Lockdown life: the wildlife on my doorstep

Normally at this time of year (Easter 2020) I feel at home in the extreme South Eastern corner of Poland, and more precisely in the vast wooded Bieszczady landscape. Equal to the previous decade, goal there is to get used to a wildlife finding strategy of dusk and dawn scanning sessions combined with forest drives, walks and night-time lamping sessions. All in search of a list of enigmatic, flagship species like European Bison, Wolf, Eurasian Lynx, Brown Bear, Wild Cat both Pine and Beech Marten, Otter and Beaver. This place has it all!

Although I spend a lot of time in Poland I live in Belgium and I really never thought that a Sunday walk in the Belgian Ardennes on the 8th of March with my wife and daughter would be the last real spring time field experience for a long time! Besides lovely Hazel forest floors covered with wild Easter flowers, the walk around an active local query produced many good sightings: Goshawk, Red Kite, Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch and Yellowhammer.

Best of all was the finding of an Eagle Owl more or less precisely near the roost where I saw my first ever individual of this species more than 25 years ago! Two and a half decades of wildlife pleasure! With the discovery of a very large and active Badger lodge, the plan was to return the next weekend. Then came the lockdown which quickly put an end to any travel by car from our home! We were now suddenly limited to the wildlife present very near to where I live. What a sudden change! But instead of putting too much energy in moaning and complaining, I decided to take the positives and go searching for wildlife on my doorstep. Being rather quick with restrictions in Belgium we only have what we call a light lock down. We can walk or bicycle more or less freely as long as we don’t gather together. Relaxed with a mug of coffee on my porch, the daily routine starts with overlooking my personal and nearby garden(s). Never have I had so much time to observe the pair of resident Magpies competing and defending the same territory with a pair of Crows. Jackdaws, showing more low profile behaviour, do their best in trying to cover their nesting site in a neighbouring chimney. Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers announce themselves as they always call while flying over. Besides this action, there is an abundancy of singing and displaying passerines: House Sparrows, Goldcrests, Wrens, Blackbirds, Robins and Greenfinches together with recently arrived migrants such as Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. Spring definitely is in full swing!

To stretch the leg, I then take a cycle to a nearby marsh that functions as a storage area during spring floods. With the heavy rains of February, this newly made area was completely flooded. Nowadays, depending the time of the day and tides, it’s a changing habitat of temporary mud flats with adjacent willow bushes, reed beds, tussocks and marsh land divided by a network of creeks. Just amazing how quickly birds and other wildlife occupy such new, artificially created habitat! Although visiting the area for a couple of years, my daily corona lockdown visits have been producing a lot more . I am more focused and intent on enjoying everything and also visiting far more frequently (with not being abroad of course). I have been finding some wonderful species! Garganeys, several Mediterranean Gulls, Spoonbills and Bluethroats. All-in full summer plumage and displaying. Migrating species and new arrivals are: Osprey, Great White Egret, Purple Heron, Marsh Harrier, Black Kite, White Stork, Savi’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Ring Ouzel. A nearby Peregrine (hunting wildfowl and pigeons)  visits the area too on a regular basis. Although the Stoat I’ve seen here before hasn’t showed up yet, quite a surprise is the discovery of a Beaver right in the centre of the marsh! Besides quite a big lodge, the animal(s) have also constructed a dam. Their natural engineering works result in a real pool with a clearly constant higher water level compared with the scattered pools nearby. Being there at dusk to see the animals themselves, several flocks of Teal and Shoveler land on the pool to sleep, a flock of Sand Martins arrives to roost in a reedbed bordering the lodge and a Grey Heron feeds successfully on Roach. Just marvellous to watch such a micro wildlife scene just a short biking distance from my home! However, despite keeping present until twilight a few times now, I haven’t spotted the Beavers themselves so far. With my experience in the Belgian Ardennes, their absence is not a surprise to me as Beavers are much more nocturnal up here. More over, being just early April, the long period of darkness makes it easy to focus their activity as much as possible unseen. Anyway, still a lot of evenings and chances to see them!

With finding beavers, as well as seeing their lodge or a dam, these giant rodents give themselves away by brightly coloured, freshly gnawed willow twigs which are typical riverine vegetation here. They also have distinctive corridors through this riverine vegetation functioning as a connection between the river and feeding areas: a nearby cut off meander, forest patches and even old corn fields. All of these feeding habitats are always separated by an artificial dike. As the dike is open to the public, there is still a lot of human activity. Although the Beavers aren’t that hard to detect, most of the passing bikers, hikers, joggers and cyclists won’t notice the presence nearby of what is Europe’s heaviest rodent! Really remarkable as these floating rodents are, length of tail included, more than one metre in size!

I never forget that despite the lockdown and the lack of travel to my favourite wild parts of Europe and beyond, there is so much to enjoy on my doorstep! I enjoy all wildlife of course but have a great passion for finding mammals and another very exciting discovery in Flanders recently is the recolonisation of the land by Wolves!

This is just remarkable because the Flamish part of Belgium is definitely the most heavily populated area of Belgium! Besides some loners trotting around, we also have a resident pair being present largely within the safety of the boundaries of a military zone closed to public. It’s actually the second year in row now they have been there but last year the pregnant alfa female – known as Naya – was very sadly and illegally shot by hunters. Despite the best effort of man to exterminate these wonderful creatures, like everywhere in Europe, you just can’t stop the return of these smart and brave beasts! With the appearance of a new female last December, the local male – known as August – has company again!

Despite the fact that untouched wilderness is completely gone in most parts of Europe, the vast mosaic of agriculture fields and production forests, in general actually sustains higher ungulate densities compared to those present in old growth forests. So, for apex predators like Wolves, there is actually more prey than ever. Given their protected European status for several decades now, plus being extremely adaptable to exist in landscapes largely overruled by humans, Wolves are rapidly reclaiming their former territories from which we exterminated them in the past. Topped with a more precise understanding of ecology, ecosystems and a growing green conscience in the public, it is great to notice Wolves are actually now thriving! The biggest example of their recovery in Western Europe is the German population. Where the first German pups were born in 2000, the current number of Wolf packs in Germany (according official numbers for 2019) has increased to 105. In addition to these packs (each containing between 3 – 11 members) additional monitoring identified 25 more Wolf pairs and 13 loners. So yes, we have something to look forward to in Belgium! But we must not be naive. Sadly, Wolves are still killed legally and illegally so tracking Wolves stays a real challenge as these social animals are shy, elusive and extremely smart. As they have to be! In a modern world where people still have selfish opinions, just like to hunt things, and suffer from an irrational fear based on beliefs and myths these amazing creatures are faced with great challenges to succeed, but there is no doubt that they can! I am greatly enjoying learning more than ever about what is on my doorstep and I look forward, of course, to getting back to Poland in search of Europe’s most wonderful wildlife.

Jan Kelchtermans