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WELCOME TO WILDLIFE ONLINE

Content Updated: 13th January 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: January 2017

Dewy branches

Welcome to 2017. Thanks for coming back! I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers and their families a very Happy New Year. I must also apologise for the delay in getting this month's update out - a flu-like virus over the festive break set me back and I've been working hard on updating the website content for the transfer to a new platform later this year (more on that later).

Last month turned out to be relatively mild because the cold easterly airflow that started the month was replaced by warm air from the Azores. Christmas was also mild, albeit not quite the record breaker that we saw in 2015. I spent Christmas with my folks in Cornwall and on the big day itself the mercury hit about 13C (55F). The seasonal average for their area is about 7C (45F), although some parts of northwest Scotland saw snow towards the end of Christmas Day. Between Christmas and New Year we saw a drop in temperatures and some very dense mist and fog, particularly in the south of the UK. Indeed, here in Southampton the fog didn’t lift at all on New Year’s Day. January, nonetheless, got off to a relatively cold start and our garden, in the middle of Southampton, fell to -2 Celsius twice during the first week. Scotland and parts of northern England, by contrast, have had milder and very windy weather to start the new year. The forecast is for it to be a generally cold and dry January for most of England, with wetter conditions in Scotland and Northern Ireland. When I look back at what I wrote about the forecast for December in last month’s update, however, it was way off the mark, so it’s anyone’s guess what we’ll actually see.

This year I’m instituting a bit of a change to my monthly updates. Last year I covered three new scientific discoveries from the natural world each month and it proved fairly popular. This year, however, I also want to showcase some of the talented wildlife artists and photographers out there who I’ve gotten to know over the years, as well as some of the science and conservation projects that friends and colleague are working on. As such, every month this year I will feature a new discovery and a profile of one of these people or projects. I’m also hoping that there will be a general change in format on the site shortly. I’m working hard with a web developer to upgrade Wildlife Online to be a WordPress site, and I hope this will be ready in a few months. It’s a slow process, not least because I’m updating some of the content as I go, but I’m excited about the project at the moment. Watch this space.

In the event that you’re feeling brave and want to wrap up against the wind and rain to get out, the Wildlife Trusts are hosting a series of walks and events this month, as are the RSPB. Indeed, the RSPB are running their annual Big Garden Birdwatch on the last weekend of this month (28th-30th January) and are encouraging as many people as possible to get involved. The premise is simple: make yourself a cuppa and sit staring out the window into your garden for an hour on one of the days, making a note of any birds that visit in that time. Also, if you’ve now taken your decorations down and are wondering what to do with all the Christmas cards, please think about taking them along to your local M&S and putting them in the Woodland Trusts’ card recycling boxes. These black and green boxes are in store for the month and for every 1,000 cards donated the Trust will plant a tree.

Mating Chinese water deer UKMammals: January marks the peak of the fox breeding season and most of the matings occur after Christmas. At this time of year foxes are heard more than at any other – females call to advertise their presence to wandering males, and many fights break out as males trespass in search of receptive females. The lack of leaves on the trees at this time of year allows the sound to travel relatively unimpeded through the winter night, meaning the calls can be heard over a greater distance. That said, strong winds and heavy rain will drastically reduce the call range and, I suspect, reduces the ability of foxes to find each other. Whether mild, wet winters reduce fox breeding success remains to be established. This does, however, seem to be the case for another of our mammals that is normally coming to end of its breeding season in this month – the Chinese water deer (right). This small deer, a native of China and Korea that started appearing in our countryside during the early 1940s following escapes from captivity, ruts between November and the end of January. Last year saw quite a poor rut for water deer and the BBC’s Winterwatch team saw very little action at Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire. This rut seems to have been better, with the cold start to winter triggering breeding activity. Even though the weather had warmed up by mid-December, I saw plenty of chasing, scent-marking and even a mating in Bedfordshire last month.

Many of our small mammals are very active this month and the squirrels in your local woods and parks will be busy chasing each other and scent-marking as their breeding season gets underway. An hour sat in the park (maybe doing the RSPB birdwatch?) can offer an excellent opportunity to admire the arboreal acrobatics of the resident squirrels as a female leads a gang of amorous males on a tree-top chase. Garden sheds are a good place to look for wood mice this time of year as they seek shelter from the wind and rain, while some of us may still have hedgehogs visiting our gardens having been deterred from hibernation by the very mild conditions. With hedgehogs in mind, please take care if you plan to burn any garden waste this month as piles of branches, grass and other cuttings offer a good nest and/or hibernation spot for hedgehogs. Please check any bonfires for hedgehogs before lighting or, better still, build your bonfire on the day you plan to light it. Elsewhere, many water vole populations are still active. These rodents are ordinarily dissuaded from spending much time outside by cold weather in winter, but the current mild conditions mean that they’re easier to spot this winter. That said, water voles can be displaced by rising river levels and have been known to drown as river flow increases following heavy rain.

OystercatcherBirds: Winter is a good season for birds of prey and there are quite a few harriers and short-eared owls around at the moment. Voles tend to be more active during the daytime if there is a heavy frost and this means that frosty mornings are a great time to look for birds of prey, such as kestrels, hunting for voles. January is a good time to go looking for tawny owls after dark, too. The owls are pair-bonding now, having kicked out last year’s offspring and re-established their territory, and this involves much calling and food passing from the male to the female. The male brings in food to fatten up the female and increase her condition come egg laying, while the female judges how good a provider the male will be for her chicks according to the food he brings back. When it’s damp and blustery the owls are understandably reluctant to move and can be observed more easily. Please remember, if you’re out ‘owling’, to use a red filter on your torch so as not to dazzle the birds.

There are still some large murmurations of starlings to be seen, and January is a good month for bird watching by the coast. Our estuaries are still busy with waders (oystercatchers, left, sandpipers and sanderlings particularly), swans and ducks, and species such as long-tailed ducks, guillemots, red-throated divers and large rafts of great-crested grebes can be found around our coastline in this month. Herons are also frequent visitors to ponds, lakes, rivers and even flooded fields where their opportunist nature becomes apparent (the photo to the right shows a heron with a rat). The heron breeding season is fast approaching and if the weather stays mild (frozen waterways inhibit their ability to feed) there will be much calling and nest re-building at nest sites up and down the country come the end of the month. At the same time, our woodlands and farmland are playing host to large mixed flocks of finches, with the odd brambling amongst the chaffinches, and thrushes including redwing and fieldfare. Our pine forests are worth a visit to look for crossbills and hawfinch, both of which are active at the moment. In your local parks and gardens robins will also be making themselves noticed, often visiting bird tables in pairs. Having been aggressively turfing other robins off their patch through the autumn, come January the males start to let females encroach on their territory as we move towards the breeding season.

Reptiles and amphibians: If it stays cold this month most of our amphibians and reptiles will remain in torpor. They typically wait out cold winters in a state or torpor in leaf litter, gorse/heather patches, log piles or at the bottom of ponds. Last year the National Trusts published their wildlife and weather review which suggested that 2015 was a bad year for frogs and toads, with many of their breeding pools drying up during the spring. So far, it looks like this year might not be any better. The last three months have been unusually dry and groundwater levels in some parts of England are a metre below where we’d expect for this time of year. This means that many of the ponds and pools in which frogs spawn are very low, if not empty. So, more rain is needed in January and February if 2017 is to be a good year for our amphibians.

Invertebrates: There is plenty of spider activity at the moment, but not all insects are faring as well. 2016 saw a bumper grass crop, with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board reporting that grass growth was one-third higher than average in some areas last year. This flush of vegetation, caused by a mild wet winter followed by a cold spring and mild wet May and June, is a good thing for farmers, who have been able to keep their cattle out in pasture for longer, but excessive grass growth swamps many other plants and provides unsuitable habitat for some insects – many butterflies, beetles and, perhaps paradoxically, grasshoppers suffer, because they need short grass. Conservation charities are also warning that wasp numbers are still very low and some regular wintering sites in England are currently devoid of the insects this winter. Wasps were hit badly by the very wet summer of 2012 and haven’t recovered yet. The avid BBQers or picnickers among us may not think a decline in wasps is a bad thing, but they’re an important link in the food web,  providing a meal for a variety of animals including, many spiders, birds, frogs, dragonflies and even mammals such as badgers, weasels and mice, and also helping to control several pest species  including blackfly.

Frosty grassA rummage among the leaf litter or under logs this month is likely to turn up the orange-jawed woodlouse spider and plenty of its prey, as well as various carrion and ground beetles. Devil’s coach-horse beetles, large black beetles that raise their tails up in a manner not unlike that of a scorpion when threatened, can also be found searching the woodland floor for slugs.

Plants and fungi: January is a good month to look for lichens and some of our lesser-known fern species, including the common polypody, hart’s tongue and the aptly-named hard fern. There also seems to be quite a bit of butcher’s broom around on the New Forest at the moment. Winter heliotrope, with its vanilla-scented pink-purple spiky flowers, is found widely in the UK and is in bloom during January in damp habitats such as along stream edges, hedge bottoms and in woodland. Snowdrops may also be found towards the end of this month and there is plenty of mistletoe still around, its pale berries attracting thrushes in city parks. Fungi-wise, many of the autumn fruiting bodies are now past their best, but smaller coral spot fungus, the bulbous blackish King Alfred’s cake fungus, and the attractive banded many-zoned polypore can be found in January.

Discovery of the Month: Tawny owls can teach us about vole populations and climate change

Tawny owl on branchSmall mammals form an important link in many of our ecosystem foodwebs; they’re the small furry critters that so many other things eat. Monitoring changes in the populations of mice, voles and shrews can give us a good idea of what might happen to the animals that feed on them – the kestrels, owls, foxes, stoats, adders and so forth. Small mammals can, however, be difficult to monitor. We must set traps, mark and release those we catch and then, based on the number we catch again, extrapolate populations. This is very labour intensive, requiring lots of traps set over an area for several days or weeks, and people to check those traps and record the species present. It also relies on the animals venturing into the trap and, if the trap isn’t set properly or baited with sufficient food, it can be fatal for the occupant. A better plan could be to instead look at the things that eat these small mammals – if predators of small mammals are doing well, it stands to reason small mammals are also thriving. There are, however, problems with this approach, because most predators switch to alternative prey when small mammals run low. Foxes, for example, will take birds, rabbits, squirrels, fruits and carrion when mice and voles are scarce; so just because the fox population is booming doesn’t mean vole numbers are high. Mammals also tend to chew their food, making identifying the remains in their scat difficult. So, what’s the answer?

Recently, several researchers have recorded irregularity in vole populations that used to have a consistent cycle. On the south coast of Finland, studies suggest that the vole population is in decline and that the three-year cycle has been levelling off. Despite the Swedish landscape having changed for the better from a vole’s perspective, field vole numbers remained low, implying something other than habitat and food was suppressing their numbers. In the last couple of years, number began to rise and this coincided with favourable snow cover, suggesting that the climate is a significant factor affecting vole populations. In order to study this, a team of Canadian and Finnish biologists set about trying to assess the vole populations in two areas of southern Finland: a coastal stretch of Uusimaa with relatively cold winters and mild summers; and an inland area around the city of Lahti that experiences very cold winters and short cool or mild summers. Rather than using conventional surveying techniques, however, the researchers, led by Tapio Solonen, looked at the pellets of tawny owls (Strix aluco, left) collected from nests over an 18 year period, dissecting them and working out how many voles were taken of which species.

The first important finding was that when they compared the number of small voles in the pellets to vole catches using standard local trapping, they found a strong positive correlation. In other words, they found that, with a bit of care, you can use owl hunting success as a proxy for vole abundance in the field. This is excellent news because not only are owl pellets easier to find than small mammals, owl prey remains is a very well studied topic and we have data from a variety of habitats – a wealth of data that could potentially be looked at in a new light.

Secondly, they found that various large-scale climatic factors (i.e. the monthly North Atlantic Oscillation index) explained most of their observations. Mild winters favoured water voles and field voles over bank voles in both areas, while mild Decembers seemed to cause a decline in coastal vole populations and deer snow in March reduced inland populations. The “frost seesaw effect”, where temperatures fluctuate around freezing point, appeared to have a negative impact on coastal vole populations, particularly during March. The theory is that alternating wet and cold periods repeatedly dampens and then freezes their nesting cavities, causing high overwintering mortality. Overall, the biologists conclude that climate is a significant factor in regulating vole populations and that coastal populations were more vulnerable to mild winters than those further inland.

Reference: Solomen, T. et al. (2016). Tawny owl prey remains indicate differences in the dynamics of coastal and inland vole populations in southern Finland. Popul. Ecol. 58: 557-565

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Profile of the Month: Rachel Dubber, Equine Art

"Hunkered Hare" by Rachel DubberTo kick this series off, artist Rachel Dubber gives us an insight into her work and what motivates her to draw. Rachel is an exquisitely talented artist and, although horses are her first love, she also dabbles with wildlife art and I am privileged to have a piece of her work, a sketch of one of my photos, hanging on my wall (right).

Tell us a little about yourself
My background is in horses; I have been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember. Straight after graduating high school I went to work at a local horse-riding centre, which was the start of a thirty-odd year span in show jumping, teaching, and horse racing. My career with horses brought me overseas so I got to work and travel in some amazing places. I loved every moment of it.

When did you first realise that you had a talent for art?
Coming from a creative family, arts and crafts were always part of our lives growing up, the local shows were the highlight of the year, as we displayed everything from baked goods to handmade crafts. I always doodled, animals of course, and while at school had won local art competitions and prizes at local shows.  So, I guess from when I was a kid the talent was always there, I just never really realised it myself.  Art was not a career you pursued when I was growing up and your talents were not nurtured, the focus was more on getting a good job after graduating, so sadly my art fell by the wayside.

What drives or inspires you to paint or draw?
What inspires me? I’d have to say the challenge of creating new art works all the time; each creation is so individual. The subject being portrayed has to speak to me before I commit to drawing or painting it. Every commission comes with a different story and I love that. I become very attached to each artwork that evolves before my eyes on the desk or easel. The satisfaction of seeing a piece come to life, capturing a moment or look that engages the viewers and evokes emotions drives my passion. I love it when people stop in their tracks and take the time to really look. The greatest satisfaction is when clients give you feedback on their commissions. If I can move you to tears I have done my job well.

"Regal Real" by Rachel DubberWhat subjects do you enjoy working with most and why?
Animals, without a doubt. My heart and passion for animals and nature goes into overdrive; they give me the most satisfaction and enjoyment when creating art or even just being surrounded by them. I stick to what I love the most as I believe it reflects back in my art. It’s a hard feeling to articulate: goose bumps and butterflies all at once. Animals fill me with awe and inspiration, maybe it could be described as falling in love; it happens every time for me with animals.

If you had to pick one of your pictures that was your favourite, which one would it be and why?
Oh that is a tough question! I have two, so I’m breaking the rules. The first is ‘Magnificent Mr. Midnight’ (below). He’s a horse I ride out here at home; he stole my heart a few years ago, so he is my muse and embodies everything that I love about horses. The drawing of him epitomises his beautiful character and gentle nature. The second one is ‘Regal Real’ (left), a drawing of an Akhal-Teke called Real, a breed of horse that is the gracefully sculpted athlete of the equine world. I love the drawing as it portrays this particular stallion’s unique look, full of airs and graces. He’s regal and knows it.

Clearly horses are a passion, but you also draw wildlife. What do you look for when deciding to draw wildlife?
Horses have always been my first love and passion, but I love all nature and animals. I'm drawn to images that catch my eye and resonate with me; it can be anything from a static stance to motion. I love it when I see animals doing what they do best: enjoying their freedom, basking in the sunshine or with tails turned to the wind and rain. I enjoy their natural movements, unhindered by humans and engrossed in living the moment. It's interesting to watch their hierarchical signals and movements. I love interesting images which halt and engage the viewer; these feed heavily into my artwork. It’s moment that has captured the nuances of wildlife that you must stop and really look to see and understand that appeals to me. I do also like an unusual angle or point of view; a photographer that captures the real life of animals and isn't afraid to get dirty and wait for the animal to do its thing. I get emotional over images. They seize me and speak to me, but I’m sure your readers will think I’m utterly bonkers for saying that!

If you could draw/paint anything in the world, what would it be and why?
Oh gosh, I’m not sure. Possibly, polar bears. I love photography and try to take my own reference photos where possible and would love to travel to the Arctic to photograph the bears. I would love to create a series of wildlife art that brings a heightened awareness to the plight of the animals on our planet. Although I am sure that kind of artwork would cause a controversial stir rather than your stereotypical ‘pretty portrait’ to hang over the mantelpiece, but that’s okay too; not everything should be sugar coated.

If you had one piece of advice for budding artists, what would that be?
Have fun and love what you do but, above all, never give up. Give it 110% every day!

You can check out Rachel’s work on her website and follow her on Facebook. Thanks to Rachel for giving her time to answer my questions. If you’re interested in getting involved and being featured one month, please get in touch.

"Magnificent Mr. Midnight" by Rachel Dubber

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As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page. (Note: So: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support.

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WildlifeonlineOkay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!

What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.

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DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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