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!)

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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.

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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

Work experience with the National Trust – wildflower surveys

On Saturday I went on another of the National Trust work experience days. This was the first session where I wasn’t freezing cold or soaking wet (or both!) – the sun was shining, the sky was a glorious blue and according to my phone the temperature even reached 18 degrees at one point! It is so lovely to think that spring is finally here.

The purpose of this session was for us to expand our knowledge on wildflowers and their identification.

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In the morning we had an ‘informal lecture’ sort of thing to bring us up to speed on wildflowers (I didn’t really have much of a clue beforehand!) After a brief re-cap on the anatomy of plants, we moved onto looking at key features which can be used to distinguish between plant families. These include the position of leaves on the stem, the type of leaf and the arrangement of the flower heads.

In the session I made very quick, rough notes but for the purposes of this blog I copied them up in neat – the results of which can be seen below…

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The different features shown vary depending on the family that a plant belongs to – we learnt the specifics of ten different families (although there are many more than this, we didn’t have time to look at them all so instead focused on the ones we would be most likely to see at Quarry Bank in March). The table below summarises the families we examined.

Family Key features
Buttercup family / Ranunculaceae 5 petals, 5 sepals

Lots of stamens and carpels

Deeply divided leaves

Cabbage family / Brassicaceae 4 petals (in cross shape), 4 sepals

6 stamens (four long, two short)

Pinks / Caryophyllaceae 4/5 petals, often deeply notched

Swollen nodes

Opposite leaves

Pea Family / Fabaceae Flower is zygomorphic

Compound leaves

Rose family / Rosaceae 5 petals, 5 sepals (united at base)

Alternate, compound leaves

Carrot family / Apiaceae Umbel flowers

Compound leaves

Daisy family / Asteraceae Capitulum flowers
Figwort family / Scrophulariaceae 2 lipped corolla

Ridged stems

Mint family / dead-nettle family / Lamiaceae Square stems

Whirls of flowers

2 lipped corolla

St Johns-wort family / Clusiaceae 5 yellow petals

Entire, opposite leaves

Glossary of terms in table (also see diagram above):

  • Carpel – the female reproductive part of a flower
  • Corolla – the petals of the flower
  • Node – area on the plant stem from which leaves and buds grow
  • Sepals – usually found underneath petals, protect flower when it is in the bud (just to add to the confusion, sepals are often green in colour, but when sepals look like petals they are referred to as tepals!)
  • Stamen – the male reproductive part of a flower, produces pollen
  • Zygomorphic – a bilaterally symmetrical flower

Having learnt the theory, we were then given a chance to practice using dichotomous keys with some cut garden flowers. A dichotomous key is a series of questions providing the reader with two choices, which eventually lead to the name of the species.

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After lunch we then headed out to the Southern Woods, where we began our wildflower survey. (This is an example of a Phase Two survey – see my blog post from the 25th of February for more information on Phase One habitat surveys).

Due to it still being fairly early in the year, there weren’t a huge amount of flowers to be found, however we did find some. Despite being armed with hand lenses and books, it was surprisingly difficult to identify the exact species and we spent a considerable amount of time examining the plant shown below… Now I have a confession to make – I can’t actually remember what we decided this was!

Some other plants that we discovered included the lesser celandine (pictured below)….

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…and the wood anemone. This particular species is an example of an ancient woodland indicator, so comes in handy when conducting Phase One habitat surveys.

All in all, this was a lovely day out in the fresh air; it felt a little bit more relaxed than our previous sessions with the National Trust, although that may just have been an effect of the weather.

(I’m also just going to apologise for the irregularity of my blog posts recently – I should be back to posting normally again as of next weekend).