British Animal Challenge: Looking for otters

When Dr C Senior showed me a photo of an otter, taken in broad daylight a few miles from his house, I couldn’t resist a visit. From what I’ve read about otters, if you want to see them in daylight your best bet is to head to a Scottish island. But Hampshire is a lot more convenient for me, and apparently a family of otters is regularly seen in a nature reserve next to the noisy A303.

So, I booked a day off work, and headed to the in-laws’. Dr C Senior kindly guided me to the reserve and showed me around, pointing out the fishing pier where otters are regularly seen playing.

It was a cold but dry March morning, and there were few other people around, although apparently the otters aren’t that bothered by the presence of dogs and walkers.

Dr C Senior stuck it out for quite a while, before the lure of lunch became too pressing. I stayed on, buoyed by the possibility of seeing my favourite British animal in the wild for the first time. I also had hopes of seeing a water shrew or some amphibians, or even catch a second glimpse of a water vole. But, aside from a hurrying vole (bank or field, I am not sure which) and a few birds, animals were staying hidden that morning.

A helpful fisherman suggested that I try another nearby nature reserve, that otters and water voles frequent. So I took his advice.

This reserve looked much more promising, being quieter and wilder looking. I found some watercress beds in my initial lap of the reserve, so I was hopeful of seeing a water shrew. I also managed to spot some possible otter and water vole signs.

But luck was not on my side that day. After two hours of patient waiting, seeing nothing more exciting than a squirrel and some blackbirds I was chilled to the bone, and decided to call it a day.

It’s not very surprising that I didn’t see an otter. They have large territories, and you can’t predict which bit of their territory they’ll use on a given day.

I was a bit disappointed not to see water shrews. It looked like ideal habitat for them, based on my limited knowledge.

But it wasn’t an unpleasant way of spending the day. It made a change from the office, and all that we walking was good for me.

So you’ll have to make do with a picture of the only otter I did see that day.

Mr Otter


British Animal Challenge: March Update

Spring is definitely here now, and lots of animals seem to be busy.  I’ve also had quite a busy month too, with both wildlife and music.
The good news is that I’ve managed to see one of the rarer mammals on my British Animal Challenge list: the water vole.
I’ve had less luck with reptiles and amphibians. The reptile walk I was planning on doing has been rescheduled to May.  I have looked for frogs and toads, but only managed to see a dead one. I’m not sure if my lack of success is down to looking in the wrong place (there were lots of big fish in the pond I looked in, which isn’t great for breeding amphibians) or wrong time (day time instead of night) or a combination of both.

Since I’ve seen lots of pictures of mating frogs on Twitter, I’m going to give it another try, hopefully somewhere more suitable.

My other targets for April are Exmoor ponies and, if I’m really lucky, an otter.
I’ll let you know how I get on.

Ugandan wildlife pictures

Vervet monkey
Vervet monkey
Pied kingfisher
Pied kingfisher
Elephants against the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains
Elephants against the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains
African fish eagle
African fish eagle
Buffalo wallowing in a mud bath
Buffalo wallowing in a mud bath
Lion's stare
Tree climbing lion

Here are some of my favourite pictures from our recent trip to Uganda. Hope you enjoy them! Butterfly Water lily Sleeping tree-climbing lion Alert lion

Lion on termite mound
Lion on termite mound

A day in the life of nesting sparrows

Today is World Sparrow Day. Who even knew there was such a day? To mark this important occasion, I thought I’d give you an update on how our sparrows are getting on.

The sparrows have been busy over the last couple of weeks, building a nest in one of our boxes. This of course is good news. What makes it even more gratifying is that they’ve chosen the box with a camera in, so we can keep a close eye on their progress.
This is the first year we’ve had sparrows nesting in the camera box, so I’m not sure quite what to expect. While bluetits lay one large clutch a year, sparrows usually lay 2 to 3 clutches of 2 to 5 eggs, so we may get to see several broods this year if we are lucky.
Our sparrows are still at the nest building stage, so haven’t started laying yet. I’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, here’s a high speed overview of a day of hard nest building.

PS. You may have noticed I’ve given the blog a bit of a facelift – let me know what you think! Hope you like it.

Dormouse box cleaning

It was lovely to get back to the woods this weekend for my first dormouse session of the year. Box checks naturally come to a halt over winter (an advantage of monitoring an animal that hibernates), so it has been a few months since I last helped at a check.
Most dormice are still hibernating in March, so the focus of Saturday’s session was to clean and repair the boxes, ready for when the dormice emerge. We were a bit worried that we may have left it too late this year, with the warm weather meaning spring seems to be springing earlier than usual. But we didn’t find any dormice, and not many birds have started nesting in the boxes either.
We had a lovely day for it. Quite a contrast to most of the box cleaning sessions that I have done, where my hands become numb from cold within the first few minutes.
While we didn’t find any dormice, there were quite a few wood mice that had to be evicted from the dormice boxes.
Orchids and bluebells have already come up (although not in flower yet),  while primroses and violets were blooming. I was expecting more trees to have come down in the storms, but not many appear to have been damaged,  at least in the parts of the wood we monitor.
Anyway, the boxes are now clean and ready for dormice to occupy. The next check should be exciting.

In search of water voles

I’m not entirely sure why I chose water voles as my first target for the British Animal Challenge. These shy rodents are perhaps best known as the boat-loving Ratty, from The Wind in the Willows. Perhaps that had something to do with it: it’s one of my favourite books, and I always yearned for the carefree lifestyle of Ratty, messing about on boats, although in my heart I think I’m more like Mole.

I’d never seen one in the wild. Devon, where I grew up, is not a strong-hold for water voles. In fact, few places in Britain are these days. Their numbers have been decimated in recent years through a combination of reduced habitat for them (they like clean rivers with plenty of vegetation and banks they can burrow in) and the rise of the mink. They’re now one of the most endangered British mammals.

Like Devon, Surrey’s not a great place to see them. But the British Wildlife Centre have carried out a reintroduction in their nature reserve, so I thought that would be a good place to start.

My first expedition got off to an auspicious start. The sun was shining, and it was the warmest day so far this year. My friend Helen had kindly agreed to keep me company on this expedition, which meant we travelled in style (until I had to try and get out of the car, which was not a graceful performance!).

14 03 08_Water vole search_2626_edited-1

Shunning the temptation of visiting their captive animals, we headed out to the wetland nature reserve. A lap of the boardwalks gave me plenty of signs that water voles were around. Piles of tic-tac shaped droppings in several places were a good sign (with some of them looking quite fresh), as were cleanly chopped lengths of vegetation and pringle tube sized burrows in the bank. So we picked a likely looking spot and kept watch.

Water vole droppings
Water vole droppings
Plant nibbled by water vole
Plant nibbled by water vole
Water vole burrow
Water vole burrow

Water voles are by nature quite shy, so trying to see them in a nature reserve frequented by noisy children was asking a lot. An hour passed with no characteristic ‘plops’ of water voles diving, or buoyant rodents passing by. We adjourned for lunch.

Part way through my afternoon shift and I was beginning to get a bit discouraged. There were plenty of signs, but what if the water voles kept well out of the way of the board walk until the visitors had all gone home? I hadn’t worked out a Plan B.

At one point I did hear a plop (or was it a splash?), and saw a dark shape disappear beneath the water. But I couldn’t tell if it was a water vole, or just a fish, and I couldn’t spot it again.

Then it got quiet – the other visitors were lured away from the nature reserve by talks about the more spectacular otters, deers and wildcats. Suddenly I was the only person on the reserve, and the quiet was only broken by the geese and passing aircraft.

Water vole
Water vole

Then I saw it, a small, plump rodent swimming calmly and quietly from one bank to the other. I soon lost sight of it in the vegetation, and didn’t get a chance to take a photo. But I had seen my first wild water vole!

I stayed around for another 40 minutes, hoping to get another sighting and a photo. But no luck, so I went pay a visit to the otters and rejoin Helen.

So, I’ve seen a water vole! My first expedition was definitely a success. I hope they all are!

March Riversearch

I donned my protective gear... (wellies, coat, high vis jacket, waterproof trousers and intrepid stick
I donned my protective gear…

What a contrast! Today there’s glorious sunshine and even some warmth in the sun. Last Sunday was grey, miserable and wet, but I managed to steel myself to leave the warmth of the fire to do my monthly Riversearch walkover. While spring is definitely arriving in my garden, the stretch of the River Mole I checked looked a bit bleaker.

The water level had receded a lot since my previous check, which is good. You can now tell which bit’s river and which field, more or less.

The ground was still quite squishy, but I managed to only end up on my backside once, which is quite an achievement. My intrepid stick certainly helped with that. One of the first things I spotted was some nice clear deer prints (fallow deer I think). While they’re not really relevant to Riversearch, I always get a bit excited trying out my animal detective skills.

Deer print
Fallow(?) deer print

The main new points of interest were some large woody debris in the river (not surprising after the storms), which were affecting the flow of the river.

Fallen tree in river
Fallen tree in river

The stepping stones were still submerged, but in the woods there were signs of new plant life emerging.

Submerged stepping stones
The stepping stones are down there somewhere!

Arriving back at the car, I had the satisfying experience of watching it start chucking down with rain, just after I got into the dry. And the fire was waiting for me back at home. Now I just need to submit my report…

Beavers back in the wild

Last autumn, while staying on the banks of the River Otter, I was surprised to read a sign at the local mill listing beavers as well as otters and kingfishers as local wildlife highlights. In fact, I didn’t believe it.

I knew there were projects to reintroduce beavers into carefully enclosed areas of Scotland. But it turns out that the first beavers breeding in the wild for centuries in England are actually to be found in Devon. Camera trap footage has now recorded three individuals, including a young beaver, on the River Otter.

No one is quite sure where they’ve come from. It’s illegal to introduce beavers into the wild in England. While Devon Wildlife Trust are carrying out a pilot beaver reintroduction into an enclosed area, that’s at the opposite side of the county, and all their beavers are accounted for.

Personally speaking, I’m quite excited by the thought of beavers roaming free in England once more. But it is quite controversial. Beavers are by nature engineers – they shape the landscape they live in. Their dams can create pools where once there were woods and fields. If I were a landowner, I’d be concerned about the effects beavers may have.

The Mammal Society have recently suggested that beavers should be reintroduced to help reduce flooding. They are also thought to be beneficial to plant diversity, creating wetland areas. Their river engineering also creates good habitats for fish, invertebrates, amphibians, and some mammals and birds.

It’s going to be interesting to see what effect the beavers have on the River Otter, whether they breed and spread, and whether we can live peacefully with a wild creature that can dictate the course of rivers…

Observations on watching wildlife

Our recent trip to Uganda has led me to reflect a bit about the process and experience of wildlife watching. Back home in the UK, my approach usually centres on stealth. I try to be as quiet as possible, wear clothing that will blend in, and stay downwind of my target. In Uganda, for at least some species, a different approach was needed.

ZebraThis came home most strongly on a safari walk in Lake Mburu National Park, where we were looking for antelopes and zebra. I turned up in my safari gear, ready for a couple of hours of hushed observation. Then our guide explained that it was important to keep talking. The animals are suspicious of quiet humans (and leopards), as predators tend to use stealth to creep up at attack them. By talking, and trying not to be stealthy, they knew where we were, and that we were unlikely to pose much of a threat.

Generally, when wildlife watching, my ideal is to see animals oblivious to my presence, behaving ‘naturally’. Being in a car really helped with this – most animals paid very little attention to us when we were out on drives. But one of the most vivid memories of my trip was not like that.

Sleeping tree-climbing lionWe were in the Inshasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, famed for tree climbing lions. Our car was stopped by a tree, and we were watching a male lion who was sleeping in the branches. Eventually he woke, fidgeted a bit, then, hearing a noise in the distance, became alert, using smell, sight and sound. After satisfying himself about whatever it was that was happening in the distance, he turned a long, intense gaze straight at me. It’s quite disconcerting having such a large, powerful predator look you straight in the eyes. We both knew who was top cat.

Alert lion

Lion's stare