Tag Archives: Hazel dormouse

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!)

 

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Dormice don’t read text books

One of the things I love about monitoring dormice is the way they frequently surprise me. When I first started learning about dormice I was amazed at how much we don’t know about them. Through projects like the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme we’re learning all the time, and it’s great to be able to contribute to this research. Sometimes I think they deliberately set out to prove the textbooks (and me) wrong.

Although October is usually a good month for dormouse monitoring, I wasn’t expecting to see any at the site I helped with this month. No dormice were found in the previous few checks. I was prepared for a pleasant but mouseless scramble round the woods.

I was very happy to be proven wrong. We found six dormice, all of decent weights (although none were very chubby). For some reason, they were all in pairs this time. Dormice aren’t supposed to be social animals, at least when they’re adult and not-breeding. We had a box with a male and a female, and two boxes with two females in. All adults. It’s not like there weren’t plenty of other empty boxes to choose from, if they’d wanted some peace and quiet.

Another thing dormice are supposed to not do is take food into their boxes. Unlike woodmice who cache nuts, dormice tend to eat outside where they find the food. Once again the contrary mice were intent on proving the experts wrong, as we found a nut nibbled by a dormouse in an otherwise empty box. The nibbled nut had since been taken over by a spider.

Apart from the dormice it was a quiet box check. No wood mice, yellow-necked mice or shrews, and of course the birds finished nesting a long time ago.

That may well be my last check for the year, depending on how cold it gets over the next month. The dormice will soon start constructing their hibernation nests, down on the woodland floor (or at least if they’re following the advice of the text books they will). Time for me to start working on something similar?

Highlights of 2013

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, and like everyone else I am reflecting on the last year. The first part of the year seemed quite hard work, as spring didn’t really seem to spring at all. None of our nest boxes got used, and winter seemed to last until about May, when summer began. The summer was splendid, with lots of sunshine (our solar panels made lots of electricity – it’s so nice getting cheques back from an electricity company!), and the regular company of hedgehogs.

Torpid dormouse
Torpid dormouse

In terms of my year with wildlife, two things really stand out. The first is getting more proficient at handling dormice. They can be surprisingly bouncy (when they’re awake), so getting to handle lots is important to build up the skill to handle them safely without letting them escape. Although this year hasn’t been great for the dormice at the sites I monitor most regularly, I have had the opportunity to help out a couple of times at a site that seems to be teeming with them, which has really helped boost my confidence. A particular delight was getting to handle some mega-cute baby dormice! In terms of my training checklist, I just need to do a nut hunt (for signs of dormice) before I can put in for my license. I have a nut allergy, so I’ll have to do the nut hunt carefully!

Seal
Seal

The other stand-out wildlife experience of my year was snorkelling with seals at the Isles of Scilly. I wrote a blog post about that, so won’t repeat too much here, other than to say it’s fantastic getting to interact with large, wild creatures who are just as interested in you as you are in them!

In terms of lowlights from the year, news of the decline in barn owl numbers, and the badger cull pilot have both been deeply saddening.

I started my blog at the beginning of September, so don’t have a whole year’s worth of posts to choose from, but here are the top 3 most read posts so far:

  1. Snorkelling with seals (September 21st)
  2. Profile: dormice (the cutest creatures in existence?) (September 17th)
  3. The badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective (October 23rd)

And here are my 3 personal favourites (excluding the most visited 3):

  1. Whose pawprints are these? (October 12th)
  2. Hog watching (October 6th)
  3. Only connect: children and nature (October 19th)

What are your wildlife highlights and lowlights of the year? And what are your favourite blog posts of the year?