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Content Updated: 6th April 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: April 2017

Bluebells

A wet and windy start to March, with even more ‘flip-flopping’ of temperatures; mid-teens for a few days then mid-single figures. Several successive low pressure systems brought torrential rain and strong winds to Britain during the first week or so of March, with snow in Scotland and the West Country. By the middle of the month we were back into mid-teens for a few days, during which some parts of the UK were warmer than Ibiza, before Scotland and northern England were back into low single Celsius. Come Mothering Sunday weekend the weather was warm, dry and sunny, albeit with a nagging easterly wind, and March ended on a bright and dry note for most of us. The suggestion from the current models is that our weather will continue to be dominated by Atlantic systems, but that they will start to become more distantly spaced, resulting in longer dry settled spells to start April. Certainly the first weekend of April was generally warm, dry and sunny, so we seem to be off to a good start.

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 are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. The Forestry Commission are also running a series of events this month, details of which can be found here.

Fox cubsMammals: April is the month of fox cubs. Some early-born litters will be out and about by now, but most vixens give birth during mid-March, and their cubs appear above ground at four to six weeks old, in mid to late April. As the cubs grow, so too does their confidence, and they will start playing farther from the earth, but initially they will stick close by the entrance to the earth and will vanish at the first disturbance. Once they appear above ground, the cubs will supplement the milk provided by their mother (and sometimes big sister or aunt, depending on the social structure of the group) with food brought back by the parents and any ‘helpers’. Consequently, April is also a good month to see foxes, because the adults in the group are busy hunting for themselves and their cubs, causing their activity to increasingly spill over into daylight, particularly given that daylight hours are increasing. Many badger clans will also have cubs by now, although the youngsters don’t tend to emerge from the sett until May at around eight weeks old.

The trailcam has picked up a resumption of hedgehog activity in our garden, as also evidenced by the increasing amount of hedgehog scat to be found on the lawn, and I would be most surprised if there were any hogs still in hibernation by now. Please remember that hedgehogs lose a lot of weight during hibernation and they often arouse hungry and thirsty, so if you can leave some food and (more importantly) a saucer of fresh water out at night, this can literally be a life saver for them. Now the hedgehogs are up and about, they will spend a few weeks feeding before their attentions move to breeding. Our deer are also now undergoing a change, moulting into their summer coat and having lost, or being in the process of losing, their antlers (well, in the case of red, fallow and sika). At this time of year the deer will spend most of their time feeding, particularly the females, many of which will be pregnant. I have seen some Roe deer that have now completed their antler development, but many still seem to be in velvet at the moment.

Elsewhere in the mammal world, April is a great time to go for a walk with the bat detector - bats, too, will be out of hibernation now and looking for food. There should be lots of small mammal activity evident as well, so keep an eye out for bank voles, shrews and wood mice in your local parks and woodlands.

Loathed by many gardeners but endeared to generations of children that have grown up with Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 book, The Wind in the Willows, there can be few other British animals that are as well-known but as seldom seen as the mole. Few people have ever seen a live mole, and yet large spade-like front paws, tiny eyes and soft black velvety fur are all characteristics that we immediately associate with this mammal, thanks, in part, to Arthur Rackman’s true-to-life illustrations of Mole in Grahame’s novel. Molehills tend to start appearing in greater numbers during April, much to the fury of gardeners, and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, as the weather warms up, earthworms move up into shallower soil and the moles follow them. Secondly, it is the mole breeding season. The breeding season spans late February to early June in the UK (starting earlier in southern England than in Scotland, presumably in response to spring temperatures) and the female mole is receptive to mating for only three or four days during each cycle. Gestation lasts for about four weeks with most pups born during April and May in southern England and June or July in Scotland; in southern England, a second mating may occur during the summer.

Chiff chaffBirds: April can be a bit of a slow month for birders, with most winter visitors having left but many of the summer visitors not yet arrived. There are, however, still a couple of great grey shrikes around, and April is the month we typically start hearing cuckoos calling here in Hampshire. One thing that has become very noticeable in the warm, sunny evenings of late is the cacophony of birdsong continuing late into the evening, thanks to the longer days. Chiffchaffs (left) are all over the place at the moment; 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. My local great crested grebes are showing intense interest in a couple of the nest platforms on a local lake, and there has been some preliminary courtship (i.e. the pair facing each other, turning their heads and craning their heads backwards). 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 seeking out.

Ospreys will 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. Here on the New Forest, at least one of the goshawk pairs is on eggs now. Tawny owls are the earliest of our breeding owls and many will be on eggs now; watch for the fluffy light grey owlets sitting on branches near the nest during late April or early May.

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. Here in the New Forest we recently had problems with a photographer interfering with a bank used by kingfishers for nesting. Please be aware that kingfishers are afforded the highest legal protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and it is an offence to take, injure or kill a kingfisher or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young. It’s also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season, and anyone caught and successfully prosecuted can face fines of up to £5,000 per offence and/or up to six months in prison.

Reptiles and Amphibians: April is a good month to go out reptile spotting, with all species out and about. 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 also a good habitat for them and other reptiles. I find warm, dry but overcast days with light winds are 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. We had three adders out basking between heavy showers one Sunday early last month. 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 wellbeing should always 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 (300mm or longer) to keep a respectful distance.

Amphibian-wise, there are still a few spawning frogs to be found, but most of the activity seems to have died down. Indeed, several of my local ponds are now teeming with very active tadpoles; the ones in our pond will start to develop leg buds before long. 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, wrapping each 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.

Brimstone butterflyInvertebrates: As the weather warms up, butterflies are becoming an increasingly common sight, with small tortoiseshell, peacock, brimstone (right) and comma about in the New Forest. Other species to watch out for this month include orange-tips, holly blues, green hairstreak, green-veined white, speckled wood and pearl-bordered fritillary. There are also a lot of wolf spiders around now; our lawn and the New Forest grasslands are covered with these small brown arachnids at the moment. As spring progresses, keep an eye out for females carrying pale blue or cream egg sacs. There are also 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 this month is good for turning over logs looking 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 plenty around at the moment. Verges and banks are now 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 is also in bloom 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. St George’s mushroom is one of the few that fruits during April, producing large, creamy-white caps up to about 15cm (6 in.) in diameter on old grassland and birch woodland.

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Discovery of the Month – Super-sensitive seals can feel fish breathing under the sand

Common sealIt’s a tough life being a fish, particularly a small one, because you find yourself on the menu for lots of animals bigger than you. A few species have evolved elaborate defence strategies involving spines, warning patterns and toxins, but most must rely on simply fleeing and/or hiding. When a seal has you in its sights, however, neither of these tactics guarantee success.

There are about 18 species of seal on Earth today and they range in size from the small 70 kg (155 lb.) Baikal seal (Pusa sibirica) to the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), a behemoth that weighs in at about 4,000 kg (8,800 lbs.). One thing the majority have in common is that the bulk of their diet is made up of fish. Having been around for some 12-15 million years, they have evolved to be spectacularly efficient at seeking and catching their piscine prey. A significant part of their detective equipment is their whiskers, more technically referred to as vibrissae, and these are incredibly sensitive to vibrations. As objects move through water, they create pressure waves as they push the fluid out of their way; these wakes can hang around to belie the presence of the traveller even after they’re out of sight. A study published in 2000, for example, demonstrated that the wake of a goldfish remained in the water for up to three minutes after the fish had passed. More intensive movements from ‘fast starts’ can stick around for several minutes longer. Work by Wolf Hanke at the University of Rostock in Germany and his team has shown that seals are able to pick up these wakes and use them to track down their target. More recently, however, Hanke and his co-workers have found that seal vibrissae may be even more sensitive than we first thought.

Hanke and his colleagues trained their captive common seals Filou and Luca to swim around the enclosure with and without a blindfold. They then setup a platform with eight nozzles, angled at 45 degrees, that let out an angled jet of water. Flatfish hiding under the sand release small but relatively powerful jets of water, at about 25 cm per second, at a roughly 45-degree angle as they breathe, so the idea was to test how sensitive the seals were to these camouflaged fish. The scientists found that the blindfolded seals were very good at detecting the jets from the platform whether it was blasting at them or away from them. Moreover, when they began pulsing the jet, to match the breathing pulse of a buried flatfish, neither seal had any problem quickly locating the active jet. It did appear, however, that fast swimming speeds made the seals more likely to overshoot the jet, potentially missing a meal had it been an actual flatfish. The seals were most successful locating the vent with their vibrissae when swimming at speeds between 40 and 80 cm per second. In their paper to the Journal of Experimental Biology earlier this year, the researchers suggest:

It seems conceivable that the detection of breathing currents by predators is one of the evolutionary drivers for this respiratory suppression in fish that try to avoid being detected via hydrodynamic stimuli.”

In other words, flatfish might hold their breath when they see a seal approaching in a bid to escape being betrayed by their breathing.

Reference: Niesterok, B. et al. (2017). Hydrodynamic detection and localization of artificial flatfish breathing currents by harbour seals (Phoca vitulina). J. Exp. Biol. 220: 174-185.

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Profile of the Month – Philip Jones (Wildlife Photographer)

Tell us a little about yourself
Heron with fishMy name is Philip Jones and I live in Leicester in the heart of the Midlands. I’ve long had a passion for wildlife, stemming back from when I watched and was inspired by the Animals of Farthing Wood TV series. This interest progressively built up throughout my school years, finally getting into photography properly when I bought my first DSLR camera and stumbled upon Wildlife Online about ten years ago. As well as wildlife and photography, I have a love of all things stationary steam, and I volunteer at a local museum where I get to work on the massive steam beam engines in my spare time. Despite living in Leicester, I have a fondness for anything Robin Hood related (which also stems from childhood), combine that with a love of all things vulpine and you pretty much have the perfect Disney film for me!

So, as you can see, besides photography I have quite a wide variety of hobbies and interests, far too many to list in detail here!

When did you first realise that you had a talent for photography?
Well, my father has an eye for a good photo and I’d like to think some of that rubbed off on me! He has always been a very keen photographer. My father had bought a small digital camera in about 2005 and he occasionally let me borrow it. My polaroid was very limited with what it could do and I yearned for something better after having a go with my father’s small digital camera. In 2007 I stumbled across Wildlife Online and saw all the stunning photos that were being taken with DSLRs. It took a few years after that for me to be able to save up and afford one due to various circumstances. I bought my first DSLR in 2010/11 and wasted no time making use of it. My father gave me encouragement when he saw the first shots I had taken with it and he encouraged me to submit a few photos to the local paper, which to my great surprise actually got published! That gave me the enthusiasm and impetus to continue to develop my photography skills; not to mention the good advice from yourself and many others I know.

What drives and/or inspires you to photograph?
Firstly, my love for wildlife and the outdoors, coupled with the fact I live in a beautiful country with many wonderful locations (a few of which are on my doorstep) and photographic opportunities. Secondly, I would say that the many talented photographers I know also inspire me to get out there and keep shooting.  I’m also very privileged to know several wonderful artist friends who also inspire me with their creative efforts in both traditional and digital media.

Sherwood ForestWhat subjects do you enjoy working with most and why?
My main subject is wildlife; but I have also started getting back into a bit of landscape photography as you can see from the nice forest shot taken in the heart of Sherwood Forest (left). I’m also a qualified private pilot and I have combined my love of flying with my love of photography so I have recently started taking aerial photos too (below).

If you had to pick one of your pictures that was your favourite, which one would it be and why?
I think my favourite photo would have to be the one with the Grey Heron with its dinner (above), simply because it was a great behavioural shot and I was pleased with how the photo came out. If I was allowed to pick a second favourite it would have to be the shot of two foxes meeting at a territorial boundary as again it was a great behavioural shot.

If you could photograph anything in the world, what would it be and why?
Foxes, foxes and more foxes! Only because they are my favourite animal and that I’ve only ever had fleeting glimpses of this sometimes elusive mammal in the wild.

If you had one piece of advice for budding wildlife photographers, what would it be?
Embrace the environment you are shooting in and open up all of your senses to it. Some of the best photos I have taken of wildlife have been when I have heard my subject before actually spotting it, allowing me to react and get a great shot that I could easily passed by or missed out on. It pays to stay alert and investigate every sound you hear and you may just be rewarded by something that betrays its presence to you. All your photographic subjects use their full array of senses, so you would be wise to use yours too, even if they are inferior! I’ll probably close this with my favourite personal quote: “Your nose is before your eyes, so trust it first!”

Papplewick from the air

You can see more of Philip's photos, and find out more about his steam obsession, at his Swift Fox Steam Co. website. If you're interested in getting involved and being featured on here later this year, please get in touch via the normal route.

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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.

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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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