Thank you to Gary Reynolds for the featured photograph.
Mad as a March Hare! This idiom has been in use since the 16th Century and was popularised in Lewis Carroll’s famous book ‘Alice’s adventures in wonderland’. I’ve yet to witness a hare’s mad antics in the spring and although I see them fairly regularly when driving through Carmarthenshire’s lanes, they are certainly a less common sight than in the past. When Lewis Carroll was writing about the Mad March Hare in 1865, there were around 4 million hares in Britain, but numbers have sadly declined by 80%.
But why do we associate them with madness? On a March moonlit night, if you are very lucky, you may get the opportunity to witness hares preparing to pair up and mate. Males will chase the larger females, who will sprint away with their infamous speed – some have been recorded to reach more than 45 mph! Males will fight off rivals in the chase, and the females will box and send any unsuitable suitor packing if they don’t have the speed, stamina and strength to meet the female’s expectations.
Hares are able to breed several times a year and can in fact mate and then store a fertilised embryo whilst still pregnant. Once the litter is born, the embryo implants ready for the next litter. These icons of fertility are said by some people to have given rise to the legend of the Easter bunny and its associations with new life. The hare has some other interesting biological adaptations to enable it to be resistant to high speed, it is the only mammal with a jointed skull. This helps absorb the shock of hitting the ground at such force when jumping.
Within Carmarthenshire, there was a study in 2012 that looked at a number of priority species and the effects of Welsh agri-ecology schemes. The data from this research and other records in the county show that most of our county’s hares are found on the edges of uplands – the areas where there are rushy fields and sheep grazed areas.
These areas provide a safer base for their nests, called forms, and they can lie up out of sight in the rushes and use the open fields to graze. A hare’s main defence is its speed and open fields where predators can be spotted easily, with clear lines of escape are preferable. These are safer than lowland silage areas where young leverets can be killed by silage cutting. Rabbits give birth to their young safely underground where they are born blind and helpless whereas a hare’s young need to be able to fend for themselves to increase their chance of survival in their forms above ground.
People have been mesmerised by the hare since early times and it holds a place in the folklore of many cultures. The hare’s association with the moon is well known and in Japan, Mexico and China, people talk of the ‘hare in the moon’ rather than the ‘man’ when they gaze into the night sky and make shapes from the dark patches on the lunar surface.
The hare holds a special place in the hearts of Celtic people and the Mabinogion story of Ceridwen and Gwion tells how Gwion transformed into a hare and was chased by Ceridwen in her guise as a greyhound. She eventually caught him when he had further transformed into a grain of corn and was devoured by Ceridwen, who was by then a hen. This grain of corn developed inside her and was born as Taliesin, the legendary bard. Thus new life came about and this brings us back neatly to the hare’s associations with fertility and our own town and Black Book of Carmarthen in which Taliesin features.
I’ve often wondered why rabbits are kept as pets whereas hares are not generally domesticated. I researched the history of both species and found that of the three types of hare found in the British Isles, the Brown hare was introduced – and is now considered naturalised, whereas the Mountain hare in Scotland and its subspecies the Irish hare are native to our shores. Rabbits are said to have been introduced as a food source during the Norman Conquest. The European rabbit which was originally used for food and fur has been domesticated and selective breeding has been used to create more than 300 different rabbit breeds. I considered whether the precocial nature of hares was significant in them not being domesticated, hares are born relatively mature and mobile with hair and good vision, while rabbits are altricial, born hairless and blind, and requiring closer care. Is a rabbit easier to tame because it is more dependent when young? Hares live a relatively solitary life in a simple nest (form) above the ground, while most rabbits live in social groups in burrows or warrens, perhaps this less social nature of hares also makes then less suitable as pets?
I searched for examples of domesticated hares and was directed to an article about the English poet, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). He also wrote hymns and is said to have changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry. Cowper was admired by William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge rated him as the “best modern poet”. He was a man who struggled with self-doubt and overwhelming feelings of depression. He was passionate about anti-slavery and was anti-hunting and he was also responsible for the oft quoted line “God moves in a mysterious way” which came from his poem, Light shining out of darkness. I didn’t think I was familiar with Cowper when I was told about him, but soon found I was aware of many of his hymns and also another of his famous lines, “Variety’s the spice of life”. Cowper had three pet hares that brought him much joy in the many hours of darkness he endured in his life. He described them in a series of letters and I’ve attached an article that reproduces some of them and which is well worth a read. I can’t do justice to his work by describing his hares to you, Cowper has such a wonderful way with words that captures the nature of these animals alongside the nature of the time it was written.
What is apparent is hares have individual personalities much in the same way as other mammals do and they can clearly be tamed and live with humans and other animals as pets. I’m jealous of Cowper and his original therapy animals, but I’m relieved that hares aren’t regularly kept as pets; because for me, they will always have a sense of mystery and a special place in mythology.
I started my Red Kite diary just one week ago. I had gone down to the village hall a couple of miles from home, to see if I could watch and photograph the pair of Kites that I knew had a nest in a field by the playground.
What a difference a week makes.
Last weekend the scenes were shocking. Covid-19 was recognised as a very real risk to the health of people in the UK, yet the local beauty spots were teeming with visitors, desperate to pack in one last day out before isolating themselves. My local wildlife watching patch is by Dryslwyn castle and I have spent many, many hours down there observing the river and the meadows nearby. They were once a popular over-wintering ground for white fronted geese – in fact, back in the 1980s this part of the Towy Valley was home to 10% of the population of Siberian white-fronted geese that visited Britain and was one the country’s top three sites with up to 2500 of this species being counted here in the 1970s.
The only geese I regularly spot there nowadays are Canada geese, plenty of Greylags and occasionally others, including the escapee Bar headed geese that hung around the river around 10 years ago. Bar headed geese are fascinating and are not birds that visit the UK as part of their usual travels. Their physiology is such that they are able to fly at extremely high altitudes over the Himalayas as part of their migration. This pair was seen up and down the Towy, as far as the estuary at Llansteffan where they were officially counted in a BTO count one winter. I wonder if they moved on to the River Teifi? There was a report in the local paper ‘The Tivyside Advertiser’, of a Bar headed goose being killed by a swan in 2018. It was one of a pair regularly seen there. Most recently around Christmas last year, I spotted a single Bar headed goose back in amongst a mixed flock on the meadow near the Towy. I wonder if this is the remaining partner?
On my way over the bridge to the village hall on my morning trip to visit the Kite’s nesting area, I spotted several Little Egrets roosting in a tree and I decided to take a closer look on my return home from collecting information for my Red Kite Diary blog. Sadly, the carpark was full. I have never seen it so busy and people were trailing up to the castle and sitting on the picnic bench and wandering around all over the riverbank. I decided not to stop and thought I’d come back and observe the roost early the next morning instead when I planned to visit the Kites too. I returned home, wrote my blog entry and enjoyed my weekend, tending to our polytunnel and preparing the beds for growing vegetables in our garden.
I haven’t visited the Kite’s nest since and it seems unlikely that I will see that pair again this summer. Technically, the location is within my usual exercise area and I could nip down on my bicycle, but this is someone else’s village, someone else’s local patch and local dog walking area, and I will leave it to them and stick to my own village until it is safer to travel further afield. It’s a shame and I will miss those Kites, but I have a familiar bird that soars above my house most days and I can get see plenty of other wildlife from my garden. I had hoped to share the story of Red Kites through this particular pair, but that is not to be this year. Instead I will continue sharing some personal reflections and some information about the Red Kite in Wales.
Red Kites first breed when they are two years old, although there are exceptional circumstances where younger birds have bred. They are monogamous, and pairs tend to stay around their territory over the winter – this usually results in resident populations pair-bonding. The Red Kite’s nest is normally placed in a fork of a large hardwood tree at a height of between 12 and 15 m above the ground. The pair that I had been watching enter and leave the tree had chosen a nest in the branches. Often, the previous year’s nest will be used and both the male and female bird take part in rebuilding this. The male brings twigs to the female who places them on the nest. The lining is made from grass and also sheep’s wool. Just before egg laying, the birds decorate their nest with all manner of things like crisp packets and toys and anything they can find that takes their fancy. Both sexes continue to add material to the nest during the incubation and nestling periods. Sometimes Kites will use a discarded Raven or Buzzard’s nest.
I have been outside enjoying a cup of tea and I could hear a Red Kite calling about half a kilometre away. This morning I observed three Kites flying over the field from my bed. How lucky am I?! There are three nests that I know of within our village and I’ve observed the Kites courtship displays for a few weeks now. I like to walk around the edge of my village on a Sunday morning. This walk takes in country lanes and a bridleway and covers parts of each of the three nesting pairs territories. The first breeding/courtship related behaviour I observed this year was on the 23rd of February. I watched a pair of Kites regularly swoop towards each other and spring apart, one of them chasing the other briefly before they reverted back to circling the fields, keeping a fair distance from each other but clearly well aware of what each other was doing. I’ve seen and heard pairs frequently since then and this morning the three birds were clearly engaged in some type of courtship display.
The collage of photos above are from two of the Red Kite feeding centres I’ve visited in Wales. The bird with the double forked tail was photographed by me in around 2001 at Gigrin Farm, Rhayader. The RSPB had observed the farmer feeding the Red Kites regularly in 1992/1993. At that time, they were being fed in the field with the sheep. This clearly demonstrates there is no risk to live sheep from Kites. They prefer carrion and are not particularly strong birds for their size so even when faced with a sheep carcass, they still need to wait for the strong jaws of a fox or raven to break open the bones before the Kites can eat. There were around 6 Red Kites roosting on Gigrin farm at that time and the feeding was providing a valuable service to the Red Kites. These birds were rare back then and chicks were being lost because of disturbance be people trying to view nests. The RSPB hoped that if the successful livestock farm opened to the public, it would reduce disturbances and loss of chicks at the nesting sites. The centre is a success story and by 2006 the numbers of visiting Kites had risen to around 400.
Red Kites feed in the mornings when they wake up and most Red Kite centres provide food around 2 or 3pm depending on whether it is British Summer Time or not. The centres provide a useful top up service and it is common to see the birds gathering from far and wide in anticipation of their meal.
I will include some links to Red Kite centres at the end of this blog. Back to the courtship and breeding antics of the birds. The three birds I saw this morning were an unusual spectacle. More commonly I see pairs displaying. I wonder if it is because the birds are now more common? I have never had a repeat viewing of the breath taking aerial display I witnessed in 1995. This was one of the most special days of my life.
We had just moved to Lampeter in Dyfed (now in Ceredigion). Mal had enrolled at the University in the town. I had been studying in Bristol and had decided to transfer to Aberystwyth University instead. Sadly academia wasn’t for me but it brought to us to the most beautiful part of the world and it has been our home ever since. Lampeter Uni is quite unusual. It is the oldest university in Wales and offers some fascinating courses which attract some equally fascinating students. Subjects like Ancient History; Medieval Studies; Religion; and Buddhist Textual Studies. Bristol’s student union had clubs that did things like review plays they had seen at the theatre or debate politics. Lampeter’s students dressed up as knights and whacked the hell out of each other with realistic looking swords!
Mal had made friends with a large, forthright, Yorkshireman called Dave. They had met on the first day of term and instantly hit it off. Dave had a big moustache, a bawdy sense of humour, a larger than life physique and personality … and a dress! Well, it wasn’t an actual dress as he frequently told drunk locals who were using his taxi service. It was his robes. Dave was a Buddhist and he had another name, but to me and Mal he was always Dave and we have many fond memories of our time together and with his children and he is sadly missed by us. He died in 2015 – or was reborn – depending on your viewpoint. I messaged his son a couple of years ago and we reminisced about our days out in Mid Wales.
Dave’s son was at school in the town and the four of us would frequently get in Dave’s car (Mal and I had motorbikes at the time) and set off on adventures all over the place. One sunny spring day we headed up from Lampeter towards Tregaron. The bog there is an incredible spot for watching wildlife. It always feel bleak and remote. The water is black and the bog stretches for miles – it is a great spot for dragonflies, adders and glow worms. There’s a heronry within a couple of minutes walk from the carpark too. We continued north into the realms of places with names we struggled to pronounce. I’m proud to say, these names now roll off the tongue. We drove through Pontrhydfendigaid, Pontrhydygroes and Cwmystwyth. Dave’s dream was to open a Buddhist centre in Wales and we stopped that day in what could have been the perfect spot. The Cambrian mountains are simply stunning and totally under-rated in my opinion. I am secretly glad of this because whilst tourists are flocking to climb Pen y Fan in the south or Snowdon in the north, the Cambrians are quiet and peaceful and an escape from everyday life. We stood in the derelict and unrestored grounds of what we now know to be the Hafod estate. The sky was blue and the air crisp. It was 1995 and most of the UK’s Red Kites were around Mid Wales, around 100 pairs in all. It was a treat to see one (I described my first encounter with a Kite whilst riding my motorbike in my earlier blog).
With so much beauty all around us it was a good job we looked up, because high above us in the sky were five Red Kites. None of us had seen that many birds together before. These were the days of getting really excited and pointing at them out the window on the rare occasion you saw one on its own. We were absolutely transfixed. The five birds were clearly in a group and were stacked like planes circling while waiting to land, pairs taking turns to glide slowly then swoop at each other, occasionally touching talons, before parting and taking their position back in the stack while other birds took up the aerial display. Red Kites will pass food to each other but rarely lock talons and tumble like other birds of prey. But some of these birds were pairing up and tumbling, wings bent double and almost wrapped up in each other whilst hurtling towards the ground but breaking apart suddenly and gracefully, and soaring back to their circle to wait their turn for the next battle in the arena of the sky.
I have searched the internet and my books for information on Red Kite courtship and I have found very little. I have never seen so many birds behave like this before or since. It was a truly magical moment. I wonder whether there is less competition for partners now the population has increased? I see that my blog has been read in India, maybe readers can contact me with their observations both here in the UK and further afield?
I have never seen Red Kites mating. I’ve never seen photos either. The Chiltern’s AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty) website says if you are lucky in April you may see Red Kites copulating in trees. I suppose we all define luck differently! After a successful mating, the clutch of one to three (up to a maximum of five) eggs are laid at three-day intervals. The eggs are matt white with red-brown spots and were prized by egg collectors in the past, which led to further reductions in Red Kite numbers. The average egg size is similar to a hen’s egg that you would buy from a supermarket. They are mainly incubated by the female, but the male will relieve her for short periods while she feeds. The male will also bring food for the female. Incubation starts as soon as the first egg is laid and each egg takes 31 to 32 days before hatching. Because the eggs are laid at three-day intervals, incubation continues until all the eggs are hatched so could take as long as 40+ days Both parents care for the chicks. First of all, the female takes care of them and the male brings her food for herself and for the chicks that she feeds. Later on, both parents bring items of food to the chicks that they place in the nest to allow the chicks to feed themselves. Fledging takes place after 48-50 days and the nestlings will begin climbing about on branches a few days before this. In the first two to three weeks after leaving the nest, the fledglings hang around and continue to be fed by their parents. Red Kites raise one brood per year but will re-lay if eggs are lost. A Red Kite can live for over 20 years and a bird was found in Wales in 2012 that was almost 24 years old.
So there we have it – the life cycle of the Red Kite. They still fill me with awe and I have to dedicate this to blog to Dave because I always think of him when I look at Red Kites. I am not a Buddhist, I practice no specific religion. I do practice mindfulness and one of my favourite meditations is on loving kindness. This meditation is also a Buddhist metta. There has never been a better time to contemplate on and project its meaning inwards to ourselves and outwards to the rest of the world.
I went down to the field earlier, hoping to get the chance to see Red Kites around the nest or engaging in courtship displays. It was fairly quiet, a single Kite was around and was flying in a large circle over the village and car park where a family were unloading their bicycles. I stayed for a while but didn’t hold much hope of seeing any activity. I expected the Kite to be preoccupied with the goings on in the car park rather than getting busy with any courtship or breeding. I drove back home and saw at least 4 other Red Kites and one flying directly above my house. This is a familiar bird to me and I recognise its individual voice. I know where it nests but it isn’t in a public place like the Kites I’ve been following so I smile to myself and wonder whether it will breed this year and keep me company with its mewling, whistling call over my garden through the summer.
My husband and I moved to the county of Dyfed in 1994. Mal had enrolled at Lampeter University as a mature student and we rented a small cottage in the middle of nowhere with no electricity at all – not even a generator, and our water came from a spring. The only thing I would miss if we were to return to that way of living is the internet and the ability to research any topic I wish without having to leave my house.
They were wonderful days and we spent our time between the University, work and riding around on our old Japanese motorcycles. It was in 1995 that we saw our very first Red Kite as we were riding along on our motorbikes down the back lanes from Llyn Brianne. I love the Cambrian Mountains and the fact that they are so peaceful and not busy with tourists. A Kite flew alongside us as we rode along the mountain road. I’ve always wanted to be able to fly and I imagine that motorcycling is as close as you are going to get without leaving the ground. For a while, the bird and the two of us on our bikes travelled together at the same speed, I cannot describe the feeling other than a total connectedness and oneness with the planet. Robert Pirsig in his famous book ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ written back in 1974 describes perfectly how when you travel in a car you are an observer looking at the world through a screen, much like watching television. But on a motorcycle you are part of the scene and the whole experience is never removed from your immediate consciousness.
Anyway, that was a very special moment that still brings me a whoosh of pleasure, not just for the experience of ’flying’ with a Red Kite but because I had never seen one before as they were extremely rare back then.
The Gower Peninsula has some wonderful archaeology and Red Kite bones dating back 120,000 years have been found in caves there along with elephants, hippopotamus, mammoth, rhinoceros, cave bear and lion. This was before people had come to Britain and Wales was joined to Somerset and Devon by a wooded valley rather than the Bristol Channel.
The Red Kite was clearly a common bird and was described in the writings of Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale and later in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The king’s daughter Goneril is described as a ‘detested kite’ and he also wrote “when the kite builds, look to your lesser linen” in reference to them stealing washing hung out to dry in the nesting season. These days, Kites still adorn their nests with people’s washing – including underwear, but also crisp packets and other items of litter as well as toys or any other plastic item that takes their fancy.
In the 15th century, James the second of Scotland decreed that the Kite should be killed wherever possible, but it remained protected in England and Wales along with the Raven for another hundred years, as it served the purpose of cleaning the streets of carrion.
Red Kite numbers appear to have been getting out of hand by the 16th century and a law was passed that placed a bounty on the head of many different species of birds including ‘one penney for the head of every kyte’. The name ‘Kite’ comes from the Old English ‘cyta’ (unknown origin) and by the early 15th century was written as ‘kyte’ and then later on ‘Kite’. The use of the word ‘kite’ to refer to the toy that is flown on the end of a string was first recorded in the 17th century. As the bird became more rare, its eggs became more attractive to egg collectors that could make good money from selling them. This added to the Red Kite’s decline.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was only around a dozen Red Kites in Britain, and these were mainly found in central Wales. A conservation programme was established in 1903 to try and protect the Red Kites and this is now the longest continuing conservation programme in the world. Dr J.H. Salter from Aberystwyth University persuaded the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up a ‘Kite Committee’ to protect the few remaining pairs found in the upper Tywi Valley and the RSPB got involved too a couple of years later in 1905. I dream that the bird I rode alongside near Llyn Brianne was a descendent of one of these Welsh birds and not one of the introduced Red Kites. Figures had dropped considerably by the 1930s and some quote that there was only a single breeding pair of Kites in Wales at this time, whereas other figures are more hopeful and quote 20 birds in total. Whatever the figures, the Red Kite had become extremely rare in Wales and extinct in England and Scotland. Genetic tests have shown that the entire Welsh population of Red Kites has descended from just one, single female. I do hope “my” Red Kite was one of them.
The population of Red Kites did not exceed 20 pairs until the 1960’s, when it started to slowly increase. Recovery was slow because the birds inhabited an area where the climate conditions and food availability was poor and this depressed breeding success and prevented the Kites from expanding their range. Although Red Kites were a protected species there were up against a number of factors: Illegal poisoning by gamekeepers and landowners who mistakenly believed that Red Kites predated their livestock; egg collecting was a popular money making business and hobby; and shooting of adults for taxidermy were severely affecting the population.
The 1950s rabbit myxomatosis outbreak devastated a main food supply of the Kites. This was followed by poor breeding success in the early 1960s, thought to be caused by effects of organochlorine pesticides. I will have to quote another of my favourite books here too: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – a book left to me by my Grandfather and given to me by a friend of his after his death. This book inspired and motivated me and fed into my intense passion for the natural world. Sadly this treasured copy was lost along the way but I was given another copy recently by a good friend and look forward to rereading it, but also feel disappointed in the human race for having learned so little despite intelligent people pointing out the facts of what we are doing to damage our planet. There are many parallels with the Climate Crisis and the awareness raising that another strong, intelligent woman, Greta Thunberg is doing 50+ years later.
As the population of Red Kites increased and spread out to more productive land at lower altitudes it became apparent that the difficulties they were facing in successfully reproducing were almost entirely due to poor habitat conditions. By the mid-1990s there were more than 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350-400 pairs by 2003.
The Welsh population of Red Kites appeared to be unable to spread out of Wales to recolonise its former range across the UK because they were unable to produce enough chicks. The re-introduction programme run by the RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, amongst others, started in 1989 and helped to establish Red Kites in several areas of England and Scotland.
In 1989, six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire. Altogether, 93 birds of Swedish and Spanish origin were released at each of the sites, with the last birds released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England. The first successful breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992, and two years later Kites reared in the wild themselves reared young for the first time. Successful breeding populations have become established in both locations.
Throughout the mid-1990s, Red Kites were released and successfully bred in the East Midlands and central Scotland (these Scottish reintroduced birds were from Germany). Further releases took place in Dumfries and Galloway and the Derwent Valley in the hope that the English and Scottish populations would join up.
By 2011 the RSPB no longer counted the number of breeding pairs in the UK on an annual basis because there were so many. This is a fantastic success story and proves that scientific, consistent, committed conservation work can pay off. It is unusual for me to go out without seeing a Red Kite now, and their distinct call; their elegant flight; beautiful colours and instantly recognisable forked tail are a familiar sight in the skies above Carmarthenshire.
This morning, like most Sunday mornings, Blaze – my scruffy dog, and I took our walk around the village to check on what’s what. I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the ‘regulars’. The pair of magpies that look like they may nest in the tree next to the school; the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker, noisily staking its territory in the woods by the bridge; the red kites busy re-establishing their pair bond ready to mate and hopefully raise chicks in last year’s nest.
This Sunday, the same as last week and the week before, a skein of loud, honking geese came flying overhead on their way – I expect, to the river by the castle to graze on the floodplain meadows and gather with all the other hundreds of geese that congregate there each day. I drive over the bridge by the river several times a week and I haven’t seen the huge flocks for a couple of days. I wonder if they’ve left for the summer to go back north to Scandinavia. My Sunday birds may be joining them or maybe they are like many of the Canada geese in the UK and resident here?
What tells them that it is time to migrate? Why even bother?
When we think about migration in animals and birds we are typically considering seasonal migration from north to south (or vice versa) as a reaction to resource availability. Food availability changes depending on seasonal fluctuations, and this influences migration patterns. Different species, like some fish, may migrate in order to reproduce. Cenarth Falls on the River Teifi is the first barrier the Salmon and Sewin have to leap whilst traveling upstream to mate before returning to the sea. It is a fantastic and picturesque spot for watching this incredible natural phenomenon. Temperature is also a driving factor of migration and many birds migrate to warmer locations during the winter to escape poor environmental conditions.
Migration isn’t the only solution to living on a planet that has changing seasons. Some animals stay put and hibernate like the hedgehog that uses our garden. I have had my trail camera out waiting for it to reappear and I expect it could come out of hibernation any time now. Other animals adapt to their environments – stoats living in very cold areas may turn white in winter and their ermine coats help them stay camouflaged in the snow. Jays and squirrels cache food for leaner times and foxes change their diet to take advantage of fruit and insects in the warmer months and rodents in the winter.
Migration can be obligate – where animals “must” migrate; or facultative, meaning they can “choose” to migrate or not. Not all animals in a species migrate – sometimes it is complete; sometimes it is partial; and sometimes it is differential, here the difference between migratory and non-migratory individuals is based on age or sex. While most migratory movements occur on an annual cycle, some daily movements are also referred to as migration. Think of the tide coming in and out each day, filling the rock pools and creating a food rich intertidal zone. Typically we think of migration taking place over large areas like the intercontinental migration of the Arctic Tern, or should that be the Antarctic Tern? Who is to say where its ‘home’ really is when it flies up to 50,000 miles each year! There are smaller migrations too and some animals like the earthworm don’t travel across the land or sea, but downwards into the deeper earth away from the cold frosts each winter.
Although animals frequently adapt to change by moving from one less advantageous area to an area with more advantages, it is not always because of migration. There are key differences between migration and dispersal. In migration, an animal is moving under some sort of pattern, influenced by seasonal, tidal, or circadian cycles for example. Triggers such as changes in the amount of daylight or in hormones sets them on their way. Dispersal is different because the animals are moving to a new location and not returning to the original site. Dispersal is heavily reliant on chance and the animal’s ability to find a home with the necessary resources to survive. It may look at many places before picking a home.
Humans have described bird migration for thousands of years and prehistoric people from Micronesia and Polynesia are thought to have used their knowledge of bird migration, as well as their skills using stars, currents and clouds to navigate the seas and find new lands. Aristotle, on the other hand – who in my opinion appears to have spent too much time indoors thinking and not enough time outdoors enjoying nature – suggested that swallows and other birds hibernated. He also proposed that robins turned into redstarts when summer arrived. The barnacle goose was explained in Medieval manuscripts as either growing like fruit on trees, or developing from goose barnacles on pieces of driftwood. Another example of a misunderstanding involving the swallow is that it hibernated underwater, buried itself in muddy riverbanks, or in hollow trees. This belief persisted as late as 1878 when there were no less than 182 scientific papers dealing with the hibernation of swallows.
Many bird populations migrate long distances along a flyway. The most common pattern involves flying north in the spring to breed in the temperate or arctic summer and returning in the autumn to wintering grounds in warmer regions to the south. Swallows are a common site in the UK and I await the annual return of ospreys with great excitement, hoping to spot one stopping off on its journey to the nesting sites in mid Wales. These routes typically follow mountain ranges or coastlines, sometimes rivers, and may take advantage of updrafts and other wind patterns or avoid geographical barriers such as large stretches of open water. The specific routes may be genetically programmed or learned to varying degrees. The routes taken on forward and return migration are often different to take advantage of ocean currents and trade winds. My blog ‘Belonging…or what’s in a name?’ describes the epic journey by Manx Shearwaters and how they follow the Atlantic gyre when they leave Wales for South America, just like those Welsh people setting out on the Mimosa in search of “a little Wales beyond Wales” back in 1865.
The geese I saw this morning flying overhead and the other waterfowl down by the river will no doubt be getting ready to head off to their breeding grounds if they haven’t already left. On a physiological level, animals undergo massive changes in readiness for migration. Some will be able to forage along their migratory routes, but for many, food will be scarce. Internal circannual rhythms can trigger intensive feeding behaviour for some animals, and they will stock up on fat stores to use as fuel for their journeys. Migratory birds kept in controlled conditions with no seasonal variation will still experience this internal biological rhythm that tells them to stock up on food even without environmental cues. Some birds can double their body weight in order to prepare for migration. Of course, carrying additional weight uses energy so other adaptations take place such as an increase in size of their hearts and flight muscles and a decrease in size of their stomach, gut, liver and kidneys. These organs return to their normal size once the bird’s journey is over. Insects adapt in a similar way and Monarch butterflies only develop sexual organs once they’ve made their migration journey.
When they are about to leave, animals will exhibit particular behaviours. House Martins gathering in flocks and lining up on telegraph wires are a familiar sight in autumn. Individual whooper swans will use intricate head and neck movements to indicate they are getting ready to form a flock and fly so that their mates recognise it is time to go and don’t get left behind. Traveling in groups can make migration safer and species may migrate with others of their type or take part in mass migrations like the Serengeti annual ‘great migration’ that include around 1.7 million wildebeest plus hundreds of thousand of gazelles, zebras and other animals.
I have always been amazed by how animals can make their way back to the same spot year after year. How do they navigate such huge distances? There has been much research done on this topic but knowledge is still very much in its infancy and it is a fascinating area that we know very little about.
Navigation uses a variety of senses. In particular, the senses of sight and smell. There is another sense that is involved called magnetoreception (also magnetoception). It is a sense which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location and is used by a range of animals for orientation and navigation, and as a method for animals to develop regional maps. Migratory animals use magnetoreception to detect the Earth’s magnetic field.
Magnetoreception is present in bacteria, arthropods, molluscs, and members of all major taxonomic groups of vertebrates. Humans are not thought to have a magnetic sense, but there is a protein (a cryptochrome) in the eye which could serve this function. I personally believe that some humans do have an awareness of this sense but I have no scientific evidence of this and am reluctant to share my thoughts in case I sound mentally ill or a conspiracy theorist! There is evidence that large mammals including red deer and foxes could be using magnetoreception. Foxes tend to jump onto prey in a north-south alignment and their most successful attack direction is clustered around north. Grazing deer and cattle tend to align their bodies in a geomagnetic north-south direction in the absence of other influencing factors. If magnetic fields are altered e.g. under power lines, these grazing mammals will realign themselves randomly. Birds are understood to use a sun compass and they can even make compensations based on the time. When I was at school, I was told that there were 5 senses. These are the senses we were told that humans have: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Years later at work I learned about 2 more senses: proprioception (knowing where your body is) and vestibular (balance). More recently, it is recognised that there is an 8th sense: interoception (knowing what you are feeling). Of course, these are the human senses and animals may have many others we don’t share. We already know that other animals have magnetoreception and electroreception and I wonder whether these senses and any others we haven’t named yet exist in humans. It will be interesting to know how many senses we recognise in 20 years time.
Migratory birds may use two electromagnetic tools to find their destinations: one that is entirely innate and another that relies on experience. On its first flight, a young migratory bird will use the Earth’s magnetic field to set it off in the correct direction. But it obviously doesn’t know how long the journey is. It is similar to going for a walk and having a compass but no map. As it undertakes its journey, the bird uses its other senses to recognise landmarks by sight and smell and also by using magnetoreception. Magnetites (magnetically sensitive crystals found in biology and geology) located in the trigeminal system (if you’ve experienced trigeminal neuralgia you’ll know where I’m talking about – those nerves that go through your jaw, face, eyes and ears) tell the bird how strong the magnetic field is in a given place. This means they can use lots of different sensory information to make a visual, an olfactory and a magnetic map of their journey. Birds tend to migrate along a north-south route and the Earth’s magnetic field is at different strengths at different latitudes. The bird is able to use this information to ‘know’ when it has arrived at its destination, regardless of whether the visual landmarks have changed. There is research being undertaken to identify if birds can actually “see” the magnetic field of the Earth (there is a neural connection between a bird’s eye and the part of the brain used during migrational navigation).
As well as using a sensory map to know they have arrived at their destination, young birds form attachments to particular breeding and overwintering sites. My blog ‘The Ugly Duckling’ explores some of the themes around attachments. Birds will use cognitive skills as well as sensory information to guide their journeys and older birds are better at making corrections to their journeys e.g. to account for wind drift. Migration routes can be taught as part of reintroduction programmes and cranes and geese have both been conditioned to follow microlight aircraft and learn safe migration routes. Birds can still get lost though and ‘overshoot’ their destination and some birds have neurological or genetic differences which means the innate programming used in migration doesn’t work as it should and these birds end up as vagrants thousands of miles out of range – this is known as reverse migration. The bird confidently sets off on its journey, oblivious to the fact it is going in a different direction to the rest of its flock. (That would be me then!) There is also a phenomenon called abmigration. This is where birds join similar birds and follow them back on their migration routes. I saw a snow goose one winter with the flock of overwintering geese down by the castle, I imagine something similar happened to that bird – it got in with the wrong crowd and ended up miles from home!
I started this blog with a poem. It is by Mary Oliver, a poet I only discovered recently. I have often found poetry too abstract and the symbolism passes me by but I love Mary Oliver’s work and her relationship with the natural world. Wild Geese is one of my favourites because it captures the personality of geese so well in my opinion. Harsh and exciting, over and over announcing their place in the family of things. When I watch the geese down by the river, something I have done for decades now (and written about frequently) I am always filled with their confidence. They don’t care one bit about anything else, they just do their goose thing and that’s it, no excuses, no pretending to be anything other than a goose. Some people seem to dislike that and I have at least one conversation with a random stranger each winter on the bridge overlooking the Towy where they ask me what I’m looking at, then ask me if they’re rare (and are disappointed that they are not) and then ask me “aren’t they vermin?” I have never said that if the criteria for being vermin is having an increasing population and being noisy and requires you to be culled, then people had better look out! But I think it every single time and try to smile and just say “mmm”, slowly raise my binoculars to my eyes and go back to looking at the geese.
As I watch the overwintering birds come and go each year I wonder whether they have a sense of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. I explored how we think of migratory birds like the Manx Shearwater as “our” birds when they are on Skomer each summer and I wondered whether someone else sees them as “their” birds down in the Southern Hemisphere. I never know whether the geese have come home each winter to the Towy valley or whether they are going home now, back to Iceland or wherever they have travelled from. Do they even think of it as home?
People anthropomorphise animals all the time – in fact I have always thought people anthropomorphise people too but I know that isn’t the correct term to use. There is certainly a very particular way of attributing human and animal characteristics to each other but that can wait for another blog. Some humans still live nomadic lives but less so nowadays. Historically we would have followed food and moved with the seasons to take advantage of weather and resources. I wonder how important the sense of belonging to a place was then? People can spend their lives searching for their ‘home’ or where they belong and I have certainly wasted my time, like many others, trying to figure out where I fit in, where is my flock, what is home? I choose to be like the Manx Shearwater. I too have made a long journey. I am sure the Manx Shearwater doesn’t spend the British winter worrying because it is hanging out with penguins in South America and it isn’t really a penguin or the British summer looking at the puffins and wondering whether it is ok that it is hanging out with them now. It has no need to identify where it belongs because it belongs where it is. The Earth is a big place thank goodness and there are times when I question if there is anywhere on it that is for me and where do I fit in? And that is when I think about Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and I remember that I too must announce my place in the family of things.
This is the unedited version of an article I wrote for last week’s Carmarthen Journal.
I have also added some photos and background information that was not included in the article.
I also put the joke back in that the journal edited out – apologies for that!
“Is it a siege or a sedge of herons?” I wondered as I drove along the A40 towards Carmarthen and watched the magnificent grey bird rise up from the flooded fields by the Towy and fly back to the woodland near Whitemill. For me, these familiar birds conjure up imagery of pterodactyls and the link between birds and dinosaurs is easy to spot. The grey heron has a slow, almost lazy flight with its neck retracted in a S shape – this is characteristic of herons and bitterns and is what distinguishes them from spoonbills, cranes and storks which fly with their necks extended.
The Towy valley has provided a good home for herons for centuries and has West Wales largest heronry, which holds about 10% of the area’s grey herons. A surprising number of heronries are found in the grounds of old mansions, probably because of the well managed woodland and conservation work undertaken by the owners. Newton House is noted to have had a “splendid heronry” containing “scores of herons” in the 1850s and there is still an area near the deer park named The Heronry today. Other significant heronries were noted in the Carmarthenshire Bird Report of 1983 near Llwynywermod and Aberglasney mansions.
I wish to thank Dilwyn Roberts for the fantastic information I was able to gather from his report on Heronries in Carmarthenshire that appeared in the County’s Bird Report of 1983
Studying the archived Bird Reports that are kept hidden away in a back room of Llanelli library was an absolute delight. I sat in a corner while the storm raged outside and lost myself in pages of recordings of years gone by.
Herons do move nesting sites and it appears that birds from the Newton House heronry eventually moved downstream to Allt y Wern near Llangathen, but by 1971 this new site was abandoned and 35 pairs of birds relocated to Allt y Gaer near Dryslwyn. By the mid 1970s this was thought to be the largest heronry in Wales with around 60 nests and it was still well occupied in the 1984 survey of the county’s birds with 56 active nests. The reasons for these relocations vary and is thought to be driven by adverse events. The 1928 census of British heronries notes how a large heronry in Carmarthenshire was destroyed during the Great War of 1914-1918 when timber was felled as part of the war effort. The Napoleonic and Armada periods were also significant times for the destruction of heronries. British records go back to the 13th century and some of these recorded nest sites are still in use. I wonder which heronries were in the Tywi valley when the Princes of Deheubarth were founding castles here?
Place names can indicate the history of wildlife in an area and although Creyr isn’t a word seen much on maps (but please do let me know if you have examples), the Welsh word derived from ‘Crane’ is more frequently used. There are numerous place and house names containing ‘Garan’ and many are near water, both inland and coastal. The grey heron is able to feed on both fresh and salt water fish, as well as amphibians and small mammals but these creatures are vulnerable to pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals so it’s important that ponds, rivers and ditches are protected from pollution for the sake of the life within them and for the rest of the food chain.
Herons are unusual in other ways too. They have a special type of feather on their breasts called powder down, which they crush with their feet into granules and spread over themselves. The powder soaks up the dirt from the heron’s feathers, which it then scrapes off with a serrated claw. It also helps waterproof the birds. Powder down is often found in birds that lack preen glands, such as parrots, herons and tinamous – a Central and South American ground dwelling bird.
As well as the familiar sight of the silent, solitary, riverbank hunter waiting to stab a fish with lightning speed accuracy; herons are often seen standing still in the middle of a field. This puzzled me initially because they aren’t known for hunting worms like buzzards or blackbirds do. Herons don’t have a crop or gizzard to help with digestion and they swallow their food whole. Fish are usually swallowed headfirst and eels are subdued by being bashed against the ground or stabbed with the beak and eaten. The heron’s S-shaped neck has a special vertebrae that enables the bird to strike quickly and forcefully at its prey as well as having a role in making its flight more aerodynamic and in courtship rituals. The heron can take a long time to digest its food so will stand silently to do this. And why so often are they stood on only one leg? The answer isn’t “because if they lifted it up they’d fall over”. Think about how you keep your hands warm when you put them in your pockets. Birds often stand on one leg to reduce heat loss from their exposed limbs.
My favourite view of a heron was at Oakwood theme park this summer. I had taken my son and his friend and it was a wet and gloomy day which meant crowd numbers were low. The boys decided to see if they could have back-to-back rides on the Megaphobia rollercoaster and I volunteered to hold their coats and watch! As I stood by the boating lake waiting to hear the screams as the rollercoaster dropped, I saw a heron fishing. I watched it for around half an hour and although families walked past me to join the queue for the ride, only 2 people spotted it. One of whom asked their dad if it was a real heron or animatronic. This bird was so used to the clatter of the wooden rollercoaster and the screams of excited and terrified people, it didn’t flinch each time the ride went past and it just carried on watching the lake silently, occasionally moving a little and then suddenly stabbing at a fish. It demonstrated how well animals and birds adapt to the artificial environments humans construct as long as they can still meet their needs for food, safety and somewhere to live. It also reminded me how many people go about their day to day life without noticing the nature on their doorstep and how important it is to share the wonder of the natural world so that when that young girl next sees an unfamiliar bird, she feels inspired to learn about it and not assume it’s a robot! `
In my garden I have a beautiful, old oak tree. I have rescued more than one of my cats from it over the years and it is the daily look out post for numerous crows, jackdaws and starlings. I suppose that technically we ‘own’ the tree but that seems ridiculous, I feel a great sense of responsibility towards it and all the life that it supports and I’ve been on tenterhooks in this stormy weather in case it gets damaged or loses a branch over our neighbour’s fence or onto a car parked under it on the roadside near our hedge.
I am not worried about it falling over though. The root system must be huge and it has stood solid through many storms over the years but none so wild as these past couple of weeks. I like to think that it plays an important role in our community – it could be consuming anything upwards of 50 gallons of water a day. I’ve struggled to find accurate figures and of course the tree’s size and the time of year will have an effect on water consumption, but it is likely that this individual tree could drink a similar volume of water to Carmarthen leisure centre’s swimming pool every three years.
Trees can play a vital role in flood prevention. Man-made flood defences such as flood walls are an essential part of the fight against flooding. Locally to me in Abergwili, the flood gates have been closed and have effectively kept the water out, despite it rising towards the top of the gates. Trees can add value to these man-made defences and are very low maintenance and low cost, as well as providing other environmental, economic and wellbeing benefits. Planting trees can be effective in reducing and slowing runoff on farmland – water infiltration can be 60 times higher within tree shelterbelts than adjoining farmland. Woodland located on flood plains can absorb and delay the flood water before it progresses further downstream.
I went down to my local wildlife watching spot this morning to see how the storms had affected the valley. I’ve stood on that bridge hundreds of times before but I have never seen flooding like this. My son asked me “what about your fox and otter?”. We looked over both sides of the bridge as far as the eye could see and there was hardly a creature in sight. I told him that they would be tucked away somewhere safe. The cormorant that I usually see flew overhead and a small skein of geese honked their way noisily upstream. Some swans were in the distance – probably the whoopers that overwinter here and a large flock of gulls was messily blown about by the wind. The only sounds were the howling wind, and the geese, and a single blue tit in a tree in the car park. When the valley floods, which it does fairly frequently, the acoustics change and the mass of water softens the noises and creates a weird sort of silence that is very different to when the fields are dry and empty.
The Towy valley is a fertile floodplain and has been an important transport route since prehistoric times. Archaeological excavations have discovered that the route of the river has been fairly stable since Bronze age times and there are three round barrows from that time near White Mill as well as several hill forts along the valley. The river, which is the longest river entirely in Wales, has some fine examples of oxbow lakes like the Bishop’s Pond in Carmarthen that is a now a nature reserve and there are a range of fluvial features including numerous meander loops, abandoned channels, terraces and gravel bars – you could deliver a whole geography lesson on rivers looking out from Paxton’s Tower! The route is still important for transport but of course it now uses the A40, which more or less follows the old Roman road that went from Llandovery to Carmarthen. This Roman history is seen in the forts at Llandovery, Llandeilo and Carmarthen and there is a wealth of history nearby at Dolaucothi where I had my first job in Wales as a tour guide at the gold mines. Later on, the famous castles at Dinefwr and Dryslywn were built and these command prominent positions high up above the flood plains.
The geology of the Towy valley and the fertile alluvial deposits have created wonderful silty and loamy soils that have fed rich pastures for sheep and dairy cattle to graze on. The valley is also home to a diverse range of wildlife and thousands of waterfowl overwinter here each year, many of which also enjoy the lush meadows. In the 1970s and 80s, the Siberian white fronted goose was a regular visitor, with the Tywi near Dryslwyn being one of the top three British overwintering sites with over 10% of the population staying here. Sadly I have never seen one since starting to record birds from the castle carpark and bridge in the late 90’s. I do regularly see Canada geese, Greylags and an occasional escapee like the pair of bar headed geese or the snow goose that had tagged along to the Canada geese one winter.
Looking back through my photos this afternoon of the floods today and in past years, I can see how they are becoming more extreme and not just part of the valley’s historic cycle of floods that have taken place annually for centuries. The climate crisis is often talked about and I have little to add to others’ voices. I feel worried for the future of all nature and wildlife, including humans; and arguments about what has caused the crisis or whether it is really happening or not are irrelevant in some ways.
I look up at our oak tree and think about what it has lived through. I estimate it is nearly 200 years old – I’ve hugged it – not out of some sort of hippie or druid fantasy, but to tell its age. If an adult with an average arm span can reach round an oak tree, its about 75 years old. It is certainly on the OS maps of the village from the mid 1800s. This spring I am going to count the number of species that depend on this tree – everything from the tawny owl that hoots from its high branches on a full moon to the tree creepers that nest in the ivy and all the tiny insects. I can do little about the state of the world but I can remind people that humans depend on trees too and in these days of fierce storms and floods and overpopulation and the need for somewhere for everyone to live, lets make sure we get some trees planted too. Not just for the environmental benefits but because they are so important for our whole wellbeing.
Swans are the largest living members of the waterfowl family and fossil records of the genus Cygnus date back to the late Miocene epoch which means they have been on earth for well over 5 million years. They were swimming in ‘our’ rivers before gorillas had even evolved and long before Australopithecus, let alone more modern women and men had appeared. Fossil records of prehistoric swans found on Mediterranean islands reveal a bird that was 2 metres long from beak to tail – which makes it bigger than the local dwarf elephants that were also around at the time!
It comes as no surprise that these magnificent creatures have filled mythology and legend through the ages and swans hold a special place in many cultures; including stories of Norse swan maidens and the holy, pure birds that drank from the Well of Urd in Asgard, the home of the gods. Helen of Troy was described in Greek mythology as being conceived by Leda and Zeus who was disguised as a swan and the Irish legend of The Children of Lir is about a stepmother who transforms her children into swans for 900 years. The swan’s beauty and tendency to mate for life has captivated the imaginations of people and they symbolise elegance, true love, and longevity.
I can’t discuss the role of swans in storytelling without mentioning that most famous of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales ‘The Ugly Duckling’. This tale describes the trials and tribulations of a young swan hatched from an egg in a duck’s nest. Most of us are familiar with the story of how the young swan was humiliated and mistreated for being different until in the end he left and tried to find a place where he could belong and be accepted. Sadly he couldn’t find a place to fit in while he was still young; whether that was with the wild ducks and geese, the old woman and her cat or the farmer and his noisy children, so in the end he hid in a cave next to a frozen lake for the winter. When the swans arrived in spring, the now fully grown duckling decided he could not live a life of solitude any longer and threw himself to the mercy of the swans, expecting to be rejected, but as we all know, he was immediately recognised as one of them and when he saw his reflection in the lake he realised that he too was a beautiful swan.
There are many critiques and much analysis of this popular fairy tale and it has been said that the story may be autobiographical. Hans Christian Anderson is described in a biography by British journalist Anne Chisholm as such: “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theatre he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”. Speculation also suggests that Andersen was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik (later King Christian VIII of Denmark). It is said, but certainly not proven, that he found this out some time before he wrote the story, and that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage. Hans Christian Anderson is often described as being on the autistic spectrum and whilst the word autism wasn’t in use during his lifetime (1805-1875), it has certainly always existed as a type of neurodivergence (or difference in brain neurology such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD amongst others). It feels safe to assume that the author clearly understood how it felt to be different and it draws up some interesting questions about how belonging and fitting in can be so difficult for people.
Christa Holmans is a business professional from Texas who blogs as ‘The Neurodivergent Rebel’ (She is rebelling against a culture that values assimilation over individuality, if you were wondering). Christa is happy for me to use her quote and I think it sums up the story beautifully: “The ugly duckling grew up believing – falsely – that he was an ugly or defective duck. Eventually the “duckling” learned he wasn’t a duck at all. In the end, the duckling was a perfectly “normal” “average” swan and this knowledge set him free.”
This also ties in nicely with the thoughts of social scientist and author Brené Brown (she has the fourth most-watched TED Talk of all time. It’s called “the power of vulnerability” and it has nearly 31 million views.) “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in”.
Brown says that when we “fit in” as opposed to “belong,” we acclimatise to the situation instead of standing for our authentic self.
So how did the ugly duckling not know that he was actually a swan, I wonder? How do any of us ‘know’ that we are human or what our gender or sexuality or opinions are? What seems like an obvious question to start with is actually extremely complex when you explore what identity is. There is an interplay of many complicated themes such as attachment, personality, free will and conditioning and the whole nature-nurture debate.
In the animal world, some birds don’t innately recognise their parents or even their own species. They will use environmental cues to identify and attach themselves to a parent figure. This type of imprinting happens shortly after birth and the parent figure does not even need to be the same species. It is called filial imprinting. This type of imprinting tends to take place in precocial birds (otherwise known as nidifugous birds) – they are developed enough to leave the nest and feed when they are very young, so the ability to identify a parent that will keep them safe is important for survival. There are other types of imprinting: sexual imprinting, where an animal learns the characteristics of a desirable mate and limbic imprinting, where very early experiences contribute to lifelong psychological development. I remember watching cartoons as a child and filial imprinting was a fairly common topic, with hilarious consequences.
These cartoons are from a time when behaviourism was a very dominant school of psychology and it was widely viewed that behaviour is influenced by the environment and you can pretty much train anyone to do anything if you punish or reward them hard enough. Less emphasis was placed on internal mental, emotional or sensory states. The 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon called ‘That’s My Mommy’ is a fine example. A baby duckling imprints on Tom the cat and develops an attachment to him as its mother. Despite Tom’s far-fetched schemes to cook and eat the young bird, the duckling continues to love Tom and see him as his mother, and violently reject Jerry’s attempts at rescue. The cartoon ends with Tom setting up an elaborate plot to cook the duckling in a pan on the stove top. The poor bird is so attached to its mother figure that it tearfully walks up a spoon and attempts to plunge itself into the boiling pot – but at the last minute, Tom has a change of heart and grabs the duckling and they go outside and the cartoon ends with a view of Tom swimming in the pond with his young charge happily copying his every move whilst saying ‘that’s my mommy’.
Humans have exploited filial imprinting in birds to create fantastic wildlife documentaries where they have been able to fly in hang gliders alongside great flocks of geese. They have also used imprinting as part of conservation projects to teach birds that were bred in captivity how to fly and follow migratory routes. Imprinting has also been used to ‘prove’ that chickens can count! I’m not sure why this is important and I hope that scientists aren’t trying to create a master race of maths genius chickens. It is known that the chicks of domestic chickens prefer to be near large groups of objects that they have imprinted on – safety in numbers perhaps? In a series of experiments, the chicks were made to imprint on plastic balls and could work out which of two groups of balls hidden behind screens had the most balls in it.
Alongside imprinting, attachment also takes place. This is the important process of forming bonds so that social and emotional development can take place. Attachment theories have changed over the years and people form different types of attachments or connections to each other. Some of these connections are reciprocal e.g. between adults, and some aren’t e.g. a baby and its care giver. Back in the days of Tom and Jerry, attachment was viewed as a learned response i.e. a baby learns (through classical conditioning) that its mother will give it milk. The baby naturally likes milk and learns to associate its mother with being fed so learns to like its mother too.
The most famous example of classical conditioning is probably Pavlov and his dogs. I won’t describe his experiment here as it is so familiar and is easy enough to research if you want more information. Instead I will tell you about a Pavolvian experiment that my dog unwittingly took part in.
Last summer my family and I were in New Quay, West Wales. We had been on the beach looking in the rock pools and had found some awesome creatures including periwinkles, shrimps and a venomous weever fish. We’d wandered back up near the harbourside to look out to sea for dolphins and to avoid the crowds that had come on holiday and/or to see Chris Packham who was there as part of his Bioblitz project around the UK. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Chris Packham also appeared to be avoiding the crowds that had come to see him and was enjoying a piece of cake in peace. We had an interesting chat and he made a big fuss of our dog Blaze and gave her some of his lemon drizzle cake. Blaze is quite spoilt and thinks that everyone should adore her and feed her. Blaze and Chris were quite taken with each other to be honest. Roll on to October and Autumnwatch on TV. Blaze is a lazy dog in the house and not at all interested in television or anything other than sleeping or occasionally raising her head if she hears a kitchen cupboard door open, just to check. She may even get up and investigate if she hears the biscuit tin lid being removed. Anyway, Chris started to introduce the programme and Blaze was bolt upright and up on the sofa watching him. He has a distinctive voice and Blaze had learned to associate it with lemon drizzle cake. She now expects to have a piece every time Chris is on the TV!
Prior to meeting Chris Packham, Blaze liked cake – we can describe the cake as an ‘unconditioned stimulus’. Blaze already had an ‘unconditioned response’ i.e. she got excited by the smell and sight of cake – this was innate, she didn’t have to learn it. She had previously seen Chris Packham on Springwatch but had shown absolutely no interest in him. Chris could be described as a ‘neutral stimulus’. By pairing Chris with the cake, Blaze now experienced him as a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and whenever she has seen him since, a ‘conditioned response’ occurs regardless of whether he has cake or not – Blaze is excited because she associates Chris Packham with lemon drizzle cake!
Of course, behavioural approaches to understanding why humans and other animals do what they do aren’t the whole picture. I remember briefly studying biology and psychology as A levels and it all seemed a bit disappointing because experiments were frequently about being horrible to my fellow living creatures in order to find out how they worked. Whether that was dissecting a frog to examine its intestines when there were plenty of amphibian anatomy diagrams readily available instead or hearing about sleep deprived cats or baby monkeys that were taken from their mothers and given a wire ‘mother’ instead to see what happened. Personally, I didn’t need to do an experiment to tell you the result. They didn’t like it and it screwed them up long term – particularly the frog! As a professional I often describe behaviour and analyse behaviour to try and work out why people do what they do (the negative things usually – or rather the things that are most annoying to other people – I frequently feel that an individual’s difficult or challenging behaviour tells you more about the person observing or being on the receiving end of it than the motives of the person exhibiting it – but that’s a topic for another article). Learned responses aren’t everything and psychology has moved on since Tom and Jerry’s days. Attachment is now recognised as far more than a learned response and innate features like biology, genetics and neurology have a major part to play too. The way living things relate to each other isn’t just based on very early experiences and I hope that means the Ugly Duckling in the story got to experience some fulfilling relationships with his fellow swans despite his early experiences.
I was delighted to see that one of my very first childhood friends was involved in some animal training herself. Moira and I lived in the same street, and attended the same playschool, primary and secondary schools. Although we live a fair way from each other these days, we are in touch via social media and I frequently feel a pang of jealousy when I see her Facebook posts. Moira works at the medieval Bishop’s palace in Wells and among her roles is my personal favourite job title – Swan Trainer. Moira’s job is to teach any new swans how to carry on the 150 year old tradition of ringing a bell by the Gatehouse for food. The old cob Bryn died in 2018 and his mate Wynn and her cygnets departed from the moat later that year, probably to set up a new home on the Somerset levels. Swans tend to mate for life and if a partner dies, like Bryn did a couple of years ago, the pen will often seek out a new mate. The palace acquired some new swans named Gabriel and Grace, from a rescue centre in South Wales and Moira’s task was to train them to be good tourist attractions and ring the bell. She did this by repeatedly feeding them at the window and ringing the bell and throwing them food. Moira slowly introduced them to the rope and they learned to ring it themselves and immediately receive food in response. The trained swans then trained their cygnets to do the same. I would love to know what approach the adult swans used to teach their youngsters and whether they feel that it is actually them conditioning Moira to throw some food whenever she hears a bell?
The swans in Wells are the UK’s only resident swan, the mute swan. These birds weigh around 10kg on average and are pretty heavy for something that can fly. The heaviest flying bird of any species on record was a male Polish mute swan that weighed 23kg (51lb). Mute swans have a reputation for aggression – I have been told “they can break a man’s arm” but have no idea of whether that’s true or not – probably not, their bones have a honeycomb type structure to make them lighter so they can fly more efficiently. They do give impressive displays when under threat and can rise up with wings outstretched and hiss and attack other creatures in order to protect their nest. This display is called busking. Swans also give a nasty bite with what feels like teeth but are in fact jagged lumps on the serrated edges of their bills that are used for catching slippery food like algae, frogs, fish and aquatic plants. Mute swans do make vocal noises but are quieter than other types of swan and they don’t call when in flight but their wings make a loud swoosh that can be heard half a mile away and is used as a form of communication.
The other two types of swan found in the UK are winter visitors – the whooper swan and the Bewick’s swan. Whoopers are the noisiest of the three species and have a yellow and black bill rather the orange bill with black knob of the mute swan. They are large birds that migrate from Iceland to overwinter in the UK and they are often found grazing in fields near large expanses of water. Whoopers use some very sophisticated communication including flapping their wings, bobbing their heads and shaking their necks. This is done to signal to other birds to form a flock and take flight and seems to serve a purpose for getting mates to recognise that their partners are going to take off and ensures they keep to the same flock.
The Bewick’s swan is smaller than the whooper swan and comes to the UK from northern Russia. Like the whooper it has a yellow and black bill but it has less yellow than the whooper and to my mind looks less clumsy too. The beak patterns on Bewick’s swans can be used to identify them individually and Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust would sit with his family in their home at Slimbridge and paint the visiting swans. The family learned to recognise each individual bird and gave them names.
So we’ve learned how animals imprint on things and form attachments that give them a sense of identity and we know that good observers like Peter Scott and his wife and children can even tell different swans apart. So why did the Ugly Duckling not realise something as obvious as his differences? There’s an interesting theorem proposed by Japanese theoretical physicist Satosi Watanabe who was one of the fundamental thinkers on pattern recognition, and its named after the Hans Christian Andersen story. The Ugly Duckling Theorem argues that classification is not possible without some sort of bias. Basically, it shows that a duckling is as similar to a swan as two ducklings are to each other. All differences are equal unless we have some prior knowledge. It is the weighting we put on the categories we put things in that dictates what we view as a similarity. I’ll try and describe it without using complicated equations. Take these 3 objects: An orange, a banana and a ginger cat, like my favourite old tom cat Mojo. Most people would say that the banana and the orange were most similar because they are fruit. That’s because people tend to put a higher weighting on ‘fruit’ as a category than they would on say, ‘colour’. Maybe in a world where fruit is not significant, Mojo and the orange are more similar because of their colouring. If you took another category such as ‘ability to write’ then none of them would have anything in common. To try and find the similarities, you need to make more categories, and the list will be infinite and for every category where you find a similarity, there will be another where there is nothing in common. It is impossible to say which two of these three things are the most similar unless you introduce some bias about what is important to you. And that bias is totally subjective. And that is why I love the Ugly Duckling Theorem – as a lifelong pain in the backside to teachers and all-round smart arse I am thankful to Satosi Watanabe who perfectly describes my total disregard for the biased categories that people usually choose to put things in with maths! I like to think that some of the other people mentioned in this blog may enjoy the theorem too. Many autistic people are great at seeing patterns that other people don’t see and frequently find the neurotypical biases in society puzzling and baffling. Just as baffling as one of my old teachers would find it if I said a cat is more like an orange than a banana is because they’re both orange.
This is probably the worst photograph of a red squirrel I have ever taken – well, the worst photo that has actually got a red squirrel in it somewhere and not just a bush or a pine tree.
We went to Scotland a couple of years ago on holiday and I couldn’t wait to see the local wildlife. We stayed in a small cottage near Aberfoyle and visited various forests and lochs within the Trossachs national park. I was hoping to observe a pine marten – the animal I most wanted to see (and had a realistic hope of spotting) and there had been sightings in the garden of our holiday cottage in the past – or so I am told. Mind you, with the right advertising, I’d probably rent a cottage in a crime-ridden, destitute slum if you told me there was a chance of seeing some interesting creatures!
We didn’t get to see pine martens and I’m hoping that one day I will, a bit closer to home. There has been some pretty reliable sightings in Carmarthenshire and the relocated animals from Scotland are breeding in Mid-Wales, so fingers crossed. I do relate to a pine marten, they like jam and peanut butter sandwiches and prefer to hide out in forests away from people. They are my current elusive must-see animal. I have a camera trap so fingers crossed – if I can find some regular evidence, like their scat (which is said to smell sweet like parma violet sweets or fresh hay) or repeated sightings in one area I can set up my camera and wait and see. We saw plenty of great creatures though on our holiday and had a roe deer visit the garden most days.
The owner of our cottage worked for the forestry commission at nearby Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and was a great guy to talk to. I recall discussing how the Park had one of “our” Welsh ospreys and we were hoping for one of “their” Scottish pine martens. I visit the Dyfi Osprey Project most years and have enjoyed following the lives of the birds on their webcam each summer at home as well as when they have featured on BBC’s Springwatch. There was a young female bird named Clarach that is one of only two Welsh bred ospreys to return to the UK to breed. I had seen her near Machynlleth when she was a chick, and was hoping I’d get to see her and any offspring up near Loch Lomond where she had chosen to nest. I didn’t, the weather had turned and whatever instinct had kicked in to tell her to return to Africa had sent her flying south, just as I was heading up the M6.
Years ago, otters were the animal I most wanted to spot and I frequently went to the right places at the wrong time – just to be told that if I’d been there 5 minutes earlier I would have seen otters doing something amazing! I must have an attraction to mustelids – it’s certainly not their smell – apart from the sea otter, mustelids use their anal glands to produce a strong-smelling secretion to mark their territory. I have spotted otters in more recent years, locally in rivers and ponds and across the UK like the pair we paused to watch while we were on a boat trip across Lake Windermere. I haven’t been able to photograph otters in the wild yet, even on my early morning jaunts down to the banks of the Towy on those summer nights when I never seem to sleep. The two photos below show a pretty detailed close up of a pair of otters I viewed at an otter sanctuary on Dartmoor and some footprints I spotted on the banks of the Towy in 2010. But which is the better photograph?
I wanted to share my passion for local wildlife with other people and decided to set up a local Facebook group around a year ago. I tell a lie, I decided to set up a Facebook group years and years ago and never got around to it but eventually took the plunge last year. I get excited at the idea of sharing my community with lots of different species of plants and animals and find it fascinating that people pass by wonderous sights each day without noticing them. I notice from year to year where the red kites nest in the village and the date of the first house martins to return (10th April last year). I have recorded numbers and species of geese overwintering in the fields by Dryslwyn castle and how the number of little egrets rises and falls from year to year – with no sightings at all down there sometimes. I notice that those ‘ducks’ swimming on the Towy as you drive over the bridge are in fact wigeon and mallard and goosander and little grebes and I’m so used to seeing them I can tell which ones they are without stopping the car, just from their movements or the way they are grouped. It gives me a sense of security and familiarity and of being at home because I recognise that I am just another species in a very varied and interesting world.
I used to record details of my sightings in notebooks and it was all very scientific but also a bit stressful because it was a reminder that the world is changing, and species are disappearing. Those butterflies that I loved as a child are a less common sight these days – I could probably name every single British butterfly back then and I was able to spot most of the ones that were local to or visited the west of Britain quite easily by visiting woodlands and heaths and by just sitting in the garden. Last year I spotted lots of brown varieties – Gatekeepers, Speckled Woods and Meadow Browns, a few colourful Peacocks and Red Admirals, and of course it was a Painted Lady Year (this natural phenomenon happens approximately every decade). But it is a rarity to spot something like a Purple Emperor (but I do know a good place to look and have it on good authority from someone who loves butterflies even more than I do that he has seen them!) I’ll occasionally photograph butterflies and I find this a very soothing pastime because you have to keep still and wait, you can’t go creeping around after them or move quickly to get a good shot. Patience is essential and I set my camera pointing towards something that looks a good spot for a butterfly and wait for it to land.
Photographing birds is another pursuit of mine, and at times I’ve ruined a good afternoon out for other people by fixating on getting a good shot rather than enjoying the walk. Last week I spotted a photographer on Dryslwyn bridge staring out across the fields with a very impressive looking camera, clearly scanning for a subject that would make an interesting photograph. Behind him was a buzzard (Buteo buteo – and yes, the game Subbuteo’s name does derive from the same word), sat on the road sign, keeping a close eye on him. He wasn’t aware of the bird at all. I look out for this buzzard and did expect to see it because it is currently using the area most days and can be seen sat on the fence by the bridge or in a tree in the castle carpark or pulling worms from the field by the river. I wonder if it is choosing its territory? I stopped the car and took this photo through the windscreen using my phone. Not a great photo, but an amazing and moving experience, looking into the eyes of a stunning and powerful bird.
Going back to the Facebook group, I wanted to share my passion and my photos and my thoughts and knowledge about Carmarthenshire’s wildlife. A good photo will get a lot of ‘likes’ but the joy of nature to me is not in the capturing of something rare in a close-up photograph, nor is it seeing something exotic that has ended up in the county by mistake when it has gone adrift while migrating. I feel a bit sad when people get excited by spotting the rarity that their subscription to a bird alert service has informed them of, and they’ve driven miles across the country just to get a glimpse of something that shouldn’t be here and will probably die without its flock because it has very little chance of finding its way home. Lots of people keep tick lists of animals and birds and as a child I loved the Usborne Spotter’s Guide books. My favourite was Animals, Tracks and Signs. I recently bought a second-hand copy to replace the one I bought with my pocket money as a child. It came out in 1979 and I must have bought in soon after. My original had a different cover to the replacement but the contents haven’t changed in later editions. Take a look at the photo below and tell me how you wouldn’t be excited as a primary school child at being able to tick cows, pigs, a dog … AND a bear…all on the same page!
My childhood passion for being outdoors looking at the world in intricate detail and being indoors studying it in books has stuck with me, and although I love the ability to search and fact find using the internet as an adult, I still get immense enjoyment from looking at the pictures and text in books. Especially drawings – which manage to capture the features that help you identify a plant or animal, far better than a photograph can. By learning about the natural world in books and by observing it with my keen senses outdoors, I began to understand how things fitted together, how the different plants and animals shared habitats, the ‘rules’ they live by. We are familiar with so many of these rules we don’t even notice them, and they have filled our folklore for centuries: ‘Red sky at night…’ is a saying most of us have heard and many of us will be so familiar with different species we can identify them by behaviour even if we can’t see them clearly – rooks tend to be in groups and crows tend to be alone or in pairs, but from a distance they are indistinguishable black birds.
I notice the patterns in the natural world and the connections and this helps me tune in to what might be about, in terms of wildlife. A smell like a rotting carcass could well be a Common Stinkhorn fungus rather than a decomposing animal. If I can find it, it could indicate that a badger sett is nearby because they often occur together (my earlier blog; ‘Badgers and the Devil’s Fungus’ explains why). Now I know to look for an entrance to a sett and evidence of a latrine as well to identify if badgers live here. I can begin piecing everything together and suddenly a walk in the woods has changed from a trudge through the mud, to an animal’s home with paths leading from where they sleep to where they feed and go to the toilet. The familiar idiom ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ relates well to my way of viewing the world – I love the intricate details and I love piecing them together to get the bigger picture. I may occasionally get distracted and turn a “Darling, I’m just popping out for 10 minutes with the dog” stroll, into a “Sorry, I didn’t realise I’d been gone for an hour, I was just looking an interesting mushroom” apology when I get home, but I will also be the person who notices the beetle behind the log or the hare in the ploughed field and these very private glimpses into the natural world feel special to me because often I am the only person who gets to see them when everyone else is just passing by.
I have posted lots of my photos in Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife Facebook group and some are technically quite good and some are technically quite awful! Sometimes I don’t post a photo at all and just an excited comment instead. It was important to me that the group was about sharing a love of the natural world. I feel that society is way too focused on hierarchies and is way too competitive as it is. I didn’t want showing off about fancy camera equipment or exotic species and one-upmanship about who had seen the most rare bird. The beauty of the natural world is it is everywhere. Even when I went to a work meeting in Birmingham last summer to receive my redundancy notice, I managed to identify 5 different species of bird in the carpark from call and sightings – including a mallard that was sat on the office roof. I asked the CEO’s PA where the nearest pond was but she looked at me like I was completely mad and I realised I’d be better off keeping my strange duck loving ways to myself! Back at home I enjoy scrolling through the Facebook group and seeing the diversity of life that is on our doorstep. When we notice what is in front of us everyday and connect with it and recognise that we’re all in this being alive business together, we recognise that we need to look after each other and value each other. The world’s environmental problems can feel so insurmountable and as an individual I can get overwhelmed just thinking about whether it is even possible to do anything positive to help. I think that by continuing to enjoy the world and share that pleasure, people will feel it is worth fighting for and not just doom and gloom.
Although I love recording, listing, studying and photographing nature, there is nothing like just enjoying the moment. I paused by the village school the other morning and watched a pair of magpies in a tree. They were interacting in a way that I had never seen before. Not because they were doing something extra special, but because usually I never stop and just observe. I imagine it was some sort of courtship behaviour and now that I’m aware of it, I may notice it again. It is so easy to just walk by and think ‘oh, a pair of magpies jumping about in a tree – two for joy’ whilst heading for the woods to do some proper nature photography as an activity or in search of a particular species. Similarly, it is easy to book yourself on a Mindfulness or Forest Bathing course and go off and do that as an activity instead. I have found that the natural world has become more meaningful to me when I do aspects of all these things.
I find using mindfulness as a way of experiencing the natural world refreshing and essential these days. If I only focus on nature in a scientific way and count how many geese are down on the riverbank by the castle this year, compared to last year; or how butterflies have declined in numbers summer after summer in Wales, then I am too overwhelmed to notice the beauty in the post-Christmas snowdrops forcing their way through the cold soil and the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker claiming its new territory. These things become les meaningful to me unless I pause and just notice that they are still there, still following their life cycle, regardless of the political and environmental state of the planet. I’d love to capture that elusive animal in a photo and one day I’d love to tick the bear picture in my Spotter’s Guide book, but in the meantime, I’ll continue to take bad photographs of red squirrels, and often, no photos at all. Sometimes it is important to just be out there in nature, noticing what it is there and noticing that you too are part of the natural world. I frequently choose to leave my camera at home so that I can go outdoors and just experience what is out there with no other agenda than just being part of it. No tick lists, no photographs. I pause and notice what each of my senses is telling me about the world – no analysing, no worrying about the state of things, just noticing and being aware of that moment and nothing else.
So where does the Manx Shearwater belong? I think of it is as a Welsh bird, in fact most of the UK’s Manx Shearwater population lives around the islands off Pembrokeshire – most notably Skomer and Skokholm which are home to around 300,000 pairs. There are approximately 1.5 million breeding Manx Shearwaters in the world and 95% of them are found in Europe. All the known UK breeding colonies are on the west coast, which enables them to follow the trade winds across the Atlantic ocean and down to Argentina and Brazil on their migration south in the autumn and back ‘home’ the following spring.
What would the people of South America say about this? When I think of the Manx Shearwater, I think Skomer; seals; bluebells and red campion; short eared owls and giant rabbits. If you asked Alejandro Jones, the famous (in Patagonia at least) Eisteddfod performer what he thinks of when you mention this bird’s name, maybe he’d comment: llamas; blue whales; emperor penguins and hummingbird fuchsias.
The Manx Shearwater’s English name was first recorded in 1835 and was named after the large colony of breeding birds on the Isle of Man. Before this time, the bird was referred to by the name used to describe its use as food source. Puffin, pophyn and poffin are all terms used to describe fat, nestling shearwaters that were viewed as a delicacy. The Latin name Puffinus comes from the English word and refers to members of the shearwater family – the Manx is Puffinus puffinus. Incidentally, the bird we call the Puffin is Fratercula arctica (Fratercula is Latin for Friar and is referring to the puffin’s monastic looking plumage) and not a member of the Puffinus family but an Auk. Both birds use rabbit burrows for nesting and if you visit Skomer on a summer’s day you will almost certainly see puffins going about their daily lives but maybe only a shearwater carcass, left discarded by the great black backed gulls that predate them. The Manx shearwaters will be safely out at sea, waiting to return at nightfall. They’ll collect in ‘rafts’ offshore and wait for sundown before returning to their burrows. It is a dream of mine to hear Manx shearwaters – their eerie call has connections with the supernatural and may have given the Faroe islands their association with legends of Trolls – as seen in place names like Trollanes or Troll peninsula as it called in English, and where legend tells of noisy trolls raiding the villages at night.
The labels we give ourselves and others, define us, they affect the way we are treated and the way we view ourselves. Imagine being named after your attractiveness as a tasty snack, like the poor puffin. Take the Halichoerus grypus – a rather grand sounding name for a rather grand looking creature. It’s pictured below in the grey seal photo I took off Skomer a few years ago. Its Latin name may sound quite grand but actually means “hooked nose sea-pig” which sounds more like a pirate insult to me!
I’ve seen a shift in how nature is portrayed in the media. I watch very little television but have always loved a wildlife documentary. My favourites are the programmes about native British wildlife and the creatures you can find in your own back garden. I also love the wildlife of the North American continent. I’ve never visited, but as a child I would dream of living on my own in the middle of a forest with no people and just a few wild animals like bald eagles and moose and maybe I could make friends with a wild bear. I loved those films they’d play at the local cinema on a Saturday afternoon before the main picture – the storyline would usually involve a boy (never a girl, sadly) that tamed a wild animal that would protect him in his log cabin against dangerous hunters or wild wolves – I so wished I was one of those people out there on my own, surviving in the wilderness! Nowadays, there are more and more documentaries that give animals human names. It feels like they are trying to make animals more accessible and relatable. I don’t like this at all because the wonder of the natural world to me, is its diversity and I feel society needs to embrace diversity and recognise it as essential for survival in the world – particularly in these days of growing political intolerance. Ecosystems with more biodiversity are more successful.
The BBC had a documentary called Meerkat Manor which had episodes titled ‘The Rovers Return’ and ‘Farewell, my lovely’. The meerkats had names like Mitch and Phillippe and Shakespeare (for goodness sake!) and the trailers built up the dramatic tension with hints at the unfolding story lines such as ‘Daisy gets too comfortable with a member of a rival gang’ and ‘Things take a strange turn when Yousarrian stays at home to look after Flower’s litter’. It was one of the most popular wildlife documentaries of its time and encouraged a genre of anthropomorphism to follow. Personally, I like my animals to be animals and do animally things. We should observe and cherish and be fascinated by the natural world in its natural state in my opinion – we are part of the natural world, just a part, and we need to let others be their part too.
The Manx shearwater reminds us of how big the world is. This bird migrates from Skomer every autumn down to South America and back again in the spring. The distinctly different outward and return routes north of the equator suggest they are using the trade winds of the north Atlantic gyre. (a gyre is a circular system of ocean currents that spiral around a central point – they are caused by the Coriolis effect and deflect the wind in particular directions. Gyres also collect pollutants and rubbish which is concerning when you consider how animals follow these currents during migration both above and below the water). The Shearwater will make its journey in around a month but doesn’t fly steadily for that time. A study by Guilford T, Meade J, Willis J, et al. ‘Migration and stopover in a small pelagic seabird, the Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus’; revealed the birds made stopovers that appeared to be for refuelling along their route. These stopovers accounted for up to one or two weeks of their migratory travel. The statistics relating to their journeys are mind bogglingly impressive: Manx shearwaters can live to be 60 years old – in 2008, an ornithologist, Chris Mead captured a bird that had been ringed on Bardsey island in 1957. He calculated its age was at least 57 and it would have travelled over 5 million miles in its lifetime. One migrating bird was tracked flying at an average 34 mph for a full 139 hours – it was taking advantage of favourable wind conditions; the average speed on a typical foraging trip is around 25 mph.
Another famous migratory journey concerns the clipper Mimosa which sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia in 1865 with around 150 Welsh passengers in search of “a little Wales beyond Wales”. The journey lasted twice as long as the Manx shearwater’s, and like the birds, made use of the trade winds. The Mimosa had a higher mortality rate than the birds in the study above and would have been at sea during the period the shearwaters were flying out from Skomer each day to feed offshore. Their migratory paths would not have crossed, but I like to think of those travellers aboard Mimosa seeing the familiar Manx shearwater when the birds arrived back in the settlers’ new homeland the following autumn, and I wonder if the birds were surprised to hear the Welsh language being spoken both sides of the equator?
I’m yet to see the shearwaters that use Skomer as their breeding home leave and return each day or arrive and depart on their immense migratory journey. I’ve held shearwaters and seen them up close most years when they strike out for the southern hemisphere but end up being blown inland. We’ve had live Manx shearwaters in our village and also a dead one in the middle of the road that I assumed landed thinking the dark strip of tarmac was water. I’ve also identified one in the main street of Llandeilo. Their anatomy is designed for spending time in the air or water and their legs are placed too far back for them to successfully launch themselves airborne from flat surfaces. It is common to find an out of place Manx shearwater and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales has some advice.
Back in the summer I spent hours and hours in my local woods enjoying nature with all my senses. I was going through a strange time of huge transition in my life and this was my sanctuary. The sight of the green trees was soothing and the familiar path round the woods that I pounded several times a day had a rhythm that was calming. The birds were singing sweetly and it all helped restore me. Nature is my way of rebooting my soul. I immerse myself in it and its like it clears my memory cache and gives me a factory reset. Oh, and the smell…
Not quite flowers or freshly mown hay, but more …
I love a mushroom. Seriously. I went on holiday to Scotland and took hundreds of fungi photos, dozens of my dog looking cute, loads of my son and a handful of my husband (one from behind, and to be honest he was slightly blocking out the view I was trying to capture much to my annoyance). I have been fascinated by fungi since going mushrooming before breakfast on a childhood caravan holiday – I remember vividly the multiple electric shocks I received from sliding under the farmer’s fence and of dodging cowpats so that I could find the biggest field mushrooms in the well fertilised meadow. We had an identification guide at home and I loved the graphic key that went with it. (See photo) Anything that warrants such a scary looking symbol to describe its qualities has to be worth studying in more detail!
Mycology is still one of the lesser studied branches of biology and the fungi kingdom is diverse and ancient. Mushrooms were seen as creations of the devil until relatively recently and they can appear quite boring on the surface. But underground, they have an enormous and complex life – in fact they have more in common with animals than plants in some ways and are totally, totally fascinating. Folklore, mythology and medicine are full of tales of fungi and their ability to heal, kill or perform magic. The biggest organism in the world is a type of honey fungus; Armilllaria. The jury is out on whether it is a single organism or a colony but either way, it is huge, measuring 2,200 acres and is thought to be around 2500 years old.
The species I well and truly disappeared off down a hole over back in the summer was the Common Stinkhorn. Its latin name is Phallus Impudicus which means, and there’s no discreet way of saying this; it absolutely, definitely, unequivocally and shamelessly looks like a penis. I find this quite interesting, because in fact mushrooms – as we usually refer to the fruiting body that has a stem and a cap – are the sexual reproductive organs of the fungal organism. They can go from non-existent to fully formed in the space of a few hours and disappear almost as quickly.
It wasn’t the look of the stinkhorn that drew my attention initially, but the smell. If you have ever smelt one you’ll know it is unforgettable. They are absolutely disgusting when you first get a whiff and I recognised the smell as decomposing badger. And yes, I was that specific. I grew up visiting the Quantock Hills regularly and that’s deer country so you’d often come across a deer carcass and these have that similar death smell but it’s not quite the same as dead badger. I didn’t want to breathe it in too deeply and hunted around to find the source of the pungent aroma. Low and behold I discovered a fine example of a Common Stinkhorn ( the one in the photo above). I didn’t mind having a good sniff then, it was still repulsive but also fascinating.
Stinkhorns disperse their reproductive spores in a different way to many other species. The gleba – the sticky green substance covering the cap – is full of spores and odorous chemicals including hydrogen sulphide which has a familiar rotten egg smell and dimethyl trisulphidide which has been found to be emitted from cancerous wounds. This is extremely attractive to blow flies and they land and feed on the gleba, which also has strong laxative properties that causes the flies to pass dense concentrations of spores in their faeces in the surrounding area. Interestingly, the type of blow fly that is particularly attracted to stinkhorns (species Calliphora vicina, Lucilia caesar, Lucilia ampullacea) are the same ones that feed on badger cadavers and have an essential role in reducing disease around badger setts. Cub mortality is high and if carcasses were left around, the risk of disease would be higher.
Sleeman, D.P.; Cronin, J.N; Jones, P. (1995). “Initial observations on stinkhorn fungi at badger setts”. Irish Naturalists’ Journal. 26: 76–77. found that there is also a possible ecological association between the Common stinkhorn and badger (Meles meles) setts. Fruiting bodies are commonly clustered in a zone 24 to 39 metres from the entrances (which, incidentally, tells you how far a blow fly can fly before it has diarrhoea). This really got me thinking and whenever I have been out for a walk and smelt a stinkhorn this past summer and autumn; I looked for badger setts. I have been observing whether stinkhorns are likely to indicate all badger setts or just the active ones. There aren’t any stinkhorns around yet this year but I’ve photographed a few locations and plan to go back in the summer and look for signs of badgers.
Charles Darwins’s granddaughter; Gwen Raverat was also fascinated by stinkhorns. She was an outstanding artist, wood engraver and a great friend of Virginia Woolf and well worth discovering if you’re not familiar with her. Gwen’s description in her writing about her childhood in Victorian Britain draws up some great comic imagery. This is what she had to say:
“In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name. The name is justified, for the fungus can be hunted by the scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty’s great invention. Armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the morals of the maids.”
Stinkhorn’s may have a use in medicine as a form of supportive preventative nutrition. They contain extracts that reduce the incidence of platelet aggregation that occurs in venous thrombosis. They are edible and can be eaten raw. I’ve not tried one myself but I’m told they are crunchy and taste of radishes. The fungus is enjoyed and eaten in France and parts of Germany, where it may be sold fresh or pickled and used in sausages. Similar species are consumed in China. Unsurprisingly, they are thought to be an aphrodisiac and have been used by various cultures to improve sexual performance, ranging from the 18th century English vicar who powdered them and drank them mixed with spirits to the peasants of South East Europe who rubbed them on bulls’ necks before bull fighting tournaments.
And that’s why I love fungi. They mix together science, fantasy and history and tell us how our forbearers viewed the world and what was important to them in terms of morals and beliefs. I do take a fair bit of flack from my family who have been known to question whether I’d like them more if they were toadstools (I will not do any puns about them being fun guys I promise) and my husband has adopted a ruse to get me into Tesco’s by telling me they sell lots of different mushrooms – it didn’t work, I still hate shopping! So look out for these transient reproductive organs that appear briefly in our woods, fields and gardens and remember they have a much larger life going on out of sight – both underground and in peoples’ imaginations.