Dormouse handling

I have been helping out on dormouse box checks for several years now, and for the last few years I have been working towards my license. Dormice are protected by law, and to disturb them in any way you need a license from Natural England. To get this you have to have been trained and have experience of handling dormice of all ages. This can take a while to accumulate if, like me, you mainly do sites with few dormice. Anyway, I now have the necessary experience, but needed to show one of my referees what I am like at handling dormice. I went on a check with him last month, but there were no dormice, so this month I had to try again.

The two sites I visited this month were ones I hadn’t done before. This added an element of treasure hunting / letterboxing / geocaching without gps to the process, trying to find inconspicuous wooden boxes in dense, tangled woodland. Just as well I like a challenge!

The first site was on the edge of a golf course. As well keeping out of the way of golf balls, we also had nettles as tall as my shoulders, brambles and dense, unforgiving blackthorn. The place wasn’t brimming with dormice, so it was a relief when Dave found one sitting on top of its nest in a box. We took the box off the tree, putting it into a large rubble sack. By the time we got the lid of the box off again, the dormouse had disappeared into its nest.

Cautiously I put my fingers into the cavity of the nest, to try to gently coax the mouse out. The nest was wonderfully warm, especially as it was quite a chilly morning, and the mouse was not keen to come out. I could feel some other warm, tiny bodies, and we realised there were young babies (pinkies who had not yet grown fur) with their mum. We didn’t want to disturb them anymore, so quickly and quietly put the box back on the tree and left them to it.

It was lovely finding a young family, but it did mean I still hadn’t had a chance to demonstrate my handling skills. We found no further dormice at that site, although I did come across a nest with three woodmice sitting on top.

So, I had to hope we would find some dormice at the next site. The chances were slim, as last month’s check had found none.

The second site started with some excitement, as the first box contained a pygmy shrew. These are tiny insectivores (smaller than the first joint of my thumb) with long, mobile, Womble-like noses. They have a very fast metabolism which means they need to eat more or less constantly.  It’s not the first time I have found them in dormice boxes. In fact, dormice boxes seem to attract a lot of wildlife, including mice, birds and insects. We often find moths, millipedes, slugs and other invertebrates in them, which is probably what attracts the pygmy shrews.

Most birds have finished nesting now, so dormice have less competition for boxes. Sometimes they build their nests on top of disused bird nests, and sometimes they just make use of the bird’s nest without much alteration. They seem to particularly like wrens’ nests, and who can blame them. Wrens fill the boxes up with moss, creating a large square cavity in the middle, not too dissimilar to a dormouse’s nest (although dormice tend to weave their nests out of strips of honeysuckle bark, leaves and other locally available materials). Wrens also keep their nests much cleaner than other birds (messy bluetits for example). So when I came across a wren’s nest with what looked like mouse droppings on top, I thought it was worth further exploration.

I was right. The nest contained a very lively male, who gave me a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my skills, catching him, sexing and weighing him, then returning him safely to his nest. It’s only my second dormouse of the year, so I was relieved to find I wasn’t too rusty. My referee was happy with how I did, so now I just need to fill in the paperwork!

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Bat girl strikes again

At last some success with bats! In fact, 3 new species (and 2 old ones) in one night!

You may have noticed that I have been struggling with identifying bats. When I go out with a bat detector without expert help I detect new species, but can’t pin down which ones. And my previous bat walk with an expert found nothing but common pipistrelles. Still, I can persevere when needed, so I went on another bat walk.

This time I headed down to Winkworth Arboretum. This National Trust site is bat heaven, including woodland and lake, and is home to seven species of bats. And they weren’t all in hiding!

About 17 people gathered just before dusk, to listen to a short talk by an expert from Surrey Bat Group. Armed with detectors we then headed into the woods.

The first species to show up were common pipistrelles, feeding over our heads, silhouetted against the still light sky. Soprano pipistrelles soon joined them. As we walked over a bridge our guide was disappointed not to see Daubenton’s bats, and I worried I wouldn’t find any new species.

We then came out of the wood, to the shore of a small lake. That’s where things really got exciting. Soprano and common pipistrelles flitted over head. Skimming the water, Daubenton’s bats scooped up insects, emitting fast clicks. Then, tuning the detector lower, we picked up serotine bats at 25khz. Finally, we picked up the deep signal of Britain’s largest (and loudest) bat, the noctule. It’s just as well we can’t hear high frequncies, as noctule bats calls can be louder than a rock concert. Imagine the complaints from neighbours!

It was amazing seeing (through occasional torch flashes) so many different bats in one place, and watching their acrobatic manoeuvres. It was particularly satisfying being able to distinguish between the species, as they had quite different call patterns and frequencies.

So, five down, 11 more to go!

British Animal Challenge: August update

I’ve been making the most of the summer this month, spending lots of time watching wildlife. I have been focusing on trying to see some new bat species, and a water shrew.

I have had mixed success with bats. A bat walk led to no new species, while an unaccompanied expedition in Devon found two new species, only one of which I could identify (soprano pipistrelle). A more recent bat walk was more successful, with three new species – more on that next week.

As for water shrews, I have spent quite a bit of time looking for them at a site I know they inhabit, but no luck so far. I think I may have heard one, but I haven’t seen one.

Apart from new species, I have also seen:

  • A hare
  • Common pipistrelles
  • Woodmice
  • A pygmy shrew
  • Rabbits
  • Hedgehog
  • Frog
  • Dormice

As for next month, I’m not going to have so much time for wildlife watching, as a work trip is taking me out of the country. But I do have a trip to the West Country planned, where I will try my luck with more bats and cetaceans.

The shrew hunter: part 1

Fearless as ever, I spent an afternoon last week searching for one of Britain’s few venomous animals. No, it wasn’t the adder I was after – it was that other beast that strikes fear into the heart of many: the water shrew.

Water shrews are quite remarkable animals. They are the only British insectivore that willingly spends its life in or by water. Like other shrews they have a fast metabolism, so need to eat pretty much constantly. In the water (I’m told) they look like quicksilver.

As part of my British Animal Challenge I’ve visited a few places that are ideal habitat for water shrews (they like similar unpolluted water to water voles). But I hadn’t yet seen one. They seem to like water with lots of vegetation, making them difficult to spot. In fact, I know people who have spent years working on sites that are home to water shrews, but have never seen one.

During my newt surveying with Surrey Wildlife Trust I learnt that water shrews live by a smallish pond on one of their reserves that isn’t open to the public. They kindly agreed to let me spend some time watching for water shrews, so I booked some flexi-leave.

A last minute work phone call meant I was running late, so I skipped lunch and headed straight to the reserve. It was a warm afternoon, alternating between baking sunshine and threatening clouds. One of the Wildlife Trust staff showed me where the shrews had been seen, so I set up my camera to get a good view, and started to watch.

The pond was crystal clear, and filled with insects. Waterboatmen and shiny round bugs glided near the surface. Dozens of damselflies and dragonflies darted about above the water, occasionally resting on a leaf to lay eggs, or fighting with a sound like angry paper planes.

The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted
The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted at

Have you ever spent quality time just watching a pond? It’s surprisingly engrossing. There was always something going on. An hour passed quickly, then the next half hour. Then I started to notice my missed meal.

For a while a particularly fine dragonfly, the size of a light aircraft, engrossed my attention. It would dart and hover tantalisingly in front of my lens, but never long enough for me to get it in frame and focus. After a while of being tormented like that, it became my dearest wish not just to see a water shrew, but to witness one eat that particular dragonfly. I got one half decent shot (below) – any idea what sort he is?

hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

After three hours of watching, and no sign of a water shrew, the sky clouded over and I decided to call it a day.  As I drove away the rain started, leaving me that particularly smug feeling of just beating the weather.

Luckily I get a chance to try again this week.

More enigmatic bats

The mad bat woman has been at it again, wondering the streets at night, waving a badly tuned radio around. This time it was a small Devon village that looked on, bemused, at my antics.

Following my recent bat walk, where only common pipistrelles came out to play, I thought I might have better luck ticking off new species from my list away from home. So I jammed my bat detector and id chart into my bag, along with a change of clothes, and jumped on a train heading west.

I was fairly confident that I would see bats, and, after dusk I was proved right, spotting my first one just a few metres from the gate of where I was staying. This time the bat detector issued a slapping, clicking sound, different to a pipistrelle. Horay, a new species to tick off my list! But what was it? My BatLib app helped to narrow the options down to three, but I really couldn’t differentiate between them, even with the help of recordings, descriptions of flight patterns and habitats. So, once again, I have seen a new species, but don’t know what it is.

A few metres round the corner I picked up some more bats. The detector made the familiar babbling, squelching sounds of common pipistrelles, but this time at a higher frequency – it was a soprano pipistrelle. Horay, a new species that I can tick off my list!
With that, I decided to call it a night. I am going to need some expert help with identifying bats. Luckily I have another bat walk with experts booked. I hope that they don’t all go into hiding like last time!

Do you have any top tips for distinguishing between bat species, using a heterodyne detector?

World Elephant Day

Today is World Elephant Day. Elephants are amazing creatures, but their survival is in the balance. I’ve been lucky enough to see both African and Asian elephants in the wild. Here are some of my favourite photos of them. If you enjoy looking at them, please check out how you can help elephants.

Elephant in Ghana
Elephant in Ghana
Retired working elephant in India
Retired working elephant in India
Elephants playing in a lake in Ghana
Elephants playing in a lake in Ghana
An elephant against the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda
An elephant against the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda
Elephant in Ghana
Elephant in Ghana
Close up of elephant eating
A close encounter
Elephant reaching for a high branch
And stretch…
Elephant flapping its ears
Because I’m worth it…
Elephant having a shower
Time to cool down
Elephant mother with calf (and another one trying its luck)
Elephant mother with calf (and another one trying its luck)
Ugandan elephant
Ugandan elephant
Elephants on the move in Uganda
Elephants on the move in Uganda
Elephants on the move in Uganda
Elephants on the move in Uganda
Asian elephants
Asian elephants

Bird nerd part 6: four years of garden bird data

I now have four years worth of data about the birds that visit my garden, so I thought now would be a good time to look at the latest stats, and how they compare to previous years.

In the year from June 2013 to May 2014 I was able to keep records on 38 days. On average I saw 15 individual birds of 7 species per day, although that varied a lot by month. November was the best month for bird watching, with an average of 29 individuals from 8 species per day,  while July was the quietest month, with only 10 birds of 4 species per day. The highest number of species seen per day was only 10, which is down from 13 last year.

Woodpigeon in the snow
Woodpigeon in the snow

The most regular visitors were house sparrows and woodpigeons, with at least one of each seen on every observation day. The most numerous visitors were house sparrows, with an average of 4.6 seen per day. They were followed by starlings, with an average of 2.8, woodpigeons (2.3) and blackbirds (1.4).

Young starlings
Young starlings

How does this compare to previous years?

Average total number and total types of birds seen per observation day, 2010-2014
Average total number and total types of birds seen per observation day, 2010-2014

Well, the overall average number of birds and number of species is pretty similar. But there have been some winners and losers in the last few years, as the bar graph shows.

Average number of individual birds seen per observation, 2010-2014, by species
Average number of individual birds seen per observation, 2010-2014, by species

Winners

Male house sparrow on seed feeder
Hungry house sparrow
  • male blackbird on lawn
    Male blackbird on lawn

    House sparrows (from an average of 1.7 to 4.6 per day)

  • Dunnocks – the average number seen per day in the last year is roughly double that of 2010-11
  • Woodpigeon numbers have also doubled since 2010-11
  • Blackbirds – increased from 0.9 last year to 1.4
  • Magpies – slight increase

Losers

  • Bluetit gathering nesting material
    Bluetit gathering bits of twine to use as nest material
    Robin in the snow
    Robin in the snow

    Bluetits – these used to be some of the most regular visitors to the garden, but are now seen much less frequently

  • Jackdaws
  • Robins – the average number of robins seen has halved in the last year.

If you’re interested in how these figures compare to national observations, read this post on the Big Garden Birdwatch results.

Bats of Nutfield Marsh

Bat detector and ID chartThose of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that I’ve set myself the challenge of seeing every species of British animal in the wild. One group that are proving particularly tricky at the moment are bats. There are 16 species of bat resident in the UK, 14 of which live in my home county of Surrey, so it really shouldn’t be that hard. I have a bat detector, an identification chart and an app on my phone that lets me hear recordings of different bats, as played through a heterodyne bat detector. But despite all this, I’m still not making much progress. Lots of bats sound very similar to each other, and live in similar habitats, making distinguishing them hard.

In an effort to deal with this, I thought I’d get some expert help. So Dr C and I went along to a Surrey Wildlife Trust bat walk on Nutfield Marsh, led by someone who knows their bats. It was a beautiful summers day, and the clear skies meant it didn’t get dark til late. A group of around 30 people (including lots of kids) gathered in the car park, watching flocks of ring-necked parakeets. Nutfield Marsh is a nature reserve on the site of former sand pits (not the sort kids play in). It’s now been transformed into a wonderful mix of ponds, lakes, grasslands and woods. Ideal bat habitat, and home to 5 different sorts of bats (Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, Daubenton’s, Serotine and Noctules).

A common pipistrelle bat weighs about the same as a 2p coin
A common pipistrelle bat weighs about the same as a 2p coin

 Armed with bat detectors we wandered round the reserve, and as the dusk deepened we picked up our first bats – common pipistrelles. Common pipistrelles, as their name suggests, are the most widespread and numerous of Britain’s bats. They’re also one of the smallest, weighing the same as a 2p coin.

While it’s always good to see and hear bats, I had already crossed them off my list in May, so I was really hoping to see some new species.

We headed to the largest of the lakes, and waited as the last hint of light faded, hoping to see Daubenton’s bats feeding on the insects that flitted just above the surface of the water. We did see a few more bats, but the detectors revealed them to be common pipistrelles. Eventually, the call of bed could no longer be ignored, and we headed back to the cars.

It was a little disappointing not to see some new bats, but it was very pleasant to take a stroll round Nutfield Marsh in the cool of the evening. It’s inspiring to see how an industrial landscape can be transformed into a haven for wildlife.