Somerset has many good sites where adders, grass snakes, slow worms and common lizards can be seen. Chris Chappell offers advice on identification.
It has been a difficult spring for many birds and animals. Having started nesting very early in the warm March weather, many broods and clutches were lost due to the cold and wet weather in April. Ground nesting birds' nests were lost to flooding, while woodland and garden birds struggled to feed their young, and fledglings perished in the cold and incessant rain. But they will start again, build new nests and hopefully benefit from warmer, drier weather, and a greater supply of insects, increasing the chances of success.
There is plenty to see on the Somerset levels in June. Shapwick Heath and the Avalon Marshes hold a wealth of wildlife. The numerous reed warblers chattering away, the noisy Cetti's warbler, exploding into sound from the depths of a willow. Whitethroats abound, slightly easier to spot, as they are fond of perching on top of a patch of brambles. Blackcaps, garden warblers and chiffchaffs are still singing from bushes and trees, while below they have nests with young, hidden in the undergrowth. Bitterns continue to boom, and you may see a male chasing another around the reed beds.
Hobbies are soaring above, catching their favourite snack of dragonflies. The dragonflies are now emerging in profusion, hundreds of four spotted chasers taking to the air along the reed bed edge. Little and great crested grebe now have young. Little grebe chicks are highly camouflaged, a stripy mix of black white and brown, whereas the great crested grebe young are black and white striped. Both grebes' offspring have a fondness for riding on the adults' backs, not always welcome when they are trying to catch small fish to feed them. The male cuckoos are calling, and marsh harriers can be seen hunting along the far side of the lagoons. The now fairly common little egret is joined by the very rare great white, now breeding in the area. Both are regularly seen at Shapwick.
Snakes and lizards
Hopefully we will have some warmer days, as fine weather is required to see our native reptiles. Somerset has many good sites where adders, grass snakes, slow worms and common lizards can be seen. They all like to bask in a sunny spot, being cold-blooded. This term is a bit misleading, as such 'ectothermic' creatures need to maintain their body temperature at close to the ambient as possible by moving from light to shade as required.
Adders and grass snakes lay eggs in rotting vegetation, relying on the warmth generated by the fermenting material to incubate them. The young of both snakes broadly resemble the adults in colouration and pattern.
Common lizards, and the legless slow worm, give birth to live young. New born common lizards are very dark replicas of the adult, whereas juvenile slow worms are strikingly golden in appearance, and a thin wormlike version of the adult female.
Spotting an adder coiled on a patch of dry vegetation never fails to send a shiver down the spine, they are such beautiful creatures, and their ability to deliver a poisonous bite adds a frisson to the experience. But they are shy and will quickly slither away if you get too close. Adders vary a lot in colour, but generally the males have a stronger zigzag pattern down the spine on a silvery background, whereas the females are darker overall. Bites from adders are very rare, but can be very serious for young children or pets. If you do come across them, treat them with respect, and take care not to disturb the habitat.
Grass snakes are leaner and longer than adders, and have a greenish appearance overall with black bars down each side. They have a yellow band behind the head. They can grow quite large, often over a metre in length. Grass snakes are good swimmers often seen crossing open water, in search of frogs, their favoured prey.
Slow worms are lizards that have evolved without legs. Males are green-grey, unmarked and with a stumpy tail, whereas the females are more sandy in colour, and have a black line down the side and more streamlined. However, they do vary greatly in appearance. Slow worms spend a lot of time out of sight, moving through damp vegetation in search of slugs and insects.
The common lizard prefers open grass or heathland, and will often be seen sunning itself on an open patch of ground. It is beautifully patterned with brown and dark brown lines and spots, but most often seen and heard scuttling off at speed among dry leaves. Both slow worms and common lizards have the extraordinary ability to detach their tails as a means of escape, if attacked by a buzzard or crow. The tail will regrow in time.
Four Spotted Chaser
(Grass Snakes and Blackcap courtesy of Wikipedia)