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BBC Wildlife’s fifth annual nature-writing contest attracted more than 160 entries. The standard was higher than ever: once again, the judges found it hard to choose between the final few shortlisted entries.
In the end Jim Stevenson’s tiddler-fishing tale won through, with its skilful depiction of a classic childhood activity and a frequently overlooked, enigmatic yet charming British species.
Miller’s Thumb by Jim Stevenson, Cambridgeshire
Jim wins a place on an Earthwatch expedition. He will take part in one of three exciting conservation adventures: Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos, Puerto Rico’s Rainforest or South Africa’s Scavenger Species.
Bombus by Niall Leighton, Fife
Scottish Bank Failure by Barbara Mearns, Dumfries
Between the Elements by Lucy McRobert, Leicestershire
The runners-up all receive three books published by Collins: a gift edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach; On Nature; and a New Naturalist paperback of their choice.
If you were to visit a public aquarium, you would not spend long in front of a tank of bullheads. They are dull, badly proportioned tiddlers that do little but hide or sit on the bottom of a bare tank, looking grumpy.
The truth is, you don’t find bullheads in captivity, and I can see why. Nor do you normally come across them in the wild; you have to actively seek them out.
In the hand, a bullhead is all head and belly, like a big, wet tadpole, but at eye level in a jam-jar he’s a water monster.
An angry male resembles a heraldic dragon, painted black with details picked out in gold. I’ve watched such a fish in a jar for ages, waiting for him to calm down and revert to his normal blotchy, sand and brown camouflage. But he never did.
I reckoned that he would stay mad at me as long as he was in the jar – or would die. So I created a series of pools in the shallows, stocked them with black males and stripy females, and watched them.
But they still didn’t change colour. It seems the males stay angry-black in spring, even though at other times of year they change tint to match their surroundings.
Before life got serious and I became interested in girls, I used to hunt bullheads in any stream shallow enough to paddle in. You could catch the pugnacious little creatures with your bare hands in less than 30cm of water.
If you worked upstream and gently turned over the rocks ahead of you, a bullhead would often dash out, then vanish under a nearby rock. Or he might just stay put and rely on his cryptic colours for protection. If he did, he’d be yours.
I hadn’t seen a bullhead in years, but a recent visit to Stotfold Water Mill in Bedfordshire set me off on a trail of rediscovery.
Dust-laden sunbeams slanted across the room, and over the commentary of the guide I could hear the heartbeat of cogs and the turning of the great millwheel below.
“The miller knows the sack is full when the flour reaches his thumbs, which he keeps tucked into the corners,” the guide explained. “Of course, the longer the miller’s thumbs, the less flour there is in each sack. Some millers had prodigiously long thumbs.”
Hearing the words “miller’s thumb… miller’s thumb” against the sound of water bubbling under the machinery made me want to paddle in that springtime, spring-fed millstream and search for the little fish of my childhood.
‘Miller’s thumb’ is the traditional name for bullheads, though my American wife calls them sculpins.
Three weeks later I bumped into a lady who had lived her whole life in Stotfold. She remembered going to the mill to fetch chicken feed and reaching high above her head to pull a long rope that rang a bell in order to catch the miller’s attention, three storeys up.
And she remembered catching bullheads with her friends in the River Ivel, just below the mill.
I haven’t yet had time to return to the Ivel, but on my local patch there’s a flood relief channel called the Black Traps. Old friends recall learning to swim there when there was nothing but fields and cricket-bat willows fringing the river.
Now the skyline is dominated by a superstore, a new housing estate and a power station, but it retains an irresistible attraction for me and a new generation of tiddler fishers.
Below the weir, the watercourse is still a classic millstream, with a gravel bed visible between lines of waving weeds and emerging patches of watercress. There are no large stones to turn over, so we fish our tiddler-nets upstream along the edges of weed-banks, and we catch sticklebacks, minnows, loaches and, of course, bullheads.
We observe these beauties in jam-jars before releasing them back to the wild.
I’m there now, standing barefoot in 10cm of cold, babbling water flowing over loose, yellow-brown gravel, but all I can see in the stream is the rippled reflection of willows and sky.
For a child, this shining hour of undirected discovery in the shifting sunlight-and-shadows world of the stream will never be forgotten. For an old man, it’s about chasing half-memories out from under stones, hoping to see them replayed in the sunlight of an April morning.
Catching tiddlers is a bit like fishing through your memory: reflections distract you and the thing you are looking for dashes away or slips through your fingers. But you catch the unexpected, and that’s always better than catching what you seek.
I first discover it in the middle of April, while doing a quick tidy-up of rubbish that has blown into the herb garden. A small bumblebee makes a controlled descent, less ungainly than her stature would imply, into a small hole, perhaps three or four centimetres across, situated about halfway between the French lavender and the catmint.
I watch, curious. A few minutes later another follows, with yellow pollen baskets on her hind tibia. Shortly afterwards there is a buzzing from the hole and one walks, vibrating her wings, close to the rim, then launches herself into the air.
Like any self-respecting amateur naturalist, I reach for books, pen and paper.
I start with mild confusion. I can't immediately identify these bees to species. They have orange on the base of the abdomen, but not enough to be red-tailed bumblebees, yet they lack the yellow band near where the abdomen joins the thorax that is characteristic of the early bumblebee.
Then I discover that early females of this species are often too small to have this stripe. Prats, then: Bombus pratorum. I commence a series of observations.
For the first few weeks, as the herbs put on leaves, there are no more than a few bees arriving or leaving over a 15-minute period. Then, suddenly, the population jumps, and slightly larger females, these with the yellow abdominal band, appear.
At about this time I find another nest, this one beneath the organised chaos under the hedge at the bottom of the back garden. These are red-tails.
The inhabitants of neither nest seem all that bothered by my presence, though I get some funny looks from neighbours as I sit with notebook, pen, butterfly net and a sample pot, just in case.
A few humans are even curious; some nervous. I'm told that bees sting. The bees get on with being bees.
The little prats are doing fine. Over the course of the next six to eight weeks the population grows in little jumps, activity only partly dependent on temperature, though they dislike getting wet. There may be as many as a score of incidents of bees entering or leaving the nest in a 15-minute period.
Then, on the little pale-blue flowers of the catmint and on some of the other flowers in the garden, I find some that look a little different: they have more yellow on them. I reach for my butterfly net to check. These also have yellow hairs on the face, like whiskers: males!
I miss the young queens, but I estimate eight to a dozen males, though perhaps not all are from this nest, since the garden is visited by members of half a dozen species, in varying numbers.
From here, the population in the early nest declines quickly, until the final log entry reads: 12/07; 0933; light cloud; light breeze; 19C: no bees. This far north, this will probably be the last of the prats for this year.
The red-tails are still going, and there are always a few in the herb garden. Then, one day, I find something strange.
The weather is fine: the kind of conditions where a bee would typically be flying even before leaving the nest hole. One bee seems incapable of flight, walking away from the nest, not towards it.
I've occasionally seen one land short and have to walk, but always in the right direction. I try to steer her with a stick but, stumbling over grass stems, she insists on walking away, making herself much more vulnerable to a passing predator.
This cannot be unique behaviour. I return to my books, to find that this is consistent with parasitism by the conopid fly: it may be that the individual sacrifices herself in an attempt to protect next year's colonies.
I have to go away for a few weeks and miss the decline of the red-tails. By the time I return this nest, too, is empty, but a few weeks later I carefully dig up the French lavender, and follow the nest tunnel under it.
The former inhabitants have taken nesting material, perhaps from a wood mouse or vole, and created a sort of crust on it. My reading says this is honey.
On this, pale-brown ovoids have been built, each with a hole in the top. I am reminded of something out of science fiction. There are a few desiccated bodies, one slightly larger than the others. Having fulfilled her duties the old queen has gone torpid, surrounded by a few attendants, until they all pass away.
Next year there are no prats in the herb garden, but there is another hole under the hedge. My little worker's self-sacrifice was not entirely in vain. The red-tails are back.
The slightest of breezes is wafting in from the North Sea, bringing with it the scent of the ocean; not the overpowering saltiness that characterises British seaside towns, rather something fresh and clean.
Invisible against the warming sun a skylark is performing his excitable little solo, only revealing himself for a few seconds before parachuting down to the saltmarsh below. Early spring on the Norfolk coast: big skies, flat lands, shifting seascapes.
Perched atop the shingle bank I observe the world undisturbed, and un-disturbing. To my right, the sea is rolling up the beach. Turnstones are skimming back and forth across the shoreline, circling out to the water and then around to the crowded car park, whilst further out my ‘scope is trained upon a red-throated diver, bobbing in and out of sight with the rhythm of the waves.
Often, I struggle to see the world through a lens: I find the circular image too contained, too constricted. I love to look at the world with my own eyes, to view every detail as part of the vast theatre of life, however, in this instance, I will concede that the birds are simply too distant to be discernible.
On the left, families have ventured outside with picnics; a dog is barking with unbridled glee as he snaps at the air; just under half a mile away the local crab shop is packed with day-trippers. Evidently, I am not the only one appreciating the warm weather.
Two lovers, absorbed in each other’s company amble across the grass towards a small white van where a man is selling coffee. Today there is quite a crowd around the vehicle, all eyes avidly following the very thing that brought me to the coast today: the snow buntings.
It is easy to see how these little voyagers got their name. If you’ve ever looked outside on a winter’s night and seen a flurry of snowflakes under the ghostly light of a lamppost, then you’ll know what I mean.
The snow doesn’t just fall; it swirls and rises, twists and floats, each flake unique, but moving in unison with every other; thus, the dance of the snow bunting.
The males have not yet acquired their breeding plumage, which in a few months’ time will show a snowy head and belly, contrasted with the platinum-streaked wings. For now their creamy colour is speckled with chestnut and black, earning them the local Norfolk folk-name, ‘Snowfleck’.
Breaching the surface
There are maybe 30 of these birds today. They dive down as a regimented unit and then swerve at the last second, anxious at the presence of so many people. They repeat the charade many times, with a few brave soldiers landing briefly and then bowing to the pressure of the flock to sweep up into the sky.
At sea, dark clouds are forming a slate band above the diver – I may have spoken too soon about the weather. The breeze causes my eyes to water and I pull back to wipe away the tear, just as a dark shape appears in the bottom of the scene.
Thrusting my eye to the ‘scope again, I blink through my blurred vision; every nerve in my body is on edge. 10, 20 seconds pass. And there it is again, a sleek shape rising slightly out of the water, an identical shade to the threatening sky behind it, with a small, defined dorsal fin.
Only the top of creature smoothly breaks the surface, rising in a gentle arc and then slipping back beneath the waves. A harbour porpoise. No one around me has spotted the creature: how could they?
Up close, this stocky cetacean’s deep charcoal body would fade out to rounded, pale flanks. The blunt forehead and short beak stand out markedly from the delicate elegance of its cousins.
Cresting only for a couple of seconds before sinking again, it repeats the rollover-routine four or five times before I lose its meandering path. I do not spy it again.
On the beach the buntings swoop low overhead, tumbling through the air on rapid wing beats. They have travelled over 1,000 miles to be here and in less than a month they will take flight again, beginning their laborious migration to breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra.
The porpoise could already be far away, hiding in its waterworld. It may never be seen again by human eyes.
For a few precious moments I stole a privileged glimpse of two domains, both separate from each other, and my own. I sat caught between the air and the water, between the elements, one observing me with mistrust, and the other not observing me at all.
Three journeys met briefly, by chance, and then parted, continuing on their way. To the crab shop, for me.
I was working my way round a sweet-scented thicket of creamy hawthorn and golden gorse, on a cool May morning, when a glint in the grass caught my eye. It was a dragonfly and, kneeling down to get closer, I could see that it was never going to take to the blue skies above.
The right forewing was twisted twice: back on itself near the base, and again at the rounded tip, which was folded and stuck like the flap of an envelope. Its left forewing was similarly deformed. The sturdy, ochre abdomen and a dark brown smudge, half way along the leading edge of each wing, identified it as a four-spotted chaser, one of Britain’s most widespread dragonflies.
It was alive, and about a foot above it, on a stiff grass stem, was the exuvia, the papery thin, small brown larval skin from which it had emerged after metamorphosis.
I’ve found hundreds of four-spotted chaser exuviae around lochs, ditches and bog pools, hooked onto marginal vegetation, but I’d never found one so far from the water. This little critter had travelled three yards from the pond by crossing a strip of mud around the edge, then crawling up a bank of sheep-grazed turf until it reached the long, rough grasses under the gorse.
It would have clung to the stem for several hours while it hauled its new body out of the old skin. The wings were hard, the abdomen well-coloured, so it was probably two or three days old.
Emerging dragonflies are always in danger: they hang helpless, unable to escape from any threats until the slow process is over and they can make their maiden flight.
Last summer, at a deep, peaty loch on Colonsay, in the Inner Hebrides, I watched common blue damselflies emerging by the thousand onto white water lilies which provided good strong perches.
Two pied wagtails were running across the broad, glossy leaves, cramming their beaks with the tender, still-colourless insects, flying off across the heather to feed their hungry brood, then returning for more. To and fro, to and fro they went for hours, taking nothing but emerging damselflies.
At a woodland loch in southern Scotland, I’ve watched mallards steadily working their way round the margins of sphagnum and sedges, snapping up scores of emerging black darters.
But this chaser hadn’t been attacked by a predator.
Battle against the elements
I thought back to the cold winds and sudden showers of the previous few days and realised that it had been a victim of the weather. When a dragonfly or damselfly first bursts out of its exuvia, the wings are as flimsy as cling film – and just as easily stick to themselves. Sudden gusts, rain or hail can batter the soft wings.
Here, in the west of Scotland, where the weather throughout the spring and summer is predictably unpredictable, I often find chasers, darters and hawkers that have failed to form perfect wings.
Four-spotted chasers need perfect wings. They rely on fast flight. They feed on the wing, catching other insects: often damselflies.
They mate on the wing too. When a male and female join in mid-air, you hear a rustle as their wings clash, but all you see, as they whizz by, is a blur. For a few seconds they form a heart-shaped wheel: then they part.
The female immediately begins to fly just above the surface of the water, squeezing out her fertilized eggs while she dunks the tip of her abdomen, washing them off. After about four weeks, the eggs hatch into tiny larvae which hunt amongst the pond sludge for at least two years, growing bigger and bigger.
Making it count
I took a final look at the chaser on the bank, feeling the sadness familiar to everyone who watches wildlife and sees the incessant wastage. After evading fish and all the other aquatic predators that kill the majority of larvae, it was going to starve to death, unless it became an easy snack for a passing grey heron, carrion crow or gull.
But this four-spotted chaser’s life was not entirely pointless. Ironically, for a creature which failed to breed, its existence will provide proof of breeding for its species in one 10km square in the new dragonfly distribution atlas.
I’ll fill in the British Dragonfly Society’s RA83 form: enter the county (Wigtownshire); the full grid reference and locality, and add an A (A equals 1) into the ‘Emergent’ column for Libellula quadrimaculata.
Scientific immortality, of a kind, is the one thing I can give it. It will be a dot on the map.
To see the winning entries of the BBC Wildlife Nature Writer of the Year 2011 competition click here.
To see the winning entries of the BBC Wildlife Travel Writer of the Year 2012 competition click here.
To see the winning entries of the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year competition 2012 click here.