Monday, 8 February 2016

The Oak By The Rife Patch Blog is moving home...

The Oak By The Rife blog is moving home...
I am transferring my posting from here on Blogger over to a new, fresh, updated platform at

This archive of posts from December 2014 to January 2016 will remain online here for you to return to and enjoy! 

Please pop over onto the new blog and give it a follow, and don't forget to let me know what you think!

The latest post is on the Curious Case of the Silent Woodpeckers...

The Twitter feed @OakByTheRife is continuing in its current form, and as ever I look forward to hearing from you! 

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Going Bump In The Night

(Note: I have been made aware that some readers are having issues viewing the videos. Sorry! Please let me know if it works or not for you!)
Before Christmas I was fortunate enough to be able to acquire a remote trail camera. (For those who haven't come across these, its similar basically to a security camera, the sort of thing they use on BBC Springwatch; a battery operated, motion activated camera with an infrared capability.) I had tested it in my garden, but then the winter weather closed in and I didn't dare leave my precious equipment out in the rain, and so it has been a couple of months since an opportunity has arisen to use it. 

Last night however, the forecast was perfect - a dry fine night after rain. I knew that the night-time activities of the local wildlife included visits to my home area by both badgers and foxes, as I had heard them fighting and calling on recent evenings, so I had high hopes! 

I strapped my camera, set up to capture video clips if triggered between 6pm & 6am, to the base of an ornamental cherry tree near to my house, in the vicinity of some well worn animal tracks and previous badger sightings. A small handful of peanuts from my stock of bird-food, scattered far and wide on the grass in front, would hopefully encourage more than a passing glimpse of any nocturnal wildlife that passed that way. 

Early this morning I dashed down to retrieve the camera and find out if it had captured any recordings - the anticipation was unbearable! 

I was thrilled to find, upon popping the memory card into my laptop, a whole collection of clips - the full story of the night's wildlife. 

The two main characters were fox and badger. Never appearing in the same shot, these two creatures nonetheless seemed to be well aware of the other's presence,  giving each other a wide berth and plenty of space as they clearly wished to avoid conflict. The first to arrive was a fox, at about half-past-eight. The fox is clearly wary, and rightly so; there are probably still people about and possibly dogs too at this time of night. If you watch this clip carefully, you can see that even when it sneaks out of the view to the left into the cover of the vegetation behind the fence, it doesn't go far and actually turns around to peer back out and watch for danger - look for the eye-shine! 

This fox looks to be in good condition with a thick brush (tail), and no cuts or chinks in the ears or other signs of injury. 

I wonder what caught the fox's attention here, something from above - an owl perhaps? 

It wasn't much later, at about nine-o'clock when the first badger appeared. This animal foraged for the peanuts too, but mostly closer to the camera than the fox, partly out of sight. However this gave a good view of how scruffy this particular individual was; its large and rotund body looked much as though it had been pushing through a hedge backwards, leaving its fur stood on end! Once it had decided it had had enough peanuts it moved off, back the way it had come, stopping for a scratch and a shake on the way. 


The fox returned repeatedly during the night, and I have been studying the footage in and attempt to ascertain if it is the same individual or not. I am fairly certain however that there were three individual badgers. The scruffy one, a large solidly built badger which scent marked as it passed through so could be the dominant boar, and third with a light patch in its fur and which appears to me to be noticeably 'fat'. Could it be possible that this third individual could be an expectant sow? As usual with nature, the more you find out the more questions it creates!

Scent-marking badger

Badger 003

More fox action, the last of the night at around four in the morning. Could this be a different animal to the first? Its behaviour is very cautious and 'investigative' and I noticed very dark and distinctive 'tear' markings on the face. A final badger passed through at nearly five o'clock, (possibly a fourth individual) but didn't stop for long, aware I expect that the human world may soon be waking up. 

I hope to put the camera out again soon and look forward to revealing more detail of these nocturnal animals' nightly activities. Will I be able to distinguish individuals? Perhaps the badgers will bring cubs past later in the summer? Watch this space!

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Sunshine and Rain

To say that the Thursday of this past week was the brightest sunshine-filled day we have seen for most of this winter, would possibly not be an exaggeration in the slightest. I spent the morning at work, but upon returning home at lunch time, my only thought was to get out on the patch for a walk to make the most of every drop of that rare sunlight. Predictably, I hadn't made it very far along the road when a blustery wind got up and blew in a number of later-afternoon clouds to obscure the sun and hint cryptically at potential rainfall sometime in the near future. (Am I the only one, or do you find that this always happens to you too? Nature is tricksy!) None-the-less I persevered with my walk and found more than enough to distract me from the horizon clouds and the wind finding its way into the back of my neck under my scarf. 

It seems as though I was not the only one coaxed out by the sun. Spring growth in the hedgerow understory has kicked off early with the mild damp weather; primroses have been flowering since last year, bright golden stars of celandine appear on the banks, wild arum arrowhead-leaves unfurl and even the green leaf spikes of bluebell are shooting from the wet soil. 
By the bus stop is a swathe of pale slender mauve flowers from the early spring crocus.

I had decided to head out from home, along the main road and take a right turn into Pitsham Lane, to take me along the farm track completing a round circuit, and approaching the farm from the opposite direction to 'normal' for a refreshing change. 

Passing under the old railway bridge and crossing the rife, I noticed a very freshly used badger latrine in the winter-dead bracken at the top of the stream bank. I suspect the badgers have their set dug into the embankment somewhere along the disused railway line, deeper in to the woodland, but I'd love to discover more and know them better. 
I scanned the long paddock for the three roe deer I had seen there on my previous visit but no sign of them today. The 'manor house' was busy, probably the last shoot-lunch of the game season, so I suspect the deer had sought quieter browsing elsewhere. 
House sparrows chirped and gossiped as always in the hedge opposite the house, sedentary and sociable, their feathers fluffed against the wind. 

The fields were quiet at first glance, the water level is high and standing puddles caught the light. Cattle did their best to look doleful and piteous in the vain hope I might turn into a tractor bringing them an extra feed. Above their heads, flocks of starlings used the three stands of telegraph wires as though to mark out musical notation. 
A kestrel swooping up to perch on one of the telegraph poles was my first raptor of the day. 
Passing the brickworks a large bird in the distant sky caught my eye and a brief view revealed a red kite. Long wings rode the air and with a slight lean to the side, the kite changed direction and was lost to view behind the trees. 

Turning the corner past the dairy and walking along the straight section of track, the sun returned, bathing the fields and standing oaks in a golden light. Pheasants were cavorting in the field edge. It was as I raised my binoculars to take a closer look at the pheasants, that a small flock of goldfinches leaving the track-side hedge attracted my attention and drew me to a previously unnoticed bird, perched on the top of the brambles some metres along the track. It was a male stonechat, my first for this location. 

A third raptor ended up being a lovely finale to my walk. As the stonechat dropped out of view behind the hedge, I could here the distinctive sound of crows mobbing something. It turned out they were bullying a large buzzard which flew low across the field into the line of trees that mark the boundary with the next field beyond. Eventually shaking off the crows' harassment, the buzzard perched first on a fence post then in a low branch of one of the large oak trees, watching the sun move towards its time to sink behind the western hills. 

Saturday, 16 January 2016


January has been a busy month. The rains and mild weather have continued, with widespread flooding still an issue in the north of the UK. UK rainfall records for the month were smashed by the 8th day, and in the occasional break of sunshine daffodils bloom. 

In my back garden the long tailed tits, in a flock of up to two-dozen at times, have become almost daily visitors. Primroses are in flower in the border beside the garden path. A wren has been roosting in the roof. Where the neighbour's gable-end slopes down to meet the front edge of our roof, a gap between the soffits is just visible through a tangle of overgrown wisteria stems, and from this hole out the wren pops each morning, with a rattling call and a whirr of wings. Further out on the patch, I have seen roe deer grazing in the paddock beside 'the manor house' at Pitsham farm, and black headed gulls wheel over the sodden flood meadows either side of Cowdray causeway. I was able to fit in a short birdwatching stroll last week before a later-morning start at work, and was amazed to turn my binoculars onto the horses field (with the massive oak tree, from the metal gate in the hedge along the track, opposite the polo fields) and find my view filled with birds. Chaffinch were the most numerous, but they were joined in the grass by goldfinch, blackbird, and a few redwing. 

This week, at last the weather has turned cold; clear skies have lead to overnight frosts and crisp sparkling mornings. A friend who lives closer into town, near South Pond heard a vixen screaming a few nights ago. I have listened most evenings but I have yet to hear her, or the dog-fox bark his reply. This morning however, a familiar sound but one unheard for some time, bounced around the sharp frosted air; the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker from the woodland by the rife. This is the first time this winter that the woodpeckers have been drumming here, far later than last year's pre-christmas activity on 16th December. Are they triggered by the cold weather, or had the wood, until now, simply been too softened by rain to produce a sound that would travel well? 

The new year's list of birds on the patch is growing well, and so far stands as follows: 

Wren, long tailed tit, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, robin, blackbird, song thrush, house sparrow, wood pigeon, collared dove, magpie, carrion crow, jackdaw, rook, black headed gull, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, pied wagtail, redwing, stock dove, mallard, Canada goose, goldcrest, cormorant, mistle thrush, sparrowhawk, buzzard, kestrel, green woodpecker, nuthatch, jay - 33 species

Today the sun is shining brightly, angled low through the trees, and the moon when it rises is a growing crescent approaching it's first quarter. 
A few hazel catkins are amongst those tempted into a false spring, but these have been caught out and will have to hope and wait for a while now as this confused season finally finds its cold bite. 
It is a welcome relief in a way, to feel the arctic-chill in the winter wind, despite it freezing my fingers, as the muddled warm and wet days were unsettling in their strangeness for this time of year. 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Winter Jewels

Come on. Pull on your boots, let's get out for a walk. 

I often think it is amazing how something a simple as a walk can lift the mood, re-balance the body and revitalise the mind. Just escaping the restricting confines of walls and ceiling, breathing fresh cool air, and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, can be a cure-all for many of life's worries and strains. 

It has been a little while since we followed Pitsham Lane across the farm. The mild damp weather we have been trudging through during the past few months has left the track claggy with mud; a good chance to 'dirty up' my new wellies (sensible 'country green' ones, for those days when my bright red wellingtons, although fun, may not be entirely suitable!). Despite the day starting off as another mild one, the wind has grown increasingly chilled and blustery this afternoon, blowing ahead of a band of rain forecast for later this evening. I wish I had worn my wooly hat. 

The harsh twigs where we picked sloes earlier in the mellow autumn, are leafless now and a tangled mass of thorn. The remaining berries, ignored by the birds in the prolonged mild weather, are wrinkled and shrinking, decaying on the stem. The stems themselves are encrusted with lichen in shades of gold and silver. 

Cattle have been in the fields for some weeks now, poaching and churning the mud around their feeders and troughs to a thick noisy gloop. Curious, they huff through their hairy, tongue-wet noses at us over the fence. 

Pied wagtails take alarm, launching into the air with a characteristic "Chissick" call, looping across the field as though struggling to keep their long tails from weighing them down, 'bottom-heavy'. In the corner oak, another bird seems to have no problem at all with being tail-heavy. The long tailed tit is one of an extensive flock, some two dozen or so individual birds strong, flitting throughout the oak's branches and spilling out into the adjoining hedgerow. One by one they pile across the track, directly over our heads, none wanting to be the last left behind. 

The light drops quickly at this time of year, especially when diffused through the clouds that seem to constantly cover the sky recently. 

A flock of chaffinches, falls upwards - moving as one from mud to branches at our approach, nervous and flighty. Something interesting across the field turns out to be nothing more than a clump of browned and withered dock stems or similar plant, once focused on through the binoculars. 

Turning for home, it is not long before we are back on the concrete road through the industrial estate; the streetlight at the entrance to the estate already glowing. A decade ago, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, post-christmas but not long after New Year, a new tree arrived in the industrial estate. I don't know who planted it, but one day the grass bank was just an ordinary grass bank, the next day there was a tree, its triangular shape suggesting its origins may have involved tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights. We grew together that tree and I, as I passed it by each day too and fro, until it overtook me and now reaches somewhere between twice and three times my height. I am always tempted each December to remind the tree of its sparkly and colourful past, but today it had no need for such artificial adornment; nature had provided the decorations. Between the dark, needle-soft branches of the fir, a tiny bird flitted; round as a bauble, a flash of colour. A goldcrest, one of nature's winter jewels. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Moving Mountains

This autumn has been a very mild one with temperatures frequently in double figures until a cold snap descended over the weekend, bringing a thick frost. 
Did you hear the clockwork calls of pheasants repeating along the woodland edge in the early morning?
The night before, a barn owl crossed my path, a moments apparition from the dark illuminated in headlight beams. A few miles away (off the patch) another had been perched on a fencepost. A pale shape turned, crouched, prepared; flight was close.

Tuesday morning however dawned mild once more, and damp. The weakened sun struggled to draw back a curtain of heavy drizzle. 
By mid morning the sun had eked out a small victory, and so I decided to walk to work across my patch. 
I have been busy, and have not had opportunity to walk the route I took yesterday for at least several days if not a couple of weeks, so it was good to catch up, see what changes the weather and ever-turning seasons had wrought. 
I certainly wasn't expecting to encounter a waft of golden summer! But my nose didn't lie and there in the hedgerow, beside the fire station, was indeed a tendril of honeysuckle complete with a couple of sweetly-scented clotted-cream-coloured clusters of flowers! 
Another unseasonable flower beamed at me from the bog alongside Jubilee Path. Unreachable, out in the muddied and waterlogged reaches at the edge of the snippet of woodland was a bright yellow kingcup or marsh marigold, bold as brass, cheered by on the the calls of a tit flock in the branches above. 
The tit flock was mixed, including the great tit in black bowler hat & tie and blue tits the colours of Spring flowers beneath Spring sky.

For the first time this year, I found that attempting to walk the path alongside the Rother and skirting the edge of Cowdray meadows required me to pick my steps carefully and stick to the grass where the vegetation bound the mud tightly. Squirrels chattered to one another in the branches, and the ever alert blackbird took panicked flight as I approached the corner of the path. He had been feasting on windfalls from a feral apple tree at the edge of the meadow, beyond the old iron gate at the foot of St Anne's Hill. 
Mistle thrushes guard clumps of mistletoe in the tops of the linden trees, a high view point from where they mark the progress of any threat to their living winter food store. 
The moles had moved their mountains up the bank. beneath the rushes the flood meadows are becoming waterlogged; a sure sign winter is coming. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Autumn winds

Off to the far west of the patch, out over the atlantic, multiple low pressure systems spiral in, queueing up so that as the winds of one blow themselves eastwards, another can pile in behind it with successive waves of squally rain and gusts.  The wind is vicious, tearing the last of the autumn tinted leaves from the trees and sending birds scudding sideways from their flight paths. 

The fieldfares and redwings have arrived in good numbers during a break in the weather, forced to take refuge in the face of the oncoming storm. The redwings move in squadrons seeking berries, whilst the fieldfares argue agitatedly with the wind from the top of the buffeted linden trees. 

In those Linden trees clumps of mistletoe hang, already heavy with berries, and in the nearby churchyard holly and yew berries light up the damp gloom. 

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Hello! Thank you for viewing my blogs and profile. I am passionate about the countryside and british wildlife and I hope that this comes through in my blog. I am a nature writer and have been pursuing photography since early teenage years, whilst building a career in conservation. Helping people to reconnect with the natural world is very important to me, whether through direct hands on interaction, education or literature. Please also visit my website, for more information, my current CV, and further examples of writing and photography. You can contact me or keep up to date with new blog posts via Twitter @SophiEcoWild and/or Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis