Friday, 24 June 2011

A rustle in the bushes

Wildlife watching is not always about the watching. In many instances it is about listening: the soft call of a female Chiffchaff off her nest, the heavy buzzing of a drone fly or the high-pitched purring of a Roesel’s Bush-cricket. Listening can be particularly important when you are trying to catch up with something that happens to be in thick cover. When I am out looking for nests, gently tapping likely vegetation with a lightweight stick, I am listening for the telltale sound of a bird as it slips off the nest. Some leave quietly, with just the slightest sound as they brush through the vegetation, while others leave with far less grace.

Common Lizard, by Mike Toms

I use my hearing a great deal when I am out looking for reptiles. Even though they are silent in terms of vocalisations, each makes a particular sound as it moves through dry vegetation. For instance, the sound of an Adder moving through dry bracken is very different from that of a Common Lizard going over the same ground. While the Adder moves with a long, sweeping sound, the lizard is more rapid, covering the ground in a series of short, broken, sounds.

Both of these reptiles require a slow and patient approach if you are to get good and prolonged views of them. Slow movement, with careful and gentle placement of your feet, is essential as they are easily scared off. One of my regular sites for both Adders and Common Lizards is also favoured by dog walkers and family parties, all seemingly oblivious to the reptiles with which they share the site.

While the Adders are most often encountered in the forest, I have found Common Lizards to be more widespread and to occupy a greater range of habitats. Early in spring, and again in late autumn, Common Lizards can be found sunning themselves in open spots close to thicker cover. Each is seeking to double its body temperature, taking it up to the optimum operating temperature of about 30 degrees. During the warm summer days the lizards can reach this temperature rapidly, taking only a few minutes, which makes them more difficult to find. Cool and cloudy days promote basking and, if punctuated by brief periods of bright sunshine, are great for lizard photography. Under the hottest conditions lizards will retire altogether. Although warmth is clearly important to the Common Lizard it is worth just noting that this lizard is one of the most cold-tolerant reptiles in the world.

The challenge of getting close to our snakes and lizards is part of the attraction but it does require patience and a good ear for what is going on in the vegetation around you.

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