Tag Archives: Triturus cristatus

The ultimate songbird

In the springtime this year I took a trip to Paxton Pits nature reserve which is a cluster of lakes on the edge of St Neots near Bedford created by gravel extraction. They cover a sizable area and are interspersed with woodland and scrub and incorporates a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).  One of the reasons for going there in springtime is to hear the song of the nightingale for which the Pits are a recognised site.

Early signs weren’t hopeful as the skies were grey and it was cold and raining. So not the best conditions for seeing or hearing songbirds in full voice. And first off, there was very little of anything, and then a great spotted woodpecker put in an appearance low down on a tree trunk.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

This one is a female, the main difference between her and the male is the lack of a red patch on the nape of her neck. I was pleased to get so close to a great spot as they’re normally higher up and not so easy to photograph. They feed on insects which they dig out from crevices in tree bark, but will also take birds eggs and I’ve heard they take chicks too which they can find when they enlarge the holes in bird boxes to get to the nest – which is one of the reasons why the entrance to bird boxes for small birds now have metal surrounds.

The sound of a woodpecker drumming carries for a very long distance, not because of the volume but because the frequency of the drumming has a strike rate of 10-40 per second which causes the tree to resonate.

Shortly after the encounter with the woodpecker the clouds cleared and it turned into a warm sunny day, much more suitable for songbird encounters, and the first one was a whitethroat:

Common whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger)

The whitethroat is one of our non-resident warblers which were just arriving in the UK from their annual migration back from sub Saharan Africa. When they’re attracting a mate they do a mad little jerky flight heading roughly straight up from the top of a bush and dropping straight back down again, and while they do it they have a distinctive song. But as distinctive as it is, it’s not in the same league as the ultimate songbird:

Nightingale (Lucinia megarhynchos, Dansk: sydlig nattergal)

The nightingale is a fairly drab little bird to look at, but the song is incredible. And when it has returned here in the spring after migration, also from tropical Africa it starts to sing… and people will flock from miles around to hear it. Alas, as with many bird species the nightingale is red listed in the UK and in desperate need of protection, consequently this was the first time I managed to photograph one.

There are ponds and shallow pools on the site of the Pits too, and these are being nurtured to encourage dragonflies and amphibians such as this great crested newt:

Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus, Dansk: stor vandsalamander)

Great crested newts are also endangered in the UK due to habitat destruction and are therefore heavily protected. It was good to see an adult male in his full breeding regalia, he’s a spectacular beast.

Nocturnal newts

I was in the pub last Friday with a good friend of mine enjoying a few pints but despite what you might be thinking this post is about amphibians. Mostly. We were talking about butterflies and other wildlife when he mentioned that he knows of a pond which is good for newts. So on our way back from the pub at around midnight we picked up torches and my camera and made for the pond.

We weren’t disappointed. As we shone the torch in the water we could fairly soon see two of the three species of British newt: the great crested, Triturus cristatus and the smooth or common Lissotriton vulgaris – which looks a bit like a small great crested. The third species is the palmate newt, Lissotriton helveticus, which in the breeding season is fairly distinct from the other two species but is apparently uncommon in the east of England.


This great crested newt headed for the cover of some pondweed in response to our torchlight


And shortly after made for deeper cover with a flick of his tail. The ‘great crest’ can clearly be seen here

Great crested newts spend most of their time on dry land where they rest up under rocks or logs during the day and emerge at night when they feed on land or in water for worms, tadpoles, snails and insects. They return to the water to breed where the female will lay several hundred eggs over the course of 3-4 months. The juveniles and non-breeding adults live a predominantly terrestial existence where they hide up during the day in undergrowth or other cover and emerge to feed at night. They reach breeding age at 2-3 years old when they begin the cycle of aquatic and terrestrial life.

The smooth newts were not dissimilar in appearance to the great crested newts but are only up to 10cm long – considerably more diminutive than their great crested cousins. Both male and female great crested and smooth newts become rather more distinctive during the breeding season when the colours, spot patterns and crests are at their most flamboyant.


A pair of male smooth newts

I originally thought these were a pair in the throes of courtship, but I’ve since been informed by a reader, see Duncan’s comment below, that they are two males.

The palmate newt is approximately the same size as the smooth newt but the colouration of the palmate is rather more subdued. All three species of newt in the UK live a terrestrial lifestyle outside the breeding season, but at this time of year they all head to the water to breed.


Female palmate newt – the male has a smooth crest along his tail with a distinctive filament on the end. He also has webbed feet which this one doesn’t.

All newt species are protected in Europe, including the UK, with varying levels of protection. The great crested newt is considered to be the most in danger and therefore has the highest level of protection such that disturbing them or habitat where they are known to be, killing, possessing and selling live or even dead specimens, is illegal.

I’d never seen a newt of any species until this so it was great to see them and be able to get a few photographs too, after spending the evening prior in the pub in pursuit of the obvious topical simile!