Thursday, 9 February 2012

Nice weather for some

The cold snap has, it seems, sent the oystercatchers away again. I haven't seen them since the beginning of the week. So the river field was silent again today - the landscape blurred by a soft mist, the sky empty of birds. It felt as if the land was in suspended animation. The mud was solid as cold chocolate, the puddles and  pools crazy with trampled and refrozen ice.

But coming back through the gateway to the field where the cattle used to be overwintered I found some life where I least expected it. In the place where the cattle congregated by the gate waiting for the farmer to bring their feed there's a large, muddy, hoof-trampled area. It fills with rain to form a wide, shallow pool every winter. Of course it was frozen, but unlike most of the ice it still had a smooth, clear surface - very tempting to slide across on a dull day. I was about to launch myself, Torvill and Dean-style (in wellies?!) across this makeshift skating rink when a movement under the ice caught my eye. There, skulling around nonchalantly over the muddy bottom of the pool was a bevy of small, shiny-black water boatmen (Corixidae, the ones that swim on their fronts, not their backs). They seemed completely unaffected by the thick layer of ice in which they were trapped. A miracle, I thought, that these tiny, cold-blooded creatures can survive like that!

But apparently my amazement was misplaced. They not only survive, but thrive in such conditions. The colder the water, the more oxygen it can carry. The waterboatmen latch on to oxygen-rich air bubbles in the water beneath the ice and use them like tiny aqualungs, so they don't need access to the surface to breathe. They will be feasting on the rich detritus and algae in the cattle-poached mud, cocking a snook at their predators who can't get at them inside their own personal aquarium, and generally having a whale of a time.

Which brings me neatly to the other thing I wanted to say. As it's my daughter's half-term break the family is off to have a whale of a time ourselves next week. So no more blogging until 20 February, when I hope to be able to tell you about some of the wildlife we saw on the Solway Firth. Brace yourselves for many wild goose stories!

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