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Content Updated: 1st July 2018

SEASONAL UPDATE: July 2018

Sunrise over Woburn

June began on a promising note with a warm and sunny first weekend. The following week was less spectacular, particularly here in the south of England, with increasing amounts of cloud and a noticeable intensification of the wind. Indeed, “Storm Hector”, which seemed to appear on the weather forecasts out of nowhere, brought 90 mph winds to the Cairngorms in Scotland, and the middle weekend in June was a windy one wherever you were. Still, it didn’t seem to inflict too much damage, and provided some respite from the high humidity we saw in the second half of May.

Following Hector’s “blip”, summer returned and we saw a fortnight of warm and dry weather across most of the country, courtesy of a jet stream high in the north Atlantic that brought hot air up from Spain. The final week of the month saw temperatures of 33C (91F) at Porthmadog in Wales and Glasgow record its highest temperature ever; 31C (88F) on 28th June. At the time of writing, the long-range forecast from the Met Office suggests this settled theme will continue, although we’re expecting more cloud and possibly some thundery showers out to the west as we kick off July. Protracted periods of warm, dry weather are good for some of our wildlife (wasps, butterflies and newborn deer, in particular), but present considerable challenges to others. Dehydration is a real danger for many of the mammal and bird species visiting our gardens, and you can quite literally be a lifesaver by leaving fresh water out in your garden day and night for the visiting wildlife. Water is more vital than food in this weather.

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).

My hope last month was that I’d be posting this from the new website, but it’s looking like the go-live is likely to be later this month. The overhaul, formatting and link checking is finished and it has now all been handed over to my web developer to work his magic. The updates for the new site will have a slightly different format, but more on that to come next month. In the meantime, here’s this month’s round-up of what’s happening in the natural world as we enter “high summer”.

Dog fox with cubsMammals: Fox cubs are almost fully grown by now, but still full of that playful exuberance that we associate with youngsters. The cubs will be spending less and less time in and around the earth now, preferring to lie-up in nearby cover. The parents will still be hunting to provide food for the cubs, but life will be getting increasingly tough, with mum and dad less easily persuaded to hand over their catch. The cold shoulder from their folks drives the cubs to start catching some of their own food, which at this stage is largely insects and earthworms found close to the earth. Badger cubs are still playful, too, and can be found frolicking close to the sett in the evening and early morning; as with fox cubs, they will now be finding much of their own food, in the form of earthworms. Hedgehogs are also out and about looking for earthworms and, perhaps more importantly, prospective mates, as we’re well into the hog breeding season, with several litters of hoglets having been reported in recent weeks. These three species, all heavily reliant on soil invertebrates at this time of year, can struggle during prolonged hot and dry spells.

My local deer kids, calves and fawns are growing fast and many are up and about following their mothers. I find early morning or late evening to be the best times to go deer watching at the moment, particularly if the weather is hot. Despite most young deer being mobile by now, the calving season is protracted for many species so I will reiterate last month’s plea that if you do come across a baby deer curled up in the long grass, bracken, etc., please don’t touch it. It has been left there by its mum, who knows where it is and will return to feed it; it has not been abandoned and, unless it is in immediate danger, it does not need rescuing. Elsewhere in the deer world, you may start to hear barking in the woods and fields towards the end of the month as July marks the start of the roe deer rut (breeding season) and the bucks bark both to ward off competition and to attract does.

Watch out for young rabbits and stoat kits this month, too.

Birds: Now is a good time to go out looking for owls, because many owlets will be in the final stages of fledging and increasingly mobile. The downside to this time of year is that dense foliage may obscure your view. Nonetheless, in my local woods there has been a lot of calling by recently fledged tawny owlets, which is helpful for tracking them down. The fledgling birds in the garden now have lost most of their juvenile plumage and are starting to look more like small adults, although some species (particularly blackbirds and robins) may be tending their second brood by now. In the New Forest, it seems that there are juvenile wrens everywhere, and a bumper crop of redstarts and woodpeckers. Nightjars are also back on the Forest and Dartford warbler activity should be picking up on heathland this month.

The stonechats are still very visible, if quieter than of late, and the song of the easily-overlooked corn bunting, which sounds like the “clacking” of a bicycle wheel, can be heard on downland. Winchat, wheatears and yellowhammers are also prominent on heathland during July, and there are plenty of ducklings and goslings still about. Most raptor chicks will either have fledged by now or be well on their way. 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 seen some superb photos of well-grown peregrine and sparrowhawk chicks recently as well.

Reptiles and amphibians: Observing reptiles is more difficult at this time of year, particularly when overnight temperatures don’t drop far; activity can continue after dark and the snakes and lizards hardly need to bask. When temperatures do drop overnight, however, an early trip out just after sunrise can be rewarding – remember to tread lightly as reptiles respond to vibrations in the ground more than those in the air (i.e. they don’t much care if you’re chatting, but they will scarper if they hear you stomping around). Despite not being found out basking as often during July, our reptiles are busy breeding, so it is not uncommon to have an adder, grass snake or lizard cross your path hot on the scent of a female, oblivious to your presence.

The amphibian world is also busy at the moment, with many frog and toad tadpoles having metamorphosed and left the pond. In our pond we still have a vast range of sizes of common frog tadpoles. Some are no more than a centimetre long, others are chunky beasts with well developed back legs, and there are a few tiny froglets around too. 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.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on your pond and removing excessive blanket weed if you can. In the very warm and sunny conditions last month the blanket weed bloomed in our pond and we found ourselves pulling handfuls out each week despite our pond being tiny. I’m told blanket weed can entangle and drown froglets and it can certainly deplete the oxygen levels in the pond water; this is even more of an issue in hot weather when the water is already low in oxygen. If you don’t have a pond in your garden, or if your pond doesn’t have tadpoles, and you want to see some froglets, head out to your local pond after dark with a torch during this month; warm, damp nights offer the greatest prospects of finding these miniature frogs and toads.

Cinnabar moth caterpillarsInvertebrates: July is usually a good month for bees, wasps, flies and hoverflies, with many of our solitary bees are very busy. This year seems particularly good, in no small part thanks to the run of warm and sunny weather we’ve been experiencing. 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 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 - we found a female beetle wandering down the street just along from our house at the end of last month - 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 abdomens.

There are still glowworms out and about; the females being the ones that glow, crawling to the top of tall grass to flash their beacons and attract passing males. Males and females favour the same types of habitat: damp areas with tall grass. Consequently, glowworms tend to be encountered in meadows, on commons, in orchards, roadside verges, railway embankments and even on some garden lawns with low-growing vegetation. Nonetheless, there are records of glowworms on woodland rides, cliffs, heathland and even in the valleys of Wales and Scotland, although these appear to be outliers. The type of habitat glowworms favour means that they are most likely to be found on the chalk grassland/downland in southern England and coastal Wales. Despite a couple of unverified reports, glowworms are believed to be absent from Ireland and the Isle of Man.

July is ordinarily a good mothing/butterflying month, with plenty of large, showy hawk moths around, but this year numbers appear low. Nonetheless, 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 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; black wings with a red stripe and two red spots at the base of each wing are cinnabar moths. Cinnabars will have laid their eggs now and these hatch out into small black and orange caterpillars that can be found smothering their main food plant, hawkweed (above, left). (In our garden, when the hawkweed is overcrowded, the caterpillars have also moved onto contiguous stems of lavender and grass.) 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: There are still some bluebells in flower next to the cow parsley and campion in the roadside banks. July is the peak flowering month for gorse and heather, while soggy areas are awash with the bright yellow of bog asphodel and red of carnivorous sundew. July is also a good month for orchid-spotting, with the southern marsh in flower on grassland, heath spotted orchids found on acid heathland, and common spotted orchids on chalk downland.

Fungi-wise there is some chicken of the woods and Russula to be found this month.

Discoveries of the Month

Staying indoors is no protection from pesticides for bees
Pollen-covered bee emerging from hollyhoc.Chemicals have been used in agriculture for decades with the aim of killing off both invertebrate species that damage plants (pesticides) and weeds that compete with the crop for nutrients (herbicides). We’ve known for many years that the use of such products is often non-specific - it affects target and non-target species alike - but early attention only really considered mammals. As a result, a new suite of chemicals was developed that were safer for mammals. Unfortunately, the scale of the impact of some of these pesticides on non-target insects, such as bees, is only now becoming evident. Additionally, these newer chemicals are “systemic”, which means they’re incorporated into the plant as it grows, adding a new dimension to the problem. New research suggests the systemic nature of these pesticides makes exposure much more widespread than with traditional spray-on chemicals that only coat plants.

Most of us have heard mention of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority introduced a partial ban on these agrochemicals, but many are still widely used. Indeed, neonicotinoids are currently the most widely-used agricultural pesticides in the world, favoured because they pose little threat to mammals and are systemic. In other words, the crops take up the chemicals through their roots so it reaches every part of the plant. This provides good all-round protection, but “every part of the plant” also includes the pollen and nectar collected and consumed by bees. The result is that some of these chemicals are now found in honey stores of bee hives.

Last month, the Journal of Experimental Biology published a study by Carolina Goñalons and Walter Farina, both at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina, looking at the impact of pesticide use on honey bees (Apis mellifera). The researchers were particularly interested in how colony members that never left the hive were affected, and fed worker bees they nurtured from hatchlings pollen and syrup coated with the neonicotinoid imidacloprid, the herbicide glyphosate, or a combination of the two. The bees were then assessed for their ability to taste and remember smells.

Goñalons and Farina found that both the pesticide and herbicide reduced the experimental workers’ sense of taste. Control bees (those fed with non-contaminated food) responded to a 10% sugar solution, while the experimental workers didn’t respond until presented with a much stronger (30%) solution. In addition, their ability to recognise and respond to different smells (sweet vs. fruity) was impaired. The presence of glyphosate also reduced the workers’ food uptake during nurturing, potentially impacting their growth and development. Overall, this study presents the disturbing possibility that even bees which have never set foot outside their hive can be negatively affected by pesticides brought back by foraging members of the colony and, perhaps more importantly, that herbicides can also be detrimental to bee health. In their paper, the researchers conclude:

Sucrose sensitivity of pre-foraging bees is associated with their foraging behaviour. Therefore, detrimental effects on gustatory perception and olfactory learning would impact overall nectar distribution, which would imply that the hive could face the end of the season with limited and potentially contaminated resources.”

Reference: Goñalons, C.M. and Farina, W.M. (2018). Impaired associative learning after chronic exposure to pesticides in young adult honey bees. J. Exp. Biol. 221. [doi: 10.1242/jeb.176644].

Hunting pressure changes maternal behaviour in bears
In most cases, reaching maturity and flying the coop is something that both kids and their parents look forward to. Indeed, having offspring hanging around once they’re sexually mature can be a significant drain on resources, not to mention cause sexual conflict with other members of the social group and potentially lead to inbreeding. Hence, where we see such philopatry, it tends to be where resources are plentiful and it is typically females, rather than males, that hang around on their parents’ territory. New research on brown bears (Ursus arctos) in Sweden suggests, however, that hunting by humans may alter this expected family dynamic.

Brown bear in pool.The study, led by Joanie Van de Walle at the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada, looked at 20 years  of detailed observations on a population of brown bears living among the conifer forests of Dalarna and Gävleborg counties in south-central Sweden. In this part of the country, hunting is the biggest cause of bear mortality, with the season running from around mid-August to mid-October, or until the regional quota has been filled. Hunters are allowed to shoot solitary bears, but those with cubs are protected by law and cannot be hunted. Female bears produce up to four cubs during January, which they nurture for either 1.5 or 2.5 years, depending on habitat, before the family unit breaks down during spring, in time for the females to be in oestrus for the breeding season to begin in May. Cutting the apron strings increases the bears’ reproductive potential, allowing them to have more cubs, and reduces the demand on resources in their home range.

In a paper to the journal Nature Communications last month, Van de Walle and her colleagues report that the “2.5-year tactic” wasn’t observed until 1995 and, by 2005, had been adopted by about 7% of females. In 2015, however, 36% of litters remained with their mother for 2.5 years. One might expect this to be a response to a change in food availability, but the researchers noted that the bears’ main food plant, bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), hadn’t declined over the same period. Instead, they suggest:

“… an increase in hunting quotas and hunting pressure since 1993 may have disproportionally removed fast-reproducing females, thereby artificially selecting for females that provide longer periods of maternal care in the population. Indeed, we show that the fitness pay-off of each reproductive tactic depends on harvest intensity, with lower hunting pressure selecting for shorter maternal care and higher hunting pressure selecting for longer maternal care.”

In other words, because hunters shoot solitary bears, females who nurture their cubs for only 1.5 years are most likely to be shot than those that let the kids hang off the apron strings for longer. An uneven mortality is applied to the population, which selects for bears that adopt the 2.5-year tactic, because this means they’re less likely to be shot and therefore more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation.

Reference: Van de Walle, J. et al. (2018). Hunting regulation favors slow life histories in a large carnivore. Nature Comms. 9: 1100 [doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-03506-3]

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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.

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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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