Category Archives: British animal challenge

British Animal Challenge: bottlenose dolphins

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my British Animal Challenge, but I haven’t forgotten it. I managed to tick another species on my list this Easter: the bottlenose dolphin.

Easter day was glorious down in Cornwall. Beautiful weather, and ideal for a walk. So that’s what we did. We followed the coast path from Godrevy Beach, up round Dean Quarry (more on that later).

Of course, whenever I’m by the sea I keep my eyes peeled for exciting marine wildlife. A reasonably choppy day means I can spot vast numbers of imaginary basking sharks. But that day wasn’t so good for spotting imaginary wildlife; too flat. Which meant, when I did spot a fin breaking through the surface of the water, I knew it was something real.

Distant dolphins (the tiny black specks) by the Manacle rocks
Distant dolphins (the tiny black specks) by the Manacle rocks. (Sorry for the dodgy picture – I only had my phone with me).

The binoculars came out, and I was able to tell it was some kind of dolphin. Or rather, dolphins. There was a group of five. They travelled parallel to the cliffs, not far out, for quite a while, giving us an excellent, prolonged view.

I couldn’t identify which species of dolphin they were there and then. I could tell they weren’t common dolphins or porpoises, both of which I’ve seen quite a few times before. But I didn’t know what they were.

As soon as we got back to an internet connection, I looked up an ID guide, and concluded that they were bottlenose dolphins. This was confirmed a week later when we went out on a wildlife cruise, and, chatting to Captain Keith found that they’d seen the same group of dolphins in the same place on Easter Sunday afternoon, and they were, indeed, bottlenoses. I also learnt that one of the 5 was a youngster, which I hadn’t realised.

Bottlenose dolphins are between 2-4m long, and impressively intelligent. They use sound for communication as well as hunting, and some have been trained by the military to locate sea mines. They can live for more than 40 years, and jump 6m in the air. They’re pretty impressive animals.

The area we saw them in is the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone, off the east coast of the Lizard peninsula. This is a very special area for marine wildlife, but is under threat from plans to open a superquarry. Aside from the noise of the blasting and loading, pollution risk, increased traffic through the site of special scientific interest and area of outstanding natural beauty, and light pollution, plans involve building a new breakwater out into the Marine Conservation Zone. It was lovely seeing the dolphins there (we often spot cetaceans in that area), but there’s a real question over the future of wildlife in that area. If you want to find out more, visit the Community Against Dean Superquarry website.


British Animal Challenge 2015 round-up

Happy new year everyone! Before we plunge into whatever the new year has in store for us, I find it helpful to reflect on the year that’s just gone. It’s been a tough but interesting year for me work-wise, but on a personal level I think there have been more ups than downs. Some of the most memorable moments have been wildlife related – the hedgehog walking past our toes when we sat in the garden at dusk; snorkelling with seals; finding dormice for the first time at my dormouse monitoring site; winning the Surrey Wildlife Garden awards, and seeing some species in the wild for the first time.

Back at the beginning of 2014 I set myself the challenge of seeing, in the wild, every species of British animal. This includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles but not invertebrates or birds. There are approximately 107 species on the list. By the end of 2014 I had seen 45 of them (seeing 11 for the first time in 2014).

2015 was a mixed year for my British Animal Challenge. I targeted reptiles, amphibians and bats in the first half of the year, but didn’t make any progress on those. The second half of the year was much more successful. I saw red squirrels and lesser white-toothed shrews during my trip to the Isles of Scilly. And, after lots of attempts and many hours, I finally managed to see a water shrew and some harvest mice.

This year I’ve only ticked off five new species:

Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel


This takes my total up to 50 – not quite halfway there. I’m doing well with some classes:

  • 5/7 British insectivores
  • 10/14 rodents

Others I’m still a long way off, particularly bats, amphibians and cetaceans.

I’m not sure what my focus will be for next year, as I haven’t worked out where I can go on holiday. But I live in a good place for reptiles and bats, so that’s probably a good start. And I’d love to see an otter in the wild…

Whatever’s in store for the year ahead, I hope we all have a wild and wonderful 2016.

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…

In search of harvest mice again… and again… and again

For my British Animal Challenge I am trying to see every species of mammal, reptile and amphibian living in the wild. For some that’s been fairly straightforward – a case of going to the right place at the right time. Others have been more elusive. My focus this month has been on two of the trickier subjects: harvest mice and water shrews (more on the latter in my next post).

Harvest mice live up to their scientific name: micromys minutus. They are tiny. As their common name suggests, they like living among crops (grains) or areas of tall, seedbearing grasses. This makes spotting them while out and about unlikely.

Harvest mouse on seedhead

Helping out with some scientific harvest mouse trapping projects was likely to be my best chance to see them. So last autumn I volunteered to help with harvest mouse surveying at Gatwick airport. While it was a fascinating experience, we didn’t find any harvest mice. Undeterred, I volunteered for a session this year at Gatwick (work has been pretty intense lately, so I could only get to one).

Once again I got to drive through 10ft high gates topped with barbed wire, past the intimidating signs saying authorised vehicles only, before leaving the car in the glow of the runway lights, and heading off into the mini wilderness just a few hundred metres from the runway, by the River Mole. I was helping out Gatwick’s resident ecologist, Rachel Bicker (they do a surprising amount of biodiversity work at the airport). Like last year, we didn’t find any harvest mice, although we did have a good crop of voles, shrews and woodmice.

Surrey Mammal Group (working with Surrey Wildlife Trust) have been busy on a new harvest mouse project this autumn. They’re working with geneticists to see if hair samples from harvest mice can tell us about connectivity across the landscape. How related are populations in different sites to each other? Are they isolated by habitat fragmentation, or are they able to disperse and mix? This is important for the resilience of the population. And if harvest mice can move between sites, other animals will be able to as well.

Of course, to test this we first need to get samples from harvest mice. Last year the mammal group did a lot of work surveying various sites for harvest mice, and, while they were at it, tested 3 different trap designs. Based on these findings, they selected the sites with the most harvest mice last year to resurvey this year to get the samples, starting with the most harvest mousey site.

Frustratingly, work commitments meant I couldn’t get along to any of the checks at the first site, and I was ill for the week of the second site. I was restricted to seeing the updates on Facebook. The weeks progressed with plenty of voles and shrews (including my nemesis, the water shrew), but not a single harvest mouse. The dedicated volunteers consoled themselves by collecting mouse, vole and shrew poo for students to analyse for parasites.

I was finally able to help for the last check on the third site. Once again, it was the same story, the harvest mice from last year seemed to have disappeared, leaving only voles, woodmice, shrews. It was an interesting and pleasant way to spend the Friday evening, after a stressful week at work, but did leave me wondering what’s happened to the Surrey harvest mouse population.

The next site I volunteered at was by the River Wey, where I used to walk during my student days. I’d never thought about the wildlife that might live in that meadow, but looking at it now, it seems like ideal habitat for small mammals. The news from Facebook was encouraging – the group had finally caught some harvest mice, and got enough samples to analyse the population at that site, at least. Was it the night I would finally see a harvest mouse in the wild?

Harvest mouse site by the River Wey
Harvest mouse site by the River Wey

There are two moments of suspense in checking the Longworth traps. Firstly looking to see if it’s been triggered, and then, once you’ve opened the trap in a bag, waiting to see what will emerge.

Checking a longworth trap
Checking a longworth trap

We hit gold with the first triggered trap we found that evening: a harvest mouse. They are tiny. And lovely. This particular mouse had already been caught, fur clipped and sampled earlier in the week, so we didn’t need to weigh or take a sample from him again.

A not very good photo of the harvest mouse we found
A not very good photo of the harvest mouse we found

In total we had 10 small mammals in traps that night, but only one harvest mouse. Still, I had finally done it: I had seen one of Britain’s smallest and cutest mammals in the wild for the first time.

The surveys are continuing for another week or two, and hopefully we will get enough samples from other sites to compare. It will be interesting to hear the results from the lab. And hopefully it will help us find out more about habitat connectivity in Surrey. If this approach works it may help other parts of the country monitor their living landscape.

Scilly or shrewd?

The lesser white-toothed shrew has one of the smallest distributions in Britain of any British mammal. It is found only on the Isles of Scilly (a idyllic group of small islands about 30 miles south west of the tip of Cornwall) and some of the Channel Islands. Hence they are often referred to as Scilly shrews, (although it’s not that unusual in Europe).

I’ve had rather mixed success at seeing shrews for my British Animal Challenge. I have seen common and pygmy shrews, but only when they’ve happened to be in dormouse boxes I’ve been checking, not when I’ve specifically been looking for them. Water shrews have proven even harder. After hours, over several days, of standing by a pond where I know they live, I still haven’t seen one (although I think I heard it). So, keen to maximise the of seeing one during my stay on Scilly, I did some research.

I emailed the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, to see if they had any advice. They replied, very helpfully. The best island to see them on is St Agnes, as work has been done to eradicate rats on the island, which has helped shrews as well as seabirds. That was encouraging, as I was planning to spend a week camping on St Agnes, not just a day trip. I also asked someone from the RSPB on Tresco, and local Isles of Scilly naturalist, Will Wagstaff for advice on how best to see a Scilly shrew.

Once I arrived on St Agnes, I was on full alert for shrews (luckily Scilly is only home to one type of shrew, which simplifies identification). Shrews have fast metabolism, and have to eat frequently, so they are active both day and night. Every stroll was slowed down by my staring at the stone walls that line every road on the island. My ears strained to hear the rustle of foraging, or a high-pitched squeak as two shrews meet. At night I used my powerful headtorch to try to spot light reflecting back from a shrew’s eyes, but all I saw were rabbits and pinpricks of light reflecting in the eyes of spiders and moths. I needed to change my strategy.

One of the easiest places to see shrews is on the boulder beaches, near the high-tide line of dried seaweed, where they come to forage. It’s not that they’re more likely to be there than elsewhere on the island (in fact, they seem to prefer being near houses), but you stand more chance of seeing them there as there’s less vegetation to hide them. So, after five days of no luck with seeing shrews, I decided it was time to get serious: I needed to spend some time on a beach.

Beach on St Agnes
Beach on St Agnes

On a sunny afternoon Dr C and I found an empty beach, and settled ourselves down on the large boulders at the edge. Armed with binoculars and camera, I scoured the seaweed line for shrews, while Dr C quietly read his book. There was plenty of birdlife, including a fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher. After 45 minutes of hard looking through the binoculars, constantly alert, Dr C got my attention. He’d heard a sound, and then saw a shrew’s nose poking out from a gap between two rocks, just a foot away from where his foot was resting. I had missed it.

The boulders where we saw Scilly shrews
The boulders where we saw Scilly shrews

I was partly encouraged – we knew now we were definitely in the right place. And partly frustrated at missing one so near me. Mainly I was amused that while I’d been scouring the distance through binoculars, there was one so close. I think the shrew must have had a sense of humour.

Not long after the Dr C’s sighting, I spotted a grey back and tail scuttling between two rocks a couple of metres from me, and heard a squeak and then some twittering. A little later I spotted a womble-y nose poking up by Dr C’s foot again. So, I didn’t quite manage to see the whole of a Scilly shrew in one go, but if you put together the bits I did see at different times you’d be able to get a whole animal.

The things that struck me from the sighting we must either have been very good at keeping quiet, or the shrew wasn’t too bothered by our presence. It’s not often a wild mammal will come that close to you (even a house mouse will keep its distance).

So, another successful day for the British Animal Challenge. And one of the pleasantest so far – sitting on a beautiful, empty beach on a warm, sunny afternoon, seeing a species for the first time. What more could I want?!


Seeing red… (squirrels)

While their American cousins, grey squirrels, are not universally popular in the UK, everyone loves our native red squirrels. Everyone may love them, but many of us have never seen them in the wild. The once widespread animals are now restricted to a few small pockets of England and Wales, with Scotland being their main stronghold in the UK. The only red squirrels I had seen were in captivity at the British Wildlife Centre.

Apart from wanting to see red squirrels because of their unarguable cuteness, I needed to see them in the wild if I am to ever complete my British Animal Challenge. So, on a recent trip to the Isles of Scilly, one of my goals was to see the charismatic creaures.

Red squirrels haven’t always lived on the Isles of Scilly. A small population was introduced to Tresco, the most wooded of the archipelago, in 2012.  It was thought that the island, which is free from grey squirrels, would be a safe place for a new population, far from squirrel pox and the competition of the bigger grey squirrels.
The initial five squirrels, introduced in late 2012, didn’t fare too well, with only two making it through the winter. But in 2013 20 more red squirrels were helicoptered in (having been born in captivity at the British Wildlife Centre), and this batch seem to be thriving. By the end of 2014 there were estimated to be 40-50 red squirrels on the island.

So, a few days into our stay, Dr C and I got the boat to Tresco, and started on a squirrel hunt. A walk down through the woods in the middle of the island provided no sightings, so we decided it was time to ask for some advice. The RSPB had a small team conducting free bird watching walks around the island, so we joined one of these, and asked for hints as to where best to see them. The answer, unsurprisingly, was among the conifers. But there are also feeding stations in the Abbey Gardens, which are a pretty good bet. Just as the walk was finishing by the entrance to the gardens, I spotted a flash of red on the ground, rummaging in the leaf litter then darting off out of sight. I had seen my first red squirrel! Sadly my photos, taken in the shade of the trees and obscured by foliage, left something to be desired. Still, I had seen one, so Dr C and I decided it was time to celebrate with a spot of late lunch.

A red squirrel, hidden among the undergrowth
A red squirrel, hidden among the undergrowth

The Abbey Gardens cafe garden was pretty empty – just us and a couple of other people. And some red squirrel kittens and an adult. Like their relatives back at the British Wildlife Centre (and the house sparrows on Tresco), these squirrels were pretty bold (and pretty, for that matter). They came right up to our table. After having spent a while searching for them elsewhere on the island, it seemed almost too easy to have them walk right up to us. But neither of us were complaining. Lunch lay forgotten on my plate as I followed them round the picnic tables, trying to get a good shot. They’re speedy little things!  Here’s what I managed.

Red squirrel kitten
Who, me?
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten mid leap
Red squirrel kitten mid leap
Red squirrel kitten mid leap
Red squirrel kitten mid leap

Mum showed up after a little time, her tail much bushier, and her fur a beautiful deep red (the kits were still grey in places, and their tales were not yet the resplendent bottle brushes you expect from a squirrel). She posed for a while in a flower bed before disappearing off, leaving me to finish my lunch.

Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Red squirrel eating
Red squirrel eating
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel

So, another new species seen for the British Animal Challenge. And a very pleasant day out.

Another year in the Wild South

Today is the 2nd birthday of this blog, so to celebrate I’ve been back over my posts from the last year, and picked a couple of my favourites from each month. I quite enjoyed looking back – brought back lots of memories!

September 2014

Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
  • Photo Special: Isles of Scilly – I had to choose this one, really, as not only do I quite like some of these photos, but, as it happens, I’m actually in the Isles of Scilly at the moment. It’s a beautiful place with excellent wildlife watching opportunities.
  • Hedgehog pawprints – I just love hedgehogs really.

October 2014

Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
  • Scrumping badgers? – it’s so exciting seeing badgers (even if I didn’t get any photos)!
  • Moles: perfectly adapted – I’ve still never seen a mole in the wild (alive, at least), but you can’t help admire how suited they are to their subterranean lifestyle.

November 2014

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.
  • Looking for Harvest Mice at an airport – this day of surveying for harvest mice at Gatwick airport was really memorable, even if we didn’t find any in the end. It’s fascinating to see what wildlife can exist even in the most unlikely places.
  • How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts – some close-up photos of nuts nibbled by dormice and other mice, with guidance on how to distinguish between the two.

December 2014

New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
  • Dormouse licence! – It took a long time to get enough experience with handling dormice to obtain my licence, so this was quite a significant milestone for me. This year I’ve enjoyed having my own site to survey.
  • On the trail of wild beavers – I’ve really enjoyed following the story of England’s first beavers in the wild for hundreds of years, and it was amazing to see signs of them when we were visiting the River Otter.

January 2015Grey squirrel

February 2015Skeletal hydrangea flower

March 2015

What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide
What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide

April 2015

Supporters of Christian charities call for action on climate change
Supporters of Christian aid agencies (and others) call for action on climate change
  • British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015 – a summary of my progress on seeing every species of British Animal
  • Church speaks and acts on climate change – While the new government seems to be implementing as many policies as possible to increase climate change (fracking, cutting subsidies to renewable energy, imposing the climate change levy on green electricity, the list goes on), it’s encouraging to see the church take a strong stance on this issue

May 2015

Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
  • Election summary – I spent a couple of months during the election campaign trying to find out where the main British parties stood on various issues relating to nature, the environment and wildlife. I must say, I didn’t enjoy the process much – it was quite dispiriting. But this post summarised all that work.
  • In which I learn I need a new approach to seeing bats – another batty adventure.

June 2015

Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June
Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June

July 2015

Work in progress: my barn owl cross stitch
Can you tell what it is yet?
  • Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife during a heatwave) – I think the rather dull summer we’ve had might be my fault – I wrote this post during a hot period, and since then heat has not been a problem. But still, it’s good advice for if we do get another heat wave.
  • My barn owl project – this is a little different from the projects I usually write about on this blog, but I’m enjoying it, and making good progress.

August 2015

How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years
How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years

In which I learn I need a new approach to seeing bats

Last year I had quite a few bat adventures. I (eventually) managed to see five different species of bats, but frequently struggled with not being able to distinguish the calls captured by my bat detector. I could tell it was a species that I didn’t have ticked off my list, but not which one. So this year, I decided I needed to learn more about bats to help me in my quest.

This week I attended a Bat Ecology course, hosted by Surrey Wildlife Trust and taught by a member of Surrey Bat Group.The course was fascinating. A particular highlight was getting to see some bats up close, as there were a few captive bats present (who can’t be released back to the wild as they can’t fly properly). I learnt a lot about the different species of bats, and how to distinguish between them if I get a good view of them (when they’re not flying about in the dark). I was also reassured to learn that it’s not just me being rubbish at interpreting the sounds from my bat detector – even experts can’t tell distinguish between the Myotis bat species (Daubenton’s, Bandt’s, Whiskered, Alcathoe, Natterer’s, and Bechstein’s) using just a basic detector like mine.

So, having been reassured that it’s not (just) my incompetence that’s stopped me being able to identify some of the bats I’ve come across, I need to come up with a new way of seeing those species that I haven’t yet ticked off my list. I think I may need to start volunteering on some bat surveys.

But that’s not going to stop me walking around at night waving my bat detector in the air. Surrey’s a great place to see bats, as most of the 17-18 (it’s complicated!) British bat species are resident here. And using a detector to eavesdrop their hunting is a good way of getting a glimpse into their night time audio world, so different from our own.

More about my bat adventures:

British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015

March seems to have flown by. My focus for the British Animal Challenge in March was reptiles and amphibians. I did manage one reptile spotting walk, but didn’t see any reptiles. (I think I picked too warm a day, and should have gone out earlier in the morning.)

Still, I did at least cross one new species off my list in March: we found a common shrew in one of the dormouse boxes we were cleaning out. I’ve seen a few pygmy shrews in dormice boxes before, but not a common one. They don’t nest in the boxes, so are either using them for a quick nap (shrews need to do everything quickly, as they have to eat pretty much constantly), or helping us get rid of some of the insects that like to take up residence in the boxes.

I’ve definitely seen dead common shrews before (victims of my previous cat), but can’t remember seeing one alive, so didn’t cross it off my list before. I finally have a confirmed sighting.

While there was only one new species ticked off my list in March, I did see some other animals. I’ve seen:

  • Hedgehogs (now coming every evening to my garden) – even witnessed some hedgehog fights
  • Hares
  • Deer – not sure which sort, as we whizzed past on the train
  • Rabbits

My calendar for April looks pretty packed. It includes a dormouse box check, so I may get lucky and see a yellow-necked mouse. I’ve also got another trip to Cornwall planned, to go sailing in my dinghy for the first time – I’d love to see some cetaceans on that (although I’m not pinning my hopes on it). I’ll also try to look out for reptiles and amphibians (there are some good ponds near where I’ll be staying in Cornwall).

British Animal Challenge: February 2015 update

I have to admit that I have spent most of February indoors, so far. So no new animals to tick off my list this year. But I haven’t been idle – I’ve been plotting the rest of the year.

My focus for March will be amphibians and reptiles. I’m not planning any trips away from home, so will search for those that can be seen in Surrey. Luckily that’s most of the British species.

Early spring is a good time to look for amphibians, as their focus is on mating. And reptiles have to spend more time basking in the open, so will hopefully be easier to see than later in the year.

Surrey has some fine reptile habitat, with a mix of woodland and heaths. I’m more familiar with the woods, so this is a good excuse to explore beyond my usual territory.