Where the wild things are

One of the best things about spending time in the countryside is that you regularly get to see members of our wildlife community going about their daily business. I see any number of animals, such as rabbits, hares, foxes, deer and a whole host of fascinating bird life on my dog walks and drives about North Yorkshire.

I don’t know about you, but I always get extra giddy if a I see a larger-than-average bird, even if it is not especially uncommon. One of my favourite ever unexpected wildlife sightings was on the way back from a night out with friends. We were heading home on a quiet country road in the hills not far from Helmsley. A wood ran alongside the road, and suddenly, out of its depths appeared a large owl that started to fly in the beam of our headlights just in front of us. It flew with us for some time, and we were all overcome by the sight of this graceful creature as it glided along. None of us have forgotten that moment and we felt privileged to witness it.

One afternoon, I saw a barn owl flying back and forth near a river, and slowed the car right down to watch. It’s fairly unusual to see barn owls in the daytime as they normally prey on small nocturnal creatures. I wonder if it was suffering from the owl version of insomnia?

And just the other day, my brother and I witnessed two bird of prey sightings within a couple of minutes. I’ve often seen kestrels hovering high above the verges searching for small animals, but this time we actually witnessed it dive and land right next to the car as we passed. The speed with which it plummeted to the ground was quite awesome, although we couldn’t judge whether it had caught its intended victim.

A few minutes later, a very large brown bird of prey flew directly in front us across the road and began to fly along the edge of a wood. It was a very quiet single-track road, so we were able to stop and watch, to see if we could work out what species it was. We decided it was probably a buzzard, and there was an astonishingly large nest in the trees nearby, which we deduced must have been its home. Newly-built buzzard nests are around one metre in diameter and about 60cm deep, while reused ones can be up to one and a half metres wide. This one looked bigger than a metre, so I don’t think it was a recent construction. The bird eventually flew out of sight, so we continued on our journey, grateful for being able to observe the wonders of nature so vividly and at such close quarters.

Another large bird that fascinates me when I spot it is the heron. Although it has a reputation for stealing fish from domestic ponds, while it is in flight, it can itself be a target for smaller birds such as rooks or gulls, as my dad mentions in his column from 27th January 1979. He describes a pair that used to regularly fly over our cottage to some lakes nearby, and how ungainly they looked, with their long outstretched necks, large grey, white and black bodies, slow-flapping wings, and skinny legs dangling beneath them.

The most effective way to deter herons from a pond is to incorporate preventative measures at the planning stages, such as building vertical sides, not having the water level too high, and ensuring there are plenty of surface covering plants, like water lilies, where fish can shelter. Large ponds with gently sloping sides, substantial areas of open water and a heavy population of fish are a heron’s version of MacDonalds. The quick and easy fast food will be irresistible and they will become a repeat customer.

The RSPB says it is quite difficult to stop herons raiding your pond once they have found you and some deterrents are detrimental to the other wildlife that visit it.

So I suggest, if you can’t beat them, join them. Instead of bemoaning ever-disappearing fish, why not encourage the herons and other water-loving visitors into your pond? Who knows? You might just find yourself host to a whole menagerie of wildlife you might not otherwise get to see. Worth a try, I’d say.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 25th & the Gazette & Herald on 23rd January 2019

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