Tag Archives: newts

There are some things you can’t plan…

I’m a planner. I like making detailed plans, based on thorough research. This works for seeing some animals: working out where to go and when, and what to do when you’re there. Others you can’t really plan for –  you need to be lucky.

So far in my British Animal Challenge I have focused on animals I can more or less plan to see. I have done my research, and gone to likely places, (as with water voles) or, even better, joined in surveys to find them (as with newts). Of course, even going to places you know the animal frequents doesn’t guarantee you a sighting (see my water shrew and otter attempts).

But there’s a whole host of creatures who can’t really be pinned down like that. Take, for example, the mole. I can’t plan an expedition to see a mole. It’s going to take luck for me to ever see one. I can look out for molehills, and spend time in likely habitat at the most likely time of year (when youngsters are dispersing), but ultimately it will be down to luck. (I was very jealous when I read FoDrambler’s post about seeing a mole, thanks to a dog – maybe I should get one. Fat Cat would never forgive me!)

When I was looking through my British Animal Challenge list, working out how to see every type of British animal, there were some where my conclusion was I’d just have to spend enough time in the right sort of habitat to eventually see one.

Stoats were like this. They are not particularly rare, and quite widespread, but going out deliberately to see one may be tricky. So I was delighted to get a glimpse of one as it dashed across the road as we drove in Dorset. Stoats, like otters, badgers and weasels, are members of the mustelid family. They have long, thin bodies, and move with the flowing gait that seems unique to mustelids.

My glimpse of stoat reminded me of the value of just spending time in wild places, even if I’m not on a particular mission to see something. You never know what will cross your path.

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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.

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…

British Animal Challenge: April Update

April has been a bit of a mixed month for me in terms of the British Animal Challenge. Still no luck with amphibians (apart from a few tadpoles), despite dreams of giant toads.

The reptiles course I attended will hopefully help me spot lizards and snakes. As late April and early May are meant to be the best times to see reptiles, I had hoped to see some along the 35 miles of South West Coast Path I walked last week. But I didn’t spot a single scale. Maybe the steep hills distracted me.

I did, however, manage to tick one new species off my list: the Exmoor pony. Not the hardest to spot – they’re pretty large compared to most of the species on my list, and not too shy either. But they are limited to a fairly small (and scenic) geographical area.  I’ll write a bit more about them in the next week or so.

So, what are my plans for May? Well, reptiles are top of my list,  trying to put my new knowledge to use. I’m also hoping to do some newt surveying, and maybe have another go at looking for otters and water shrews.