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The hidden life of rivers

Earlier this year, in the midst of lockdown, Ireland’s Wildlife Contributor Albert Nolan took his children to a river near his home to explore its hidden wildlife.

Kicksampling with pupils at a West Cork national school on a Heritage in Schools visit a few years ago

We took the short trip to Toorenbrien Bridge, careful not to stray over our allotted 2km lockdown radius. Here there is a large parking space and the kids and I were going kick sampling in the river. This is a really fun activity that I have often done with schools and other groups. Both adults and kids find discovering the hidden life of rivers great fun.

We unpacked our gear: net, containers, tray and freshwater guide. The kids could fit under the arches of the bridge, but I had to duck down. Stalactites hung from the roof and there were plenty of gaps for bats and birds to nest and roost in. The craftsmanship of the stones is amazing and old bridges are best admired up close. A rich carpet of plants were growing between the stones, adding to its value for wildlife. A pair of grey wagtails were hanging around the bridge and were not to put out by the strangers in their watery world. On the sunny bank primroses and lesser celandine were in flower and a bumblebee was busy fuelling its body with nectar.  

Some curious river denizens

We set up on a large gravel bank in the middle of the river and immediately got to work. Choice of river is important as a good gravel bed increases the chances of discovering life.  

While the kids filled up the tray and bucket (reused after bird nuts were gone) with water, I stepped into the river. Placing the open end of my net downsteam I gently used my foot to disturb the gravel. I carefully lifted up my net and could see lots of wriggling. The kids were telling me to hurry on and I emptied the contents into the white tray.      

After a few seconds all of the creatures started to move. There were several mayfly nymphs and soon these will be hatching out to the delight of fisherman. Predatory dragonfly nymphs patrolled the edges of the tray and the other creatures gave them a wide berth. We could see their gills moving as they breathed. They can spend up to two years in the water depending on the availability of food in the river. Whirligig beetles bumped and banged into everything; these are insects that live life in the fast lane. Cased caddisfly larva swam snake-like. Watching the different means of propulsion is as interesting as the creatures. 

We waded down the river to a tiny waterfall. This gave a unique view of the river and the landscape. A natural sandbar was full of fresh tracks of the fox and I think also a badger. Next we crossed under to the opposite side and this is the territory of a riverbank robin and wren. They scolded us loudly and we did not tarry too long. One sweep of the river revealed a very large freshwater shrimp and a really small one. 

Of course it had to happen: one of the kids slipped and got soaked. This was the signal to head back home as everyone was getting tired and hungry. Our last drama, as we pulled off, was remembering just in time that the wellies were on the roof of the car.

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