Reptiles and amphibians taster session – the distinctive smell of the grass snake…

All spring and summer we’ve been running Taster Sessions. They’re aimed at people who don’t have much knowledge about a subject but want to learn the basics. Past sessions have included Spring Butterflies, Bird Basics, Tracks and Signs, Summer Trees and last week was the turn of the Reptiles and Amphibians. It was led by Sarah, who wrote the dormouse post for this blog a couple of weeks ago, and I think everyone who came really got a lot out of it.

Sarah began by talking us through some Warwickshire reptile and amphibian species and giving us the basic information needed to ID them, tell male from female and the like. Then we headed out onto Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve to have a look under some of the reptile mats. Reptile mats are essentially just small sheets of heat absorbent material – because reptiles can’t regulate their own body temperature they naturally gravitate towards things that are warm. You can do this at home too; shed roofing felt or something similarly insulating will be fine, and you might see some of the more elusive residents of your garden. Sarah and I knew that there had been two grass snakes under one of the mats the day before so we were hopeful, but the first two that we checked we had no luck. Then as we walked over to the third we must have disturbed the snake because Sarah just cause a glimpse of a tail slithering away. So we continued on to the next ones, still with high hopes but disappointed by our near miss.

With nothing under either of those two mats our best bet was to go back to the one where we’d at least seen a snake and hope that it had returned. This time it was just Sarah who walked up to the mat, slowly, carefully, and as quietly as possible. And she returned… with a grass snake!

Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)

The only issue with picking up grass snakes is that when they think that they’re being attacked they emit what would generously be called a ‘pungent’ smell. ‘Horrible’ comes closer to the mark. We decided that the closest analogy we could think of was ‘rotting vomit’ – if you’ve had the pleasure and can think of something closer to what it smells like then let me know! They do this to convince their predator that they’re not edible; especially important as they’re non-venomous so can’t protect themselves that way.

We’d brought a tank with us just in case we found a snake, so that everyone could get a closer look. In these pictures you should be able to see the round pupils – very different from the slit-like pupils of the adder – and the distinctive yellow collar at the back of the snake’s head – a good thing to look out for if you’re trying to ID a grass snake.

Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Grass snake copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)

After this we went back to the Education Garden near the Visitors Centre to go pond dipping, in the hope of finding some interesting amphibians. Again we got lucky. No frogs or toads sadly but there were three smooth newts, and luckily all at different stages of development.

Smallest smooth newt larvae copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Smallest smooth newt larvae copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Smooth newt larvae copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Smooth newt larvae copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Adult female smooth newt next to smooth newt larvae from the image above copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Adult female smooth newt next to smooth newt larvae from the image above copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Female smooth newt copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Female smooth newt copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Female smooth newt copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)
Female smooth newt copyright Emma Richmond (WWT)

In the image above you can just about make out the speckled underside of the smooth newt that distinguishes it from other newts. The spots are also bigger in the male, which is one of the ways to tell that this was a female.

I hope that everyone who came learnt a lot, and really enjoyed being able to get so close to creatures that are often hard to spot on a casual walk round a nature reserve. This is the perfect (if obvious) opportunity to say that we do have more taster sessions coming up over the next few months, if you search ‘taster’ on our What’s On page then you’ll find them all.

Emma

 

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