17 July 2011 ~ 1 Comment

How To Identify Stoats And Weasels

look out for dangers
Creative Commons License photo credit: markus.hoppe

The mustelids are a group of mammals which in the UK include badgers, otters, polecats, stoats and weasels. Of these the greatest problems with identification seem to be how to tell a weasel from a stoat and so I thought a few pointers may come in useful.

Fortunately once you know the differences between these otherwise superficially similar animals it is actually quite easy to tell them apart though of course you have to remember which one is which!


Alaska Weasel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cecil Sanders

Weasels are surprisingly small mammals despite their fearsome reputation as talented hunters of small rodents. They typically reach a body length of around 8 inches long and in cross section are rarely larger than a mouse. The general shape is one of a small, long, wavy mammal with a short tail.

Weasels are carnivores like stoats and will eat anything they can catch which often means small rodents like mice and voles. Their small body means they struggle to catch anything larger but it also means they are able to follow their prey into tiny holes where a mammal like a stoat would struggle to fit.

Weasels may be seen in a range of habitats including woodland and wild meadows and I even saw one last year hiding under a bush in a National Trust garden as dozens of visitors unknowingly walked within a couple of feet of it.


Stoats are much larger than weasels and may grow to become the size of a small adult ferret with a body length around 16 inches. The tail is also a very useful tip for identification because unlike the weasels it typically has a black tip on it.

In my experience, while I have seen both mammals on many occasions the stoat, being rather larger and bolder, is far more likely to be seen.

In addition the stoat’s larger size means it is able to take correspondingly larger prey with rabbits being well within it’s reach. This means they may be seen hunting on open grassland sometimes and if you are downwind of them you can watch their amazingly quick and acrobating hunting technique.

In photographs these two mammals appear very similar indeed but remember the old adage of a “sizable stoat and a wee weasel” to remember that the stoat is much larger and keep an eye out for that black tail. Those two elements combined are normally enough to safely identify these mammals even at a glance, such as when one ducks across a footpath in the countryside some distance ahead of you.

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01 September 2010 ~ 0 Comments

The Difference Between Grasshoppers And Crickets

Piccola & Mostruosa
Creative Commons License photo credit: Luca 4891

One of the perennial problems of naturalists is how to tell the difference between crickets and grasshoppers. Whilst superficially these two groups of insects seem almost identical with their long back legs, ability to jump long distances and habitat preferences when you actually “get your eye in” these two groups can be surprisingly easy to tell apart.

If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between grasshoppers and crickets then you’re about to discover a few simple ways that will let you tell them apart with ease.


Possibly the quickest and easiest way to tell a grasshopper from a cricket is by taking a look at the antennae. In grasshoppers these tend to be short and sticking out infront of the head, whilst in crickets these are normally very long indeed – sometimes as long as the insect – and are often swept back along the body though they may be waved about in the air.

Body Shape

Grasshoppers typically have a far longer, thinner, more “aerodynamic” body shape to crickets, which are typically far more rounded in shape.

Time Of Day

When it comes to the chirping song of these two similar groups of insects they will normally sing at different times of day. You’re most likely to hear grasshoppers calling during the day while crickets are the likely culprit if you hear the noise later on in the day and during the evening.


Whilst grasshoppers and crickets both seem to like wild, grassy areas there are often subtle differences between their habitat choice. Grasshoppers favour short, tussocky grassland where they can climb to the top to sun themselves while I tend to find crickets far more often in longer grass or even on the leaves of bushes and trees where grasshoppers are seldom seen.

Cricket Photo

Notice the longer antennae and shorter, rounder-looking body.

hop, hop, hop !
Creative Commons License photo credit: OliBac

Grasshopper Photo

Notice the short antennae and relatively long, thin body of the grasshopper.

Making a difference...
Creative Commons License photo credit: wolfpix

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05 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

How To Identify Swallows, Swifts And House Martins

One of the perennial problems at this time of year is figuring out whether that bird that just flew overhead at the speed of light was a swallow, a swift or a house martin.

But fortunately while these birds are all superficially similar, there are a range of differences between them that can make telling these three bird species apart reasonably simple once you know what to look for.


Wire Fence Sitter
Creative Commons License photo credit: fauxto_digit

Swallows are most easily identified by their red chin and the longer feathers on either side of the tail which stick out like streamers and make them easy to spot in flight.


Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Creative Commons License photo credit: Michael Woodruff

Swifts are one of those amazing birds which barely ever come to ground to rest except to nest spending virtually their whole life on the wing. High pitched screeching and curved, sickle-shaped wings together with a short tail help to identify this species who can often be seen in warm summer days performing acrobatics in the sky as they hunt for their insect prey.

House Martins

house martin
Creative Commons License photo credit: Generalnoir

The house martin is probably the smallest of these three species and has a gently curved tail, unlike the squarer tail of the swift or the “streamers” of the swallow. They are most easily identified, however, by their white rump which can often be clearly seen even from some distance as these birds fly past.

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28 April 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Identifying British Deer

Britain has a rich number of different deer species which still astonishes me in such an “overcrowded” country with so few real wild places left but it seems many deer species are surviving alongside man without too many problems.

There are generally believed to be 6 species of deer in Britain at present. They are:

– Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
– Fallow Deer (Dama dama)
– Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
– Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)
– Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi)
– Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)

Fortunately identifying these species and telling them apart is, in general, reasonably simple and so with only a tiny glimpse one can have a reasonable chance of a correct identification, particularly if you take into account the habitat in which you see a deer.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)

Red Deer stag, Cervus elaphus on the south side of Beinn Eighe
Creative Commons License photo credit: Shandchem

Red deer are the largest deer in Britain and most frequently are found in “wilderness” areas most commonly the hills and glens of Scotland. Other populations do exist in the UK, such as in Norfolk and of course the semi-wild population in Richmond park.

The red deer has a characteristically shaped head and a thick, powerful neck while the males of course develop powerful antlers.

Fallow Deer (Dama dama)

Fallow Deer 1
Creative Commons License photo credit: ahisgett

Fallow deer are quite a bit smaller than red deer and more typically frequent broadleafed woodland than open hillsides. In colouration they may range between almost white right through to a melanistic version though a ginger colour with white spots on (classic Bambi) is the most common colour form seen.

The males develop characteristic antlers in the breeding season and fallow deer may often be seen grazing near woodlands in small groups. Two to five individuals is common though they may congregate in far larger groups of several dozen individuals in some situations.

Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)

(Competition Entry) ;)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Alasdair Middleton

The roe deer is probably Britains most common deer species and can be found in a wide range of habitats from woodland to grassland. The roe deer is characterized by a pale yellow or white rump which is typically seen disappearing into the distance as the roe deer gracefully hops away, and by the large black nose. Again, this is the deer you are most likely to see and may even be seen feeding near roads or on farmers fields where woodland cover isn’t too far away. The roe deer is normally solitary.

Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)

Sika stag on Brownsea Island
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian D Nolan

The introduced sika deer is still reasonably rare so you are far less likely to encounter this species than other “British” deer. Also the habitat of this deer is characteristic as it prefers conifer forests and heathland. Whilst it does resemble a red deer to a degree, this species is typically smaller in size and the colour will normally help to separate the sika deer from other species as the coat is typically far darker appearing almost black in many cases.

Muntjac Deer (Muntiacus reevesi)

Creative Commons License photo credit: shimgray

The muntjac and chinese water deer are both small introduced species, typically around the size of a domestic cat or medium-sized dog though being far more delicate and elegant in appearance.

Whilst rumour has it that they escaped into the East Anglian fens originally both these deer species have spread rapidly and can be found in a wide range of habitats from wetlands through to many British woodlands.

Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)

Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis)
Creative Commons License photo credit: cliff1066™

The chinese water deer can be identified by the elongated fangs present in the males of this species which are absent in the muntjac. Equally, the male muntjac has horns while the water deer does not and the appearance of the face is very different between the two species. Lastly, according to the British Deer Society, the chinese water deer is currently restricted to just Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

Why not leave me a comment and tell me what your favourite deer species is, and why?

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19 March 2010 ~ 0 Comments

How To Tell The Difference Between Great Tits, Blue Tits And Coal Tits

Whilst many tits are quite common birds in our parks and gardens it seems that due to the fact that they are all small and flighty there can be some confusion over their identification.

Fortunately once you know what you are looking for it is reasonably easy to tell the difference between great tits, coal tits and blue tits so let’s take a look at each of these species in turn to help contrast and compare the differences between them.

Great Tits

The great tit is the largest of the three tits in question and is characterised by a black head with white cheeks, together with a bright yellow belly with a black line running down the middle of it.

Great Tit

Great Tit

Blue Tits

The blue tit, on contrast to the great tit, is noticeably smaller. It also has a base colour of white in it’s head with blue patch on the top and a black stripe through the eye. While it has a yellow belly like the great tit there is typically no black stripe down it.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Coal Tits

Finally the coal tit has a black head with white cheeks like the great tit, but typically the blue wings are absent and furthermore the breast is more of a straw colour rather than a vibrant yellow. It looks the most muted of the three species mentioned here.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit

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