As I walked along the track I stopped to look into the ruins of where there was once an old house – amusingly noted to be called Ty Newydd on the Ordnance Survey of 1888! The flower I was hoping to see is often found near human dwellings – it was introduced as a cultivated plant hundreds of years ago and without many insects or other pollinators around in the depths of winter, it doesn’t tend to spread widely unless replanted.
I was on the lookout for snowdrops – one of the first flowers of the New Year. These tiny white flowers have long been associated with purity, light and hope – and were known as Candlemass bells because they bloomed around the time of the Christian festival of Candlemass. They certainly fill me with hope and begin my annual countdown of flowers from snowdrops, to daffodils, to bluebells, then foxgloves and so on throughout the year.
This winter has been different. Many of my neighbours have reported bulbs poking their way through the soil back before Christmas and in fact we photographed our first daffodil at the Botanic Gardens in Llanarthne in late November. I have even seen the leaves and occasional buttercup yellow flower of the celandine that grows beneath the old oak tree in our garden – again, these are flowers we associate with the spring and not midwinter.
I continued my walk across the open field and down into the woodland beyond. I feel blessed that I live in Carmarthenshire where we have so much of the natural world accessible to us from our doorsteps.
A rapid drumming filled my ears. It was one of the resident great spotted woodpeckers – in fact, I am sure it was a male bird. These woodpeckers don’t just hammer their strong beaks against trees so they can make holes to nest in, or to find insects to eat. The males drum against trees, telegraph poles and anything else that will make a loud noise and help them stake a claim to their territory. This territorial drumming takes place in the build up to spring – why not research woodpeckers as part of your home educating – they have backwards pointing toes; extra stiff tails; and tongues that are so long they wrap around their specially adapted skulls. Fantastic characters!
It’s not just woodpeckers that are getting ready for the breeding season, we may soon see frogspawn in our ponds, and the foxes have been barking and calling for a while now. Of course, some of our animals are still deep in hibernation. Not just bats and hedgehogs but other creatures too. Reptiles have a special form of hibernation called brumation that gets them through the short days of winter when sunlight is limited. Amphibians also hibernate, so make sure you crack the ice on your pond when it freezes so that any build-up of toxic gas can escape from under the solid ice. And if you find one of our overwintering butterflies decides to come out of hiding and spread its wings on a warm winter’s day, why not put it safely in a box somewhere safe like a shed or outbuilding until spring – or do what I do and enjoy sharing your home with them.
The days are already getting visibly longer and before we know it, it will be spring. The little snowdrops truly are synonymous with hope – blooming just before the vernal equinox and heralding the new spring and the new year. I wish all of you blessings and peace for the forthcoming year and hope you can share in the beauty and sanctuary of our natural world.
This blog will be featured in the Carmarthen Journal Nature Notes column in January 2021
A distinctive rhythmic hum vibrated my ears into action, and I paused and looked to the sky. I knew this sound, and I knew it could be coming from up to a mile away.
The hum changed in tone and frequency as the wedge of Mute swans flew closer and closer. The noise changed into a powerful but gracefully slow; swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – and I gazed skywards as the elegant birds with necks outstretched and heads pointing towards the lake ahead; passed over me without a sound leaving their beaks.
I smiled to myself because this was the second wedge of swans to fly over that morning. The earlier birds were easily recognisable as Whooper swans and not Mutes. There was no building up of wing noise with the Whoopers – but their raucous bugling and honking alerted everything within range that they were approaching and on a mission!
Swans are truly awesome – how can something so enormous, fly so beautifully – and over such long distances? The Mute swans live in the valley, but the Whoopers join us every winter from Iceland – making a sea crossing of around 800-1400km. Swans are amongst the largest flying birds and have evolved to do this as efficiently as possible – they have hollow bones for instance – this puts paid to the stories of swans breaking a man’s arm with just a flap of their wing. A swan’s wingbeat is certainly powerful, but it is also lightweight and designed for flight and communication, and not as a weapon.
Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher, spoke of nothing being permanent except change. He is also attributed with saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. And that perfectly sums up why I have never lost my passion for the natural world. I have never bored of taking the same walk several times a day.
This year has been like no other. The world has been united in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, we have found the natural world to be a reliable friend through the uncertainty and disruption that has surrounded us. Many people have rekindled their relationship with the great outdoors, others have noticed for the first time the huge variety of wildlife on their doorstep – perhaps they have spent years working hard in jobs away from their home and haven’t had the opportunity to pause and just notice the diversity of life surrounding them. All have learned first hand, the benefits to our wellbeing of time spent enjoying the nature and wildlife.
Pausing and noticing are two of the most valuable wildlife watching skills I possess. No amount of studying animal tracks, signs, and behaviour; or buying the best quality binoculars or camouflage clothing is a substitute for just getting outside as often as possible. I switch my thinking brain off from planning and analysing and worrying – and switch over to letting my senses lead the way and show me without prejudgment or opinion, what is around me.
This year I watched the small strip of woodland floor that I visit most days turn from leaf litter and the odd bramble; into a carpet of wood anemones that were followed by bluebells; then nettles and new shrubs, trees and bushes. Occasionally punctuated by an early purple orchid, earthball fungus, or phallic and putrid smelling stinkhorn mushroom.
The woods turned shady and dark once the acidic green beech leaves unfurled and filled the canopy – along with the leaves of the neighbouring oak, hazel and rowan; blocking out the sun and providing shelter from the unusually frequent thunderstorms we experienced over the summer months. The months passed and the leaves turned to gold and dropped; and the last few hangers on have just been blown away by the north wind – the same wind that helped those swans on their migration flight.
I watched the swallows arrive at the bridge on 11th April – they nested underneath, and the cacophony of tweets and chirps was almost deafening. It was a successful year for breeding, which I witnessed in the sheer number of swallows gathering together by the beginning of September, to prepare for migration. It was an honour to witness this half of these birds’ lives over here in West Wales – and I wonder if there is someone showing them as much interest now they are back in Africa?
One of my favourite birds is the Tawny owl. I am truly blessed to lose sleep because of the noisy male birds “hoo-hoo”-ing outside my bedroom window in response to the female birds call of “keewik”. Sadly, I was brought an injured owl back in April. It had been hit by a car and my neighbour and I did our best to make it comfortable but it was beyond help and now rests in peace under my oak tree. It’s feathers were amazingly soft and fluffy and quite beautiful as the wind ruffled them – the colours and textures were gorgeous.
I’ve recorded tawny owl numbers for some time and taken part in the BTO survey too. I hoped that the loss of this owl wouldn’t affect this year’s breeding population. Tawny owls spend the winter establishing their territories, that’s why they’re so vocal at the moment in the run up to Christmas. They mate and lay eggs in late winter or early spring, with the chicks hatching around 30 days later, and fledging in May.
In July we started hearing baby animal noises coming from our back hedgerow and the oak tree, we weren’t sure whether they were from a bird or mammal. Gentle chirrups in the dark, that built over the weeks into sounds that were similar to a female tawny owl, but clearly immature. There were two distinct “voices” of what I imagine were two fledgling owls. After a couple more weeks, the voices got deeper and the calls became distinctly female (too-whit) and male (too-whoo). And now, they have joined the other owls in the village and can be heard down the track; in my neighbours garden; on the roof; beyond the back hedge – all vying for territory and making their way in the world.
Many animals live shorter lives than us humans, and this gives us the privilege of seeing them grow, change and develop. I’ve followed a family of magpies nesting near the village school which was closed for the summer. We’ve had blue tits nest in a hole in our apple tree and yesterday I spotted a great tit checking it out. Our oak tree has nuthatches and treecreepers making use of the warm ivy’s antifreeze properties, and our bathroom has a tortoiseshell butterfly keeping warm over winter.
I’ve always been a “noticer”. I’m blessed with senses that never switch off! I can find pleasure in the simplest things, and I gain a sense of safety, belonging, and of my place in the world when I immerse myself in nature. The pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty and unpredictability to the humans in the world, but the swallows still came and went – the leaves still ‘remembered’ to fall – creatures were born and died. The changes we can be certain of still took place; and brought myself, like many people, a sense of hope for the future.
The Towy valley has been full of mist the past couple of days and it’s been a treat to use some of my other senses to enjoy the natural world. I try and get out for a walk with my dog Blaze before work and we both like to check out what has been happening around the village and watch how the seasons progress.
Blaze is what is nowadays known as a ‘mixed breed’ but used to be called a mongrel. She has whippet, springer spaniel and Bedlington terrier in her mix so can run very fast, find things by their scent, and retrieve balls all day – never ever tiring of it or getting bored!
I walked down towards the track and past the school which was starting to come to life with people dropping their children off for the day. As usual, there were a few cars parked up, but unusually, as I passed each vehicle, I could smell the freshly washed occupants! Each car’s passengers had left a cloud of their own individual smell. It was as if the frosty air had frozen individual scent bubbles along the road.
Blaze and I carried on down the track and she too was fascinated by the smells she could follow. It’s no wonder that spaniels are used as detection dogs – their sense of smell is many times more sensitive than humans and they have mobile nostrils and a wet nose as well for determining the direction of the odour.
Blaze’s keen sense of smell pointed to where animals may have crossed the frosty path and gave me a clue as to potentially good sites for my trail camera. We wandered back home, me thinking about what I may be able to capture on my camera and Blaze sniffing at every leaf. By now the school was busier and the perfumed bubbles of frozen mist had turned into a sickening diesel filled fug clouding the village. It was perfectly still and there was no air flow at all – quite magical but also slightly creepy.
I got in and sorted myself out for work. My husband had been de-icing the car and came back into the kitchen. “Gosh, you smell cold” I said. The smell of the chilled air that had attached to his clothes was released into the warm kitchen. I pondered this for a while. What other types of weather can you smell?
Before rain we often smell that sharp, pungent smell of ozone – a form of oxygen. The Greek word ozein means ‘to smell’. And lots of people love petrichor, the smell you experience after rainfall. I like the post storm aroma but a friend dislikes it and my son describes it as the worst smell in the world! When you realise what it is then it kind of makes sense why they’re not keen. Petrichor was first described in 1964 by mineralogists Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. It occurs when airborne molecules from decomposing plant or animal matter become attached to mineral or clay surfaces. During a dry spell, these molecules chemically recombine with other elements on a rock’s surface. Then when it rains, the combination of fatty acids, alcohols and hydrocarbons is released.
Is this aroma of any use to creatures or is it only something us humans are particularly sentimental about? Studies with indigenous aboriginal people in the Australia’s Western Desert have found they experience what is referred to as cultural synaesthesia. The smell of the approaching rain that arrives at the start of the wet months of the year is hugely important to them for turning the arid, red desert into a lush, green landscape with increased sources of readily available food. These people experience the smell of approaching rain as the colour green and it is important to them as a connection with their ancestors as well as being protective and cleansing. Freshwater fish are thought to recognise petrichor when the rains wash into the rivers signalling spawning time and a similar process takes place that helps camels find oases.
I can smell cold, heat and rain and I have always been able to predict the weather by using my senses. What types of weather can you smell?