|Fish scale from fresh otter spraint|
|spot the Cettis Warbler|
|Common Dog Violet|
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?