Monday, 20 April 2015

Dragons among us...

The sun certainly got things moving a bit this weekend but activity was tempered by a very cold breeze which made finding things quite hard work. Nevertheless there were four 'firsts for the year' on offer in the form of Smooth Newt Lissotriton vulgaris, Palmate Newt Lissotriton helveticus, Slow Worm Anguis fragilis and Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis. Palmate newt was new for the garden and a great surprise.

Palmate Newt, male: R. Harris
Doesn't show on this photo but the tail has a fine
filament and the black webbed hind feet can just be made out.
Smooth Newt, male: R. Harris
Smooth Newt, male: R. Harris
Good to see some reptiles too. Out of the wind it felt very warm at times and it's always nice to see slow worms:
Slow Worm Anguis fragilis: R. Harris
My favourite without a doubt though are the Dorset Sand Lizards Lacerta agilis. At this time of the year they are in their magnificent breeding colours and the males are quite spectacular. Cool, sunny mornings will find them basking in sheltered spots in suitable habitat from which they are usually quite reluctant to move, making them much easier to observe and photograph than their common cousins. Unfortunately this reluctance to run for cover also makes them susceptible to unscrupulous collectors as well. One of their biggest threats (other than heath fires) comes from the danger posed by careless footfalls along sandy heathland tracks - their preferred egg laying sites. Man made sand strips are helping to address this issue but mortality rates are currently higher than they should be - there's a positive correlation between the number of lizard eggs destroyed and the number of walkers, mountain bikers, horse riders and photographers now using their habitat for recreational purposes.

Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis, male: Dave Helliar
Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis, male: Dave Helliar
Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis, male: Dave Helliar
Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis, male: R. Harris
Sand Lizard Lacerta agilis, male: R. Harris
Good numbers of these out enjoying the sunshine now too:
Green Tiger Beetle: D. Helliar
Green Tiger Beetle: R. Harris
More about reptiles can be found on my reptile page.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Pond Skaters...

The novelty of having a large, mature pond in the garden at my daily disposal will take some getting use to. Frogs and toads are normally present, I've had smooth newts, grass snakes slow worms and several species of dragon and damselflies here over the years. Whilst toad watching at the weekend I started looking at some of the smaller residents now out and about, including the humble Common Pond Skater Gerris lacustris or Water Strider as they are sometime known.

The front legs are modified and used to hold their prey, the middle pair are used to row them around the surface of the pond and the rear legs are used to steer like rudders. All of them are coated in fine waxy hairs that help to keep it balanced on the water's surface tension. They can really move too, scooting across the water surface at over a meter a second! To complete the line-up they have piercing mouth-parts which suck the nutrients out of their unfortunate prey. Quite formidable to have something like that bearing down on you! Would be great to find some of the other eight UK species here too.

Common Pondskater, Gerris lacustris: R. Harris
Looking forward to documenting all of the species present as the summer unfolds.

Thursday, 9 April 2015


It's funny but Common Toads Bufo bufo always seem to spawn a few weeks later than our native frogs, so it was no great surprise to find three large adults in the pond at Whitestaunton over the weekend. This week I would expect to see the strings of spawn appearing around the weed. The frog spawn from a few weeks back has now hatched into thousands of small tadpoles and smooth newts should be visible now too but I haven't caught up with one yet, plenty of time though.

Great pond snail, Lymnaea stagnalis: R. Harris
Common Toad, Bufo bufo: R. Harris
Common Toad, male showing the beautiful
copper coloured iris
: R. Harris
Common Toad, Bufo bufo, female: R. Harris
Common Toad, Bufo bufo: R. Harris

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Rarities and Regulars...

Thanks to Dave Helliar for his weekly round-up of local birding goodies including the spectacularly performing Bonaparte's Gull at Radipole in Weymouth, a Black-winged Stilt at Abbotsbury, a drake Green-winged Teal that appeared briefly at Greylake RSPB reserve in Somerset and a scarce local migrant in the form of a drake Garganey briefly near Chard.

Bonaparte's Gull, Weymouth: Dave Helliar
Bonaparte's Gull, Weymouth: Dave Helliar
Bonaparte's Gull, Weymouth: Dave Helliar
Bonaparte's Gull, Weymouth: Dave Helliar
The resident drake Hooded Merganser, Weymouth: D. Helliar
Drake Green-winged Teal (right of centre), Greylake RSPB: D. Helliar
Black-winged Stilt, Abbotsbury was always distant: D. Helliar
Drake Garganey, a scarce bird for Chard: D. Helliar
Drake Garganey: D. Helliar
Drake Garganey: D. Helliar
And finally, a reminder that winter hasn't quite left us...

Redwing near Chard: D. Helliar
Redwing near Chard: D. Helliar
Thanks to Dave for his round-up and pics.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Writing's on the Wall...

I couldn't resist going back for 'seconds' of the Ventnor Wall Lizards yesterday as the sun was out and despite the gale force winds it was warm, if you could find some shelter. The weather for the remainder of the week looks a bit grim so this was my last chance to see them and try to get some video footage. As soon as I arrived I could see that the vegetation cover along the base of the wall had been completely removed! On Friday there had been a low cover of Red Valerian, patches of grass and one or two plants of Alexanders. Today, nothing except a couple of shrubs growing at the top of the wall on the edge of the car park itself! Why as a nation do we have an obsession with being neat and tidy about our hedgerows, wild places (and footpath edges)? Sometimes I think wildlife doesn't stand a chance. A young local couple who passed as I was taking photos of the only Wall Lizard on show today, also stopped in dismay. "Everyone knows this is where you find the Wall Lizards. Why has their cover been removed?" Why indeed? Without corridors of habitat how can anything move around and survive without predation? Sadly though the non-native Wall Lizards aren't really offered any form of legal protection. So, despite their longevity at the site, there's nothing to stop them being wiped out if the area was ever to be developed.

I'm sure they'll survive though, they've been here for 174 years and there's plenty of cover elsewhere but as the wall forms one side of a footpath about 8-10 feet wide, the vegetation can't have been doing any harm at all as it was only 12-18 inches high. At least today's individual was another stunning green-backed male in his finest breeding colours. Let's hope he can find a mate.

Wall Lizard, male. Ventnor, I-O-W: R. Harris
Wall Lizard, male: R. Harris
I did get some video of him too and as promised, here it is - short but sweet:

Editorial update - this is part of the response received from Ventnor's deputy mayor regarding the habitat destruction:

"It isn't possible to fine-tune a weed-control and grass-cutting contract under any realistically-priced regime. It would have to be either 'on' or 'off'. Although my sympathies are with the nature-lovers, I have to accept that if our town looks scruffy and uncared-for, visitors won't come back and that is bad news. My immediate response as a gardener is 'the plants will grow again, and fast, and in a week or two neither the lizards nor the visitors will notice any difference'. These tough native plants re-grow like bandits."

That's how much respect the people in charge have for these magnificent creatures! Obviously not concerned that lizards may well have been killed by the strimmer as they hid in the vegetation or that the cover is required to hide from predators,  feed and breed in. A shameful attitude and our country is all the poorer for it.