This is the time of year when we may be lucky enough to observe deer during their annual rut. I have been able to hear the blood curdling bellows and groans of the fallow bucks on several occasions this past week as they have strutted around their territories, showing off their suitability as a breeding male. If you are very lucky, you may even get to see the strongest males battling it out head to head, using their magnificent palmate antlers as weapons in a competition to identify who will be the successful choice for the does to mate with.
My best sightings of the rut have been at Dinefwr Park in recent years, although there were many impressive sightings of bellowing bucks to be had at Gelli Aur in years gone by. Fallow deer are the most common deer species in Wales and were introduced to the UK around 2000 years ago but possibly died out after the collapse of the Roman Empire. They were probably reintroduced in the 11th century. Herds tend to be managed so that humans and deer can live alongside each other, and deer parks have been in existence since Medieval times. In Carmarthenshire, a deer park is shown on a map of Llansteffan dating back to the 14th century. Whereas, the Tywi valley herds date from the 18th century and are associated with the mansions of Golden Grove and Newton House – many of the deer around Gelli Aur today are descended from the deer park herd and have established themselves in the surrounding woodland and countryside, providing drivers with the occasional treat (or shock!) on their way to and from work at dawn and dusk.
All the following photos are of deer from the Gelli Aur area – taken in either 2009 or 2011
Fallow deer are the only UK deer to have palmate antlers. The males develop these around 3-4 years of age after the rut is over, the antlers are shed in spring and regrown by the summer, I have yet to find any on my walks but I’d love to have a pair.
The does separate from their herd so they can give birth to their fawns in June, and who can resist the cute Bambi-like youngsters safely hiding away in the bracken, or pronking in alarm before taking flight. The does and fawns return to their herds around July. The terms used to describe members of deer families varies from species to species. Males, females and young are known as stags, hinds and calves in the Red and Sika deer species. Fallow, Roe, Muntjac and Chinese water deer have bucks and does. The young have different names but in our familiar Fallow species they are called fawns.
I enjoy spotting the various individuals in the herd at Dinefwr. They can be told apart by the male’s antler shapes and sizes and by their colouring. Their common colour – a light brown which gives rise to their name ‘fallow’ tends to turn greyer in winter and some individuals are melanistic dark brown/black; others are white with subtle markings; there is another colour combination called menil, which is paler with white spots all year round.
As we enter a couple of weeks of limited travel I will probably miss this years battles between males but I know they have started and have had the pleasure of seeing some photographs taken by a young nature lover Megan George who has allowed me to share with them with you. Thank you Megan.
I could smell the electricity in the air this morning, and my tummy had been warning me of the approaching storm since yesterday evening. I wanted to go down to the woods before the storm started to see what the animals and birds were making of it all. So, Blaze and I took our usual route down the track, Blaze running back and for after her ball. The woods were eerily quiet, the creatures knew what was coming. There was a distant roll of thunder and a few birds squawked and cried before becoming silent again. In the distance a lone farm dog barked.
We headed back home as the occasional huge, heavy drops of rain plopped out of the sky and landed on the track, sending tiny clouds of dust into the air. Blaze was nervy. She wanted to walk ahead – but not too far. She was on high alert and I expect she could sense the electricity; smell the petrichor aroma – that instantly recognisable smell we experience when it rains; and hear the storm as it rumbled around the valley.
We passed the cows in the field alongside the track, and many of them were laying down; the swallows were flying low; and everything seemed to be pushed down towards the earth by the changing air pressure. My tummy continued to rumble just like the distant storm and my husband complained of the pressure in his head.
Each time there was a flash of lightning, I counted the seconds until the clap of thunder came. The storm was getting nearer and fortunately we made it into the house before the rains came.
By lunchtime it was so dark we couldn’t see to read, and I was feeling very, very unwell. Blaze and I sat on the bed and watched the blue cracks of lightning shoot across the sky. I also faffed about on the internet in between the power cuts, researching what I could about how animals “know” what the weather will be like.
Animals have often been attributed with supernatural abilities; ESP; or in the case of Paul the Octupus – an ability to predict World Cup football match outcomes. Our folklore is full of tales of birds and weather prediction:
Hawks flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.
Geese fly higher in fair weather than in foul.
When seagulls fly inland, expect a storm.
Air pressure certainly does affect birds. Swallows, for instance, have sensitive ears; when the barometric pressure drops, they fly as close to the ground as possible, where air density is greatest. Low-flying birds are signs of rain; flying high indicates fair weather.
Studies in the past few years have shown that birds may also be responding to infrasound – those sound waves that humans can’t hear. It appears that some birds may hear the infrasound noise of a distant tornado as the soundwaves travel through the ground. This acts as an early warning signal and enables the birds to fly to safety long before the tornado arrives.
It is likely that animals “know” about approaching weather because of their incredible senses. I don’t think for one moment they can see into the future in a magical way. They can predict the future, but scientifically through using their eyes, ears, and noses. Different animals have different numbers of senses – humans have eight senses, whereas other animals have some extras like magnetoreception, and electroception. As well as that, the senses that other animals share with us can work outside of the ranges humans are used to.
I’ll describe one sense in detail to demonstrate how this works, and I’ll briefly explore some of the other senses.
Bears are thought to have the most sensitive smell. This is essential for helping them survive. Bears often forage for food, and the ability to smell something edible 20 miles away in the case of the Black Bear, or through 1 metre of ice in the case of the Grizzly, means they can conserve their energy and head straight to the food source instead of searching around.
Here’s a diagram showing how different animal’s sense of smell compares:
So how does it work? What makes certain animals specialist sniffers?
There are several things going on. Let’s take Blaze, my dog and compare her to me:
Her nose is a different shape to mine for a start. I breathe in and out through the same airways inside my nose. If I take a big sniff of something and then exhale, incoming scent is pushed out with the exhaled air. To get a really good smell of something, I have to keep sniffing it without breathing out at the same time – try it, have a good sniff of something nearby.
A dog’s nose is more sophisticated in the way it functions. Blaze’s nostrils, unlike mine, can move independently, helping her locate where scents are coming from. When I throw her ball and she doesn’t see it land, her nose goes to work – and I can see her nostrils quivering and sniffing in lots of different directions until she locates the path of the scent. This quivering, pushes the scent further up her nose so it doesn’t mix with new smells coming in – it helps her stayed focused.
Take a look at the photo of Blaze’s nose below or at your own dog or cat’s nose if you have one. When Blaze breathes out, the exhaled air leaves through the slits in the side of her nose, and the swirl of wind created by this exhalation helps send more new scents into her nose.
Smell Receptor Cells
The average dog has around 220 million smell receptor cells – some breeds have many more. A human has only 5 million scent receptor cells. A dog not only has more cells than a person, it has more types of cells. This enables a dog to detect a greater variety of smells.
A dog has another organ for smelling, absent in a human, called the vomeronasal organ.
It’s not just our sense organs that are important in smelling, tasting and hearing the world. The way our brains process this sensory information is important too. Brains interpret and prioritise the messages that have come via the sense organs. The brain also tells the body how to react. So, Blaze’s brain is clearly working differently to mine – she needs to be able to process information that is important for dogs – things like finding food and a mate. My brain processes differently because I’m a human. I need to find food, just like Blaze but I tend to do it with my eyes not my nose. I may wish to find a mate, but again I don’t do it by sniffing them! Of course, there is a huge amount of diversity within the same species too.
Most mammals are dichromats and get their colour vision from two kinds of visual pigment. But humans and some other primates have trichromatic colour vision and can see a greater variety of colour.
Humans can see only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some creatures can see wavelengths of light that are outside of human vision.
It’s difficult to imagine that some animals see and hear things that we don’t. Some owls can see ultraviolet light. Their prey are voles, which leave urine trails behind them that show up in UV light. Elephants can communicate over long distances using infrasound waves traveling through the ground and whales communicate over vast distances in the ocean, while we wander about on land, oblivious to the cacophony below the waves.
People have different experiences of sensory information too. Some autistic people may be able to hear conversations in a distant room or spot the difference between two almost identical objects. Children have sensory abilities that are lost as they become adults. Babies are born with an ability to differentiate between individual faces on monkeys and humans, but by the time they get to around nine months, a process called perceptual narrowing takes place in their developing brain and they can only distinguish the human faces.
Here’s a couple of fun activities to try:
Which is the odd one out?
When adults look at the images of a snail (above) they typically say that glossy snail A and and glossy snail B are the most similar. The matte-looking snail C seems to be the odd one out. But a baby can tell that snail B and snail C are actually more similar.
Have a listen to these sounds. Depending on your age, you may hear one or more sounds from these recordings of different frequencies.
As we discover more about how our own and other animals’ senses work, it’s not surprising that some animals appear to predict the weather. Our human noses aren’t as good at detecting smell as a bear, for example but we don’t need to be. We can hunt and gather food more readily. But we are particularly good at smelling petrichor – the smell released from the earth when it rains. We can smell it in tiny concentrations of five parts per trillion. Being able to smell rain had an advantage for our ancestors that relied on following the rains for their survival.
Of course, once you appreciate the extra senses that animals have – like the birds ability to migrate accurately between its homes using an internal compass; or the sharks ability to detect its prey using electricity, its no wonder that creatures may be seen as magical or possessing special powers. I imagine that humans who have sensory abilities outside of the standard could be viewed differently too – as magical, supernatural or mentally ill, perhaps? People often look to religion and make believe to explain science they haven’t yet been able to understand.
I think it is important to remember that just because I don’t see something like a bird does, doesn’t mean that the bird can’t see it; or is making it up; or is magic.
Storms fill me with the wonder of the natural world and the power of nature is breath-taking. Learning about how the world works and how all the different creatures experience it, is awe-inspiring.
I distracted myself through the thunderstorm this afternoon by writing this blog. All of a sudden, a small tortoiseshell butterfly flew frantically into my face and fluttered around my patterned blouse before crashing against the closed window repeatedly, as if it was in a mad rush to escape. It must have quietly been sharing my room during the storm and it “knew” it was over and it was ready to go outside again. I opened the window to release it and the birds were singing a different song to this morning – declaring to the world that it was safe to come out. We headed off to the local gardens for some fresh air and enjoyed the buzzing of the busy insects catching up on the hours of nectar they had missed.
It’s that time of year when people are considering travel. Of course, 2020 has panned out very differently to recent years; some of us may be reading this in the local paper whilst on our holiday – welcome to our beautiful county of Carmarthenshire! Or perhaps we are planning trips with our families to visit those friends and relations we’ve been apart from for so long. Some of us may decide to stay put this year and keep close to home. Whatever your destination, it is unlikely to be as far reaching or unusual as some of the travels our plants and animals go on.
We are all familiar with the migration of animals like the swallows who will soon be lining up on the telephone wires, ready to head off to Africa – or the inevitable Manx Shearwaters that turn up inland when blown off course on their mammoth 10,000 km return journey from Skomer to South America. I wonder if they are surprised to hear the Welsh language all summer in Wales and then again over winter in Patagonia?
But have you ever considered the traveling habits of plants? How do they get around? Diversity is essential for life – whether that’s the diversity in the ecosystem that ensures we have oxygen and clean water; or the diversity of cultures, neurologies, and races that makes our world a more interesting and productive place. Plants migrate in order to promote species diversity and ensure survival. But how do they do this without legs or wings?
There are two ways that plants disperse their seeds. Autochory, which means spreading seeds by their own means, and allochory – spreading seeds with outside help.
Autochory involves a few familiar techniques. One of the most common uses gravity (known as barochory). At this time of year, the horse chestnuts are beginning to ripen in their hard, prickly seed cases. They’ll either drop when they are ready, or when the wind or a successful clunk from a thrown stick brings them falling to the ground, where the protective seed case opens to reveal a lovely shiny conker. Far more impressive in my opinion is the method known as ballochory – this is the method the ballistic plants use. Gorse is a familiar example, and I delight in those walks on the coast path on a hot summer’s day when the gorse pods dry out in the afternoon sun and with a tell-tale ‘pop’ their seeds are flung out far and wide with a delicious accompanying aroma of sweet vanilla and coconut.
Although trees can’t move themselves around, they certainly make use of animals that can. This is where the various types of allochory come in useful. Unsurprisingly, the use of animals to transport seeds is known as zoochory. I’ve noticed that the berries are beginning to ripen on the bushes and trees, and whether it’s a blackberry being eaten by a hungry badger, or a rowan berry being gobbled up by a blackbird, they share a similar fate. The tasty berry is enjoyed by the creature and the inedible seed passes through their digestive system and is deposited elsewhere – in a handy dollop of fertiliser. We have a friendly squirrel in our village that likes to hang about our oak tree. I’ve been keeping an eye out for it burying acorns in our lawn to keep it going through the colder months. Of course, many of the seeds cached by jays and squirrels go on to take root and grow into new oak trees and help our forests grow and spread.
Not all plants offer their animal hosts a tasty reward. My dog frequently comes in covered in barbed or sticky seeds that have clung to her fur and get rubbed off elsewhere. Some of these will grow into plants, but most get picked off by me – much to her annoyance! They are incredibly sticky and persistent.
The wind helps seeds disperse too. Spring can feel a nightmare time for hay fever sufferers. Pollen is produced in large amounts by trees like the hazel. They take advantage of the lack of leaves and produce catkins full of pollen that can be blown by the wind and hopefully come into contact with female plants. Taking advantage of the wind conserves energy. Instead of putting energy into providing tempting nectar for pollenating insects, they use the energy of the wind instead.
Other plants that make use of anemochory include the maples and sycamores with their ‘helicopter seeds’. Rather than falling due to gravity and bouncing or rolling to their new location, these seeds travel quite spectacularly using the lift from the wind.
Some seeds and fruit can travel for thousands of miles using hydrochory. Palm trees can grow from seeds that have travelled the ocean currents; and closer to home, foxgloves often grow near rivers where their seeds fall and float further downstream to grow in new locations. Some seeds are fragile and lightweight, whereas others have air pockets that keep them buoyant.
Finally, humans have been responsible for dispersing seeds for as long as we have been on this planet. Whether through trading in prehistoric times; or deliberately cultivating in agriculture; or accidentally carrying them with us when traveling the globe. Often humans are responsible for those ‘invasive’ species that were introduced as an exotic or decorative plant but ended up unmanageable and unwanted. Us humans have also been responsible for reintroducing plants, saving species, developing seed banks and ‘seed bombing’.
Whatever your travels this summer, why not take a look at the sedentary plants and trees when you are next outside and reflect on the journeys their species may have been on too.
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.
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.
The Towy valley has been full of mist the past couple of days and it’s been a treat to use some of my other senses to enjoy the natural world. I try and get out for a walk with my dog Blaze before work and we both like to check out what has been happening around the village and watch how the seasons progress.
Blaze is what is nowadays known as a ‘mixed breed’ but used to be called a mongrel. She has whippet, springer spaniel and Bedlington terrier in her mix so can run very fast, find things by their scent, and retrieve balls all day – never ever tiring of it or getting bored!
I walked down towards the track and past the school which was starting to come to life with people dropping their children off for the day. As usual, there were a few cars parked up, but unusually, as I passed each vehicle, I could smell the freshly washed occupants! Each car’s passengers had left a cloud of their own individual smell. It was as if the frosty air had frozen individual scent bubbles along the road.
Blaze and I carried on down the track and she too was fascinated by the smells she could follow. It’s no wonder that spaniels are used as detection dogs – their sense of smell is many times more sensitive than humans and they have mobile nostrils and a wet nose as well for determining the direction of the odour.
Blaze’s keen sense of smell pointed to where animals may have crossed the frosty path and gave me a clue as to potentially good sites for my trail camera. We wandered back home, me thinking about what I may be able to capture on my camera and Blaze sniffing at every leaf. By now the school was busier and the perfumed bubbles of frozen mist had turned into a sickening diesel filled fug clouding the village. It was perfectly still and there was no air flow at all – quite magical but also slightly creepy.
I got in and sorted myself out for work. My husband had been de-icing the car and came back into the kitchen. “Gosh, you smell cold” I said. The smell of the chilled air that had attached to his clothes was released into the warm kitchen. I pondered this for a while. What other types of weather can you smell?
Before rain we often smell that sharp, pungent smell of ozone – a form of oxygen. The Greek word ozein means ‘to smell’. And lots of people love petrichor, the smell you experience after rainfall. I like the post storm aroma but a friend dislikes it and my son describes it as the worst smell in the world! When you realise what it is then it kind of makes sense why they’re not keen. Petrichor was first described in 1964 by mineralogists Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. It occurs when airborne molecules from decomposing plant or animal matter become attached to mineral or clay surfaces. During a dry spell, these molecules chemically recombine with other elements on a rock’s surface. Then when it rains, the combination of fatty acids, alcohols and hydrocarbons is released.
Is this aroma of any use to creatures or is it only something us humans are particularly sentimental about? Studies with indigenous aboriginal people in the Australia’s Western Desert have found they experience what is referred to as cultural synaesthesia. The smell of the approaching rain that arrives at the start of the wet months of the year is hugely important to them for turning the arid, red desert into a lush, green landscape with increased sources of readily available food. These people experience the smell of approaching rain as the colour green and it is important to them as a connection with their ancestors as well as being protective and cleansing. Freshwater fish are thought to recognise petrichor when the rains wash into the rivers signalling spawning time and a similar process takes place that helps camels find oases.
I can smell cold, heat and rain and I have always been able to predict the weather by using my senses. What types of weather can you smell?
You don’t get reporting like this anymore! A friend shared this video which got me reminiscing about those days of being woken up by the electric hum of the milk float and the clink of glass bottles on the doorstep. I reflected sadly how these days, many of us drive our petrol cars to the shops to buy milk in plastic containers that can be recycled at a cost rather than reused. It also sent me off down my first rabbit hole for this blog – the question of how creatures learn and pass on information to each other.
A mysterious phenomena struck the south of England in the early 1920’s and soon spread across the rest of the UK and Europe. This was back in the days of doorstep milk delivery and bottles were being raided for their cream. No one was quite sure who was behind this ‘crime wave’ and it was often reported that local youths were responsible. Eventually; Blue Tits were identified as the culprits and even though a variety of different bottle tops were tried, none were effective at preventing the thefts and the Blue Tits continued to raid the morning milk – even waiting for the milkmen to arrive to make their deliveries!
What caused this behaviour to spread so quickly? How did the Blue Tits in Carmarthen know how to do something that was originally reported in Hampshire? It appeared that ‘cultural transmission’ was taking place.
Memes, like this one, are a fine example of cultural transmission. The word ‘meme’ is widely used on the internet but was made popular by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how information can be self-replicated (like genes in biology) to explain human behaviour and cultural evolution. It comes from the Greek mimeme – meaning imitated thing.
So were the Blue Tits learning by imitating the behaviour of other Blue Tits? Those of us who have children or pets know that learning is not always that simple. If only teaching your child how to tie their own shoe laces was as simple as showing them once how to do it properly so they can just copy it and get it right. Observation showed that in the case of the Blue Tits, when birds that knew how to open bottle tops were observed by birds that didn’t know how to open them, the observers were given a clue as to how to go about opening bottles that they copied, they learned how to focus on the bottle top and fiddle about with it, but they still had to work out their own solution to actually reach the cream inside.
This study found that trained birds that observed other birds in the experiment and copied their technique, problem solved a puzzle more quickly than those that found their own solution. Birds were also keen to ‘fit in’ and untrained birds that could already successfully problem solve often changed their approach to that of the trained birds.
Research carried out by Oxford University’s Wytham Woods Tit Project found that interestingly, the knowledge of how to solve puzzles re-emerged as a learned “tradition” even more strongly when the puzzles were taken away for nine months and then returned. Although less than half the original birds who had learned the puzzle solving technique remained, they and the new naïve birds demonstrated an extremely pronounced preference toward using the original solution that had spread previously, rather than finding alternative solutions.
Overall, the study by Aplin et al found evidence for a relationship between social learning and innovativeness. Most birds chose to fit in but it wasn’t essential for success. Although information about how to go about solving a problem was passed on, the actual solution was frequently unique. This ability to find your own way of solving a problem is essential for any species, not just birds. Mavericks within a species can often find innovative solutions and are essential for surviving in changing environments. Blue Tits don’t have a source of high fat food readily available on people’s doorsteps anymore and they have different problems to solve. Birds are incredibly adaptable – woodpeckers will drum on drain pipes because they create a louder noise than some trees and all sorts of birds will strip putty from windows to eat the linseed oil. I like to remind myself that in a world that changes so frequently, it’s good to watch how others do things but its good to find your own solution too.