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Content Updated: 5th June 2018

SEASONAL UPDATE: June 2018

Summer dawn

May was a return to summer for much of the UK, with high pressure dominating for most of the month. Aside from a couple of small weather fronts crossing the country bringing thundery showers, we had barely any rain until the end of the month. The main reason for this uncharacteristically warm weather is that the jet stream was much further north in the Atlantic than it has been in previous years, taking the wet and windy weather to Iceland and the far north of Europe. The result is that high pressure dominated and brought warm air from the continent. Indeed, this year saw the hottest early May bank holiday on record (temperatures peaking at 29C / 84F) and, in the run up to the late May bank holiday weekend, the bookmakers Coral had cut the odds of 2018 being the warmest year on record to 4-5. The provisional stats for April, released by the Met Office at the beginning of May show that the mean monthly temperature was 1C (1.2F) warmer than the 1981-2001 long-term average.

Last month ended on a warm and sunny note for Scotland and Northern Ireland, while most of England and Wales were under the influence of low pressure on the continent, bringing some heavy rain and muggy air. The penultimate week of May saw Birmingham receive a month’s worth of rain in just an hour! It remains to be seen what impact this topsy-turvy spring will have on our wildlife, but we already know that many typical spring events, such as the first bluebells and the arrival of swifts and swallows, are much later this year than they were last year. Still, with plenty of warm sunny weather on offer, it looks like a promising start to the year for many of our butterflies.

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).

Chinese water deer with fawnMammals: In my opinion, June is unquestionably the month of baby deer. All of our deer species will be giving birth to their calves, fawns and kids this month - in fact a few already have. With that in mind, it is important to remember the natural behaviour of these animals: they leave their young lying up in vegetation while they move off to feed. Baby deer will clamber to their feet to suckle within about half an hour of birth, but are very unsteady for the first day or so of life and therefore unable to follow their mother or outrun a predator. Consequently, the mother leaves the youngster, which gives off virtually no scent, lying up in long vegetation and goes to feed somewhere else (initially only about 50m away, but up to about a kilometre away after a couple of days), returning several times over the course of the day to suckle them.

When the youngster is a few days old, and much more accomplished on its feet, it will find its own hiding places and lie in wait for its mother to return. If you come across a baby deer lying up in the undergrowth, with its mother nowhere to be seen, please do not touch it or take it in to a rescue centre without good cause (i.e. it’s obviously injured or you know the mother has been killed). It is very rare for mothers to reject/abandon their offspring. Every year wildlife rescue centres receive deer calves that have been “rescued” by well-meaning but ill-informed members of the public. So, if you stumble across a baby deer this month, please just leave it where it is – the mother knows it’s there and will be back to feed it later. Towards the end of the month the youngsters will be up and about following their mothers, and can sometimes be found playing in crèches.

It’s not only baby deer that are around this month. Young foxes and badgers are also above ground and becoming increasingly bold in their explorations. There will also be juvenile stoats and weasels abroad towards the end of the month and you may be fortunate enough to see young moles above ground as they search for a vacant territory, their breeding season having come to a close. We have now also arrived at the first peak in the hedgehog birthing season. Hedgehogs are very active now and will appreciate any food and water you’re able to leave out for them in your garden, particularly during prolonged hot, dry spells. When it comes to deciding what food to put out, remember that moderation is the key. Wet meaty cat or dog food is best, along with some dry cat or dog biscuits, or the special “hedgehog food” which many garden centres and online retailers now sell. Foods such as peanuts, sunflower hearts and, particularly, mealworms are relished by hedgehogs, but should be given in moderation only (think “hedgehog sweets”) because their mineral ratio might cause bone thinning, especially in lactating females. If you find a baby hedgehog, disturb a nest or find a hedgehog out during the daytime, please check out the hedgehog help article on this site or contact the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to be put in touch with your local carer/rescue centre.

Birds: June is a good month for fledgling garden birds and there are plenty of recently fledged robins, starlings, blackbirds, blue tits and goldfinches around, judging by my Facebook newsfeed. Many water birds will have young, including swans, ducks, coots and moorhens, and one pair of my local great crested grebes has chicks.

Most of our swifts and swallows are back and once again I’m treated to the summery sound of swifts screaming overhead while walking to and from work. Their arrival has been much later this year, two months “behind schedule” in the case of swallows, and it is feared that many swifts in particular may fail to breed this year.

June is also a good month for osprey-spotting and there are plenty of cuckoos, warblers and birds of prey around. If you’re out in the woods this month, keep an ear out for squeaking from the branches as June is a great month to look for branching tawny owls. These owls leave the safety of the nest earlier than other species and sit around on nearby branches waiting for their parents to bring home dinner. As they moult they lose their downy grey fluff and begin moving around more, attempting to fly between nearby trees and uttering a curious squeaking noise as they go. Another bird of prey, the hobby, is also back in the UK now having overwintered in Africa, and can be seen hunting small birds and dragonflies over areas of heathland and gorse. If you’re a night owl, nightjars are now arriving back in the UK and their bubbling churr can be heard in some of our heathland and woodland during June. If you're off to the coast to look for seal pups, keep an eye out for cliff-nesting seabirds, including terns, fulmars, razorbills and puffins, which are very active now.

Grass snakeReptiles and amphibians: One of our local beaches has signs up warning dog walkers that there are lots of adders in the area at the moment. Adders are the UK’s only venomous snake species and while a person’s chance of being bitten by one is remote, dogs tend to be at higher risk as they bound through the undergrowth and take the snakes by surprise. The best solution is to keep your dog on a lead in areas where adders are known to be prevalent. In the event your dog is bitten, you should take it to the vet immediately. Carry the dog to the car if possible to reduce its activity, slowing the circulation of the venom, and if you can bathe the bite wound with cold water en route to reduce the swelling. Usually the vet will provide your dog with some pain relief and treat the swelling. On rare occasions anti-venom may be administered, but it’s worth remembering that most adder bites are dry (i.e. no venom is injected).

Male adders are devoting most of their time to feeding as the breeding season has drawn to a close and they’re actually more difficult to find at this time of year, while females will spend more time basking to help speed up the development of their embryos. Grass snakes (right) are also busy hunting and they will often take to ponds and streams to hunt for fish and amphibians. Slowworms and common lizards are still breeding and I’ve seen some excellent photos of slowworms entangled in mating embraces during the last week or so.

The frog tadpoles in our pond are growing fast, although they’re only just starting to develop leg buds. Once legs appear, the tadpoles shift from their vegetarian diet to a much more carnivorous one and become active predators in the pond. Early spawnings are likely to have metamorphosed by now and warm, wet nights in June are good times to head to your local pond with a torch and search for emerging froglets and toadlets. With the spawning season well and truly past now, we tend only to find frogs in or around the pond in the evening – they spend much of the day sheltering in long grass, leaf litter or in the log pile. Newts lag behind frogs and toads in their breeding and some may still be laying eggs this week which will hatch about two weeks later.

Invertebrates: It’s that time of year when my Facebook newsfeed fills up with photos of two things in particular. The first is a long, winged insect with long antennae; these are ichneumon wasps, a species that parasitizes other insects, including beetles, flies and butterflies. Despite their rather menacing appearance, they pose no threat to humans and the large stinger-like appendage on their abdomen is actually used by the female to lay eggs. The second is photos showing clumps of small black and yellow spiders that have been found in peoples’ gardens; these are baby orb-web spiders, most often the garden spider Araneus diadematus, and will shortly disperse into the nearby vegetation to set up their own webs. This year, I’ve found independent spiderlings already.

Magpie mothThere are quite a few spider mums-to-be in our garden at the moment, including crab spiders sitting on egg sacs, cellar spiders carrying egg sacs in their mouths, and wolf spiders carrying around their creamy white/blue egg sacs behind them. The latter of these are devoted mothers; she’ll rotate the sac periodically to ensure both sides get enough sun (warmth) and break it open to add water in the form of saliva to prevent the spiderlings becoming dehydrated. When the spiderlings hatch they will cling to their mother’s abdomen for a week or so and she’ll carry them around.

A walk along my local river at the end of last month yielded mayflies and lacewings in abundance, being hawked by martins and wagtails. Along the same lines, scorpion flies are also around during June; the males of this large yellow-and-black winged insect (actually members of the lacewing family, rather than true flies) have a reddish-brown reproductive organ that looks very similar to a scorpion’s sting. Scorpion flies can’t sting, but they can bite. June is also a good month for beetle-spotting, with ground beetles, stag beetles and glowworms to be found.

There are lots of butterflies and moths around at the moment, including the striking black and orange magpie moth (left), the red-spotted six-spot burnet moth, the fluorescent elephant hawkmoth, several species of fritillary butterfly and the pale blue light emerald moth.

Plants and fungi: The vivid green of many roadside banks and verges is enhanced at the moment by splashes of blue from bluebells, pink from red campion and herb-robert, and white from cow parsley. Bluebell woods are at their best this month and there are plenty of orchids to be found, including the bee orchid, burnt-tip orchids, bog orchids and heath spotted orchids. Keep an eye out for the striking red carnivorous sundew in damp areas around ponds and bogs.

The fruiting season has just started for some of our fungi, including the deep purple amethyst deceiver, the bright yellow chanterelle and the golden-brown honey fungus. Elder is in bloom at the moment and is a magnet for hoverflies, and the sweet scent of honeysuckle is particularly prominent in our garden at the moment.

Discoveries of the Month

Eurasian lynxLynx worry Roe deer more than human activity does

Predators influence the natural history of their prey in a variety of ways, many of which are very subtle. We know that, in many cases, direct predation (i.e. catching, killing and eating) of a population can result in a decline in population density, although it is seldom a straightforward relationship. In other instances, the mere presence of a predator in the area can cause a behavioural response in prey species - perhaps avoiding a particular area, or being more vigilant. Changing behaviour often results in an energetic cost. If an animal spends more time moving around, trying to keep off a predator’s radar, it burns additional calories and has less time to feed, which may have an impact when it comes to breeding or surviving winter. Scientists call this a “non-consumptive effect” of a predator and recent research in the Switzerland suggests Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) impose it on roe deer (Capreolus capreolus).

Between November 2011 and April 2013, a team led by Benedikt Gehr at the University of Zurich tagged 65 roe deer and 15 lynx in the Swiss Alps, equipping them with GPS tags that recorded their location every 30 minutes. The researchers used a computer model to assess the risk avoidance behaviour of roe deer in relation to the lynx, looking at both the perceived risk avoidance (i.e. avoiding areas the deer consider high-risk for lynx) and actual lynx encounters based on the GPS fixes. They then assessed the impact of these behaviours on deer survival.

The results showed that the deer reacted to the risk of lynx predation differently according to the time of day and the season. Lynx avoid people and, consequently, lynx activity was lowest during the day in open areas where there was lots of human activity, and highest at night when there were fewer people about. The choice of habitat by roe mimicked human activity during the daytime, opting for more open areas where there was less chance of meeting a lynx even though it meant exposing themselves to human disturbance. At night, when lynx were more active, the roe kept to the open, away from forest edges where they could be ambushed. In winter, inclement weather forced the roe back into the forest, despite the potential threat of lynx. This avoidance behaviour had a direct impact on deer survival, resulting in higher mortality than expected in lynx-free areas and, overall, the non-consumptive effect of lynx had a 75% stronger impact than human proximity did on deer mortality.

There are still many questions that need to be answered before we fully understand the non-consumptive effect phenomenon, but this research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that population regulation by predators doesn’t just come from the number of a prey population eaten. The stress of avoiding becoming a meal can be a significant drain on prey animals. Moreover, this displacement potentially puts deer at greater risk of being involved in road traffic accidents, being poached or becoming a pest in the human-dominated agricultural and urban habitats lynx avoid.

Reference: Gehr, B. et al. (2018). Evidence for nonconsumptive effects from a large predator in an ungulate prey? Behav. Ecol. 29(3): 724-735.

BonoboMonkey midwifery?

What does it mean to be human? That is, what separates us from every other animal species on the planet? This is a philosophical and biological question that has been debated for centuries. As science advances, and our understanding of the natural world with it, it has become increasingly obvious that things we once thought uniquely human aren’t. We once thought things such as tool use, personality, cultural transmission and even self-awareness (e.g. recognising yourself in a mirror) were all uniquely human traits. Now we know that many other animals possess these, too. Recent research on bonobos (Pan paniscus), a species of great ape found in Africa and arguably our closest living relative, suggests we can strike another off the list: midwifery.

Back in 2014, Pamela Douglas of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany published a paper in the journal Primates in which she described a wild bonobo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo giving birth surrounded by female relatives in March 2013. The other females didn’t appear to intervene, just provide social support. In a paper in press with Evolution and Human Behaviour, however, University of Pisa biologist Elisa Demuru and her colleagues report more advanced assistance from captive bonobos.

Demuru and her team filmed bonobos giving birth in two European primate parks (Apenheul in The Netherlands and La Vallée des Singes in France) in 2009, 2012 and 2014 and reported attending females gesticulating as if they were ready to hold the baby for the mother and being aggressive towards approaching males. We used to think that, for humans, passing a baby through a relatively narrow birth canal requires assistance and this resulted in the need for midwifes, but bonobos have relatively wider canals and can safely give birth on their own, so need no assistance, yet still seem to receive it. The authors conclude:

“… bonobo females stay in proximity to the parturient, support and protect her, even if birth in this species is not hindered by physical constraints and the mother is self-sufficient in accomplishing the delivery. We suggest that the similarities observed between birth attendance in bonobos and humans might be linked to the high level of female gregariousness characterizing these species, differently from chimpanzee.”

Reference: Demuru, E. et al. (2018). Is birth attendance a uniquely human feature? New evidence suggests that Bonobo females protect and support the parturient. Evol. Human Behav. In Press. 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2018.05.003

Wildlife Online Update

There is, as they say, light at the end of the tunnel. All the main content has now been uploaded and final testing will commence shortly. There are a couple more minor things that I need to do, including finishing off the bibliography and completing one final new Speed Read profile before I sign the new site off. Once that’s done, my web designer will sort out the redirects and migrate the site over to the new platform. The site will be down for a few hours while the domain servers update, but then it should be all systems go!

I am hopeful that the July update will be coming to you from this new platform. Thanks for your patience with the upgrade. It’s taken a long time (two years in all, with the last eight months spent uploading the new content), but I’m pleased with how it’s all coming together and I hope you’ll like it to. Once the new site is live, I will turn my attention to preparing new content as I have lots of new QAs and article content that I want to include.

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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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