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Chasing Dragons
Leopard Geckos, Bearded Dragons, lizards, snakes and frogs. Some people have a fascination with this part of the animal kingdom. Jack Perks explains the ins and outs of these extraordinary creatures

For as long as I can remember, I have always had an interest in the natural world and photography was my way of documenting it. Since childhood, I have had pet reptiles, like Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons, but I soon wanted to go after the British Herptiles (the collective term for amphibians & reptiles). There are six native reptiles to the mainland and a further two on the Channel Islands, including three snakes and five lizards.

slow-wormThe slow worm is not actually a worm or, despite its appearance, a snake; it is a legless lizard and the most common species of reptile you are likely to encounter in the UK. They are a good species to begin with, as they do not move as fast as their four-legged cousins, so allow more time to compose an image and experiment with camera settings. Feeding on a mixed diet of slugs, snails and beetles, they are very popular with gardeners and allotment owners, so it is a good idea to start looking for them there. Being quite vulnerable, they have a defence mechanism that all lizards in the UK have: they can shed their tail when a predator attacks them, allowing them to escape. This is also one of the reasons it is best to avoid handling lizards, as it can trigger them to shed their tails.

common-lizardThe common lizard is not as common as its name suggests, but it still covers a range of habitats from heathland, woodland and coastal dunes. They bask in the mornings, normally on a south-facing bank, to warm up for the rest of the day. Another name for them is the Viviparous Lizard, which means that they give birth to live young. They quickly make use of boardwalks and anything dark, like old tyres and carpets, to bask on, as these absorb heat quicker than their surroundings. It is a good idea to look out for these areas when photographing reptiles.

sand-lizardThe sand lizard is the UK's rarest lizard and is a protected species; if you disturb, handle or photograph them without a licence, you could receive a hefty fine. Therefore, it is best to either go on organised reptile walks (RSPB Arne run these in the summer), where licensed people will take you around to see them and get photographs. The male is a vibrant green colour, while the female is a shade of brown. You can instantly tell which is which. This licence also applies for smooth snakes, Natter Jack Toads and Great Crested Newts.

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The grass snake is the most common serpent in the British Isles, from Southern Scotland right down to the Channel Islands and everywhere in between. They are also the largest, with some reaching nearly six feet in length. However, they are completely harmless and will mostly slither away when a photographer approaches them, making them a tricky subject at the best of times. A lens such as a 300mm is ideal, as this permits you stay away from the snake, allowing it to get used to you, and enabling you to get pictures without disturbing them. They are sub-aquatic, preferring to live by rivers and lakes where the majority of their food is, such as amphibians and small fish.

adderAdders are often the brunt of a lot of people’s misconceptions, but for the most part will shy away from people. Although they are venomous, they rarely use the bite, keeping it only for prey and, in some circumstances, self-defence. The adder is the world's most widespread snake, covering most of Europe and Asia, and even tolerating the freezing temperatures of the arctic circle. To avoid harm to yourself and the snake, it is best to use a longer lens as they often back away into a hole or bush when they see people.

green-lizardGreen lizards are one of Europe’s largest lizards, reaching lengths of 30cm, and can be found all over Jersey. They are completely green, although not quite as vibrant as the male sand lizard. They like to live on sandy dunes looking for small insects to feed on. Living in a sandy environment means that they warm up and become active more quickly; therefore, it is a good idea to get out very early to try and find them before they are too quick to photograph.

wall-lizardUnsurprisingly, wall lizards like to live on walls, but naturally like cliff faces. Jersey is a hotspot, with the little lizards darting around the rocks for insects. Both the wall lizard and the green lizard have been introduced to mainland Britain in areas like Bournemouth cliffs, and are now quite well-established there.

common-frogCommon frogs are not as common as you might think, but with the help of garden ponds, their numbers have become stable. Building a pond is a great way to attract amphibians to your own garden, and it means that you do not have to go far to get your pictures. Also, you have a lot more control over them. Most amphibians begin to breed in the spring, so this is a great time to capture mating behaviour, as frogs are often more preoccupied with each other than the photographer.

common-toadCommon toads are a widespread species and can often come into danger when crossing roads to get to ancient breeding ponds; this has promoted people to set up toad patrols to help them cross the roads. Rather than having clumps of spawn like frogs, toads lay strings of spawn. The tadpoles also secrete a toxin over their skin, making them taste foul to predators. Common toads can reach ages of up to fifty years and return to the same pond year after year. Like the slow worm, they are a great subject to start with when photographing amphibians, as they are slow-moving and very photogenic.

marsh-frogMarsh frogs are an introduced species to the UK, spreading from areas in the South East such as Romney Marsh, Kent. They have throat sacs and a fairly loud call to attract females, and they fight over females, making for great photo opportunities. They have a range of colours from bright green to mottled brown, and can prove quite shy, dive-bombing into the water when danger approaches.

Smooth-newtAs for our newt species, the smooth newt is abundant throughout the UK; the male can be confused with the great crested newt, as it also grows a crest in the springtime, but it is much smaller and not as black. Other species that are numerous include the palmate, which is the smallest newt species, and is particularly abundant in the south west of England.

When dealing with some of the more common species, experimenting with macro and wide-angle lenses can really yield great results. Focusing on the patterns, scales and textures of each individual species shows their own unique qualities.


Top Five Herptile Locations

 
RSPB Arne nature reserve, Dorset, UK
Dorset is the reptile capital of the UK and holds all six native species, as well as a few exotic ones. The reserve organises guided trips, allowing the photographers to take pictures they could never usually have taken.

London Wetland Centre, London, UK
Common lizards lie on the boardwalk and the area's ditches are full of Marsh frogs, providing food for many of the bird species in the marsh such as bitterns, herons & egrets.

Peak District, Derbyshire, UK
With plenty of rivers and lakes for the amphibians and grass snakes, the moors and heath provide great areas for adders and slow worms.

Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve, Cornwall, UK
Despite previously being an arsenic mine, it holds palmate newts, toads and frogs in good numbers, as well as Common Lizards in the grassy areas.

St Ouen, Jersey, Channel Islands
If you want to see native wall lizards and green lizards, then Jersey is the place to go, and if you are very lucky, you may even come across the rare agile frog; you will not find this frog anywhere else in the UK.


Worth considering

 
Get up early. All reptiles need to bask; look for south-facing banks where the sun will hit first.

Tins, old carpets or even bits of wood often have herptiles hiding underneath, so these are always a good place to look under to see who is at home.

Herptiles can often get away at remarkable speeds so a fast shutter speed is advised to capture the movement.

Lenses such as 300mm f/2.8 are ideal for long-range reptile work, while 105mm macro lenses are perfect for close-up detail.

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