The call of the wild

Bluebells and badger cubs are two of the delights that make early May a great time to be out in the wild, and on Sunday I got to see both. It is just possible that I would not have experienced either however, but for for the calls of a tawny owl on Saturday night.

Saturday night was a late one for me, as I stayed up until nearly 1.00am. Just after I went to bed, a tawny owl started vocalising outside, making repeated “kee-wick”  calls. I have never heard one so close to home before, and wondered if the owl was trying to tell me something. I decided that today I would answer the call of the wild and spend some time outdoors. (I don’t have a photo of a tawny owl, but I do have this painting of one which I created many years ago.)

Everdon Stubbs is particularly attractive at this time of year, being full of bluebells and other spring wildflowers. At weekends, particularly when the weather is good, the wood is so attractive that you need to get there early to have any chance of finding somewhere to park. As Sunday was living up to its name, and knowing that I wasn’t going to get to the Stubbs early, I made my way to another wood instead. This particular wood is, in parts, just as full of bluebells. (View larger image on Flickr.)

Another common and attractive woodland wildflower often found alongside the bluebells is the greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea). At first glance each flower appears to have ten petals, but in fact there are only five, each of which is deeply notched. This species is named for its traditional medicinal use as a cure for a side ache or stitch. (View larger image on Flickr.)

The wood was alive with birdsong, and in places there was a constant humming sound from the numerous hoverflies. Speckled wood butterflies basked in the sunshine, while overhead an occasional buzzard could be heard mewing.

A rather more raucous sound was produced by a jay in the coniferous part of the wood. The squawking calls were almost parrot-like, and continued for quite some time. I spent a while carefully approaching the source of this racket in the hope of catching a glimpse of the jay. Eventually I was rewarded with the sight of a jackdaw-sized bird with a distinctive white rump. Jays are beautiful birds when seen properly, as I’m sure you will agree when you see this photo taken by my friend Andrew Haynes.

Emerging from the conifers I found myself in a part of the wood where the ground was wetter and bluebells sparser. Where the bluebells were absent, other species took their place including wood oxalis, violets, primroses and a common but unusual-looking plant which goes by various names including wild arum, cuckoo pint, lords and ladies, and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arum maculatum). The flower of this species has a dark, central spadix enclosed within a tall, pointed green hood. The spadix produces heat and probably also a scent which attracts insects. Pushing their way past a ring of hairs into the base of the green hood, the insects pick up pollen from the male flowers on the lower part of the spadix – and find that they are trapped. The hairs later relax and the captured insects are freed. When they visit another wild arum plant the same thing happens again, but this time the pollen picked up during the last incarceration is transferred to the female flowers on the lower part of the spadix, ensuring cross-pollination.

Although the leaves of the wild arum are poisonous, the thick, fleshy roots or tubers, within which starch is stored, are dug up and eaten by badgers, particularly during the winter. I found a number of badger pathways in the vicinity of the wild arum plants I saw on Sunday afternoon, and decided to follow one to see where it went. Badger paths in bluebell woods are much easier to follow at this time of year as the constant passage of badger feet along them maintains a clear trail, some 12 – 20 cm wide, through the lush bluebell leaves. Alongside the badger path I found a latrine area with fresh and recent dung, and further on, an apple tree which was just beginning to blossom. The reddish-pink petals of the unopened flowers were particularly attractive, standing out against the green and blue background.

A little further still along the path I came across a dead tree which was host to a fungus known as dryad’s saddle or pheasant’s back mushroom (Polyporus squamosa). Although edible, this fungus is apparently not particularly good to eat except when young and tender. (View larger image on Flickr.)

Finally, the badger path brought me out of the wood and to the sett where I had the chance encounters with badgers described in my last blog entry.

As my arrival at the sett this time round was during the afternoon rather than the evening, the chances of seeing a badger were slim. The sett was not devoid of life however as a young rabbit very obligingly posed for photographs.

The gorse bushes within which the sett is situated were in full bloom and air was thick with the strong, coconut-like scent of the bright yellow flowers. This is one of my favourite smells, reminding me of some of the wilder places where gorse grows in profusion such as parts of Exmoor.

In the shade of an oak tree situated close to the sett, I came across more flowers with a very distinctive odour: ramsons, otherwise known as wild garlic. This species is distributed rather patchily in Northamptonshire; one good place to see (and smell) it is at Fawsley Park. (View larger image on Flickr.)

After admiring the ramsons I returned to my car and headed for home. Later however I returned to the wild once more, to visit the woodland badger sett where I have been watching badgers over the last couple of years. On my previous two visits I saw very little activity (hence the lack of badger watching blog entries of late!). This evening however I hoped for some better observations. I was not disappointed.

Over the course of my watch I saw four of five of the yearlings, who had been conspicuous by their absence during my previous couple of attempts to observe the sett. They were particularly wonderful to watch once darkness had fallen and I switched on my torch. The light, powered by a new battery, illuminated the badgers perfectly. I have seen badgers hundreds of times over the years, but tonight I found myself as captivated as ever by the strikingly beautiful jet black and snow white faces of these marvellous mammals.

There were adults too. One rather scruffy looking individual, with ears chewed from past conflicts, emerged from an entrance quite close to me just after half past eight. Without stopping to sample the peanuts and raisins which I had supplied, this badger meandered across the sett and off along a badger pathway, only to return shortly afterwards and go back below ground.

Five minutes or so after the return of the adult badger, and at the same entrance hole, another Brock appeared. Not an adult, not a yearling, but a cub, and a tiny one at that! I was spellbound by this magical scene. All too soon however, the little cub retreated back into the safety of the tunnel. I remained at the sett for another hour, watching the yearlings for the most part, and hoping that I would see the baby badger again.

My patience was ultimately rewarded, not with a sighting of the young cub, but with the appearance, from the lower part of the sett, of another, older cub. This one was around the size I would expect for early May, and looked to be in the mood for play; however I saw no sign of any siblings. More visits to the sett should reveal whether there are more cubs than the two I saw tonight – and I won’t need encouragement from an owl to make those visits!

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