Spring 2020: In Photos

As the world was thrown into disarray with the full force of a pandemic, our daily lives were hit by lockdown, slowing and grounding to a halt. For the natural world outside our windows though, spring was just beginning, with days warming, buds bursting, and migrants making their return. Even when our own lives were being disrupted, the natural world was carrying on.

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For me, spring has been a real lifeline this year. With the natural world bursting with life, I was able to draw real strength from the return of the swallows, the flowering of the bluebells and the trees becoming cloaked in delicate new leaves. Every moment I could spend out in nature gave me the strength to continue as if nothing had changed, cherishing every moment for what it was. For this I am grateful, and I really appreciate that I am lucky to have the beautiful Dorset countryside right on my doorstep.

As spring begins to make its exit, I wanted to take some moments to reflect on a time that has taught me a lot, brought me some real magic through the natural world, and will be remembered for as many good memories as those eclipsed by Covid-19. To begin with, here are a selection of my favourite photos from this spring. They range from spring wonderment to heart-warming moments, that all mean something to me.

Spring 2020 in photos

1) Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly – The photo featured above was taken only last week, and reminds me of how valuable the time I spend expanding my knowledge of nature really is, including the identification of butterflies and flowers. I found this Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on a 10m long chalk mound that my parents have created for wildlife within our farmland, and it really is coming into its own this year!

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2) Bluebell & Spider – When the bluebells are flowering, it has to be one of my most favourite times of the year. As the woodland floor transforms to a carpet of blue purple, I feel at my happiest and enjoy noticing new details each year, such as the spider hunting on these drooping bells.

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3) Goldfinch – I love the simplicity of this photo of a Goldfinch taken back in March. The bright colours of the bird vividly stand out from the swelling buds and bare twigs of the hazel in this hedgerow. It was enough to brighten a moment on a decidedly chilly spring day.

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4) Stitchwort – Every flower is unique and different in its own way. With Greater Stitchwort, every flower stands out like a small white star, carpeting verges, hedgerows and woodlands alike.

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5) Dandelion Seeds – Now as an adult I still hold on to the child-like curiosity that a dandelion invokes. With hundreds of parachuting seeds waiting to fly, this dandelion creates a beautiful fluffy silhouette in the spring sunshine.

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6) Lleyn Lamb – This photo is as it seems, a photo of a sleepy newborn lamb, born earlier this year. I am proud to say that I come from a farming background in the heart of Dorset. It has been this that has provided me with a spectacular backdrop to learn about the natural world around me, given me the knowledge and experiences to be able to make informed decisions about how I live my life, and given me an understanding of the important relationship between the environment and modern agriculture.

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7) Wild Garlic & Insect – I love to notice the details in nature and get down to the level of the ‘small things’. This may be noticing the curl of an unfurling fern, the patterns on the petals of a tiny flower, or the jewel-like colours of an insect exploring a cluster of star-shaped wild garlic flowers.

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8) Sunrise – One of the best times of day has usually come and gone by the time most people have woken up in the morning. A sunrise is a golden time though to get out, listen to the birds singing and watch as the world wakes up around you. There is nothing like it!

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9) Dark Rabbit – One of my more unusual sightings this year has to be this rabbit, that has notably darker fur compared to the usual European rabbit. It was small in size, and though showing wild instincts, it was slightly less fearful of us humans. Everyday it could be found sunning itself in a small open area within vegetation situated behind our farm buildings.

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10) Moschatel – Every year I try and learn one new species of flowering plant that can be found in our woodlands and surrounding countryside. This year it was the turn of Moschatel. An often overlooked flower due to its greenish colour, Moschatel is also known as Townhall Clock, due to its flowers having 5 faces that make it look like a cube or townhall clock in shape.

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11) Chiffchaff – One of my highlights of spring every year is the return of the Chiffchaff. When I hear this bird sing for the first time each year, I feel like spring has truly arrived, so I am particularly saddened when their singing finally falls silent as autumn grips the landscape.

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12) Feather – This photo is a good example of the beauty of detail. It is simple, but a spot of light highlights the real elegance of this contour feather, now left to lay amongst the vegetation.

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13) Aberdeen Angus Calf – This inquisitive and interestingly marked calf is another photo that connects with my farming roots. Spring is synonymous with new life, from on the farm to the wider countryside, and this little one was just one of many, precious and to be celebrated.

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14) Spider & Hart’s-Tongue Fern – Some days I walk along in my own world and the wildlife around me merges into one. Other days the world becomes bigger though and I see every detail pop out at me, such as with this spider making its home on a Hart’s-Tongue fern.

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15) Fox Cub – As people who follow my blog or social media will already know, this spring I have had fun yet again using my camera trap on my family’s land. This has to be one of my favourite photos from this year! It was a totally unexpected surprise when this fox cub turned up on my camera trap.

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16) Vole Bones – With the return of breeding barn owls to my family’s farm, I had some fun one afternoon dissecting the pellets left by these owls. It is definitely a very rewarding feeling when you are then able to identify the species the bones you find come from. Here I believe this mandible to be from a bank vole.

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17) Field Rose – I have always loved taking photos of flowers and capturing their small details. Here a field rose, you can clearly see the reproductive organs from the stamens to the stigma.

How to…Use and Make the Most of a Camera Trap

There is nothing like the exhilaration of camera trapping. Setting up the camera trap/trail camera in a golden location, waiting with anticipation for the camera check day, and riding a rollercoaster when capturing something totally unexpected. Camera trapping is one highly addictive activity!

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So why is camera trapping so popular? Well, camera traps allow us to non-invasively open up a normally unseen world. This is a thrilling thing to be able to do, giving us the addictive ability to observe wildlife up close and personal without disturbance. In this way, camera traps can be used as an important tool to identify the presence or absence of species, monitor animal populations and record interesting behaviour.

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At home on my family’s farm, I use my camera trap to carry out surveys across our land, to find out what wildlife is present, how abundant these species are, and to experience new life in spring in all its glory. However you choose to use your camera trap, I can only say for you to have lots of fun and adventures whilst doing it!

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Buying a camera trap

So where do you start if you do not already own a camera trap? Well all off-the-shelf camera traps have similar components and operate on the same principles: a digital camera connected to an infrared sensor that “sees” warm moving objects. Camera traps typically range from £30 to £1000, meaning there is a lot of choice out there. To find the camera trap that is right for you though, you should consider these key questions:

  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • What are you going to be wanting to use it for?
  • Where are you going to be using it?
  • Do you want to use it during the daytime, night-time (black and white or colour) or both?
  • Do you want to take photos, videos or both?
  • Will you want increased capabilities, such as wireless, geo-tagging or higher detection capabilities?

The camera trap I use is a simple Bushnell model that I bought many years ago now for about £120.

How to use a camera trap to get the best from it

Camera traps have a lot of potential as they can remain operational 24/7 and can be left in the field for long periods of time. To increase your chance of camera trap success though, you need to set it up properly to maximise animal detection. Here are some handy tips to get you started:

  1. Visit your chosen site before setting up your camera trap to make sure it is the best site possible.16_04_20_Farm_Badger_Alley_5
  2. Do not forget to make sure your camera has another battery life and SD card room each time you set it up.
  3. Carefully select where to mount your camera trap, such as a sturdy tree or post, to make sure your camera will be supported and  positioned to take in your chosen field of view.Detection zone
  4. Consider the height of the animal(s) you are trying to capture to increase detection and inclusion in the frame. For the best result, position your camera trap so it sits just below the target’s shoulder height.Camera Height
  5. Camera angle is as important as height when positioning the camera trap. For best result and to increase the detection range, you want the camera trap to aim horizontally at the subject. A stick is a great way to get a better angle for your camera. Camera angle
  6. Think about where you want the animal to be positioned in the frame. Larger animals are easier to detect so will be detected at longer ranges compared to smaller ones, and animals walking across the camera trap’s field of view will be more easily detected compared to walking towards it.Animal Position
  7. Try to reduce the number of false triggers by trimming back vegetation that could trigger the camera if moving in the wind. Do not remove enough to disturb your intended subjects though!
  8. And always do your research! The more you know about a site or species, the more likely you will get results.

Inspiration for camera trap sites and uses

Over the few years I have owned my own camera trap, I have used it for a number of different purposes and in a variety of locations. Here are some examples of my own work to help inspire you:

  • Abroad – In 2017, I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in Costa Rica on a field course for my Bachelor’s degree, and so I decided to take my camera trap along with me. This allowed me to get some cool sightings of some interesting wildlife

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  • Badger setts – A popular choice for a camera trap site is at a badger sett. With 3 established badger setts on my family’s land, I have previously had all sorts of interesting results by observing setts in this way. In particular, it has always been great to see how different species cohabit such locations.

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  • Paths – A great place I have found to put my camera trap is on an enclosed footpath on our land. This is because the path, fondly known as Badger Alley, is bordered either side by hedges, is in the vicinity of used and disused badger setts, and is frequently used by wildlife but infrequently by humans. Always be aware of how safe a camera trap may be on footpaths though!

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Garden – One of my all time favourite projects I used my camera trap for, was to get photos of our own special garden visitor in October 2018. I love getting to see the wildlife that is truly on our doorstep!

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  • Woodland – I have previously found that a woodland can be an interesting place to capture wildlife. The result can often be unexpected or interesting, with less of an idea of what might turn up.

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Animal trail – Another great way to try and capture the wildlife that is in your local area is to find and set up your camera trap on a well used animal trail. It is interesting to find out what animals are actually making those tracks!

Specific animals – Often when camera trapping, you want to capture a specific animal, which leads to research and setting up the camera trap in a position where this animal has been sighted. Relating to this, my other favourite camera trap project has been to capture fox cubs above ground and to observe their behaviour. This has resulted in many cute photos over the years!

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Now it’s your turn! Even if you do not own/want to own a camera trap, there are always ways around it, for example why don’t you see if you can borrow one from somewhere or someone.

Though camera trapping does not always go to plan, the results can be truly satisfying. Time to see what you can find!

For more camera trap action, check out my blog post from last year called: Spring Countryside Camera Trap Surveys

How to… Identify Animal Footprints

Often it can be difficult to catch a proper glimpse of the animals around us, especially those that are more active at night. Just because you may not be able to see them though, does not mean that they are not there. Instead, a great way to find out what is living near you is to play detective and look for the signs they leave behind, such as fur, burrows or droppings.

Here we take a look at a great sign of animals being present, animal tracks/footprints. Though they are best found in snow or wet mud, at this time of year the best way to look for tracks is after rain, hardened in drying mud, or by creating your own tracker. So why not have a go playing detective and see what you can find in your garden or wider countryside whilst getting out for exercise. To help you out, here’s my guide to animal footprints!

Guide to animal footprints

Badger

Footprint Size: 5-6cm long & 5-6.5cm wide

Badger

A badger’s footprint is large, broad and robust with 5 toe pads pointing forwards in front of a broad rear pad. They also may show long claw marks that are well in front of the toes. Claw marks are shorter and closer to the toe pads for the hind feet.

Badger

Fox

Footprint Size: 5-7cm long & 3.5-4.5cm wide

Fox, Cat, Dog

A fox’s footprint is a bit like a dog’s, but appear more narrow in shape with toes closer together, making a diamond shape. There are 4 distinctly oval toes, 2 at the front and 1 towards each side, and a roughly oval rear pad. Foxes do leave claw prints, unlike cats, but do not have the elongated claws that are visible in badger prints. Sometimes impressions of hairs between pads may be visible.

Rat

Footprint Size: Front= 1.8-2.5cm long; Hind= 3-4.5cm long

Rat

A rat’s footprints vary between the front and hind feet. On the fore, they have 4 toes, whereas on the hind, they have 5 toes and a long heel. Their footprints can be mistaken with a water vole’s, but a water vole’s tends to show more splayed toes and a shorter heel.

Rabbit

Footprint Size: Front= 4cm long; Hind= 7.5-9.5cm long

Rabbit

The hind feet of a rabbit are much larger than their fore feet. This means that their footprints will be grouped into a pair of long and a pair of shorter prints. Often you will also see lots of footprints crossing each other and signs of multiple rabbits together.

Hedgehog

Footprint Size: ~2.8cm wide & ~2.5cm long

Hedgehog

A hedgehog’s footprint is long and narrow in shape with 3 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing out to the sides, making a star shape.

Deer

Footprint Size: Vary from muntjac deer at ~3cm long to red deer at ~9cm long

Deer

All deer species have cloven hooves (2 toes), the same as a sheep or a cow. A deer’s toes are more slender and pointed though, looking like 2 teardrops or an upside-down heart. Toes may appear splayed in soft ground.

It tends to be difficult though to tell apart the footprints of different deer species, as they tend to be similar, only differing in size and subtly in shape. A muntjac’s footprint though, for example, will be alot smaller than a red deer’s.

Deer

Otter

Footprint Size: 6-9cm long & up to 6cm wide

Otter

An otter’s feet are webbed due to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, which can make their prints easy to spot if visible. Their fooprints are also round with 5 toes in front of a large rear pad. Short claw marks projecting from the toes may also be visible.

Small mammals e.g. Mink, weasel, stoat, pine marten, polecat

Footprint Size: Varies with species and sex

Small Mammals

Five toes splayed in a star shape

Birds

Footprint Size: Varies with species

Most bird species have four toes, with typically 3 facing forward and 1 backwards. Depending on the species, footprints on the ground will vary in size, shape and form. A common footprint seen in the english countryside is that of the non-native pheasant. Their footprint is fairly distinct due to their large size and looks like an arrow in shape (Footprint Size: 6-8cm long).

 

All photos and drawings are my own 

Spring Countryside Camera Trap Surveys

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A few years ago, my passion for wildlife led me to save up to buy a Bushnell Trophy camera trap, to be able to explore the wildlife that can be found in my local area. Since then I have embarked on many adventures and had many hours of fun with it, as it allows you to get an amazing undisturbed insight into the lives of more elusive wildlife.

If you are unsure what a camera trap is, it is a digital camera connected to a sensor that is activated/triggered when movement is detected in front of it. It then takes one or a series of photos, a video of select length or a hybrid of the two, that are recorded on to a memory card for later viewing. They are easy to use and can be left out in the elements for long periods of time. My camera trap was a great investment and has now given me years of pleasure at home and further afield, such as in Costa Rica.

This year, as I have been even more inspired by the coming spring, I decided to spend 10 weeks across the season (21st March to 26th May), completing camera trap surveys on my family’s land, which is set in the beautiful Dorset countryside.

For my surveys, over the 10 weeks, I chose a total of 5 camera locations which were used for varying periods of time. These locations I fondly named: copse cam, sett cam, woodland cam, alley cam and fox cam. I left the camera in each location for between 14 to 42 hours across 1-2 nights depending on my intentions at the time. Now spring has seemed to have come to an end, it is now the time for me to take a look back at a fun, exploratory 10 weeks and reflect on some of the wildlife I got the pleasure of recording.

Copse cam

March 2019

For my first camera location, I chose a small copse situated in a dip within a wheat field that has borders including hedges, trees, a river and a large badger sett. The copse shows signs of use from rabbits and species passing through. The camera was attached to the same tree each time at the centre of the copse, and was either pointed to the west or east to try and capture an idea of activity within the whole area. This location was used for 6 weeks (till 26th April) before the wheat became too long around the copse.

Copse from outside

Over the 6 weeks I used this location, 1 week the camera was not set due to bad weather, and another 2 weeks the camera was not triggered at all. Across the 3 weeks that had some success, 5 species were recorded (all singular individuals) that were:

  • Male and female roe deer

Male roe deer

  • Badger

Badger

  • Carrion crow

Carrion crow

  • Woodpigeon

Woodpigeon

  • Red-legged partridge

Red-legged partridge

A range of animal behaviour was seen on the copse cam, including foraging, resting and fleeing behaviour. Unfortunately due to the growing wheat increasingly isolating the copse, the number of camera triggers, and thus survey success, dropped by 80% over the 3 weeks wildlife was seen. Despite this, I did enjoy the wildlife the camera did capture, as it gave an idea of the wildlife passing through this spot at the beginning of spring.

Favourite photo: an up-close and personal shot of a female roe deer. Other photos captured show that this particular female was possibly pregnant during my surveys.

Doe-eyed (female roe deer in the mist)

Sett cam

For my second camera location, I chose a large fenced off badger sett towards the east of my family’s land. The sett is on the border of agricultural grassland backed by a hedge made up of traditionally known hedge species, including blackthorn and hawthorn. The camera was attached to one of two fence posts spaced approximately a metre apart and facing into the main area of the sett in various directions. This location was used for 5 weeks (till 19th April) until the vegetation within the sett area grew to a height that obscured the view of the camera trap.

Sett in daytime

Over the 5 weeks, one week the camera was not set due to bad weather, leaving 4 weeks in which this location was used. In this time the species seen were (all singular individuals):

  • Badger

Badger

  • Fox

Fox

  • Pheasant

Male pheasant

  • Rook

Rook

The number of times the camera trap was triggered was random in relation to length of time set and survey week. Behaviours recorded included foraging and fleeing behaviour. Again, though this camera location was only used for a few weeks, it was great to see the wildlife there, in particular finally seeing badgers actively living in this sett.

Favourite photo: Though the subject of this shot is less noticeable, I love seeing in this photo the shape of a fox disappearing off along the hedge and field line in the background.

Cunning fox

Woodland cam

For my third location, I chose a small area of secondary woodland not far from my house, bordered on its edges by a private lane, meadows and more woodland. The woodland consists of wild cherry trees and predominantly oak trees. For the entire period of 10 weeks, the camera trap was moved between different trees and aimed in different directions to cover a variety of areas within the woodland.

Over the 10 weeks, the lives of 4 common species within this woodland were recorded. These were:

  • Badger (1-2 individuals in a photo)

2 badgers

  • Fox
  • Rabbit (included alongside a pheasant in a couple of shots)

Rabbit

  • Pheasant (1-2 individuals in a photo)

The number of times the camera trap was triggered was random in relation to length of time set and survey week. What is interesting though, is that foxes were seen passing through the wood over the first 5 weeks (March into April), but not in the last 5 (April into May). This differs to what was seen for badgers, where compared to the first few weeks, badgers were seen mainly in the last 4 weeks (May) and in increasing numbers, which would correspond with breeding stage and foraging tactics. It was great to see the badgers in this way.

Favourite photo: My favourite photo has to be from when I increasingly caught sight of the badgers in the woodland, as it filled me with excitement every time I saw these photos.

Badgered

Alley cam

For my fourth location, following week 6 (27th April), I chose one of my favourite sites on my family’s land, fondly known as Badger Alley. I refer to a 1-3m wide, rarely used bridle/footpath that is enclosed overhead by the tall hedges growing on either side (creating a tunnel effect). Along this path, an active badger sett and a deserted sett can be found, which are shared by other species, such as rabbits and foxes. The path is also rich along its length with a variety of plant species. In the end, I chose to position my camera trap to be able to take in part of the active sett as well as the path along side it to see what I could see.

Alley cam

Over the 5 weeks from 27th April to 25th May, the camera trap recorded a total of 6 different species, which were:

  • Roe deer

Female roe deer

  • Fox
  • Badger (1-3 individuals in a photo)
  • Rabbit (1-2 individuals in a photo)
  • Woodpigeon

Woodpigeon

  • Grey squirrel

Grey squirrel

The number of times the camera trap was triggered was random in relation to length of time set and survey week. A range of behaviours were observed in the photos, my favourite being grooming, bonding/socialising, hunting and play behaviour. It has to be sad that I particularly enjoyed using this location for my camera trap surveys!

Rabbit grooming

Favourite photos: When the badgers joined in with showing why Badger Alley was given its name!

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Fox cam (Note: date of photos are incorrect= 2019 not 2018)

For my final camera location, as a one-off (week 8: 10th May), I chose to investigate a potential fox den within the badger sett that borders the wheat field where the copse mentioned is found. This sett is fairly large, is fenced off from the adjacent wheat field whilst being backed by a wide, traditional hedgerow. In particular, a large part of the sett runs within the hedgerow itself, and in places there are open cavities at the centre of the hedge which are popularly used by wildlife.

Sett= location of fox cam

Before I chose this location, my mum had mentioned to me that she thought that she had seen signs of a female fox feeding cubs in this location, and so I decided to set up my camera with the purpose of investigating if this was true. Read on to find out the result!

I can now reveal that this camera trap set up was a complete success! I caught a vixen and her 3 cubs on camera, as well as a cheeky magpie and an unexpected great tit. The foxes triggered the camera 127 times over 27 hrs, making for a greater insight into their behaviour, social relationships and private interactions. Very exciting!

Favourite photos: The fox cubs!

Fox cub

Sleepy cub

 

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Playful cubs

Summary

This spring I really enjoyed embarking on the completion of camera trap surveys and being able to analyse what species can less obviously be seen around me. In total, my camera trap caught sight of 12 different species of birds and mammals, with lots of different individuals being recorded within this.

I hope you enjoyed a small sight into my camera trapping fun and may be inspired to take exploring your local area to the next level. Camera trapping may not be for you but there are lots of other things out there waiting for you.