As the year has come to a very soggy end and the New Year is now upon us, we can only wait expectantly for that little glimmer of extra light that signifies spring and longer days are on their way.
In these, the darkest days of winter, that prospect seems a long way off, but it is something I always love waiting for as I know it is just around the corner.
I don’t think it’s the weather that bothers me the most about winter – hey, it’s winter and it’s cold in winter and I am fortunate I live in a house with central heating and double glazing – it’s the lack of daylight that bothers me, in fact it drives me mad not being able to quite literally see things in front of my face. What must it have been like for our ancestors waiting in their caves and mud huts for the days to lengthen and the darkness shorten so they could just get out and about more without the fear of being eaten or mauled by something?
Everything and everyone starts to struggle at this time of the year. Quite often the ground is frozen or covered in snow, food stuffs are in short supply and wildlife has to try that extra bit harder to get something to eat.
It is in these hard times that you often see wildlife where you wouldn’t normally expect see it or more usually, you just find the signs of their previous night’s exploits, a ripped bin liner and the contents scattered where a fox has feasted on last night’s take away.
Something similar has been happening in my garden over the last month which always brings me fascinated and sitting freezing in the conservatory for a few minutes of vulpine fun – the appearance of a fox which naturally becomes bolder in the winter months for two main reasons, the first being hunger and the second … it is the mating season and they are on the hunt for a laydeeeee.
Although we live reasonably rural, on the urban fringe, we don’t ‘see’ many foxes but they are there, so it has been a nice surprise to have one visit my garden recently, especially now the chickens have gone, and there is no need to shoo them from away.
My attention was first drawn to this nocturnal visitor by my terriers going ballistic at 5am in the morning! Thinking there was an intruder I reached for my Maglite torch which doubles as a great cosh and ventured forth but nothing was e found by the dogs or the search light.
Next morning, however there were the tell-tale signs of grubbing beneath the bird feeders and overturned plant pots and scattered contents. So I thought interesting, see if continues as it might provide some good photo opportunities when the mornings lengthen. Well, my hunch has paid off and my visitor now comes at a more respectful time when I am fully awake – sometimes he stays just a few seconds and at other times for a good few minutes.
I don’t feed him however, but I did wonder why he kept coming back when there are just a few peanut and seed scraps. So I set up a couple of remote video cameras to see what was happening at other times of the night and all was revealed …
Apart from confirming I still have a very annoying and nosey neighbour, I also have some other very interesting nocturnal visitors to my garden that has highlighted a whole new world after dark.
When I had the chickens in the garden there was never a shortage of food for small rodents but since they have gone to ‘chickenopolis’ elsewhere, there have only been the bird
feeders, but they seem to still be enough, when times are hard, to keep the food chain moving; it is quite amazing to see what lives at the bottom of the garden.
As the last of the daylight leaves and the dayshift of tits and sparrows go to bed, the nightshift moves in to mop up all the spilled titbits and leftovers of the day. Wood mice seem to be ten-a-penny, making return visits to build up their caches in newly created firewood piles I stacked this autumn. Next, a real surprise came in the form of a nocturnal mustelid otherwise known as a (small) weasel which hunted the mice in the wood piles. But, no sooner had he gone then the mice reappeared and, judging by the numbers, I hope he stays around a little longer. A small shrew then scurried along the edge of my raised beds which was eventually followed by the resident tawny owl landing on the edge of my compost bins.
Then, at last the flower pot thug arrived … or was it the flower pot thug after all? True he was a fox but he seemed more intent on snatching the odd peanut and was not at all interested in the flowerpots, save a quick disdainful sniff at the mess. Totally unaware he was on camera, he trotted around the garden watching intently, cocking his head to the sound of ultrasonic mice gossip in firewood heaps, he hopped effortlessly back and forth over the loose logs, but to no avail, the mice were safe this night in the wooden keep and were not going to come out.
So the pattern continued over the next few days, a game of ‘cat and mouse’ or should it be fox and mouse with the occasional weasel making a cameo appearance. But then, one night, the pattern changed – fox didn’t come, although there was the occasional eye-shine from the bushes; something else was stirring in the depths of the night, a creature that never in my wildest dreams would I ever expect to see. Was this the flowerpot mugger? Well you will have to just wait to find out.
Kevin O’Hara is a Conservation Officer with Northumberland Wildlife Trust and writes a regular column for www.thisisnorthumberland.com
Category: Northumbria Wildlife