SUNDAY 27th FEBRUARY: It’s been a quiet week in Hoo Wood and on the marsh. I haven’t seen anything unusual. Yesterday on the marsh there were the usual tits, wrens, blackbirds, crows, magpies, a few heron landing the canal side of the Stour, and the ever-present mallards, but nothing to get over-excited about; it was raining heavily most of the time, too. Didn’t see the muntjac in the swamp; come to think of it, I didn’t see any muntjac tracks either – it’s probably moved to another area for a while.
There was a decent spread of fresh young jelly ear fungus on a small oak tree alongside the north pond yesterday. This was close to the large dead oak tree that’s a frequent perch for many of the local birds. Today, though, this same jelly ear fungus had shriveled to almost nothing.
Hoo Wood is carpeted in bluebell and Himalayan balsam shoots. The bluebell shoots are taller than the Himalayan balsam, which won’t be the case for long. There will be plenty of time for the bluebells to flower before the balsam takes over the wood. Last year I saw the first bluebell flower on 17th April, 6th April in 2009, 4th April in 2008 and 10th April in 2007. The first daffodils flowered today and 19th April last year.
Comfrey plants are popping-up at various places in the wood, and great care should be taken not to confuse them with foxgloves. Foxgloves look very similar to comfrey prior to flowering. There are a many foxglove plants in Hoo Wood. The way to tell them apart is: the edges of the foxglove leaf are finely toothed, whilst the edges of a comfrey leaf are smooth. The reason it is important to be able to tell the difference between the two plants is that comfrey is edible and can be used in salads, and all parts of the foxglove plant are poisonous.
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.
MONDAY EVENING – 31st JANUARY: Tomorrow is the 1st day of February and I would like an early ‘first of the month’ photograph of a muntjac deer. I noticed an area in North Pond wood last Saturd where muntjac deer had been active, so I set off with my camera into a dark, freezing night. I navigated by feeling my way along the sides of the track with the soles of my boots, which is not too difficult: the tracks across the marsh are quite deep. As far as possible, I try not to use my torch; it warns the animals that I’m out and about. Anyway, I set up my camera at the intended spot, and covered it with a camo-blanket.
TUESDAY EVENING –1st FEBRUARY: Out with my infra-red camera again. I’m not after muntjac deer tonight. I’ve pointed the camera at a potential fox den inside a wood pile. The entrance is most certainly large enough for a fox to get through, and it looks as if it’s used regularly. Maybe the camera will reveal something tomorrow morning.
After setting up the camera, I moved from the area and did as I often do on cold, clear, starlit nights … I leaned against a wooden fence and stared at Orion’s Belt. I listened to the night sounds drifting in from Kidderminster. The night-time silence of the marsh is not like the silence one might experience in a street, or in a back garden, or in a house, it has an indefinable depth. The sounds of the marsh at night are almost spectral; they drift in softly, pass overhead, and then just fade gently away. There is the occasional hum of industry in the distance, that wafts and wanes as other more strident sounds drift by as the breeze changes direction.
I listened as a car whooshed along Wilden Lane. Something had disturbed the ducks on North Pond. An owl screeched in the distance. An ambulance wailed its way urgently along Worcester Road. Silence reigned for a while, before a car alarm warbled in and out of hearing. A muntjac deer barked from somewhere along the Stour. This experience with sound reminds me that it’s a privilege to have such a vibrant marsh on my doorstep.
WEDNESDAY MORNING – 2nd FEBRUARY: I was out before first light this morning. The sky was clear and the temperature one or two degrees below freezing. I retrieved my camera. There were three images, but no animals – failure! Maybe I need a new strategy.
The sunrise was good, though: orange sky through wisps of light cloud. A flight of geese honked overhead as I made my way home.
SATURDAY MORNING – 5th FEBRUARY (07:30): Last night had been very windy. The ground alongside Hoo Brook is littered with newly broken branches, and a few fallen trees.
A kingfisher darting up and down the brook for 3 to 4 minutes, before disappearing along the River Stour.
My infra-red cameratrap was on sentinel dity last night. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, I positioned it overlooking the North Pond. I was hoping to get an image or two of a heron, or at least a few mallards, but it didn’t happen.
The ponds have overflowed into the Stour for over a month now, and we haven’t has much rain; is this due to the new weirs, I wonder?
When I am out on the marsh with my DSLR camera it takes me ages to get anywhere; I walk along with a weird, slow motion stalking gait.So it took me a while to get to my IR camera.
I plugged the monitor into the camera and 27 images flashed-up on the screen. I get very excited when this happens, particularly after a couple of nights without a result. I clicked through the images, and it was that darn fox again. I am beginning to wonder who is stalking whom! Still, it’s far better than no images at all.
A rural fox can have a territory in the region of 200 to 600 hectares. The territory size might depend on the extent of food resources available. So the fox in the northern marsh might be the same fox I photograph in Hoo Wood. A dog fox will usually live above ground; it might make a den under a pile of wood. Generally, foxes are lazy and will use an old badger’s set, or a pipe as a den. They can live for 10 years; many die from illness or accident, and are often run-over by cars.
I was poking about amongst the trees on the side of Nort Pond this afternoon and found a few animal droppings in a hole at the foot of an old oak tree. The droppings were quite old, they were hard with white mould on them, and they were lying on top of wood chippings.
Foxes are not the only animals that take advantage of other animal’s vacated holes. I was under the old dead oak tree, which is a favourite perch for a number of the local birds, when a squirrel ran up the trunk and disappeared into an old woodpecker’s hole.
I came across another well-used muntjac deer track this morning, so this will be a future target for my cameratrap. The problem is that I have a growing list of work for my IR cameras. Still, there’s no rush, the marsh and animals will be here for a while yet.
On my way home this afternoon, as I walked along Hoo Brook, young swan came swam up from the River Stour. There are various piles of branches and other debris blocking the progress of anything swimming up the brook, but the swan bravely climbed over these. It was three-quarters of the way to Wilden Lane when it came up against a large pile of tree branches and twigs blocking it’s way. The swan stopped in front of the blockage, seemed to weigh-up the possibilities, must have decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and swam back down to the Stour.
SUNDAY MORNING – 6th FEBRUARY: The new growing season has started in Hoo Wood. Hazel catkins are in abundance. Honeysuckle buds have opened and new leaves have sprung forth; the same applies to Elder. Herb Robert foliage is spreading, too. Bluebell shoots are around 75 mm high and nettles around 50 mm high.
It was not as windy today, as it has been for the last couple of days, but the sky has been overcast for most of the morning. There have been times when the clouds have parted, letting in bright, warm sunshine. Clouds of flies rose up, making a real nuisance of themselves. It will soon be time to apply ‘Jungle Formula’ insect repellent. Today was the day I realised that spring is not far way.
The young swan is still bottom feeding in Hoo Brook. There was not much wildlife to photograph today, apart from the swan and a few small birds: tits, mainly. I saw a black muntjac deer in the swamp, but it made off faster than my camera’s auto-focus could lock on to the bobbing white flash on its tail. I followed a fresh muntjac trail from the swamp to the field gate mid-way along the reserve, but the trail turned into the quagmire of the middle wood. My half-length wellies are a bit short for quagmires , so I didn’t bother following the tracks any further.
I went in search of the muntjac I had seen earlier, back at the swamp. No luck, though! I was soon in danger of being sucked into the mire. God only knows what greusome fate awaites the unsuspecting unfortunate who wander too far into that swamp. All saw were the remains of the wily old fox’s last night’s pheasant supper – nothing left but feathers. If I were a fisherman, I would value these pheasant feathers for making artificial flies.
MONDAY MORNING 7th FEBRUARY – 07:45: Heavily overcast this morning,: cold and windy, too.
Spotted the black muntjac in the swamp again, and got a good look at it this time – didn’t have my DSLR camera with me though.
My IR camera had taken seven images of a piece of vegetation that had fallen in front of it.
I set up the camera trap in another location, in the hope that it might pick up a daytime image or two. I will check it this evening.
TUESDAY MORNING 8th FEBRUARY – 07:00 : Bright, clear and cold this morning (0 degree C). The vegetation was dusted with frost, and mist had settled above the Stour.
I was out for an hour and saw only four moorhens on North Pond, and a few mallards in Hoo Brook and on the Stour.
Moorhens nest in late March; egg incubation takes around 20 days and fledging around 45 days. Newly hatched chicks are swimming with their parents within a couple of days.
There were a few images of a Labrador on the camera trap, nothing else, so I have put the it on sentry duty in different location for a few days. I am still trying to get an image of the black muntjac.
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.
The diverse flora and fauna found in Hoo Wood and on Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve, the latter being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), continue to thrive in spite of being surrounded by industrial estates, and despite the previous disinterest and neglect by those responsible for its upkeep, not to mention the possible interest of property developers. Both Hoo Wood and Wilden Marsh are ribbons of nature connecting Stourport on Severn with Kidderminster. The River Stour flows parallel to the western edge of the marsh, as does the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal; to the east, and running parallel with the marsh, is Wilden Lane. Hoo Brook borders the northern end of the marsh, slowly winding its way down to the River Stour.
There is a lot of work going on at the southern end of the marsh at the moment. Volunteers are thinning and pruning trees, clearing ditches, and installing weirs at the end of the ditches to maintain water levels. It looks like their work will prove to be a major improvement, particularly to access.
PLEASE NOTE! Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve is closed until further notice, to enable essential maintenance work to be carried out. Anyone requiring access to the north or south ends of the reserve will need a permit from The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.
Hoo Wood is approximately one mile long by 450 feet wide, steeply sloped and running parallel with the eastern side of the northern end of Wilden Lane. The wood is primarily populated with oak, intermingled with birch, a smattering of larch, sycamore and beech trees. Hazel, holly, broom, elder, gorse and many other varieties are well established – there are even a few varieties of apple tree. The plant life is also abundant and varied, but more about these later in the year. In summer, the mosquitoes are vicious; their bites produce swellings the size of hazel nuts. I certainly need to make sure I am well deeted when I am wandering in Hoo Wood during the summer months.
Wilden Village is situated 0.8 miles along the 2.2 miles long Wilden Lane, on the Stourport on Severn side, and is opposite Wilden Industrial Estate, formerly the site of Wilden Iron Works. At the centre of the village is the Wilden Shop and Post Office. There used to be a village pub opposite the entrance to the industrial estate: The Wilden Inn was demolished a few years ago to make way for residential housing.
During the 1970s the marsh began to deteriorate with the removal of the old weirs, but with the installation of two new 1.5 metre high stone weirs last year, placed 1.5 kilometres apart, the water levels in the marsh are now rising.
At the north end of Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve are the disused British Sugar settling lagoons, their water gradually evaporating after the closure of the sugar factory in 2002, further contributing to the drying out of the marsh. The nature reserve consists of 37.5 hectares of dry and marshy fields with small alder and willow woods, reed beds and many drainage ditches, all with different flora and fauna; there are also lots of uncommon plants such as marsh orchids, marsh cinquefoil and lesser water parsnip. A total of 192 bird species have been recorded here and about 70 species breed. The River Stour is less than half a mile from any point along Wilden Lane. The Widen Marsh Nature Reserve is managed by Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.
For many years I have been interested in the fauna and flora of Hoo Woods and Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve and I intend to document my seasonal impressions over a 12 month period, in this blogs.
I have watched buzzards nesting and fledging in Hoo Wood for a number of years and, last year, I photographed a buzzard chick’s progress from hatching to it leaving the nest (fledging). I have photographed foxes, badgers, mice, and the many birds that frequent this very local area.
These are a few photographs of last year’s Hoo Wood common buzzard (Buteo buteo). There was one chick hatched last year and 2 chicks the year before. Many hours were spent hiding under my camouflage net, in amongst the Himalayan Balsam, ferns, bracken and mozzies, waiting for the chick to perform for my camera, which was usually for a few minutes in 3 hours.
The common buzzard is easily distinguished from all other species of hawk by its size. The wingspan may vary between 48 to 60 inches, with a body length of around 20 inches. The ‘mewing’ of a buzzard is unmistakable. It’s a slow flyer and has little hope of catching prey that’s on the move. Its usual tactic is to perch motionless on a tree branch and wait for its prey to pass beneath it.
Buzzards start breeding in late March and can lay 2 to 5 eggs, which take 33 to 35 days to incubate and a further 50 to 55 days for the chicks to fledge.