Follow in Nigel's Footsteps

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Barred Grass Snake...a new species but not new to the UK

Thought it worth adding a short post following the announcement in the media that the UK now has 'a forth species of snake discovered'.

Barred Grass Snake Natrix helvetica
Has always been in the UK, not just discovered

Information in the news has been extremely misleading (nothing new there) and in fact the UK has exactly the same number of species today as it had yesterday...three.

That's not to belittle scientific discovery. Indeed Europe now has a new species of snake but the UK still has the same number of species. The whole grass snake cline is confusing at the best of times but advances in genetic discoveries has opened up a whole can of worms (not just with snakes but across the board) where previously described subspecies are now being elevated to full species level in their own right. Something every birder loves...another tick!

Natrix helvetica
In the case of Natrix natrix helvetica (aka 'Barred Grass Snake' or just good old 'Grass Snake' if you prefer), it has been discovered through genetic analysis that it is in fact a separate species rather than a subspecies as previously thought. Scientists in Europe also found that where N. n. helvetica came into contact with Natrix natrix natrix (aka Eastern Grass Snake), there was little interbreeding between the two. You can read more about it here.

We must also remember the same thing happened not so long ago with the Iberian Grass Snake Natrix astreptophora, formerly a subspecies just like N. helvetica. Personally I've no doubt whatsoever that the same situation will arise again with some if not all of the other subspecies found across Europe - up to 14 depending on which author you side with. Next we could see N.n. cetti, N.n. corsa, N.n. fusca, N.n.gotlandica, N.n. lanzai, N.n. persa, N.n. scweizeri, N.n. scutata or N.n. sicula become full blown species. Great for anyone wanting an extra tick or two!

Perhaps all of the confusion in the media hasn't been helped by the use of English names to describe species either? So, just to put the record straight - yesterday we had 'Grass Snake' or 'Barred Grass Snake' Natrix natrix helvetica and today we have 'Grass Snake' or 'Barred Grassed Snake' if you prefer Natrix helvetica. Just a change in nomenclature.

Monday, 10 July 2017


Mr older brother (Twitter: @duncanharris5) and I were very lucky to get into dragonflies way back in the early 1980's. At that time very few people that you met in the field were interested in them, which made finding out where different species were a bit more difficult than today. Nevertheless we built up quite a list and photographed most of the UK species at that time (sadly all on tranparencies) including some very rare or restricted species.  We had White-faced Darter at Thursley Common (now vanished from this location), Club-tailed Dragonfly on the River Wye and numerous other scarce dragon and damselflies at various places around the southern counties, including Scarce Chaser.

Jump forward thirty years and things have changed considerably. Thankfully many of the once very rare species have now increased their range from the diminutive Southern Damselfly to the aforementioned Scarce Chaser and there are several new additions to the British list too.

I visited a local site last weekend to try and photograph a male Lesser Emperor that I'd seen the week before and which had been found by Steve Waite a couple of weeks previous to that. No luck with that one on this trip but plenty of other species to make it worth the £4.50 entrance fee.  All taken with the Nikon P900.

Scarce Chaser Libellula fulva
At least two or three of these seen.
Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator, male looking very tatty
Black-tailed Skimmer Orthetrum cancellatum, male
Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata
Small Red-eyed Damselfly Erythromma viridulum
First recorded in the UK in 1999, a recent colonist
Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum
1000's of these present
White-legged Damselfly Platycnemis pennipes

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Grass Snakes...

We're very lucky to have several excellent, thriving local populations of Grass Snakes - by far the only species you can guarantee to see these days in south Somerset.

Adders have all but vanished, no doubt due to a number of reasons from habitat loss and fragmentation to an increase in disturbance and lack of good hibernation sites. Grass Snakes are altogether more hardy though and given the right sort of habitat and a good food supply, they can often be found in relatively high population densities. They can be found in a number of different habitats but are most frequent around water with lots of rough grassy margins that have places to bask along with cover to breed and hibernate (though I have found them under refuges on seemingly dry heathland before).

After setting out some artificial refuges at a local spot a couple of seasons ago, it's now paying dividends with frequent sightings of up to four or five individuals (see Dave Helliar's excellent photos in the previous post). I found a couple of large adult males at the weekend, including this beauty:

Grass Snake Natrix natrix helvetica
When handled (as with most snakes) they always exude an unpleasant smelling musk from their anal gland to deter would-be predators, which makes some people back off immediately although I've got use to it over the years. This one was no exception. If that doesn't work they sometimes 'play dead' too, going limp, rolling onto their backs and letting the mouth fall open with tongue dropping out in the hope that the predator will give up and leave.

This one unusually decided to play dead while otherwise sitting up quite alert...which didn't have quite the same effect...

Grass Snake Natrix natrix helvetica
'Playing dead'
There's much more about Grass Snakes and other British reptiles on my reptile page.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wildlife in May...

Thanks to Dave Helliar (Twitter: @DHelliar) for sending in some fantastic photos of local wildlife seen during the last month. May really is when it all starts happening around here, a great time of year to be out and about enjoying the local wildlife.

Kicking off with some localised birds from the southwest:

Corn Bunting, now sadly a Red List species due to its
dramatic decline over the last 25 years
Common Cranes from the release project seen flying
over Langport, Somerset
Common Cranes: D. Helliar

 A good bird for Somerset was this Gull-billed Tern which lingered around Steart Wetlands WWT for most of the day on 30th May.

Gull-billed Tern: D. Helliar
Gull-billed Tern: D. Helliar
Gull-billed Tern: D. Helliar
An influx of Red Kites towards the end of May saw in excess of
50 birds drift into the local region, including this individual nr Chard
Turtle Dove - very rare in the Southwest these days following a
dramatic decline in numbers. You now have to travel to see these
once common birds. This one from Hampshire.
Turtle Dove, a Red List species: D. Helliar
Tree Pipit at last! Doesn't seem to be as many of these
around locally this year. They seem to be in decline too.
Tree Pipit: D. Helliar

Insects are more prevalent in May but again many species are in decline and much rarer than they were just a decade ago.

Adonis Blue, Hampshire: D. Helliar
Brown Argus in mint condition: D. Helliar
Duke of Burgundy. Sadly the remaining local populations are
getting smaller and less viable every year. It seems inevitable
that this charming butterfly will soon disappear from some of
its traditional Somerset haunts.
Duke of Burgundy: D. Helliar
Grizzled Skipper seen near Chard: D. Helliar
Libellula depressa, nr Chard: Dave Helliar

Libellula quadrimaculata, nr Chard: D. Helliar

 And finally a few reptiles to finish on...good to see some things are thriving locally...

Grass Snake Natrix natrix helvetica
Large and well marked female: D. Helliar
Grass Snake - different individual under refuge: D. Helliar
Grass Snake: D. Helliar
Grass Snake, female. Basking on pile of old sticks: D. Helliar
Two's company...
Common Lizard Zootoca vivipara: D. Helliar
 Thanks to Dave for supplying such great photos - all taken on the Nikon P900 incidentally, a superb choice for getting good photos without the need to get too close.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Iceland Gull...

A couple of days ago a local birder at Seaton found a smart Iceland Gull loafing around on the river at Axmouth in Devon. It was seen a couple of times in the subsequent 48 hours which prompted Dave Helliar and myself to race down and try to catch it when it was reported again yesterday afternoon.

Gulls can often disappear quite quickly once they've bathed and rested and getting from Chard to Axmouth (although not far on the map) can take a long time if the traffic is slow. This time we were lucky though. We parked up near Coronation Corner by the river and quickly located it on the opposite side with a handful of Herring Gulls. It gave great views allowing photographs and a little video too.

Iceland Gull: R Harris
Iceland Gull: R Harris
Iceland Gull: R Harris
Iceland Gull: R Harris

True to form after about 10 minutes of good viewing time the bird left on its own, flew high and headed west towards Beer further along the coast, not to be seen again. We were pleased we'd timed it right on this occasion.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Golden Oriole...

I haven't seen a Golden Oriole in the UK for a very long time, nearly twenty years!  They tend not to hang around for long or turn up inconveniently during the week when I can't usually get out to see them. But a young singing male arrived on Portland Bill in Dorset a few days ago and when news broke that a second bird had also been seen, I just had to zip over there and try my luck. I picked up Dave Helliar and we made it to the Bird Observatory by mid-morning where one of the birds was singing in the Obs garden from dense cover. Just listening to it sing was a treat, an exotic sound normally reserved for trips into Europe.

A patient wait ensued and then a shout went up "Red-rumped Swallow"! What a bonus! We found the bird in amongst a small flock of hirundines and tracked it for a minute or two as a silhouette but then it turned, dropped lower and flew towards the top fields allowing good views until it vanished behind the Observatory building and out of sight.  We rushed to the front of the Obs and again picked the bird up as it fed back and forth across the field about 150 meters away. Then Dave picked up another one - there were two together!  We had great binocular views but they were too distant for my bridge camera and only record shots were obtained.

Red-rumped Swallow, Portland: R. Harris

Red-rumped Swallow, Portland: R. Harris

Red-rumped Swallow, Portland: R. Harris
Pleased with our luck we moved back to view the Obs garden once again in the hope the Oriole would give itself up as well. It wasn't long before it flew and, as with the swallows, we followed it as it lapped the garden and disappeared around the front of the building. This time the bird had continued flying towards the cover at Culverwell several hundred meters away. We didn't fancy our chances of seeing it there, the ground cover is dense and birds can vanish into it never to be seen again but we went to try anyway. To our joy it hadn't yet gone-to-ground and was still perched where it had landed. Again distant but beautiful scope views were had.

Golden Oriole, Portland, Dorset: R. Harris
Before it disappeared into a leafy tree and out of sight.

Golden Oriole, Portland, Dorset: R. Harris
Mission accomplished.

Much better photos of both the Swallows and the Oriole (in the hand) can be found on the Portland Bird Observatory blog:

Monday, 15 May 2017

Botany on the Lizard...

I’ve had this holiday to the Lizard in Cornwall booked since last August and was really looking forward to spending a week in this beautiful county. We came here a lot as teenagers and had been lucky enough to see a lot of the rare plants years ago. Now I thought I could return and get some new photographs while relaxing in the far away feel of the Lizard.

Kennack sands to Cadgwith

Kennack sands is a quiet holiday spot with a couple of caravan parks locally. The beach is divided into two by a small headland/dune system. This area provides a small number of Common Broomrape as well as large numbers of the invasive Three cornered Leek and Thrift. The leek, although becoming a problem, is a very attractive plant.

Common Broomrape, Kennack Sands: Duncan Harris
Three Cornered Leek: Duncan Harris

Thrift: Duncan Harris

 Walking the coast path towards Cadgwith provides Early Purple Orchid and the occasional Green-winged Orchid. About half way I was pleased to find Yellow Vetch, the most rare plants are often easier to find than these localized ones and it was a new one for me. Nearby the introduced Rosy Garlic was just starting to bloom.

Rosy Garlic nr Cadgwith: Duncan Harris
Yellow Vetch: Duncan Harris
 St Michael's Mount and Kynance Cove

A day trip to St. Michael’s Mount was a must. Not for any particular plants but the place itself is magical if a little crowded. Low tide when we arrived meant we could walk across on the exposed causeway. A real touristy thing to do it still supplied Rock Sea Spurred on the harbour walls . Back on the Lizard proper a visit to Kynance Cove gave up some more flowers. A popular destination since Victorian times the walk down gives stunning views of the cove as well as the rare Western Clover by the steep path. After the obligatory cream tea we walked back by the supply road to the cafĂ© and found loads of the lovely Bloody Crane’s-bill as well as a small patch of Hairy Greenweed.

St Michael's Mount nr Marazion: Duncan Harris
Rock Sea Spurry: Duncan Harris
Kynance Cove, Lizard: Duncan Harris
Western Clover, a Lizard speciality: Duncan Harris
Bloody Cranesbill: Duncan Harris
Hairy Greenweed, Kynance Cove: Duncan Harris

Lizard Point

 Lizard point itself is only a couple of miles from Kynance and possibly the best spot of all. The walk down from the village soon supplies Tree Mallow and as you reach the point itself the cliffs are covered by more invasive species. The large creamy coloured Hottentot Fig smothers nearly everything as does a close relative the Dew Plant. Along the cliffs westwards Subterranean Clover was seen along with more Western Clover but unfortunately too early for the three mega rare ‘Lizard Clovers’. A nice surprise though was Spring Sandwort right beside the path.

Tree Mallow, Lizard Point: Duncan Harris
Hottentot Fig, smothers the cliffs: Duncan Harris
Subterranean Clover: Duncan Harris
Spring Sandwort: Duncan Harris

Just to show there’s more than just the plants some Atlantic Grey Seals were visible on rocks offshore and although we didn’t see them that day Choughs had been flying around before we arrived.

Grey Seals, Lizard Point: Duncan Harris

A great place for a holiday no matter how much or how little time you want to put into looking at the wildlife, and there’s always something else to go back for another day.

Note: Thanks to Duncan for his excellent report and botanical photos!