Meet our nature expert at Birdfair 2018

Peering into those taken for granted places, those hidden corners and crevices where life goes about its miraculous process right beneath our gaze, is to feel enlightened. Roll over a stone, hold up a jam jar of pond water, even gaze into the inner folds of a flower and you get a real sense of place and contrary to what you might expect, these tiny almost microscopic grains of life’s alchemy make us feel really small in the grand scheme of things.

As a curious human (read that how you want) I’ve always believed you only need the tools you were born with to compliment your curiosity and the will to explore; and at the fundamental level this is true, none of us were born with high-end glass stuck to our faces. However, there are two tools that really embellish the experience of life and living. Binoculars and magnifying lenses that make little things bigger. That’s it. My desert island wish list.

To gaze into the Microcosm, to explore the inner spaces of our everyday, is to awaken. With a pair of binoculars around my neck and a hand loupe in my pocket – I’m ready.

Everything else I carry is an extra. I’ve always enjoyed taking in a unique perspective on things, I’m not sure why, just curious I guess. Like a child is curious about every creeping thing, I still am. You might argue I’ve not grown up.

One of the habitats that has held my attention ever since my 5-year-old eyes were drawn inexorably to the twitching masses of tadpoles crammed into the ditches and puddles of my childhood haunts – is freshwater. Freshwater has always been an instant source of wonder.

If I dare to try and describe to the uninitiated the sorts of life forms I meet in these watery places – they wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m talking about, yet alone that these very creatures with their twitching bristles, multi-faceted stares and semi-translucent bodies are right there, amongst us and not a figment of an over active imagination. Have a look for yourselves if you don’t believe me. Start with the big and obvious, the creatures that hover somewhere on the edges of our peripheral awareness.

Just like those trembling masses of tadpoles, there are many that fall somewhere around the same size category. These other denizens of the mirrored world found beneath the surface of an established pond can be revealed with a little careful poking and prodding. Just scanning for movement that in some way contravenes the normal swirl and flow of the water and its eddies, is sometimes enough to draw the eye.

While some can be larger than the tadpoles, they can also be more introverted and stealthy in their ways and therefore a little more enigmatic. The steady rowing strokes of Water boatmen and numerous silvered Water beetles, or the lurch and lurk of Dragonfly and Damselfly nymphs dressed up for dinner in their highly cryptic outfits of dour palette.

It is hard to imagine these will become the very essence of summers to come, when they break through the surface film and enter our airy topside world, like fireworks launched from the depths.

To this day, if I’m bored or uninspired, a quick furtle around in my modest garden pond with a net and a jar and I’m ‘away with the fairies’.

All of these animals can swim into our view and are recognisable at a distance once you’ve become familiar with their distinctive behaviours, their size, shape, the jaunty and jerky movements and style, even the way they punch through the surface film to take on more air.

These all add up to something birdwatchers call JIZZ (possible slurring slang for ‘Just is’ or General Impression Size and Shape the actual origin of this oft used phrase is lost in time) that instantaneous summing up of the essence of a thing, that enable identification in a glance, and is something that only comes with time and practice. Experience is everything.

A Water boatman (the Great water boatman is also called a backswimmer) that looks like the big one, but swims the right way up – an upside-down backswimmer? Then there are different versions on this theme too – small, very small, miniscule? Are you looking at several species or just ‘baby ones’? How can you tell? This then leads you down a rabbit hole into a world of minutiae as you now have to gaze closer and closer still…

How can you even begin to understand an animal if you can’t start guessing at how it perceives its world? How can you guess at how it perceives its world, if you can’t see its sensory apparatus – its eyes, its mechanoreceptors and chemoreceptors (hairs and bristles)? You can’t, and even in the largest Water beetle or Boatman you need to scrutinize beyond what is easily attainable with the human eye. This is when I turn to the lens in my pocket.

Eventually you will notice species within species, living puzzles.

Run your eye through a lens over the body of a beetle in a specimen tube (glass is best, less scratchy and more optically lovely) and you’ll see what I mean. What was nothing more than black lozenges with lazy legs suddenly transform into something amazing. That insect now takes on a sculptural quality. Almost the perfect mechanoid; hard and coach-built by millions of years in natures R&D department. You’ll see folds, grooves in which the legs fit perfectly, bristles, fringes and spines, the tessellations of the compound eyes. You’ll get hooked. Not only are these features all helpful in the world of scientific scrutiny, often these seemingly insignificant features can be all that obviously (or not) separates one species from another.

However, even more alluring and seductive to a curious mind, is that none of these features are there by accident, they all have a purpose. This is the joy of exploration for me. While it is sometimes tempting to think those adventurous Victorian and Edwardian naturalists having done it all, turned the globe upside down and left nothing for the modern explorer to be thrilled at.

That the age of enlightenment was over since Darwin’s great seminal work couldn’t be further from the truth. Drop your horizons a little and turn away from the Congo, the Sahara, the Mariana trench and instead gaze into the depths of a puddle or the grassroot jungle of a field margin or verge and you’ll be seeing things few will have experienced before.

It’s not outside the bounds of possibility that you could even discover a new species or add to our understanding of what makes the world tick over. Simply holding a jar of slightly green pond water up to the light and all manner of strange things become apparent. A world of microscopic fizz. wiggling, flicking, spinning and whirling in a continuous frenzy like minuscule bumper cars – this is every bit as aesthetically sensational as James Cameron’s movie ‘Avatar’ but in a Jam jar – held in your hands.

This is ‘Horton hears a Hoo’ but for real, not in cinema or a children’s book – but right here in the now, but for sampling the joys of this world, at a very different scale you’ll need a microscope and that is a whole different story as it is a whole different world.

Nick Baker

Nick Baker is an experienced life-long field naturalist first and foremost but is best known for his television work and as an author. With a broadcast career spanning over twenty years he has worked for the BBC, National Geographic and Animal Planet. He has also authored 10 titles on the subject of Natural history, his latest published in the summer of 2017 is Rewild – the art of returning to nature.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society of London and the British Naturalists Association as well as Vice president of both Buglife and Butterfly Conservation.