Tag Archives: water shrew

British Animal Challenge 2015 round-up

Happy new year everyone! Before we plunge into whatever the new year has in store for us, I find it helpful to reflect on the year that’s just gone. It’s been a tough but interesting year for me work-wise, but on a personal level I think there have been more ups than downs. Some of the most memorable moments have been wildlife related – the hedgehog walking past our toes when we sat in the garden at dusk; snorkelling with seals; finding dormice for the first time at my dormouse monitoring site; winning the Surrey Wildlife Garden awards, and seeing some species in the wild for the first time.

Back at the beginning of 2014 I set myself the challenge of seeing, in the wild, every species of British animal. This includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles but not invertebrates or birds. There are approximately 107 species on the list. By the end of 2014 I had seen 45 of them (seeing 11 for the first time in 2014).

2015 was a mixed year for my British Animal Challenge. I targeted reptiles, amphibians and bats in the first half of the year, but didn’t make any progress on those. The second half of the year was much more successful. I saw red squirrels and lesser white-toothed shrews during my trip to the Isles of Scilly. And, after lots of attempts and many hours, I finally managed to see a water shrew and some harvest mice.

This year I’ve only ticked off five new species:

Adult red squirrel
Adult red squirrel

 

This takes my total up to 50 – not quite halfway there. I’m doing well with some classes:

  • 5/7 British insectivores
  • 10/14 rodents

Others I’m still a long way off, particularly bats, amphibians and cetaceans.

I’m not sure what my focus will be for next year, as I haven’t worked out where I can go on holiday. But I live in a good place for reptiles and bats, so that’s probably a good start. And I’d love to see an otter in the wild…

Whatever’s in store for the year ahead, I hope we all have a wild and wonderful 2016.

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I finally see a water shrew

Those of you who have been following my blog for the last 18 months will know that I have not had any success at seeing water shrews, despite numerous attempts.

I had read that the best place to see water shrews was in clean streams and watercress beds (not that they eat watercress, but the insects they so eat need nice clean water, so are often found in watercress beds). So my first attempt was in Hampshire, where they grow lots of watercress. I ended up seeing water voles instead (they’re even rarer, and rather partial to a bit of watercress). Despite returning several times, I never saw a water shrew there (maybe the otters, which I also didn’t see, have eaten all the water shrews).

When I heard that at least one water shrew lived on one of the ponds at Surrey Wildlife Trust’s education centre, I got permission to spend some time standing silent and still by the pond for a few hours. It was a rather meditative experience, but still no sign of the shrew. Undeterred, I tried again a different day. This time I think I got a bit closer, as I heard a squeak that may have been a water shrew, but didn’t get a glimpse.

That approach was also not working very well, so I put my quest for water shrews aside for a while. Imagine my feelings when the reports from the first couple of weeks of harvest mouse trapping featured several water shrews, yet I was unable to attend due to work.

When I finally got out to help with the harvest mouse trapping it was at a couple of sites where no water shrews (or harvest mice) had been found the week of the survey, and my session did nothing to change that record.

Finally, on the third harvest mouse site I helped out with, my luck changed. The first animal we found was a harvest mouse, and not long after I got to see my first water shrew.

A water shrew who's reluctant to come out of its temporary nest in a longworth trap
A water shrew who’s reluctant to come out of its temporary nest in a longworth trap
Water shrew scurrying off after being weighed
Water shrew scurrying off after being weighed

Water shrews are the biggest of the British shrew species, and are usually darker than other shrews, with a silvery underside. I had my hopes raised then dashed a few times at other sites when we happened to catch a common shrew that was darker than normal. But you can really make sure by looking for a fringe of bristles on the back legs and under the base of the tail.

Like all shrews, water shrews are insectivores, and have noses like Wombles. They live life at quite a pace, having a fast metabolism. They’re probably the most striking British shrew, with their dark back and light underside. I didn’t manage to get a good photo, as I didn’t want to disturb the animal more than necessary. You can just see a dark shape disappearing into the foliage.

So, I finally ticked water shrews off my British Animal Challenge list. I wonder what species I will see next…

There are some things you can’t plan…

I’m a planner. I like making detailed plans, based on thorough research. This works for seeing some animals: working out where to go and when, and what to do when you’re there. Others you can’t really plan for –  you need to be lucky.

So far in my British Animal Challenge I have focused on animals I can more or less plan to see. I have done my research, and gone to likely places, (as with water voles) or, even better, joined in surveys to find them (as with newts). Of course, even going to places you know the animal frequents doesn’t guarantee you a sighting (see my water shrew and otter attempts).

But there’s a whole host of creatures who can’t really be pinned down like that. Take, for example, the mole. I can’t plan an expedition to see a mole. It’s going to take luck for me to ever see one. I can look out for molehills, and spend time in likely habitat at the most likely time of year (when youngsters are dispersing), but ultimately it will be down to luck. (I was very jealous when I read FoDrambler’s post about seeing a mole, thanks to a dog – maybe I should get one. Fat Cat would never forgive me!)

When I was looking through my British Animal Challenge list, working out how to see every type of British animal, there were some where my conclusion was I’d just have to spend enough time in the right sort of habitat to eventually see one.

Stoats were like this. They are not particularly rare, and quite widespread, but going out deliberately to see one may be tricky. So I was delighted to get a glimpse of one as it dashed across the road as we drove in Dorset. Stoats, like otters, badgers and weasels, are members of the mustelid family. They have long, thin bodies, and move with the flowing gait that seems unique to mustelids.

My glimpse of stoat reminded me of the value of just spending time in wild places, even if I’m not on a particular mission to see something. You never know what will cross your path.

The Shrew Hunter: part 2

As my dormousing took me back to the site where I had unsuccessfully tried to see a water shrew, it was a good opportunity to try again.

I was heartened to learn that in the week since my previous visit, the water shrew had been heard by the pond by several people.

Being more organised this time, I had lunch before starting my vigil. I also came prepared with a hat to keep the sun off, so that was another improvement over last time.

I settled myself in the same spot, and kept watch. There seemed to be fewer buzzards around, which was a good sign for my chances of seeing a small mammal. There were, however, several butterfly surveyors. It was nice to have a chat with them, and learn a bit about the butterflies found in the wood. It also made quite a pleasant change to talk to people who didn’t seem to think what I was doing (standing by a pond for hours) was very eccentric. I think there must be some kind of special bond between wildlife enthusiasts, even if we are interested in different sorts of wildlife.

My old tormentor, the dragonfly, had another go at driving me crazy, but I wasn’t falling for it this time.

Sadly I still didn’t get sight of a water shrew, although I think I may have heard it. I have struggled to find a recording of water shrew noises online, and I am rubbish at interpreting the descriptions of sounds that books give, so I can’t be sure. But it definitely wasn’t a frog!

So, the quest to see a water shrew continues. I may focus on another species for a while…

British Animal Challenge: August update

I’ve been making the most of the summer this month, spending lots of time watching wildlife. I have been focusing on trying to see some new bat species, and a water shrew.

I have had mixed success with bats. A bat walk led to no new species, while an unaccompanied expedition in Devon found two new species, only one of which I could identify (soprano pipistrelle). A more recent bat walk was more successful, with three new species – more on that next week.

As for water shrews, I have spent quite a bit of time looking for them at a site I know they inhabit, but no luck so far. I think I may have heard one, but I haven’t seen one.

Apart from new species, I have also seen:

  • A hare
  • Common pipistrelles
  • Woodmice
  • A pygmy shrew
  • Rabbits
  • Hedgehog
  • Frog
  • Dormice

As for next month, I’m not going to have so much time for wildlife watching, as a work trip is taking me out of the country. But I do have a trip to the West Country planned, where I will try my luck with more bats and cetaceans.

The shrew hunter: part 1

Fearless as ever, I spent an afternoon last week searching for one of Britain’s few venomous animals. No, it wasn’t the adder I was after – it was that other beast that strikes fear into the heart of many: the water shrew.

Water shrews are quite remarkable animals. They are the only British insectivore that willingly spends its life in or by water. Like other shrews they have a fast metabolism, so need to eat pretty much constantly. In the water (I’m told) they look like quicksilver.

As part of my British Animal Challenge I’ve visited a few places that are ideal habitat for water shrews (they like similar unpolluted water to water voles). But I hadn’t yet seen one. They seem to like water with lots of vegetation, making them difficult to spot. In fact, I know people who have spent years working on sites that are home to water shrews, but have never seen one.

During my newt surveying with Surrey Wildlife Trust I learnt that water shrews live by a smallish pond on one of their reserves that isn’t open to the public. They kindly agreed to let me spend some time watching for water shrews, so I booked some flexi-leave.

A last minute work phone call meant I was running late, so I skipped lunch and headed straight to the reserve. It was a warm afternoon, alternating between baking sunshine and threatening clouds. One of the Wildlife Trust staff showed me where the shrews had been seen, so I set up my camera to get a good view, and started to watch.

The pond was crystal clear, and filled with insects. Waterboatmen and shiny round bugs glided near the surface. Dozens of damselflies and dragonflies darted about above the water, occasionally resting on a leaf to lay eggs, or fighting with a sound like angry paper planes.

The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted
The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted at

Have you ever spent quality time just watching a pond? It’s surprisingly engrossing. There was always something going on. An hour passed quickly, then the next half hour. Then I started to notice my missed meal.

For a while a particularly fine dragonfly, the size of a light aircraft, engrossed my attention. It would dart and hover tantalisingly in front of my lens, but never long enough for me to get it in frame and focus. After a while of being tormented like that, it became my dearest wish not just to see a water shrew, but to witness one eat that particular dragonfly. I got one half decent shot (below) – any idea what sort he is?

hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

After three hours of watching, and no sign of a water shrew, the sky clouded over and I decided to call it a day.  As I drove away the rain started, leaving me that particularly smug feeling of just beating the weather.

Luckily I get a chance to try again this week.

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.

British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.

British Animal Challenge: Looking for otters

When Dr C Senior showed me a photo of an otter, taken in broad daylight a few miles from his house, I couldn’t resist a visit. From what I’ve read about otters, if you want to see them in daylight your best bet is to head to a Scottish island. But Hampshire is a lot more convenient for me, and apparently a family of otters is regularly seen in a nature reserve next to the noisy A303.

So, I booked a day off work, and headed to the in-laws’. Dr C Senior kindly guided me to the reserve and showed me around, pointing out the fishing pier where otters are regularly seen playing.

It was a cold but dry March morning, and there were few other people around, although apparently the otters aren’t that bothered by the presence of dogs and walkers.

Dr C Senior stuck it out for quite a while, before the lure of lunch became too pressing. I stayed on, buoyed by the possibility of seeing my favourite British animal in the wild for the first time. I also had hopes of seeing a water shrew or some amphibians, or even catch a second glimpse of a water vole. But, aside from a hurrying vole (bank or field, I am not sure which) and a few birds, animals were staying hidden that morning.

A helpful fisherman suggested that I try another nearby nature reserve, that otters and water voles frequent. So I took his advice.

This reserve looked much more promising, being quieter and wilder looking. I found some watercress beds in my initial lap of the reserve, so I was hopeful of seeing a water shrew. I also managed to spot some possible otter and water vole signs.

But luck was not on my side that day. After two hours of patient waiting, seeing nothing more exciting than a squirrel and some blackbirds I was chilled to the bone, and decided to call it a day.

It’s not very surprising that I didn’t see an otter. They have large territories, and you can’t predict which bit of their territory they’ll use on a given day.

I was a bit disappointed not to see water shrews. It looked like ideal habitat for them, based on my limited knowledge.

But it wasn’t an unpleasant way of spending the day. It made a change from the office, and all that we walking was good for me.

So you’ll have to make do with a picture of the only otter I did see that day.

Mr Otter