My December Riversearch was uneventful, with little to report. And not much has changed since then. No news is perhaps a good thing – there weren’t any obvious signs of pollution or invasive species (although invasive plants mostly won’t be obvious at this time of year, and I didn’t search for signal crayfish or quagga mussels). And while the river level was quite high (the stepping stones were well covered), it wasn’t flooded.
There were some signs of spring, with a few clumps of snowdrops scattered around, and wild garlic leaves appearing. Bird song filled the air, but the trees are still bare.
Given there was so little to report, it’s a bit hard to motivate myself to get round to returning the data. But, even this unexciting result is important to monitoring the health of the River Mole. So I really should send the results back in. And I will. Sometime. Maybe next weekend.
Riversearch has been going for around 18 months now, and they’ve refined the forms we use, to make the paperwork quicker and easier once you’ve done the initial search. (The basic info about a stretch of river doesn’t change that much from month to month – bridges tend not to be too temporary, and land use change is not that rapid).
One of the new things they ask for now is information about the wildlife we see along the way. Now, this is much more to my taste (and skills) than describing the geography of the rivers – rills, bars etc. So, I was pleased to come across some deer prints in the wood by the river. The prints were very small (perhaps muntjac or a small female of a larger type of deer). So, while I don’t have anything exciting to report about the river, at least I can submit the deer print photos, to be added to the county database.
Lundy is a small British island, marking the point where the Atlantic becomes the Bristol Channel. It’s a lovely destination for wildlife lovers, as it’s a breeding site for many seabirds, including puffins. The waters surrounding it have been protected for 40 years, making it one of the best spots for diving in the UK.
Here are a few photos from my trip there a few years ago.
It was hot and humid in the woods on Saturday. There was none of that delicious freshness you usually get in the shade of the trees on a summer day. It felt like a tropical rainforest, and I half expected to hear the cries of chimpanzees.
It was strangely quiet. Perhaps all the birds and animals decided that the best way to deal with the humidity was to stay quiet and still. I must admit that if I hadn’t had a good reason to be out in the woods that morning, I would probably have been sitting near a fan, trying not to do anything.
But each month there is a ten day window to carry out the dormouse box checks, and this was the only day I could do. I was helping to check a site I haven’t done before, which is always a bit of a challenge. When you don’t know where the boxes are it’s a bit like geochaching or letterboxing. Dormice boxes are often away from the beaten track, which means you have to fight your way through brambles, wade through waste high nettles, and scramble over fallen trees.
We didn’t have much luck on this check. No dormice, or signs of new nest building. Just a solitary wood mouse, a wren’s nest, and a couple of bees’ nests. We did glimpse a deer in the distance, but I think everything else was staying hidden away from the heat.
After years of monitoring dormice, I have now had a taste of what it’s like to sleep in a dormouse nest. Last week we went camping, and stayed in a remarkable tent, suspended from oak trees.
The tent was made of a spherical wood and aluminium frame, covered in canvas. The design was inspired by harvest mouse nests, but I prefer to think of it as a dormouse nest, since dormice live in trees.
It was an exciting experience. The tent had two windows, looking into the branches. Every so often we could feel the tent move gently, like being in a boat.
It was also a comfortable experience, as it comes with proper beds and a tiny woodburner.
The campsite itself is a wildlife haven. The pitches are mown areas of grass in a meadow. There’s a pond, and the site is surrounded by woods. The owners are keen to keep it wildlife friendly. Later this month they are hosting a wildlife weekend with Sussex Wildlife Trust.
We didn’t have any dormice visit us during our stay, but it was lovely watching (and listening to) the common pipistrelle bats as we sat by the campfire after dark. We also saw three deer at dusk, crossing into the woods. And there are plenty of bunny rabbits, birds and bugs around.
Have you come across any particularly wildlife friendly campsites you would recommend?
Finding mammals can often be hard – many of them are small, or nocturnal, or both. Last week I got to hear the great ecologist and mammal expert Pat Morris speak to the Surrey Mammal Group. He gave a fascinating (if somewhat macabre at times) talk about how to find mammals. You’re probably familiar with many of the techniques he spoke about, but there were perhaps a few less well-known approaches.
Look in local newspapers for reports of mammal sightings: Local newspapers are often a good source of information about where unusual wildlife have been spotted. Clippings from papers may also be useful to refer back to in years to come. If you’re interested in getting information about the presence of a particular species in your area, talking to the local rag and getting a story in there asking people to report sightings may be very helpful.
Molehill mapping: One of the problems of many survey techniques is that they may reflect where most of your surveyers are active, rather than where the species is most abundant. One way to check you have good coverage of surveyers is to get data on where molehills can be found. As moles are very widely distributed, any gaps in your map are more likely due to lack of surveying, rather than lack of moles, which tells you where you need to do more work.
Droppings: not the pleasantest way to survey for mammals, but once you get your eye in, you can get a good idea of who is around. Many books are too squeamish to show useful photos of droppings for identification, but the Mammal Society have an excellent fold-out guide to British mammal tracks and signs, including some lovely drawings of droppings. It’s a handy size and laminated, so easy to take with you when you’re out and about.
Trails: look out for paths that go beneath low bushes, or up steep hedgebanks – they may well have been made by wildlife (such as badgers, who tend to follow the same route each time). Smaller mammals sometimes create tunnels in long grass. Spotting these trails can then give you an idea of where to search for other signs, such as hairs, pawprints or droppings.
Pawprints / hoofprints: pawprints are another good way of telling if a species is around. Look in soft mud, or after snow, and you could find a surprising number. Sometimes it’s possible to tell from the pawprints whether the animal was running or walking at the time.
Hairs: some mammal hairs (like badgers) are quite distinctive, while others can be differentiated with the help of a microscope. Hair tubes can help to get samples from small mammals, while barbed wire fences are a good place to look for hair from larger creatures.
Food remains: It’s sometimes possible to tell what’s eaten something by the food remains. For example, watervoles cut leaves at a neat angle, and often leave short lengths behind uneaten. It’s also possible to tell whether a nut has been nibbled by dormice, other mice, squirrels or bank voles by how the nut has been opened (I must get round to uploading some pictures of this at some point).
Traps: trapping using safe traps (eg. longworth traps) is a good way to tell which small mammals are around. Camera traps can also be handy (it’s how we first found out we had hedgehogs and foxes visiting our garden). Watch a video of visitors to our Mammal tunnel with pawprint tracks and camera trap. Also look out for other things which may attract mammals. For example, mice like to shelter beneath left-over roadworks signs and refugia left out for reptiles.
Nest boxes and tubes: Monitoring artificial nest boxes and tubes is another way of finding mammals. This technique is particularly useful for dormice.
Dead bodies: Looking out for dead bodies along roads or in old-fashioned cattle grids can give you a good idea of what’s around, and can be used to monitor change in prevalence over time. A bit grim, but not as grim as point 12…
Owl pellets: Dissecting owl pellets and identifying the bones is a good way of telling what small mammals are around to be eaten. It’s relatively straight-forward to identify whole skulls, and teeth are useful for distinguishing between small mammal species. But first you have to find your owl pellets, which may be tricky. Local birders may be able to help you with this.
Discarded bottles: [warning – don’t read this if you’re squeamish or eating] back in the days when most milk came in glass bottles, a lot were left lying around in hedges, woods and by roads. These glass bottles are very effective traps for small mammals, as they can squeeze in, but the glass sides and angles mean they can’t get back out. As glass stays around for a long-time, there are still lots of bottles out there, many of which are now full of the remains of small mammals that climbed in and couldn’t get back out. Some bottles may have lots of little skeletons in a foul soup of rotted flesh. If you have the stomach for it, identifying these remains can tell you what’s been around since the bottle was discarded. If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder not to drop litter.
I hope this brief summary of Pat’s excellent talk inspires you to get out and about looking for mammals (or signs or mammals). Do you have any other suggestions for approaches to finding mammals?
What a contrast! Today there’s glorious sunshine and even some warmth in the sun. Last Sunday was grey, miserable and wet, but I managed to steel myself to leave the warmth of the fire to do my monthly Riversearch walkover. While spring is definitely arriving in my garden, the stretch of the River Mole I checked looked a bit bleaker.
The water level had receded a lot since my previous check, which is good. You can now tell which bit’s river and which field, more or less.
The ground was still quite squishy, but I managed to only end up on my backside once, which is quite an achievement. My intrepid stick certainly helped with that. One of the first things I spotted was some nice clear deer prints (fallow deer I think). While they’re not really relevant to Riversearch, I always get a bit excited trying out my animal detective skills.
The main new points of interest were some large woody debris in the river (not surprising after the storms), which were affecting the flow of the river.
The stepping stones were still submerged, but in the woods there were signs of new plant life emerging.
Arriving back at the car, I had the satisfying experience of watching it start chucking down with rain, just after I got into the dry. And the fire was waiting for me back at home. Now I just need to submit my report…
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 15 year old 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