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!


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