A passion for nature

Tag: Wildlife

Fox cub with white paws

On the trail of the white-pawed fox

By Keith Broomfield

As far as accessibility was concerned, this was the fox den from hell, which to reach involved wading knee-deep across a tumbling river followed by a scramble up a steep, nettle-infested bank.

I had first noticed the site on the far bank of the river earlier in the spring when the leaf cover was still sparse, and where through gaps in the trees it was possible to glimpse a sandy mound of excavated soil at the top of a wooded slope. A badger sett, I presumed, but its inaccessibility and need to wade across the river was a discouragement for me to monitor it with my trail cameras.

But after having no luck in filming badger cubs at a more easily reached sett nearby, I decided to relocate the trail cameras to this new site. The water swirled around my legs as I forded the river, and the climb up the far slope left me puffing, but as soon as I reached the first entrance hole, the remains of a rabbit and the distinctive musky aroma made me realise this was an occupied fox den.

Badgers never leave prey remains outside their setts, whilst vixens are not so fastidious, and if prey is abundant all kinds of bits and pieces are left lying about, including birds’ wings, feathers, and rabbits’ feet.

Examining the trail camera recordings a week later confirmed that there was a fox family in residence, and it was wonderful to watch the cubs at play, tumbling and clambering over one another with the zeal that is the hallmark of young life. Curiously, my first badger sett inclination also proved correct, for adult badgers occasionally emerged from the same hole as the fox cubs.

There were several holes on the site, which was obviously quite a large sett complex, and presumably the fox family and the badgers occupied different parts, although occasionally shared the same exit holes.  Foxes are not terribly good at digging and it is much easier for a pregnant vixen to set up residence in a pre-made home, rather than going to the effort of making her own den.

It was no doubt an uneasy co-existence, with the badgers regarding the foxes a threat to their cubs and vice versa. The vixen when she appeared on camera did not look in the best of health, thin and scrawny and with a slight limp. But the cubs looked robust and the mother was obviously fit enough to catch plentiful prey.

The other big surprise about this fox family was that one of the cubs had white forepaws, which looked like neat little pale socks set against the dark legs. I had never seen such a genetic aberration before and the wee cub was cuteness personified as it cavorted around the den. On my early morning walks in the months to come, I will be keeping a keen look-out for this white-pawed beauty as it pads along field edges and hones its hunting skills for voles and rabbits.

Gran Canaria giant lizard

The marvel of evolution

Adaptive radiation is a fascinating aspect of evolutionary biology where a common ancestral species develops into a wide variety of different others, each one adapted to the niche parameters of their specific environment.

The famous Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands are a classic example, with the individuals in each island having evolved their own unique features. It happens in Scotland, too – for example, on St Kilda where the wrens and field mice have formed their own separate sub-species, featuring slightly different morphological traits from their mainland cousins. The freshwater sticklebacks in North Uist show differences depending on which body of water they inhabit, and there are numerous other examples of such diversity.

A recent visit to the Canary Islands brought home to me this wondrous facet of nature. On the island of Gran Canaria, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a giant lizard, a magnificent reptile that is unique to the island, and which can grow up to 80cm long (including the tail), although most specimens are smaller. The one I found was about 50cm long, and was taking things easy by basking in the morning sun on a steep embankment close to the shore.

The neighbouring islands of La Gomera, Tenerife and Hierro also have their own endemic giant lizard species, the isolation brought by the islands spurring distinct differences in form. Tenerife and Gran Canaria also host the globally unique blue chaffinch, which have diverged further, so that each island has its own species.

The Canary Islands are a wonderful holiday destination for those with an interest in nature, with the flora being especially fascinating. Around 40 per cent of the islands’ plants are endemic, many of which are endangered.

The mountains of Gran Canaria are truly spectacular, and my wife Lynda and I spent much of our time hiking the high trails, whilst at sunrise I would slip into the sea with snorkel and mask to explore the underwater life. Dawn is my favourite time to go snorkelling – the rising sun delivers a magical soft-lit aura and many nocturnal marine creatures are still out and about.

One early morning snorkel brought my first ever encounter with a flaming reef lobster, a stunning bright orange crustacean with white spirals and other intricate patterning on its shell. Another intriguing discovery was a cylindrical shaped gelatinous and pink-flecked object that drifted just below the water surface, which transpired to be the egg mass of a diamondback squid.

As well as birds, reptiles and plants, the uniqueness of life in the Canaries extends to fish, and one type I encountered was the island grouper. Classified as vulnerable on the ‘red list’ of endangered species, it is only found around the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde.

This was a charismatic fish with striking blotches and stripes on the body, and a confiding demeanour that allowed a close approach.  Its beauty and brashness perfectly encapsulated the compelling nature of the Canary Islands and its boundless capacity to create new life from within.

Five-star review for ‘A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey’

I was thrilled when my new book – A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey – recently gained a five-star review from Scottish Field magazine.

The review said: “I dare you to open this book up to any page, read the text with fresh new eyes and not fall in love with the way Keith Broomfield has painted the Scottish landscape with words.

“He has thoughtfully captured his rambles across Scotland, from the bottom all the way to the very top in Shetland, recounting the diverse and exciting wildlife he spotted along the way. From the urban fox to the minke whale, Keith Broomfield tells all their stories with equal enthusiasm.

“A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey is among my most cherished styles of book; filled with bewitching ecological descriptions, supplemented with knowledge and facts about local wildlife that is shown rather than told and complemented by sketches of the flora and fauna. This is one of my favourite non-fiction books of the year.”

Haven on our doorsteps

A queen buff-tailed bumblebee hovering low over the ground in search of a nesting hole, while on a nearby ash, a treecreeper spirals its way up the trunk, before flying over in a short undulation to an adjacent tree.

Wonderful and so relaxing to watch; nature going about its business and brimming with spring abundance. But this is neither wooded glade nor forest edge – instead, I’m sitting on a seat in my garden, soaking-up its wildness and beauty.

For those of us lucky enough to have a garden during the coronavirus lockdown, then it is a wild sanctuary we must all appreciate for the sake of our mental wellbeing.  In many instances, a garden can contain more diversity of life over a small piece of ground than a similar area of wild land. If you don’t own a garden, any local park or urban green space will hold a similar variety of wildlife to enjoy.

Think a typical garden, then think open lawn, flowering shrubs, perhaps a hedge, and certainly numerous nooks and crannies in the paving stones for invertebrates to seek shelter. A blackbird could be nesting in that laurel, or a dunnock in the berberis. And then there is the miracle of those daisies that keep on popping back into their white-flowering magnificence each time the lawn is cut.

My garden is small, but I love it like no other place in the world, for there is so much to see. In recent days, I’ve seen comma butterflies with their vibrant colour and scalloped wing-edges, blue tits prospecting a nest box, and a little bee-fly with an impossibly long proboscis hovering in the air.

As dusk takes hold, I prowl the garden like a restless soul looking for flitting bats and scuttling hedgehogs. And, as night falls, I’m reluctant to head indoors, such is the peace and tranquillity of this gentle blanket of darkness.

One garden bird which has become a great favourite of mine over the last few weeks is the woodpigeon. They are so charismatic, and it is wonderful to watch their courtship. Sometimes the male flies above the garden in a wide looping flight, clapping his wings together on the highest part of his trajectory, as if to say to a nearby female – look at me, I’m the perfect mate.

At other times, the male and female sit together on the bough of a sycamore as he gently nibbles her neck. They have now built a nest in the neighbour’s ornamental conifer, and every so often, the female will appear by the edge of its green embrace, to watch the world’s happenings down below whilst having a short rest from the chores of incubating eggs.

Woodpigeons are ubiquitous and one of those creatures we tend to take for granted, but by taking a closer look, a most fascinating bird is unveiled that enthrals at every turn.

Opportunity knocks

It’s all about finding the right opportunity – and this pair of red-breasted mergansers fishing close to the shore at St Cyrus had certainly found that.

Despite the air being still, rolling breakers were crashing into the shore with some ferocity. But the power of the surge had created a small protective sand bar a short distance further out, which in turn provided a calm channel close to the beach.

It was here the mergansers fished, a good spot for catching small flounders, and where gulls had also gathered close to the water’s edge. I’m not a regular enough visitor to St Cyrus to know whether this narrow channel is always there, but I suspect not, for the coast here is such a dynamic environment, constantly scoured by the tidal currents, wave-topped seas and the outpourings from the nearby River North Esk.

I was here bright and early, the sun just having risen above the far horizon and there was not a soul about. The mergansers fished for several more minutes, the pair frequently diving together in unison. I wondered if there was teamwork going on here, with both sweeping the shallow channel in a broad front so as to flush out flatfish buried in the sand.

On the distant cliffs, fulmars prospected their nesting ledges and a short while later a stonechat alighted on the branch of a washed-up tree trunk right in front of me, before flitting away across the sand-dunes.  This was wildness at its best, but it was time to go, for I was keen to explore nearby Johnshaven.

Bur shortly after drawing away from the St Cyrus nature reserve visitor centre, I brought my car to a juddering halt. A grassy field adjacent to the lane was full of curlews, their long-curved bills silhouetted against the low winter sun. It had been a while since I had seen so many of these wonderful birds together at one time, content in the company of their own kind as they busily probed for worms.

Curlew numbers are in freefall, resulting in the bird being described as ‘the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK’, and as I drove away once more, I pondered for how much longer it would still be possible to witness such large groups as this.

Just as how the mergansers had found opportunity at St Cyrus, then so too had a pair of turnstones I discovered  soon after on the quay at Johnshaven. Turnstones adore fishing harbour quaysides, presumably because there is shellfish detritus left behind by fishers after landing their catch.

These attractive little waders breed in the Arctic, and are clearly opportunists too, seeking out good places to forage in winter before embarking upon their daunting migration back north. But then again, many creatures are opportunists in their own way, but as the plight of the curlew shows, that doesn’t always ensure survival in a rapidly changing natural world.

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