Archive | Species Information

16 October 2011 ~ 0 Comments

How To Tell The Different Between Slow Worms And Snakes

 how to tell the difference between slow worms and snakes
Creative Commons License photo credit: anabis

Something long and thin wriggles past you in the countryside. The knee-jerk response may be that you’ve just seen a snake but how can you be certain that what you’ve seen isn’t a slow worm instead? Let’s take a closer look at slow worms and the different species of snake present in the UK to give you a better idea of how to correctly identify and distinguish between snakes and slow worms.

There are a number of factors that can help us to tell the difference between slow worms and snakes. Some are “dead certs” – almost guaranteed to ensure you have the correct identification – whilst others are less certain and in these cases it may be necessary to use a number of different factors in order to be reasonably confident about an identification.

This is especially so if you only had a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of your eye rather than a good long look at the reptile in question. Wherever possible – both to make identification easier and to serve as a reminder in the future – try to take a few photographs of the animal in question.

These don’t need to be “award winning” nature photographs – certainly mine aren’t – but when a creature could vanish at any second grabbing a few quick pictures that you can analyze at your leisure later on can not only make your identifications more accurate but also more enjoyable as you sit and ponder them at a later date in the comfort of your own home.

Body Shape

Slow Worm HampshireWhilst the body of most snakes tends to taper gently from the mid section down to a fine point at the end of the tail the slow worm typically appears far chunkier with the “tail” appearing far blunter and ending far more sharply. In addition, be aware that unlike snakes, slow worms can “drop” their tails like many other lizards and so this can lead to an even “stubbier-looking” tail than normal.

Head Shape

The head shape differs between slow worms and snakes but it can be quite a subtle feature so isn’t recommended as the only identification source. In general the species of British snakes tend to have rather flatter-looking heads than the higher, rounder head of the slow worm. Remember that the slow worm is a lizard and not a snake and when you look closely at them it can be quite easy to see that their head is more lizard-like than snake-like.


Grass snakes, smooth snakes and adders all typically have quite clearly-defined patterns to help with camouflage. Spots and stripes are common in these species while the slow worm is typically a reasonably uniform brown in colour. Younger specimens may have stripes of colour but these tend to be longitudinal (from head to tail) rather than the more lateral marking of, for example, an adder.


British snakes feed on a variety of prey including frogs and small mammals but slow worms are rather different in that they prefer small invertebrate prey. Slugs are a perfect example of the type of food they enjoy and so should you see a “slow worm” eating a frog for example, it’s almost certainly actually a snake.


Snakes have sealed eyelids through which they see which makes them appear to have no eyelids. As a result they are also incapable of blinking. As lizards however, slow worms do have eye lids and with patience you may even see them blink. Blinking, therefore, is a guaranteed indicator that what you have seen is a slow worm and not a snake.


Of course baby snakes are smaller than adults but overall slow worms are far smaller than most of the British species of snake. Baby slow worms – which are born live rather than in egg form – can be just a few inches long and even the adult rarely exceed more than a foot. Compare this to the size that an adder or a grass snake may achieve and a smaller-sized, serpent-like creature is more likely to be a slow worm than a snake.


Thanks to their preferred prey, slow worms are most likely to be seen after rain and/or in the early evening where they will be searching for small invertebrates to eat. In contrast adders and grass snakes are often seen basking in the heat of the day though a slow worm that has been disturbed from it’s hiding place may still be seen at these times of day.

Adders, generally, seem to prefer heathland habitats, grass snakes those with open water in the form of ponds or streams while slow worms can be seen in a variety of habitats though grassland areas is where they are most often observed.


Telling a slow worm from a snake can take a little practise but hopefully you can see there are a number of factors that you can use to help you make a definitive identification.

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17 August 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Wild Privet

Wild Privet

Most of us are familiar with the “domestic” privet that makes dense hedges up and down the country but it’s possible that you won’t be familiar with it’s wilder and more interesting cousin the wild privet.

Unlike the clipped hedges of suburbia wild privet is not a very dense or indeed tall-growing plant and may only reach 30cm of so in height as an adult plant. The overall impression is one of a leggy, scruffy bush with leaves very reminiscent of an olive. These “olive-like” leaves make perfect sense because wild privet is closely related to the olive plant and indeed taxonomists have placed them in the same family thanks to their similarity.

Possibly the most interesting – and surprising – thing about wild privet are the flowers which it bears in early summer. These lilac-like bracts are pure, glossy white with an almost waxy appearance and can be several inches in length on larger specimens.

Best of all they have a rich, sweet scent to them that reminded me of honeysuckle. In other words if you find a wild privet in flower on your nature walks it’s well worth taking the time to get down on your knees and give it a good sniff as it’s one of the most pleasantly-scented British flowers I have personally come across.

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17 July 2011 ~ 1 Comment

How To Identify Stoats And Weasels

look out for dangers
Creative Commons License photo credit: markus.hoppe

The mustelids are a group of mammals which in the UK include badgers, otters, polecats, stoats and weasels. Of these the greatest problems with identification seem to be how to tell a weasel from a stoat and so I thought a few pointers may come in useful.

Fortunately once you know the differences between these otherwise superficially similar animals it is actually quite easy to tell them apart though of course you have to remember which one is which!


Alaska Weasel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cecil Sanders

Weasels are surprisingly small mammals despite their fearsome reputation as talented hunters of small rodents. They typically reach a body length of around 8 inches long and in cross section are rarely larger than a mouse. The general shape is one of a small, long, wavy mammal with a short tail.

Weasels are carnivores like stoats and will eat anything they can catch which often means small rodents like mice and voles. Their small body means they struggle to catch anything larger but it also means they are able to follow their prey into tiny holes where a mammal like a stoat would struggle to fit.

Weasels may be seen in a range of habitats including woodland and wild meadows and I even saw one last year hiding under a bush in a National Trust garden as dozens of visitors unknowingly walked within a couple of feet of it.


Stoats are much larger than weasels and may grow to become the size of a small adult ferret with a body length around 16 inches. The tail is also a very useful tip for identification because unlike the weasels it typically has a black tip on it.

In my experience, while I have seen both mammals on many occasions the stoat, being rather larger and bolder, is far more likely to be seen.

In addition the stoat’s larger size means it is able to take correspondingly larger prey with rabbits being well within it’s reach. This means they may be seen hunting on open grassland sometimes and if you are downwind of them you can watch their amazingly quick and acrobating hunting technique.

In photographs these two mammals appear very similar indeed but remember the old adage of a “sizable stoat and a wee weasel” to remember that the stoat is much larger and keep an eye out for that black tail. Those two elements combined are normally enough to safely identify these mammals even at a glance, such as when one ducks across a footpath in the countryside some distance ahead of you.

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13 July 2011 ~ 0 Comments

British Seals: How To Tell The Difference Between Common Seals And Grey Seals

British seals at Blakeney Point
Creative Commons License photo credit: Duncan~

Around our shore there are two commonly seen British seals – namely the Grey Seal and the Common Seal. While at first glance one seal may look very much like another when you know what you’re looking for these two species are actually surprisingly easy to tell apart.

Whilst factors such as colouration, size and habitat can all play a part in correctly identifying seals there is one tip that will let you tell the difference between Common Seals and Grey Seals easily and quickly.

If you’re in the right part of the country, such as Blakeney Point in Norfolk, you can often see seals hauled up out of the water, bathing in the sunshine to dry out their fur and generally having a good scratch.

But most siting of seals are of one or more of these mammals swimming along in the sea with just their head above the water as they keep an eye out for both predators and prey. Fortunately it’s the head that is the ideal identification tool when it comes to deciding whether what you just saw was a Common or Grey Seal meaning that it’s virtually impossible to see a seal in the UK without being able to tell what species it is.

Grey Seal

The grey seal has an elongated head often likened to that of a dog with a long, upturned snout giving it a slightly more predactory look. Take a look at the following photo to get a better idea of the general head shape of a grey seal:

Grey Seal
Creative Commons License photo credit: Szymon Nitka

Common Seal

The common seal (which incidentally isn’t as common as the grey seal these days!) has a shorter snout and generally a rounder, “cuter” face. It’s the type of face guaranteed to get an “aah!” from children when they see one while the grey seal, whilst attractive in it’s own right, is far less appealing to eye for many people. Here’s a photo of a common seal to illustrate the point:

Common seal
Creative Commons License photo credit: davharuk

Test Time!

So as you can see these two species have very different face/head shapes and can quite easily be told apart. You’ve read the descriptions and seen the pictures so here are a few more for you to test your newfound knowledge out on – answers at the end!

Seal Photo 1:

Juvenile Harbor Seal
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sequoia Hughes

Seal Photo 2:

Creative Commons License photo credit: kevinzim

Answers: picture number one is a common seal while picture number two is a grey seal. Did you get them right?!

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06 July 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Where To See Adders

Creative Commons License photo credit: Danny Chapman

Adders (or vipers) are the UK’s only venomous snake and whilst quite a degree of fear still surrounds them from people who picture deadly cobras hiding in their garden these snakes are generally shy and retiring. Indeed if adders were easy to find then we wouldn’t need an article like this – we’d all be tripping over them and instead visitors to this site would be more likely to ask how to avoid adders :-)

Like all reptiles, adders are fans of warm, dry weather where they can bask in the heat of the sun before hunting for prey. Cool, damp, grey weather tends not to suit them as well and they may well hide away out of view or – in the winter months – even aestivate to conserve vital energy.

Equally so, the warmer a snake gets the more active it becomes – and as it becomes more active so it also becomes faster moving and so harder to spot. The ideal situation to see adders is therefore early on in the morning of a warm, sunny day in summer. The early hours before the snakes get too active and before they get annoyed by dogs and their owners can be the best time so if you’re serious about seeing adders your best bet is to set your alarm and get up bright and early.

As for habitat, adders tend to prefer dry environments such as heathland and gorse-filled grassland. My latest siting of an adder was one hiding just under a gorse bush up ontop of Cissbury Ring in Sussex a short while ago.

Like most snakes, Adders are very sensitive to vibrations through the ground and so it is best to walk as lightly as possible if you’d like to see them – stomping around in heavy walking boots won’t do you any favours – and I prefer to walk slowly and deliberately in flexible trainers so I step as lightly as possible on the ground.

When seen in photographs adders appear to be quite obvious snakes with a background colour varying from olive green through brown to the common silver or grey over-laced with a dark black zigzag pattern down it’s back. However in the wild these markings can make it surprisingly difficult to see and in the right habitat on the right day you may well pass numerous specimens without even realizing it.

While adders can and do climb, they are most often seen on the ground and in the spring time males can sometimes be seen “fighting” for mates as they stand up high and attempt to “wrestle” other males to the ground.

The other British snakes are the smooth snake and the grass snake. Smooth snakes are now very rare indeed so it is highly unlikely you will encounter one while grass snakes tend to prefer damper habitats such as those with ponds and streams.

Consequently a useful tip for getting an idea of whether there are adders in your local area is to keep an eye out for shed skins in the types of habitats mentioned as these will almost certainly belong to an adder and show some recent activity. To slough a skin an adder will normally rub against a rough object such as an old tree stump or sharp bush so keeping your eyes peeled for these signs can be a good indicator that you are searching in the right area.

Have you seen an adder recently? If so please leave a comment below to let us know when, where and how – we’d love to hear from you!

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01 September 2010 ~ 0 Comments

The Difference Between Grasshoppers And Crickets

Piccola & Mostruosa
Creative Commons License photo credit: Luca 4891

One of the perennial problems of naturalists is how to tell the difference between crickets and grasshoppers. Whilst superficially these two groups of insects seem almost identical with their long back legs, ability to jump long distances and habitat preferences when you actually “get your eye in” these two groups can be surprisingly easy to tell apart.

If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between grasshoppers and crickets then you’re about to discover a few simple ways that will let you tell them apart with ease.


Possibly the quickest and easiest way to tell a grasshopper from a cricket is by taking a look at the antennae. In grasshoppers these tend to be short and sticking out infront of the head, whilst in crickets these are normally very long indeed – sometimes as long as the insect – and are often swept back along the body though they may be waved about in the air.

Body Shape

Grasshoppers typically have a far longer, thinner, more “aerodynamic” body shape to crickets, which are typically far more rounded in shape.

Time Of Day

When it comes to the chirping song of these two similar groups of insects they will normally sing at different times of day. You’re most likely to hear grasshoppers calling during the day while crickets are the likely culprit if you hear the noise later on in the day and during the evening.


Whilst grasshoppers and crickets both seem to like wild, grassy areas there are often subtle differences between their habitat choice. Grasshoppers favour short, tussocky grassland where they can climb to the top to sun themselves while I tend to find crickets far more often in longer grass or even on the leaves of bushes and trees where grasshoppers are seldom seen.

Cricket Photo

Notice the longer antennae and shorter, rounder-looking body.

hop, hop, hop !
Creative Commons License photo credit: OliBac

Grasshopper Photo

Notice the short antennae and relatively long, thin body of the grasshopper.

Making a difference...
Creative Commons License photo credit: wolfpix

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30 August 2010 ~ 0 Comments

A List Of Native British Reptiles

 Natrix natrix
Creative Commons License photo credit: anabis

Britain is home to an amazing six species of native reptile which for a climate like ours never ceases to amaze me. Note that one can also see the Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis) on the isle of Jersey though it appears to be absent from the rest of the UK.

The general list of British reptiles is:

– The Common (or Viviparous) Lizard (Lacerta vivipara)
– The Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis) – now very scarce
– The Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)
– The Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)
– The Adder (or Viper) (Vipera berus)
– The Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) – also sadly very rarely seen these days

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22 August 2010 ~ 2 Comments

How To Tell The Difference Between Frogs And Toads

 this toad's for you . . .
Creative Commons License photo credit: bionicteaching

In the UK there are a number of different species of frogs and toads though of course the most regularly seen are the Common Frog and the Common Toad. Even these two species are often identified incorrectly so I thought it might be useful today to explain some simple ways to be able to distinguish between frogs and toads.

Generally speaking the Common Frog is more likely to have a more pointed face than the Common Toad which tends to have a rounder and blunter face. Frogs also prefer to hop while toads will generally walk unless they are surprised and want to make a quick escape.

The skin can also help you tell the difference between the two species; the frogs skin is generally smooth and shiny-looking while that of the toad is generally warty and often has a matt-effect look to it.

The toad has a poison gland behind the eye which looks like a large swelling and this is absent in the frog.

Lastly in the breeding season the eggs of these two species look very different. Whilst the frog lays it’s frogspawn in a large jelly-like mass, the toadspawn is laid in long, thin strands rather than one large mass.

There are, of course, just as many similarities as their are differences. They both breed in the water. They will both jump if surprised or scared. They generally eat similar prey. They will often be found away from water when out of the breeding season (though they still like moist areas such as hiding under rocks or under thick plant cover).

Even the colours of these two species can be so variable that saying that toads are brown and frogs are green isn’t entirely correct and can’t really be used for identification purposes.

Reread the above points for telling Common Frogs from Common Toads then take a look at the following photos to “get your eye in” on the subtle differences between the two species. Then as a final test, see if you can work out whether the child in the phot at the top is holding a frog or a toad…

Common Toad photos:

Bufo bufo bufo (Hauts-de-Seine 92)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cheloran ©

Creative Commons License photo credit: timitalia

Common Frog photos:

Rana temporaria ssp. (Pyrénées Orientales 66)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cheloran ©

Rana temporaria ssp. (Pyrénées Orientales 66)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cheloran ©

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28 July 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Wood sorrel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Leo-setä

Don’t ask me why but I have a real soft spot for Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). I first heard about Wood Sorrel as a teenager when watching Ray Mears back on the Tracks show (anyone remember that one?!). As a woodsman, Mears sung the praises of this simple little plant that he used as a herb when wild cooking, which apparently tastes like apple peel with a pleasant bite to it – perfect for stuffing fish before baking.

One of my favourite habitats of all is deciduous woodland – where Wood Sorrel typically grows – and it always makes me smile to see it. Fortunately whilst certainly not a showy plant, it is very easy to identify.

In essence, Wood Sorrel looks rather like a large clover, though the leaves rather than being a dark green, often with some white mottling, are actually more the colour of a Golden Delicious apple. Yes, they taste of apple and they even look apple-coloured!

Favoring shaded, woody areas they are a common-enough plant and I was lucky enough earlier this year to find some Wood Sorrel just coming into leaf. I hope the photograph below illustrates how attractive and “sculptural” the leaves look as they are opening up.

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29 June 2010 ~ 0 Comments

How To Tell A Primrose From A Cowslip

When primroses (Primula vulgaris) and cowslips (Primula veris) are in flower then telling the difference between these two spring flowers is the essence of simplicity. Whilst the primrose has classic open flowers, the clowslip has a number of smaller, bellshaped flowers attached to a stem held high above the plant.

However when these two plants aren’t in flower, identification becomes rather more difficult due to the similar appearance of the leaves.

However there *is* a way to tell the difference between the foliage of the cowslip and the primrose and that is to look towards the base of the leaf. In primroses, the leaf gently tapers down to a point while in the cowslip the leaf tapers down far quicker leaving only a very narrow area of leaf towards the leaf base.

The photos below help to illustrate the difference in foliage of these two similar-looking plants to help you to easy differentiate them.

Cowslip Leaf

Cowslip Leaf

Primrose Leaf

Primrose Leaf

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