Nature Boy II: Wildlife of the Marshes
This is the second entry in my Nature Boy Journal, documenting my thoughts and observations as I explore my local wildlife and encourage you to do the same - find out more here.
Returning to the New Forest
The lure of the New Forest is something I cannot resist. Every now and then, I wake and feel an urgent need to return to that wonderland of ancient trees! It is, after all, one of few places where I truly feel at peace. And so it was that this morning, I set out once more across the sprawling heathland towards that mighty wall of trees. But on this occasion, I stopped short of the woods. It was as I began to cross a low bridge over a stagnating pool that four dark shapes leapt into the water with a splash!
Making a Splash: an army (yes, army) of frogs basking in the sun jump back into the water when I approach.
Frogs. But these weren't the sort of frogs I was used to. Their bodies, broad and stocky, had shades of olive and emerald green far too vibrant for the common frog (Rana temporaria)! A pair of ridges ran along each side of the body, while a rounded snout with a creamy white underside protruded from the water, watching me intently. Could it be that I'd found the fabled pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae)? Britain's more elusive froggy inhabitant - a native species, though very rare. In fact, it was once thought to be extinct in the UK, but was recently reintroduced to a site in East Anglia.
Alas, these were unlikely to be pool frogs. This little pond was far beyond their known range. Instead, I believe they were marsh frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus), a non-native species that was released in Kent in the 1930s and went on to thrive in the wild, spreading to wetlands throughout the country. They closely resemble our native pool frogs, and strangely enough they both belong to the same group of species known as 'green frogs' or 'water frogs'. Though the marsh frog is generally larger, the two species are able to breed together to produce a fertile hybrid species called the edible frog! This is highly unusual as pool frogs and marsh frogs are two distinct 'true' species, but it occurs via a fascinating mechanism which is explained beautifully by this article.
Marsh Invaders: some marsh frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus) basking in the sun at the surface of a small pond in the New Forest.
Though they may not have been pool frogs, I was not in the least bit disappointed. This was still a species I had never encountered before - their vibrant colours and active behaviour had me captivated. I sat by the pond for a while to observe them. When I had sat still long enough to seem as much an fixture as the trees above, the frogs began to put on a show! At first, they sang. Loud impressive bursts of quack-like croaks filled the air, which the males produced by inflating two vocal sacs on each side of their head like bubbles. And then, they began to hunt. A muddy bank marked where the pool had once extended to before shrinking in the unforgiving sun, and it was riddled with flies gorging themselves on this pâté of decaying material.
On the Prowl: a marsh frog seems to stalk a fly, flattening its body to approach unseen before striking with a long, sticky tongue!
Stuck in the Mud!
By chance, I had worn my wellies to the woods on this occasion, and hoping to uncover what other creatures called this little marsh home, I set foot into the water. I tread carefully... slowly... Not a moment later, my boots were whelmed with water and myself knee-deep in soft mud. It seems I had misjudged the depth. It was only logical to abandon the boots at that point and continue barefoot.
The Inevitable Fate of Leo's Footwear: yeah... it happened again.
But on the plus side, I caught a marsh frog! Holding it up to the camera, you can clearly see the broad snout, dark ridges, and vibrant emerald colouration! Absolutely nothing like the common frog (pictured on the right).
A Tale of Two Frogs: a marsh frog (left) and two common frogs (right), both photographed in the New Forest. Note on the common frog the duller colours, narrower snouts, and dark patches behind the eyes.
As if that wasn't complicated enough, I then found a common toad (Bufo bufo) perched atop some deadwood not too far from the bank of the marsh. Unlike the marsh frog, this is a native species here in the UK! It's more squat and dumpy than the slimmer, agile frogs. But despite its common name including the word 'toad', that really doesn't mean much... at least, not scientifically. Frogs and toads all belong to the order Anura (from ancient Greek meaning 'without a tail'), and the common name for Anura is 'frogs'. Within the 'frog' order are a number of families, including the family bufonidae, all of which are toads. So if we're being pedantic (which I most certainly am), all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads. Got it? Great!
The Third Contender: a common toad (Bufo bufo) chilling on a log at the waterside.
On the topic of deadwood, upon turning over a small unsuspecting log half-buried in the soft mud, a miniature army of young frogs started hobbling away into the long grass! They were tiny, no larger than a pea, and living alongside them was a young newt. They must have all completed the final stage of metamorphosis fairly recently - the frogs, no longer tadpoles, and the newt no longer an eft!
But it wasn't just amphibians I found in those marshes! There were little fish darting around, water boatmen that seemed to vanish as soon as I approached, and pond skaters that used water-repellent hairs on their feet to walk on water! Flying around above the marsh were iridescent damselflies and dragonflies.
Throughout my explorations of the New Forest, I've been taking note of all the places of interest by marking them on my map. A tree with an unusual shape, perhaps. An old path, overgrown with wildflower. And to all of these locations, I assign a name of my own making. These frog-ridden pools were no exception. I dubbed them the Frogmarsh, and I will certainly be returning.
Exploring the Heathland
On the heathland surrounding the marsh, the ground looked as if it had baked in the sun. Perfect for drying off my sodden boots and socks (and legs)! It was dotted with patches of heather, dry bracken, and bits of wood suffering a very different fate to the deadwood of the sheltered forest. Here, instead of rotting, it baked. Dried out. As such, these stumps and logs were not an oasis for worms and toads and whatever else prefers damper, sheltered alcoves (perhaps nooks and crannies would be more accurate). But that didn't mean this deadwood was abandoned. No, some like it hot!
Heath Inhabitants: from left to right, a slow-worm (Anguis fragilis), and a common lizard which I think was pregnant (Zootoca vivipara).
Not Jewellery: a closer look at a young slow-worm which must have been born this Spring. Slow-worms are one of very few reptiles that are ovoviviparious - they don't lay eggs, but develop internally so the female can ensure the young are kept at a suitable temperature.
I was delighted to have found 2 of Britain's 6 reptile species so close together, though the other 4 still eluded me. The incredibly rare sand lizard, the venomous adder, the grass snake, and the smooth snake, none of which I have yet observed in the wild beyond fleeting glimpses! But if I was to find them anywhere, it would be here. All 6 species are known to inhabit the heaths and woodlands of the New Forest. I hoped it would simply be a matter of time. Until then, I'm happy to frolic with the frogs.
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All photos: © Leo Richards (NWF) 2022. Please contact me if you wish to use them, I'll almost definitely say yes :)