Category Archives: Woodlands

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…

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.

 

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!

I Like Big Bats (& I cannot lie)

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.

Noctule
Noctule
Leisler's
Leisler’s

Noctules (Download the BCT factsheet here) are one of our largest UK bats, and are fairly ubiquitous, found throughout Birmingham and the Black Country, whereas Leisler’s bats (aka ‘lesser noctule’ – fact sheet here) were until recently only know at a couple of sites. The 2002 mammal atlas (Which you can download here) shows their distribution as follows:

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!

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.

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Sonogram of Wightwick Manor Leisler’s bat calls

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…

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.

Bird in a Land of Flowers

I spent a good few hours the other day pouring over books about Florida wildlife. I get to go back about every year or so, and I’m planning a spring trip to see my family, trying to figure out how I can shoe-horn in as much birding and wildlife watching as possible.  As a kid, I had a set of books by Time-Life called ‘The Word’s Wild Places’, which featured a volume on Florida’s Everglades. I still have a copy (not my original, sad to say – but one I picked up in a charity shop).

This series was my first exposure to natural history illustrations such as Audobon’s Birds (pictured above). These days reading it is a nostalgic thing – photos like that of regenerating (post-fire) slash pine scrub brings back memories of walking though an area of regenerating pine forest that we used to call ‘The Burning’, while photos of Wood Stork (or Wood Ibis) remind me of my first ever birding experiences – being taken under a camouflage canvas on a canoe with my dad’s ecologist friend to an island in the Indian River Lagoon called MC2 (aka ‘Bird Island’) to watch and photograph the pelicans, egrets, herons and storks from the water.

So, knowing that my birding time will be limited, I’ve decided to focus on a few key species that can be found in places where I’m headed. We’re planning on a family trip to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, which is where we used to go on school trips to meet the rangers, dissect owl pellets and so forth. JDSP has a couple of key species that can be seen there – the Florida Scrub Jay and the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.

I’m also fairly desperate to see some burrowing owls, and get in a bit of otter watching and bat watching too! I’m still deciding on whether to take my binoculars, spotting scope, or just my camera! (I can borrow a tripod over there so that’s not an issue.)

So the purpose of the post is this: How do you plan for trips so that you can see the most wildlife possible without taking over completely? I’d love to know what your experiences are like – do you do lots of planning, focus on key species or simply pack your binoculars and hope for the best? My current plan is to insist on a family picnic in a good birding spot, and maybe a couple of pit stops on routes we’re planning on driving already. (Luckily, the family want to do the Kennedy Space Centre which is right in the middle of a massive nature reserve (or ‘wildlife preserve’ as they call them over there – which always sounds to me like bird-flavoured jam!)

Pine Resin (Part 2: Salve)

As you’ll know from Friday’s blog post about pine resin and rosin, I’m currently exploring foraging potential of pine trees. I’ve been collecting pine resin (this is not the same as tapping for sap as in the blog post I did this time last year about birch tapping) – resin is a fluid produced by pine trees to heal and protect wounds in the tree, whereas sap is a mix of sugars and water found in the xylem and phloem tubes of a tree. Sap is a sugary water, and flows readily, while resin is usually super sticky!

I’ve been reading about a variety of uses for pine resin, which is fat soluble and, as such, will infuse into oils really well. Pine resin salve is a traditional herbal remedy, particularly in the Americas.

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This post on the Mountain Rose Blog says:

“Here in southwestern New Mexico, many people think of Pine resin salve primarily as a treatment for pulling out splinters, embedded glass, drawing out boils, and for general first aid. It’s so common that it’s often sold in gas stations, and most any local logger or farm worker knows about it.”

Heralded to increase circulation to stiff, sore muscles and joints, help to treat psoriasis, eczema, scabies, heal cracked heels and dry skin on elbows, this herbal salve is surely worth a go?

To make it, you simply take a container/jar and pack it with pine resin and include some chunks of beeswax. I used about 100g of beeswax for two jars of wax (filled to about 2/3) and then covered with olive oil. The traditional method at this point is to place your sealed jars in a warm, dark place for a few weeks, but you guys know me – I don’t have the patience for that kind of waiting unless sloe gin is involved! I decided to render down the sap using a bain marie (called a double boiler in the USA).

I balanced the two jars inside my slow cooker on some tiny flan rings (you could use any type of trivet – just to keep the base of the jars off the bottom of the pot). I just PLACED the jam jar lids on – I didn’t seal them as I didn’t want to risk a pressure-induced explosion, but likewise didn’t want any condensation dripping in. I then poured hot water around the jars up to the level of the top of the resin, switched the slow cooker onto low and went to bed! In the morning the debris and gubbins had sunk to the bottom of the jars, and it was easy to pour off the infused (and lush-smelling) oil into clean jars. Stir as it cools, and you end up with a soft pine-scented salve for use on cuts, scratches and insect bites.

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*I want to pop a disclaimer here – many people are actually allergic to pine resin, which can be an irritant to sensitive skin, so you should test your exposure if you’re not sure if you’re one of them, and obviously, if you are, avoid exposure to pine resin, salve or rosin.

I’m still working on a few uses for the rest of my pine resin stash – I’m quite keen on trying pine resin honey (good for sore throats and coughs) and even pine resin tincture (which you have to infuse into overproof alcohol as resin is hydrophobic and ‘normal’ alcohol has too much water for it to infuse properly. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Pine Resin (Part 1: Rosin)

I’ve been playing about with pine resin this week – there’s like a million uses for the stuff, but I was mainly interested in its fire lighting properties. It burns really well, and is particularly useful if you’re trying to get a fire going with damp or green wood. I managed to get so much of the stuff that I thought I’d have a go at a few other traditional uses for it – ergo a two-part blog post. To harvest the hardened pine sap, you just need to gently pry it off with a knife. Look for natural wounds, rather than trying to make your own and tapping. (There is no shortage of sap in pine forests, especially at this time of year, and no need to go carving up trees!)

First, I thought I’d have a go at making rosin. Basically, pine resin can be split into two substances: turpentine and rosin. Turpentine (yes, this is the turps in your shed!) is usually made by distillation from resin, leaving rosin as a by-product.

So, if you trawl the internet, you’ll see several videos and websites showing a variety of methods, most of which involve setting the sap alight in a sieve of sorts, and letting the rosin fall through into a receptacle. Simple, right? I thought so… My first attempt utilised a stainless steel egg strainer, above a shallow dish of tin foil formed over the top of an enamel mug. This worked a charm, until burning drops of rosin dropped from the strainer and set the rosin in the collector on fire! I blew it out, and poured the rosin onto foil to cool and harden, and set about starting again. Take two…

Rather than trying to be a smart arse and reinvent the wheel, I just did what I’d seen in this awesome video – using just a mug and tin foil. You basically line a mug or container with foil, then make a shallow receptacle out of another piece of foil, into which you poke some drainage holes (I used a split match to do this!). It worked a treat – seriously, remind me not to think I’m my own kind of genius and just do what works in future. :-S

So, basically, the gloopy fluid that falls into your receptacle is rosin. It takes a while to cool, so if you wanted to, at this point you could add ground charcoal and mix to a paste, allow to harden, and then use as ‘pitch’ – pine resin glue. This is the type of glue that is traditionally used in things like birch bark canoes, etc. The ratio is 1/4 charcoal to 3/4 rosin.

Alternatively, give the rosin to your favourite violinist – it is used for string instruments:

“Johnny, rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard.
‘Cause Hell’s broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals the cards. And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold,
But if you lose the devil gets your soul.”

Part 2 tomorrow – let’s just say that this involves my slow cooker!

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!