Local wildlife groups

One thing I’ve known from the start of my British Animal Challenge is that, to do it, I’m going to need help. While there are some types of animals it’s fairly straightforward to stumble across and identify, others are more complex. For example, bats. There are around 15 different species of bat in the UK, and they’re nocturnal. Even once I find some, I’m going to need expert help identifying which species they are. And with rare animals, I may well need help as to where to find them. Most distribution information in books is at a level that is too general to be that helpful – even if you know a certain species is present in a certain type of habitat in a county, that’s still a lot of area to cover, when the species may only be in very specific sites…

So part of my research has been around finding out who might help me on my quest. I’ve been surprised to find how many different local wildlife groups there are. I’m already a member of Surrey Wildlife Trust, Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Dormouse Group. I’ve now joined Surrey Amphibians and Reptiles Group, and the form to join Surrey Bat Group is printed off as well. I’m sure there are many other groups I’ve yet to discover.

These local groups all exist to protect the species they are interested in. Their activities include habitat work, advising landowners, carrying out surveys to help research the animals, and educating people about the species. They are generally run by volunteers, and include members with years of experience and great expertise. If you’re interested in wildlife, why not look for a local group who work with the species you’re interested in? You may be surprised by how many there are out there! I’ve learnt lots from volunteering with Surrey Dormouse Group (and not just about dormice!), and I’ve contributed to gathering data that will help us learn more about this threatened species.

Torpid dormouse
Dormouse found during regular monitoring by Surrey Dormouse Group

I hope that over the next few years I’ll learn more about many other animals, and contribute in a small way to their protection.

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Nest Box Challenge

Last week was National Nest Box Week. This annual event aims to encourage people to put up nest boxes for birds, and comes in mid-February, as birds in the UK start to think about where to nest. Nest boxes are important in towns as, while there may be plenty of food for birds, there are few natural tree holes for them to nest in. Now, there’s not much room in my garden for more nest boxes (we already have 6). Not wanting to miss out, I decided to mark the week (and the hints of spring we’ve had in the last week) by installing the camera into the nest box at the front of our house.

This is fourth year that we’ve had a bird’s eye view of what goes on inside that nestbox. So far we’ve not had great luck. The first year a pair of bluetits started to build a nest, but didn’t complete it. The year after, 11 eggs hatched, but with only one parent feeding the chicks, none of them made it to fledging (it was also a very wet spring that year). Last year another pair of bluetits started building a nest, but didn’t complete it. It would be nice this year if we could see some chicks make it as far as fledging, particularly since I think the weather over the last few years has not been kind to our local bluetits.

Watching from my study on Friday there was a pair of bluetits spending quite a bit of time in our back garden, so hopefully they’ll decide the nest box at the front is their ideal home.

Early last year we also installed a terrace of sparrow boxes, and a robin box. These weren’t used, but who knows, maybe this year they’ll be occupied.

As another way of marking National Nest Box Week I’ve signed up to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Box Challenge. This involves monitoring the nest boxes in my garden, and sending data back to the Trust. So I’ll be keeping a close eye on what’s going on in our nest boxes. I’ll let you know if there’s any news!

British Animal Challenge: February update

You may have noticed my blog hasn’t been flooded with reports of new animal sightings since I announced my British Animal Challenge. I haven’t forgotten the challenge. I’ve been busy researching and planning how to do it.

I’ve now gone through the whole list, working out where the best place to see each species is. It looks like my challenge will involve travelling to many far flung parts of the UK, from the Channel Islands for shrews and lizards to the Shetland Isles for whales.

Now, I work full time, and have a limited budget, so, as I suspected at the outset, this Challenge is not going to be completed in a year. I think, hopefully, it will take me about 3 years, and quite a few holidays.

One of the things that has pleasantly surprised me is how many species I should be able to see near where I live, in Surrey. It turns out, Surrey is a good place to see most bats, reptiles and amphibians, so I should be able to tick quite a few species off my list without having to travel too far.

My preliminary research has also helped me refine my list a bit. Some of the species I had originally included were non-native species that are now virtually extinct in the wild in Britain (such as the red-necked wallaby). Others were species of whale that could only be observed by boats many miles from even the remotest British islands (such as the Blue whale), which in my view means it doesn’t really count as a British animal. So, with my revised list, my current target is 103 species, of which I’ve seen 29 so far.

I’ve got a few days of observation planned for March. Top of my list are water voles and reptiles, and maybe some early amphibians. I’ll let you know how I get on.

The crucial role of termites in African savannahs

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit quiet (or at least brief) lately. That’s because I’ve been in Uganda for the last couple of weeks. As part of my work I travel to Africa fairly regularly. This sounds a lot more glamourous and exciting than it often is in practice. This time I wanted to see something beyond the hotel meeting room and the odd health facility, so Dr C and I tagged a safari onto the end of a work trip. We saw all sorts of exciting wildlife. As you can imagine, I took a few photos… well, around 1300… You’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to put them all up here, but you may be a bit surprised by my choice of photos for this particular post…

I’m saving telling you about chimpanzees, tree climbing lions and hoards of hippos for another day. What I want to tell you about today is a little more down to earth: termite mounds.Termite mound in the mist

I remember seeing termite mounds on my first trip to Africa, and after the first shock of realising just how big they can be in real life, I soon stopped noticing them. Look around a savannah landscape and they’re everywhere, like giant molehills.

This trip I started noticing them again. I started paying attention to one because a lion was sitting on top of it. Lions aren’t the only creatures who like to make use of termite mounds as a platform. We saw many antelopes of various sorts standing alert on top of termite mounds, using the additional height to help them spot far off predators. (Although, as Jamil, our guide, pointed out, this may not necessarily be a good idea, as it also makes them more visible to predators.)

Lion on termite mound
Lion on termite mound

14 02 07_Lake Mburu_2483_edited-2web

Then, when we arrived at Lake Mburu National Park, I started noticing that many of the termite mounds were next to, or under, trees and bushes, dotted round the grassy plain. I wondered which came first – did termites prefer building mounds in the shade of trees? The answer, as one of the rangers told me, is that the termite mounds come first. Termites play an important role recycling dead vegetation. Dead plant material gets incorporated into termite mounds, making the soil of mounds fertile. Birds, like lions and antelope, enjoy perching of the mounds, and sometimes deposit their droppings there. These droppings often contain seeds, which germinate in the rich mound soil, turning old mounds into oases of shade in the grassland, which are used by many creatures, including leopards during the day.

Pied kingfisher on termite mound
Pied kingfisher on termite mound

Termites themselves are an important food for some animals. Every now and then we’d spot a big hole in a termite mound, made by an anteater. These holes then get used as dens by creatures like warthogs, bush pigs, and even hyaenas. Smaller creatures also use termite mounds as homes, like these dwarf mongooses (or is it mongeese?)

Hole made by anteater in a termite mound
Hole made by anteater in a termite mound
Dwarf mongooses on a termite mound
Dwarf mongooses on a termite mound

Termites are vitally important within savannah ecosystems, and they play an important role in shaping the landscape. Is there a British equivalent?

Britain’s most elusive creatures

Several newspapers were today featuring articles based on a survey of 2000 people on what wildlife they had seen. The survey was carried out for a new David Attenborough series, called Natural Curiosities. I haven’t been able to find a full report of the survey results, so am having to go from the press coverage. The results are a mixture of surprising and expected.otter

The focus of a lot of the coverage has been the ‘top ten most seldom seen creatures’:

  • Nightjar, seen by only 4% of respondents
  • Pine marten – 5%
  • Golden eagle – 9%
  • Stoats and weasels – 16%
  • Otters – 17%
  • Cuckoo – 22%
  • Slow worm – 25%
  • Adder – 29%
  • Raven – 30%
  • Kingfisher – 34%

Some of these I’m not at all surprised by. The top three are all rare, restricted in range to only a small part of the country, and in the case of pine martens and nightjars, hard to spot.

Others are a bit more puzzling. Take stoats and weasels. (I find it quite endearing that they’ve chosen to count this as a kind of composite species, like in Wind in the Willows).  These are not rare in Britain, with several hundred thousand of each species, and they can be found all over mainland Britain. They are nocturnal, but certainly not unusual. My glimpses of them have so far been mustelid shapes darting across country lanes.

What’s also interesting is the species that aren’t in the top ten. I find it very hard to believe that more people (34% apparently) have seen dormice than slow worms or adders. The two reptile species are spread much more widely across the country than the hazel dormouse, which is now almost exclusively found in the south. Both reptiles can be (almost literally) stumbled across when walking in the countryside or pottering in the garden. Whereas dormice are nocturnal creatures who live in trees – unless you’re actively looking for them, you’re unlikely ever to see one, even if you live in a wood (unless your cat is good at jumping). I can’t help suspecting that maybe some of the people who reported having seen dormice had actually seen other rodents, and didn’t really know what a dormouse looked like.

I’m a bit surprised wildcat isn’t somewhere near the top, although perhaps they didn’t ask about that.

More generally, some of our more common species had been seen by relatively few people. Only 39% had seen badgers, for example. Perhaps we, as a nation, just don’t spend much time in places where we’re likely to see wild animals.

I’ve seen 6 of the 10 on the list. In terms of my British Animal Challenge, it confirms that pine martens and otters are going to be a challenge. Luckily I’ve seen the other animals that come in the top ten.