It was an invitation too good to miss. Martin Collier, Norfolk’s beetle recorder, had heard about NWT Thorpe Marshes and was keen to visit the reserve to see what he could find. Could I show him around? Writing Christmas cards was postponed and the inevitable family conversations about beetle drives and popular beat combos from Liverpool were put to one side. It was a bright December morning when I joined Martin and recording colleague Steve Lane on the marshes.
Beetle records on the reserve to date have been mostly relatively big, bright species on summer flowers. Surely an icy day in December was far from promising? How wrong that was. The key technique was a fistful of damp marsh vegetation, often from a ditch edge, shaken through a coarse mesh sieve into a white bowl. The volume of invertebrates, once you your eye in, was remarkable. Most were tiny: beetles of various shapes, almost microscopic harvestmen, pseudoscorpions. I photographed and noted names of bigger species; a longer list will drop into my inbox when time allows.
The enthusiasm was contagious and the expertise broad as they dipped into ditches, too. This revealed water beetles and the mix you’d expect from in a pond-dipping session: backswimmers, water boatmen, water slaters (like an aquatic woodlouse), snails, pea mussels and various larvae. They deduced that a big pile of earth included a moles’ nest, a place for a difference mix of bugs, including female mole fleas, Britain’s biggest flea. I looked into the bowl with interest then took a step backwards.
Tussocks of cocksfoot grass on the dry banks of the River Yare produced a different mix again, dominated by spiders. Many were immatures of familiar species, like nursery web spiders. Under one bit of bark there was a cluster of harlequin ladybirds, much as you might find in a house; under another were two red-and-black false ladybirds, fungus feeders.
The biologist J B S Haldane, when asked about for his take on creation vs. evolution, was fond of saying that, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Martin and Steve might plead guilty to a similar fondness. The focus here was on wetland species but I’m sure they could enthuse any naturalist about the life within your garden compost heap. The reserve will be all the richer for their records
Steve was still sifting vegetation as the sun was dropping behind the ridge beyond the river and I went home for a very late lunch.
Chris Durdin leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks can be found here.