Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It was a balmy 15 degrees C yesterday when I went to feed the birds. It was a nice change to just work in T-shirt and jumper and still feel quite warm. I actually felt spring-like and there was a noticable change in the sounds of the wood; a blackbird had decided to sing! It was a lovely sound and blended in with the robins that will sing at this time of year anyway. Balmy spells like this can trigger behaviour in wildlife most of which will adapt and survive if it again turns cold but it can also cause problems. There was a hedgehog in my parents garden yesterday that had obviously been disturbed from its hibernation by the warmth and today I saw a bumblebee nectaring on ivy flowers!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Well, today is mid-winter and the shortest day of the year. So, looking on the bright side, the days now start getting longer again and impossible as it seems, it is the start of Spring in 6 weeks! The change in day length will trigger things and even in January there will be evident changes in the woodland to both plant and animal life. For me it has been a fascinating year and I have never observed the seasonal change in one location so much as this year at Scrag. It will be interesting to observe any variation in the coming years as well as to see whether any of my changes have worked to improve the habitat to the benefit of the very special species list there. Happy mid-winter!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The arctic front has really hit the area; Thursday night it was down to minus 5 degrees at Gatwick and the airport was closed due to the ice! This extreme weather can only have it's toll on the wildlife at Scrag Copse, sometimes this toll can be devastating with probably a high mortality of small woodland birds. It also leads to local or national migration; the whole wood complex is alive with redwings, Scandinavian thrushes, uttering their 'hup, hup' calls. These thrushes have possibly drifted down from further up north in the UK as conditions have worsened. They are always evident throughout the winter but it is during cold spells such as this that the numbers get larger and I would say there are several hundred of them now.
I checked out the badger sett yesterday morning, hoping to see plumes of steam issuing from the active areas. Unfortunately, the air had warmed by the time I got there so steam wasn't visible but there were several new and very fresh latrines just outside the sett entrances. I got the impression that the cold weather has meant that they poke their noses out of their warm, cosy home and think, 'no way, not tonight, let's have a duvet night!' Still, they have to do what they need to do, so they travel as short a distance as possible dig a hole, plop and then run back to the warm again. Who can blame them.
While having my lunch in the main hide yesterday, I watched a nuthatch just perched on the top of a log, not moving but evidently alert. This is a little unusual but I've noticed in the past that they do this when a predator is around. I kept watching and within a couple of minutes a male sparrowhawk came through flashing it's orange underparts. It was closely pursued by a female! They then had an aerial spat with some 'hekking' before settling in a dead birch just within my sight. After a few minutes the male took off and swerved around the clearing in front of the hide, again pursued by the female before they dodged through the hedge and continued their chase until they were lost from sight. Again, this behaviour confuses me as I would expect that individuals were perfectly capable of staying out of each others way. So, are they a pair from last year still loosely bonded or are they siblings, parent and offspring? I need to research this more. Still, it was a great spectacle and I was also pleased that the nuthatch's behaviour alerted me to their approach even though they were initially completely out of my sight.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I managed to drop into Scrag for a couple of hours this afternoon before the weak winter sun set behind the bare trees. In that time I managed to knock up another blue tit box. I raided another skip yesterday and managed to get a about 5 metres of good quality floor boards that had been thrown out. All I do is pull out all the nails and screws and the wood is fine after a bit of a brush off with a wire brush. It's only going to be used for landfill, so I think to be recycled into nestboxes is very worthwhile. One problem I'm having though is drying out the boxes once they're made so I can coat them with preserver; the storage/tool shed has got so many holes and leaks that everything is damp in there. I think I'm going to have to stack them in the bird hide for a couple of weeks as it's much drier in there.
If you intend putting up a nestbox, don't wait until the spring, do it now. Woodland birds check out potential nest sites much earlier than most people are aware, so get it up now so it can settle in and weather a little and the birds will hopefully make the most of it as soon as the breeding season starts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

After making 2 new nestboxes using my new 'workstation' (it's great!), the weather changed from cold and dull to cold and bright! It was that low slanting winter sun that can be very lovely, so I thought that's enough carpentry it's time to see my birds!
I explored an area to put a new hide to make the most of late in the day mid-winter sun. It will just be a small 1- person hide but will allow new, different shooting opportunities, not just for students but for me as well; I think it pushes your skills to try new areas and set-ups.
Once that was done and having fed the birds, I sat, had a coffee and watched them. One interesting sight was a female sparrowhawk gliding past with prey in talons closely followed a couple of metres behind by another female sparrowhawk. I would say that the second was clearly following the first because of the prey but the 1st didn't seem overly concerned or evasive . This raises a couple of questions; was this a case of klepto-parasitism (nicking another birds food) or was the second a relative of the 1st and was hoping to beg a share? Either I would say is unusual as normally sparrowhawks are solitary except in the breeding season and this is a behaviour that I have never seen before. Watching sparrowhawks is very difficult as their very nature is 'stealth' and as such an overview of sparrowhawk behaviour is normally grasped by tiny snapshots of witnessed events that just grow the more you see them. I would also add that the more you are out in woodland and the more alert you are to any warnings of a sparrowhawk approach the more you see them, however briefly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I spent the bitterly cold but bright morning shooting winter images of birds for a magazine article. I arrived just after dawn and set up some potentially good shots but stupidly missed a jay that was perched on a log; to keep out the cold wind I had only opened 2 hatches which meant that I didn't see the bird until I frightened it off!
After the weather changed to a short shower of rain followed by a dull bank of cloud meaning no more shooting, I went to the storage shed and constructed a work station to build a batch of nest boxes. I find that using a tressle it is too low, causing back-ache after a while, so I wanted to build something sturdy and at a comfortable height. I just used off-cuts of wood and timber from other jobs. The task only took me about an hour but will mean I can get to work on all those floor boards I acquired last week and get a couple of boxes made per week. It was a very satisfying task.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Over the past week, because I have been running the Beginning Nature Photography workshops for Sussex Wildlife Trust, so I have only managed to drop in to Scrag a few times and for relatively short times to just feed the birds. All workshops are now finished for the year and re commence in February 2009. I love teaching all the varied workshops throughout the year but I am also looking forward to the break; its time to carry out all the small projects I've saved up. Many of these are photographic projects or writing magazine articles but there are also a lot of jobs to carry out in Scrag such as building a few more nest boxes and clearing some paths.
Tomorrow, however, my goal is to shoot some more birds around the hide and hopefully in wintry conditions. I plan to get there at dawn so that the perches are frosted over and will add another element to the images. I can tell how the birds are struggling with this cold weather because the level of peanuts in the feeders was very low after just 3 days, they normally last 5! As I arrived today, lots of birds congregated in the trees and on some of the perches; they associate human disturbance at the hide with food and so they were just waiting for me to produce the goods. Even a couple of woodpeckers waited in the top of an ash calling and came straight down onto one of the baiting logs as soon as I'd walked away. Oh well, they'll be getting a lot of food from me this week, I just hope they perform well for me!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It was the final Scrag Copse woodland bird's workshop today for the year and what a bitterly cold one it was too! It started at around minus 1 and snow but deteriorated into sleet and then pouring rain. It did not look good. However, a sudden break resulted in spectacular light for more or less the rest of the day. It was that low slanting sunlight that just pushes under snow laden clouds that has a certain special quality. With the light came the birds too; all species performed well and we even had a redpol come to feed on the ground just in front of the hide, which is a welcome first. So, despite the day it was a successful one and I'm a little sad that there are no more workshops until 2009, however, there are many other jobs to be done before the spring.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Many thanks to the builders just round the corner from where I live for letting me raid their skip and take out a load old floor boards. These will be perfect for making more bird nest boxes over the next few months in time for breeding season in 2009. The builders seemed happy that I was using them to make boxes for little birds and were decent enough to try and find more decent lengths. In all I recovered about 24m which should be good for about 15 boxes!
At Scrag I made sure all the feeders were full and all the logs were baited with lard. There is an Arctic front coming tomorrow and although in the past I have enjoyed extreme spells of weather, these are the events that decimate small woodland bird numbers and these days I feel a bit more responsible for their survival. I remember once working from a hide during a very bitter spell a couple of years ago. A blue tit fluttered strangely to the ground and just appeared unwell, so I walked out and gently picked up the tiny ball of feathers. It was obviously unwell to allow me to do this. I cradled it in my hands but within a few minutes it appeared to tremble and then just died leaving me holding the still warm body. I'm not sure it was the cold but whatever it was killed this poor tiny bird and it was an incredibly sad and poignant moment. In good times they appear healthy, energetic and robust but throw in a few days of bad weather and their chances of surviving each night plummet.
So, please go and feed your birds.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I taught a group about fungi photography yesterday at Scrag Copse. Despite recently finding a colourful fly-agaric and a lovely shaggy ink cap, big bold fungus specimens were thin on the ground yesterday. I think it is because the late summer and autumn has been fairly wet over a prolongued period, meaning we haven't had that burst of fungi associated with still warm weather and moisture. They have, in effect, come out in dribs and drabs. However, if you think small, there is always fungi to find and photograph on the woodland floor and I'm pleaseed to say that the group really worked well managed to get some fantastic shots. In fact after a couple of hours we had all got our eyes in and adjusted for the task and we were all finding some great subjects.
For me it was an unusual opportunity to wander of my usual path in search of something new and discover fresh or re-discover rarely visited corners of Scrag. Interestingly I found some dead thin trunks of sweet chestnut with what appear to be small woodpecker holes; possibly an old lesser spotted woodpecker nest site!
I think the recent winds have meant that the autumn colour is about a week beyond its peak but there were still field maples with their bright yellow leaves glowing out and many oaks are still cloaked in bronze. Hazels are still surprisingly green and so gaining an advantage from the overshadowing ash and hornbeams having already lost their photosynthesising cells.
From around 3pm a female tawny owl was repeatedly giving its Kivick call although would not come in to my poor male impressions! I have also heard a female around the same time of day near the car parking area so I feel that there are definitely 2 females in this section of the overall woodland block. It is around now and certainly going into December that tawnies establish their territories for next year's breeding season and I plan to do a nocturnal walk in the next month or so to get some idea of numbers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Another day teaching woodland bird photography today. It was fairly bright in the morning but got darker and damper as the day progressed. Everyone got woodpeckers and nuthatches thankfully; they are so reliable now. Interestingly, there are also log-tailed tits and even jays coming in to some of the baiting logs. This is very good news as it means more species to photograph and they are very colourful birds. Yesterday, I was pleased to see a single goldfinch back on the niger seed feeder; I hope he goes and tells all his friends!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I had a fantastic day yesterday with Will Cheung, editor of Photography Monthly, who joined me to photograph woodpeckers at Scrag Copse. The birds performed superbly and I think Will, a veteran of many photographic events, was genuinely impressed with the proximity as well as the natural situations we were able to put the birds in. We managed to photograph 8 species in all including full-frame portraits of nuthatches and great spotted woodpeckers. Hopefully, the piece that Will puts into the magazine will mean a lot more bookings in 2009 on the Woodland Birds photographic days.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Grey and still the weather was today and that suited me just fine. I'm writing a 'how to' article on photographing fungi at the moment so I spent the afternoon doing just that. The article will only be submitted for next year's fungi season but if the images aren't taken now there won't be any new ones for the article. It means a very long lead-in time but that's the nature (no pun intended!) of the job. It involves taking the typical 'beginner' shot and then doing step-by-step improvements and demonstrating each improvement in each successive shot. I found some really nice fungus specimens including good brackets and puff balls, however, the only fly agaric I found had been well and truly nibbled, so not worth shooting but I'm always on the lookout for fresher ones. If you want to learn more about photographing fungi join me on the fungi photographic day at Scrag Copse on the 15th November.
While slowly progressing through the wood today there was a very welcome visitor, well, lot's of them actually. It appears there's been an influx of goldcrests; I counted at least 30 throughout the day. These are the smallest British bird and although a resident species we get high numbers of them from the continent, especially Scandinavia, in winter. They are lovely birds, sometimes a little hard to see, but once you do they really are interesting almost resembling hummingbirds as they hover and glean tiny insects from the foliage.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

There was a bitter east wind cutting into the trees and Scrag Copse, being on the east side of the overall woodland block, feels it the most. However, I still had to ensure all the feeders were stocked as well fill the woodpecker logs with more lard. Thankfully, the new squirrel-proof feeders, despite a few teething problems (no pun intended!!) now appear to be working well and are lasting, as far as a fill of seed or nuts are concerned, around three times longer. This is great news both for the birds, who have a more continuous food supply, as well as for me as it means I don't have to drive so often to Scrag just to stock the feeders and the overall cost is lower as I'm not feeding the squirrels.
Please take a look at the image of a nuthatch on a feeder I posted several days ago and compare it to the one on the left which I took this afternoon. This is what I teach on my Woodland Birds workshops at Scrag; how to take natural and intimate images of woodland birds and not on feeders! Please visit the courses page on the website www.davidplummerimages.co.uk
to book a place on one of these workshops, there are just a few places left.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another spectacular bright autumn day though with a decided chill in the air today. Most of my attention is around New Meadow at the moment in ensuring the feeders are stocked and the baiting logs are full of lard for the woodpeckers. This is a relentless task especially trying to repel the squirrels who are repeatedly tearing open nut and seed feeders. They cost me a lot of money in feed as well as the damage they do. I am now seriously thinking of control measures!
On a brighter note, there were some new faces around the feeding area today with coal tits joining the usual suspects. These appear to be at the bottom of the pecking order, getting out of the way of just about every other bird. However, they have a trick up their sleeve; they cache food and as such have incredible mapping skills in their brain. This has actually resulted in an enlarged hippocampus in coal tits, an area of the cerebral cortex responsible for mapping. London cab drivers have an enhanced hippocampus apparently. Anyway, although coal tits get pushed off good feeding sources easily, they can resort to their substantial caches dotted around the woodland and so circumvent the avian bullies. I like that nature of behaviour.
A nice sight and sound today was of redpols in the tops of birches and one drinking from the pond. There were also the sounds of goldfinches all around the area and my suspicion is that they will imminently start feeding again from the niger feeders. I have missed them being around and it will make for good and certainly easy subjects for photographers on the Woodland Bird's workshops. I am looking forward to the worshop tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Unfortunately, the van broke down last week, so I've been unable to get to Scrag for about 9 days! Anyway, I got there today and what spectacular autumn weather it was. The birds were all around me including woodpeckers and nuthatches constantly. The squirrels, however, have destroyed a couple of feeders and even removed one without trace!! Grrr, where's my air-rifle! I have now repaired several old feeders with heavy-duty wire, how long they will last I'm not sure but I have 2 new 'squirrel proof' feeders to put up but they are locked in the back of the van which is sadly still being repaired.
All the leaves are sadly off the wild service tree but the woodland floor is now a beautiful gold bronze mosaic.
I ended the day with a lovely view of the barn owl sitting in the sun outside the barn owl box!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Woodland Bird's photography days start again this coming Sunday, so I have been increasing the bait out for the birds in the form of seed and nut feeders as well as baiting logs for woodpeckers and nuthatches. Today in the gorgeous Autumn weather I was also generally tidying up around the main bird hide and re-constructing the woodpecker hide. Woodpeckers have a large fear circle, so it is generally better to try photographing them alone and obeying good hide discipline; 3 or 4 twitchy photographers is a sure way to scare off a great spotted woodpecker! Hence the separate 1-person hide. Within 5 minutes of sinking and baiting a log in front of this hide a lovely male Great spotted was down onto the log, which certainly ensures things should be OK this coming Sunday.
For the whole afternoon, as I worked, several nuthatches were also coming in to either the nut feeders or the baiting logs. Nuthatches are not very shy and I often get them just a couple of metres away as I'm re-stocking the feeders. Marsh tits are even less shy and although give way to the other larger tits will often stay until the last second as I approach.
If you are interested in learning about woodland bird photography, please visit the courses page on the website www.davidplummerimages.co.uk

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

There is now a gradually spreading yellow filter across Scrag as the leaves start their colour change . The oaks, one of the last to come into leaf in the spring is still a strong dark green, however the hornbeams and the one single (as far as I know) beech tree are definitely switching from green to yellow. The bracken is already on the way to that lovely autumnal russet brown which is good for me as it will create a lovely backdrop for the upcoming woodland bird's photography days. the wild service tree is probably producing the most dramatic seasonal change with leaves of green, yellow, scarlet and bronze found on the same tree!
Last week, lifting any of the corrugated iron sheet laid down for reptiles was regularly revealing up to 8 slow worms and the occasional grass snake - the one shown in the image was a very young snake and probably one of the most docile I have photographed before. Grass snakes do not have the protection of venom and often will opt for a rapid escape instead of sitting tight as an adder often will. However, since the colder nights at the end of last week, lifting the corrugated sheets is now revealing nothing - the reptiles have already left to find more snug winter shelter. Last year I created some large bracken piles with branches underneath so that reptiles and amphibians can find a safe warm place to hibernate - hopefully they are now being used as the autumn changes take more of a grip.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A badger watch on Thursday evening revealed at least 4 badgers. Although it was dark when they first started emerging at about 7.10pm it looked like the first 3 badgers were the cubs as they were still playing and fighting around the sett. I was a little surprised that although they now appeared almost adult sized their behaviour was definitely still cub-like. At least one other adult badger emerged at about 7.30pm and made off straight towards the field. It was a chilly watch with an east wind and although there were no extended views it was still great to see them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Well, it's nice to see that the heavy rain over the past few weeks has done something useful - the pond dug by my valuable volunteers in July is virtually full! It also appears to be holding water and I have now started gradually replacing the soil dug out of the pond to the edges where the liner is visible. Given time, grasses and waterside plants will colonise this soil and matt it together with their roots both holding it together and making a pleasant edge.
nterestingly a female southern hawker dragonfly was laying eggs at the edge of the water. Every time I moved around the pond she would take off and then hover in front of me before settling again to bend her abdomen down to lay another egg. This is one of the behaviours that identify southern hawkers; they often like woodland rides or edges and will fearlessly hover very close to you and check you out, sometimes at alarming close range! However, whether this years' dragonfly brood will survive is doubtful as there are hardly any other invertebrates in such a new pond but it is an encouraging sign and reinforcement again that if you do something to encourage wildlife, it normally turns up!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


My apologies for not posting any updates regarding Scrag Copse but I have been working in Brazil leading a tour in the Pantanal region. It was a fantastic photographic tour and we managed to see and photograph 6 jaguars!
However, I am back now and regular Scrag Copse updates will now resume.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Probably unlike everyone else at this time of year, I see torrential rain and hope it is directly over Scrag Copse as this will hopefully fill the pond we dug a few weeks ago now. As of yesterday it was 2/3rds full and I am keen to get more water in to pull and stretch the liner fully into place so I can backfill some of the excavated soil. This will mean that the pond is ripe for colonisation by plants and insects and will give it a head start and prepare it well for next year. In September I will collect some of the ragged robin seeds from the plants I found a few weeks ago and scatter those in the wet soil areas. This pond will also provide a spectacle and point of interest from the hide during the winter.
A couple of days ago I lifted some of the corrugated iron sheets I laid in New Meadow and found at least 7 slow worms; sometimes it's difficult to accurately count as they are coiled together like spaghetti. There was also a small and very beautiful grass snake. Judging by size it could have just hatched within the past month or so which is great news.
Under one of the barn owl boxes I found several barn owl feathers, and last week I found a shed primary feather. This was obviously from barn owl by colour as well as the feather edges are all softened to allow silent flight and hunting. My hunch is, however, despite saying this before, that they did not successfully breed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Friday 8th August
The woods are very quiet at this time of the year. There is still lots going on but it is literally quiet; there is almost a total absence of bird song. Occasionally there is just a rattle from a wren or the odd contact call from long-tailed tits but overall, no song at all.
The breeding season is all but over with the 2nd robin brood becoming more independent despite still being fed by the adults. This is also signified by the occasional high-pitched call of a just-fledged sparrowhawk. This bird would have hatched just as the
young of the smaller woodland birds leave the nest. This way the adult sparrowhawks have plenty of food for their young in the form of stupid, uncoordinated just-fledged chicks. A study has been carried out that has revealed that it takes around 56 great tits to feed a sparrowhawk chick from hatching to fledging! So, the fact that the sparrowhawk young has left the nest indicates that the bountiful time is more or less over. The sparrowhawks probably had 3 young but I can only hear and occasionally see 1; the other 2 probably did not survive and may even have been eaten by their surviving sibling. As cute and colourful as our woodland birds are, it is a brutal world for them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

They're back!

6th August 2008
Having been very, very busy working on the laptop lately cataloguing images, I have given the badgers a little rest. I was becoming more and more nocturnal and coupled with the absence of most of the badger clan, I felt it was time to take a break and allow things to unfold on their own.
Admittedly, at the start of each badger watch I have doubts as to whether the pesky mammals will show especially in light of recent events. However, with Debbie Adams and her group, we only waited 45 minutes before I spotted the familiar and very welcome striped head on the opposite side of the sett. This badger rapidly headed south before returning at a trot to the main mound. I was very pleased to identify it as one of the cubs and apparently a female by her maturing structure and bushy tail. She was joined by 2 other badgers who remained a little over to the left side just exploring the new holes in the dry stream bed. Overall, we watched the activities for 50 minutes until it became too dark and there was a lull in activities.
In short, it was great relief to see 3 out of 4 of the cubs (I hope the other one is OK) and to see that they are maturing well into competent, independent badgers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Saturday 19th July
Sat outside an outlier sett this evening in the hope of discovering where the cubs are. Sadly, it was a cold, fruitless wait. In the night, however, I did hear a badger pass through the woodland near to my tent and the barn owl screeched.
Sunday 20th July
Set up to take photographs at the main sett but again by 21.30 there was no sign of a badger!!! However, tonight I slept, for the first time, on the badger platform. I tied a tarpaulin over the railings in case it rained and slept on the platform in a sleeping bag and under a duvet. It strangely felt less vulnerable being 3 metres up than being inside a tent unable to see anything. Throughout the night I was woken up twice by noisy badgers, one at 2am and the other sometime before. It was quite magical looking out at the woodland illuminated by the blue-white moonlight from an elevated position.
Monday 21st July

It seems that today there are more silver-washed fritillaries than I have seen in the wood before. I even saw 3 males on one sprig of bramble blossom. At one stage I witnessed a female on a bramble blossom being courted by a male who was quivering his wings slightly. After a couple of minutes she flew off slowly but was pursued by the male who made rapid and repeated vertical loops around her as she went up and down the ride. She was not trying to get away and it appeared to be some sort of dramatic courtship flight. After 5 minutes or so, with me actually running after them, they just split and went their separate ways! I was a little disappointed as I would have liked to have photographed the mating.
As the sun got lower there were purple hairstreaks in the tops of the oaks but no emperors; it may now be the end of their flight time sadly.

Friday, July 18, 2008

SWOG Meeting

I look forward to seeing everyone tomorrow at Plumpton College for the Small Woodland Owners Group (S.W.O.G.) meeting where I shall be giving a short talk about, yes you guessed it, Badgers!!
Thursday 17th July
Another group of 4 for Sussex Wildlife Trust and it was good to see that Stephanie, David and Derek had all been on one or more of my photography workshops and courses. Claire had been on the first badger watch I did for the Trust in April and had come back for more. I made it clear as I always do that there is no guarantee of badgers on any of these watches but made it doubly clear in light of the recent 'dip outs' I had been having.
We need not have worried; we had only been on the viewing platform for 12 minutes when the regular sow (I must think of a name for her), came again from the north and gave us a reasonable show, pulling over logs with ease and even catching an animal in the bole of a tree. The creature she caught was quite possibly a small mammal but it was too fast to ID properly and she ran straight to one of the 'separate' for want of a better word entrance holes.
She soon reappeared and was apparently digging under a log. My view wasn't great as she was obscured by the carpet of dog's mercury but it became evident and Steph and David confirmed this, that it was actually 2 badgers mating! I have never witnessed this before. The act went on for 4 or 5 minutes before the boar moved away and foraged for a long time south of the sett just in view of couple of us. For me, having carried out many sett watches being able to witness their activities somewhat removed from the sett is fascinating.
Throughout the evening we saw at least 3 individual badgers coming to or from the sett and my impression is that they, the clan that is, are gravitating back to the main sett. However, I have still not seen Honey, the dominant sow or the group of cubs back yet. By the time I see them it is going to be difficult to tell the cubs apart from other adults as they will have developed so much in preparation of winter. Yes, Autumn is coming, I ate my first blackberry on Wednesday!
As we left the platform, we were stopped dead in our tracks by the return of another badger who sniffed and huffed around the area before moving to the south. Derek and Claire, who were actually on the ground, said they could hear the swish of the badgers gait like a pair of trouser legs brushing together as the badger approached! Overall, it was a great evening and I am happy that the clan is safe and finally returning to the area, I am questioning though, why do they move away? My personal theory is that it could be to allow the parasite level to diminish inside the sett following the most busy and densely occupied period of the year.
Tuesday 15th July
Leading a group of 8 for one of Sussex Wildlife Trust's An Evening with Badgers. As we entered the main wood complex it was like going under water; the exterior was clear and bright with low sun but inside was a filtered dark green shade. The clearing on the track that I now call 'Butterfly Corner' was also shady at ground level but the tops of the oaks and ashes were bathed in yellow sunlight. I stopped the group and pointed out a couple of purple hairstreak butterflies chasing each other from one treetop to another. Then a different much larger butterfly glided out and perched on the foliage at the top of a crack willow - a white admiral? No. As I got my binoculars onto it I felt that it was a purple emperor! But, as soon as I made this wishful ID it glided out again and was chased by another, this time definitely a purple emperor as I saw the flash of purple indicating a male. These two were joined by a purple hairstreak and they formed a chain of chasing butterflies. In the next few minutes myself and the group saw up to 3 male purple emperors glinting in the sunlight as they clashed and glided across the canopy. This is fantastic news as it indicates that I have found an 'assembly area' and it is an an area I have eyed for a the past year suspecting it was a perfect spot.
It was hard to drag myself away but I was eager to get the group on site for the badger watch. Unfortunately after a 2 hour wait there were no badgers!! Oh dear!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Emperor!

Huge thanks go to Mark, Kate, Jason, Terri, Mark and Sarah for their massive efforts over the working weekend. Overall we managed to bash the bracken down across New Meadow and on Sunday finally dig a pond. The bracken will ensure more and more grass and flower species get a chance to grow through as well as more bramble around the edges, beneficial to both wildlife and myself as some of those blackberries are beginning to form. It is a slow monotonous task and I am massively grateful to both Mark and Kate for their help and company.
The pond is now dug, and the old donated and repaired liner is down; I'm sorry but I am praying for rain to fill it as soon as possible, one of those huge torrential downpours would be perfect, overnight if possible, or maybe I'm asking too much. While we worked, as if to encourage us, we were joined by an emperor dragonfly and 2 brown hawker dragonflies that hunted across the top of the bracken, occasionally clashing with each other. One of the brown hawkers even had an interspecies spat with a silver-washed fritillary!
Overnight we had a short badger watch with the regular sow providing excellent animated viewing as she yanked over logs to get at the hidden peanuts. There is still no sign of the rest of the clan yet and although I am certain that no disturbance has led to their, hopefully merely temporary move, I am a little concerned and would very much like to see them back.
For me the highlight of the weekend and also a very significant event for the woodland as whole occurred while taking a short break from pond digging. A large, active butterfly caught my attention because it was repeatedly flying around me, very close. At first it had the appearance of a white admiral but was too big and flew too aggressively. After a minute or so it eventually settled on my sweaty shirt, presumably to lap up the salt. I was amazed. It was a male Purple Emperor butterfly. It snapped open it's wings and revealed the iridescent purple on the upperside. This is a magnificent insect and I have only seen 2 before, so to actually have one land on me and in Scrag Copse is a coup by any standards. Even if I had had a camera to hand it would have been way too close to take a shot. After a while, it flew onto a camera bag for enough time to allow everyone to respond to Mark and myself's insistent shouting and run over to get a good and close view.
So, a truly royal insect has graced Scrag Copse and this means that there could easily be more across the whole complex. Purple Emperor males adopt territories and chase each other around assembly areas. These assembly areas are at canopy level and as such are hard to find. I know, however, that I will be losing a few hours this week in my search for more Emperors!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Well, it hasn't been the most summery of weather this week; my boots are still drying on the windowsill from Wednesday's torrential rain! However, from the badger's perspective it is probably very welcome. One of the main dangers to badgers, especially young ones, is drought. Dry weather forces the earthworms deeper and ultimately leads to starvation because at this time of year there still are not many fruits or nuts available. That being said I am finding fallen wild cherries and the odd wild strawberry that hasn't been grabbed by the mice or voles! So, this week of wet weather has probably guaranteed the badgers survival for a few more weeks and then hopefully there will be more alternative foods for them.
In between the wet periods however, I managed to record a new butterfly for the wood; a
couple of purple hairstreaks were chasing each other around the top of an oak. Admittedly, I have been scanning the canopy level for elusive purple emperors and after unsuccessfully searching the most likely spot with high oaks and a few sallow in the shrub layer, I went to the shed for a cup of coffee. Leaning back in my chair and looking up at a couple of unlikely oaks I was surprised to see 2 purple hairstreaks chasing each other. This butterfly is not particularly rare in the right location but they are difficult to see due to their habit of staying up in the canopy layer. I cannot offer you an image I'm afraid as I have never photographed this beautiful little butterfly before. I also saw yesterday 2 silver -washed fritillaries and one of my favourites the white admiral (pictured). These butterflies will come down to areas of bramble in clearings and are a little easier to photograph. It is a weekend of bracken bashing and pond digging this weekend and so I'm going to make good use of the coffee breaks and try to get a purple emperor!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Never work with children or animals!!!

Friday 27th June I was lucky enough to witness up to 9 badgers interacting and grooming outside the main sett. Then for the 1st time I saw the cubs file south along the dry drainage stream with the other adults. This is the first time I have seen them leave the sett area and is a significant milestone in their development. Within a few minutes 2 of them came back and fed around the sett area as usual. So much for independence!
Saturday 28th June, only 2 badgers emerged, the dominant boar and what appears to be a handsome yearling male, who has been nicknamed 'Prince.' They both came out late and did not wait around for long before leaving the sett area.
Tuesday 1st July - a disappointing Sussex Wildlife Trust watch. A 2 hour wait resulted in 1 adult badger seen faintly in the darkness. Another 30 minutes thankfully resulted in 2 cubs coming from the north and feeding around the sett area. My suspicion grows that the dominant sow 'Honey' has move the cubs to an outlier sett.
Thursday 3rd July - a watch with Steve Bottom from the British Wildlife Centre. This was a cold, wet watch resulting in a 2 hour wait and zero badgers! Where have they gone? I am confident that it is not human or animal disturbance that has led to their disappearance but clearly the group has moved. I have cancelled the SWT watch for the coming Sunday, sadly.
Saturday 5th July - joined by my parents, I warned them that the chance of seeing badgers was slim and to just enjoy the dusk in the woodland. However, within 20 minutes of arriving we had an adult out and scratching. He was followed by 3 or 4 others including 1 cub who fed around the sett. For me this is an enormous relief but still begs the question - where is Honey and the other cubs?
As a result of this turn of events, it has caused me to read and research more widely and it appears that soon after weaning, the sow moves the cubs to another sett for 'a few weeks'. This may be to allow the main sett to be cleaned after the breeding period but in reality it is not truly understood why this occurs.
These events have also caused me to travel more widely in the local area to locate 'outlier setts'. I have found a possible 3 in total as well as several latrine areas and this has given me a better idea of the overall territory of the clan.
In summary, the badger's behaviour has truly concerned me especially as I have come to rely on their behaviour for the SWT badger watches. It will teach me to become complacent I suppose. However, for me personally, the week has fascinated me and deepened my admiration of these dynamic animals I just wish they wouldn't decide to disappear when I have paying customers!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

As the evenings have become so long at this time of year, I have found that I am not really staying in the wood into the night. At most now I stay until dusk. As such I have been missing the shift change-over that occurs as dusk fades into true night.
Last night, it was an interesting badger watch, where I witnessed the cubs leave the sett area for the first time. I have noticed the badgers are slightly later in their emergence now just by 15 minutes or so which has surprised me as I thought that the equinox may have been a trigger, but we are little more than a week after that event. Possibly it could be the moon phase. Either way, all these events I should perhaps record at each watch. Anyway, back to the cubs; they are certainly more adventurous and even 'grown-up' in their actions, although one still appears very immature and I wonder if this one
is at more risk of not surviving. The others, however, are more confident and less playful and last night after their emergence at 20.17hrs along with several adults, how many I'm not sure as they were in and out all the time but I think I counted up to 9 including the cubs. After a brief scratch and sniff, they all filed south down the dry stream bed, looking like a line of mongeese, mongooses, mongi (??). Thinking the show was over for the night I started packing up and leaving when 3 of the cubs filed back onto the sett. So, they are growing up it appears but still gravitate back to that area of safety. It was also interesting from the fact that I moved from one area to another without disturbing them and managed to exit the area while the cubs were feeding.
By now it was fully dark in the wood and I investigated a call I have not heard before. It was a bit of a 2-tone screech and after a while realised it was immature tawny owls repeatedly calling. They were occasionally answered by the adult female but only faintly. I mimicked the male call and brought them in closer and got occasional glimpses of them. The calling was incessant and although I felt that they were very, very close by now as is often the way with tawnies, you can never find them. I went back to the van and grabbed a torch and after some searching and tripping over branches and brambles located one of the young perched on a branch 12m away. It was great to see the head weaving and circling to get a better view that owls do as the light hit it. Apart from that it was not concerned at all and gave fantastic views. The tawny owl is quite easily our most numerous owl but due to it's very nocturnal habits and the fact that it is normally in deep woodland it is rarely seen only heard, so it was fantastic to view one as well as know that they have successfully bred.
Another interesting sight last night was a female glow worm standing out like a tiny torch in the low undergrowth next to the main ride coming out of the wood. Using the light from my mobile phone I could make out that the glowing body of the female also had a smaller male on top of her! These are again increasingly rare creatures to see and I have never seen a mating pair before so more good news.
Therefore, I am actually looking forward to the nights getting a little longer as it means that I will be more often in the woodland during the early night and hopefully experience a few more spectacular and rarely seen creatures.
A nice treat was that there was no disturbance from dogs either, phew!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


It has been a bad week for badger watching!
Last week, leading another Sussex Wildlife Trust badger watching event, the night was curtailed very dramatically when the 3 dogs that have for months chased wildlife repeatedly across the woodland ran right across the sett during the watch. One of the terriers even tried to enter one of the sett entrances. They then turned growling and barking at the group once they realised we were there and I had to throw sticks at them to get them away from the sett as well as the people.
This cannot be allowed to happen, so on the weekend I made extensive enquiries to trace the owners of the dogs. It appears that these dogs are notorious and many people are fed up with them. I even spoke to one landowner who stated that she had lost sheep in the past but obviously did not have direct evidence of the culprits. Eventually, I was given the contact details of the owners and was wished 'good luck!'. On speaking to the owner, she seemed oblivious that her dogs had strayed so far but was apologetic and assured me that it would not happen again.
Unfortunately, last night, the same thing occurred. This time the dogs were chasing deer relentlessly, while I was trying to photograph the badgers. Again, I phoned the owners and she admitted that she just lets the dogs out every day and does not exercise them properly.
This is an unfortunate situation and one that I think will go on for some time. I feel that I have given a reasonable opportunity to the owners and that they are in effect continuing to allow the dogs to run out of control. My next recourse is to seize the dogs and hand them over to the local dog warden. This, I believe incurs an £84 fee for restoration, for each dog! Maybe, this is the way to get the message across to the owners.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In an attempt to get better images of the badgers, I have been trying to get closer to them and use flash. However, it means setting everything up long before the time of emergence. So, with this having been done on Monday with a great view down the sett from a viewpoint I have never tried before, I got to the site and waited. Unfortunately, within minutes of getting into place, the wind switched to almost the opposite direction and was blowing my scent across the sett. GRRRRR! As well as meaning no shots, I feel it may cause undue disturbance to them, so it was a case of get out of there as quickly and quietly as possible and leave them in peace.
Last night, however, with another SWT group, it was a different story. Although, the wind was again not favourable, I moved the group mid-watch to another viewpoint and within minutes the badgers were out. It was a memorable watch as at one stage we had 7 badgers all grooming each other in a tight huddle. I have seen pairs do this but never as many as 7! One of the cubs was lying on its back being groomed by various members of the family while it waved its paws in the air in apparent enjoyment. Most of the time only 6 badgers were visible but every now and then this one cub would poke its head out through the huddle. While we watched, the group were also lucky enough to see one of the barn owls come in with prey and perch on a branch. I still cannot confirm whether the barn owls are breeding successfully yet.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The rising temperatures as well as the different shades in the wood now mean that it is summer at Scrag Copse. This means that the canopy is a harder shade of green and spring flowers such as bugle and garlic mustard are no longer in bloom, but I assume and hope that their leaves are being munched by butterfly larvae. So, yesterday I went in search of new things in less visited corners of the wood. It is still early for some of the classic woodland butterfly species such as white admiral but I was happy to see a meadow brown hanging around the 'Scrag Copse' sign along with a speckled wood. I think I need to bash a bit of the bracken here too to guarantee more flowers in this clearing next year as this appears to be a favourite basking spot for woodland butterflies. In the bracken area itself I was very pleased to see a female broad-bodied chaser dragonfly exploring the area. These are very dynamic dragonflies and seeing one scouting around prompted me to make a consider my decision soon regarding ponds!
I was most surprised though, when exploring a boggy area near the stream to find 27 (yes, I'm so sad I counted them!) common spotted orchids. I knew I had orchids popping up but wow, 27! I noticed that most of them were very pale in colour and although there is a lot of variation in common spotted orchids, these were almost white. Maybe it is something to do with the wet ground and the low light as I normally see this species in drier habitats.
However, the find of the day, was several ragged robin plants in flower; this really is a lovely plant which particularly like damp edges and I never considered that I would find them at Scrag. The camera gear was already set-up in place for badgers, so I couldn't record them and I'm not sure if I will be able to get there in the next few days, so they may have to wait a year. This boggy patch is turning up a lot and could potentially be another spot for a pond, a small one maybe just to encourage wet loving plants such as ragged robin.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A couple of images of one of the most lovely butterflies at Scrag Copse; the speckled wood will sit in a sunny spot and then spiral into the canopy either chasing a potential mate or chasing off a potential rival.
It has been another spectacular and eventful week at Scrag. One of the most important events for me personally was lifting the corrugated iron sheet left in New Meadow in the summer last year. This was placed for reptiles as they like to shelter under sheets like this but for the last 8 months the best I have had is a vole under it. But, lifting it the other day revealed 2 slow worms, a small grass snake and a sloughed grass snake skin (it's yours Mark, I seem to remember you offered money if I ever found one!). This is great news for me and reinforces the whole reason of why I laid the sheet there in the first place. If you encourage wildlife you will invariably get it!
I had a great badger watch with Bob Gray and his party on Tuesday; the wind was initially not good for us, so we moved position mid-watch, something I've not attempted before. Consequently, a 'shaky' badger watch turned into one of the most rewarding I have done with an adult snuffling within 3m of the group and a total of 7 badgers out. The image itself was taken on Thursday evening showing how the cubs are now getting. I am understanding the badgers and their habits more and more. As the year progresses and I do more watches, both with groups and alone, I am increasingly aware of how much disturbance and the type of disturbance I can either get away with or mask in some way. Although, I am very sensitive to their presence, I want to be able to produce great images of them as well as show them to as many groups as possible. This in itself brings in welcome income which guarantees their preservation at Scrag at least.
The barn owls have not disappointed this week either. Thursday, saw the male again quartering the field from 5pm onwards in full sunlight and it flew repeatedly within 10m of me! It was one of those situations again when I was ferrying gear from the hide to the storage shed and the camera was already set-up in place for the badgers! Grrrr! That night as well, as I left the badger area I heard a female and male tawny owl calling to each other. I called the male in, mimicking the hoot, and then heard and almost felt him call back from within several metres of me before he glided past me, obviously checking out the intruder.
The coming week itself has more badgers and hopefully some more barn owls, possibly with camera and long lens this time!

Monday, June 2, 2008

A spectacular weekend camping at Scrag. The weather perhaps wasn't ideal in the forecast but, so what, once you're under the canopy it makes little difference unless it's pouring down. During the weekend I was thrilled to see the male barn owl out hunting in the early evening around 18.30 or so. The wet and windy weather over the last few days has meant that he probably needed to get out as early as possible. In honesty, I have grown increasingly concerned recently that the box had been deserted as I had not seen either male or female and there appeared to be no tell-tale signs around the box itself. Admittedly, I have been a little preoccupied with badgers of late and have maybe not given the owls the attention they deserve but that may have worked favourably giving them some time free of disturbance in their crucial first breeding season. So, it was a great relief to see the owl quartering the long grass and regularly diving down to catch prey and as it grew darker screeching the eerie call that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. On Sunday morning I got up at 4.20am to check out the owl activity and got another 3 reasonable views as the owl carried prey back to the nest box. I don't know what breeding stage they are at now; I'm hoping that the female is either still sitting on eggs or they now have young. The amount of food going back does not appear that great, so I suspect the former. I would be happy with either just so long as they are breeding!
I had reasonably successful badger watching night on Saturday night. The dominant sow came out feeding and then 2 cubs. The wind, however, was very changeable and they kept catching whiffs of scent. I don't risk disturbing them unnecessarily, so we pulled out and left them to feed in peace. Annoyingly, on the path to the badger area, a branch has been neatly sawn and removed. This branch was blocking the path but acted as a deterrent to trespassers to this very sensitive area. The question is who did it? There is no public access to the area and it means that someone is probably regularly visiting this area which certainly is not to the benefit of the badgers or to any projects I have with them. Grrrrr!

I am indebted to my old school friend Jason and his girlfriend Terri who really attacked the bracken in New Meadow yesterday, we covered a huge area and have hopefully dealt with it for another year. This will guarantee more and more grasses and wild flowers in this area next spring and summer. This is the second season of bashing and apparently it will only be one more to effectively control it. As an incentive, a large skipper butterfly settled on a leaf in front of us as we worked. The little vibrant flash of orange reinforced what we were doing and spurred me on, certainly for another hour or so!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Despite the wet weather, another badger watch for a Sussex Wildlife Trust group was very productive. Initially, there were no badgers appearing and as usual I feared the worse. However, at 20.11hrs the dominant sow appeared on her own and proceeded to slowly and methodically eat the nuts and peanut butter I left for them. After a few minutes all 4 cubs appeared pushing each other out of the way to emerge. There appears to be quite a lot of difference in the cubs size from the biggest nearly at the size of a yearling to the smallest being very obviously a small cub even in its habits. At one stage there were probably 6-7 badgers out feeding for nearly an hour before they all departed presumably for the fields to get some good worms inside them.
One amusing observation was to see what I assume was a yearling start digging vigorously on top of the sett and within a minute or so fall head first down the hole just dug. It appears that he'd dug straight down into one of the chambers of the sett. All that was left visible were his hind legs as he hung in a limbo for a few seconds. They are very, very endearing creatures, but a bit stupid!

Another neighbouring wood for sale!

Another woodland close to Scrag Copse is now for sale. This is a reluctant sale on behalf of the owner, my friend Molly, but she is very keen that the woodland goes to a very sympathetic (to woodlands and wildlife) buyer. In her own words 'one part is full of bluebells, with oak, hornbeam, ash, birch, field maple, hazel, holly and one Wild Service tree. I have planted three more Wild Service and they are doing quite well. The other part I call the 'wild wood'; ash, oak round the boundary, birch, field maple, goat willow, masses of ferns and bluebells round the edge. It is full of birds and the deer tend to congregate there...'
This wood occupies the corner of Prestwood Lane and The Mount and really is a lovely 11 acres - price around £49,000. Yesterday, as I passed by Molly's wood on the road two fox cubs poked their heads out and let me photograph them. They were so stupid that I had to stop the traffic to prevent them getting run over!
If you are interested in this area of woodland please email me directly at david@davidplummerimages.co.uk and I can put you in touch with the seller.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rain, rain, rain!!

Oh well, it didn't seem to stop raining all day in the wood but work needed to be done. I cleared up all the debris around the badger area as there is another group coming tomorrow evening for Sussex Wildlife Trust and also added a couple of safety rails on the platform.
The rain has thankfully filled the stream and ponds and has soaked the ground which is great news for the badgers as it means that the earthworms will come to the surface. With 4 cubs just weaned readily available food is important and indeed dry periods can kill badgers.
I have also checked the nestboxes for breeding birds. It appears that 7 out of 9 of the regular boxes are occupied mainly with great tits, but also one box with blue tits and the open box with a blackbird pair who have already fledged their brood. Interestingly, 2 out of 3 tawny owl boxes are occupied with jackdaws with very noisy young.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Badger Viewing Improved

The badger viewing platform, which I may have kept quiet until now is up and in use. The platform is designed to hold up to 8, humans that is, and means easy comfortable viewing around 2.5 metres above the ground. This results in less risk of disturbance to the badgers. The construction of the platform has been carried out very, very slowly and away from the badger area wherever possible. I have not risked any disturbance at all and have masked any of my activity by laying out reasonable quantities of nuts in any of the trodden areas. I also feel that this has helped familiarise the badgers to my scent to some degree which may help my activities in the future.
I carried out a badger watch last night and had all 4 cubs out from 19.31hrs, which is the earliest I've recorded. Over the next hour out came the dominant sow and boar who promptly sat on one of the cubs, which is amusing but in reality is just a means of establishing dominance via scent. Being above the area on the platform also meant I could observe a very clean looking adult come in from an outlier sett and enter one of the sett holes. His behaviour was very shy but determined, if that is possible. This animal was probably an adult that has been pushed out by the main boar and sow but still attached to the clan and still interacts with the adults at the main sett.
If you are interested in viewing the badgers at Scrag either privately or as part of a Sussex Wildlife Trust group, now is the time to do it; the badgers are coming out in good light and the viewing platform makes it easy to watch them with no risk of disturbance to the badgers. Please go via the website www.davidplummerimages.co.uk to organise.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Neighbouring Wood for Sale

If you like the blog and would like your own area to manage then Great Brandy Wood, nearly 7 acres and just to the north of Scrag Copse is for sale (£35,000). Please go to www.woodlands.co.uk to see the details. It is a beautiful area of woodland and has a lovely shallow valley running through it and down to Scrag. It would be nice for me to have a good neighbour too!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

There has been a definite change to the woodland this week. The bluebell's once green photosynthesising leaves are now yellow and sad looking. But, other flowers are at their peak especially bugle, yellow archangel and garlic mustard on which I found several orange tip butterfly eggs which are conveniently orange and easy to find once you know where to look.
While bashing the evil spawn of bracken sprouting up I very nearly accidentally walloped a mistle thrush fledgling sitting tight on the ground. I grabbed the camera and lay down next to him and grabbed a few shots while the adults called angrily from the trees.
I've observed adult mistle thrushes respond to the alarm calls of the other birds when a raptor such as a sparrowhawk streaks through the wood, it would appear long before the thrushes could possibly see the hawk themselves. They loudly scramble like spitfires and chase off the intruder who could easily pick off their helpless fledglings. I know I've mentioned this before but just investigating the alarm calls of woodland birds can alert you to many events going on such as the presence of tawny owls or sparrowhawks and is always worth using this early warning system to look out for somewhat elusive predators or witness some interesting behaviour.
I did two badger watches this week for Sussex Wildlife Trust each with 6 people. The first night had a lovely cub coming right up to us and snuffling around just 1m away from the feet of the viewers before he got a view of some loud trainers and bristled up and ran back to the sett. On the second night we had all 4 cubs and the dominant sow on full show for a whole hour!
Although the weather this past week has been fantastic I am glad that we've had a drop of rain over the past 2 or 3 days, I could really do with a strong downpour just to fill the ponds and streams up. Oh well, the things you wish for when you have a woodland to care for!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I know it's been a while but it really is such a busy time at Scrag at the moment. Sadly, the bluebells are finished for another year, all the same, the tracks and rides are looking great at the moment with lots of thick green vegetation along the sides; garlic mustard, nettles, common dog's violet - all great larval foodplants for woodland butterflies. This spell of superb weather has brought out a lot of the butterflies which I think were badly hit with the cold, wet March and April. So, now there are plenty of orange-tips and one of my favourites the speckled wood, which are territorial, spiralling up in the woodland glades. There are also, large whites, green-veined whites and commas and it's making me excited about seeing the white admirals and silver-washed fritillaries but that will be another month or so.
The badger cubs are proving great entertainment and one even rummaged around in the bluebells just 5m from a group I was leading for Sussex Wildlife Trust. This was the 1st watch I had done for them, so I was pleased it went well. I am very slowly and quietly constructing the viewing platform over-looking the sett. This should make viewing less obtrusive and more comfortable for future groups.
The woodland birds are very active searching out the live prey they need for their young. Many are still sitting on eggs but the blackbird's have hatched young already. It is interesting to note that there are virtually no birds coming to the nut or seed feeders at the moment; they obviously seem to switch to the correct food source when required.
It is easy to spend days at Scrag at the moment and at this time of year it is very difficult to leave, I even had a 'solar' shower the other day which means I can spend even more time there with all mod-cons!!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Fantastic night!

Last night I badger watched on my own. Arriving a little later than I would have liked at 8.15pm and making myself comfortable in the badger watching chair, I was rewarded just 7 minutes later with the first adult male badger emerging from the sett while it was still daylight! Within a few minutes, several more adults emerged and then as dusk took over the four cubs bounced along. I actually lost count of the total as there were badgers going in and out of holes all over the sett but I estimate a good 9 or 10 animals including the cubs! Interestingly, a fox also came in to feed off the sett probably picking up some of the dog biscuits I have left for the badgers. While in my elevated position I also had at least 2 bat species repeatedly flying around me. The screeching song of the barn owl from the fields and a calling male tawny just completed an amazing nocturnal experience.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It is a phenomenal time of year in British woodlands and it is no exception at Scrag. The bluebells are now at their peak along with dog's mercury and primroses, lit through an increasing light green filter of the opening leaves in the canopy. Consequently with so much emerging at this time of year I am spending more and more time there and combined with so many teaching commitments this is probably why I have not updated the blog since 14th April, so I apologise for that. However, here is a synopsis of the past couple of weeks.
With the help of my friend Simon Tomlin, we re-constructed the small dam managing the small drainage
ditch on the east side of the wood. Historically this ditch has fed an ancient pond which has long since dried up. The aim of the dam is to back up the water so that it re-fills the pond. If the water level rises too much it will just flow over the top of the dam and continue on down the ditch into the stream. The dam I made in the Autumn was too temporary and somewhat porous, so once the pond filled up the water gradually seeped out. The new dam is constructed out of the clay dug out of the bottom of the pond site, so by both deepening the pond and adding this clay to a dam I have hopefully managed the water levels to provide a more or less permanent area of standing water. Fortunately, a couple of days of the heavy digging a heavy April shower provided enough water to put the dam to the test and you can see the result in the image.
The re-planted hawthorns and willows appear to be doing well, although it is early days. These are planted to 'scrub-up' New Meadow and create a barrier to trespassers. The 'scrubbing up' aspect is aimed to provide valuable foraging and nesting sites for migrant birds. Some of these migrants are arriving too, with Chiff chaff, willow warbler, blackcap and to add an iconic sound of spring, a cuckoo. If you have been listening to Radio 4's World on the Move series covering the global migration, you may realise just how far species like willow warbler have travelled to breed here, so providing good nesting territories for these tiny birds may mean that I get generation after generation travelling to and from sub-Saharan Africa solely to use Scrag Copse to nest.

Last Thursday, 24th April, I had Penny and Dave Green and Sheila Boughton over for a spot of badger watching. Before we trudged to the sett, we stopped off at the eastern fields to catch views of the barn owl hunting over the long grass. Amazingly, this male owl was then joined by a female, who hunted even closer to us and landed on the ground maybe no more than 12 metres away! During the viewing time both male and female returned to the box several times and on one occasion, the male carried a small mammal very determinedly to the box closely followed by the female which demonstrates pair bonding behaviour. I am now convinced that we have a pair of barn owls who are now attempting to breed and this is way beyond my expectations, having had no barn owl at all to now having a potential breeding pair. Once an owl selects a breeding site they are very loyal to that site for several years and indeed it can lead to repeated generations nesting in the same location for years. Therefore, I intend to leave them undisturbed, certainly through this crucial period of their first breeding season and I can only hope that we have many generations of these ghostly owls to come.
Finally, I leave you with an image of one of the footpaths through Scrag at this glorious time of year.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Badger Cubs!

What a fantastic badger watch I had on Saturday night. I was using the new badger watching chair, which used to be the deer shooting chair years ago, so my view was excellent being able to watch individuals move from one area to the next without losing sight of them. The elevated position also makes you feel less vulnerable and exposed and judging by the behaviour of the badgers reduces disturbance.
Initially, a single adult emerged, had a long scratch and shake as usual and then marched of with great purpose along one of the now very obvious badger paths. At this time of year, as the ground flora increases, badger paths stand out a lot more than other times. After a prolonged wait, it was magical to watch four lovely cubs playing and chasing each other relentlessly around the sett entrances. I didn't see them emerge, they were just there all of a sudden, noisy and very active. Two other adults then emerged and played with the cubs before moving away for some mutual grooming. Finally, it appeared that the dominant boar came on the scene. He immediately sat on top of the cubs, sometimes two at a time. This is dominant behaviour and serves to rub scent over the cubs to remind them of who is boss.
As it got darker, I used a high power lamp with a red filter attached and was very pleased when the badgers did not even flinch at the light. It gives fantastic viewing opportunities and I managed to watch for over 40 minutes. Although, there were cubs last year, these are the first brood to be born under my stewardship and I feel both honoured and very protective towards them. With the bad news that a cull is to take place in Wales I am concerned for badgers, they have suffered centuries of persecution and although it is clear that they carry bovine TB it appears that the spread of bovine TB is caused by the movements of cattle from herd to herd throughout their lifetime and that badger culling actually leads to an increase in TB.
On a brighter note, during the watch there were at least 3 tawny owls calling, males and females and as I left the eerie but very welcome sound of the barn owl screeching repeatedly from the field near the box. I can only pray that he has a mate and that full courtship is under way.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Goldfinches at last!

Yesterday I finally set up the new goldfinch hide. I have baited an area using a niger seed feeder and after about 3 months finally have a group of up up to 7 goldfinches using it continually throughout the day. Just by sticking a few old teasel heads into the ground around the feeder and lacing the heads with some seed has resulted in the finches transferring their feeding onto their natural food source. This consequently results in a more natural and pleasing shot. I managed to get this shot within 15 minutes of being in the hide. If you would like to hire this new hide and the general woodland birds hide, please contact me via the website www.daviplummerimages.co.uk

Friday, March 28, 2008

Gen's Bird box

Hi Gen, here is your box you very kindly donated. As you can see I have sited it sympathetically amongst other silver birches so it blends in nicely. I will let you know if it is occupied this season, so you can come down to photograph.
Despite the Arctic weather, the past week has been very, very busy at Scrag with 2 woodland birds courses as well as getting several jobs done that needed to be completed before the start of the Spring/Summer seasons. This included getting more willow whips into the ground so that they take root in this growing season. I would estimate that I've now planted 45-50 to form the lose 'scrubby' hedge mentioned earlier as well as planted generally around the edges of New Meadow. I've added to the hedge some hawthorns and blackthorns transplanted from an area I want to keep clear.

I've never experienced Scrag Copse in the spring and I am amazed at the carpets of ground flora I have. Bluebells (some already in flower!) and dog's mercury appear very evident meaning that I'm very concious of where I can walk now. There are also primroses and violets dotted throughout the wood. Some areas, however, predominantly the thicker areas, are devoid of ground flora and this is a good indicator to me of where to 'thin' next autumn. This thinning will benefit the remaining tree species as well as allowing more light down to the ground layer, encouraging more flower species.

Two birds have dominated the weeks activity. First the barn owl is definitely using the barn owl box, there are fresh white droppings below the box and in some of the branches immediately outside the entrance. I also found a nice, fresh pellet underneath, which I am drying so I can dissect it, lovely!! The views I am having of this owl are incredible, mainly because he is coming out surprisingly early each day, sometimes as early as 4pm, but also because he flies in surprising habitats such as straight through the wood itself and not sticking to a barn owls usual grassland habitat.

On Tuesday, while showing Filma Dyer, from Sussex Wildlife Trust around the wood, we had specatcular views of a lesser spotted woodpecker feeding and foraging at low level on some of the dead fallen trees around the stream. I heard a lesser spot last year calling, but this is the first sighting and as you may know how keen I am about woodpeckers, this is very exciting for me. It means that I have all three of the main British woodpecker species at Scrag and it was also a special sight because Filma has never seen one before.

Yesterday, during the woodland birds course, a chiff chaff briefly came down to the blackthorn around the hide. It wasn't singing, so I assume it was a female. This is the first summer migrant to arrive at Scrag. I don't think warbler numbers are that high for my patch due to the lack of scrubby areas, so hopefully my willow and hawthorn planting will help boost breeding numbers. Yesterday, I also found the a long-tailed tit nest in some honeysuckle attached to a fence. I've suspected over the last week or so that they were nesting here due to the activity and I even watched individual long-tails picking up bird feathers that have fallen around the feeding area. This along with the goldfinches repeatedly feeding on the teasel heads means plenty of opportunity over the next couple of weeks, especially now the canvas hide has been repaired.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Today, I repaired the bridge by securing it to an ash post driven into the stream bank. The post was from an small ash tree I cut down specifically for the job. This served the purpose of thinning the woodland as well as providing valuable timber. Some of the thinner poles that I trimmed off I intend to make into a hurdle around the door to the bird-hide to create a bit of expansion room if the hide gets busy.
I also planted around 15 more willow whips in order to scrub up the edge of New Meadow and also create the barrier to people previously mentioned. I did this by also laying some of the thicker willow verticals too thick to cut for planting. By laying it I have extended the vegetation area by 3 or 4 metres which should really help in creating the barrier.
At the end of the day, I sat in the bird hide finishing the coffee from my flask and was rewarded by a stunning view of the barn owl gliding just 6 metres from me through New Meadow. The owl originally came from the area of the barn owl box and then flew through the hornbeams and into the meadow. I have never seen a barn owl fly through woodland before and to get the close view I had was a special end to the day.

Deer killing seat to badger watching seat!

Monday 18th March 2008, I added a seat and back from recycled wood (from a skip!) to the deer shooting chair and installed the new chair overlooking the badger sett. I've tied it for now against an ash tree in case once I try it out I want to move it to a better viewpoint. It's exciting because the view from higher up is very different and I feel it may be a successful method of observing badgers.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday 16th March. Terrible weather today but jobs have to be done so with the adage that 'there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes' I spent the afternoon at Scrag completing a nice list of tasks. With the invaluable help of Claire Harries, we planted 40 willow whips to the rear of the bird hide and along the edge of the public foot path. This will have the effect of not only 'scrubbing up' the edges of New Meadow but will also eventually create a barrier to unwanted trespassing. This is a very cheap way of planting new trees; just using secateurs to cut off the thin vertical 'whips' of the willow that sprout out of the main trunks. We then just pushed them about 12 inches into the ground. I have never done this before but apparently, these 'whips' readily root and eventually become trees. The Willow is especially beneficial because it will root in very wet soil which occurs in this area of the meadow. It's the sort of pleasing job to forget about and then notice in 6 months time that we have a whole new load of rooting trees providing both a barrier and a great habitat for birds and insects.

The two goldfinches that started feeding on the niger seed feeder, have now been joined by a redpol! This is fantastic news as it enhances my project of getting these delightful birds onto natural perches. Yesterday, I took delivery of a nice bundle of teasel heads from Keith Dunning who came on the woodland birds course last week. I have now sunk all of these teasel heads into the ground around the feeder and laced each head with a sprinkle of niger seed. This will transfer their feeding from the unnatural looking feeder onto the attractive perches and thereby provide a great photographic opportunity for me and all my lovely students! This is classic bait-and-perch technique.

We also fixed a new blue tit nest box supplied by Gen Spraggett on to one of the birches at the edge of New Meadow. Thanks Gen, I hope it is occupied this season!

A small note of irritation is that the same three dogs that are repeatedly terrorising the deer across the whole wood complex, were back again this afternoon running amok through the wood. The problem is, there is never an owner with them, so I will have to visit all the farms locally to try to remedy fix this problem.

Barn Owl Again!

On Friday 14th March I visited the wood on a bit of a flying visit just to feed the birds and badgers. Unfortunately, being in a bit of a hurry meant I didn't pay much attention as I walked up the east side of the wood and was a bit surprised when a barn owl took off in front of me apparently coming from the immediate area of the barn owl box. I then had a 15 minute view of it repeatedly hunting backwards and forwards across the field sometimes just 20 metres away from me! It was unsuccessful in its hunting despite making several dives to the ground before gliding south and perching on a fence post. This evoked a series of calls from the little owl that roosts there. I examined the ground beneath the owl box and noticed a line of very white droppings. This is the 2nd sight in a week of the owl in exactly same area and so combined with the droppings I am convinced that this owl is now using the box as a daytime roost. I am both elated and amazed that the box has been occupied so quickly and can only hope that it pairs up and tries a breeding attempt in the spring and summer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Monday 10th March 2008. Well, it was the most severe storm of the winter today and I was very eager to pay the wood a 2 hour visit at the end of the day. I was a little concerned with the hides, storage shed and owl boxes as yet untested by high winds. In fact, I needn't have worried, all hides are still standing, untouched and undamaged, even the little remote hide. All the owl boxes are still up.
There was some tree damage, however, with some large hornbeam limbs snapped off, which must have made a hell of a noise. This has, however, merely created some natural clearings which will merely allow more light down to the woodland floor and encourage more ground flora. It has also given me some good fire wood! Just off my patch a very large ash has completely snapped off at the trunk very dramatically which has crashed down and shattered a hornbeam beneath it.
Water levels throughout the wood are very high with the drainage stream down the east side running very fast and filling one of the ponds very nicely. The main stream, however, is running about a metre deeper than normal which sadly means that the lovely little bridge that I lovingly put in about 3 weeks ago has just floated away! As I carried out the work, I did wonder if the water would get that high and considered staking it into the banks. Well, I suppose I now have my answer so have to re-do the work. Thankfully, I found the railway sleeper a little way downstream so just dragged it to higher ground.
Well, although I was worried, I should remember that this woodland has stood here more or less for over 500 years and it has weathered storms a lot worse than this and will hopefully weather a lot more. Any damage just creates different niches for other species to take advantage of and in general just increases the diversity of the overall woodland structure.