Dormice in the Autumn

We are now nearing the end of the second year of our wood being a part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, administered by The People’s Trust for Endangered Species. For this we are collaborating with our neighbouring wood and together we have twenty acres of woodland through which fifty dormouse nest boxes are spread. Every month from April to November we tour the boxes to monitor any dormice found in them.

A dormouse from this weekend’s monitoring tour

Dormice live in much lower population densities than many other rodents and, even in absolutely ideal habitat, there would only be one to four dormice per acre in the spring. However, come the autumn, their numbers are augmented by the year’s juveniles.

A juvenile dormouse. Many of the dormice born back in the spring are getting quite mature by now and can be difficult to distinguish from adults, but their fur is generally greyer and their tail less bushy

This weekend our trip round the fifty boxes took an exhausting five hours because there were seventeen nests to process. Although some of these nests were found to be empty, nine of the boxes did contain a total of fourteen dormice, all but one of them juveniles. Perhaps the inexperienced juveniles are more likely to use the boxes rather than building their own nests from scratch?

Both our neighbour and I are now nearing the end of our training to qualify for a dormouse disturbance licence. Over the last two years we have been accompanied on all our monitoring trips by a dormouse expert who has given up one of her precious days off every month to come and train us on a voluntary basis. It is an amazing and generous thing to do and we will definitely honour her commitment by ensuring that the dormice in our wood remain part of the monitoring programme for many years to come.

Once I have my disturbance licence I will be able to monitor dormice on my own. Here I am practicing the techniques necessary if multiple dormice are found in a box and you have no one to assist you. Once the dormice have been inspected and weighed, they are kept in their weighing bags and pegged onto a line strung between branches to await their safe return to the nest box

We spotted what we think must be a wild dormouse nest. It was three metres off the ground and was a complete and perfect sphere of about ten centimetres diameter, held in position by a tangle of black bryony:

The only concern is that moss has been used in its construction which is unexpected for dormice. However, I have checked with John and John, the bird ringers, and they confirm that this is not a birds nest – wrens would not build a nest out in the open like this and it is not long-tailed tits. Our best explanation, therefore, is that it was perhaps originally a cup-shaped mossy bird nest that has been adapted into a globe by dormice:

Box 10 had a family of dormice nesting in it earlier in the summer. This month, however, there was a pygmy shrew living in the box:

Pygmy shrews are very sensitive to disturbance and are easily scared to death and so we took a couple of quick photos and returned the box rapidly to the tree. There would be no dormice in there anyway with a shrew in the box.
It was a tiny little thing and, having only ever seen common shrews before, I thought this must be a baby. However, it is apparently a fully formed adult pygmy shrew

Box 28 had been badly chewed by squirrels and was sitting with its lid off. In fact many of the boxes in our wood have been damaged by squirrels and will need replacing over the winter when the dormice are hibernating down at ground level:

Poor old box 28

There is one more tour round the boxes in November but after that all the dormice should be tucked up for the winter down at ground level and we will begin again next spring.

In the past week a lot of rain has fallen as Storm Babet raged her way up the North Sea alongside the meadows. She was unusual in that it was several days before she blew herself out and, once she finally had, over 50mm of rain had fallen.

The ponds are refilled after Babet

All this precipitation has softened the soil and finally allowed the worms to come up towards the surface and make casts:

This is very good news for the badgers, who will be trying to put on weight to get through the winter, and 70% of their diet is made up of worms.

This autumn two new raptor species are hunting in the meadows. A barn owl has been seen on this perch on three different nights now:

Here it is this week:

Barn owls can’t hunt in the wind and the rain because they cannot hear their prey over the noise of the weather and this week must have been really tough for them.

Before this autumn, buzzards were only ever occasionally seen flying over here, and always being mobbed by our resident corvids. But in the last few weeks a buzzard has arrived in the meadows to try its luck. We have been seeing it perched up and looking for prey:

Photo from September

One evening we disturbed it from its lookout point at the very top of our big pile of hay:

The pile of hay, cut from the meadows this autumn

The buzzard then flew up into the trees along the cliff edge:

Buzzards are generalists and are prepared to eat a variety of prey – rodents, worms and other invertebrates, roadkill and also rabbits. Catching a live rabbit must be a challenge, but there are certainly many more rabbits than usual in the meadows this year.

As well as the buzzard, we have seen kestrels using the hay pile as a lookout and so we decided to get a camera up there:

It looks like Dave is planting a flag at the top of Mount Everest
The hay pile at dusk from the new camera position. Only magpies have been seen on it so far but I’m feeling optimistic..

A third of the second meadow has been left uncut and one of the reasons for this is to retain some seed heads to provide autumn and early winter food for the birds:

Wild carrot seed heads still remaining in the meadows

It has been lovely to see small flocks of goldfinch rising and falling over the meadow this week as they feed on the remaining wild carrot, knapweed and creeping thistle seeds. They also quite like the new feeders:

An owl has landed on the perch newly placed in the middle of the meadow but unfortunately the photo has been burnt out by too much infra red. I do think this is a tawny owl but it is difficult to be completely sure:

The camera doesn’t have very sophisticated infra red controls so I have instead covered some of it with gaffer tape as a low-tech solution to see if that works any better. Now we just need the owl back to test it:

Most invertebrates have disappeared from the meadows by this point of the year, but we do still have plenty of rosemary beetles in the allotment! The rosemary beetle, Chrysolina americana, is native to the Mediterranean region but arrived in the UK on imported herbs in 1963. They are now widespread, with both the larvae and the adults feeding on aromatic herbs such as lavender and rosemary in the UK’s gardens. They are things of great beauty:

They were named Chrysolina americana by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century but it is thought that he was mistaken because they are not found in America

I was pleased to see that even the Royal Horticultural Society agrees that these beetles do not eat enough to harm healthy plants and that they can be accepted as part of the biodiversity of a garden.

A photo from a different angle of the mating pair of beetles on our rosemary shows that the male beetle is carrying what I think must be mites on his undercarriage:

I finish today with some other interesting photos from the meadows this week:
What on earth does this fox have in its mouth?
All sorts of birds like to spend time on our roof
Green woodpeckers have been very active in the meadows this autumn. I love her unexpectedly blue eye
The ringed female kestrel continues to hunt around the hedgerows

It’s been a very tempestuous week and the weather forecast foretells of a string of wet days to come. On top of that, British Summertime rather depressingly ends this weekend and the clocks go back. It’s time to pack away the T shirts and sandals and sort out the cold weather gear because winter is well on its way. But before it arrives, there are still a lot of autumn jobs left to do in the meadows – should it ever stop raining long enough for us to do them.

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