WELCOME TO WILDLIFE ONLINE
Content Updated: 13th January
UPDATE: January 2017
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Profile of the Month: Rachel Dubber, Equine Art
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
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
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
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
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.
Okay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from
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
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
- 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
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.
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
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