The smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) is Britain’s rarest reptile, found only on heathlands in Dorset and Hampshire and on one or two heaths in Surrey and West Sussex.
Many of the sites on which it occurs are also inhabited by the sand lizard.
The smooth snake is dependent on well managed heathland where it occupies mature vegetation that provides good cover. The smooth snake shares the slow-wormâ€™s habit of hiding under stones, logs and other debris exposed to the sun.
Identification Smooth snakes are smaller and more slender than other snakes, usually only growing to 60-70cm in length. They are generally grey or a dull brown colour with black markings arranged in bars or two rows of dots down the back. Smooth snakes nearly always possess a heart-shaped “crown” marking, which covers the top of the head An eye stripe is usually present that extends from the eyes along the side of the head. Its name comes from the fact that its scales are flat and smooth, unlike those of the grass snake and adder which have a ridge (or ‘keel’) down the middle of each scale.
Lifecycle Smooth snakes are non-venomous and feed mainly on common lizards, slow-worms and small mammals (especially shrews and nestling rodents), which are captured and constricted in the coils of its body. Live young, which look very similar to the adults, are â€˜bornâ€™ in September. The smooth snake is a secretive animal and when it basks in the sun it does so entwined amongst the stems of heather plants where it is superbly camouflaged.
Due to its rarity, the smooth snake is strictly protected by British and European law which makes it an offence to kill, injure, sell/trade, capture or disturb them or damage or destroy their habitat.; or to possess or trade in them. A licence is required for some activities involving this species.
The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a well-known bird seen all year round and found throughout the UK in gardens, parks, towns, cities and farmyards. It is the bird most connected to houses and humans as this little cheeky chappie is not shy and will hop onto your garden table looking for any scrap food even if you are sitting there. You may even find them rummaging through your rubbish looking for titbits!
These house visitors are friendly plump birds with a brown back with blackish markings. The male has a grey crown, pale grey cheeks and underparts, while the female is more pale brown. They both have a small thick bill which they use to eat seeds from plants. House Sparrows prefer to feed from the ground but they will also take peanuts and seeds from bird feeders and sometimes you will see them chasing flying insects. These birds are very fast fliers and can reach a speed of 50 km per hour!
House Sparrows are very sociable and like to feed and roost in flocks. If you see one you will know there are lots more hanging around. All you will need to do is throw a few seeds down in the garden and wait for the crowd to arrive. They can be quite noisy when they are together and you will hear them making a single chirping sound which they repeat over and over again.
During the mating season the male House Sparrow chooses a nesting site and chirps there to attract a female. When a female flies past he chirps even louder and quicker to make himself more noticed. Sometimes he will follow a lady for a short distance and quiver his feathers to grab her attention as he hops around her. Pairs usually stay together for life but if a mate is lost a new partner is found very quickly, usually within a few days.
House Sparrows are not territorial so nests may be 20 to 30 cm apart from each other. Nests can be made in holes in buildings where they are filled with dry grass and lined with feathers, hairs and paper. Sparrows can also build spherical-shaped nests under the eaves of a house, bird houses or in trees and bushes. These nests are made out of twigs, straw, grass, leaves, paper and any other available material. Sparrows can be very creative when they build their nests. And sometimes they even pluck feathers from a live pigeon. How cheeky is that!
The female usually lays four to five eggs and both parents incubate the eggs for about fourteen days and both feed the young. The young leave the nest after about two weeks but are fed further by their parents for another two weeks or more until they are able to fend for themselves.
Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) are sometimes spotted as they try to catch small birds from the bird table, but their secretive behaviour means that they are not well known.
They are usually seen in flight. They fly fast with several wing beats followed by a glide, often close to the ground.
The Sparrowhawk has broad, rounded wings and a longish banded tail for maneuverability. The smaller male is blue-grey to slate above with reddish barring on body and wing coverts. The female is grey-brown above with brown barring below. She has a pale stripe above the eye, less obvious in the male. Young birds are browner than the adults.
Length: 28-38cm; wingspan: 55-70cm
Feeding Almost entirely birds, the species reflecting availability. In a study in south Scotland the most common species taken were chaffinch, thrushes, starling, robin, meadow pipit and wood pigeon. Males tended to take the smaller birds, while females took more thrushes and almost all the wood pigeons. They rely on surprise to catch their prey, which is often taken after a short flight from a perch or by flying low along a hedge or other cover.
Breeding The nest is made of loose twigs with a deep cup and is built in a fork of a tree often against the trunk, 6-12m from the ground. It prefers conifers if available. A new nest is built each year, sometimes on an old nest of a wood pigeon or other bird, often close to previous year’s nest.
Habitat and Distribution Typically a woodland bird but as it has increased it has colonised farmland with trees, copses and shelter belts and even suburban gardens. It is found throughout the UK except in the high Scottish mountains and treeless coasts, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland.
Population Trends Despite being heavily persecuted throughout the 19th century, its resilience and elusive nature allowed it to remain widely distributed though its numbers in the south-east and East Anglia were depressed.
It was in these areas that its populations increased in the first half of the 20th century. However its numbers crashed in the 1950s and ’60s as it was seriously affected by persistent pesticides. Numbers were significantly reduced everywhere and it was virtually extinct in eastern and south-east England. Once the chemicals were withdrawn the species responded quickly. Numbers have been stable since the early 1990s, suggesting that most areas have now reached capacity.
The swift is a summer visitor to Britain from Africa; it is a superb aerial bird and has scythe-like wings and a forked tail.
Look up in the sky in summer, often very high and you may see screaming parties of them twisting and turning at high speed around rooftops and houses, often low, especially at dusk. They spend nearly all their life in the air and can fly up to heights’ of 20,000 feet. They only land to breed and a young swift can spend up to the first three to four years in the air before landing.
They sleep, feed and drink on the wing. Swifts have for many years used manmade structures for nesting, since moving away from caves and cliffs. Artificial nest boxes and swift bricks are now available to encourage them, and they leave no droppings beneath the nest.
Stoats (Mustela ermine) have Long slender bodies with short legs. Medium to short tail always with a black tip. Fur ginger to reddish brown above, white to cream below, straight line separating the two colours. Some animals turn white or partially white in winter (known as ‘ermine’).
Habitat: Deciduous wood mix, conifers, urban & gardens, Rivers and wetland, Coastal & marshland, Grassland, Mixed woodland, Heathland, Arable land
Size: Males 275-312 mm; females 242-292 mm. Tails 95-140mm
Weight: Males 200-445g; females 140-280g.
Origin & Distribution: The stoat occurs throughout Britain and Ireland, living in any habitats at any altitude with sufficient ground cover and food. The stoat’s presence on offshore islands depends upon prey availability.
General Ecology: Stoats don’t like to be out in the open and so tend to hunt along ditches, hedgerows and walls or through meadows and marshes. They search each likely area systematically, often running in a zig-zag pattern. All but the largest prey is killed by a single bite to the back of the neck. The nests of former prey are taken over as dens which may be lined with rodent fur in colder climates. Within its territory the resident stoat will have several dens which it uses periodically. Male and female stoats live separately, marking their territories with scent. These animals will defend their territory against intruders of the same sex, but in spring the males’ system breaks down as they range widely in search of females.
Diet: Stoats feed mainly on small mammals, especially rabbits and water voles where these are abundant. Small rodents are also taken, supplemented by birds, eggs, fruit and even earthworms when food is scarce.
Lifespan: Can live up to around 5 years, or 6-8 years exceptionally, but usually don’t survive beyond 1-2 years old.
Breeding: Although females (including this year’s kits, which may be only 2 – 3 weeks old) are mated in early summer, they do not give birth until the following spring because implantation is delayed for 9 – 10 months and active gestation is only 4 weeks. A large litter of between 6 and 12 young is born – blind, deaf and barely furred. The female feeds them for up to 12 weeks, by which time they are developing into efficient hunters.
Conservation Status: Stoats are legally protected in Ireland but not in the United Kingdom. For many years gamekeepers and poultry farmers have attempted to control stoats. An animal getting into a shed or pen can and will kill every bird it catches. Such attacks are typical behaviour for many small carnivores faced with vulnerable prey. Trapping is less intensive than it used to be (stoats were also taken for their skins, especially when in ermine) but it appears that this had little long-term effect on numbers as natural mortality is usually quite high in stoat populations.
The common toad (Bufo bufo) is a widespread amphibian found throughout Britain. Common toads are absent from Ireland.
Common toads prefer deeper water bodies in which to breed. These may include farm ponds, reservoirs, fish ponds or village duck ponds. Sadly these types of freshwater body are threatened in many parts of the UK.
Identification Common toads can grow to 8cm, and are generally brown or olive-brown. The skin is ‘warty’ and often appears dry. Glands in the skin contain powerful toxins and many would-be predators learn to avoid eating toads. Toxins are also present in the skin of the tadpoles.
Lifecycle Common toads have a strong migratory instinct and will follow the same route back to ancestral breeding ponds each spring. They congregate at these ponds in early spring, often a couple of weeks after common frogs breed. After a relatively short breeding period (often not more than a week) adult toads migrate away from ponds, being far more tolerant of dry conditions than the common frog.
Common toads are most active at night when they hunt invertebrates including snails, slugs, ants and spiders. If they find a good source of food they can become sedentary. Indeed they may often remain in gardens for long periods in the summer months. Unlike the common frog, toadspawn is laid in strings (not clumps) and toad tadpoles are black and form shoals. Toadlets can emerge from ponds in huge numbers during early summer, usually after heavy rain.
Protection In Britain, the common toad is protected by law from sale and trade.
In Britain the natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita) is almost exclusively confined to coastal sand dune systems, coastal grazing marshes and sandy heaths, though a single colony has been found on an upland fell site in Cumbria.
Natterjack toads are often associated with ponds in sand dune slacks, which are often more shallow and warm. Natterjacks require warmer water in which to breed successfully.
Natterjack toads are found on about 60 sites in Britain and occur on a small number of sites in south-west Ireland.
Notable natterjack toad populations exist on the sand dunes along the Merseyside coast, the Cumbrian coast and on the Scottish Solway. The natterjack used to be quite common on the heaths of Surrey and Hampshire and also around the coast of East Anglia but sadly only one or two colonies now remain. Re-introduction programmes have now started to restore the range of this animal.
Identification This rare toad is smaller than the more widespread common toad Bufo bufo. Natterjack toads also exhibit a thin bold yellow stripe down the middle of the back, and have notably shorter legs on which they walk rather than hop. The natterjack gets its common name from the loud rasping call made by the male in spring.
Lifecycle During the breeding season (April – July) males call from the edge of a pond at night in an effort to attract a mate. Spawn is laid in single strings (unlike the double string of the common toad), and similarly, the tadpoles are small and black. They develop quickly and the yellow dorsal stripe is clearly visible on the juvenile natterjack toadlets.
Protection Threatened by habitat loss, the natterjack toad has declined in the last century. As a result, the natterjack toad is strictly protected by British and European law which makes it an offence to kill, injure, capture or disturb them; damage or destroy their habitat; or possess them or sell or trade them in any way. This also applies to larval stages and eggs.
Tompot Blenny (Parablennius gattorugine) a medium-sized elongated, large-headed, large-eyed fish found in crevices amongst rocks below the low tide line. Grows up to 30cm long. Orangey-brown in colour, sometimes greenish, with several darker bars running down the body. Has two branched, feathery tentacles on the top of the head, one above each eye.
Water Scorpions (Nepa cinerea) can be found all around the UK in ponds, lakes, shallow slow-flowing water and sometimes in stagnant water. They are also known as ‘toe biters’ because that is exactly what they do – they bite your toes! The bite is not poisonous but it can be painful so you may have to be careful when you are wading in shallow water. And here’s a tip, if you should happen to be looking at water and you think see a small dead leaf on the water’s surface, this could well be a Water Scorpion because this bug is flat and a blackish brown colour, just like the colour of dead leaves, and it keeps very still in water. You will know if it is a Water Scorpion though because it has a very long tail which it uses to breathe. It breathes by pushing its hollow tail up to the surface of the water and once it has enough oxygen it stays under water for about thirty minutes.
Even though Water Scorpions live in water they actually don’t like swimming so more often than not you will find them clinging onto water plants most of the time. Water Scorpions can also fly, but they don’t do that very often too because their wing muscles are often under developed. Fortunately for them they don’t need to fly that much to catch prey as they mainly feed on tadpoles, water worms, water fleas, insect larvae and sometimes small fish. Water Scorpions use their powerful front legs to catch their prey and then use their piercing and sucking mouth parts to suck the fluids out of each victim.
Water Scorpions have three pairs of legs and when they swim they move their front legs up and down and at the same time move their second and third pair of legs like rowing oars. They can look quite awkward when they are swimming. Sometimes Water Scorpions crawl on the ground in very shallow water so be careful where you stand otherwise you may get bitten!
Water Scorpions can make chirping sounds and the males usually do this when they want to attract a female. This sound is made by rubbing their legs against their body. Once a couple have found each other and mating has taken place, the female usually lays around thirty eggs on water plants or algae. The eggs have long hairs which can be seen floating freely on the water. These hairs allow the little ones to breathe inside the eggs. After about four weeks the little ones, called nymphs, hatch out and they all look very hairy indeed. Nymphs have to go through metamorphosis to become adults, which means they have to go through a series of moults. They moult five times and it takes around eight weeks before they turn into fully grown adults and then they could bite your toes too!
Origin & Distribution: Widespread throughout Britain, weasels are our smallest and probably most numerous carnivores. However, they are absent from Ireland and most off-shore islands. They are found in a wide range of habitats which include urban areas, lowland pasture, woodland, marshes and moors. Weasels are less common where their prey are scarce, such as at higher altitudes and in dense woodland with sparse ground cover.
General Ecology: Dens are usually nests of former prey taken over by weasels, and may contain the remains of food from several days meals. In cold climates the nests are often lined with fur from lemming prey. A weasel’s home range usually contains several dens and resting places that are visited at intervals. Weasel home ranges vary in size according to the distribution and density of prey. Male and females live in separate territories, male ranges being larger. Resident animals of both sexes may defend exclusive territories at times when numbers are high and neighbours numerous. In spring males extend their range to seek mates.
Diet: Weasels specialise in hunting small rodents. The weasel’s small size enables it to search through tunnels and runways of mice and voles. Access to tunnels means weasels can hunt at any time of the day or year. They do not hibernate and can hunt even under deep snow. Additional prey such as birds, eggs and young rabbits may be taken, particularly if rodents are scarce.
Lifespan: Only around 10% survive to over 2 years old.
Breeding: Usually only one litter, of 4-6 young are born per season, but two litters in years when field voles are abundant. Young are weaned at 3-4 weeks and can kill efficiently at 8 weeks; in a good vole year, young females can breed at 2-3 months old. Family groups split up at 9-12 weeks.
Conservation Status: Traditionally weasels have been considered enemies of gamebirds and gamekeepers have exercised intensive predator control, trapping and killing many weasels along with other carnivores. Weasels do kill some gamebird chicks, but probably very few. Weasels have no legal protection in Britain. Trapping probably has no long term effect: weasel populations are very resilient, and they naturally suffer high mortality. In bad rodent years many weasels starve and few of the survivors breed. Local populations often experience extinctions. However, weasels are extremely good at recolonising abandoned areas when conditions improve.
The killer whale (Orcinus orca) or orca, is a very striking creature, black on the back and sides with its white belly extending as a rear pointing lobe up the flanks. It has a conspicuous white oval patch above and behind the eye, and a grey saddle on the back just behind the fin. Females are 5.5-6.5m and males are 6.7-7.0m length.
The dorsal fin is very tall (up to 1.8m), triangular, and erect (sometimes tilted forwards) in the adult male. The female and immatures have a smaller, distinctly curved fin. At sea the species is easily identified by its conspicuous black & white coloration and tall dorsal fin.
Diet As well as feeding on fish (e.g. salmon, herring, cod, mackerel, etc), and squid, killer whales also feed on marine mammals (seals, sea-lions, elephant seals, dolphins & porpoises, as well as other whales), and birds. The killer whale’s broad jaw, relatively few teeth, and very powerful jaw muscles almost certainly aid the retention of large prey. Its reputation for feeding on other marine mammals is, however, probably exaggerated. For most populations, the diet seems to be primarily fish such as salmon and cod, and also cephalopods like squid.
Social Behaviour Solitary killer whales may be encountered, but close-knit family groups, called pods, are typical. Pods normally contain 5 to 20 animals but occasionally two or more pods may come together temporarily forming superpods which can contain 150 or more animals. Killer whales are inquisitive and often approachable and may be seen breaching, lobtailing, flipper-slapping, and spy-hopping. Members of a pod usually stay together for life, with both sexes remaining in their natal group throughout adulthood, a social system which is seemingly unique among cetaceans.
Reproduction Females become sexually active at an age of at least 7 years and males at an age of around 10-12 years. Mating occurs throughout the year but in the northern hemisphere they tend to give birth to a single calf from October-December. The gestation period is 13-16 months and lactation then lasts for more than 12 months.
The calf dependency period is prolonged, and calves may remain with their mothers for as long as 10 years in extreme cases. The normal calving interval is 3-3.5 years in the North Atlantic. Female killer whales live to around 90 years and males to 60 years.
Distribution Killer whales have a worldwide distribution in temperate and subpolar seas in both hemispheres. They are widely distributed on the Atlantic seaboard of northern Europe, mainly around Iceland, the Lofoten Islands and off Andenes in Western Norway, and in Northern Scotland, but they are occasionally seen south to the Iberian Peninsula, Azores, Madeira and rarely into the Mediterranean Sea.
Around the British Isles, most sightings occur along the Atlantic seaboard and in the northern North Sea. The species occasionally enters the Irish Sea, mainly occurring off the coasts of SW Wales. It is scarce in the Channel and virtually absent from the southernmost North Sea.
Overall population estimates do not exist, but recent sightings surveys mainly from Iceland to the Faroes indicate a population in this region of somewhere between 3,500 and 12,500 individuals.
Threats Commercial fisheries for killer whales existed between 1938 and 1981 when a total of 2,455 were taken primarily by Norway both in Norwegian coastal waters and offshore, including the seas around Northern Britain. Whaling continues in some areas, for example Greenland, Lesser Antilles, Indonesia and Japan. In Greenland, killer whales are considered a pest and killing is encouraged by government policy. Reported catch estimates are considered to be serious under-estimates.
Killer whales are also captured for public display. Iceland has supplied most animals in recent years. However, following public pressure arising from the cinema film “Free Willy”, one captive orca called “Keiko” was returned to Icelandic waters in summer 1998.
By-catches are another threat to killer whales, with animals caught in gill nets (e.g. in the Indian Ocean) and in mackerel purse-seine fisheries (e.g. in the eastern North Atlantic north of Shetland).
Concerns have also been expressed that toxic chemicals, accumulating in the fish prey of killer whales, will be passed to them through the food chain (high pollution levels were recently recorded in bottom dwelling fish in Puget Sound, Pacific Northwest).
The long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas), is a medium-sized whale, with a bulbous forehead and a short, almost imperceptible beak. The mouth-line is curved upwards, and the blowhole is set slightly to the left of centre on the top of the head.
Male long-finned pilot whales attain lengths of 5.5m to over 6m. Females are smaller at around 4 to 4.5m, with a maximum of 5.5m. Sexual size dimorphism is obvious: mature males are up to a metre or so longer than females, and almost double their maximum weight. The dorsal fin is fairly low and long-based, sickle-shaped to flag-shaped with age, and located relatively far forward on the back. The species has a black or dark grey head and back, a greyish-white anchor-shaped patch on the chin, and a grey area on the belly.
At sea, it is recognised as slow-swimming with a bulbous head, a dark back, a low fin, and long flippers.
Diet The pilot whale diet varies between years and according to body size and reproductive status of the whale. Pilot whales feed year round and prey type reflects local availability and abundance to some extent. Cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish and octopus) form the bulk of pilot whale prey.
Social Behaviour The social behaviour and mating system of pilot whales has not yet been fully elucidated, but they are extremely social and show strong herding behaviour. Pods may sometimes rest motionless at the surface allowing boats to approach closely. They sometimes bow-ride and lob tailing and spy-hopping are often observed. Adults rarely breach but young animals may.
Pods of pilot whales range in size from less than ten to more than 1000 individuals. Studies of several groups that stranded around the British Isles demonstrated some uniformity in group size, all groups consisting of 23 to 40 animals. Free-swimming groups, however, observed in British waters were usually of fewer than 20 individuals Previous mass strandings in Britain have involved as many as 148 animals, and over 60 on several occasions.
Reproduction Females become sexually mature at about 7 years of age, with males maturing later, between 11 to 16 years of age. Males may become socially mature and mate successfully some years after this. Mating may take place all year round but conceptions peak in April to June. The gestation period was calculated to be 15.5 months in Newfoundland. Long-finned pilot whales are thought to have a life span of around 50 years, with the females living longer than males.
Distribution Long-finned pilot whales are common and widely distributed in deep waters of the north-eastern Atlantic from the Iberian peninsula north to Iceland. They are also widely distributed in British and Irish waters, occurring in all areas except the eastern English Channel and the southernmost part of the North Sea. Whales seasonally enter coastal waters around the Faroe Islands, North Scotland, Western Ireland and the Channel approaches west of England.
Threats There is a long history of exploitation of long-finned pilot whales in the Northern Hemisphere. Organised drives have taken place for at least eleven centuries in the Faroe Islands, where an annual catch of several thousand has persisted for several hundred years and continue to some extent to the present day. These Faroese hunts have been the subject of much concern and controversy in recent years because of the inhumane methods used and the question of whether the once ‘subsistence’ hunt is now necessary from a socio-economic or nutritional point of view. There are also concerns that consuming pilot whale meat may be posing a significant health risk due to the high levels of pollutants within it, particularly metals such as mercury and cadmium and PCBs and other organochlorines. This pollution is obviously also a concern for the health of pilot whales. Underwater noise pollution may also be a concern.
In the Mediterranean, long-finned pilot whale vocalisations were studied while active military sonar was being broadcast. Vocalisations were found to alter in response to the noise that dominated the acoustic environment over a significant range. The significance of such changes to cetacean vocalisation is unknown.
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