February 24th

Following a fascinating seminar on microclimate, I felt the call of a favourite afternoon sun-spot along the edge of The Wilderness. A favourite of mine, for its beautifully varied trees and maze of diverting muddy paths, but also of our visiting firecrests, which are drawn by the activity of myriad small insects that become animated at the touch of a sunbeam.

Taking a circuitous route via the lake, I paused to watch a wren enjoying a rare moment of inactivity, basking in the light. I suppose that it didn’t realise it was being watched. Nor did I, until I turned to see one of ‘Pete the Birdman’s robin’s gazing impatiently at me. I think this one is Sam. I held out a biscuit crumb – not suitable bird food, I know, but it’s all I had – and he swooped on it after only a second or two of hesitation.

When I finally reached firecrest corner I was whistling their thin, rising song to myself. Perhaps I’m a better impressionist than I thought, for I almost immediately saw one hopping closer among the foliage of an ivy-clad tree. There really is nothing better than a firecrest in low winter afternoon sunlight – they are incredibly vivid, in a way that with practice makes them easy to determine from goldcrests even without a glimpse of eye-stripe.

Once the firecrest had retreated back into cover, I meandered back to work*, making just one more stop in the vicinity of ‘the stone circle’ (one of the Victorian follies dotted about campus) where I’d hoped to find some early flowering celandines. No flowers at all, but I did enjoy running my hands through the top layer of soil and bark litter, watching an impressive mass of springtails bounce chaotically away.

One in particular was on the large side, for a springtail. Under a microscope it was a pale grey and beige cylinder with sparse hairs and simple but servicable legs, a long furcular – the appendage which makes a springtail spring, in this case appearing for all the world like the leg of a collapsible table – and slender antennae that were longer than the head and body combined.

This last characteristic makes it Pogonognathellus longicornis, Britain’s biggest springtail and certainly the best named. Sitting at pensive rest in a little tube of soil, it coiled and uncoiled its antennae, almost calling to mind a Victorian gentleman twirling his moustache. Quite as characterful as Sam the robin!

*I like to imagine that I’m paid for doing this sort of thing, but I can only really justify that when accompanied by students!

Scales

Small is beautiful. It’s becoming something of a personal manifesto, a statement I would weave deep into the fabric of my naturalist’s creed, were I to write one. The more we learn to wonder at the miniscule dramas unfolding all around us every second, the more content we become. Or at least so I’ve experienced.

It’s not always that simple, though. Much as reading small print strains the eyes, it takes a special kind of concentration to engage with micro-life. I’ve as often come away from staring at moss or springtails or midges with a headache as I have new revelations about life, the universe and everything. That’s where the big stuff really comes into its own – the wildlife that is so ostentatiously in our everyday field of experience that it takes special effort not to notice it.

In this part of the world, the prime example of this phenomenon is red kites. At a bird ringing demonstration in a public park, or at lunch with friends, it is kites that break the ice. Almost everybody has had a memorable experience of them. And on days when I’m too tired or preoccupied to enter into miniature worlds, the sight of big, bright, fork-tailed birds tumbling through February skies is enough to shake me back into the waking, attentive world. They take us out of ourselves, and in so doing bring us back to real life.

If they weren’t now so abundant, could they possibly have the same healing impact? It doesn’t have to be kites: it could be a starling murmuration, or a swirl of black corvids going to roost, or phalanxes of gulls filling the sky at dusk. In great numbers, even the small stuff might have the same impact – it may not be the most attractive of spectacles, but try not to be impressed by the sheer quantity of flies swarming over the reservoirs at Staines on a warm May afternoon.  For all that we nature conservationists focus on rarity, I hope that we never lose sight of the inspirational power of ‘common’ wildlife.

February 17th

There’s a thrilling freshness to the air. Spring’s first tantalising secrets are being revealed, flooding the world with colour. I started the morning scraping ice on the car, and air temperatures are still on the low side. But the earth has turned since midwinter, and it’s tangible in the warmth of the sun on your back. By summer I’ll be shy of it, but for now I delight in the sun, squinting into the light and basking like a self-satisfied cat. In February one can almost feel drunk on sunlight.

This gentle stirring of air molecules is all it took to rouse chironomid midges from their hiding place. On the bright side of an ornamental pine, a column of impossibly tiny black flies with exuberant bottlebrush antennae were busy with their ritual dance. It’s a kind of lek – for, as with birds, it is the male chironomids that dance – but operating at the kind of scale we don’t usually suspect of harbouring wildlife spectacles.

Each competing fly accelerates towards the blue sky before turning back, just as abruptly, and plummeting earthwards, occasionally spiraling into the tree for a well-earned break. I intercepted one or two with my hand and watched them rest on my fingertip, wings folded back, gently ruffled by an imperceptible breeze. A perfectly poised, wonderfully formed animal, yet one considered good for nothing but bird food by some people. Too many would simply squash one without a second’s thought.

Better known signs of the season were also in evidence. Crocuses cheering up roadsides, a carpet of snowdrops in the orchard, a few early hoverflies using rhododendron leaves as sunbeds. A blackbird in full song at the apex of the afternoon, and a March moth perched daringly in the open, as if inviting me to set the light trap out and see what else has emerged. The black-headed gulls that winter on Whiteknights Lake are out to see who can grow back their summer headgear the fastest, and it’s a cheering sight, a reminder that in not too many weeks I’ll be dusting off mine.