Sunday, 22 November 2015

Foxholes in November

Had we still been on Skye then we would be expecting to see otters regularly and often at this time of year.   Late autumn in north Oxfordshire is a lot less exciting, but the weather is better.   So on a sunny but cold day yesterday we went to Foxholes,  a BBOWT reserve , around 10 miles from Hooky, looking for signs of otter on the stretch of the River Evenlode which runs past it, and to see what plants were still in flower.

We did find some spraint, where 15 years ago I found otter spraint to the disbelief of many because unlike now, otters were far from widespread on lowland rivers.  But yesterday's find  turned out not  to be otter spraint; it was mink.   They look similar but you have to smell the spraint; that of otter is rather sweet - and fishy.   This was just unpleasant.    We saw nothing in the river, only a moorhen, and no confirmatory footprints.  

Spraint site - view from river
Spraint site
Mink Spraint

On the riverbank were a few flowering plants, - all common - even this late in the year (Skye by contrast 'shuts down').   White Dead-nettle comes into flower in the early spring and must be a contestant for the plant with the longest flowering period.   Quite why it should be flowering now, when there are few if any pollinators (bees?) is a bit of a mystery.
White Clover
White Dead Nettle

In the wood itself we found a few fungi; Amethyst Deceiver and what I think is Ivory Woodwax.   There were a few grey squirrels, blue and great tits.   We put up a pheasant and heard in the distance a buzzard.   The juxtaposition reminded me of the irony that a Northumberland gamekeeper won a court action last week to allow him to shoot buzzards which take his young pheasants, the birds which he was rearing to shoot. Pheasants are everywhere, and a nuisance on the road.  I am for the buzzards.

Probably Ivory Woodwax
Probably Ivory Woodwax
Spores of Probably Ivory Woodwax  x630
Amethyst Deceiver
Amethyst Deceiver
Amethyst Deceiver Spores x630


Monday, 2 November 2015

Harvest Mouse Field Signs

Yesterday I went on a training day at Chimney Meadows, a BBOWT reserve a few miles south of Witney on the Thames.  The purpose was to look for signs of harvest mouse activity, one of the smallest mammals in Britain.  I have only ever seen one.  

Chimney Meadows
The training was led by Dr Amanda Lloyd who passionately works with BBOWT on dormice and other small mammals.  The idea of the training day was to look for harvest mouse nests.  I was a bit non-plussed by the idea of looking for nests in November - surely they nest in cereal crops, harvested months ago.  Every picture I have ever seen shows the mouse just below a wheat cob or similar.  Wrong.  They are just as happy, if not happier in tall scrubby field edges.

Harvest mice live for around 18 months; only a small proportion of the population overwinter.  There was no expectation of seeing animals, and indeed we saw none.

Last November, Dr Lloyd had found over 100 nests last year in a 30 x 200 metre field edge  that we were about to survey.    

This year with 15 surveyors we found only 13 nests, so quite a decline.   Such dramatic swings in numbers are not a cause for too much concern though.   They are regular but poorly understood.   

Nests are hard to find.   Mostly in amongst Tufted Hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) from a few centimetres up to 30 to 40 centimetres above ground, and amongst Phragmites and Himalayan balsam, the nests are up to 10 cm wide, made up of woven strands of grass leaves.   The star find was a nest in an almost impenetrable reed thicket.   I found none in three hours of searching.  Had this been a task on the Apprentice, I would have been fired.
Harvest Mouse Nest

Harvest Mouse Nest
Turning away from mice nests one of the party found owl pellets, which two of the party enthusiastically took for analysis.

Owl Pellets
My contributions were more prosaic, a few late flowering plants, hoverflies and other flies.  
Water Chickweed
Hoverfly (Syrphus vitripennis)

Scented Mayweed

Celery-leaved Buttercup

There were surprisingly few fungi; in amongst the grassland I did find a Common Fieldcap (Agrocybe pediades).
Common Fieldcap

Common Fieldcap Spores
It was a good day.   My challenge is now to find Harvest mice around Hooky where there seem to be no recent records.