Tag Archives: Pond

The Shrew Hunter: part 2

As my dormousing took me back to the site where I had unsuccessfully tried to see a water shrew, it was a good opportunity to try again.

I was heartened to learn that in the week since my previous visit, the water shrew had been heard by the pond by several people.

Being more organised this time, I had lunch before starting my vigil. I also came prepared with a hat to keep the sun off, so that was another improvement over last time.

I settled myself in the same spot, and kept watch. There seemed to be fewer buzzards around, which was a good sign for my chances of seeing a small mammal. There were, however, several butterfly surveyors. It was nice to have a chat with them, and learn a bit about the butterflies found in the wood. It also made quite a pleasant change to talk to people who didn’t seem to think what I was doing (standing by a pond for hours) was very eccentric. I think there must be some kind of special bond between wildlife enthusiasts, even if we are interested in different sorts of wildlife.

My old tormentor, the dragonfly, had another go at driving me crazy, but I wasn’t falling for it this time.

Sadly I still didn’t get sight of a water shrew, although I think I may have heard it. I have struggled to find a recording of water shrew noises online, and I am rubbish at interpreting the descriptions of sounds that books give, so I can’t be sure. But it definitely wasn’t a frog!

So, the quest to see a water shrew continues. I may focus on another species for a while…

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The shrew hunter: part 1

Fearless as ever, I spent an afternoon last week searching for one of Britain’s few venomous animals. No, it wasn’t the adder I was after – it was that other beast that strikes fear into the heart of many: the water shrew.

Water shrews are quite remarkable animals. They are the only British insectivore that willingly spends its life in or by water. Like other shrews they have a fast metabolism, so need to eat pretty much constantly. In the water (I’m told) they look like quicksilver.

As part of my British Animal Challenge I’ve visited a few places that are ideal habitat for water shrews (they like similar unpolluted water to water voles). But I hadn’t yet seen one. They seem to like water with lots of vegetation, making them difficult to spot. In fact, I know people who have spent years working on sites that are home to water shrews, but have never seen one.

During my newt surveying with Surrey Wildlife Trust I learnt that water shrews live by a smallish pond on one of their reserves that isn’t open to the public. They kindly agreed to let me spend some time watching for water shrews, so I booked some flexi-leave.

A last minute work phone call meant I was running late, so I skipped lunch and headed straight to the reserve. It was a warm afternoon, alternating between baking sunshine and threatening clouds. One of the Wildlife Trust staff showed me where the shrews had been seen, so I set up my camera to get a good view, and started to watch.

The pond was crystal clear, and filled with insects. Waterboatmen and shiny round bugs glided near the surface. Dozens of damselflies and dragonflies darted about above the water, occasionally resting on a leaf to lay eggs, or fighting with a sound like angry paper planes.

The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted
The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted at

Have you ever spent quality time just watching a pond? It’s surprisingly engrossing. There was always something going on. An hour passed quickly, then the next half hour. Then I started to notice my missed meal.

For a while a particularly fine dragonfly, the size of a light aircraft, engrossed my attention. It would dart and hover tantalisingly in front of my lens, but never long enough for me to get it in frame and focus. After a while of being tormented like that, it became my dearest wish not just to see a water shrew, but to witness one eat that particular dragonfly. I got one half decent shot (below) – any idea what sort he is?

hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

After three hours of watching, and no sign of a water shrew, the sky clouded over and I decided to call it a day.  As I drove away the rain started, leaving me that particularly smug feeling of just beating the weather.

Luckily I get a chance to try again this week.

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…

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!

How to build a mini pond

Frog
Frog

As a kid, I loved the pond in my parents’ garden. It was brimming with frogs and newts (and leeches). My brother and I spent many happy hours catching frogs (the tiny, just-got-legs ones were the easiest to catch, and the cutest – poor little froggies being chased by curious kids). So when I finally got a garden of my own, I was determined to build one.

Building a pond is a great way of increasing the value of your garden to wildlife. It attracts invertebrates, amphibians (who eat slugs – horay!), and can be a vital water source for birds and mammals if it’s designed well. As I mentioned in my first post, our garden is rather small, and since Dr C objected to me turning the whole lawn into a pond, I had to content myself with a mini-pond. But even a tiny pond can be really valuable to wildlife.

Living in England’s equivalent to the Champagne region, the obvious container for our pond was half an old wine barrel, obtained from our local vineyard. Old tin baths, belfast sinks and other similar containers can also make good mini-ponds.

To make it easier for hedgehogs and frogs to access, we decided to recess it, so the top was about level with the decking. Dr C valiantly got on with the digging while I tried to clean up the barrel. After several scrub-outs, the water was still turning wine red, so as we didn’t want drunk frogs, we decided to line it with pond liner.

Once the pond was in place, we used old bricks and stones to create different levels within the pond. This is important so frogs and hedgehogs can easily climb out, and birds have a shallow bit to bathe in. When we had the landscaping sorted, we put the pond liner over the top and stapled the edges to the top of the barrel so they didn’t move.

Creating different levels in the pond
Creating different levels in the pond

We added a couple of handfuls of pond compost, and then filled it with water from our water butt (if you’re using tap water, you have to let it rest for 24 hours so all the chlorine can evaporate off, before adding any plants or creatures).

Picking plants for a small pond can be a bit of a challenge, as you need to find something that won’t spread too much. We managed to find a dwarf water lily for surface cover (most water lilies like to be planted quite deep), and then picked a couple of native oxygenating plants plus a small iris for the edge. Waterside Nursery have a good range of wildlife friendly pond plants.

Newly planted pond

Newly planted pond

I’ll save telling you how the pond has fared for another day, but here’s a sneak preview…

The mini pond
The mini pond

If you’re keen to have a go at creating your own pond, the RSPB provide some good guidance. Waterside Nursery’s website also contains lots of useful advice about building a wildlife pond and picking the right plants.