On Friday night Carl and I ventured across to the west coast of England to do a nocturnal search for Natterjack toads (Bufo calamita). There we met up with Mike Brown from the North Merseyside Amphibian and Reptile Group who showed us some nice breeding pools. Much to our surprise a large portion of the area was flooded owing to the heavy rainfall from last Summer. The temperatures were quite mild but a strong wind seemed to limit the amount of calling from the male toads. Despite this a good number of toads were still calling which allowed us to locate them relatively easily. It was especially nice to see that a few male toads were even using some newly constructed ponds at the site which were build over the Winter. Overall a very pleasant evening, although because of the deeper water we couldn’t spot any newts, although we did also find a Common toad (Bufo bufo) and a couple of Common frogs (Rana temporaria).
I’ve been busy out in the field the past two days and I was finally able to enjoy some nicer weather. On Friday, I spent some time searching for Adders (Vipera berus), and although the clouds wouldn’t move it was still quite warm. I managed to find three male adders, all ready to slough, and a large female all of which are well known specimens to me. Another nice observation was watching a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) land metres away from me and then fly off with a rodent of some kind in its talons. Under a stone I also found a baby Common toad (Bufo bufo).
On Saturday I ventured over” tut tuther side of th’hill” to do some herping with Carl around his more local areas. It was a hot, sunny day so we started early, anticipating that by dinner time it would be too hot for our cooler acclimatised populations. We had a nice total of around 15 adders early on, including a striped or “bilineata” specimen which are very rare in the UK populations. A big thank you to Chris who showed us this beautiful specimen. We also saw a couple of very warmed up Common lizards (Zootoca vivipara) and we found a juvenile adder that appeared to have been killed by a pheasant. Common toads (Bufo bufo) were breeding in large numbers in the reservoirs around the site. After this we visited a site for Grass snakes (Natrix natrix) where in September we found a huge female. None were around, perhaps already too warm. Moving on, we stopped at a small graveyard that has a small population of Slow-worms (Anguis fragilis) and we could find one sub-adult specimen. Just before I headed home we searched one last location where Carl sees the occasional grass snake. Straight away I spotted a smaller specimen basking but it vanished into the vegetation. A short while later he appeared again and I was able to catch him for a quick photo or two.
On Saturday I met up with David Nixon to do a survey for Adders (Vipera berus) not too far away from our regular sites. A sunny start allowed us to see a large male, but it was very much warmed up and slithered away before we could take any photographs. Too bad. At the time I was quite sure it would be the first of many adders we would see, but the strength of the wind increased and gradually the clouds came in. By the early afternoon it was quite cold and we couldn’t find any more snakes. Perhaps the highlight of the day was watching a Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) on the hunt, even hovering at one point. Unfortunately, I only had a macro lens with me so I was unable to take any photographs of this impressive species. Walking along the edge of one of the water channels, Dave spotted a basking male Slow-worm (Anguis fragilis), the first both of us have seen this year. A short while later Dave also stumbled across a lone male Smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) making its way across land to his breeding pond. Despite the dramatic change in weather we still had a nice day out, and hopefully some consistent, nice weather can’t be too far away now. No doubt the British weather will prove me wrong yet again…
March has been awful. Truly awful. I decided that I could not stay in doors for another weekend and ventured over to Yorkshire to meet up with Carl and do some herping. It was still very cold, and upon collecting me from the station Carl drove us to a good spot to see Little owl (Athene noctua). These are one of my favourite birds, and during my trips to Greece they can be seen everyday, but they are far less frequently seen at home. Luckily enough one of the owls was sat in the wall of an old abandoned shed. After dark we decided to be brave and do a short amphibian search. It was absolutely freezing, we were ready to give up after ten minutes but then Carl spotted a male Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus). The following day, although still cold with an icy wind the sun was shining. Within 15 minutes we managed to find 15 male Adders (Vipera berus), many of which were basking next to patches of snow. A further two were found at a different site, and at a slightly higher altitude only one adder could be seen along with two brave Viviparous lizards (Zootoca vivipara). What was intended to be a short search at a possible new location for adders turned out to be an epic Bear Grylls quest (although we don’t kill and eat wildlife). We ended up clambering through deep snow and very dense trees and bushes to reach the bottom of a valley so we could cross the river to the other side. Despite our considerable efforts only a further two Common lizards could be seen at the site.
On Thursday evening with some light rainfall I went to my local amphibian spot where hundreds of Common frogs (Rana temporaria) and Palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus) appear after dark and cross a small road to reach their breeding pond. Despite the small amount of traffic, just one car driving down this road results in many amphibians being killed. So as always I headed on up to move as many as I could before the workers at the nearby 24 hour factory started or finished their shifts and drove by. Wandering around with my torch for about two hours I moved around 50 Common frogs and about 30 Palmate newts. As always there were some casualties but not as many as I’ve seen in previous years. Unfortunately a second Winter looks to move in from this weekend with estimated -5 temperatures for the start of the week. This unusually late cold spell could cause a certain mortality rate with amphibians which have started their reproduction but hopefully it won’t/can’t last for too much longer.
Although later than last year, the temperatures up on the tops are still quite cold, and below zero after dark. Today with sun and a 9c air temperature I tried to find the first Adder (Vipera berus) of the year. Although the conditions first appeared promising, an icy breeze took hold on the open, exposed moors. Despite this, the first brave male snake was basking next to his hibernacula, the same specimen which was first to emerge last year. He was very still and allowed for a close approach, obviously rather cold from the breeze. A real treat after 5 months of very boring Winter!
When the Winter in Britain is cold and long I often start thinking about travels overseas, and the past few weeks I have already started to think about returning to one of my favourite places on earth in the Spring. I’m certainly not the first naturalist to refer to the emerald Greek island of Corfu as paradise, in fact this is how the most vibrant island in Greece was described by a man who I have the great pleasure of helping to represent in Corfu in May: Gerald Durrell. For the third year in succession I am once again privileged to return to the island to lead aspects of the Gerald Durrell week specifically aimed at herpetology. Durrell was the most famous naturalist to spend time in Corfu, and this is the island where he explored as a child and first established his passion for the natural world. My greatest fascination when reading Durrell’s books that recount his years on Corfu is how the island must have looked in 1935. Considering the huge tourism boom on the island since the 1980s the island still has many untouched areas, but back in the 1930′s it was an island without roads and very few vehicles so much so that most people used to sail by boat to reach Corfu Town from other areas of the island.
My first visit to Corfu was in 2002, and since then I have returned nearly a dozen times, each time to delve further into my passion for the island’s native herpetofauna. Although my interest for field herpetology was sparked a few years earlier during my childhood explorations during family holidays to neighbouring Kefalonia, Corfu is the island to which I have returned year after year coinciding with visits to as many other parts of the country as I can to study the native amphibians and reptiles.
The Gerald Durrell week is a run by the Durrell School of Corfu and is a week that enables visitors to experience the island as Gerald Durrell did during his youth. This involves field trips to various untouched parts of the island, as well as cultural visits and lectures at the Durrell School in Corfu Town. The leaders of the week will consist of Lee Durrell MBE, Dr David Bellamy, Dr David Shimwell, David Ashcroft and myself. Last year I had a number of notable highlights during the week, and thanks to ideal weather conditions we were able to find a large variety of different species during our explorations. One of the favourites seemed to be when I caught a large Montpellier snake (Malpolon insignitus) to allow everyone a closer look after Dr Shimwell disturbed it basking on top of dry stone wall and had him leaping in the opposite direction!
Gerald Durrell week: May 2013:
The week is based in the north of the island, where participants will be able to experience aspects of the life Gerald led here, as described in his Corfu Trilogy. The magic of fire flies, the deafening chorus of the frogs; the nightly calling of the scops owls; the acres of olive groves and glittering turquoise waters and stunning views reaching out over the sea to the distant mountains of Albania.
- A week in which to discover how you can safely approach and identify species in their natural habitat, under the guidance of three experts in the field with good local knowledge of the area. In additional, you will experience the breathtaking views across the sea towards Albania.
- The Durrell School of Corfu is offering a seven day package for individuals and families who wish to experience the lesser known and unspoiled aspects of the beautiful jewel of the Ionian Island.
- This is not a guided tour; it is an invite to Corfu where you will be in the presence of famous experts, under the auspices of one of the most respected cultural organisations on Corfu, The Durrell School of Corfu.
- The fee to the Durrell School includes transportation to specific locations by boat or road, field trips organised by leaders in botany, entomology and herpetology, welcome reception, and the use of lecture rooms and library.
Just a quick post to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Although 2012 hasn’t been a good year for me personally, I have had some great trips abroad and had some great experiences, as well as spending time with some great people who I’ve met on my travels. I would like to send a special Xmas thanks to my friends in Greece, especially Alex and David Ashcroft, Bo Stille, David Shimwell, Rosemary and David Bellamy as well as Nicholas and Adriana Shum who have tolerated me, and offered me their fabulous hospitality this year. My trips this year would not have been anywhere near as interesting (or successful) without some excellent travel companions so all the best to Carl Corbidge, Ilias Strachinis, Giorgos Pastrikos, Gertjan Verspui and Liam Russell!
As a final post of 2012, here is a short report from my latest trip here
Great week in Portugal and S-W Spain, amphibians were out in numbers and we even found 13 species of reptile as well!
Next week I am going back to one of my favourite places to see amphibians, the southern coast of Portugal or the Algarve as it is better known. I’m pleased to say that Liam Russell will also be joining Carl, Gertjan and myself, taking a break from his PhD work on Sand lizards.
A month ago, French ami Frank Deschandol was in the Algarve and his timing perfectly coincided with the first heavy Autumn rains and therefore saw hundreds of breeding Western spadefoot toads (Pelobates cultripes), Algarve parsley frogs (Pelodytes sp.nov) and Sharp ribbed newts (Pleurodeles waltl). These are usually the first three amphibians to start breeding in the temporary ponds, usually followed a month or so later by at least 5-6 other amphibian species. Owing to his timing, Frank was very fortunate to capture on camera male Pelobates cultripes not only calling, but doing so on land. This is the first time I have seen this filmed as Spadefoot toads usually call from the bottom of their breeding pond. In the background you can also hear Parsley frogs calling. To see Franks awesome photos from his trip visit his field report by clicking here.
(C) Frank Deschandol November 2012
In addition, for those of you who know some Spanish, here is a nice 30 minute feature on amphibian decline in Spain, including a nice project to reintroduce some species which became locally extinct due to the expansion on the outskirts of Barcelona: