WARNING. THIS MONTH'S BLOG CONTAINS A PHOTO WHICH SOME MIGHT FIND UPSETTING. If this might be you, please skip this month's post.
The final month of the year then - and the final ever monthly update on this blog, I very much suspect.
To be frank, running a website costs money and time - both I have very little of these days, what with twelve years of corrupt crony capitalist tories subjecting us to austerity 1, brexit and now austerity 2.
I'm also far from convinced I have many readers left on this blog who truly are interested in my ramblings. Whether those ramblings be me finding an ichneumon wasp on our kitchen window in November or even a pallid swift over the golf course in October. But... look... if you really are keen for me to continue waxing (not so) lyrically about moths and hedgehogs and the odd bird - then please let me know in the comments that you're out there and it's worth me continuing.
OK. For now then, and possibly for the last time...
December then, which started a bit like a lamb. A cold lamb, mind. Which had already been sheared. The first week brought us proper wintry temperatures (sub 5 centigrade) a bit of an easterly air flow, and some overnight fogs, if not frosts.
On the morning of the 3rd, I as usual, took my pre-dawn 5 mile walk and happened across an old friend in the road, at least two hours before the sun came up.
(Before you ask, no it wasn't "crossing the road" - old readers of my blog will know I've been there and done that!)
Actually, whilst I love hens (having kept them for some years), it wasn't great news to see this particular bird out on its tod in the middle of the night. Bird flu is RIFE in the UK right now. Bird flu which has decimated (or worse, quite literally) many seabird populations (like gannets) across our shores since the summer, and now is moving through other wintering waterfowl like swans and geese. Indeed, the UK population of great skuas is threatened with extinction because of this dreadful disease - and if the UK's great skuas disappear - then the species might very well do also.
So... yes... all domestic birds, including my old friend, should be kept completely and securely AWAY from wild birds currently. This hen on the road the other night was definitely NOT supposed to be there!
During the second and third week, December underwent what a radio presenter inadvertently (but accurately I think) called a "cold SLAP". Night-time temperatures got lower than minus six degrees celsius on a number of nights and hard frosts became a nightly occurrence.
On the eighth, on my pre-dawn walk, I stumbled across a dead muntjac, which had (I presume) been clipped by a car, staggered 30 yards or so off the road in the freezing conditions, perhaps with a broken leg or pelvis and perished pretty quickly. When I got to it at around 6am, at the end of my walk, it was frozen pretty solid in frost and its hindquarters had been stripped to the bone by foxes - looking very big and fluffy in this cold weather, they were. Full of raw venison too, by the look of the below.
This (very) cold weather had its advantages. A lunar occultation of Mars (basically Mars seems to hide behind the moon for an hour or so) happened between 04:57am and about 06:01am on the morning of the 8th. I got a reasonable photo or two, lucky in that there were no clouds at all over our part of the UK when this astronomical phenomenon (coincidentally an old nickname of mine) occurred.
This cold weather had more "advantages" I guess, too.
It was lovely to start seeing and hearing coal tits, goldcrests and wrens in the garden, as well as fieldfares rattling overhead.
The bleeding cold weather did bring with it some disadvantages too though - and this is where the meat of this blog post will reside I think.
On the 7th of December, I set off for my pre-dawn walk at 04:50am and immediately almost tripped over a small(ish) hedgehog in our front garden, right by the hedgehog tunnel I'd drilled under our side door. The tunnel they'd been using for a few years now.
This was BRILLIANT news! The first hedgehog I'd seen in our front or back garden for almost exactly eight weeks! (See last month's blog post for that story).
It didn't take any food from our feeding station in the back garden that night (the night of the 6th/7th) and I discovered the next night (7th/8th) that it didn't remember or know how to get TO its food bowl (I make it cat-proof, so a hedgehog can only enter from one direction).
But... a hedgehog HAD rediscovered our gardens AND was using out tunnels (again... please see November's blog post to read more on this story of or missing hedgehogs and neighbours' fences) and was TRYING to get some food from its old food bowl, but was denied that food by trying to get at the bowl from the wrong end of the tunnel.
The issue I (we, it) had of course was that most self-respecting hedgehogs would all be curled up in a tight ball, in a shed or woodpile or compost heap or what have you, during these very cold nights.
Ours though... was out... in HARD FROSTS and temperatures of minus five degrees.
It must be desperate I thought. Literally starving.
On the night of the 8th/9th, I rearranged the feeding station and videoed our hedgehog successfully eat about 50g of food during the night. At one point during the night, it even went to sleep ON the food bowl. (See short Youtube video clip below).
Bear in mind though, grapple fans, that it was again minus five that night. NO hedgehog should be out in those temperatures.
On the night of the 9th/10th I became very concerned about this small(ish) and desperate hedgehog which had finally managed to find its way back to our garden feeding station after 8 weeks or so of being trapped in a neighbour's garden.
Firstly, on that night (9th/10th December) it arrived four hours earlier than normal. We were all eating our tea in the dining room, with the wildlife camera monitor in the conservatory facing us. At 18:40 (ish) my wife, Anna, suddenly shouted "OH! Look!" and we all watched as this hedgehog suddenly appeared on the monitor and started to ravenously eat the food we'd put out for it.
Good... for now... although as I'd said before the previous two nights - there's NO WAY any hedgehog would be out for a few nights now as it's just TOO COLD! WAAAAAY TOO COLD!
It was great that this hedgehog was back eating at our feeding station, but now also really worrying that it was back eating at our feeding station in these temperatures.
It had 10 minutes of food then poddled off, THROUGH THE FROST... then returned... then walked off THROUGH THICKER FROST and this pattern was repeated for about an hour or so.
Regular readers of this blog may remember that my gorgeous and intelligent wife bought me a proper thermal camera for a recent birthday - THIS is the sort of situation where kit like that is invaluable. I used my HIK MICRO OWL OQ35 to follow the hedgehog around the frosty, -5C garden in the pitch black, without getting too close and without using a torch, to disturb it.
At around 9pm (ish) it became obvious to me that the hedgehog had simply stopped moving. It was exposed in the frost, NEAR my big woodpile (where it may have been headed - I don't know) in very, very cold temperatures.
It wasn't curled up.
It wasn't moving (other than breathing).
It looked big and healthy enough to want to hibernate, but it just wasn't behaving like that. Something was up. Perhaps it was weak. Perhaps it was injured. Perhaps the cold had got to it. Perhaps it was being parasitized and its behaviour was therefore being altered.
Now my absolute golden rule with wildlife is NOT TO INTERVENE... but my wife Anna and I agreed that we would have no choice if it hadn't moved in 30 minutes - we would need to act. We would HAVE to intervene.
Well... it didn't move.
So We made the difficult (but ultimately sensible I think) choice to pick it up and move it into our empty chicken coop for the night (complete with nesting material, and food and water and even a hot water bottle in the dropping tray under the coop). I HATE caging wildlife, but if we hadn't acted, we had every reason to think that this troubled fella/lass would have simply frozen to death in the next few hours, where he/she stood.
I set up a trail camera in the coop and discovered the next morning that he/she had been walking around the coop and run for an hour or so during the night- and had eaten all the food (about 50g again) we had provided and drunk quite a bit of water.
Now, that all said, I really needed to call a proper expert for advice and perhaps an intervention or clinical assessment of this hedgehog - what on earth was it doing out in these temperatures and basically just remaining motionless in a frosty garden border?! Was it diseased? Injured? Or was it just the fact that its 'fattening-up' time during October and November had been constrained and delayed by our neighbours putting up a fence across its territory - and time had run out for it, despite me talking with our neighbours and re-digging tunnels?
I weighed the hedgehog and discovered that it seemed to be a relatively healthy (if not massive) 640g or so. (600g is often the weight that hedgehogs need to be to successfully get through hibernation) - so WHY wasn't it hibernating?!
My wife has a colleague, Clare, that I think has helped out at a local(ish) rescue centre, run by an excellent vet by the name of Hannah Tombs.
I gave Hannah a ring on Saturday 10th and dropped our hedgehog off with Hannah later in the day (Hannah is about 30 minutes away - I had our hedgehog in a box of leaves in the passenger footwell during the trip).
Hannah has a garage full of hedgehogs (30 or so!) and a few dove etc.
We established that our hedgehog was female firstly (I hadn't managed to do that really - although I suspected as much - see the first clip above - very often if its a male hedgehog and your footage is at hedgehog eye-level, you'll SEE the obvious penis of the male hedgehog - and clearly in this case, this hedgehog didn't have one. Yes... hung like a hedgehog isn't quite the slur you'd have thought it was!)
We also established that it was around 630g, perhaps losing weight still DESPITE having eaten 90g or so of food with us in the previous two nights.
I had speculated about some kind of endoparasite such as lungworm to Hannah over the phone, but I'm hardly the expert in this field - so Hannah sad she'd check her faeces (not hers Hannah's you understand, but hers the hedgehog's) out for lungworm larvae to see what was what.
Hannah gave her (yesss... the hedgehog) some fluid and electrolytes with an immediate injection and put her in a pen all night.
This morning (I'm writing this part of the blog on Sunday 11th) she texted me to say that our "girl" had eaten and taken water, put on a little weight AND had had one of her poos tested for lungworm.
Hannah did text me the next morning to tell me that she had found evidence of lots of lungworm larvae in our hedgehog's faeces and sent me a stock image of a(n adult as it happens) lungworm - see above.
Now, as Hannah said, all hedgehogs tend to have a some sort of mild lungworm infection, but sometimes these nematodes flourish inside the lungs, bloodstream and gut of hedgehogs (not just hedgehogs either - read more on these nematodes here) and cause an issue - difficulty breathing, lack of energy etc. Our hedgehog seemed to have lots of lungworm larvae in her faeces, meaning she'd have to be treated.
Hannah said she'd start treatment immediately and monitor her progress.
I'm almost pleased, in a weird sort of way, that our poor female hedgehog has a parasite problem. Firstly it would explain a lot, secondly it means that she'll be treated to eradicate them from her system (moth hedgehogs don't get this treatment) and thirdly, whilst she is being treated, she'll be protected from these vicious overnight temperatures right now, in Hannah's garage.
How long will the treatment last? No idea to be honest. Perhaps a fortnight?
Will it be successful? No idea again (remember I'm writing this part of the blog on her first day at the vets).
If it is successful.... what happens next?
We'll get a call from Hannah to pick up our "girl" and release her back into her territory in milder temperatures I presume.
This is where I get a but twitchy to be frank. I'm often conscious of releasing animals back into the wild, into their old territories or not, and seeing them reacting badly, after being stressed by captivity or others in their "colony" (badgers especially) rejecting them.
I'm sure, unlike badgers of course, that the re-release of our "girl" will go well though if she gets better at the expert hands of Hannah. We're all set up for a release after all. It is her old territory (I assume they don't forget old territorial landmarks and routes after a week or two), we have an empty, cool (but not too cool) chicken coop to begin the release process, we have plenty of other more natural hedgehog homes and hibernacula (shed, compost heap, woodpiles) so I think we'll and she'll be OK.... as long as she responds well to treatment and we get to release her in more clement weather (not at minus five or six or even seven I hear tonight).
I also must remember to be more fastidious with my regular disinfecting of our hedgehog feeding station. I clean it very regularly but very possibly not regularly enough. I should move it more often too. Now its unlikely that my hedgehog feeding station caused this hedgehog to get overrun with lungworms (she's not been feeding with us for 8 weeks after all and I do clean our station regularly) but its things like this that we "wildlife lovers" often need to be aware of. Regular readers of this blog might remember I've written about this subject a number of times before.
More soon... (see * below).
On the night of the 11th/12th, a day after we dropped off our female hedgehog at the rescue centre, it snowed. Not heavily. But snow it did. An un-forecast snow too. I was suddenly even happier that we'd dropped off the hedgehog at the vets.
Well... the snow did what snow does - it looked quite pretty and gave me the opportunity to follow fox and squirrel footprints around town on my pre-dawn walk (can YOU see the squirrel tracks in all the fox track photos below?).
It was also nice to see my hastily-defrosted bird bath being used for once, by our local starling flock. My bird bath was originally put in place as a drinking tray for our hedgehogs, funnily enough - and certainly we've had hedgehogs drink from it regularly. We've even had frogs lay spawn in it once (bear in mind it's just an old rust-proof grill pan dug into the ground!). It's been in place for years now but not until the 12th December 2022 have I ever seen birds wash in it. I really was made-up when I watched a flock of ten or so starlings vigorously wash themselves in the bath on that morning!
The snow stayed around for six full days and nights - pretty-well unheard of in lowland, SE England in early-mid December (so yes.... not even in Winter!).
Finally on Sunday the 18th December, the northerly air flow which had sent temperatures plummeting all over the country to consecutive overnight lows of -8C here and sub zero during the day (freezing out washing machine pipes and bursting water mains (see photo above) in the meantime) changed to a southerly - and we got two days of rain - and temperatures back into double figures here.
Quite a change. (I should point out that we don't live in Chelmsford, nor indeed Essex... this was just a BBC graphic on the TV, detailing the 20 degree warming the country would experience over two days).
Our local, young, female sparrowhawk put in an appearance on top of her favourite tree in the garden just before the snow disappeared. Anna (my wife for any new readers) spotted her first - I tried to get a few action shots, but shooting through dirty, double glazed windows, in very low light, with a crop sensor camera and a lens that doesn't appear to be very well right now, wasn't easy and the two or three photos below were the best of a poor bunch (and even these were out of focus).
I'm REALLY considering buying a second hand Canon 1DX to try and rectify this lack of speed and light in my cameras right now. More on that another day perhaps.
* OK... I'm writing this part of this blog post on December 27th - three days after we picked up our poor, lungworm-infested, female hedgehog (see above).
I got a text message from Hannah, the vet at Farnborough who I dropped off our hedgehog at two weeks ago, suggesting that as she had responded well to the lungworm treatment and had put on c.150g of weight, perhaps I'd like to come and collect her and release her back into her old territory (our back garden being part of that territory).
Ben (our eldest) and I drove down to Farnborough to collect her on Christmas eve, at dusk. Hannah explained that she had been tagged (see photos below) with a few yellow plastic sleeves glued to her spines, each with her number (H083) and Hannah's phone number, in case she was found again (dead or alive).
We drove her back home and popped her in the chicken coop nest again, to acclimatise to being back where she belonged. We opened the side of the chicken run and provided a ramp for her to make her way back into her territory proper, when she was good and ready.
It didn't take long, to be honest - no more than an hour in fact.
An hour after we left her alone, she made her way down the chicken coop ramp (inside the chicken run) and up and out of the chicken run (over a series of ramps I fashioned for her) and out into her old patch again.
I watched her on the thermal camera from a distance (and I could HEAR her noisily eating some crunchy stuff (a beetle or two at the back of our garden, in the undergrowth?), but very soon it was clear that she had left our garden and was exploring other gardens in her patch.
I recorded her on video (a trail camera) leaving our back garden through the side passage tunnel I had drilled through the concrete, at 03:10am on Christmas morning - and we've not seen her since.
Well... all I can say for sure is that we certainly saved her life in mid December. She'd have frozen if we'd have done nothing that night on the 10th. We may have saved her life for a year or two... and given her the chance to breed next Spring if we're lucky. We thought she had been spending her days under a shed up the road (see October's post) but perhaps now her main day bed (and hibernaculum now) is the other side of our land (nearer the main road). We certainly saw her leave that way and haven't seen her return, like I say, as I write this, on the 27th.
The weather has got a LOT milder since that blummin' cold COLD SNAP in mid-late December - I'm so glad she was in Hannah's garage during that period.
Let's be positive.
Let's hope that within a night of freedom again, she, at 800g, decided that she knew her way around her old patch - and wandered off to her provisional hibernaculum. Let's hope she is safe and warm there - and stays there, wherever that is (under the shed up the road or nearer the main road somewhere out the front of our gardens) for the majority of the winter - and wakes up in March (or whenever) and finds her way back to our hedgehog (very)friendly garden for a slap up Spring breakfast. If she does, we'll recognise the plastic tags on her back.
Good luck H083. We hope to see you again in a few months!
Is there anything else to report in the last (ever) wildlife monthly blog of the year?
Not a lot, to be honest.
I took a few days off over the school Christmas holidays and the family (my wife and our two boys) had a lovely walk or two around the local lakes.
We all saw our favourite ducks there (those ducks would be the spectacular Goldeneye ducks (OF COURSE!)) but we missed one or two bitterns that were allegedly there too, hidden in the reedbeds.
The lakes' footpaths were well and truly flooded, what with all the rain we've had over the last week or so of the month - but it was lovely to get out anyway on Anna's birthday on Boxing Day, in beautiful winter sunshine.
We also took a drive or two around the local countryside, after dark, to try and spot a tawny owl - a common bird that up until the last few days of the year was missing from Ben's "2022 Around the birds in eighty aves" project. Luckily, on Christmas day (of all days!) all of us were in the car, driving through a spot where I have occasionally seen them in the past... and one flew across the road in front of the car, in full view... meaning Ben finished his "2022 Around the birds in eighty aves" project on 126 species - starting with a barn owl on the 1st January and ending with a tawny owl on 25th December! 126 species of birds in a calendar year is no mean feat I'd suggest - and a full 16 species MORE than last year. Well done Ben!
That shallot then, grapple fans.
We started writing about owls and goldeneye in January - and ended in a similar fashion, in December.
I hope you've enjoyed reading a few of my wildlife blogs this year - please, like I say, tell me (via a comment or contact here) if you have - and if I get a few nice comments or contact messages, I'll consider writing a few more blog posts next year (otherwise I'll probably leave it to be honest - or at least cut the frequency of writing right down to just a few times a year).
Whether this website, images and blog is ongoing next year, remains to be seen then - but even if it all disappears... for now... I, and my whole family here, wish you all a happy and prosperous future - beginning on January 1st 2023.
Happy new year all.
TBR and family.