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Content Updated: 4th August 2014

SEASONAL UPDATE: August 2014

Misty summer sunrise

Welcome to the final month of summer and what a summer it has been for most of England, with high temperatures and prolonged dry spells. As is generally the case, southern and eastern England have fared best with this weather, with rain and strong winds hitting southwest England, Wales, northern England and Scotland at times. Parts of the south have seen these hot, dry conditions punctuated by brief, but torrential, storms that have led to flash flooding. Overall, this generally dry summer is likely to have been good news for our invertebrates (particularly butterflies and moths), reptiles and some of our mammal species – young deer, for example, tend to do best during warm, dry summers as they are very susceptible to hypothermia. Other species, particularly hedgehogs, badger cubs and fox cubs tend to fare less well during very dry weather, because much of their prey (insect and, in particular, earthworms) are hard to get at when the ground is baked. If you’ve been keeping your lawn and garden borders watered during this dry spell, you’ll have been doing your local wildlife a great service! If you’re able to leave a shallow dish of fresh water in your garden, that would also be of great benefit to your local invertebrates, birds and mammals. The long-range forecast for August suggests that there may once again be a north-south split, with more cloud and rain in the north, but dryer and brighter conditions in the south, with above average temperatures.

August is generally the ‘holiday month’; with the schools having broken up for the summer, many families take the opportunity to head off on holiday, often to the south coast. August is a great month for getting out-and-about, particularly along the coastline, so let’s take a look at what’s around for you to experience this month.

Roe deer buck (New Forest)Mammals: Most fox cubs will be almost fully grown by now, and the family will be spending much less (if any) time at the earth, choosing instead to lie-up in cover nearby. The cubs will also be providing most of their own food now -- largely in the form of insects and earthworms as they practice their pouncing and hone their hunting skills -- and will be moving over most of their parents’ territory as they explore the environment. Consequently, August tends to be the month when fox cubs, particularly males who range farther and earlier than vixens, are killed on roads. As we move out of summer and into autumn, tensions will begin to rise and the family unit will start to break down, resulting in many cubs dispersing to find their own territory.

Most deer fawns, kids and calves are well-grown now and can be found either in small groups within the herd or following their mother. The young deer will now be finding most of their food themselves, although their mother will continue to suckle them sporadically for another few weeks. August is also the month when you may come across seemingly abandoned Roe deer kids (i.e. the kids wandering around with no mother in sight), because we are now in the Roe deer rut. Roe deer does are drawn away from their summer feeding grounds (and consequently their kids) by the barking call of the buck. Roe bucks (right) make a harsh, repeated barking (click to listen) to attract females and warn off any interloping males, while the females respond with a soft bleat which I have yet to capture on tape! Courtship is a vigorous event, with the buck chasing the doe and full speed through fields and woodland; they may also run circuits around a tree stump or other object producing a track of flattened vegetation called a ‘Roe ring’. Vigorous and prolonged chasing is required for the doe to ovulate and also helps to ensure that she mates with the fittest bucks. The doe will return to her normal range and her kid(s) once the mating is over. Towards the end of the month it becomes increasingly easy to stalk Roe bucks who, exhausted from the exertion of the rut, are often crashed out in woodland. Red, Fallow and Sika deer will be shedding their antler velvet during this month as testosterone levels begin to rise in preparation for the rut; as the velvet is shed and the antlers come back into use, the pecking order in the bachelor groups changes.

If you’re heading to the coast for your summer holiday, keep an eye out for our marine mammals. National Marine Week runs until the 10th August and various wildlife charities, including the Wildlife Trusts and the Marine Conservation Society are organising events. Pods of Common dolphins are often seen close to shore during this month, while Harbour porpoises may be found chasing shoals of herring in our bays and estuaries. Leatherback turtles are often found in the Irish Sea during this month, and August is a prime month for whale watching, particularly along northern and western coasts.

Birds: The breeding season for our garden birds is over now, and you’ve probably noticed a lull in activity in your garden (although you may have plenty of recently-fledged birds visiting your feeders) as many species are holed up moulting. Furthermore, most cuckoos have now left for Africa, adding to the relative quiet of our woods. Nonetheless, there are still some warblers to be found along with recently-fledged, and very vocal, birds of prey (particularly buzzards and goshawks). Most of our raptors will have also finished breeding now, but hobbies are the latest breeders and many will still have dependants, which means that there are still opportunities to watch their breath-taking aerial acrobatics as they hunt for their chicks. Swallows and swifts are getting harder to find by now, but House martins are still busy; they’re also late breeders and may still be feeding chicks come October.

August is a great month for coastal and estuarine birds; a few to keep an eye out for are Sandwich terns, oystercatchers, Ringed plover, sanderlings and turnstones. August is also an interesting month for duck-spotting. During the summer, male ducks moult out of their breeding plumage and, for a few weeks, they look very similar to the females and juveniles – this is known as eclipse plumage and, because all the wing feathers are moulted at the same time, a duck in eclipse is unable to fly. So, if you spot a duck at your local pond that looks a bit like a cross between a male and female, it is in eclipse.

Baby slowwormsAmphibians and Reptiles: August is a great month for ‘herping’ (searching out reptiles) because it is the time when many of the babies are around. I found my first new-born Common lizard on the New Forest last Sunday evening, and I have seen photos of newly-hatched Sand lizards pop up in my Facebook newsfeed. August is also the start of the hatching season for Grass snakes; females will have deposited their eggs in a warm moist spot (compost heaps or other piles of rotting vegetation are ideal) back at the start of summer and the 10cm (4 inch) long babies will hatch out between August and October. It is also worth checking rockeries and under discarded carpet and metal sheeting for slowworms, which give birth to tiny red or gold replicas of themselves during this month (left).

August is also a good month for finding froglets, toadlets and newtlets, and I found two baby Common frogs on the side of our garden pond on Sunday evening. Check areas of long grass or log piles for these miniature amphibians, which are most active at night.

Invertebrates: There are lots of grasshoppers and crickets stridulating (singing) at the moment, and it pays to be careful if you’re cutting the lawn this month because grasshoppers are more common in gardens than people think – we have the occasional one on our small lawn here in the middle of Southampton. There are also still plenty of butterflies around and the second brood of Peacock butterflies can be found on thistles and buddleia across the country (excluding the far north of Scotland). Red admirals, Large whites, burnet moths, Red underwings, Marbled greens, Small tortoiseshell, and the tiny delicate orange Small copper can also be found this month – whatever butterflies you see this month, please take a moment to log them with the Big Butterfly Count via their website. A walk past a pond, stream or across a heathland is likely to turn up a variety of dragonflies and damselflies this month – keep an eye out for Ruddy darters, Common darters and the stunning Golden-ringed dragonfly. There are also a variety of bees, wasps, hoverflies and sunflies around during this month, which warrant a closer look.

Wolf spider with spiderlingsLast month’s featured species was the glowworm and, despite July being the peak glowing month, there are still a few females glowing during August; check long grass, particularly chalk grassland/downland in southern England, although railway embankments, commons and orchards are also potentially good spots. For the brave among us, August can also be a good spider-hunting month. There are still a few Wolf spiders in the garden carrying their creamy-white egg sacs (once these hatch out, the spiderlings will ride on their mum’s abdomen for a week-or-so) and there are Garden spiders everywhere at the moment. Probably the spider ‘king’ this month is the strikingly attractive yellow and black striped Wasp spider; the amorous female, who normally spends most of her time down in the long grass, climbs up and sits in the middle of her web during this month to attract males.

Plants and Fungi: Surprisingly fragrant thistles are in bloom this month (look closely, they’re often being attacked by the black and orange striped caterpillars, particularly of the Cinnabar moth), as are large pale pink blooms of thyme that are often smelt before they’re spotted. Searching along stone walls may reveal the delicate pink flowers of Ivy-leaved toadflax, grey woolly growths of Grey cushion moss, and the bright yellow tubular flowers of the Yellow cordylis. There are also a few orchids still around, including bog orchids and the Green-flowered helleborine. Along the roadside, keep an eye out for the delicate purple flowers of vetch, while bilberries can be found on our heathland during this month.

August tends to be the start of the fungi ‘season’, although if you’ve had a lot of rain in recent weeks, you might find some fruiting bodies around earlier. If you’re out walking in farm fields and notice any cowpats, it’s worth taking a closer look for the pale yellow fruiting bodies of the Yellow Field cap fungus, while Beefsteak fungus is starting to grow on beech and oak and the delicate Porcelain fungus fruiting bodies can also be found in beech woodlands. Other fungi to keep an eye out for this month include Field mushrooms, Meadow waxcap and the intriguingly-named Hedgehog fungi.

Finally, many trees are starting to produce/ripen their fruit and the Natural History Museum wants your help as they launch their survey of tree health; you can find out more about the survey and download an ID guide from their website.

StoatPick of the month for August – the Stoat (Mustela erminea)

In 1872 novelist Thomas Mayne Reid wrote of weasels:

Were they equal in size to lions and tigers, the human race would be in danger of total extirpation: for it is well known that weasels are the most ferocious and bloodthirsty creatures upon the earth.”

Now, when Reid says weasel, he is almost certainly referring to both the ‘true’ weasel (i.e. the Least weasel, Mustela nivalis) and it’s slightly larger cousin, the stoat, which is also known as the Short-tailed weasel. Indeed, in some texts, stoat and weasel are used interchangeably. August sees the start of the family breakdown among stoats, causing the newly independent young to strike out on their own and offering a good chance to get decent views of them. With this in mind, this month we take a closer look at this deceptively diminutive-looking carnivore.

Villains of the piece?
It’s safe to say that stoats and weasels have generally been portrayed as bad guys in the literature and, more generally, to refer to someone as a weasel is not typically a sign of endearment or affection. Indeed, the Merriam Webster dictionary describes notes that the word weasel is often used to identify “a sneaky, untrustworthy, or insincere person” and, in Charles Dickens’ 1841 tale The Old Curiosity Shop, Mr Quilp described himself as “cunning as a weazel”. Similarly, most of us are familiar with Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, in which “skirmishing stoats and bloodthirsty weasels” laid siege to Toad Hall, and weasels with guns jeered Mole dressed as a washer woman. Ratty said of these creatures:

Weasels – and stoats – and foxes – and so on. They’re all right in a way ... but they break out sometimes, there’s no denying it, and then – well, you can’t really trust them, and that’s the fact.

A slightly more macabre picture of the stoat has been painted in folklore and, in the second volume of their Encyclopædia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Cora Daniels and Charles Stevens note how stoats were once believed to hold the souls of infants that had died before being baptised. More generally, encountering a stoat during your journey was considered to be an omen of bad luck that could only be neutralised by greeting the stoat as a neighbour.

Despite their typically bad press, it hasn’t been all bad news for the stoat, which are held sacred by the Komi peoples of north-eastern Russia, and revered by the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, in a hilarious episode of the BBC sitcom Bottom, Smells, first broadcast in September 1991, Richie (played by the late, great Rik Mayall) uses the word stoat in an attempt to come up with a lonely hearts advert to elaborate his sexual prowess:

Foxy stoat on the prowl...rawwwwl...”

The truth about the stoat is, however, ultimately more entertaining than the fiction.

A stoat by any other name
Stoats belong to a group of mammals known as the mustelids – i.e. members of the Mustelidae family (from Latin mustela, meaning ‘weasel’) along with some other familiar species including otters, badgers, weasels and ferrets. From nose to tail, stoats grow to between 25cm and 40cm (10-16 in.) in length -- the tail can be one-third or more of the total body length -- and males grow larger than females. In Britain, male stoats average about 39cm (15 in.) in length and weigh 34g (1.2 oz.), while females average 35cm (14 in.) and weigh in at 23g (0.8 oz.). Size is the only sexually dimorphic character in stoats, making it almost impossible to determine sex without a rather intimate inspection of the animal.

Stoats and weasels are often mistaken for one another and, despite the old joke of the two being ‘weasel-ly separated because stoats are stoat-ally different’, it can be difficult even for the experts to tell the two apart without a good view. Most encounters are brief glimpses as the animal darts across a track, or into some long grass, making identification all but impossible. Both stoats and weasels exhibit the same slender form, short ears and chestnut-brown fur on the back, flanks and tail, with white fur on the belly. Seeing the two side-by-side makes the situation a little easier, because stoats are significantly larger than weasels. An adult male weasel will weigh only about one-third that of an adult male stoat and measure about 25cm (10 in). If a clear view is possible, the most definitive method of separation is to look at the tail: the tail of a stoat is much longer in proportion to the body (i.e. about one-third the body length) than that of a weasel (about one-fifth body length), and a stoat’s tail has a dark black tip, while that of a weasel is a uniform chestnut-brown colour.

Punching above their weight
European rabbitThe slender body and short ears of the stoat is an indicator of how it has evolved to hunt. When other predators (foxes, for example) set their sights on a vole or rabbit, the chase is generally over if the prey makes it to a burrow – the same is not true of a hunting stoat. Stoats evolved a sleek, fusiform profile to enable them to follow their prey down into their tunnels, and a stoat is quite at home hunting rabbits and rodents underground. Being small and slender, while conferring clear advantages in terms of being able to hunt where most predators can’t, also confers some disadvantages; one being that they have a high metabolism and, with a resting heart rate of about 390 beats per minute (you, while sitting reading this, will have a heart rate of about 60 bpm), stoats need to consume about 20-30% of their body weight per day, making them very susceptible to starvation during food shortages. Stoats also appear to store excess energy as muscle mass, rather than fat (which would soon prove an interference for an animal that relied on being slim to get along narrow vole tunnels), which means that they can suffer badly during particularly cold spells as their small size means they lose heat rapidly and have very little fat to serve as insulation or a fuel reserve. The result is that stoats are vivacious predators, active throughout the year.

Unsurprisingly, given how difficult this species is to study in the wild, most of the data we currently possess on the food preferences of the stoat come from analysis of stomach contents and scat. This method of dietary assessment is understandably biased towards species whose remains make it through the digestion process in an identifiable condition (i.e. stronger bones, claws and fur) and can underestimate the presence of things such as soft tissues and eggs in the diet. Nonetheless, in most studies, rodents and rabbits contribute more than half of the dietary contents. As well as rabbits and rodents, stoats will also prey on small to medium-sized birds (including gamebirds, domestic poultry and ducks), eggs, frogs and various insect species. In common with many carnivores, stoats will cache surplus prey (i.e. bury it for later retrieval) and may exhibit the same ‘surplus killing’ behaviour observed in foxes if they gain access to a chicken coop or rabbit run. Stoats are capable climbers and swimmers, meaning that little is out of their reach.

It seems amazing that an animal the size of a stoat could routinely prey on something as large as an adult rabbit, which may weigh more than a kilogram (just over 2 lbs) and thus be nearly thirty-times its own weight! More impressive still is that the stoat can pick up the rabbit and run off with it, in a manner that Carolyn King and Roger Powell describe as “looking like a terrier bounding off with a sheep” in their 2007 opus The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. Stoats can achieve this apparently 'super-stoatly' act because they are proportionally stronger than many larger carnivores. Being small conveys mechanical advantages, as you’ve probably seen in insects such as ants or stag beetles carrying many times their own body weight. I won’t go into the mathematics -- there’s an interesting book on this subject, called Scaling: Why is animal size so important?, by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen if you’re interested -- but sufficed to say that, in mammals, a muscle fibre of a given width has the same ‘pulling power’ regardless of whether it’s in a stoat or an elephant. As mammals get larger their muscle mass increases, but so too does the mass of the skeleton that they have to move around; and skeletal mass increases disproportionately to muscle mass. In other words, for their body size, the mass of the skeleton is proportionally much less in small mammals than in larger ones, which means that a lump of muscle of a given size exerts more impact in smaller mammals than big ones. This scaling relationship gives stoats the apparently supernatural powers of strength that allows them to carry away prey much larger than themselves.

StoatLean mean underground hunting machine
Stoats have highly acute hearing, and the sensitivity of their ear is enhanced by a large cavity in the middle ear, called the tympanic bulla. Studies in the wild have demonstrated that stoats are able to clearly hear the ultrasonic squeaks of voles and other small rodents and that their sensitivity to low frequency sounds (such as the stomping used by rabbits to convey danger to other members of the warren) is better than would be expected, given their size. I haven’t seen any data for stoats but, during his studies at the University of Illinois, Bruce Gillingham assessed which senses played the biggest role in the hunting of the weasel. By studying five weasels in a controlled enclosure, Gillingham observed that weasels hunted primarily by sound, with smell and sight being relegated to second and third place, respectively. While underground and in dense cover, stoats also employ vibrissae (whiskers) to find their way around and detect movement in air currents produced by their quarry.

The complex structure of the turbinal bones in the nasal cavity of stoats suggests that they have a good sense of smell, and scent plays an important social function, being used to identify individuals and mark territory borders. (Stoats have large anal glands and a series of scent glands on their cheeks, stomach and flank, all of which are used for scent-marking.)

It appears that stoats have a reasonably good sense of sight although, in common with most non-primate mammals, it is geared more to the detection of movement than to high resolution imaging of their surroundings. Stoats have a duplex retina (i.e. it possesses cone cells for bright/colour vision and rods for low-light vision) and behavioural experiments from the late 1950s suggest the potential for limited colour vision in this species; it appears that they can distinguish red objects and possibly also yellow, green and blue. Stoats and weasels have horizontally-slit pupils, which can close more tightly in bright light than the rounded pupils that we possess, meaning they are less easily dazzled and can hunt over a range of light conditions. A layer of reflective cells behind the retina -- called the tapetum lucidium -- reflects light that would normally be lost back into the eye to enhance their vision in low-light conditions – this is also what gives stoats their vivid green eye-shine when caught in the beam of a torch, headlight or camera flash.

A stoat’s life
Stoat familyStoats are a fairly fecund species, producing larger litters than is normally encountered among carnivores. Mating occurs from April to July and ova are fertilised as normal but, in common with only a handful of other mammals such as the Roe deer and badger, the embryo stops dividing at the blastocyst stage (when it is a small ball of about 200 cells) and remains in torpor during the autumn and winter. The blastocyst will implant in the uterine wall during the following spring and development will continue as normal – this process is known as delayed implantation or embryonic diapause and means that kittens can be born early in the year and thus have longer to grow and develop their hunting skills before the winter. Once implantation has occurred, the female will produce a single litter of about nine kittens (up to 13 have been recorded from a single litter), each weighing 3-4g (about 0.1 oz.), after a gestation lasting four weeks. Soon after the kittens are born, the female will come back into oestrous and draw the attention of local males.

The peak month for births in Britain is April and the kittens are born blind, deaf, toothless and covered in a fine pinkish-coloured fur. The female will raise the kittens alone; they will suckle for about 12 weeks, but will start taking solid food at around four weeks old, shortly after their milk teeth have erupted. The kittens’ eyes open at about five weeks old, and fur growth is sufficient to allow them to maintain their body temperature by eight weeks old (prior to this, if the female leaves the nest, the kittens must huddle together for warmth). The black tip on the tail has developed by about six weeks of age and the innate hunting behaviour is visible by around ten weeks of age. Once the kits reach about 12 weeks old the family starts to break down and the kittens begin dispersing. Just prior to dispersal, family groups of stoats can be running, jumping and playing together. Female stoat kittens are sexually receptive staggeringly early and can mate by only three weeks old, while still blind and deaf. One Russian study reported that a female kitten mated by an adult male at 17 days old gave birth to, and successfully raised, a litter or 13 kittens after 337 days (note that this period includes the delayed implantation)! Male stoats aren’t sexually mature until about 11 months of age.

The average age at which most wild stoats die is between 11 and 16 months and few stoats will live to see their second birthday (only 7% in some populations). The oldest wild stoat on record lived to be just under five years old, while the record longevity in captivity was a female born in a private zoo in Russia in 1984 and finally released in 1995 at the ripe old age of 11 years and two months.

I hope this month’s feature has inspired you to get out on your local patch and look for stoats. These endearing mustelids are found throughout the UK in a range of habitats including mixed farmland, commons, parks, large gardens, woodlands and coastal dune systems, so chances are there is a stoat family near you. Stoats are active throughout the day and night in bouts of roughly 40 minutes, followed by rest periods of one to four hours. How far your local stoats range will depend on two main factors: food and sex. If food is plentiful and there is a relatively high density of stoats in the area each stoat will range over smaller distances than those in poorer quality habitats. Independent of habitat, males tend to move over larger areas than females; one British study found males ranged over an average of about 250 hectares, while females used less than half that (ranging over only about 115 ha).

Whatever you’re up to this month, take care and I hope to see you back here in September. 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: 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, however, are 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 (the BBC, for example), 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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