Category Archives: Seasons

The Lesser of Two Noctules

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.

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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…

The Best Little Bathouse In Texas

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.

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This is where I start to lose my shit.
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You can hear the bats as you approach the bridge.

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!

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Gaps in the underside of the bridge are home to 1.5m bats!

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!

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The only MFTB guano I could find!

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!

The amazing city of Austin, TX
The amazing city of Austin, TX

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.

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Probably the happiest I have ever been – waiting for 1.5 million bats with my amazing dad.

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.

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A blur of bats that continued for hours!

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.

Mexican Free-Tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis)

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…

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JT the travelling bear really loves Austin!

JT Bear had a great time, too! JT Travels the world raising money for the Sarcoidosis and Interstitial Lung Association and the British Lung Foundation. Last year he walked across Scotland! Please follow the links to each of these charities if you’d like to donate!

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Guest Blog: Owls That for an Idea?

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 GroupAs 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!

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.

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.

Tawny Amongst Red Berries
Tawny Amongst Red Berries

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!

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!

David wrangling a northern brown snake on the Barkly Tablelands
David wrangling a northern brown snake on the Barkly Tablelands

You can read more about David HERE, see more of David’s photography HERE, and his forthcoming website HERE.

 

Pied Pipers

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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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!

Badgers Back to Back

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:

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Watch this space for more badgery goodness!

Knowing your Newts

Newt survey season runs from mid-March to mid-June, with the peak season being mid-April to mid-May. I’m doing quite a bit of ‘newting’ this year, and it occurred to me that I’ve never done a blog post about separating great crested newts and smooth newts.

The first major difference is size. GCNs, when fully grown, are whoppers compared to smooth newts. Take a look at the photos below of a smooth newt male vs a GCN female, both in the bottom of 2-litre bottle traps…

Great Crested Newts are black in colour, with tiny white bumps (which give them their other common but erroneous name – ‘Warty Newt’). They feel slightly rough to the touch. (So I’m not joking when I say “I can identify a Great Crested Newt with my eyes closed!”)

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Female GCN showing white bumps and orange toes

They also have bright orange bellies (with no white or cream), with elongated black splotches in. The orange colour extends along the underside of the tail, and the tips of their toes are bright orange:

Males (and only the males) also have a silver flash on the tail, and (when in breeding condition) a large, elaborate, jagged crest down their back, which gives them a bit of a Godzilla vibe. The GCN really has TWO crests – one for the back and one for the tail, as there is a noticeable break in the crest where the tail joins the body.

But don’t let the name fool you, because Smooth Newts also have crests! Read on…

Smooth newts are, well, smooth. They are extremely variable in colour, and like the GCN are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different). Males can be brown or almost black, with big round black spots on an orange and cream-coloured belly, whereas females are usually a variable shade of brown or orange. Females also have a pale orange and cream belly, but the spots are fine speckles rather than big splotches. Female toes don’t look ‘painted’ like a GCN, and male hind toes are flattened and fringed. In a smooth newt, the crest is continuous and runs the entire length of the body, and is wavy rather than jagged, matching the wavy outline of their feet. Think of it as matching tie and shoes.

Below are a few comparison photos. Firstly, a photo of an adult female smooth newt with an adult female GCN (to illustrate the incredible size difference):

GCN (L) Smooth (R)
GCN (L) Smooth (R)

Here’s a comparison of the bellies of male GCN (L) and Smooth (R) newts:

And male smooth (L) vs GCN (R) toes!

To make things significantly confusing, for half of the year, this sexual dimorphism isn’t there – and fringed toes and silver tail flashes disappear for the winter, and the crest reduces to almost nothing – often seen as a faint line down the backs of males. Generally speaking, GCN males and females are harder to tell apart at that time of year, or before they reach sexual maturity. It’s a bit easier with the smooth newts as the belly patterning remains fairly distinct. But even the larvae of these two species can be separated.

By August there are larvae swimming about in GCN breeding ponds. Because GCN and smooth newts will readily cohabit in a pond, the larvae of both species are present. The difference is pretty astounding. Here’s a photo of the two species at roughly the same stage of development:

And another:

Smooth vs GCN larvae
Smooth vs GCN larvae

So as you can see, the GCN larvae are massive, compared to a similar age of smooth newt. The GCN also have distinct splotches on their body.

So now you know how to tell them apart. The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I have left out Palmate newt, largely because I don’t encounter them often here in the midlands, and as such don’t have any photos, but also because telling palmates from smooth newts is a little trickier, and I’m likely to have a proper rant about poor biological recording practices. 😉  A tale for another day, perhaps?

*Please remember that it is illegal to disturb, handle or even photograph a Great Crested Newt, as they are a European Protected Species and you need a licence from Natural England to disturb them. If you’d like to get involved in amphibian surveys and conservation, contact your local ARG (Amphibian and Reptile Group), or contact Froglife and ARCTrust.

First Bats of the Year

April is the start of the bat survey calendar. After a winter of hibernation, bats are waking up and beginning to feed up for the season. Bats mate in the autumn and use seasonal delayed implantation (also called embryonic obligate diapause, a technique for ensuring that young are born during times of plentiful food) during the winter, allowing themselves to become pregnant once food is abundant.

(I once had a female bat come into care due to injury in the winter. Some weeks later she gave birth to a pup, and knowing bat gestation periods, I worked out that she allowed fertilization to take place within 48 hours of being exposed to warm temperatures and ample food!)

Saturday was the first of the BrumBats bat box checks for 2016, and though it was in a short but sharp drop in temperature (It snowed at 7am!), we still found bats. Four noctules were found in one of the Schwegler 1FF bat boxes – the same box we found a single noctule hibernating in when we did our box maintenance in January.

As bats are a European Protected Species, it is illegal to disturb them – this means even torches, so at least a Class 1  survey licence from Natural England is required if you just want to use a torch to shine up to check if they are occupied, and a Class 2 survey licence to check bat boxes and handle bats.

The bats are gently removed from the box and placed into cotton bags to reduce stress. We keep handling to a minimum, taking some basic biometrics: forearm length using vernier calipers or wing rules, and weight using spring scales – these measurements give us an idea of the health of the bats. Our four noctules all appeared to be in great health!

Vernier calipers being used to measure forearm length on a Noctule bat.
Vernier calipers being used to measure forearm length on a Noctule bat.

This first survey is a great start to the bat box season. We have two new bat box schemes so will hopefully have info on their success soon! All the bat records feed into the Batlas Project, helping us to get a clearer picture of the distribution of bats in our county.

Bring on the Bees!

You know, I remember my first bee of each year. That’s weird, right? The honey bee above was my first bee of 2015 – at Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton on the 7th of March. In 2014 it was this Clarke’s Mining Bee on Brownhills Common on the 11th March:

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In 2013 it was a Buff Tailed Bumblebee queen at the Sister Dora Cemetery in Walsall. In 2012 it was Clarke’s Mining Bee at Shire Oak Park, and in 2011 a Honey Bee at Clayhanger Common. I know, I’m a freak.

I tend to get the entomological equivalent of restless leg syndrome by this time of year – mid February is when you can see the first bumblebees appear (usually buff tailed queens), and then the rest start to appear in March. In fact, there are quite a lot of pretty similar-looking bees that can be found on the wing in March, so in the interest of my everlong quest to demystify entomology for you, I’ve updated my Quick Guide to Red and Black Bees in Spring, which you can DOWNLOAD FREE using this LINK or click on the image below.

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I know they all look very similar at first glance, but trust me – you’ll get your eye in. It helps if you have a butterfly net (I’m going to do a field kit blog post very shortly!) and a Hand Lens as well as a few bug pots so that you can safely view the bees.  More blogs on bee-hunting for beginners soon!

Here be Badgers

For the first time in 2016, last night I set out my trail cameras near the Hogsmeade badger sett. It appeared that over the last few weeks there had been some activity digging out sett entrances and whatnot. My mate Scott and I had recently discovered a scratching post near the sett and were keen to see if we could capture some of this activity on film.

Scratching posts are often found near sett entrances and there is some debate about the reason that badgers seem to relish scratching at old (usually Elder) trees – perhaps to stretch, to clean their claws, or event to sharpen them. You can find them by looking for deep, vertical scratches on trees near the sett, with the scratches reaching perhaps a metre (3 feet or so) up the tree, and running sometimes down to the ground.

Many years ago, when I first went on a badger survey course, I was told that these trees are called ‘Totem Trees’ and I have always called them that since. However, I can’t seem to find any reference to that on the internet, so perhaps it was a term colloquial to the badger group in Suffolk at the time that I was learning.

Other signs of badger activity include their trademark footprints – a kidney-bean shaped pad of the foot, with 5 little toes lined up above the ‘bean’. This will be with (front foot) or without (hind foot) long claws (there is a gap between the toe pad and the claw because they are so long!). The whole combination gives the impression that tiny little bears have been running around! The photos of prints in this post were taken when my friend Helen and I went to collect in the camera traps this morning, so clearly there was some activity last night. Near sett entrances and on fences or brambles, you may also find badger hairs, which have three different colour tones, and are non-circular in cross section – more triangular. Now, you won’t see this with the naked eye, but you can see the effect that it creates – roll the hair between your thumb and forefinger and you’ll feel it jump about rather than rolling smoothly. I did a slow motion video to show you:

 

A video posted by Morgan Bowers (@thereremouse) on Jan 28, 2016 at 2:26am PST

(Having a bit of trouble with the embed code, so here’s the direct link to the video: https://www.instagram.com/p/BBFE6DHpV4h)

Incidentally, we had no badger activity on camera, in spite of it being a dry night. There could be a reason for this – as it is at this time of year (January & February) that badger cubs are born. It warms my cockles to think that under my feet the sow might be snuggled up preparing to give birth, or even nursing two or three new cubs. With ongoing monitoring, I hope to film the cubs in the early spring when they first start to venture from the sett, and will of course post on here when I do!

Anyway, the trail cams are out again tonight, so may have more to show you tomorrow!

Winter Mammal Update

With the help of the Black Country & Staffordshire Naturalists group, I’ve been continuing to monitor the mammals on our local nature reserves, including bats and badgers. As you’ll know if you’re a regular on here, we give each of our badger setts fictitious names in order to protect them and keep their location a secret. We’ve been giving special attention this winter to the Hogsmeade badgers, as they appear to have been particularly active, but we don’t seem to be able to be in the right place at the right time to catch them on camera. After a few problems with my trailcams (not entirely sure what is going on, as the problem persists intermittently) we finally managed to get an evening’s worth of footage, including the return of a one-eyed fox (whom we have called Mad-Eye Moody), an extremely hyperactive mouse and a couple of fat badgers…

In addition to trailcam setting, we’ve been out and about with the endoscope, looking for hibernating bats. Last week we found this hibernating Brown Long Eared bat in a tearaway cavity in a tree in Merrions Wood.

We returned to Merrions Wood today to clean out the nests left behind by feathered squatters this summer, and to our surprise found five noctules – one in one box and four in another. They have been left in peace, but we did shoot a bit of sneaky endoscope footage of the first one, which you can see below.

It really is great news that noctules are using our bat boxes, as until now we only had confirmed use by Brown Long Eared and Soprano Pipistrelles. Here’s the endoscope footage:

The next plan is to move onto our Sunnydale badger sett to see how our badgers there are faring, which will happen later this month.