A Dip in the Water.
It’s not perhaps the first wildlife-activity that springs to mind, mid-winter. But I’ve an article to write (for spring) and I need refreshing – so the girls and I go pond dipping.
We take my youngest daughter’s ‘bugnoculars’ (a clever little watertight box with dual magnifying eyepieces on the top), a dip tray, some nets and a big flask of hot chocolate. The village pond is frozen.
Whilst it might seem (certainly to my fellow villagers and passing motorists) like a fool’s errand, pond dipping in winter may be uncomfortable, but it’s not unproductive. Under the ice, life continues for aquatic invertebrates. A bottom layer of dead leaves is being recycled by detrivores such as flatworms, horsehair worms and leeches and because cold water contains more oxygen, some pond life is invigorated.
We gently break and lift the ice – it comes away in glassy shards; trapeziums, parallelograms and kites of antique glass, polka-dotted with duckweed.
And we dip. You cannot hurry a sweep of the dip net like you can a butterfly net. It
inflates luxuriously for its catch and slows into the heavy, water-resistant curves of our graceful figure of eights. Swishing it inside- out into the shallow, white dip tray reveals a world of spinning, wriggling, bright creatures. Transparent shrimps, a host of water beetles, a fearsome dragonfly nymph and numerous water slaters, the fully aquatic cousins of our damp-loving woodlice – all astonishing creatures of earth, air and water, products of the wonder of metamorphoses.
Losing the battle with the duckweed, we need another pond and I think of the one at The Big House – but how to phrase such an eccentric request from a tenant on a Sunday? Nevertheless, my enquiry is generously accommodated (with some amusement). On the lee side of the house, the ice over the swimming pond is thin as cellophane. With its view of the park and hill, I can think of few better places to swim; but not now, not at this moment, with the sleet melting on its surface.
Far below, in the murky, sustaining depths, there will be frogs waiting for warmer weather, breathing through their skins, but in the watery stratosphere of the pond are many swimmers. We scoop water boatmen, big backswimmers that scull around the tray on strong oars, turning on a long silver bubble of air, and tiny phantom midge larvae, like the inside tube of a run-out biro, that convulse into question marks, commas and curlicues. We find a caddisfly larvae that walks its sleeping bag (made of fragments of snailshell, silica and impossibly tiny sticks) around with it.
Our hands frozen and raw, our sleeves dripping, we head home through the park gates, nets over shoulders, talking of tea and crumpets and the big heavy book we couldn’t manage that will tell us the names of those creatures we could not fathom.