As I walked along the track I stopped to look into the ruins of where there was once an old house – amusingly noted to be called Ty Newydd on the Ordnance Survey of 1888! The flower I was hoping to see is often found near human dwellings – it was introduced as a cultivated plant hundreds of years ago and without many insects or other pollinators around in the depths of winter, it doesn’t tend to spread widely unless replanted.
I was on the lookout for snowdrops – one of the first flowers of the New Year. These tiny white flowers have long been associated with purity, light and hope – and were known as Candlemass bells because they bloomed around the time of the Christian festival of Candlemass. They certainly fill me with hope and begin my annual countdown of flowers from snowdrops, to daffodils, to bluebells, then foxgloves and so on throughout the year.
This winter has been different. Many of my neighbours have reported bulbs poking their way through the soil back before Christmas and in fact we photographed our first daffodil at the Botanic Gardens in Llanarthne in late November. I have even seen the leaves and occasional buttercup yellow flower of the celandine that grows beneath the old oak tree in our garden – again, these are flowers we associate with the spring and not midwinter.
I continued my walk across the open field and down into the woodland beyond. I feel blessed that I live in Carmarthenshire where we have so much of the natural world accessible to us from our doorsteps.
A rapid drumming filled my ears. It was one of the resident great spotted woodpeckers – in fact, I am sure it was a male bird. These woodpeckers don’t just hammer their strong beaks against trees so they can make holes to nest in, or to find insects to eat. The males drum against trees, telegraph poles and anything else that will make a loud noise and help them stake a claim to their territory. This territorial drumming takes place in the build up to spring – why not research woodpeckers as part of your home educating – they have backwards pointing toes; extra stiff tails; and tongues that are so long they wrap around their specially adapted skulls. Fantastic characters!
It’s not just woodpeckers that are getting ready for the breeding season, we may soon see frogspawn in our ponds, and the foxes have been barking and calling for a while now. Of course, some of our animals are still deep in hibernation. Not just bats and hedgehogs but other creatures too. Reptiles have a special form of hibernation called brumation that gets them through the short days of winter when sunlight is limited. Amphibians also hibernate, so make sure you crack the ice on your pond when it freezes so that any build-up of toxic gas can escape from under the solid ice. And if you find one of our overwintering butterflies decides to come out of hiding and spread its wings on a warm winter’s day, why not put it safely in a box somewhere safe like a shed or outbuilding until spring – or do what I do and enjoy sharing your home with them.
The days are already getting visibly longer and before we know it, it will be spring. The little snowdrops truly are synonymous with hope – blooming just before the vernal equinox and heralding the new spring and the new year. I wish all of you blessings and peace for the forthcoming year and hope you can share in the beauty and sanctuary of our natural world.
This blog will be featured in the Carmarthen Journal Nature Notes column in January 2021
A distinctive rhythmic hum vibrated my ears into action, and I paused and looked to the sky. I knew this sound, and I knew it could be coming from up to a mile away.
The hum changed in tone and frequency as the wedge of Mute swans flew closer and closer. The noise changed into a powerful but gracefully slow; swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – and I gazed skywards as the elegant birds with necks outstretched and heads pointing towards the lake ahead; passed over me without a sound leaving their beaks.
I smiled to myself because this was the second wedge of swans to fly over that morning. The earlier birds were easily recognisable as Whooper swans and not Mutes. There was no building up of wing noise with the Whoopers – but their raucous bugling and honking alerted everything within range that they were approaching and on a mission!
Swans are truly awesome – how can something so enormous, fly so beautifully – and over such long distances? The Mute swans live in the valley, but the Whoopers join us every winter from Iceland – making a sea crossing of around 800-1400km. Swans are amongst the largest flying birds and have evolved to do this as efficiently as possible – they have hollow bones for instance – this puts paid to the stories of swans breaking a man’s arm with just a flap of their wing. A swan’s wingbeat is certainly powerful, but it is also lightweight and designed for flight and communication, and not as a weapon.
Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher, spoke of nothing being permanent except change. He is also attributed with saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. And that perfectly sums up why I have never lost my passion for the natural world. I have never bored of taking the same walk several times a day.
This year has been like no other. The world has been united in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, we have found the natural world to be a reliable friend through the uncertainty and disruption that has surrounded us. Many people have rekindled their relationship with the great outdoors, others have noticed for the first time the huge variety of wildlife on their doorstep – perhaps they have spent years working hard in jobs away from their home and haven’t had the opportunity to pause and just notice the diversity of life surrounding them. All have learned first hand, the benefits to our wellbeing of time spent enjoying the nature and wildlife.
Pausing and noticing are two of the most valuable wildlife watching skills I possess. No amount of studying animal tracks, signs, and behaviour; or buying the best quality binoculars or camouflage clothing is a substitute for just getting outside as often as possible. I switch my thinking brain off from planning and analysing and worrying – and switch over to letting my senses lead the way and show me without prejudgment or opinion, what is around me.
This year I watched the small strip of woodland floor that I visit most days turn from leaf litter and the odd bramble; into a carpet of wood anemones that were followed by bluebells; then nettles and new shrubs, trees and bushes. Occasionally punctuated by an early purple orchid, earthball fungus, or phallic and putrid smelling stinkhorn mushroom.
The woods turned shady and dark once the acidic green beech leaves unfurled and filled the canopy – along with the leaves of the neighbouring oak, hazel and rowan; blocking out the sun and providing shelter from the unusually frequent thunderstorms we experienced over the summer months. The months passed and the leaves turned to gold and dropped; and the last few hangers on have just been blown away by the north wind – the same wind that helped those swans on their migration flight.
I watched the swallows arrive at the bridge on 11th April – they nested underneath, and the cacophony of tweets and chirps was almost deafening. It was a successful year for breeding, which I witnessed in the sheer number of swallows gathering together by the beginning of September, to prepare for migration. It was an honour to witness this half of these birds’ lives over here in West Wales – and I wonder if there is someone showing them as much interest now they are back in Africa?
One of my favourite birds is the Tawny owl. I am truly blessed to lose sleep because of the noisy male birds “hoo-hoo”-ing outside my bedroom window in response to the female birds call of “keewik”. Sadly, I was brought an injured owl back in April. It had been hit by a car and my neighbour and I did our best to make it comfortable but it was beyond help and now rests in peace under my oak tree. It’s feathers were amazingly soft and fluffy and quite beautiful as the wind ruffled them – the colours and textures were gorgeous.
I’ve recorded tawny owl numbers for some time and taken part in the BTO survey too. I hoped that the loss of this owl wouldn’t affect this year’s breeding population. Tawny owls spend the winter establishing their territories, that’s why they’re so vocal at the moment in the run up to Christmas. They mate and lay eggs in late winter or early spring, with the chicks hatching around 30 days later, and fledging in May.
In July we started hearing baby animal noises coming from our back hedgerow and the oak tree, we weren’t sure whether they were from a bird or mammal. Gentle chirrups in the dark, that built over the weeks into sounds that were similar to a female tawny owl, but clearly immature. There were two distinct “voices” of what I imagine were two fledgling owls. After a couple more weeks, the voices got deeper and the calls became distinctly female (too-whit) and male (too-whoo). And now, they have joined the other owls in the village and can be heard down the track; in my neighbours garden; on the roof; beyond the back hedge – all vying for territory and making their way in the world.
Many animals live shorter lives than us humans, and this gives us the privilege of seeing them grow, change and develop. I’ve followed a family of magpies nesting near the village school which was closed for the summer. We’ve had blue tits nest in a hole in our apple tree and yesterday I spotted a great tit checking it out. Our oak tree has nuthatches and treecreepers making use of the warm ivy’s antifreeze properties, and our bathroom has a tortoiseshell butterfly keeping warm over winter.
I’ve always been a “noticer”. I’m blessed with senses that never switch off! I can find pleasure in the simplest things, and I gain a sense of safety, belonging, and of my place in the world when I immerse myself in nature. The pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty and unpredictability to the humans in the world, but the swallows still came and went – the leaves still ‘remembered’ to fall – creatures were born and died. The changes we can be certain of still took place; and brought myself, like many people, a sense of hope for the future.
Autumn is well and truly upon us. I have delighted in those recent dawns full of of mists and mellow fruitfulness. There is something magical, warm and lazy about the light at this time of year and the leaves are beginning to turn to gold, the rowans and rosehips are dripping with red fruit, and the trees and fields are covered with intricate gossamer blankets, woven into perfectly formed geometric shapes and dripping with the early morning dew.
Spiders build webs all year round, but autumn is a fantastic time to see them because their transparent silk threads are often found covered in the seasonal mist and watery droplets of dew. Spiders are often fully grown in autumn and on the lookout for a mate, so we are more likely to see them at this time of year too.
On my morning walks I’ve seen several types of web. The dense garden hedges seem filled with sheet webs – like dozens of silky hammocks waiting for flies and bugs to fall in and get stuck or get knocked onto the horizontal webs by the tangle of threads securing the sheet web to the hedge, grass or low lying bush they are frequently found in.
I love to see the classic orb webs that are synonymous with spiders everywhere. The spider constructs radial threads that act as a scaffold and then adds spiral after spiral of silk until the web is complete, often spending up to an hour building a new web every day. In the UK, these webs mostly get their stickiness from a glue-like coating added to the threads that holds the captured prey in place, but one type of spider uses a special type of silk that acts like Velcro against the bristly legs of any unsuspecting insect landing on these webs.
In recent years, newspapers have been reporting on “Spider season” when spiders are more visible around our homes. They are not all coming in from the cold outside to seek the warmth of our houses – many have been living quietly alongside us throughout the seasons, but are more visible in the autumn because they are out and about looking for a mate. Courtship rituals involve elaborate movements, gestures and dances and the smaller males are often at risk of being eaten by the females.
Not all spiders use webs to catch their prey, some hide and jump out and use a surprise attack. Their eight eyes aren’t particularly good when it comes to locating their next meal and they rely on their sense of touch and the ability to sense the tiny vibrations of insects landing in their webs. Then they’ll trap their prey in a cocoon of silk before injecting poison into it.
In Wales we have around 500 species of spider – some of which are found almost nowhere else in the world. They play an essential part in the diversity of life and sadly many are endangered or even critically endangered. Spiders in the UK pose little trouble to people and whilst I know that some people are scared of them, my world feels a much better place for having them in it and for being able to share the joy of a cobwebby autumn morning.
Many of us have been enjoying tending our gardens and have been busy harvesting the various salad crops and veg that have had their recent midsummer growth spurt. It’s not just us humans that appreciate a well-stocked garden – caterpillars are aplenty, and all four stages of the butterfly and moth life cycle may be observed if you look closely.
I have a lifelong passion for butterflies – some may call it an obsession! They are remarkable creatures and I can spend many an hour transfixed by the way they fly in such seemingly random ways from flower to flower – if you’ve ever tried to photograph a moving butterfly, you’ll know how tricky it is. Many butterflies fly a deliberately complex and unpredictable path in order to avoid predators. That’s not surprising considering how big, bright and attractive some of them appear, they need their erratic flight paths in order to reduce the risks of being eaten by a hungry bird!
Butterflies also keep themselves safe by making use of camouflage or mimicry. Speckled Wood butterflies can be seen on my local walks at the moment, but when they are resting, camouflaged against the leaf litter on the woodland floor, they blend in so clearly, you’d hardly notice they are there. Mimicry can take several forms – some moth caterpillars resemble twigs; there are butterflies that look like more poisonous butterflies; and others that have markings in the shape and colour of flowers, stripes and even eyes!
In Wales we have 42 species of butterfly, plus some migrants too, like the Painted Lady. Last year was known as a “Painted Lady Year” – a particularly good year for migrants, with millions of them being spotted across the UK. Moths on the other hand – well, why not go out and start taking a look at moths too? There are over 1700 species of moths to be found in Wales and not all of them only come out at night! The Hummingbird hawk-moth is often spotted in Carmarthenshire gardens, and can be seen in the daytime, hovering form flower to flower like a tiny hummingbird drinking the nectar using its long proboscis.
Just like people, butterflies and moths are diverse in their appearance, habits, and needs. Many are also polymorphic, which means the same type of butterfly can have different variations. (Polymorphism is common in nature – consider the Jaguar: you get spotted ones and black ones; or the sexual dimorphism in birds: like the Mallard drake with his iridescent green head and the duck with her mottled brown one.) Making our environment attractive to insects is relatively easy. Some butterflies prefer trees; others love the brassicas we grow for our dinner; and of course, we are all familiar with the sight of a beautifully coloured Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell butterfly landing on our buddleia.
My garden has a variety of species, I spotted a brown butterfly in the apple tree yesterday – I’m not sure of its name, but then again, I don’t expect it knows mine either! There are lots of white butterflies too – the ones that enjoy laying eggs on my cabbages so that the young caterpillars have food when they emerge. Tortoiseshells are instantly recognisable, and the Comma is making a comeback in Wales too. As the summer progresses, we will hopefully see our other favourites – the Peacocks and Red Admirals.
The beauty of the natural world is you can study it in its most intricate detail and you can stand there and just enjoy it for the most simple sensory pleasures its brings without needing to think at all.
http://www.magicoflife.org/ This butterfly house near Aberystwyth is one of my favourite places. They have exotic species indoors, as well as stunning gardens and local walks. They’re a charitable educational trust and do some fantastic conservation work. Well worth a visit in person, or to their website where you’ll find information on bee and butterfly friendly gardens.
Shakespeare wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. He was probably describing people coming together through shared experiences and emotions, but I like to consider this quote using another use of the word “nature”. The pandemic situation we find ourselves in is global, and it has also united us around the world in our love of nature and the outdoors. I have found many kindred spirits in the Facebook group I created, Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife. People are enjoying their gardens more than ever – so much so there is a shortage of compost at garden centres around the county! We are noticing more wildlife and also destroying less with our cars.
The beauty of wildlife gardening is you don’t need much space, lots of specialist equipment, or expert knowledge. The internet is full of advice and tips and most of the wildlife trusts have downloads and pages dedicated to making the outside areas of our homes more welcoming to wildlife
Our garden has some extremely overgrown areas that we’ve left fairly wild, so that our resident hedgehog has somewhere to snuffle and look for worms. We have a hedge boundary so it can come and go as it likes, and live its best hedgehoggy life all around the village – even turning up on a neighbours decking during a late night barbecue!
Our garden has evolved with our family. A pond wasn’t a priority when our son was small but he once he outgrew his sandpit we put it to good use as a pond. . We’ve added some stones to enable anything that ventures in to get out safely and a kindly neighbour has given us some native plants from their established pond. Hopefully the oxygenating effect will clear some of the algae and enable us to get even better views of the frog and newts that call it home. Our first two newts were a ‘gift’ from a neighbour who had found them and asked if they could be homed in our garden, they’ve been here for seven or eight years. Newts enjoy ponds for part of the year and use them for breeding; they need dry land too – logs, stones, wooded areas – anywhere safe to hibernate for the winter.
Last year in the spring we found some frogspawn in a puddle in the middle of Brechfa forest, nowhere near a pond or stream. I scooped it up in my travel mug and brought it home, where it lived in an old fish tank while we studies it, before being added to the murky pond, which at that time had no plants but hopefully offered a better chance at life than a puddle – and if all else failed, the newts would be fed!
Wildlife rarely needs to be brought into your garden, if you make your garden attractive to wildlife, it will usually find its own way. We have the mammals and amphibians I’ve just described, along with the occasional reptile and plenty of bird species to delight me in the early morning with their chorus. We’ve kept an area of nettles next to our compost bin and we have a buddleia that is about to bloom. Plenty of butterflies are already checking it out in anticipation! Butterflies have been a lifelong interest and passion of mine and I’m always a little disappointed by the contradictory values many gardeners have. Some seem to love a butterfly but hate a caterpillar. Hopefully this year’s caterpillars will enjoy the nettles and wild plants and leave our veggies alone. It can always be fun to have a caterpillar collecting competition with your family and throw them over the hedge to your neighbour when you’ve finished! No, I’m joking. Definitely don’t do that, put them in your wildlife area so they can grow and become butterflies or be fed to birds who will have plenty of young to feed.
An average garden accommodates more than 2,000 species of insect. Most of them benefit our gardens by eating the other insects that can damage plants, and acting as food for other animals. And of course, they are essential for pollination. We’ve built our garden’s insects a new bug hotel that we’ve named ‘The Biolblitz Ritz’