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.
Sad news – the bluetits seem to have abandoned the nest they were building in the camera nest box. We haven’t seen a bluetit in the box for well over a week now.
It’s not the first time we’ve had bluetits build a nest, only to disappear before laying any eggs. I’m clinging onto the hope that they’re just having a break before getting down to laying eggs and incubating. But I think I may be deluding myself.
Maybe they’ve found somewhere more desirable to nest. Or maybe something untoward has happened to one of the pair. It’s a precarious life, being a bluetit, especially with the number of cats who are hanging round my garden these days.
Do you have any other theories to add to my list? Or have you seen examples where bluetits have avoided a built nest for a week or two, and then come back to use it?
Right now the weather’s a bit miserable, but there are definite signs of spring outside. In the garden there are a few little irises in flower, their rich, stained glass blue a shot of colour amongst the browns of late winter. Our bluebells and daffodils have made an appearance, but aren’t yet in flower. And, as I walk to the station each morning, it’s light, and birds are singing.
So, it’s time for me to emerge from hibernation, and start getting ready for spring. Dr C and I spent yesterday in the garden, making preparations. Pruning. Tying in honeysuckle. Feeding and mulching the fruit trees. Planting seeds to germinate indoors, and lily of the valley to provide scent in April.
We’re not the only ones getting ready for spring. The birds seem to be checking out potential nesting places. Yesterday was the end of National Nestbox Week. We did our bit by getting our nest boxes ready: clearing out old nesting material from last year, and putting the camera back in, ready for whoever occupies it this year.
Last year our camera nest box saw a pair of house sparrows successfully rear two broods of chicks. The year before bluetits had tried (unsuccessfully) to raise youngsters in it. I read somewhere that house sparrows tend to return to the same nest site each year, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get to witness some activity. I will keep you posted!
After four years of volunteering at box checks, scrambling over and under fallen trees, battling holly and brambles, and being stung by nettles and bees, I now have my dormouse license! Dormice are a protected species in the UK (as there are so few of them), so to do anything that may disturb them you need a license from Natural England. To get the license you need to prove that you are capable of handling dormice safely, and have considerable experience of doing so under the supervision of license holders.
When I started volunteering at box checks I didn’t really have ambitions to be a license holder – it was just a pleasant way of spending a Saturday morning, and seeing adorable little animals. But I kinda got hooked, and Surrey Dormouse Group supported to pursue my interest further. At the time they were running an excellent training scheme, having clear requirements for what I needed to have experience of before putting in for my license. This included courses of dormice ecology, surveying and handling. I needed to know how to do a nut hunt, maintain nest boxes (a bit of DIY), set up a new site, record data, use a map to find boxes, give directions to volunteers, deal with other box occupants (like woodmice, birds, bees and shrews), and of course handle dormice at all stages of development.
It’s taken me a while to build up the necessary experience (mainly because the sites I usually volunteer at don’t have many dormice). As part of my training I’ve had the privilege of learning from many experienced license holders, as well as other volunteers with wide-ranging knowledge of nature.
I’ve been on checks where it’s so cold my fingers have got too numb to undo the wire catches to the boxes, and others in the steaming heat of summer. I’ve had a few war wounds (bee stings, nettle stings, and been bitten by a dormouse – quite a rare occurance) and tripped over once or twice. I’ve seen many bluetit nests with chicks, and dormice from tiny pinkies to obese adults ready for hibernation. I’ve also witnessed a few tragedies – the dormouse who shed its tail (like lizards they can do that if they’re stressed), and nests of dead chicks or dormice. But overall the experience has been a joy – even if we don’t find any dormice on a check, it’s a pleasant way of spending the morning. And having a torpid dormouse snuggle up to your thumb is just adorable…
So, now I’ve got my license, what does that mean? Sadly it doesn’t allow me to hibernate all winter (my employer would have something to say about that…). It does mean I can lead box checks. I’m hoping to get a site of my own to run next year, but if not I will help out when other site leaders in Surrey Dormouse Group can’t do a monthly check. It’s a big responsibility, looking after the wellbeing of those lovely little mice, but I think it will be rewarding.
Very exciting news – we have some new arrivals! While Dr C and I were away last week the house sparrow chicks hatched.
I’m not entirely sure how many chicks there are. The nest has an overhanging bit which means the camera can’t see all the way in. We’ve seen two chicks.
I’m also not sure how old the chicks are. I had set the laptop up to monitor the nest in our absence, but despite my best efforts it seems to have shut itself down within hours of my departure.
The mother sparrow seems to be spending quite a lot of time keeping the chicks warm. According to the RSPB, sparrows brood their chicks for 6-8 days. The chicks fledge after 14-16 days, so that could be anytime next week. It will be interesting to follow their progress.
Last week was National Nest Box Week. This annual event aims to encourage people to put up nest boxes for birds, and comes in mid-February, as birds in the UK start to think about where to nest. Nest boxes are important in towns as, while there may be plenty of food for birds, there are few natural tree holes for them to nest in. Now, there’s not much room in my garden for more nest boxes (we already have 6). Not wanting to miss out, I decided to mark the week (and the hints of spring we’ve had in the last week) by installing the camera into the nest box at the front of our house.
This is fourth year that we’ve had a bird’s eye view of what goes on inside that nestbox. So far we’ve not had great luck. The first year a pair of bluetits started to build a nest, but didn’t complete it. The year after, 11 eggs hatched, but with only one parent feeding the chicks, none of them made it to fledging (it was also a very wet spring that year). Last year another pair of bluetits started building a nest, but didn’t complete it. It would be nice this year if we could see some chicks make it as far as fledging, particularly since I think the weather over the last few years has not been kind to our local bluetits.
Watching from my study on Friday there was a pair of bluetits spending quite a bit of time in our back garden, so hopefully they’ll decide the nest box at the front is their ideal home.
Early last year we also installed a terrace of sparrow boxes, and a robin box. These weren’t used, but who knows, maybe this year they’ll be occupied.
As another way of marking National Nest Box Week I’ve signed up to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Box Challenge. This involves monitoring the nest boxes in my garden, and sending data back to the Trust. So I’ll be keeping a close eye on what’s going on in our nest boxes. I’ll let you know if there’s any news!
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.
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!
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!
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