Mud (11th January)

The river level has dropped but the floods remain. The field I wrote about last week has since hosted five wigeon, in addition to the gadwall and gulls that are still present, and a growing number of little egrets, 10 at my last count on Saturday. A fine thing to see, yet still I had already begun to find the bird-mania of my last post subside as the busy-ness of a new university term took its place. So, later that day, instead of tearing off after more birds, I took a short but more focused walk around our garden, with a mind to finding my first ground beetle of the year. I inherited the mantle of ‘recording scheme organiser’ for this group last year, so I figured it was time I started generating some records of my own again to set a good example!

For about the first two years we lived here I maintained several pitfall traps in the garden, to help build up a list of the species that inhabit the place we’re responsible for looking after. The traps are just plastic cups buried in the ground with a few bits of leaf litter or moss in the bottom as cover for whatever falls in. The most successful of them was in what I grandly like to call the ‘woodland’ at the far end of the garden, close to the K&A canal, in the shade of a large ash tree. In a week or so it invariably caught at least a few rove beetles or ground beetles, among the springtails, spiders and increasingly ubiquitous landhoppers, even in the middle of winter. As with any mode of trapping, it was like a mini entomological Christmas every time I checked the traps; I never quite knew what would turn up.

A species I enjoyed seeing regularly was Asaphidion curtum, a small (4–5 mm) beetle with a bronze-gold metallic sheen. It is said to prefer heavier, moist soils. Well, the soil in that part of the garden is certainly that now, sitting as it does under several inches of water. Luckily, I haven’t set the traps in over a year, so no beetles will have been drowned by my recording efforts at least, but it does raise questions about the impact of floods on invertebrate life. Many species of damp places must be able to escape or cope with inundation, or at least have populations resilient enough to bounce back after local losses. Where my local Asaphidion population resides at the moment, I’m not sure.

I did check under an old bin lid close to the limits of the groundwater flood in the garden. No Asaphidion, which I think would prefer to be among leaf litter, but immediately on lifting it I noticed two beetles sculling off into wet mud the consistency of thick icing. I plucked one out of the ooze, holding it between thumb and forefinger. A square-headed, blunt-jawed bruiser of a beetle, revealed as the mud sloughed off to have a bright orange thorax as well as a distinctive orange pattern on its wing cases. I had my first ground beetle of the year. Badister bullatus is a common species but no less beautiful for it, and apparently one that, like Flanders and Swans’ hippopotamus, is most happy when wallowing in glorious mud. Or, at least, it can survive those conditions if it must – lucky beetles: if the rain continues in this vein, mud will be all that is left of our garden.

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