Thursday, November 12, 2015

Stags and Stoats

As the weak late-Autumn sunshine finally broke through the clouds, the blanket of mist nestling over the marshy grassland slowly began to rise and disperse. In a scene unchanged since the Pleistocene, a red deer stag's antlers appeared above the tall grass and were slowly swept backwards towards the animal's russet-coloured back, as it put it's head in the air and roared it's call. And, no doubt like my ancient ancestors, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt a pit in my stomach in response to this primeval sound. Then a Virgin Atlantic 747 cruised low overhead en route to Florida! I was deer-watching in Tatton Park close to Manchester airport.
My girlfriend Jane and I arrived early on Saturday morning to try and catch some of the red deer rutting action in this beautiful park. We parked beneath the trees near one of the meres and as soon as we got out of the car a stag sauntered towards us. We stayed near the car as this magnificent deer strolled past only metres away; these testosterone-infused males can be unpredictable at this time of the year so we were taking no chances.
We had spotted a group of red deer hinds across the road from the carpark as we drove in, so we set off to see if there were any stags with them. In the long grass quite close to road I saw a massive pair of antlers; what was clearly a defeated stag was lying down trying to recouperate from his exertions. He appeared exhausted, and was struggling to even keep his head off the ground, the rigours of the rut had taken their toll on this beautiful animal, so we left him in peace.
We crossed the road and headed for a small piece of woodland where some red deer were currently grazing. So as not to disturb the deer we headed around the back of the trees, and as we did so a familiar "winking" call of geese prompted me to cast my gaze skyward just in time to see a flock of about 30 pinkfooted geese heading east in perfect v-formation. We watched as the lead goose changed positions with another member of the flock in a manoeuvre that would have drawn admiring glances from a well-drilled Tour de France time trial team! And the purpose is the same; drafting from you fellow team mate or flock member saves energy.
We settled down on a fallen tree trunk in a perfect position to watch the deer. There was at least one stag who was staking his claim on the hinds and declaring his fitness for battle by constantly bellowing. But there were no challengers to his position as top stag. A few younger males made half-hearted attempts to usurp the alpha male but they were easily thwarted without the need for a clash of antlers; there was going to be no fighting today. And just as well, although I had my camera with me, most of the, albeit tame, action was taking place beneath the trees so any photos of the rut would have been obscured by tree trunks and branches.
At about this time I noticed a grey squirrel perched on one end of  our log with a sweet chestnut  clamped securely in his mouth. He was obviously caching food in preparation for the leaner months ahead, but we were clearly sitting on one of his favourite highways! He glared at me and swished his grey fluffy tail in annoyance, but it was a perfect opportunity for me to grab a shot of this much-maligned alien. I rattled off a few snaps before he sprang from the log and bounced off through the long grass behind us.

I took a few record shots of the deer before we decided to have a stroll back around the trees. As I approached the edge of the small wood I spotted what I thought was another squirrel dashing through the undergrowth; but hang on a minute, it was too dark, sleek and sinewy to be a squirrel. I raised my binoculars and was delighted to find myself watching a beautiful stoat! He shot around a tree and disappeared beneath a small pile of logs. I crept closer and crouched behind a tree whereupon the stoat started scrambling over and under the logs, pausing occasionally to glance in my direction. He was so close that I could see his dark brown nose twitching as he sniffed the air. Despite the poor light I managed to take a few nice shots, before the stoat once again dashed off, no doubt in search of rabbits.
What an amazing encounter; it more than compensated for the lack of rutting action by the red deer stags.

Roe Deer are also present in Tatton Park