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On a wing and a prayer

Outdoor Living

DELICATE BEAUTY Mayfly emerge in their thousands to run the gauntlet of trout and bird.

May is a time when delicate things take to the air in the hope of fostering a new generation

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The fields were snowing dandelions seeds. A blizzard, forming mini drifts at the edge of every obstacle. When the wind first gathered itself and tore the seedheads to pieces a myriad tiny parachutes blew onto the river where trout mistook them for an insect banquet and began to rise eagerly. I thought it was my lucky day, but before I could even wet a line the fish learned their lunch wasn’t the tasty treat they thought it was and went home.
I did the same and poked about in the garden for an hour, and when I looked up the air was filled with flying insects, proper ones this time. I think I never saw as many, each of them changed by the evening sun to an orange spark. Blown from the lake into the lee of the trees, they danced, rising and falling by the so-many thousand, somehow finding among the masses one to catch their entomological eye.
‘Come to the lake with me,’ he urges.
She would rather stay and dance in the sunset, but away they go to the water to complete their timeless ritual, after which she will lay her eggs and fall, spread-eagled and spent, and find herself surrounded by a gluttonous orgy of feasting trout. I should be out there, really. The wind is cold, though, and the house is warm. Besides, if I work this evening, tomorrow I shall be free.
At the river the grey wagtails that live beneath the iron bridge have their family out and about. Three youngsters, properly grey, follow their parents closely, while a fourth is either more adventurous or rather muddled, I’m not sure which, for it takes off on its own and heads downriver while the rest fly up, and sits cheeping plaintively with an empty bill, hoping to be fed, while its more obedient siblings have their crops bulging.
Wagtails are a confusing bunch. The pied wagtail is grey, while the grey wagtail appears predominantly yellow, and in some parts goes by the name of Yellow wagtail. The Yellow wagtail, the real one, is a creature of rich farmland and water meadows and doesn’t occur in this part of the world. It is yellow, brilliantly so, and outshines its other wagtail cousins by a country mile.
Our grey wagtails held my attention for a while, as they always do. These sat on rocks at the edge of fast water, darting out to snatch newly hatched insects from the air. It seems cruel, that these pretty water flies should be caught and eaten within moments of finding their wings.
For a whole year they grubbed about on the bottom of this clearwater stream, grey and brown, dull olive and ochre, until this very day, when something strange happened to their bodies, compelling them to rise to the surface where they found themselves sticking to the underside of the meniscus. What else could be done but to break through? And break through they do, climbing out of their own skin on the way. The process of adult fly emerging from nymph is complete in moments and suddenly an insect has been conjured from the water before our eyes. Seconds later the inaugural flight begins and the wagtail flutters into action, snatching our piece of living art before it might properly stretch its wings.
Happily, these small mayfly species hatch in such quantity that an army of birds could not possibly eat them all. Good numbers make their way to safety and hide amid bankside foliage where they undergo another transformation. The insect that emerged from the nymph was the sub-imago, beautiful in its own right, finely crafted, intricately and perfectly made, although perhaps a little dull.
Now it sheds its skin and a different creature, the imago, comes to light, this one sparkling with colour; red, green, yellow, according to the species, with a long and delicate triple-tail and gossamer wings that catch the evening sun. If tomorrow is mild a crowd many thousand strong will come to dance above the water, thronging together according to their kind.
Beneath them will be trout, waiting for the feast that comes at end of day. And there, too, will be the angler, with his light line and clumsy imitation, hoping for his share of a late May harvest.