedgerow, half-chasing, talking with their tails like cats.

It didn’t turn violent. The younger male even turned his back on his rival between their squabbles.

fox dun rival 23 jan 19

The vixen hardly batted an eye. We’re coming towards the end of the breeding season, and she is almost certainly pregnant by now. Her mate is the Dun Male, here on the right. Apologies for the quality of this picture; it’s a still off the movie camera.

fox dun male and vixen 23 jan 19

The Across the Road Group. Of all the fox groups in my village, they’re the ones whom I know the best. Six years of drama, and no sign of slowing. So many unforgettable characters have lived in this group: the original Vixen from Across the Road, who raised her cubs despite losing half her territory to builders; the White Socks Vixen, tiny, nervous and unquenchable; the Cavalier Cub, White Socks’ son, whose domineering, bombastic personality disrupted the fox territory network in multiple streets.

Let’s hope these two have some cubs and we can see what chapter comes next.

White Socks Vixen – 2017

fox white socks1 19 may 2017

Canada: Song Dog Days

September 2018

Could we ever spend a hour looking through the eyes of a coyote? I think it would overwhelm us. We see the wild in passing, usually from a car these days. The coyote hears it, smells it, lives it. The stories that they could tell!

coyote dog days2 sept 18

It’s the last evening in the park for me. And I could ask for nothing more: a family of coyotes in the fescue prairie west of Riding Mountain, resting and watching, as coyotes do.

And wandering a little.

coyote dog days3 sept 18

Coyotes are omnivorous, just like foxes and bears. Berries are on the menu tonight!

coyote eating berries1 25 sept 2018

Four coyotes? Perhaps more. Certainly three adults and a pup.

coyote dog days4 sept 18

They’re waiting for winter. I’m waiting to travel again. Hard to believe, just eight days and so much wildness. Now we’re bound for Toronto and the long journey home.

I had some concerns about returning here after my long absence, afraid that the old essence had become diluted by relentless over-development and over-tourism. And there are problems, it is true; not on the scale of what Jasper and Banff are enduring, but even the prairie hasn’t escaped commercialism. I was especially concerned at the new road being built in East Block of Grasslands, a highly questionable action that seems to have gone unnoticed by Canadian NGOs. And Canada’s federal and provincial biodiversity protection laws could be tightened up. That is not news. Nor is the bubbling friction between people and large wildlife in some rural districts.

But there is still so much life in the Great Lone Land. Taste of the air or the glow of a lynx’s eyes? Hear it in the coyote’s song and the catch the shadow of an owl on a forgotten farmstead. It is something, intangible and free. Coyote, bears, moose, prairie dogs – they’re still here.

Long may they remain so.

Canada: Song Dog

September 2018

I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone,
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own!
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly [photographers];
I love to sit and bay the moon and keep fat souls from sleep.
Not for me the other dogs, running by my side,
Some have run a short while, but none of them would bide.
O mine is still the lone trail, the hard trail, the best,
Wide wind and wild stars and the hunger of the quest.

– Lone Dog, Irene McLeod

Coyote, spirit of the prairies. What it is to hear them sing!

Coyote 22 Sept 2018

We live in a strange era where the grey wolf is saluted for its ecological importance, and its coyote cousin is often criticised for having the gall not to become endangered. Not a fair judgement. Science has shown that coyotes, too, are keystone predators who have widespread and fascinating influences on the rest of the natural web.

Coyote1 GNP Sept 18

As for wildlife watching value – well, who could ask for more? Coyotes greeting on wild prairie, ruffled by the wind, shadowed by a passing golden eagle.

Coyotes greeting

Golden eagle sask Sept 18

North America has rewritten the book on wolf genetics, and there will probably be more surprises in the future. Current understanding is that the coyote, red wolf and eastern wolf are all close relatives and ancient North American natives. The grey or timber wolf is a relatively recent arrival from eastern Russia. It would have entered North America through the lost land bridge of Beringia, arriving in what is now Alaska.

It is strange that the coyote did not return the favour and migrate into the old world. We have an ecological equivalent – the golden jackal – but no coyote.

But it’s no hardship to travel to this beautiful land to hear them sing.

Coyote2 GNP Sept 18

Heathland

Western Surrey is a very different world to the North Downs where I live. We have ancient woodlands, flowery meadows, steep slopes of chalk downland, and traditional hedgerows linking them all.

Out there, they have heath.

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

Lowland heath is a national treasure. The UK holds 20% of the world’s total, and one of the best surviving fragments is on the common land of Thursley. Now a national nature reserve, for thousands of years this landscape has been used by humanity: gorse was cut for fodder, bracken was turned into potash for glass-making. Turf was cut for roofing. Hardy livestock wandered here and there.

Thursley Common1 18 Jul 2018

The people who lived in this harsh and exposed landscape were – reputedly – the original heathens, heath-dwellers, which presumably back then had less to do with religious values and more with social class. Regardless, their agriculture and the land’s natural qualities combined to produce a tough, sandy, prickly ecosystem. Or, some would say, Bronze Age humanity provided an unexpected niche for wildlife that would naturally have thrived in heath-filled forest glades opened by our extinct megafauna.

But Britain urbanised itself, and people lost their connection with the land. Most of our heathlands were overrun by development and commercial forestry. Now they’re recognised as a priority habitat and are a major focus of conservation.

Heathland is harsh yet subtle. Gorse fires roar with depressing frequency and the sun beats hot. The soil can be pure sand, and blows into your hair and trips your boots. But in the shadows, small living things lurk.

Sand lizards are one of Britain’s rarest reptiles. 

Sand lizard 9 May 2017

And this might be our strangest plant – the carnivorous sundew, which eats insects.

Sundew Thursley 18 Jul 18

Dodder is scarcely more conventional. Sometimes compared to pink spaghetti, it is a parasitic plant that taps into the vascular system of its host.

Dodder Thursley 18 Jul 2018

Marsh clubmoss is less dramatic, but it is an endangered species in the UK.

Clubmoss Thursley 18 Jul 18

It likes heaths that flood in winter. That may still happen this year, but after months without rain, much of Surrey is looking like the Kenyan savannah. We need a good storm or two soon.