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Content Updated: 4th April 2018

SEASONAL UPDATE: April 2018

Lambs

Last month’s start to spring was one that won’t be forgotten for a while. The month opened with the whole county caught in a bitterly cold easterly airflow that brought temperatures well below freezing. Even here in Southampton we saw temperatures drop to -7C (19F) overnight, while parts of Scotland saw negative double figures. A week later and the so-called “Beast from the East” had released its grip and parts of Wales recorded daytime temperatures of 16C (61F), well above the seasonal average. After a week of temperatures closer to what we’d expect for the time of year, the easterly airflow returned and Britain was again subject to snow and temperatures below freezing, albeit only for a couple of days this time. March ended on a mild, wet and windy note.

The tumultuous weather over the last month is likely to spell bad news for many of our hibernating mammals, particularly those that cannot rely on supplemental food left out in gardens when conditions suddenly turn very cold. The silver lining, for gardeners at least, is that this extremely cold start to spring is likely to mean fewer slugs and snails rampaging through the garden this year. We may also see a reduction in the tick population. Currently, the long range models suggest high pressure is likely to develop to the north of the UK in the first half of April, bringing more dry and settled conditions after a mixed start courtesy of a weak jet stream propelling slow-moving low pressure systems.

If you want to get out and do something positive for the start of spring, as usual, the Wildlife Trusts have a series of nature-themed events up and down the country, as do the RSPB. If you feel like being proactive this month and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. The Forestry Commission are running a series of events this month (full list here).

Mole hillMammals: Mid-March is the peak time for fox births, so April is the month during which most litters will emerge from the earth and get their first taste of the outside world. Certainly many rescue centres are starting to see their first fox cubs of the year now. By the time the cubs appear above ground, they’re five or six weeks old and are very playful – brilliant to watch if you’re fortunate enough to have an earth nearby. This is also a good month to see adult foxes out and about as they hunt almost continuously to provide food for their growing cubs. As we’ve passed the spring equinox, the hours of darkness in which foxes can hunt in the countryside are diminishing, so activity is much more likely to spill over into daylight.

Badgers are also becoming increasingly active now; the sow needs to remain well fed so she can provide milk for her growing cubs. Badger cubs will start appearing above ground towards the end of this month or early in May. Brown hares are also very active and it’s a good opportunity to see them chasing and boxing before the vegetation grows taller, obscuring their movements. April is a great month for mole spotting as my parents can testify, having recently seen molehills emerge all over their lawn. As the soil starts to warm up, earthworms move to the surface and the moles follow them. This increase in activity, and particularly activity at such shallow depth, means lots of molehills. If you see a molehill that looks larger than the others and shows evidence of movement, you could be looking at the “fortress”; it’s the focal point of the mole’s tunnel network that marks the location of the roughly football-sized nest in which the pups will be born. The mole’s breeding season started in February and the first litters will be born this month.

Many of our red, fallow and sika deer will cast their antlers now, and some of the larger bucks and stags have already started. The casting process is painless for the deer, who often seem a bit surprised by the sudden loss of head weight. Antlers are usually cast within an hour or so of each other but some may drop a day or more apart, leaving the stag wandering around with only one antler attached. The newly-cast deer will be left with wounds on the top of its head where each antler used to be, but these heal over quickly and growth of the new antler will start immediately, covered in a hairy tissue called velvet. You may be fortunate enough to come across an antler while out walking and, in rare cases, even a pair together. Bear in mind, however, that the cast antler is bone, and offers a valuable source of minerals to the deer as it re-grows it new antlers. Consequently, deer will often eat their cast antlers and you’d be helping them out if you didn’t collect too many. Elsewhere, water voles are now quite active, and April marks the start of the water shrew breeding season, making a walk along your local river a worthwhile activity.

KingfisherBirds: April can often be a bit of a slow month for birders, with many of the winter residents having left and many of the summer visitors having yet to arrive. There are, however, still a couple of great grey shrikes around, and cuckoos can turn up at any time. There’s a cacophony of birdsong now, which is continuing late into the evening thanks to the longer days, and this is starting to include chiffchaffs. These small olive-coloured warblers are resident in some of the south of England and Wales, but many arrive from the continent during March, migrating up the country during the spring and summer.

Great crested grebes will also be looking for nest sites and I’ve seen some photos of these pretty birds in courtship in the last couple of weeks. The crescendo of grebe courtship is called ‘weed dancing’ and involves both birds diving, collecting some weed and then swimming at full-pelt towards one another before rising up on their feet at the last minute and kicking vigorously while turning heads in opposite directions; a spectacle well worth trying to catch.

Mid-April marks the first kingfisher clutches being laid, and they will have several broods during the summer. Kingfishers are more akin to sand martins in their nesting behaviour than other birds; rather than building nests in trees or among ground vegetation, they opt to excavate a chamber in a riverbank. The courtship process begins early in the season, with some males beginning the wooing in February. At first, the male may behave aggressively towards any female present, but this soon subsides. Curiously, the courtship display – which consists of the male standing in a stretched upright position, with wings draped forward and head just above horizontal – is quite similar to the threat display, although it is often accompanied by soft whistling. During the next few days the frequency of courtship displays declines as the pair-bond becomes better established. The male will also chase his prospective mate while calling continually, and will periodically present her with fish to show off his fishing skills and spotlight how suitable a provider he would be for her young.

Ospreys will also be appearing in our estuaries in the next couple of weeks, while swallows, swifts and martins will start screeching across the skies.

Other feathered species to look out for in April include redstarts, hawfinch, Song thrushes, starlings, lapwings, herons, firecrests, Dartford warblers, skylarks, yellowhammers, and egrets. Many birds of prey will start breeding now, including goshawks who may already be on eggs. Tawny owls are the earliest of our breeding owls and many will be on eggs now; watch out for the fluffy light grey owlets sitting on branches near the nest during late April or early May.

Reptiles and amphibians: April is a good month to go out reptile spotting. I’ve seen my first adder of the year already and am hoping grass snakes and lizards won’t be too far behind. Grass snakes can be found in many woodland and farmland habitats, although they are often encountered close to water; they are accomplished swimmers and frequently take frogs and fish. Adders are often found basking in sunny woodland clearings, although heathland is a preferred habitat for them and other reptiles.

Green hairstreakI find warm, dry but overcast days with light winds are often particularly good for reptile photography because it takes them longer to warm up, meaning that they’re less likely to immediately scarper from their basking spot, allowing for a couple of photos. If you do startle a basking adder or grass snake, sit and wait – they often have favoured basking spots and may return to continue basking after 15-20 minutes. It is also worth checking around compost heaps and sunny corners of gardens and allotments for slowworms; these legless lizards are common garden residents. I should take this opportunity to reiterate that, when watching or photographing animals, their well-being must come first. If it looks like you’re disturbing the animal, move away slowly and leave them in peace. I always use a long lens (400mm or longer) to prevent me needing to get too close.

Amphibian-wise, there are still a few spawning frogs to be found, but most of the activity seems to have died down now. Indeed, several of my local ponds are now teeming with very active tadpoles. The ones in our pond are only just starting to hatch thanks to the cold start to spring – remarkable when I think back to 2014 when they were beginning to develop leg buds by this time. Newts are still breeding, however, and it’s worth looking closely in the shallow end of your local pond for the tail-flicking display that the males use to woo females. Once mated, the female lays individual eggs, each wrapped in a leaf. If you check the submerged vegetation around the edge of the pond, you’ll likely find some with leaves folded over; each folded leaf will hide a single egg.

Invertebrates: As the weather warms up, butterflies are becoming an increasingly common sight, with small tortoiseshell, peacock, brimstone and comma about in the New Forest at the moment. Other species to watch out for this month include orange-tip, holly blue, green hairstreak (right), green-veined white, speckled wood and pearl-bordered fritillary. There are also a lot of wolf spiders around at the moment and, as spring progresses, keep an eye out for females carrying pale blue or cream egg sacs. There are plenty of hoverflies around and the endearing little bee-flies doing the rounds of our parks, gardens and woodlands.

The UK is home to about 4,000 species of beetle and April is a good month for turning over logs to look for them. Beetles out and about this month include various species of ladybird, bloody-nosed beetles, minotaur beetles and green tiger beetles.

Plants and fungi: For me, blossom is a sign of spring (even though it often arrives during the late winter) and there is an increasing amount on display now. Verges and banks will soon be alive with colour provided by campion, violets, forget-me-not, and daffodils. A splash of yellow is added to the countryside by cowslip and, if you’re lucky, the now-scarce oxlip. Wild garlic blooms during April, with its distinctive heady aroma filling the air on a warm day. The leaves of wild garlic are edible, but be sure of your identification because similar-looking plants (e.g. Lily of the Valley, meadow saffron, arum lily, etc.) are poisonous.

There isn’t much in the way of fungi about this month, although St George’s mushroom is one of the few that fruits now, producing large, creamy-white caps up to about 15cm (6 in.) in diameter on old grassland and birch woodland.

Discoveries of the Month

Lunatic deer? Deer-vehicle collisions may be associated with moon phase
Britain’s deer population appears to be on the upswing – increasing not only in number but also in distribution. In 2015, the Deer Initiative, a collaborative body of academics, agencies and deer stalkers, estimated there to be about 1.5 million deer in Britain, at least double the number thought to be present in 1999. At the same time, the volume of road traffic in our country continues to rise. According to the Department for Transport, just under 324 billion miles were driven on Britain’s roads in 2016, an increase of just over 2% on 2015’s estimate. Since 1996, the traffic on Britain’s roads is estimated to have risen by about 18%, with a 71% increase in light commercial traffic.

Fallow deer crossing roadOne consequence of a deer population boom and more vehicles on the roads is that a great many deer are involved in road traffic accidents every year. Here in the New Forest, there were 42 deer killed on roads running through the Crown Lands in 2016 and this was not an unusual year – if anything it was below average. At the time of writing Ashdown Forest in Sussex had seen 74 accidents involving deer so far this year. There’s no recent data for the country as a whole, but in 2010 the Deer Collisions Project estimated that there to be some 74,000 road accidents involving deer every year resulting in at least 450 human injuries, many fatal. Consequently, there has been a drive in recent years to establish methods of reducing these accidents, ranging from increasing the popularity of deer stalking and venison (i.e. reducing deer numbers) to devices fitted to cars or installed by the roadside aimed at scaring deer away from roads. Part of solving this complex issue is knowing what triggers deer movements and knowing under what conditions they’re more likely to occur.

In a paper published in Biodiversity and Conservation earlier this year, a team of zoologists, led by Victor Colino-Rabanal at Salamanca University, analysed just over 11,000 records of collisions between cars and three ungulate species (wild boar, Sus scrofa; red deer, Cervus elaphus; and roe deer, Capreolus capreolus) in Spain and one (white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus) in New York State. For all species the peak time for collision was at dawn and dusk, but most interestingly three of the four species showed a very strong correlation with lunar phase. Wild boar, roe deer and white-tailed deer were all most likely to be involved in accidents during full moons and least during new moons. This relationship was particularly prominent for roe deer, with full moons increasing the likelihood of a vehicle collision by 71%. We lack sufficient data on deer ranging studies to properly understand what causes this relationship; but the authors do point to the possibility that moon brightness may also affect driver behaviour.

Interestingly, in one of his early books, The roe deer of Cranbourne Chase, published in 1968, Richard Prior noted how the roe on his ground in southern England were much more likely to be seen out in daylight during periods when the nights had a new moon, with stalking being less successful around the time of the full moon. This does suggest that lunar cycles may play a role in roe deer behaviour and this may, subsequently, be linked to their likelihood of being involved in a road collision if roe are more active at night (and less in daylight) during a full moon.

Reference: Colino-Rabanal, V.J. et al. (2018). Ungulate: vehicle collision rates are associated with the phase of the moon. Biodiv. Conserv. 27: 681-694.

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Sharks suffer when people have access to marine reefs
We have long known that apex predators play a crucial role in the maintenance of ecosystems. What we typically see is that the number of prey species or smaller predators increase when apex predators are removed. Even where predators don’t directly impact the numbers of the species on which they prey, they almost always affect its distribution. This was clearly illustrated with the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-90s. The wolves displaced the elk population, causing them to spend a greater proportion of their time in forest cover and, ultimately, changing the course of the major river in the park. These impacts are fairly easy for us to see, being on land, but those that happen underwater are often much more difficult to recognise.

Caribbean Reef sharkAt the last “count” there were somewhere in the region of 450 species of shark, most if not all of which seem to have an important role in the ecosystems in which we find them. This has not always been recognised and even today, when we’re far more clued in about marine ecosystems than we were even when I was an undergrad nearly 20 years ago, we still appear to have much left to learn. A big step towards trying to protect marine ecosystems, including the sharks that sit high in the trophic cascade, was the introduction of Marine Protected Reserves (MPAs), areas of seas, oceans, estuaries and large lakes in which human activity is restricted, typically for the purposes of conservation. The IUCN group MPAs into seven categories according to their management objectives, and in a great many instances we see ecosystem recovery (e.g. increased fish stocks) when human activity is moderated. Recent research suggests, however, that they may have a limited impact of shark populations, particularly relative to areas where people almost never visit. (Image: A Caribbean reef shark, Carcharhinus perezi, photographed off the Islas De La Bahia, Honduras by Jack.)

In a paper to the Journal of Applied Ecology last month, Université de la Nouvelle-Calédonie biologist Jean-Baptiste Juhel and colleagues present their analysis of the populations of reef sharks in the 15 MPAs of the New Caledonia archipelago in the south-west Pacific. Based on 385 records from baited remote underwater video systems and almost 3,000 visual censuses, shark abundance was between 37% and 80% lower than areas where sharks had not previously been fished for by humans. The coral reefs in the MPAs also had 17% to 45% fewer shark species than those unharvested areas. More specifically, coral reefs located within an hour’s travel time for people had shark populations that were, in the author’s words, so low in abundance that their functional roles are severely limited. The authors conclude:

Our results show that remote areas can offer the last refuges for depleted megafauna and absolute reference conditions to evaluate management options under anthropogenic pressures. Additionally, remote areas can become emblematic places for promoting marine conservation through the media given their unique species assemblages but urgently require additional protection.”

Their recommendation is thus that these isolated areas should be placed under protection by policy makers.

Reference: Juhel, J-B. et al. (2018). Reef accessibility impairs the protection of sharks. J. Appl. Ecol. 55: 673-683.

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Wildlife Online Update

The development of the new website continues apace. At the time of writing, I am just over two-thirds of the way through migrating all of the updated content. It has taken a while to source some particular images that I think enhance the site, so while it’s frustrating that I’m probably not going to hit my target date of a May “go live”, I’m not too disheartened. It’s looking, based on the current rate of progress and a couple of impending holidays and business trips, that late June or early July is likely to be the release date for the new site. I’ll provide some stats about the changes when we actually get it live, but in the meantime, thanks for your patience.

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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: 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 and a special thanks to Marc Stacey for this month's kingfisher photo.

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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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