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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
For the third year running I entered the world of commerce, setting my photos to work raising money for charity. The craft fair I had a stall at was ideally timed for Christmas shopping. Once again I was selling cards, bookmarks, large prints and calendars featuring my wildlife photos. As ever, the craft fair was a great opportunity to talk to people about wildlife.
This year my bestsellers were the 2017 calendar (now sold out!) and the kestrel and barn owl bookmarks. I am really pleased bookmark sales have been good this year, as I sold hardly any in previous years, but I really like them (if I am allowed to say that). It’s also good the calendars have all sold, since they obviously have a use-by date.
The other thing I am pleased about with this year’s calendar is that most of the photos were taken this year. I haven’t had much time to process my photos this year, but I have taken quite a lot, and some of them made the grade for the calendar.
Disappointingly, I only sold one large print. Since I do the same craft fair each year, I wonder if I have saturated that particular market. Do you have any suggestions for other photo products I could sell, next year?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!)
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.
As we assembled for this month’s box check I was in two minds about whether to go ahead with it. It was raining, which isn’t ideal, as you don’t want any disturbed dormice getting soggy (their fur isn’t waterproof). And it was quite windy in the car park on top of the ridge of the North Downs. The forecast said it should just be a shower. But the wind was due to double by lunchtime. It’s just not sensible to be in the woods on a windy day.
But the volunteers had travelled to get there (giving up a precious Saturday lie-in). And I would struggle to find time for the check another day this month.
In the end I decided to see what it was like at the site (a 15 minute walk away from the car park, and a bit more sheltered), trusting that the forecast would be right about the shower, and that we’d finish the check before the wind picked up.
Once in the wood, the wind became less noticeable. The leaves were rustling, but the branches were still. So at least it was safe for the volunteers.
We started, as always, with nine boxes we put up last year across the path from the rest. It was where we had found a dormouse last month, so a promising place to start. The dormouse had moved on from last month’s nest. But, a few boxes later, we hit gold.
A lively dormouse jumped out of the box. Once we had bagged it up, it was clear that he was a male in breeding condition. It’s usually quite hard to determine the sex of a dormouse, but that wasn’t a problem with this fellow. While he was safe and dry in a weighing bag I explored the nest for any other occupants, and found a beautiful pregnant female. This was fantastic news – it’s great to see breeding happening on that side of the path. Both dormice safely returned to their nest, we carried on.
Last month we had a couple of bees nests in dormouse boxes. We approached them with caution, watching and listening for any signs of bees. They seemed to have left the first nest, and, as we watched, a shrew emerged from the second. I’m guessing that one no longer has bees in. But we’ll wait til next month to clean it out, to be on the safe side (the bees seem to enjoy lulling you into a false sense of security at my site).
As the check progressed the rain eased up, although by that time most of us had soggy feet.
Dr C checked the last box. Last month it had an empty bluetit nest in it. If it was still disused this month, we’d clean it out, like we had with the other manky bluetit nests. As he slid the lid across, we saw it had been transformed in the last month. No longer a shallow open nest, the box was full of moss (like a wren’s nest), with leaves and honeysuckle bark as well. Although not a classic dormouse nest, we were both suspecting dormice, when a golden face appeared against the perspex.
Dan, a volunteer who is working towards his license, had the job of bagging the dormouse, who turned out to be a lactating mother. In the nest cavity we could feel some young, but, given the less than ideal weather, and their vulnerability, we decided to leave them in the warmth and safety of the nest, and return mum to them as quickly as possible.
It was a wonderful end to the check, and I am very excited to see how they are all getting on next month.
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