Addicted to Adders

A male adder crossing the road

Another reminiscence from one of our reptile volunteers.

Thanks to Mike Powell for this piece.

I still remember my first encounter with an adder in Weardale, even though it happened many years ago. I had lived in the dale for almost 10 years and never had so much as a glimpse of any species of native snake. Then one morning in spring I was walking my dog through some local woodland that was one of our favorite haunts. As we wandered into a sunny glade, right there in the middle of the footpath was an adder basking in the warm sunshine. My first reaction was one of shock followed by a quick dash to bring my dog under control and snap her back on the lead. I then had the amazing experience of observing a mature male adder at close quarters. Time seemed to stand still. I was mesmerised by his sleek black and gunmetal grey markings with the striking zig-zag pattern along his back. After what seemed like ages, but in reality was probably less than a minute, he slowly hauled himself under the cover of nearby vegetation still sluggish from his rudely-interrupted sunbathing. As he approached the shadows cast by the plants at the edge of the path I could immediately see just how effectively the pattern of his markings provided camouflage by breaking up his sinuous outline. Unforgettable!

 

When I mentioned this experience to friends and neighbours who had lived in the dale all their lives    a common reaction was a casual shrug of the shoulders and comments like ‘Oh, that area always has had a lot of adders.’ I was intrigued and somewhat abashed. If adders were allegedly so common on my local patch why had I, someone interested in natural history and a regular walker, not seen one before? The answer, I was soon to discover, was that I had never learned how to look for them.

 

A year or two later Durham Wildlife Trust and the North Pennines AONB Partnership  Wildwatch programme organised a local training day on adders and how to find them. Still smarting from my lack of sightings I signed up straight away. I learned a great deal about the habits of adders, where they like to hang out, and when the best times are to see them. We were also taught how to ‘creep and peek’ when trying to spot adders, a simple technique but surprisingly effective as I later found out.

Adder in snow 6th February

One important fact I gleaned from the training was that male adders can emerge as early as mid-February which, given the typical weather conditions in Weardale at that time of year, I must admit I found hard to believe initially. Nevertheless the following February after a couple of days of settled and relatively sunny weather I took up my binoculars, left the dog at home, and set about some serious creeping and peeking. An hour or so later creeping along a steep moorland edge I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted through my binoculars (with the naked eye alone, I’m sure I would have missed them) two male adders basking on a south-facing ridge sparsely covered with dried and broken bracken fronds. I recall that, despite the sunshine, there were still patches of snow on the ground and I couldn’t understand why adders would choose such an exposed and seemingly inhospitable spot.

 

The good weather held and I returned to the same place the next day not really expecting the experience to be repeated.  To my surprise, the two adders were in exactly the same spot and had been joined by a third male. To say I was excited is definitely an understatement. Several more visits when the weather conditions were favourable and I began to understand why this was such a good basking site. Up on the moor edge the ridge was well above the deep shadow cast by the valley sides under a low, late winter sun and the steeply-angled south-facing slope caught the sun beautifully. Even so early in the year, on a good day the adders could bask in full sunshine from around 9.30 am until mid-afternoon by crawling less that half a metre across the brow of the ridge, following the sun as it crossed the sky. A brilliant spot for a cold-blooded creature intent on warming-up quickly at the start of a new season. A little later the penny finally dropped that not only was this a good place for an early sunbathe but the adders’ hibernaculum was right under my feet. This was confirmed one day when, arriving at the site a little earlier than usual, I found one of the male adders already out basking on the ridge and a second emerging drowsily from a hole beneath an adjacent pile of tumbled and broken rocks. It may take take time (it does for me at least!) but it is amazing what you can learn just from careful observation.

It is now seven years on and each time the sun shines in February I return to this spot.

Please record you adder sightings via the following link;

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1UFV0jHyw_ZZm878XxQELY4vVOhQo5yLS9M_qp28tRsQ/edit