Category Archives: Mammals

Dormouse box cleaning 2017

The dormousing year always starts with cleaning out the boxes, and doing any maintenance or replacements needed, ready for when the dormice belatedly emerge from hibernation. Often it’s not the most pleasant of tasks – March can be chilly, and getting rid of manky woodmice nests is never particularly pleasant. This year we were lucky – the weather was pleasant, and the boxes weren’t in too bad condition.

My site is still qutie new, and relatively unscathed by squirrels (who, at some sites, get through large numbers of boxes each year, targeting the glue that holds the layers together of the marine plywood we use). This means there wasn’t too much maintenance to do.

We did have a few old dormice nests to remove. Whereas we’d normally leave the old nests on the ground, this time we bagged them up carefully – I can’t tell you why at the moment, but watch this space… There were also a few beautifully mossy old wren’s nests to remove.

Old nest in box
Old nest in box

None of the boxes were occupied yet, but hopefully with the lovely weather we’ve been having we might find some dormice in our April check.

It was a relief to be back out in the woods, after the winter break. I know nothing stops me going for walks in the woods in winter, but it’s so nice to be back in the surveying season again.

 

Horay for hedgehogs

I’m not the only one emerging from hibernation at the moment. A couple of days ago we finally saw our first hedgehog of the year. It’s been a long time coming, as we’ve been finding plenty of ‘signs’ of hedgehogs for a few weeks. 

We’ve been leaving out food for them, but whereas in previous years we could leave the bowl in the open, I think we need to build a hedgehog feeding station to keep out the neighbours’ kittens this year. 

It’s so nice to see the hedgehogs again. I hope the dormice will follow suit for our April box check. 

Dormouse activity in my site in 2016

I have been in partial hibernation this last couple of months, hence the lack of blog posts. But I have managed to do somethings, one of which is sift through my dormouse data from last year. I’ve made a little animation showing how dormice and other animals have used the boxes at my monitoring site over the last couple of years.

 

It’s great to see dormice making use of the boxes we put up in 2015. Hopefully it means this year they’ll start making use of the boxes we put up at the start of 2016.

Looking back at 2016

I’m looking forward to shaking the dust of 2016 from my sandals. But it hasn’t all been bad. Here are my highlights and lowlights from the year.

Highlights

I find January pretty tough – I’m not a fan of cold, and the lack of light gets me down. So a fun day out at the British Wildlife Centre with my fellow members of Surrey Dormouse Group was a welcome relief.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I love spring, and seeing the bluetits start to build a nest in my camera nest box meant the return home each day was exciting – what’s happened today?!

My Wild Garden 2016 challenge kept me busy over the year, as each month I tried to make my garden better for wildlife. For the first time this year I fed live mealworms to the birds – it was great seeing how well this went down with them, and something I’ll do again in 2017. We also installed an insect house, and it was great watching the bees move in. Perhaps my favourite Wild Garden activity of the year was creating the Bog Garden – lots of digging involved, but worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it does this year, now the plants have had a chance to bed in and grow.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

As always, it’s a delight to watch hedgehogs in the garden, and even more exciting (and entertaining) to watch their courtship.

Dr C gave me a great new toy – a macro lens, and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with that over the year. The Macrophotography course I did with Adrian Davies was particularly helpful. Some of the images I took that day even featured in my 2017 calendar!

Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Butterfly on bramble flower

It’s been a good year for my dormouse site. In one box check we had 9 dormice (including 7 youngsters crammed into one box!), and we’ve now had dormouse activity in every part of the site, which is great news.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

And it’s great that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has now come into force. On a smaller scale, it’s lovely to hear that the beavers on the River Otter are breeding.

Lowlights

Work has been very tough this year (particularly in the first half of the year), so this blog has taken a bit of a back seat for a while. It’s frustrating, as I’ve loads of things I wanted to tell you about, and lots of photos and videos that need editing.

It’s not been a great year for my garden birds – the Big Garden Birdwatch in January, when we saw only one bird. The bluetits that started to build their nest in the camera nest box soon abandoned it. And when I looked at the data over the year from June 2015 to May 2016, it confirmed that we’ve had far fewer birds than normal.

The referendum result was staggering, and, to me, hugely disappointing. It’s still not clear how it will affect many things, including our laws for protecting wildlife and the environment. The whole campaign was a bit of a disaster – even those campaigning for remain failed to make a case on the positive things that EU membership has brought this country, including cleaner rivers, beaches and air, and protection for species like dormice. One thing is clear: we need make sure whatever happens next does not damage this protection.

2016 has seen a lot of beloved public figures die. Among them, perhaps the most famous tiger in the world: Machli, the lady of the lake. I was lucky enough to see her in the wild, back in 2006. She has had a long life for a tiger, and brought up many youngsters that will continue her legacy. But it’s still sad to think she is no longer ruling the temples and lakes of Ranthambore.

Bengal tiger
Machli

Let’s hope next year brings peace, reconciliation and restoration between people, and between humans and nature.

In which I moan about light pollution on the darkest day of the year

Today’s the shortest day of the year, so it may seem churlish to spend it complaining about light. But don’t get me wrong – it’s not sunlight I have a problem with. I can vaguely remember what it’s like, and I’m keen to renew the acquaintance. It’s light pollution that I want to talk about today.

It’s obvious how water pollution can harm wildlife – the dramatic decline of the otter in the mid 20th century is a well known example. And we’re hearing more about the health effects air pollution has for humans (and presumably wildlife are affected too). But there’s less awareness of the problem of light pollution.

Last week there was a story on the BBC website about how robins’ behaviour is affected by light pollution. A study by Southampton University found that robins that lived closer to lit paths and noisy roads were much lower down this dominance hierarchy – the birds in these territories displayed less aggressively.

Robins aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Other birds, reptiles, amphibians, moths and bats are also affected negatively. But some species can adapt to make the most of it, like the common redshank, getting longer to feed because of artificial lights.

Another disadvantage of light pollution is that it stops us seeing so many stars. Where I live, in a street-lit town, I’m never going to see the Milky Way. On holidays to more remote, darker places, the stars at night take my breath away.

Light pollution is a subject that’s too close to home for me. My bedroom overlooks a recently refurbished office building that’s floodlit throughout the night, meaning that, despite the blackout lining of my curtains, my bedroom never properly gets dark.

In some places things are being done to reduce light pollution. The funding cuts for councils means many are now looking to save money (and reduce carbon emissions) by turning off street lighting in residential roads late at night. In fact, my council are introducing this to the town I live in next month. My road is a major traffic route, so the lights will stay on. But other, quieter roads, will have their lights turned off between midnight and 5am in the morning. Hopefully this will benefit at least some of the local wildlife and residents.

As for me, I’m looking forward to a trip west, where night will be dark, and, if the skies are clear, I’ll be able to see the Milky Way.

A bit of hope in 2016

2016 has been short on good news, and I have been a bit despondent of late. Luckily this little fellow arrived in the post on Friday, to remind me that not everything has been a disaster this year.  I’ve called him (unoriginally)  Justin.

Justin Beaver
Justin Beaver

To recap: a while back beavers were found on the River Otter in Devon – the first wild beavers in England for centuries. At first the government wanted to get rid of them, citing the chance they may harbour parasites as the reason. But Devon Wildlife Trust, with the support of local landowners and residents,  persuaded the government to let them monitor the beavers and the effect they have in a trial, before making any final decisions. The beavers were trapped, had health checks, and re-released back on the River Otter.

Tree gnawed by beavers on the River Otter
Tree gnawed by beavers on the River Otter
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers
Local shop displays support for the Devon beavers

This year Devon Wildlife Trust have been crowd funding to cover the costs of the trial. I donated a while back, and Justin is my reward. The timing of his arrival is good, as I had just found out that two pairs of beavers have successfully bred on the River Otter this year, one having two kits, and the other five.

I’m intrigued to see how the trial goes. Beavers, like humans, shape the landscape they live in. Chopping down trees, creating lakes and changing the course of rivers. I got to see some of the effect they were having when I visited the River Otter. There’s evidence that the changes beavers make may benefit other species, and reduce flooding downstream. But can we learn to live with a species that can make such dramatic changes in a short time?

Fresh growth from beaver-felled tree
Fresh growth from beaver-felled tree

If the trial is successful, it will give me hope that native species we have driven to the brink of extinction may, one day, make a comeback. If Devon Wildlife Trust can’t raise sufficient funds to cover the cost of the trial to 2020, the beavers will have to be rehomed in captivity. I hope it succeeds, and one day I will see a beaver in the wild. If you’d like more info, or to donate to the crowd funding appeal, visit SupportDevonsBeavers.org

And another 10 Christmas present ideas for wildlife lovers

It’s the first of December – advent calendar doors are being opened around the world. Tonight is Gala Night in the town I live in, where all the local shops put on a bit of an extravaganza for late night Christmas shopping and general jollity. If you’re in need of some inspiration for what to get the wildlife lover in your life, you might want to check out my previous posts on the subject:

and some new ideas below.

  1. Window feeder for birds: these trans
    Window bird feeder with mealworms
    Window bird feeder with live mealworms

    parent bird feeders stick to your window, giving good views of whatever’s taking the food. We’ve had one for years, but never really used it until this year, when we started feeding live meal worms during spring. The robins loved it, and we got plenty of good views from the comfort of our own dining room. You can get them from various places, including the RSPB. If the person you’re shopping for isn’t too squeamish, you could even get them some mealworms to go in it. They’re ugly, but just about every bird and mammal that visits our garden loves them.

  2. Wildlife-related clothing: this one’s probably found its way near to the top of the list today as it’s so darned cold. I’ve got my eye on a badger jumper to keep the chill away. PTES have some good designs, as do Sussex Wildlife Trust.

    Close-up of insect house
    Close-up of insect house
  3. Solitary bee house: bees of all sorts have had a tough time over the last few decades, but they’re essential pollinators, so we need to help them out. We were given one last Christmas and have really enjoyed seeing the leafcutter bees make use of it. The charity BugLife have a selection. As do NHBS.
  4. A wildlife calendar: I’m a bit biased, as I sell calendars of my wildlife photography to raise money for charity, but I think calendars make great presents (as long as the person you’re buying for doesn’t have too many already). Mine have pretty much sold out this year, but there’s plenty of thers out there. Wildlife Photographer of the Year always produce great ones. The RSPB has a good choice as do WWF and the Wildlife Trusts calendar looks super.
  5. A good thermos: I’ve come to hot drinks quite late in life – I still don’t like coffee or normal tea. But having a flask of steaming hot drink to warm you up on a cold walk or wildlife survey (or football match) can really make a difference. Some are better than others – look at the details on how long it will keep a drink warm for before you buy.
  6. Membership of a wildlife organisation: I’m a member of many wildlife organisations, from huge international charities to local species-specific groups. There are loads out there, and many offer gift memberships. The benefits of membership will vary between organisations, but might include a regular newsletter or magazine (some of these are really good), access to events for members, and opportunities to get into the wild to help nature. And of course, the membership fee supports the work the organisation does. Some of the bigger ones offer special memberships for children as well – I remember being given membership of the children’s wing of Devon Wildlife Trust when I was growing up, and enjoying the activities that were part of that. If the person you’re buying for is particularly keen on a specific species or type of wildlife, see if there’s a group that matches. (Some that spring to mind that offer gift memberships include the Barn Owl Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF,  the Mammal Society, the National Trust, RSPB)
  7. Dormouse Christmas tree decorations
    Dormouse Christmas tree decorations

    Something beautiful and handmade: One of the members of the dormouse group I’m part of makes fantastic wildlife-related ornaments, jewelry and decorations. I fell in love with her dormouse Christmas tree decorations, but she does wonderful birds, butterflies and other mammals as well.

  8. Books: Books are always on my list. Check out what natural history books your local bookshop has to offer. I quite fancy ‘That Natural Navigator’ by Tristan Gooley, as I like the thought of being able to navigate without a smart phone or GPS.
  9. A sea safari: In Britain nowhere is that far from the sea, which holds some of our most exciting wildlife. A holiday is not complete for me if it doesn’t include a boat trip, and you can’t beat the thrill of seeing dolphins race and play, or the leisurely trawling of a basking shark. Look out for your local operator, but make sure they’re members of the WISE scheme (which means they’re accredited to run their trips in a way that’s safe for wildlife). Dr C still hasn’t booked me on a whale watching cruise of the Bay of Biscay yet (see 2014’s post), but maybe I can persuade him to let me go for a day trip at least.
  10. Wildlife Gardening Information Pack: This was part of my prize for winning the small private garden category of the 2015 Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards, and I’ve found it packed full of ideas – highly recommended!

In which we find woodmice, bank voles, field voles, and pygmy shrews but no harvest mice

As the alarm went off at 5.20am the other day, I did wonder why I had let myself in for such an early start on a precious day off. The rain beating against the windscreen as I drove through the dark, empty roads didn’t encourage me, either. I pulled up in the near deserted superstore car park, and it crossed my mind that this was not a normal thing to be doing.

The rain had stopped by the time I had got out of the car and wellified myself, and the remains of the supermoon cut cleanly through the sky. Our small group of like minded eccentrics congregated and headed off down an obscure path in the corner of the car park, lighting headtorches as we moved out of orange glare of the street lamps.

The path went under the dual carriageway, beside the river, to an isolated area of  waist-high marshy grasses, visible only in the small patches illuminated by head torch beams. After a bit of searching, we found the cached hoard of straw, food and weatherwriter, and stocked up the black bin bag. It didn’t look at all suspicious, four people walking around deserted wasteland at 6am in the morning carrying a black bin bag. I did wonder what anyone looking out of a window from the houses across the river must have thought.

We headed into the grass towards the scrap of striped tape that marked the first trap point, where two longworth traps (one on the ground, and the other set a couple of feet up on a stake) waited.

There’s always a frisson of suspense as you approach a small mammal trap. Has it been tripped? If so, what will it contain? We had a bumper harvest that morning – 8 woodmice, 2 field voles, 2 bank voles and one fiesty pygmy shrew. But none of the animals we were really searching for: harvest mice.

Field vole
Field vole

As the bright November morning dawned, we were able to get a better look at what we caught. If you think that one small mammal species is much like another in temperament, you’re mistaken. As you can see from these photos, voles are pretty chilled. I didn’t get any photos of woodmice (it was too dark when we found them, and they move too quickly). The tiny pigmy shrew was my personal favourite. You’ve got to admire a creature that, though about as big as a thumb nail, decides to try to bite its captor’s hand (it’s teeth weren’t long enough the penetrate the skin, but it gave it a good go).

Pygmy shrew trying to bite
Pygmy shrew trying to bite
Vole
Vole

The check was part of Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Wildlife Trust’s harvest mouse project. We’re trying to get fur samples from harvest mice populations in different sites in the county. These samples are then DNA tested to allow us to see how closely related they are, or whether harvest mice at different sites have very different DNA to each other. The point of this is to see how good the connectivity between sites is for wildlife. Connectivity is important, as isolated populations are vulnerable to being wiped out.

This is our third year of the project. In the first year we were able to get enough samples for the lab scientists to identify plenty of DNA markers that will allow us to compare different harvest mice populations. Last year, when we went back to survey the sites that had had lots of harvest mice the previous year, we found very few. And we’ve not had large numbers this year, either.

We repeated the survey that evening, starting and ending in the dark, and found similar numbers of woodmice, bank voles, field voles and a single pygmy shrew, but again no harvest mice. The voles decided that sitting on hands was a morning activity – in the evening it’s all about climbing onto heads. This one seemed to particularly enjoy Derek’s hair – it looked like it was planning to settle down up there. Glen and Keith also got scaled by intrepid vole explorers.

A vole in the hair...
A vole in the hair…

By the end of the check it was bucketing down, and I was very pleased to get home to a warming bowlful of food, prepared by Dr C.

It’s not hugely surprising we didn’t find any harvest mice at this site – it really is cut off from other harvest mouse habitats (I suspect voles and woodmice are a little less particular in the sorts of neighbourhoods they’ll live in). And, while we didn’t succeed in our aim for the checks, it was still great to see small mammals at such close quarters. And it was worth braving the elements and giving up a lie-in to have that privilege.

Dormouse Box Check October 2016: dormouse activity in new areas of the site

After last month’s brilliant box check, I was hopeful that we’d see lots of dormice this month. I was expecting the seven youngsters we found in one box to now have separated and set up their own homes nearby. And I was hoping the pinkies would now be bigger and bouncier.

The first set of boxes we surveyed didn’t show new signs of dormouse activity. But, excitingly, there was the start of a new dormouse nest in one of this year’s boxes, in a new bit of the site. This box is one of four in a clump of hazel on the edge of the woods, and separated from the other boxes by a stretch of un-dormousey woodland – tall trees with little understory. It was a bit of an experiment putting the boxes here – I wanted to see if dormice would use this bit of hazel, given the unpromising habitat between it and the rest of the boxes. So far this year, nothing had used any of these boxes. So it was very exciting to see the start of a dormouse nest here.

The shrew who had taken over the bees nest which had taken over a dormouse nest has finally moved out – not before time – the nest was covered in shrew droppings, and sticky from the bees. The kind Dr C volunteered to clean that one out, which is great as it was a health hazard for any creature that might have ventured in.

There was no sign of any of last month’s young in the boxes near where we found the seven dormice. And the bitey adult male has moved out as well. But we did find a 16g young male in a wren’s nest. As I slid the box lid off, and the perspex over the nest, he clambered to the top of the mossy nest, pressing himself against the perspex. He turned out to be a lively little fellow, so I didn’t take a photo of him – I wanted to get him sexed, weighed and back in the nest before he had time to get too upset. This is the first time we’ve found a dormouse in that particular little section of the site, so more encouragement that they’re not limited to one bit of it. And it’s good that he’s probably big enough already to get through the winter.

No sign of last month’s pinkies – hopefully mum has made a nice natural nest for them.

I’m not sure if that’s the last box check I’ll do this year – if the weather stays mild and there’s still food about, dormice could still be active in a month’s time (particularly this year’s young, as they work on fattening up). But if the weather turns cold, we may not find anything. I’d be a bit sad, if that’s the last check of the year, but, sitting beside my first fire of the season, maybe it is time for hibernation.

Apart from the one dormouse, and signs of new nest building, the other thing of note that we found was this rather fine caterpillar.  Possibly a pale tussock? What do you think?

Catepillar - possibly a pale tussock?
Caterpillar – possibly a pale tussock?

Dormouse box check September 2016: lifting Sophie’s curse

I was very excited about this month’s dormouse box check, after the promising signs last month, finding a pregnant dormouse and a young family. I was expecting to find boxes of bouncy young dormice, ready to explode out like jack-in-the-boxes as soon as the lid was removed. But I had forgotten that Sophie, one of the volunteers joining me this month, seems to be cursed, with dormice hiding away from boxes whenever she visits a site, no matter how many dormice are usually found there…

I was reminded of Sophie’s curse early on in the check, when the nest that held the pregnant female last month turned out to be empty, and none of the surrounding boxes had any sign of dormice. Hopefully that means she’s made a natural nest somewhere to have her babies, and we may see them turn up in our boxes next month. But it doesn’t help Sophie get the experience of handling young dormice that she needs to get her license. Still, we knew that one of the last boxes of the check had a family in last month, so we continued with some (slightly diminished) optimism.

The woods are starting to feel autumnal, with the leaves just starting to turn yellow, and fungi everywhere you look.

Fungi
Fungi

Luckily we didn’t have to wait until the end of the check to find dormice. A new nest had appeared in a box about halfway through our check route, so we got it off the tree, and had a proper look in. There seemed to be three or four young (eyes open) dormice in the nest. So Sophie started bagging them up for weighing. But it didn’t stop at four. They just kept coming. Five… six… seven. No sign of an adult, but seven healthy, lively youngsters. I’ve no idea how they all fitted in the nest.

Dormice generally have litters of about four, so seven is a big, but not unheard of, number. Most of them were around 8-10g, although one was an impressive 14g (he was also quite feisty, biting Sophie – quite unusual for a dormouse, but perhaps his feisty attitude is how he got so much bigger than his siblings). We used coloured twisty tags to help us keep track of which was which.

We were able to sex a few of them – mostly males, but my personal favourite was a very pretty female with a white tip to her tail. Hopefully, with that distinguishing feature we’ll be able to spot her again next month, and see how she’s doing putting on weight for hibernation.

Young dormouse
Young dormouse

With seven dormice to go around, we all got a chance to handle a few while putting them back in the box. They were very cooperative, with none trying to escape the nest while we posted their siblings back in. Just as well, as we could have been there all day otherwise…

A few boxes later we found an adult male (who also bit Sophie). By that time we were wondering if she smelt of hazelnut…

A shrew has taken over one of the old bees nests, which they’d taken over from a dormouse nest… It’s funny how some boxes seem to be attractive to several different species, while other nearby boxes are empty.

Our last box of the day also revealed good news – a lactating female, with tiny pinkies (the official term for dormice babies before they develop fur – these were less than 15mm long). We didn’t get them out of the box, and processed mum as quickly as we could (although not before she had bitten me, through the bag!).

With 9 dormice plus pinkies we have well and truly lifted Sophie’s curse. Let’s hope they have a good month feeding, putting on enough weight to see them through the winter… (now there’s an idea!)