Category Archives: Amphibians & Reptiles

Knowing your Newts

Newt survey season runs from mid-March to mid-June, with the peak season being mid-April to mid-May. I’m doing quite a bit of ‘newting’ this year, and it occurred to me that I’ve never done a blog post about separating great crested newts and smooth newts.

The first major difference is size. GCNs, when fully grown, are whoppers compared to smooth newts. Take a look at the photos below of a smooth newt male vs a GCN female, both in the bottom of 2-litre bottle traps…

Great Crested Newts are black in colour, with tiny white bumps (which give them their other common but erroneous name – ‘Warty Newt’). They feel slightly rough to the touch. (So I’m not joking when I say “I can identify a Great Crested Newt with my eyes closed!”)

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Female GCN showing white bumps and orange toes

They also have bright orange bellies (with no white or cream), with elongated black splotches in. The orange colour extends along the underside of the tail, and the tips of their toes are bright orange:

Males (and only the males) also have a silver flash on the tail, and (when in breeding condition) a large, elaborate, jagged crest down their back, which gives them a bit of a Godzilla vibe. The GCN really has TWO crests – one for the back and one for the tail, as there is a noticeable break in the crest where the tail joins the body.

But don’t let the name fool you, because Smooth Newts also have crests! Read on…

Smooth newts are, well, smooth. They are extremely variable in colour, and like the GCN are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different). Males can be brown or almost black, with big round black spots on an orange and cream-coloured belly, whereas females are usually a variable shade of brown or orange. Females also have a pale orange and cream belly, but the spots are fine speckles rather than big splotches. Female toes don’t look ‘painted’ like a GCN, and male hind toes are flattened and fringed. In a smooth newt, the crest is continuous and runs the entire length of the body, and is wavy rather than jagged, matching the wavy outline of their feet. Think of it as matching tie and shoes.

Below are a few comparison photos. Firstly, a photo of an adult female smooth newt with an adult female GCN (to illustrate the incredible size difference):

GCN (L) Smooth (R)
GCN (L) Smooth (R)

Here’s a comparison of the bellies of male GCN (L) and Smooth (R) newts:

And male smooth (L) vs GCN (R) toes!

To make things significantly confusing, for half of the year, this sexual dimorphism isn’t there – and fringed toes and silver tail flashes disappear for the winter, and the crest reduces to almost nothing – often seen as a faint line down the backs of males. Generally speaking, GCN males and females are harder to tell apart at that time of year, or before they reach sexual maturity. It’s a bit easier with the smooth newts as the belly patterning remains fairly distinct. But even the larvae of these two species can be separated.

By August there are larvae swimming about in GCN breeding ponds. Because GCN and smooth newts will readily cohabit in a pond, the larvae of both species are present. The difference is pretty astounding. Here’s a photo of the two species at roughly the same stage of development:

And another:

Smooth vs GCN larvae
Smooth vs GCN larvae

So as you can see, the GCN larvae are massive, compared to a similar age of smooth newt. The GCN also have distinct splotches on their body.

So now you know how to tell them apart. The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I have left out Palmate newt, largely because I don’t encounter them often here in the midlands, and as such don’t have any photos, but also because telling palmates from smooth newts is a little trickier, and I’m likely to have a proper rant about poor biological recording practices. 😉  A tale for another day, perhaps?

*Please remember that it is illegal to disturb, handle or even photograph a Great Crested Newt, as they are a European Protected Species and you need a licence from Natural England to disturb them. If you’d like to get involved in amphibian surveys and conservation, contact your local ARG (Amphibian and Reptile Group), or contact Froglife and ARCTrust.

Cooters, Anhingas and Hawks (Oh my!)

The sharp-eyed among you will be aware that I’ve not been around for a couple of weeks. That’s because between leaving my job as Senior Countryside Officer and starting my new Ecologist position, I went back to Florida for a family reunion for my Dad’s 75th birthday, with the aim of seeing a few species of bird that I’d not seen before. Well, I should know better. My search for Burrowing Owls, Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Florida Scrub Jay was a bust. To use birding lingo, I ‘Dipped Out’… But take heart, there really is no such thing as Dipping Out in Florida. In spite of the fact that I really didn’t go off-road looking for wildlife, I saw some amazing birds in and around my brother’s apartment in Port Saint Lucie, the stunning Lake Eola in Downtown Orlando, and Jonathan Dickinson State Park.  Here’s a selection of the birds I saw and photographed:

So, as you can see – no Burrowing Owls. I did manage to find a burrow, but by that time it was getting pretty hot and the owls were no doubt tucked away in the shade. It was brilliant walking around Bluefield Ranch Preserve (Not jam made from wildlife – this is just what they call a nature reserve in the States) and seeing the perches that have been erected near the burrows in order to encourage the owls. Slightly disheartened, on the way up to Yeehaw Junction to meet my other brother, I saw the best bird of my life, not 20 feet from the car. I didn’t get a photo, but here’s a pic shamelessly stolen from the internet of a Crested Caracara:

Crested Caracara (c) Creative Commons Wikipedia

Just goes to show, when one door opens, a Crested Caracara could fly in through the window. I did see lots more wildlife (of the non-avian variety): two species of anole lizards, two turtles and a lightning-fast (ergo no photo) non-native African Rainbow Lizard at my nephew’s school in Palm City.

Inverts were surprisingly thin on the ground, but I did bag a few photos of a couple of stunning butterflies, three dragonflies and a honey bee, as well as a nest of fire ants (scourge of my childhood).

Anyway, its lovely to be back in Britain – I’m really excited about spring (Technically it’s spring now – we just have to wait for seasonal lag to catch up – should take about 3-4 weeks).

The End of an Era

Okay, that’s a bit on the narcissistic side, but it really is a huge thing for me – after nearly six years at Walsall Council working as Senior Countryside Ranger, I’m moving on to pastures new. It is very difficult to take the decision to leave a job that you love, but I had my reasons, not least that I need to push myself.

Yesterday I cleared out my desk. I had envisioned leaving my job to be like one of those films where people walk out holding a cardboard box with a picture frame and a couple of books – what it was actually like was roughly 6 trips to the car, loaded down with hessian bags-for-life full of field guides, tupperware, entomological display cases, microscope and more. I was well and truly embedded in my work. Part of my ‘exit interview’ was asking me if I had achieved work-life balance, and I had to say ‘no’. The problem with doing something that you love for a living is that it’s very hard to leave at the door. In fact, the job has been very hard to leave at all.

I spent a good couple of weeks talking myself into it. Budget cuts and staff redundancies had made the job increasingly stressful in the last couple of years, and there is no end in sight to those pressures. I’m very lucky – I have a lot of those “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!” days, for which I’m extremely grateful, and I think that gratitude is crucial in life. So, as a swan song to Walsall Countryside Services, and in the grand tradition of Nick Hornby a-la High Fidelity, I thought I’d to a ‘Top 5’ of those:

My Top 5 ‘Pinch-yourself’ moments from the last 6 years are:

#5: Total Solar Eclipse on Barr Beacon – I’ve loved all of the astronomy events that have happened on Barr Beacon, and I’m really proud that we achieved Dark Sky Discovery status. 5 years of eclipse-watching, MeteorWatch, Stargazing Live, the Transit of Venus, solar observations, ISS-passes and more really culminated for me at the Solar Eclipse, in which over 600 people gathered on Barr Beacon for the event. The atmosphere was tangible and it was a real privilege to share the day with so many other people.

#4: Botanical Surveys – Mostly because it has been a baptism of fire. To me, for most of my ecological career, plants have been simply Things That Bees Sit On. The last two years of summer botanical surveys have taught me loads, and I have a new appreciation for an entirely different taxonomic area of interest.

#3: Bat Box Scheme – The one thing that I feel has only just begun, as I will continue to supervise the bat box scheme in Walsall (but with my bat group hat on instead of my ranger hat). We’ve made some real progress with recording the bats of the borough, and we have two new bat box areas to add to the scheme!

#2: Ringing Peregrine Chicks – Really, not many people get to do this, do they? I know what a lucky cow I am – and I’m not rubbing it in, but just being there to see our baby peregrines, and to hold their hot little fluffy bodies, and then to see all four chicks fledge the nest had been a long time coming, and after 5 years of Peregrine Watch, it really was a moment I’ll treasure.

#1: Walsall Amphibian Survey – this really has to be my number one, not only because it was my first big survey for Walsall Council, but also because I met so many wonderful people through recruiting volunteers for this survey, which took place way back in 2011. Not only did we get to record amphibians (including Great Crested Newts) across the borough, but it was the starting point for the Black Country and Staffordshire Naturalists, whom I still spend almost all of my spare time with! It’s brilliant to have started something worth while and to see it grow and blossom. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. (p.s. because NEWTS!)

So, it’s been a really tough decision to leave, but I’m so very excited about the next step in my career/life/etc. I’d like to say a huge thanks to all of my colleagues over the years including the twitterables: @DanSlee, @Corporal_Kleg, @AbesOddWorld and in particular to my boss @CountrysideKev for being just so awesome.

Deep breath…. here I go!

My 2014 in Photos

2014 has been quite a year – with its fair share of ups and downs for me.  I’ve been fortunate enough to do lots of traveling, botanising, entomologising and general geeking, so I thought I’d have a look back through this year’s photos before archiving them and share my favourites.  Mostly I’m just so grateful for my incredible friends (Love you, awesome nerds!) and family, especially the four grim, stinking bearded barbarians in my life: my husband Paul and my three brothers Gary, Adrian & Alex.  I’m so thankful that my dad is still with us after his heart attack and battle with pneumonia, and bursting with anticipation at being an auntie again in January.

I’m not normally one for new year’s resolutions, (I usually make a list of books I want to read in the coming year), but I’ve lots of, let’s call them ‘aspirations’ for 2015, including updating the Bees of Walsall book, plus a few other publishing projects, and LOTS more foraging. I hope you’ll carry on reading and share all that 2015 has in store!

My favourite plants encountered in 2014

My favourite animals encountered in 2014

My favourite holiday photos from 2014

Some of the best days I had at work in 2014

My favourite things I’ve made in 2014

One for the toad…

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A bit of moonlighting for you today, as I ventured into the wilds of Shropshire (including a hop over the border into Wales!) with the Invertebrate Challenge Aculeate Hymenoptera gang.  Alas, the weather was not great for bee-hunting, so we turned our attention to botanising (orchids post to follow!) and rock-rolling on a hunt for amphibians and reptiles (collectively known as herptiles – people who study this group are known as herpetologists).  Llanymynech Rocks is one of the best sites in the Midlands for seeing reptiles and amphibians – I was once taken there on a ‘Herps Weekend’ to look for common lizards on the sunny slopes and slow worms.  (Incidentally it is also an AWESOME place for views of Shropshire and the Welsh Borders!)  I was determined to see lizards and slow worms again, and enlisted a fellow blogger and naturalist to help me on my quest – and she didn’t disappoint, as this stunning little lizard turned up in no time at all!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACommon Lizards (Zootoca vivipara) are one of three species of lizard in the UK (one of which, the Sand Lizard, requires dune habitats and is only seen in a few areas!). Common Lizards are also known as Viparious Lizards, a name which alludes to the animal’s style of reproduction – Viparious means ‘giving birth to live young’.  In actual fact, they are ovi-viparious, which means that they can either lay eggs (in warmer climates) or give birth to live young (in cooler climates – including ours) which they do in August each year.  But even this isn’t ‘true’ live birth, as the female simply keeps the eggs inside her, and hatches them internally.  The third lizard species (below) is probably something you wouldn’t recognise as a lizard (at first), as it has no legs and is often mistaken for a snake – the Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis) and is also ovi-viparious.  This has to be my absolute favourite reptile – I just love the happy facial expression and shiny skin – just stunning!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd as if you needed any further proof of Llanymynech’s value to herptiles, feast your eyes on this hat-trick of amphibians, nestled under a log together – a large common toad, a small common frog and a young smooth newt! Five ‘herps’ in one day is a real treat, and my appetite is whetted now for upcoming surveys of reptiles on our heathlands in Walsall.  If you are interested in getting involved with amphibian and reptile conservation, surveying and recording, come along to a BCSNats Survey day, and make sure to check out Froglife , the Amphibian and Reptile Groups and the Amphibian and Reptile Trust!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I’ll leave you with one of my favourite poems – I remember memorising it when I was around 6, and can still (when in my cups) be known to recite it…

The Frog – by Hilaire Belloc

Be kind and tender to the Frog,
   And do not call him names,
As ‘Slimy skin,’ or ‘Polly-wog,’
   Or likewise ‘Ugly James,’
Or ‘Gape-a-grin,’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong,’
   Or ‘Billy Bandy-knees’:
The Frog is justly sensitive
   To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
   A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).

Patch me if you can!

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I don’t know what it is about natural history, but it does seem to bring out the competitive streak in its enthusiasts.  Its no secret that birders are often obsessive list-makers, with any number of lists (ie Patch List, County List, Year List, British List, Holiday Lists and the all important Life List) of species they have seen.  I’m currently half way through ‘The Big Year‘, a book (also a film) about twitching (lent to me by our own county bird recorder, CountrysideKev) and it explores the appeal of obsessive bird ‘collecting’ to people of different backgrounds.  I’d like to think that I’m immune to these things, but alas I am not.

I think that with biological recorders of any taxonomic group, there is an element of Train Spotting to it, and although we see and appreciate the loftier impetus of conservation, secretly we’re all itching to chase the thrill of recording ‘a new species for the site’ whether its fungi, lichens, birds or bees. 

Last year I was made aware of a phenomenon called ‘Pan-Species Listing’ – taking the birder’s ‘life list’ to a new level by including all taxonomic groups of animals and plants, including the microscopic (fungi, springtails, tardigrades, lichens, mites, you name it).  I confess I started a list, but was a bit disheartened by the scope of the project, and never really got going. (Unlike some people – check out Mark Telfer’s page – he’s on around 6,500 species!)

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This week I’ve found something a bit more achievable – the Patch League.  In a nutshell, it is competitive biological recording on a chosen site <100 acres.  So I started yesterday, deciding that I needed to choose a site close enough to home that I could go regularly.  My local reserve is Fibbersley, about 10 mins walk from my flat, and it seemed a likely site as I knew I was likely to get a few of the rarer species like Great Crested Newts.  Fibbersley is around 75 acres of a mosaic of habitats comprising ponds, grassland, scrub, woodland, hedgerow and derelict buildings, all of which will attract various wildlife.  But also it is a post-industrial site, relatively isolated, and generally under-recorded, particularly in lesser known taxonomic groups like invertebrates.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first visit to start ‘patch-listing’ turned up this little beauty!  A juvenile Great Crested Newt!  Plus signs of badger, a buzzard, a glimpse of a very large and scruffy fox, and lots of centipedes!  My plan is to record flowering plants as they come into flower, so that I have stuff to record all year long.  I’ll keep you posted!

If you’re thinking about patch listing your local green space (and you don’t need to do it competitively!) I can’t recommend iSpot highly enough for confirming (or correcting!) your identifications! (Its basically dial-a-nerd for all things natural history!)

Close your eyes and click your heels three times…

A bit of a time machine post, to remind you of what March is usually like!  A gallery of photos from March 2011 and 2012…

Why we manage heathlands by cutting down trees

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Here in the West Midlands we are very privileged to have areas of a unique and nationally important habitat that is in decline:  Lowland Heath. In particular, Walsall Countryside Services are the custodians of what is left of the former Staffordshire Heaths, an area of heathland that once stretched from Sutton Park to Cannock Chase!  Currently, what remains of this habitat is represented by parts of Barr Beacon, Shire Oak Park, Brownhills Common and Pelsall North Common.  *They are all LOWLAND heaths, even Barr Beacon, as they all come in at under 300m above sea level.  All of the above sites are managed by Walsall Countryside Services in what is called a ‘Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Agreement’ – a 10-year plan devised through working with Natural England  to decide what is the best way to manage the sites in order to consider biodiversity, protected species, rare habitats and of course, the value of the site to visitors and local residents.  There are numerous plant species that grow in this habitat, which is dominated by heather, cross-leaved heath and numerous other plants which thrive in the acidic soil.   In and around this diverse assemblage of plants, several protected species are thriving.  You might wonder what is so special about this habitat, and what ‘protected species’ we are talking about, as unless you look closely, or know exactly where to look, these species can often be elusive and hard to observe.  Because of this, Countryside Services regularly monitor the sites for heathland bees, butterflies and other invertebrates, as well as reptiles.

Here is a brief introduction to just a few of these species:

Common Lizard

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Very few people have seen lizards in the West Midlands.  They are absolutely dependant of the type of habitat that heathlands provide, and because the heathlands are rare (and getting rarer!), so are reptiles.  In the past two years, common lizards have been seen on 5 occasions on Pelsall North Common alone – so much that Walsall Countryside Services have adopted a 1km square on Pelsall North Common as their site for participation in the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS).  We hope to record more reptiles in the future.  Managing the habitat (and where we can, extending the range of that habitat) can help these creatures to thrive.

Slow Worm

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Another reptile which has recently been recorded is the Slow Worm – actually not a worm at all, nor is it (as many people first think) a snake – but actually a type of legless lizard.  In 2012, the species was recorded on Barr Beacon, which was the first record of the species in Walsall for over 35 years!  We are currently managing the habitat with creatures like the slow worm in mind!

Tormentil Mining Bee

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One of the UK’s smallest bees, measuring only 8mm in length, the Tormentil Mining Bee is a Biodiversity Action Plan target species.  Our population on Pelsall North Common is a huge priority for Walsall Countryside Services, as the nearest and most recent record to the south is from Sutton Park in 1904, and to the north, Chasewater in 2004.  This means that our population may represent the only surviving group of these specialist heathland bees in the area.  Without the heathland, this species would simply die out (and quickly!) as it is what scientists call ‘Oligolectic’, meaning that it is completely reliant on one or two species of plants – in this case, Tormentil.  Tormentil is one of the plants that will disappear when succession takes hold of the heath, taking the Tormentil Mining Bee with it.

Green Tiger Beetle

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This stunning beetle was recorded in Walsall for the first time in 2012!  Walsall Countryside Services cleared some scrapes in the south-facing bank of Barr Beacon’s heathland, in order to create nesting opportunities for mining bees.  Much to everyone’s delight, the Green Tiger Beetle moved into the bank that very same year.  It is important that this species is allowed to establish itself and become a thriving population, and so the management of the site is now tailored to this and other heathland specialist insects.

Great Crested Newts

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The great crested newt has a bit of a stronghold in Walsall – particularly in the north of the borough, where we have breeding populations on Pelsall North and Brownhills Commons.  Many people don’t realise that although the great crested newt is an amphibian, it is essentially a terrestrial (land-dwelling) animal which happens to still breed in water, and the rough, grassy terrain with lots of cover that heathlands provide is just as important to this animal’s success and wellbeing as its aquatic habitat.  The great crested newt is a protected species, and a high priority in conservation.

 So, why does managing habitat mean that we have to cut down trees like conifers?

Basically, the name of the game is Biodiversity, which in a nutshell, means getting as many types of animals and plants to thrive in a habitat as possible.  Because birch and pine grow really well in acidic soils (which all heathlands have) they can soon encroach on open heathland if left to their own devices.  This leads to shading out heather and other plants (including Tormentil), making the area unsuitable for many of the heathland species that depend on the open habitat.

Plantations and woods that have grown on former heaths (like those at Barr Beacon and Brownhills Common) become dominated by a few species of trees, directly reducing biodiversity.  No heathland means no lizards, slow worms, newts, tiger beetles or tormentil mining bees.  If we don’t act, we will lose them all.

Fortunately, the remedy is simple – we remove the majority of the trees, increasing sunlight and biodiversity comes flooding back!   Amazingly, heather seeds can survive for over 75 years, in the soil, and will germinate readily when the conditions are right again.

Our management of heathlands has resulted in the presence of some amazing species on our sites, including the species mentioned above, but many more as well, from birds to butterflies and many other species of heathland specialist animals.

Walsall Countryside Services are also working with the Wildlife Trust under the Nature Improvement Area programme, to plan to extend and where possible, connect areas of heathland to enable movement of species between sites and reduce genetic isolation of insect populations.

So if you see a few windswept Countryside Rangers taking down trees on Brownhills Common or other heathland sites this winter, you’ll know what we’re up to.

Piling on the ounces this Christmas

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As its dropping colder, my thoughts are invariably turning to the creatures out there who don’t have new flannel pyjamas and slippers from Next (Thank you, Mr. Credit Card!).  Yesterday I got to work to see a grumpy bluetit sitting on my (empty) bird feeder giving me ‘eyes of scorn’.  So I put my coat on and walked around to the stables and horse feed place in Lodge Wood at Aldridge Airport, and stocked up on bird food (and even a new feeder), in order to allay my guilt.  I am sure it will only take the weekend for the birds to re-discover the feeder on my office window.  In the mean time, my lovely friend Helen has asked me to do some tips on feeding garden wildlife through winter, so here you go….

Feeding the Birds

Whilst we humans are trying to limit the amount of christmas calories we consume, birds are all about piling on the ounces for winter, and feeding them fat balls is probably the BEST way you can help – they are full of calories, MUCH better for helping birds survive the winter than bird seeds.  If your birds stay nice and plump through the winter, they will be in prime condition for breeding season, and will be more likely to have two broods in the summer.

How to do it:  You can buy ready-made fat balls from most pet shops for around 25p each, or even from supermarkets, and if your garden birds are anything like mine, you are probably best buying them in bulk – buckets of 50 balls will cost you around a tenner, so 5 for £1.

  • Make sure that if your fat balls come in those little green nets, that you REMOVE the netting and instead of hanging them by the net, put them in a fat ball cage.  This will protect the birds from getting tangled.
  • You can even make your own fat balls from your kitchen scraps!  Using melted lard as a base, (or vegetable suet if you are veggie!) you can mix in kitchen scraps and cupboard ingredients like cereals, bits of cheese, chopped up dried fruit, nuts (unsalted!), breadcrumbs, cooked rice and pasta, and even bits of fat from unsalted meats.  You can also add bird seed to this mix. – Allow the mixture to cool and then use an ice cream scoop to make your balls!  (you can roll them in porridge oats to make them more pleasant to handle!)
  • You can feed over-ripe fruits to birds like thrushes and blackbirds – they like a bit of dried fruit too, like raisins
  • If you want a nice way to feed seeds to birds, and add a few extra calories, a great way is to collect pine cones and tie strings to the top.  Then coat the pine cones in unsalted peanut butter and roll them in bird seed before hanging them up!

Thirsty Work

One of the things its easy to forget that animals need is water.  You can put out water regularly, or if you have a pond that freezes over, melt the water in places by placing a hot saucepan of water on the ice.  Wait until a hole forms (keep an eye on it, you don’t want to lose your saucepan!)

Another brilliant way to get moisture into your garden birds is to feed them live mealworms.  You can buy them at pet shops, but its really easy (and once you’ve bought your first batch, FREE!) to breed your own.  I show you how on my blog.

Work hard, but not too hard

By all means carry out your winter garden-sorting tasks, but here’s a few tips to do this in a wildlife friendly way:

  • Leave berried shrubs and hollow-stemmed plants as long as you can, until say, February, as berries are valuable food for wildlife and insects could be hibernating in your plants.
  • Be gentle when sorting out the compost, because you may disturb hibernating amphibians, or even small mammals that are sheltering in the warmth of the decomposing vegetation.
  • Winter is also the time to clean out the old nests from bird boxes, so that they are ready for spring, so add it to your list of winter tasks, but do the work carefully in case hibernating bats have decided to use your bird box.  (If this happens, leave the nest, etc as it is and just leave them undisturbed, they will clear off in plenty of time for the birds to move in!

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A few final tips

    • Don’t put out too much food for the birds at once – you don’t want it going mouldy!  Little and often is the best way.
    • Never use any chemicals to clean your feeders and bird tables – hot water will do it, and a bit of elbow grease – you can pick up a plastic dish brush for less than £1 and use it ONLY for wildlife stuff – never bring your bird feeders into your kitchen to clean.
    • Have a go at a window feeder!  You love them, but they are at the bottom of the garden, so why not have a go at hanging a feeder near your window.  The birds don’t always go for it, but sometimes they will, and I now have a flock of Long Tailed Tits that feed regularly on my office window, not 5 feet from where I sit! Take a look:

Nature’s Ephemeral Art

You’re looking at a transient habitat.  One of our most enigmatic pieces of ecosystem, which is not only interesting because it comes and goes, with the rains, with the seasons, but also because its very nature makes it extremely valuable to species of plants and animals which inhabit it.  Its called an Ephemeral Pool.

Also known as a Vernal Pool (although this implies that its presence is purely seasonal, but spring is not the only time that it appears, although it is usually during the spring that they are at their greatest depth), this type of pool can occur in all kinds of habitats, in all parts of the globe.  They often fill up with meltwater, or as is the case with this pool in Merrions Wood, after periods of rain which result in runoff from surrounding land.

If you’d think that a temporary habitat couldn’t possibly have much value, or that few creatures would have time to establish themselves and carry out their life cycle in so transient and unpredictable an environment, then you’d be wrong.  I admit that it seems a bit counter-intuitive, but there is something that ephemeral pools have that makes them ideal for small aquatic animals.  Or, rather, something that they DON’T have.  Fish.

In fact, around 1/4 of British ephemeral pools contains Red Data species!  Because the pools dry up regularly, fish cannot survive there, and because of this unique lack of fish, ephemeral pools are havens for amphibians and insects which are sensitive to predation (great crested newts, for example).  One of the ten criteria assessed under the Habitat Suitability Index for great crested newts, is how many years in ten a pond dries up.  The ideal is 1-2 years in ten – enough to make sure that no fish populations become established.  (You might remember that one of my first blog posts was an attempt to allay people’s fears about the drought last year).

Natterjack Toad (image from Froglife)

The enigmatic, green-eyed Natterjack Toad relies on them because it breeds much later in the season than its commoner counterparts, and requires predator-free pools which warm quickly to speed up the development of its tadpoles.  *I should point out, incidentally, that we don’t have natterjacks in our neck of the woods, sadly! 

So, I know its raining, and cold, and dark, and not quite Christmas, but if you’re feeling adventurous, why not take a walk through Merrions Wood this weekend?  (Entrances on the A34 just past the Bell Inn on the A34, and on Chapel Lane opposite St Margaret’s Church).  The nature trail that runs along the northern edge of the site will take you right past this amazing bit of habitat.  Take your wellies though!