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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09 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Websites To Help You Identify British Butterflies

Coral hairstreak, on butterflyweed
Creative Commons License photo credit: Benimoto

Whilst I love to see butterflies, I am far from an expert and so regularly find myself leafing through books and websites to learn more about a species I have seen recently.

During my research I have come across a number of useful online resources for identifying British butterflies and their caterpillars and thought that it might be useful for other readers to gather the best resources into one place.

Possibly the best place to start your identification journey is with a visit to Butterfly Conservation’s UK Butterflies site which has neatly categorized all of the UK butterfly species, with clear photos of each making identification reasonably easy for most species.

As well as the photos, this site also groups butterflies by type, helping to narrow down your search and also has a handy “Flying This Week” chart on the left-hand side of the page which is a great place to start your hunt.

Butterfly Conservation’s main website also has some very useful resources including a complete A to Z listing of UK butterflies and a special “butterfly identifier” where you can select options from a form which will then offer up possible identifications.

Also worth mentioning is UK Leps which has lots of nice photos and information but unfortunately there is no overview feature. Because of this, UK Leps is probably not so useful for identification when compared to the two Butterfly Conservation websites but once you have worked out what your butterfly is, the site provides plenty more useful information on the species.

Whilst the flying adult butterflies are often the most visible form, it is of course not unusual to find caterpillars and these can potentially be even more problematic to identify.

What’s That Caterpillar is a great resource for identification of British caterpillars. To make your identification a little easier, try to identify the actual plant that you find the caterpillar on and then use one of the various lists of larval food plants to narrow down the options.

Some of the best lists of larval food plants I have found are Foremost Butterflies and Over The Garden Gate.

Lastly, if you have some top identification websites that you use for lepidoptera, please leave me a comment so we can all benefit from your knowledge :-)

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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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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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28 February 2010 ~ 0 Comments

How To Identify Any British Species


A new website has been launched to celebrate 2010 as the interntional year of biodiversity which aims to help anyone to identify British species near them. Irrespective of the size of the animal – from the smallest insect to the largest mammal – you can now upload a photo of the species you have seen and experts will aim to identify what you have seen.

Even better, there is zero cost to use the service – and if you’re a wildlife fanatic like me you can even go along with the aim of helping to identify other people’s mystery animals which is a lot of fun!

You *do* need to register to use the service but the signup process only takes a minute or two and then you’re good to go. Take a look today at http://www.whatonearth.org.uk/

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