Category Archives: Reptiles

In which I moan about light pollution on the darkest day of the year

Today’s the shortest day of the year, so it may seem churlish to spend it complaining about light. But don’t get me wrong – it’s not sunlight I have a problem with. I can vaguely remember what it’s like, and I’m keen to renew the acquaintance. It’s light pollution that I want to talk about today.

It’s obvious how water pollution can harm wildlife – the dramatic decline of the otter in the mid 20th century is a well known example. And we’re hearing more about the health effects air pollution has for humans (and presumably wildlife are affected too). But there’s less awareness of the problem of light pollution.

Last week there was a story on the BBC website about how robins’ behaviour is affected by light pollution. A study by Southampton University found that robins that lived closer to lit paths and noisy roads were much lower down this dominance hierarchy – the birds in these territories displayed less aggressively.

Robins aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Other birds, reptiles, amphibians, moths and bats are also affected negatively. But some species can adapt to make the most of it, like the common redshank, getting longer to feed because of artificial lights.

Another disadvantage of light pollution is that it stops us seeing so many stars. Where I live, in a street-lit town, I’m never going to see the Milky Way. On holidays to more remote, darker places, the stars at night take my breath away.

Light pollution is a subject that’s too close to home for me. My bedroom overlooks a recently refurbished office building that’s floodlit throughout the night, meaning that, despite the blackout lining of my curtains, my bedroom never properly gets dark.

In some places things are being done to reduce light pollution. The funding cuts for councils means many are now looking to save money (and reduce carbon emissions) by turning off street lighting in residential roads late at night. In fact, my council are introducing this to the town I live in next month. My road is a major traffic route, so the lights will stay on. But other, quieter roads, will have their lights turned off between midnight and 5am in the morning. Hopefully this will benefit at least some of the local wildlife and residents.

As for me, I’m looking forward to a trip west, where night will be dark, and, if the skies are clear, I’ll be able to see the Milky Way.

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April Photography Challenge: spring

My theme for April’s challenge was spring. As it turned out, I didn’t take many classic ‘spring’ shots (apart from some bluebells).

Bluebells at Hatchlands Park
Bluebells at Hatchlands Park

Birds are busy in spring, and I couldn’t resist when I saw this fine woodpecker.

Great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker

Reptiles don’t come immediately to mind when you think of spring, but actually it’s a great time to see them basking in the early sun. I managed to find a few on a Surrey Wildlife Trust walk.

Grass snake
Grass snake on a corrugated tin sheet used for monitoring reptiles
Slow worm
Slow worm
Slow worm
Slow worm
Slow worm
Slow worm
Adder
Adder

Reptiles aren’t the only creatures who like to sunbathe – foxes are rather fond of it too.

Fox enjoying the sun
Fox enjoying the sun
Fox enjoying the sun
Fox enjoying the sun
Fox enjoying the sun
Fox enjoying the sun

British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015

March seems to have flown by. My focus for the British Animal Challenge in March was reptiles and amphibians. I did manage one reptile spotting walk, but didn’t see any reptiles. (I think I picked too warm a day, and should have gone out earlier in the morning.)

Still, I did at least cross one new species off my list in March: we found a common shrew in one of the dormouse boxes we were cleaning out. I’ve seen a few pygmy shrews in dormice boxes before, but not a common one. They don’t nest in the boxes, so are either using them for a quick nap (shrews need to do everything quickly, as they have to eat pretty much constantly), or helping us get rid of some of the insects that like to take up residence in the boxes.

I’ve definitely seen dead common shrews before (victims of my previous cat), but can’t remember seeing one alive, so didn’t cross it off my list before. I finally have a confirmed sighting.

While there was only one new species ticked off my list in March, I did see some other animals. I’ve seen:

  • Hedgehogs (now coming every evening to my garden) – even witnessed some hedgehog fights
  • Hares
  • Deer – not sure which sort, as we whizzed past on the train
  • Rabbits

My calendar for April looks pretty packed. It includes a dormouse box check, so I may get lucky and see a yellow-necked mouse. I’ve also got another trip to Cornwall planned, to go sailing in my dinghy for the first time – I’d love to see some cetaceans on that (although I’m not pinning my hopes on it). I’ll also try to look out for reptiles and amphibians (there are some good ponds near where I’ll be staying in Cornwall).

British Animal Challenge: February 2015 update

I have to admit that I have spent most of February indoors, so far. So no new animals to tick off my list this year. But I haven’t been idle – I’ve been plotting the rest of the year.

My focus for March will be amphibians and reptiles. I’m not planning any trips away from home, so will search for those that can be seen in Surrey. Luckily that’s most of the British species.

Early spring is a good time to look for amphibians, as their focus is on mating. And reptiles have to spend more time basking in the open, so will hopefully be easier to see than later in the year.

Surrey has some fine reptile habitat, with a mix of woodland and heaths. I’m more familiar with the woods, so this is a good excuse to explore beyond my usual territory.

British Animal Challenge: look back at 2014

At the start of 2014 I began a huge challenge: trying to see every different type of British animal in the wild. The list has changed a little bit over the year, but here’s the latest version. It includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In all, there are 107 species.

I’d seen a reasonable number before I started the challenge, but many of the ones remaining are, for one reason or another, tricky. Some are very rare, some restricted to small parts of the UK (including tiny islands), and others are hard to see because they’re nocturnal, or live at sea.

So, what progress have I made this year? I’ve visited different corners of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall and Surrey on my quest, and spent quite a few hours trying to see some of our elusive animals.

New species seen:

And species I haven’t seen, despite several attempts:

In all, I’ve seen 45 species, and still have 62 to go. It’s going to be a busy year next year!

British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.

Alien invaders 2: Pheasants

Pheasants are splendid looking birds, and very common in many parts of the country. But despite their prevalence, they’re not native to the UK.

While pheasants look good, they are definitely not the sharpest sandwich in the picnic – ask anyone who has driven behind a pheasant running desperately along a road for half a mile before it remembers it can fly over the hedge.

Pheasants have been around in the UK for around 1000 years, so are well established. But while it is illegal to release most non-native species into the wild,  pheasants are an exception (under licence) and around 35,000,000 are released each year in Britain.

The reason for this is shooting. Shooting is big business (or at least rich business), generating around £1.6bn each year (not all of which is from pheasant shoots).

There’s quite a lot of controversy over the impact that the release of so many pheasants each year has. A lot of controversy, but not a lot of solid evidence.

On the plus side, around £250m gets spent each year on habitat management for shooting, which some native species benefit from as well.

On the down side, 35m pheasants take a lot of feeding. Pheasants are omnivorous, and have been known to eat reptiles as well as  grain and anything else they can fit in their beaks. While little is known about how big the impact is nationally, for scarce reptiles this could be a big problem.

Pheasants also damage crops, although the law means that the person who released the pheasant isn’t responsible for the damage.

And then, as I mentioned, pheasants haven’t much road sense, and cause road accidents (although the government doesn’t keep a record of how many).

While shooting does invest in habitat management, there are less benign impacts on British wildlife. In recent years Naturally England has issued licenses for (native) raptors’ eggs to be destroyed to protect (non-native) game birds. And that’s the legal stuff that goes on – there are regular reports of birds of prey being killed illegally, probably for the same reason.

I think more reliable evidence is needed to accurately assess the impact of pheasants on the environment, and identify ways to minimise the impact on our scarcer reptiles and raptors. But this is unlikely to happen when the shooting lobby has so much influence over the government.

Return of the frog

Soon after we moved into our house we built a mini pond, made of a wine barrel. I was delighted when, a few weeks later, we spotted frogs in the pond and around the garden.

But then winter came. I don’t know if you remember, but the winter of 2010 was a particularly cold one (as was 2011 and 2012).  Since that winter we haven’t seen any frogs in our garden. I don’t know if it’s connected, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the cold had had a bad effect on the frog population.

I used the ‘Dragon finder’ app on my phone, developed by the charity Froglife, to identify what species the frog was (through answering a series of simple questions), and report the sighting, together with a photo and GPS location. It was very easy to use, and I’m looking forward to trying it out on some other amphibians and reptiles.

It looks like at least one has returned to our garden. Let’s hope he’s the first of many!