Another day course with CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists). This weekend was the Diptera Workshop held at Norton Priory Museum.
As the year has gone on, the time since I booked onto my CAN courses has increased. It’s a little different anticipating a diptera workshop a few days away than it is booking onto one along with a load of other ecology courses. People ask you what you’re doing on the weekend and you say: “On Saturday I’m going to a course to learn to identify flies”. They look at you like you are a fly.
I suppose you can’t blame them. Flies are kinda gross. Someone suggested to me once that we’re predisposed to dislike flies because they spread disease so we find them naturally repellent. I’ve no idea if that’s true.
None the less I found myself rather looking forward to this course. I got really into harvestmen after that CAN course. But like flowers to a botanist now all the harvestmen have died off and I have nothing to play with. But you can generally rely on there being a fly somewhere. Not only that but unlike everything else you can get into in the natural world, flies come to you. Sit there long enough and a fly will find you and land on you. Or whatever you’re eating.
I picked Tom (who I’ll refer to as Tom S for reasons which will become clear) up and drove us from Manchester to Runcorn on Saturday morning. He was hungover and relieved to hear that the whole course was to be indoors (though would later come to regret the excessive layers he had worn in anticipation of a day outside). Either Tom S or Fleur have driven on the other CAN courses I’ve been on so it was good to be able to return the favor. We arrived on time into a full classroom of around 15 people sat around a ring of desks packed with microscopes, lights and tools. I recognized several of the people there. There’s obviously a bit of an invert gang as I’d seen them on the invert trapping course and none others. They’re magnificently geeky and I mean that as a compliment. These guys really know their invertebrates.
Rachel and Andy, the founders of CAN, were both there and the course was lead by Tom Mawdsley (who I’ll just call Tom) who has clearly spent many years refining his fly-D skills and is very good at it. Thing is, it’s not really enough just being good at something like flies. As it turns out fly ID is really hard and you could be easily put off it as soon as you start it, but Tom has a way of appearing not to take the subject too seriously. A kind of shrugging “may as way learn to ID flies” manor that puts you at ease as you take your first uncertain steps down the microscope lens, and means you don’t notice how horrifically hard it is until you’re already hooked.
I LOVE flies now. Not ‘love’ love obviously. More a kind of ‘I want to kill you and pin you to a piece of plastazote and keep you forever’ kind of love. I heard Erica McAlister on Radio 4 once talking about how beautiful flies are. I thought it was cool that she thought that but I couldn’t imagine what she meant. I made a mental note to find out one day though and on Saturday looking at flies under a microscope I saw it. You expect the eyes to look impressive and they do but the colours were what really got me. Golden hairs on grotesquely beautiful faces like alien re-imaginings of Egyptian myths. I’ve spend some time looking at aquatic inverts but to me they have none of the charisma of true flies. You can’t see it in any of my pictures. You have to have a good look down a microscope.
When we first arrived we got a coffee and sat down and as Tom was introducing himself a fly landed on his finger. This gave him the appearance to me of some kind of fly whisperer. Turns out it was just a very dopey fly. It later committed suicide in Tom S’ coffee.
Tom S and I spent the 5ish hours of the course working our way through the key provided on the course, identifying samples of what must have been hundreds of specimens Tom has collected over the years. I only noticed afterwards that the date of one of the specimens I had photographed was 1988. We asked a lot of questions. We ID maybe 5 flies to at least family, some species. As with any fiddly IDing, having someone to show you when something is what you think it is and when it is in fact the opposite of that even though it very much looks like it is, is vital to get you off to a good start. A transverse sutre may not look like is isn’t viable in the middle, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘not visible’.
This was in such contrast to the harvestmen course which I had also enjoyed so much. Twenty-nine UK species of harvestmen, most of which are quite distinctive with a hand lens. There are nearly 7000 fly species in the UK and many are distinctive only by the positioning of a hair! One of the things I like most about natural history is that it seems to create these wonderfully obsessive characters who have taken the time to figure all this stuff out. I worry that they are a dying breed.
Tom very kindly gave me one of his pooters (a fly catching device). I’m sure he didn’t think too much about it but I was well chuffed and left full of enthusiasm to pursue this. In the 24 hours that followed Tom S bought a microscope having been equally enthused by the day. I could do with a microscope. One of the pieces of advice on the day was to visit the Dipterists Forum for help with all things fly. I popped on and picked their brains about microscopes. I think I’m going to have to save up. I have access to microscopes at both my works, uni and now Tom S’ house to no point in buying something cheap and useless now.
I have used my pooter though. As you wander round your house in December, pooter in hand, hunting out any unlucky flies that might still be about you can’t help wonder when exactly you turned into such a weirdo?