Sunrise: 07.49 Sunset: 04.03
Robin Red Breast saying hello.
12th February 2012: The marsh foxes are getting the better of me. I watched the dog fox early this morning, from Hoo Wood, through binoculars, mooching about in the north pasture. He paid no attention to the cattle. He sniffed around a small brash pile that had, or has something living under it; maybe it’s one of his old above ground dens. I have looked down so many holes lately that I am imagining him watching me from somewhere nearby, sniggered knowingly under his breath. There’s more to these foxes than I give them credit for. They are not called wily old foxes for nothing! You only have to watch them collaborate to trap and kill pheasants to know that they are a lot smarter than your average pooch.
My remote cameras snapped a fox, a household cat and a muntjac, scratching about outside the badger setts last night. What do these animals find so attractive about badgers…?
SUNDAY 20th March 2011 – 20:15:
I disturbed the Hoo Brook kingfisher this afternoon. It flew like a dart down the brook to the Stour; if I hadn’t disturbed it, it’s unlikely that I would have seen it let alone photographed it.
The toads, having had their fun, have left the north pond. The pond is now toadless. Not a single toad did I see this afternoon; the pond is eerily silent without their constant squeaking, plopping, squishing and squashing, and there is now an oily bloom covering most of the water surface – I have no idea whether the oily bloom is anything to do with the toads. The water level has fallen steadily since the beginning of the year: rainfall has been quite low. I can’t help wondering where the toads have wandered off to; did they all leave the pond together? Perhaps the head toad gave a signal and they moved out en-mass – and did they leave by day or by night? I have a mental video playing in my head featuring a million toads crawling out of the pond and hopping away in all directions, only to disappear into the distance leaving a mystery to be solved by an eagerly awaited sequel. Perhaps, in the real world, they have just moved off into the swamp.
Nature, like time, keeps moving along and if you blink your eyes, or turn you head at a sudden noise, you stand a good chance of missing an important event. A sudden noise might indicate an important event, so I often feel obliged to turn my head towards the noise and that will be when the otter swims out of the river, does an Irish jig on the bank with its paws on its hips, whilst also juggling a couple or three fish with its mouth. No matter how important the event, there is only a finite amount of free time a person can muster for leisure projects, and it’s impossible to see every thing that might be of interest. Prioritisation, did I hear someone say? Wherever I go and whatever I do, this word is not far behind me. I had a dream once in which a huge black, slimy, slug named ‘Prioritised’ made it its business to track me down. No matter how far I travelled, nor how fast I travelled, nor in which direction I travelled, I knew that if I stayed still long enough the inevitable would happen:I would find myself under prioritised. Being under prioritised is a bit like being under insured – if you are under insured and something nasty happens, you struggle to know what the next important thing is that you should be doing. So I admit that I prioritise, but I am not really convinced that this gives me an advantage where nature is concerned. Let me put it another way: If I wander around with my camera at the ready will I see more and photograph more interesting wildlife than I would if, say, I sat in a hide with my camera on a tripod? I am bound to say that I usually find wandering more productive than standing still. If I decide that I’m going to spend an hour in the hide, an hour on the river bank, and an hour wandering aimlessly about, then this is a plan. If I then schedule these activities in terms of importance, then I am prioritising my work or leisure time. Now having mentioned planning…I think I had better quit here before I slip into rant mode.
I saw 16 bumble bees today: four in Hoo Wood and the rest on the north marsh.
Buds are just breaking out on the Hoo Wood silver birch trees; hawthorn, elder and honeysuckle are quite well leafed and the beech trees are heavy with catkins. I think Hoo Wood is around one or two weeks ahead of the marsh in the growing stakes.
More to come when I get a minute or two…
TUESDAY 2nd MARCH – 18:12: I scanning the north marsh pond with my night scope. I noticed a number of small flickering coloured flares in amongst the trees on the other side of the pond. I couldn’t see with any clarity, what was over there. It looked like half a dozen fireflies were hovering above the ground. With my naked eye, I could see, very faintly, orange and blue flickering. I stood for a while trying to work out what it could be. I alternated between my naked eye and the scope, I was still unable to get a definitive view. Through the scope, I could see a lot of bright white infrared light bouncing from the surrounding tree branches and half a dozen small flares flitting between them. I don’t believe in fairies, gnomes, or in any other supernatural entities that might crawl about at night, and I had not yet seen fireflies on the marsh. There is a rational explanation for what was happening on the other side of the pond.
It crossed my mind that I had been caught-out before, by those Chinese paper hot-air balloons that are becoming increasingly popular. One dark night earlier in the year I saw a bright orange globe descending slowly in the distance, whilst out walking in Hoo Wood. It was only when I found a spent Chinese paper lantern on the marsh, that it dawned on me: the orange globe I had seen descending into Hoo Wood was not a UFO, after all …
Anyway, what to do now was the question! I had three options as I saw it: continue south around the pond, over the gate, through the bog and work my way down the other side of the pond– this would be a noisy option, and the breeze might carry my scent towards the ghoulish thing that might be slithering on the other side of the pond. I could wade across the pond, but this was little better than the first option. I could walk north along the Stour to Hoo brook and follow the swamp fence to the lagoon side of the pond, where I might be able to get a better look at whatever was there. The night was already as dark as ol’ Nick’s coal hole, so I decided on the latter option and crept back the way I had come.
Having made it around the swamp without falling in any of the stagnant pools that are dotted around the lagoon field, I was now inching my way along the swamp fence and was within spitting distance of the pond. I scanned the wood with my scope, but couldn’t see any dancing lights; however, I could smell wood smoke and cooking. With my mind on recent peculiar happenings on this side of the pool, I worked my way further along the fence to where I was roughly opposite the basic tree branch shooting hide I stumbled across and pulled-down a few weeks ago. I scanned the wood with my night scope again. What I saw made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The shooting hide had been re-erected and was now covered with fabric sheeting. I worked my way to where I could get a look at what was at the front of the hide. As I focused my scope, the outline of a man in a wide-brimmed hat began to form; he had a very large bushy beard too. He was sitting crouched over what looked like a hobo cooking stove, and he was sitting on what turned out to be a very large ex-army kit bag. It was obvious to me now that I had stumbled upon a ‘gentleman of the road’ – otherwise known as a tramp.
I slowly stood up and shouted – not too loudly: “Hello there! Can I enter your camp?” I think I gave him a bit of a fright, because he jumped up pretty smartish. “What the…?” he spluttered. “Who am ya and what are ya wanting from me?” “Are ya trying ta give an old man a heart attack?” “Ah, away wit ya already!” “I prefer me own company.” At a guess, I would put his origins somewhere between the Irish and Jewish quarters of Dudley – ha! . ”Well…I was passing, smelt your cooking and wondered if you might be up for a chat,” I offered. There was a pause and a bit of scuffling. I didn’t have as good a view of him now as I had through my scope. “If ya must. I ain’t got much snap mind,” he said nervously.
I walked into his camp and chatted with this gentleman of the road for a while.
He looked like the archetypal tramp, and I sensed he was not very happy at having me invade his privacy, or at having his dinner rudely interrupted. He was wearing a great-coat and probably a few sets of old clothes under this. His camp was remarkably tidy – setup for a quick exit I thought. The hide was his shelter, and he had covered it in a lightweight waterproof sheet. His hobo cooking system intrigued me. It consisted of two tins: a billy can and a stove; the former probably made from an old paint tin. The billy was slightly smaller in diameter and would fit inside the stove to minimised carrying bulk. The billy, a large coffee tin with a press-in lid and a wire carrying handle, is for boiling. The fireflies I had seen from the other side of the pond were flames licking out of the stove air holes. He had a two-wheeled trolley; the kind used to carrying large suit cases to the check-in desk at airports, except this one was sturdier. He uses the trolley to transport his very large kit bag – which is almost as tall as he is. Strapped to the trolley was another tin, large enough to put the bottom 400 mm of his kit bag in.
Anyway, it turns out that he travels river bank and canal tow paths and when he passes this way, perhaps once or twice a month, he camps on or around the marsh. He catches his food, as and when the opportunity presents itself, on or close to the rivers and canals along which he travels. He was cooking a fish and meat stew, using charcoal as his fuel. I asked him how he caught his food. He said he used a hook and line for fish, snares for rabbits – pheasants as well, I suspected – and a catapult firing buckshot to bring-down birds on the ground. He told me he makes his charcoal by tightly packing his large can with dry wood, with some burning wood at its center, with soil being used to seal it. A small amount of air finds its way into the can through small nail holes punched in the base of the can. He does his charcoal manufacture overnight, and the tin can double as a hobo hot-water bottle on cold nights – I suppose he cuddled it.
This man is a real country traveller, very experienced and obviously well able to live successfully off the land, whatever the weather. I guessed his age at mid 60s. I was sensing his nervousness and decided I had over stayed my welcome – he might be a mad axe murderer for all I knew. I thanked him for his time, advised him that the land he was camping was a private nature reserve and suggested that it would not be a good idea for him to camp here again. I left him contemplating his billy. I felt privileged to have met this man, and I walked away with all my important bits still attached (he didn’t murder me).
Anyone seeing this man walking along a canal tow path or a river bank, would see a fisherman pulling his trolley, they wouldn’t see a tramp at all. This man is a tramp in disguise – brilliant!
This morning I took a walk down to the pond and needless to say, the tramp had departed leaving not a trace of his presence, not even a foot print. The man is a real professional. Good luck to him, I say. However, I hope he leaves the marsh wildlife alone. I have a feeling that I might not have seen the last of this man.
SUNDAY 6th March – 18:10: Well, the new nesting season officially begins this month (March to July) and as much as possible needs be done to avoid scaring off ground-nesting birds from the marsh. Although the reserve is officially closed to the public, there are still people wandering about the marsh with their dogs on and off their lead, which is definitely not a good idea. New growth has started, in earnest: new grass and reeds are now very obvious. Having had a gentle word with the tramp who was camping alongside the north ponds, last Monday night, I feel I have made a start just before the nesting season, too.
I met two fishermen walking along-side Hoo Brook yesterday afternoon, at the extreme north end of the reserve – they weren’t planning on do any fishing; they were just out for a walk. I chatted with them for a while and one of them claimed he was a water bailiff, the other just a fisherman – the water bailiff was accompanied by his dog, on its lead as it happens, and he was a RSPB member – the bailiff, not the dog. These angler’s main concerns were the cormorants, heron and otters eating the fish, and they felt that cormorants, in particular, ought to be culled; in fact, they told me that a new law had recently been passed, and the Environment Agency are actively culling cormorants at this very moment. When I pointed out that even cormorants need to eat, they agreed, but after thinking about it for a moment the water bailiff said, “Ah, but there are too many of them.” It could be said, and often is to me, that there are too many fishermen. Anyway, every sportsman will try to protect his own sport and there are some pretty hard-core activists in the fishing community in this area and throughout the country. I was a very ardent fresh water angler in my youth and handy with a shotgun too.
I spotted a grey wagtail on a branch sticking out of Hoo Brook. The cormorants were perched on their favourite pylon. A couple of herons flew over the marsh on the canal side of the Stour, and magpies were making a terrible racket over there too. A green woodpecker was at his drumming post, and a buzzard circled and mewed high above.
FRIDAY 11th March 2011 – 21:30: This week I have taken advantage of the very low ground cover in Hoo Wood, and I have spent hours systematically checking for signs of muntjac and evidence of above-ground fox dens. I haven’t found any fox dens, but I did manage to get a photograph of a muntjac and I found a muntjac lie-up – it’s not a very good photograph, but a photograph all the same. Tonight I have a camera trap out in an area where there are many signs of muntjac activity – foot prints and digging – so I have great hopes for better muntjac photographs tomorrow morning.
As I was setting up my camera tonight, I could see the wooden shooting position through the trees and couldn’t help wondering how many pheasants had been shot on the ground my camera will be covering tonight.
Every morning this week, the green woodpecker has been at his drumming post, hammering out his messages to any female within hearing distance, and replies came drifting over from the depth of Dark Wood.
Monday 14th March 2011 – 21:21: Saturday morning did not result in better photographs of a muntjac. Saturday morning resulted in photograph of that darn marsh fox.
My Sunday afternoon stroll down to the north weir turned up nothing unusual, everything seemed in its proper place. The clear blue sky and warmth of the sun were a real bonus; the new growth of green reeds and grass was really striking. The woodpecker watched me creep past its tree. Pigeons were grazing on the north pasture; cormorants were soaking-up the sun at their usual places on the pylon and along the power lines. Mallards were everywhere there was water. A heron waded in the North Pond and flew silently across the Stour as soon as it saw me, magpies squabbled. Angry grey squirrels shrieked at one another across the Stour, and a buzzard was circling and mewing high overhead (this is a recurring theme around the north pond). Yes, everything was as it should be. When things are not quite right, the birds are the first to notice. It’s hard to put into words the small changes that occur in bird behaviour when they feel that something is not quite right. I suppose it’s an initial transfer of warning chatter, from one bird species to another, that grows in intensity and then dies away, only to erupt again into full-blown alert calls when danger is identified. Often, when I walk the marsh, the bird warning calls are almost casual. If someone or something unusual is about, there is urgency in their calls that alerts even me that another person or a predator is close by.
The mallards are usually the first to vocalise an urgent intruder alert; they take to flight at the slightest noise or shadow. The pheasants tend to hang on until the last few seconds before braking cover and screaming their unmistakable alert call. Then the pigeons take to the sky en-mass, followed by with their rasping alarm call.
WEDNESDAY MORNING 9th FEBRUARY – 07:20: Overcast this morning (8 degrees C) and just a hint of rain.
Pheasants nest on the ground, producing a clutch of around ten eggs over a two-three week period in April to June. The incubation period is about 23–26 days. The chicks stay near the hen for several weeks after hatching and they grow quickly, resembling adults by only 15 weeks of age.
Had a few images of the swamp on the camera trap, this morning, but no wildlife, so I moved to the next place on my list and set the camera to the side of a muntjac track.
I checked the camera trap later in the evening and, again, no images of wildlife. I think it’s a matter of: ‘The harder I try, the less successful I am.’
On the way home, I heard and caught a brief glimpse of a screech-owl.
THURSDAY MORNING 10th FEBRUARY – 07:30:Overcast this morning (8 degrees C) and light rain.
Went out this morning to set up my camera trap. I will check on it tomorrow morning.
FRIDAY EVENING 11th FEBRUARY 19:15 : I heard and saw a tawny owl flying over Hoo Brook.
Tawny owls breed in March, laying up to 7 eggs that take 25 to 30 days to incubate and around 30 days to fledge. Tawny owls nest in holes in trees, often in old squirrel or woodpecker holes. The juveniles disperse in August and by early winter they will either have a territory, or they will be dead.
SATURDAY MORNING 12th FEBRUARY: The weekend is here again – hooray! Like most people, I look forward to the weekend. It’s a time when I can afford a more relaxed attitude toward watching and photographing wildlife, thereby thereby adding to the enjoyment. It’s no good my being too relaxed, though, Saturday can easily be taken-up with the weekend chores if I’m not careful. This weekend I am going to put my passions first and the chores second. I like to get out as early as possible and linger in my chosen area for a few hours; to get the feel of the place? I like to take my time investigating the lay of the land, the trees, the bushes, the plants and the animals. I like to get an accurate impression of the extent of wildlife in a particular area.
I like to be in position, camera at the ready, before it gets light, so that I can watch the sun rise and the countryside come to life.
The wood alongside Hoo Brook, down on the marsh, was head high in Himalayan Balsam during last summer. The wood floor is pretty much devoid of green and littered with decaying brown leaves and creamy coloured dead balsam stalks. This debris from last year’s growing season hardly covered my boots this morning. However, time never stands still and new stinging nettles are just beginning to push their leaves above ground – the start of this year’s growing season is upon us.
Life on the marsh is beginning to wake-up again. The animals are getting ready to mate and it’s an exciting time to watch them. I feel fortunate that I am able to witness and record the events as they occur.
The sun is shining. The sky is bright blue, and there is an abundance of wildlife on the marsh. I saw a heron paddling in Hoo brook again; a kestrel perched on the power lines that cross the swamp – waiting for its breakfast to pass beneath I expect. Magpies flew this way and that. A Great Spotted Woodpecker drummed on the dead oak tree, close to the bank of the Northern Pond. I almost stood on a woodcock, and the urgent ‘peent-peent’ call of a snipe rose from the withy wood at the southern end of the old British Sugar settling lagoon field. Herons, ducks, geese, crows, magpies and cormorants flew overhead. My camera trap caught a badger leaving its set in the early hours. It sounded to me as if the animals have a lot to do; I’ll try to keep out of their way and view what I can through binoculars.
The nesting season runs from March to July. I try not to be intrusive during this period. There is the plenty of potential of frightening-off nesting birds, which defeats the ethos of a nature reserve. Unfortunately, the north marsh foxes doesn’t give a fig about my views; in his/her mind, birds and eggs taste good. From what I have seen, the marsh foxes regularly dine on pigeons and pheasant. The thing with the foxes, though, is that they will kill by restricting their prey’s breathing. The fox catches its prey and throttles it whilst taking it to a safe area to eat. Generally, the fox’s prey can’t make much noise when it is being throttled. However, I have heard ducks, pheasants and chickens make a terrible fuss when the fox grabs them; their cries doesn’t last long, though. What’s more important is that the fox has the right to disturb and kill animals on the marsh: we don’t. The fox lives to kill. If a fox gets into a chicken coup, it will most likel kill all the birds, usually by biting their heads off. Without doubt, the fox is a killing machine, but that’s nature for you: nature isn’t sympathetic.
SUNDAY EVENING 20th FEBRUARY 21:43:
Strange things are afoot at the north end of the marsh this week! Cardboard crow cut-outs, painted black, pegged out amongst the mole hills; unidentified bait pellets; a basic wooden branch hide, and a pile of foam rubber chips placed in the middle of an animal track (the muntjac uses this track). These things have occurred along-side the North Pond. Tonight I saw someone sweeping the swamp with a powerful lantern. I wonder if that person is a nature lover trying to catch a glimpse of the muntjac? I would like to think so, or is he thinking of having the muntjac for his dinner; either way, he shouldn’t be there. The one to two-second sweeps of the lamp suggests to me that someone might have put out pheasant snares and is checking them. Obviously, this sort of activity on the marsh is illegal.
One section of the lagoon field fence, along-side the Wilden Lane lay-by, has been cut top-to-bottom, allowing unauthorised access to the lagoon fields and the marsh. It is all too easy to park-up in this lay-by and avoid suspicion.
I caught a glimpse of the black muntjac in the swamp earlier today, and I must say that he seems to be in top condition and very alert. He has done a very good job of avoiding me and my cameras. My worry is, though, that he might not do so well with drugged bait and a cross-bow bolt.
The male muntjac deer is short and stocky with a hunched appearance, weighing between 10 and 18 kg, standing 45 to 50 cm at the shoulder, and can live for up to 19 years. One day I hope to post a photograph of our swamp muntjac, but to do so I will need to be just a little smarter than him.
I spotted a large buzzard on the south reserve this afternoon, perched in a tree, and four Canada geese walking across one of the southern fields. I also spotted a sort of hybrid Robin in a tree on the Stour side of the swamp.
I stumbled upon another hide/shooting position, when walking through Hoo Wood this afternoon. It is very close to the Wilden Lane lay-by, and it is possible that children/teenagers use it for their action games. I have seen teenagers playing in the wood with very realistic toy assault rifles that fire small plastic pellets and make all the right noises, but this was back last summer and in a different area of the wood. As seen in the photograph, the hide has a commanding view of an area of reasonably flat open ground, and three or four pheasants broke cover as I walked across it. I wasn’t able to tell if the hide had been used lately. The leaves had been disturbed on the floor of the hide, but the fox could be the culprit.
Common sense dictates that now is the best time to be using a hide like this, when the cover is really low. In the growing season, the Himalayan Balsam and ferns would be too thick and too high to see through.