March Young Naturalists… on the search for elusive mice

What a weekend to run a Young Nats session! The weather was beautifully sunny and warm, a contrast to winter and a stark contrast to the cold snap we are having right now.

8 Young Nats arrived promptly at 10am, ready for the challenge of finding harvest mouse nests. Bob had kindly put the moth trap on the night before, so the Young Nats and Nigel set about checking the trap and identifying all the moths – I still have a lot to learn. I was very impressed with our Young Nats moth knowledge, and their eagerness to scrutinise the moth book when we found some we didn’t know straight away. We got a total of 11 species, including the Oak Beauty, and Hebrew Character.

Puzzling over moth ID

Having prepped some small mammal traps on Friday for Bob, the first thing I did after opening up in the morning was sneak around to see how many doors were closed.. quite a few! Once we were finished with moths we spoke about small mammal trapping and why you might do it (species diversity, species abundance if you were going to set out a grid and conduct a mark-recapture survey) and the requirements to ensure the animals’ welfare is catered to. These traps were set out close to the Education Centre, targeting voles and woodmouse/yellow necked mouse. We had more than half of the traps closed… but not all had occupants!

Some of our mice… especially our yellow necked mice have become rather crafty. They like to inhabit the loft in the winter, and become exceptionally adept at getting over the tripwire, eating the food, and out again. There were 5 traps during Young Nats that had tell-tale signs of mouse-habitation but open doors – I think the yellow necked mice we have released are playing tricks on us once more.

My focus for this trapping session was to have each Young Nat learn how to check a trap in a handling bag, and then to scruff the mouse/vole safely. The method is as follows – empty trap into bag, then remove trap and all bedding. Handling bags are large plastic bags with a seam along the bottom and two very useful corners. To keep the creature still you must wait until it is in a corner, and then bring a hand underneath the outside of the bag and around the animal to hold it snugly and firmly with its nose pointed into the corner. Then your other hand can enter the bag, and using thumb and forefinger you feel for the ‘scruff’ of the neck, focusing on feeling the shoulders and base of the back of the skull. Once you can feel these you take a pinch of skin and (if it’s enough skin and you’ve got an even amount from both sides) the animal will stay nice and still. This technique is used when surveying to sex the animal, place it in a bag for weighing, and to perform tasks like fur clipping safely if it’s a requirement of a survey.

I am very pleased to say that everybody managed to scruff a mouse or vole successfully, it does take a few tries to get it, and even though we had some apprehensive hands to start with everyone did well.

Fantastic scruffing of a woodmouse

After lunch we headed out to the north of the reserve, sticks and tape measures in hand to do a final search for harvest mice (winter surveying finished 31st March). I will do a separate blog about our winter harvest mouse surveys, to give final numbers etc soon.

In an attempt at a brief summary – we measured out two 10 x 20m squares to survey, in an area between Goosander and Lapwing Hides that isn’t accessible by the public. What does access it lots however.. is the deer. Frustrating though their numbers can be, they have made useful tracks so that we could navigate our way in and set up the survey.

Harvest mice build their nests around 30cm up in the grass, woven into little tennis ball sized spheres. They strip the grass into pieces and weave it while it is still attached, which means their nests stay suspended long after they leave. We were searching for 2021 breeding nests, which thankfully still persist in the grasses… but as the grass had been flattened by deer and wind we had to be very thorough.

Using gloves and sticks to help separate the grasses, we all begin a focused search for nests. Nigel, Geoff and I were assisting, and after about 15 minutes there was a yell of ‘I FOUND ONE’ from one of the girls, and excitement from the rest of that team. Once we knew they really were there, and we COULD find them… the focus turned into a forensic type search with some very careful searching and in total we found 4 nests. Absolutely brilliant work from everybody involved, and this adds to our previous finds from this winter’s surveying which is our first ever evidence of harvest mice in the northern part of the reserve. Well done Young Nats, and our volunteer surveyors this winter!

On the hunt for harvest mouse nests

What a difference a day makes!

After a gorgeously sunny Christmas Day yesterday, today saw the return of the rain and I got soaked opening up the hides – needless to say the reserve has been very quiet today! Even the wildlife decided to stay in the warm and dry – we have been keeping an eye on the Tawny Owl box as something has definitely moved in and made itself a very dry and cosy home out of oak leaves and soft rush. Although not the owl we had been hoping for, it is still very nice to see a grey squirrel up close on camera, although you can’t see much when it hunkers down inside its nest:

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Squirrel making itself at home in the owl box

Last week we realised one had stashed food in the box as we noticed it rummaging through the wood chip that had been put in the bottom – clearly it decided with all the rain we’ve been having this was a good spot, came back and made some home improvements. This morning I watched it look out the hole a few times before it decided it was better off back in bed:

Wet grey days are definitely for catching up with the blog, and this one may turn out to be quite long as I am two Young Naturalists sessions behind, one of which was our November residential at the Countryside Education Trust’s Home Farm in Beaulieu…

Unfortunately the weather was not quite on our side then either, although we were able to dodge most of the showers. We began on the Friday night with an excellent talk by Steve Tonkin about the night sky – sadly it was too cloudy to head outside for any observing so we will have to invite Steve again another evening, but the group enjoyed the talk and asked some excellent questions that definitely kept Steve on his toes.

Astronomy 2

Astronomy talk

On Saturday morning we headed to Rans Wood, just outside Beaulieu, to meet Sally Mitchell from Wild Heritage for a fungi walk. We didn’t have to stray too far from the car park and were rewarded with over thirty species which was great for late Autumn. Before heading off Sally tested the group’s current fungi knowledge with an identification activity – they knew a few edible and inedible species and were also very good at erring on the side of caution with those they weren’t sure about.

Fungi foray

Testing our knowledge

Fungi is not my strong point so it was brilliant to go looking with someone able to identify what we saw and also be so enthusiastic about it. Sally also has permission from Forestry England to pick the fungi for identification purposes (not to eat as there is a no picking ban for this in the Forest), so we were able to study some close up and take a closer look at the gills or pores. We also used mirrors to look under some, including the Amethyst deceiver, so we could see underneath without picking.

We did quite a lot of sniffing! Here are some of the different species we found – I think my favourites were the Amethyst deceivers, the bright Yellow club and looking at the tubular pores inside the Beefsteak fungus:

We also paused to have a go at ‘creating’ a Fly agaric – sadly we were unable to find any – using a balloon and a tissue. The tissue was held over the balloon and sprayed with water to make it damp. When air was blown into the balloon, the balloon became larger and the tissue broke up into smaller pieces as this happened, to create the speckled effect of white spots seen on the Fly agaric fungus.

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Making a fly agaric 2

Making a Fly agaric

We also found a huge oak tree so decided to see how many Young Naturalists could fit around it:

Tree hugging

Hugging a very large oak tree!

After thanking Sally we headed to Hatchet Pond and had lunch with the Mute swans, Black-headed gulls and donkeys.

We then spent the afternoon at Roydon Woods, another Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust nature reserve, and tested the fungi identification skills learnt that morning, keeping our fingers crossed for a glimpse of a Goshawk whilst we wandered. We last visited the reserve in the Spring, when the woodland floor had been carpeted in bluebells and other Spring flowers, so it was nice to return in the Autumn.

Some of the group were also lucky enough to spot a Goshawk fly past, but only because we had stopped to wait for others to catch up and it flew past behind them. A lucky encounter!

On the Sunday the group enjoyed a farm feed session first thing with Education Officer Steve whilst Michelle and I tidied and cleaned Home Farm ready for our departure. They love doing this as they can get up close to many of the animals and help out with the feeding:

We then visited the New Forest Wildlife Park and were joined by another couple of the group who had been unable to stay for the weekend. We had arranged a guided tour with one of the park’s education team and Laila was brilliant – I think she enjoyed a slightly older audience to usual and the group were great at engaging in conversation about the wildlife and different conservation projects. I was impressed by how much they knew. We got caught in a couple of heavy showers whilst we were there which made taking photos a bit difficult, but here are a few, the harvest mice were popular…

We had a brilliant weekend so although it was a while ago now, would like to thank Steve for the astronomy session, Sally for her fungi knowledge, Steve for the farm feed session and Laila for the brilliant tour around the wildlife park. We also couldn’t run residentials without volunteer support so would like to say a huge thank you to Geoff, Nigel and Michelle for giving up their weekends to join us and help with all the cooking, cleaning, minibus driving and evening entertainment (we had a quiz Saturday night which was hilarious)…

Sticking with the Young Naturalists theme, on Saturday we ventured over to Poole for a boat trip with Birds of Poole Harbour. The group had been fortunate to win the boat trip as their prize for coming first in the bird trail here at Blashford back in May, and we were able to open it up to other group members who hadn’t been able to join us on the day and turn it into our December session.

It was rather cold and wet at times, and we saw a lot of rainbows whilst out in the harbour, but also managed at least 26 species of bird including Red-breasted merganser, Shag, Great black-backed gull, Great crested grebe, Great northern diver, Brent goose, Gadwall, Avocet, Shelduck, Teal, Shoveler, Cormorant, Black-tailed godwit, Grey heron, Oystercatcher, Grey plover, Dunlin, Knot, Little egret, Wood pigeon, Sandwich tern, Goldeneye, Starling, Carrion crow, Spoonbill (very distant!) and Curlew.

We had some nice views of Brownsea Island and the lagoon…

Brownsea

Brownsea Island

Brownsea lagoon

Lagoon at Brownsea

…and a very distant view of a rather grey Corfe Castle:

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

The rainbow photographing opportunities were numerous:

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a sunnier photo taken just up the road at Ibsley when I was passing yesterday morning as a reward for getting to the end, hopefully it will stop raining again soon!

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View from Ibsley Bridge – the River Avon is just out of shot to the right