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.

Here’s a video and a poster about thunderstorms:

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.

Traveling Trees and Plants…

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.

Taken in my back garden

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.

Making Sense of Nature…

“Where’s the best place round here to see badgers?”

“I saw this bird, a bit like a sparrow but different, any ideas?”

“What sort of the poo do you think this is?”

I am frequently asked questions like these, and I’m absolutely delighted that when people have a wildlife-based query, they think of me as someone who could possibly help.

My knowledge doesn’t just come from having a good memory, and it certainly wasn’t taught to me in school. My passion for the natural world is lifelong and developed from a childhood spent reading – and walking about, noticing things.

I grew up in the days before we could conduct research on the internet, and I spent many hours poring over encyclopaedias, and also reading lots of fiction which seemed to include more descriptions of the specific species of plant and tree than many children’s books do these days.

I have always been someone who enjoys my own company and as a girl I would walk or cycle around the country lanes, sand dunes and beaches in my neighbourhood. I’d horrify my parents by disappearing off for hours on my bike to Brean Down, one of the Mendip Hills jutting out into the Bristol Channel near Weston-Super-Mare. My propensity for tripping over, falling off my bike, or otherwise ending up in some sort of scrape was well-known, and Brean Down was a steep climb with sheer cliffside drops into the sea, and was riddled with rabbit holes, just ripe for twisting an ankle in!

I’d sometimes cycle there at dawn or dusk and dodge the feral goats which stood intimidating tourists as they ascended the steps to the 100m summit of the limestone promontory. And then I’d secrete myself away and keep very still. The Down is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and has rare flora like the white rock rose. It’s also a great spot for watching peregrine falcons, kestrels and ravens. But the animals I wanted to see were the rabbits. They were incredibly common and if you sat very still and just waited in the crepuscular light, you would soon find yourself surrounded by bunnies. It always felt an utter privilege to be able to sit near them and a great use of my special ability of being able to blend into the background without being noticed.

This rabbit photo was taken in Gelli Aur Country park back in 2008. There has been a significant decline in rabbit numbers across the county of Carmarthenshire in recent years.

As well as an ability to silently disappear when I need to, I have a remarkable sensory processing system. Like many autistic people, my sense organs see, hear, and smell in a fairly average way. But my brain processes that sensory information quite differently. This means that some of my senses work in a way that is quite muted and requires lots of input to register a sensation, whereas other senses need hardly any information to register what is happening. This fluctuates and can become more extreme when I am under stress, worried or having to process lots of information (sensory or otherwise).

An example of where one of my senses may often be muted (or hyposensitive) is in my  proprioception – the sense that tells us where the various parts of our body are in space (close your eyes and stick your arms in the air – wave them about – whether your arms crash into each other or not is down to your proprioception). My sense of proprioception is responsible for many of my accidents when I trip over my own feet, misjudge a step, or bump into a doorframe.

On the other hand, my senses may by heightened at times (hypersensitive) – and this has its pros and cons. I can find the noise of a door closing incredibly loud, to the point of it making me jump with fright and my ears hurt. But I can also hear the wasp chomping on the wooden frame of my living room window while it gathers material to mix with its saliva to help build its papery nest.

As well as having particularly keen senses, another trait of my autism is that I can’t filter out so-called ‘unnecessary’ information. I sense everything with equal intensity and importance. This can make me appear ‘lost’, confused or slow when I am in a new environment as I am taking absolutely everything in and trying to consciously work out which bits I should or shouldn’t be focusing on. It makes me a fantastic spotter of wildlife though! I will be the person who notices the Speckled Wood butterfly camouflaged on the woodland floor. My brain will not be fooled into thinking those patterns on the insect’s wings are part of the leafy detritus it is hiding against. My olfactory processing is so sophisticated I can tell whether the repugnant smell of rotting corpse is dead badger, dead deer, or simply a Stinkhorn mushroom.

Not everyone has a sensory processing system that works like mine does, but we can all ensure we take more notice of what is around us when we are out and about, and tune into our sensory experiences.

I have practiced Mindfulness for many years. It comes naturally to me, as I have always been someone who notices things.  Being Mindful means, you make a special effort to notice what’s happening in the present moment (in your mind, body and surroundings) – without judging anything. It has roots in Buddhism and meditation and there is good scientific evidence to prove its benefits. You don’t have to be spiritual, or have any particular beliefs, to try it and it can be incredibly beneficial for your wellbeing . Mindfulness also sits well with me because my inability to filter things means I tend to be quite open-minded and non-judgmental anyway. I find Mindfulness particularly valuable because it reminds me to take a break from all the classifying and categorising and naming of the natural world, and just be in that moment, noticing it with my senses.

For people starting out with a hobby like bird watching, or who want to develop more awareness and knowledge of the natural world, I would recommend taking a Mindful approach and just get out there, walk, and notice things. Don’t think about whether you recognise plants or animals, or if you can name them or know what they are. Nature can be enjoyed without any of these things. Try using each of your senses to notice what is happening around you.

Humans are currently said to have eight senses. The five we learned at school – smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. Vestibular – the sense of how gravity effects our body (our balance and awareness of spinning and jumping etc). Proprioception – knowing where the various parts of our body are in relation to each other. And finally, Interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel internally (our emotions and bodily functions like feeling hungry, tired or needing the toilet).

Interestingly, other animals have additional senses, and humans share the physiology that enable some of these senses too. Magnetoreception helps migrating birds find their way using the earth’s magnetic field. Thermoreception enables animals to detect heat and forms part of the infrared sensing systems found in some snakes and in vampire bats. Electroreception is well known in some sharks and other fish.

Here are some ways you may like to notice nature using your senses. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I believe that with practice people can get more attuned to using their senses and it gives such an added layer of appreciation of our natural world:

Vision – stand still and notice how many different species you can see. Don’t worry about recognising them. You may be surprised at how many different living creatures you are sharing your space with at any given time.

Smell – notice a smell and move about until you can find the source of it, notice where it gets stronger or weaker. If you find something really smelly, like honeysuckle or even fox poo, focus on the aroma and then notice how far away from the source you can get while still smelling it.

Hearing – pause and notice how many different sounds there are. Let yourself notice each one. There may be sounds in the foreground like your breathing or footsteps, as well as sounds further away like birdsong, or a nearby road. Notice any background noise like the wind or water.

Taste – if you are confident at safely identifying wild food, then enjoy a blackberry or other fruit. Otherwise, practice with fruit and veg in your garden.

Touch – feel how cold the water in a stream is. Notice how things that look similar, may feel different. Find white clover and red clover in a field. Stroke the stalks of each and notice how one is hairy and one is smooth – you will forever be able to impress others with your knowledge of clover identification even when there are no coloured flowers to give the answer away!

Vestibular – close your eyes and notice whether you can sense if you are at sea level or much higher up.

Proprioception – bring your attention (without looking) to various parts of your body and see if you can notice where they are. Let the feel of the ground under your feet and the air against your skin help you notice where the respective parts of your body are. Realise you are part of the natural world.

Interoception – notice how you feel when you are in the natural world. Does it bring you joy, curiosity, peace?

Not only does using a technique like Mindfulness help us relax and connect with nature by disconnecting with the stresses and strains of our busy, daily lives, it helps us recognise how much is going on all around us all of the time. Once we start recognising this, it is more likely we will notice those elusive badgers, otters or whatever else we hope to spot. I have genuinely seen people walk past the most incredible creatures because they have been so focused on their phone, or their conversation, or lost in their own thoughts.

As well as practicing noticing things, its worth studying and learning all you can too. I bought my very first nature book whilst on a caravan holiday as a six or seven year-old. I remember going into the book shop in Williton, on the edge of the Quantock Hills and using my holiday pocket money to buy a copy of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Animals, Tracks and Signs. This is my favourite Spotter’s Guide because it opened so many doors for me. It wasn’t just a simple identification guide that helped name the species I was lucky enough to spot, it taught me the craft of getting up close with nature by understanding it.

Here are some of my favourite pages:

Gaining knowledge of how animals live, as well as what they look like, increases your chances of spotting them. Habitat, diet, and behaviour are all important parts of this. Understanding these helps identify animals and plants too. It increases the likelihood of seeing them when out and about. Consider my trip to Brean Down to watch my beloved rabbits. I knew that they would be out at dawn and dusk – I understood their behaviour. I knew there would be a warren on the isolated headland – I understood their preferred habitat. There was plenty of grass for them to eat – diet. Rabbit poo is decidedly easy to spot and correctly identify. My rabbit spotting trips are an obvious example of using knowledge to increase your chances of seeing a wild animal, but the principle is the same for other animals too. Though it provides no guarantee of a sighting!

Otters are a favourite animal of mine, but have frequently eluded me, despite my extensive knowledge. I now live within walking distance of otters and I’ve been out before dawn, I’ve set my camera trap up, I’ve even photographed their footprints, and smelt them. But my only local sighting was a chance encounter in a pond, rather than in the river where I know they live.

These tips that I’ve given about studying animals can act as a useful checklist for ensuring correct identification too. Sometimes we may spot a creature or plant that we are unfamiliar with. It is very easy for wishful thinking or past knowledge to affect our judgment when trying to identify it. My tip is to jot down exactly what you see. This is where another of the advantages of my autism comes in. Sometimes autistic people are labelled as great with the finer details but not good at seeing the bigger picture. Personally, I would disagree with this. I am very good at seeing the bigger picture – but I make it up out of all the tiny bits. This takes time and if you are after a quick answer before I’ve processed all the individual pieces into an overall scene, then you may wrongly assume I haven’t seen the bigger picture at all. My ability to appreciate every aspect of the world without judgment also comes into play – that lack of ability to filter information I described earlier. Autistic people are often “bottom-up thinkers”. The  American scientist, Temple Grandin describes:

“I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph… That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.”

Suppose you see a bird that you can’t name. Very often people will tell me they have seen a brown bird that was probably a type of sparrow. They hand me the bigger picture information, and this is usually followed by a time consuming and tricky process of me asking lots of questions about things they haven’t noticed. Whereas, a person who describes small details accurately, helps me identify the bird much quicker, even when there are key bits of information missing. A member of a Facebook wildlife group I set up, reported seeing a bird she didn’t recognise – and with only a handful of very specific details I could identify it instantly, show her a picture and have the id confirmed. She described it as thus: Cornish coast, size and shape of a tit, black head and wings, white collar and under wings and a reddish underside. It was in July. I pieced these bits of information together and knew what it was straight away.


I used the visual information and then checked off whether the following were likely: habitat – coast, and time of year – summer, location – South West England.

Checking the likelihood is always important – a Golden eagle in the skies above Wales is almost undoubtedly a buzzard.

A cuckoo seen in the winter is probably a sparrowhawk, like this one that took a blackbird down in my garden back in the winter of 2010. The cuckoo is a brood parasite that uses its resemblance to a sparrowhawk to frighten away the parent birds when it is hoping to lay its eggs in their nest in the spring.

When birds look very similar, like the curlew and whimbrel, you can use your knowledge and senses to help with id. If you listen, whimbrels make a rapid tittering of very short whistles, whereas a curlew’s call has a much more ringing tone and the male in displaying flight in spring has an almost liquid sounding song that crescendos into a bubbling trill. UK based whimbrels only breed in Northern Scotland and is seen elsewhere in the country as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. It can take off and fly from a standing start, whereas a curlew will take a run at it. Although side by side, the beak length is a giveaway, it is unlikely you will ever have the luxury of seeing that, so understanding how they behave helps.

Curlew (from RSPB website)
Whimbrel (from RSPB website)

Of course, we must always be careful of how we interpret things and remember that all sorts of creatures can turn up in odd places – like the Tregaron golden eagle, or the bearded vulture currently roosting in the English Peak District. Vagrant, escapee, albino, and hybrid animals are frequently spotted. Whilst this can feel exciting for some bird watchers or nature spotters, the outcome is rarely positive for the animal – a raccoon dog (tanuki) was destroyed in Carmarthenshire only last week and I still feel distress at the hunt killing an albino stag in Somerset where I grew up.

On a lighter note, Bill Oddie tells a story about identifying a bird, that reminds me that even when using common sense and a bottom-up approach, you may still be surprised: Bill’s friend works for the RSPB and received a telephone call from a lady asking for help identifying a bird. He gleaned information about the bird’s buff colouring, and the bit of black and a bit of red on its head. This bird had been feeding at her bird table. The RSPB chap considered the information, matched it to the most likely suspects, and confidently told the lady it was a goldfinch. But she was not in agreement at all! He asked her to describe what the bird was doing, and she explained that it was stood by the bird table pecking at seed. He enquired whether it was able to reach up and get the seed, and the lady informed him that this large, heron shaped bird was actually stood next to the bird table and was leaning down pecking at the food. The bird was not a goldfinch – it was a crane!

Its not just the behaviour and appearance of the creatures and plants that we see that can help us identify them, the relationship between species is significant too. Take the stinkhorn mushroom and badgers for instance. I explore their relationship in another blog:

When I smell a stinkhorn, I look out for signs of a badger sett or other badger activity like a latrine. If I am on the Ceredigion coast looking out to sea for dolphins, I’ll scan the skies for feeding seabirds. These may indicate a shoal of fish and dolphins could be close behind them. I was listening to a dunnock outside the doctors’ surgery this week. This small, brown and grey bird had a most beautiful song that suddenly turned into a short staccato cheep-cheep-cheep. This type of noise is an alarm call used by lots of different small birds. I knew it wasn’t me that had alarmed it, we were both well aware of each other and keeping a safe distance.  So I looked to the sky, and lo and behold, a buzzard had started to circle and soar above the carpark.

The signs that animals use a local area may not be obvious, but if you keep noticing things with all your senses, then it is surprising what you may find. Here are some photos from my walks…

Lots of broken empty snail shells indicate this is somewhere a bird like a thrush or blackbird could come to smash open snails on this piece of wood.
Lots of feathers on a log like this indicate a bird of prey comes here to pluck whatever it has caught to eat. This is in woodland so it is probably a sparrowhawk.
I knew where a fox lived so set my trail camera up. Capturing a still photo of it catching a bird in its mouth was a stroke of luck.

I recommend finding a local wildlife patch that you can visit and get to know at different times of the day; in different weathers; and across the seasons. If you use all your senses to notice your environment, I guarantee you will never ever get bored of what you find because no two visits will be the same. Take photos; learn what the plants are and have an educated guess at which butterflies and birds they may attract and see if you’re right! Learn all you can and enjoy going off down those internet rabbit holes researching whatever takes your fancy. As for equipment, buy the best you can afford. But remember, equipment is no substitute for noticing and learning. I deliberately leave my phone, binoculars and camera at home for at least one of my daily walks. I realised once, when I started to feel disappointed that I didn’t have a camera to record something, that I was beginning to digress from what it is about the natural world that brings me such pleasure. Similarly, I do not need to name or classify every species I come across – I take an awesome pleasure in knowing that for that moment, it is just me noticing whatever it is, and that makes that moment special and never to be repeated.

Get out there and have some moments!

This is the first of my blogs to be featured in both my wildlife and my autism blog. If you’d like to check out my other blog, please click below…

The beauty of butterflies and moths.

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!

Unlike other native British butterflies, the Speckled Wood can hibernate as a caterpillar or chrysalis.

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!

The Owl. A fabulous example of mimicry. Photo taken at The Magic of Life Butterfly House

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.

Painted Lady.

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. 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.

See the source image

Wildlife gardening

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’


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.

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Red Kites – their circle of life

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? tells the sad story of the Teifi goose

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.

The nest is in the left half of the picture

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?

The Hafod Estate

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.

The History of Red Kites in Wales and the rest of the UK

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.

Back in the day mucking about on a friend’s farm.. When I used to ride over the mountain road from Lampeter, I would sometimes remove my helmet. Farmers would smile and wave and no one seem bothered about my law breaking…or personal safety!

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.

Bwlch Nant Yr Arian

Finding Our Way Home

See the source image

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.

I am hoping to see this hedgehog again any day now.

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.

Heronries in Carmarthenshire

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.

The Towy valley has flooded every weekend for weeks. This heron was photographed in a field a long way from the riverbank.

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! `