Cold blooded

Not too far from where I live is a National Nature Reserve. On first impressions this open flat land comprising heath, pools, and young woodland can appear relatively lifeless. However, a closer look tells a different story.

Spring sunshine

It’s nearing Easter and I have an extended break from work. Six days off to head to Scotland and canoe along a sea loch with friends. The trip is going ahead but without me. Last year I had hernia surgery, and with a slower recovery than expected, I didn’t think it would be wise to exert myself too much potentially putting myself and others on the expedition at risk. I know they’ll have an amazing time in the wild but for me it’s a break at home. However, being in familiar territory isn’t a bad thing as there’s always something new to enjoy in the natural world.

Thankfully, the weather forecast of sunshine for my first day of rest proved correct…

The air is still cold yet the heat of the sun can be felt on my skin as I head out. My intention on this early spring morning is to find reptiles.

Although there’s a nip to the breeze I am quietly confident that the sun will warm the ground just enough to encourage reptiles out to bask. Pulling into the car park I’m very happy to see no other cars. It was to be, for the time being at least, just me and nature. Perfect.

I don my walking boots, woolly hat, gloves, and hang my binoculars around my neck. The DSLR camera was left purposefully at home. Today, I want to relax, observe, and be at peace. When I have the DSLR with me I get obsessed with trying to get a perfect picture. More and more I realise that capturing a picture doesn’t necessarily capture the moment. A detailed image is imprinted on the hard drive of my mind and stored forever. Forget metadata, the sight, sounds, smells, and emotions of a natural encounter can’t be saved on an SD card.

A robin greets me, flitting into a young silver birch as I leave the car and begin to walk. Drumming of a great spotted woodpecker comes from the woodland to my left and in the distance to the right I hear a green woodpecker call as it takes to the air. The sound of a wheezing bike pump can be heard on the woodland edge giving away the location of a displaying great tit.

Vivid yellow of gorse flowers strikes my eyes and stands out in stark comparison to the deep evergreen foliage. With so many flowers in one location I expect pollinators to be present and I’m not disappointed as I approach for a clearer view. A dark furry insect buzzes by me and alights on a flower. It’s a queen red-tailed bumblebee. She’s not alone and on closer inspection I note two other Bombus species: buff-tailed bumblebee and tree bumblebee.

The reserve opens at this point and the sky seemingly fills my entire field of view as the trees that are present are isolated birch, oak, and pine. Woodland in the distance acts as a frame to the land of heather and gorse. Bracken is also present but in a toffee brown desiccated state as testament to last year’s growth. I now stand still, contemplating my next move, in adder country.

I’ve been here a few times before. Last year I visited in the summer bringing visiting friends from Australia for a look at British wildlife. I also came for a recce on a sunny day last week. Adders were present on that occasion and knowing that they’re often faithful to particular basking locations I was feeling very positive about today’s visit.

Considered moves

In order to observe an adder the most important thing is to move slowly and quietly. By quietly I mean minimise vibration i.e. walk, or step even, with control placing your feet gently when moving. Stopping, scanning sunspots with the naked eye and binoculars, and then scanning again is also a useful ploy. Once you get your eye in the familiar dark patterning of the adder’s scales jump out from the background. However, at first and I also find toward the end of a detailed search, the basking snakes can be particularly difficult to spot if they’re motionless.

The first spot I headed for was the south-southeast facing patch of sun-bleached grass on the edge of a gorse stand where I’ve found a snake on each previous occasion. An adder, possibly the same individual, has been there on all of my visits bar one. The time she wasn’t there I found a large glossy grass snake coiled in her place.

Creeping gently, stopping, scanning, creeping, stopping, scanning, creeping I went on. Watching nature gives me an excitement that I can’t put into words but when I’m focused  on a specific subject this sense becomes even more heightened. Every heartbeat and breath feels obvious and considered when I’m tracking down an animal. It’s a good thing that I had the place, other than a few Exmoor ponies, to myself as I must’ve appeared very peculiar.

I was determined not to disturb any reptiles that I found so I took an extra wide arc around the first gorse bush. My shadow was quite long due to the low position of the sun in the sky so I ensured it came nowhere near the suspected basking location. Once the spot, at the base of a silver birch and protected from easterly winds by the gorse, was in view I stopped. Movements of mine were already very slow and assured yet I made absolutely sure I had a controlled action as I lifted the binoculars to my face. A turn of the focus ring to the right and there she appeared. The initial smudge of toffee became a sleek and elegant creature oozing confidence.

The sun glinted off her skin with an iridescent sheen in places. I suspected that her time to slough was soon as she gently moved her head while exploring the grass in front of her. At an angle of approximately 30° to the sun it seemed on continuing observation that she wanted to make the angle steeper to gain maximum solar energy. Remaining on the same patch of grass, covering approximately 30 x 20cm, the adder moved first to the right hand boundary of her grass tuft and then turned left through a right angle. I was transfixed as I watched the head seemingly glide forwards with the body following all the while on the exact same route. It was very much like the action of the digital snake on a Nokia 3310. With several planned turns she came to rest with all of her back exposed to the direction of the sun. The lack of shadows showed that the angle was perfect.

After a good five or so minutes watching I left the snake in peace. I was extremely pleased to have witnessed such behaviour while not the disturbing the animal at all. With experience of observing wildlife comes the recognition of signs that tell you whether or not your subject is relaxed. This adder was definitely aware of her surroundings but displayed no signs of feeling threatened.

Over the course of the next three hours I walked a maximum of just one mile such was my controlled pace and determination for finding reptiles. For me it’s quality that counts over quantity when amongst nature. However, my final tally of ten adders and eight common lizards made me very happy indeed.

Prior to leaving the reserve I spied another promising looking location and forced myself  to check it out rather than heading straight for the car. I was in for a treat as I spotted the first basking adder in this new location for me. The snake appeared thick and stocky as I peered through the optics. On closer inspection I spotted another head and then a third! There were three adders, one much larger than the other two, entwined and capturing the last of the rays as the strength of the sun weakened due to building cloud.

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