Dormousing: November 2015

After the bumper crop of plump dormice in October, I was looking forward to seeing if they would still be around in November. My first attempt had to be abandoned at the last minute due to rain. Things didn’t look much better for my final opportunity of the month, as the rain started just as I left home. But we banked on it being dryer under the trees, and had a brolly to keep any dormice we found dry.

There were plenty of nests to check, so it took quite a while. We did find a couple of woodmice (only the second time this year we’ve found them at this site). But no dormice – they’re probably hibernating already, despite the mild autumn we’ve had so far.

As the dormousing year comes to an end, and the dusters get a good wash, it’s time to reflect on my first year with my own site. It was quiet for the first few months, but by the end there were nests in nearly every section of the site we have boxes in. This is very encouraging, and I hope to get another 11 boxes up in time for next season (bringing the site up to the standard 50 boxes). It’s sometimes been hard to get volunteers – I don’t know if that’s due to the location or just that everyone knows which sites have the most dormice.

I was quite nervous being in charge to start with, but seem to have got my confidence up now. I have really enjoyed watching the site change with the seasons, and look forward to getting to know it even better next year.

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How was 2014 for dormice in Surrey?

This article is adapted from one that I wrote for the spring/summer issue of the Surrey Dormouse Group (SDG) newsletter, and is reproduced here with their kind permission. It's based on data collected by dozens of volunteers across the county. If you would like to find out more about the work of SDG, visit their website

Last year SDG members checked a total of 7076 boxes from 18 sites. Data from each SDG box check gets reported to the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, to feed into their national analyses – you can read about how 2014 was for dormice nationally in the Dormouse Monitor.  Here’s a summary of the data from Surrey.

How many dormice?

We saw a total of 487 dormice over 2014. That works out at a mean average of 3 dormice per 50 boxes checked, but there was quite a range of numbers seen at box checks: from 0 per 50 boxes to 27 per 50 boxes. At a third of box checks no dormice were found. The median number of dormice found per 50 boxes checked was 1, which is probably a representative average, given that a few large numbers are skewing the mean. Some sites that had quiet starts to the season saw large numbers later on. On average, we also found 2 empty dormouse nests per 50 boxes (ranging from 0 to 18).

Number of dormouse found per 50 boxes checked, Surrey, 2014
Number of dormouse found per 50 boxes checked, Surrey, 2014

When did we see them?

The earliest dormouse was a 20g torpid male, found on the 6th March, and the latest ones were 3 found at the beginning of December (that’s not to say others weren’t around earlier or later – just we weren’t checking so didn’t find them). As you can see from the graph above, average numbers were highest in August to October, and lowest in March and April.

How much did they weigh?

Females weighed slightly more on average than males (19g vs 18.7g), but this changed considerably over the course of the year, as you can see from the graph, with weights at their highest just before hibernation. The heaviest dormouse recorded was a 33g female found in October.

Average weight of dormouse found in Surrey, 2014
Average weight of dormouse found in Surrey, 2014

Other interesting features

Dormice with white tail tips were reported 36 times over the year, including a family of juveniles, all with white tail tips. There were 9 dormice with stubby tails.

Youngsters

The earliest pinkies were found on 20th July. (Pinky is a technical term describing baby dormice before they grow fur). On that same box check the earliest greys (babies that have their first coat of fur, which is much greyer than an adult) were also found. The latest pinkies were found on 25th September, and the latest greys were found on 20th October. Dormice born later in the year have more of a struggle to fatten up in time for hibernation, but those born too early in the year may struggle with their mother not being able to find enough food for herself.

The largest number of dormice found in one box was 8 (mother with young): boxes with 8 dormice were found at two sites.

Other box occupants

Apart from birds (which seem to take over a large number of boxes in spring at some sites) and invertebrates, the most common other occupant were wood mice (162 were seen, 21 of which were found in dormice nests) and yellow necked mice (29 were seen, only one of which was in a dormouse nest). There were also 12 unidentified apodemus mice (wood mice or yellow-necked mice). The rarest other box occupant was the pigmy shrew, with only 7 reported over the whole year (2 of which were in one box).

October Photography Challenge: Autumn colour

Falling autumn leaves against a blue sky
Falling autumn leaves against a blue sky

I took advantage of the glorious sunshine to visit my local National Trust estate to take photos for this month’s photo challenge – autumn colour. Yellow and red leaves against a blue sky

Autumn sunshine through trees
Autumn sunshine through trees

Dry, brown leaves

Looking up through yellow leaves on a tree to a blue sky
Looking up through yellow leaves on a tree to a blue sky

Yellow leaves

Autumn sunshine through the trees
Autumn sunshine through the trees
A parade of fine old trees
A parade of fine old trees
The sun shining through a yellow leaf caught on a hedge
The sun shining through a yellow leaf caught on a hedge
Autumn sunshine over the Surrey Hills
Autumn sunshine over the Surrey Hills

I finally see a water shrew

Those of you who have been following my blog for the last 18 months will know that I have not had any success at seeing water shrews, despite numerous attempts.

I had read that the best place to see water shrews was in clean streams and watercress beds (not that they eat watercress, but the insects they so eat need nice clean water, so are often found in watercress beds). So my first attempt was in Hampshire, where they grow lots of watercress. I ended up seeing water voles instead (they’re even rarer, and rather partial to a bit of watercress). Despite returning several times, I never saw a water shrew there (maybe the otters, which I also didn’t see, have eaten all the water shrews).

When I heard that at least one water shrew lived on one of the ponds at Surrey Wildlife Trust’s education centre, I got permission to spend some time standing silent and still by the pond for a few hours. It was a rather meditative experience, but still no sign of the shrew. Undeterred, I tried again a different day. This time I think I got a bit closer, as I heard a squeak that may have been a water shrew, but didn’t get a glimpse.

That approach was also not working very well, so I put my quest for water shrews aside for a while. Imagine my feelings when the reports from the first couple of weeks of harvest mouse trapping featured several water shrews, yet I was unable to attend due to work.

When I finally got out to help with the harvest mouse trapping it was at a couple of sites where no water shrews (or harvest mice) had been found the week of the survey, and my session did nothing to change that record.

Finally, on the third harvest mouse site I helped out with, my luck changed. The first animal we found was a harvest mouse, and not long after I got to see my first water shrew.

A water shrew who's reluctant to come out of its temporary nest in a longworth trap
A water shrew who’s reluctant to come out of its temporary nest in a longworth trap
Water shrew scurrying off after being weighed
Water shrew scurrying off after being weighed

Water shrews are the biggest of the British shrew species, and are usually darker than other shrews, with a silvery underside. I had my hopes raised then dashed a few times at other sites when we happened to catch a common shrew that was darker than normal. But you can really make sure by looking for a fringe of bristles on the back legs and under the base of the tail.

Like all shrews, water shrews are insectivores, and have noses like Wombles. They live life at quite a pace, having a fast metabolism. They’re probably the most striking British shrew, with their dark back and light underside. I didn’t manage to get a good photo, as I didn’t want to disturb the animal more than necessary. You can just see a dark shape disappearing into the foliage.

So, I finally ticked water shrews off my British Animal Challenge list. I wonder what species I will see next…