Monday, 26 September 2011

I'm Thorea than you are to have used this pun (or are algae and mock-rafflesias more interesting than wetland birds?)

I was quite excited about visiting the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, and once part of the Thames floodplain. After all, I like this kind of thing (algae):

I'm keen on anything to do with the River Thames, which runs almost past my door. In fact it runs back and forth past my door due to tidal influences right up to Teddington Lock where I kayak to from Richmond Bridge most Saturdays. This Saturday, as it happens, I found my first freshwater red alga since arriving in London and a new location (Teddington Lock) for a thing called Thorea. But that's another story, although a good excuse for an awful blog title.

Back in Barnes, I wondered how they would make 42 hecatres of wet land look interesting. There are, apparently, 180 species of bird, 8 species of bat and more than 500 different kinds of moth and butterfly. The problem is that you see a dozen or so aquatic birds, and mostly the ones that frequent the ponds in Kew Gardens, where they are a little closer.

There are also a few other animals, such as these cattle,

and a few introduced (I think) aquatic birds such as the following two, living in little fenced off portions of the wetland. The second one here has the craziest neck! There are lots of pictures of voles, crocodiles and hippopotamuses, but sadly none of these to be seen.

Don't get me wrong. The wetland is atmospheric and a great thing for London, and the Thames. It just that it's very difficult to make wetlands exciting (and I say this as an aquatic scientist who does find them exciting). Much of the action is small and underwater, and that's difficult to see. The object in the first pictures is a video camera that you can move around to see life under water. While we were there a couple of kids were swinging it round to see themselves on the screen - which was fun! - and when I finally managed to wrench it from their sticky hands I could only see mud and swishy things.

I've seen aquatic displays done well in two Chinese botanic gardens (see my post on South China Botanical Garden as example) and we have some marine displays (in tanks) beneath our Palm House. But to have displays out in the 'wild' and interpreting real wetlands is quite tricky.

I think if more flowers were out (the meadow above was an example of a sustainable garden and there were a few aquatic garden ideas) it might have been a prettier walk. Perhaps if I liked birds more it would have been more intellectually satisfying - I just can't get too excited about these diminished dinosaurs (although the Robin in our backyard is rather cute).

Still, ignore me and do visit the London Wetland Centre. I'm just an old jaded phycologist with a short attention span. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have done a great job turning the Barn Elms Water Works into a wildlife sanctuary, and for that I am very grateful. I should add that for kids there are plenty of games and interactive things to make it more exciting. Dipping a net into a pond is a good start...

For me, though, the highlight was yet another mock-Rafflesia. You may recall this is one of my 'must see' plants and the closest I've got is the cabbage-like bud on a trip to Malaysia (illustrated, along with a few more mock-rafflesias, in this 2010 post). In the absence of the real thing - and I'm keen for Kew to flower one sometime soon - I'll have to make do with the following, just a couple of miles from home and not far from my River Thames....


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