Category Archives: Pond Life

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.

Fishing, Aboriginal Style

For thousands of years (at least 9,000 according to archaeologists) humans have been fishing with traps, fashioned from straight rods of hazel and willow.  This style of trap has been found throughout the globe, used by a wide variety of indigenous cultures from Native Americans & First Nations to Vikings and our own British ancestors.

And its not just willow and hazel – this fantastic trap (photos and vine below) are made from bamboo!

I’ve seen a wide variety of fish traps in museum collections.  The photos below are from the British Museum in London, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Peabody Museum, Boston:

Making traditional fish traps has been on my list of things to do for a while now… I started with a simple two-ended crayfish trap (based on the design of standard crayfish traps with a cylinder-shape, cones at both ends and a hatch to remove caught crayfish.  I’m hoping to try it out shortly and will post the results! *You need a licence from the Environment Agency to trap alien crayfish, and a licence from Natural England to trap/survey for native white-clawed crayfish.

More fish trap designs to follow!

All Good Things are Wild and Free

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo days ago I made a pilgrimage that I have been waiting to make for over 25 years.  You see, I grew up in the USA, and while that meant that in general my literary education was somewhat limited to American authors, it mean that I was exposed to some writing at a very formative age (16) that had an immense effect on the adult I would grow up to be, the career that I would choose, and how I would spend my time.  I went to high school in a small town in Florida, and amidst the typical  backdrop of a fairly normal high school education, I had one of THOSE teachers – Mrs Kauffman for both English and Creative Writing.  Mrs Kauffman said that she thought that I would like some of her favourite authors – Walt Whitman & Henry David Thoreau. (In hindsight I think it was more my tendency toward Civil Disobedience that she saw in me, rather than my future as an ecologist, but either suits me fine!) Her recommendation changed my life – and so on  the morning of December 11th, my 40th birthday, I stood (with my brother and my husband who had made the trip with me) on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in the softly falling snow.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” -HDT

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We had first visited Thoreau’s grave, which is in the overwhelmingly peaceful Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  Light snow was filling the air, but not sticking to the ground.  I paid my respects to Henry’s grave which was surrounded by pens and pencils thrust into the earth in tribute, and then went down to Walden Pond itself.

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There was a replica of HDT’s cabin which he built on the shore of Walden pond in 1845, and in which he lived for two years, largely turning his back on society.  Henry was on a quest for simplicity, and the cabin, which contained a small desk, a stove, a chair and a bed, was certainly minimalist by anyone’s standards! I felt a wash of trepidation on his behalf at the thought of the cold, labour and solitude, and no small amount of envy at the same time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was an immense privilege to  walk through the woods of pine and birch (which apparently were considerably less dense in Thoreau’s time at Walden) and to feel like I’d had a glimpse of insight into this incredible place which acted as such a catalyst to the Conservation movement.  There is no wonder that it is held so dear in the heart’s of Thoreau’s fans – that people do as I have done and make the pilgrimage to Walden.  Makes one come over all transcendental.

“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.” - HDT

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I’m back in Blighty now and happy to he home for Christmas, excited about the turning of the seasons.  I have a few more blog posts coming up about my trip to the US, but in the mean time, please do have a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful, simple and fulfilling new year.

-Morgan x

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…

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!