The six seconds of 'dancing' Adders that I enjoyed on 10 April last year was my top wildlife highlight of 2018. I have spent much of this spring plotting to surpass that experience. For Norfolk's vipers, this has been an odd, tardy spring. Cold and wet weather has delayed sloughing, and – we expected – would cause the snakes to slough, enter combat and mate all within a few frenetic days.
Indeed, Silver and the female seemed to be genuinely getting it on. Surely the beta male wasn't going to snatch a mating from under the flickering tongue of the dominant boy? Oh yes he was. Unequivocally.
Silver, however, seemed reluctant to admit his subservience. He was not to be deterred. Another hour on, he launched his fourth attack on the Green King. This time he didn't even get to the foot of the hill before Green raced down, full of indignation. Silver turned 180 degrees and, for a few seconds, both snakes were fairly coursing straight towards me. This was a little nerve-wracking given the speed they were moving at and given what appeared to be a yawn that Green had given earlier, while sunbathing; Adders can sure open their mouth rather wide...
Silver appeared to finally admit that enough was enough. Definitively the subordinate male now, he slithered off to nurse his bruised ego.
Occasionally, his trajectory would come near me, as I lay on the ground. At this point, Green would raise his head off the ground in mild threat.
This was proper snake porn. Hemipenis (the pink thing) in full view. Bits conjoined – a true Union of the Snake to please my wife (a Le Bon fan). Adders multiplying.
What ensued will certainly be among the most brilliant wildlife experiences of my year.
Initially, Green and the female were lying within half-a-metre of each other. According to local Richard, she had taken up residence there four days ago – and the males had clearly discovered her, and were waiting for her to 'grant favours'. Occasionally, Green would gauge her receptiveness by moving jerkily over her, licking. At best she ignored him, but usually she wriggled free of his attentions. He thus returned to his sunbathing spot, just below her on the slope.
I simultaneously shared the Soars' excitement and was severely gripped. Will's Dad only saw his first Adder two days earlier, and saw dancing within 20 minutes of arriving at 'our' site. I have nearing my century of days with Adders… and have witnessed just six seconds of feisty neck-waving.
Spring only got going in the middle of last week. As recently as 18 April, Will Soar could find no male Adders that had sloughed (shed their old skin) at our regular North Norfolk site. On a brief visit on 20 April, I had two males that had sloughed. With more warm weather anticipated over the weekend, we foresaw a mass shedding of skins and a rapid surge in hormonally driven activity this week.
Green, meanwhile, continued to sunbathe in the open, apparently oblivious to Silver's attempt to cuckold him.
Green then spent an hour or so patrolling his domain, apparently trying to find the female, who had vanished.
A few metres under cover, Silver and the female went about their business. It was hard to get a clean view of them – hence the poor photographs – but also important that I did not disturb the pair at this sensitive time. So I stayed back for all but a minute or two, watching them through bins.
… before he too had another go at usurping Green. And another. Twice more Green was victorious, chasing Silver away.
After half-an-hour, Silver returned. He started sunbathing – the very picture of innocence – about a metre below Green, and just over that from the female (who you can see top left in the image below).
Green and the female continued sunbathing, and he occasionally changed his 'arm' – but to no avail. She wasn't having any of it... or rather, any of him.
Silver, meanwhile, sunbathed in the open on an adjacent bank…
Twenty minutes later, Silver had yet another attempt on the throne. Another attempt that ended in abject failure.
The Soars headed off in search of more serpentine excitement, and quickly found two males near a female. Once I located Green and 'his' female, I stayed put – and spent the next six hours watching the site, while hammering away on my laptop in the name of writing. After all, I have another book to write...
After 15 minutes, Silver plucked up courage to challenge Green's primacy again. He snaked up to Green and they writhed and whirled in rapid combat, twirling horizontally through the dead bracken. Not full-on dancing, you understand – at least not with necks held vertical. Green soon won the battle and Silver retreated.
Green began sunbathing out in the open, flattening himself to make efficient use of solar rays and appearing to breathe deeply as if exhausted by the exertions.
Even so, we didn't expect it quite so soon. Will took his parents to the site on Monday morning and, while I was finishing the school run, had two males dance by 08h30. I arrived on site half-an-hour later to find the trio ecstatic, but the dance-off over. Will said that the males (one greenish and one silver) had been fighting over a female, and that the victor – let's call him Green (images above and immediately below) – had eloped into the undergrowth with the female. Silver – as we'll call the defeated male – had slipped away to nurse his shattered ego.
Green remained oblivious or disinterested. Why was unclear. Perhaps he wasn't fully sexually mature – but if so, why was he bothering to expend energy chasing away Silver? Or perhaps had already, erm, shot his bolt – and needed to 'refuel' by lying in the sun? If so, why was he guarding the female in the morning? The last I saw of the Happy Couple was when the female decided to retreat into even denser cover. To do so, she headed uphill, literally dragging her mate by the balls. I winced.
Then came the twist in the tale (or is that 'tail'?). Silver was heading off, away from the site, vanquished for good… then did an abrupt volte-face. He had spotted the female, who was ten metres away from her usual spot. Silver made straight for her, and made a much more concerted attempt to worm (well, snake) his way into her affections, wriggling round her, trying to lift her tail with his, and pursuing her through the brambly undergrowth.
As they retired, I rejoiced. Six stupendous hours. Thank you, Adders.