Everyone’s a sucker for a noctule. Big, brassy, sassy bats with an attitude. They’re about half a guinea pig in size (or, say, two large Syrian hamsters – ok bear with me, I’m trying here…) they are one of our larges UK Bats. I’ll admit that there’s something rather special about noctules – such a substantial bat is a novelty when the largest bat we see frequently in bat boxes is a Brown Long Eared bat and more often than not, our tiny Pipistrelles. However, size isn’t everything. There is something incredibly fascinating about Leisler’s Bats (aka Lesser Noctules). A calmer, generally more diminutive version of their larger namesake, there is something very inquisitive about their expression that I’m just in love with. (I blogged about the differences between the species a few months ago) I also hinted at surveys to come, so here we are – the beginning of a new bat box scheme aimed at recording Leisler’s bats at an almost entirely un-surveyed woodland.
I rallied the BrumBats on Saturday to put up 25 bat boxes of different designs, many of which were rescued and repaired from other sites where they had been subject to vandalism. Six of the boxes were generously donated by local resident and wildlife enthusiast Sammy Benbow who came along to help us put them up. (Sammy is now one of the list of people that I’ve known on the internet for ages and have now actually met in real life! I love it when that happens!)
It is also going to give us an indication of whether bats simply take a long time to colonise boxes, or if it is because they are new boxes, as we’ve in several places hung them up in pairs: one old/refurbished box that has been outdoors for years & one brand new box. If the bats simply prefer the ‘new house smell’ to have dissipated before they move in, then they’re likely to go for the older boxes first. If they don’t much care either way, then we can expect them to go for both ages of box equally. (Of course, there is not enough of a sample size to reach any kind of quantifiable conclusion, but it is just a matter of curiosity on my part.)
So I’d like to say a huge thanks to Sammy, Jenny, Katie, David, Chris, Mike and Scott for helping on the day, braving the heights, the cold, the mud, the damp and the manual labour, all for the love of bats…
I had a bucket list day on halloween. I was over in the US for a family wedding in Florida, and one of the big aims of the trip was for my brother Gaz and I to take my dad away for a few days. My incredible sister in law evidently went into full research mode, and arranged for a trip to Austin. We took the 2 hour flight from Orlando (It was the first flight I’d taken with my dad since I was about 12 – we both hate flying, so spent the flight calming each other down!) and checked into our hotel.
What has the city of Austin got to do with halloween? Well, for bat workers, Austin, Texas is a bit of a bat Mecca, as it is home to a colony of 1.5 million Mexican Free-tailed bats which spend their days roosting under the Congress Avenue bridge, emerging and swarming each summer night.
Once we had checked into the hotel, we took a walk down to the bridge as a bit of a recce for bat-watching later that night. I wasn’t expecting to see anything, but it was a lovely walk along the Colorado River. Within a few minutes I noticed a sign with a bat silhouette, and as I approached the bridge I could hear a high-pitched chattering noise coming from the underside of the bridge!
I was, needless to say, extremely excited – and I did a quick video in which (if you turn the volume up) you can hear the sound of the bats!
I did a bit of searching for guano, but the gaps above the path itself had, understandably, been filled up, I assume in an effort to stop walkers and cyclists on the path from getting guano in their hair! Eventually I found a single dropping on the river bank. I wonder if there is a significant nutrient increase in the water downstream of the bridge? Having seen how much a single bat deposits, 1.5 million is a lot of fertiliser!
After an amazing afternoon and a bit of trick-or-treating with my neice (AKA Doc McStuffins) we headed back to the bridge for sunset to watch the bat emergence.
Because we were there in October, bat emergence took place after it was fully dark, whereas in the early summer you get to see the bats swarming against a light sky. But there was a good view under the bridge of some bats flitting about prior to emergence swarming:
I did my very best to get some photos and videos that show you just how incredible the sight was. It was without a doubt the most impressive natural phenomenon I’ve seen in my life.
The Mexican Free-tailed Bat (AKA Brazilian Free-tailed Bat –Tadarida brasiliensis) is an insectivorous species, a bit bigger than some of our Myotis bats here in the UK – MFTs weigh in at around 12 grams (1 MFT = two fat pipistrelles). Below are some pics of the one that I got to meet a few years ago at the Florida Bat Conservancy. You can see where the ‘free-tailed’ part comes from, as unlike our UK species, the tail membrane (patagium) doesn’t join onto the bat’s tail at its tip, but instead the tail itself extends past the edge of the membrane. The are famous for the enormous size of their roosts.
The cool thing is that these bats don’t hibernate like all of our UK species – they migrate to Mexico instead! By the middle of November the bats are gone from the bridge, not to return until spring. Alas, I cannot migrate to Mexico, but must instead endure the British winter, hopefully with some wintery wildlife adventures coming your way shortly…
It’s been a while since I had a guest blogger on here, so I’d like to introduce you to David Nixon, who has been working with me on our bat box scheme. He’s an ecologist and the director of Fauna Forest Ecology in Stoke–on-Trent. David is licensed to work with not only bats and great crested newts, but also smooth snakes, sand lizards and barn owls. He runs bat box schemes and is a member of the Derbyshire Bat Group (follow them on twitter – they’re awesome) and also, like me, the super-active Herefordshire Mammal Group. As you’ll also see from the photos below, he’s also a fantastic wildlife photographer, and he travels the globe photographing wildlife, particularly venomous snakes. I’m not even kidding – get over to his flickr page and feast your eyes….
He also keeps venomous snakes and SPIDERS (Which is why you’ll never catch me round his house, like EVER.) and runs a small education business taking snakes, frogs, inverts and more to visit schools, cubs, beavers and scouts groups. I’m literally exhausted just thinking about it. Somehow David’s also fit in the time to write a blog post for me with some top tips on Tawny Owl spotting, so without further ado…
Owls That for an Idea?
First of all, I would like to thank Morgan for allowing me to collaborate and write for her blog. I have written a copious amount of blogs before and failed due to time constraints. I hope to write more blogs for the Reremouse – it’s a great blog that I thoroughly enjoy reading.
The dark months: migrating birds have made their way due south to warmer climates, various other cool species such as bats, dormice, reptiles and amphibians are now in hibernation. What is there to do on these dreary, dark evenings, as we wait in anticipation for an influx of waxwings, brambling and other winter visitors? Ask any naturalist, ecologist or wildlife enthusiast what they think of owls – yep, we all love owls!
Autumnal Tawny Owl
Tawny Owl Close Up
The tawny owl (Strix aluco) is Britain’s commonest owl – an owl found distributed across much of the UK, with the exception of Ireland. As the summer slips away, young tawny owl chicks face eviction from their parents – usually their father! It is during this time (August/September) when they are most vocal. Jemima Parry-Jones refers to them as “all-night ravers”. Being highly territorial, these somewhat cute, dumpy-looking birds will fight vigorously for territory and become easy to locate.
Tawny Chick 1
Tawny Chick 2
Now is the time to head out and find your local tawny patch. Trust me, you might not feel like leaving the comfort of your home, but once you locate a territory and become familiar with individual bids, a new passion will be ignited. So when should you leave your cosy, warm abode, in search our rufous woodland friends? Autumn, winter and summer months can be great!
Autumn months see males and females continuously calling in a bid to defend and establish territories, therefore locating them by their call is fairly easy.
Winter is a great time to spot tawny owls – they have settled and are focused on feeding. Courtship sometimes takes place mid-winter although it’s usually a late-winter, early spring activity. By late November, much of the foliage has fallen from the trees, which in turn, makes them easy to spot.
Spring for me, is a difficult time to locate tawny owls. You might get a fleeting glimpse of the male as he tries desperately to find prey for both himself and the nesting female.
Summer is the time to watch young tawny owl chicks. Walk into ALMOST any patch of deciduous woodland during the summer months and you’re likely to hear the desperate screech of young tawny chicks. Sit long enough and you will see the parents feed their young.
OK, it’s November I’m now inspired to find my first tawny owl – what’s the first thing that I need to do?
Have a think: do you know of a road, ideally a country lane that runs through dense, deciduous woodland… the sort of woodland where the trees join together above the road, forming a canopy? If you do, choose a blustery, rainy evening – the sort of night when you would least fancy venturing out on a quest to discover any form of wildlife. Trust me, these are the best nights!!!! You can leave at anytime after dusk, however, you stand a better chance of success around 21:30-01:00, because the level of traffic is much less and the owls have (hopefully) a full stomach and are less likely to scarper.
Why a blustery/rainy night?
Owls (particularly tawny owls) don’t like to fly with wet feathers. They also don’t like to fly or hunt in windy conditions. By driving slowly (around 15mph) along country lanes with high-beams illuminated, I am almost certain you will locate a tawny owl seeking shelter. Once you have seen one, you will quickly realise how easy they are to spot (an probably how many you have driven past without noticing). Don’t always look up high amongst the canopy – 70% of the owls at the 12 territories that I monitor, sit on branches between 6-12ft off the ground. Keep a look out for their plump outline and pale chest, pushed tight against oak trees covered in ivy. They’re not always easy to spot, but once you have trained your eyes, they become easy. Perched tawny owls make for a superb photo too! Other alternatives to look out for are the steps, fixed to the side of telegraph poles; tawny owls don’t hunt on the wing like many of our other British owl species – they ground-scan for prey and drop like a stone, using their wings as a parachute to break the fall. Fence posts, low branches and telegraph poles make the prefect hunting perch!
What you are looking for in country lanes!
Soggy, wet Tawny Owl seeking shelter
They love to hunt from telegraph poles!
Once you spot your owl, draw the car up in front of the bird. If you see the owl and don’t spot it until you have driven past, don’t reverse. Continue driving and turn around (reversing the car = owl flies off). Under such conditions, they rarely fly off, providing you park facing the bird. I have climbed out of the car and stood 6ft in front them, admired, taken a photo and driven on without them taking off. The headlights and a torch provide sufficient lighting to grab a couple of photos – you don’t need a huge birding lens for this sort of photography either!
In the absence of a car, a similar method works well on foot. Walking around your local patch of woodland with a torch in the rain is perhaps less appealing than driving in a warm car. You will however find one if you search hard enough and again, 9 times out of 10, they will sit and not fly off. Country lanes tend to be slightly more productive because small mammals use the edge of dry-stone walls and hedgerows as a corridor, which in turn works well for our friends with talons!
You can read more about David HERE, see more of David’s photography HERE, and his forthcoming website HERE.
Remember in March I went on a quest to find Burrowing Owls in Florida and majorly dipped out – albeit not miserably? As I was in Florida again for 2 weeks this month, I was determined to try again, so I went with my brother and my sister in law to Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City, where (rumour has it) the birds are visible from the car park! (In March I’d gone to Bluefield Ranch Preserve and found a burrow, but no owls were around – probably as it was insufferably hot!) We drove into Brian Piccolo, paid our entrance fee (There is a $1.50 entry fee per person on weekends and holidays.) and before we even parked the car, we could see several areas where yellow tape had been set up marking off exclusion areas around the birds’ nests.
We’d been out of the car for less than 30 seconds when Gaz saw an owl’s head poking above the grass. The owl sat peacefully letting me take photos for around 20 minutes, entirely unperturbed by our presence!
Burrowing Owls are an enigmatic species, and are doing quite badly in some areas due to habitat loss. Interestingly, lots of aspects of Burrowing Owl lifestyle are different for the resident Florida population: They don’t migrate like their counterparts in the western states; they can have two (albeit smaller) broods of young in a year; they eat amphibians and reptiles, including snakes; they dig their own burrows (unlike other populations which use existing burrows excavated by other animals).
I can’t even tell you how pleased I was to tick off another bird on my Florida list, and also to get a bit of closure for my inner twitcher! Like last time, I had a few species in my sights for this trip – the second bird was one that I dipped out on – I went to try to find hummingbirds at Leu gardens in Orlando (stay tuned for upcoming blog post on the butterflies I saw while I was there!) but in spite of finding the right flowers/bushes, no hummingbirds! Can’t complain though, as look at the extra bonus birding awesomeness I saw! I took these photos of sandhill cranes from the passenger seat of the car!
Anyway, I’m off to Charlene’s place with Leigh to record our next Darwin’s Dolls podcast, which will have more details on this and other wildlife I saw on my trip!
Remember my mate Ben from Brewood Ringers who put out the Owl Baskets we made last year? He asked me the other day if I knew anyone with recording equipment as he wanted to record a pied wagtail roost to use as an audio lure when bird ringing. I immediately suggested using the same kit we use for batlas surveys – the Zoom H2N recorder. A couple of cocktails later and Ben, Leigh and I had plans to camp out for a couple of hours at a Pied Wagtail roost in Brownhills shortly before sunset.
We set up the recorder (with directional recording mode to minimise the quite frankly ridiculous amounts of traffic noise) under the roosting tree, hit record and then retired to the opposite side of the road to enjoy the show.
Within less than half an hour, the birds were starting to congregate on the roof of a nearby building, and incrementally, they made their way over to the tree until an estimated 150+ birds were roosting and calling in the tree!
The show lasted for about an hour, at the end of which the birds simply quietened down to sleep for the night. If you’d walked underneath the tree after that point, there would have been no way you would have known that so many birds were roosting right above your head.
Pied Wagtail roosts are one of autumn’s spectacles (up there along with murmurations of starlings) that you can see around the country at the moment. Okay people might think you’re a wee bit odd if, like us, you set up with camping chairs and hot chocolate outside a depot, but life is weird, and you eventually learn not to care about such things…
Anyway, I managed to clean up the sound to reduce the background traffic noise, and it now sounds like this:
Hopefully the Brewood Ringers will be using the recordings soon, and I’ll get to go along to photograph the results! I’ll let you know how I get on!
I’m so excited, because it’s trailcam season again! After a mental newt season followed by a hectic bat season, the early sunsets mean that not only can I sleep more than 4 hours a night, but my attention can turn to one of our most enigmatic animals – badgers. I’ve only had the trailcams out for a week so far, but already have captured some awesome footage, and have plans to find out just where they’re going and what they’re doing in the long autumn and winter nights. However, as for this week’s footage, in spite of some technical hitches (One camera failed completely and the other wouldn’t format – but I’m hoping that tech support can fix it.) we had some great footage and made some interesting notes…
The video above shows some cool behaviour – basically tussling about, a bit of biting here and there. (You can see this on and off all the way through, but it doesn’t seem to be outright aggression as they soon revert to mutual grooming.) Fighting is more often between females, and can be done for social dominance reasons, territorial disputes or associated with mating. Also keep an eye out in the video above for what the books call ‘bum-pressing’ – basically anointing each other with their scent glands – they lift their tail and rub their bums on each other in order to ensure that all of the members of the sett share their particular cocktail of scents! (Don’t try this at home!)
Another great bit of behaviour we caught was the changing of bedding. Usually done by less dominant females and dominant males, the badgers pull out old bedding from the sett (which you can see in the video below – watch for bums wiggling backwards out of the sett entrance!) and then collection of bedding to bring back to the sett. The badgers do this by dragging a bundle of bedding in their front legs as they walk backwards to the sett entrance. It’s a really cool thing to have caught on camera.
The interesting thing is that none of the aggressive behaviour took place on nights where bedding was being changed. They seem to be in full ‘cooperation mode’ when work needs doing. You can also see grooming and scratching behaviour in the video below. They do a lot of self-grooming, but also do it for each other too.
We have recorded four badgers at any one time on camera, but we know that there is a 5th badger, not seen interacting with the others, but that also uses the sett. He’s easy to spot because he only has one eye:
Something kind of awesome happened last week – My friend showed me this clipping from the Isle of Wight County Press about Nathusius’ pipistrelles on the island. ‘What’s so spectacular about that?’, you might ask… If you read the article, you’ll get to the last paragraph and see a species list – including scientific names! (For a quick guide to scientific names and how they work, check out my 2013 blog post Spectacular Vernacular.)
For a general circulation newspaper, this is pretty much unheard of, as most newspapers pitch their reading level pretty low. I immediately tweeted my kudos to them (omitting the fact that the binomials should have been in italics, as I didn’t want to be too picky! – Points for trying!). I’m not sure if they were super keen, or they generally pitch their text at a higher level than average, or perhaps they were needing to fill that extra inch of column – who knows!
First of all, just because you can read at a certain level, and you enjoy reading, you don’t necessarily want to recreationally read at the level of which you are capable. This may explain the huge trend in the popularity of teen / young adult fiction read by adults: Hunger Games / Twilight / Harry Potter anyone?
(Should point out here that when I left the pub to join the queue for the midnight opening of Waterstones for the Half Blood Prince, surrounded by 10-year-olds in costume, I made sure to request the adult cover, because I’m like, totally grown up and stuff…)
“People like to read recreationally two grades below their actual reading skill.”
While wikipedia postulates that:
“The average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade* level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.”
But to really quantify the reading level of any piece of text, be it an online article, an essay, or even the book you’re writing, you can use a SMOG Index calculator (I’m not even kidding – it stands for Simplified Measure Of Gobbledygook). This genius bit of formula takes the complexity of your text and quantifies it, giving it a score which equates to reading levels!
Fancy SMOG Indexing some of your own (or someone else’s) writing? Try this tool here! You simply paste a section of text into the box and click ‘calculate’.
A SMOG score of 9-10 is equivalent to Entry Level 3 (age 9 to 11); a SMOG of 11-12 is Level 1 (GCSE grades of D-G) and 14-15 is Level 2 (GCSE grades A-C).
For example, the blog post I referred to in the first paragraph – Spectacular Vernacular has a smog score of 16.6 – meaning that it is pitched at around A-Level reading level. I’m pretty happy with that. I try to pitch my blogs at a minimum of teenage reading level, without too much jargon (unless the whole point is explaining the jargon!).
I was always taught that in scientific or academic writing, you should assume two things:
Your audience is intelligent
Your audience knows nothing about the subject
So you give them the credit of intelligence, and assume that they will understand once you have explained it, but you take nothing for granted and make no assumptions about prior knowledge. I’ll certainly be using the SMOG tool for future writing (fiction and non-fiction), and would love to know what you think about writing, reading and communicating science to the public.
So I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from blogging and social media, due to personal reasons, but I have lots to share with you and catch up on – not least, the significant finds as part of the BrumBats Batlas project and our bat box scheme. I’m going to blog this weekend about our second (and most exciting) discovery, but for now I want to talk about big bats.
There are three closely-related species of bat which are generally lumped together as being our ‘big bats’ in the UK: serotine (which I’ll focus on another time), noctule and Leisler’s bat. The latter two species are pictured below, and are superficially similar. They are both quite chunky bats, with the tragus (the flap of skin inside the ear) shaped like a mushroom, but the noctule is larger (weighing in at up to 40g – twice the weight of a Leisler’s) with paler (often gingery) fur compared to the dark brown fur of Leisler’s bats. Leisler’s also have a thick ‘mane’ of ruffled fur around their shoulders and head.
As you can see, Leisler’s bats are fairly scarce. Or are they?
You see, in the 13 years since the atlas was produced, BrumBats have been actively recording bats across the county, and (especially since the 2014 launch of our Batlas Project) we have recorded noctule in pretty much every tetrad we’ve surveyed.
(BTW, the maps don’t look like this anymore. The thing is with distribution maps is that they are a map of the RECORDS of a species, not of the species itself, and often are a reflection of recorder effort. If a person is really into recording bats, they are likely to have concentrated their efforts in ‘likely’ or ‘favourite’ spots. This is where systematic surveys like the Batlas come in – they dilute the skew on the data provided by biased recorder effort.)
So noctules are apparently all over the county, but Leisler’s bats are a different matter. In 2015 we had a Leisler’s bat come into care from Wightwick Manor National Trust. The bat (which subsequently died of his injuries) was found at the bottom of their chimney. The Batlas Tetrad survey of that area the following year recorded Leisler’s bats foraging over a nearby woodland. So they are definitely in at least the outskirts of Wolverhampton.
Then, last year the awesome folks from the Herefordshire Mammal Group led several nights of mist netting and harp trapping for us. On one of these nights we caught a Leisler’s in a harp trap at a previously un-studied LNR in Walsall – not far from the town centre!
Excited to have Walsall’s 1st Leisler’s record.
And here he is!
Then earlier this year, our successful bat box scheme at Merrions Wood turned up both Noctule AND Leisler’s using the boxes for the first time! So now we know some actual roosting sites, rather than just errant records of noctules flying over our area off to who knows where looking for food. This is all good stuff!
So I’m pretty excited about this, as we are getting an idea that although perhaps not abundant, Leisler’s are probably at least widely distributed across the county, just like noctules. But this then begs the question – how many of our noctule records are actually Leisler’s bats?
It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because we are in an urban area, we’re only going to have crap (sorry, common) species. I see this type of assumption made all the time over a variety of taxonomic groups. In the case of noctule and Leisler’s, both species echolocate at a peak of around 25kHz, with relatively similar calls (listen to Noctule and Leisler’s here) – pretty similar, right? You can separate them on sonograms, but not reliably just by ear.
I believe that Leisler’s bats are probably drastically under-recorded in our county. They are an adaptable species that we know can thrive in urban habitats (they are ubiquitous in urban parts of Northern Ireland, where noctules are not present at all).
So I’m hoping to focus future survey efforts on rarer (or under-recorded) species in the 2017 season, and I simply cannot wait! Stay tuned for even bigger news next week…
Just a quick update on how my bird list is going – I’ve managed, over the last few weeks, to break the 100 barrier (phew!) and now have my sights on 120 as my next goal. A bit of a whirlwind trip to Rutland Water firmly put me into the next century, with an amazing life tick – a nightingale! You can hear a bit more about the Rutland Water adventure in the 2nd and 3rd episodes of the Darwin’s Dolls podcast (in the column to the left, or on iTunes and Stitcher).
In the couple of weeks since, my focus has mainly been on bats, with the start of Batlas survey season for BrumBats, and the beginning of mist netting season (blog post coming up!), however I did get three birds whilst working away doing newt surveys and other stuff for work:
110. Red Legged Partridge
111. Barn Owl
So there you go – 111 birds so far, and there are still a few relatively common ones that I haven’t yet seen (kingfisher, some common ducks, etc.) but I can imagine the wheels really grinding to a halt unless I start planning some more excursions! I’d really like to reach 150 this year, and to bring my life list up closer to 200, which would be a great achievement!
So things are starting to get a little harder. Once you hit around 75, it’s like someone’s slammed on your birding brakes and each new bird is that little bit more work. I decided to get in a weekend of serious birding. (Well, serious for ME anyway…) First off was getting up early for Black Grouse lekking in Wales. On the moors was where I saw birds 79-82:
80. Black Grouse
81. Hen Harrier
Listening to the Black Grouse calling at 6am in such a remote location (covered in hail and snow as you can see!) was pretty spectacular. I did a video on my phone in which you can hear the sounds and get a feel for the spooky atmosphere:
Then we embarked on a 2-hour drive to Anglesey, where birds 83-90 were all seen at South Stack RSPB (with a cheeky Black Guillemot in Holyhead harbour!)
88. Meadow Pipit
90. Black Guillemot
Then, on the way back to our campsite at Pistyll Rheadr, we stopped at RSPB Conwy, but only managed to add:
91. Yellow Wagtail
Birds 92 – 94 were all seen in and around Lake Vyrnwy, Wales:
93. Pied Flycatcher
94. Grey Wagtail
And I entirely accidentally came across two more birds this week. The first on a bush near a railway station, and the second on a roundabout, both in Milton Keynes:
97. Red-Legged Partridge
So, with 5 to go, Charlene and I have decided that a trip to Rutland Water is in order, and we’re heading off this morning, before heading back to record our next podcast, so hopefully you’ll find out what bird number 100 is when it’s uploaded tomorrow… To be continued…
“Live in each season as it passes… resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” ― Thoreau