Gnats dancing

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Sunday 13th February 2000

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chaffinch WE HEAR short bursts of song that I'd call almost percussive. I guess that it is a Chaffinch but can't be sure, as it is singing from the middle of a tangle of bushes. It's not until we've walked further up the lane that we manage to get a glimpse of another, which is singing from the middle of a garden Holly bush. Thirty yards further on, another sings in plain view on a branch.

greenfinch In a tree in the park, a Greenfinch sings its nasal jeee-zzz phrase.

Spindle, at the top of Millbank, Thornhill, has greenish-yellow clusters of flower buds. A few of them have already opened into four-petalled flowers.

dunnock A Dunnock sings from our back garden hedge. It's a bright, brittle trill which reminds me of an old bicycle bell, or the bells that morris dancers wear.

We have our first lunch of the year outdoors, at the patio table. Catching the midday sun and sheltered from the breeze, the temperature gets up to a comfortable 20 centigrade. An hour or so later, when it falls into shade it soon plummets to a cool 7.

gnats dancing Winter Gnats dance in the last shaft of sun shining on the lawn. I try to count them, using a birdwatcher's method;

  • count five of them
  • estimate then next five by eye alone
  • count the rest in tens
  • for larger numbers, scale up to count in hundreds

I get it to about a hundred, but there's too much action to be accurate. Just when I'm getting somewhere with the count, the whole group suddenly dives down, probably as a female appears (I assume that it is the males who are dancing). They disperse away from the shaft of sunlight so that most of them disappear.

The group dynamics are fluid; sometimes the gnats act as individuals, but they soon come back together as a coherent cloud. It's like watching a computer simulation of a chemical reaction, or of the motion of stars in a cluster.

The transformation from randomness to coherent pattern resembles a creative or deductive thought process. Ideas can come and go, like the swirling patterns in the dance.

When they go back to their dance, I notice that about thirty larger, feathery-looking gnats have joined the group. But the bigger species dances closer to the turf and has a distinct up-and-down action, in contrast to the little orbits performed by the smaller species.

Scarlet Runners

runner bean pod Our greatest success with scarlet-flowered Runner Beans last summer was with those we grew in a plastic tub on the patio. They benefited from the additional warmth of the sunny, sheltered position, but didn't produce a huge crop. Those down the garden fared worse, the young plants were nibbled by Rabbits and after that they never really caught up. They put on plenty of leaves, but produced very few beans.

a beananother beana different beanun autre harricotthat's enough beans, Ed.

I pick one of the dried Runner Beans pods left on the shrivelled vine on the patio. The five beans inside are glossy purplish-pink, with a pattern that looks as if it has been drawn in black Indian Ink with a dip pen. The two halves of the opened pod start to twist as I draw, like a dried vanilla pod.

Richard Bell
Richard Bell,
wildlife illustrator

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