Dormouse Survey

Hazel dormouse photograph
Image by saguari from Pixabay

Yesterday we were really lucky to be invited along to watch a group of trained and licensed volunteers undertaking a Hazel Dormouse survey in some woodland on Exmoor. This all came about because I fancy painting a Dormouse and for a while now we have been on the look out for a good photo!  Anyway, I didn’t get a photo good enough to paint from, but we did have a really interesting time.  Dormouse have beautiful golden coloured fur, very large eyes and long furry tails.  Unfortunately with the loss of ancient woodlands their numbers are thought to have declined by a third since 2000.  Once their habitat is destroyed they do not disperse to new areas across open land, so their populations simply die out or lose their genetic diversity.  The south of England tends to be one of the areas where they can still be found, with small populations scattered elsewhere in the UK.  Careful management of habitats including the planting and coppicing of hazel alongside the provision of nesting boxes is helping, but there is still a long way to go.  The work of volunteers to monitor and hopefully increase populations is vital if this delightful little animal is to remain in the UK.

A Dormouse box has many similarities to the wooden bird boxes that we monitor and indeed they are sometimes used by birds.  However, unlike bird boxes which have an entrance on the front or side, the Dormouse box has it’s entrance tucked away around the back.  The extra wooden batons attached to the back keep the box away from the tree allowing mice to enter easily.  Monitoring these boxes is also different as the aim is to weigh, sex and age as many mice as possible.  This can only be done if they can be caught!  They are very sensitive to sound and may make a hasty exit so a quiet approach is needed.  The entrance hole is quickly blocked and the detachable lid is carefully lifted to show whether a nest has been created inside.  Should there be a nest inside the whole box is taken off the tree.

The box is placed gently into a large plastic bag and the contents very carefully examined to discover if mice are present.  At this point they have quite often run out into the bag, but there is still a chance of further mice being inside the box.  From their entrance hole, the mice will have formed a nest chamber in the centre of the material, gently feeling into this chamber will reveal whether there are any further mice inside.  In the above photo this is illustrated outside the bag, but in reality this searching takes place within the safety of the plastic bag in case of any escapees.  Once the number of mice has been established and they are all accounted for in the bag the box is carefully removed.

Dormouse survey in a wood on Exmoor

Their comparatively large eyes and golden fur are clearly shown above and what incredibly long whiskers too!  On average they are 10 – 17cm long but very rarely seen as they can spend up to 7 months of the year asleep.  They tend to sleep during the day and are active at night.
The next tricky job is to catch the extremely quick and agile mammals.  As we observed, this isn’t always easy!  

Dormouse survey in a wood on Exmoor

Once in the hand, they are sexed and then transferred to a smaller bag to be weighed.   They weigh no more than 30/35g, this little one was under 20g – so at this time of year probably a juvenile.  Dormice will usually have 4 to 5 young, born in the summer inside a nest made from strips of bark and grass and usually constructed amongst branches or in a hedgerow.  The mother tends to her young for up to 8 weeks, at about 3 weeks old they leave the nest to forage with her – distinguishable by their greyer fur.  They keep this colouration for a year until they become sexually mature themselves when it changes to the golden colour associated with Hazel Dormice.
The information on the mouse’s age, weight and sex is carefully recorded and the data submitted to the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme.
The whole process is now reversed, a few leaves are collected from nearby trees, the mouse is carefully ‘posted’ back into the box hole and when the surveyor is sure that their furry tail is well out of the way the hole is plugged with the leaves.  The mouse is perfectly capable of chewing through these to get out again but they ensure that the box can be re-fastened to the tree with the mouse safely tucked up inside. 

Dormouse found during a survey on Exmoor

Dormice diets vary depending on food availability throughout the year.  Flowers, insects, caterpillars, nuts, seeds and berries all form part of the food they eat.  One of the best indicators of their presence in a woodland are indeed neatly nibbled hazel nut shells.

Hazel nuts eaten by dormice
©People's Trust for Endangered Species Guidelines - Click for more information.
How to identify hazel nuts eaten by dormice
©People's Trust for Endangered Species Guidelines - Click for more information.

Not all Dormouse boxes will have animals inside, many will be completely empty and some will contain bird nests or old disused mouse nests.  Of the 15 boxes we observed yesterday, there were only 4 with animals inside – 2 were dormice, but we also had a Pygmy Shrew and a Wood Mouse.  Very interestingly the Dormice will not over-winter in their boxes, they make a nest on the ground in amongst some dense cover instead.  One of the winter jobs for the volunteers, the same as with bird nest recorders, will be to empty all the boxes ready for the new season next year.  
This was a brief but fascinating insight into a different type of survey and data collection and we extend our very grateful thanks to all those involved in this yesterday.  And whilst I didn’t get any photos, Jo at least brought home a handy reminder of just how sharp rodent teeth are!!  😂

Dormouse bite

The following links may be useful for more information on Dormice.
The Woodland Trust
National Dormouse Monitoring Programme
People’s Trust for Endangered Species Nut Hunt

Thank you for following my blog, and until the next time, keep enjoying the wildlife near you. Paul

Nest recording for the BTO

You may already be aware of the volunteer work that Jo and myself undertake for the BTO Nest Record Scheme. Jo is a registered nest recorder and each year we try to find and monitor nests within our local area. With some super weather over Easter coupled with some time off, we spent a lot of time slowly walking around the local lanes and woods! Things seem to have got off to an early start this year and over half of our woodland bird boxes now have nests. Most are blue tit, though there are some great tit, one marsh tit and a couple of nuthatch that we are aware of.

The process of finding and monitoring the nests requires a lot of patience; whilst those in boxes are obviously easy to find, others require a keen eye and more often than not a bit of luck! We use binoculars, small mirrors and an endoscope (which plugs into my phone) as the main ‘tools of our trade’ and follow a strict code of conduct to ensure the welfare of the birds. The blackbird eggs in the first photo were simply spotted while looking into the crevice in a tree trunk. The blue tit eggs below – by lifting the lid of the box – and hadn’t she been busy with 12 so far! Blue Tit generally average between 5 and 16 eggs so this is a good clutch size and on our next visit we may even find more!

Each bird is different, the nest, eggs, clutch size, habitat etc. vary. The adults will brood for different lengths of time and spend variable amounts of time raising their chicks. The nest of a blue tit very often starts off as a few strands of moss. Within a week this can have become a complete nest, sometimes it takes much longer. When the nest is found with lining, usually feathers, we know that it is pretty much finished and eggs will soon be laid. However, blue tits will often cover their eggs before leaving the nest, so a gently investigation underneath the feathers is needed in order for our nest record to be as accurate as possible.

Investigation of nests is very variable, the photo below shows a Long Tailed Tit nest in a gorse bush. The nest is made from moss, hair, cobwebs and lichen and whilst elastic in nature, to allow for the growing family inside, is very delicate with just a small entrance hole. For nests like these we use a small endoscope which plugs into my phone to give us an indication of what is inside and our record reflects that there could be more chicks / eggs than we can see.

Robin nests are notoriously difficult to find, they are clever little birds and if they think they are being watched they will deliberately go in the opposite direction! They will sneak their beautifully made nests into the tiniest of spots and sometimes it is the smallest of clues that suggests that a second look in an area may be productive.

This nest was tucked well back in the stump of a fallen tree. We had spotted a pair of robins looking a little ‘shifty’ and a search of likely hiding places in the area revealed a nest that was being constructed. On a subsequent visit we were pleased to see that eggs were being laid. Blackbirds on the other hand build much larger nests, they are sometimes easier to spot, although this pair had gone beyond nest building and laying and had chicks well on the way to fledging before we found their nest!!

We never really know what we are going to find, sometimes we will be successful other times less so. Whatever the outcome we find our experiences nest recording thoroughly enjoyable and we feel that in a small way we are helping towards the bigger picture the BTO are building on the breeding success of our British birds.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our work as volunteer nest recorders, I would love to read any comments that you may have and look forward to checking in with you all again next time.

Swift boxes

Apus apus -Barcelona, Spain-8 (1)

For a couple of years now Jo and myself have been thinking about putting up swift boxes on our house.  We have breeding swifts in our village and felt that boxes may be successful.  Unfortunately our house isn’t suited to swallows and it has smooth render, so despite our best efforts with false boxes we can’t seem to encourage house martins either.  So maybe it will be third time lucky with swifts!

“The swift is a medium-sized aerial bird, which is a superb flier. It evens sleeps on the wing! It is plain sooty brown, but in flight against the sky it appears black. It has long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail. It is a summer visitor, breeding across the UK, but most numerously in the south and east. It winters in Africa.” RSPB 

“But….swifts are in trouble. The UK has seen numbers plummeting, with a 53% decline between 1995 and 2016.” RSPB

So spurred on by the RSPB Love Nature campaign to have 1000 extra swift boxes up before the birds arrive back from Africa this month I took to researching how to make them.  If you know me you will already know that I didn’t want to buy the boxes, I wanted to make my own instead. I enjoy a bit of woodwork, I’ve made 100+ bird boxes, so a few swift boxes shouldn’t be difficult…….or so I thought!! I immediately came upon the Bristol Swift Project and their fantastically informative website full of information on box designs, things which have worked and things which haven’t. 
I had to choose from a standard style that you fit underneath your eaves, or a side of the house design or even a swift row of boxes so three boxes in one, a terrace!
I decided on the standard, under the eaves type, so armed with their plans I was off!

Plans – from Bristol Swift Project

I ordered a couple of sheets of 18mm plywood from a local builders merchant. The wood arrived a few days later, unfortunately there were some really bad knocks where the skin layer of plywood had been damaged, so they came and took it back! Good job really, the wood I ordered was too thick as it should have been 12mm …….that part was my fault!
Fortunately we have a friend within the village who offered to fetch a couple of 8′ x 4′ sheets of plywood from a local store, this time 12mm!
When I finally studied the design and marked out one of the sheets of plywood, I thought ‘well that’s weird, on the diagram I should be using half a sheet of ply for each box, why do two boxes take up just a third of one sheet?’ It turned out I had misread the main sheet size and now had far too much plywood!

Oh well never mind, I got cutting the sections I needed and decided to make four boxes, just so we have a couple spare.
All pieces cut for four boxes (ample plywood left over, hence the barn owl box last week….!! ) I assembled each one by pre-drilling, countersinking and sanding.

The hole was made as a ‘D’ shape to a rough size of 30mm. The ‘D’ shape is an idea that the Bristol Swift Project came up with, again through their many years of extensive research.

I cut a small square block of 18mm wood, routered out the inside to create a little bowl all ready for any eggs and to help prevent them rolling away. Swifts don’t make a nest as such.
I decided to add a partition inside, the Bristol Swift research suggests that swifts prefer to go around something to get to their nest.

The next stage was to alter one of the sides to create a drop down door where I can fix a camera, ready for spotting any birds (we can but hope). All I need to do is attach a cable to the camera when and if we see swift activity.

Finally I just had to paint them all, the outside a cream colour the same as our exterior walls and the inside a matt black (thank you to Danny for the paint and collecting the wood). Again the experience of the Bristol Swifters suggests darkened boxes are preferred.

The last thing was to get the double extension ladder out and fix two of the boxes either side of a bedroom window.

I know…. we will get the noise but we are more than happy with that if it helps the population of swifts.

Finally I bunged some sponge in the doorways, we don’t want our mass of house sparrows making a home in these boxes…..they will you know!! Now we sit back and wait…..I’ll be sure to let you know if we get swifts in our boxes – keep your fingers crossed for us. 🤓

A Barn Owl Box

I have always loved painting barn owls, they are stunning birds with such beautiful colouration in their feathers – particularly on their wings. They are perhaps one of our most easily recognised birds of prey in the UK. Fortunately they are now on the green conservation list which means they are in the least critical category. However, there are still only around 4000 breeding pairs, so anything that can be done to boost their numbers is always a very welcome addition to the British countryside. Many of their former nests sites have disappeared as barns are redeveloped. However, they don’t just live in old barns, all they want is somewhere safe and sheltered and they will be quite happy.

We are fortunate where we live to have barn owls quite close by, if we are lucky we will see one fly up over the back fields and off on a hunting mission. At other times we may seem them around a nearby barn in which we check for nests as part of our volunteering work for the British Trust for Ornithology.
We thought it was time to make a barn owl box ourselves and perhaps increase the population around our village even more. Having obtained permission from the owner of a local barn I set to work in the garage with some excellent plans from The Barn Owl Trust.

A few hours later, I had managed to construct my own box, complete with a handy hinged door for clearing the box out……should we be lucky enough to get anything in it!

By the time I had finished it was a pretty heavy bit of kit! The barn is fortunately not far away and we could get right into it with the car. We wouldn’t have fancied carrying it too far!! Now for the next fun bit, deciding where best to site it. We were faced with a massive barn with various entrances and therefore many options for locating the box.

The box needed to be at least 3 meters off the ground, that bit was easy. The barn is in regular use, but owls will easily adapt to this as long as their box keeps them well hidden. I had read that when an owl flies into a building looking for a nesting site, he or she will be trying to find a suitable hole not a box. So we wanted to make sure that the hole was also visible for an owl from the outside of the building too.

This was the chosen location and so the work of getting the box up near the roof began! Contrary to what it looks like, I was not stood on some handy placed tower scaffold, I’m actually up a narrow, rather wobbly ladder! I had previously constructed some sturdy stilts to sit the box on, rather than try and hold the box at height and somehow attach it to the wall. Now, it would have been quite amusing to have photos of how we got the box up here, but all hands had to be on deck instead!! Jo wasn’t spare to take photos as she had to hold the ladder whilst the barn owner, Darren, stood on the nearby trailer and lifted the box to me up the ladder. Good job there were no health and safety boffins around. 😉

The clearing out hatch (open above) was also handy for emptying in a bit of a base layer. Barn owls do not build nests, however they lay rather round eggs, so the base layer will hopefully prevent the eggs from rolling around too much.

We will have to wait and see whether we successfully encourage an owl to use our box, it will be interesting to see. Barn owls are a Schedule 1 bird, which means that we will need to apply for a special licence if we wish to actively monitor a barn owl nest….but we suspect we won’t be applying for that any day soon – the best we will probably get is a stock dove! We will of course keep you posted.
In the meantime, our grateful thanks to Darren for his help in siting the box and in allowing us to place it in his barn.

Until the next time, I’ll settle to painting a barn owl while I wait for one to take out a rental on our deluxe residence! Paul 🤓🖌🎨

For more information on various species of owl, check out this excellent blog (sadly not mine) for more information. 🙂

Marsh Tit and Willow Tit

Back in 2013 I wrote my first ever PDF tutorial, little did I know then what it would all lead to and how many more I would write and publish! The tutorial was for this Marsh Tit painting, it was written at a time when I incorporated some white acrylic into my paintings in order to create the white highlights I needed. I tended to use it like watercolour paint, thinning it down and varying the thickness depending on the effect I wanted to achieve. I no longer use white acrylic or gouache in my paintings, preferring to stick with just watercolours. The PDF could indeed be used with just opaque watercolour white instead, and this would work equally as well if the consistency is controlled and used to your advantage.

With great trepidation I submitted the article to Leisure Painter magazine, and was absolutely thrilled when they published it in their magazine. All my life I had wanted to become a ‘published’ artist and be recognised for my work. This felt like a really big step in the right direction and I set about writing a further tutorial……

At the time of writing the PDF, I was taking a lot of my own reference photos. Jo and I were visiting bird hides and I had taken to baiting a suitable spot with food and then waiting for whatever came in. As you can see, the photo I took had the marsh tit with a seed in its beak, which I substituted for a tasty caterpillar in the painting. artistic licence!

In the process of taking my own reference photos I inadvertently captured a photo of a ringed Goldfinch. With a few more hours spent in the garden, I eventually had enough photos for us to work out the entire number on the ring. The bird had been ringed in Devon and we were put in contact with the ringer who we have remained friends with ever since and this is where we get on to the bit about Willow Tits which I know you have been waiting for! 😉

Yesterday we joined our friend to help with a National Willow Tit survey. The species is sadly the second fastest declining species in the UK after Turtle Doves. Visually they look almost exactly the same as a Marsh Tit – but their call is significantly different and the surveying was based on controlled playback of their various sounds in a designated area or tetrad as it is known. We had a full day of surveying, and now know the sounds a Willow Tit may make rather well!! We have at least one more day of surveying to undertake in a few weeks time, this will ensure we hopefully haven’t missed anything.

Yesterday we observed 3 birds that could have been our target species, but given the habitat it was felt they were probably Marsh Tit. Unfortunately with no call made, we cannot be certain. However, Willow Tit favour damp young woodland and we were surveying in pretty mature woodlands. These may well have held populations in the past, but they are unlikely to still be present and that is what the experts believe the problem is. Surveys like this help to provide vital data and statistics which can then impact on environmental projects and habitat management plans in the future. With a bit of help, hopefully this little bird can be brought back from the brink in this country.