Monday 30 May 2016

Spawning and Hatching - May 2016

This project has, over the years, allowed us a privileged connection with nature and we have experienced all kinds of amazing things, some of which are funnelled into slightly more noticeable and observable concentrations by us and through the attraction of our spawning boards and this year has been no exception.

Aside from the usual roachy stuff we are constantly reminded of natures’ extraordinary knack of filling a void, grabbing a moment or place and taking advantage of any opportunity. We have had Lime Hawk Moth caterpillars pupating in the spawning board stack, Peacock Butterflies hibernating in them too, rabbit runs under the tanks, and all under the watchful eye of the newborn foals at the bottom of the garden, often born on the same day our roach begin to hatch..... More of this stuff in the ‘pictures round’ at the end of this blog...

Just when we began to think there can’t be much we haven’t seen, or that might surprise us, Mother Nature opened her bag of ‘Googly Curveballs’ and began bowling them at us – full pelt.

As we mentioned in our previous blog post we were comfortably ahead of ourselves and ready for the coming spawning.

We placed the spawning boards in the river in the first week of April, as we usually do, just in case – although the predicted spawning date, subject to floods or freeze, is always 25th April. We then visit them every two days to inspect, but mainly to clean as they collect an enormous amount of silt despite what appears a very clear river.

The tanks were all sorted with a nice green algal bloom and had all been seeded with daphnia in anticipation of the coming spawning and hatching. The daphnia would thrive in the green water and squirt out live young every week or so - perfect for our young roach when they hatch.

First, though, the roach needed to spawn in the river.

The first part of the month looked very promising with increasing water temperatures and day length, then the ‘Arctic Blast’ set in giving us bone chilling temperatures of minus goodness knows what.

The ‘Pause’ button was hit for spring, and the 25th came and went roachless. Even the weed in the river was weeks behind in terms of expected growth at this time of year. The swallows hadn’t arrived, the cuckoos, chiffchaffs, brimstones, grass snakes all mysteriously absent.

We just had to sit it out and wait – and pace up and down and argue and eat cake and pies and argue.

Then the cold snap ended suddenly and was replaced, almost overnight, by gloriously warm conditions. The skies filled with swallows, the air with the sound of chiffchaffs and cuckoos and the roach gathered at our spawning boards on the 4th May.

We were once again delighted at the number of roach attending our boards and again absolutely dumbfounded at the size of some of them, proving that the Avon is still doing what the Avon has always done, growing monster roach.

The first day sees a lot of chasing about mainly by the males who seem to arrive ahead of the females and establish territories, all ‘frosted’ with spawning tubercles which are used to rub against the females to induce egg release (we think our netting on the spawning boards may do the same, but we’ll never know as we can’t ask them). The females then arrive, but the first few are usually terrorised and frightened off by the over amorous males until greater numbers join in then it all goes off, splashing and chasing and writhing all over the spawning boards.

We are very lucky to be in the right place at the right time and have the time and now knowledge to be able to predict behaviour and get some really extraordinary photographs. However, as we have said somewhere else, we take over six hundred pictures for perhaps a few dozen good ones, so maybe there is some room for improvement... Perhaps we should apply a little more effort...

This year not only were we within a few feet of some of the huge individuals from the remnant population of roach, but more importantly we were in the presence of more wild Avon Roach of all sizes than have been seen for decades at some of the sites..... As good a sight as we could ever have hoped for...

As the project has evolved we have developed and capitalise on a wide range of roachy tricks each year and one is that we place spawning boards in a couple of Avon fed ponds and lagoons containing roach, but which have never been stocked meaning they have arrived from the river naturally in some way – possibly larval drift.
What we do is have them spawn on our boards then simply move them back to carefully chosen spots in the main river to let the eggs hatch where the parents were originally from – good trick eh?

This spring, however, through the rapid rise in temperature which ordinarily happens over a far greater length of time, Mother Nature bowled us one of her finest Googly Curveballs straight at our middle stump.

We know our spawning board design gets used by a number of clubs and organisations around the country in still waters and have been very successful with Rudd, Bream, Tench and of course roach.

However, what we didn’t expect is the rapid rise in water temperature to trigger the carp to start spawning early and fall under the magical spell of our spawning boards.

We know from a friend who breeds Koi that to induce spawning the brood stock are placed in warmer water which triggers them, and we think this is what has happened, going from the ‘arctic blast’ of a short while ago – huskies, thermals, heating on full pelt, hail storms, blankets of snow and 24 hour frosts to the hottest early May temperatures for a million years – Speedo’s, flip-flops and sun block.

We went to inspect some of our boards only to see what looked like carp eating the roach eggs, until we noticed the things being smashed about and covered with carp spawn. The carp were going bonkers – as they do when spawning.

Usually they bash up reed beds, root systems and marginal growth. They really can trash a place.

In this particular pool there were all the things an amorous carp could want for spawning yet they were all around our two spawning boards; beating and bashing them all over the place. Good job they were tied to a fence. They were going potty.

So, the moral of the story is that our spawning boards not only have magical powers for roach, tench, rudd and bream, they now also are known to have the same appeal to carp that chose them in preference to all the other natural spawning substrate in the pool.

This was an unfortunate first for the ARP...

We are always testing for new spawning sites - the more the merrier, obviously, and are delighted to have discovered two more we can add to our list.

One, we tried last year without success due to unforeseen circumstances, but decided to try again as we know a decent number of roach live near this particular flush of water along with some great big barbel – and it takes a damned good beating to bash a hunch out of us two.

We reckon there is nothing nicer than seeing lovely roach swimming cheek by jowl with gorgeous barbel. It’s what the Avon was made for...... That was until our roach started spawning only to be interrupted by barbel from an estimated four to over thirteen pounds coming up in the water, turning up-side-down and grazing on the roach eggs (pictures below).

One of the most remarkable things is that the instinct of the roach to spawn was so strong that while the barbel grazed they simply moved aside, then when the barbel went away, they instantly resumed egg-laying on the boards.

This is undoubtedly yet another endorsement of the merits of what we are doing through our project as had we left the boards in the river the barbel may well have cleared the lot.

However, we must remember, this would happen whether we put our boards here or not. This is just a natural phenomenon that we can now interrupt by removing the eggs before total wipe-out.

The flip-side to this, of course, is that our roach will be sitting behind the gravel spawning grounds of the barbel and do exactly the same a few weeks later....... Food for thought (pardon the pun) and yet another Googly Curveball..... And another unfortunate first for the ARP.

Despite the attentions of the barbel good numbers of eggs were collected and have now hatched in the tanks.

It’s been another extremely satisfying, yet unusual spawning season, with lots more lessons learned.

The pressure of the overwhelming responsibility really does hit home at this time of year – just have a scroll through the pictures below and you’ll see why. Our little roach are no bigger than an eyelash when they hatch and we need to find a way of getting feed into them and keeping them alive through the most vulnerable hours, days and weeks; then years of their lives........ This, of course, as you know, starts with our Brine Shrimp Hatchery which is currently running at full pelt.

There are lots of amazing pictures below. We hope you enjoy.

This is one of our lengthier blog posts, so we apologise if it’s too much. It’s just that there is so much stuff to tell and pictures to show..... Just be thankful you have an ‘On / Off’ button, as face to face the only thing that would achieve silence is a cricket bat to the side of the head... or a very handsome bribe......

Seriously, and before we let the pictures below finish the story, thank you all so very much for your ongoing support and wonderful comments.

If you are young and hip like us two, you can now follow us on Facebook. Please visit the Avon Roach Project page and give it a like.

The 4th May saw the roach gathering at the spawning boards, to our relief... You'd have thought we'd have gotten used to all this stuff by now, but the sight of the first to gather at the boards still gives us a lovely satisfying feeling.

The 'Frosted' tubercle covered males establish territory, even on the spawning boards, and will defend it throughout spawning. This accounts for much of the first few hours of chasing about.

When the females arrive it's all out 'Love' and the spawning really begins.

One thing that enables us to get shots like this is our acquired skill of being able to predict when these eruptions are likely to take place.

The extraordinary sight of roach 'Loving' on our spawning boards is quite something. We watch for hours, but are ever mindful that what we are seeing could be a determining factor in the continuing revival of roach in the iconic Hants Avon.

Sights such as this perfect plump female coming almost clear of the water as she deposits her eggs on one of our boards are quite common once the spawning really gets underway. We have even seen them skidding across the top of the spawning boards.

It's amazing to think this is going on within feet of us. We obviously have to tread lightly and remain out of sight, but we have even known this spawning to continue as we retrieve the boards to replace with fresh.

This is one of those shots that make all the hours standing motionless, numb legged and gritty eyed, worthwhile. It's one of the best of the year, we think, and shows a large female (upper middle left) exiting having just deposited her eggs leaving a group of males behind her having fertilised them. It also shows another female at the bottom left of the picture receiving some one to one attention from an interested 'frosted' male.
Romping Red-Fins all over our spawning boards..... What a sight...

This may seem fairly tame in comparison with some of the other pictures until you consider that the larger of the two fish, the female, is two and a half feet below the spawning board which is nine inches wide. We estimated this 'big girl' to be somewhere in the region of seventeen or eighteen niches long and was certainly one of the biggest we saw at this site.

All the carp needed was a warm bath and away they went. Our poor little spawning boards were getting the bashing of their lives.

The carp also used our two one metre long boards in preference to all the other available spawning substrate in the pool - including the pond weed they bashed up and hurled all over the spawning boards. In this picture, depending on your computer, you can see the carp have even covered the tops of the spawning boards with eggs.

We were delighted when we saw the roach spawning at one of our new spawning sites (at our second attempt); some of them big and in good numbers. This will hopefully be another little silver mine we can tap into to continue the recovery of the Avon Roach.

Unfortunately, the roach were interrupted by the local barbel gang who discovered the rich food source of fish eggs and decided to plunder...

This kind of opportunism happens throughout nature at every level, yet here we were seeing it right under our noses..... Would these barbel have completely wiped out this years' roach spawn had we not been there to remove it?
It was all very strange. On the one hand standing watching something amazing that very few will have or will ever see; yet on the other hand wanting it to stop and wondering if we should poke the barbel with a landing net pole..... We didn't - Promise...

Never thought we'd hear ourselves saying we want a thirteen pound barbel to sod off and not come back...

The first spawning board of the year lifted after 48 hours to be replaced with a fresh one... Luckily no barbel or carp here...

A good coverage of eggs. See how the roach like to get right up in there; even depositing on the underside of the board itself.

The first day of the next three years in our care.

Us two with beaming smiles of relief and our first egg-covered spawning board of 2016; far more casual than the old 'smash and grab' days of spawn collection. However, the reality is that these smiles mask a turbulent cocktail of emotions such as urgency, panic, foreboding, and the knowledge that these little buggers are going to suck up hundreds of intensive hours just to get them to hatch and on to a few weeks old.

Into the tanks they go, and we wait.

After eight or nine days the eggs are clear and 'eyed' and the tiny roach are clearly visible as they develop inside..... With a strong pair of reading glasses (x15 or so) the little roach can be seen wriggling and writhing within the eggs.

Our little happy-snap underwater camera gets a dip in the tanks each evening in the days leading up to hatching to get shots like this.

Hatching imminent.... The tiny roach begin straightening within the eggs, taking them from round to elliptical before breaking through the membrane and hatching tail first.

The first few tiny hatchlings.

Yes, we just had to include a picture of a roach actually hatching, with head still inside the egg membrane...... We really should get a life.

These little roach larvae are just tiny, transparent splinters of life, but hold part of the hope for the future of the species in the Avon..... with a little help from us...

This little Avon Roach is just a few minutes old.... Not far behind, the head and curled body can clearly be seen in the egg just below.

And yes, we had to include yet another roach backing out of an egg.

Hatching then gathers pace and increasing numbers of fish begin popping out all over..... So, flexed hand over yet another ARP Panic Button.'

Our little underwater camera not only enables us to bore the hell out of you guys with gazillions of pictures of fish eggs, but also allows us to see the rate of hatching which is not immediately obvious as the roach spend their first few days attached by an adhesive gland on their heads to the nearest inanimate object, usually the netting or underside of the spawning board, where they take up most of their yolk sac before swimming free and in search for food, which we need to ensure is there for them. And it is only when we get images like this one that we know to get the Brine Shrimp Hatchery dusted off and rigged up in the conservatory.

Brine Shrimp Hatchery in full production. It's images like this one that sometimes make us wonder why the pair of us haven't been sectioned...

In a matter of days the tanks are alive with tiny roach, so timing the hatching of the first batch of shrimps with the requirement of the roach is fairly critical.

Just a few days old and bulging with their first taste of Brine Shrimps.

The amount of shrimp fed twice a every day is increased as the roach continue to hatch.

All we have to do is get this little chap, and as many of his friends and family as we can, to the size of Trev's sausage fingers seen here below him.

It's at this tiny size that they would be wafted along in the river, known as larval drift, to wherever they end up (in a flood the river would possibly be emptied of them). It is this larval drift that we are relying on  to colonise areas in the river we don't have access to for whatever reason through the drift of the hatchlings from the spawn of those we release each year.

There will not be a moment in their lives that our roach are not vulnerable. Here a young water boatman has taken one. It seems that no matter what we do they still manage to colonise the tanks...... Nature finding a way again...

Project HQ is back up together again and fully repaired after Storm Katie came in for a short visit and trashed the place.

Some mornings it looks like Watership Down out there.

Hibernating Peacock Butterflies in the spawning board stack. Disturbance is critically timed as we don't want to wake these guys up too early, but we must make sure we get them moving in March to stop the wrens and robins nesting in them.

Jet washing the spawning boards in the autumn dislodged two very big pupae. We suspected either Elephant or Lime Hawk Moth as we'd seen the caterpillars of both in the garden, but we suspected Lime as there is usually a slight pink hue to the pupae of the Elephant Hawk Moth which these didn't have.
We placed them both in a tub of earth with a stick for the adults to climb up to dry off when hatched and put them out of danger in the garages to over-winter.

In May the tub was brought inside and the adults hatched right on cue -  one male (above) and one female already full of eggs, as they all are.

Being nocturnal flyers it is possible to handle them gently in the day.

This little lad was born on the same day our roach began hatching, and then waited patiently for his chubby auntie nearby to bring him a cousin.

A few days later she did so.

Isn't spring wonderful?....... Apart from the horseflies, wasps, stinging nettles, bank holiday traffic, mozzies, water boatmen.......
We think we heard this little fella say.... 'There's got to be more to life than this..... I'm bored, bored, bored, bored, bored....... All my mum wants to do is walk about all day eating grass. I don't even like grass - yet. All I do is turn milk into wee..... If I had a bike...... Or a PlayStation I wouldn't be this so bored.....'
At least, that's what we think we heard him say....

So, back to the plot..... As we post this BLOG the roach are now on a mixture of Brine Shrimp and crumb feed and are doing very well, as you can see. They are growing before our very eyes.

A nice close-up of a group of glowing Avon Roach just after a hearty meal.

We'll leave you all with a reminder of what might be Mummy and Daddy, and what the little splinters of life in our tanks have the potential to grow into, with our help.