“Hallo, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
It was fairly quiet bird-wise on my first monthly visit to Cosmeston Lakes Country Park on 2 December, though there were still good numbers of the various thrushes (Mistle, Song, Redwing and Blackbird) around. A Great spotted woodpecker in the west paddock was a nice surprise – I initially thought it a Jay when I saw that peachy belly. The Tufted ducks amused, as always, and, while I sat watching them, the Brown rat I’d seen before at that particular spot came snuffling around for food. There were two more rats foraging by the boardwalk near the café.
It’s a thrush takeover! On 6 December, I’d scarcely left the house to walk to Cosmeston than I was spotting Redwings, Song thrushes, and a Mistle thrush, plus Goldfinches and Chaffinches, in the trees just across the road. And when I got to Cosmeston it was more – much more – of the same, plus the first Fieldfares I’ve seen there. In Cogan Wood, the little birds were hungry so I shared my flapjack with them – there were even two Nuthatches and a half dozen Long-tailed tits picking up the crumbs on the ground. And the prize for the most colourful birds goes to the pair of Bullfinch that were munching on hogweed seeds.
On 15 December, I finally got a reasonable, though not brilliant photo of a Fieldfare – they are very skittish so it’s hard to get close to them. I finally found a spot behind the berry trees they were feasting in, then just had to be patient and wait for one to pop up to the top of a tree.
In Cogan Wood, one of the resident Marsh tits popped out to say hello – first sighting I’ve had since earlier in the year as they seem to disappear during the breeding season. And there was a Stonechat at the top end of the west paddock. There had been a pair of Stonechats in that area in the autumn but they seemed to have disappeared when the park staff mowed that field, so it was good to see one there again.
Something else happened at Cossie during this visit, something that’s never happened to me before. A squirrel climbed up my leg, not once but four times – the first time it grabbed my finger, the second time it touched my camera. I didn’t have food but it obviously thought I did. It certainly made me laugh.
On our Glamorgan Bird Club trip to Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve, we came across this small group of ponies. The Teignmouth District Council website reports: ‘Helping to keep the grasslands in shape, Dartmoor ponies are used in the winter months to help produce ideal conditions for rare flowers and invertebrates. These are “working”, wild animals, so DO NOT feed them or try to stroke them.’
Not having read this before we saw them, we did stroke them and, luckily, they were friendly enough, but they were much more concerned with doing their job as ‘eco mowers’ than basking in human attention.
On the way back from Portland our group of Glamorgan Bird Clubbers detoured to RSPB Arne to follow up on the reported sighting of a Stilt sandpiper.
It was down there somewhere, amidst the large numbers of waders – it was a real treat to see so many Avocets together – but I can’t definitively say I saw it.
However, we did have fabulous views of the surrounding countryside and the distant Corfe Castle – another place added to my list of ‘must visits’ – and, to my delight, we also had wonderful views of a Sika deer mother and fawn, the first time I’ve seen these deer.
The Sika (Cervus nippon) is about the size of a Fallow deer – this hind would’ve been between 50 and 90cm at the shoulder, her fawn, obviously, smaller – but the Sika’s coat is generally darker. They do have whitish spots in the summer but these can be very faint, almost invisible in the winter months. Fawns are usually born in May – June so this little one must’ve been 4 to 5 months old.
The countryside at Arne is perfect for Sika as they prefer coniferous woodlands and acidic heathland, where they nibble away at grasses and heather. Although these Sika are not a native British species – three different Asian species have been kept on estates and parklands, escapees from the Japanese species (hence C. nippon) can be found through much of Britain where the habitat is right, particularly in parts of Scotland.
If you don’t like rats, look away now!
While I realise that a blog about rats might not appeal to everyone, I rarely get to see or write about mammals so, when these two rats came brazenly sniffing around for the seeds I was feeding to the birds at Cosmeston, I couldn’t resist taking photos. And once I have photos, a blog shall surely follow.
These are Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), immigrants from central Asia that arrived in Britain around 1720. Of course, I don’t mean these two individuals arrived in 1720 – rats usually only live about a year in the wild – but their ancestors were sea-going rodents that just loved to sail the oceans wide and jumped ship wherever they docked. Nowadays, rats are more settled, and they’ll live almost anywhere – houses, gardens, parks, farmlands and farm buildings – you name it, there’s probably a rat in it somewhere.
They particularly like cereals – so, my bird seed would’ve gone down a treat – but they’ll eat pretty much anything, from small birds and their eggs to molluscs and food scraps. If you’re someone who hates these much-maligned creatures, remember that they too play an important part in the food chain, in particular as food for the owls and foxes that everyone loves.
I have only ever seen two shrews, both sadly deceased. Britain has two species of shrew, the Common (Sorex araneus) and the Pygmy (Sorex minutus), but I believe the ones I have seen have been Pygmy shrews. Though both species have brown fur on their backs and silvery grey fur on their bellies, and they are of a similar size, the Pygmy shrew has a tail that is two-thirds the length of its body, whereas the Common shrew’s is half the length. It’s a small distinction and I’m sure experts could point to more scientific methods of distinguishing one from the other but, for me, the tail has to be the telling point.
Pygmy shrews lead short but frantic lives. In their twelve to eighteen months of life the females can give birth to two, sometimes three litters of between 5 and 7 young. Though very few people ever see them, they are common in much of Britain, ferreting about frantically, in grasslands, woodlands, the fringes of arable fields and in the urban garden, for the small insects they like to eat. As you can see, they have tiny eyes but that relatively large snout gives them a keen sense of smell to help find their prey.
In case you’re wondering how I managed to get such detailed photos of this little Pygmy shrew, I brought it home with me. This wasn’t just to get photos – through someone I know who is doing a PhD in biosciences at Cardiff University, this little creature has been donated to science. Its details will help in the study of these often elusive small mammals, and it will be preserved and used as a teaching aid. I was sad to find such a gorgeous wee beastie dead but at least its death has not been in vain.