British Animal Challenge November update

November has flown by. Sadly my efforts to see a harvest mouse led only to sightings of woodmice and field voles. But it’s good to have ticked field voles off the list.

Jim the trap-happy field vole
Jim the trap-happy field vole

Apart from that, I haven’t been out and about much. I hope, weather permitting, that I will have more time to spend looking for wildlife in December. I don’t have any particular targets in mind (although I’m heading down to the River Otter, so would love to see a beaver – highly unlikely, I know).

To be honest, I feel just about ready for hibernation. Maybe I’ll try and use the time tucked up by the fire to plan next year’s wildlife adventures…


Entering the world of commerce

This weekend I took a plunge (or, rather, dipped my toe) in the world of commerce. I have thousands of photos on my hard drive, a tiny fraction of which are (I think) quite presentable, but I rarely do anything with them. So when I heard that my church was organising a craft fair, it seemed like a chance to be brave and show them to the world, and see if the world liked them enough to buy them.

The first step was to find some photos good enough to sell. This meant trawling through my archives, which was a time consuming but pleasant occupation. I narrowed it down to 25 photos, mainly of British wildlife. But I had no idea which of these people might buy.

I thought Wild South would do as a name for my enterprise, and I knocked up a logo, incorporating oak leaves, as oaks are my favourite trees. What do you think of it?

Wild South logo

In the end I got 4 of each of the 25 photos printed as cards. I also got a set of business cards printed, with a different photo on the back of each. I  found a couple of bird images that would work as bookmarks, and got 50 double-sided bookmarks printed. I also picked 8 of my favourite photos to print out large, and mounted them. My plan was, if they didn’t sell I’d put them up at home (I’ve been meaning to do this for a while). I made up some themed packs of 3-5 cards.

Having never done this before, pricing was a bit of a stab in the dark. I knew what my costs were, but wasn’t sure how much mark-up to add – I wanted to make a decent profit for the charity, but didn’t want to be left with 100 cards at the end of the day.

Wild South stand at the craft fair
Wild South stand at the craft fair (excuse the poor quality photo – it was taken with my phone)

After a dry run of setting up my stall at home, I was ready for the fair. I was relieved when I made my first sale of the day, and it was encouraging that it was a good one. I got lots of compliments on my photos. By the end of the day I had sold about half of my cards, and 4 mounted prints, but only 8 bookmarks. Some of the photos completely sold out. Owls, British mammals and pretty flowers all sold well, while some of my more exotic photos barely sold at all.

My business cards were very popular – people liked being able to choose which photo was on the back. And I did have more blog visits than usual this weekend, although I don’t know whether that’s connected. The other stallholders were very kind and encouraging, and Dr C helped out a lot. It was also a great opportunity to talk to people about wildlife.

It was a hard day’s work, but not unpleasant or dull. I’m not in a hurry to do another craft fair, and it’s not time to give up the day job quite yet. But I ‘d do it again to raise money for charity.

Anyway, here are the top selling images from the fair.

Tawny owl, perfectly disguised in the dappled woodland light
Tawny owl, perfectly disguised in the dappled woodland light
Eagle owl
Eagle owl – there are a few pairs of eagle owls at large in Britain

Harvest mouse on seedhead Barn Owl

Our national species

Review of the dormousing year

It’s late November, and despite the usually mild weather, most dormice will be hibernating by now. That gives dormouse monitors some time to take stock of the year, enter data onto the national database, and start planning for next year.

This week I attended a meeting of Surrey Dormouse Group site leaders. It was the first I’ve attended, as I have only just finished my traineeship. It was very interesting to hear about all the different monitoring sites in Surrey – I hadn’t realised how many there were. But then Surrey is the most wooded county in England, and has some good dormouse habitat.

The consensus seemed to be that 2014 wasn’t a great year for dormice in Surrey (with the exception of a couple of very popular sites). This matches my own experiences this year, where several checks I did resulted in no dormice. Some sites had good numbers at the beginning of the season, and then some quiet months. Other sites saw very little until October.

There are many puzzles in dormouse monitoring. Several of the sites adjoin, or are well connected to each other. But there seems to be little link between how well they do in terms of dormice numbers. A couple of sites have big problems with squirrels destroying the dormouse boxes, while in adjacent sites this isn’t an issue.

I’m hoping to get my own site next year, which would be exciting. The group discussed a few possibilities for developing or revamping sites. The main limitation is lack of funding. It costs around £10 to make a dormouse box, and a new monitoring site needs 50, which adds up. We’re going to try to raise some money to allow us to set up new sites, as the data monitoring provides is essential to protect dormice.

Another plan we discussed was doing some habitat work (coppicing trees) to help dormice thrive in our existing sites.

Exciting stuff for the winter, although I suspect the dormice have an even better way of spending the cold months.

How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts

Hazel nuts are popular with many small mammals (our native dormouse, muscardinus avellenarius, is called the hazel dormouse for a reason). And the way a nut is opened can tell you who’s eaten it. This is particularly handy for telling if dormice are present, as you’re very unlikely to see one.

So, starting with the easy one. It takes strong jaws and teeth to split a hazel nut. So if you find a discarded nut shell split in two, or shattered, the nut has probably been eaten by a squirrel.

Bank voles also have big, strong teeth, so can bite rather than nibble through to the kernel. Quite often they will leave an irregular, roundish hole in the shell. They tend not to leave lots of teeth marks on the shell near the hole, unlike mice.

Now we get to the tricky part: distinguishing between nuts eaten by apodemus mice (woodmice and yellow-necked mice) and dormice. Both sorts of mice nibble neat round holes in the shell, so you need to look closely. A hand lens or magnifying glass helps.

Hazel nut that has been nibbled by a woodmouse or yellow-necked mouse: note the toothmarks on the inner slope of the hole, and scratch marks around the outside of the hole
Hazel nut that has been nibbled by a woodmouse or yellow-necked mouse: note the toothmarks on the inner slope of the hole, and scratch marks around the outside of the hole

A hole nibbled by an apodemus mouse will have teeth marks going down the edge of the hole (vertically). They leave more scratches on the outside of the shell than bank voles. Hopefully you can see both those features in this picture.

Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.

The inner edge of a hole made by a dormouse will be much smoother, as they gnaw around the hole, rather than down. But they do leave lots of scratches around the outside of the hole.

Another clue to help you tell the difference between apodemus and dormouse nibbled nuts is where you find them. If you find a cache of nibbled nuts, it’s likely to be apodemus. Dormice generally tend to eat and then drop nuts where they find them, so their nuts are often more spread out.

If you find a nut with a really tiny hole (maybe 1-2mm across), this has probably been eaten by an insect.

Nut A: who's eaten it?
Nut A: who’s eaten it?
Nut B: who's eaten this one?
Nut B: who’s eaten this one?

Here are a couple more close-up photos of nibbled nuts. Can you tell what’s eaten them? I will put the answer in the comments to this post. Let me know how you get on.

I’m starting to put together a page of photos of mammal signs. This will develop as I delve into my archive, and take more photos. I hope this will eventually become a useful reference (particularly as many books have line drawings rather than photos of these sorts of things, which can be rather hard to interpret). I’ll let you know when it goes up.

Hope for the River Otter beavers

I’ve been following the saga of the River Otter beavers for the last year or so. This week there appears to be a new twist in the tale. In brief, beavers have been discovered living wild on the River Otter. No-one is quite sure how they ended up there, but they have successfully bred. These are the first beavers to breed in the wild in the UK for hundreds of years.

While the locals have generally welcomed the beavers with enthusiasm, DEFRA have been threatening to capture the beavers and rehome them at a zoo, saying they are concerned the beavers may harbour a disease that could be passed to humans. This has caused lots of upset, with thousands of people signing petitions to let the beavers remain on the river. The Devon Wildlife Trust have applied to Natural England for a license to release beavers into the wild. And Friends of the Earth have launched legal proceedings against DEFRA, claiming beavers are protected in Britain under European law.

On Friday the Guardian reported that DEFRA seem to be softening their stance, saying the beavers will now be tested much closer to their Devon home than originally planned. This will reduce distress for the animals, and may make it easier to release them back on the River Otter.

Apart from it being exciting to have another species of large mammal in the wild in Britain, beavers could offer other benefits as well. Beavers are nature’s engineers, and the dams they build may help fish stocks in rivers, and also reduce the risk of flooding. Having said that, they do change the landscape, so the support of landowners is vital if they are to return to the wild in Britain. They seem to have that support on the River Otter, so, if allowed to return, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between people and beavers develop.

10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts

Go into any shop these days and you’ll see that Christmas is sneaking up on us. Last year I posted my Top 10 Christmas Present Ideas for Wildlife Enthusiasts. Since I’m sure you went out and bought all of my suggestions, here’s a few more ideas for this year (hint, hint, Dr C!), ranging from £3 to as much as you want to spend.

  1. Extension tubes for macro photography: Some of our most fascinating, beautiful and weird-looking wildlife is pretty small. The best way to photograph it is with a macro lens, but these cost hundreds of pounds. Extension tubes are a cheaper way of taking macro photographs, ranging in price from around £30-150. You fit them between your camera and your lens. I’ve never used them, so can’t provide advice on which ones to go for, but they’re on my Christmas list.
  2. Bat detector: I’ve had lots of fun this year trying out my bat detector. It opens up a whole new sonic world. I also have to admit I’ve had a bit of frustration as well, not being able to distinguish between some bat species. A basic heterodyne model like mine will set you back around £60, but you can get fancy ones with software that will help you tell which bats you’ve found if you’re willing to spend a bit more.
  3. Wildlife courses: I love learning more about wildlife, so a place on a course run by the Mammal Society, local wildlife trusts, Field Studies Council etc. would be a great present. There are so many to choose from. I quite fancy one of the Field Studies Council courses on Bushcraft. I could also benefit from learning a bit more about identifying bats (see previous suggestion).
  4. Go Pro Hero camera: Go Pro cameras have a reputation for robustness and portability. They make waterproof, dustproof cameras that can be mounted on headbands, helmets, harnesses or bikes. I’m hoping to go snorkelling with seals next year, so would love to be able to take some better quality photos than with the disposable waterproof camera I used last time. The Hero is their basic model, and you can get it from around £100.
  5. Field guides: The Field Studies Council produce an excellent range of laminated guides to help you identify different types of animals and plants. These can be carried easily (unlike a book), and you don’t need to worry about getting them wet. Most of them cost around £3, and there’s a huge range to choose from.
  6. Wildlife art: a thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Why not buy your loved one a piece of art featuring their favourite wildlife? It needn’t cost a fortune – if you’re a photographer, enlargements can be very reasonable, and if you mount it yourself the end result can look good at little cost. If you’ve got a bit more budget, there’s a huge amount of choice. I’m very pleased with the barn owl sculpture we recently bought. The National Trust gift shops have some beautiful bronze otters and hares – I’ve been dropping hints about the otters for several years. Jean Haines’ watercolours are stuningly beautiful as well.
  7. Books: as an otter fan, Otters of the World is on my Christmas list. I am also intrigued by The Hunt for the Golden Mole. The Bird Atlas is pricey, but could make a keen ornithologist’s Christmas. And Wildlife Photographer of the Year have published a 50th anniversary book.
  8. Whale-watching cruise: if you feel like pushing the boat out, why not treat your loved one to a mini dolphin and whale spotting cruise round the Bay of Biscay?
  9. Birdy plates & glasses: I’m rather a fan of these birdy plates, mugs, glasses and other homeware. I think they brighten up breakfast on a dull winter’s morning.
  10. Binoculars: a good pair of binoculars really helps with wildlife watching. Compact pairs can be surprisingly good, and easier to carry around.

Looking for harvest mice at an airport

6.10am on a chilly November morning. It will be almost another hour before the sun rises, and a mist clings to the ground in the pre-dawn gloom. Most sensible people are still in bed, but I’m at Gatwick Airport. Not catching a flight to somewhere warm, nor waiting to welcome a loved one home. I’m here to see some wildlife.

An airport seems an unlikely place to see any exciting animals. Acres of tarmac, deafening noise, light and air pollution. I was intrigued, which is partly what brought me there so early in the morning. That and the hope of seeing a harvest mouse.

Beyond the public areas of the airport there are some pockets rich in wildlife. They have Bechsteins bats, the rare long-horned bee and great crested newts. But it was harvest mice I was interested in.

Chilly morning at Gatwick airportThe previous night Jim Jones from Surrey Wildlife Trust and Rachel Bicker, an ecologist at Gatwick, had set out 60 small mammal traps, and we were here to see what had been caught.

Jim showed us how to check the traps, and if occupied, how to weigh and sex the animal, then reset the trap with fresh bait. Our first occupant was a male field vole. Jim clipped his fur (so we could tell if we catch him again) and released him into the long grass. Voles are quite laid back creatures compared to mice – their response to danger is to stay still in the hope of not being seen, which makes them relatively easy to handle. The woodmice we found in some of the other traps were a bit more challenging.

Jim the trap-happy field vole
Jim the trap-happy field vole

So, nothing more exciting than a field vole from the first check. Time to go home and try to warm up.

The traps need to be checked three times a day, so I still had a couple more opportunities to see a harvest mouse. I returned at lunchtime, and the whole scene had transformed. The mist had disappeared, and the sun warmed us as we worked. The vole we had caught and released that morning had found his way back into a trap. The next occupied box we found gave us a surprise. It felt like it was buzzing when I picked it up, and I expected a very angry mouse to bounce out, but it turned out to be a disgruntled wren, who flew off to safety. That was our lunchtime haul, but we were also treated to views of a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk.

wrenThe evening check felt very different again. The planes seemed bigger and closer in the dark, and we had to rely on torch light to see the traps. The same vole had found his way back into a trap. Having seen him three times in one day, we decided he needed a name, and settled on Jim. No wrens this time, but another woodmouse or two.

Sadly no harvest mice showed up for me. The traps stayed out the rest of the week. Rachel and a team of dedicated volunteers checked them three times a day, come rain or come shine. But no harvest mice turned up.

It was a worthwhile experience. I’ve seen a field vole and learnt how to distinguish it from a bank vole. I’ve learnt how to use three types of small mammal traps, and seen a kingfisher. And I’ve had a fascinating glimpse into the wildlife of Gatwick Airport. You can read more about biodiversity at the UK’s second busiest airport on the Biodiversity Gatwick blog.

Posts that have made me think this week

One of the joys of blogging is reading what others are writing about subjects close to my heart. Here’s my pick of posts that have made me think this week:

  • Rehabilitating Rabbit: Roger Gosden‘s post tells the story of how he tried to save a rabbit, and explores the ambiguous relationship we have with animals: how we try to save an individual, but have less compassion for populations of them. A very interesting and thought-provoking read.
  • Act for NatureGeorgia’s Wildlife Watch post talks about a campaign by various wildlife groups to politicians to commit to a Nature and Wellbeing Act in their manifestos. She explores the importance of nature and the need to protect it, and outlines what the Act should include, and how we can support it.
  • Misty morning: a beautiful, atmospheric photo from Nature Has No Boss
  • The Return of Dickensian Britain: 90,000 children to face Christmas without a home: this Pride’s Purge post highlights the discrepancy between the harsh reality for many in Britain, and the rightwing press coverage.
  • Happy National Black Cat Day: As an owner of a lovely black cat, this post from What the Cat Dragged In struck a chord. The Cats Protection League finds it hardest to rehome black cats, so set up this ‘day’ to promote them.

This is my first experiment with this sort of post – would you like to see more of them?

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My highlights from Wildlife Photographer of the Year

I spend about 12 hours a week travelling to and from London, so it takes a lot to drag me up to town on a day off. But last week Dr C. and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London. The exhibition always justifies the trip. If you get a chance to go, do.

As ever, there was a stunning collection of images. I won’t try and describe it all (why bother, when I’m sure I’ve already persuaded you to see it for yourself?!). But I thought I would share a few things that stood out to me.

Firstly, the quality of images was stunning. I thought the overall winners were beautiful, fascinating pictures. The main winner, an infra-red picture of lions basking on a rock overlooking a panoramic landscape, was the sort of photo you could spend a long time looking at, and always be noticing something new.

The Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year categories are  humbling, and the winning image of a scorpion, taken with 2 exposures, has encouraged me to try to experiment technically.

The winning photojournalist portfolio examined the interaction between lions and humans. It really stayed with me, as it thoughtfully portrayed a range of issues, including canned lion hunting, and a survivor of a lion attack who can no longer wash himself, having lost both his arms. It showed the prestige that lion hunting can bring in some communities, and the former lion hunters who have turned to protecting the big cats. I liked this portfolio as it went beyond the obvious, and made me think. It didn’t offer easy solutions, but improved understanding of what’s at stake.

The other thing that stood out was the dedication of the photographers to getting the perfect image, often involving considerable discomfort, and persistence beyond anything I could dream of. I enjoy looking at the technical details of how the photos were taken – the equipment, aperture and shutter speed. I have a few new ideas for techniques to try.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the exhibition. I’m sure few people have come away from the exhibition without feeling amazed by the beauty of nature, saddened by the impact humans are having on it, and inspired to protect it.

British birds photo special

Eagle owl
Eagle owl – there are a few pairs of eagle owls at large in Britain
Tawny owl, perfectly disguised in the dappled woodland light
Tawny owl, perfectly disguised in the dappled woodland light
Robin in the snow
Robin in the snow
Woodpigeon in the snow
Woodpigeon in the snow
Young starlings
Young starlings
Male house sparrow on seed feeder
Hungry house sparrow
Bluetit gathering nesting material
Bluetit gathering bits of twine to use as nest material
Kestrel stare
Canada goslings
Barn owl
Barn owl