Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Oh, Deer!

A few weeks ago we took an afternoon walk in a favourite local spot. Despite taking the route many times I had never been lucky enough to see the wild deer which were reputed to be there and in fact on this occasion I had completely forgotten about the possibility of seeing them. As we strolled in the October sunshine, enjoying the beautiful surroundings, I looked to my left and noticed what I thought was a large log in the distance, halfway up a grassy slope. At the time I thought nothing of it being more intent on looking for birds or the odd, late butterfly.

'Where are you O Wild Deer?
I have known you for a while, here.'

(Shams al-din Hafiz)

We walked on for a while and eventually turned to our left and slowly climbed the steep incline. While stopping to catch my breath halfway up I looked through the binoculars and realised the 'log' had multiplied and that I was actually looking at a small group of three Roe Deer. Completely by chance, I had found them, at last!

Roe Deer (Capreolus Capreolus)

'Up the steep hill we'll zigzag through heather and moss;
We'll dive into the glen and the steppingstones cross;

We'll couch with the red deer, we'll rise with the roe;
We'll rest when the sun's high, go fast when he's low.'

(James Henry)

Of the six species of deer which live wild in Great Britain only the Roe Deer and the Red Deer are truly native having been here since before the Mesolithic Age. Forest clearance and over hunting led to them becoming extinct in England by 1800 although they remained in wooded patches in Scotland. During Victorian times, reintroduction schemes led to their natural spread and an increase in the planting of woodland and forests in the 20th century, has meant that Roe Deer are widespread and abundant in the present day.

There was something which I found very noticeable throughout the entire time we were watching the deer. Our walk had taken us along the valley below them, then up the steep hill at the side of them and finally along the grassy route above them. So in effect we walked full circle around them and at all times, after I first spotted them, at least one of the party was watching us intently while the other/s grazed. I strongly suspect they had been watching us long before we realised they were there!

When alarmed, bucks (male) and does (female), give a short bark, which is often repeated. During the rut, the doe makes a high pitched piping call to attract the buck who in turn makes a rasping noise as he courts the doe.
The rut, or breeding season occurs between mid-July and mid-August. Prior to this bucks become aggressive and maintain exclusive territories around one or more does. Fights between bucks can result in serious injury or even death! The winner will then take over the loser's territory or attendant doe. Bucks usually mate with several does and does mating with several bucks has also been noted. Courtship involves chasing between the buck and the doe for some time until the doe is ready to mate.

Although mating occurs in late summer, the fertilised eggs do not start to develop immediately. This phenomenon is known as delayed implantation (embryonic diapause) and is unique among hoofed animals. It is thought to be an adaptation to avoid giving birth during the harsh Winter months.

The fertilised egg remains ‘floating’, unattached within the uterus for five months. During this time the cells of the embryo divide and multiply very slowly. Unlike those of other species (including those with delayed implantation), the un-implanted embryo controls its own growth. At the end of December or early January, when it is little more than 0.3mm long, the foetus is genetically programmed to reactivate from its period of delayed implantation. It sends a message to the mother by way of a protein unique to the Roe Deer. When the mother receives this message a cascade effect of hormones begins which enables the embryo to expand rapidly. After a short period of very fast growth, the embryo attaches itself to the inner wall of the uterus. Normal foetal growth follows then, for a further five months.

The doe will typically produce two young during May or June of the following year when the weather should be more hospitable. The young stay with their mother for around 12 months. I think it is more than likely that the three I saw were mother and her two youngsters.

'When from my path the startled roe-deer fly,
In their soft glance I see thy gentle eye '


Roe Deer are active 24 hours a day but most active at dawn and dusk. They also spend long periods 'lying up' which is where the deer lies down to ruminate between bouts of feeding.

I had great difficulty
finding any verse about deer which didn't concern hunting. I think it is a great shame that these lovely creatures are not celebrated for their beauty rather than the so called sport they provide for man. However, this extract from a poem written by the publisher of the Rotarian newspaper in Concorde Massachusetts in 1950 after he had read one such poem sums up my feelings perfectly.

'The beauty they bring

To their natural haunts

For all who are privileged to see,
Is full reason it seems
To let them live on

Quite alone, quite alive, and quite free.'

(Samuel G. Kent)

I felt immensely privileged to watch the Roe Deer for so long. These normally shy animals allowed me to observe them openly for quite some time before eventually taking to their heels and disappearing down the hill but not before all three turned and gave one last look as if bidding goodbye.

Until the next time... enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Closer to Home

As I had my little twitch :) with the Lesser Yellowlegs last week I was eager to tell you about it the next day which was when I was originally planning to publish this post. So, after all the excitement of last week, and later than intended, this is one of my more usual posts.

I was reminded a couple of weeks ago that the most magical moments in Nature don't always concern unusual sightings, sometimes the most 'ordinary' creature can deliver something very special.

I was walking close to home when I noticed a Carrion Crow perched on a fence post at the edge of a field. As I approached I expected it to fly away, I started to take photos mainly because I hadn't seen much else of interest during my walk. To my surprise the Crow was completely unperturbed by my presence, as I stood within arm's length of it, clicking away with the camera. For a few moments it seemed that I was totally at one with this bird which seemed to have a certain wisdom in its eyes.

'Crows can recognise individual human faces and hold a grudge for years against people who have treated them badly. This ability – which may also exist in other wild animals – highlights how carefully some animals monitor the humans with whom they share living space.
John Marzluff and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle prepared six masks from casts of people's faces, then wore different masks to capture crows in each of four locations. In each case, they found, the crows recognised and scolded whichever mask they had seen when they were captured, and ignored the others.'

(Bob Holmes, New Scientist.)

Unfortunately, all too soon, the spell was broken by the approach of a group of people with dogs and my muddy beaked, new friend flew away.

In a Japanese city, Carrion Crows have discovered how to eat nuts that are too hard to crack. One method is to drop the nuts from a great height on to a road. Some nuts are particularly tough, so the Crow drops it among traffic. To retrieve the nut without getting run over, some birds wait by pedestrian crossings and collect the cracked nuts when the lights turn red! You can see this behaviour here.


It was lovely to see a butterfly recently, after not seeing any at all for some weeks when the weather inevitably turned from late Summer into Autumn. I suspect that is the last one I will see until next year now.

Red Admiral Butterfly

The hedgerows were laden with fruit waiting to provide a tasty meal for the birds.

Rose Hips

'Autumn! soul-soothing season, thou who spreadest
Thy lavish feast for every living thing,
Around whose leaf-strew'd path, as on thou treadest,
The year its dying odours loves to fling
Their last faint fragrance sweetly scattering.'

(Bernard Barton)

Hawthorn Berries


As I walked around the local reservoir I saw a number of Goldfinches flitting through the trees and hedgerows which line the path. By the time I realised my camera battery had run out of power and replaced it with the spare, most of them had dispersed and I only managed to get a very distant photo of one examining a solitary berry, while another sat below it presenting me with a bottom shot!


As is usually the case there was nothing of great interest on the reservoir itself. About the only birds I have ever seen on the water there are Mallards, Grey Herons, Cormorants, Mute Swans, occasionally Great Crested Grebes and of course gulls.

Black-headed Gulls

On this occasion, apart from the usual Black-headed Gulls, I did see this one which I think is a Lesser Black-backed Gull, if you think I have problems identifying waders I have even more difficulty with gulls!

Lesser Black-backed Gull

And here with a Cormorant.

Cormorant and Lesser Black-backed Gull

A Grey Heron was patiently watching the water, hoping to spot its supper.

Grey Heron

'Hermit-like, he stands and muses,
Until he seems to be,
Moveless in dream-like silence lone,
Some spectre bird, or sculptured stone,
Or stump of scathed tree.'

(Bernard Barton)

Surprisingly there were no ducks at all on the reservoir, not even the usual Mallards but I did see some through the hedge on the river

Mallards (male, left and female)

and it was nice to see a couple of wildflowers blooming in October.

White Campion


I will finish with this lovely Robin singing its heart out in the way I love to see them most.


'Bird, are you singing to me ?
Singing of wood and of dell ?
Of the flowers I used to take,
Of the nut-trees I would shake,
Of the fishing on the lake.'

(Menella Bute Smedley, Fanny Wheeler Hart)

Have a good weekend and ... enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I Turned into a Twitcher and Bagged a Juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs!

When I started this blog I made a point of saying I was not a birder and that I just love Nature and beauty in all its forms. Somehow though, somewhere along the line, it gradually happened! I think that someone who breathes, sleeps and (sometimes, quite literally) dreams birds has to eventually admit that they are indeed a birder and after all, I have watched birds since I was a child, even writing a book on birds for a school project at the age of twelve. However, I have never considered myself to be a twitcher. A twitcher, as we know is someone who will travel long distances, sometimes from one end of the country to the other in pursuit of a rare bird which has been sighted and whose location has been transmitted on the bush telegraph to fellow enthusiasts who then proceed to converge on said bird to add another tick to their list.

I would find no pleasure in dashing all around the country just to add a bird to my list and in fact I think there is no greater pleasure than spotting a bird in one's own garden which has never been seen there previously. However, when I hear there has been an unusual bird seen within twenty five or so miles of my home, I have to admit to being tempted to go and take a look, purely because it is a bird I have not seen before and hopefully to get a photo of it.

So when I heard there had been a juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) at Port Meadow Oxford for the last week or so, I thought it was worth turning into a twitcher for the day and giving it a try. Of course regular blog visitors who remember my failed attempts, this year and last, to see the Lesser Scaup at Draycote Water (a slight case of twitching there too I suppose!), will not be surprised to read I had no confidence at all in my ability to actually find the bird, even if it was still there!

Imagine my surprise then, when after leaving the car in the free car park, we walked into the meadow and towards the flooded area and within moments spotted it! The only snag was that the sun was in the wrong place for decent photos but I had a try (how could I not?) and below are the best I could manage.

Not being overly familiar with waders and completely unfamiliar with this particular one, I was a little worried as to whether I had found the 'right' bird, however...

When we first arrived there was just one other person taking photos and as we approached he packed up his gear and left. I had also noticed a small group of people on the opposite side of the flooded area and when I finished taking my photos I turned round and found the group had walked round to the side we were on and had their binoculars, scopes and cameras all focused on 'my' bird. So, in slight fear and trepidation of showing my ignorance, I asked if I had the right bird and was told it was indeed and one of the party said he had even seen one before, up in Scotland!

It was a shame I was always shooting into the sun as the photos don't adequately show the beautiful deep yellow which gives this lovely wader its name. I think the one at the top of the post gets closest.

Outside the breeding season Lesser Yellowlegs forage in shallow water, picking at prey on or just below the water's surface. They scythe their bills back and forth in the water stirring up prey like an Avocet.

This visitor from North America bobs the front half of its body up and down and the most common sound which may be heard is a two-note flight call. During the breeding season, insects make up the majority of the Lesser Yellowlegs diet. The rest of the year, they also eat small fish and crustaceans.

Well that is it for now, I hope I haven't bored you too much by focusing on just one bird and thank you for indulging my excitement. I rather enjoyed 'turning twitcher ' for a day but now I will go back to being a birder...until the next time I hear of an unusual sighting not too far from me :) Enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Not Quite Beside the Seaside!

Another visit to Draycote didn't reveal the hoped for Lesser Scaup but was nevertheless an enjoyable afternoon out in a place which I love. As I have mentioned before, living just about as far from the coast as it is possible to be in this country, it is the nearest thing to being at the seaside that there is for me. Sometimes the water is a beautiful blue but the photo below shows that when there is not much sun it can look very grey!

There are usually lots of gulls which add to the feeling of being by the sea and on this occasion the Black-headed Gulls were swooping and swirling and showing off their aerial acrobatics quite close to me.

Black-headed Gull

'Away on the winds we plume our wings,
And soar, the freest of all free things:
Oh! the Sea-Gull leads a merry life
In the glassy calm or tempest strife.'
(Eliza Cook)

I had to look carefully at each Tufted Duck I saw (and there were a lot of them!) just in case it was the similar looking Lesser Scaup...but of course it never was!

Tufted Duck

I scrambled down the bank on the opposite side of the water to get a closer look at some fungi which I had spotted through the binoculars while scanning the grass for a Green Woodpecker which I had seen there before. It turned out to be the impressive looking Shaggy Inkcap. This first photo shows it in its immature state

Shaggy Inkcap

and this one in maturity.

'There 's a thing that grows by the fainting flower,
And springs in the shade of the lady's bower;
The lily shrinks, and the rose turns pale,
When they feel its breath in the summer gale,
And the tulip curls its leaves in pride,
And the blue-eyed violet starts aside ;
But the lily may flaunt, and the tulip stare,
For what does the honest toadstool care ? '
(Oliver Wendell Holmes)

There are also always plenty of Rabbits to be seen among the grass, many of which I suspect, provide a tasty meal for predators such as raptors and foxes.


Back to the water and another bird I see there often is the elegant Great Crested Grebe.

Great Crested Grebe

I also quite often see the delightful little Teal there. For some unknown reason I always seem to see the hen (female). It is surprising how small they are, one of the smallest dabbling ducks there is, I believe.

Teal Duck

Draycote wouldn't be Draycote without Pied Wagtails flitting about. Even if you are not quick enough to see them properly there is no mistaking their call and swift, undulating flight. I think both of the following may be juveniles.

Pied Wagtail

The colours of this Guelder Rose were glowing beautifully in the afternoon sunshine.

Guelder Rose

Apparently the fruit of the Guelder Rose is edible in small quantities but is 'very mildly toxic' and if eaten in large quantities could cause vomiting or diarrhoea...hmm! I don't think I'll bother :)

I was really pleased to see a Wheatear again. Like the wagtails it seems to enjoy hunting on the rocks at Draycote for insects, I do think it is a lovely little bird. It is a passage migrant which will be preparing for the long and hazardous journey to central Africa.


'Away! away! thou summer bird !
For autumn's moaning voice is heard,
In cadence wild, and deepening swell,
Of winter's stern approach to tell. '
(Sir Bevis of Hampton)

Every time I see Teasels I hope to see Goldfinches feeding on them and although I have seen Goldfinches at Draycote even, strangely on the rocks, I have never seen one anywhere on Teasels apart from in photos. However, I thought this one looked nice decorated with webs and even a little spider.


Finally, at the end of the walk, I saw this Cormorant far out in the middle of the water, maintaining its lonely vigil as the last rays of the setting sun cast a coppery glow over the water.


'Yet not to all was sleep's kind angel sent,
A pale worn form in lonely vigil bent.'
(Nicholas Michell)

Enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.