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Content Updated: 5th July 2016

SEASONAL UPDATE: July 2016

Misty Hampshire dawn

June didn’t turn out to be the most summery of months here in the UK, with strong winds and heavy rain dominating the last couple of weeks. Indeed, it looks like 2016 may enter the record books as having the wettest June on record. Last month, temperatures were, on average, about one degree  Celsius above average for the time of year. All this rain has been good for some species and most gardeners can attest to it promoting the country’s slug and snail populations, while deer fawns and dragonflies are among the animals that are negatively impacted by cool, wet summer months. Looking at the long range models, there is some suggestion that we might see some dryer, more typical weather towards the second half of July, but overall it is still looking very unsettled.

As usual the Wildlife Trusts are running a series of nature-themed events (details here), as are the RSPB (details here). The Marine Conservation Society is running 21 beach cleans this month and seeking volunteers to help collect rubbish. Some of the wildlife surveys I mentioned last month are still up and running at the moment, so if you have glowworms local to you please report them via the UK Glowworm Survey’s website, and please log any harlequin ladybirds with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Anglia Ruskin University. Finally, the British Deer Society are in the process of reassessing the distribution of the six species of deer found in the UK and are after reports of deer from your local area. Sightings can be submitted via their website. If your plans extend no further than a walk in your local woods or park, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the natural world this month.

Fallow deer fawn in New ForestMammals: July is the month to see baby deer up and about. Most deer calves, kids and fawns are dropped during June and spend the first couple of weeks lying up by themselves while their mother is off feeding. Now they’re a bit bigger and steadier on their feet, though, they’re able to follow their mother and join the herd. It is not uncommon to find crèches of young deer, particularly fallow, at this time of year. Early mornings and late evenings are the best times for deer watching. Please report any deer sightings to the British Deer Society to help with their survey. It will be interesting to see what happens to local deer populations this summer, because prolonged periods of rain during June are often bad news for newborn deer, which are prone to hypothermia when they get wet. Staying with deer, keep an ear out for barking in your local woods towards the end of this month as the roe deer rut gets underway. More on that next month.

Fox and badger cubs are growing fast and not far from being full grown; the young of both species spending more time exploring their home range now. Foxes in particular will be spending much less time at the natal earth by now, preferring to rest in long vegetation. Hedgehogs are still breeding and this is a peak time for baby hedgehogs to be out and about. Please keep an eye out for hedgehogs during the daytime. Sometimes, while the nights are still short, activity may spill over into the early morning or evening, but generally a hedgehog out in daylight is unwell and requires veterinary attention. Please also take care when clearing overgrown areas of your garden, and particularly when strimming, and check for hedgehogs and other wildlife.

The mole breeding season has come to an end now and the young born this year will soon be kicked out by mum and dad. People are often surprised when they see moles above ground during the day, but it is part of their normal dispersal behaviour. Travelling over-ground when searching for a home of their own reduces the number of hostile territory owners they’re likely to encounter, even though it increases their risk of being nabbed by a predator. Regardless, the result is that July is a good month for mole spotting.

Sparrowhawk chicks in nestBirds: If our garden is anything to go by, there are quite a few juvenile goldfinches around this year. ‘Ours’ have been patiently queuing up to use our niger seed feeder. While visiting my folks in rural Cornwall last weekend I noticed plenty of recently-fledged blue tits, great tits and robins, as well as some blackbirds running around with beaks full of worms and insects, suggesting a few second broods. Here in the New Forest many of the buzzard chicks have now fledged (listen for the ringing, whining attention-seeking call of the young), while the goshawks aren’t far off. I’ve also seen some superb photos of well-grown peregrine and sparrowhawk (right) chicks. Hobbys are among the latest of our raptors to breed and many will still be incubating. Tawny owlets can often be found during this month, their location often betrayed by their amusing ‘squeak’ [Click to listen] and screeching begging call. There should also be some newly independent little owls and barn owls around too, although the recent wet weather seems to be having a detrimental impact on the latter.

July is a good month for juvenile corvids; I have seen several young carrion crows and rooks in the last week or so. There seem to be plenty of skylarks around this year and there are quite a few displaying in Hampshire at the moment. Indeed, a heathland walk during this month can often be rewarded with views of skylarks, stonechats, linnets, winchats, wheatears and Dartford warblers. If you’re on the heathland during the evening, keep an ear out for the bubbling churr of the nightjar [click to listen]. They are very active on warm July nights. There are several gull nests on the roof of one of the buildings at work at the moment, so keep an eye out for the large speckled ‘fluff-ball’ chicks. Be aware, however, that gull parents are fiercely protective of their young and people are often attacked by gulls at this time of year if they venture too close to a nest. If you’re along the coast this month, keep an eye out for fishing gannets, guillemots, razorbills, shags and fulmars. Along the Welsh and Cornish coasts young choughs will also be out and about.

Reptiles and amphibians: Typically, July is a tough time for reptile spotting because high night-time temperatures mean activity can continue after dark, and the snakes and lizards hardly need to bask. If the wet weather and the chillier nights that we experienced last month continue, basking might be required and an early trip out just after sunrise may be rewarding – remember to tread lightly because reptiles respond to vibrations in the ground, rather than in the air (i.e. they don’t much care if you’re chatting, but they will scarper if they hear you stomping around).

The amphibian world is also busy at the moment, with many frog and toad tadpoles having metamorphosed and left the ponds in which they were born. In our pond, we have a range of froglets, partly metamorphosed frogs (i.e. front and back feet as well as a tail) and some quite small tadpoles that show no signs of metamorphosing yet. If you have a pond in your garden, or even if there’s one in your neighbour’s garden, please take extra care when mowing the lawn as the newly metamorphosed froglets and toadlets will often hang out in long grass during the day. Indeed, if you can leave an area of your lawn with longer grass, this will benefit adult and juvenile amphibians alike. If you don’t have a pond in your garden, or if your pond didn’t get spawn but you want to see some froglets, head out to your local pond after dark with a torch; warm, damp nights offer the greatest prospect of finding these miniature frogs and toads.

Cinnabar mothInvertebrates: Even in our small city garden the air is alive with the buzzing of bees, flies and hoverflies, and many of our solitary bees are very active during this month. Check out firm, dry, exposed sandy areas of your local heathland and you’re likely to find a series of small excavations – watch for a while and you’ll likely be treated to a brief glimpse into the working endeavours of our mining bees and sand wasps. Sand wasps dig out a burrow in sandy soil in which to entomb caterpillars. The caterpillar is paralysed before being pushed into the burrow along with one of the wasp’s eggs; when the grub hatches, it will consume the caterpillar to fuel its development. There are also still some stag beetles to be found, and many of the small brown wolf spiders that were carrying around their white or pale blue egg sacs last month are now carrying spiderlings on their abdomen.

July is also a good mothing/butterflying month, with plenty of large, showy hawk moths around at the moment. If you’re very lucky, you may find a grand purple emperor; these stunning but elusive butterflies are restricted to oak woodland in central and southern England, from about Nottinghamshire in the north to Hampshire in the south. Apparently, various putrid substances (including dog mess, fox scat, decaying rabbits and urine) can be used to tempt them down from the treetops! Other Lepidoptera to watch out for this month are the beautiful day-flying yellow underwing, the pale shiny-scaled silver-studded blue and the ethereal blue-winged chalkhill blue. I have also seen quite a few people post on Facebook (particularly to the BBC SpringWatch page) asking for identification of red and black moths they’ve found while out walking: black wings and red spots are six-spot burnet moths, while black wings with a red stripe and two red spots at the base of each wing are cinnabar moths (left). Many species of grasshopper, cricket, damselfly and dragonfly can also be found during this month, so pretty much wherever you choose to walk you’re likely to find something.

Plants and fungi: July is generally a month of orchids and sundews. Recent trips out onto the New Forest have turned up lesser butterfly orchids, early purple orchids, bog orchids, heath spotted orchids and pyramidal orchids. Carefully check boggy areas for the red stems and glistening glands of the carnivorous sundew. July is also the last month for many to savour the bright yellow and coconutty scent of gorse, the peak flowering season for which is coming to an end. Heather, by contrast, is now in its peak flowering season, adding a haze of soft pinks and purples to the heathland. Fungi-wise, the large white caps of Agaricus macrospores start appearing on lawns and in pastures during this month, while the bright yellow and slightly apricot-scented chanterelle can be found in most types of woodland. This month is also a good time to check lawns, pastures and commons for the large white fruiting bodies of puffballs.

Hopefully something in the above overview has whetted your appetite for getting out and about this this month. As always, I’m interested to know what you find, particularly if it’s something you weren’t expecting. Continuing this year’s Pick of the Month theme, here are three discoveries that caught my attention recently, including the answer to a question about viverrids that had puzzled me for years.

Pick of the Month – Discoveries from the natural world

Popcorn-scented bearcats
BinturongThose of you who visit zoos will possibly have come across a stocky-looking animal that looks like a cross between a bear and a cat. This curious critter is a binturong (Arctictis binturong) and, according to Zootierliste, some 40 zoos across Europe hold them in their collections. One of the most curious aspects of the binturong, a tree-climbing mammal native to the dense forests of Southeast Asia and a member of the Viverridae family alongside civets and genets, is that you tend to smell them long before you see them. The scent is a heady popcorn-like or rice-like smell. Nobody was entirely sure how or why binturongs (and other viverrids) smelt like popcorn, but some recent research by a team of American scientists has shed some light on this mystery.

The researchers, led by Christine Drea at Duke University in North Carolina, collected blood and urine samples from 33 binturongs held at the Carolina Tiger Rescue. The blood samples were screened for various reproductive hormones, while the urine samples were run through a mass spectrometer (SPDE/GC-MS for the chemists among you) to identify the volatile compounds. The analysis, published in the journal Naturwissenschaften last month, shows that binturong urine is made up of 29 volatile compounds; a mixture of chemicals, including acids, alcohols and ketones. The ‘light bulb’ moment came, however, when a volatile called 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (or 2-AP for short) appeared on the mass scan. We’ve known since the early 1990s that this chemical is partly responsible for the characteristic smell of popped corn and, about a decade before that, it was identified as the cause of the distinctive smell of aromatic rice, such as basmati.

Interestingly, the researchers found that 2-AP was the only compound that all of the binturongs exhibited, suggesting that it may be used by binturongs to communicate with each other. Moreover, a link was found between 2-AP and the ‘pro-hormone’ androstenedione. Androstenedione is a precursor to the production of testosterone and estrone, and the scientists suggest that its association with 2-AP may indicate that the urine carries clues as to the reproductive state of the binturong leaving it behind.

Reference: Greene, L.K. et al. (2016). Reproductive endocrine patterns and volatile urinary compounds of Arctictis binturong: discovering why bearcats smell like popcorn. Naturwiss. 103: 36-38.

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Grey wolfWolves turn to livestock when wild prey is lacking
Wolves, and specifically the grey wolf Canis lupus, have a long history with mankind. Many of our ancestors shared fields and forests with this large canid across northern Europe and North America until it was progressively eradicated over large parts of its range. Indeed, the grey wolf was once one of the world’s most widely distributed mammal species, but concerns over them killing livestock and peoples’ fears of being attacked have seen their range reduced to about one-third that pre-1500. Here in the UK, wolves hung on until the late 1600s in Scotland and the late 1700s in Ireland. On the continent, wolves suffered steep declines in Italy, surviving only in two small pockets in the southern and central parts of the Apennines. More recently, however, conservation efforts, afforestation projects and reintroductions have seen wolves make something of a comeback to parts of Europe and North America, perhaps most famously to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Plans to reintroduce wolves to Britain have been presented many times in a bid to try to manage the burgeoning deer populations on our island, but so far public opposition appears too great.

A significant barrier to most attempts to conserve or reintroduce wolves, wherever we look in the world, has been continued fears over wolves killing livestock, and many researchers have sought to understand what triggers this behaviour. In a recent paper to the journal Biological Conservation, Alberto Meriggi at the Universita di Pavia in Italy and colleagues present their findings on the factors influencing wolf diet in northern Italy, and they make interesting reading.

Meriggi and his colleagues examined almost 1,500 wolf scats collected from the Liguria region of the country between 2008 and 2013. They picked apart the droppings and found that these wolves were eating mainly wild ungulates, with about two-thirds of their diet consisting of wild boar and roe deer. They also took livestock (about 26% of their diet), particularly goats.  When the researchers compared the prey species taken with prey availability and pack cohesion (i.e. whether the wolves lived in groups or were dispersing individuals/pairs) an interesting trend emerged. There was a strong negative correlation between livestock predation and roe deer abundance. In other words, it looks like wolves prefer to take deer; the tendency to opt for livestock being greater when deer populations are low. Moreover, the data show that wolf packs ate more wild ungulates than dispersing wolves. Indeed, dispersing wolves, which tend to be young individuals with poorer hunting technique than pack members who cover considerable distances in a short time, inhibiting their ability to learn where wild prey is to be found, tend to actively target livestock.

The researchers suggest that wolf predation on livestock can be reduced by boosting deer and boar populations, increasing deciduous woodland cover and implementing non-lethal control/prevention measures for pastures where livestock are reared. The latter point is particularly important because lethal control measures and poaching tend to destabilise wolf packs, resulting in more dispersing animals.

Reference: Imbert, C. et al. (2016). Why do wolves eat livestock? Factors influencing wolf diet in northern Italy. Biol. Cons. 195: 156-168.

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Clever corvids: ravens wary of potential snoopers
Raven in CornwallYou know how that uneasy feeling of being watched can make us behave differently? We might drive more carefully if there’s a police car in view, or leave the Internet well alone if the boss is in the office. Lots of animals do this, and we’ve known for a while now that squirrels, for example, make phoney caches if they think someone is watching them. This is a useful behaviour, but it’s all based on direct evidence – i.e. we see someone and modify our behaviour accordingly. We humans, and recently the suggestion has been also some chimps and monkeys, can take this one step further. We can anticipate that someone might be able to see us, and take precautions. We shield our pin number at the ATM, for example, because we think someone could see what number we’re typing, even though we don’t know that anyone is actually watching. This ability to attribute mental states, such as seeing, to others is what’s known as Theory of Mind. It basically gives us a fear of unseen snoopers.

For years Theory of Mind has typically been considered the preserve of humans and studies suggesting chimps, monkeys and some corvids can also anticipate snooping remain controversial. (Many scientists argue that the experimental design of these studies doesn’t rule out that the test subjects weren’t just responding to the sight of a snooper rather than the thought that one might be able to see them.) A very elegant experiment published in the journal Nature Communications by a team of cognitive biologists in Vienna suggests, however, that ravens may be able to join our previously exclusive club.

Thomas Bugnyar and his colleagues tested ten juvenile ravens, Corvus corax, held at the Haidlhof Research Station in Austria between May and October 2013. The researchers put the birds into a specially-built enclosure with a dividing wall containing a window and a peep hole. When the window was open the birds could easily see through to the other side and they were trained to use the peephole to watch the researchers putting food into the enclosure; this got them used to the idea that they could spy through the peephole even when the window was closed. The biologists then carried out a series of trials to see how birds behaved with their food when there was another raven in the opposite section with the window open (fully visible) and closed (neither bird could see the other). They then closed the window and opened the peephole; but instead of putting a bird in the adjoining enclosure, they put in a speaker and played a recording of a raven. So, in this last experiment there was no direct view of the bird, and no movement, just the sound of another bird next door while the peephole was open.

Bugnyar and his co-workers found that birds behaved in the same way when the peephole was open as when the window was open, caching their food more quickly (in about 8 seconds with the window/peephole open, compared to 14 seconds when the window and peephole were closed) and returning to the cache less often than when the window was closed and they knew nobody could see what they were doing. This suggests that ravens were able to use their own personal experience and infer how another bird might respond in the same circumstances, even though they couldn’t see another bird in the peephole experiment. In other words: ‘I could see the food through that peephole earlier, so if there’s someone in the room next door they might be able to see it too. I’d better be careful.’ Further work is needed, but this is the first highly significant evidence to suggest that Theory of Mind is not a uniquely human trait.

Reference: Bugnyar, T. et al. (2016). Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors. Nature Comms. 7: 10506.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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