Round the Houses

This year I have been training to obtain a dormouse disturbance licence – a process that might be expected to take two or three years. At the beginning of the year, fifty dormouse nest boxes went up across both our wood and a neighbouring wood and we have been doing monthly inspection tours. It took a while for the dormice to find the boxes – and, although we enjoyed seeing the blue tits, caterpillars, moths and yellow-necked mice that were early adopters of the boxes, they were not the reason why we were doing this.

But then gradually we did begin to find dormice in the boxes and, this month, they were housing an amazing seventeen nests. Some of the nests were empty, but others had dispersing juveniles or a mixture of both adult and juveniles within.

This female dormouse was only born this year, yet she already had a family of five youngsters in the box. We also found first year males in breeding condition. It is highly unusual for dormice to breed in their first year and is no doubt a result of the exceptionally warm, dry spring and summer

Use of the boxes peaks at this time of year with the juveniles branching off on their own and before hibernation starts when many do not survive.

A dormouse nest. Loose hazel leaves but with shredded material forming a tightly-woven structure at its core
Very often the nest has green hazel leaves in it like this, which is quite distinctive. The dormice remove leaves directly off the tree whereas other mice pick up dead leaves from the ground
The boxes are opened within large plastic bags to contain the dormice as they emerge. Our sleeves are rolled up to stop the animals running up our arms and escaping

In two of the boxes we found young families, both with five young:

A young dormouse in its weighing bag
Two young dormice having been sexed and weighed and awaiting safe return to their nest

There will be one more tour of the boxes this year, when we have a chance to see what weight the dormice are before they begin their hazardous hibernation. Our wood is enrolled on the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme and all data is being submitted to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species who administer the scheme.

But it is not just the dormice houses we have gone round this week. There are three tawny owl boxes, two barn owl boxes and a kestrel box up in the wood and we went round to check them, removing squirrel nests where necessary so that they are available for birds. The largest tawny owl box below had owls nesting in it this spring, and two young were ringed:

However, now there were sticks poking out of the box and it appeared that squirrels had moved in:

Looking in the box this week, we could see that a squirrel nest has indeed been built over the old owl nest and the box was stuffed full.

Everything has now been pulled out and the box is clear for the owls to use again next spring should they choose to.

The other two tawny boxes are smaller woodcrete ones. Having seen the tight fit in the wooden box above, these two now don’t feel big enough for owls:

Both of them had grass nests inside:

Similar nests have been found in these woodcrete boxes in previous years but we don’t even know if they are made by birds or by something else. Next spring we will get cameras on them to try to solve this intriguing mystery.

Both of the barn owl boxes and the kestrel box were empty of animals but had squirrel nests in them which have now been removed.

Barn owl box, made of recycled tyres, being cleared out through its side hatch

The advice for all these species is that they need clear fly-ways in to the nest and so we will revisit most of these raptor boxes soon to cut back some branches around them.

There are a lot of blackbirds around, probably across from Continental Europe to spend the winter here:

Four blackbirds at one of the ponds

In the meadows, the goldcrests and firecrests are also arriving and are being caught in the bird ringer’s nets:

4.7g of male goldcrest, newly arrived from the Baltic

Other birds, however, are leaving. Here is a little group of four blackcaps on their way south:

I like this meadow scene at first light as a fox makes its way home after a long night of hunting:

At this time of year, I am up well before dawn and often hear a male tawny owl hooting atmospherically to the north of the meadows. It was pleasing to capture him on camera one night:

Pheasants are not often seen in the meadows but the pheasant shooting season started on 1st October and so we are very happy to offer sanctuary to these two away from all that madness:

A young female kestrel was ringed here in the meadows in autumn 2019:

Photo from September 2019

Our kestrels nest in inaccessible holes in the chalk cliffs nearby and so the young are never ringed in the nest. The bird ringer also tells me that this kestrel was the only one he has ever caught in his nets in this area. Therefore, it is most likely that this ringed female kestrel seen at the pond this week is the same bird that took a chunk out of his hand as he ringed it back in 2019:

A sparrowhawk with his accompanying observer:

This might be a bit of a trick of the light, but what a white tip this fox has to its tail. It’s positively shining:

This week the reptile ecologist made his last trip of the year round the meadows. A few years ago one hundred and four slow worms were translocated here, saved from nearby land that was to be developed, and part of the agreement was that their progress here be monitored for five years. The drought this year has not been good for reptiles because of the effect on their invertebrate prey, but he did see a few and is pleased with how the habitat is progressing in the area of the meadows specifically managed for reptiles.

Our first grandchild has arrived, baby Kit.

It is surely of enormous importance for young people to feel connected with nature. I so regret that, when I was a busy mother of small children, I didn’t put more time aside to engage them with the wonders of the natural world. But I hope now to be able to put these previous shortcomings to right, starting with this young man who came into this beautiful but troubled world this week.

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