Saturday, 8 May 2021

Sand Lizards Out on the Tiles 7th May 2021

I have never seen a Sand Lizard and never really considered making a special effort to see one unless an opportunity presented itself which I could hardly ignore. Some while ago a colleague, Peter, spent a day watching and taking photographs of them on a small reserve in Dorset. He showed me the pictures that he had taken and I determined there and then to go and see them for myself when a suitably sunny day came along.

Such a day was Friday the 7th of May and Peter kindly offered to come with me to show me where to look. I collected him from his home in Garsington and two hours later we came to a stop in the reserve's car park and set off on a short walk to where Peter had seen the Sand Lizards.

This was an area of mature scrub on the edge of the reserve and where four small mounds of old roof tiles had been deposited in the scrub for the lizards to hide in and come out on sunny days to bask and warm up before going off to hunt spiders, insects and grasshoppers and whatever else lizards do throughout their day.

A mound of tiles

Both of us stood by a separate mound of roof tiles and awaited developments. We were a little early, arriving at nine, when on Peter's previous visit he had not seen any lizards until gone nine thirty. He also told me the window of opportunity to see them in the morning was short, only about an hour, as once the lizards had warmed themselves sufficiently to become active they became much more lively and harder to both see and  photograph.

Although the sun was shining when we arrived it was still chilly due to a cold wind and I felt it would be a little while until we saw any action and that is what transpired. Over thirty minutes later as we stood patiently Peter indicated he could see a male Sand Lizard on his mound of tiles and I quickly walked the few metres to where he stood and he pointed out the lizard moving in and out of the grass and then into the dark recesses in the tiles.One second you saw it the next it was gone, only to re-appear a moment later.

So here was my first sight of a Sand Lizard and I was not disappointed. About 20cms long, the males develop bright green flanks preparatory to breeding, after they emerge from hibernation in March. The rest of their body and tail is mottled by lateral and dorsal strips of eye shaped markings of variable shades of brown and black whilst there is an obvious dark brown band running the length of the back.

Sand Lizards occur patchily throughout Europe. extending eastwards to northern Turkey, western Russia, Mongolia and northwest China but in Britain they are now one of the rarest of our reptiles due to the large scale loss and degradation of their favoured lowland sandy, heathland habitat and are only found in Surrey, Dorset, Hampshire and on Merseyside where they inhabit the local dune systems. Strangely a small population also persists on the Island of Coll in the Inner Hebrides. Efforts are being made to re-introduce them to areas where they formerly occured in North Wales, Devon, Cornwall and West Sussex.

After our initial sighting of the Sand Lizard we had to wait for quite a while until another showed itself but it posed perfectly on a tile right in front of me, extending its entire body and tail across the tile, basking in the sun and remaining immobile for at least five minutes, then obviously warm enough, it moved off in search of its prey or a female. 

We were lucky in that the lizards we saw generally allowed us an opportunity to view them almost completely in the open or at least not obscured by various twigs, stems, or blades  of grass but apparently they are not always as co-operative.

Naturally after each sighting and the lizard had departed, you always want to see more but there was only one more showing by another male as it threaded its way through the rough grass, before it became quiet again and the lizards had become much more elusive. In all I think I saw two, maybe three different Sand Lizards.

Sadly I never saw a female.They look very much like the male with similar markings but without the green colouring to their flanks. Peter has kindly allowed me to use one of his images of a female (see below). Sand Lizards are  Britain's only native egg laying lizard and the females require sandy ground in sunny spots to dig their burrows and into which they lay their eggs in April and May which, heated by the sand will hatch between August and early October.

What a pleasant morning at an attractive little reserve in lovely countryside. .

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