6 Oct 2013

Grimpo Nature Notes – October 2013 by Pete Lambert

A demented frog was how I looked, the oars of the tiny rubber dinghy wind-milling, making me just spin more wildly and the family laugh more loudly. I tried to recall my rowing skills of years ago but without success, finally getting back out of the boat I missed the bank and plunged my right leg up to the knee into the muddy edge of the pool to leave a brown stain that lasted all weekend. As some compensation my sharp-eyed son spotted a Water stick insect languidly working the shallows. Over two and half inches long [60 mm] including its elongated breathing tube or siphon and gangly legs the Water stick insect is the largest member of the sub-surface aquatic water bugs of the Heteropteran family. This fascinating group includes the backswimmers and Water boatmen, now they know how to row!  Like all bugs it has a fearsome rostrum or piercing mouth part to allow it to suck out the innards of its prey. I think with my obvious land-lubberly incompetence I must have been looking like prey to this odd lanky predator.

I knew we had a community of Bank voles around the yard and back door, having live trapped a few over the years and saved a number from the cat too, but this year was the year of the Common Shrew. Early in the summer I came home to find four shrewy corpses strewn around the yard, later another by the back door and finally a live one running along the bottom of the back step dashing pell-mell for the safety of the flower pots. The Common shrew is the second most common small mammal after the Field vole in the UK. There are three mainland species of red toothed shrew, Common, Pygmy and Water shrew and two island races of white toothed shrews on the Scilly Isles and Channel Islands. They are noisy, squeaky and aggressive. Though mouse –like they are very different in many ways. They walk on the soles of their feet, produce a poisonous secretion from their salivary glands, have a single digestive, urinary and reproductive opening and some can echolocate like bats using high frequency sound.

Shrews are amongst the smallest mammals in Europe and being so small and warm blooded in a cold climate they need to be very active and consume up to their body weight in insects over a 24 hour period. A shrew cannot survive a gap of over three hours without eating, this busy frantic lifestyle sadly is rewarded with a brief lifespan rarely longer than a year. Shrews enjoy a diet of earthworms, beetles, spiders, slugs, snails and other invertebrates such as woodlice. Intensely territorial, they will screech and shrilly call to drive away the intruder. Cats commonly catch shrews but will not eat them, which probably accounts for our Field of the vanquished Shrew. An old superstition recalled by an old man form Ruyton XI Towns is that ‘if you see a shrew-mouse – you must cross your foot or you will suffer from it’, I must bear that in mind the next time I step out of the house.

Another confirmed local territory is a quadrant of canal and wet ditches claimed by a Grey Heron – a long-legged, long-beaked wading bird, which other members of the family include the Bittern and Little Bittern. Once disturbed it will fly in front of you until it reaches the edges of its hunting grounds and then finally wheel around behind you to settle again on home waters. During winter these same iced over waters cause the population of herons to crash though they quickly recover by the following spring. They nest in trees, local heronries exist near Halston and another on the Mere. Until the twentieth century herons were a feature of the table, the fate of the heron was a Royal prerogative and only with permission could they be caught and invariably roasted as part of a spread of fowl for grand occasions, though they must taste very fishy. Herons now enjoy full protection under the law. An old weather predicting belief says that when a heron flies repeatedly up and down then rain is to be expected, looks like I need to pop down the canal to get my next weather report.

Finally I note the swallows have gone, the tired browns of the annual growth are showing through the bottom of the hedges and early morning dews and mists signal a new season arriving.  I do enjoy the autumn, good walking weather and maybe a little wildlife too, happy spotting, Pete.