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Content Updated: 4th February 2017

SEASONAL UPDATE: February 2017

Frosty New Forest Pony

The UK experienced yet another weird month, weather-wise, during January – periods of unseasonably mild weather punctuated by very cold conditions. A mild New Year’s Day was followed by a week-long cold spell, with temperatures in rural Oxfordshire dipping to a chilly -8C (18F). Milder, wetter weather swept through the week after that, with a positively balmy (for January) 12C (54F) recorded in the south-east of England during the second week. At times, the dichotomy in temperature across the country was stark. On the 20th, for example, the country woke up to 8C (46F) in Lerwick and -6C (21F) in south Farnborough. It was generally milder in the north than the south throughout the month, and the northern half of the UK on average had the sunnier skies as well. There was some snow around the middle of the month, even here in Southampton, but it was short-lived. Towards the end of the month, the UK was plagued by dense fog that caused havoc on our roads and cancelled flights. A final couple of days of icy weather came in the penultimate week when a change in air direction brought cold air from the continent and saw daytime temperatures drop to “highs” of 0C (32F) in some parts of the Midlands, with the wind chill making it feel like -5C (23F). It lasted only a couple of days, however, and soon mild conditions returned.

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 this month and live near the coast, Surfers Against Sewage are looking for people to organise cleans of their local beaches – details here. Alternatively, if your plans only include a walk in your local woods or park, let’s take a look at what you might expect to see this month.

Red fox huntingMammals: February is a busy time for many of our mammals. Red foxes are coming to the end of their breeding season now, so the calling starts to die down and long-range movements become less frequent. Many vixens will now be pregnant and, towards the end of the month, they will start looking for an earth (den) in which to give birth to their cubs. So, if you have any holes under your shed or outbuilding that you don’t want a fox potentially using as a nursery, now is the time to block the entrance. Check out my Deterring Foxes article for further information. Badgers are also starting to become more active, and you may have noticed mating behaviour, in the form of gangs of squirrels racing madly through the trees, in the squirrels in your garden or local park. Brown hares can be seen boxing this month; the lack of vegetation makes it easier to spot them. Similarly, low vegetation during the winter makes it easier to spot many species that often go about unnoticed, such as mice and voles or even stoats and weasels. Indeed, stoats are very active in February as males are out securing territories and looking for potential mates, while females are looking for potential den sites and checking out local food supplies.

This winter is unlikely to have benefitted our hibernating mammals – continual fluctuation between cold and mild spells can upset their arousal rhythm and lead to them burning off all their fat reserves before winter is over. In the event that February is cold, hedgehogs, bats and dormice are likely to continue to remain in hibernation. Most of our small mammals, by contrast, are always active and continue to be so, even under blankets of snow, continuing their day-to-day chores in this subnivean zone. Moles are also very active now, and they start to extend their tunnel systems and spend time nearer the surface, so you might notice molehills cropping up this month.

Birds: February is often a rewarding month to watch the birds in your garden, particularly if you put food out for them. Species that often stay away from gardens and bird feeders can be tempted in if it gets very cold and natural food becomes scarce – blackcaps, fieldfares, redwings and bullfinches can all turn up in gardens at this time of year. There seem to be a considerable number of redwings around at the moment, and there were large flocks feeding in Bedfordshire at the end of last month. Our birds of prey are also still very active, and we have some hen harriers overwintering on the New Forest. Barn owls can be seen hunting during the daytime, particularly where there is snow on the ground, and tawny owls are pair-bonding in preparation for breeding. Tawny owl calling and fighting is often very apparent during this month and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear it on any nocturnal walk in a woodland or park.

Our lakes, reservoirs and estuaries play host to a wide range of waterfowl, including various ducks, geese and herons. Estuaries and marshes are often a draw for birds of prey such as marsh harriers, hen harriers, short-eared owls, peregrines and even merlins as they target the smaller bird species overwintering there. There are still a few great grey shrikes around, as well as large flocks of winter thrushes and finches, and some meadow pipits and skylarks. Indeed, if you’re out for a winter walk in the woods, keep an ear out for the ‘chitterings’ of the striking orangey-red crossbills as they move en masse between fir trees. While you’re among the pine trees, keep an eye out for the bright yellow siskins and the orangey-yellow hawfinch, Britain’s largest finch species. During your walk, scan any flocks of chaffinches for the odd brambling along for the ride. Snow buntings often travel in large groups during February, with their soft whistling calls heard along the north and eastern coasts. Firecrests and goldcrests are also about at this time of year, and these tiny restless birds can really add a spark to a cold winter walk.

FrogspawnReptiles and Amphibians: People are often surprised to come across reptiles during February, but it is a better month for ‘herping’ than you might think. As the sun’s rays offer more warmth, snakes and lizards can be found out basking in sunny spots, even when the air temperature is in single figures. Owing to the cold, they tend to be reluctant to move even when disturbed, which can allow for some great views. If the mild start to February continues, many of our reptiles and amphibians will be tempted out of torpor. If February is cold, toads and newts are likely to be holed up somewhere out of the winter weather, while many areas will start seeing their first frogspawn of the year. Frogs mate early and it is not unusual to find frogspawn in February, some ponds here in the New Forest already have some and I've seen a few Facebook posts suggesting some folk have it in the garden ponds too, although much of it will be killed off by frost.

Invertebrates: Normally for a February update I’d be saying how insects and spiders are now starting to resume activity as the weather warms up but, certainly here in the south, some species are active already. At the end of last month I spotted a couple of bees on the wing and many of the spiders in and around our conservatory have resumed normal service, owing to the mild conditions. Of course, activity in February it is not necessarily unexpected for all invertebrate species. Those butterflies that over-winter as adults – such as small tortoiseshell, peacock and brimstone – are often seen among the hedgerows this month searching for the early flowers. Queen bumblebees have the ability to, metaphorically speaking, take their wings out of gear and fire their large flight muscles to generate heat that allows them to warm up sufficiently to resume activity. Wood ants set about rebuilding their winter-ravaged nest this month, and seething tangles of black ant bodies can be found covering the nests as they join together in a bid to absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible.

Plants and Fungi: As we get towards the end of February and the weather starts to warm further, the longer days and milder temperatures result in a veritable explosion of plant life. There are already snowdrops in abundance down here in Hampshire, and this month should also see flowering alder, goat willow, lungwort, dog’s mercury, primroses, crocuses and yew. Sweet violet and three-cornered garlic also make early appearances in February. Poisonous sulphur tuft fungi can be found sprouting from dead wood (old tree stumps and fallen branches) during this month, and some similarly inedible polypore and twiglet fungi can also be found. For the fungi forager, February woodland can yield jelly ear, oyster mushrooms, velvet shank and a few wood blewit.

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Discovery of the Month: New software can automatically identify individual sharks by their fins

Shark fin mappingA big part of any species conservation effort is to understand how many animals you have, where they hang out, and how far they travel. In order to collect some of these data, it helps to be able to uniquely identify individuals. Typically, this is done by marking animals - using unique fur/skin patterns or permanent injuries, or attaching tags or colour paint. When it comes to sharks, particularly big powerful ones, the problem is complicated because we often have to catch and restrain them while we attach a tag to their dorsal fin. This is no small task; it’s labour intensive and potentially dangerous for both the researchers and the sharks.

We’ve known for a long time that the nicks and scratches that sharks pick up on their dorsal fins as they grow can be indicative of the individual. This means that, with a good enough view of the fin in, say, a photograph, you can identify the individual shark. A problem with this technique, however, is that someone has to sit and sort through photos trying to match the fin with one on file , and an element of human error easily creeps in, particularly if old wounds start to heal or new ones are picked up. Last year, University of Bristol computer scientists Ben Hughes and Tilo Burghardt developed a computer model that can automatically run a dorsal fin analysis and identify the fin’s owner, potentially quicker and more reliably than doing it by eye. (Image: Part of Figure 10 from the paper, published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, showing the individual identification examples using the algorithm. Image on the left are queries and right ones are predicted individuals based on photo database. Coloured lines indicate start and end of the ten sections contributing most evidence for the matched individual.)

In a paper submitted to the International Journal of Computer Vision, Hughes and Burghardt described the mathematics and programming behind their identification system. I’m not going to pretend I’m familiar enough with computational modelling to explain exactly what this computer model does, but in essence the computer vision photo system scans a photo of a shark’s fin, identifies all the contours, and compares it to a database of contour values from the 240 photos that were used to ‘train’ the system. As the system uses all the contours of the fin, rather than just the basic superficial appearance, and it is sensitive enough to detect small dents and nicks, even if the fin sustains damage later on, the software may still be able to correctly identify it. Based on the photos they used in the training, the software was able to identify individuals with at least 82% accuracy, and the hope is that this can be further improved by introducing more photos. Given that many shark species can be baited and will readily swim with their dorsal fin breaking the surface when approaching the bait, it is a relatively straightforward process to get a high quality photo of the dorsal fin. This system then offers great potential to provide much-needed data on how many sharks are in an area and help build a picture of their movements. It may also be applicable to citizen science projects working with sharks, further expanding its scope.

Reference: Hughes, B. & Burghardt, T. (2016). Automated Visual Fin Identification of Individual Great White Sharks. Int. J. Comp. Vis. doi:10.1007/s11263-016-0961-y

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SharkStuff StandProfile of the Month: Georgia French, SharkStuff

Tell us a little about yourself
I’m the Founder and Chairperson of SharkStuff, a legally constituted small charity based in Poole, Dorset. I’m also a full-time PhD candidate studying great white sharks. I moved to Dorset three years ago after living in the Seychelles for four years, where I spent three and a half years working for the Marine Conservation Society, Seychelles as Project Coordinator. I managed projects on coastal development, turtles, and sharks, and was responsible for shark tagging and designing protected areas. Previous to working in the Seychelles, I earned a degree in Zoology from Cardiff University and a Masters in Wildlife Management and Conservation from the University of Reading. I love surfing, skateboarding, yoga, rock climbing and the menagerie that I share with my partner Chris – currently at two dogs, one cat and a parrot!

How did SharkStuff come about?
SharkStuff began as a blog about my PhD work, which was then joined by a Facebook page. I wanted to share my work and passion for sharks, and was sick of seeing them misrepresented in the general media. I was keen to promote our local species and the more I learned about the sharks right here in Dorset, the more I realised that the majority of my community don’t realise that they are here, or that many of them are threatened with extinction. Before SharkStuff, there were no shark-focussed organisations working on the ground in Dorset. To achieve my goals of engaging the public with their local sharks, and learning more about the sharks to help understand and protect them, I needed to form a consolidated organisation that could operate effectively, and win funds that would make the work possible. That’s when I knew that I wanted SharkStuff to become a charity, and Chris and I made it happen.

Why the UK? Your fascination was triggered in the Seychelles and there are parts of the world with bigger reputations as shark hot-spots than here.
All of my previous shark work had been conducted abroad, and when I moved back to the UK, it really hit home that we have many incredible species here too that are also in dire need of assistance.

What do you like most about the work you do?
Tope shark off DorsetI love seeing the excitement, fascination, and surprise on people’s faces when they find out that we have sharks here, and seeing them get enthused is just magic. I feel very grateful that in Dorset, the other local marine organisations have been very collaborative and supportive, and it’s fantastic to be able to work with them and provide each other with data and opportunities. I’m so excited by all the upcoming projects and events that we are going to be running this year, and the feeling that we are making a tangible difference for sharks is incredible. Obviously getting to see and be close to sharks themselves is also breath-taking for me!

What do you find the most frustrating aspect of your work?
One of the things that I find most frustrating is feeling like I don’t have time to do everything that I would like to. I’m very ambitious and have big plans for SharkStuff, but I have to be patient and finish my PhD before I can dedicate myself entirely to it. I regularly get very frustrated with the media when they consistently over sensationalise shark/human interactions and deliberately portray sharks in a very negative light in order to boost viewership. Studies have shown that the public perception of sharks significantly affects shark conservation, and that negative media directly influences that perception. Considering that a quarter of chondrichthyans (sharks, rays and chimaeras) are threatened with extinction, that kind of irresponsibility is inexcusable. (Image: A Tope shark, Galeorhinus galeus, caught as part of a shark survey conducted off the Dorset coast by SharkStuff, Dorset Wildlife Trust and Swanage Sea Fishing.)

If you had to choose one thing you’ve learned about your subject during the course of your research that stands out as particularly fascinating/valuable/weird, what would it be?
I would have to say that it consistently surprises me that some things that are accepted as fact aren’t actually true. Facts about white sharks that date back decades and are just accepted as true in the scientific community, are actually more complex than previously thought. I have also been fascinated to learn that not every shark is the same, and they very much do their own thing – there are vast differences in shark behaviour, migration, foraging ecology etc. based on size, sex and individual differences, and this variation needs to be recognised and included in conservation management plans.

How can people find out more?
You can find out more about SharkStuff on our blog (very soon to be upgraded to a full website), and our Facebook page.

SharkStuff Eggcase Search
Shark and ray egg case hunters at Hengistbury Head last month. The hunt was organised by SharkStuff and the volunteers found 89 egg cases from at least four different species.

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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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