Amphibian & Reptile Ramble

Yesterday I met with the  Amphibian and Reptile Officer for North Wales and we spent the morning surveying several sites around Flintshire, North Wales.

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It was a nice warm day but the rain first thing meant we were plagued by dreaded horseflies as we walked though the long grass and wildflower meadows in the muggy summer heat. This however, didn’t stop our enthusiasm as we strolled through the nature reserves wafting our arms about madly whilst looking for reptiles and amphibians.

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We started our hunt by looking for refugia, which is a shelter. Although there are plenty of natural refugia on the sites, it is good to have man made ones (corrigated metal/felt) so that amphibian and reptile populations can be monitored.

Each man made refugia is grid referenced so I had my first lesson in using a handheld GPS (global positioning system). It wouldn’t do as it was told at first but I soon started to get the hang of it. We started to find the refugia and peered carefully underneath them for signs of life.

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We found  juvenile grass snakes, tiny toads and froglets as well as great crested newts hiding under the refugia. As it was a warm day, the snakes were very active under the refugia so it was hard to get good photo as they were moving about alot.

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The grass snakes thought they were being predated so covered us in a secretion from the anal glands and wriggled about covering us in the pungent goo.

Although rather smelly all day I now feel like I have been officially inducted into the world of reptile hunting.

Under two of the metal refugia I found grass snake sloughed skins. Its fascinating to see all the detail of the scales, pattern and even the eye.

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As well as looking under the man made refugia we also decided to look in and around the ponds on each site. Its amazing to see how ponds in different areas contain different vegetation which in turn contain/attract different creatures.

I was really excited when we started to see great crested newt larvae along the bottom edges of some of the ponds.

The great crested newt larvae have feathery gills around the head which point forward which distinguishes them from the smooth newts. It was so lovely to watch them.

The ponds were also teaming with other life, from common blue damselflies, ghostly blue leaf hoppers, water boatman, beetles and lots of spiders that darted about on the waters edge.

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Whilst walking through the nature reserves I saw animal track ways, various sized burrows and the strong smell of foxes. It was also lovely to see such a beautiful variety of wildflowers such as self heal, red bartsia, yarrow and lady’s bedstraw.

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Even though I went looking for amphibians and reptiles, I ended up seeing and experiencing so much more.

 

 

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Garden mini beast

Last week we had a period of lovely warm dry weather so I decided I would take the opportunity to get out into my garden and take a closer look at the smaller creatures living amongst the wildflowers and shrubs.

There were carder bees, garden bumbles and red tailed bumbles busily flying from one lavender flower to the next and disappearing into the bell shaped flowers of the foxgloves.

I then saw a few admirals, orange tips and  painted lady butterflies fluttering up and down the garden in the sunshine and never landing long enough for me to take their photo.

I decided to sit by one of my lavender bushes for a while and take a closer look at it. I suddenly realised it was teaming with life. There were drone flies, planthoppers, darkling beetles. and a variety of hoverflies. It was amazing to see so many creatures appreciating my lavender as much as I do.

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I think the most beautiful bug I saw on the lavender was a rosemary beetle.

Unfortunately these attractive beetles are an invasive species which appeared in the UK in about 1994 and apparently eats the new growth of various aromatic plants. The adult beetles are roughly 8mm long with shiny metallic purple and green stripes on their wing cases and thorax.  Adult beetles are usually first seen in late spring, and remain mostly stationary on plants until later in the year. In late summer they’ll begin to mate and lay eggs on the underside of leaves. After the larvae hatch they feed on the host plant for a few weeks before dropping down to pupate below the soil surface.

They are stunningly beautiful though.

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As I walked around the garden I  saw lots of fine threads of silk glistening in the sunshine from tiny garden spiders that have recently hatched out. The best time to appreciate spiders webs of course is when its been raining or a dewy morning as they look like they are covered in tiny glistening diamonds.

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Along a wooden log on the floor I saw zebra spiders sunning themselves and a weevil scurrying by. I then saw what I think is a meadow grasshopper, which I have never seen before. I just love the sound of grasshoppers, as to me its the sound of summer.

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As I made my way back inside for some well earned cake and a cup of tea I brushed pasted my sweet smelling honeysuckle, accidentally disturbing some moths which fluttered about not happy that they had been woken up.

It was lovely to see such a variety of small creatures living in the garden and it was fascinating to take a closer look at the miniature secret world that surrounds us. I shall remember to take a closer look more often from now on.

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Counting bees

It was #BeesNeeds week last week and various wildlife organisations encouraged people in Cheshire to spare an hour to go out and count the bees. This was to spread the awareness of bees and how important they are to us and to survey their numbers.

As usual the weather did nothing but rain and rain until finally just as the week ended there was dry weather and a hint of sunshine on the horizon.

I ran out of the door excitedly with my camera, ID chart, notebook and pen. Funnily enough though, I didn’t make it much passed the front door. I have various different types of lavender and they were alive with the sounds of buzzing bees.

I got my camping chair out and sat in front of each lavender bush and started to count.

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In the hour I managed to count a total of 35 bees.

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5 masonry bees

12 garden bumblebees

17 carder bees

1 leafcutter bee

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I hadn’t realised how many different types of bees there were and it was hard to recognise them at first. They were busily buzzing around each flower and it was hard to keep track of them and get a closer look.

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There are apparently 24 species of bumblebee, 225 species of solitary bee and the honey bee in Britain.

Bees are fantastic pollinators but there are also hoverflies, butterflies, moths and other bugs that help to pollinate our flowers and the food that we eat.

So, how can you help the bees and other pollinators?

  • Sow wildflowers or plant flowers that attract pollinators such as foxgloves and lavender. Or, how about leaving those dandelions and clovers in the lawn.
  • Build a bug house. It doesn’t matter whether it is a branch/log with holes drilled in it or a big bug mansion. There will be a bug or bee that will happily live in it.
  • Try to be organic and not use pesticides or other chemicals in your garden.
  • Place a small basin or bird bath near the flowers with fresh water in it. Make sure you put stones inside so that the bees and flies can land safely without fear of falling in the water.
  • Share your sightings with local wildlife recording websites/apps so as to get an idea of the bee/insect population in your area.

Take time out and marvel at these busy little creatures. They do such an important job and we should look after them.

Nursery web spider

I have spent most of last week absolutely fascinated by a nursery web spider that I found in the garden. She had made whats called a nursery tent in one of my heather shrubs and every day I went out to see her and try and learn more about her.

Nursery web spiders (Pisaura mirabilis) are named for their habit of lashing leaves together as a shelter for newly hatched spiderlings, which they watch over until they finally leave their nursery tent.

They are up to 15mm long and have a narrow body ranging from grey to brown in colour. There is a pale stripe just behind the head, and the sides of the abdomen are also pale coloured. The top of the abdomen also features a leaf shaped marking.

They are commonly seen between May and July and like to sunbathe by typically hold their front two pairs of legs together pointing forwards. They are great hunters and feed on flies and other small insects but instead of making a web they use quick sprinting and strength to overpower their prey.

During mating the female spider will unfortunately sometimes attempt to eat the male after mating. To reduce the risk of this happening, the male gives the female a fly/insect as a gift wrapped up in silk thread.  Sometimes however this gift is fake to fool the female but she is able to detect it and the male may not live to tell the tale.

The female carries her eggs in a ball shaped sack that she carries around in her fangs.  Just before the babies hatch she builds a silk nursery tent and puts the egg sack inside for protection. They will hatch out of the sack and into the tent. She will then watch over her spiderlings until their first moult.

I was so fascinated by the amount of parental care she gave.  She never left the spiderlings side and guarded it with her life. I was even more amazed when it started to rain and I noticed that she had put up a waterproof canopy over her nursery tent for extra protection. Those spiderlings were well looked after and kept cosy, safe and dry all week.

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Today the last last spiderling has left the tent and the mum has gone too. I’m sad to see them go but happy they are all roaming free around the garden; and am glad I was able to watch and learn more about her.