Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Art of Stream Dipping

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We haven’t been out to Red Butterfly Gorge  together for almost a year so it’s high time we took another look. Particularly as last time we went hiking up the track to the gorge (like most tourists do) and missed all the wonderful stuff not a hundred yards from the car park.

Slippery Jack, Red Admiral, Nematocera Larva
You’ll have noticed that we’ve swapped the sweep net this week for a pond dipping net and scientifically selected glass sample jars (yes, I know yours has still got a Hoeseradish sauce label on it but I assure you that I scientifically selected it myself). Now the idea is that you wade out into that raging torrent using the wobbly stepping stones provided whilst I sit here on the bank with the magnifying glass and the inspection tray (or upturned one litre ice-cream tub lid as it’s otherwise known). You’ll need the net and this big stick as well. Steady as you go. Place the net on the floor of the stream and muddy up the bed in front of it with the stick. Marvellous, now bring it back to the bank – watch that stone it’s loose – oh dear, never mind, you held onto the net and that’s the main thing. We can get another stick and that sunny branch looks ideal for drying your socks. Let’s have a look and see what you’ve found. Now that looks like the larval form of one of the Nematocera, a suborder of flies that includes mosquitoes, gnats and midges among others.  We’ll have a few more tries and take the results back to the lab. No, you go, you’ve already got wet feet.

I think we’ve got time to explore some of this lovely pine woodland on the way back. The Red Admiral Butterflies are out in force as usual and the ground is quite littered with these Slippery Jack mushrooms. As you can see they decompose quite rapidly and the caps soon become quite slippery and slimy. Some species are considered quite a delicacy in parts of Eastern Europe but I believe they only pick the very young ones. Ah, here’s a flower that can sometimes be confusing. This is an Anemone (Anemone coronaria) which comes in violet, pink and white and looks very similar to the Persian Buttercup (Ranunculus asiaticus) which comes in yellow, red and also white. Anenomes however have this whorl of leaves a little way below the flower and no sepals below the petals, Persian Buttercups are the other way around. We’ll get these samples back to base now as I’ve a new project for you to get involved with and I’ll update you with the ongoing projects we’ve already started. Don’t forget your socks, are they dry yet?

The Snails and their initial routes
Last week , as you no doubt recall, we were looking at animal personality and I thought it would be fun to have a closer look at snails and see if they have individual personalities. Are some more adventurous than others? If so does this swashbuckling, devil-may-care attitude make them more attractive to other snails or does like attract like? Accordingly I grabbed a handful of snails that were all resting together under a rock up the lane and put them in a box in the garden and waited to see what would happen. As you know, snails are hermaphrodite so we don’t have to worry about the whole male/female attraction thing and that’s why I’ve given them non-specific gender names. Let me introduce you. Ashley took a day or so to get moving, found a plank of wood on the ground beneath the box, explored half the length of it before coming back to the other end of the plank the following day where it met up with Vivian who’d also found the plank, travelled a few centimetres to the right and thought “that’s enough exercise for one week” and stopped. 
Ashley and Vivian with Big Mark and guests
The following day two baby snails had appeared between them and there the group has stayed and started receiving visitors in the form of two Julid millipedes (whether by invitation or not is unclear). Beverley has had a hard time of it. It also took a day to get out of the box and the following day was lying on its back directly beneath it looking rather forlorn. Since then it has climbed laboriously back into the box and out again, fallen over once more, closed its shell in a fit of despair and finally attached itself to the underside of the box in an apparent sulk. Sam on the other hand is the most adventurous of the bunch. First out of the box within six hours it sprinted three metres to the base of the grapevine on the first day, explored the right door jamb the following day, found this unsatisfactory and on the third day I found it lodged behind the air conditioning pipe 1.58m above the ground. After such a marathon eight metre trek it’s taken a four day break to catch its breath. And Leslie? I’m still looking. Six hours after the start it was still happily in the box, the following morning nowhere to be seen having been away on its toes overnight. 

The Boys
So that’s the snails, come upstairs to the terrace and I’ll update you on the other ongoing projects. You met Alice and Beatrice, our female House Sparrows, last week; now meet the boys. I haven’t named them yet as I can’t quite distinguish between them. Maybe you can? Those of you who know your European sparrows will have spotted that they have brown caps and white cheeks like the Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis) rather than the grey caps and cream cheeks of the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The truth of the matter is that the distribution of sparrow species and subspecies in the Mediterranean is highly complex and I suspect that only DNA testing and cladistic analysis  will sort out the true relationships and ancestry of these birds.

European Wasp
As to our other ongoing projects: the moss continues to grow in the mossary but the insect egg still hasn’t hatched and I’m beginning to see why this was such a passing fad in the nineteenth century. Even in the days before television, watching moss grow couldn’t have been the most exciting of pastimes. And on the Phenology front I’ve added the European Wasp (Vespula germanica) to our January sightings which still leaves us with a couple of dragonflies and a grasshopper to try and spot on the insect list before the end of the month.

Well I think that just about wraps it up for this week so until next time – happy hunting.

Naturalists (the facebook page that accompanies this blog)


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