For regulars I am looking increasingly like a teller of tall tales, but last night I was out newting in Buckinghamshire, and after evening rain everything was dripping and misty. I was looking for inverts on a tall standing beech trunk, upon which were a couple of Hylecoetus dermestoides a red saproxylic beetle which seems to be booming in numbers. But on the opposite side there were 4 Smooth newt efts (last years emergees) climbing straight up the trunk. One was nearly 2m up!! Nearby on the recumbent snapped off upper bole sat a common toad male deep in thought, which had me thinking how had he climbed up onto a 1m high round beech surrounded in rhododendron?? It reminded me of a night in 1990 on the Merseyside sand-dunes when a long drought was ended with heavy rain. That night newts and small toads were seen up amongst bramble and other bushes up to 1.5m off the floor. The draw of moisture seems important, but how delicate little newts clamber up thorny bramble is a mystery (carefully one imagines).
The Smoothies were amateurs though, as a red earthworm species was also making a bid for the summit with several 2m from the base working steadily upwards. Several could be seen heading the opposite way down from the broken off top of the trunk some 5m up.
The other observation of note was that despite Bittersweet being the only foldable leaf present the abundant newt population in one pond were not using it for egg-laying. It stinks so maybe that puts them off??
Little has been written about the substrates selected by newts on land, but observations from Cuxton Chalk pit in Strood, Kent showed some quite remarkable and very surprising associations.
Over 20,000 Smooth newts of all ages were moved as part of a licensed development. This involved extensive use of drift fencing/pitfalling, direct searching, followed by a painstaking destructive clearance. It was in the latter phase that it became apparent that Smooth Newt efts were positively attracted to the drier substrates. The high chalk cliffs that surrounded the pit eroded to form extensive talus slopes of loose friable chalk rubble from golf ball to pea size. These were partly shaded by birch dominated scrub/young woodland. It was within this debris that one year old Smooth Newt efts were most abundant. They were clearly uniquely able to survive here where there was no possible connection to ground water moisture, often 2-3m up in the screes. Adult Smooth and Great Crested Newt adults and efts were found mainly under debris which was lying on ground connected by capillary action to the wildly fluctuating groundwater levels in this bizarre pit. A huge pile of clayey overburden was present but rarely used by any newts, showing that there is a limit to drought tolerance. When I first visited the site I had assumed the newts would be concentrated in the extensive mossy covered fen areas in the lowest parts of the pit (but except when breeding in these when flooded), newts were extremely rare in this area. In high summer the moss shrivelled and presumably would have had a desiccating effect on any amphibians within it.
In hindsight i wish I had done more science, but the sheer abundance of amphibians was such that it was a full time task just rescuing them!