Tag Archives: mammals

Seeing red… (squirrels)

While their American cousins, grey squirrels, are not universally popular in the UK, everyone loves our native red squirrels. Everyone may love them, but many of us have never seen them in the wild. The once widespread animals are now restricted to a few small pockets of England and Wales, with Scotland being their main stronghold in the UK. The only red squirrels I had seen were in captivity at the British Wildlife Centre.

Apart from wanting to see red squirrels because of their unarguable cuteness, I needed to see them in the wild if I am to ever complete my British Animal Challenge. So, on a recent trip to the Isles of Scilly, one of my goals was to see the charismatic creaures.

Red squirrels haven’t always lived on the Isles of Scilly. A small population was introduced to Tresco, the most wooded of the archipelago, in 2012.  It was thought that the island, which is free from grey squirrels, would be a safe place for a new population, far from squirrel pox and the competition of the bigger grey squirrels.
The initial five squirrels, introduced in late 2012, didn’t fare too well, with only two making it through the winter. But in 2013 20 more red squirrels were helicoptered in (having been born in captivity at the British Wildlife Centre), and this batch seem to be thriving. By the end of 2014 there were estimated to be 40-50 red squirrels on the island.

So, a few days into our stay, Dr C and I got the boat to Tresco, and started on a squirrel hunt. A walk down through the woods in the middle of the island provided no sightings, so we decided it was time to ask for some advice. The RSPB had a small team conducting free bird watching walks around the island, so we joined one of these, and asked for hints as to where best to see them. The answer, unsurprisingly, was among the conifers. But there are also feeding stations in the Abbey Gardens, which are a pretty good bet. Just as the walk was finishing by the entrance to the gardens, I spotted a flash of red on the ground, rummaging in the leaf litter then darting off out of sight. I had seen my first red squirrel! Sadly my photos, taken in the shade of the trees and obscured by foliage, left something to be desired. Still, I had seen one, so Dr C and I decided it was time to celebrate with a spot of late lunch.

A red squirrel, hidden among the undergrowth
A red squirrel, hidden among the undergrowth

The Abbey Gardens cafe garden was pretty empty – just us and a couple of other people. And some red squirrel kittens and an adult. Like their relatives back at the British Wildlife Centre (and the house sparrows on Tresco), these squirrels were pretty bold (and pretty, for that matter). They came right up to our table. After having spent a while searching for them elsewhere on the island, it seemed almost too easy to have them walk right up to us. But neither of us were complaining. Lunch lay forgotten on my plate as I followed them round the picnic tables, trying to get a good shot. They’re speedy little things!  Here’s what I managed.

Red squirrel kitten
Who, me?
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten
Red squirrel kitten mid leap
Red squirrel kitten mid leap
Red squirrel kitten mid leap
Red squirrel kitten mid leap

Mum showed up after a little time, her tail much bushier, and her fur a beautiful deep red (the kits were still grey in places, and their tales were not yet the resplendent bottle brushes you expect from a squirrel). She posed for a while in a flower bed before disappearing off, leaving me to finish my lunch.

Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Red squirrel eating
Red squirrel eating
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel

So, another new species seen for the British Animal Challenge. And a very pleasant day out.

British Animal Challenge: September and October update

It’s been a while since I wrote the last British Animal Challenge update – back in the long, hot days of August. Now the clocks are about to change, and there’s been a lot of rain, so spending time outdoors is less attractive.

I had hoped to see some new bats and cetaceans in September. Sadly I wasn’t able to identify any new bats, and didn’t see any dolphins or whales. My second attempt at seeing water shrews was unsuccessful. But I did see a stoat.

As the Scots voted ‘no’ to independence, my list hasn’t reduced, but the Jersey Toad has been a small addition.

Other animals I have seen in September and October:

In November I’m hoping to see some harvest mice, and maybe some other small mammals.

One year in the Wild South

This blog is now a year old, and this is my 100th post. I think that’s a good excuse to have a look back through the last year of posts, and pick out some of the most popular, and some of my personal favourites.

Most popular posts (highest views per month):

The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy
The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy

Lundy Island photo special – it seems I’m not the only person who thinks Lundy is a special place. I’m glad people seem to enjoy my photography.

Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
Pawprints from the mammal tunnel

Whose pawprints are these?  This post shares the results of my mammal tunnel, which allowed me to capture the pawprints of hedgehogs and mice. It also includes some footage of the nocturnal visitors to my garden.

14 05 25_2808_edited-2In which I search for otters and water shrews, and end up finding something even rarer – my account of seeing water voles in Hampshire. They’re lovely creatures…

Inquisitive seal
Inquisitive seal

Snorkelling with seals – an account of snorkelling with seals in the Isles of Scilly. Lots of photos of one of my most memorable wildlife encounters.

Deer print
Fallow(?) deer print

12 ways to find mammals – A short summary of a talk by Professor Pat Morris on how to find mammals. Not for squeamish – some of the methods involved are rather grim, but some helpful tips.

My favourite posts:

BadgerThe badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective: This post explores the case for and against the badger cull, using the principles I apply in my day job working in health research (spoiler alert: the cull is not a good idea).

The mini pond
The mini pond

How to build a mini pond: This post describes how we created a mini pond from a wine barrel. I’ve chosen this one as garden ponds (even tiny ones) are soooo good for wildlife, and ours is continuing to thrive. Hopefully this will inspire you to create one, if you don’t already have a pond.

Harvest mouse on seedheadPhoto special: British wildlife: Some of my favourite photos – hope you enjoy them as well!

Water vole
Water vole

In search of water voles: This describes my first adventure in the British Animal Challenge, and shows some of the signs to look out for with these very rare animals.

House sparrow about to fledgeHouse sparrow chicks have fledged: It’s a pleasure getting to watch nesting birds in the intimacy of their nest boxes, and these were the first chicks to fledge from our camera nest box.

I’ve learnt a lot through both having to research my posts, and from the comments people leave. I’ve really enjoyed working on the blog – thanks to everyone who has read, liked and / or commented on my posts.  I hope you will continue to keep me company on my adventures in the Wild South.

In which I search for otters and water shrews, and find something even rarer

I may not have told you this before, but my favourite British animals are otters. I love them. They’re so good at what they do, and they look like they have fun. But I’ve never seen a Eurasian otter in the wild. So when I found myself in Hampshire with time to spare, I couldn’t resist another go at trying to see some.

Back in March I visited a couple of nature reserves where otters are frequently seen in daylight. They also contain what looks, to my inexpert eyes, like ideal water shrew habitat.  On that occasion I had no luck with either species.

This attempt felt quite different. Rather than a cold March morning, it was a warm, sunny May evening.  The vegetation had grown a lot since my previous visit, and the floods had receded so all the paths were open.

Dr C and I set out on a lap of the first lake, not entirely optimistic as a dog was running loose. Within a few minutes we came to a bridge over a stream crowded with watercress.  Soon Dr C spotted a water vole, which hid before I could join his side of the bridge.  We waited quietly, and it soon re-emerged, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

14 05 25_2796_edited-2

This was only my second sight of a wild water vole, and a much better view. It was only a couple of metres from us, happily eating watercress. I managed to get some photos before it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Water vole Water vole Water vole

Dr C and I continued our lap of the lakes. Sadly there were no otters or water shrews.  But we did see more water voles, including a baby.

Water voles are delightful. They look plump and good natured, manipulating their food in little hands. You can see where Kenneth Grahame got his inspiration for Ratty’s marvellous picnics.

Water vole

We had no luck at the second nature reserve, but left feeling our evening had been well spent, getting such a good view of one of our rarest mammals.

12 ways to find mammals

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Water vole droppings
    Water vole droppings –  a good sign these elusive creatures are around
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
    Deer print
    Fallow(?) deer print

    Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
    Pawprints from the mammal tunnel
  6. 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.
  7. 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).

    Plant nibbled by water vole
    Plant nibbled by water vole
  8. 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.
    More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge
    More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge

     

  9. Nest boxes and tubes: Monitoring artificial nest boxes and tubes is another way of finding mammals. This technique is particularly useful for dormice.
  10. 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…
  11. 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.
  12. 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?