Catching breath in the midst of a busy Monday, I ducked out into the Wilderness for 20 minutes. Once I’d checked on a potential butterfly egg candidate (false lead, alas) and visited the island in the woods – now proudly established in its island status by a resplendent moat of floodwater – I tried gently peeling back a few pieces of bark to see what I might uncover. The last was close to the wood’s edge. Several springtails bounced away and then another miniscule invertebrate leaped onto my hand, darting about in a series of zig-zagging jumps. Not a springtail – the wrong shape, more flattened. It was just like – surely not? Yes! A flea!
This seemed an unusual find: a flea, out in the wild, detached from its host. I popped it in a tube in the hope of being able to dig out a flea key. As I was doing so a red kite suddenly loomed in to view, tail feathers blown ragged by strengthening breeze. Red kites are not big animals, by human standards – wingtip to wingtip a kite wouldn’t even be as long as I am tall – but I was struck by the bird’s size. Kites are so immediately and obviously present that I can see how they begin to fade into the background. You don’t need to pay attention in order to see them. By weight it would take one million of the flea I’d just caught to make up a single red kite.
This afternoon I sat down with the RES flea handbook*, which confirmed a useful tip-off from fellow pan-lister Mark Telfer – this was indeed the squirrel flea Orchopeas howardi, a North American species that’s made the leap across the pond with its grey squirrel host. I should have figured that a squirrel would be the most likely source for a flea left stranded on a tree trunk. There’s an amusing postscript too: clinging to the leg of my flea, barely the size of its mid-femur, was a tiny, transparent mite. Kite, flea, mite; life in all shapes and most definitely all sizes!
*Written by Amoret Whitaker, coincidentally a Reading Zoology graduate. The handbook is a beautiful piece of work: how wonderful that there are people who care so much about the minutiae of the world they’re willing to spend a considerable chunk of time learning everything there is to know about creatures most people would prefer didn’t exist at all.