Today, I was back on the sand dunes at Ainsdale on the Sefton Coast; this time, I was joining in a wildlife photography walk, organised by the Gems in the Dunes team and led by local photographer Trevor Davenport. Trevor pointed out plenty of interesting insects and plants for us to photograph, providing advice like getting down to the level of your subject (hence why many nature photographers have dirty knees) and making sure to move distracting scenery, like long grass, out of the way. Here are some of the pics I took!
Over the Easter holidays in April, I took advantage of the lovely weather by visiting a couple of wildlife spots I’ve been to previously, to see what I could find this year. First, there was a nature reserve in Cumbria, where I ended up staying for four hours as I was having such a nice time.
There were common lizards everywhere, mostly on the boardwalk but some in the foliage as well: I must have seen at least 40 in all. Among the many birds around was a male reed bunting, singing loudly in a tree.
What I was really hoping to spot, however, was a snake. And when I did, it happened quite unexpectedly: my circuit had taken me back to the car park, I turned around, and a male adder was slithering across the road! He quickly disappeared into the foliage on the other side, but it gave me encouragement. I went looking back along the boardwalk, and sure enough, there was another male adder slithering among the dry leaves. It was a very productive day for wildlife watching.
A couple of days later, I went for a walk among the sand dunes in Lytham, where I had previously spotted more common lizards. I soon spotted one in the same area I had seen them before, though it was gone very quickly. As I walked, I regularly heard rustling sounds in the grass, but there was no way to know if it was lizards. Finally, I did see another lizard about half a mile away from the first; that one vanished in about two seconds, before I could photograph it. That’s the problem with sunny weather; it leaves reptiles well energised!
Last weekend, I attended the 32nd Herpetofauna Workers Meeting, in Stoke-on-Trent: this conference, organised by ARG UK and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, is to share information on the latest work in UK amphibian and reptile conservation. While I wasn’t able to attend the Saturday lectures, I did arrive in Stoke in time for the conference dinner on Saturday evening. This was a great opportunity to talk to other attendees: some people I already knew were there, including a party from Bangor University; but at the dinner and during the following day, I was able to make new acquaintances, talking to some very interesting and friendly conservationists.
The lectures covered a wide range of projects and focus species. These included conservation-based scientific studies: Dr Naomi Ewald talked about PondNet’s study monitoring the presence of great crested newts by detecting their environmental DNA (eDNA); while Dr Silviu Petrovan talked about evidence-based conservation, measuring how successfully amphibians use tunnels built under roads. I was also particularly interested in Sophia Ratcliffe’s lecture on using data compiled from the NBN Atlas to examine long-term reptile population trends, and Louise Sherwell and Mariya Tarnavska’s project on using ladders to help amphibians escape from gully pots on kerbsides.
There were also a couple of Q&A panels: I attended one that covered general herpetological conservation questions. The panelists gave their opinions and knowledge on whether restrictions on animal trade can help prevent the spread of disease, whether Brexit could be an opportunity to strengthen conservation legislation, and what can be done regarding the decline of native species (public outreach and monitoring local sites were encouraged).
Thank you to ARG UK and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation for organising this event – I’m already looking forward to the next one!
Today, I went down to Ainsdale – close to where I’ve done some habitat management volunteer work in the past – to do some volunteering for the Gems in the Dunes project. This project, led by Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, aims to preserve the sand dune habitat on the Sefton Coast, home to several species which are rare in the UK, such as natterjack toads, sand lizards and northern dune tiger beetles.
This habitat is threatened by a variety of factors, not least encroachment by humans. The problem that the other volunteers and I were addressing today was the overgrowth of sea buckthorn on the site. Native to the east coast of the UK, sea buckthorn becomes invasive when introduced elsewhere; thickets of it spread over the dunes, reducing the open marram grass habitat that the local wildlife needs to bask and thrive. Since much of that wildlife is inactive during the winter months, we could carry out the work while causing minimal disturbance.
The volunteers attacked the buckthorn with loppers and saws, burning the cuttings on a bonfire; any stumps were treated with glyphosate so that they wouldn’t grow back. Much of the last hour was then spent carrying buckets of water back and forth to make sure that the bonfire was completely put out! The weather was mild – through a combination of working and being close to the fire, you warmed up very quickly – and the manual work felt very satisfying, particularly as we made such an impact on that particular patch.
Check out the Amphibian & Reptile Conservation website if you are interested in volunteering yourself!
Brockholes Nature Reserve, located just outside Preston and right next to the River Ribble, was built on the site of a quarry and opened in 2011. It is a good spot for birdwatchers, featuring both woodland and lake habitat; you might even spot a roe deer if you’re lucky. When I went down there yesterday afternoon, the usual birds were about: swans and a grey heron on the Meadow Lake, great tits on the bird tables, a robin keeping its head down in the reeds. There were also some wooden sculptures of characters from The Wind in the Willows, which had been added since my last visit. My main aim for going that day, however, was the hope of seeing a starling murmuration.
Well publicised on TV, starling murmurations have become one of the UK’s best known wildlife spectacles. During the winter months, the UK population of starlings increases as birds migrate here from colder parts of Europe. At dusk, thousands of starlings come together at their communal roost sites, forming huge flocks that offer safety in numbers against predators. Such spectacles create the impression that starlings are not a conservation priority, but in fact the UK population is estimated to have fallen by four-fifths since the late 1970s, possibly due to farming practices reducing the availability of the invertebrates they eat.
As the daylight began to fade, I chose a spot looking over a large lake called the Number One Pit. Behind me, across the road, I also had a view of Brockholes’s floating Visitor Village on the Meadow Lake, just in case the starlings decided to turn up there. Of course, seeing a large flock displaying in the sky was not guaranteed. But at 3:20pm, a small group of starlings suddenly appeared over the Pit, closely followed by another. As they began converging, I experienced the thrill that wildlife-watchers get when they realise today is going to be a lucky day.
The murmuration grew very quickly, hovering over the woodland on the far side of the lake. Its visibility fluctuated, the starlings becoming less obvious against the overcast sky whenever they dispersed a little. At first, they formed a long, serpentine pattern that stretched across to the M6 motorway; but as more starlings arrived, the murmuration converged into a more visible ball. The most interesting patterns formed when another bird, possibly a crow, made an approach: the murmuration fluctuated, bulged on either side and split in two, with one sub-flock quickly moving to catch up with the other. The display went on for a good long while: at one point, I thought it was over when the starlings suddenly ducked below the trees, but it must have been a response to another disturbance because they soon rose again. Finally, with the sky getting murkier, the flock began shrinking, skimming the trees with fewer starlings coming back up each time. Then, at around 3:55, the last of them ducked down, and nothing more was to be seen. It had been a cracker, all right.
If you would like to see something like this, check out Starlings in the UK for known roost sites and useful information.
I had another snake sighting in Cumbria in late June.
This morning, I drove up to Cumbria again to go for a walk around another nature reserve. It was a hazy morning, quite cool at first in the woodland, but it had certainly warmed up by the time I got out into the open to walk along the bog boardwalk.
I got a pleasant surprise when I happened to look to the side at the right moment and recognise the distinctive zigzag of an adder, sunbathing on top of the dead leaves – the second adder I’ve seen this year. I managed to get one photograph without being able to see its head; but before I had even begun to move to try and get a better view, it slithered under the leaves and out of sight, hissing as it went.
And on the way back, there was a common lizard sunning itself on the boardwalk too.