A beautiful cold day, ideal for working in the wood. I wanted to fell a tree for both firewood for next winter, and milling for useful timber. It needed to be done soon, before the rising of the sap put more moisture into the wood, and I had decided to cut a stem with a slight lean which I hoped would guarantee the direction in which it would fall. However, I was due for a surprise.
It was difficult to see exactly what direction gravity would pull the stem, but I made the directional cut to point in a convenient direction which I expected gravity to agree with. However, as I made the felling cut, shortly before I expected the tree to topple on its hinge, there was a loud crack and the tree fell about 45 degrees leftwards, leaving about 6 feet of standing wood where the trunk had split.
Ah well, a bit less timber to mill, but a bit more firewood for next winter ..
In the bank behind the felled tree, primroses were flowering, and while I was preparing to fell the tree, I heard a woodpecker drumming for the first time this year. Later, as we sat eating our lunch, my eye was caught by a tiny movement near the ivy on a tree. I went over to see what it was, and there, basking in the sunshine falling on an ivy leaf, was a Red Admiral butterfly – and this on February 23rd!
I cut the branchwood from the sycamore felled last autumn into long logs, and stacked it under a tarpaulin to dry. It is now suitably dry for firewood, and recently I have brought three trailer loads home, the last one just before Christmas, and I expect that will keep us warm for the rest of the winter.
I had cut up some of the larger boughs into rings, and when I got home,I broke them up into chunks with my felling axe, which seemed to cope better with knotty rings than the maul. After swinging the axe for some time, I took a break, and looked at some of the pieces of newly split firewood. On a whim, I took a piece into the garage, gripped it in my vice and started planing a surface, just to see what it looked like.
As I flattened the surface, the grain revealed itself, showing the subtle swirls and dramatic knot structures that trees construct during their life. There were also areas where the surface of the wood shimmered as it was rotated in the light in a way which seems to be typical of sycamore.
When I visit the wood, whatever else I am doing, I go around the camera traps and replace the memory cards with empty ones, and at home in the evening, I go through the cards on the computer, seeing what the wildlife has been up to since my last visit.
I have set up one of the cameras to look along a massive oak log lying in the northern boundary hedge. It has probably been down for decades, mouldering away, as there is no sign of the remains of its upper branches, just the massive trunk. This is a hot spot for wildlife. During the day, it is visited by rabbits and squirrels, as well as many different birds, while at night, wood mice scamper over its surface, with the occasional shrew.
We have a fox which regularly patrols the wood by day as well as by night, which has appeared on my cameras in many locations around the wood. However, it appeared on the oak log in November for the first time, at night, but as I scanned the images after my last visit, I was delighted to find this daytime shot.
Usually, the camera traps produce images which are useful as a record of what is around, but no more. Very occasionally, they capture an image which is a gem pictorially, and this is one. In focus, in beautiful light, and a typical foxy pose, gazing down into the valley through the gap in the hedge, on the lookout for a possible lunch.
Dunedin is like an amphitheatre and Otago harbour its stage, stretching into the distance towards the Pacific Ocean. As I walk across the park from Sue’s house, a few red-billed gulls swoop above me, on the lookout for scraps, but the ground birds are all European – blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows. Crossing a road swooping down the amphitheatre towards downtown Dunedin, I walk along Queen’s Drive under the mainly native trees of the Town Belt, and I am greeted almost immediately by the instantly recognizable calls of the bellbird.
During this visit, I have been setting one of my camera traps in this woodland, and after moderate success by a stream and absolutely nothing on a windfall tree (no mice around), I have found a wonderful site which at first sight seemed to be just a puddle of water at the bottom of a dip in the woodland. In fact, a small stream just a few inches wide issued from the puddle and proceeded downhill, almost completely hidden by the ground cover. After setting up the camera to look at the little pool, I found that this tiny habitat was very attractive to small birds, producing over 150 video clips of birds coming down to drink in a day. Encouraged by the information from the camera trap, I spent time in person, over several sessions, sitting beside the pool without any camouflage, relying on the trusting nature of New Zealand native birds. Sure enough, I was rewarded with close encounters – within three yards.
The most common visitors were silvereye, who came down from twig to twig through the brush to the tiny stream which arose from the pool at the bottom of the hollow below the road. They usually arrived in small parties, bathed either singly or in groups up to four, and then went off about their business.
While the silvereye simply ignored me, I have been inspected on each occasion I have spent time there, and soon after my arrival. The inspectors are New Zealand’s most spectacular small bird, the fantail. I don’t know whether they are extremely curious or have a highly developed sense of territory, but they seem to turn the bird-watching order of things upside down. In most situations, we have to move around unobtrusively, to be quiet, to help our visual sense with binoculars or scopes. Here in New Zealand, if you take a walk in native bush, more often than not you are greeted by this small bird, fanning its long, brilliant white tail around to maximum visual effect, and whirring from perch to perch nearby while glaring at you with a proprietorial body language which clearly states “Git orff moi land!”
Despite their apparent accessibility, they are extremely difficult to photograph because they are continually on the move, and the tail is continually flashed open and shut. This makes it difficult to get both eye and tail critically sharp with the tail open, and as they are usually found in poorly lit woodland, it is impossible to get the shutter speed to stop movement blur and the small aperture to get the eye sharp and the tail reasonably so.
My purpose in setting up the camera trap in the Town Belt was not only to find suitable places to photograph these birds, but to see what wildlife was around at night. New Zealand”s attitude towards its wildlife is ambivalent – birds are good, but mammals are nearly all bad. This is because the land mammals are from elsewhere and have been brought in, deliberately but sometimes accidentally, by man. Mostly predators, they have had a baleful effect on much of the native wildlife, which are mostly birds, which has evolved in the absence of mammalian predators.
Every few days, I walked down to the wood and replaced the SD card in the camera with an empty one, and then walked back to see what had happened in that time. The first mammal to show up was a cat, and we can see from its behaviour in this video clip why it is such a danger to wildlife both here in New Zealand and in the UK.
I recorded cats at night six times on my camera during a period of five weeks. I also recorded possums six times – the brush-tailed possum originates in Australia, and has colonised New Zealand to the point where they are a focus of eradication campaigns involving trapping, ground baiting with poison, and even the aerial distribution of poisons.
It is a threat to the eggs and young of native birds, and also to growing shoots on native trees, but the main reason why possums attract such expensive attention is the fact that they are a threat to New Zealand’s agricultural industry, being a vector of bovine TB.
Despite all the effort, possums are doing well in Dunedin’s town belt. Another unwelcome mammal, a hedgehog, showed up once – unwelcome because they eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds. However, the most common mammal, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the rat, scoring 21 hits on video. Judging by its climbing ability, I think it may be the ship rat.
Towards the end of our stay in New Zealand, the camera turned up a daytime video clip of a stoat.
When I looked at the time when this clip was recorded, I was amazed to find that it was just seven minutes before I was standing at the camera, changing the memory card. This means that I was just entering the wood to the right when the stoat disappears stage left – apparently in response to my appearance. How many other occasions have there been, in an apparently barren and uninteresting habitat, when wildlife has tutted at my arrival on the scene and reluctantly made itself scarce?
Throughout the wood, small holes in the ground show the ubiquitous presence of wood mice. I first found them on one of my camera traps by the pathway along the ridge which marks the southern boundary of our wood.
Scooting around amongst the young bracken in Spring, they looked like remotely controlled model cars , with headlights shining in the dark.
A bit later, I set up a camera on the huge mouldering trunk of a fallen tree at the edge of the wood, bordering farmland. This camera was very busy, as woodmice scampered all over its surface at intervals throughout the night.
In fact, any camera close enough to the ground seems to pick up woodmice, their numbers befitting their status at the bottom of the food web.
This clip probably illustrates the point. The camera takes a second after detecting a subject before it starts to record the video, so it was probably triggered by the tawny owl pouncing on its prey, recording only the aftermath.
I think that on this occasion the mouse got away, as the owl seems to have nothing in its bill or talons.
A fallen tree trunk is a piece of woodland motorway as far as the wood’s denizens are concerned, a clear path for getting from A to B. However, it contains interior passages crammed with food items, so doubles as a service station as well. So I reasoned when I set up my camera trap to look along the top surface of the fallen and mouldering giant.
And so it proved. The camera revealed wood mice scampering along at great speed, no doubt influenced by the dread of the local tawny owl. During September, the camera showed that these risky excursions took place, on average, four times a night, and also showed that voles and shrews made the occasional appearance.
Last Saturday, I returned from the wood with the SD cards from the cameras and started going through the files on my computer. This one, taken just before 7 o’clock in the morning the previous Friday, had me whooping with excitement:
Twenty minutes later, the weasel showed up again, but then there was nothing for the rest of the day, and I thought that the weasel was just passing through. Then I started looking at the files from the next day, and at 8.45 am, there was the weasel again, and this time, it stayed all day, popping in and out of the crack in the log, exuding that aura of both cuteness and ferocity that is so characteristic of their kind.
And there was more than one weasel – in some of the video clips, the weasel looking distinctly younger, and one clip showed both weasels flowing one after the other along the crack in the log.
In all, there were 39 hits spread through the day, from 8.45 am to 5.50 pm. Presumably, they had a rest then because there was no activity until one hit at 1.35 am that night. There was then no sign of the weasels until the following day, Monday, when the final hit occurred at 1.09 pm:
There were no weasels on the camera trap for the next three days, up to the point where I collected the SD cards from the camera, so they have moved on. I am eager to see the next installment from the fallen tree just in case, but I don’t expect to see them back for a while.