The weather was due to turn this afternoon, so we decided to head out to a local patch this morning. Loch Torr is a local Forestry Commission site with a diverse range of habitats, including a small freshwater loch, we often cover the tracks within the forest and have had a great variety of sightings. Today though, we chose to walk along the lower shore of the loch on nearby farmland to check some good spots for reptiles and amphibians – did pretty well.
We had common lizard and slowworm on the reptile side of things. No adders today, although we’ve had some great sightings this year so far. We also noticed plenty of wildflowers on the walk, including the first bog asphodel of the year, fragrant and heath spotted orchid, heath bedstraw, birds-foot trefoil, heath milkwort and slender St John’s wort.
We then found three individual common toads hidden away in cool, quiet places. Toads are great – always had a soft spot for them, their pupil is fascinating! Incredibly they are known to live for a very long time, captive toads have even reached the age of 50! We also spotted a common frog, showing their behavioural differences clearly – the toads were relatively calm and reluctant to move (maybe they know they taste bad), whilst the frog was off in a very large hop to find better shelter. We submit all our reptile and amphibian sightings to Record Pool, even the “common” species!
I could have been under the water, amongst the slime of green algae and the carnivorous creatures hanging motionless in the water, I was living the life of a pond, nose pressed up to the cold glass.
We were inside the living building of the Ardnamurchan Natural History Visitor Centre exploring the information boards and collections of natural objects. The building had a soundscape of the long gone wolf howl, it made my skin tingle and raised the excitement. The rafters play host to the pine marten and they’re often seen from the “one way window”. No pine marten whilst we looked, by a grey wagtail bobbed on the burn. Stuffed animal specimens demonstrate the size of the species, red deer, hedgehog, fox, badger and golden eagle.
Best of all though was the pond! My excitement really bubbled over when I realised you could see the hidden depths of the pond through glass. I’ve always loved pond life and spent hours by the pond I badgered my Dad to create. What a different world beneath the surface of the water. This was brilliant. Tiny snails dotted the glass wall of the pond outside and I could see their foot if I looked closely, it was like a little snail nursery. Caddis fly larvae laboriously pulled themselves along the pond bottom, top heavy with camouflage materials and tadpoles bumped their noses against the glass. Small beetles whizzed up and down with their air bubble beaming like a light in the murk. A newt hung in the weed almost motionless – how incredible to be able to watch this secretive creature at home under the surface. When I peeked above the surface pond skaters slid effortlessly, waiting to feel the vibrations of drowning, dying, creatures.
The beast that stole the show was menacing and decidedly carnivorous. They hung in the water, unmoving yet dangerous. I watched with my nose squeezed up against the glass as one gnawed on a lifeless tadpole. These creatures were master predators of the pond. Immersing myself into the life the freshwater habitat I could really understand the dynamics and marvel at the species living in it. These monster tadpole eaters would become great-diving beetles – the beetle I had stared into my pond for hours hoping to spot as an enthralled child. The larvae were just as brilliant, despite now only being an enthralled adult. I was a child again for a wee while, with a cold nose and straining eyes, peering into the life of a humble garden pond.
As the saying goes, it’s the little things that count. This is so true for nature, but we’re quick to forget about them. The all signing, all dancing nature programmes that hit our screens excite us about the big things and the far-flung places. Of course, the footage and the story lines are brilliant and inspiring but they aren’t a realistic destination for most of us and certainly won’t be on the family holiday list. So, children don’t get to connect to these places and species in real life. Real life connections are the ones that stick, no matter how little. The little things give you a chance to connect much more often and these chances will stay with you throughout adult life. Just last summer I found an elephant hawkmoth caterpillar by chance. I was so surprised and elated by this creature it was just like being a child again.
Some of my most cherished memories of nature and childhood are the tiniest. My bird feeders had me hooked from the moment I was given my first bird watching book. Chaffinch, dunnock and robin were the regular birds, the normal birds so to speak but because they were there right by the window everyday the connection was real and it lasted. My godparents garden was full of cabbages and therefore full of caterpillars. I didn’t know the species, I had a vague idea that they’d become a white butterfly, only because I’d seen white butterflies in the garden. But, I became a caterpillar rescuer, saving them from some sort of doom, imagined or otherwise. I collected lots, and installed them in new homes – butter tubs! My Grandma and I would visit Rothbury, in rural Northumberland. We’d spend hours down by the River Coquet fishing for ‘tiddlers’ as she called them. We’d get wet feet and a little muddy but we’d head back proudly carrying glass jars full of small fish, usually to be released later in the week.
These are the things that really mattered and developed a real love of nature as a whole, not just the big things or exotic things, but everything from earthworms up. They still matter now and I still gain a huge amount of joy and happiness from the smaller things.
Yesterday, we took a walk to a spot we know is good for adders and lizards. These are the slightly bigger things and are still a huge excitement. We weren’t successful in looking for them but we still found some brilliant little things. An old fishing hut, now strewn around as corrugated tin sheets has become a home for wildlife. First we found a short-tailed vole, then a toad, then another vole. These are the little things, the fairly regular things but a connection to these animals may last a life time.
The voles paused under the lifted sheets, deciding if we were a threat, where to go and what to do. We watched as they squeezed through their little grassy tunnels – an insight into their tiny world. The toad sat still, as if totally unaware of us, his fascinating rectangular pupils unblinking. How old was this toad? They’ve been known to live till the age of 16. Did he have years of experience under his rotund belt? The last moment of little things yesterday was the realisation that we were surrounded by ant mounds. They stood unobtrusively around the hillside but the more we looked the more we saw. What a revelation – think of the biomass of insects in that little area!
We need to encourage these big connections to the little things in our younger generations. Children are held back and restricted so often, regulations tell us what we can’t or shouldn’t do (rightly so in some instances), but we need to release the child when we can. Let them pick up frogs and toads and feel the squirm in their hands. Let them dig for earthworms with their bare hands and wash them later. Let them get wet and muddy, slip on seaweed and tumble into a rock pool, pick up a crab and stroke an anemone. These are the things they’ll remember for life. The little things have the biggest impact.