LAST week, I thought I saw a newt in a very unexpected place. Most of our seven amphibian species (three newts, two toads and two frogs) are confined to water at this time of the year, busy doing their aquatic breeding thing, but the individual that had caught my eye was lying among dry leaves at the base of an oak tree, with no water to be seen anywhere nearby.

It was about four inches long and lizard-like in shape but what convinced me of its identity was a glimpse of a bright orange belly with black spots – the classic diagnostic feature of a male newt in breeding colours...or so I thought. No sooner had I sneaked closer for a better look at the animal than it scuttled away at a speed no newt could ever manage. Despite its newt-like colouring, it turns out my creature was a lizard after all.

The colouration of common lizards is very variable. They can be almost anything from pale, sandy brown through to almost black. I even saw a yellow and black striped individual on Wheeldale Moor a few years ago but orange-bellied was a new one on me. My subsequent research has revealed that both sexes can show this colouration but it’s more commonly seen in males.

April is a good time to see lizards in Ryedale. Like all of our native reptiles they have been hibernating underground over the winter and have not long emerged. Consequently they will be hungry and likely to be actively hunting insects, spiders and worms to build up body reserves.

Females in particular need lots of food to develop their eggs as this month marks the start of the breeding season.

After a brief (and sometimes violent) mating, the female experiences an unusually long pregnancy. This is because, in our cool climate, the female common lizard’s strategy is to allow up to a dozen eggs to develop and hatch inside her body and then after three months give birth to live young.

These perfectly formed mini-lizards get no maternal care as they are able to fend for themselves from day one. Incidentally, the technical term for giving birth to live young is vivipary which has led to the common lizard’s alternative name of viviparous lizard.

As to where to look out for lizards in Ryedale, well they could turn up just about anywhere that’s not too cultivated, even untidy corners of gardens.

In my experience though, mixed heather/grassland seems to be a favourite habitat, especially open patches where they can sunbathe. Being cold-blooded (biologists call it ectothermic) lizards have to warm up their bodies to working temperature, especially on cool mornings, and basking in the sun is the best way to do it.

The problem with sunbathing for a small and inoffensive creature is that it makes you very vulnerable to predation and lizards are on the menus of a wide variety of hunters. Weasels, stoats, adders and all manner of birds would quite happily make a meal of them but if the lizard’s speedy escape scamper lets them down they have another elegant defence strategy up their sleeve – a detachable tail. If a lizard is caught by the tail it has the ability to snap it off near the base leaving the predator with a still-wriggling appetiser while the animal itself makes its escape. Better still, the lizard even has the ability to regrow its tail later.

If you are fortunate enough to spot a suspected common lizard locally then identification shouldn’t be a problem and speed of movement is the key. Yorkshire’s only other lizard is the slow worm which has no legs so can only slither like a snake and the fastest a newt can manage is a brisk walk.