The day was overcast, and the trees lining the river were bare, looking almost desolate. As soon as I got down to the river for my Riversearch survey on the final day of 2016, I felt convinced that I would see a kingfisher.
The river level was quite low, and relatively clear for a change. No signs of pollution. My winter surveys are always the most thorough. The impenetrable barricade of nettles and brambles had died back enough for me to get much closer to the river than normal.
As far as the survey goes, there was little to report (which is good, but not interesting). I was rewarded for tearing myself away from the fireside by a glimpse of a kingfisher, the most spectacular of British birds. But that wasn’t all. As I retraced my steps, back to the car, I spotted my first ever goldcrest. I was very excited about this, as I have long wanted to see one.
As though the kingfisher and goldcrest hadn’t provided enough colour to make up for the dullness of the day, a pair of bright green ring-necked parakeets also made a show.
It was as though nature was reminding me that although 2016 may have felt pretty bleak, there were bright spots in it. As I start 2017, uncertain what it will bring, I will look out for beauty.
As usual, I left my Riversearch check for last quarter til the last possible day. When I saw it was raining on the morning I had booked off work to do it, I had no option other than to waterproof up and get on with it.
The river itself was looking less turbid than usual, and I even managed to spot a fish. The woodland around it is starting to look autumnal. I discovered that conkers make a wonderful plop when they fall from the tree to the river. It was happening so frequently that I got nervous standing beneath the horse chestnut tree, and only had time to gather a couple of conkers before scurrying away from the risk of being hit on the head by one.
The stinging nettles were still abundant and high, so I was glad of my intrepid stick.
Someone has clearly had a go at clearing some of the Himalayan Balsam. There were still a couple of stands of it, but for most of the stretch it was just the odd plant here and there.
There wasn’t much wildlife on view – most animals seemed to be keeping hidden in the dry somewhere. And other people were in short supply as well. Very sensible.
The next riversearch check I do will be quite different, with more of the river accessible as the foliage dies down. Let’s hope we can get through this autumn and winter without the floods we had a couple of years ago.
Surrey Wildlife Trust’s quest to find out if water voles are functionally extinct in the county continues. Which means I spent some of my bank holiday wading through a brook, looking for burrows, feeding signs, droppings and pawprints.
It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful site to survey. A small brook running through farmland, with earth cliff banks covered in brambles dripping with ripe blackberries. The stream itself didn’t have any vegetation in it, but the water was clear, the banks easily burrowable, and there was plenty of vegetation along the banks. So not entirely unlikely habitat for a water vole. In fact, we know there used to be voles here, hence we were surveying this site.
Charlotte (a fellow volunteer and my partner in crime for this survey) and I donned our waders, buoyancy aids and set off, stick and clipboard in hand. The survey involves one person wading in the river, looking for water vole signs (or mink, rat or otter for that matter), while the other keeps pace along the bank, drawing a map as she goes. We took it in turns to do the fun bit (the heat of the day made the cool water appealing, even though my waders were slightly leaky).
Disappointingly (but not surprisingly), we didn’t find any signs of water voles. There were a few holes too small for a water vole, and a few much to big. But not pringle tube sized holes, no vole droppings, no feeding lawns… I guess the good news is that we didn’t find any mink pawprints or droppings either.
Water vole populations have disappeared from 94% of their previous sites, the fastest decline of any British species. The last confirmed sighting of a water vole in Surrey was eight years ago. Surrey Wildlife Trust aim to survey around 200 sites where water voles have previously been reported. They’re also asking members of the public to report any water voles they spot in Surrey. There’s a handy ID guide on their website (which is useful as it’s easy to mistake a swimming rat for a water vole – in fact, the wonderful Ratty from The Wind in the Willows is actually a water vole).
The intrepid vole patrollers have so far surveyed 84 sites. But we haven’t found a single water vole sign. Plenty of mink. And rats. But no water voles.
The information from all these surveys will help Surrey Wildlife Trust work out how best to help water voles in the county. This may include predator (mink) control and possibly re-introductions, if there’s still enough suitable habitat in our crowded county. Our neighbours, Hampshire, still have water voles. I hope one day we can see them in Surrey again.
The main challenge with my Riversearch survey in June was seeing the river – since my previous survey, the plants along the riverbank. have shot up. There were stinging nettles taller than me, and inpenetrable thickets of bramble blocking me from getting close to the river in many places. Still, I did manage the occassional glimpse of the river – enough to see that, though the river level was normal, it was still quite turbid.
There weren’t any particularly exciting wildlife sightings to report, although I did spot some intriguing holes.
I did see a couple of invasive non-native species – Himalayan balsam, as usual, and a probable sighting of Japanese knotweed. This is the first time I have spotted Japanese knotweed along by the river, and I had to use binoculars from the opposite bank to see it, so I’m not 100% sure about my identification. But I’ve shared the photos with the wildlife trust, who seem to think it is knotweed. I don’t know if it’s new here, or if I spotted it this time and missed it previously because I was doing my stretch in the opposite direction to normal. Anyway, that’s now been reported to the National Trust, who own the land, so hopefully they’ll be able to sort it out swiftly.
Japanese knotweed doesn’t look particularly startling (unlike Giant Hogweed), but it can be a big problem, spreading quickly and hard to get rid of. In urban areas it can grow up through patios or conservatory floors, so it’s not something you want in your garden. In the countryside it can quickly overwhelm native species.
Ever since I learnt to sail, at the age of 10, I’ve dreamt of having my own sailing boat. Part of the appeal of sailing was the thought of seeing exciting marine wildlife up close. Last year I finally took the plunge and bought a 14 ft sailing dinghy.
My parents let me keep the boat with them, down in deepest Cornwall, so I only get to sail it on visits to them. That means I’m still getting used to the boat, and, more tricky, the cove I launch her from. Last week was my first opportunity of the year to take the boat out.
The weather was perfect – sunshine, with the right amount of wind coming from the right direction. The wind swirls around a lot in the cove, but once you’re out from the cliffs things get a lot easier. It was early on a weekday morning, so not many other boats were out.
Within 15 minutes of setting sail, Dr C spotted something in the water some way off – the sedate roll of a porpoise’s fin breaking the surface before disappearing. We continued in that direction, hoping to get another glimpse. We were in luck, with the appearances of the fin getting closer and closer to the boat.
But there was something strange about it. On one sighting it looked small and dark, and the next time taller and light grey, then again small and dark. We worked out that it wasn’t one animal we were seeing, but at least two – some kind of dolphin (most likely common) as well as a harbour porpoise.
I’m not sure how long the encounter lasted – not long. But it was the closest I have come to a harbour porpoise, who are generally quite shy and tend to keep boats at a distance. I suspect that us sailing, rather than being propelled by a noisy engine, probably helped us to not alarm the porpoise too much.
I had decided to leave the camera ashore (one less thing to worry about, and I was sure we’d see something exciting if we didn’t have the camera with us). So I don’t have any photos of it. You’ll just have to picture the scene: a quiet, sunny morning in a marine conservation zone off the south Cornish coast; blue sea fading into blue sky; just one small sailing dinghy and the gentle glimpse of the backs of a couple of cetaceans. Living the dream.
I chose a beautiful morning for my March Riversearch survey. The sun was shining, and, being a weekday, I had the stretch of river to myself.
It had rained heavily over the weekend, and, as I looked down from the bridge to the meadow, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to get down to the riverside. Once again, a large area had transformed from meadow to pond. But, thanks to my wellies and my intrepid stick, I was able to get through, staying dry and upright.
The river level was high, and the water turbid. Some of the pipes were discharging a bit of liquid into the river, and in one place the flooded field was draining back into the river.
In the wood there were signs of spring. Wild garlic leaves were plentiful, but the flowers weren’t yet out, so their pungent aroma wasn’t noticeable.
The advantage of surveying just after the water level had somewhat receded was that any patches of earth were blank slates. Instead of the usual muddle of prints from dogs and their owners, there was a smooth, soft surface. This enabled me to spot a clear track in the woods following the river bank. What’s less clear is what made it.
Looking at my track id guide, they look to me like large rat prints. But fellow mammal group members think they’re probably mustellid, either mink (which we know are present on this stretch), or, more excitingly, polecat or polecat-ferret. What do you think?
I spent last week following in the (fictional) footsteps of my heroes: the Mole, the Rat, the Otter and the Badger. I suspect The Wind in the Willows is one of the reasons that, as a child, I first fell in love with wildlife. So imagine my excitement when I realised that the holiday cottage I’d booked was half a mile away from the river that (is said to have) inspired Kenneth Grahame’s classic.
I couldn’t resist spending some of my holiday re-reading The Wind in the Willows. I’d forgotten how lyrical some of the writing about the countryside was, and the strong thread of melancholy that runs through the book, behind the more boisterous adventures of Mr Toad.
The village of Lerryn nestles on a fork of the creek that joins up with the Fowey River. From the village to the next branch of the creek, the river is bound on both sides by woodland.
The river itself doesn’t look very water vole-y: the daily inundation of salt water means there’s not a lot of plantlife in the water. But it’s definitely suitable for messing about in boats on, and there are some good hidden picnic spots along the river.
While the river isn’t very suitable for Ratty, it looked perfect for the Otter. I spent my walks along the river looking for confirmation of this hunch – spraint on stones or tree trunks sticking above the edge of the river, or pawprints in the mud. I didn’t find any signs, but it just felt like there must be otters using that stretch of river – it would be a waste not to.
Further inland there were signs of Badger. A well-used animal path even went through the garden of the cottage where we stayed, so I set up my trail camera – more on what footage I caught in a few days…
It was a beautiful place to spend some time, and, once winter is over I’m sure it would be wonderful for messing about in boats (I agree with Ratty on the subject of boats). While I didn’t have as many wildlife encounters as I was hoping for, it felt like there was plenty of wildlife around, hiding in the shadows. I’m sure I’ll be back.
Once again I’d left my Riversearch survey til the last moment, so ended up squeezing it into my busy Christmas Eve. (I did get questioned by a passerby as to why I was out ‘working’ on Christmas Eve, who couldn’t quite believe that was how I choose to spend my leisure time). The weather wasn’t very tempting for a riverside stroll that morning. But rain is no excuse to put off a Riversearch survey – in fact, it may be better, as it allows you to see any runoff from fields, roads and pipes. So I donned my wellies and headed out. By the time I got out there, the rain had eased off somewhat – there were even glimpses of blue sky.
Like the rest of the country, we’ve had quite a lot of rain lately. Thankfully we’ve escaped the flooding other areas had. While the ground was boggy and the water level high, at least I could walk through the meadow – exactly two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that, as it was completely submerged.
Winter is always a good time to do the survey for my stretch – the nettles, himalayan balsam and other plants have died back enough to allow me to see a lot more of the river bank than usual. The main finding of interest was pollution coming from a few of the pipes in the riverbank. There was quite a lot of white foam on the river, building up in places, but that seemed to be coming from further upstream. I don’t know what it was, but definitely something to report.
Aside from that, the only other notable finding was a mystery nest, lodged a couple of feet up a sapling on the riverbank. Any ideas what might have made that?
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).
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.
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.
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).
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk