Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Logs yield a surprise

To anyone but a naturalist the following behaviour might seem a bit odd! However, I freely admit that I spent a couple of hours the other morning turning over logs in a bit of damp woodland, searching for invertebrates that might have been using the logs as somewhere to overwinter. Most of the logs I turned over, examined and then replaced, sheltered various woodlice, spiders, slugs and the occasional beetle. One, however, yielded the vivid orange and black belly of a Great Crested Newt, which had been sheltering within a small ‘newt-sized’ chamber in the soft soil beneath the log.

I still get a thrill when I encounter a Great Crested Newt even though I once lived in an old cottage to which they were regular springtime visitors! The cottage sat on top of an old cellar, connected to the outside world by a subterranean passageway and a door that emerged close to a pond in which the newts bred. As such, the newts used the cellar as somewhere to spend the winter, protected from the elements and with a dependable temperature range. Gaps within the brickwork allowed the occasional newt to find its way up into my bathroom, something that made bleary-eyed, early morning ablutions an interesting excursion.

Apart from the striking belly pattern, which is as unique as a fingerprint, a Great Crested Newt out of water is nothing to write home about. The dark brown, virtually black, skin is coarse and has a rough, warty appearance and the creature lacks the elegance and charm of a lizard. All this changes come the breeding season, when the male develops the crest along his back that he will use in his courtship display. Male Smooth Newts also develop a crest in the breeding season but this is smoothly indented and less pronounced in character.

It would not be long before this particular newt was on the move, a nocturnal journey of a few hundred metres that would be made at night once the overnight temperature approached five degrees. This terrestrial phase is easily overlooked and we tend to think of newts as living within ponds all year round, but many individuals will spend just a few short weeks living an aquatic existence before returning to the land. Even within ponds they can be secretive, being more nocturnal than our other native newts, and they are best revealed by carrying out a search for eggs or a survey by torchlight. The eggs are about 5mm in length and are laid individually on the leaves of submerged plants. The adult newt folds the leaf over the egg, leaving a characteristic crimped appearance. This was my first newt for this site, a useful record for the county database, so I left him be.

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