Minsmere's adders have proved extremely popular over the last few years, so we opened a dedicated adder trail this spring to make it easier to watch these amazing snakes without disturbing them. We also trained many of our guides to give them more confidence to find and talk about adders. Here's what one of our guides has to say about Minsmere amazing adders.
Guest blog by Davene Everett, Minsmere volunteer guide
I’ve always liked reptiles since owning a corn snake a few years ago, so leapt at the chance to be one of the volunteer guides on the Adder Trail. This is the perfect time of year to see adders as the males are searching out females and fighting for the right to mate with them. The Adder Trail at Minsmere is near a hibernaculum (where adders hibernate over winter) which is why it’s a good place to see them, especially on warm sunny days where, for a few short weeks, they forget their shyness and are very visible.
Early morning is a good time to catch them basking, curled up on a pile of leaves, ideally on a slight slope to get the maximum benefit of the morning warmth. Use your binoculars to scan the undergrowth systematically, concentrate on the sunny spots and you’ll soon spot one. They can flatten their body to get maximum exposure to the sun’s rays and in the earlier months, it isn’t uncommon to see a number of males curled up together. Once they’ve warmed up, they’ll be off searching for food.
Typical prey items are mice and voles, but small frogs, lizards or other snakes will all be taken. An adder only needs to eat a few times a year – once a month during the months they’re not hibernating is typical, as they don’t waste energy keeping warm as mammals have to. An adder is venomous and catches its prey by biting and injecting venom into the unfortunate victim. It will then follow the dying animal until it is safe to eat, swallowing it whole, head first normally as fur and legs don’t catch and cause problems that way (think how smooth an animal’s fur is when stroking head to tail rather than tail to head).
An adder will shed its skin occasionally, especially when it grows, normally by rubbing its chin on something rough to get started, then wriggling out of the skin as it turns inside out, like a lady taking off a stocking. In the run up to shedding (or sloughing) its skin, the adder will appear dull in colour and if you’re close enough to see its eyes, they’ll be opaque. Once the cloudiness clears from the eyes, it will shed within a few days. Coming up to a slough, snakes will be very grouchy and irritable, so best to keep out of their way at that time!
Adders don’t see particularly well at the best of times, but they’re virtually blind when going through the shedding process (hence their irritability). Their best senses are smell/taste – the flickering tongue is taking scent to the Jacobson’s organ inside their mouth allowing them to track prey or a female’s pheromones – and vibration. A snake doesn’t slither away when it hears you coming, it feels you coming from the vibrations you make on the ground. So generally speaking you don’t have to keep silent when watching adders, but you do need to avoid stomping around.
A male adder "tasting" the air by Steve Everett
A female will only breed every 2-3 years and can mate with a number of males. The pair can be joined for 30 minutes or so and are quite vulnerable at that time, so they tend to be discreet and hide away so you’re very lucky to see it. The female bears live young in September and doesn’t look after them; the young are venomous and perfectly capable of feeding themselves as soon as they are born.
Adders do get attacked by other species: herons, corvids and large gulls will have a go at them, but surprisingly their biggest enemy is the pheasant, which seems to go out of its way to attack an adder if it sees one. Adders are not large snakes, 2-3 feet is the maximum you’ll find (females are generally larger than the males) and can live for 30 years (if they can avoid predation).
They won’t attack a human except in defence, but a bite will be extremely painful and the venom can be fatal, so it’s important to not antagonise them. If a snake rears up and hisses at you, you’re far too close and should back away. Photographers should use telephoto lenses, not macro, and no matter what the temptation, please do not try and take close up shots with a phone, you’ll be putting yourself in danger. Stay a respectful distance and enjoy watching these fascinating creatures in safety.
Two male adders "dancing" as they compete for a mate - note the variation in colour of males, which can also be melanistic, or black adders. Females are brown and black. Photo by Steve Everett
(Note: these photos were taken with a large lens, from a safe distance)
There can be absolutely no doubt that spring is here, despite the, at times, chill northerly wind that has been blowing this week. Wader migration is in full swing, warblers are arriving en masse, insects are flitting around the reserve in increasing numbers, and a few unexpected bonuses are thrown in too.
The pick of the waders this week has been a pair of little ringed plovers that displayed on West Scrape on Monday. At least one is still around. Avocets are beginning to settle on West Scrape too. Wader numbers are fluctuating almost by the minute as new birds arrive, others move on, and still more pause just briefly for a rest. We've had double figures counts of bar-tailed godwits, greenshanks, grey plovers, whimbrels and dunlins, and smaller numbers of knots, turnstones, spotted redshanks, green sandpipers and golden plovers.
Greenshank by Jon Evans
Terns are slowly starting to return too. Sandwich terns peaked at 20+ earlier in the week, one or two common terns are passing through, and the first two little terns arrived yesterday. At least six Mediterranean gulls were on the Scrape today, along with two second-year Caspian gulls, and a kittiwake was present yesterday.
Best of the warblers is undoubtedly a grasshopper warbler that has taken up residence in a patch of sweetbriar about 50 metres west of the Chapel Field, close to the gate for the temporary path to the chapel from the sluice to Eastbridge footpath. Two birds were singing this morning, and a lesser whitethroat was nearby yesterday. The Chapel Field has also hosted up to six ring ouzels since Sunday, though these favour gorse at the west end of the field. A garden warbler was singing near to the BBC Springwatch studio this morning, while blackcaps, whitethroats, sedge and reed warblers can all now be heard from suitable habitat. A nightingale is also favouring the area close to the studio, but as yet it has sung only intermittently.
At least two hobbies are now hawking insects over the reedbed, and marsh harriers are easy to spot above the reeds. Buzzards are becoming daily occurrences, but two ravens that flew north over the west end of the reedbed were a surprise - though an increasingly regular spring passage migrant. Four common cranes put on a great display today as they cruised low over the visitor centre before settling on the Levels for five minutes. They soon headed north again, after a circuit of the reserve, so many visitors were excited to see these majestic birds. Another large, long-legged bird that has taken up temporary residence is a great white egret that can sometimes be seen from the Whin Hill Watchpoint, or in flight from reedbed hides.
Great white egret by Ian Clarke
Other bird highlights over the last couple of days have included one or two cuckoos, yellow wagtails, swifts and house martins each day, wheatears in open grassy areas, very vocal Cetti's warblers and bitterns and the great crested grebes at Island Mere.
Numbers and variety of butterflies have improved noticeably over the last couple of days. Highlights include green hairstreaks, orange tips, small coppers and brimstone, while peacocks, small tortoiseshells and commas are perhaps more visible. A few large red damselflies are now on the wing. Beeflies can still be seen around patches of ground ivy, as are good numbers of common carder bees and a few other bumblebee species.
The adders are still slowing well along the adder trail, and a grass snake was in North Marsh today.
Duelling adders by Malcolm Gladwell
If you are visiting Minsmere and don't have a pair of binoculars with you, don't worry.
For a start, you can enjoy a lovely walk through our beautiful habitats without the need for binoculars. You may also meet our lovely volunteer guides who are happy to help with ID and let you look through a telescope.
We also have binoculars that you can hire from the shop - especially useful if you've forgotten to bring you own. We have two models available to hire. The RSPB Puffins can be hired for £3 per day. If you choose to buy a pair these binoculars after hiring them, prices start at £55. You can now also hire RSPB Avocet binoculars at £5 per pair. These retail from £130 if you choose to buy them.
If you are looking to buy binoculars, a telescope or tripod, our shop staff and volunteers are fully trained to offer you expert guidance on which models will best suit your needs. We stock the full range of RSPB models, from the Puffins to the RSPB HDX 10x42 at £699.
If you're looking to treat yourself, then we also have a full range of Swarovski binoculars as well as the Zeiss EL models.
This week we've taken delivery of some shiny new Leica binoculars too. The Leica Ultravid HD Plus range (7x42, 8x42 and 10x42) provide excellent light gathering thanks to new glass coatings that guarantee improved light transmission and brighter images. These are superb new binoculars, but as with everything in life, if you want the best you need to pay for, so start saving as prices start at a cool £1545. If that's out of your price range, or you're looking for something lightweight, we also have the Trinovid BCA compact range (8x20 and 10x25). Despite their compact size, these high quality binoculars give clear, bright images, making them the perfect companion for a countryside walk, or to fit into the glove box on a long drive through the beautiful Suffolk scenery. Prices for the Trinovid BCAs start at £359.
The new Leica range - now in stock
So, whether you are looking to buy your fist binoculars or treat yourself to something special, we have something to suit all needs. Pop along for a chat and take your time to try before you buy. We promise we'll help you to choose the pair that best suits your needs.