9 April 2014: Reptiles at Sutton Courtenay

Leader: Rod D'Ayala

About a dozen members and guests met on a cold April evening at Sutton Courtenay Environmental Education Centre. The leader Rod D'Ayala arrived at 6 pm. with the key to the gate, but those who arrived early had an awkward time as the centre is on a busy road and there was only room for about 2 cars in the layby by the gate, so some of us did tours round the block to fill in time. This is worth bearing in mind if future visits are made to this centre.

The centre is on land owned by RWE Npower in the shadow of Didcot Power Station, and run by BBOWT as an educational centre, mainly for school parties. Rod is one of the wardens. The evening was in three parts. Firstly, we gathered near the entrance while Rod gave a talk about the centre and its work, and showed us some specimens which he had caught earlier so we knew what we were going to be looking for. These included great crested (unfortunately without crests at this time of year) and smooth newts, both male and female, a large grass snake and a slow-worm. He described their habitats and behaviour and the differences between them. There were no palmate newts at this site. Rod mentioned that as newts are protected by law we were only allowed to handle them under his supervision.

We were then taken on a tour round the reserve and were shown the work that was being done there and the variety of habitats that existed. It was a surprisingly large area with a stream running through it, large meadow areas, and several ponds of varying size and depth, some of which had only just been dug. Rod described the species to be found in each one, and particularly mentioned the problem with sticklebacks that feed on newt larvae. We did some pond dipping and examined what had been caught. There were some artwork sculptures dotted around the site and evidence that it was well used. 
The tour ended back at the entrance as dusk began to fall, and a few members left as they were feeling the cold. This was unfortunate as the best was yet to come. Rod issued us with powerful torches, which also had a dimmer beam for lighting the way, and we headed back into the reserve looking under corrugated iron plates and boards as went to see the newts and snakes hiding there. When we reached the ponds it was seriously dark, which is when the newts are most active. We were told to gather on the pond edges and then switch on our torches, as the newts are frightened off by the light. In the beams we saw great crested newts staying still or moving slowly along the bottom of the ponds. The smooth newts were more active as they need to come to the surface for air frequently, and it was fascinating to watch them wriggling up, taking a breath and dropping down again into the depths. We also saw many caddis fly larvae with their cases of leaves and stones, and the occasional frog. We visited most of the ponds and returned to the car park at 9 pm. after a long, fascinating and informative evening. Grateful thanks must go to Rod D'Ayala for sharing his great wealth of knowledge and experience with us, and giving us the opportunity to experience these creatures at close quarters.

Michael Bloom