Herpetofauna Workers Meeting 2019

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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!

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Gems in the Dunes

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.

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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.

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During…

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.

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After!

Check out the Amphibian & Reptile Conservation website if you are interested in volunteering yourself!

A Starling Murmuration at Brockholes!

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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.

 

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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.

Adding to my adder count

I had another snake sighting in Cumbria in late June.

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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.

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And on the way back, there was a common lizard sunning itself on the boardwalk too.

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My first badgers!

Back in June, I saw badgers for the first time!

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I had an exciting time yesterday evening, when I was able to go out to a hide to watch for badgers – which would be the first time I had seen a badger that wasn’t roadkill.

We started watching at about 7:30pm. It proved to be a busy spot in terms of wildlife; there were several nervous rabbits, a couple of grey squirrels having the occasional disagreement, and a colourful jay. Finally, around 8:30, came the moment we had been waiting for: the black-and-white face of an adult female badger emerged from the bushes, hanging around in the open for less than a minute before going back the way she had come.

I wondered if that brief glimpse was all we were going to get, but within the next 45 minutes, a lone badger appeared a couple more times, hanging around the entrance to the sett. Then, at about 9:15, we…

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Bank Holiday Beetling

It was a sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, perfect for getting out and about…

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Normally, you can expect Bank Holidays in the UK to be as wet and windy as the rest of the year, if not more so. But on this particular Bank Holiday weekend, Britain is experiencing a heatwave. It’s been so hot and sunny that I found myself getting that feeling of pleasure and contentment associated with being on holiday in happy foreign climes. And such weather shouldn’t be wasted, so these past two days, I’ve been spending plenty of time outdoors!

On Saturday, I went down to Warton Hall outside Lytham St Annes, which was opening its garden to the public for a few days. Wildlife TV presenter Nigel Marven – whom I had last encountered in the Philippines – was there, giving a talk on his reptilian pets and allowing the delighted children in the audience to handle them. These included two blue-tongued skinks and a ball python; as…

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