Golden wonders: ups and downs on the eagle way

After the great eagle success on Mull – see previous post for our ‘Close encounters of the big bird kind’ – it was difficult to see how Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, could be as good. It was bound to rain all week, and we’d be stuck inside playing endless games of ‘pairs’ or, worse, I’d have to devise a home-made set of Battleships.

But from day one, things were looking good.

For a start, the beaches were to die for.

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And there was almost nobody else on them – just us, and one mysterious stranger…

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But would we see much wildlife? Eagles? Otters? Dolphins? Well, the initial signs were good – the heather was in full bloom.

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But while it may be very pretty, heather doesn’t have a set of talons deadlier than a set of Bowie knives and it can’t pluck a single mackerel from the sea without getting its feet wet. It’s a fairly passive entity, really, and as such, it doesn’t hold much fascination for young boys.

So, we arranged to go for a walk with Matt Watts, a ranger for the North Harris Trust in the beautiful, edge-of-the-world village – well, barely a village, if we’re being honest – of Huisinish.

Matt soon found us something I’d been searching for all week but not had any luck with.

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Yes, an otter spraint – like an eagle pellet, something naturalists love to sniff to show people just how strange they are. And to see who or what did it. In this case, if it smells a bit fishy, then it’s been left by an otter. This one was a bit old, so it didn’t smell much, but you can also pull one apart to see fish bones and scales.

But while Matt was explaining to the assembled throng what the Western Isles’ unique habitat of machair (pronounced ‘macker’, more or less) is, Sam found something even more intriguing.

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Yes, the jawbone of a rabbit! Mr McGregor had finally got his revenge.

Indeed, the machair was littered with dead animals – perfect food for a golden eagle, you’d think, but they were eerily absent, though this particular carcass and been well-scavenged.

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Still, who needs eagles when you’ve got rocks to play on and your brother to muck about with – actually, the sudden delight with which Sam and Mungo were playing together was starting to worry me. They actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

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Strange days indeed (as John Lennon once sang).

But where were those eagles? I mean, cloudless blue skies, so just imagine the vortex of thermals for them to flier higher and higher on, lifting them up where they belong (as Joe Cocker once sang). Actually, Matt had told me something worrying earlier that week – eagles don’t like it when it’s too hot. They sit around on the mountain crags, complaining about the heat and, instead of soaring into the sky in search of a tasty mountain hare or red grouse, they go for a lie down. And the weather was totally gorgeous. Endless, cloudless blue skies. Hopeless.

All was not lost, however. Robin Reid, who works for the RSPB on Harris and is – like Dave Sexton – an eagle man through and through, had told me of one place where we were guaranteed success. Cast-iron certainty, or our money back. A place called Bhoga Glas, or Bowglas in English, about 10km north of Tarbert on the road to Stornoway. You can see them from the carpark, he promised – perfect for my family, I said.

Better still, it was blustery, rainy sort of afternoon the day we went – thank god, the sun had finally gone in after shining incessantly for four days. Honestly, where’s a good, honest overcast day when you need it?

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We set off, full of enthusiasm.

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Replete with vigour and vim.  Nothing could stop our brave eagle hunters.

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For a while, nothing happened (but still they were not disheartened), and then we heard the iconic cronks of ravens passing overhead – always a good sign (they love to mob golden eagles). Then something much larger appeared, swooping round in elegant circles, silent as the grave. “Golden eagle,” I shrieked.

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Great excitement all round. And don’t imagine for a minute that just because Mungo had my the binoculars back to front suggested that he couldn’t see the eagle. Nothing could be further from the truth – he could see it alright, he just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when the bird we were hollering about was the size of an earwig.

Anyway, the sightings (for there were many more to follow, though whether we saw a total of two or three separate birds was hotly debated) definitely cheered our raptor warriors. Or was it the chocolate biscuits they were being drip-fed? Whatever, they were in remarkably good spirits, considering there were no trains or Lego Chima within range.

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Anyway, I didn’t get any pictures of the eagle. I didn’t have a proper telephoto lens with me, and it’s difficult to hold a camera steady when you’re being ram-raided by a small boy doing an imitation of the Big Billy Goat Gruff, so here’s one I picked up from flickr.

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Well, that was about it for the holiday. There was just time for some posing down on the beach.

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And for me to get my picture of the beautiful harebells in the sheep field we walked through on the way to the beach every day.

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And that was it – it was goodbye to Harris as we took the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. But, much to my surprise, it seemed we had won our battle to interest our children in wildlife. Sam had kept a running tally of the number of ravens he had both seen and heard, and all the indications were that they’d both enjoyed watching eagles and otters. So much so that Sam couldn’t stop looking out for them.

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Eagle eyes: hunt for the flying barn door

If you go to Mull, on the west coast of Scotland, there are lots of wild things to look out for – seals, otters and dolphins, for a start – but what makes it really special is to be found up in the sky: the white-tailed ‘sea’ eagle, a bird with a wingspan that exceeds the height of an NBA basketball star. The carved wooden statue below doesn’t really do the species justice. Not sure that’s a particularly good impression of one, either.

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You’d think that such a flying barn door would be easy to see, but eagle sightings are often experienced through the lens of a powerful spotting scope from a quarter of a mile or more away. I’ve often found myself thinking “So what?” in these circumstances, and I didn’t think it would impress our two boys, Sam and Mungo, aged six and three. If they were to get excited about eagles in any way, seeing them needed to have more cutting edge than that.

We started off with an old contact of mine, Dave Sexton of Mull RSPB. He met us in a battered Land Rover, which immediately made him a bit of a God in the boys’ eyes. Dave drove us along the south side of Loch Na Keal, looking for otters and eagles along the way, and round to Forestry Commission land where there was a white-tailed eagle nest and hide.

And it was here that Mungo discovered all the tools he needed for making scrambled eggs.

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Sam, meanwhile, was getting an object lesson from Dave on one of the key skills needed to be a proper ‘naturalist’ – the ability to pick up and smell organic waste matter without being revolted. I say “organic waste” because Sam is sniffing a pellet – a matted tangle of bones, scales and god-knows-what – and not a poo in the photo below. It’s a pellet because it’s something that the eagle has effectively vomited up. Proper naturalists love them, because it’s their way of telling other people, “We’re weird.” Sam certainly thought so. Proper naturalists dissect them and tell you what the eagle, or any bird of prey or owl, indeed, has been eating.

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But while there was plenty of eagle ‘stuff’ (including stuffed eagles) in the hide, there was no eagle action outside it. The nest still had a juvenile on it, Dave had said, and we might be lucky enough to see the parents bringing food back for their hungry ‘teenager’, though, rather disappointingly I thought, it wouldn’t be take-away pizza.

So Dave took us to a dark woodland glade that overlooked the nest they were using last year, and wheeled out his scope with little expectation of finding anything. It at least gave our budding eagle watchers a chance to practise their spotting skills.

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In fact, as it turned out, the juvenile – this year’s model, but already more or less fully grown – was sitting on this nest, as if he’d just discovered that his parents had a second home and had decided to squat it. Our first proper sighting! It was some distance away – not quite a quarter of a mile but that scope came in handy – but near enough for Sam to witness ‘teen-boy’ attending to his toiletry needs, a dramatic squirt of almost day-glo white that I swear could have been picked up by any passing satellite.

But for close-up encounters with white-tailed eagles, Dave recommended that we spend a morning with Martin Keivers of Mull Charters. Martin has a boat at Ulva Ferry, and most days between April and October, he motors into Loch Na Keal, throws a mackerel out of the back of the boat and waits.

So off we went, some of us consuming our packed lunch within the first five minutes. We still had a biscuit or two for the remainder of the day, or if the kids got really hungry, there was always fish.

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Anyway, luckily, something happened pretty quickly to take their minds off food.

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“When the eagle starts coming close,” Martin had warned us, “keep as quiet as possible. We don’t want to put it off its meal.”

Unfortunately, one member of the crew couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “The big bird’s getting closer,” Mungo yelled excitedly, as the eagle circled around the boat.

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It certainly was. “The big bird’s getting closer,” he yelled again, this time prompting a flicker of consternation (polite, for now at least) from some of the other clients on board.

I’m not quite sure what he was saying as the bird swooped on the fish and took it clean out of the water as if it possessed a spear gun on its talons, because I was hurriedly stuffing him into the cabin while simultaneously trying to get some record of our adventure. Which I did, just about.

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But at least we all saw it – you could hardly miss such an event.

Sam had watched with his eyes popping out of their sockets – and we got to see it happen twice more. He was also intently looking out for any passing ravens (numerous were spotted, he got rather expert at recognising their cronking calls) or the more elusive otter – none on this particular day, but we had already had an excellent sighting from our self-catering cottage overlooking the Sound of Mull.

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Meanwhile, Mungo – released from cabin captivity – was enjoying life on the ocean waves.

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And to top it all, they got to drive the boat.

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When you consider that white-tailed eagles went extinct, thanks to persecution, in the UK in the early 1900s, and were only reintroduced (to the island of Rum, not Mull) over 10 years between 1975 and 1985, it’s remarkable that we and our children can watch them so easily today. Next time, though, it would be great if one of them could keep a little quieter.

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In search of the great green bush cricket

The closest nature reserve to where I live is called Neu-Lindsay, and it’s the self-styled home of the great green bush cricket.

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Somehow, in almost six years of living in our valley, I’d never been there, so it felt about time. “We’re going in search of the great green bush cricket,” I announced to my three-year-old, Mungo.

“No, no, don’t like it!” he wailed, looking despondently at first his trains, then – in some hope she might avert the impending catastrophe – his mother.

But Mungo is an accommodating little boy, and by the time I’d strapped him into the child seat on the back of my bike and not – like his mother has been known to do – pinched the oh-so-tender skin on the underside of his chin with the helmet strap, he seemed quite content. And, then we – well, I – huffed and puffed our way the half mile or so up Culver Hill.

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Neu Lindsay is what conservationists call a hay meadow. Take a picture of it, and it looks unremarkable – little more than a field of grass that hasn’t been cut or grazed for a year or two. You only really see the flowers properly if you focus your gaze on little metre-square grids. And then you see the insects – bees, hoverflies and of course butterflies, like this splendid marbled white.

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And there were critters moving in the long grass. Cricketty critters. “Look, Mungo!” I cried. But it wasn’t particularly great, and definitely not green.

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Never mind – we had plenty of time to find the great (and green) bush cricket, we weren’t in any rush.

“We go home now?” Mungo said, as he gazed fondly at the small red car clutched defiantly in his left hand.

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“Soon,” I replied airily. It’s amazing, really, given how adults use the word “soon” with their children, that anyone grows up with an understanding of it that isn’t along the lines of “You must be joking.”

Still, we had some fun watching this red soldier beetle inspecting a seedhead.

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And this hoverfly looking for a meal from a knapweed flower.

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Eventually, we even found a properly green cricket, but sadly it wasn’t especially great – or, in truth in this photo, very visible. You sort of have to trust me that there’s a cricket in here somewhere.

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By now, Mungo really had had enough, so I promised him by way of reward a trip to the village post office where we could buy some chocolate rabbits – or possibly hares, it’s hard to tell.

With Mungo revived by the chocolate rabbits (or possibly hares), I decided to push ahead with my threat to investigate a nice meadow in the ‘upper reaches’ of Boundary Court, a National Trust property above North Woodchester that briefly made national headlines in January 2012 when it was the location for a suspected big cat kill. Despite the hype, scientists eventually decided that it had merely been foxes all along.

On the way up to the meadow, I was delighted to find this beautiful butterfly on a shady part of the path. I later identified it as a silver-washed fritillary.

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The meadow was alive with marbled white and gatekeeper butterflies, but they were in a jittery mood, so I contented myself with taking a photo of this gorgeous field scabious.

P1020607But it was time to go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing ‘In search of the Gruffalo’, it is that you shouldn’t over-exploit your child’s hesitant interest in natural history. Insects are never going to be as intriguing to my children as trains, trucks or traction engines.

So, when I said it was time to head back, it definitely put a spring in Mungo’s step.

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Butterflies and balance bikes: on the track of the deep dark wood

I decided to take my three-year-old, Mungo, down to the deep dark wood for the day – well, Highnam Woods RSPB Reserve, to be precise, just outside Gloucester. Or the “Deedar Wood”, as he called it last year when we went looking for dormice.

But when we arrived at the carpark, we were greeted by this rather dismal notice.

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“Where we going?” he chimed from the back, as I turned the car round. “I’m not really sure,” I replied, as I took the first turning off the main road, down a small B road that looked as if it might lead us round the back of the reserve. And, sure enough, we soon found a nice track heading in the direction of Highnam Woods that was just perfect for Mungo’s new passion – his balance bike.

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I wasn’t sure why, but the path was littered with small tortoiseshell butterflies that scattered like confetti as we made our slow but steady progress along it. Getting onto my hands and knees, I crawled along the track to try and get some photos of the butterflies before they flew off. Say what you like about the picture below, but I bet David Bailey – or Don McCullin for that matter – never had to put up with a small child launching themselves onto their prostrate bodies as they took award-winning fashion or war photos. Or sticking pieces of grass in their ears, for that matter, while giggling uproariously.

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Further up, I found some rosebay willow herb in full bloom, and the dried seedheads of something that might have been cow parsley, but I couldn’t be sure. At least I could take these pictures standing up, though I still had to endure a small boy on his balance bike butting me like a mountain goat.

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We’d made reasonable progress in our quest to reach Highnam Woods, even though Mungo at some point abandoned the balance bike in favour of his own two legs. There was the occasional sit-down protest, the odd plea of “Carree” and an impromptu lunch (peanut butter sandwiches and milk for him, a small dribble of water for me).

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Further up, we found these poppies and what I decided was ragwort, though I wasn’t quite sure of the latter identification.

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We were just outside the woods now, where I found some log piles which I carefully sifted through in search of slow worms, snakes or even Little Brown Mouse. But we found nothing, apart from some wood lice and the odd snail. In any case, it was time to turn back – it had taken us long enough just to get here, and the skies were starting to turn a dark, leaden colour – if there was rain on the way, I was foolishly unprepared for it. And besides, now my tummy was beginning to rumble…

I  did at least get some more photos of the small tortoiseshell butterflies on the way back, this one appearing to feed from a bramble.

 

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“Torshell, Daddy, torshell,” Mungo chirruped happily. And he was even happier when he saw the end of the track and the car in sight.

 

 

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Flower power: a surprisingly happy orchid hunt in the Cotswolds

“Mummy’s tired,” I said, “so, let’s go and look for butterflies on Rodborough Common and then get an ice cream.”

Six-year-old Sam immediately went into a quasi-teenage sulk mode that he’s already, rather scarily, perfected. “That’s borin’,” he pouted, while three-year-old Mungo parroted innocently, “Daddy, are we going to look for burraflies?”

“No looking for butterflies,” I said firmly, glaring at Sam, “no ice cream.”

In the end, we left without much fuss, and up on Rodborough Common, Mungo ran ahead while Sam fretted that he was running too far ahead. “Mungo,” he yelled, “MUNGO!”, as if his brother were about to plunge into the jaws of a Nile crocodile.

The common is a lovely area of grassland, owned by the National Trust and overlooking the steep-sided Nailsworth valley. It’s a great place to look for tiny, virtually-impossible-to-find-with-or-without-kids butterflies such as the Adonis blue or Duke of Burgundy. Ah well, it’s also good for orchids, and there were plenty of those. These, in the picture, are fragrant orchids.

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And surprising as it may seem from this photo, Mungo was enjoying himself. As was Sam, possibly to his surprise.

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There had been some resistance when I suggested we were going to plunge down the precipitous slopes of the common – it’s the where the butterflies, and the Adonis blue in particular, hang out, apparently – so, instead I opted to take them round the contour, and a bit further along, we came across an exotic-looking bee orchid. At least, I think it was a bee orchid.

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From here, we had spectacular views over the valley – we could see the church, Sam’s school and possibly even our house. I took a shot…

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Then Sam took one…

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My attention was momentarily – and it was only momentarily – diverted by this lovely daisy.

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So, I missed exactly what it was that caused the fight.

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All in all, it felt like time to go home. Sam was beginning to moan that he was tired, it was too hot and that it would be ages before we got back to The Bear, where I’d promised them both a glass of milk and some crisps.

But even that wasn’t enough for Sam. He’d had enough and claimed he couldn’t walk any further, so I left them on this bench for the night, promising I’d return for them in the morning.

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Snakes Alive!

One way to get Sam, our nearly six-year-old, outdoors is to mention the word dinosaurs. In early March, we took him and three-year-old Mungo down to Hock Cliff on the banks of the River Severn to look for fossils – and OK, it wasn’t as if we stumbled across the cranium of Utahraptor poking out of the shale, but we found some pretty cool ammonites and a devils’ toenail, the 60-million-year-old (or more) ancestor of an oyster. Sam had a fair bit of fun whacking rocks with a hammer, too.

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In search of Jurassic Park: can we clone an ammonite, Daddy?

But when we decided to take the boys on an adder hunt (‘Snake’ is one of the trio of characters Little Brown Mouse encounters in The Gruffalo), I felt a little nervous. Not because adders are dangerous snakes, but because I thought Sam might feel they were rather mundane compared to Velociraptor.

So, I played the dinosaur card. “Hey, Sam, on Saturday, we’re going to look for some snakes called adders, which were around with the dinosaurs,” I said. A bit of an exaggeration of the truth, I admit, though snakes did evolve more than 100 million years ago – it’s just that adders didn’t.

“Wow! Cool!” came the frankly unexpected response. Game on.

We drove up to a tiny wooded valley on the edge of Bewdley in Worcestershire and in the heart of the Wyre Forest, and here we met Sylvia Sheldon, a woman who’s been studying the forest’s adders for the past 30 years. At her National Trust property that resembled a place that Hansel and Gretel would have felt at home, we watched great tits and a surprisingly sweet rat from her kitchen window, while the boys nibbled at their sandwiches at just after 10 in the morning.

Sylvia took us up to one of her study sites, where she hoped we’d find adders basking in the spring sunshine. It was an expanse of open heathland, with some scattered silver birch trees, but largely blanketed in dead bracken in late March. We’d barely gone 10 yards from the car when Sylvia pointed out a long-dead tree trunk. “There’s normally a lizard here,” she said.

We stared for 30 seconds or so, and suddenly there it was. A small brown-green lizard with parallel rows of spots studding its back like tiny jewels, perfect in every way. Sam – once he’d managed to locate the beast, which can be difficult to make out against a brown background – was entranced. Perhaps to him it looked like a mini Ankylosaurus, albeit without the massive club-tail.

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A common lizard doing its best to resemble Ankylosaurus

We walked another 20 yards, and Sylvia pointed to some dead bracken around a the base of a tree. “There we go,” she said. “There’s two,” said her partner and fellow adder enthusiast, Chris.

If I’d considered the lizard well-camouflaged, it was nothing compared to the adders. I couldn’t see them initially, and Sam certainly couldn’t, and he was tramping around the spot where Sylvia and Chris were pointing as if we’d said there were some chocolate goodies hidden there. While I did, I know, say that adders aren’t dangerous, that wouldn’t have held a lot of sway with Sam’s mother, Louise, if we’d returned from our reptile foray with a puncture wound in his arm and the remark, “It’s OK, there were only 14 deaths from adder bites in the past 100 years, and children recover quicker than adults!”

It’s surprisingly hard to describe the location of a brown snake (with darker brown chevrons or diamonds running along its back) when set against a background of dry, dead, brown bracken and dry, dead brown leaves, even when it’s only a few feet away. “Do you see that stump? Now, can you see a small branch? Now, there are some dead leaves…”

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“Where are you going to, Little Brown Mouse? Come for a feast in my brackeny house.”

Sam saw it eventually – Louise had taken Mungo away, as he was rampaging around and likely to scare any basking adder –  and moved onto to another tree. We found one more adder and several slow worms –  a shinier, more coppery colour than adders, but even they don’t exactly announce their presence to the world.

Sam was losing interest at this point, and was keen to get back to the lizard which had captivated him in a way that the adders hadn’t. I can only assume that an animal with legs is more akin to a dinosaur than one without. Four legs good, no legs just a bit on the dull side. Not sure where two legs would have come in, but George Orwell would have approved.

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Sylvia and Sam’s Wild Adventure: OK, they didn’t find Stegosaurus, but three adders, several slow worms and a lizard felt like a decent return for a morning’s work.

 

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Steller birds

A three-year-old child’s skull discovered in South Africa in 1924 presented an odd puzzle to scientists. It was about 2.8m years old (so belonged to a ‘pre-Homo sapiens’ species called Australopithecus africanus) and had some strange puncture marks on its face, just below the eye sockets. What had made these holes, they wondered, and was it the reason why the child had died? At first, it was assumed that they’d been made by the fangs of some prehistoric big cat, but the truth turned out to be rather more extraordinary.

The killer of the so-called Taung Child had been an eagle. Yes, an eagle. Even today, there are eagles that prey on treetop monkeys – the monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines is one, as is the harpy eagle of Central and South America, though it is also partial to sloths (they’re easier to catch).

I was mulling this over – well, that if an ancient bird of prey could have carried off one of our ancestor’s children, then presumably a modern one might be able to get away with one of mine – as our not-yet-three-old, Mungo, ran gleefully towards  the biggest flying assassin he’d ever encountered.

It was a Steller’s sea eagle, a massive beast with talons and a beak like a set of Kitchen Devils. Admittedly, it was still juvenile and captive, but it also probably stood some 70-80cm from head to toe and weighed up to 8kg. Mungo might just have had the edge in size, but in terms of armoury and fighting ability, I’d have backed the bird every time. It’s also true (the name gives it away) that a Steller’s sea eagle is more likely to be slicing up cod for sushi than decapitating primates, but still – this was one case where intervening felt like the right thing to do.

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A young Steller’s sea eagle probably prefers sushi to little boys, but you can never be sure.

Mungo clearly wasn’t a bit concerned. I do wonder what he thought he was going to do when he reached the bird, but luckily I was able to intercept before any encounter took place. Besides, I suspect the people who run and work at the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Newent would have been less than delighted to see a small, robust boy grapple their prized flying exhibit to the ground, whoever the odds favoured. It might have ruffled a few feathers.

Mungo had already caused a bit of a stir. We’d turned up at 11-ish on one of the last Fridays in November to see the flying demonstration. I’m not usually too keen on captive raptors (as birds of prey are technically called by zoologists), but I thought Mungo would enjoy it. And – crucially – there’s a bald eagle in Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, so it was another tick in our gruffalo quest. Try as hard as we might, there weren’t going to be too many wild eagle sightings, even in deepest, darkest Gloucestershire.

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Mungo and two of the residents of the International Centre for Birds of Prey  in Newent in Gloucestershire.

The first bird to be put through its paces was a saker falcon. These are lean, mean flying machines, and the demonstrator – the lady, in fact, who runs the centre – showed us its skills by swinging a lure around her head at great speed. The falcon flew off towards a line of trees about 60 feet or so away, then flew back at considerably greater pace, coming down low like an enemy fighter plane avoiding the radar and then speeding past.

It was a thrilling sight, and Mungo and another little lad who was there with his granny showed their appreciation by squealing in   delight. The falcon came round for another go, and the boys squealed even louder. This was great, I thought – such enthusiasm.

The only problem was that it wasn’t going down too well with our demonstrator, who was trying to give a simultaneous lecture through a PA system. There was, no doubt, some fascinating stuff about the saker falcon’s ability to dive-bomb its prey at 200mph, but the audience – consisting of three other adults besides myself and the other boy’s gran – was finding it rather difficult to hear.

“If people are going to shout and scream, then I won’t bother,” she said sternly, which made me wonder if her comment about these birds hunting prey rather bigger than themselves was meant to be taken literally. Still, I bet no one had ever shown such vocal enjoyment of falconry before.

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Mungo was eventually calmed down with a peanut butter sandwich.

Eventually, I did manage to calm Mungo down, and after that, the kestrel and the Harris hawk were rather tame. Then the Steller’s sea eagle appeared as the piece de resistance, and suddenly the adrenalin was flowing again. And, of course, it also made me consider alternative revenue streams for the centre, should they need them – a small child suspended from the talons of a large martial eagle, for example, would provide excitement for both watchers and participant. If there was just a way of making sure the talons didn’t actually pierce the cranium too deeply…

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Who would win a fight between a small boy and a very large eagle? Answers on a postcard, please.

Later the same day, Mungo tried to find a way into the Andean condors’ enclosure, but luckily for them, it was well sealed. All in all – despite my doubts about captive birds of prey – the visit had been a success, though I think I’ll be scanning the skies of Scotland with a touch of nervousness when we go there next year in search of eagles. 

 

 

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