Sorry, more newt stuff… well, ’tis the season!
So this week I’ve been surveying for newts at some Pondnet sites in the Lower Aire Valley and I’ve also assisted with my first professional survey. Mid-April to mid-May is newt season proper and it’s all kicking off! Lots of first for me too so bear with, it’s all exciting!
On Sunday evening we torched and set bottle traps at ponds at Rothwell Country Park near Leeds. We set the traps at each pond while it was still light and as it grew dark we worked our way back round all the ponds, torching for newts. We saw a few by torchlight and also a handful of toads. This confirmed that smooth newts were still present at the site and we were not expecting any great crested newts there.
At one of the pond we were surprised to hear a frantic scrabbling noise as we moved around the pond and discovered a water shrew in one of the bottle traps. Shrews have a very high metabolism and need to eat a lot to stay alive, luckily we could release it unharmed and we removed all the bottle traps from that pond. Since bottle traps are often a death sentence for water shrew, they should not be used in ponds where they are known to be present. The water shrew we found was probably a new record for the site and lovely to see, they are the largest UK shrew and have very dark fur and distinctive white tufts of fur on their ears.
The next morning we found we had caught a handful of smooth newts in bottle traps and I got my first proper look at both male and female smooth newts. We also had several great diving beetles and in a couple of ponds quite a few bottles of fish!
Great diving beetles are huge, and easily recognisable. About an inch long with a pale border around the edge of the elytra and thorax they are vicious predators and feed on other water invertebrates and small fish. Any newts that are unlucky enough to get caught in a bottle trap with one of these probably wouldn’t come off too well either!
The fish were three-spined stickleback, a common native fish. Large populations of fish are not a good sign for newt populations though since they eat the eggs and larvae. In one of the ponds, we also saw four goldfish which had not been recorded there previously… someone’s unwanted pets no doubt.
Monday morning also brought me my first toad spawn. Unlike frogs who lay clumps of spawn, each encased in its own jelly covering, toads lay their spawn in jelly strings. These are wrapped among vegetation at the water surface and can be quite difficult to spot!
Finally onto the newts then! We caught both male and female smooth newts in the bottle traps. The males are in full breeding regalia at the moment with a continuous wavy crest along the back and tail and distinctive black spots with a pale ‘flash’ along the bottom of the tail. Both male and female smooth newts have orange spotty bellies and the spots often continue onto the throat and chin (unlike palmate newts).
On Tuesday evening we surveyed a site on the Lines Way near Great Preston. On this site there are usually two ponds and a long ditch which has been good for smooth newts in the past. There were known to be great crested newts on this site so I was quite excited!
The area where the ponds should be is currently flooded so instead of nice separate ponds, the entire area was covered in water up to about 10inches deep. We set bottle traps around here as best we could then once it had got dark enough we started torching the ditch. The Lines Way is a footpath and cycle path that follows the route of an old railway. Since the ditch runs right along next to the path it’s not really suitable for bottle trapping since they are at risk of being tampered with or removed by members of the public.
As there were 6 of us there with 3 torches between us, we worked our way down the ditch in pairs. Each pair counted increasing numbers of smooth newts, with the largest count being 329, a site record! We also saw several toads and I saw my first crestie, a large male, although it took a bit of following him along the ditch to get a good look!
After the success of the ditch we headed to the ponds area to see what was there. We were rewarded with lots of great crested newts, 40 counted in total from torching. This was up from aout 10 counted last year! Several of these were just in the ditch right alongside the path as the whole area was so wet and we got a good look at them.
After the success of the evening, we were keen to get back in the morning to see what was in the bottle traps. Disappointingly, a lot of them didn’t catch anything. We ended up with 2 smooth newts and one female crestie. It’s amazing how different they look in daylight compared with the torchlight of the night before. Under torchlight they appear quite pale and spotted while in the day their skin looks very dark and warty with white speckles towards the belly. Underneath they are bright orange with irregular black patches. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to see and handle some more of these before the season is up!
We did also see lots of newt eggs at this site. They are laid on leaves which are then usually folded over to protect the egg from sunlight and predation. Egg searching is another technique for assessing newt presence at a pond. To see these eggs we did not need to unfold any leaves but if eggs are found in folded leaves, they are then vulnerable so once one egg has been found, further leaves should not be unfolded. Great crested newt eggs tend to be whiter than smooth or palmate newt eggs which are more of a beige/grey colour.
I think that’s just about enough for today so more on newt surveys to come!