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BY DENNIS FURNELL

One of the many joys of early spring is not having to get up unreasonably early to enjoy the dawn… and we seem to be enjoying some of the most spectacular dawns this year.

Is this because of the reduction in commercial activity over the past twelve months? The air is certainly much clearer and has allowed for some perfect photography.  Wildlife too seems to have benefited from the cleaner air and also from the increased use of LED streetlights in towns. It’s had a positive effect on badgers and foxes which, seem less bothered when they are spotted grubbing around for worms.

I have a soft spot for amphibians. Years ago, I used to organise a toad and newt patrol. Any number of people would turn up with buckets and gloves to help at places on busy roads where toads and newts traditionally crossed to lakes and ponds to spawn. These lakes and ponds are often used for human activities these days, but there are still a few traditional crossing places, often marked with a reflective triangle and a picture of a toad.

I’ve had a pond in my wild garden for at least 40 years and, just at the moment, it’s a riot of male frogs, the air throbbing with the gentle rumble of croaks. I used to keep fish in the pond and once had a koi carp that my granddaughers called ‘Jaws’. But the fish ate the frogspawn and mopped up the emerging tadpoles so I gave them away. The benefit was a multitude of amphibians and an abundance of damsel and dragonflies.  Amphibians, dragonflies and damsels have been on earth for the best part of 300 million years; fascinating, harmless creature – unless you happen to be a mosquito.

Both species have survived a couple of mass extinctions, hopped and fluttered past the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs and, despite being cold-blooded, made it through a couple of Ice Ages; allowing the frogs to sit and croak in my garden pond and the dragons and damsels to hover like living jewels over the marsh garden.     

In a former life I broadcast regular natural history programmes for BBC local radio and one of my favourite haunts was the cathedral of all things wildlife – The Natural History Museum.  Every couple of months or so I would do a programme, highlighting a couple of their exhibits and over time I became friendly with some of the amazing and dedicated people who serve this scientific treasure house.  One of the scientists, Paul Whalley, an entomologist of note, had written a book called Butterfly Watching and as I am a butterfly enthusiast I arranged to interview him .  It was like taking out the cork from a cornucopia of insect know-how. Sadly he died in 2019. but during one of our many conversations I happened to mention dragonflies. “Hang on a minute” he said and disappeared, to return with a couple of specimen cases one of which contained a fossil dragonfly wing half a metre long – just one wing.   He explained that it was a very rare fossil imprint from an insect that had thrived in the clubmoss forests 300 million years ago. It’s scientific name was ‘Meganuerea’ because of the big veins in the wing.  He also showed me a fossil butterfly with the wing pattern intact.  Apparently the immense dragonfly hunted amphibians and cockroaches, which has to give respect for a creatures that we think of as being ephemeral. And, in the depths of my garden pond the predatory dragonfly nymphs are playing out their own drama hunting the tadpoles.  

Frogs have a fascinating life cycle. The males tend to hibernate at the bottom of the pond, absorbing oxygen from the water through their permeable skin. The heart-beat drops to just a few beats a minutes, they are only just alive. When the water temperature rises, lowering its oxygen carrying capacity they wake up and swim to the surface and begin to croak, a deep sonorous song that vibrates through the water driving other males into a frenzy of croaking. The largest male with the deepest, most carrying croak attracts the females that have hibernated under stones, or piles of leaves. The males’ ‘singing’ calls them to the pond where they pair up and lay vast amounts of spawn completing a cycle that has been an aspect of nature for millions of years. In time the egg, embedded in the spawn, will emerge as free swimming tadpoles. Another superb subjects for photography.

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