Wildlife Wednesday – grass snakes

(This is an attempt to revive my ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – I can’t guarantee that this will be a regular thing but I will try my best!) 

We have three compost heaps in our garden – one that is currently being loaded with waste vegetables and plant material from mum’s flower garden, one that is being left to compost as I write this, and one that is ready to be unloaded. 

Dad began to move the compost from the third heap a few days ago, but he soon discovered that just below the surface there were lots and lots of tiny snakes.

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Initially my parents were worried that they were adders (Britain’s only venomous snake) but the yellow band around the back of their heads gave them away as grass snakes. Adders have much darker markings along their bodies as well, whereas grass snakes tend to be more of a brown-green colour. (Side note: I got into a lot of trouble when I was sixteen for picking up an adult adder when I was out walking my dog… I probably wouldn’t do it now as I know how harmful the bite could be, but at the time I just thought everyone was overreacting!)

Grass snake 1

Once I had a day off work, I headed down to the compost heap and turned some of it over in the hope that I might find some snakes. I wasn’t disappointed – there must have been hundreds of them in there altogether as they weren’t difficult to find at all.

These grass snakes couldn’t have been more than a couple of days old, as I also found lots of clusters of empty eggs. Due to the rotting vegetation a lot of heat can build up in the centre of compost heaps, which is why they are an ideal location for female grass snakes to lay their eggs as they will remain warm for the eight-week period until they hatch.

Eggs

The young shed their skin shortly after hatching – it is easy to tell when this is going to occur because the skin around the eyes becomes looser, causing the eyes to turn a milky blue colour.

Grass snake

The majority of the snakes that hatched in our garden will have moved on by now: some will still be amongst the long grass in our woodland but they will be forced to spread out as there are not enough resources to support them all in that one area. Unfortunately, I have already found a couple of dead ones out on the road but I am hoping that some made it across safely and have now found a new home in the fields and hedgerows beyond.

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(Once fully grown, female adult grass snakes can reach 80cm in length, whereas males are slightly smaller at approximately 65cm).

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I find snakes incredibly fascinating to watch. Along with birds, they are among my favourite animals and I could see myself becoming more involved with them in the future. 

The way that they move is particularly interesting for me: there is a variety of ways in which snakes travel, but grass snakes use ‘sidewinding’ and ‘lateral undulation’ more than anything else.

Lateral undulation makes use of the changing ground and obstructions – for example rocks or tree trunks – so that the snake can keep its forward momentum.

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Sidewinding is generally used when there are fewer irregularities in the ground; the snake lies at an angle to the direction of movement, which creates a better grip for it to be able to continue pulling itself forward.

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UK grass snake populations are not endangered, however the species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act so that people cannot harm or trade them without a license. I was pleased to discover this, as in my opinion our species should be protected even if they are at risk: species only become threatened due to the repercussions of our own actions and I believe that we should try to accommodate for their needs and protect their populations instead of simply destroying anything that stands in the way of our plans and livelihoods. Everything in the ecosystem is there for a reason and removing it for our benefit will usually result in an imbalance that then has some kind of negative impact on us anyway.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call 🙂

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Wildlife Wednesday – our resident woodpeckers!

We have continued to fill up the bird feeders over the past couple of months, and the changing weather has brought with it a greater variety of garden visitors including coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

However, the real star of the show has captured everyone’s attention: it seems to be fond of peanuts and is usually seen in the mornings and early evenings, although it is around all day and we can hear it calling from the ash trees over on the other side of the garden. ‘It’ is the great spotted woodpecker.

Woodpecker

Since its arrival a few weeks ago, I have been trying to capture the woodpecker on camera. To begin with I had no success at all, despite leaving the GoPro out for an hour at a time in the mornings. I managed to take some video from inside the house, but it was quite far away and these birds are too shy to come and feed while people are sitting nearby outside.

Eventually last week I managed to get a short piece of footage of a male woodpecker sat on top of the bird feeding station… however then I really got a surprise, because he had brought with him a juvenile bird!

Woodpeckers

Although this species isn’t at risk, it is still great news that they are breeding in our area: I am hoping that we might be able to encourage its less common counterparts – the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker – into our garden.

Size 23cm
Diet Insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, tree sap vegetable material – will also take eggs and young birds during the breeding season
Population (UK) 140, 000 pairs
Breeding Between 5-7 eggs which hatch after 12 days, young fledge at 20 days old and remain with parents for 7 days

 

Identifying these birds is pretty easy – if you are lucky enough to have a full view of one then it is a pretty distinctive species. It can be confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker (this was my initial thought upon seeing one in our garden for the first time) however having since gone away and read up on them I have realised that there are actually numerous differences between the two, including the fact that the lesser spotted woodpecker has a red poll and has much less contrast between the white and black feathers on its wings.

However, the juvenile great spotted woodpecker does have a red poll and is overall much duller in colour than the adult birds, so this may lead to some confusion unless an adult bird is nearby to the youngster.

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Distinguishing between the male and female great spotted woodpeckers is made very simple by the fact that the male has a red stripe on the back of the neck whereas the female does not.

When there is not a clear view of the bird or you do not have binoculars to hand, it can be a little more difficult to identify the exact species. The fact that it is some kind of woodpecker should be fairly obvious from the way it hops up the trunk of a tree (these birds have particularly stiff tail feathers to aid them in this – if you look closely you will see that the tail is actually pressed onto the tree as the bird moves) and from its characteristic undulating flight.

Woodpeckers1

The call of this bird is also easy to pick out once you know what you are listening for (I am struggling to learn different bird songs, but the call of the woodpeckers has really stuck with me). It is a loud, singular ‘tick’… that description doesn’t do it much justice, but you can easily find recordings of it on the internet if you are curious!

This species does have more to it than simply brightening up the bird feeders each day: it actually has some very interesting adaptations which I thought I would mention (information courtesy of the books listed at the end of this blog post).

Woodpeckers are probably best known for how they create their nests (by chiselling a hole in a tree trunk). The force required from their beaks to be able to achieve this could potentially be damaging, so the bones and muscles in their heads have evolved specifically to protect them from this – for example layers of spongy tissue ensure that the brain is well guarded.

In winter when food supplies are scarce, great spotted woodpeckers will feed on tree sap, using their long tongues that can reach up to 4cm away from their beaks. In addition to this they will wedge pine cones into small gaps so that they can remove the kernels, and will use branches to crack open nuts and seeds.

I think that in the process of writing this blog post I have discovered another of my favourite bird species… although maybe I would find all of them as fascinating if I discovered more about them!

 

Sources used in this blog post:

The RSPB Book of British Birds

Collins Wild Guide: Birds

Collins Nature Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds

Dog agility – more jumping exercises

Recently I have felt that I’ve been lacking in inspiration for Rusty’s agility training, so it sort of ground to a bit of a halt for a while. We were working on improving her technique with the weave poles and tunnel, however she is an intelligent dog and as a result quickly becomes bored with simple repetitions of an obstacle. I can add in other things and create sequences but due to her inexperience with the weaves in particular I have to ensure that her approach to the weave poles is straight and easy for her to see – unfortunately this does limit what we can do, especially with our few pieces of equipment.

DOG

Over the past couple of days I set up the weaves and some jumps with the intention of just having a play to keep her feeling enthusiastic about her training.

It’s actually quite amazing how versatile a set of three jumps can be: there is a huge number of different arrangements of varying difficulties that can be set out, and even when I think I have exhausted all of the standard sequences, there really is no harm in just making something up and then figuring out how to handle it.

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The diagram below shows one of the exercises we practised. The red route drawn on is the easier of the two options I have shown – although this did still require skills which take time to learn. These include 180 degree turns and rear crosses (both of which I have written about previously).

Agility layout for blog

The first jump is very simple: I can just direct Rusty to it – however then I have to curve my body away a bit and head along the line of jumps to encourage her to turn and come back across the second jump. For the third jump, things become even more complicated as I have to ask Rusty for another 180 degree turn, but I am on the wrong side of the jumps and on the wrong side of Rusty to be able to ask properly. Needless to say, we’ve been struggling a bit with this!

So far, the best I have managed to do is to perform a rear cross (where I cross Rusty’s path behind her as she runs) and then ask her to swing back to the third jump. As you will be able to see from the video at the end of this post, this isn’t particularly smooth but I feel that with practice it may become easier.

The blue route is even trickier… I ask Rusty to jump the first hurdle, then wrap round the jump and jump the second in the same direction. This is then repeated for the third jump. Again, I can’t seem to handle this in a way that makes it a smooth sequence. I have a feeling that this may be because Rusty is constantly looking at me for instruction at the moment, and I really need her to look at where she is going more.

In fact, the other day she was so fixated on me that she walked into a chair! I use a combination of treats and toys as rewards for agility, and I am wondering whether me carrying the tennis ball more frequently is the reason for her increased attention. Although I have been doing this for a while with no problems, I may experiment with using a different reward to see if that helps her – I really do need her to watch her step on the course as it could potentially be dangerous if she doesn’t.

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The video below shows our training recently – there are some other clips in there of the weaves and some other simple jumping exercises as well.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call, stay tuned for more!

 

Dog agility – improving the tunnel and weaves

Over the past couple of weeks, Rusty and I have been working specifically on the tunnel and the weave poles.

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She has done so much jumping over the past few years that as a result she is now really confident with it and will automatically run ahead of me to a jump if I give her a clear signal. However she has not had quite as much practice with the tunnel and the weaves due to them taking longer to set up (I sometimes just do jumping).

Jump

To fix this I have begun to teach her that she can move further away from me with these obstacles and that I don’t have to lead her right up to them every time they are part of our course. It will take some time for her to learn this, but we have made a start and I have already seen lots of improvement which is pleasing!

Tunnel

When I was teaching her to be more independent with the jumps, I would carry her toy and throw it as she left the ground to encourage her to be more forward thinking. This could potentially work with other obstacles too but it does present some problems – for example when she is inside the tunnel she can’t see the ball being thrown, and throwing it too early whilst she is weaving might lead to her picking up bad habits such as skipping the last poles to chase it.

I also don’t want her to rush the weaves at this stage: she is still finding her feet with them and if I ask her to run too quickly she gets confused and sometimes trips up.

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Instead of throwing the ball, I asked her to sit in front of the obstacle and then dropped it at the other end before telling her either ‘tunnel’ or ‘weave’. She still got the idea of moving ahead to the target, but didn’t rush.

Whilst reading on the internet about the weave poles, I realised that I have been spacing them incorrectly. Having moved them a few inches further apart, Rusty’s technique has improved a huge amount (the video at the end of this post shows this).

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Another tactic to give her a bit more energy coming into the obstacle is to place a jump before it. Obviously if we were doing the obstacles as part of a sequence she would already be going fairly quickly, so I did this to imitate that situation whilst still focusing specifically on the two particular obstacles.

Tunnel1

At one point this actually resulted in Rusty skipping the tunnel, as she gained a lot of speed after the jump and missed my directions. I took her back and she completed it the second time round without any problems, however this does show a clear difference in the way in which she treats the tunnel – if there had been a jump there instead I’m pretty sure she would have flown over it without needing much telling!

Tunnel skip

I was also pleased to see that at one point she almost skipped the tunnel, but then corrected herself and ran through. The pictures below sort of show this, but I’ve added the clip to the video at the end of this post as well.

You may notice in the video that I did use the clicker in some of the clips (they were filmed over a couple of days). I’m still working on getting Rusty used to this, but this won’t require too much effort as it just means that I have to make sure I always give her a treat after clicking. I clicked too late in some instances – I kept forgetting, so sometimes she had her treat before hearing the click… It definitely gives me something to work on though.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call; I’ll be back in a few days time for Wildlife Wednesday so stay tuned!

Wildlife Wednesday – exploring the garden pond

As of today, I am beginning a new series of my blog posts. These will be released every Wednesday and will focus on the wildlife around my home in Norfolk.

In the first of these I will be taking a look at the life in our garden pond: since I used my GoPro to film underwater a couple of months ago I have been really excited to take a closer look at the organisms residing there.

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Armed with my cameras, a net, waterproof notebook and a couple of plastic tubs, I set about extracting organisms from different areas of the pond. It is amazing just how much life there is below the surface – the amount of times I have walked past the pond and not even given it a second thought is ridiculous!

The pond does seem to dry out each summer, which lead me to wonder how so much life exists there if it cannot be supported all year round. Having done some research, I have learnt that any creatures that can fly will often leave and then return when the water levels are up again. Some types of larvae can burrow into damp mud in order to survive, but the other organisms are likely to die. They are reintroduced to the pond by accidentally being carried over by visiting birds or mammals.

Unfortunately I do not have identification books for pond life (I really ought to invest in some keys to help me), so I apologise in advance if I have made any mistakes in this post.

The most common creature that I came across was mosquito larvae. I was able to identify this easily due to the way that these organisms hang vertically in the water, and their particular swimming pattern.

The picture below shows two mosquito larvae at different stages in their development. The one on the right hand side is younger and more curled up than the older one on the left hand side.

Mosquito larvae

I believe that the next creature is a caddisfly larva – initially I was unsure, but then I saw some of them inside ‘cases’. Normally these are constructed using tiny pieces of plant and grains of sand, however I saw cases made out of flat leaves: this is a distinctive feature of the mottled sedge caddisfly larvae.

On the surface of the pond I observed pond skaters and whirligig beetles. Before I began to read about pond skaters I was unaware of the fact that they are actually predators that target other animals that have fallen onto the surface of the pond. They also scavenge on dead animals.

Pond skater

Whirligig beetles usually stay near the surface, however if they happen to be disturbed they will swim underwater. In the video at the bottom of this post you can see that the whirligig beetle I discovered must have felt threatened by my presence, as it swam to the bottom of the container I placed it in. (In the interest of the welfare of all of these creatures, I tried to limit the time they spent away from the pond to just a few minutes).

This picture of the whirligig beetle isn’t of particularly good quality – they move so fast that it is difficult to capture them at all…

Whirligig beetle

Just below the surface I came across the common water flea. These transparent filter feeders are abundant in the pond and provide an important food source for beetle larvae.

Common water flea

I initially thought that the next organism was a leech, but was relieved to discover that I was wrong! It is a flatworm, and whilst it is a predator, it wouldn’t have been interested in me as it prefers to feed on larvae and larger dead organisms.

Flatworm

The picture below shows the common water slater: these are mistakenly believed to be an indicator of polluted water, however this is not true (they are just particularly tolerant of low oxygen levels).

Water slater

In the shallows amongst the plants there were numerous pond snails (I am not entirely sure of the exact species). Many people think that these reduce pollution in the pond but this is not strictly true; whilst the snails do ingest a lot of material, they simply recycle it into other forms – so the pollutants are not actually being removed from the ecosystem.

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Much of the life in water is too small to be seen with the naked eye: I feel that I have probably only seen the tip of the iceberg with the amount of life that exists in our pond.

Despite seeming like an entire ecosystem by itself, the pond is not isolated from the world around it. The diversity of life under the surface supports many other groups of animal – for example garden birds, frogs, toads, bats and grass snakes.

The video below shows some of the video clips I gathered whilst pond-dipping. Some were taken using the GoPro in the pond, whereas others were filmed whilst the animals were away from the pond.

I hope that you enjoyed the first post in my new ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – stay tuned for more exciting discoveries next week!

 

(The following website was used in the writing of this blog post: freshwaterhabitats.org.uk )

Winter agility training

Over the Christmas break, Rusty and I had a few agility training sessions in the garden. She hadn’t practised in about six weeks but still amazed me with how much she could remember!

I thought that I would set up a few different types of jumps for a bit of fun – normally we just have straight jumps as these are quick and easy to set up, however in competitions a variety of obstacles can be found so it only makes sense to incorporate them. (I had to improvise a bit when building these jumps as we are quite limited with equipment!)

straight

Straight jumps – these are the most common found on an agility course and are often placed in sequences with tight angles and complex manoeuvres. They can have wings or may be without – both options can present problems to the handler.

straight-without-wings

With wingless jumps it is very easy for the dog to ‘half jump’ it, where they sort of hop over the very edge and leave the handler wondering whether that counted or if they should be taken back to do it again! In particular this occurs when the dog has come into the jump on a tight turn, or can see that they will be expected to make one after landing.

In a competition there are three other types of jumps that are usually found just once in a course; these add a bit more interest to jumping as they require the dog to think a little more about how they are tackling the obstacles (instead of just treating each one as the same).

Spread jumps are the same height as straights, but have an added factor of length as well – this means that the dog has to make quite a big leap in order to clear the jump. A straight approach is favourable with this jump as coming into it on too much of an angle could result in the highest pole being caught by their back legs.

spread

Long jumps are low to the ground but have a much greater length than any other jumps in the course (the clue is in the name!). When training this jump it is advisable to begin with a short distance and gradually extend it so that the dog learns not to put any paws down in the middle. Normally this type of jump would consist of wooden or plastic planks lined up next to each other, but I had to make do with what you can see in the pictures below…

The final jump type is the tyre jump – this is quite a fun one although it is common place for run-outs. (Tyre jumps found in competitions are raised quite high off the ground which allows room for the dog to run underneath – Rusty was guilty of this when we used to go to agility classes!)

tyre-jump

Another exercise we had a play around with was the pinwheel. This is sometimes seen on competition courses, but is also a useful activity for general training: I have worked on this multiple times with Rusty before and have seen noticeable improvements in her ability to find and ‘lock onto’ her next jump, as well as her trusting that she can run further from my side but still understand where she is going.

On top of that, she seems to find the whole thing quite exciting so it definitely brings a lot to our training sessions (not that I need Rusty to have any more energy than she already does!)

Unfortunately the videos I have of this were taken in the afternoon when it was getting dark, so the stills were just a blur, however there is a video at the bottom of this post showing the exercise. The diagram below shows an example of a pinwheel with four jumps – this can vary but the handler should bear in mind that fewer jumps will increase the angle between each one, which will make it more challenging for the dog.

pinwheel

The best place for the handler to be is in the middle of the wheel, as it keeps the dog turning on the circle. If the handler were to attempt this by running around the outside of the pinwheel, they would not be able to keep up with their dog and this would lead to mistakes being made (it is common for other jumps to be placed near a pinwheel so as to confuse the dog).

The video below shows some short clips from our most recent training sessions – this includes a clip with a set of weave poles and the tunnel. I thought I would include this because it shows how much Rusty’s understanding of the weaves has improved – she almost skipped the final pole but when I paused her she took a few steps back and corrected it – such a clever little dog!