Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Victorian Natural History Book for Children

Ever wondered what a child's experience of learning about natural history might have been like in the days before television? Old natural history books can give some interesting insights.

I picked up this delightful children's natural history book in a second-hand book shop a few years ago. Country Walks of a Naturalist with his Children was written by the Reverend William Houghton and published by Groombridge and Son of Paternoster Row, London in 1870. He was rector of Preston-on-the-Weald in Shropshire and his real passion was for studying fish, becoming a Fellow of the Linnaean Society as a result of his expertise, but I suspect that this was by far his most popular and most satisfying work. My edition, with this attractive embossed cover, was the 5th., published in 1880.

You can read the book online at

This is the frontispiece, showing Houghton and his children on a nature ramble. Part of the charm of the book is the unusual way in which it is written, in the first person, as conversation between parent and child on a nature walk. The language seems contrived to a modern reader, but would not have seemed so at the time. 

Each chapter is a separate walk, the first in April and the last in October.

In the first sentence of his preface Houghton declares 'In this little book my desire has been, not so much to impart knowledge to young people, as to induce them to acquire it for themselves' and that is exactly what transpires in the following chapters; the children find things, ask him questions about them and he answers their questions, telling them about the lives of the things they have seen. 

This process of real-life discovery, followed by questions and discussion between parent and child, must surely be the best way for children to learn about nature; solitary, didactic television or computer-based technologies simply can't compete, however stunning the imagery and graphics might be. Kids love to talk, discuss and ask questions about the things that they find.  

When it comes to illustrations,then of course these old Victorian natural history books leave a great deal to be desired, with their monochrome wood engravings, but when it comes to the textual content the book is on a different plane to modern natural history books for children.

Firstly, it includes organisms that many modern natural history books for children ignore, like this tiny hydra clinging to duckweed roots. It discusses wonderful animals that most of today's children would never be aware of, like rotifers, because the modern natural history media are besotted with cuddly mammals and birds. 

Secondly, it doesn't patronise children by talking down to them. It's aimed at 9-10 year old kids but contains scientific words that would cause the literacy pedagogues, employed by today's publishers to level text down to modern reading guidelines, to have  seizure. The author scatters Latin scientific names and scientific terminology throughout, explaining their meaning as he goes along. You cannot help but conclude that a great deal of modern natural history publishing for children is severely dumbed-down.

'I am aware', says Houghton in his preface, ' that I have occasionally used words and phrases which may puzzle young brains, but I hope that nearly all will be intelligible to boys and girls of nine or ten years old, with a little explanation from parents or teachers'.

I suppose that some might say that this book, written by a clergyman in a privileged position in society, was aimed at children of middle-class educated parents - but you could say the same about today's comparable book-buying public. 

Interestingly, my copy has a presentation plate glued inside the cover, revealing that it was given by Leeds School Board to John Wilks Taylor in 1886 for regular attendance at school. He evidently treasured the book because on the opposite fly-leaf, in elegant script, he has written:

This book belongs to John Wilks Taylor and if it is borrowed by a friend right welcome shall he be to read, to study, not to lend but to return to me. Read slowly, pause frequently, think seriously, keep cleanly, return duly, with the corners of the leaves not turned down.

Here's another interesting aspect of the book. I suspect that today's publishers would blanch at the thought of publishing a picture like this, with a 'butcher bird' impaling voles and a blue tit on thorns. They would be afraid of offending middle class sensibilities and losing sales.

It didn't seem to do this book's sales any harm, though - this was the fifth edition in ten years.

One of the other delights of the book is that the father, conversing with his children, takes pains to explain the whole life cycle of these animals that they find - from Hydra polyps to small tortoiseshell butterflies - in detail. This book isn't about identification, it's about understanding. 

It's written with gentle good humour - as exemplified with these little tail-piece engravings from the ends of chapters.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Upwardly mobile snails

One of the stranger sights of autumn is the way in which snails seem to have a compulsion to climb to the top of hogweed Heracleum sphondylium stems during wet weather. These are just a few of over 50 that I counted on a single hogweed plant recently.

They seem to have a passion for the thin layer of soft rotting tissues on the outside of the dying plant's stem.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Wasp in Designer Sunglasses

There's a small colony of this little solitary wasp, which is in the genus Ectemnius, in our garden. There are about 10 species in this genus in the UK but they are notoriously difficult to identify from photographs. It's only about half the size of a typical wasp but has disproportionately large eyes that remind me of designer sunglasses.

It also has formidable jaws which it uses to catch hoverflies, which it then uses as provisions for its young. When it's not hunting it seems to have a taste for honeydew which collects on the day lily leaves where I took these photographs.

I recently discovered where these little wasps nest, in an old cherry tree stump that has rotted until it almost has the consistency of balsa wood. The wasps have chewed a nest hole that you can just see on the underside of the log, just above the centre on the left-hand side of the picture above. 

Inside the main tunnel there are side-tunnels, each with an egg and a collection of dead hoverflies that each wasp's larva will eat during its development. The only reason that I noticed this nest site was that the sawdust produced by the tunnellers has collected in spiders' webs under the hole.

My thanks to Brian Little at the wonderful iSpot web site for confirming the identity of this wasp.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The lover of death

I need to thank Amadan on the wonderful iSpot web site for identifying this strange beetle that I found on heathland in Weardale today. 

It was very lively on a warm afternoon, clambering through the heather, raising its wing cases and extending its wings. That broad, flat thorax - like a cloak - is very distinctive.

Here it is at the moment of vertical take-off, when it flew away over the heather.

It's Thanatophilus rugosus, a carrion beetle that lays its eggs on the corpses of dead animals, which then provide sustenance for its developing larvae. Its scientific generic name, Thanatophilus, literally means 'lover of death', in reference to its gruesome breeding habits. In Greek mythology Thanatos was the demon who personified death.

You can find some more examples of carrion beetles by clicking here

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Red Mist

This plant, wavy hair-grass Deschampsia flexuosa, is common on the moorland above Blanchland in the Derwent valley in Northumberland. 

It's very attractive, with its red stems and tiny florets but there are places on the moor where it is truly spectacular.

The grass really thrives best after a muir burn, where patches of burnt ground are left between the heather, temporarily rich in mineral nutrients. Then it grows so densely that it forms what seems like a red mist......

...that shimmers in the sunlight when it's buffeted in the wind.

Friday, August 7, 2015

What an otter ate

I have a favourite flat rock to sit on, on the banks of the river Tees where it meets the river Greta downstream from Egglestone. It's the perfect place to watch kingfishers as they flash past. Last week when we arrived there we discovered that an otter had decided to use it as a latrine and had left a substantial pile of poo, or to be more correct, a spraint.

There was no mistaking what it was - it had that characteristic oily, sickly smell - even though a few days of heavy rain had washed away its greasy coating. When we had a close look we could see the indigestible remains of the otter's meals embedded in it. 

A close look revealed some white circular objects and also the jointed antennae of a signal crayfish, confirmed by the presence of ...

... two large crayfish claws nearby which had been cracked open to extract the flesh.

I took the spraint home, soaked it in detergent overnight and extracted some of the remains of the food items.....

... Most of the objects on the left hand side are fragments of crayfish limbs and the larger object in the middle is part of its telson - the end of the abdomen that is usually curled under the crustacean and has flat fan-shaped paddles on the end. With one powerful flick of this it can propel itself backwards if threatened - although it didn't do this animal much good when it met the otter.

The long, thin object is one of the crayfish's antennae, still articulated after its passage through the otter's gut.

What interested me most though were those six pale objects down the right-hand side of the picture. They are otoliths - the 'earbones' of a fish that are part of its system for perceiving gravity and acceleration when it swishes its tail fin and shoots forward - not fast enough, in this case. The largest otolith is about seven millimetres in diameter, suggesting that the otter had caught quite a large fish.

The otoliths, seen under a magnifying glass, are fascinating structures made up of layers of calcium carbonate. You can see the concentric layers quite clearly here in two planes, because this otolith has been broken when the otter chewed the fish. 

The calcium carbonate comes from the water and the different coloured layers reflect differences in the chemical composition of waters that the fish swam in during its lifetime.

So, this little pile of smelly poo held some interesting clues to the otter's diet. Now I know that it has a territory here we'll be going back to see if we can watch the animal in action.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Sand Martins

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about a colony of sand martins that nest in this valley on the banks of the river South Tyne at Kirkhaugh in Northumberland.

These birds are the least familiar of all the hirudines - swifts, swallows and martins - that migrate here to breed in summer. That's partly because they often tend to breed in colonies that are well away from human habitation, unlike swifts, swallows and house martins that all share our buildings. Sand martins can only nest in places where there is an eroded riverbank with sandy soil that's soft enough for tunnelling but firm enough resist collapse.

They are also probably overlooked because they are much less colourful than their cousins, but when it comes to their fast and agile flight they are the equal of all of them. They are almost always the first of the quartet to arrive in Spring, and I've often watched them returning to their nesting burrows March.

Click here for pictures of a colony nesting in the riverbank of a tributary of the Tyne near Corbridge. The great 18th. century naturalist Gilbert White believed that when hirudines disappeared in autumn it was because they hibernated underground. That belief arose because naturalists had seen sand martins nesting in tunnels and assumed that swifts, swallows and house martins could burrow into river banks too during the coldest months of the year. Eventually it was realised that they migrate south in winter but it was only with the advent of bird ringing that their wintering destination in Africa was confirmed.

This is Gilbert White's journal entry for 23rd. March 1788.
Mr Churton, who was this week on a visit at Waverley, took the opportunity of examining some of the holes in the sand-banks with which that district abounds.  As these are undoubtedly bored by bank-martins, & are the places where they avowedly breed, he was in hopes they might have slept there also, & that he might have surprised them just as they were awakening from their winter slumbers.  When he had dug for some time he found the holes were horizontal & serpentine, as I had observed before; & that the nests were deposited at the inner end, & had been occupied by broods in former summers: but no torpid birds were to be found.  He opened & examined about a dozen holes.  Mr Peter Collinson made the same search many years ago, with as little success.  These holes were in depth about two feet.

This exceptionally trusting individual landed on a fence post close to us, to preen.

That beak has an enormous gape, essential for trawling river flies out of the air as it skims the water surface.

Everything about this bird, with its streamlined shape and scimitar wings, says 'speed'

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Lammas growth and powdery mildew

Several tree species - most notably oaks - put on a new flush of growth in summer, sending out shoots with new  foliage to supplement the older leaves of spring that have suffered from insect attack and general wear-and-tear. The new shoots, which are often tinged with red pigments, are known as Lammas growth because they’re well developed by the time of the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Lammas day - 1st. August.

In oak trees the beauty of this 'second spring' does not last very long. In a few weeks the new shoots will probably be distorted and coated with a greyish-white powder. This is the parasitic oak powdery mildew Erysiphe alphitoides that thrives in the warm, wet weather that is a typical English summer. The origins of the disease are a mystery but it probably arrived from overseas with consignments of plants. It first appeared in mainland Europe in 1907 and in England in 1908.

Under the microscope at x400 you can see a mass of transparent fungal hyphae covering the leaf surface in the clear areas between the blocks of green tissue.

The hyphae draw their nutrition from the delicate new leaf tissue and send up short aerial hyphae that bud-off powdery spores ( x100 above, x400 below), that blow away in the wind and infect another leaf.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Regurgitated beetles and cherry stones

We found this regurgitated pellet, full of cherry stones, near some wild cherry trees in a field beside the river Tees near Egglestone, at the weekend. I'm pretty sure it was produced by a rook, as there is quite a large rookery nearby and I've often seen them feeding in this field.

Regurgitated pellets of indigestible food held in the gizzard are usually associated with raptors and owls but many other birds produce them, including rooks, crows, magpies, gulls, herons and even oystercatchers, which expel pellets of sand grains swallowed with their food onto the seashore.

When I took this pellet home and soaked it in soapy water it fell apart almost immediately, revealing eleven cherry stones, plus ....

..... the remains of at least ten ground beetles. 

Strangely, each of the beetle heads was perfectly intact and snipped off from the rest of the body at exactly the same point. A ground beetle's jaws are quite powerful and I imagine that they would grip the bird's throat as it tried to swallow its prey, so I wonder whether this rook had leaned to detach the heads and incapacitate its victim before swallowing it.

The other debris included fragments of wing case, plus ...

..... lots of legs.

So how did the bird come to be eating cherries and beetles in the same meal? It might be because the ground under the trees was covered in rotting cherries, which might have attracted soft bodied invertebrates like slugs and worms, which might in turn have proved a fatal attraction for the beetles.