Somerset Wildlife Trust

Work For Us|

February: Newts and New Skills

 7th Mar 2017

So, February.
This month is going to be somewhat more tangential than my usual blog entries, on account of the fact that part of the month was spent off work due to a self inflicted back injury. It was one of those situations where the laws of physics conspire to create a perfect combination of twisting and pulling forces that make part of your anatomy give up (even if you don’t feel it at the time). Accounts of catching up on paperwork at home aren’t particularly thrilling, so I’ll talk around this.

First and foremost we need to address last month’s cliffhanger. At the end of January I went to Devon to visit Tom, one of Devon Wildlife Trust’s trainees. At the beginning of this month, he came to see us. The watery precipitation that had hampered our progress in the more southern county continued, though mercifully with breaks, meaning there was slightly less cause to dry clothing by the fire. Rest assured however that there was still cause.

The work we undertook for two days involved the removal of scrub, in the form of a clutch of tree species, from several drainage ditches on Westhay Moor. Why? Because they are a good site for great crested newts. The largest of the British newts, these amphibians really suffer in water bodies that contain fish, due to the fact that the newt larvae do not hide in pond plants, but brazenly float about in open water. Very bold, but not necessarily a good idea in the presence of piscine predators. Having a known site on Westhay is therefore a good thing, and it is well worth performing the appropriate maintenance. According to the great crested newt habitat suitability index (yes, that’s a thing), any more than 60% shade to the water and the newts begin to get a bit unhappy. We all enjoy sunshine after all. As such, the thinning of the woody growth is beneficial to improving the quality of the habitat.


Philtree1Phil Tree2

The obligatory before and after shot. Far more open.

On the Friday, now joined by fellow trainee Steph, we burned the cut material and went for a tour of Westhay Moor. In one hide we observed a marsh harrier silently quartering the reedbed, eyes focussed intensely downward in search of prey. A nice sight, surpassed  only by the innocuous  line of bubbles that progressed along the boundary of the reedbed, before the surface parted to reveal the slick brown head of an otter. There were some happy trainees. I was reminded again how lucky I am to live in such a biologically rich area.

So that was that, and I’m pretty sure Tom went home happy, despite an incident involving a peat moor, a sinking leg and wellington based water ingress.

Incidentally, on the weekend following this, I went to Tesco. In Bristol. Which should be unremarkable, indeed in the normal course of things I would expect to be ridiculed for even committing it to permanent record, but I was not there to pick up a loaf of bread. I was there for waxwings. These wonderful birds are about the size of starlings, but where starlings go for understated beauty (seriously, if you get a chance to look at one up close, the iridescence and the white speckling chevrons are incredible), the waxwing is all pomp and ceremony. Bold facial markings, red tips to their inboard aft wing feathers (hence the name), and a crest of which a punk would be proud, mean this bird really does earn its part-time prefix ‘bohemian’.
Yes, it’s not part of the traineeship, and yes it’s not in Somerset, but the waxwings pushed a long way into the south west this year, so it’s worth writing about.

Phil Waxwings

Bohemian Waxings (Bombycilla garrulous)

On the same day, a trip to the reserve at Catcott yielded another first for me, a wonderful view of a female hen harrier drifting over the flooded grassland, her long wings bearing her effortlessly up and over the tree line. I didn’t  stop smiling all evening.

During the next week, in between the coppicing, hedgelaying etc (all of which have been discussed in previous blogs), I got to retake my driving test, in order to allow me to pull a trailer. It was every bit as stressful as taking my initial test at eighteen, which I maintain was the hardest exam I’ve taken in my life. I did manage to pass though, making a few minor mistakes, but no errors actually manoeuvring the trailer,  which I consider the most important bit. As I write I have a shiny new driving license, updated with my new driving category, though I admit after all the worry and stress of a driving test simply having a new date on the back of the card seems a little anticlimactic. I should have organised a party.



The pass certificate, along with some shameless advertising for the training provider

This month has been a good one for watching the natural world begin to wake up. Apart from the snowdrops, the primroses are beginning to turn their yellow centred blooms toward the sky, with celandines and wood anemones also making appearances.  Most exciting for me, the amphibians are on the move, with gelatinous clumps of frog spawn materialising in the corners of some of my regularly visited water bodies. In my most frequently visited water body, the tiny wildlife pond installed last year in my tiny garden on the Polden ridge, I have been pleased to chart the arrival of a handful of smooth newts, with at least one male in full breeding colours. I had to catch him in a jam jar to identify him, as it’s surprisingly difficult when they are skulking along in the murk of weed at the bottom of a pool. Once in there the fiery orange belly and throat, shot through with contrasting speckles of black, and the wavy translucent crest running uninterrupted from his neck to the tip of his tail left me in no doubt; the garden had a smooth newt colony. Another evening with a big smile, after which they have remained undisturbed.

Phil Primrose

A slightly out of focus primrose at New Hill

The birds are beginning to call too. The great tits have been hammering out their disyllabic territorial warnings for some time now, but others are joining in. Best of all came on the last Sunday of the month when, right on cue for the volunteers hacking their way through hazel stems to create a hedge, a solitary common crane passed over our heads, it’s bugling call sonorous as it progressed up to Great Breach Wood and sailed south along the ridge, looking for all the world like a Jurassic pterosaur. What a sight, and what a sound; a voice that has been absent from our landscape for four hundred years restored. It was quite emotional. I think I speak for all nature lovers when I say it’s good to have them back.

Right, that’s enough from me for now. I’ve rather enjoyed focussing on nature rather than banging on about what a great time I’m having. I guess the two are inseparable. I’m having a great time precisely because all this wonderful wildlife is around. And, by having a great time, I’m helping these species be around for the future.
You could too. We’re always looking for more volunteers….

See you next time!