Newt News

When we had the new pond put in, way back in February, the frogs moved in almost straight away. There was a lot of croaking and and even some amphibious cuddling, but they completely failed to produce any spawn. I guess the pond was just too new and they didn’t feel it was up to scratch yet. The frogs may have let us down (I did try not to take it personally), but the newts, when they arrived, have more than made up for it.

The first newt plopped into the pond at the beginning of April and was quickly followed by many more. We never really knew how many we’d got, but I reckon at least a dozen must have found there way there in the end. Here’s the first ever one, popping up for air (the pond looks so bare looking back at it now, the plants have filled it out so much more since then).

They are all Smooth or Common Newts as far as we can tell, but they are still absolutely fascinating to watch. For the first few weeks in April, the newts we saw looked fairly laid back, with not much action; just occasionally popping up to the surface for a gulp of air. But as the breeding season progressed, we started to see courtship behaviour and could see the difference between the males and females.

The females are relatively plain coloured varying from beige to olive brown to dark grey. Their bellies in the breeding season go yellower with dark spots – you can just about see this in the female below.

The males tend to be much more jazzy. Certainly the ones in our pond were spotty all over, with a yellowy orange belly and a crest running down their backs and along their tails – visible below. (although the crest of the male smooth newt is quite marked, it is apparently nothing compared to that of the Great Crested Newt – clue’s in the name I suppose!)

Courtship consists of a lot of tail waving from the male – sometimes very energetically, almost aggressively in his determination to impress the ladies. Having got her attention, he deposits a packet of sperm, which she then manoeuvres over to fertilise her eggs. In the video below, you can just make out him producing a tiny white packet of sperm at about the 20 second mark.

 

There can be quite a lot of chasing each other around – sometimes more than just a pair; we’ve seen 4 or 5 chasing each other in a conga line across the pond.

The female lays the eggs individually on the leaves of aquatic plants. Water Forget-me-Nots are apparently a favourite for this, so we made sure there was plenty in the pond. The females grasp a leaf between their 2 back legs, folding them over and depositing an egg inside the fold. She then glues the leaf together and holds it until it sticks.

I particularly like this zen looking female laying eggs.

The females take so much time and care choosing the perfect spot for each individual egg.  The next couple of videos show them carefully selecting and positioning each egg.

 

The eggs were small white blobs in a layer of jelly. Most of the time they were hidden in their protective leaf curls, but occasionally the leaves popped open to reveal one.

We first started seeing baby newts swimming around the pond in mid-May. These first ones were tiny, less than a centimetre long and with no legs.

By early June mini newts with tiny legs had developed. The legs were virtually transparent still, but fully functioning.

They gradually grew, the legs thickening and strengthening, but still retaining their gills.

To get clear shots of the baby newts swimming/walking I very carefully caught a few and filmed them in a tank, before gently releasing them back into the pond.

 

The tank videos are good for seeing the detail, but it is so much nicer to get them swimming free in the pond (although considerably trickier to film). I love this little one determinedly hunting tiny water fleas as he paddles around.

 

I’ve not managed to find any young newts who have fully metamorphosed into efts and lost their gills yet. I’m sure some of them must have done by now, but they have probably left the pond and dispersed into our plentiful weeds. There is plenty of cover around the pond for them to hide in. The closest I’ve got is this one resting on the frogbit (should that be newtbit?), but he still has gills.

 

A lot of the young newts or efts of course won’t make it to adulthood. Lots of things will eat baby newts, not least of which is this Great Diving Beetle which landed unceremoniously in the hedgehog’s water bowl the other night and may have then moved on into the pond.

The efts won’t mature into adults until they are 2 or 3 years old, so it will probably be a couple of years before these youngsters return to the pond to breed. But hopefully some at least will make it and the pond will have done its bit to increase the newt population in our garden. Watching the newts court, lay eggs and develop into efts, has given us such pleasure during the sometimes bleak year that has been 2020; the least we can do is repay them by providing a suitable weed-filled garden for them to live in. They don’t mind that we’re too lazy to weed.

Damsels & Dragons – Part 2

As promised, here’s part 2 of Damsels and Dragons. Since part 1 was all about damselflies, it will come as no surprise that part 2 is all about the dragonflies we’ve seen in the new pond so far.

The first species appeared in the middle of May – a Broad-bodied Chaser. It was a female with a lovely golden and, as the name suggests, broad body (well abdomen). We’ve not seen any males, but the female (or possibly more than one female) has been back several times and has clearly found a male somewhere as she’s been laying eggs. Each egg is laid incredibly quickly as she dabs her abdomen in the water.

As she was our first proper dragonfly in the pond, we went a bit overboard on the photos, but I’ve whittled them down to just a few here.

I like in the photo below that you can see how her wings beating is causing ripples in the water with the downward pressure.

One of the things I like about dragonflies is the way the like to find a perch from which to survey their pond. So I figured our pond would benefit from a dragonfly perch – or stick shoved into the ground at a jaunty angle. So I was really chuffed when our first chaser gave it her seal of approval and perched right on it.

The next dragonfly to turn up has only been seen once so far (perhaps it found our pond lacking somehow or perhaps it didn’t find a mate?) It was a Four-spotted Chaser, a species I don’t think we’ve seen before anywhere, let alone in our own garden. It may have found the pond lacking but it did pose nicely on “my” perch,

It also posed beautifully on a bee garden ornament a friend had kindly given me for Christmas. I’d stuck the bee on a stick by the pond, but hadn’t actually expected the dragonflies to take me up on it – but it clearly makes another good perch.

It didn’t hang around for very long, so I didn’t get my usual hundreds of photos, but I quite like this one where it looks like it’s falling off the borage – not that a dragonfly would ever do anything as inelegant as fall off something.

I got excited when the next dragonfly arrived, thinking we’d got another new species. It had a broad abdomen and was laying eggs, but it didn’t look like any female Broad-bodied chaser I’d ever seen before. Turns out this was exactly what it was, just a more mature specimen. Apparently older females change colour and start to look more like the males. This one had quite a bit of blue on her tail, so she must have been an old gal!

I thought as I starting typing this post that this next one was the final (although I was still hoping for more) species of dragonfly to find our pond – the Common Darter.

The Common Darter can look very similar to the Ruddy Darter, but if you look at their legs very closely, you can see that the Common Darter has a dirty yellow stripe down each leg. The Ruddy darters on the other hand have all black legs. There are probably other ways of telling them apart, but this seems to be the most reliable – if you can get a decent photo of a leg!

 

Here’s a couple more photos of it, just because it posed so nicely on the perch (yes I was still smug that they were using “my” perch even a month later).

So I’d thought that would be it for this post, but before I could upload it, a dream came true and a female Emperor dragonfly graced our pond. Not only graced it, but laid eggs in it!

 

She’s been back a couple of times since, so plenty of photo opportunities, although getting a decent shot of her in flight has proved nigh on impossible.

She didn’t sit on my perch but I can forgive her for that for being just so big and beautiful! So all being well we should have emperor dragonfly larvae in the pond for the coming year – perhaps not good news for some of the other pond inhabitants as the dragonfly larvae are huge and voracious predators.

So that’s our dragonfly/damselfly round up so far – 6 species to date. Of course it would be nice to get a few more; I would love to see one of the Demoiselle species, but I think they prefer running water. Maybe we need to install a stream next?

Damsels & Dragons – Part 1

Our new pond only went in just over 5 months ago, but it’s been truly amazing what has already found its way here. One of the groups of animals we’d really hoped to attract was the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies. Of course we didn’t expect to get them for a few months, they don’t start emerging until the warmer weather comes, so all we could do was watch and wait. One good thing about the lockdown – it gives you plenty of time to watch and wait by a pond.

Right on time though at the end of April our first species arrived – the Large Red Damselfly. I’d spotted one down at the allotments, so was keeping an especially beady eye out and the next day one found its way to our pond.

Within a few days I was even more excited to find we had a pair of mating Large Red Damselflies. The male is the upper one of the pair. He has a pair of hooks at the end of his abdomen which he uses to hold onto the female around her neck. He holds onto her while she lays the eggs to prevent other males getting a look in!

Their larvae take two years to develop, so all being well, we should have our own “home-grown” red damselflies emerging from the pond in 2022.

I was barely getting over the excitement of the first damselfly’s appearance when the next one turned up – a stunning blue, or as it turned out Azure Damselfly. Since then we’ve seen them a few times, both males and females, but have never spotted a mating pair. Hopefully they have perhaps just been more discrete than the red damselflies and we will be lucky enough to have some emerge next year – they have just a one year life cycle compared to the 2 year for the reds.

The next two photos are of female Azures, below which are 2 males. The females have a bluey green tint, while the males are a much more vivid blue – azure I suppose!

As the pond was new and dragonflies and damselflies take at least a year to develop, we hadn’t expected to get any newly emerging ones. What we hadn’t banked on was getting damselfly larvae arriving with plants we’d ordered. This is the only explanation I can think of, for finding a newly emerged damselfly still pumping up its body on a reed.

The exuvia that the new adult had crawled out of was still clinging to the bottom of the reed, like some weird little alien.

The damselfly was very pale; it can apparently take a few days for them to develop their mature colouration, so we can’t be sure what species this is, but it’s probably one of the blue tailed ones. To start with the abdomen was shorter than the wings, but as we watched, it pumped itself up until eventually the abdomen was clearly much longer than the wings. You can see this in the sequence of photos below.

While its rear end was busy getting bigger, it had a quick wash and brush up round the head using its front legs.

Despite us both sitting there watching, we somehow managed to miss the moment of take-off. But a few minutes later we spotted this one just a foot away on a plant by the pond – probably/possibly the same individual having a rest after all the exertions of emerging. It has darkened up, but still lacks the blue colouration.

So that’s a round up of our damsels – very pleased to have such success with the pond in only the first few months. I’ll do a second blog post for our dragons next – the damsels have been great, but the dragons really are stunning!

Pond Arrivals

Never has the old adage “Build it and they will come” been more true of anything than of building a pond. Our new pond went in at the beginning of February – seems a world away now, given everything that has gone on in the world since then. The human world may be in chaos and despair, but for everything else life goes on and a new pond is a beacon attracting wildlife from all around. Every week if not every day something new finds its way to our pond. We’ve not been able to finish all the landscaping or get all the plants I would like to have got due to various restrictions, but it seems the wildlife doesn’t mind at all.

Quite a wide variety of insects have already found their way to the pond. A few tiny beetles whizzing around were the first we spotted, followed shortly by a lone water boatman. We suspect there are now more water boatmen, but since we only every see one at a time we can’t be sure. Both of the above have so far proved too fast to photograph.

Of course small flies and mosquitos were soon flitting over the surface of the water laying eggs, which soon hatched in large numbers into wriggling larvae. These will hopefully provide plenty of food for larger animals further up the food chain, so are a very welcome addition to the pond.

Within a couple of weeks our first pond skater arrived, followed by several of its friends! These insects are great to watch scooting across the surface of the pond in search of food. They regularly battle each other, that or they get very frisky, we’re not sure which. Apparently they use the middle legs for propulsion, the back legs to steer and the front ones for grabbing their prey.

Next insect to appear was this diving beetle which flew in and plopped into the pond while we were sitting watching. These diving beetles come to the surface and collect a bubble of air to breathe, so he or she pops up to the surface quite often.

Since then we have spotted numerous medium sized beetles whizzing around the pond, all adding to the food chain.

The biggest excitement though was the arrival of our first damselfly – a Large Red Damselfly to be precise. Hopefully this will be the first of many damselfly and dragonfly species to use the pond and I can do a full post on them soon. In the meantime here is our first one.

Other insects have been using the pond in other ways; a Holly Blue caught drinking from the pond, an Orange Tip butterfly nectaring off the cuckooflower and this snazzily striped hoverfly buzzing all over the place. The hoverflies have clearly been making whoopee as we’ve already started finding their larvae – the delightfully named rat-tailed maggots in the pond. Wriggling and semi-transparent these are very difficult to photograph, the best I could do was this short video.

Spiders have also moved in amongst the stones at the side of the pond, nipping in and out to catch unsuspecting insects.

The birds have of course continued to make good use of the pond (drinking, bathing, catching insects), to the point I feel they are annoyed with me for hogging it by sitting there for so long. My favourites so far are this pair of young magpies, exploring the world for the first time. They go everywhere together and particularly like the pond, squabbling one minute and then looking to each other for reassurance the next – a typical pair of siblings.

Sadly all the frog activity we saw in March came to nothing and we didn’t get any frog spawn this year. It’s not too surprising as the pond had literally only been in for a couple of weeks before their mating season. We’ve yet to see a toad around the pond either, but the newts have come up trumps. The first newt (they are Smooth Newts) arrived early April and since then there seems to have been more each day. I shall do a full newt blog soon as they’ve provided lots of photo and video opportunities, but here’s a taster.

Sometimes the things you don’t get to see in person can be the best though. Our hedgehogs have been making good use of the pond, carefully tiptoeing down the sloping beach that was put in specifically for them to access the pond. Obviously we rarely see them directly, but the night cameras pick them up regularly. This video shows 7 separate visits to the pond by at least 3 different hedgehogs over the course of one night. Shows the value of providing a drinking source for your hedgehogs, especially in hot weather.

 

I am so glad that we got to make the pond before the world went into lock-down. It has provided interest, relaxation, welcome distraction and so much more – we have spent an awful lot of time in the last 3 months gazing into the pond, grateful for having a garden we can sit in while staying home and staying safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pond Update

It’s the first day of Spring and it’s been about 6 weeks since our new pond went in. Although there is still work to be done on it, the wildlife has already started to move in. The pond still needs more plants and those that are there need to grow a bit to provide more cover. It’s a bit early in the season for many of the pond plant suppliers to have much stock. So as an emergency measure I’ve been chucking in bags of organic watercress from the supermarket! I also need to replant the area around the pond as it’s looking a bit bare at the moment. Hopefully this will all come together as spring gets going and we (finally) get a bit of sunshine. But in the meantime, here’s how the pond is looking now.

The birds were the first to really start making use of the pond. They love the shallow “beach” for drinking and bathing. The blackbirds and sparrows in particular have really taken to it, although we’ve also seen pigeons, robins, blue tits, starlings and magpies making use of it. The sparrows seem to like having a bit of a wash then jumping onto the big rock at the edge to dry off. Here’s a video of some of them enjoying their new splash pool.

The frogs soon found the pond and I got very excited that we might get some frog spawn. But despite a lot of croaking there’s no sign of any spawn yet. Maybe there isn’t enough plant cover to tempt them yet and we’ll have to wait until next year.  I’m never very good at night-time photography so the best I’ve managed is this grainy shot of a couple of them.

I have created “Toad Hall” using some old roof tiles buried into the soil that was excavated for the pond. Eventually it will be completely covered in branches and planted up. Hopefully it will appeal to some of our amphibian friends as a suitable home with en suite pond.

We may have drawn a blank with getting frog spawn in the new pond, but the old pond on the allotment has produced the goods. It may be a tiny pond, but it has been stuffed with frog spawn this spring. They are now starting to develop and a few tadpoles are even hatching. Here’s a short video from earlier this week:

Of course it wasn’t just amphibians we hoped to attract to the pond, any animals would be very welcome. So we were very pleased to get a fox checking the pond out within a few weeks of it being dug. So far we’ve only caught it circling round the pond, but hopefully soon it will view it as a suitable watering hole and take a drink.

The highlight for me so far has been this next video though. As spring slowly creeps in, hedgehogs are starting to emerge from hibernation. So I was really thrilled that this one has already incorporated the pond on his nightly meanderings. The gravel beach was put in specifically with hedgehogs in mind – easy access to the water and a means of getting out should they fall in. And this one seems to have got the message.

The final feature added to the pond is an indulgence for us rather than the wildlife. It’s the old bench from my grandfather’s pub, recently renovated by our ever-useful friend Gwyndaf. The perfect place to watch the wildlife in the pond while perhaps sipping a glass of something chilled. Roll on summer!

New Pond!

Excited doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel this week – we’ve got a new pond! I’ve been promising to do it for years now and finally we’ve done it! When I say “we” it is in the loosest sense of the word – as in it wasn’t me at all. Our lovely friend and Cycling Gardener, Gwyndaf came and did all the hard work while I flounced about the garden excitedly but pretty much ineffectually. Let’s hope the wildlife appreciates all Gwyndaf’s hard work.

So here is the obligatory “before” photo – a fairly sunny spot near the fence in an area that had once been a veg patch but has long since been a weed patch.

Unusually for one of my ideas, I actually tried to do a bit of research rather than just launching into the pond without a plan. All the books explain the need for plenty of shallow areas, with perhaps a small deeper section. I even drew up an actual plan, although I don’t think I’ll win any awards for my draughtsmanship.

Fortunately Gwyndaf managed to interpret my messy scrawls and set to work digging our dream pond. Here are the various stages of digging.

Once dug, the area was checked for any sharp objects, then the pond lined with sand to hopefully prevent any rogue stones poking through.

Next a layer of white underlayer to further protect against punctures, then the final EPDM rubber lining. It was a big relief when the lining was down to find we had measured up correctly and got a big enough liner.

Next essential element was of course water. All the books say to avoid tap water. We emptied the water butt which provided just enough water to fill the central deep section, but little more. I was terrified some poor animal would fall in and get trapped at this stage, so rigged up some hessian “ladders” so that anything falling in could crawl out.

Fortunately we live on the beautiful Malvern Hills – famous for their spring water, so we figured we might as well make use of our local resources. There is a handy well – The Cowleigh Spout – just up the road from us, so I made a few trips filling every available water container to fill the pond a bit further.

The UK was then battered this weekend by Storm Ciara, bad news for a lot of people, but good news when you’re trying to fill a pond. The downpours not only topped up the pond directly, but repeatedly filled the water butt again.

The pond now has the all important sloping beach one end, to allow anything that falls in to climb back out again. I’ve been particularly worried in case any of our hedgehogs took a dive, but now they should be able to get out easily. There are shallow areas for birds to bathe in and (fingers crossed) for amphibians to get loved up in.

We wanted to plant the pond up with native plants to give as natural a feel as possible and promote as much wildlife as possible. Although there are lots of online suppliers, it turns out February is not a good time to be buying pond plants as most are dormant for the winter. We did manage to source some Hornwort, which floats about oxygenating the water. A few others we’ve got as tiny plug plants – Purple Loosestrife, Flowering Rush, Marsh Marigolds and Woundwort and Brooklime. Still waiting for a few more to arrive, but hopefully we should end up with a good mix of marginals, floating and emergent plants to encourage an equally good mix of wildlife.

So here it is in all its half finished glory:

There’s still a lot of work to do finishing it off – hiding the liner edges, more planting in and around the pond, but hopefully by the summer we should have a proper wildlife pond again. In the meantime we’ve had our first wildlife visitor to the new pond. It may only be a pigeon, but it’s using the pond and it’s made me very happy!

Expect to see a lot more pondy posts!

Spring & Surprises at the Lottie

Spring has well and truly sprung down on the allotment, bringing with it some old favourites, a new generation and a big surprise.

Being fair-weather gardeners we’ve not done much down the lottie over the winter, but when we have been down a pair of robins tend to follow our every move – always on the look out for a freshly unearthed worm.

I’ve been going down more frequently for the last couple of weeks to check on the pond – it’s frog spawn season! So I was very pleased when on 2nd March I spotted for the first clump of spawn in the pond. It could only have been laid a day or two before, making it about 10 days earlier than last year.

So out with the camera and the GoPro to record the start of a new amphibian generation.

 

By the 9th of March 3 more clumps of spawn had been laid – you can see the difference in size of the embryos and jelly in the photo and video below.

The GoPro did catch a blurry image if what I assume is a pair of frogs in a passionate embrace underwater. Having said that the smaller one does look a bit toad-ish to me, but there’s been no sign of any toad spawn in the pond so far. I read somewhere that 80% of toads return to the pool they were born in to breed, so it may take some years before we get any toad spawn.

In the hope of getting some froggy action on camera, I left one of the trail cameras running on the allotment for a few days. I ended up with a lot of videos of cats walking by, but eventually got this one – a stand off between a cat and a floating frog. Thankfully the frog has enough sense to dive when the cat makes its move.

I did have hopes of getting a fox on camera as I know we have them on the allotment. But what I did get next was a huge surprise – a badger drinking from the pond!

We’d no idea we had badgers down there, so this was a real bonus. It looks like another pair of frogs get spooked by the badger and also dive for cover. Needless to say the camera has been left down there in the hope of getting more footage – but so far nothing but more cats.

Hopefully in the coming weeks I can get footage of the frog spawn developing into tadpoles. Fingers crossed the newts return soon too and maybe even a toad or two. All this does show the  benefit of putting in a pond – this one only went in 2 years ago when we first got the allotment. We’d expected frogs and newts would use it and maybe birds would drink from it, but never dreamed that we’d get a badger. I guess “Build it and they will come”!

 

It’s a Frog’s Life

I’ve been virtually staking out our allotment pond since the middle of February, hoping for frog spawn.  As it turns out, it was probably a good job we didn’t get any spawn that early, as the heavy snow at the beginning of March would probably have wiped it all out. But in mid-March there were squeals of excitement down the lottie, when we spotted the first magical clusters. We had frog spawn! We’d put in the pond too late for spawn last year, but we did get several frogs and newts using it throughout the summer. So it was great that the frogs at least deemed it suitable for spawning in. No sign of any toad or newt spawn yet, but I live in hope. As I’d just got a waterproof GoPro camera a month or so ago, the arrival of the frog spawn seemed the perfect opportunity to test it out. So here’s my very first underwater video, taken on the first day we spotted the frog spawn – 11th March.

Since then I’ve been down the lottie regularly to check on progress. We can’t be sure exactly which day the frog spawn was laid, but I would guess it was only a day or two before we saw it. At first there was only one clump, but two days later there were three. So I’ve been trying to keep a video/photo diary of the development. I’m still getting the hang of the settings on the GoPro and also on getting things in focus, so apologies if the images are sometimes a bit blurry. So first up here are the eggs on Day 2 – pretty much perfectly round dots in their jelly bubbles.

No real changes were visible to the naked eye for the first week or so, but by day 11 they were starting to change shape. No longer perfectly round, the eggs were more like fat commas.

Two days later and the comma shaped were definitely elongating, with the suggestion of a tail.

By day 15 there were definitely mini tadpoles inside the jelly blobs. No sign of movement yet, but heads and tails were clearly visible.

Day 18 (28th March) and the tadpoles had started to hatch. Some were still in their protective jelly, but quite a few were clearly visible stuck to the outside of the eggs. These were all on the first clump of spawn we’d seen, the tadpoles in the other two clumps were not surprisingly a few days behind, having been laid later.

Day 20 and most of the first clump had hatched. They were starting to move a bit more now and had got a bit bigger so that gills were just about visible on some of them. They were still feeding off the jelly of the spawn.

 

Day 24 (3rd April) and some of the slightly larger tadpoles were starting to move away from the jelly clump. Some of the tadpoles on the other two clumps of spawn were now starting to hatch too.

Day 29 and they were free swimming – the pond was alive with wriggling tadpoles. They were grazing on the algae growing on the sides of the pond and on the rocks.

I felt ridiculously proud of them that they had managed to make it this far, despite the rubbish weather spring has thrown at them! But they’re not out of the woods yet – as the next video shows there are still dangers lurking in the pond!

 

Newts will eat tadpoles, so the chances are that not all of these will survive, but hopefully there are enough of them that some at least will make it. The newts have to survive too. With a bit of luck maybe we’ll get some newts laying eggs too – the newt in the video appeared to have a bit of a frilly ridge so is perhaps in breeding condition.

So that’s the progress so far in the first month of our tadpoles lives. Hopefully enough of them will survive that I’ll be able to do an update in a month or two’s time, as the tadpoles develop into baby frogs. Fingers crossed!