British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.

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12 ways to find mammals

Finding mammals can often be hard – many of them are small, or nocturnal, or both. Last week I got to hear the great ecologist and mammal expert Pat Morris speak to the Surrey Mammal Group. He gave a fascinating (if somewhat macabre at times) talk about how to find mammals. You’re probably familiar with many of the techniques he spoke about, but there were perhaps a few less well-known approaches.

  1. Look in local newspapers for reports of mammal sightings: Local newspapers are often a good source of information about where unusual wildlife have been spotted. Clippings from papers may also be useful to refer back to in years to come. If you’re interested in getting information about the presence of a particular species in your area, talking to the local rag and getting a story in there asking people to report sightings may be very helpful.
  2. Molehill mapping: One of the problems of many survey techniques is that they may reflect where most of your surveyers are active, rather than where the species is most abundant. One way to check you have good coverage of surveyers is to get data on where molehills can be found. As moles are very widely distributed, any gaps in your map are more likely due to lack of surveying, rather than lack of moles, which tells you where you need to do more work.
  3. Droppings: not the pleasantest way to survey for mammals, but once you get your eye in, you can get a good idea of who is around. Many books are too squeamish to show useful photos of droppings for identification, but the Mammal Society have an excellent fold-out guide to British mammal tracks and signs, including some lovely drawings of droppings. It’s a handy size and laminated, so easy to take with you when you’re out and about.

    Water vole droppings
    Water vole droppings –  a good sign these elusive creatures are around
  4. Trails: look out for paths that go beneath low bushes, or up steep hedgebanks – they may well have been made by wildlife (such as badgers, who tend to follow the same route each time). Smaller mammals sometimes create tunnels in long grass. Spotting these trails can then give you an idea of where to search for other signs, such as hairs, pawprints or droppings.
  5. Pawprints / hoofprints: pawprints are another good way of telling if a species is around. Look in soft mud, or after snow, and you could find a surprising number. Sometimes it’s possible to tell from the pawprints whether the animal was running or walking at the time.
    Deer print
    Fallow(?) deer print

    Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
    Pawprints from the mammal tunnel
  6. Hairs: some mammal hairs (like badgers) are quite distinctive, while others can be differentiated with the help of a microscope. Hair tubes can help to get samples from small mammals, while barbed wire fences are a good place to look for hair from larger creatures.
  7. Food remains: It’s sometimes possible to tell what’s eaten something by the food remains. For example, watervoles cut leaves at a neat angle, and often leave short lengths behind uneaten. It’s also possible to tell whether a nut has been nibbled by dormice, other mice, squirrels or bank voles by how the nut has been opened (I must get round to uploading some pictures of this at some point).

    Plant nibbled by water vole
    Plant nibbled by water vole
  8. Traps: trapping using safe traps (eg. longworth traps) is a good way to tell which small mammals are around. Camera traps can also be handy (it’s how we first found out we had hedgehogs and foxes visiting our garden). Watch a video of visitors to our Mammal tunnel with pawprint tracks and camera trap. Also look out for other things which may attract mammals. For example, mice like to shelter beneath left-over roadworks signs and refugia left out for reptiles.
    More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge
    More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge

     

  9. Nest boxes and tubes: Monitoring artificial nest boxes and tubes is another way of finding mammals. This technique is particularly useful for dormice.
  10. Dead bodies: Looking out for dead bodies along roads or in old-fashioned cattle grids can give you a good idea of what’s around, and can be used to monitor change in prevalence over time. A bit grim, but not as grim as point 12…
  11. Owl pellets: Dissecting owl pellets and identifying the bones is a good way of telling what small mammals are around to be eaten. It’s relatively straight-forward to identify whole skulls, and teeth are useful for distinguishing between small mammal species. But first you have to find your owl pellets, which may be tricky. Local birders may be able to help you with this.
  12. Discarded bottles: [warning – don’t read this if you’re squeamish or eating] back in the days when most milk came in glass bottles, a lot were left lying around in hedges, woods and by roads. These glass bottles are very effective traps for small mammals, as they can squeeze in, but the glass sides and angles mean they can’t get back out. As glass stays around for a long-time, there are still lots of bottles out there, many of which are now full of the remains of small mammals that climbed in and couldn’t get back out. Some bottles may have lots of little skeletons in a foul soup of rotted flesh. If you have the stomach for it, identifying these remains can tell you what’s been around since the bottle was discarded. If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder not to drop litter.

I hope this brief summary of Pat’s excellent talk inspires you to get out and about looking for mammals (or signs or mammals). Do you have any other suggestions for approaches to finding mammals?

 

 

Tired as a newt

My legs ache like I’ve just climbed a mountain, and I’m sleep deprived. It’s all the newts’ fault.

Earlier this week I helped out with a newt survey, which was great. But newts, being nocturnal, have to be surveyed after dark, and then very early the next morning, which meant I missed a few crucial hours of beauty sleep. (You didn’t think I look as gorgeous as I normally do without a good 8 hours slumber each night, did you?) And as newts live in ponds, there’s quite a bit of crouching down needed to extract bottle traps and release newts back into the ponds, hence the achey legs.

But they’re so enchanting and strange, I forgive them my aches and doziness.

I joined staff at Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor newts in ponds on one of their reserves. Spring is the best time to monitor newts, as at night they can all be found in ponds where they congregate to breed.

We used 3 approaches to survey the newts. The first, lamping, involves shining a bright torch into ponds to see what you can see. This was remarkably effective, and we saw lots of both smooth and great crested newts. It takes a bit of time to get your eye in, particularly to distinguish between males and females of the same species, but I was amazed how many we saw.

Another surveying method is to set traps made from bottles, Blue Peter style. You set them in the evening, and check them very early on the morning to release anything you’ve caught, before it gets too warm or they run out of air. This also worked well, and I got some wonderful close-up views of both sorts of newts.

Male Great Crested Newt in a bottle trap
Male Great Crested Newt in a bottle trap
A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) - note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.
A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) – note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.

The other approach is to look for newt eggs folded individually into the leaves of pond plants.

Great Crested Newts are rare and protected by law, like dormice and bats, which means you can’t do anything to disturb them (including these survey methods) without the supervision of a licence holder. This, combined with their nocturnal and discreet way of life, and scarcity,  means it’s rare to get a good look at them.

They are very fine looking. In the water they look like marine iguanas, and their bellies are startling bright orange with bold black spots.  Smooth newts are small, neat looking things.

The orange and black underbelly of a sleepy Great Crested Newt
The underbelly of a sleepy Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newt – note the white spots and stripy toes. The crest has flopped over since it’s out of the water.

While it was a bit hard leaving my bed at stupid o’clock, it was definitely worth it – the early morning is my favourite time of day, and it’s lovely in the woods. I did have a secret smugness as I later boarded my train to work, the other commuters having no idea what I’d been up to an hour earlier.

So that’s two out of three types of newts ticked off my British Animal Challenge list, plus common pipistrelle bats that we saw as we waited for it to get dark enough for lamping. A good night’s work…

Alien invaders 2: Pheasants

Pheasants are splendid looking birds, and very common in many parts of the country. But despite their prevalence, they’re not native to the UK.

While pheasants look good, they are definitely not the sharpest sandwich in the picnic – ask anyone who has driven behind a pheasant running desperately along a road for half a mile before it remembers it can fly over the hedge.

Pheasants have been around in the UK for around 1000 years, so are well established. But while it is illegal to release most non-native species into the wild,  pheasants are an exception (under licence) and around 35,000,000 are released each year in Britain.

The reason for this is shooting. Shooting is big business (or at least rich business), generating around £1.6bn each year (not all of which is from pheasant shoots).

There’s quite a lot of controversy over the impact that the release of so many pheasants each year has. A lot of controversy, but not a lot of solid evidence.

On the plus side, around £250m gets spent each year on habitat management for shooting, which some native species benefit from as well.

On the down side, 35m pheasants take a lot of feeding. Pheasants are omnivorous, and have been known to eat reptiles as well as  grain and anything else they can fit in their beaks. While little is known about how big the impact is nationally, for scarce reptiles this could be a big problem.

Pheasants also damage crops, although the law means that the person who released the pheasant isn’t responsible for the damage.

And then, as I mentioned, pheasants haven’t much road sense, and cause road accidents (although the government doesn’t keep a record of how many).

While shooting does invest in habitat management, there are less benign impacts on British wildlife. In recent years Naturally England has issued licenses for (native) raptors’ eggs to be destroyed to protect (non-native) game birds. And that’s the legal stuff that goes on – there are regular reports of birds of prey being killed illegally, probably for the same reason.

I think more reliable evidence is needed to accurately assess the impact of pheasants on the environment, and identify ways to minimise the impact on our scarcer reptiles and raptors. But this is unlikely to happen when the shooting lobby has so much influence over the government.

House sparrow chicks have fledged

More good news – both house sparrow chicks have now fledged. The last couple of days they’ve looked like proper sparrows, rather than merely cavernous beaks. There’s been lots of wing stretching and peering out of the hole.

The first chick fledged on Monday morning. The other chick seemed a bit reluctant to leave the nest. She waited until Tuesday morning, spending quite a bit of time peering out the hole, then hiding at the back of the nest before finally summoning up the courage… The parents didn’t waste much time after the chicks had left, before coming in to get it ready for the next brood.

This video shows the two chicks together in the nest, just before they fledged. It then goes to show the second chick fledging on Tuesday. Finally there’s a bit of the daddy doing some housework once the chicks had left.

It’s been very satisfying to watch the chicks’ progress each day. These are the first chicks that have been successfully raised in our camera box. In previous years we’ve had blue tits build partial nests then give up. The closest we got was when a large brood of blue tit chicks hatched, but sadly each day another one died, until there were none left. (It was a very wet spring that year.)

House sparrows can have several broods each year, so hopefully we may get to see some more.

Return of the frog

Soon after we moved into our house we built a mini pond, made of a wine barrel. I was delighted when, a few weeks later, we spotted frogs in the pond and around the garden.

But then winter came. I don’t know if you remember, but the winter of 2010 was a particularly cold one (as was 2011 and 2012).  Since that winter we haven’t seen any frogs in our garden. I don’t know if it’s connected, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the cold had had a bad effect on the frog population.

I used the ‘Dragon finder’ app on my phone, developed by the charity Froglife, to identify what species the frog was (through answering a series of simple questions), and report the sighting, together with a photo and GPS location. It was very easy to use, and I’m looking forward to trying it out on some other amphibians and reptiles.

It looks like at least one has returned to our garden. Let’s hope he’s the first of many!

Reptile walk

I’m ideally placed to see the six species of reptiles that are native to Britain, as all of them can be found in Surrey. (I’ll have to go further afield to see some of the non-native ones that now live in the wild in Britain). So last week I joined Surrey Wildlife Trust rangers Jamel Guenioui and James Herd for a stroll around Rodborough Common to see what reptiles were out and about.

Rodborough Common is ideal reptile habitat, with heathland surrounded by woods. The only thing missing is waterside areas favoured by grass snakes.

The weather wasn’t brilliant for reptile watching, as it was mostly overcast, and a cool 10 degrees when we set off. But it did brighten up and warm to 16 degrees by the end of the walk.

We followed a transect of the common that is used by Surrey Amphibians and Reptiles Group in their regular surveys of the site, checking under sheets of corrugated tin and roofing felt left in strategic locations, and trying to spot creatures basking in the open as well.

Despite the overcast conditions we did pretty well. Quite a few of the refuga had slow worms underneath, and we spotted a few large adders basking in the open.

An adder basking on the heath
A female adder basking on the heath
A slow worm under a refuge of corrugated tin
A slow worm under a refuge of corrugated tin
More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge
More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge

Reptiles aren’t the only creatures who enjoy the warmth of the refuga. A few had woodmice underneath, and a lot had been taken over by ants,  particularly wood ants.

It was good to see reptiles up close, and for longer than the usual fleeting glimpses I get. While I didn’t manage to tick any new species off my list, hopefully the practice of spotting them out in the open will help me to see more in the future.

We also got to see roe deer roaming the common, and hear a cuckoo (a rare sound these days). It was a very informative and enjoyable way of spending the morning.

The walk was one of a series run by Surrey Wildlife Trust in various locations across the county. Their website has details of future walks, focusing on different sorts of wildlife.

Exmoor ponies

As part of my British Animal Challenge, I’m trying to see every species of animal that lives in the wild in Britain. There are several different types of ponies on that list, that, though they have owners, are left to wonder wild all year in some of the few remaining areas of wilderness. Exmoor ponies are one type, so a couple of weeks ago I went to see some. If you haven’t been to Exmoor before, I’d recommend it – beautiful steep valleys and high cliffs looking out over the sea. The park itself covers 267 square miles.  Very wild and romantic, inspiring some fine literature over the years.

Exmoor ponies are well adapted to their environment – thick coats that channel rain off, stocky build, fleshy eyelids that help insulate the eyes and keep the rain out, and a frost cap on their tales that channels water away from their underbelly. (It rains a lot in the South West).

Exmoor ponies

Our expedition to see Exmoor ponies started off (as all good expeditions should) with a good meal. We broke our journey from South Devon to Exmoor at Exeter, to dine at Michael Caines’ restuarant opposite the cathedral. Very tasty and surprisingly affordable. Suitably refreshed, we drove north towards Minehead via a rather indirect route to maximise our chances of seeing ponies, on a kind of safari-drive. Sadly, the only equines we say were in fields, wearing cosy blankets, so not what we were looking for. We couldn ‘t dawdle for too long, as we were expected at the B&B, so had to postpone the search til the next day.

Our second attempt started with a hearty breakfast (porridge and eggs benedict). We headed out onto the coast path (on foot), eyes peeled for reptiles and ponies. The path starts with a long hill, through a wood alive with the songs of hundreds of birds. At the top, we came out onto open moorland, and stays fairly level for quite a way. Fairly soon we saw some Exmoor ponies. They were much more uniform in appearance than the Dartmoor ponies we had seen earlier that week. We saw several groups of ponies along the 10 mile stretch of coast we did, but no sign of reptiles.

Exmoor ponies Exmoor ponies Exmoor ponies Exmoor ponies

There are around 500 Exmoor ponies wondering wild in Exmoor National Park. There are concerns that the Exmoor pony breed is threatened, as other types of ponies wondering wild on the moor interbreed with them (a similar problem to that faced by the wildcat up in Scotland). Solving this problem is difficult, as it would need the cooperation of many different landowners and other groups.

House Sparrow chicks!

Very exciting news – we have some new arrivals! While Dr C and I were away last week the house sparrow chicks hatched.

I’m not entirely sure how many chicks there are.  The nest has an overhanging bit which means the camera can’t see all the way in. We’ve seen two chicks.

House sparrow chicks
House sparrow chicks – you should be able to spot two open beaks, and the tail of the mother sparrow (on the left)

I’m also not sure how old the chicks are. I had set the laptop up to monitor the nest in our absence, but despite my best efforts it seems to have shut itself down within hours of my departure.

The mother sparrow seems to be spending quite a lot of time keeping the chicks warm. According to the RSPB, sparrows brood their chicks for 6-8 days. The chicks fledge after 14-16 days, so that could be anytime next week. It will be interesting to follow their progress.