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Wildlife Online-

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Content Updated: 4th June 2016


Hawthorn blossom

Welcome to summer. Despite some unsettled weather towards the end of last month, most of the country was treated to prolonged periods of warm, dry conditions during May. A nagging northerly wind that dominated the airflow for a couple of weeks around the middle of the month brought Arctic air down over the country and took the edge off temperatures for many of us, but the bank holiday weekend was largely dry and warm. Globally we seem to be on track to see the hottest year on record by a significant margin, with the last eight months in a row having broken global temperature records. The current Met Office predictions suggest that high pressure will dominate the UK for much of this month, bring lots of dry weather and temperatures above average for the time of year. At the time of writing, however, it’s overcast and windy. In general, it seems that wind is a much more prominent feature of our weather these days.

As usual the Wildlife Trusts are running a series of nature-themed events (details here), as are the RSPB (details here). Surfers Against Sewage have two organised beach cleans this month, both in the north-west, details of which can be found on their website. In addition to these, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is running 14 organised beach cleans this month. These are worthwhile events to get involved in if you can. The latest report from the MCS shows that just over 6,000 people took part in their organised cleans last year with volunteers picking up, on average, 3,298 items of rubbish per kilometre of beach surveyed – that’s 841 more pieces of litter per kilometre than was collected in 2014.

There are also a few wildlife surveys running at the moment. The UK Glowworm Survey is underway now and looking for people to report their sightings of these enchanting little insects as well as running a few guided walks – the recording form and the times and places of the walks can be found on their website. Butterfly Conservation and the butterfly, moth and dragonfly journal Atropos are running their Moth Night celebrations between 9th and 11th June, with a series of moth-spotting events across the country to help people learn more about these underappreciated ‘butterflies of the night’ – more details here. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Anglia Ruskin University want you to record your sightings of harlequin ladybirds in the UK – check out their website for more details on how to identify them and where to submit your sighting. Finally, and a little more broadly, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) network is looking for people to survey invertebrates in their local area and report back their findings so we can better understand how built environments affect these species. OPAL’s Bugs Count survey runs until November and full details can be found on their website.

Red fox cubsMammals: If May was the month of the fox cub, June is the month of the deer kid, fawn and calf. Rather confusingly, just as male and female deer can be stags or bucks and hinds or does, respectively, so too does the name of the offspring change according to species. Baby deer are assigned as fawns if they’re fallow, muntjac or water deer, calves if they’re red or sika, and kids if they’re roe. The general rule of thumb is that stags and hinds produce calves, while bucks and does produce fawns – this breaks down for the roe deer, producing kids, but works reasonably well otherwise. Anyway, nomenclature aside, June is the month in which most of our deer species will drop their young. With this in mind it is important to remember that a natural part of deer parenting is to leave youngster(s) lying up in long vegetation while going off to feed nearby. Deer rarely abandon their offspring and there is no need to intervene and “rescue” them unless there is some imminent threat to their life or an obvious injury. The mother won’t be far away and will return periodically to nurse her calf/fawn. The calf/fawn will lie on its own for the first couple of weeks of its life. Initially it lies where its mother leaves it, but after a couple of days it will start choosing its own hiding places. At about a month old the youngster will join its mother and in gregarious species, such as fallow and red, the calves and fawns can often be seen playing together in crèches while their mothers graze or rest nearby.

Fox cubs are out and about at the moment, growing fast and exploring a little further in the vicinity of the earth. June is a good month for fox-watching in general as the parents are busy hunting for their cubs as well as grooming and playing with them. With the nights at their shortest there is too little darkness to conceal all the fox’s activity and you’re much more likely to see them during daylight, even in rural areas where they may be more heavily persecuted. As well as young foxes, badger cubs are venturing above ground this month; their bouncing play is a joy to watch if you’re fortunate enough to get the opportunity to visit a sett. There will also be stoat and weasel kittens bounding in energetic play with their siblings now, and we should start seeing the first hoglets (baby hedgehogs) of the year. Please remember to take extra care when gardening to check areas of long grass and shrubs before mowing or strimming. I have seen some truly horrific images on Facebook recently showing injuries sustained by hedgehogs that have been caught in various mowing devices by unwary gardeners. In addition, it is worth reiterating that a hedgehog found wandering during the daytime is generally unwell and in need of veterinary attention. See Natasha Harper’s Caring for Hedgehogs article on this site for more information.

Birds: We’re now well into the bird fledging season. There seem to be juvenile starlings and blackbirds everywhere at the moment, while some adults are dashing about with beaks full of invertebrates to feed hungry chicks. Based on my Facebook newsfeed, newly-fledged robins, coal tits, blue tits and gold finches are also in evidence. There are plenty of goldcrests and firecrests around now, the latter singing on breeding territories. I have been hearing plenty of cuckoos on the New Forest and the nightjars are also back, their churring call adding a little magic to summer evenings. Our resident woodcock, the migrants having returned to northern Europe, are breeding now and the roding flights of the males can be heard (sometimes also seen) over forest clearings on mild summer nights.

Most raptors and owls will have chicks now, but they’ll likely be confined to the nest at the moment, although there is considerable variation in breeding timelines even within species. The main exceptions here are tawny and little owlets, which leave the nest holes relatively early to sit on nearby branches from which they yell at their parents for food (a behaviour known as “branching”). The noise, after dark usually, is something to hear. Listen out for the screechy drawn-out ‘tsk’ noises and squeaks reminiscent of squeaky toys (click to listen) that betray the presence of these fluffy owlets.

Great crested grebe chickJune is a good month to visit your local pond or lake as swans, geese, ducks, moorhens, coots and great crested grebes (left) all have young at this time of year. Other species to keep an eye out for include ospreys (in the north of the country, or heading north), hobbys, swallows, swifts, martins, various warblers, nuthatches, and flycatchers.

Reptiles and amphibians: One of our local beaches now has signs up all over the place warning dog walkers that there are lots of adders in the area at the moment. Adders are the UK’s only venomous snake species and while a person’s chance of being bitten by one are remote, dogs tend to be at higher risk as they bound through the undergrowth and take the snakes by surprise. The best solution is to keep your dog on a lead in areas where adders are known to be prevalent (hence the signage). In the event that your dog is bitten by an adder you should take it to the vet immediately. Carry the dog to the car if possible to reduce the dog’s activity and slow the circulation of the venom and, if you can, bathe the bite wound with cold water en route to reduce the swelling. Usually the vet will provide your dog with some pain relief and treat the swelling. On rare occasions anti-venom may be administered, but it’s worth remembering that most adder bites are ‘dry’ (i.e. no venom is injected). Male adders are devoting most of their time to feeding now as the breeding season has drawn to a close and they’re actually more difficult to find at this time of year, while females will spend more time basking to help speed up the development of their embryos. Grass snakes are also busy hunting now and they will often take to ponds and streams to hunt for fish and amphibians. Slowworms and common lizards are still breeding and I’ve seen some excellent photos of slowworms entangled in mating embraces during the last week or so.

The frog tadpoles in our pond are growing fast, although they are only just starting to develop legs. Once legs appear, the tadpoles shift from their vegetarian diet to a carnivorous one and become active predators in the pond. Early spawnings are likely to have metamorphosed by now and warm, wet nights in June are good times to head to your local pond with a torch and search for emerging froglets and toadlets. With the spawning season well and truly passed now, we tend only to find frogs in or around the pond in the evening – they spend much of the day sheltering in long grass, leaf litter or in the log pile. Newts tend to lag behind frogs and toads in their breeding and some may still be laying eggs this week which will hatch about two weeks later.

Invertebrates: This is the time of year when my Facebook newsfeed fills up with photos of two things in particular. The first is a long, winged insect with long antennae; these are ichneumon wasps, a species that parasitizes other insects, including beetles, flies and butterflies. Despite their rather menacing appearance, they pose no threat to humans and the large stinger-like appendage on their abdomen is actually used by the female to lay eggs. The second photo that crops up is one showing clumps of small black and yellow spiders that have been found in peoples’ gardens; these are baby orb-web spiders (most often the garden spider Araneus diadematus) and will shortly disperse into the nearby vegetation to set up their own webs. There are quite a few spider mums-to-be in our garden at the moment; these are female wolf spiders carrying around their creamy white/blue egg sacs behind them – when the spiderlings hatch out, the mother will carry her brood around on her abdomen for a few days. There are also plenty of hoverflies and bees around

SundewA walk along my local river at the end of last month yielded mayflies and lacewings in abundance, being hawked by martins and swifts. Along the same lines, scorpion flies are also around during June; the males of this large yellow-and-black winged insect (actually members of the lacewing family, rather than true flies) have a reddish-brown reproductive organ that looks very similar to a scorpion’s sting. Scorpion flies can’t sting, but they can bite. June is also a good month for beetle-spotting, with ground beetles, stag beetles and glowworms to be found.

at the moment, as well as the striking black and orange magpie moth, the red-spotted six-spot burnet moth, the fluorescent elephant hawkmoth, several species of fritillary butterfly and the pale blue light emerald moth.

Plants and fungi: June is a great month for orchids and some to look out for this month include bee orchids, lesser butterfly orchids, bog orchids, heath spotted orchids (many past their best by now) and early purple orchids. The New Forest is still fairly well endowed with foxgloves at the moment, and ragged robin provides a splash of pink to pasture and damp rides. There was also plenty of sundew (right) out on the Forest last weekend; look for this striking red carnivorous plant in damp areas around ponds and in bogs. A splash of purple and yellow are added to the countryside by cranesbill (a type of geranium) and yellow rattle, respectively. Elder is in bloom this month and a magnet for various species of bee and hoverfly, so it’s always worth checking their delicate white blooms for insect visitors.

There isn’t a huge diversity of fungi fruiting in our woodlands yet, although the fruiting season has just started for some, including the deep purple amethyst deceiver, the bright yellow chanterelle and the golden-brown honey fungus. I have also seen some chicken of the woods around.

Pick of the Month for June – Natural World Discoveries

Red deer hind with calfInbred reds
Most of us know that, now how to put this, “intimate relationships” with members of our close family are generally a bad thing. Here in the UK, the Marriage Act of 1989 makes it illegal for you to marry various ‘blood relatives’ including a parent, brother/sister, son/daughter, uncle/aunt, nephew/niece and so forth. Having kids with your close relatives is a phenomenon geneticists call inbreeding and it can lead to a whole host of problems. Indeed, a couple of years ago a study of just over eleven thousand babies born to couples living in Bradford between 2007 and 2011 found that the high rate of blood marriages (mainly cousin-cousin relationships) in Pakistani communities in the city accounted for one-third of the birth defects suffered by the infants. Some research published in March has revealed that some of our wildlife is just as susceptible inbreeding problems as we are.

A collaborative study between the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge looked at a long term data set of red deer (Cervus elaphus) breeding and births on the Isle of Rum, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. The team, led by University of Edinburgh evolutionary biologist Jisca Huisman, looked at the annual survival and reproductive success for all the deer born on the island in the 32 years between 1981 and 2013. Huisman and her team found that deer with a coefficient of inbreeding of 0.125 had a 31% lower probability of survival to independence. In other words, a red deer calf whose parents were cousins was only two-thirds as likely to live to see its first birthday as one born to parents who weren’t blood relatives. Over the course of their lives, it transpires that inbred females raised only about half as many calves to independence as the non-inbred hinds. The study data also showed that red stags born to parents who weren’t blood relatives sired twenty times more calves than stags born to first cousins.

In small or particularly isolated populations, red stags may return to their birthplace and end up breeding with their mothers, sisters, aunts and cousins and in some cases there is a limit to what can be done to reduce this inbreeding potential. This new research does, however, clearly show that inbreeding can be a significant detriment to red deer and should be taken into consideration when looking to manage a healthy and sustainable deer population in the UK.

Reference: Huisman, J. et al. (2016). Inbreeding depression across the lifespan in a wild mammal population. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 113(13): 3585-3590.


Eavesdropping from inside the egg
Red-backed fairywrenSeveral years ago now I remember an ex-manager of mine who was pregnant with her second child at the time telling me that she felt her daughter-to-be jump when the hand dryer started up in the toilet. Indeed, I suspect most mums will have had times during their pregnancies when they’ve felt their baby respond to an external stimulus and many will have sung or read to their developing offspring. We now think that human babies can listen to, and probably also start learning the language of, their mothers while still in the womb during the last stages of pregnancy. Until recently, this so-called “prenatal vocal learning” hadn’t been observed in any other species. New research by a team of Australian and American biologists suggests, however, that some birds may also have this ability.

Writing in The Auk journal the team, led by Diane Colombelli-Negrel at Flanders University in Adelaide, explain how they recorded the songs made by red-backed fairywrens (Malurus melanocephalus), a delightfully-named little bird endemic to Australia but unrelated to the true wrens, in 67 nests across three different study populations over four breeding seasons (2010-2013). They then played these calls back at nests during 2012 and 2013 to test what impact this had on the dolling out of food by the females. The data show that when fairywren mothers called to the eggs in the later stages of development, the chicks had a begging call that more closely resembled that of their mother than chicks hatched from eggs to which the female called very little or didn’t call at all. In addition, chicks with calls very similar to that of their mother received more food than their song-deprived conspecifics. More interesting still was that females tended to increase their call rate, and the corresponding chicks showed begging calls that were consistently more similar to that of their mother, during years when there were lots of cuckoos at the Brisbane site. This study, coupled with an earlier one on the related superb fairywren (Malurus cyaneus) that yielded very similar results, also suggests that brood parasite chicks, such as those of cuckoos, are unable to learn the mother’s call as well as her own chicks, and this mechanism for learning and begging with a song so close to that of their mum may help the mother decipher her own chicks from those of a nest parasite. If this proves to be the case, it looks like the brood parasite/host ‘arms race’ just changed gear.

Reference: Colombelli-Negrel, D. et al. (2016). Vocal imitation of mother’s calls by begging Red-backed Fairywren nestlings increases parental provisioning. The Auk. 133: 273-285.


ChimpanzeeParasite makes chimps easy prey
As much as many of us find parasites, well, frankly creepy, their biology is fascinating. Many parasites have rather complicated life histories that see them needing to infect several different species (so called intermediate hosts) before they reach the one in which they can breed (their primary, or definitive, host). We have long been aware that some parasites have the potential to change the behaviour of the animals their intermediate hosts to make them more likely to be eaten by the definitive host. While at university I remember being taught about parasitic flatworms that caused snails to hang around in exposed locations where birds were more likely to find them, and Sacculina barnacles that hijack crabs and force them to care for their own offspring, even turning male crabs female. More recently, a single-celled protozoan similar to malaria called Toxoplasma gondii, has been shown to have similar behavioural control over mice, making them less afraid of cats. Toxoplasma needs to end up in a cat’s small intestinal wall in order to reproduce, so it has evolved to manipulate its intermediate host to make them more likely to be killed and eaten by a feline. This parasite also infects humans, with one estimate suggesting as many as 40% of adults in the UK are infected and, more recently, controversial concerns have been raised that this protozoan influences our behaviour too. Toxoplasmosis sufferers, it has been suggested, have slower reactions and appear prone to taking bigger risks, making them just over twice as likely to be involved in a traffic accident. A new study on chimpanzees infected with the parasite lends support to the idea that it can affect primate behaviour. It has also cast doubt on the theory that it is the cysts that the parasite creates in a host’s brain (possibly to avoid detection by their immune system) which are the cause of the behavioural changes.

A team of researchers, led by Clemence Poirotte at the Centre d'Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, looked at how 33 chimpanzees, nine of which were suffering from a Toxoplasma infection, living in five captive groups in Gabon responded to the odour of human, leopard, lion and tiger urine. The biologists found that infected chimps approached and investigated leopard urine much more frequently than uninfected animals, suggesting they had lost their innate aversion to leopard urine. Leopards are the only real wild predator chimpanzees face and they account for about 30% of chimp deaths in some populations. More interesting still was that there was no significant difference between the approaches made by infected and non-infected individuals to lion or tiger urine. Given that chimps do no come into contact with either of these big cats in their natural environment, this finding suggests that Toxoplasma is manipulating the chimps’ behaviour to make them specifically less fearful of the only predatory feline with which they have evolved. If it was just the brain cysts that were causing the behavioural change, we’d expect a more generic response to all feline urine, not only that of leopards.

So, based on this new study and the previous work on mice, it appears that this fascinating parasite specifically manipulates the behaviour of its intermediate host, causing it to be attracted to cat species that prey on it, and then both encourages the host to take bigger risks and simultaneously slows down its reactions. This all seems to conspire to make it much more likely the intermediate host will be eaten.

Reference: Poirotte, C. et al. (2016). Morbid attraction to leopard urine in Toxoplasma-infected chimpanzees. Curr. Biol. 26: R83-R101.


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. Finally, thanks to Dave Webb and Nick Lay for letting me use their photos this month.


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.


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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