More house sparrows fledging

A couple of weeks ago I reported that another brood of house sparrow chicks had hatched in our camera nest box. But we didn’t know how many as nesting material was blocking the camera’s view into the nest. Since then we’ve been listening carefully to try and work out how they were getting on.

We knew at least two chicks had hatched, but as the days went by we got concerned. One chick was cheeping noisily, but there was only occasionally another, fainter cheep at the same time. We feared the worst.

A couple of days ago the nest was finally trampled down enough to get a partial view inside. To our surprise, we saw one, then two, then three, then, finally, four chicks.

After a couple of days of wing stretching and looking rather crowded, .

The parents haven’t been so quick to start sprucing up the nest for the next brood as they were last time, but we’ll keep an eye on it just in case.

 

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Bat girl

Since my first taste of bat detecting last month, I’ve splashed out on a bat detector. It’s a fairly basic heterodyne model that tuns the ultrasound emitted by bats into sounds audible to humans.

Different bat species emit ultrasound at different frequencies, and with different patterns (or tunes), so a bat detector can help you work out what the black silhouette flitting past you might be.

Since the bat detector arrived, any time that I’ve been out in the evening I’ve taken it with me. I’ve been walking around after sunset, waving what appears to be an untuned radio.

For my first expedition with it, I tried the local park. I thought the mill pond might attract bats, but no luck.

Expeditions 2, 3 and 4 involved wondering round some of the quieter roads in town, as they were on my way. Still no luck.

Finally, walking down an alleyway in town, I saw a dark shadow whizz past. I pointed the detector at it, tuned to 45khz, and started picking up some rapid clicks.

Determining which species it was is harder than I anticipated. The phone app BatLib helped narrow it down, by providing a list of bats that emit at that frequency, descriptions of their appearance, habitat and flight patterns, and recordings of what they sound like through a heterodyne detector.

Based on this, I think it’s either a Brandt’s or a Whiskered bat. But I have no idea which. To progress with my British Animal Challenge, I am going to have to find some expert help…

How to build a hedgehog box

You’ve probably heard that hedgehogs are having a tough time these days. Numbers in Britain have fallen by around a third in the last 10 years. So they need all the help they can get.

If you have a garden, there’s lots you can do to make it hedgehog friendly. Leaving gaps in your fence, having a variety of lengths of grass and good dense undergrowth, and avoiding slug pellets all help. They also need places to sleep in summer, and hibernate in winter.

Open compost heaps and piles of dead wood are good, easy ways to provide hedgehog hotels. When we had to get our fence repaired after the winter storms the fencers found a hedgehog hibernating in our compost heap.

When we found out that we had regular spikey visitors to our garden, we decided to offer them some luxury accommodation, in the form of a hedgehog box, to encourage them to spend even more time eating our garden bugs.

If you’ve spotted hedgehog boxes for sale, you’ll probably have noticed that they are very expensive. A good wooden one could cost you £50. We had some spare wood, so decided to save some cash and build one ourselves.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society have an excellent leaflet on how to build hedgehog boxes. It includes several designs, ranging from a quick and easy ‘council tax band A’ one made from a sturdy cardboard box, to a luxury ‘band H’ one suitable for the David Beckham of hedgehogs.  Living in Surrey, home of most of the Chelsea squad, we had to go for that one.

Besides the wood and screws, it also required a small length of hose for ventilation, and some plastic sheeting to keep the water out (both of which were easily obtained from our local hardware shop – the type of place you could buy four candles from). We also bought some hay from the pet shop for the hogs to use as bedding.

Neither Dr C nor I are DIY experts, but the instructions were clear and it was straightforward to build. We made it in a (not too long) day.

Hedgehog box in situ, before burying
Hedgehog box in situ, before burying

We sited in the shade next to the fence and a small hedge. We then built a little entrance tunnel from leftover bricks, and covered the whole thing in some earth and greenery.

Finished hedgehog box in situ
Finished hedgehog box in situ

We’ve evidence that hedgehogs have used it, although I don’t know how regularly. I plan to install a camera in it to find out what goes on in there.

My Springwatch footage is a little disappointing…

The second brood of chicks in our camera box hatched yesterday (I think). Brilliant – we get to watch some more chicks grow, and hopefully fledge eventually! But the footage so far has been a bit dull.

I’m not complaining that the newly fledged chicks and their hard working parents aren’t doing enough – we can hear that plenty is going on. But the nest blocks the camera’s view, so while we can hear the cheeping, our picture is just a canopy of nesting material. Springwatch don’t seem to have these problems!

A view of nesting materials in our camera box (there are chicks underneath, honest!)
A view of nesting materials in our camera box (there are chicks underneath, honest!)

We had this problem (although not to the same extent) with the first brood. Hopefully over time the nest will get a bit trampled on by the growing chicks, and we’ll be able to get a glimpse of them. With the last brood our view got better as the chicks got bigger.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to try and interpret the sounds. There are at least two chicks, but that’s all I know.

The last brood of chicks fledged on 12th and 13th May, so the parents haven’t lost too much time in getting on with the next brood. Let’s hope the weather is kind to them, and there’s plenty of food around.

In which I search for otters and water shrews, and find something even rarer

I may not have told you this before, but my favourite British animals are otters. I love them. They’re so good at what they do, and they look like they have fun. But I’ve never seen a Eurasian otter in the wild. So when I found myself in Hampshire with time to spare, I couldn’t resist another go at trying to see some.

Back in March I visited a couple of nature reserves where otters are frequently seen in daylight. They also contain what looks, to my inexpert eyes, like ideal water shrew habitat.  On that occasion I had no luck with either species.

This attempt felt quite different. Rather than a cold March morning, it was a warm, sunny May evening.  The vegetation had grown a lot since my previous visit, and the floods had receded so all the paths were open.

Dr C and I set out on a lap of the first lake, not entirely optimistic as a dog was running loose. Within a few minutes we came to a bridge over a stream crowded with watercress.  Soon Dr C spotted a water vole, which hid before I could join his side of the bridge.  We waited quietly, and it soon re-emerged, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

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This was only my second sight of a wild water vole, and a much better view. It was only a couple of metres from us, happily eating watercress. I managed to get some photos before it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Water vole Water vole Water vole

Dr C and I continued our lap of the lakes. Sadly there were no otters or water shrews.  But we did see more water voles, including a baby.

Water voles are delightful. They look plump and good natured, manipulating their food in little hands. You can see where Kenneth Grahame got his inspiration for Ratty’s marvellous picnics.

Water vole

We had no luck at the second nature reserve, but left feeling our evening had been well spent, getting such a good view of one of our rarest mammals.