Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I've Seen a Ghost...


About 50 years ago, when I was a feral 10 year-old growing up in the Sussex countryside, I was mooching through the reed beds at the head of Fishbourne Creek in Chichester harbour at dusk when a large brown bird rose up in front of me and flapped slowly above my head, transfixing me with a penetrating stare of its raptorial eyes. I knew instantly what it was - a marsh harrier - because I'd spent hours scrutinising the pictures in P.A.D. Hollom's Popular Handbook of British Birds in the library - and had the usually schoolboy obsession with rarities. Trouble was, no one would believe me. In those days marsh harriers were rarer than they are today, especially in that part of Britain (where there were, then, some ruthless gamekeepers that shot everything with a hooked beak and proudly hung it all on a gibbet) so all the wildlife 'experts' that I mentioned it to gave me a condescending smile and told me I must have got it wrong. I even began to wonder whether I'd imagined the encounter... but I knew what I'd seen.

I'm sorry to admit, to my shame, that I lapsed into 'wildlife expert' mode a couple of days ago. We were walking up a little valley near St. John's Chapel in Weardale when my wife, who was about ten yards ahead of me, turned and said "Look! A red squirrel". 
Now the last time I saw a red squirrel in the middle section of Weardale must have been about twenty years ago and - apart from a small population right up at the head of the dale, at Killhope (see pictures and post here) - it seems to be generally agreed that they are extinct here.
So my instant reaction was a dismissive "No, it can't be. They're long gone. Must be a grey squirrel with a  tinge of brown fur".

But it was indeed a red squirrel. A ghost from the past - except that it was as large and life and scolding us as it raced from the ground up the trunk of a larch tree. 

So I had to apologise for my shameful scepticism pretty quickly. It reminded me of why I've never like the term 'expert', which all-too-often equates with 'know-all".

Anyway, having got that admission off my chest, isn't this a lovely animal?

As we watched it leap from tree to tree it sent down a shower of golden larch needles every time it landed on a branch.



These are big enlargements of small sections of the whole image,so the quality isn't great, but who cares!




Magnificent ear tufts...


The big question, of course, is where did this animal come from? It's very unlikely that it made it down the dale from the distant population at Killhope - most of the intervening territory is open moorland. There are a lot of predators that could catch and kill it in the open (at one point on Sunday we watched eight buzzards soaring overhead). 
This larch plantation is too small to support a red squirrel population all year-round, but there is another much larger conifer plantation about a mile away, that might conceivably shelter a relict population.
Or maybe this is the result of someone's freelance red squirrel reintroduction programme?

There are no answers at the moment but it was a magical - and, I have to admit - humbling encounter.

22 comments:

  1. i do so love the ears on a red squirrel!

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  2. What a marvellous encounter. I would love to see a Red. Let's hope that they thrive and expand.

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  3. You were lucky to see it and have a camera handy! We have a similar red squirrel- the Malabar red squirrel, which I have caught sight of only once in the jungle.

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  4. Hi Phil. Super images!!

    I too found a Red Squirrel this year which had me wondering how it had got there as it was in a small wooded area (less than half an acre), with no other wooded area in sight for a least a mile radius. It was, however, in a region of Scotland where there are good Red Squirrel populations - it was just that this was so remote. This place was also well-populated with Buzzards and I also saw a Golden Eagle! Perhaps these guys are more adventurous than we give them credit for!!!

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  5. It's good to know that Weardale can still spring a surprise or two! Nice pics.

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  6. A bit different looking from the our North America Red Squirrel, but just as feisty, I'm sure! I love them, and we have a LOT here still. So many folks claim they don't like either gray or red squirrels, but I wonder what they would say if both were gone. I think they'd miss all the activity in the canopy. I wonder if you'll figure out how this little one got there?

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  7. I too have suffered from 'experts' telling me I couldn't have seen things. Most notably an Asure Hawker. Fortunately I had photos - a new 10km for it was thus forthcoming.

    I'm pleased to say I'm always ready to acknowledge something could be in an unusual place. It's amazing how things get around (sometimes, as you suggest, with the aid of Man.)

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  8. How lovely.....especially those ear tufts :)

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  9. Me too petoskystone - they are at their best in early winter.

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  10. I'll be looking out for them on every visit now, toffeeapple

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  11. Hi lotusleaf - it was lucky that the light was so good too. I'll be going back to try for some better photos..

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  12. Thanks Richard, I've often seen grey squirrels travelling over open countryside - they often use wall tops as highways around here - so maybe reds do too.....?

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  13. Hi Graeme, the last place in Weardale that I saw them was in Wolsingham - and that was a lot of years ago...

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  14. Hi Valerianna, I'd certainly miss them - even the greys, which raid our bird table in winter. There aren't many wild mammals that are so easy to watch - or so entertaining.

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  15. Hi John, I think the most unexpected, out-of-normal-location encounter I've had was a woodcock on my own suburban back garden!

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  16. Wonderful colour too, when the sun lights up iots fur, isn't it Ellen?

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  17. Certainly was Adrian - totally unexpected...

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  18. It will be interesting to so if it really is an isolated animal John, or whether there are others..

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  19. As a former co-worker of mine used to say: an "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure; therefore I refuse to be an expert at anything."

    Lovely red squirrel - much more intriguing-looking than our North American version!

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  20. Hi Ellen, I'm totally with you on the expert issue.
    It was so long since I've watched red squirrels that I was absolutely mesmerised by this one. Went back for another look yesterday (and saw a hen harrier as well).

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