Badgers, buzzards and ducks, oh my!

 

So today was a really good day for spotting interesting and fun species. We went for a walk around some local woods that are surrounded by open fields and have a small manmade pond nearby.

First up is the European badger (Meles meles). Now while I didn’t see an actual badger (it was the middle of the day and they’re nocturnal (they only come out a night)), I did see several entrances to a sett. Initially I wasn’t sure if it was a fox or a badger burrow as the size seemed quite small to me.

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Potential sett entrance

But upon closer inspection, we could see lots of characteristic ‘snuffle’ holes which are created by the badger’s entertaining way of looking for food by essentially digging up earth with their very sharp claws and noses.

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One of many snuffle holes with traces of pad prints

We had a bit of a cautionary sniff down the main hole and smelled a very faint musky smell that reminded us of hedgehogs but certainly not the more distinctive odour of foxes which I feel is a lot sharper and more…unpleasant smelling.

There was lots of plant matter a few feet away from the entrance to the sett which is classic badger behaviour as they remove old bedding from their setts and dump it a short way away from their main entrances. We also saw lots of scat, or poo, which was rather larger, squishy and black in colour. Again, definitely indicating badger. To put the final bit of the puzzle together, I noticed some strands of fur hooked on some twigs around the entrance to the set. Guess what colour they were? Yup, black and white! They were also very coarse to the touch which again is classic badger. I was quite chuffed with my find and after comparing our hunches with resources online, it is definitely a badger sett. Yay! More info on identifying badgers can be found here.

Second spotting was probably a bit more typical but still utterly adorable. The manmade pond often hosts families of moorhen chicks and those tiny balls of black fluff are pretty much one of the cutest things ever. Fact. But we still haven’t seen any yet this year but we saw the next best thing – mallard ducklings. The mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), or wild duck, is a pretty common waterfowl in the UK and around much of the world.

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Richard Bartz – CC BY-SA

The males are absolutely gorgeous in colour with a really lovely mix of blues and greens on their head and neck and then greys and browns on the main body. The females are a far more ordinary affair but they are still wonderful with their soft browns. Of course, as anyone who has watched mallards for any period of time will know, they’re quite fond of er…gang rape. Strange birds.

But their chicks are adorable. I didn’t get a photo but it was fun watching them swim in a big group (around 12 ducklings) between the reeds that grow around the pond. At one point a wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) got a bit too close to the brood so the mother swam them on to a more covered area. Considering that a wood pigeon is probably bigger than the female duck and decidedly more clumsy, I can understand her concern. The ducklings were obviously very very newly hatched but the bright yellows and browns of their plumage was lovely. Like I said, I couldn’t get a shot but here’s one from Wikimedia Commons.

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Finally, and probably the sighting that I got most excited about was four buzzards flying above us as we watched the ducklings bob around the pond. The buzzards didn’t seem interested in the ducklings as they were using thermals to get extremely high and were flying across quite a long range.

We got to see lots of different sorts of behaviours. The buzzards were calling to one another constantly and the call is pretty much exactly what you would associate with a bird of prey. Here’s a recording that sounds very similar to what we heard. We also saw one of the birds diving at another individual and they almost locked talons which was incredibly impressive. They seemed to calm down quite quickly and just sailed around on thermals keeping out of each others way. A couple of them went so high up that they were almost pin pricks in the sky. A few also came very low and sailed almost over our heads giving us a fantastic view of their markings which at times almost looked like eyes.

The corvids in the area were obviously rather unhappy and kept flying out of trees and away from the area. I had to confirm that the birds we saw were buzzards but I’m pretty confident that they were the Common buzzard (Buteo buteo). I did think for a while that they might be Honey buzzards (Pernis apivorus) but after watching a really informative video from the BTO, I’m happy that they were the Common variety. Plus we have seen a pair nesting in fields a few miles away.

I must say, I couldn’t stop watching the buzzards as they glided effortless around the sky. That combined with their incredible calls was quite bewitching. The sky was clear and bright blue so they stood out beautifully. I feel very fortunate to have seen so many in one place as buzzards were persecuted up until relatively recently. According to the RSPB website, since 2000, buzzards have nested in every UK county which is an impressive recovery.

So today was a good day for spotting interesting wildlife! Definitely a sign that Spring is well and truly here.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

I was really lucky to see a kingfisher today. I’ve only ever seen one once before as it was diving to feed. This one was spotted by the other half and we only then realised that we had been listening to it calling for a good five minutes before realising what was making the noise.

The call sounded like a moorhen chick so we were desperately trying to spot a little ball of black fluff before spotting the gorgeous amber breast of a kingfisher sitting on a branch. It called for a while longer, turned around giving us a lovely view of the bright blue stripe up its back and then flew off.

This tiny bird is amber listed due to its current status in Europe, especially with pressures from pollution and poor water management. They are gorgeous and a really important part of our UK wildlife.

Here’s a lovely video from the RSPB of one in action.

Common blackbird (Turdus merula)

I love blackbirds. They are lovely little birds which I see regularly in my garden as well as all around the town where I work. In fact, I can hear one singing from a tree nearby right now. They are a pretty iconic British bird and thankfully are also a relatively common sight.

According to the RSPB, there are over 5 million breeding pairs in the UK which is a pretty good number. If you’ve never seen a blackbird, it’s a fairly average sized bird. Bigger than a thrush but nowhere near as big as a pigeon.

They eat mostly insects and berries and while they are typically solitary, I often see them in groups of around three or four when they are in my garden. They may well be related birds. One of the best things I ever saw in my garden was a female blackbird (they’re actually brown, only the males are black) calling at one of the plants in the bottom of the garden. I then heard a very grumpy squeaking noise come back. A fledgling blackbird was hiding in the flowerbed and didn’t want to come out. Its exasperated mother was clearly trying to get it away from potential predators such as local cats, but it wasn’t having any of it. I could see that it still had the recognisable yellow ‘target’ mouth that so many chicks have. The shape and colour often motivates bird parents to feed feed feed, so you can tell a young bird quite easily if it still has that shape.

In some folklore, especially pagan, the blackbird is seen as a type of guide to the Otherworld. But typically this is the ‘darkest’ the blackbird ever really goes in British folklore. Unusually for a black animal, there isn’t that much negative superstition around it as an animal which bodes well for it in conservation terms as feared beasties tend to suffer as a result, even in modern times. Also for a bird that I have always associated strongly with the UK, it is actually the national bird of Sweden and can be found in many countries around the world.

Apart from its striking black colour (even though I think the brown females are quite lovely too), and its bright yellow beak, I think my favourite bit of the blackbird has to be its song. I often confuse it with the robin’s call, even though they are quite different. So enjoy.