Strangers in the night, exchanging glances. . . .
Sunrise 07.49 am Sunset: 04:58 pm
I think it’s probably a safe bet that most people interested in wildlife, including myself, prefer watching wild animals during daylight. This is not always practical on the marsh: ground animals are far too fond of hiding in the long grass, the dark woods, and in the dense scrub tangles. The recent removal of trees that have invaded the southern end of the Reserve over the years, has opened up the area considerably. The south marsh is to become the domain of wading birds. It will be interesting to see what happens during the coming breeding season, when the south pool weirs and the water levels are raised. I am really looking forward to seeing how well the plan develops.
The character of the marsh is changing, too: being less enclosed takes some getting used to. I think the south marsh animals have moved to the north of the Reserve, and to other surrounding areas. I am not seeing many ground animals on the Reserve at the moment. I see plenty of tracks and other signs, so I try to make do with what I glean from these. Camera traps allow glimpses of animals in daylight and darkness. However, these only help identify moving subjects that pass directly in front of the lens. Camera traps rarely show animal behaviour, even in video mode, and when they do record something of interest, the images tend to pose more questions than answers. Camera traps are static devices that are not able to follow animal progress, or take decisions about what to do next. In fact, camera trap images just say, “I am an animal, and I was here.”
February, March and April are nighttime watching months for me. It’s a rewarding experience, often requiring far less physical effort than in daylight. The process of nocturnal animal watching is a little different: animals tend to come closer, as they don’t see so well in the dark either. It’s difficult getting out of a comfy chair and away from the television on cold, dark evenings. Once on the marsh though, it’s usually better entertainment than nature programs on television – well, I think so anyway. I am not ruling out that a person might be a little mad to consider sitting outdoor in darkness amongst the wild animals, not to mention the possibility of my contracting a horrible disease or infection from the stagnant pools. I really do understand that I am writing about a minority interest here, of dubious worth in the scheme of things, but it keeps me happily occupied, and out of trouble. So far, I have not been infected with lymes disease – there’s still time I suppose. Ha!
Obviously, being able to see animals in darkness is not just a matter of adopting a carrot based diet, or probing the foliage with a powerful torch: technology in the form of an infra-red camera, or a decent image intensifier is necessary to get worthwhile results and sufficient enjoyment from the experience.
Last evening, for instance, I spent two hours sitting on a folding stool in Hoo Brook Wood, behind a tree, with camouflage netting draped over my head. Orange light from Hoo Brook Industrial Estate cast ghostly hues over pools of stagnant water surrounding my vantage point. The sound of a vehicle being power washed drifted down the high bank bordering the north side of the brook. A car revved, and a horn sounded. A couple of men shouted to one another across a factory yard. The floor of the wood is littered with brittle Himalayan balsam stalks, offering early warning of anything approaching. An Archimedes’s screw conveyor softly clicked, knocked, squeaked and growled in the distance. Traffic zoomed along Wilden Lane to the roundabout, their indicator lights impatiently flashing drivers’ intentions. The headlights of cars joining the lane from the housing estate illuminated parts of the wood for a few seconds, before darkness returned as they sped off towards Kidderminster or Wilden Village.
I sat down on my stool at 7 pm, threw a net over my head, and switched-on my night-vision scope. Approximately fifteen minutes later, things began to happen. I heard faint sounds of water splashing from one of the stagnant pools to my right. The available ambient light was not strong enough to see anything but dark shadows tinged with weak orange light reflecting on the pools. I scanned the area through my night scope, but the undergrowth was too dense to see through. A strong stagnant water smell wafted over. This sort of thing raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Low grunting and snuffling noises floated in on a strengthening breeze. I am sure my heart rate increased. Scanning the area with my scope, I fiddled with the screen brightness controls and adjusted the focus, trying to make out what was behind the vegetation. Suddenly, two eyes appeared, glowing in the flood of infra-red light: they were badger’s eyes. In spite of its poor eyesight, the big old Brock knew I was there. It wasn’t spooked; it just stopped and stared in my direction for ten or more seconds, before changing direction and slowly waddling off towards the brook.
I saw a variety of wildlife before my phone vibrator signaled the end of my two-hour watching stint. After the first hour, things got very busy indeed. I heard a muffled squawk from my left, out towards Wilden Lane. I swung my scope in the general direction just in time to see a north marsh fox running off with a pheasant’s neck between its jaws; the bird struggled and flapped its wings, but was unable to call out.
Two more eyes appeared on my image intensifier screen. I flicked on my long-range infra-red beam and saw a munjac deer daintily picking its way through the Himalayan balsam storks, without making a sound. It moved slowly and cautiously in my direction. Like the badger, seemed to know I was there. Stopping many times, the deer stared intently in my direction. Eventually, it was no more than eight feet away from me. It stopped once again, turned its head towards me, and stared for a few seconds before continuing on to wherever it was going.
Badgers came and went. A pheasant came pretty close, but it spooked and flew off squawking, colliding with tree branches as it went. Another fox went by. A vixen screamed not too far away, and the dog answered. There were many small animals scuttling through the leaves, their eyes sparkling in the IR beam. All in all, it was a very productive couple of hours.