Badgers, Jays and Deer

The hide is familiar territory. When I remember to ask for the key, I can spend a quiet hour here during the day: enter quietly; open a hatch slowly and carefully. Ahead is a sloping patch of grass bordered with huge oaks and bracken. On the left is a fallen tree – fallen for so long it is very slowly sinking back to its origins.  It has a curve which forms a natural arch over a deer and badger highway. As it sinks and decays it becomes a home to brambles, ferns, mosses and grasses, and a huge variety of insects. Wrens and great tits nest in its hollows and nuthatches and blue tits are regular visitors. This is how it looked in February:

 

Tonight there are ten of us, all keen to see Badgers leaving their setts and foraging for food in the long mid-summer evening. It’s been a hot cloudless day and its still warm, but from a technical perspective the light is fairly low, which means slow shutter speeds or high ISO or both. Anticipating this I’ve brought my full-frame Canon 5DS with the 400mm f4 telephoto and the newer Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens. Modern full-frame cameras can operate at ISO levels in the thousands and still produce little digital “noise”.

We settle in to our positions on the long hard bench – positions we would keep for the next 90 minutes. Sarah, the group leader tonight, goes out to lay a trail of peanuts and peanut butter – foods irresistible to most warm blooded creatures. As soon as she is back in the hide the first badger appears under the arch.

It is soon joined by others from the same sett who move slowly towards us snuffling up the peanuts. Soon there are six, and a further two from the sett below us. Suddenly there is a great commotion and a Fallow doe leaps through the arch, scattering the badgers. She settles on the open grass below and feeds nonchalantly.

The resident Jays know all about peanuts. There are two of them picking up any the badgers leave and flying off with them. I wonder if they bury them like acorns – if so, unlike acorns they will soon rot. 

As the peanuts get harder to find, there is more interaction amongst the badgers: some scuffles, scratching, climbing over logs.

One youngster appears to have some paralysis in its front legs – doesn’t stop it getting around in a shuffling kind of gait, but it has a sad look. (Actually most badgers seem to have a sad look!)

One has had enough and lies down to scratch its stomach.

Another doe appears – darker with less spots. She too grazes peacefully.

Nobody speaks. Only shutter clicks break the silence. We sit and watch until the badgers begin to move away, and there is nothing new to see. What a magical evening!

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Postscript

I’m looking back with pleasure to a challenge completed. The eagles have been shot and are none the worse for the experience. I met lots of interesting people, saw and experienced some fantastic places and shot hundreds of pictures. The only disappointment was that so few people followed my website. This, I now discover, was partly due to a technical hitch which has now been sorted, so if you would like to keep in touch, please try again with the subscribe button on the home page http://phototwynog.co.uk/ . In the coming months I will be keeping records of interesting wildlife, landscapes and people and working on a selection of goods and services for sale at really attractive prices.

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Coda

25 May 2018

Sharing my arrival and departure dates and the hostel on Rum, were a homogeneous group of about 12 people of more or less my own age. Most of my life I have mixed with a variety of people, younger and older than me, and I tend to feel uncomfortable with groups who are similar, especially those similar in age. These looked like very worthy, very middle class, academic, grey beards and sandals types – though none of the ladies had beards and nobody wore sandals! I nicknamed them “The Quakers”. It turned out they were geologists, and the one younger member of the group was their local guide. Evidently the geology of Rum is very special: it has its own green rock, confusingly called blood stone.

On my first morning I got up a little later than usual – around 6:30 and set off to walk the half mile to what they call the “Otter Hide”. On the way I met one of the Quakers returning. He had seen no otters and neither did I – nor did I on any of my subsequent visits.  Both of us being early risers I got to know Simeon Brown quite well.

He had worked for  the Norwegian STATOIL company as “Senior staff geophysicist, Exploration Department, Norwegian Shelf West” He and his wife Daryl now live in Edinburgh but have family in Norway. I asked if he could cope with Icelandic. Evidently the vocabulary is similar but the pronunciation very different. He gave me a taste of how exciting geology can be: how essential a knowledge of geology is to understand any ecosystem. I resolved to learn more.

A former member of the Small Nations Festival committee, Marie Jones, a nurse from Swansea, has been following a similar trajectory to me in learning wildlife photography.  Although plagued by bouts of neuralgia, she has a wonderfully up-beat personality and her joy at the wonders of nature is infectious. I knew that  Marie and her husband Chris, whom I had never met, were going to be in the same area of Scotland at roughly the same time, but our itineraries would not meet, so we could only compare notes on Facebook. Having got back to Mallaig on the ferry from Rum after a week on the two islands, and feeling good about retrieving the van, I was walking back to the car park from the supermarket with some provisions when I saw a familiar figure in front.

“Marie?”

“Oh, wow, look who’s here!”

We hugged and I shook hands with Chris: a man I immediately took a liking to. We chatted for a while and exchanged photographs, agreeing to meet up at our mutual stamping ground the Burry Estuary at Llanelli.

So to the Coda

Thelma and I had several times stayed at a campsite in Silverdale on Morecambe Bay. It’s a beautiful site close to my favourite RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss.


The weather was almost hot and I was on a total high photographing Avocets and their chicks in the gorgeous evening light. They seemed to spend most of their time squabbling with their neighbours, both of their own species and the co-resident Black Headed Gulls. They dance round each other in a sort of aggressive tango.

The next morning I was out as soon as they opened the gate at 7 and off to another favourite spot- the bottom hide. Again, a scene of tranquil beauty with Great-Crested Grebes and their stripy chicks, a distant otter, peewits chasing off Greater Black-Backed Gulls, Greylag and Canada geese, Reed Warblers and Buntings,  and best of all a rarity:

Garganay – the only duck to migrate to Britain in the summer. I allowed myself a bare hour and left reluctantly to get to the Peregrine nest site about 3 miles away. When I got there, I asked two obvious bird-watchers if the Peregrine I had seen in the winter was still here.

“Yes, but one of the birds is new, and they’ve moved the nest site. You can see the perching bird up there look.”

I looked and looked and followed their instructions to go down from the tallest tree on the skyline, but still couldn’t see it – until I realised we were looking at different trees.

They are Nigel and June who live in the area and come here regularly to study the birds. How lucky they are and how lucky I was to meet them, because without their help I would never have found the new nest site and got this picture:

 

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Mission Accomplished

21 May 2018

This morning I scrambled up a small ridge near a track. It was a long walk from where the van is parked and It was misty – the wind-blown edges of the low cloud. It was an area I had marked out on my first visit to the district 3 years ago, but since then a lot of engineering work has been going on – diggers, generators, stone breakers, rollers, the works. Even if there was an eyrie there I felt sure the disturbance would have driven them away at least for this year. Nevertheless, It still looked like my best chance, so I spent time scanning the cliff. I can’t say how I found it, but eventually I got the big lens focussed on a little smudge on the cliff face and there they were: an adult Golden Eagle standing by the nest and bits of white fluff poking up. I didn’t have the 1.4 extender on the lens but fired off a load of shots anyway. The light was fairly good and the eyrie was inside my half-mile limit – just.

Back at the van I anxiously went through them, cropping, enhancing and sharpening. They were not portrait shots but good clear pictures of the bird in its true environment: rocks and pine trees in the highlands.

I decided to return in the afternoon with my pop-up hide, tripod and both extender lenses. It was a gamble with the weather. Visibility was poor, but if the light was going to improve it would do so in the afternoon. I set up the hide as quickly as possible, got inside and set up the tripod and camera. First I tried the x2 extender. It was a stationary subject so I could push the shutter speed down, but there was not enough light. The x 1.4 was better and I got a few good pictures confirming that there were two sturdy youngsters still in their down. The adult bird maintained the same stance for the hour I spent watching – didn’t seem to move a muscle – and she was looking slightly over her shoulder towards me all the time. Eagles of course have much better eyesight than humans and I had little doubt that the watching was mutual. Lots of movement from the youngsters; none at all from the parent. I was happy with this because it meant she was not concerned enough to fly off. The mist turned to rain, visibility declined, my legs and feet were getting wet as the wind blew the tent against them, and much more importantly, my lens was getting wet. It was time to call it a day; time indeed to call it a very special day. It’s an hour’s walk back and my shoulders were complaining at all the weight, but so what – I feel like a proper bird photographer. Now I can set off tomorrow morning early on my 2 day drive home feeling that I have achieved what I set out to achieve – some pictures of Golden Eagles too sensitive to publish!

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Life in the Wilds – The Pococks

19 May 2018

It’s around 20:30 and we are sitting at the end of a track a mile or so from Cougie, north west of the little tourist town of Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness. This is the croft where my friend from Cilycwm, Steven Pocock was brought up, his parents having migrated from Cardiff in the sixties. His mother, with her gentle Welsh accent, was still living  there when I camped here 3 years ago. Sadly she has since died. Steve’s younger brother Iain has lived here all his life, married (relatively) local girl Sasha Mackintosh, and brought up 4 children.

Iain is the real thing – your original mountain man. He’s a fantastic whirlwind of talk and action –  skilled in every aspect of life in the wilds, from mechanics to killing deer for the pot. He can, at a pinch, do thoughtful too.

We are in the cab of his newest 4×4 with both windows open. This is a good time to see eagles hunting, he tells me, because it’s when the prey species come out. Meanwhile we talk. He tells me about the ponies. They have 21, mostly Highland crosses with a few Shetland for the children. He tells me how intelligent they are and how they communicate with body language and a few noises. I’m aware of this and earlier had been watching two geldings squaring up to each other.  They tangle heads, rearing a little. One shrugs and walks away a few paces, but he’s still cross and edges up alongside his opponent, not making eye contact. With a range of movements and gestures they exchange insults until honour is satisfied and they drift apart, neither backing down; each keeping his dignity.

Some of  the Pocock ponies have been trekking for 18 years, and they watch their clients getting out of the cars.

 “Uh hu, there’s a fat one, keep out of his way.”

“That one looks cocky. Thinks she can ride. We’ll show her.”

Iain tells the trekkers not to worry. The ponies will look after them. He imitates the horse body-language:

“This one is worried, I’ll be nice to him.”

“Little child – see how gentle I can be.”

“Knows it all does he – we’ll see about that.”

This is Sasha with a young trekker on a very tolerant pony.

Slowly the light is going. We’re watching a ridge which has been clear felled and still looks bristly with dead timber.

Many miles of tall deer fence have been used to clear three huge areas of deer – in total around 65000 hectares. They shot 8000 deer – Roe and Red – to allow the native forest to grow and species absent for years like red squirrels, otters, and badgers to return. Other species like black grouse which had maintained a presence, are increasing. The area in the middle belongs to “The Dutchman” who seldom visits. His covenant with Scottish Natural Heritage has lapsed and he’s taken down a section of fence. A few deer are returning, but now the new forest is established Iain is optimistic that they won’t do much damage. It’s an inspiring project, which like many other landscape and human-scape projects in Britain, is EU funded.    

Iain tells me about the Blackcock lekks. There are dozens of them in the area, and one year he was paid to record them all. He’s well qualified, having worked on the Isle of Canna recording Manx Shearwaters and corncrakes.

It’s now too dim to photograph, but we still watch, and the bottle of malt and two shot glasses come out.

“Will you have a dram?” Why not?

It’s ten o’clock when we finally leave and the level in the bottle has taken a beating. I want to show Iain the eagle sites I have marked on my online maps so we sit in the van for a while, Iain still going on the whisky, me on water. The talk flows. Although he speaks in rapid bursts I can follow him OK face to face. I reminisce about the Small Nations Festival, which is where we first met. Eight or ten of the Pococks used to make the long trip to Cilycwm in their kilts for several years running.  I still feel very proud that our little festival made it worth their while. 

It’s  just before midnight. I’m well on the way and Iain is even further down the road to drunkenness, and we part the best of friends.

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