Ear To The Ground with Steve Blacksmith: Nature showing signs of stirring

These are Palmate Newts - the most commonly found species in Calderdale
These are Palmate Newts - the most commonly found species in Calderdale

We were amazed to learn of toads breeding at Widdop Reservoir a few years back, always assuming the moors were the domain only of frogs.

The females lay their eggs in long strings of black-studded clear jelly in the shallow channel at the north side of the reservoir. It’s quite different from the rounded clumps of frogspawn. Later I discovered toads at Gorpley Reservoir.

Newts are also found in elevated as well as lowland ponds. We only had records of Smooth Newts from easterly waters, around Brighouse, but last year we received reports of them from Todmorden.

Again we were going by old records that showed all the newts in Upper Calderdale were Palmate Newts. We have no records of Smooth Newts from the mid valley area. Some people get newts and Common Lizards confused, but lizards are reptiles, dry-skinned and active, darting among the heather or bilberry on hot sunny days. They are found on most of our moors, but not (as far as I know) in the valleys.

The Blue Tits have started entering the nest box near my kitchen where they usually breed. A friend with a camera-loaded box that sends pictures to their TV has seen the Great Tits building their new nest.

I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it wouldn’t be much use to me, as I gave away my TV!

I’d like to see the Nuthatches building their nest as well. They pick a cavity with a big entrance, then make it into a small entrance by plastering it up with mud. They will use nest boxes, but the nest hole should be 32mm (one and a quarter inches). Nuthatches are well established throughout Calderdale now, but were at one time never seen. I used to go to Bolton Abbey Woods to see them.

The first records were from Centre Vale Park, Todmorden, in the 1970s, when a local man, using black and white film, photographed them breeding. Then they gradually started to appear till they are now in most woods, and quite often come into gardens.

One bird we all love to hear is the Cuckoo. The Times of London traditionally has a letter from the public announcing they have heard the first cuckoo of spring. Sadly they are much fewer now throughout England, though still doing well in the more northern counties and Scotland.

One or two Cuckoos per year are usually heard around upper Calderdale. Last year was a good year, with about four. They look for the nests of little song birds to sneakily lay their eggs in, especially Meadow Pipits.

The reduction in Cuckoo numbers has been linked to low numbers of caterpillars, which they prefer to feed on, especially the big hairy ones that many birds avoid.

Everything is connected, the insects depending on the wild plants, and the birds helping to keep the insects in check.

The amphibians too, eat live invertebrates of many kinds, though the tadpoles when they first develop ( “hatch” I hear people saying – though that sounds like cracking an eggshell open to me - ) eat a vegetarian diet of algae for a while. If you have tadpoles as pets, but no pond with algae, you can feed them on a little lightly-cooked cold spinach or boiled lettuce. Maybe they would like steamed nettles. Then later they need to nibble on a tiny piece of meat or other animal food.