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Thunder!

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:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/features/28841751

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.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/18/birds-storm-infrasound-warblers

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:

Shape

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.

Extras

A dog has another organ for smelling, absent in a human, called the vomeronasal organ.

Brain

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.

Categories
Autism mindfulness Wellbeing Wildlife

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.

https://www.the-scientist.com/features/sensory-biology-around-the-animal-kingdom-32941

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.” 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/07/05/research-shows-three-distinct-thought-styles-in-people-with-autism/#1d73aac1221e

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.

Stonechat

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.

https://www.facebook.com/Cambrian-Mountains-Eagle-Watch-1018718254978738/?ref=page_internal

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: https://offdowntherabbithole.org/2020/01/26/badgers-and-the-devils-fungus/

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…

https://undercoverautism.wordpress.com/

Categories
Wildlife

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.

Categories
Wellbeing Wildlife

Why it’s good to be a bad photographer…

This is probably the worst photograph of a red squirrel I have ever taken – well, the worst photo that has actually got a red squirrel in it somewhere and not just a bush or a pine tree.

We went to Scotland a couple of years ago on holiday and I couldn’t wait to see the local wildlife. We stayed in a small cottage near Aberfoyle and visited various forests and lochs within the Trossachs national park. I was hoping to observe a pine marten – the animal I most wanted to see (and had a realistic hope of spotting) and there had been sightings in the garden of our holiday cottage in the past – or so I am told. Mind you, with the right advertising, I’d probably rent a cottage in a crime-ridden, destitute slum if you told me there was a chance of seeing some interesting creatures!

We didn’t get to see pine martens and I’m hoping that one day I will, a bit closer to home. There has been some pretty reliable sightings in Carmarthenshire and the relocated animals from Scotland are breeding in Mid-Wales, so fingers crossed. I do relate to a pine marten, they like jam and peanut butter sandwiches and prefer to hide out in forests away from people. They are my current elusive must-see animal. I have a camera trap so fingers crossed – if I can find some regular evidence, like their scat (which is said to smell sweet like parma violet sweets or fresh hay) or repeated sightings in one area I can set up my camera and wait and see.  We saw plenty of great creatures though on our holiday and had a roe deer visit the garden most days.

The owner of our cottage worked for the forestry commission at nearby Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and was a great guy to talk to. I recall discussing how the Park had one of “our” Welsh ospreys and we were hoping for one of “their” Scottish pine martens. I visit the Dyfi Osprey Project most years and have enjoyed following the lives of the birds on their webcam each summer at home as well as when they have featured on BBC’s Springwatch. There was a young female bird named Clarach that is one of only two Welsh bred ospreys to return to the UK to breed. I had seen her near Machynlleth when she was a chick, and was hoping I’d get to see her and any offspring up near Loch Lomond where she had chosen to nest. I didn’t, the weather had turned and whatever instinct had kicked in  to tell her to return to Africa had sent her flying south, just as I was heading up the M6.

Years ago, otters were the animal I most wanted to spot and I frequently went to the right places at the wrong  time – just to be told that if I’d been there 5 minutes earlier I would have seen otters doing something amazing! I must have an attraction to mustelids – it’s certainly not their smell – apart from the sea otter, mustelids use their anal glands to produce a strong-smelling secretion to mark their territory. I have spotted otters in more recent years, locally in rivers and ponds and across the UK like the pair we paused to watch while we were on a boat trip across Lake Windermere. I haven’t been able to photograph otters in the wild yet, even on my early morning jaunts  down to the banks of the Towy on those summer nights when I never seem to sleep. The two photos below show a pretty detailed close up of a pair of otters I viewed at an otter sanctuary on Dartmoor and some footprints I spotted on the banks of the Towy in 2010. But which is the better photograph?

I wanted to share my passion for local wildlife with other people and decided to set up a local Facebook group around a year ago. I tell a lie, I decided to set up a Facebook group years and years ago and never got around to it but eventually took the plunge last year. I get excited at the idea of sharing my community with lots of different species of plants and animals and find it fascinating that people pass by wonderous sights each day without noticing them. I notice from year to year where the red kites nest in the village and the date of the first house martins to return (10th April last year). I have recorded numbers and species of geese overwintering in the fields by Dryslwyn castle and how the number of little egrets rises and falls from year to year – with no sightings at all down there sometimes. I notice that those ‘ducks’ swimming on the Towy as you drive over the bridge are in  fact wigeon and mallard and goosander and little grebes and I’m so used to seeing them I can tell which ones they are without stopping the car, just  from their movements or the way they are grouped. It gives me a sense of security and familiarity and of being at home because I recognise that I am just another species in a very varied and interesting world.

I used to record details of my sightings in notebooks and it was all very scientific but also a bit stressful because it was a reminder that the world is changing, and species are disappearing. Those butterflies that I loved as a child are a less common sight these days – I could probably name every single British butterfly back then and I was able to spot most of the ones that were local to or visited the west of Britain quite easily by visiting woodlands and heaths and by just sitting in the garden. Last year I spotted lots of brown varieties – Gatekeepers, Speckled Woods and Meadow Browns, a few colourful Peacocks and Red Admirals, and of course it was a Painted Lady Year (this natural phenomenon happens approximately every decade). But it is a rarity to spot something like a Purple Emperor (but I do know a good place to look and have it on good authority from someone who loves butterflies even more than I do that he has seen them!) I’ll occasionally photograph butterflies and I find this a very soothing pastime because you have to keep still and wait, you can’t go creeping around after them or move quickly to get a good shot. Patience is essential and I set my camera pointing towards something that looks a good spot for a butterfly and wait for it to land.

Photographing birds is another pursuit of mine, and at times I’ve ruined a good afternoon out for other people by fixating on getting a good shot rather than enjoying the walk. Last week I spotted a photographer on Dryslwyn bridge staring out across the fields with a very impressive looking camera, clearly scanning for a subject that would make an interesting photograph. Behind him was a buzzard (Buteo buteo – and yes, the game Subbuteo’s name does derive from the same word), sat on the road sign, keeping a close eye on him. He wasn’t aware of the bird at all. I look out for this buzzard and did expect to see it because it is currently using the area most days and can be seen sat on the fence by the bridge or in a tree in the castle carpark or pulling worms from the field by the river. I wonder if it is choosing its territory? I stopped the car and took this photo through the windscreen using my phone. Not a great photo, but an amazing and moving experience, looking into the eyes of a stunning and powerful bird.

Going back to the Facebook group, I wanted to share my passion and my photos and my thoughts and knowledge about Carmarthenshire’s wildlife. A good photo will get a lot of ‘likes’ but the joy of nature to me is not in the capturing of something rare in a close-up photograph, nor is it seeing something exotic that has ended up in the county by mistake when it has gone adrift while migrating. I feel a bit sad when people get excited by spotting the rarity that their subscription to  a bird alert service has informed them of, and they’ve driven miles across the country just to get a glimpse of something that shouldn’t be here and will probably die without its flock because it has very little chance of finding its way home. Lots of people keep tick lists of animals and birds and as a child I loved the Usborne Spotter’s Guide books. My favourite was Animals, Tracks and Signs. I recently bought a second-hand copy to replace the one I bought with my pocket money as a child. It came out in 1979 and I must have bought in soon after. My original had a different cover to the replacement but the contents haven’t changed in later editions. Take a look at the photo below and tell me how you wouldn’t be excited as a primary school child at being able to tick cows, pigs, a dog … AND a bear…all on the same page!

My childhood passion for being outdoors looking at the world in intricate detail and being indoors studying it in books has stuck with me, and although I love the ability to search and fact find using the internet as an adult, I still get immense enjoyment from looking at the pictures and  text in books. Especially drawings – which manage to capture the features that help you identify a plant or animal, far better than a photograph can. By learning about the natural world in books and by observing it with my keen senses outdoors, I began to understand how things fitted together, how the different plants and animals shared habitats, the ‘rules’ they live by. We are familiar with so many of these rules we don’t even notice them, and they have filled our folklore for centuries: ‘Red sky at night…’ is a saying most of us have heard and  many of us will be so familiar with different species we can  identify them by behaviour even if we can’t see them clearly – rooks tend to be in groups and crows tend to be alone or in pairs, but from a distance they are indistinguishable black birds.

I notice the patterns in the natural world and the connections and this helps me tune in to what might be about, in terms of wildlife. A smell like a rotting carcass could well be a Common Stinkhorn fungus rather than a decomposing animal. If I can find it, it could indicate that a badger sett is nearby because they often occur together (my earlier blog; ‘Badgers and the Devil’s Fungus’ explains why). Now I know to look for an entrance to a sett and evidence of a latrine as well to identify if badgers live here. I can begin piecing everything together and suddenly a walk in the woods has changed from a trudge through the mud, to an animal’s home with paths leading from where they sleep to where they feed and go to the toilet. The familiar idiom ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ relates well to my way of viewing the world – I love the intricate details and I love piecing them together to get the bigger picture. I may occasionally get distracted and turn a “Darling, I’m just popping out for 10 minutes with the dog” stroll, into a “Sorry, I didn’t realise I’d  been gone for an hour, I was just looking an interesting mushroom” apology when I get home, but I will also be the person who notices the beetle behind the log or the hare in the ploughed field and these very private glimpses into the natural world feel special to me because often I am the only person who gets to see them when everyone else is just passing by.

Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife Facebook Group cover photo

I have posted lots of my photos in Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife Facebook group and some are technically quite good and some are technically quite awful! Sometimes I don’t post a photo at all and just an excited comment instead. It was important to me that the group was about sharing a love of the natural world. I feel that society is way too focused on hierarchies and is way too competitive as it is. I didn’t want showing off about fancy camera equipment or exotic species and one-upmanship about who had seen the most rare bird. The beauty of the natural world is it is everywhere. Even when I went to a work meeting in Birmingham last summer to receive my redundancy notice, I managed to identify 5 different species of bird in the carpark from call and sightings – including a mallard that was sat on the office roof. I asked the CEO’s PA where the nearest pond was but she looked at me like I was completely mad and I realised I’d be better off keeping my strange duck loving ways to myself! Back at home I enjoy scrolling through the Facebook group and seeing the diversity of life that is on our doorstep. When we notice what is in front of us everyday and connect with it and recognise that we’re all in this being alive business together, we recognise that we need to look after each other and value each other. The world’s environmental problems can feel so insurmountable and as an individual I can get overwhelmed just thinking about whether it is even possible to do anything positive to help. I think that by continuing to enjoy the world and share that pleasure, people will feel it is worth fighting for and not just doom and gloom.

Although I love recording, listing, studying and photographing nature, there is nothing like just enjoying the moment. I paused by the village school the other morning and watched a pair of magpies in a tree. They were interacting in a way that I had never seen before. Not because they were doing something extra special, but because usually I never stop and just observe. I imagine it was some sort of courtship behaviour and now that I’m aware of it, I may notice it again. It is so easy  to just walk by and think ‘oh, a pair of magpies jumping about in a tree – two for joy’ whilst heading for the woods to do some proper nature photography as an activity or in search of a particular species. Similarly, it is easy to book yourself on a Mindfulness or Forest Bathing course and go off and do that as an activity instead. I have found that the natural world has become more meaningful to me when I do aspects of all these things.

Loch Ard taken on my Scottish holiday

I find using mindfulness as a way of experiencing the natural world refreshing and essential these days. If I only focus on nature in a scientific way and count how many geese are down on the riverbank by the castle this year, compared to last year; or how butterflies have declined in numbers summer after summer in Wales, then I am too overwhelmed to notice the beauty in the post-Christmas snowdrops forcing their way through the cold soil and the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker claiming its new territory. These things become les meaningful to me unless I pause and just notice that they are still there, still following their life cycle, regardless of the political and environmental state of the planet. I’d love to capture that elusive animal in a photo and one day I’d love to tick the bear picture in my Spotter’s Guide book, but in the  meantime, I’ll continue to take bad photographs of red squirrels, and often, no photos at all. Sometimes it is important to just be out there in nature, noticing what it is there and noticing that you too are part of the natural world. I frequently choose to leave my camera at home so that I can go outdoors and just experience what is out there with no other agenda than just being part of it. No tick lists, no photographs. I pause and notice what each of my senses is telling me about the world – no analysing, no worrying about the state of things,  just noticing and being aware of that moment and nothing else.