Early spring is always an anxious time for the dedicated water vole fan. Each year, some colonies come back as strongly as ever, some might disappear, while others decide to shift themselves along the water course and pop up where you didn't expect them.
A keen eye for wildlife
I'm currently watching the banks of the stream for Pringles-tube-sized burrows and starry paw prints, which mean at least some voles have emerged. Any day now, that ought to be. Then, when latrines and piles of feed start to show, I can set up my fishing stool and wait with my camera to get the first shots.
But how to get my small mammal-fix in the meantime? Glimpses of wood mice exiting guiltily as I open the bird food bin are all I've had for months now. The hedgehogs aren't awake, and even the garden rat seems to have packed up and left. And it's still too cold to leave out Longworth traps overnight. Which means, I if I want to photograph mice, voles and shrews, there's only one place I can go.
A Secret Treasure Trove
So I take myself to a tatty old bit of brownfield on the edge of town. I discovered the site a few years ago when I was taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, and it seethes with wildlife. Best of all, someone has put down corrugated tin refugia at regular intervals around the edge, near the tall grass.
Post-winter, some of the sheets are hard to find as they've become overgrown with brambles. Before I touch any refugia, I have my camera primed, with the lens cap velcroed to the underside to stop it swinging into my downwards-pointing shot.
Cautiously I lift up the first. Three glossy adult wood mice with long, long tails are sitting together in the middle of the square. They've landscaped the area with their runs and nest material, and made it pretty cosy. For maybe twenty seconds we eye each other, and I take several snaps before they slip back down into their burrows. I lower the tin carefully and move on.
Under the next sheet, a couple of field voles nestle in a similar sort of set up. Despite the skittish nature of the species, this pair makes no attempt to flee. I get a good, close look at their short tails, their blunt noses and half-hidden ears. Often the fur of field voles appears greyish, but these are more of a nut brown. On such brief acquaintance, it's only the tail length that makes me certain of ID.
Most of the refugia are home only to ants or centipedes or hibernating snails, but the penultimate one today harbours a toad, who's too cold even to twitch a leg. I let him be, and go to the last sheet.
And crikey, what's that tiny, pointy-nosed blur which dashes out? It's a common shrew, keen not to be photographed thank you, because he's on an urgent mission to catch more food.
I go home feeling revived. It's been a good haul of sightings, and a boost during these cool, bare days. I shan't be disturbing these little beasts now for months, but I might go again mid-summer and see how they are getting on, and then again perhaps in the autumn.
In the meantime, it's back to the stream to wait for my water voles. They shouldn't be too long now.