It really does seem like a lifetime ago now that I saw family, friends, or anyone at all, my little world revolves around Murphy (the dog) and my local wildlife. I don’t know what I would have done without either of those and my heart goes out to everyone who is alone or doesn’t have access to the outdoors – that seems completely incomprehensible to me. I confess I am now beginning to yearn for human company, but hopefully that will be permitted before too long.
Lockdown isn’t all bad. Spring is a time of optimism. Every day when I look out the window, or walk in the woods something has changed. Bracken is appearing at a tremendous rate in the woods – I find myself removing large stems at the squirrel hide on a daily basis that weren’t there 24 hours earlier. Woodland flowers are blooming. The bluebells look especially good right now.
I’m still trying to figure out what all the trees and shrubs in my garden are. There are lots of fruit trees (I think, at least they all had beautiful blossom) and my bird feeder tree appears to be a laburnum – it’s known as the golden chain tree, and you can see why!
Bird numbers have obviously dropped since the winter, but I’m seeing many more house and tree sparrows as they look for mates, search for nesting material and feed youngsters. Starlings have appeared, emptying feeders in a blink of an eye and I’ve had a few fledglings – siskin, greenfinch and tree sparrows with hopefully more to come.
Most exciting on the fledgling front though were a family of long-tailed tits that visited my squirrel site, perching on a fallen tree to the side of the hide. I had to hand-hold my heavy 300mm 2.8 lens to photograph them, but fortunately they did stick around for a few minutes. The little ones were even more adorable than the adults and chose a perfect place to perch!
As for other garden wildlife, well, a garden camera picked up about 1 second of a pine marten in the garden which was exciting. No sign of them using my garden squirrel feeder though. I have at least 2 badgers visiting the garden every night, I finally saw one (well the smudge of one) late one evening which was a first. Swallows are swooping over the garden too which is brilliant to see – I was envious of my brother’s swallows last year. Still no hares, but the local rabbits are enjoying the slightly longer than it should be grass and dandelion heads. It’s great to open the curtains in the morning and see them in the garden. Also being able to photograph an animal when still in my pjs is a luxury!
Rabbit grooming is very similar to hare grooming, so seeing this made me happy (but also made me yearn for the hares even more).
I have started trying to watch the badger sett on suitable evenings, of which there have been almost none. This is proving to be a frustrating experience for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because the badgers aren’t early risers and they have so many entrances to choose from, many of which are obscured by large trees, that even if I do see one it is more often than not mostly hidden. That said, just having access to a sett within a stone’s throw of my garden is exciting and it’s early in the season as yet. I did film this badger gathering bedding material. It was almost dark but fortunately a high iso made filming it doable… just!
My trail cams have picked up some wonderful footage of the two cubs who are now out and about (very late at night). I’m desperate to see them!!
The squirrel site is proving to be a success though. It’s 5 minutes behind my house is what I like to think of as my extended back garden – a deciduous wood that I can access via a path directly from my property. Almost no-one ever goes to this part of the wood so I pretty much have it to myself although I hear folk walking their dogs on the other side of the gully. Overnight at least one pine marten still visits, badgers do too, I’ve also had a roe deer hiding behind a very annoyingly placed beech tree.
The light is more challenging now that the trees have leaves, I’ve had to switch to my 300mm f2.8 or 70-200mm 2.8 at a higher iso than before, but the soft green backdrop is photogenic and I do love it when the squirrels perch on this branch. They go here mostly when spooked by something either a noise or dominant squirrel Patty.
Other parts of the trees are also great for framing with the leaves although it is tricky finding focus on the squirrel sometimes!
As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m loving spending quality time with the same group of animals. Had it not been for lockdown I would have been here far less and wouldn’t be nearly as familiar with individuals. I was watching one of the episodes of Primates on the BBC this week, and Chris Packham was talking about how it has been discovered that some of the primates have individual personalities. I’d have thought that was the case for most animals. You’ll always have dominant and submissive members of a social group; some that are more confident. This is certainly the case with my squirrels. It’s fascinating. Now, even if they all looked identical, I’d recognise them. It’s not so easy when going back through the images though and I imagine that’ll get even more tricky when they are all fully moulted! For me wildlife photography isn’t just about taking photographs, it’s about learning more about the animals I’m photographing and discovering new ones. Before I took it up seriously I knew so much less, so many birds, for example, I’d never even heard of. But you take a photograph of something and want to know what it is. Photography also made me far more aware of my surroundings and I see much more now too. It’s been brilliant with the squirrels really getting to understand them and to try and capture different behaviours and unusual images rather than the standard squirrel posing or hunched over eating a nut.
The most interesting of the squirrels has to be the dominant animal – Patty. She’s incredible. Patty is almost always the first one to appear after I’ve put out some nuts and retreated into my hide. More often than not she gets all the hazelnuts in shells (I only put out a few of these as they always take them away and cache) and most of those out of their shells. The other squirrels are still nervous of her. Many will retreat as soon as they see her approaching, if they do try and come down she almost always chases them away.
She has a killer stare at times too when she spots another squirrel, but she can look adorable as well! She’s the squirrel who I think is most feline in appearance. I have more images of Patty than any other squirrel because I see so much of her.
A few weeks back, completely out of the blue, she popped into my hide to see what was going on in there. I was taken a bit by surprise! So I put out a few nuts and she came back for them all. Since then she almost always visits me, even though I don’t tend to give her anything. She comes right up to my shoes. The crazy thing is, if she sees me outside the hide she behaves like all the others and disappears. None of the other squirrels have shown much interest in the hide. They may have a look at me through the side window, but that’s it.
The other female is Emmylou. Her personality couldn’t be more different from Patty’s. At first glance they look almost identical now, except that Patty has visible teats and Emmylou hasn’t. But look again and you’ll see that Emmylou has a softer, sweeter face. She’s a nervous squirrel and is the one I witness clutching her paws to her chest more often than the others. She appears a fair bit though and I think if I were to have a favourite she would be it. I do tend to make up stories about them as I sit in the hide, and I’ve always thought that Emmylou is probably one of last years kits. Possibly with Patty and Slaid as parents. However I have seen signs (again I could just be making up stories) of her relationship to Slaid changing. They tolerate each other to a much greater extent and often chase, but not in a “go away and don’t come back” way like Patty does. So maybe there’s the chance they will mate and have a litter later this year. That would be nice!
Here’s a video which I think shows her personality perfectly.
The aforementioned Slaid is the original plucky boy squirrel. He’s gutsy. Although just as wary of Patty as the others, he is the one who will try and challenge her sometimes. He’s always chased away, but at least he tries. As I mentioned in my last blog he seems to have a longer tail than the others which often looks fab. He’s also holding on to his ear tufts which although receding now are still obvious unlike the two girls.
At one point I did think there was a 4th squirrel but I decided that this couldn’t be the case as I only ever saw the above 3 in person or on my trail cameras. But then mid-May everything changed. I’d been hoping to see Patty’s kittens. She’s obviously been nursing and was at the hide so much that either she was a rubbish, inattentive Mum, or the kittens had already left home. I was sitting in the hide one day and a squirrel that looked like Slaid appeared. But his behaviour was very different. He was nervous and jumpy, plus he didn’t go round all the usual nut spots but went straight to the feeder. I instantly thought “new squirrel!” and named him Gram (if you have an Emmylou, you need a Gram Parsons). But over the next few days I began to question myself. Was there really another squirrel, a doppelganger of Slaid, or was I making it up? I genuinely believed this animal was different, the behaviour was very “unSlaid”, but for the next week I never saw the two together. I even spent an afternoon zooming in on all my Slaid images trying to figure out if it was two individuals and still I couldn’t tell the difference. I was just beginning to convince myself that Gram was a figment of my active, slightly bored in lockdown, imagination, when suddenly there they both were! Gram has slightly larger tufts remaining, looks a little cuter, whilst Slaid has a couple of white hairs between his eyes and, for the moment, a tick on his cheek. I was delighted not only to have another squirrel, but that I know them well enough now to have recognised this, not by appearance, but by behaviours. This is exactly what I’ve always wanted, to get to know a group of animals well enough to begin to learn about them, not just to photograph them. Yes, there are a few mountain hares I know and recognise, but in a line-up would I be able to pick most of them out? No, I wouldn’t.
But that’s not the end of the story. The same day I first saw Gram I had the trailcam running 24/7 on the hide. I took the sd card back with me and was delighted to discover yet another new squirrel. Another little boy. Unlike Gram, he has no ear tufts and is pretty much in his summer coat now. But he is adorable. Instantly recognisable as a different squirrel, he struggled with the squirrel feeder but wouldn’t accept failure. His attempts to access it had me crying with laughter.
Good news is, he does manage eventually, but unlike the others tends to disappear inside it to eat the nuts.
Because of this determination I took a break from my naming convention of Americana musicians, and called him “wee” Bruce, after the Robert the Bruce and spider story. I’ve hardly ever seen him so don’t have many photographs just my trailcam footage as he tends to come in outside of rush hour, either very early or late afternoon, but I love watching him. Here are a few stills from the video if you don’t fancy watching it.
So… where did Gram and Bruce come from? That is the question. My suspicion is that they are Patty’s offspring. Her drey is quite probably a fair distance away from my feeding station as it would have been in place before I’d established my site. Therefore chances are the kittens left the drey some time ago but have only just found my spot. That would explain why Patty’s been at the hide so much, not snuggling down protecting her young. It is a shame they didn’t come when cute little kittens, but they are still adorable and it’s a joy to see them. Maybe Patty will relocate for the next litter and they’ll appear earlier. However, I’m not complaining! My little family has grown and it’s fab!
I do see other creatures at the hide site too. The male great spotted woodpecker who was drumming a lot when I wrote my last blog seems to have found a mate – a female started appearing. She’s nowhere to be seen now, but he comes down repeatedly. I’ve called them Jack and Diane after the John Cougar Mellencamp song. He makes me laugh because he always gives the impression that he’s trying to get away with something. He starts on a high branch, then drops down and hops along looking a bit shifty.
I’m also now regularly seeing jays. They are the most colourful member of the corvid family in the UK, but also one of the most elusive. However, my two, at the promise of a free meal, have started to appear regularly. Jays are very handsome, and it’s great to see them up close, but they hoover up huge numbers of nuts in one go and scare the squirrels!
The jay favours my “safe” log which is back from the tree. I put it there so squirrels other than Patty could have access to nuts whilst she was about. However, once the jays have had their fill a little mouse pops up and finishes them off!
So… lockdown for me has had its plus points, I wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time getting to know the squirrels, or looking out the window, had I been able to get out and about. Of course I’m still unable to move forward with any of my plans to earn an income. Good news is that my garden pod has now received planning permission. It’s a two bedroom (1 double, 1 single so that it works for both couples and friends) luxury pod which I’ll be renting to wildlife photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. I hope to combine that with guiding and workshops. Hopefully that’ll be up and running by the autumn/winter so long as I’m allowed to open it due to virus restrictions. I’m also taking bookings (they can be flexible) for mountain hare guiding. Vouchers are available via my website. My greeting cards are selling well on Etsy so do check those out if you’d like cards to send to loved ones (I can write and send too if that’s easier for you). Finally I was invited on to BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme which was great! You can find me just after the 1 hour mark waxing lyrical about red squirrels and wildlife in general. (And if you are reading this after mid-June, you can still hear me via the podcast, 57 minutes in.)