Thursday, 20 March 2014

Mystery Mammal part 1, and the Tale of a Tail

Back in my New Years' roundup post, I wrote: 'With the help of a friend, I added to these records two mammal records for my area which were both unexpected and exciting, because they were species I didn’t know were about.  I hope to write about both of them soon!' This post is going to be about the first one.

Last June, I got up one Sunday ready to go to my local patch for my weekly BTO Birdtrack survey, turned on my phone and found a text from a friend of mine. He'd been cycling back from the station late the night before, and had found what he described as a baby deer, dead on the road, and recently judging by the good condition. Being a lot less squeamish than I am, and a cool guy who likes to share stuff (we both find examining dead animals very interesting for naturalist reasons), he picked the deer up and transported it to the entrance of my local patch which was a little way along the road, and left it there under the trees at the entrance. He then sent me a text with the location, and urged me to go and look at it as soon as possible- as I've mentioned, my patch is a very popular dog walking spot, and this was a sunny Sunday, which meant there'd be dogs out in force, dogs who would no doubt be very interested in a dead deer. So I hurried there as quickly as possible, armed with my camera and sketchbook.

Upon arrival, I searched fruitlessly for a while before finding the poor thing. It was indeed small for a deer, and sort of odd-looking to my inexperienced eyes (inexperienced at deer, anyway!). I'd seen Roe Deer before at the patch and thought of them as the only deer in the area, but this deer was definitely too small. As my friend had called it a baby deer I was still working on the assumption that this was what it was, so I decided to look it up when I got home and started taking photos.

I won't be using many of the photos I took in this post because looking back at them, honestly the poor deer looks terrible. It didn't smell at all-I think it quite likely died the night my friend found it-and at the time I thought dogs hadn't damaged it that much, but looking at the photos now I think I was wrong. The deer presumably died after being hit by a car but it's hard to tell which of its injuries were caused by the car and which were the dogs. One of its back legs was badly broken, which probably was the car, but its tail had been torn right off and was missing, which was no doubt a dog, and the unbroken back leg had been quite obviously chewed. There were also bloody marks on its muzzle, around the eye and on its head, which could have been a corvid, possibly the Magpie that was sitting in a tree above eying the deer while I was there. The fur on the deer was also thin with small bald patches, which I suppose could have been from poor health before it died, but I suspect dogs worrying the corpse as more likely.

But enough morbid talk! I may not be using my photos, but I did do this sketch:

It was lying on leaf litter and one of the ears was buried, which is why I haven't drawn all of it

Most of the deer I've seen in the wild are Roe Deer, and they are the most common where I live. I've seen Fallow Deer a few times in the New Forest, but all my other observations of (wild, non-park) deer have been of Roes. Going by my assumption that this deer would be a Roe Deer, hopefully you can see from my sketch of what its head looked like why I would say it looked odd. Firstly, its head is wide but tapers sharply down to a thin, pointy nose. The inside of its ear has very little hair on it, with only a tuft where it joins the head and the rest bare, pink-grey, slightly wrinkled skin. The top of the head has odd ridges on it, running down the nose. And next to the eye is a strange, curved hole in the skin. At the time I assumed this was more damage to the body.

I texted my friend to say I'd found the deer, and he texted back saying 'I think it's a Muntjac'. At the time I thought 'Nah!' because I was so convinced Roe Deer were the only species in the area. By the time I got home and had a chance to google Muntjac Deer, my friend was starting to doubt that it was one. However once I saw the results of my google search, I was absolutely positive it was! Because I saw...this:

By Nilfanion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, not exactly this one, this is a stock image of a Muntjac, but it does the trick. It really helped that I had spent so much time carefully studying the ridges on the head and the texture of the inner ears while sketching, because when I looked at the photos, those were the features that jumped out at me and made me certain. Here's a Roe Deer for comparison:

By Malene Thyssen (User Malene) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

You can see the Roe's ears are much hairier, its muzzle less pointy, and it lacks the distinctive head ridges the Muntjac has. Incidentally the Muntjac in the stock picture is a buck with antlers and you can see they grow out of the ends of the ridges, making the antlers seem to lie along the head rather than grow out of the top like the antlers of the native British deer species. The Muntjac I sketched didn't have antlers but both sexes have the ridges, and it was mostly their distinctiveness that made me sure it was a Muntjac. In the pictures you can also see the Muntjac is shorter-legged, shorter necked and stockier, and its fur is a yellow-brown shade while the Roe is more reddish-brown. And regarding the hole below the eye of the Muntjac that I thought was damage to the corpse- the stock picture doesn't really get close enough but you can just see little marks below the eyes. According to the British Deer Society those are actually sub-orbital glands, which are very large on Muntjac Deer.

Until my friend found the dead Muntjac, I had no idea there were Muntjac in Hampshire at all, especially not in my area! I knew very little about them, and I still don't know much, other than what they look like and that unlike other deer they tend to be solitary. Road kill is always sad to see, but there are often times when it can tell you a lot about an animal, and as I've mentioned in previous posts the National Mammal Atlas accepts records of all signs of mammals, so submitted findings of road kill can help build a more complete picture of the distribution of these mammals, and finding and identifying dead mammals that you'd have little chance of seeing alive in the wild is a great way of building your own knowledge of the wildlife in your local area. When I post Mystery Mammals part 2, I'll show another example of the discovery of a dead mammal I didn't have any idea was in the area that was found as road kill. By the way, if you're an artist interested in animal anatomy like myself, I highly recommend sketching dead animals from life, if you have the time and it's safe to do so (obviously if the mammal is in the middle of a road and it isn't possible or hygienic to move it, then maybe photos only!). Drawing the Muntjac from life when I didn't know what species it was helped me pick up on the details that would later allow me to identify it without doubt, and I got a sketch that I'm very happy with and which is much better observed than if I'd copied one of the photos I took instead.


The sketch isn't the only thing I have relating to this deer. When I finished sketching and photographing, I was walking out of the area of woodland when I noticed a patch of fur under a tree. It was clearly the deer's fur, and nearby I found a much larger scrap that I realised was the deer's entire tail that had been torn off by a dog. On a whim, and thanks to a plastic sandwich bag I'd brought in case I found any feathers, I picked it up, wrapped it in the bag and took it home. My friend (a different friend) knew a bit about preservation techniques for pelts, and I thought I'd show it to her and see if she could teach me how to preserve it.

Mindful of decomposition, I asked her as soon as possible and she recommended I cure it with salt. Looking for a little more information, I discovered this tutorial about salt cure taxidermy. It recommends iodized salt, which I found without too much difficulty in a medium sized supermarket. Before starting I examined the tail and found it had come off relatively cleanly, and though I could feel a firm line along the middle where the end of the spine would go, there was no bone left in it at all- it must have remained on the carcass when the tail came off. The firmness was just the edges of the hole the spine had been in pressing together.

As the tutorial describes, I covered the bottom of a small box with a layer of salt. Then I sprinkled salt over the place where the tail had come off the body, as this is the area that needs the moisture drawn out of it the most, and then placed the tail in the box. Then I covered it up with salt and left it for 8 weeks. (The tutorial says 6-8 weeks depending on size but I went with the longest option to be safe!)

Here it is!

Look at the gorgeous colour in that fur. :) As you can see from the bottom photo, everything dried out just fine and though there was never much flesh on it, what there was is now preserved.

The Muntjac tail is now part of my not-very-big collection of things that aren't feathers. I have a few small bones, which I will write about one day, and a Roe Deer antler (bought not found, sadly), and now my first tail, of an animal I've never seen alive. I doubt I will make collecting tails from road kill into a habit but it's an interesting part of my naturalistic collection. I sometimes read blogs of people who skin animals and preserve the pelt, or stuff roadkill, but I'm not interested in doing any of these things myself, nor am I interested in making jewellery out of (legally collected) preserved animal tails, which the tutorial I used seems to have been made for the purpose of. It's interesting to read about these things, though! That reminds me, I really must start a blogroll in a sidebar on this blog showing blogs I read and admire.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Guessing at Fungi, and a Sly Visitor!

If you've been reading my blog in the past few months you will know that I love fungi, but it's really a very recent thing that was kickstarted last autumn, when I was looking for birds (unsuccessfully) in a local wood, and suddenly noticed I was surrounded by autumn fungi, of all shapes and sizes. Then it turned into an obsession when I was in a German wood and found fungi in red, yellow, green and purple, and all kinds of shapes and textures. From then on, I've been noticing fungi everywhere.

I can't remember why I never noticed fungi before this autumn, as I was always out birdwatching before that in places where fungi might be found. I think it was something to do with an idea I had about most fungi being brown and white mushrooms that all looked the same and weren't very interesting. I knew there were more different shapes and colours and textures, but I thought you had to be an expert to find those ones, and you'd only get to that point after getting really good at looking at the brown mushrooms. However, I now realise this is absolutely not true- once you begin looking out for fungi you will start to realise that some of the commonest species of fungi are some of the most brightly coloured, strangest in shape, and weirdest in texture! I'm going to go on to show you some examples that I found in the past couple of months at my local patch during my weekly bird-counting visits- despite the bright colours of some of it, I might have overlooked if I hadn't had my eyes open for fungi.

First, a quick note: fungi is awesome to look at, but even species that look really distinctive can be strangely hard to identify. I found this out with my Meadow Coral/Yellow Stagshorn confusion in the Germany post I linked above, and from some correspondence I had with the excellent Mark Baldwin at Wildlife Online ( I learned that photographing fungi where it grows may not be enough to always be sure of a positive ID- you may need to photograph the gill structure as well, or cut it in half to look at the structure inside, or for some of the 'brown mushrooms' I mention above, you might even need to taste the fungus's secretion! (Note: do NOT do this unless you are an expert!!! I certainly won't be trying it for a while!) The identification book for fungi that I use (which Mark also recommends), is Mushrooms by Roger Phillips, which I have on long-term loan from my dad, but I really must get my own copy ^^- this book includes how common a fungus is which is really useful (and also how poisonous/good to eat a fungus is, which is just interesting!). To back this up, when I think I've IDed something I use the Hampshire Fungus Recording Group website that I mention at the end of this post, and if there's not many records of it I reconsider the plausibility of my ID. I may also do a google image search on a species I think I've found, especially if it looked close but was a slightly different colour or shape than in the picture in the book, as fungi are widely variable in colour and shape (some with age, some...just to be annoying, I think XD) and an image search should show you several variations of the same species.

Now: on to the fungi!

I think these interesting little things are most likely to be Common Jellyspot, even though most of the pictures I saw of Jellyspot were more orange than these various shades of pink and maroon! I love the huge variety of shapes, sizes and textures that were all on the same log. The incredible smoothness, curvyness and shininess looks like some sort of modern art. Looking back at these photos now, I kind of wish I'd poked them with a stick to see if they were as squashy as they look! In the 4th photo down is what looks like one that's been squashed, so maybe they are.

These are both the same one- you can see in the top one how it seems to melt into the tree, and in the second one how high the dome is. I love this one because of how wet and jelly-like it looks, as if it's sort of melted down over the bark! Unlike the Jellyspot (and most other fungi I seem to see), this one was on its own. This was hard to ID but I think it might be White Milking Bonnet? Heeding Mark's advice about the gill structure, and also because I wanted to see what the stem was like under the cap, I took the following photo:

I had to make it bigger than the others as it's one of my favourite photos I've ever taken! :D

Even though this photo came out really nicely, I'm not experienced enough to actually use the gill structure to verify ID yet. I think the White Milking Bonnet is a subspecies of Milking Bonnet, and there aren't as many records of White Milking Bonnet in Hampshire as there are Milking Bonnet, but it's tricky with subspecies. This was a really hard one to get even a tentative ID on so if anyone knows about Milking Bonnet-type fungi or has another ID suggestion for my melting white mushroom, let me know! :)

This little bright one was a relatively easy; it's a Yellow Brain fungus! I couldn't have thought of a better name myself. Again, these are photos of the same one from different angles.

This one was an odd one. It looks quite like the Jelly Spot without any of the colour, but I found a photo of a fungus that looked like it in the suggested images while looking at google search results for the Yellow Brain- clicking into it showed it was called the Crystal Brain. Despite the name, as you can see it's not really that similar looking to the Yellow Brain, and the Latin names (Tremella mesenterica and Myxarium nucleatum) suggest they are not closely related at all. (Even fungi that do look alike aren't necessarily related, of course!) Crystal was the closest ID I could find for the fungi in the photo, but weirdly Crystal Brain wasn't in Roger Phillips' fungi guide at all, not even under the Latin name. But when I searched the name in the Hampshire fungi site, there were many records. Does anyone know why it might not have been in the book? Very odd, and it's a good thing the name is similar to the Yellow Brain or I might never have even had an idea what it might be!


The more interested I get in fungi, the more I see it everywhere! And to an extent, the same thing is happening with signs of mammals. As I wrote about in this post, I've been keeping notes about signs of mammals I see for the National Mammal Database, and my local patch is no exception. Warning in case you're eating dinner: poo pictures to follow!

Up at the top of my patch there's a railway line surrounded by scrubby vegetation, and back in January I detected a sly visitor up there! Unlike most mammals, you can sometimes detect this one with your sense of smell. Walking along the field margin next to the railway line, I smelled a distinctive, spicy, peppery odour that can only mean one animal- a fox! And aside from the smell, there were various visual signs.

 My local patch is very popular with dog walkers, and unfortunately a large number of them don't clean up their dog mess, so dog would be the main confusion species for these droppings. However as you can see from the closeup, there are feathers and what looks like crunched up bones in this dropping, not something you'd generally find in the poo of a dog fed on dog food. Plus when I was taking this photo, I noticed that the smell was...actually not as bad as you'd expect from a dog! While dog poo really stinks (and it makes my patch a bit unpleasant on a hot summers day, I can tell you!) this poo merely smelled like more of the fox smell, which wasn't unbearably unpleasant. I haven't included badger as a confusion species for this despite the size being similar, because I've seen no evidence of badgers at my patch or in the area at all, and don't think it's likely. But as I mentioned in the post I linked at the start of this section, badger poo doesn't really seem to have a smell.

I also found these nearby: 

Considering that the fox droppings had feathers in them, and these Woodpigeon feathers have been broken off by the shaft, I suspect that someone caught a pigeon and ate at least some of it near here! A sign you can use to tell if a mammal removed the feathers from a kill rather than a bird of prey is if the feathers are bedraggled, which can be due to the saliva of the animal and the fact that they sometimes chew the feathers. However in this case I think they're bedraggled because of the rain. The feathers in fox poo show a much more likely connection.

And finally, I found what looked like trails a fox-sized animal would make while pushing through the undergrowth: 

I was glad to find so many signs of my sly visitor! I don't know if any foxes have a territory nearby, and I've never seen or heard one in the area near my patch (it's near the suburban neighbourhood where I live, and I've never had any reason to believe there are urban foxes about), so it's possible this fox was just passing through. I did smell the foxy odour on a couple more visits since this, but never found so many clear signs again. This was all found a few months ago, I wonder where the fox is now?


It's funny- the more I look for different types of nature, the more I realise the value of educated guessing. You may not know 100% what you're looking at all the time, but you can get better at guessing, while waiting until you know more, or perhaps meet someone who knows more who can help you. For example, when I first was contacted by Mark Baldwin at Wildlife Online (linked at the top of this post) he verified some speculation I'd been mulling over in my Badger Mysteries post about whether badgers ever kill pheasants and other gamebirds. Mark showed me research that says- they do! It was brilliant to find out for sure. :) Thanks Mark, and as I always say, if you can give me the answers to any of my questions or you want to correct me on something, then I would absolutely love to hear from you!

And as the Spring rolls in, while you're keeping your eyes on the trees and your ears open for birdsong, don't forget to look down to the ground and keep your nose open too! ;)