Sloughing heck it’s cold!

It has been a peculiar week. Eight days ago I drove home towards the setting sun, after an afternoon spent on a favourite patch of Dorset heathland. The air had been alive with birdsong – woodlark, pipits, stonechats, sedge warbler, dartford warbler, cuckoo and whitethroat. There were lizards (including a sand lizard) and slow worms and in the sunshine I was glad for the water bottle in my bag.

As I neared home, window down, I caught a rattle of corn bunting and pulled over to listen to him as he sang from a fence post. It capped off a perfect warm spring day.

Then, wallop. The wind turns and winter has another bite. It’s the final week of April and there’s been snow in the air. I’ve even had to dig out my woolly hat.

Find shelter from the northern howl however, and the sun will scorch your cheeks and redden your ears. And where there was a steady stream of migrants enjoying long-haul flights, many birds have had to stop off to take on fuel.

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

In the hill behind the house, alongside the expected wheatears were two female ring ouzels. While on the northern slopes I found a confused looking flock of five whimbrel.

As I walked through a boggy part of the local common I almost squished a jack snipe, while the freshly arrived tree pipits didn’t seem to know whether to sing or turn tail.

At ground level, things have been running a little more smoothly at least. The adders are on the move and that means they need to put a new coat on. Or rather take the old one off. Sloughing (shedding) normally occurs as the snakes ready to leave the hibernacula in which they have spent the winter before finding a mate – though females will shed again before giving birth later in the year.

It is a good time to spot snakes that might usually give you the slip, and I have found

Female adder (Vipera berus)

several over the past fortnight that I have not met before.

The cloudy eye of this female is not a sign of illness or ailment, but an indication that her skin (which covers the eyeball) is loosened ready to slough.

Some snakes seem to complete the process more easily than others. I have found a complete skin this spring but also plenty of scraps in among the brambles where the adder has really struggled to change.

On Sunday I found a male that I had not seen before who had literally just sloughed. He had made quite a meal of it, with one piece of skin still hanging off his neck, but his new coat really does look smart…

Freshly sloughed male adder (Vipera berus)


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