Wildlife on your doorstep – Fox cubs in the garden

If you had seen my last post, you will have seen why we haven’t been travelling much recently, however the last week has shown us that you don’t need to go very far to see interesting wildlife and more than that, you don’t even have to leave your property.

We live in Wallington, South London and although it’s not the centre of the metropolis, it’s not exactly rural either. My wife had bought me a trail camera, or camera trap for my birthday in January and I was waiting for a chance to use it. A few weeks ago, whilst looking for something in the garden shed, i heard a few mewing noises, seemingly coming from underneath or at the back of the shed. This, along with the freshly dug hole under the side of the shed led me to believe that a vixen had made her den there. So, this was an excellent opportunity to set up the trail camera and see if I could discover if my hunch was correct. I set up the camera about a month ago and waited. I checked it a few times and all i had was a few images of the vixen, but when I checked again on Sunday, was rewarded with these images of mother and at least 4 cubs making their first playful steps out and about the world.

I’m not sure what the white thing is that mother and cubs had in their mouths, but it looks like it made a great first toy.

I’ve put the camera back up, hanging from the washing-line pole and see what else i can capture in the coming weeks.

The elusive lynx, 4th time lucky!

Watching wildlife does not often result in instant gratification. It requires patience and, even when surrounded by natural beauty, can lead to long days of disappointment. However, when you do find what you’ve been looking for, that frustration is forgotten and you feel like you have earned that moment of wonder.

We have been trying to see lynx for a few years. We had previously spent seven days in the Carpathians Mountains in Romania and five in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus looking for Eurasian Lynx and made a trip to Donana National Park in southern Spain looking for their smaller Iberian cousins, all without success. So to start 2019 we headed back to Spain and to the Sierra de Andujar Natural Park in Andulusia, home to largest population of this rare and endangered creature in the Iberian peninsula.  To make sure that we had the best possible chance of success, we booked a five day tour with Iberian Lynx Land, a local nature and eco-tour company.

After driving to the Natural Park from Seville and checking into our hotel, La Caracola Hotel Rural (included in the tour price), we met up with Jose Luis, who was to be our guide. Straight away took us in his 4×4 up in to the Sierra Morena mountains to begin our adventure. We soon saw a car stopped by the side of the road and we decided to check on what had caught their eye and were happy that we did, as there was a cute Little Owl perched on a boulder in a field. We headed off again, passing dozens of people lining the road that wound around the range, with their scopes, long lenses and binoculars who were also hoping to see the “gato” as the locals seem to refer to the lynx.  Jose Luis said we’d be joining them later on, but first we were off to the hydro-electric dam for lunch and to see what else we could see. As we sat and had lunch by the river, Jose Luis set up his scope and spotted saw some ibex on the cliffs on the opposite bank. We then checked out a tunnel next to the dam and, with the use of a torch, saw a barbastrelle bat and some greater mouse eared bats. After lunch, it was back to the road-side watch points and we joined the crowds in their hope of spotting a lynx.   We spent the rest of the afternoon sat by the road, looking down across the valley with our binoculars, looking for movement or shapes in the shadows and listening out for the cat calling out or magpies in distress. After many hours, the sun slowly sank behind the far hills and called time on day one.

Early the next morning, Jose Luis picked us up again and we drove out to a different dam. It was cold, minus two, as we walked on to a bridge over the river. Almost straight away Jose Luis spotted an otter down stream, so we headed that way for a closer look. We watched as this otter ate his fish breakfast on a rock and then saw a couple more as they swam across the mist-laden water. We stayed for a while longer, but then is was time to try to find our little big cat back at the roadside watch points. We spent another eight hours on the roadside and we saw Spanish Imperial Eagles, a Black Vulture, a number of Griffin Vultures, Red Deer and Fallow Deer, but alas, again no lynx. It was beginning to feel like another of those trips where we would end up being frustrated, even though we had seen some lovely animals.

Day three would surely be different, especially as we would not be going back to the public watch points, but have access to a private estate which was part of a habitat enhancement project and frequented by a number of lynx. The project attempts to make the land more habitable for rabbits, which make up 70% of the Lynx’s diet, and therefore improving the environment for the Lynx. We drove round the estate slowly and soon heard some magpies calling in distress off to our left. We parked up and kept a watch in our mobile “hide”. After a few minutes, a lynx jumped down on to the road, not from our left but from the right hand bank of the road and strolled slowly across in front of us. I managed to take a couple of snaps before she disappeared in to the overgrowth. Finally, we had seen a lynx and so close too. Yes, the moment only lasted a matter of seconds, but we felt lucky to see this beautiful creature.

We spent the rest of the day on the estate with no more luck and, to be honest, in spite of our many hours both back on the estate and on the roadside we did not manage to see another cat. Was it worth it? Yes of course! These are truly incredible animals and to finally see one was very special.

 

 

 

 

Seeing the deer rut at Knepp

Those of you who follow the blog (not many I grant you), may have noticed that we go to the Knepp re-wilding project quite often. It’s just an hour’s drive from home and has a lot to see. However, this was our first time in the deer rut season.

Knepp is divided in to 3 “blocks”, the northern block, the middle block (where the owners of Knepp, the Burrells, country house is) and the southern block. All of our previous visits have been to the Southern block as that is where the camp site is and where most of the other “safaris” take place. We had previously walked through the middle block, but this was our first proper visit there.

We arrived for 8.30am on a very cold and frosty Saturday morning and was greeted by the site of a stag in the mist as soon as we drove through the gates and on to the estate. This was a sure sign of a great morning ahead.

Darren started off by giving us a presentation on the project at Knepp, about all of the different species on the site and how they all contribute to bringing the site back to a relatively natural and sustainable state. As well as all of the fantastic mammals on site, Knepp is home to a large (and growing) population of purple emperor butterflies, scarcely seen turtle doves and tuneful nightingales. However, it was deer rut season and we were there for the deer!

Darren told us about the three species of deer that call Knepp home, these are (in size order, smallest first) roe deer, fallow deer and red deer, the largest land mammal in the UK. I have to say I learned quite a lot in this introduction to deer. For example, did you know that fallow deer have twice been hunted to extinction in Great Britain and twice been reintroduced by foreign invaders? First by the Romans and then by the Norman conquerors who brought them over to form deer parks. Or that a deer’s antlers, even the really big ones, grow annually in the space of only 2 or 3 months.  Also, did you know that many terms used in common English today find their roots in the life-cycle of deer? For example “prick” comes from a buck in their second (or prickets) with unbranched antlers who generally behave like a nuisance or “pricks” in the rutting season.

Anyway, once the presentation was over, we piled into the ex-Austrian army transport that the guys at Knepp use for their safaris. We set off into the cold and soon found a herd of red deer, a large stag and his “harem” of hinds. The stag was in his element, grunting, roaring and sniffing the air. However, after just a few minutes a huge stag with antlers which seemed to be 6-foot across appeared. He looked like he had come straight out of an advert for scotch whisky. Our previously confident stag, knew he was no match for the newcomer and slowly sloped off, looking back ruefully every few steps. Although two males will fight over the right to mate, it is a last resort, they would rather not risk injury or death if they can help it.

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The victorious stag

Next we headed out to find the fallow deer. The mating rituals of the fallow deer differ from the red deer in that they lek. “What’s a lek?” I hear you say. A lek is where the males congregate in mating area, each claiming their own piece of territory (which they return to every year), scraping the soil and urinating in the area making it as attractive to the does as possible. The does will then come over the most desirable male to mate. We saw a number of males, each in their own lek groaning and calling out. We stopped there for a while, getting out of the truck and consuming the provided tea and sausage baps, which were very welcome on such a cold morning.

The safari finished with a drive round some of the other interesting feature in the middle block, the ruins of the old Knepp Castle, the old iron mill pond (now home to a number of water fowl) and the new Knepp castle, home to the Burrells).

It was great to see these mating behaviours for the first time and we’re looking forward to going back to Knepp again sometime next year.

Looking for wolves and lynx in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus, and getting stuck in the mud.

“I’m stuck” Heather said as I came to a stop in the mud behind her. As I stood there, I felt myself sinking deeper into the “dry” riverbed. The cloying mud was now up to the top of my wellies and I tried to lift one foot. No. And then the other, not a chance.

I was stuck too.

We had arrived in the Naliboki Forest earlier that morning after an hour and a half drive from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. We were greeted on arrival by Irina and her husband Vadim, who was to be our guide over the next 3 and a half days. Vadim and Irina run the Naust Eco Station, deep in the forest.

We were in Belarus to see the diverse range of mammals that exist in the Naliboki Forest, a huge, complex habitat that is home to wolves, lynx, bison, elk, deer, wild boar, beavers and a whole range of other creatures. Vadim is a professor of zoology at the University of Minsk who has switched to conducting full-time research in the field, much of which is funded by organising these eco-tourism trips. There were only three of us for most of this long-weekend, with another hardy-soul joining us for the last day and a half, although Vadim does have groups of up to 16, especially on the longer trips, which can be a week or two long.

Vadim is an engaging and knowledgeable guide, always with a story to tell or an opinion to offer on where the world is going wrong, but it’s clear that he has a passion for the forest and the research he is conducting that will help to understand the forest, it’s animal inhabitants and hopefully help to preserve them both.

The forest is also home to a number of people (including Vadim and Irina themselves), with a smattering of villages and homesteads dotted around. Although these numbers of dwindling with many houses in villages only occupied at weekends and houses deep within the forest are lived in by people in their 80s whose children have long since been attracted by life in the city. These homes will be abandoned when their occupiers pass away and they will be left to gradually fade and be consumed by the forest.

Although these trips are for paying visitors, you are just there for the ride. It is clear that Vadim would be out there driving and hiking through the forest daily, checking his 50 or so camera traps and collecting data for his books and papers whether you were there or not.

Each of the days was fairly typical in format, but visiting different parts of the forest, with different sites and environments to see and, of course with any sort of wildlife watching adventure, with random chance playing its part on what creatures you may see.

Each morning started early (pre-dawn) with a home-cooked breakfast, always with something hot, such as the traditional and delicious syrniki (a kind of thick pancake made with cottage cheese), supplemented by cereal, fruit and coffee or tea.  This would then be followed by a drive in one of Vadim’s 4×4 cars to one of the open field areas within the forest, with the morning being one of the best times to possibly spot wolves, lynx, bison, elk or deer. This was followed by one of two daily hikes, typically 8km in the morning and 4-5km in the afternoon, into different parts of the forest to check on Vadim’s camera traps, checking what it has been snapped and replacing batteries. These walks traversed through different landscapes, from dense forest treks, to river beds, alongside reed-trimmed canals or across open fields. All of these walks are pretty tough and Vadim, a natural woodsman, sets a spritely pace, with the thick foliage, deep mud or uneven ground all contributing to slow and difficult progress.

The day would then finish once darkness has set in, by searching out at a likely wolf spot and with with Vadim re-creating his best wold-howl and listening to see if they would respond.

Lunch was often prepared by Vadim himself over a wood-fire out in the woods, offering the chance to fuel up and have a rest before the next trek, and dinner would be prepared by Irina in the evenings, these included traditional Belarusian beans and pulses, sausages, salads and fried potatoes. Beer and a local spirit was also always on the table!

Sadly, we didn’t see any wolves or lynx on this trip. They are both elusive creatures, but we did see signs of them, including scat, tracks, bones of prey and “wolf cub toys” and we saw incredible images of them on the camera traps. However, we were lucky to see bison, elk, red deer, roe deer, a wild boar, capercaillie, a great grey owl, a spotted eagle, a peregrine falcon and a grass snake in 3 and a half days.

My wellie, stuck in the Naliboki mud
My wellie, stuck in the mud…

And the mud? After a couple of minutes of “no-show” Vadim came back to see where we were, to be confronted by Heather and myself almost up to our knees in mud. First he took many photos of our predicament and then helped us, bootless, out onto the river bank. Our boots were then literally dug out by hand. It was embarrassing enough to be stuck in the mud, but not as much it happened to me again on the way back 20 minutes later!

A weekend’s camping at Knepp – Buzzards, pigs, deer and a kestrel?

This was our second trip to the Knepp re-wilding project in West Sussex, the first was an afternoon’s dusk safari, whereas this time we went for a weekend’s camping with a self-guided wall around the project.

We arrived on Friday evening and quickly set up our tent. We bought some firewood and kindling from the on-site store, so we could get a fire going in the fire-pit that comes provided with each pitch.  On the way back to our tent we saw a bird of prey hovering and hunting over the heath-land next to the campsite, we’d left our camera and binoculars with the tent so couldn’t identify it in the dusk light, but hoped it would come back the next day.

We got up early on Saturday morning, had a shower in the great facilities and made breakfast over the camp-stove. We decided to do a walk round the grounds to, see what we could find for ourselves. Last time we camped we did the “country-pub walk”, so this time we chose the Castle loop, which is about 8.8 km long. The site provides some handy printed maps of the walks you can do around the grounds and the way is marked with colour-coded stripes on sign posts along the way.

Almost as soon as we first strode on to the trail, we saw (and heard) a couple of common buzzards, soaring and circling looking for prey. Not long after, we came across a couple of Tamworth pigs, fast asleep by the path. They woke up when we approach, but didn’t seem too bothered, and as they stirred, a piglet came trotting on to the scene.

Dotted around the project are a number of wooden viewing platform, built into the boughs of trees, acting like high-rise hides over the ranges and we climbed up into a view as we trundled around. We stopped for lunch at the Countryman Pub in Shipley around half-way round for much needed refreshments. After lunch we passed the Shipley windmill and on to Knepp castle. Close to the castle we saw a large herd of fallow deer, complete with very impressive antlers.

There was also another tree-top viewing platform near the castle and as we descended we heard a deep, rumble coming closer. Soon a Lancaster bomber came past us, low and slow. I believe there are only 2 of these incredible aircraft left flying and only 1 in the UK, so this was probably the rarest sight we would see all year!

We were on the home stretch now, dipped into a bird hide overlooking the mill-pond, which seemed well stocked with swans and coots, before seeing the single-wall that is left of the Norman keep at the old Knepp ruins. We arrived back at camp for a bit of a rest before making another well-earned supper on the fire-pit. Luckily the mystery bird of prey did make a comeback that evening over the heath and I had my camera ready. The light was failing and it was at the extreme range of my 300mm lens, but I fired off a few shots and am pretty sure it was a kestrel. The first time I had ever seen one.

Knepp is one of our favourite places to visit whether its camping or safari and I’m sure we’ll go back again. I think we may try glamping next time!

 

Back to Blandford – Is that an Otter? No, it’s a mink!

So, yesterday we had a free Sunday and made the drive down to one of our favourite haunts in Blandford in the hope of seeing some otters and maybe kingfishers too. We arrived late in morning, bought some supplies and set up some camp chairs by the river in a spot where we had some success previously.

Before long a loud splash was heard to our right. No otter, but a dog jumping in, chasing a tossed ball and cooling itself in the river. This was repeated throughout the day,  with various pooches. We began to think that this was not to be our day, there is no way an otter is going to come out when the river is full of dogs! Or maybe it was just too hot?

Late in the afternoon, we strolled to a few other points along the river, but no sightings. Finally, we tried one last spot, more secluded and with more shade. Moments after we sat down by the bank, some dark, willowy shapes appeared on the opposite bank, slivering down into the water and beneath an overhanging outcrop of rocks. 1, 2, 3? Are they otters? Aren’t they a bit small? Are they pups?

 

I fired off a few quick shots before they disappeared and zoomed in on the screen. No, not otters. Are they weasels or a stoats? Hmm, don’t think so. With the aid of a google search, it turns out they were mink. A non-native species, now found over a lot of England.

We headed off for home, happy that the day wasn’t a complete blank and then also spotted a little egret, before it was scared off by another dog jumping in the water.

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