One of the perks of writing this column is receiving stories about encounters with wildlife from friends, family and fellow Wharfedale Naturalists. As the season tips over from spring-summer to autumn-winter I’ve been enjoying looking back over some of these gems.
One friend told me about returning home late one evening in March to be slightly alarmed by the clear shadow of a man’s head projected onto her garage door by the outside light. What prowler is this, lurking in the bushes and what should she do about it? A second look was reassuring. A tawny owl, fluffed up and head slightly turned, was perched on a fence post. As she watched, it swooped away on silent wings. It turns out that this year has seen a population explosion in voles, which we hope will compensate the owls for the exceptionally wet weather that has made hunting so difficult for them. So far, reports of tawnies locally are well up this year and even the rare long-eared owls which breed locally have hatched young.
A similarly unsettling experience was reported by a botanist friend. She was walking along a path in the Washburn valley when the ground in front of her began to move. Fascinated, she inspected more closely – the whole pathway was covered in thousands of tiny, earth-coloured toadlets making their way from the pond where they were spawned to find new damp homes in the surrounding countryside. Many observant walkers have probably had the same experience this year: it’s been a very good year for amphibians, and the summer downpours will have suited them as they dispersed through the wet vegetation.
My third story came just recently from my sister. On a walk through rough pasture and heathland she spotted a golden-ringed dragonfly whizzing along the border of the track; what’s more, it seemed to have something in its jaws. Luckily, it chose to land on a wall close to where she was standing, presumably to enjoy its meal in comfort. Its prey proved to be a large bumble bee, which it tackled with relish, spitting out the fur that drifted to the ground. It was rather like watching a sparrowhawk plucking a small bird. The analogy’s a good one. These dragonflies are members of the hawker group, and hunt down prey on the wing with the speed and agility of hawks. They are fierce predators, able to deal with large and, in this case, potentially dangerous prey. If we are fortunate enough to have an Indian summer in September, dragonflies are something to look out for, both near water and along woodland rides and edges.
Perhaps you have a story to add? There’ll certainly be more at the WNS Open Evening on September 11th at 7.30pm at Christ Church, Ilkley.