Canada: Scaling down

September 2018

There are days that you remember for the smallest possible reasons. I honestly thought it was a beetle, scootling across a forest road, but, no. It’s a mammal. The smallest mammal that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

american pygmy shrew2 rmnp sept 18

It’s about the size of a £2 coin. Definitely a shrew, possibly an American pygmy shrew Sorex hoyi, the second smallest mammal on Earth. There are hummingbirds that would dwarf this bundle of whiskers and fur. Uncaring of the two-legged giants and their cameras, it predates invertebrates amongst pebbles that must seem like monoliths.

american pygmy shrew3 rmnp sept 18

It’s easy to see a forest in only the big pieces – clouds, trees, lakes. But this wonderland at the autumn-winter boundary continues to enchant with surprises.

I used to watch belted kingfishers when I lived on Vancouver Island. This one cuts a fine figure against Manitoba trees sprinkled with white.

belted kingfisher rmnp sept 18

And it is still full of seasonal boundary lines out there.

rmnp road sept 18

rmnp road2 sept 18

Afternoon brings something of a thaw. And with it, a welcome face.

bear2 rmnp sept 18

Not a particularly large bear, but I wouldn’t even like to guess how many shrews would equal the weight of just his head.

Foxes, Cats and Occam’s Razor

Cat fox2

Or: why Sherlock banished emotion while solving mysteries.

Foxes have been in the news again, which is one of those things I dread. It is a mystery of the universe how a very small and mostly harmless carnivoran morphs into a ginger Cerberus whenever it encounters the tabloids, but to summarise:

  1. The UK has about eight million pet cats (RSPCA estimate). Sadly, on any given night, some of them are statistically likely to die, especially if they are permitted to roam outside unsupervised. The great outdoors is not safe for cats. There’s cat flu, feline immunodeficiency virus, garden pesticides, and most of all, the motor car.
  2. Foxes, which for countless millennia have consumed carrion left behind by wolves and lynx, readily scavenge on these dead cats.
  3. Somewhere along the line, an animal rights group examined the bodies and concluded that a very nasty human psychopath was beheading, mutilating and dumping cats to torment their owners.
  4. Social media spread this theory like wildfire. The awards for catching the Killer grew higher. Sensational claims spread on and on and on, including that the Killer had started stabbing foxes as well (quite how he hand-caught an animal that can leap over a six foot fence, run at 50 km/h, and will bite in defence if cornered, was never explained).
  5. Our beleaguered police got dragged in and spent years, and unknown thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money, and discovered…that foxes scavenge dead animals.

As a fox advocate and ecologist, this sad episode is one that I could have done without. The media immediately leapt on the idea that foxes are hunting cats, which is not actually what the police said. The post mortem evidence quoted clearly shows that the causes of death were blunt force from a vehicle and the ‘mutilations’ (actually, innocent scavenging) took place afterwards.

For what it is worth: a healthy adult cat is at no risk from a fox, which is primarily a predator of voles, earthworms and berries, after all. Kittens and very elderly cats may theoretically be more vulnerable to all the risks of the outdoor world. But every day, millions of cats encounter foxes, and the normal outcome is for the two species to ignore each other – check out my video here. However, cats can and do attack foxes on occasion.

As a scientist, the lack of objective thought truly bothers me. It should have been obvious from the outset that something was very wrong with the Cat Killer theory. A five minute conversation with a mammologist would have confirmed that foxes and dogs have carnassial teeth that leave cutting marks similar to knives. The logical implausibility of the Killer evading so many CCTV cameras, pet owners and police officers should have rung alarm bells.

As a human being, I feel real anger that hundreds of pet owners were persuaded that their beloved animals suffered a miserable end at the hands of a violent criminal. Can you imagine if your grief was intruded on by a suggestion that a human monster had done this terrible thing to a living creature that you loved?

Facts, matter.

Testing evidence with cold-headed objectivity, matters.

People are often accused of wanting to believe that things are better than they are. But it is surprising how often we choose to believe that they are worse. In defiance of all evidence, many Americans and Canadians still believe that fishers are wanton cat killers (spoiler: they’re not). In various parts of the world, verifiably harmless animals such as little Andean mountain cats, aye-ayes and magpies are all considered to be bad luck, and sometimes are killed for it. I can name a town in British Columbia that shot five black bears one summer not because they were threatening anyone, but, well, it’s better to be afraid.

Sometimes – just sometimes – it isn’t.

Meadowland

I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.

The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.

North downs1 110807

Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.

What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:

Pyramidal orchid

Pyramidal orchid2 23 Jun 2018

Bee orchid

Bee orchid S Tolls 31 May 2017

Meadow cranesbill

Meadow cranesbill 23 Jun 2018

Field scabious

Field scabious STolls 10 June 2017

Scarlet pimpernel

Scarlet pimpinel STolls 2 June 2017

Perforate St John’s wort

St John's Wort HV 4 Sept 2017

Sainfoin and buttercup

Sainfoin and buttercup 18 May 2017

These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.

Firebird

Fire. These forests are built on it.

Litchfield overview

It destroys, but it also cleans. Flames flicker in Australia’s Northern Territory in May – deliberate small fires sparkling under a thousand stars. To the minds of people, this prevents catastrophic wildfires later in the dry season. To the minds of birds, fire brings food.

Black kites1

Black kites swarm over fire fronts, seizing small fleeing things. Traditional Aboriginal belief claims that kites set new blazes by dropping smouldering twigs. It has never been scientifically documented, but if true would be almost the only example of fire being managed by something non-human.

Black kite2

Red-tailed black cockatoos hunt in the ashes.

Red-tailed black cockatoo2

And one of the bush’s strangest creatures looks after itself as best it can.

Short-beaked echinda LNP 30 May 2018

I met this ball of prickles as it waddled down a road in Litchfield National Park. Not a hedgehog, not like anything else on earth – it is a short-beaked echidna, one of only four species of mammal that lay eggs. It is also quite intelligent and can live for 50 years.

That is many years of watching the forest burn and regrow.

Travelogues

Rainbow

I’ve moved my India, Scotland and Yellowstone travelogues to this blog’s new Travels Abroad page. Hopefully Waterton Lakes (Canada) and Turkey will be on there soon too.

I am planning to write up my post-Opera journeys to Borneo, Poland and Romania (and perhaps Mexico) but will save reliving those adventures for dark and rainy November days.

 

At the Crossroads

Fiveways sign 24 Sept 2017

That was late summer, early autumn, call it what you will.

Today the road is filled with leaves and there is a bite in the skies that makes everything feel that little bit more alive. That is nature’s paradox: it is more vivid and yet far more soothing than the world built of bricks and glass.

I’ve been indoors for much of the day, however, dealing with the final technical hurdles before getting my book on the ‘why and how’ of foxes uploaded onto Amazon. It’s now living here.

Fox book cover copy

Books are more than paper. You close them, but they do not leave you.  In a small way, a fox sighting can also be like that; it passes, but it has lodged itself in your mind.

One encounter that I will not forget gave me this photograph back in the summer. This vixen is known locally as ‘Pretty Face’, but whatever she calls herself, she is one of my favourite foxes. She is a non-breeding adult in the Horse Meadows Group – the family that call a large part of my parish their territory.

Fox Pretty Face2 26 May 2017

She had been playing, playing – auntie as she was that day to four cubs explosively alive in the evening sunshine. She washed them, she checked on them, she guarded them. I merely photographed them. Eight (yes, eight) foxes were in front of my camera; I will leave the total number of photos to your imagination.

There came a moment when she sat up, light painting gold highlights into her fur. She was watching me from perhaps 50 metres away. She had been aware of me for the past hour, but now, without a care in the world, she began trotting towards me.

At 15 metres she stopped, still studying me with quiet curiosity, standing at the crossroads of confidence and caution, before continuing her journey out of the field with relaxed aplomb.

Turn the page. The journey goes on.

The Amethyst

There are two observation challenges while walking in nature: the first to find the hidden species, and the second to see the beauty and importance of common, obvious things that seldom capture much of our time.

There is a national trail in Surrey that reveals plenty of both. The North Downs Way is south-east England’s most absorbing footpath, threading through over 150 miles (250km) of chalky hills, ancient beechwoods and rolling farmland. I live on it, or very nearly; it runs through my parish on its pilgrimage to Canterbury and the sea.

It is big enough to feel uncrowded, human-wise, but the wild is there to offer its company.

Amethyst deceiver 3 Oct 2017

Amethyst deceivers bring royal purple to the forest. The name reflects their variable shape which can outfox identification. These clustered on a fallen beech, joining moss in a living shroud.

The beech that still stand are catching the light as though it were a cricket ball flying towards them in the season’s last match.

Beech leaves in light 3 Oct 2017

Flowers, too, are still shining. Poppies redden the edges of arable land.

Poppy 3 Oct 2017

Scarlet pimpernels peep through the grass.

Scarlet pimpernel 3 Oct 2017

And here – the harbinger of spring, resting on a grass stem coloured by autumn:

Brimstone buttery 3 Oct 2017

It is a brimstone, and although at rest it mimics a leaf, on the wing the male is brilliant yellow. One of our longest-lived butterflies, it hibernates through the winter.

Whatever wild dramas autumn and winter bring, it will be oblivious.

Defiance

Autumn is tossing rain over us in fits of its own timing. Most trees are clinging defiantly to their leaves, indulging in a final dose of chlorophyll before the judge called Frost settles the matter.

The tunnel 27 Sept 2017

The pioneers have fallen, and frame deadwood that is slowly being consumed by fungi – in this case, the candlesnuff fungus Xylaria hypoxylon.

Candlesnuff fungus2 30 Sept 2017

White is the theme of the moment. We also have white spindles:

White spindles 27 Sept 2017

White warted puffballs:

Puffball 20 Sept 2017

And what I think is a species of cavalier mushroom (Melanoleuca).

Cavalier mushroom 30 Sept 2017

White mushrooms often provoke fear; amongst their number are the destroying angels, the most lethal of all fungi. But something far smaller than a human tasted this cavalier, leaving toothmarks as relics in the cap.

Meal for a bank vole, a predator of mushrooms. But it still stood under its birch tree, spilling spores from its gills.

Defiance.