Children Nature walks -1 April

" It is not my desire to impart knowledge to young people,as to induce them to acquire it for themselves"  Rev.W Houghton.

Mr Houghton's words referred to his knowledge of nature. Children are naturally curious and his theory was to take children out into the countryside and they will begin to ask questions naturally, rather than have facts forced upon them. Here in the first in this series about nature walks for children we look at the countryside and what may be encountered during the month of April {UK}. The story is taken from the book 'Walks of a Country Naturalist' {with his children} not in copyright, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. The author The Rev.W.Houghton was based in Shropshire England. the book was published in the 1800's and only updates of species names and other relevant information is added by me.

Courtesy of the Gutenburg project 

A walk in April over the fields and exploring water ways

On day in April , when it is warm and bright and the birds are singing and the lambs are running around the green fields, leave indoors and explore the countryside. I do not think it matters where you go {so long as you are safe} because you are sure to find something interesting to occupy your mind and improve your knowledge about the animals and plants that share our world.

The walk I did with my grandchildren took me through green fields as we made our way to the stream and ponds , where our intention was to pond dip. passing through the fields we saw the swallows which had just arrived from Africa to spend the summer with us.  Their familiar twittering call was frequently heard as they rid the air of insects.

There was a fallen tree which provided  a convenient place to rest for a while and to marvel at the flying skill of these birds. Why do we only see swallows during the summer ? asked my little granddaughter. {You see the questions had already commenced out of natural curiosity}. swallows only feed on insects that they catch in the air. When it is cold and wet, as our winters always are, there are very few flying insects around, I explained, because insects love the warmth,they tend to hide away during the cold months. However, in warmer countries such as Africa insects abound there during the time of our winter, so the swallows and many other species of birds fly there. If they stayed with us they would not be able to find enough insects to feed upon and they would not survive.



Familiar Wild Birds  1838

To the pond.

After admiring the flying skills of the swallow for some minutes we recommenced our journey to the pond. The pond chosen was weedy, the best sort to produce a variety of wildlife. At the side of this pond we came across the very large heron. It stood very still, but as we approached closer,off it flew,with its long legs trailing behind it and his head held close to its shoulder in an S shape. They catch fish and other animals with their dagger like beak.

My grandson inquired "  Why do herons build their nests in trees?" With those long legs it must be difficult". These birds in the breeding season assemble together in what is referred to as an Herony, they make their nests in tall trees, sometimes they build on rocks by the coast. The Heron's nest is not unlike that of the rook,only larger and broader. It is made of sticks and lined with wool and coarse grasses. The female lays four to five eggs of a green colour and her long legs are tucked under her. She has to be ever alert for rooks, jackdaws,and squirrels, all of which will take the eggs if they get the chance too.

Both parents take great care of their young ones and bring them food. Besides fish the heron will eat frogs,newts,rats,ducklings and young coots.


A heron with her chicks

Creatures of the pond.

Looking into the pond one of the grandchildren spotted a strange looking insect. " What is this Granddad ?" On examination I found that it was a water scorpion. It is a queer looking creature with a small head and pointed beak. It possesses lobster-like claws. The colour of its body is blackish brown to blend in with the mud upon which it crawls. The body is very flat, and ends in two long stick-like projections. Underneath these horny covers of the creature may be seen two wings. It is a vicious predator that feeds on other aquatic insects and their larvae.

It was not long before another water creature was spotted, the Whirlygig Beetle, performing their merry-go-rounds on the top of the water. Apart from this circling movement  they can move very fast along the water's surface. They are often seen resting on a leaf or diving beneath the surface. The eyes of the whirlygig are separated into two divisions, one is on the upper-head and looks upwards to the sky. The other is on the under-side and looks into the water. If we made a movement towards it it would commence its merry-go-round action, however, should a fish try to sneak up on him from under neath it would use the other part of the eye to spy it and take avoiding action. 

Eyes of the whirlygig beetle

Our interest awakened

Having has our interest awakened, we decided to take our net dip it into the pond and to see what other creatures of interest we could find. We swooped the net and emptied the contents into a glass jar we had brought with us. The jar was active with tiny creatures. The most prominent among them was a large beetle rushing around from the top to the bottom, scattering all the smaller inhabitants all around the jar. It was a Great water beetle. My grandson always eager to touch the creatures had to be warned of the beetle, for they can give a nasty nip.

The beetle Latin name {all living things have a Latin or scientific name } Dytiscus comes from a Greek word  which indicates fond of diving. they have long oared -shaped pair  of feet which are furnished with a broad fringe of hairs. The wing covers are smooth without any furrows on the male. The female has furrowed wing covers. The jaws are so strong as to be able to eat small fish such as stickle backs and even newts will be attacked.

After the female has laid her eggs in the water  the larvae hatch in about two weeks. Eventually the larvae grow to a size of about two inches, and what strange looking creatures they are, and very voracious. It looks , in some respects, like a shrimp.  The jaws are hinged and capable of opening very wide. The last segment of the body is produced with a long pair of bristly tails. They feed on the larvae of other water creatures but not on fish, for the jaws are not yet strong enough unlike those of their parents.

Great diving beetle

Courtesy of Evanherk Public domain Adult beetle Bottom.  Top a drawing of the beetle and larva

Pond skater Gerris lacustris

Another creature was spotted in our jar the pond skater. These little insects float on the surface of the water. They have tiny hairs on their legs and bodies and are very sensitive to vibration and ripples on the surface of the water and they prevent the insect from falling through the surface of the water. They are about 20 mm long. they are sometimes dark brown or grey and have round eyes that project from the side of the head. With the exception of the front pair the legs are long. 

These insects are widespread and common and they frequent  ponds and areas of still water. They feed on a diet of tiny insects. If an insect falls into the water , the tiny ripples that it makes will not only be detected but will also tell the pond skater,in many cases, what kind of insect it is. pond skater will then dart across the surface of the water to catch the stricken insect.

Pond skaters also hunt for other surface dwelling insects including nymphs of their own species. they are very agile  on the surface of the water and they are capable of jumping to avoid predators. Pond skaters do not hibernate in the water, indeed they fly far from the water to hibernate through the winter. They emerge from hibernation in late April and they lay their eggs on land. 

Pond skater

Copyright belongs to  Bruce J Marlin issued under the Creative  Commons Attribution Share alike 2.5 generic  license

Water strider G remigis.jpg

Until the next walk

The time had come to leave the pond and to head for home. We had enjoyed the walk and were already looking forward to the next one when we will surely meet up with other animals and plants, of equal interest that live in the countryside. 

Thank you for visiting.