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.

Brownsea Island & Jurassic Coast – red squirrels, seabirds and peregrine falcons

So, last Friday evening, we took the train down to Poole for the weekend. We arrived at around 9.30pm and made the short walk to our accomodation. We were staying at the RNLI college and to be honest, we were not sure what to expect. Would it be like university dorms? We were wrong to worry, it was really nice en-suite accomodation with a view over Poole Quay. There was a nice restaurant and a bar and balcony also looking out over the quay. We’d definitely stay again.

The next morning, after a good buffet breakfast (they even had veggie sausage), we walked a short 10 minutes to the harbour to catch the ferry to Brownsea Island. There are a couple of companies that run the ferry, but we got our tickets with Brownsea Island Ferries. The trip is only 20 mins, with commentary along the way of various sites around the harbour (although the trip back takes 40 mins, going round the other side of the island and round the rest of the islands in the harbour).

Go to Brownsea Island, go now! It’s beautiful with shady woods, wild beaches and is also home to a nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. It’s owned by the National Trust, so if you’re a member its free to enter, otherwise you’ll be asked to pay £8 on arrival. We looked round the ubiquitous National Trust shop and then bought some drinks and snacks to take with us as we explored the island .We made our way to the south shore path, past the church and the visitor centre (with peacocks and chickens strolling around outside).

We soon found a lovely wild beach on the shore of what is known as White Ground Lake. We laid out a blanket, had our lunch and watched the oystercatchers picking in the mud and pebbles for food. After this short rest, we resumed our walk back in to the interior of the island, passing through the campsite first used by Baden-Powell when he set up the scout movement and still used by scout groups from all over world to this day.

After about half an hour walking we came across some red squirrels, which is what we were really looking for today. We stayed and watched them for a few minutes, until they finally climbed up in to the trees and out of view. We only had a short time before the last ferry was to leave, so quickly entered the DWT reserve (suggested donation £2) and visited a couple of the hides to see what we could see, which was mostly black-headed gulls with a few oystercatchers in the mix.

After the ferry back to the harbour (again with interesting commentary, we headed straight out on another boat trip, again with Brownsea Island Ferries, but this time on one of their Puffin Cruises, which they only run a handful of times during the year. Puffins, this far south? We’d seen puffins in Skomer and the Farne Islands, but I was a little skeptical that we’d see any. the boat had some experts on board from the Birds of Poole Harbour charity, who provided insight to what to look for and knowledge of their behaviour. The boat took us out past Studland Beach, the Old Harry Rock, past Swannage and to and area known as Dancing Ledge. As we motored along we saw numerous guillemots, dotted with the odd razorbill, gulls and terns, including sandwich terns.

Sure enough, soon found some puffins both in the water and on the ledge, around 4 in total (there are apparently 4 breeding pairs in the area). No, it’s not the thousands that you see in the Farne Islands, but these are just 2 and a half hours from London!

To add to the excitement, we also saw a family of peregrine falcons, the first time I had seen the fabulous birds. We saw a mother and 3 or so juveniles being fed on the ledge. Amazing.

We headed back to Poole, having dinner at the Banana Wharf restaurant before heading to bed for a decent nights sleep.