WILDEN MARSH: January in Hoo Wood and Wilden Marsh.
Well, here we are! The first month of a new decade, and a new blog. Will the next 10 years be much warmer than the last? There are people who profess to be able to predict such things, but do they really know what will happen with our British weather? How can you believe a society that recommended cigarettes to combat a cough? Wilden Marsh, though, is gaining in strength, which is a very good thing for the wildlife in the Wilden area. The ‘in thing’ these days seems to be conservation. British heavy industry has been failing for the last 50 years or more, and some of the derelict sites that bear witness to this industry’s decline, are being turned into reserves to protect and encourage flora and fauna. Wilden Marsh has been plagued by the ravages of industry for more than 500 hundred years, and now the marsh is being regenerated. I have seen the difference in the last year, with the water levels rising – I have had to buy a pair of wellies; my Gortex lined boots are no longer suitable marsh-wear.
January has been a quiet month for wildlife on Wilden Marsh, but it is there and visible to those who are prepared to spend a little more time looking. I have seen many herons, cormorants, magpies, crows, buzzards, kestrels, woodpeckers, tits, foxes, badgers, muntjac deer and various mice this month. The weather has not been as cold as in December, and it’s been pretty dry, but the ponds have been under ice for most of the month.
I particularly like cormorants. I like their behaviour. I like that they dive into the river with quite a wallop, and I like how they swim deep in the water with their head and neck out like a submarine periscope. I like the way they dive beneath the surface of the river when they are startled. They have beautiful iridescent wings, which are often spread to dry when the cormorant is perched on tree branches and pylons. Many times I have been looking through my camera’s viewfinder and have heard a cormorant dive into the River Stour, behind me.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers nest in Hoo Wood and Wilden Marsh every year; many of the oak trees are peppered with holes pecked by them. It amazes me how they manage to bore their nests into living oak trees; first horizontally and then straight down. I know the woodpecker has evolved a shock absorbing head, but pecking a nest in an oak tree is surely a mammoth task in anybody’s book. If they decide to nest in the same tree the following year, they will bore another nest, which takes the male and female 2 to 3 weeks to excavate. Their nesting holes are usually 10 to 12 feet above ground, but sometimes they are a great deal higher. 5 to 7 creamy white eggs are laid during the second half of May.
Both sexes drum; they start in January and continue until late June.
For the last couple of weeks I have photographed badgers at night, trying to find out how active they are at this time of year. I have photographed foxes and mice, too. Night photography at this time of year is a cold business. Since badgers are nocturnal, trying to photograph them during the day doesn’t bring the best results. Badgers will stay in their setts for days when the weather is cold. Anyway, the outcome of my endeavours is more than 30 infra-red photographs of badgers, foxes and mice.
February is the peak period for badger mating and they have litters of 1 to 5 cubs, but 2 to 3 cubs is most usual. 6 to 7 weeks is a badger’s normal gestation period. No matter when the eggs are fertilised, implantation nearly always occurs in late December. Cub births occur from late January to early March, but the majority will be born in the first half of February. Badgers can, in fact, mate at any time of year, but they have the ability to delay fertilised egg implantation. Badgers normally live for 5 to 8 years, but they have been known to live 15 years.
Foxes range all over the marsh and Hoo Wood and they are particularly interested in the badger sets, but soon disappear when the badger shows its face.
As well as the fox, mice/rats seem to find the badger set fascinating, which is surprising as they can end up as the badger’s dinner.
More on badgers in my February blog.
I have searched for fox dens on the marsh and in Hoo Wood, but, as yet, I have not had much luck. I am hoping that I will find a den before spring.
The undergrowth has probably died down as much as it is going to now, before spring erupts. At this time of year the minutiae of the countryside becomes visible; features that are completely hidden by brambles, fern and Himalayan balsam during summer, can now stick out like a sore thumb. I had heard of a long-term badger’s set on the marsh, but I was unable to find it until winter – then it was difficult to miss. So winter is a great time to have a good old poke around an area you might be interested in. If you are REALLY interested in looking at an area in-depth, a good idea would be to make a sketch map of the area in winter, identifying where all the animals live; you could do as I do: mark-up an aerial photograph on Google Earth – it’s more convenient and, more importantly, MORE FUN!
Yesterday morning (29th January): Animal tracks and trails were everywhere when I walked the marsh yesterday. There were more mallards on the River Stour than you could shake a stick at. Half a dozen herons were standing to attention in the fields, a few flying about; a dozen or more cormorants perched on pylons and a couple of kestrels were hunting in the lagoon field. It was minus 2 degrees when I set out and the temperature didn’t change much all morning. So the ground, ground water, and ponds all had a layer of ice over them – it was very crunchy underfoot, and a definite ‘feel good’ morning. I entered the marsh at the northern end of Wilden Lane; walked along-side of Brook for a while; climbed over badger set bank, at the point where a set of steps have been hacked into the bank and reinforced with sawn logs; past the old British Sugar settling ponds, with the two large sugar silos on our right-hand side; past North Pond, which runs parallel with the bank of the River Stour, and is sheltered by a small wood running along its entire length; past the new River Stour northern weir and on down to the new southern weir. Opposite the new weir, right down at the southern end of the marsh, where all the marsh improvement work is going, is a vehicle scrap yard, of all things, serviced by an entrance off Wilden Lane, which, it seems to me, is totally at odds with the ethos of a nature reserve. However, as I have mentioned before, the marsh is surrounded by industrial areas. It’s just the thought of fuel, oil and anti-freeze getting into the newly cleared ditches that is a worry.