Damselflies

2016-01-31 13.44.27 cropTwo years ago, my husband did what he’d been threatening to do for years—he dug a pond. At some point, I’ll write a blog post on the pond itself, but today I want to talk about the damselflies that live there.

I took a break from my work this morning and spent a few minutes sitting beside the pond. It was swarming with red damselflies (Xanthocnemis zealandica). They were mostly males jockeying for the best territories—chasing and dive bombing each other, all short jabs of snapping wings.

2016-01-31 13.44.40 cropThe females were there, too. Every one I saw was being guarded by a male as she flitted from plant to plant, dipping her abdomen into the water to lay her eggs in the plant’s submerged stem. Damselfly mate guarding is awkward at best—the male grasps the female behind the head with claspers on the end of his abdomen and discourages other males from mating with “his” female. Both insects must beat their wings to keep the pair aloft, and as I watched them, it wasn’t at all clear to me who chooses the spots to stop and lay eggs.

When a pair stops, the male often supports himself entirely with his claspers, tucking in wings and legs and forming a bizarre appendage to the female as she gets down to business. She appears completely oblivious of her escort, resting after laying each egg, as if to say, “If you want to cling there in that ridiculous pose, that’s fine by me, but you’re not going to rush me.”

The eggs these girls lay will hatch in a week or two, and the nymphs will spend nearly a year living in the pond, eating other aquatic invertebrates with a hinged, extrusible mouth that is the stuff of horror movies, before emerging from the water as adults.

I sat and watched the spectacle for a while, and just as I was about to leave, I was treated to the sight of the other damselfly resident in this part of New Zealand—the blue damselfly (Austrolestes colensonis)—a large neon-blue insect that makes the red damselfly look dull.

Unfortunately, he didn’t stick around for a photograph, but I’ll be looking for his nymphs in the water later in the year.

Science education at its best

Physarum cinereum

Physarum cinereum

About eight months ago, my daughter did a school project on slime moulds. Along with internet research on slime moulds, she searched for live slime moulds in various habitats, and even tried keeping one as a pet. Unfortunately, the weather was particularly dry and warm, so slime moulds were scarce, and her pet died. We considered the project somewhat of a failure.

Except that she has been tuned in to slime moulds ever since, so when she noticed a funny grey substance covering blades of grass in the yard a few days ago, she was primed for it. She brought it inside to look at under the microscope, and correctly identified it as Physarum cinereum, a type of slime mould.

She posted a photo and her identification on Nature Watch NZ, and had her identification verified by several scientists.

Today, she found a similar slime mould, but this one was a mustard yellow colour. In form it was very like Physarum cinereum, but altogether the wrong colour.

She pulled out her iPad to search for it online. No luck…

But…

While she was searching, the sample under the microscope changed colour, from yellow to grey. Based on her knowledge of slime mould biology, she reckoned the grey colour must be spores. She has posted her new photo and identification to Nature Watch NZ, and is waiting to see what the experts think.

Could I ever have devised a better science lesson? Not in a million years. She made an observation, used her research skills and prior knowledge to make sense of what she saw, and got corroboration from an expert.

The resources available to kids (and bigger kids, too) these days are amazing—the opportunities to engage directly with the scientific community, find current information about things (no more 20 year-old World Book Encyclopaedias), and record their observations are so far beyond what I had as a child, it still feels a bit like magic to me.

But of course none of that is possible if we don’t nurture our children’s curiosity and teach them how to use the tools available to them. None of it is possible if we don’t give our kids time to watch the world go by, time to get bored and lie down in the grass. Tom Eisner (famous entomologist, for those who don’t know him) wrote in his book For Love of Insects, “How is it, I am often asked, that I make discoveries? I always feel a bit awkward about answering the question, because I do not have a particular method. The truth is that I spend a fair amount of time looking around.”

So go on. Get out there. Look around. Who knows what you might discover.

Archaeological Adventures

100_2163 smDigging in our yard is an archaeological adventure. A hundred and thirty years of rubbish deliberately buried or accidentally lost is hidden under the sod.

Our little acre and a half was separated from a large sheep run in the mid-1800s and used as a Council gravel reserve—the braided rivers that crisscrossed this area over the past 20,000 years left a rich lens of rocks here. The pit and hill of the quarry are about the only relief we have on the property.

Then the property was freeholded, and a house was built (which we live in today). There came a succession of mostly poor and often strange owners. There has never been rubbish pick up here (not even today), so much of the trash produced by early owners was buried on site.

There was once a woman who appreciated cosmetics—the little glass pottles that held face cream and powder attest to her taste.

Somebody made a homemade handle for a knife, then dropped it while building the ablutions shed (now our bathroom).

More than one pitchfork was either discarded or lost. The head of one now acts as a convenient set of hooks in my garden shed.

Then there were the brothers who brewed moonshine. According to the more senior neighbours, who were just young’uns at the time, these two each had their own brew, and neither wanted to share with the other. So they hid bottles all around the property. Under the floor of the calf sheds, under the house…the brown bottles were everywhere when we moved in, their lids rusted away, hoarded moonshine long gone.

There are crockery and cutlery, wire and chain, hinges and gate pins, cow bones and tomato sauce bottles…Dig a hole just about anywhere and you’ll find all the debris of a rural property.

Usually we can identify the items we find—our lifestyle isn’t much different from the former inhabitants, and many items are familiar.

Occasionally we come across something we don’t even know how to begin to identify, like this strange metal disk sprouting wires. Our little archaeological mysteries—glimpses into the more obscure aspects of our predecessors’ lives. These items ultimately end up in our local landfill—maybe some archaeologist excavating the landfill in a couple of hundred years will know exactly what those things are.

The Shower

Shower cropFlicking through old photos from our Peace Corps Service in Panama today, I found this…

We called it the shower, but it was nothing but a few sticks holding up a motley assortment of old sheets and plastic bags. We scrounged a quartet of decorative cement blocks for a floor, so our feet wouldn’t get muddy. We’d haul a bucket of cold water out there every day and do our best to wash off the grime and sweat.

After the neighbourhood boys started coming by to peek in at me, I began showering after dark. It wasn’t bad, with the stars overhead.

But one night, I had company in the shower. As I stood there naked, bracing for the cold water I was about to pour over my head, something cool and damp thudded onto my hip, and stuck there. I could feel the little suction feet, and had a pretty good idea of what it was, but I fumbled around for my flashlight anyway.

When I flicked it on, there sat a little green tree frog, blinking in the light. It perched jauntily on my hip like I was just another tree branch. It cocked its head and considered me for a minute, then leapt onto the wall of the shower.

I chuckled and carried on with my shower. I heard the frog leap twice more on the shower walls, and then it was gone.

Hedgehogs

2016-01-26 18.07.41 smThey’re adorable and unafraid of humans. They eat snails, slugs and grass grubs. What’s not to like about hedgehogs?

Unfortunately, a fair bit, here in New Zealand. In addition to eating pests, they also feast on ground nesting bird eggs and chicks, skinks, and many native and endangered invertebrates.

And they’re more common in New Zealand than they are anywhere in their native habitat.

And I think they’re more common in our yard than anywhere else in New Zealand.

Now that the days are getting shorter, I regularly step on them in the dark when I’m out milking and feeding the animals. I certainly wouldn’t walk barefoot through the yard at night here.

They snuffle around the flower beds, snorting and grunting, oblivious to anything non-edible. They spread compost all over the yard.

They also apparently love cucumbers—last year I had to trap one out of the garden after it managed to squeeze in through a hole in the rabbit fencing. It took a bite out of each cucumber—obviously trying to find the perfect one.

They like the apples and peanut butter I bait the possum traps with, and though I don’t aim to kill them, I will admit that I’m not upset when I catch a hedgehog instead of a possum (my trapping seems to have no effect whatsoever on the population of either pest, anyway…). They snatch the eggs of the spur-winged plovers that nest unsuccessfully every year in our paddock, and I’d much prefer plover chicks to hedgehogs in the yard.

It still doesn’t stop me from smiling when I see one trundling along through the grass.

They are adorable after all…