Tag Archives: Bufo bufo

Cragside

Whilst exploring Northumberland in August we ventured into  Bamburgh Castle which is well worth a visit not least because it houses a museum dedicated to the Victorian engineering genius and arms manufacturer, William Armstrong. Armstrong used a portion of his colossal wealth to build a remarkable house at Cragside near Rothbury, which is also well worth a visit because it is set in some pretty amazing countryside which is teeming with wildlife. It’s also remarkable because it’s the first house on the planet to be lit by hydroelectricity. So the man who amassed wealth beyond belief by producing arms which were responsible for the deaths of an awful lot of people also set the stage for renewable energy. And that’s a dichotomy which, in my book, makes him a very interesting man.

So… on the way home from Northumberland we decided to avoid the A1 as far as we could which involved going close to Rothbury, and when, completely serendipitously,  we passed a road sign for Cragside (and having joined the National Trust whilst on the Farne Islands) we rapidly decided a visit there was on the days agenda.

And that was a good decision. The house itself would take a long time to explore so we stuck our heads in the front door and decided to explore the surroundings instead. It was a cold and windy day threatening rain, but despite that the gardens were full of flowers attracting bumble bees and butterflies, particularly red admirals. The wooded slopes were full of birds, particularly tits, and most particularly coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse).

My son spotted a baby toad in the long grass but I didn’t want to disturb it too much so I didn’t get a photograph, but I was rewarded shortly after when I found this little chap walking along the woodwork of a bridge over a stream:


This nascent toad, Bufo bufo, was smaller than a 50p piece and slipped  into the water whilst crossing the bridge, but he sat still for just long enough

And as we were chasing toads a handsome cock pheasant appeared in the adjacent field,


Pheasant male, Phasianus colchicus (Dansk: fasan) showing off his magnificent plumage

The pheasant was introduced to the UK from Asia, where it’s native range extends from the Caucasus to China, around 1000 years ago. It is extensively hunted, which probably explains why it has been introduced to so many countries!

But the ornithological highlight of the visit to Cragside was the dipper (Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær). It flew past me at high speed low over the stream before landing on a rock which it used as a springboard to hunt insects underwater. I thought it is called a ‘dipper’ because of it’s diving prowess, but while it was perched on terra firma it flexed its legs resulting in a dipping motion of it’s head – so maybe it’s this action that gives it its name. I was wondering why it did the dipping and thought it may enable it to see small prey items underwater more easily.


Dipper perched on a rock contemplating a snack…


Hunting in the stream…


And with a catch – I think it has landed a damselfly

Dippers are unique in that they can swim underwater and even walk on the bottom as a result of having solid bones.

Photographically the dipper posed some interesting problems. It’s mostly a dark coloured bird and was in a dark coloured stream under tall trees on a cloudy morning so there was very little spare light, and it didn’t stay still for very long. Consequently I had to use ISO 800, f5.6 and 160th sec exposure and cross my fingers! Fortunately I was able to focus on the white breast and managed to get a few good shots. It’s a charming little bird and I was very pleased to be able to share some pictures with you.

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Toad migration

It’s the time of year when our resident amphibians are mating and heading for the nearest stretch of water to spawn. I find it a particularly stressful phenomenon due to the number of frogs and toads that need to cross roads and don’t make it. In my vicinity the completion of the guided busway running into the north of Cambridge has imposed an impassable barrier to thousands of common toads, Bufo bufo, which hibernate in the woods and hedgerows along the northern edge of the busway.


Pair of toads, the lady is the larger one underneath doing the legwork

It’s clear from the picture that the toads stand little or no chance of negotiating the sheer walls at the side of the busway – and even if they did they would have a further three to climb on the way to the lake and all four again on the way back. All this whilst numerous pedestrians and cyclists are making their way to school in Histon and work on Cambridge Science Park. It’s an extremely hazardous operation.


A pair that made it on their way to the water

When they make it to the water toads lay strings of eggs, as opposed to the gelatinous mass of eggs laid by frogs, and their tadpoles are slightly shorter and fatter than frogs. They feed on vegetable matter and absorb oxygen through their skin. As they grow they develop lungs and come to the surface to breathe. Eventually the tadpoles metamorphose into adult toads and the tail shrinks away at which point they leave the water as immature adults and will only return to the water to breed.

Adult toads differ from frogs in that they don’t hop, they walk. The colour of toads is also rather different, they have light ot dark brown warty skin with darker spots and frogs have more homogeneous green and smooth skin. And the eye colours of the toad is gorgeous – a lovely deep reddish gold. I like toads, they eat garden pests including slugs and are consequently good things to have around.

As with alot of creatures with the word ‘common‘ in their name, this is something of a misnomer, because of habitat destruction and the best attempts of predators including domestic cats they are no longer common. They secrete a toxic irritant through the skin but some predators are immune to this so they still get eaten.

It’s a real struggle being an amphibian in modern Britain so if you see one heading for the water – or on the return trip – please rescue it and help it on its way by placing it out of the way of humans, cars, cats etc.