Reptiles in Dorset - May 2013

At the beginning of May we headed south for a week's holiday in Dorset where we hoped to find as many of the native British reptile species as possible. Sand Lizard and Smooth Snake were of great interest to me as I'd not seen these reptiles before. We booked a weeklong stay in a self catering apartment called Swallow Loft at Underhill Farm just outside of the small village of Gorscombe in West Dorset.

I would highly recommend the Apartment which was clean, modern, had everything you would require and had great views over the farm. Please take a look at their website: www.underhillfarm.co.uk

Underhill Farm Gorscombe Dorset
Underhill Farm

On the journey down to Dorset on 11th May we decided to take a look at the Somerset Levels. We parked at the small car park between Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath Nature Reserves.

Ham Wall Somerset
Ham Wall

The weather was poor with massive gusts of wind preventing filming unless the camera was strapped down. We managed to find a few interesting birds including the local breeding Marsh Harriers and Great White Egrets. One of the Egrets put on a fantastic display flight with its plumes raised whilst flapping slowly over Shapwick Heath. A Bittern also performed a display flight over the reeds at Ham Wall and a Honey Buzzard flew over one of the viewing blinds whilst we watching a group of Cormorants fishing in the water.
We clocked up our first reptile of the trip finding an adult slow Worm at Ham Wall trying to warm up on some old Bracken stems.

Slow Worm Ham Wall Somerset
Slow Worm

We eventually managed to find Underhill Farm after missing the very obvious sign on the road into Gorscombe. Thanks to directions on the phone from Pete.

Our first full day was Sunday the 12th May and we decided to take a look at Great Ovens in Wareham Forest where both sides of the main road had some lovely walks on the heathland.

Great Ovens Heath Dorset
Great Ovens - Wareham Forest

Here we found interesting heathland birds such as Yellowhammer, Linnet, singing Dartford Warblers and a roosting Nightjar. The reptiles were not numerous but two Slow Worms were seen and filmed beside one of the small ponds on the heath.

Slow Worm Great Ovens Heath Dorset
Slow Worm

Later in the day we visited the RSPB Nature Reserve at Arne where we found many common heathland, woodland and estuarine bird species. Four Spot Chaser Dragonflies had begun to emerge, a Common Newt swam in a small pond on the heath and Tiger Beetles flew along the paths in front of us.
Many Sika Deer wandered amongst the woodland venturing out onto the more open grassy areas to feed.

Sika Deer Arne Dorset
Sika Deer

On Monday the 13th May we visited Arne in the morning with a quick trip to Hartland Heath whilst waiting for the reserve to open. The gates to the car park weren't open until 9-00. The websites states they are now open at 08-30.

Arne Dorset
Arne Nature reserve

No surprises to be found here or at Wareham Forest later in the day with the exception of a small flock of Crossbills at Arne. No reptiles were found and we didn't manage to obtain any further information on where to look for them.

Sika Deer Arne Dorset
Sika Deer

On the 14th May the rain came down in buckets and there was no point at all looking for reptiles so we headed over to Lyme Regis and the pitch and put car park where a Hoopoe had taken up residence for several days.
We arrived in the car park and parked up at the highest point looking along a path but no sign of the Hoopoe. Eventually we noticed the bird sitting on the car park fence in the opposite direction to where we had been looking.
The poor bedraggled Hoopoe eventually hopped down from the fence to feed in the car park where it found some large beetle larvae.

Hoopoe Lyme Regis

On the 15th May we decided to visit the National Trust's Brownsea Island Reserve where there is a separate section owned by the Dorset Wildlife Trust.
On leaving Underhill Farm we had some great views of a buck Roe Deer.

The ferry over to Brownsea Island was very busy as we had unfortunately picked a day that was the 50th anniversary of the National Trust and a commemorative day for the Scout movement also.
We paid the quite expensive fee to the National Trust volunteers and headed for the DWT hides. Unfortunately the hide overlooking the Sandwich Tern colony had been damaged by the previous days storm and was being mended.

Brownsea Island
Brownsea Island

We sat and watched a couple of Red Squirrels on bird feeders outside the trusts headquarters on the island and were informed the reserve was closed due to the expected amount of people heading over for the National Trusts celebration. The day was getting worse by the minute, extra visitors, broken hide and closed reserve.

Red Squirrel Brownsea Island
Red Squirrel

We mentioned there was no sign stating the reserve was closed and that we hadn't been informed before paying the ferry and National Trust fees. The two very kind ladies volunteering for the DWT apologised and offered to let us walk around their reserve for free. I insisted on paying the 2 entrance fee for the great work they perform. They then offered to take us to a hide to find two roosting Nightjars. The day was back on the up.

Roosting Nightjar Brownsea Island
Roosting Nightjar

We found the two birds and watched them for a while before returning to the now mended hide overlooking the Sandwich Tern nesting sites.

Sandwich Tern Brownsea Island
Sandwich Tern

We eventually left Brownsea Island and had a walk around the quiet Higher Hyde Heath which looked to be a pleasant area although we didn't see a great deal at the time we visited.

As we had enjoyed our brief visit to Higher Hyde Heath we decided to pay a longer visit there on the 16th May. We walked past the hide through the woodland and out onto the heathland where Tree Pipits sang from the tops of pines. We wandered around checking the areas close to the small squares of corrugated iron placed in the heath for reptiles to warm up under.

Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Higher Hyde Heath

It is illegal to lift these up as you may disturb a Smooth Snake and as far as I am aware this could end in prosecution as it is a protected species and should not be disturbed.

We were very lucky in finding several Slow Worms basking close to some of the Corrugated Iron. On the top of one piece were two extremely large Adders warming themselves in the sun and heading along a downhill stretch of path we encountered a bootlace sized Grass Snake as it slithered into the heather. We thought we had done well to find three species of reptiles in one day but better was still to come.

Slow Worm Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Slow Worm

As we headed off the heath we bumped into a local Photographer who knew the area well and he offered to show us a good spot to find Sand Lizards which I think are another protected species. These reptiles however, are easier to find than Smooth Snakes as they often bask out in the open.

We were shown the area they were known to breed and eventually we found around six male Sand Lizards in their bright green breeding colours.
One male was intent on mating with the only brown female we saw. He constantly followed her through the undergrowth occasionally grabbing her on her back whilst patting her with his front feet. We didn't see them mating but the ritual before was extremely interesting to watch.

Sand Lizard Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Sand Lizard

So ended our four reptile walk which was immensely enjoyable and we headed off to Godlingston Heath and Arne. We had some good views of Dartford Warbler at Godlingston whilst Siskin and Crossbill were found at Arne.

On Friday the 17th May we headed back to Higher Hyde Heath to watch the Sand Lizards. This time we found only four but they posed out on rocks warming themselves in the early morning sunshine.
Note the tick infestation on the lizards. The ticks had attached themselves to the softest parts of the lizards including the base of their legs and ears.

Sand Lizard Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Sand Lizard

Sand Lizard Higher Hyde Heath DorsetSand Lizard Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Sand Lizard

Whilst walking towards them we came across another young Grass Snake as it shot across the path in front of us.

Whilst watching the Sand Lizards a small brown lizard emerged onto a rock amongst some vegetation. This was our fifth reptile species of the week, a Common Lizard also known as the Viviparous Lizard.

Common Lizard Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Common Lizard

We stopped off at Arne on the way back to our accommodation where we found Britain's largest spider. We had looked for Raft Spiders each time we had visited Arne but had been unlucky until now. We managed to find a single specimen sat out on the water on one of the small ponds beside a path on the reserve.

Raft Spider at Arne Dorset
Raft Spider

On Saturday morning 18th May, our final day, we said our farewells to Jo and Pete our excellent hosts at Underhill Farm and headed for Morden Bog where we had a long walk in hope of finding a Smooth Snake on our last day. We had no luck with the snake but had excellent views of Crossbills feeding in pines.

Crossbill at Morden Bog Dorset
Female Crossbill

We also found Bog Bean plants in flower, Four Spot Chaser dragonflies, Large Red Damselflies and several butterfly species including Green Hairstreak.

Bog Bean Morden Bog DorsetFour Spot Chaser Morden Bog Dorset
Bog Bean and Four Spot Chaser

Green Hairstreak at Morden Bog Dorset
Green Hairstreak

In the afternoon we headed for Higher Hyde Heath for a last chance at Smooth Snake but it began to rain so we gave up on the idea.
However, late the previous night a Dusky Thrush had been reported at Margate Cemetery and we decided to make the trip over to Margate in the afternoon to have a look for it.
We arrived at Margate cemetery at around 5-30 in the afternoon and came across a group of birders who had just seen the bird before it flew off into some higher trees.
It was eventually relocated and gave excellent views when it perched up in the lower branches of one of the trees in the cemetery.

Dusky Thrush Margate Cemetery
Dusky Thrush

On returning home we decided to follow the advice of one of the RSPB wardens and booked ourselves on an RSPB reptile walk at Arne nature reserve on 26th May.

Arne Dorset
Arne Nature reserve

During the walk we were led onto a private area of the reserve by RSPB warden Rob Farrington where he checked under many of the corrugated iron squares and found several Slow Worms and a Common Lizard. Rob holds a licence to handle protected species such as the Smooth Snake and thus is able to check under the corrugated squares.

After checking under over 70 squares the weather was getting very hot and we thought we may have missed our chance to see Smooth Snakes. However, eventually he found a male which was apparently the largest male on record on the reserve.

Smooth Snake Arne Dorset
Smooth Snake

Smooth Snake Arne Dorset
Smooth Snake

We headed back to the car park and the farm area where an Adder was located behind the farm and a previously caught Grass Snake was examined by all the participants.

Grass Snake Arne Dorset
Grass Snake

We also found a female Tiger Beetle prospecting for egg laying sites on a sandy ridge close to the toilet block.

Tiger Beetle Arne Dorset
Tiger Beetle

Five reptiles in one day was a great start so we headed over to Higher Hyde Heath in the hope of finding Sand Lizard to make it all six in one day. We found a few male Sand Lizards basking out in the open and a very large gravid female sitting in dappled sun under some bushes.

Sand Lizard Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Female Sand Lizard

Sand Lizard Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Male Sand Lizard

On leaving the reserve we were lucky in finding several dragonflies including Broad-bodied Chaser, Four Spot Chaser, a female Hairy Dragonfly and two or three Downy Emeralds.

Broad-bodied Chaser Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Broad-bodied Chaser

Downy Emerald Higher Hyde Heath Dorset
Downy Emerald

A great end to a superb day and an excellent month of looking for our native British reptiles.
Please take a look at | www.wildlife-films.com | for information on DVD sets produced from our wildlife watching holidays. The Dorset reptiles are shown in "A Naturalist's Diary 2013" which is now available.

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