Trying to Entice a Red Squirrel

Coming from the Southern UK I had never seen a Red Squirrel in the wild until I moved to France. In contrary to the UK, where the native Red Squirrels are rare, having been pushed out by the introduced Greys, France only has Red Squirrels. In fact in mainland Europe the only populations of Grey squirrels are in Northern Italy where somebody had the fantastic idea to introduce them into a few parks.

In the UK Reds are rare because the larger Greys outcompete them for food. There is some fear that the small population in Northern Italy my start to spread throughout Europe, including France, and we could face the same problem of Grey Squirrel dominance.

It is however important to note that one of the key predators of squirrels are Pine Martens which are largely absent from the UK but present throughout Europe.

As Reds Squirrels are smaller and more agile they tend to stay higher up in the trees and use more fragile branches. This helps protect them from the large Pine Martens who find it easier to catch the bigger Grey Squirrels which spend more time on the ground. So Pine Martens are a natural form of Grey Squirrel control and as there are Martens throughout Europe it probably offers the best hope for control of this invasive species.

In Chatou I have seen Red Squirrels in the poplar trees which line our roads. I have never seen one in my garden, however I do have a nice mature cedar tree which would be a good location for them. Therefore to try and entice them in I thought it would be a good project to install a squirrel feeder.

Deploying my lockdown time and basic DIY skills I built a very simple feed box. The lid of the box is hinged and the idea is that it protects the nuts from birds but can be easily lifted by our squirrel friend.  The plan and finished feeder are shown below.

I fixed the box on the Cedar tree around 1.5 m from the ground. It’s low enough for me to refill it although hopefully not so low that it attracts rodents. Even if rodents are avoided I imagine that the other likely visitor may be a Beech Marten.

I filled the feeder with Hazelnuts, installed it on the 11th November and the results so far are fairly conclusive. Not a nut has been touched. No squirrels, yet.

The garden bird community has however passed by to have a look, but there is no way in.

I’ll certainly be leaving the feeder up and I’ll keep hoping to entice a red squirrel in. I will of course share any developments including images and videos.

Do continue to check out the updates on the website. The hedgehogs have started hibernation, so not much activity at the moment. However the garden birds are coming back for the winter and there’s been lots to see, including Europe’s smallest bird, the Goldcrest. Check that out here.

Thanks for reading and wishing you all the best in these difficult times.

Update on the Garden Birds

In the last couple of weeks’ I’ve seen a slightly greater variety of Bird species in the garden. I’ve spotted my first Green woodpecker of the year and also Crested Tits, Long-Tailed Tits and Wrens. All of them occasional visitors that typically I see more of during the winter.

With this in mind I produced a little graph to show the weekly variation of different bird species recorded throughout the year. As would be expected the results show generally fewer different species during the summer months but I’ll keep recording to confirm the trends.

Following the last Bird Log update, where I had undertaken the regular Garden Bird survey, I was contacted by the LPO, the French version of the RSPB, as I share the results on their website. They had a few questions. They were surprised at the number of birds, specifically, Great Tits, that I was recording.

I had an exchange with a very nice chap called Christian.

I explained my method of performing the survey, recording the number of times a bird enters the garden during the hour, taking no consideration if these were different individual birds. The very nice man, still Christian, pointed out that I was doing it wrong.

The correct way to make the survey is to record the maximum number of birds seen in the garden simultaneous during the hour of observation. So, for example the maximum number of Great Tits seen at the same time, not the number of times a Great Tit enters and leaves the garden.

Therefore I modified my method, I made the first survey on the 11th November 2020 and I will keep adding the results, hopefully on a weekly basis as we go through the Winter.  

Sorry Christian.

I’ve also been closely watching the Great Tit behaviour and to help my understanding I’ve been doing some supplementary reading. The book is shown below. It’s quite heavy going, not for the casual reader, but it does contain a lot of good info.

In my garden I’ve definitely noticed territorial behaviour. Whenever a Great Tit or a Blue Tit lands on the ‘Red Robin’ bush just in front of the next box, shown in the photo below, they are within minutes chased away by another Great Tit. I can’ tell if it is always a male doing this chasing or not.

This indicates that a Male or perhaps a pair are permanently based in the garden, it is their home territory and they are defending it from other birds. They will tolerate other ‘roaming’ birds on the feeders in the garden but not so close to the nest Box.

My ‘heavy’ reading tells me that this is quite normal behaviour. A Great Tit will defend a territory during winter and stay there, especially if there is sufficient food, as there is in my garden. If food becomes scarcer or the weather turns very bad, they may start moving, typically by joining a roaming flock. Only coming back to reclaim and defend their territory when the weather gets better in late winter or early spring.

So it looks like my home Great Tit(s) are still here and are defending the nest box for use next spring.

The Hedgehog Learning Curve – Correcting a few Mistakes

There continues to be plenty of hedgehog activity but the nesting house has not been used since the 5th October. I have however seen a hedgehog in the garden gathering nesting material.

As I can’t imagine that it is taking the material very far, coupled with the hedgehog regularly turning up in my garden as soon as it becomes dark, the conclusion seems to be that this individual is building a winter hibernation nest in my neighbours garden, just beyond the fence hole. This would be close to the food I supply in the feed station and makes use of the rather wild area at the back of the neighbours garden.

I’ve been doing additional reading on hedgehog activity and this has provided a few explanations on the nesting habits. It seems that my hedgehog house was been used as a summer/day nesting site of which the hedgehogs will have several. Apparently a male will tend to use a different site every night whilst a female will use the same location for around a week. This would make sense of the regular behaviour I’ve witnessed with the house being used for around a week and then abandoned. It would also confirm that the majority of users, and certainly the last occupant was indeed a female.

Despite using a variety of nest sites during the summer each hedgehog will only make and use one unique winter nest for hibernation. As we are now nearly at the point of winter hibernation, last minute nest enhancements aside, it appears that my hedgehog house has unfortunately not been selected for use this year.

My additional hedgehog reading material, book below, has been very illuminating and I’m afraid to say that it has highlighted a few of my mistakes.

Apologies readers but I need to correct a few errors.

In a recent Blog Post I talked about hedgehog teeth and I thought that these were being used to eat snails from their shells. Sorry about that but I was wrong, it turns out that hedgehogs do not eat snails, at all. Their teeth, despite being fearsome, are not up to it.

I had also been finding acorns in the hedgehog house, which I did honestly think was a big odd, but I considered that maybe this was forming part of the hedgehog diet. See Hedgehog Log entry for the 18th October. Wrong again.

To be very clear hedgehogs are nearly 100% carnivores, mainly eating slugs, worms and beatles.

What I now believe was happening was that the eaten out snail shells and acorns were signs of a rat. I had seen one darting around at the end of the garden, including in the hedgehog feeding station, at the end of September and early October. It looks like this rat was using the hedgehog feeding station as a sheltered location in which to eat and probably rest.

Rats do take snails as a regular source of food and evidently they do have the teeth to deal with the shells. In addition to the hedgehog food and shelters my garden is full or snails, so interesting enough for this rodent.

Since early October I’ve not seen any further evidence of the rat on any of the cameras, including the one installed inside the feed station, and I’ve stopped finding snail shells.

It seems to be the logical explanation.

Certainly for me this blog is a learning curve and I apologise for the mistakes along the way. I’ll try and be as factual as possible and make corrections as I go. It certainly confirms the conclusion that with nature the more you look the more you realise how little you actually know.

The other conclusion is that if you find snail shells looking like this in your garden, you’ve probably got a rat!

Counting Garden Birds

This blog is a special treat for all lovers of a bit of data crunching and a nice graph as I’ve done an analysis of the weekly garden bird records that I’ve been keeping.

Making records, simply writing something down in a systematic way, can seem a little laborious but it is a really important act. When these records are kept over a long period of time, which is of course the time-frame of nature, they show clear changes and trends. In a wider context it is this process of record keeping which is explaining the problems of climate change and bio-diversity loss. The phrase ‘Since records began’ is often used.

As my project is all about increasing nature in the garden I understood quickly that I had to start making more detailed records.

One of the first that I started in January was a simple weekly log of the presence of birds. I’ve done my best to be patient but as we are now 43 weeks into the year I decided to have a first look at the results.

My method for this record was to mark a bird as present if I saw it in the garden at any point during the week. To be marked present I only had to see a bird species once, but it did need to be in my garden. Visiting my neighbours tree, for example, doesn’t count. And I did need to see it, only hearing it also doesn’t count.

First thing to note is that of the 43 weeks in the year I’ve only got records for 31 weeks. This is despite a lockdown when I spent much more time at home, here I must try harder. However it is enough to give some results.

The graph above shows all of the birds recorded at least once in the garden this year. A total of 26 different species.

Of these, 4 birds have been recorded as present every week, the Great Tit, Collared dove, Parakeet and Robin. In truth they are probably present in my garden not just every week but every day.

Of these the parakeet is the most interesting and the least expected. When I was young these birds were very rare but now in suburban environments, and I know that this is the same in the suburbs of London, there are very large flocks. They are a direct beneficiary of the generally warmer climate that we now have.

After these there is another group which are not recorded at 100% but which are basically resident in the garden year round. Magpie, Chaffinch,  Dunnock, Rock Dove, Blue Tit and Wood Pigeon. I will be honest and say that sometimes I’m not 100% sure if I have seen a Rock Dove or a Feral Pigeon. It’s probably safer to label this bird ‘Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon’.

Then starting from around 75% we are into a group which can be classed as occassional visitors. Jay, Starling, Crow, Blackbird, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Wren, Crested Tit and Blackcap. For these I Iooked at the time of year when they were present.

The overall picture is that they are more present in the winter than in the summer.

A clear illustration is the Starling which was an ever present until the end of June before disappearing. This shows a very typical trend that with good weather and abundant natural food the occassional visitors spend the majority of the summer in environments further away from humans. The months of July, August and September are quiet in the garden and during this time bird activity is reliant on the permanent residents. It will be interesting to see when these occassional visitors start to reappear regularly in the garden.

The very last category of birds have only been spotted in the garden very occassionally, sometimes only once, Song Thrush, Tree Creeper, Long Tail Tit, Firecrest, Goldcrest, Greenfinch and Spotted Woodpecker. With so few sightings there are is real basis for further analysis. The significant point of interest will be to see if any of them are more frequently spotted in the future.

So these are the initial results, however it is a ridiculously short time-frame and I would not want to make any conclusions. The results are massively influenced by the weather conditions which have been very mild in 2020. I don’t think we had any winter snow in the Paris region and this was followed by a warm, dry spring and a hot, dry summer. We need to see the results over a longer time period and through a variety of weather conditions.

The record keeping will therefore go on and I’ll try and share another analysis after the winter and before the spring nesting season.

Do keep visiting the website to which I keep adding videos, photos and general updates on the garden activity. I’ve also just added a little section on Wood Mice which is now available.

Thanks for reading.

Inside the mouth of a Hedgehog

Recently I had been getting a bit concerned about the activity in the hedgehog feeding station. The food was certainly getting eaten but the trail cameras where not picking up many hedgehogs entering or leaving. I know that the trail cameras are not alwaya reliable but I thought that perhaps the food may be being taken by mice or other rodents.

To reassure myself that all was well I set up a camera inside the feed station and although the image quality is poor all did seem to be in order.

Witness hedgehog eating food.

However the next video was much more interesting.

The hedgehog was obviously quite intrigued by the camera to the point of putting it in it’s mouth and giving us an extreme close-up inside.

I’ve been doing my research and hedgehogs have similar teeth to humans, molars, pre-molars, canines and incisors. I’ve also learnt that they have 44 teeth, obviously not all visible in the above where we can mainly see the canines. These look sharp enough but it’s also worth taking a look at the front incisors.

The full set looks pretty fierce for the very good reasons that they need to be to support the Hedgehogs diet. A great example is given by the eaten out snail shells that I’m finding all over the garden at this time.

The Hedgehog will have used it’s front incisors to get through the shell, it looks quite neat job in this case, before using it’s canines and other teeth to chew and eat the snail meats.

I can’t Imagine getting any closer Images of hedgehog teeth but for all the up to date news on the garden activity don’t forget to check out the Chatou Nature Website.

Arrival of Autumn – Big Time for Hedgehogs

After a long hot summer in Paris, with really very little rain, Autumn has now well and truly set in. We’ve had a couple of weeks of cold, wet and windy weather to mark this change in the season, which I admit I find rather welcome. Not just because I’m not as hot but because it means the natural year is moving on and we enter into a different phase.

For the hedgehogs this means preparation for winter. They need to eat and gain weight during the next weeks and also find some good spots for hibernation. So this is a key time during which they should be very active in the garden and I’ve been doing whatever I can to help them out and also watching the action as closely as possible.

Firstly I made a new hedgehog feeding station as it was becoming impossible to leave out any food without it being taken by the cats.

Once the roof is on the entrance chambers on either side prevent larger animals, such as the neighbourhood cats, getting in, but pose no problem for hedgehogs. The feed station has been out a couple of weeks now and it has worked a treat. I see a marked increase in the number of hedgehog visitors, and also an increase in time they spend in the garden, on nights when I leave food out.

So with somewhere to eat I then focused on somewhere to stay and for this I cleaned and moved the hedgehog house. The good news is that straight away it is back in use.

During the last week a hedgehog has been using the house on most nights. It seems to come into the house and have a nap for around 30 minutes before heading off again. Sometimes there is only one stay and on other days several throughout the night.

I’m not very good at hedgehog identification but I believe that the hedgehog regularly using the house is a fairly small female.

I have spotted a different hedgehog, this time I would guess a male having a sniff, but then not going in to the house.

I don’t think that two different hedgehogs will share the same house so it looks like mine has been claimed by this small female, at least for now.

Famously hedgehogs are reputed to be great friends of the gardener, particularly as they eat slugs and snails of which I have no shortage, especially now that the rain has returned. In my garden I’m now finding lots of snail shells, including inside the feed station, which have been cracked upon and the snails eaten out.

This seems to confirm what I have read in that even when food  is left out the hedgehogs will still take plenty of natural food. So don’t be discourage in leaving food out for the hedgehogs, I think it just encourages them to spend longer in the garden, time they use to the detriment of the snail population.

Final piece of news from this start of autumn is that the Beech Marten has been back. Only once, unfortunately it seems I’m in a fallow period for visits, but I got a nice shot on the trail camera with an exit heading up the tree.

To help with the management of all the videos now being produced to support the blog I’ve created a you tube channel, so if you are interested to see any footage as it arrives please do subscribe.

Chatou Nature Blog – You Tube

Otherwise I’m keeping the various logs and records on the website updated with all the news.

Enjoy Autumn and I’ll blog again soon.

World CleanUp Day

Hi all! A little difference to this blog post as it is not a nature update from the garden but I wanted to share something important and close to my heart.

Like many many people I’m a big hater of litter and the pollution it creates. I often do a bit of litter picking as a way of doing my bit and helping out to keep our environment as clean as possible.

So I wanted to share with you all that this Saturday is World Cleanup day. A day dedicated to raising awareness of the problem and organising, and getting as many people as possible participating, in clean-up events across the world.

They have an excellent an easy to navigate website where you can find all the information and either register your own event or sign-up to one near to where you are.

I’ve signed up for a couple of hours on Saturday morning for a clean-up organised by a friend of mine, shout out to Mr Tim Black, on the banks of the seine.

The whole concept of world clean-up day is a really great initiative to get people thinking about and helping to solve this very serious problem. So if you have a little time on Saturday please to consider participating.

Chatou Nature Update – 08/09/20

I’ve not been blogging during the summer but I am still keeping up with the garden nature project, and also updating the website logs, records and information.

I’ve had a few Beech Marten sightings since the last blog  and I’ve gathered enough info to create a more detailed records page.  The conclusions of my initial, not very scientific analysis is that I think I can identify at least two different individuals visiting.

It all comes down to the tail tip, sometimes bushy and sometimes not.

For the full story check out the Beech Marten records and the analysis on the wesbite.

The summer has seen a bit of a drop off in hedgehog activity. Some nights I’ve not been getting any visits at all and the use of the hedgehog house stopped some weeks ago.

What I did see was a big increase in visits from the neighbourhood cats, to the point where it became impossible to leave any food out for the hedgehogs without the cats taking it. Therefore, a little bit of DIY later I’ve made up a hedgehog feeding which will hopefully keep the hedgehogs fully interested in the garden. For the DIY ambitious, the plans for the construction can be found here.

Apart from the regular visitors I do still keep finding nice surprises in the garden and the most recent is shown below.

Rather unfairly called the ‘Common’ frog this one was a rather nice example. There is no water in my garden, no pond, but these frogs actually spend most of their time away from water which they only really use for breeding. They hibernate in places such as garden undergrowth and woodpiles so keep an eye out if you see some leaves moving at the bottom of a hedge.

Chatou Nature Update – 27/07/20

Monday 27/07/20

Nearly a month since the last blog post. In this time only 1 more Beech Marten sighting has been added to the log and that on 29th June, so no recorded visits thus far in July.

The Hedgehogs have continued to be very active in the garden and the box was in quite regular use, including a couple of times when the hedgehog stayed in the box throughout the day.

However the last of these long stays was the 7th July and since then the house has not been used.

All of this has been recorded in the weekly hedgehog log.

Also included in the log is the information from the last week when I’ve participated in a citizen science project to record information across France on hedgehog activity. It’s called ‘Mission Herisson’ and you can find all the info via their website.

It’s a nice experiment which is done by recording footprints in a hedgehog tunnel, something that is really easy to make and set-up at home.

So even if you don’t want to participate in the Mission Herisson but would like to know if you have hedgehogs in your garden, it could be worth having a go.

Chatou Nature Update – 28/06/20

Weather : Very hot temperatures nearly all week, up to 35oC.

Notes : I didn’t send a post last week as I had no significant news but this week there is a definite update.

Firstly, specifically today, we have had the first all-day stay of a hedgehog in the new house. Obviously Hedgehogs are essentially nocturnal so they need somewhere to rest and sleep during the day. Up until now the hedgehogs have been using the house to feed and take nighttime naps.

The first daytime occupant, hopefully a significant development, is shown below.

For more information and all the pictures and videos on the hedgehog activity over the last 2 weeks check out the Hedgehog Log.

The second good news this week is a new sighting of the Beech Marten, the first since 3rd June.

It was only a brief visit for a drink from the water dish, but it was captured on video and can be found on the updated log of beech marten sightings.

On a different scale I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the insects in the garden as essentially the summer months are the peak time. I know very little about the vast majority of insects so it will be a very good way of boosting my knowledge. I’ve started to try and log some information on the bees and butterflies but this week I found a fantastic stag beetle. I really can’t remember every having picked up one of these before.

I didn’t get a photo of THE beetle so this library picture will have to do. They are not my fingers but it really is that big.

They need dead wood to thrive so hopefully the log pile I installed in January to attract more insects is part of the reason that I’ve now found one in the garden. I will keep my eyes open for more.