Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thankfully I didn't take into account the weather forecast earlier in the week for today. The band of rain never really hit Sussex so another complete day of work in the wood.
The second barn owl box went up onto a large hornbeam, again on the east side of the wood. This probably isn't the ideal tree but I couldn't find any suitable big, old trees far enough away from the first box so this was the best compromise. After the learning experience of Tuesday, this box went up fairly quickly and I again trimmed and lopped off some branches to allow a clear view and flight-path for any potential owls. An interesting point that I noticed was that as I trimmed the odd small hornbeam branch it started dripping with sap immediately. I remember just 9 days ago when I trimmed some branches after putting in the bridge that no sap appeared. Therefore, I can conclude that the sap of hornbeam has started rising in the last few days. Just another sign of spring but one that is not necessarily so obvious.
After lunch we put up a tawny owl box on an old oak inside the wood next to the stream. These nest boxes are smaller than a barn owl box and a more simple design but still a bit of a job to get 4m up a tree. However, it went well enough and I have good hopes for this box. (pictures to follow).
2 more tawny owl boxes to go!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Barn Owl Box

I'm glad that it rained last night as it has filled the ponds and streams up and also that it stopped raining this morning and in blew some nice clear blue sky so I could work all day. So, today with the help of my parents we got the first barn owl box up on the east side of Scrag facing out over the long grass field. Every time I look out at this field of an evening I yearn for a ghostly barn owl to quarter across the tops of the pale grasses. I know they are around as I get reports of them from my woodland and farming neighbours and I may have even located a barn where a pair are regularly nesting. So, I figure that providing a few more available nest sites may cater for their offspring and I would feel incredibly proud if it was ever occupied and managed to raise a few generations of these beautiful and very threatened birds.
If you've been close to a barn owl nest box before you'll know how big and hefty it is, so it was a bit of a struggle using ropes and ladders to get it into place, about 4m up on an old oak. The mature gentleman posing in the picture is my father by the way and before you complain about me sending some geriatric old fool up a ladder with a big barn owl box, I did do all the heavy work but am very grateful for his help today. It was also a job and a half to manipulate it into a good position and fix it securely. I also lopped and cleared a few of the branches around it so that any passing barn owl will get a clear view of a new potential home. Several years ago I was involved in organising a barn owl box being installed in Little Meadow at Woods Mill nature reserve because I'd observed a pair of barn owls hunting together. On this
occasion, 2 hours after the new box went up, I watched a single barn owl glide past the box, appear to do a mid-air 'double take' and then fly straight into the newly erected box! It was incredible to see and it never ceases to amaze me how aware birds are of changes in their territories and are prepared to take full advantage of these changes if it suits them.
I don't think the box at Scrag will be occupied quite so soon but maybe in the next few years!
While struggling with the box today I got a splendid view of a sparrowhawk, bank over the field and then fly low into the wood just a foot or so off the ground. The olive grey-green back and slightly larger size interestingly meant that this was a female; most of my sightings at Scrag are of a male who generally hunt inside the woodland more. As an aside, in London, I yesterday witnessed a female sparrowhawk kill a blackbird by chasing it into a dense hedge. The hedge was so dense that you would not expect a raptor to be able to get through the tangle of undergrowth. But, although I did not see the blackbird in the hawk's talons the squealing noise that went on for a couple of minutes made it obvious that the attack was a success. The noise also brought in 2 magpies that hung around just pecking at the ground but not willing to take on the hawk, but still hoping for an easy scavenge. 10 days ago in more or less the same location, I witnessed another blackbird being chased by a female sparrowhawk, again through low and
apparently impossibly dense undergrowth. I did not see or hear the end of this chase but I feel that the location and similarity of hunting technique probably indicate the same bird. What a predator!
Anyway, back to barn owls. Well, that's one box up, I have another barn owl box and 3 tawny owl boxes to go!

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Sunday 24th Feb
After feeding the birds, I set up for the first badger watch of the year. At this time of the year the young will have just been born and although still safely underground, the adult boars will try their luck with the now possibly receptive sows. It can make for interesting and noisy badger watching! If any mating does occur the fertilised eggs go into diapause and will not start developing until December. Unfortunately, tonight there was no sign of badgers until it was almost too dark to see them but I was lucky to see and hear 2 or 3 scratching (as usual) and crunching through branches around the sett.
While sitting waiting for the badgers, I had a buzzard coming into roost in one of the old oaks being closely followed and mobbed by carrion crows. I also heard at least two male tawny owls calling through the wood. It's a good experience to sit and let the night take over from the day in a wood. It's the shift changeover; the daytime animals come in to roost as the night shift emerges.

Building bridges!

Tuesday 19th Feb. Having lost my old plank bridge over the stream when the recent high water levels washed it away, it was necessary today to cut in a new one. Luckily there was an old but perfectly sound railway sleeper used as a bridge many years ago, wedged into the banks further upstream. Dragging it out not only eased the flow in the stream but thankfully also saves me buying a new one. Hopefully, I've selected the right location and cut it into the banks so that it blends in without spoiling any woodland views across the stream. It will also, hopefully, provide a safe crossing fulfilling health and safety requirements now that I'm running more and more courses from Scrag Copse. The whole task was quite simply one of the most satisfyling jobs I've done in the wood and it was great to eat my cheese and pickle sandwiches sitting on the bridge afterwards especially when the sparrowhawk glided overhead mobbed by a carrion crow. I also cut and cleared more footpaths piling the sawn branches into a log pile.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

More woodland birds!

16th Feb 2008, a fantastic day teaching woodland bird photography to Ali Packham and Tracey O'Brien. All the birds were playing their roles to perfection with woodpeckers repeatedly coming in to the logs and allowing all of us to get great portraits in spectacular winter sunlight. A nice change from other course days though were the nuthatches that are now also coming down and 'almost' obliging by staying relatively still enough to photograph. I've included a great shot of a blue tit by Ali.
The crowning moment for me though was a beautiful view of the male sparrowhawk 'contour hugging' as it flew through the feeding area - the dark slate-blue and the cinnamon barred underside striking in the lowering sun. Contour hugging is one of the hunting methods sparrowhawks use to attack unnoticed. They may drop from a perch and either use gravity or flap to build up momentum before gliding a mere 8 inches or so from the ground and make an attack run. At this stage they try not to flap to stay undetected, just offering a narrow sliver of view to their prey. , Most attacks, h
owever, end in failure but they are dramatic to witness and this was certainly a good one!
As the light started to fail we went off in search of Roe deer and were lucky enough to get a group of 5 or 6 followed by another 3 as we left the wood.
All in all a beautiful day!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Nest Boxes!

11th Feb 2008 - Spectacular early spring weather today meant a lovely day to work at Scrag. Met my parents at the wood to transport a whole batch of nest boxes down the track. These include 2 barn owl boxes as well as various hole nesting boxes. I would like to add that they were all made by dad who I think got a bit carried away with a bit of a production line producing tit boxes, treecreeper boxes and robin boxes.
After a warm lunch sitting in New Meadow we managed to put up 6 of the boxes in the area around the hide meaning that they will be easy to monitor for occupation. My ultimate aim is to have at least 50 nest boxes throughout Scrag to help the hole-nesting species to reinforce the breeding bird population. All these nest boxes will be numbered, mapped and monitored in the coming years. The barn owl boxes are huge and require ropes and ladders to put up so this will be done in the next couple of weeks. Interestingly, I've heard a report of a barn owl seen hunting in the surrounding fields although no one seems to know where they breed. By providing a few nesting alternatives might mean more of these ghosts gliding and hovering in view from Scrag, which in itself will be fantastic but may also provide photographic opportunities.
Other sightings today: 6 roe deer, 1 buzzard, 4 great spotted woodpeckers chasing (pair-bonding behaviour), GS woodpeckers also drumming.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Woodland Birds Experience

On Thursday I taught a one-to-one Woodland Birds Photographic experience. My student for the day was the very enthusiastic and willing to learn Stephen Cotterell. We had fantastic weather for the day with some lovely light shifting from slightly soft to full sunlight. This showed the woodpecker's plumage off superbly and Stephen managed to get some great shots as they came down to feed in the baited area. I now manage to get up to 4 individual great spotted woodpeckers visiting my feeding area and although I am loath to use the word 'guarantee' when it comes to wildlife I have never had a student who didn't go away with a full-frame portrait of a 'great spot' since I've been teaching the woodland birds days at Scrag Copse. Other birds that Stephen managed to get were the usual woodland birds such as great tits, blue tits, marsh tits, chaffinches but also nuthatches and a lovely little wren, shown on the left. We were also lucky to get a male sparrowhawk 'contour hugging' as it streaked through the feeding area. If you bait an area regularly enough to attract concentrations of small birds you are sooner or later going to attract the attention of a sparrowhawk...EXCELLENT!
As the light began to fade we left most of our gear in the hide and decided travel light to look for deer. After some stalking we were lucky enough to see up to 6 roe. These beautiful creatures are sometimes called the 'fairies of the forest' and I am proud to have them delicately and silently feeding in their small family groups throughout Scrag Copse.
In all the day was excellent fun and we both came away with full memory cards. You can see some of Stephen's images from the day on the ephotozine website. To enjoy one of the woodland birds photographic days yourself please go via the website and go to the courses page.

Dig or not!

10th Feb 2008. A beautiful Sunday afternoon visit to Scrag with Mark Elliott to review and discuss the exploratory pit we dug last October. We dug this pit in a 'wet' area of New Meadow (the bracken area I intend restoring to woodland pasture), with the intention of hopefully identifying a location to dig a large dragonfly and amphibian pond.
Well, it's full of water which seems to be holding as it has been more or less full since we first dug down into the clay. So, we know it will be wet throughout the winter but it is difficult to determine whether we have dug down and met the level of the groundwater or if the pit is merely containing run-off. Therefore, we have agreed that we probably need to monitor it for a longer period throughout the drier months to determine whether it's worth digging a full size pond. Mark, who knows a thing or two about this is 'optimistic' but we feel it is better to wait rather than get 15 people down to dig a big hole which could end up being a dry blot on the landcsape which may serve to remind me of my impatience for the next 50 years!
Hopefully, it will hold water throughout the year meaning that we can get a big, fun workparty together in October 2008. My dream is to have a large shallow-sided pond fringed with aquatic vegetation teaming with dragonflies as well as frogs, toads and newts breeding successfully. Anyway, I shall keep you updated with my rising and falling water levels! It's interesting what occupies your mind when you manage a bit of woodland.

Saturday 9th February 2008

Went for a circular walk with my friend Simon around the surrounding area of Scrag Copse. Its ironic that when I go to the wood, I'm going there to work and so only visit and work in the wood itself. On the walk I wanted to put my patch in context with the local environment and explore other potential patches of wildlife interest.
As soon as we got some way it was good to look back and see a male sparrowhawk circling over Scrag. The weather was beautiful, clear blue sky and warm and it is days like this in early spring that sparrowhawks wheel high over the landscape to establish their territory. I am very happy to have one marking out a territory around Scrag Copse!
Around the walk we also saw 4 roe deer. These seem to be in high numbers in the area and I see 4 - 6 roe in and around Scrag virtually every day. I do, however, have a problem with out of control dogs that are chasing deer into Scrag. They come from miles away and just relentlessly chase the deer yapping and barking. This is a problem, I don't think they will actually catch the deer but the disturbance they create is very irritating.
Other wildlife we saw was: bullfinches, woodpeckers (green and great spotted) plus all the usual woodland birds.
A great walk on a very early spring day.

General Information

General Information
I bought Scrag Copse in July 2007 for 2 main reasons:
1) it was a dream of mine for many years to own and manage my own patch of woodland.
2) I could run more and more photographic courses there having complete control and not needing to get permission before I did anything. And, running courses there meant I could finance the project.
A couple of people described me as 'bonkers' for taking it on but generally I was very surprised at the level of support I got for the idea even from some of my more sensible friends. Most people who visit the wood fall in love with it especially if they spend a little time there and see some of the wildlife. They then become totally enthused by the project which I think is great especially as I have a few pond digging weekends in the pipeline!!
Geographically it is in West Sussex sort of half way between Horsham and Crawley and near to the Surrey border. It is just over 10 acres in area and forms the eastern side of Rusper wood. It is a mix of oak, hazel, ash and birch. There is also a fair amount of field maple and I've counted 3 wild service trees; two of them little scraggly ones and one huge one! It has probably been under-managed for the last 50 years or so and would benefit from some thinning and the re-introduction of some coppiced areas. But, it will not suffer from doing nothing at this stage so I just want to progress slowly at the initial stages.
It does have one area on the southern border which is about 1.5 acres of bracken, which grew to about 8 feet high last summer. My goal with this area is to eradicate most of the bracken and try to restore a bit of woodland pasture. An open area like this will only help the overall woodland and also from a business side allows me more scope for running varied photographic courses. In this open area there are some damp/wet patches with a few willow and birch so, with some help from my friends Mark and Sarah we dug a 1m deep exploratory pit to see if it would hold water. At the time of digging the clay seemed dry and not too promising but returning 2 days later, I was amazed to find it half full of water. That was 4 months ago and it has remained virtually full and watertight since then. It looks the ideal place to dig out a large shallow sided pond - perfect for dragonflies and amphibians!
As for this blog, I intend to keep it updated with day to day sightings as well as filtering general information about the wood. Some of the images will be just documentary shots, some will be artistic and I also want to use students images who come on the various courses through the year. Please let me know if you want any information, or whether you want more or less pictures, tips on finding or photographing wildlife etc.
Thanks dp

Friday, February 8, 2008


Hello and welcome to my diary of Scrag Copse. As many blogs probably start I'm not really sure what I've started here. My main goal is to document all the developments at Scrag Copse from the wildlife to the photographic events that occur there. It will be linked to my website
so anyone can switch to that if they want more information about courses or events. Please add any comments, feedback or questions that you have as I would like to develop it as a 2-way thing and it also lets me know that someone is reading it!!