Paul Hobson,Wildlife Watch: July 2009
As the temperature rises, a look at the county's cold-blooded natives.
The long, often sunny days of July mean that the sun's warmth is really the spark of life for our cold-blooded animals. Insects are at their most active and plentiful and lizards are able to maximise the warm rays to feed and give birth. There are only three species of lizard native to the UK, the common (or viviparous) lizard, the sand lizard and the slowworm.Slowworms occur throughout the Peak but they are fairly secretive, spending a lot of their lives underground or in old walls, though they can be found sunbathing early in the morning.Sand lizards are true sun worshippers and don't venture into the Peak. There are a couple of colonies on the Lancashire sand dune systems but generally they are real southerners.The common lizard however is a true northerner. They can be met fairly extensively across the Peak and their strongholds are the upland heather moors. After years studying and photographing common lizards I still find it amazing that something so small and so obviously a creature of the sun can eke out an existence in so harsh an environment. Cold winds and long winters do not deter this hardy lizard. Its older name of viviparous is a clue to one adaptation it has that allows it to survive so far north. Viviparous means live bearer. Unlike the vast majority of lizards globally it does not lay eggs but gives birth to live young, just as the adder and slowworm do. This trait allows it to keep its young inside the female through the summer. She actually retains the eggs which develop inside her body. The female lizard is then able to maximise any sun and shelter and keep her body warmer than the eggs would be if laid somewhere safe. This means the youngsters develop faster and can be born towards the end of the fairly short summer as mini lizards. They then have a month or two to fatten up as much as possible on the insect life around before hibernating under a clump of heather or grass, hopefully somewhere where the frost can't touch them.Most common lizards are a brown colour which is not exactly stunning when briefly viewed. However if time is on your hands it's quite easy to get close to them. They will have their favourite sunbathing spot, and when disturbed will rapidly retreat to safety. If you can then sit close by and keep still, and as long as the sun is still shining, inevitably they will venture back again to bask in the warming rays. Then you will be able to appreciate the subtle and delightful colouring. Most are brownish but there does exist a rarer form that is an amazing green in colour, this form is superb and really is a little gem.July's rays also bring to life many members of the dragon and damselfly tribe. This month and August are really the best two of the year to watch these brilliantly coloured, powerful aerial predators of the insect world. One species that I have been keen to get to grips with over the last couple of years is the golden ringed dragonfly, one of our largest and most spectacular dragons boasting a livery of black and yellow. Golden ringed are unusual in that they are a northern species that actually breeds in moorland streams.The vast majority of our dragons and damsels are really creatures of the lakes and ponds. Two years ago we experienced the worst floods for many decades, in some areas probably the most devastating on record. I have been really curious to find out how this would affect stream life, particularly golden ringed dragonflies, whose entire population would then have been living as nymphs in the gravelly stream bed. The floods literally scrubbed the stream beds in their ferociousness.Last summer, during late July, I visited a number of moorland streams to try to find flying adults, and in my heart not really expecting to find any. Imagine my surprise and elation when I found good numbers of these staggering dragonflies patrolling their beats on these lonely moorland streams. A true testament to the survival qualities of our wildlife, even after the most devastating floods.I can think of few better places to spend a quiet evening in July than lying in one of the White Peak's grassy meadows. Butterflies like brown argus, common blue and hopefully dark-green fritillary will delight the patient watcher. And hopefully if the evening is a warm sunny one, you will be serenaded by meadow grasshoppers as they scratch noisily to each other. Grasshoppers are really creatures of the summer and usually are only noticed if you either flush one as you stroll through the meadow, or if you sit and listen. I have not found them the easiest things to watch or photograph but with a little patience and careful crawling I managed to get my camera close to one last July. I certainly hope to try my luck with them again this year