Essex adder challenge

Danbury Common near Chelmsford in Essex is a National Trust site that is a mixture of woodland and heathland and is renowned for reptiles, in particular teh European adder (Vipera berus). The weather for the last 2-3 weeks has been ideal for resurrecting hibernating reptiles so myself and my friend, Dave, who is a very accomplished nature photographer, went along to try to get some pictures of adders. They are the only venomous reptile native to the UK and their preferred habitat is heathland. Dave originates from Essex and is familiar with Danbury Common and assured me that we would definitely see adders, so I was rather excited as I’ve never seen a wild one before.

The heathland terrain was perfect reptile territory, there are substantial areas of gorse and heather intermingled with bracken

Unfortunately two events conspired against us: the weather on Saturday morning was the coldest it has been for weeks and with 100% cloud cover there was little warmth to entice the adders out of their burrows, and secondly there had been an accidental fire right over the main hibernaculum, all of which resulted in the total absence of adders and any other reptiles!

Despite that, the Common is a great place for wildlife so we wandered around to see what else was in residence and were rewarded by the first blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) and chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) sightings of the year for me.

A male blackcap, one of a pair

Until recently blackcap were considered to be summer migrants to the UK, spending there winters in sub Saharan Africa and as far down as South Africa.  More recently they have been winter residents too and it is thought this is the result of westward migration of birds from eastern Europe and also from the Low Countries, not our summer residents staying put. They disappear from my regular haunts around Histon in the winter, but my friend who lives on the other side of the village, just half a mile away, has been hearing them sporadically through the winter.

I heard several chiffchaff and saw a couple too, but they didn’t come close enough to photograph, but the woods were full of great tit (Parus major, Dansk: sortemejse) which were more amenable to pose for a portrait:

Male great tit feeding on pussy willow. The tree was busy with at least four great tit, a pair of blue tit and a long tailed tit

Backwarden nature reserve and Danbury Common are bisected by a road and Backwarden is an area of woodland containing sycamore, oak, birch and willow similar to that on the Common. Many of the trees were hosting various fungi including moulds and these brackets growing out of the stumps of felled trees:

…and this amazing mass of gelatinous psychedelic slime mould which I thought resembled candle wax:

I’ve never seen anything quite like this before but it appeared the sap had welled up out of the felled tree and the sugar rich solution was providing a glut of nourishment to opportunistic fungi.

The highlight of the trip, in the absence of snakes, was a weasel (Mustela nivalis) which bounded across the path and stopped to scrutinise us for long enough to take a couple of photographs. It’s years since I’ve seen weasel and we had to zoom in on the pictures to decide whether it was a weasel or a stoat (Mustela erminea). The stoat is around 30cm long so is bigger than the weasel which is around 20cm, and the stoat has a black tip to its tail which our little creature didn’t. Stoats go completely white in the winter except for the black tip of their tails and it is the pelts of the winter stoat which are used to make the ermine gowns of members of the UK House of lords.

Momentarily distracted by our presence

Then probably a potential prey item. Ready…



And he was off, like a brown furry exocet, at quite phenomenal speed. The pictures aren’t very good quality, but you can clearly see what he is and it may be a good few years before I get to photograph another! I’ll try to get to Danbury again over the summer and if I manage to take some pictures of an adder I’ll post them here.

28 responses to “Essex adder challenge

  1. Pingback: Returning migrants and lots more besides | The Naturephile

  2. Right. Sun shining. Off to backwarden again. Here snakey snakey….

  3. can we post our photos on here? Got a nice shot of common lizard (my first sighting ever of wild lizard in UK)

    • At the moment The Naturephile doesn’t take other photo’s but you’ve given me an idea…

      If I create another page for other folks sightings would you be happy to email me the images you want to share, along with any description, and I can then post your pictures? I would of course fully credit any contributions and I would reserve full editing rights for images and text. Let me know if that would work for you, if so I’ll get on the case to put a new page together. In fact the more I think about that, the more I like the idea…

  4. Chris Carroll

    Nice pictures. I am also keen to see my first wild adder but after hours of patiently searching backwarden, I have found none 😦

    If you could advise locations of hibernacliums at Danbury common and/or backwarden I’d have slightly better chances


    • If you head out of Danbury on the Bicknacre Road and the turn into Backwarden car park is on the right, if you turn left instead and head onto the Common the hibernaculum we explored was approximately 50-75m from there amongst the bracken in the open heath. But it wasn’t in good shape after the fire so we scoured all the open areas of bracken and gorse on the Common and over the road at Backwarden.

      Good luck with your search, please let me know if you find any adders.

  5. When I’m out walking I find it so hard to even spot the birds in the trees never mind photograph them and that photo of the bluetit feeding from the pussy willow is lovely. It’s been a few years since I saw a ferret or a stoat – the last time was when one was hunting a baby rabbit and it was the noise from the rabbit that alerted me to it. It wasn’t a particularly nice thing to watch………….but ferrets need to feed to.

    • I’ve been trying to learn bird calls of late to assist in the identification process, it really helps to know what they sound like too.

      Stoats taking rabbits can be petty unpleasant, I once worked in a lab with a rabbit warren underneath and occasionally a stoat would go down there and the screaming could go on for hours, it was blood curdling. But as you say, they have to eat too, and there were thousands of rabbits there.

  6. I think your weasel pictures are wonderful! I see stoats from time to time but I never get the chance to photograph them because they’re usually shooting across the road in front of my car. That was a great shame about the fire at the hibernaculum, I hope you can spot your adders some time soon. I like the bracket fungi and that slime mould was amazing! It made me think of pizza topping.

  7. Always a pleasure; thank you, Finn.

    • Hello Scott, you’re every welcome.

      On a side note, there is a wall in Cambridge where people have spray painted some interesting artwork, it’s nothing like the scale or quality of that in your recent post, but it made me think of Salt Lake City.

      • Well thank you for thinking of us here in Salt Lake, Finn. I have a few more posts to share, but I don’t know how much more there is out there…but I shall be looking for it. 🙂

      • Hello Scott, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the updates on the artwork.

  8. I like the way you make the reader feel like he or she is right there with you!

  9. What a grand day, Finn! I’d say that the naturephilic angels more than made it up to you for their choice not to entice the adders out with warm, sunny weather. The stoat was a great catch, and your photos are just fine. Thanks for the smiles. I’d love to have been along on this day.

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