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1st December 2011:  At 09.45, I stood at the river side of the orchid field gate, gazing into the south end of the middle wood. It was cold, and I was waiting for the working party to arrive. Five or six willow tree trunks are marked with red dots, denoting that they would be felled later today. I heard rustling and movement seconds before the sleek, muscular shape of a young muntjac deer emerged from between the trees. This doe was the epitome of sheer pent-up animal power as it sped, terrified, into the open. The work-party made its way noisily through the wood, carrying the various items of equipment it would need to complete the day’s work schedule. The muntjac passed so close to me, in a desperate attempt to escape the hullabaloo, that I could have jumped on top of it.

I heard the chatting and calling of the work party before I could see the individuals walking through the tree line. As well as their own personal rucksacks containing food, drink and spare clothes, they carried the Trust’s large yellow lopping saw, bow saws and long-handled secateurs.

Today’s tasks are to fit twenty bird boxes seven feet up on various tree trunks, fell the trees marked with the red dots, cut the trunks and branches to manageable lengths with a chain saw, and stack them in tidy piles. The wood piles will provide homes for small mammals and insects, until they rot down. The work is to be carried by fifteen of us, varying in ages from late teens up to, I guess, early seventies.

It is a very pleasant experience working with people who genuinely have an interest in and a love of nature, who are willing to give their time freely, benefiting the marsh, in particular, and the environment in general. It really is an experience not to be missed. Furthermore, it is a very healthy social as well as work activity. There is no pressure during these work-days; it’s an easy-going atmosphere. People work as fast as they are able, or as slow as they wish. It doesn’t matter whether you carry one branch or a large arm full to the wood stacks. There is plenty of time to chat. So if there are people out in the blogosphere who would like to spice-up their leisure time, meet interesting people and learn about the nature in their area, then volunteering with your local Wildlife Trust might be the way to go.

We finished the workday by mid-afternoon.

Me approaching the remote just before dawn.

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1st December 2011:  My first job this morning was checking on a remote camera that I had placed in a new location yesterday. The camera has taken a couple of images of me, a few foxes, and two domestic tabby cats. I decided to leave the camera where it is for another night or two, and then I will move it.

The next job was to work out what those hooded lads – I’ll call them lads until I know better – were up to in the north wood on Monday evening.

Domestic tabby cat.

I have no idea why anyone would want to mess about in the mire that is the north wood. Mind you, I suppose there are people who might say something similar about my night-time marsh wanderings, but I always have a reason for being there. It takes all sorts of people to make the world go round and some of those people like doing things that others might find a little strange. Well, these lads have exhibited a higher level of strangeness than I am able to muster..

Fox.

I was glad I was wearing full-length wellies. The marsh cattle had done a marvellous job turning the floor of the wood into one well stirred giant mud pie. I’ll say one thing: a brain will exaggerate what it thinks the eyes are seeing in dark lonely and spooky conditions. My dog disturbed two lads in Hoo Wood one evening recently. They were carrying two plastic containers on their shoulders. I convinced myself that the containers were huge. I reasoned it would take big strong men to carry those plastic containers when they were near full of diesel. I found the containers hidden in the undergrowth, next day; each had a five litres capacity, and would weigh 20 kilos when full. I imagined the containers were at least twice that capacity.

Domestic cat.

I searched over a good part of the wood, and I had difficulty in finding any evidence of the lads being in the wood. I had trouble seeing my own footprints, let alone prints that were laid down a few nights ago. I didn’t find any snares. I did find a pair of torn white surgical gloves, which hadn’t been lying about for long. So, I guess, the chances of finding out what the lads were up to are slim. Still, no harm appears to have been done. I am not sure what to think about the torn surgical gloves, but I do have my suspicions. The origins of the grunting and groaning is still a mystery; I do have my suspicions, though.

My final job for today was helping to extend the orchid field, which is adjoining the middle wood.…

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28th November 2011: It wasn’t particularly dark on the marsh this evening. In fact, visibility was quite good. It was a very still and quiet evening. The temperature was 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit). Last year on 24th of November, the temperature was minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit).

Earlier, I decided to make a quick trip to the marsh to change a remote camera memory card. These ‘quick trips’ are never anything like as quick as I intend. There is always something vying for my attention and delaying my progress through that marsh.

Walking regularly over familiar ground – in my case, Wilden Marsh and Hoo Wood – will improve a person’s ability to move reliably and accurately in darkness without artificial light. I don’t believe that night eyesight improves, no matter how much practice or exercise it gets. Eyes will adjust to low-light conditions, so-called ‘night vision’, but in very dark conditions, most people are at a disadvantage without a torch.

I think a high degree of enhanced awareness is developed by regular night-time walking. The brain learns to take its bearing from prominent visible features (large tree, fences, gates, telegraph poles, etc.) and processes differing ground shades, tones and textures of grey to produce recognisable, or at least meaningful patterns. With practice these patterns begin to make sense and help in identifying gloomy shapes, indistinct shadows and diffuse outlines. In time, rabbit holes, fallen branches and tracks begin to stand out, and they become recognisable features that make navigation easier and safer. I have a detailed coloured daytime and grey scale night-time image of the marsh terrain filed away in my head. Information is continuously being added to my mental maps. I find that walking slowly and stopping at regular intervals to carry out a 360 degree visual terrain sweep helps to imprint important scenes and features in my head.

A case in point: On a couple of occasions recently, I have guided our local police through Hoo Wood in pursuit of suspected night-time villains. Neither the Police, nor the people they were pursuing seemed confident or capable of keeping their footing without using a torch. A torch is the last thing you want to switch on if the police are close behind. If you are moving quickly in near complete darkness, over rough and unfamiliar ground, you will trip over every fallen tree branch, get caught-up in barbed-wire fences and maybe lose a foot or two down a rabbit hole. I, however, don’t have to think about these things; I am already aware of most of the obstacles in Hoo Wood.

I use the stop and 360 degree scan technique to listen to the marsh night sounds. It helps me quickly pick out unusual noises.

There is a point to this preamble:

Walking along the corridor to the tenant farmer’s field this evening, I sneezed. It caught me completely unawares. It was a big sneeze!

Almost immediately my earth-shattering sneeze had subsided, I heard scratching, pawing and grunting from within the wood. Unusual noises set the alarm bells ringing straight away and cut through the normal marsh sounds like a knife. A peculiar grunting drifted through the black spaces between the trees. My brain said a wild boar, but I have not seen one around here before. I was three meters from the bank of the River Stour, alongside a ‘Y’ shaped tree. Slowly, I moved behind the tree and scanned the wood with my night scope. Scratching and rustling noises were more frequent and louder now, suggesting something large was moving towards me. Marsh cows, I wondered …?

Infra-red light from my night scope bounced off tree trunks and branches, creating unnatural white glare, and not allowing me a good view into the wood. I turned down the brightness of my scope viewer. The IR glare began to diminish. Trees further inside the wood were now becoming visible. Twenty five meters in amongst the trees the IR beam picked up a set of eyes close to the ground and another set of eyes similarly positioned to the right of the first set. Both sets of eyes stared out in my direction. I switched my infra-red spot light on and was immediately blinded by IR glare again. I reduced the screen brightness still further, until the eyes in the wood became visible once more.  I was fine tuning the screen brightness when the first set of eyes began to rise slowly above the ground, followed by the second set of eyes. For a moment I thought I was watching an animal climbing a tree. The Worcestershire Beast popped into my mind briefly. I remember someone asking me – last Saturday, in fact – if I had seen the big cat footprints in the marsh snow at the beginning of this year. As I got to grips with tuning my scope viewer, it became clear that the two sets of eyes belonged to two hood wearing people. I could see their eyes searching the corridor; presumably, they were trying to find me. I expect they were trying to decide if the sneeze had originated from the canal towpath, or from the closer corridor.

I watched the two individuals for fifteen minutes or more, and scanned the surrounding area for signs of any other people that might be in league with them. I couldn’t detect any. It soon became clear that they were not able to see me. Leaving these people to continue with whatever it was they were doing before I sneezed, might not be the correct thing to do. I thought about this whilst I continued watching from behind my tree. I didn’t feel inclined to walk up to them to ask politely what they were doing. In fact, I couldn’t imagine what these people were up to: burying a body, maybe; burying some ill-gotten gains, perhaps; setting up a trap to catch a munjac deer? Who knows! Anyway, whatever reasons they had for being in a wood that turns into a quagmire at the first hint of rain, I was reasonably certain that these people were up to no good.

They could be illegal hunters. I thought of the look on my wife’s face when I turned up at home with a crossbow bolt sticking from the back of my head, and decided to play it safe. So I switched my torch on, blew my whistle, and shouted: “Police come out with your hands up!” Actually, if truth be told, I didn’t shout “with your hands up!” I’m getting carried away with the excitement of reliving the experience. If these people were  on the marsh legitimately, they might come out as requested; if not, they would run like idiots in the opposite direction. And that’s exactly what they did: they ran away through the wood. They didn’t go easily, though. I heard them falling over tree branches and into areas of gloop that I am sure have been put there purposely to catch the unwary. I could hear them swearing, moaning in pain, and they didn’t use a torch to light their way.

We are having windy weather here at the moment. I think today might be my last opportunity to photograph the marsh autumnal colours. The remaining leaves will likely be blown from the trees and bushes if I wait any longer.

The sky above the north pasture was full of birds. Buzzards climbed, dived, soared and performed all kinds of dramatic aerobatic displays, helped by the powerful updrafts and cross winds. Pigeons, magpies and jays zoomed past each other, executing tight turns and stalling maneuvers to avoid colliding with the buzzards and each other. The buzzards dropped like stones to gain speed before looping the loop. The scene was reminiscent of a first World War dog fight, with the participants being birds, and not bi-planes. At a guess, I would say that there were at least a couple of hundred birds taking part in this aerial spectacle.

I’ve had a remote camera pointed at what I think is One-Eye’s sett, for the last two days and nights. The outcome is two images of myself, two images of a tabby cat and one of a cock pheasant. The badgers must have thought themselves better off staying at home on windy days and nights.

The photographs I took today are in the slide below:

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24th November 2011: Following Dave’s and The Wildlife Man’s comments on my previous post, requesting information about remote cameras:

Remote camera in its hardened case.

Remote cameras, trail cams, camera traps, or whatever you prefer to call them, are specialized automatic cameras triggered by a in-built proximity sensor, or multiple sensors. The camera traps can shoot still and video images in darkness and in daylight, without the need to alter physical camera settings. I set them up to watch a specific ground area: a badger’s sett or an animal track, etc. Still or video images are recorded when a movement is detected within the sensor sensitivity range (usually up to 50 feet from the camera). The basic remote cameras I use have a built-in infra-red flash unit to illuminate subjects in darkness. Obviously, these cameras need to be weatherproof and capable of operating in cold and hot conditions. They should be suitable for continuously duty out in the field for up to a year, without supervision. Remote cameras should have long battery life. I change batteries in my remote cameras once or twice year.

Head-on view of the hardened case and the secondary camouflage fitted.

I use remote cameras to watch specific areas of interest on the marsh, when I am not able to spare the time to sit and watch. I use them to help solve animal related mysteries that intrigue and nag at me. I don’t need remote cameras to record high-definition images or videos.

The camera I favour is the Scoutguardsg550 (http://www.trailcampro.com/hcoscoutguardsg550.aspx). The reason I like this camera is that it’s a very compact and reliable unit. It does exactly what it says on the box, as they say. These cameras suit my needs perfectly; I use them continuously. I don’t have gripes about either their performance, or the image quality they provide. In other words, I think the Scoutguardsg550 offers reasonable value for money. I have no loyalty or connection to the manufactures of this camera; I write from my own personal experience.

Side view of the hardened case and the secondary camouflage fitted.

Buying a suitable remote camera is one thing, using and keeping ownership of it is another. It should be obvious: if you set up a camera on a footpath, or any place where it can be seen by people walking past, there is a good chance that you will turn up one day to find that you precious remote camera has been stolen.

The best way to continue ownership of your camera trap is to make sure that it can’t be seen. If you can see your camera after you have set it up in the field, then it follows that a potential thief might see it also. Most of the thin steel cases and plastic covered flexible wires and padlocks that can be purchased to secure your camera to a tree, are not much use when someone really intends to steal your camera. When a thief sees your camera, he or she can return at another time with suitable equipment to liberate it. So, if Burglar Bill or Burglar Willemina can’t see your camera, they can’t steal it, can they?

Head-on view of the hardened case with the secondary camouflage removed.

How do you hide your remote camera? Actually, hiding your remote is a bit of an art in itself. To be successful, you need to make it blend into the environment in which it is placed.

Camouflage is the answer! Use the natural materials around your camera to make it blend in. It is far easier to make your camera position stand out in a particular environment, probably though ineffective camouflage, than it is to make it virtually invisible.

The beauty of the Scoutguard550sg is that it is a compact unit that it is easily carried in a jacket pocket. It can be partially buried, hidden in a hole in a tree, covered with vegetation, in amongst twigs on tree branches, and under a log. However, the camouflage used to hide your camera must not look out-of-place in its surroundings. It’s no good spiking out your camera on a piece of bare dirt, outside a badger’s sett, and then covering it with green camouflage netting. The camouflage covering my camera is obviously not suitable against the fir trees in my garden. However, a few pieces of fir-tree fronds pushed into the existing camouflage netting can make a big difference.

Naked Scoutguard camera with strap attached.

I lock my cameras in hardened steel cases, and secure them to trees with heavy-duty hardened chains and padlocks. I use fine mesh nets, sometimes women’s coloured tights, stretched in front of the lens and flash unit to prevent reflection, should someone inadvertently shine a torch in the direction of the camera. I also use a variety of removable peaks and hoods for the same purpose. I sometimes take a photograph of the area in which I have set up the camera, to look at later for peace of mind that the camouflage blends in adequately with the surroundings. How can you not see something that you know is directly in front of you? If you have difficulty finding the camera a few days later, then you know you have done a decent job camouflaging it.

I don’t want to give away too much detailed information here, but I have shown one hardened set up for the purposes of illustrating this post. Don’t forget to position your remote camera well away from pathways and make sure that you don’t create a visible track directly to it.

It must now be dawning on you that owning and using a remote camera might not be as simple as one might think. You can just strap the camera to a tree and hope for the best. The level of concealment I choose to use is enough to put my mind at rest; others might be made of sterner stuff and able to accept a lower level of concealment. I have strapped cameras directly to tree trunks, with minimal camouflage; it just depends on the circumstances.

When we scan an area with our eyes, we are looking for obvious changes in colour, texture, and contrast; movement and flashing has a very strong draw on our attention.

The images illustrating this post show a Scoutguard camera in a hardened casing, with the secondary camouflage and a hood fitted. The primary camouflage (local materials such as grass, leaves, twigs and branches) is laid over the secondary camouflage.

There are many other tricks and camouflage techniques that I use, but would rather not  go into it in this post. I don’t want to compromise my own cameras.


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