Monday, 2 May 2016

Of Bluebells, Otters, Cettis Warblers and Cuckoos

Baby Robins


Fish scale from fresh otter spraint

spot the Cettis Warbler

Common Dog Violet

Greater Stitchwort


It's Bluebell time of the year. There are several woods within striking distance of home that are currently carpeted in Blue. No one ever seems to visit them, so the dogs and I are currently drinking them in by ourselves. Last week we went off piste away from the footpath that winds through the fields and stepped into the secret world of the wood. We followed a Badger Path (my favourite kind of walking at present) as it wound and twisted through the trees among the bluebells and wood anemones and eventually it led down to the sett where one entrance was strewed with bluebell stalks. It could have been for fresh bedding, but badgers are notoriously playful things and it may just have been for the sheer joy of rushing to and from the front door with greenery in your mouth. When we emerged out of the wood and rejoined the footpath that runs through the uniform green of monoculture agriculture it felt very sterile after the botanical richness of the wood. All the more so because, while we were still on the badger path, a Tawny Owl had swooped silently over my head, landed in the tree in front of us and turned to stare down at me for a moment, before an irate blackbird dived at him and, scolding loudly, drove him on into the wood. We could track the owl's progress by the noise the woodland birds were making- a pair of Jays took up the screeching further along, which I thought was a bit rich considering that Jays are hardly innocent when it comes to taking the young of other birds themselves.

The Cuckoo photo is my first ever and I am very proud of it. He led me on a merry dance and I had to work Very Hard Indeed to get it. Who knew they were so shy? Especially given the 'woo hoo! I'm over here! ' racket they make and the hardiness they display completing the annual migration from Africa and back. After a long complex chase involving me crawling through bramble bushes and blackthorn thickets and across swamps (I still bear the scars) and him playing a hugely fun (for him) game of landing on a branch for a few minutes tantalisingly just ahead of me, cuckooing, then flying off as I got within photo-range, I finally tracked him down to a tree a few feet away and managed, by dint of hiding under a bramble bush, to get the photo. You can see from the look in his eye he was mighty suspicious and in fact flew off a second after I clicked the shutter, leaving me hiding in bushes on the edge of a school playing field with a long-lense camera in my hands and a pair of binoculars round my neck, covered in cuts and scratches and damp from the swamp with no mitigating cuckoo in sight. I beat a hasty retreat before the police were called.

Our Cuckoos are Dunnock parasites (as many woodland cuckoos are). They are one of, if not the only, species of cuckoo who don't bother to camouflage their eggs. Dunnock eggs are small and blue, woodland cuckoo eggs large and mottled. The reason? Dunnocks are accommodating little birds who are neither fussy nor suspicious about eggs that look different to their own so will brood whatever happens to be in their nest. Reed Warblers however, will kick a different egg out sharpish, so wetland cuckoos have adapted their eggs to be almost identical to the Reed Warblers smal beige mottle eggs. Clever, no? 
I'm listening out for the ladies now, as egg laying time should be upon us (although the recent cold weather may delay things as there won't have been many caterpillars out for them to fatten up on and egg laying takes a lot of energy, especially after you've used up fat flying here). The females bubble when they've laid an egg, and, unlike most female birds, they tend to lay between 2-5 in the afternoon to make sure the host bird has already laid her egg for the day, which the cuckoo takes away in her beak. Naughty.

The Otter spraint and the Cettis Warbler were by way of a consolation prize. I spent a morning on the river last week looking for water voles and although I found burrows and fresh latrines, no small furries were in sight. Otter spraint is surprisingly not unpleasant (that is a sentence I never expected to write). I was once told that it isn't a bad smell by an Otter Man and I fear I wrinkled my nose sceptically, but he was right. It smells of the sea. The small transparent circle on my finger in the photo is a fish scale taken from the spraint, which was fresh. This nicely demonstrates why otter spraint is so hard to find - once it's a few hours old it dries and becomes invisible to all but expert and practised eyes. I also found the jetty they'd been using to slip in and out of the water. While I was busy sniffing otter spraint and feeling rather glad on the whole that there was no one about to see me, the Cettis Warbler started calling from the tree next to me. It's a loud melodious song for such a small, inconspicuous bird. They are notoriously hard to find so I was very pleased to not only hear one but get a photo too. Then a Reed Warbler started up and I was torn between recording it and the Cettis. The Cettis won. The Roe Buck topped the river morning off. I was hoping to see the Stoat who often appears when I'm on the river, apparently oblivious of my presence, and gambols about on the bank, but I suppose one shouldn't be greedy. 

I'll leave you with a video of Mr Fox (or possible Mrs) risking daylight to gobble up left-over peanuts, and wish you all a pleasant evening. Hope all are well?

CT :o)


  1. Thankyou for sharing these wonderful photos, you are very talented, you live in a beautiful area x

  2. I am so envious of all your lovely sightings. I have never seen a cuckoo, despite having one nearby with a very persistent call. I love your badger and fox shots and the thought of badgers using bluebells for bedding is so sweet. Still chuckling at the thought of you lurking near a school with your camera! xx

  3. You have manage to capture some incredible pictures. It was worth those huge efforts to capture the cuckoo. On our wildlife walk last weekend we were also told about how the different cuckoo's create eggs that look so different, and how is based on their genetic make up. How wonderful to wander those bluebell woods along following the badger paths. Sarah x

  4. Fabulous work! Those bluebell carpets beat anything we have round here.

  5. Well done on getting the cuckoo shot. We have a pair of Jays nesting within sight of the kitchen window. It makes me fear for everything else. The magpies are bad enough.

  6. Wonderful. Well done, it all looks rather magical x

  7. Fantastic cuckoo shot, well done you. The bluebells are amazing at the moment aren't they. And I really love your greater stitchwort picture, it's brilliant. It's all looking really green everywhere all of a sudden. CJ xx

  8. What a wonderful post today.
    First of all, Ted asleep in the grass. I would just love to watch him sleep but Ted and Poppy running around the greenhouse was outstanding.
    Common Dog Violet ? I think not, nothing common about that violet. hahahahahahahahaha
    And the carpet of Bluebells with trees and am so envious.
    But I love your fox and badger photos.
    My son is called Adam Badger, his sister named him and he does love badgers. We all do. For his Birthday one year every present was from,uk He loved it all !

    Everything about this post makes me smile.
    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

  9. HI Well such a wonderful post. The carpet of Bluebells is astondingly beautiful. Marvellous to have those videos. Cuckoo, Otters and Cetti warbler - does not get much better than that. Must tell you the other day I say (for the first time and grabed my camera) pre copulation between Dunnocks. the short video will be in tomorrow's post if you wish to see it.

  10. Lovely photos,thought Ted was a lamb asleep on the grass at first glance.
    Well done getting the Cuckoo photo, been connected to all types of social media this year I have noted many more Cuckoo sighting in my area than before. So hopefully this year I might get to see one. Yesterdays search led me to find a flock of Golden Pluvers, which was a nice surprise.
    Love the photo of the Bluebells.
    Hope you are having a lovely time watching nature.
    Amanda xx

  11. Its lovely to catch up on your news - sounds like you are having a lot of fun :) Love the carpets of bluebells - just beautiful. Well done on the cuckoo photo - I've only ever got one and it was awful!

  12. Wonderful stuff CT and well done getting both Cuckoo and Cetti's Warbler pics. I always associate Cetti's with holidays down in Norfolk and love to hear their rather explosive calls.

    Lovely to see the Bluebell wood in full flower as well :-)

  13. Hey CT,
    All that beautiful flora and fauna in one walk. You truly are Snow White! It sounds as if you are back where you belong; out in the wilds of the woods and bringing back tales of wonder. Good for you.
    Leanne xx

  14. Beautiful photos as ever. Love the bluebells...such a carpet of colour. I did giggle at your possible arrest with long lens camera and binoculars!!!!
    Your letter arrived on the 2nd took 2, nearly three weeks to get here via airmail... I think a carrier pigeon must have got hold of it and stopped in Dubai for a bit of R & R... Anyhoo, I will reply very soon.
    Love to you all xxxx

  15. Still no cuckoo either here (he didn't arrive last year which was our first cuckoo-less year in 25 years) or at the allotment. I remember years ago seeing a big bird with grey barred wings sitting on a post actually on my plot. Imagine my delight when I looked it up and realised I'd seen a cuckoo. We've walked all three days of the bank holiday break - in Hampshire, West Sussex and close to home - and haven't heard a cuckoo anywhere. But we have seen swallows galore and heard the song of the skylarks. Stitchwort is one of my favourite wild flowers (dare I say I'm becoming rather 'bluebelled out' - one of the many rarely visited bluebell woods in our village was even photographed for the Observer last weekend - the professional photographer set up the shot with a woman crouching down to take a photo with her phone which I thought quite clever given the ubiquity of bluebells on Instagram!). And now the weather has warmed up it is time to make comfrey tea - I have a big patch which has been flowering for weeks under my plum tree. I've been watching a family of fox Cubs most evenings lately playing at the top of the field and I saw the owl last night too. It is a very special time of year.

  16. You have some lovely walks where you are. Well done getting the cuckoo photo; I've only heard one so far this year and haven't seen it.

  17. Your photos and countryside musings are wonderful. Such beautiful bluebells and yes, I spotted the Cettis Warbler. Although that makes me think of To the Manor Born - remember that? - there was something about a Cettis Warbler in one of the episodes I seem to remember. I remember odd things!!

  18. Excellent excursion!
    I haven't even heard a cuckoo for decades, let alone seen one - and photograph it!
    And I've learned a great new word - "spraint"!
    All the best :)


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x