Wildlife Moments on Maiden Erlegh Lake during Lockdown
Part 2 July to November 2020
Our chairman has been using his lockdown exercise periods to record events around the nature reserve. This is the second part of the series, you can see the first part here.
All photographs in the diary section were taken quickly at the moment described and are included for illustrative purposes rather than necessarily for the quality of image.
Nocturnal encounters, 12 July
Walking up the chipping path through Oak Wood as night was falling I was hopeful I might see a fox in the meadow and, as I rounded the Butterfly Garden to admire the bank of cornflowers and marigolds, I realised there was a tan back and pair of black-fringed ears beyond, gliding silently past the flower bed. A car drove by, its headlight illuminating the scene, so I cut round the dark side of a bush hoping to intercept. No such luck – he’d gone. But as I stood, feeling wrong-footed, I heard movement in the hedge nearby. Really, was the fox in there? No, the sound was too close to the ground. In fact it came from two directions, a continuous gently rustling gradually getting closer. Eventually I saw a little ball of spines emerge from the nettles and there was a young hedgehog just a couple of feet from mine. He meandered indecisively about and, over the next minute or so, inched closer. He reached my right toe and snuffled his way to my laces. I could hardly believe it. Eventually I had to move and off he went, pottering back to the cover of vegetation. I headed home, treading carefully because now I could definitely hear foxes in the wood close by. (I suppose the young lovers didn’t hear me, because the teenage couple entwined on the path further down the meadow appeared startled as I stepped noiselessly over them!) My stealth was rewarded, however, by the sight of another, redder fox on the path by the lake. But it was the close encounter with the hedgehog that had captivated me. What a stroke of luck! Fortunately he was there again when I took Elizabeth there on the off chance a couple of evenings later.
Two mammals caught unawares, 15 July
“I’ll just pop down to the lake for some fresh air”, I said as I left the house. No, perhaps I’ll take a turn around the lake for some exercise before settling down to work. So off I went at a brisk pace enjoying the cooler temperature of the early morning. Down to the weir, past the feeding station and into Oak Wood. Then a Wildlife Moments on Maiden Erlegh Lake Part II: July to November 2020 swift movement caught my eye. Something had crossed the path in front of me. Something small and brown. I looked at the foot of the tree to my left, and there, in a hole between the roots, was the small round furry face of a vole. I looked: he looked. Then after a few seconds he’d gone, but I could enjoy the moment I’d seen one of these illusive creatures. A few paces further and I disturbed a common grey squirrel. With one athletic bound it jumped from the undergrowth to the safety of a tree, well actually a smooth but flexible sapling that bent under the squirrel’s weight. The squirrel looked alarmed as it clung to the pole, its tail waggling furiously as it struggled to regain its balance. Poise restored, it transferred to an older tree and scrambled up the reverse side and out of sight.
Rat swimming, 1 Aug
I was standing in one of the fishing bays, one I whimsically call “Grebe View” as I used to watch nesting grebes on the island from there, and out scurried a rat. It ran swiftly in a straight line along the bank, but on seeing me, turned 180 degrees in moment and scampered back. When, in turn, I moved to leave the bay, I saw it again, crouching beneath a bush. I retraced my steps and stood expectantly, waiting for it to come out. But then I saw a brown streak in the water, with eyes and nostrils in front. It was swimming across the front of the bay. I must get a picture, as I’d seen rats swimming before, but never captured the sight. Snap. Snap. It was going out of frame. If I moved to the right the rat would be more clearly visible against a patch of still green water. I stepped and, that second, the rat disappeared from view. It had dived and though I lingered, I saw it no more. Great Crested Grebe again, 5 Aug It’s back again, the rays of the waning sun catching the amber of its crest. A few sightings at the end of June had been followed by absence, but here is the grebe once more.
Graylag goose. 5 Aug
Once in a while we see a visiting greylag amid the Canada geese, and there was one tonight. The distinctive orange of its beak stood out against the monochrome of the resident geese. It emerged from a cluster of geese, and set off into the middle of the lake alone, clear to view. The next night it was there again, but not thereafter. It was simply passing through.
Fox feeding, 6 Aug
I’d walked a circuit of the lake, looping through the meadow en route and though I’d seen a cormorant and great crested grebe on the lake I hadn’t come across any foxes or hedgehogs that night. But rounding the sediment pond for the homeward stretch I did see a fox. He was stationary in the long grass, looking along his flank at me. I paused, and he trotted past a tree and stopped. I stopped too. I fished out my camera and he sat on his haunches unperturbed while I snapped away. Then bang went a gate and he slipped into cover. “Oh, you’ve found my baby”, said a lady with a bowl of chicken and kidney, “I’ve been fattening him up”. It turns out she’d been feeding foxes for the past three years, first one fox who followed her dog on walks, but was eventually run over on Beech Lane, and now this one - a skinny specimen who was now gaining weight. She left the bowl in a clearing in the hedge. Joined by a passer-by, we paused for the fox to appear again and there he was: chicken first, then the kidney. This made sense of my previous sightings in that very spot. I now know where to look.
Baby rats, late August
Elizabeth and I had stopped, as you do, by the feeding station for a view over the lake and to admire the Egyptian geese that were perched on the handrail. Well, two of them were, the third was on the adjacent slipway. Then we saw a rat crossing the concrete, and then another, and disappear into the wall of vegetation along side. Our attention caught, we waited and saw a head peeping over the wooden edge rail. We moved and took up a new position by the gate, looking down the left-hand gap between the rail and the parallel wooden pole just inches to one side. Every few moments, there was a flicker of movement crossing between the two sides. They were young rats dashing across to gaps under the woodwork opposite at two crossing points, one a couple of feet above the other, and slipping beneath the concrete or, in the other direction, into the vegetation. There were certainly two of them at least, besides the adults, but quite possibly more and, as in ‘splat the rat’, their frequent but unpredictable appearance from one hole or the other was most absorbing.
Acrobatic rats, 13 Sept
Standing in the fishing bay at the foot of Allendale Road, I peered through the branches on the left to catch a glimpse of the geese in the silt pocket, but there crouching in the undergrowth was a rat, quite still but apparently munching on something. I paused to watch and was rewarded over the next ten minutes by the sight of it, and a companion that later appeared, scampering out to the edge to run nimbly along a slender branch sticking out over the lake before slipping into the water. They’d swim a few feet to collect a twig or reed or similar material, return and scurry back to the leaf cover at the far end of the pocket. I’ve seen rats clambering among briars before, but not balancing over water with such repeated purpose.
Aquatic rats, 14 & 16 Sept
I was at the feeding station admiring a view of the lake, sunshine filtering through the early morning mist, when my eye was caught be movement to me left. There, a large 8” rat was swimming towards me, his tail stretched out behind. He was in open water, fully in view and heading straight for me – a perfect shot. I fumbled for my camera, but turning sharply toward the bank, he disappeared from view. Missed again. A couple of days later I was working from home, and there were only 15 minutes until my meeting – MS Teams – and so thought I’d go for a turn round the lake in the afternoon sunshine. I’d be quick, so no need for a camera. It is always the way, however, that when I think that, I’m presented with an unrealisable opportunity. I’d only gone a couple of hundred yards and was half way down Lakeside, when I stepped down into one of the fishing bays just beyond the single silt pocket. There, stretched out for eight or nine inches, nostrils up and tail out straight, was a large rat swimming from left to right directly in front of me. As I took the bottom step it must have seen me, for he dived, pretty well at a right angle, and was gone. I loitered, but there was no reappearance. Drat – no camera. The rats were proving hard to capture. I continued on my way when to my surprise there was a second one, swimming passed the weir and heading into the reeds beyond. Then standing for a moment at the feeding station I heard a plop and a third appeared, with yet another close by, turning sharply around in the water. Four aquatic rats on one walk – well, if I’d double-counted, certainly three. That’s a record for me.
Blow me down, there was another swimming by the feeding Station on Monday 21st and I got a photo this time. It was another sunny day – they seem to swim more when it’s warm!
Second Spring, Mon 21 Sept
I’d gone for a walk on campus and picked up a conker, a token of my youth, and later spent some time in the delightful Harris Garden. It was a beautifully sunny afternoon, warm but not too hot, and the light on the leaves intensified the colours; the whole scene was vibrant. As I left to enter the Wilderness on my way home I was startled to find the chestnut tree I’d photographed in its spring splendour had dainty new candles sprouting again in September, each white and pink above delicate green leaves. I captured one, surrounded by the older leaves tinged with brown. The weather, in replicating that of May, and prompted a second spring precisely as the conkers fell.
Autumn Vole? Sat 26 Sept
Oak Wood is so-called because it has oaks in it, right? I wondered how many trees and, prompted by the eruption of acorns this autumn, I thought I’d count them. As I neared the end of my admittedly rather superficial survey I was standing on the path that runs between the Interpretation Centre and the Feeding Station when I detected a hint of movement along the base of a log on the ground. I froze and out from among the ivy and leaf litter came a tiny creature with small ears – so not a mouse – and long tail. A vole, surely? A bank vole if it had a long tail. It clambered about the log and, stretching up to a branch above it, slipped and fell. It picked itself up and continued to move about within just a radius of just a few inches, apparently unaware it was being watched. I slowly raised my camera and took a snap. It’s not much of a picture, but it captures the moment. Then dog walkers passed and so did the moment. [A bit disappointingly, an inspection of the photo confirmed it was not a vole, but a baby rat!]
A new duck, Sat 26 Sep
We’d heard about the new arrival last weekend. “Have you seen the new duck?”, the Water Bailiffs asked, when we stopped for a chat – “there’s a white one on the lake”. Well, white with dark speckling. A message had come through that the duck had been seen on someone’s lawn in Earley and appeared distressed. It was gathered up and brought to the lake where it did nothing but drink for the first five minutes, clearly dehydrated. Eventually it swam off and by Sunday it was on Big Island with a couple of mallard drakes in attendance. We’d looked out for it as we completed our circuit but hadn’t seen it. Today, however, counting the geese on my homeward stretch I saw it out on the water near the single silt pocket. It was with a small group of mallards, but instantly recognisable from the description I approached the edge of the lake at one of the fishing bays, but the ducks were wary and kept their distance. I wonder how long it will stay?
A riot of fungi, Mon 5 Oct
“We’ve been to see the fungus, said Martyn, the Water Bailiff, and so we followed his lead into Old Pond Copse. There it was, all over the trunk of a tree by the path-side – a mass of moist growth, sprouting right up the bole.
A new swan on the lake, Wed 14 Oct
I’d gone to count the Canada geese. It’s the time of year when they start to congregate and increasingly large flocks gather by day, and at dusk fly noisily off in skeins against the evening sky. But before I’d finished I saw a rather different waterfowl among the melee at the feeding station. It wasn’t a goose, but a swan – a young one, still with grey-brown blotches throughout its plumage. Oh aye, I thought – I haven’t seen him before. An intruder! At least that is what the resident male must have concluded, however insentiently. It was fast approaching, brilliant white and wings raised above his back. The newcomer ducked left, in front of the weir and soon the swan gave chase. Off they went at speed up the lake, the youngster ahead by three or four yards. Would he take flight? No! But by mid lake the pursuit had run its course and as I followed the path past a pair of bailiffs fixing the fence and emerged beyond the island, both swans came into view. The aggression had subsided. We’ll have to wait and see if the new one can claim a place of his (or her) own. Oh yes, 89 geese b.t.w. While I was on the south side of the lake, my eye was drawn to a splash of colour in an area cleared of undergrowth. It was a clump of pink cyclamen, a welcome sight amid the damp decay of autumn.
Returning one year later, Fri 16 Oct
It was still there, the Canada goose with a speckled face. No clean white chinstrap on this one: white plumage had erupted all over, leaving the goose’s head with a distinctively mottled pattern. All week the geese had been gathering in considerable numbers – 90 to 100-odd – and among them, this particular bird had been here since Saturday. I’d seen it three times. In fact, I was sure I’d seen once more than that – last year. Checking the photos I took then, it seemed I had proof in one dated 20 October 2019. The same pattern was evident, though perhaps with a little more white showing through the speckles. The same bird seen 51 weeks apart, and in both cases, preparing to fly off in the annual migration! In the case of any other goose, you’d never have known without a ring or tag, but here the patterned plumage had given it away.
The Egyptian geese had also been out all week, but just the pair; there has been no sign of the youngster. It seems to have spread its wings, and ‘flown the nest’.
Herons plural, Sat 24 Oct
I heard the harsh cantankerous squawk first, then saw the unhurried flapping of the heron coming into view as it flew westward up the lake, its long wings beating low over the water. Minutes later, as I walked along Lakeside and approached the sediment trap, it was perched up high on the dead branches of a fallen tree, standing upright with its elegant neck extended. I passed to the other side, and as I walked towards the meadow another heron lumbered into the air, startled by my unexpected appearance. It appeared grey and scruffy and so I take it to have been a youngster, still awaiting the sleek black and white trim of the adult’s plumage. It is not often I see two herons here (and only once in sixteen years have I seen three).
Kingfisher, Wed 4 Nov
A low straight flight, toward and beyond Swan Island – and a flash of turquoise in the sun!
Roof-top perches, Fri 20 Nov
Another heron lumbered up the lake and, having disappeared from sight behind the Lakeside trees, emerging again to veer across the road and land on the roof of 2 Allendale Road. It tilted forward from the ridge, its legs flexing like a leaf spring to retain balance. After a couple of minutes it continued its leisurely way up Beech Lane and out of sight. A little later, as I completed a circuit of the lake I was back in Lakeside and the pair of Egyptian geese were grazing on a lawn. One of them heaved itself into the air and landed on the roof of the car nearby. The metal was slippery with frost and the goose slithered, its wings in the flurry and its legs splayed like Bambi on the ice. Soon, however, it steadied itself, and calm was restored. But neither goose nor heron had found its poise on a man-made perch.
Edwin A.R Trout
Cyclamen in Oak Wood, 14 October
Oak Wood in the acorn season, viewed from the meadow, 26 September