Monday, 31 December 2012

Priory Country Park: Guided Walk - Sunday 30th December

Priory Country Park: Guided Walk - Sunday 30th December: Well after all the rain throughout the holiday period and wide spread flooding around the park we really landed on our feet yesterday with t...

Friday, 28 December 2012

Priory Country Park: Coppicing in Putnoe Wood

Priory Country Park: Coppicing in Putnoe Wood: I was coppicing the Hazel in Putnoe Wood yesterday with Rangers John and Jane and the Friends group. The weather was kind to us with just a...

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Priory Country Park: Christmas Day

Priory Country Park: Christmas Day: Paid a quick visit to the park this morning and the flooding is much more extensive than it was a couple of days ago. The Crescent is now ...

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Putnoe Wood Survey - 16/12/2012

My monthly survey of Putnoe Wood produced the following:

Species Count
Blackbird 5
Blue Tit 17
Bullfinch 2
Carrion Crow 6
Chaffinch 2
Coal Tit 2
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Great Tit 12
Green Woodpecker 2
Jackdaw 9
Long-tailed Tit 5
Magpie 4
Nuthatch 1
Robin 1
Sparrowhawk 1
Stock Dove 2
Treecreeper 1
Woodpigeon 5
Wren 3

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Priory Country Park: Work in the park and Slav Grebe

Priory Country Park: Work in the park and Slav Grebe: Had some time off work these last couple of weeks and have spent most of it in the park volunteering. It's great to get out in the open f...

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Box End Park WeBS: 16/12/2012

The latest WeBS count didn't provide many surprises although a Common Buzzard passing over at 07:30 was a bit of a surprise. In fact I had bagged the Buzzard, a Kestrel and a Kingfisher within the first five minutes of this visit.

A Skylark and 2 Meadow Pipits passed over West and a couple of Lesser Redpoll were a first for me at this site.

The feathery remains of a single Mute Swan looked like the aftermath of a Foxes dinner.

The full count was:

Black-headed Gull 15  
Buzzard 1  
Canada Goose 3  
Cormorant 6  
Grey Heron 2  
Grey Wagtail 1
Kestrel 1  
Kingfisher 1  
Lapwing 13  Another 24 over circled over the park as I was leaving.
Little Grebe 1  
Mallard 33  
Mute Swan 10
Pied/White Wagtail 1
Snipe 2  

Total number of species: 14 Individuals: 90

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Box End Park WeBS: 18/11/2012

WeBS time again and it was a cold frosty start with some patchy fog around the lake which cleared gradually during the morning.

Black-headed Gull 22  
Canada Goose 7  
Cormorant 3  
Great Crested Grebe 1  
Grey Heron 1  
Grey Wagtail 1
Kestrel 1  
Kingfisher 1  
Lapwing 10  
Little Grebe 2  
Mallard 19 Plus another 9 over west.
Moorhen 2  
Mute Swan 7  
Pied Wagtail 1
Total number of species: 14 Individuals: 78

Nothing to get excited about but as always it was great to be out and about early.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Starling Roost - Willington GP

Paid another visit to the Starling roost at Willington Gravel Pits yesterday and the numbers were better with the full flock remaining in the air together until they all finally dropped into the reeds together. There was also the bonus of a couple of Sparrowhawks hunting the flock which created some brilliant movement and shapes. The only let down was the cloudy sky which didn't relent until the end of the show.

The numbers were good, reaching c5000, which meant I had to switch to the wide angle set up to get them all in the frame.

Sparrowhawk below the flock

Sparrowhawk below the flock

The cloud relents a little allowing a little colour into the sky

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Starling Roost - Willington GP

Following are a series of photo's from the Willington GP Starling roost this evening. A conservative estimate is c2000 birds although it was hard to say as they came in waves and some of the early birds dropped into the reed bed early, hence we never saw the full number in the air together.

One of the larger groups seen

A small group drop into the reed bed


Not a huge number but quite a nice spectacle non the less. Also heard a Water Rail squealing in the reed bed and had c250 Greylag Geese come in to the main lake. A Barn Owl was hunting along the edge of the sheep field, chased by a Kestrel at one point. A large group of Barnacle Geese were in the sheep field, uncounted due to distance and the tight grouping. Not a bad evening!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Woburn Deer Park

In need of a Red Deer fix after my recent trip to Scotland I popped down to Woburn today to check on the rut at the deer park. I was hoping for a bit of mist/fog and a nice sunrise to light it up. I got the fog but not the  nice sunrise so the conditions weren't great but the atmosphere in the half light with the Stags roaring all around was brilliant. Here are a couple of pictures from late on in the morning as the fog began to lift.

Stag roaring
Hind and calf

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Aigas Autumn 2012

Aigas Autumn 2012, a set on Flickr.

Here are the photo's from my recent trip to the Aigas Field Centre in Scotland. I attended the Nature Photography Masterclass with Laurie Campbell. Thanks to all the staff at Aigas and especially Laurie for his patience throughout the week.If you want to improve your nature photography skills then I heartily recommend you look at the new dates for 2013.

It's great to be fully focussed on photography for the week and I picked up lots of tips on areas such as macro and flash which I haven't done a lot of in the past.

Check out this link for details

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A guide to watching Otters at Kempston Mill

Quite a few people are asking about the Otters at Kempston Mill, they have never seen them so how do I do it? The answer to this question is not straight forward because there are many things, that need to come together, to see these animals in the wild. Here are some hints and tips for Kempston Mill but they may help you on your local patch.

1. How do we know Otters are in the area?

Spraint is the word used for Otter droppings. Otters spraint to mark their territory so they like to leave them somewhere prominent, in their terms. Quite often man made structures become ideal spraint points, for example ledges under bridges, overflow pipes between lakes and rivers and the following: 

Concrete outflow

Zoomed in on the above outflow, a very popular spraint point!
A very fresh spraint!

Spraint on the steps by Kempston Weir
These man made spraint points are particularly useful, during dry periods, because you can see that they have been used recently by the wet patches where the animals come out of the water. This helps because you don't have to keep track of the number of spraints and you have a reasonable idea of how recently the animals were there. With the steps at the weir they use the top step so you can see damp patches on each step when they have been there recently.

Natural spraint points are many and varied but tree roots are often used.  

Large tree with prominent root system
Zoomed into the above tree root, spraint circled

This tree is just a few yards up stream from the concrete outflow.
Tracks are another useful thing to learn so you can check out the muddy river banks. I don't find this option as useful here because it is well used by dog walkers so there are hundreds of tracks to pick through.
The other thing that is a dead give away at the moment is the discarded Crayfish claws along the bank.
Crayfish head and claws
 The Otters certainly seem to like Crayfish:

The slope by the weir wall is a regular eating spot

Double click for the full size image and count the claws!

2. So we know the animals are here now it's just a matter of spotting them.

Timing is critical, these inland Otters are mostly nocturnal as they don't like meeting up with Humans and dogs, so night is likely the best time but we humans don't see too well in the dark! So it has to be dawn and dusk to give us half a chance. I'm a morning person so all of my sightings have been around dawn and a little after.

So it's dawn and you are in the right place where is that Otter? Swimming up the middle of the river giving great views, right? Wrong!

Occasionally they are but most of the time they are under the water grubbing around in the reeds and tree roots at the edge of the river looking for food so you have to look carefully. You are looking for ripples and bubbles fizzing up to the surface, maybe some reeds are moving, but there is no wind. A long stream of bubbles as an Otter moves across the river underwater. These are all pointers to there being an Otter in the area. With experience the ripples differ from those of other animals and birds on the river. Otters are large animals, up to 1.2m long, so the waves tend to be quite large, unlike those of dabbling ducks or feeding Moorhens and Coots. Swans make a similar sized wave and can catch you out if they are feeding in a reed bed.

Even when you have seen all these signs you may have to be patient. I have followed these signs for 100+ yards along the river before finally getting a glimpse of the animal itself. Last time I was out I was convinced there were 2 Otters in the area but it was 200 yards up stream before I saw one and then the other to confirm it.

Otters tend to be silent in the water unless startled when they do a loud splash as they crash dive and get out of the area. They are quite noisy eaters though and there have been times when I have heard an Otter chomping on something and that has been the sign that it is around. They often take larger prey items onto shore, usually under the cover of some thick vegetation, or the fishing platforms that can be seen along the bank here. If you do happen to hear them like this then patience is required as you wait for them to finish their meal and get back out hunting.

Otters are also masters at giving you the slip. They can move good distances underwater without a bubble or ripple to give them away. In my experience once you have a general direction of travel along the river then you can usually rely on them continuing that way. If you lose them then continue along the bank looking for the signs again, often you will relocate them, but not always.


It is also useful to watch the behaviour of other wildlife in the area. Most birds like to keep well away from Otters and will move out of an area when an Otter arrives. A Moorhen might take to a tree, which is unusual, so this behaviour may point to there being an Otter around. Even Mute Swans are not happy when Otters are close by and will start their characteristic hissing. So keep an eye on what else is happening around you, don't just focus on the Otter itself.

3. Time of year.

I've had a great year this year as the resident female had 2 well grown cubs with her through the spring and summer. Normally I don't expect many sightings after early spring through the summer until late autumn. This year has been different, with the 2 cubs in tow, the female had to work harder and longer to get enough food for the whole family, and now it appears that the 2 cubs have not moved far out of the females territory and are still together.

It doesn't help in the summer with all the bank side vegetation blocking the view of the water which may be more of a factor in not seeing Otters at this time in other years. Of course the extra vegetation also works in your favour in that you can keep out of view of the Otter and that brings me on to the next section.

4. Frequency of visits

I visit the site most days so I have a lot of time in the field giving me a lot of opportunity to see Otters. General rule of thumb would be a sighting every 1 or 2 weeks, sometimes better, sometimes worse. So I am getting a lot of sightings but more often than not it's a bust, except that there is plenty of other stuff to see and hear.

5. Camouflage

I don't go out in a ghillie suit but I try to keep a low profile. Often I have been within feet of the animals and just by squatting or kneeling down and keeping my face covered, by the camera, they don't seem to know I am a human (I don't know what that says about me!), so they just carry on their business. Other times they see you and crash dive, never to be seen again! So keep as quiet as possible and keep out of sight where possible. Covering your face is generally a good idea when wildlife watching so in winter wear a scarf or a Buff, lots of wildlife seems to recognise the human face and associates it with a bad time, I can't think why! 

6. Gotchas

Mink may catch you out as they are good swimmers, on and under the water, but they are half the size of an Otter and tend to utilise the bank more than an Otter would. Mink will run along the bank for some distance, Otters often come out on the bank but usually go back into the water to move further along the river. I've heard it said that Otters drive Mink out of an area but that certainly hasn't been my experience here. I've had a Mink moving along one side of the river while an Otter has been working the other side. There is some overlap in their prey items but enough variation that they seem to tolerate each other in the same area.

7. Other info

My patch extends from Kempston Mill up to the island in Biddenham Loop Country Park, I seldom go further up river but I know the Otter(s) have been seen further up stream between there and Bromham Bridge, at least.

Here is a link to a map of the Kempston Mill area with relevant points marked.

Check out this link for some great information on Otters from the Sussex Otters and Rivers Partnership.