Tag Archives: Wildlife

British Animal Challenge: March Update

Spring is definitely here now, and lots of animals seem to be busy.  I’ve also had quite a busy month too, with both wildlife and music.
The good news is that I’ve managed to see one of the rarer mammals on my British Animal Challenge list: the water vole.
I’ve had less luck with reptiles and amphibians. The reptile walk I was planning on doing has been rescheduled to May.  I have looked for frogs and toads, but only managed to see a dead one. I’m not sure if my lack of success is down to looking in the wrong place (there were lots of big fish in the pond I looked in, which isn’t great for breeding amphibians) or wrong time (day time instead of night) or a combination of both.

Since I’ve seen lots of pictures of mating frogs on Twitter, I’m going to give it another try, hopefully somewhere more suitable.

My other targets for April are Exmoor ponies and, if I’m really lucky, an otter.
I’ll let you know how I get on.

Ugandan wildlife pictures

Vervet monkey
Vervet monkey
Pied kingfisher
Pied kingfisher
Elephants against the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains
Elephants against the backdrop of the Rwenzori mountains
African fish eagle
African fish eagle
Buffalo wallowing in a mud bath
Buffalo wallowing in a mud bath
Lion's stare
Tree climbing lion

Here are some of my favourite pictures from our recent trip to Uganda. Hope you enjoy them! Butterfly Water lily Sleeping tree-climbing lion Alert lion

Lion on termite mound
Lion on termite mound

Beavers back in the wild

Last autumn, while staying on the banks of the River Otter, I was surprised to read a sign at the local mill listing beavers as well as otters and kingfishers as local wildlife highlights. In fact, I didn’t believe it.

I knew there were projects to reintroduce beavers into carefully enclosed areas of Scotland. But it turns out that the first beavers breeding in the wild for centuries in England are actually to be found in Devon. Camera trap footage has now recorded three individuals, including a young beaver, on the River Otter.

No one is quite sure where they’ve come from. It’s illegal to introduce beavers into the wild in England. While Devon Wildlife Trust are carrying out a pilot beaver reintroduction into an enclosed area, that’s at the opposite side of the county, and all their beavers are accounted for.

Personally speaking, I’m quite excited by the thought of beavers roaming free in England once more. But it is quite controversial. Beavers are by nature engineers – they shape the landscape they live in. Their dams can create pools where once there were woods and fields. If I were a landowner, I’d be concerned about the effects beavers may have.

The Mammal Society have recently suggested that beavers should be reintroduced to help reduce flooding. They are also thought to be beneficial to plant diversity, creating wetland areas. Their river engineering also creates good habitats for fish, invertebrates, amphibians, and some mammals and birds.

It’s going to be interesting to see what effect the beavers have on the River Otter, whether they breed and spread, and whether we can live peacefully with a wild creature that can dictate the course of rivers…

Observations on watching wildlife

Our recent trip to Uganda has led me to reflect a bit about the process and experience of wildlife watching. Back home in the UK, my approach usually centres on stealth. I try to be as quiet as possible, wear clothing that will blend in, and stay downwind of my target. In Uganda, for at least some species, a different approach was needed.

ZebraThis came home most strongly on a safari walk in Lake Mburu National Park, where we were looking for antelopes and zebra. I turned up in my safari gear, ready for a couple of hours of hushed observation. Then our guide explained that it was important to keep talking. The animals are suspicious of quiet humans (and leopards), as predators tend to use stealth to creep up at attack them. By talking, and trying not to be stealthy, they knew where we were, and that we were unlikely to pose much of a threat.

Generally, when wildlife watching, my ideal is to see animals oblivious to my presence, behaving ‘naturally’. Being in a car really helped with this – most animals paid very little attention to us when we were out on drives. But one of the most vivid memories of my trip was not like that.

Sleeping tree-climbing lionWe were in the Inshasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, famed for tree climbing lions. Our car was stopped by a tree, and we were watching a male lion who was sleeping in the branches. Eventually he woke, fidgeted a bit, then, hearing a noise in the distance, became alert, using smell, sight and sound. After satisfying himself about whatever it was that was happening in the distance, he turned a long, intense gaze straight at me. It’s quite disconcerting having such a large, powerful predator look you straight in the eyes. We both knew who was top cat.

Alert lion

Lion's stare

Dangers of sentimentality

It’s easy to ascribe human characteristics or behaviours to wild creatures. It helps us to relate to them. Books that anthropomophicise wild animals, like the wonderful Wind in the Willows, can also kindle an interest in nature that may lead on to a life-long love. I put the start of my own interest in nature down, at least in part, to Kenneth Graham and Colin Dann. Patrick Barkham, in Badgerlands, attributes a change in attitudes to badgers in large part to the gruff, unsociable but dependable Mr Badger of Wind in the Willows.

I have to admit getting sentimental about wildlife, particularly creatures I see every day, and give names to. It’s hard to resist talking down to the dormice we find during our box checks. Their cuteness sometimes leads me to forget that they are wild creatures, adapted to the life they lead and part of a whole ecosystem that has evolved together. Anthropomorphicising wild creatures can blind us to a deeper understanding of wildlife, and the forces that drive their behaviour.

Programmes like Springwatch get us rooting for individuals. Will the chicks survive to fledge? Watching the process happen in our own nest box was even more engaging. But it’s easy to forget that everything in nature is connected. A sparrowhawk catching one of ‘your’ garden birds is a mini tragedy, unless you are the sparrowhawk or its chicks.

This may make me sound heartless, but part of what I love in nature is the way it all fits together. I like that nature is red in tooth and claw. I like watching the daily battle for survival between predator and prey. Sometimes I pick a side (often the predator, I’m afraid – I don’t know what that says about me).

But I don’t think this means there’s never a case for intervention. In fact, humans have already intervened so much in the ecosystem (eg. introducing non-native invasive species like mink; destroying habitat) that if we are to protect our native wildlife further intervention is needed. And not all human interventions of the past have been negative – some wild creatures have thrived in carefully managed (rather than neglected) woodlands, or would cease to exist if chalk meadows were allowed to return to scrub.

A purely sentimental love for wildlife also prevents us from communicating effectively with policymakers and others who aren’t interested in nature for nature’s sake. We need to be able to engage with them in a language they understand (economics and hard facts) if we are to adequately defend our wildlife.

Sentimentality is great for getting people to care for our wildlife, but to protect it we need to move beyond that to something based on understanding as well as emotion.

Having said that, even the most hardened naturalist deserves the odd “that’s so cute” moment…

My challenge for 2014

Torpid dormouseIt’s that time of year, when, snugly indoors we make plans for the next 12 months. I’ve decided to set myself a big challenge. I want to see (and try to photograph) every species of British animal in the wild.

FrogNo doubt it will take me more than a year (if I ever achieve it). I’ve already seen quite a few, but there are many on the list that will be quite tough. My chances of seeing a Scottish wildcat are slim, as they’re so rare and secretive. Others will be found in even less accessible places, for example the 18 different species of dolphins and whales that visit the British coast.Hedgehog

So why set myself this challenge? Well, it seems a good way of getting to find out more about the wonderful wildlife of the British Isles. I’ll need to read up about them to learn where and when to see them. It will also push me beyond my comfort zone, making me visit parts of the country I’ve never been (in my mind Bristol is up north). Finally, it involves a list, and I do like ticking things off lists!Badger

As for the mechanics of it, to start with I’m basing my list on animals included in the Collins Complete Guide to British Animals, although no doubt there will be some additions or subtractions along the way. That includes mammals, reptiles and amphibians. I’m leaving birds out of it for now, as that would just be too big a challenge. You can see the list on a new page I’ve created. I’ll let you know how I’m doing as the year goes on, and share some of the things I learn along the way.Inquisitive seal

Wish me luck! Have you set yourself any wildlife-related challenges for the new year?

Barn owl numbers plummet

Battle to save barn owls after freak weather kills thousands

Barn Owl

A few weeks ago I wrote about the plight of barn owls in the UK. This article in the Guardian sums up the situation well.  Apparently it is not just in the UK that barn owls are struggling. The figures are deeply disturbing. Let’s hope that this winter is kinder to barn owls.

The Barn Owl Trust have come up with a list of 10 ways to encourage barn owls, some of which even town dwellers like me can do. Do have a look and think about how you can help these iconic birds.

Getting a hedgehog-friendly fence, and a sleepy discovery

We recently had to get a new fence put up. The old fence was very wildlife friendly. It was covered with ivy, which insects loved, and had convenient gaps for hedgehogs to get through. But it did lack certain qualities you’d look for in a fence (stability and verticality for a start). So anyway, something had to be done.

I’ve talked about the problems of habitat fragmentation in a previous post, and this is just as much an issue for urban hedgehogs as for rural dormice. Our garden isn’t big enough to support a hedgehog (they can have very large territories), but is part of several hedgehog’s rounds. We wanted to make sure the hogs could still enjoy our garden (and we could still enjoy watching them). So when we got a few quotes we were careful to make sure that part of the specification was that it should have a hole in it that hedgehogs could get through.

I felt a bit silly asking for a hedgehog hole, but the fencers took it in their stride (having previously had to do something similar for cats that refused to climb fences). So we now have a neat little hole for Erinaceous and friends.

I was glad we had talked to them about hedgehogs, as when they were clearing our compost heap to put in a new fence post they came across a hibernating hedgehog. Luckily they realised what he was and put him safely in our hedgehog house without waking him. Hopefully the hedgehog won’t be too confused when he wakes up!

Of course, the most wildlife friendly boundary we could have installed would have been a hedge with native fruit and nut trees. Sadly there wasn’t room for that. The new fence, while wonderfully vertical and stable, does look very bare without the ivy. I just need to plot out what to plant to make it a little more wildlife friendly.

Read a post on hog watching

Bird Nerd part 3: feeding habits

As I mentioned in my last bird nerd post, I have quite a lot of data on the birds that visit my garden, and am keen to hear ideas for questions I could look at with it. Someone suggested that it might be worth looking at whether birds with similar feeding habits have similar patterns of visits over the year. So I gave it a go.

First I tried to work out how I could group my avian visitors, and settled on the following categories:

  • those that feed from the seed feeder (house sparrows, great tits, chaffinches)
  • those that feed from the suet pellet feeder (blue tits, coal tits, black caps, long-tailed tits)
  • those that eat seed from the table (wood pigeons, collared doves, feral pigeons)
  • those that eat suet pellets or mealworms from the table (starlings, magpies, jackdaws, crows)
  • those that feed from the ground / other sources (blackbirds, song thrushes, pied wagtails, wren, dunnock, robin)

Of course there is a certain amount of overlap. For example, sparrows and bluetits will feed from both the seed feeder and suet pellet feeder, but do seem to have preferences.

I then created some simple line charts, using the average number of each species seen per observation day for each month of the year, based on data from June 2012 – May 2013. Here are the charts.


suettableseed  tablesuetground

For most of them it looks like the average number seen per observation day is independent of feeding habits. But there may be some relationship for those that feed from the ground or suet pellets or mealworms from the table.

The patterns are unlikely to be driven by changes in the availability of food in my garden, as this is broadly steady throughout the year. However it could be linked to the availability of other food sources beyond my garden. It may be that birds in this category are more influenced by the weather than the other categories, so fluctuations are more in line with each other.

It’s not conclusive evidence, but it’s an interesting hypothesis. When I have time I will use data from the whole 3 years to draw up scatter plots for pairs of birds whose average numbers seem correlated. Can you think of other ways I should test for a relationship? Are there any other questions you think I should look at?