Archive for the ‘mammals’ Category

Yellow-necked mice raid bird feeder (video)

21 February, 2012

Dormouse box

17 March, 2010

The usual ways to survey for Common Dormouse are by putting up nestboxes to see if they get used; or searches for hibernation nests in winter; and most popular – searches for hazel nut shells, which are nibbled in a very particular way by dormice!
(See a photo… ) (Heiselmaus; Nëss a Friesspueren)

We tried these methods at Sheepdrove Organic Farm in 2002 and 2003 without success. However, after finding a rather distinctive nest on the farm (in a bumblebee box!) I’m hopeful that we might have dormice at Sheepdrove. Certainly it is possible, and if we confirmed this mouse was here, it would be fantastic. Another rare mammal we that know we have is the meek and mysterious Harvest Mouse.

Sheepdrove’s farm wildife volunteers will be surveying for signs of these mice this year. Join us if you like…

Meanwhile the volunteers and I have built some dormouse nestboxes, using a simple, multi-use nestbox design that I came up with. I adapt this box for small birds and bats too.

Dormouse nestbox

Dormouse nestbox Dormouse nestbox, side view (click to enlarge)

Click pictures to enlarge.

You can make this easily out of untreated timber – choose larch, cedar or oak if you want your box to last more than a few years. Rough-sawn timber is fine, but watch out for splinters.

My simple dormouse nestbox design doesn’t involve difficult joinery – it suits the novice box builder. Start with a board just 1 metre long, measuring approximately 150mm X 25mm (6″ x 1″). Saw off 3 lengths of 200mm each. Saw one of those up diagonally – cut from corner to corner – to provide the side panels. One of the whole 200mm sections is your floor, the other is the front. The 400mm section remaining is the roof. Simple!

The pictures above show you how the 5 pieces fit together.

The box offers plenty of room for a woven nest. The large roof keeps off the rain. If you’re concerned about the floor gathering rain from the tree-trunk, cut away the central two-thirds or so. Make the box inspectable by having a hinge on one side, and use a screw for secure closure.

Face the dormouse box towards the tree where you mount it. That prevents most birds from finding the hole (not Blue Tit) and keeps the cavity cosy. Fix the box in place by using wire, wrapped around one or two screws on each side of the box, and then around a branch. Prevent the wire digging into the tree by wrapping a short piece of cloth around the top wire. Adjust it each year, to allow for growth.

Because you haven’t nailed it to the tree, the box can be inspected and monitored. You need a licence to disturb Hazel Dormouse in this way. Dormice are fascinating and it’s well worth attending a Mammal Society training workshop. (Read a great book on dormice… )

To use this as a bat box, you don’t have to do anything, but I would recommend that you change the entrance for bats, if that’s what you want in here. For bats, ensure the entrance hole is much shallower – maybe 15mm deep by 50mm wide; sawing a very small gap at the base of the door panel does the trick. Actually this design started upside-down as a bat box! This can also be turned upside-down to become a nestbox for tits.

Please try out my design and improvise to suit your favourite wildlife…

Jason Ball at Natureheads

Get close to a Water Shrew!

11 March, 2010

Once in a lifetime you might see these amazing little mammals in the wild… if you’re lucky. But now you have the chance to meet secretive creatures like Water Shrew, Water Vole, Common Dormouse and Badger.

Now you can meet mammals like these with the help of experts around the UK – like Wildwood in Kent, Cheshire Wildlife Trust or WildCRU.

Run in association with The People’s Trust for Endangered Species, these events have some places left – but act now. To book your place, check out the PTES wildlife encounters web page.

Hoots at moonset, grunts at sunrise

31 January, 2010

Nature notes by Jason Ball – 31 Jan 2010

Can you tell this is a Barn Owl?

Just before dawn I wrapped myself up and walked out into the cool, crisp light of a moonset (you know, like a sunset, but the moon). It was a full moon, and as it was setting, I thought I would try to take a photo of this extremely beautiful phenomenon, because I’ve never done that before! This is a daily occurrence, but how often do you go out and watch it? Today it was worth it, despite the freezing temperatures. With a full moon to the west and the emerging colours of sunrise on the eastern horizon, it was fantastic!

A male Tawny Owl was answering a female in the woods, and a Grey Partridge was calling just beyond. Like yesterday it was a well frosted landscape. As I clicked and fiddled with camera controls that I couldn’t see, my fingers gradually became too cold to feel the shutter button.

After putting my camera back in the house, I went out again put out some food out for the birds. I walked alongside Nut Wood and stopped alongside a reedbed, watching out for owls. Very soon I got a surprise, when I heard something grunt.

A startled badger was on the path in front of me, looking right at me. After a moment of uncertainty, it dared to come closer. The badger sniffed the air, presumably attracted by the fragrance of food. But the badger didn’t like the smell of me, I suppose, and made a rapid about-turn and scarpered away – only to bump into a feisty friend.

This other badger – presumably a sibling – hadn’t noticed me and it immediately started wrestling the first badger – adding to its sense of panic!

I walked back home and decided to set up a camera to film a Barn Owl who I have often noticed flying past the house, usually soon after 7am.

The Barn Owl is a crepuscular bird, haunting the edges of day and night. When we recently had snow laid on the ground for days on end, these owls were seen during the day. They had to search longer to find prey – if any – and were desperate enough to risk being out when diurnal birds attack them. That was a difficult time for many raptors, except the scavengers.

Success! As the owl flew by I could see that my camera was recording, and the owl was in shot. I went out to switch off the camera, but the Barn Owl was coming back my way, so I stood still and tried to photograph the bird again, but with a stronger zoom.

a Barn Owl flies past

Being only sunrise, the light levels were too low for the camera to autofocus. And with a 12x zoom, at this relatively close range, it was hard to pan fast enough for the Barn Owl, which was flying up and down the road. Ah, it was best to leave the bird to its business, and try again another time.

But what an excellent start to the day!

Barn Owl, Tawny Owl and a few more bird records from this morning.

31/01/10 Dunnock Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1 J Ball
07:45 SU358819.
31/01/10 Woodpigeon Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1 J Ball
07:45 SU358819.
31/01/10 Blackbird Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1 J Ball
07:45 m. SU358819.
31/01/10 Blue Tit Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2 J Ball
07:45 feeding. SU358819.
31/01/10 Chaffinch Sheepdrove Organic Farm 4 J Ball
07:45 2m+2f. Feeding. One of the males was mature, the other juvenile; harder to tell with the 2 females. SU358819.
31/01/10 Great Tit Sheepdrove Organic Farm 3 J Ball
07:45 on feeders. SU358819.
31/01/10 Great Spotted Woodpecker Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2 J Ball
07:45 m + unknown. 1 definite male at nut feeder. Another GS flew off but too fast to check gender. (Would 2 males tolerate a close presence at this time of year?). SU358819.
31/01/10 Rook Sheepdrove Organic Farm 70 J Ball
07:30 flying from north. SU359819.
31/01/10 Barn Owl Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1 J Ball
07:15 Perched on a post for a short while. Hunting in flight. Saw one unsuccessful dive. SU358819.
31/01/10 Great Spotted Woodpecker Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1 J Ball
06:45 m. drumming. SU359818.
31/01/10 Grey Partridge Sheepdrove Organic Farm 1 J Ball
06:40 m. calling. SU356817.
31/01/10 Tawny Owl Sheepdrove Organic Farm 2 J Ball
06:40 m+f. Both calling in the woods. SU356817.

Weasel Run

17 November, 2009

I can't believe I was two steps away from a Weasel

A wet and wild weasel  got me jumping on Saturday. I was amazed to see one in the garden. Three times it zipped up and down a path, and away again. The creature was soaked, it was raining and blowing a gale.

Mad for nature as I am, I couldn’t resist running outside, with even the ridiculously tiny chance of seeing this mad mammal again. More than a glimpse is a rare treat. But it hadn’t gone far – it was running back and forth across the road, just outside my place. I froze still against the garage wall and let the weasel get on with whizzing along what I think must be a series of short patrol lines.

Absorbed by its frenzy, the weasel was only slightly distracted when it noticed me, as it ran nearby under my garage door, out again within a second, and then disappeared along a fence line. View my Berkshire Autumnwatch gallery.

Words and pictures © Jason Ball

How to tell a dormouse shell

20 October, 2009

Gnawed nutshells can tell you if the secretive Dormouse is on your local patch. But it’s easy to confuse the signs of Woodmouse and Dormouse.

My photo of nibbled hazel nuts shows how to tell them apart: LEFT – the toothmarks of woodmice point into the hole, leaving a rough edge. RIGHT – dormice scrape a smooth hole into the side of the shell.

Left, opened by a woodmouse: right, opened by a dormouse.

Left, opened by a woodmouse: right, opened by a dormouse.

Britons seek gold and silver nuts

10 October, 2009

Across the country, nutters are out looking for a gold and silver, hidden in a woodland somewhere in England or Wales.

To celebrate the 21st anniversary of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, the   and to launch their third Great Nut Hunt the People’s Trust for Endangered Species has 21 extra-special nuts to give away.

PTES said:
“There are 20 silver nuts and one golden nut to win. Whilst you are hunting for hazel nuts keep your eyes peeled for one of 21 unique flags hidden in various woodlands throughout England and Wales.

If you are lucky enough to find one of these flags, take it home and contact us immediately to claim your reward. So, if you go down the woods, be sure to look for signs of dormice and you may just win the golden nut!”

How to join the Great Nut Hunt…

Read all about it. First you have to register as a nutter.

To download the survey booklet please click here

To download more survey forms please click here

If you would like to make a donation you can download a donation form

The PTES nutter’s guide…

  • Find some woods or large overgrown hedgerows near you
  • If need be, ask permission from the wood or hedgerow owner to conduct the survey
  • Look for hazel trees or shrubs and search underneath for nuts
  • Collect nibbled nuts, recording the amount of time you spent searching and the number of people who searched
  • Sort out the collected nuts using our identification guide and fill in the survey form
  • Send your form and any nuts you think were opened by dormice to our Chief Nutter

Where is your nearest woodland?

PTES has a map you can search to get ideas of which wood to visit. Click on the map link below and enter your postcode.

Search the map

Living with Dormice – book review

23 September, 2009

Living with Dormice
The Common Dormouse: Real Rodent or Phantom of the Ancient Wood?
Sue Eden (2009) Papadakis publishing

Living with Dormice

Living with Dormice

Book review

“…slowly they began to trust us, and we learned to love them.”

This is not a quotation from the book! If this had been a soppy account of actually living with dormice the book would have been fuel for the fire by now! (I might have framed the cover photo first.)

The book title belies the impressive content. Sue Eden challenges the accepted modern view of the dormouse, and bravely criticises the nation’s favourite survey methods – nut hunts and nestbox monitoring. Eden’s excellent collection of ecological observations and her tales of finding dormice in a wide range of habitats will captivate anyone who wants to know more about the mouse. If you only ever buy one book about dormice, make it this one.

Eden pushes the reader to think very differently about the very snooziest of woodland animals. She insists on calling this the Common Dormouse, as opposed to its usual name – Hazel Dormouse – because it perpetuates the assumption that it needs hazel. Muscardinus avellanarius is omnivorous and predatory, agile and elusive, but not as scarce as everyone thinks.

Enchanting photographs of dormant dormice will satisfy readers after the ‘aah’ factor. Accompanying these are excellent pictures of nibbled nuts and fruit kernels, winter and summer nests, plus – now imprinted in my mind – images of nests vandalised and dormice killed by woodmice. Our phantom is vulnerable to many other predators and that is why, says Sue, they have learned to be very hard to find. It’s no wonder they choose to reject many of her ‘dormouse boxes’ and nest elsewhere.

Such behaviour leads many ecologists to think they are absent from many English woodlands and rare. Sue Eden has evidence to suggest that we are wrong.

Pick up a copy of Living with Dormice for an unusal perspective on the Common Dormouse. Whatever you’ve already read about dormice, this will be a valuable addition to your wildlife library. I tried to review this book quickly but I found it far too interesting to glance through lightly! Delve in and enjoy.

Buy the Book

Living with Dormice is available now, direct from Papadakis publishing for £14.99 or as part of a set of 3 natural history books for £40. Remember to tell them you heard about it here at Natureheads.

Jason Ball @

Great Tits recorded preying on bats

9 September, 2009

A research team has reported Great Tit preying upon bats– the first time this has been recorded. The scientists, led by Peter Estók at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, were studying bats in caves in north-east Hungary. They noticed that the birds responded to hearing the pipistrelle bats, entered the cave and started to peck at the bats them which were sheltered in crevices. The researchers staked out the cave and spent 22 days observing over two winters. The birds were recorded killing bats 16 times.

It’s not known if this is a strange new behaviour learned by the local population, or whether other Great Tit might include bat predation as part of their feeding habits.

To me, this is a typical opportunistic strategy by the birds. The Great Tit is a species that hunts for animal prey in crevices frequently. As you can imagine, to a hungry tit this is a common puzzle to solve – a meat resource partly hidden. What’s it going to do? Peck peck peck. What does a bat do while squeezed into a tight space? Nothing if torpid, or try to hide, probably, but it’s cornered. Meanwhile the bird has been ‘rewarded’ by food so of course it tries again. Peck peck peck peck peck peck peck. Etc.

Surely no more vicious than ripping into a large beetle grub or moth?

Surveying Buildings for Bats

10 August, 2009

My training on bat conservation and surveying continues.

The Bat Conservation Trust runs several training courses on bats, many of them geared towards professional consultants. The focus of this course was buildings, and you might be surprised at the places bats use.

My team found bat droppings next to exterior signs, on walls, just beneath the small gaps where bats enter buildings, inside barns, and even under garden shelters. We found live bats under weather boards, behind beams and even under the roofing felt of a new garden shed!