African Wildlife Foundation Travel

Incredibly, at least seven other species of bat are known to hunt by night in the pastures, woodland, gardens and streamside around the old mansion, a reflection of the rich insect pickings that abound here. None of them, though, mix with the Lesser Horseshoes to breed in the cosy cellars.

With flying bats hunting down their minute insect prey in the dark by echo-location – giving out tiny sounds and assessing the echoes that return – an insect that gives off tiny pulses of light in the dark is presumably no more vulnerable to getting eaten. And given that the insects in question are located on the stems of grasses or flowers near the ground, maybe bats can’t so easily make a meal of them anyway.

Glow Worms are found in meadows, woodland edges, in gardens, on heaths, along hedgerows and railway embankments, though we rarely notice them because so many of our country roads and green spaces are bathed under street lights at night. In Britain they might be more common than entomologists have assumed; we just don’t go out at night in dark places.

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Although I had seen a few of their pinprick green, night-time flashes over the years, the best ‘colony’ I’d ever seen was while I was walking with my wife and our two youngest daughters one evening in Italy. We were walking along a dimly lit road on the outskirts of Pisa heading back to our hotel. There was nothing special about the roadside pasture; it looked full of flowering grasses and nothing much else. But it was alive with Glow Worms. First we spotted one point of green, winking light. Then another switched on for a split second; and off again. Then we realised that the whole meadow was alive with minute green flashes. It was as if someone had set out an array of tiny LEDs in the grass.

Then we noticed a few ‘LEDs’ on grass stems at the road’s edge, winking away incessantly. Courtesy of a mobile phone light, we found the flightless female, pressed hard against the grass stem. Small beetles maybe 1-2 cm long, by switching our phone light off we could see that the occasional green flash came from the end of her abdomen. What she, and all the other little flashers were doing, was trying to attract the male beetles that fly around until they choose a partner, then come down and mate. They’ll keep flashing for maybe two hours and, if no male flies in, retreat down into the vegetation until the next night when they’ll try a bit more flashing again. Flashy they might be, but a female Glow Worm’s life is a brief one. Once a male is attracted and they mate, she lays up to 100 eggs in the vegetation and dies.

Like bumblebees homing in on their underground nests or a wasp grinding wood fibres off a tree branch, Glow Worms are attractive insects to watch. Intrigued by them I wrote a feature for Country Life magazine with a request that readers send any observations to Britain’s sole (amateur) Glow Worm recorder, Robin Scagell. He’s found that they occur in all counties of England and Wales and several in Scotland too. But all might not be well for Glow Worms. Street lights might well be causing them a problem, the flying males attracted by brighter lights than the flashing females can muster. Until someone does sufficient research to find out, we’ll be in the dark about what’s happening to them.

Entomologists are lucky: they can get up close and personal with their subjects. The only downside is that there are so very many species to identify. With birds and mammals the difficulties are reversed; fewer of them but almost impossible to get close to in the wild. And many mammals are nocturnal into the bargain. Only rarely have I suddenly happened upon an animal close up that I have previously had only the most distant views of. It happened to me with otters. I had seen them below some sea cliffs on Shetland paddling about in the surf shallows, presumably hunting out various crustaceans and molluscs they could get at to eat. Playful animals, they are always wonderful to watch (but are often nocturnal). I had seen glimpses of them on holiday in the small, shallow rivers of Extremadura in spring but only at a distance. And in Florida we had watched a whole family of the closely related North American River Otter walk nonchalantly along the gravel surface of the Turner River Trail in the Everglades as we followed behind them (at a distance) in a car. Finding their spraints faeces that usually smell disgustingly of putrefying fish – on riverbanks, on boulders or under bridges is not unusual, particularly now that these attractive creatures are once again back on virtually every river and large stream in Britain.

So imagine my surprise – shock actually – when I was talking to an engineer working at a flood barrier construction site near the village of Cowbridge in South Wales, and an otter ran past us. For a second or two, I could do nothing but point; no words would come out. We followed him as he ran quite slowly over piles of stone until he got to a nearby stream. There we watched as he casually worked his way upstream, pausing frequently to examine some stone or other, presumably in case it hid a tasty small fish. It was several minutes before he disappeared from sight. It was the closest sighting of an otter I have ever had. And in broad daylight.

An even closer view of a very different animal, another chance encounter, could have turned out rather badly. Very badly indeed. Not long after we had seen the River Otter family on the Turner River Trail I had noticed a large snake crossing the track some distance in front of us. As we got close, it stopped and coiled up, feigning death. A photo opportunity not to be missed. So, without thinking I grabbed my camera and dashed out of the car. It was close-up time. At least 80-90 cm in length, it was dark grey in colour with black cross-banding; a very attractive reptile. I could only see glimpses of its much lighter underside. Assuming it was lying doggo, I took a series of pictures, all within spitting distance. It was a while before I acknowledged that this could be a ploy before suddenly striking out with its fangs, or that it could even be a deadly species. I retreated and after we had driven off I watched the snake uncoil and slink away into the nearest trackside water-filled ditch. It was only that evening that I remembered to identify it from the pictures I had taken. It was a Florida Cottonmouth, a common snake in the Everglades … and a venomous one with a potentially fatal bite. When provoked, they hold their ground by coiling their bodies and displaying their fangs. While their aggression has been exaggerated, territorial males sometimes approach intruders in an antagonistic manner. Clearly not all Florida Cottontails are aggressive; I’d come across a softie.

Birds don’t come less aggressive than a tiny Willow Warbler, a rather inconspicuous olive green/brown bird that migrates in huge numbers every year between sub-Saharan Africa where it winters and northern Europe where it breeds in scrub, gardens and woodland. I had probably heard thousands of them over the years singing their languorous, rather melancholy little song, a descending ripple of clear notes, but I had never seen one at close range.

So I was astonished to have one land behind me on the back of my camel as we trekked in the Moroccan sector of the northern Sahara. It was hot and the wind was blowing sand in our faces (something a camel’s eyes can cope with better than a human’s because they have evolved naturally long eyelashes to protect them). This being late February I assumed that the warbler was making his northward crossing of the mighty Sahara and that the poor creature was likely worn out, with no access to water and little available insect food. It sat there for a while and eventually flew off, probably to die – as many do – of exhaustion. Migration was in full swing, confirmed that evening when we made camp. A squadron of Barn Swallows kept performing flypasts just as if we were on the edge of an English village, and nearby a Yellow Wagtail – a bird of wet meadows across Europe – searched for insects on some arid sand dunes. It all seemed a bit bizarre. It was a reminder of the enormous distances that some tiny migrant birds – a few butterflies too – fly twice a year, across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

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