It was a bright, sunny day in early spring and we were on a morning walk in search of Minsmere’s amazing adders, Britain’s only venomous snake native to the UK. After watching last years BBC Springwatch programme, where they managed to track a number of the snakes, it seemed a good place to look.
A short walk took us to an area where it had been reported that they had started to emerge from their hibernaculum (winter shelter). One adder had been seen showing signs of sloughing ((pronounced “sluffing”), something they need to do before mating. It didn’t take very long to find an area of shrub and bramble where two adders were basking in the sun. On closer examination it was at least four, possibly more, sunning themselves against some logs. We could clearly see the zigzag patterns on their scales.
In early spring the males emerge from their winter hibernation and spend as much time as possible basking in order to produce sperm ready for the mating season.
We found it interesting to see the adders flatten their bodies. They do this to maximise the surface exposed to the sun. It makes them look much broader. Also these males seemed very comfortable in each others company, as they were intertwined and coiled around each other.
Yet in a few weeks, when the females emerge, they will engage in the ‘dance of the adders’. This is a display by two or more males, all fighting over nearby females. They entwine around each other in an embrace, raise the top half of their bodies, and try to gain dominance by pushing the head of the rival to the ground.
As we watched more heads seemed to appear from in between the bodies, include an almost black adder (obviously for those familiar with the TV comedy”Black Adder” we named this one Baldrick)
It seems that melanistic (black) adders are not uncommon, we later came across a second one. The reserve staff later told us that there are a number of these black adders on the site. It’s thought that they may be more successful breeders as their darkened skin colour means that they can warm up quicker. Meaning that they can feed and ready themselves for breeding on days which would be too cold for their paler cousins. Hence they can mate with the females earlier and spread the melanistic genes. A disadvantage for the black adder is that they do not have the camouflage colours of the traditional adder and so are an easier target for predators.
We spent about an hour watching and photographing these amazing creatures. We then set off to see if the bitterns where present at the island hide. Sadly they were not there on this occasion. However, a wintering Water Pipit was visible, feeding up, before it set off for its’ summer breeding grounds on the high alpine slopes.