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Content Updated: 3rd February 2018

SEASONAL UPDATE: February 2018

Frosty New Forest pony

January was broadly a chilly month, with temperatures falling to -10C in parts of Scotland. Of course, the UK’s cold weather was nothing by comparison to the -40C (-40F) in parts of Canada, or the wind chill that dropped temperatures to -67C (-90F) in New Hampshire at the beginning of the month. The extreme cold – which was exacerbated by high tides, strong winds and several feet of snow – that hit the eastern US last month was the result of a “bomb cyclone” that brought moist air from the Caribbean into collision with cold Arctic air. Tragically, at least 20 people lost their lives and many more were injured. Unfortunately, this extreme cold saw the US president, Donald Trump, take to Twitter to question how the world could be warming when it was so cold now - A bit like looking in your local supermarket and wondering how there’s famine in the world when the shelves are so well-stocked.

Contrary to Mr Trump’s opinion, a draft report released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in January concluded that 2017 was the third warmest year on record in the US. The country experienced 16 separate extreme weather events that caused an estimated $1bn (£717m / €817) of damage, bringing the total for the year to $306bn (£219bn / €250bn) – the most expensive year on record for US natural disasters. More widely, global temperatures for 2017 were down a notch on 2016, which sounds promising until it becomes apparent that there was no El Nino last year. As such, the UN reported that 2017 was the warmest non-El Nino year on record. Moreover, as Jean-Noel Thepaut, head of Copernicus Climate Change Service, told the Reuters news agency last month: “It’s striking that 16 of the 17 warmest years have all been this century,”.

Back in Britain, despite some significant snowfall last month, we also had some exceptionally mild conditions, with parts of the south-east recording 15C (59F) on the final weekend of the month. This continual swinging between a few days of cold weather and a few days of mild is bad news for many of our hibernating mammals, with hedgehogs, bats and dormice “waking up” early only having to re-enter hibernation in a few days. This rapidly depletes their fat reserves and reduces their chances of surviving to see the spring. We also saw a lot of heavy rain last month. Europe has been very badly hit this winter, with the River Seine in Paris some six metres (19ft) above its normal winter levels. I’ve seen a couple of wildlife rescue centres here in the UK having moles admitted as they’re flooded out of their tunnel systems.

Chinese water deer buck with tusksMammals: February marks the close of the red fox breeding season, making it a potentially noisy month. Tracking studies at Bristol University have shown that, as the breeding season comes to an end, vixens spend more time at the periphery of their ranges, while dogs travel more widely looking for the few vixens still in season. Thus there are many fights as males trespass in search of mates, and vixens can call prolifically while trying to attract a mate. Moreover, on cold, clear, still nights, the eerie calls can travel a great distance, and a walk after dark can feel like you’re on the set of Midsommer Murders.

Badgers are also breeding at this time of year, although they prefer to mate underground so most happens away from prying eyes. Some of our mammals are still in hibernation, including hedgehogs, dormice and bats. I’ve mentioned that mild weather can wake them up, but so too can very cold conditions. If the temperatures inside the hibernaculum drops below about one degree Celsius (34F) hibernating mammals are at risk of freezing to death and will leave in search of food. With this in mind, it can be hugely beneficial to continue to provide food for hedgehogs in your garden when it gets very cold. In addition, if you’re doing some gardening this month, please be aware that large piles of twigs and leaves offer ideal spots for hibernating hedgehogs. Please check any pile of garden rubbish for hedgehogs before lighting it.

The water deer (right) rut will be over now and most sightings of this elusive species at this time of year will be bucks resting or feeding. Conversely, brown hares are starting to get feisty in February with over-zealous males being boxed away by the females.

Birds: If you’re into birding, February is a rewarding month to brave the cold. 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 over-wintering there. There are still a few great grey shrikes around, as well as large flocks of winter thrushes (including fieldfare and redwings) and finches. If you’re out for a 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 chaffinch-coloured hawfinch, Britain’s largest finch. During your walk, scan any flocks of chaffinch for the odd brambling along for the ride. Snow buntings often travel in large groups during February, with their soft whistling call 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.

Carpet of snowdropsIf the idea of getting out in the cold doesn’t appeal, there’s plenty of bird life to be found in gardens, with the cold weather attracting some unusual garden visitors. Bullfinches add a splash of colour to a grey winter day – I have noticed that when it’s very cold these normally shy and elusive birds spend more time in the garden picking up seed that has fallen out of the bird feeders. Greater spotted woodpeckers are also more prone to visit garden feeders during the winter, as are blackcaps. There are still some large murmurations of starlings about and, if you’re never experienced a flock of several thousand of these birds flying overhead, I can thoroughly recommend it. Finally, if you decide to take that late-night walk to listen for foxes, keep an ear out for the territorial ‘kee-wicking’ and ‘hoo-hoooing’ of tawny owls; this species is now in its breeding season, and some matings have already been reported where I live in Hampshire.

Reptiles and amphibians: As things warm up after winter, sunny mornings should tempt some snakes and lizards out to bask, and towards the end of the month ponds should start to come alive with the sound of frog courtship.

Invertebrates: During the milder interludes last month I noted some insect activity in the garden, including a couple of butterflies and bees – unfortunately, just brief glimpses, insufficient for positive ID. Plenty of spider activity as well and some damage to plants in the garden suggests slugs and snails are about during this mild, wet weather. We should also start seeing resumption in the activity of many ground beetles amongst the leaf litter and moths by night, the pretty mottled grey pale brindled beauty being probably the best known in February.

Plants and fungi: There are already snowdrops in abundance down here in Hampshire (above), and this month should also see flowering alder, goat willow, lungwort, dog’s mercury, primroses, crocuses and yew. Sweet violet and three-cornered garlic are other 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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Discoveries of the Month

Fire hawks – Raptors spread fire to flush prey
For centuries Aboriginal people have used fire as a bush management tool throughout the northern Australian tropical savanna zone (i.e. parts of Queensland, Northern Territory, and Western Australia). Fire was used, for example, to clear brush and promote grass growth, which attracted kangaroos and emus that could be hunted for meat. With fire such a frequent and important occurrence in the Australian landscape, many stories have built up around it. One in particular talks of “firehawks” who carry fire through the sky. While “officially” considered just legend, in more recent years there have been several observations of birds picking up sticks from bush fires, or even human cooking fires, and dropping them elsewhere. In face, in his biography, published in 1964, Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts wrote:

Black kites in flightI have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles.”

A team led by Mark Bonta at the Pennsylvania State University-Altoona interviewed credible witnesses of this “fire-spreading” behaviour and did a thorough literature review of the subject. Their results, published in the Journal of Ethnobiology last December, revealed fire-spreading behaviour from at least three raptor species: the black kite (Milvus migrans - right), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus); and the brown falcon (Falco berigora). In their paper, the researchers present multiple accounts of fire-spreading from reliable sources, including several of birds taking burning sticks across fire breaks, helping to explain why such breaks often fail to contain the burn. In one particular account, a kite was observed to keep a firefighter busy. Once the fire had burnt itself out, the firefighter was alerted to smoking emanating from the grass on the unburnt side of the road.

He drove over and put it out, noting a Whistling Kite flying about 20 meters in front of him with a smoking stick in its talons. It dropped the stick and smoke began to curl from the dry grass, starting a spot fire that had to be immediately extinguished. In all, he put out seven fires, all caused by the kites. On that occasion, approximately 25 kites were foraging at the edge of the dying fire, but only two were adept at transporting smoking sticks.”

Bonta and his colleagues are also convinced that the birds know precisely what they’re doing with the sticks; that they’re spreading the fire deliberately to flush prey. These three raptors excel at hunting on the edge of fire zones, catching small birds, mammals and reptiles fleeing the flames. In addition, the observation recounted above suggests this is a learned behaviour that may take the birds time to perfect. Overall, the authors summarise the situation thus:

Raptors fly into active fires to pick up smoldering sticks in talons or beaks, transporting them up to a kilometer away and dropping them either in brush or in grass. Sticks may be from human cooking fires or from burning or smoldering vegetation. The imputed intent of raptors is to spread fire to unburned locations—for example, the far side of a watercourse, road, or artificial break created by firefighters—to flush out prey via flames or smoke. The behavior may occur once or repeatedly during the fire, by a single bird or by a small percentage of the overall raptors present. Attempts may be unsuccessful, with burning sticks dropped short of unburned areas or dropped but not igniting vegetation.”

Reference: Bonta, M. et al. (2017). Intentional fire-spreading by “firehawk” raptors in northern Australia. J. Ethnobiol. 37(4): 700-718.

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Protecting forests by distracting deer
Low to moderate numbers of deer can be beneficial to a woodland - browsing helps to promote re-growth and can suppress the coverage by plants such as ivy and bramble, which leaves more light for other species. As the population increases, so does grazing pressure. If the deer reach too high a density for the woodland they can prevent regeneration altogether, resulting in a decline in its biodiversity. As such, although distasteful to many, good forestry management involves trying to manage the number of deer and other herbivores for the overall health of the woodland.

Red deer stags in New Forest plantationTypically, deer management in Britain is carried out by stalkers who will assess the number of deer in an area and score the habitat damage that they’re causing. These data then form a key component of a “cull plan”, which looks at which/how many animals to remove from the population. This approach works well for many areas, but can cause problems where the deer population may be small but spending most of its time in a particular area of sensitive woodland. In such cases, culling may endanger the deer herd and deer fencing is often employed instead to prevent the deer accessing the plantation. These large fences that enclose tracts of woodland are, however, expensive to install and maintain, and sometimes they’re of limited benefit as smaller deer can squeeze through. Recent research in Austria suggests, however, that so-called “diversionary feeding”, where food is put in a particular location to lure the problem species away, may be an option in some cases.

Between 2009 and 2011, a team of biologists led by Johanna Arnold at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna radio-tracked red deer (Cervus elaphus - left) in the Eastern Central Alps in the upper reaches of Styria's Mur river valley. The study compared the movements of deer during the winter, when local feeding stations were filled with food ad libitum, and summer when the feeding stations aren’t replenished. The results, published in last month’s Forest Ecology and Management, show how the deer spent much of their time around the feeding stations during the winter, reducing their presence in the peripheral woodland. This pattern is reversed during the summer. In their paper, Arnold and her colleagues explain the effect is quite local:

In our study area, winter feeding stations released red deer habitat selection pressure on vulnerable forest stands between 1.3 and 1.5 kilometers [almost a mile]. In this ‘zone of release’, red deer selection for vulnerable stands is lowered during winter, which may also reduce browsing and bark-stripping.”

Reference: Arnold, J.M. et al. (2018). Diversionary feeding can reduce red deer habitat selection pressure on vulnerable forest stands, but is not a panacea for red deer damage. Forest Ecol. Man. 407: 166-173.

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As always, I love hearing from readers; any queries or comments regarding the information on the site can be sent in using the addresses on the Contact page. (Note: Some website questions are answered on the FAQ, while many animal-related questions are covered in the Q/A). Photos can be e-mailed to a dedicated e-mail address - please keep them coming and don't forget to check out my Photos Needed page. I'm also interested in hearing any reports of unusual behaviour in any of the animals featured on this site, or interactions between humans and wildlife. Thanks as always for your continued patience and support.

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WildlifeonlineOkay, for those of you that are new to the site, let's take it from the top!

What is Wildlife Online?
Essentially, WLOL is an educational website about British wildlife. The site contains profiles of various British animal species, with new articles in preparation all the time. The site also has articles looking at wildlife-related subjects, including hunting and animal emotions. This site is purely a hobby of mine; it does not generate any money or contain any advertising and, for the time being at least, I am happy for it to stay that way.

What does Wildlife Online aim to achieve?
The ultimate goal of the website is to be useful. My intention has always been to provide un-biased, accurate information that’s accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Increasingly people are coming into contact with their local wildlife and whether such interactions are positive or negative, they generally inspire a desire to learn more about the species. Moreover, there are still a great many misconceptions surrounding our wildlife (fox behaviour springs immediately to mind) and these are brought up time and time again during discussions in the media. Each article aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of the species in question by drawing on information from the media, books, TV programmes and the scientific literature. I feel that this combination of sources, along with my own observations and those of my friends/colleagues/readers provides a unique online resource of British wildlife information. My hope is that the information provided here will go some way to changing people's perceptions of the creatures with which they share their parks and gardens.

Why create a website when there are books and TV programmes about your subjects?
Books can be a fantastic resource and I can't imagine being without my library. Not all libraries are, however, equally well stocked, and not everyone has the funds to splash out on what are often very expensive wildlife books (especially those written by scientists). More importantly, much of the scientific research never makes it out of the journals into books and TV shows. Similarly, many of the early books -- which contain some of the pioneering work on the species -- are now long out of print and can be difficult or expensive to track down. Books have the 'luxury' of being able to devote their entire contents to a particular species, covering all aspects of its life history. Television, by contrast, is a much more limited and variable medium: the programme editor(s) has to create a show that is likely to hold the viewers' attention and appeal to a very wide audience. The result is that, although some reach this compromise very well, many documentaries focus heavily on the 'wow factor' (multitudinous slow motion shots of Great whites leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, for example) and this often comes at the inevitable expense of the information about the animal. Finally, both books and TV programmes go out of date quite quickly; new research is being conducted all the time. Consequently, a website is an ideal and dynamic intermediate - it offers the opportunity to provide a decent amount of information about the subject that can be updated at the metaphorical drop-of-a-hat as any new research is published.

Why include so much information?
I honestly believe that if a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well. There are hundreds of websites with brief species profiles and if that's all WLOL offered there would be little point to it. I understand and appreciate that some people find being confronted with large volumes of text very daunting while others are of the 'too long; didn't read' mind-set and will thus be turned off by the amount of text facing them. I have tried to remedy this as far as possible via two avenues: there is a Speed Read section with a brief profile of each species featured in a main article; and each article has been 'virtually split', with the aid of hyperlinks, into sections that allow people to easily jump to the information they're looking for. Ultimately, I want to provide as much information as is feasible in order to provide the reader with the clearest appraisal of each species or topic; I hope that most readers approve of this approach.

Why haven't you included a complete bibliography?
My intention with WLOL is to provide the information in an accessible format, which means that anyone should be able to read an article and understand the information in it. Consequently, I didn't want to format it as a scientific paper because the current format allows for a much more informal approach and writing style which, I hope, will appeal to a wider audience. Most people should find enough information in the article (I typically provide the name or one or more of the authors and the journal and year) to track down the original scientific paper. When I take information from books, I always give the name of the author(s) and the full title of the book for easy reference. I am also happy to provide full details of any of the references upon request.

Are you really qualified to do this?
I'm certainly not an expert on any of the subjects presented on this site. The articles stem from my varied interests in natural history and biological sciences. In terms of qualifications, I trained as a scientist (studying natural sciences at degree and postgraduate level) and all I really do is interpret information, blend it with associated research and personal observation, and present it in what I hope is an accessible format. Unless specifically stated, I do not claim any of the information on this site to be my own research. I have built relationships with some of the many diligent researchers who have produced the data that I use, and I am happy either to recommend an expert or provide my own opinions on a subject.

As a final note, I want to make a quick reference to the quality of the material on the site. The great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, once said: "If you would be a real seeker of truth, you first must be willing to doubt as far as possible all things." This is very sage advice, especially when it comes to believing what you read on the Internet. Most Internet sites (indeed, some books and TV shows too), including this one, have no form of peer-review (i.e. nobody with experience of the topic checks the site for accuracy); consequently pretty much anyone can have their own little corner of cyberspace and information can make it onto websites that is either misguided, or downright false! When creating material for this site I take every care to ensure that the information I present is accurate. Invariably errors will creep in; typos are almost inevitable (although each article goes through several levels of proof reading before it appears online) and research is always underway on the species featured here, so the data can go out of date almost overnight. Each page has regular (ish!) reviews, however, during which I update the information, adding details of new findings and taking out that which is now thought highly unlikely. You can see most of the books I have used in the preparation of this site on the Recommended Reading page and I have provided links to some of the most interesting sites I came across during my research – these can be found under the appropriate sub-heading on the Links page.

Anyway, I digress.... I hope you enjoy looking around the site and I hope equally that you get something worthwhile out of it. Any comments, suggestions or (constructive) criticisms are welcome via e-mail - appropriate addresses can be found on the Contact page.

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DISCLAIMER: All the photographs and artwork on this site are either my own work or have been donated by readers. All images remain property of their authors and, if you wish to reproduce any of the pictures, consent must be granted by the appropriate person - requests can be directed via myself or see FAQ. For more details on the content of this site, please see the full WLOL Disclaimer.

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