A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) - note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.

Tired as a newt

My legs ache like I’ve just climbed a mountain, and I’m sleep deprived. It’s all the newts’ fault.

Earlier this week I helped out with a newt survey, which was great. But newts, being nocturnal, have to be surveyed after dark, and then very early the next morning, which meant I missed a few crucial hours of beauty sleep. (You didn’t think I look as gorgeous as I normally do without a good 8 hours slumber each night, did you?) And as newts live in ponds, there’s quite a bit of crouching down needed to extract bottle traps and release newts back into the ponds, hence the achey legs.

But they’re so enchanting and strange, I forgive them my aches and doziness.

I joined staff at Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor newts in ponds on one of their reserves. Spring is the best time to monitor newts, as at night they can all be found in ponds where they congregate to breed.

We used 3 approaches to survey the newts. The first, lamping, involves shining a bright torch into ponds to see what you can see. This was remarkably effective, and we saw lots of both smooth and great crested newts. It takes a bit of time to get your eye in, particularly to distinguish between males and females of the same species, but I was amazed how many we saw.

Another surveying method is to set traps made from bottles, Blue Peter style. You set them in the evening, and check them very early on the morning to release anything you’ve caught, before it gets too warm or they run out of air. This also worked well, and I got some wonderful close-up views of both sorts of newts.

Male Great Crested Newt in a bottle trap
Male Great Crested Newt in a bottle trap
A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) - note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.
A Smooth Newt (left) next to a Great Crested Newt (right) – note the smooth newt has smoother skin and is much smaller.

The other approach is to look for newt eggs folded individually into the leaves of pond plants.

Great Crested Newts are rare and protected by law, like dormice and bats, which means you can’t do anything to disturb them (including these survey methods) without the supervision of a licence holder. This, combined with their nocturnal and discreet way of life, and scarcity,  means it’s rare to get a good look at them.

They are very fine looking. In the water they look like marine iguanas, and their bellies are startling bright orange with bold black spots.  Smooth newts are small, neat looking things.

The orange and black underbelly of a sleepy Great Crested Newt
The underbelly of a sleepy Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newt
Great Crested Newt – note the white spots and stripy toes. The crest has flopped over since it’s out of the water.

While it was a bit hard leaving my bed at stupid o’clock, it was definitely worth it – the early morning is my favourite time of day, and it’s lovely in the woods. I did have a secret smugness as I later boarded my train to work, the other commuters having no idea what I’d been up to an hour earlier.

So that’s two out of three types of newts ticked off my British Animal Challenge list, plus common pipistrelle bats that we saw as we waited for it to get dark enough for lamping. A good night’s work…

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