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WELCOME TO WILDLIFE ONLINE

Content Updated: 4th January 2018

SEASONAL UPDATE: January 2018

New Forest sunrise

First and foremost, a very Happy New Year to my readers and their families. I hope you all had a great Christmas and suitably memorable start to 2018. Sadly, unless you were in the Scottish Highlands last year, it’s likely you missed out on the white Christmas that was forecast back at the start of December. Ironically, after the bookmakers shortened the odds of a white Christmas based on the meteorological models in late November, the festive period was unseasonably mild, with most parts of the county hovering around 11C (52F), a few degrees above the seasonal average of about 8C (46F). The mild, grey, drizzly and windy Christmas weather was courtesy of a ridge of high pressure that developed in the mid-Atlantic at the start of Christmas week, bringing warm air up from the Azores. That’s not to say Britain was bereft of wintry weather for the whole of December, though.

December started on a cold note and, despite a brief spell of mild weather during the second week, most of the month saw temperatures well below average thanks to an Arctic airflow that brought some significant snow as far south as Hampshire. In the early hours of 12th December, Shrewsbury in Shropshire saw temperatures drop to -13C (8.6F), and even here in Southampton city we awoke to  3C (27F). The long range models are currently suggesting an unsettled start to January, with some drier, brighter and colder weather around the middle of the month, particularly for the south of the UK. The Met Office do admit, however, that “Through the first half of January confidence in the forecast remains low”.

If you want to get out and about this month, 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 and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage is looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. The Forestry Commission is also running a series of events this month, details of which can be found here.

Three squirrels chasingMammals: The fox breeding season peaks after Christmas, continuing into January. This is a good time to look for foxes as they’re often seen abroad during the day and in pairs (the dog following the vixen waiting for her to come into estrus). There’s also a great deal of vocalisation as unmated females call to advertise their availability and males fight more as they trespass to find them.

The Chinese water deer rut peaks during December, but may spill over into January, particularly as we had such a mild end to last month. Males “chirrup” at the females while chasing them and strut around “squeaking” and posturing trying to impress the does. Fights are rarely seen, but can be violent as the bucks dance around each other, each trying to slash the other with his tusks. Bucks can frequently be seen sporting gashes on their rumps, patches of fur missing, torn ears and even gouged eyes as rutting activity intensifies.

In common with foxes and water deer, squirrels are also stepping up their activity now; as we enter their breeding season they can be seen chasing each other through the treetops in parks, gardens and woods in this month. Several males may hound a single female, as the group career through the treetops, up and down tree trunks and across lawns.

January is a good month to look for some of our small mammals, particularly voles and mice. Sit patiently in most woodlands and it won’t be long before a rustling in the leaf litter catches your attention; most likely evidence of a bank vole going about its daily chores. Parting long grass in fields will often reveal a network of trails, punctuated with holes leading into the underground homesteads of these rodents. If it snows, most of the small mammals will continue their activities under the ‘blanket’, but wood mice will often travel above it – their tracks look like those of a miniature kangaroo as they bounce across the crust and superimpose their footprints. Water voles can also be seen out and about at the moment, although they are typically less active during the winter months, and may be displaced when river levels rise after periods of heavy rain.

Birds: You may find that your bird feeders are particularly busy at this time of year. As natural food starts becoming harder to find, garden birds are attracted to garden feeders, particularly during very cold and/or snowy weather. With the prey come predators and sparrowhawks are common garden visitors during January as they hunt around bird tables and feeders. Indeed, January is a good month for bird of prey watching more generally, with hen harriers, marsh harriers, buzzards, peregrines and tawny owls being evident this month. The latter of these are now pair-bonding and there is much calling and fighting going on as the pair establishes a territory and defends it from others. Long-eared owls are, I’m reliably informed, easier to see this month because there is less foliage to obscure them, although if you have a lot of tawnies in your neighbourhood you’re less likely to have long-eareds.

There are still some large murmurations of starlings to be seen, and January is good for bird watching by the coast. Our estuaries are still busy with waders (oystercatchers, sandpipers and sanderlings particularly), swans and ducks, and species such as long-tailed ducks, guillemots, red-throated divers and large rafts of great-crested grebes can be found around our coastline this month. At the same time, our woodlands and farmland are playing host to large mixed flocks of finches, with the odd brambling amongst the chaffinches, and thrushes including redwing and fieldfare. Our pine forests are worth a visit to look for crossbills and hawfinch, both of which are active now.

Robin with wormReptiles and amphibians: If the weather remains cold, we’re unlikely to see much activity from our reptiles or amphibians. During milder interludes, particularly towards the end of the month, we may see some early frogspawn and even some snakes or lizards out basking in sunny spots. There were even a few reports of adders out basking in the winter sunshine last month, so it always pays to check.

Invertebrates: The spiders living on the outside walls of our house are still relatively active and I was confronted by clouds of small flies while walking in the New Forest a couple of times last month. The recent rains have also tempted out lots of earthworms, but there are still relatively few invertebrates evident down here at the moment.

The hope for many gardeners is that the couple of weeks of cold weather that we saw in December will have killed off some of the slugs and snails and there may be fewer around this year. I suspect authorities looking to tackle Britain’s growing Lyme’s Disease problem will be hoping a similar situation for the tick population. It has been suggested that increasingly mild and wet winters have resulted in more gastropods and ticks surviving to the spring.

Plants and fungi: January is a good month to look for lichens and some of our lesser-known fern species, including the common polypody, hart’s tongue and the aptly-named hard fern. There also seems to be quite a bit of mistletoe and butcher’s broom around on the New Forest at the moment. The vanilla-scented winter heliotrope is found widely in the UK and flowers during January, while snowdrops may also be found towards the end of this month. Fungi-wise, many of the autumn fruiting bodies are now past their best, but smaller coral spot fungus, the bulbous blackish King Alfred’s cake fungus, and the attractive banded many-zoned polypore can be found in January.

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Discoveries of the Month

Loving snakes and spiders takes practice
For decades scientists have been grappling with the concept of how much of our behaviour is pre-programmed by our genes and how much is learned and shaped by our experiences. A new study by researchers in Austria suggests that our fear of certain animals is congenital.

We know that a “clinical fear” of spiders, i.e. one where the terror is so great it requires medical intervention, affects about 5% of people; but about one-third of the population is thought to harbour a strong dislike of them and previous studies have shown we’re pretty good at spotting their movement. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology last year saw University of Vienna psychologist Stefanie Hoehl and her colleagues test the response of babies to photos of spiders and snakes to see whether this kind of fear was present from birth. The researchers established that they could test their theory using pupillary dilation. In their paper, Hoehl and her colleagues explain:

Pupillary responses, other than those of adjusting to ambient light, indicate activity of the noradrenergic system and therefore an aspect of the stress response.”

In other words – when the pupils dilate it’s an indication that the subject is stressed/frightened. So, using this technique, Hoehl and her team showed pictures of snakes, spiders, flowers and fish (all the same size and colour) to 32 six-month-old babies and measured how their pupils dilated. The pupils were significantly larger when the babies were shown the spiders or snakes than when shown fish or flowers. The researchers concluded:

Not only do infants allocate visual attention more quickly to snakes than other stimuli, they also react to snakes and spiders with physiological arousal indicating involvement of the noradrenergic system.”

So, these data provide further evidence that humans evolved to pay special attention to creatures such as snakes and spiders; animals that could do us harm during our early years.

Reference: Hoehl, S. et al. (2017). Itsy Bitsy Spider…: Infants react with increased arousal to spiders and snakes. Frontiers in Psychology. 8: 1710.

New Forest adder

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Canada geese use cities to give hunters the slip
Our towns and cities can be a mixed blessing for wildlife. For a great many species, urban development removes vital habitat and makes survival impossible. Some animals, however, can take full advantage of our urban landscape and thrive in it. Pigeons, foxes and sparrowhawks are familiar examples of species that make their homes in our cities, taking advantage of the food and shelter they provide throughout the year. Some species seem to turn to city living for only a few months of the year, however, when it serves them best.

In winter, the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Area (GCMA) is plagued with an influx of Canada geese, which overwinter in its parks, storm ponds and even on the roofs of buildings. In a bid to find out why the city plays host to so many birds, a team led by Brett Dorak at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign radio-tracked geese during their winter migration. The results of the study, published in the journal The Condor last year, revealed an interesting pattern.

The researchers expected that the birds would roost in the city at night when it was coldest and fly out to nearby agricultural fields to feed during the day – but they didn’t. Indeed, 85% of the population wintered in the GCMA and none flew out to the fields. Moreover, the exodus from the countryside began in October, which coincided with the start of the goose hunting season. Perhaps more importantly, all of the birds that stayed in the city survived the winter, while about half of those that ventured into the surrounding fields where hunting was allowed were killed. Dorak and his colleagues concluded that the birds take to the city to avoid hunters, returning to their normal rural range when the hunting season closes in January.

Reference: Dorak, B.E. et al. (2017). Survival and habitat selection of Canada geese during autumn and winter in metropolitan Chicago, USA. The Condor. 119(4): 787-799.

Canada geese in flight

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Wildlife Online Update

Well, after my last update back in November, progress on the site’s migration continues. I confess, rather embarrassingly, to having substantially underestimated what a Herculean task it is to migrate all the content over from an old HTML format to a shiny new CMS. Ergo, while I was hoping a couple of weeks working on it could see a go-live at the end of last year, I was sadly mistaken. I can, however, really see the benefits already and am very pleased with the way the new site is taking shape. With that in mind, I must extend special thanks to my web designer, Rob, for his patience! I also want to thank from the bottom of my heart all the people who have been donating their photos to the site over the past few weeks. Wildlife Online would be lost without the generosity of these people and the new site is swallowing up far more photos than the current one.

December was a busy month for me, but I hope to make further advances on the migration during January, and at the time of writing the go-live for the new site looks, tentatively, to be around late April. Part of the new site will include a separate seasonal blog post each month (a replica of this homepage update) and I’m interested if readers have any suggestions for monthly features. For the time being, to increase the amount of time I can devote to migrating content, I’ve resurrected the “discoveries” feature for the next few months, but am open to suggestions of more interesting content.

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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.

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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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