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Five minute read Wellbeing Wildlife

2020: nature in a nutshell

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.

The Tywi – a view I have lost myself in thousands of times, and every time brings something new.

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.

Nadolig Llawen

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year  

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Uncategorized Wildlife

Belonging…or what’s in a name? And can Manx Shearwaters understand Welsh?

So where does the Manx Shearwater belong? I think of it is as a Welsh bird, in fact most of the UK’s Manx Shearwater population lives around the islands off Pembrokeshire – most notably Skomer and Skokholm which are home to around 300,000 pairs. There are approximately 1.5 million breeding Manx Shearwaters in the world and 95% of them are found in Europe. All the known UK breeding colonies are on the west coast, which enables them to follow the trade winds across the Atlantic ocean and down to Argentina and Brazil on their migration south in the autumn and back ‘home’ the following spring.

What would the people of South America say about this? When I think of the Manx Shearwater, I think Skomer; seals; bluebells and red campion; short eared owls and giant rabbits. If you asked Alejandro Jones, the famous (in Patagonia at least) Eisteddfod performer what he thinks of when you mention this bird’s name, maybe he’d comment: llamas; blue whales; emperor penguins and hummingbird fuchsias.

Reproduced from wikipedia. Thanks to Martin Reith for this fantastic close up shot of a Manx shearwater

The Manx Shearwater’s English name was first recorded in 1835 and was named after the large colony of breeding birds on the Isle of Man. Before this time, the bird was referred to by the name used to describe its use as food source. Puffin, pophyn and poffin are all terms used to describe fat, nestling shearwaters that were viewed as a delicacy. The Latin name Puffinus comes from the English word and refers to members of the shearwater family – the Manx is Puffinus puffinus. Incidentally, the bird we call the Puffin is Fratercula arctica (Fratercula is Latin for Friar and is referring to the puffin’s monastic looking plumage) and not a member of the Puffinus family but an Auk. Both birds use rabbit burrows for nesting and if you visit Skomer on a summer’s day you will almost certainly see puffins going about their daily lives but maybe only a shearwater carcass, left discarded by the great black backed gulls that predate them. The Manx shearwaters will be safely out at sea, waiting to return at nightfall. They’ll collect in ‘rafts’ offshore and wait for sundown before returning to their burrows. It is a dream of mine to hear Manx shearwaters – their eerie call has connections with the supernatural and may have given the  Faroe islands their association with legends of Trolls – as seen in place names like Trollanes or Troll peninsula as it called in English, and where legend tells of noisy trolls raiding the villages at night.

Take care and keep to the paths. Those burrows the rabbits have deserted may contain eggs or chicks.

The labels we give ourselves and others, define us, they affect the way we are treated and the way we view ourselves. Imagine being named after your attractiveness as a tasty snack, like the poor puffin. Take the Halichoerus grypus – a rather grand sounding name for a rather grand looking creature. It’s pictured below in the grey seal photo I took off Skomer a few years ago. Its Latin name may sound quite grand but actually means “hooked nose sea-pig” which sounds more like a pirate insult to me!

I’ve seen a shift in how nature is portrayed in the media. I watch very little television but have always loved a wildlife documentary. My favourites are the programmes about native British wildlife and the creatures you can find in your own back garden. I also love the wildlife of the North American continent. I’ve never visited, but as a child I would dream of living on my own in the middle of a forest with no people and just a few wild animals like bald eagles and moose and maybe I could make friends with a wild bear. I loved those films they’d play at the local cinema on a Saturday afternoon before the main picture – the storyline would usually involve a boy (never a girl, sadly) that tamed a wild animal that would protect him in his log cabin against dangerous hunters or wild wolves – I so wished I was one of those people out there on my own, surviving in the wilderness! Nowadays, there are more and more documentaries that give animals human names. It feels like they are trying to make animals more accessible and relatable. I don’t like this at all because the wonder of the natural world to me, is its diversity and I feel society needs to embrace diversity and recognise it as essential for survival in the world – particularly in these days of growing political intolerance. Ecosystems with more biodiversity are more successful.

The BBC had a documentary called Meerkat Manor which had episodes titled ‘The Rovers Return’ and ‘Farewell, my lovely’. The meerkats had names like Mitch and Phillippe and Shakespeare (for goodness sake!) and the trailers built up the dramatic tension with hints at the unfolding story lines such as ‘Daisy gets too comfortable with a member of a rival gang’ and ‘Things take a strange turn when Yousarrian stays at home to look after Flower’s litter’. It was one of the most popular wildlife documentaries of its time and encouraged a genre of anthropomorphism to follow. Personally, I like my animals to be animals and do animally things. We should observe and cherish and be fascinated by the natural world in its natural state in my opinion – we are part of the natural world, just a part, and we need to let others be their part too.

The Manx shearwater reminds us of how big the world is. This bird migrates from Skomer every autumn down to South America and back again in the spring. The distinctly different outward and return routes north of the equator suggest they are using the trade winds of the north Atlantic gyre. (a gyre is a circular system of ocean currents that spiral around a central point – they are caused by the Coriolis effect and deflect the wind in particular directions. Gyres also collect pollutants and rubbish which is concerning when you consider how animals follow these currents during migration both above and below the water). The Shearwater will make its journey in around a month but doesn’t fly steadily for that time. A study by Guilford T, Meade J, Willis J, et al.  ‘Migration and stopover in a small pelagic seabird, the Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus’; revealed the birds made stopovers that appeared to be for refuelling along their route. These stopovers accounted for up to one or two weeks of their migratory travel. The statistics relating to their journeys are mind bogglingly impressive: Manx shearwaters can live to be 60 years old – in 2008, an ornithologist, Chris Mead captured a bird that had been ringed on Bardsey island in 1957. He calculated its age was at least 57 and it would have travelled over 5 million miles in its lifetime. One migrating bird was tracked flying at an average 34 mph for a full 139 hours – it was taking advantage of favourable wind conditions; the average speed on a typical foraging trip is around 25 mph.

Thank you to Oriel Mimosa, Llandeilo for allowing me to use a copy of their photo. They have the only painting in existence of the tea clipper and can offer prints if you contact them.

Another famous migratory journey concerns the clipper Mimosa which sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia in 1865 with around 150 Welsh passengers in search of “a little Wales beyond Wales”. The journey lasted twice as long as the Manx shearwater’s, and like the birds, made use of the trade winds. The Mimosa had a higher mortality rate than the birds in the study above and would have been at sea during the period the shearwaters were flying out from Skomer each day to feed offshore. Their migratory paths would not have crossed, but I like to think of those travellers aboard Mimosa seeing the familiar Manx shearwater when the birds arrived back in the settlers’ new homeland the following autumn, and I wonder if the birds were surprised to hear the Welsh language being spoken both sides of the equator?

I’m yet to see the shearwaters that use Skomer as their breeding home leave and return each day or  arrive and depart on their immense migratory journey. I’ve held shearwaters and seen them up close most years when they strike out for the southern hemisphere but end up being blown inland. We’ve had live Manx shearwaters in our village and also a dead one in the middle of the road that I assumed landed thinking the dark strip of tarmac was water. I’ve also identified one in the main street of Llandeilo. Their anatomy is designed for spending time in the air or water and their legs are placed too far back for them to successfully launch themselves airborne from flat surfaces. It is common to find an out of place Manx shearwater and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales has some advice.

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Those Avaricious Avians!

You don’t get reporting like this anymore! A friend shared this video which got me reminiscing about those days of being woken up by the electric hum of the milk float and the clink of glass bottles on the doorstep. I reflected sadly how these days, many of us drive our petrol cars to the shops to buy milk in plastic containers that can be recycled at a cost rather than reused. It also sent me off down my first rabbit hole for this blog – the question of how creatures learn and pass on information to each other.

A mysterious phenomena struck the south of England in the early 1920’s and soon spread across the rest of the UK and Europe. This was back in the days of doorstep milk delivery and bottles were being raided for their cream. No one was quite sure who was behind this ‘crime wave’ and it was often reported that local youths were responsible.  Eventually; Blue Tits were identified as the culprits and even though a variety of different bottle tops were tried, none were effective at preventing the thefts and the Blue Tits continued to raid the morning milk – even waiting for the milkmen to arrive to make their deliveries!  

What caused this behaviour to spread so quickly? How did the Blue Tits in Carmarthen know how to do something that was originally reported in Hampshire? It appeared that ‘cultural transmission’ was taking place.

Memes, like this one, are a fine example of cultural transmission. The word ‘meme’ is widely used on the internet but was made popular by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how information can be self-replicated (like genes in biology) to explain human behaviour and cultural evolution. It comes from the Greek mimeme – meaning imitated thing.

So were the Blue Tits learning by imitating the behaviour of other Blue Tits? Those of us who have children or pets know that learning is not always that simple. If only teaching your child how to tie their own shoe laces was as simple as showing them once how to do it properly so they can just copy it and get it right. Observation showed that in the case of the Blue Tits, when birds that knew how to open bottle tops were observed by birds that didn’t know how to open them, the observers were given a clue as to how to go about opening bottles that they copied, they learned how to focus on the bottle top and fiddle about with it, but they still had to work out their own solution to actually reach the cream inside.

This study found that trained birds that observed other birds in the experiment and copied their technique, problem solved a puzzle more quickly than those that found their own solution. Birds were also keen to ‘fit in’ and untrained birds that could already successfully problem solve often changed their approach to that of the trained birds.

Research carried out by Oxford University’s Wytham Woods Tit Project found that interestingly, the knowledge of how to solve puzzles re-emerged as a learned “tradition” even more strongly when the puzzles were taken away for nine months and then returned. Although less than half the original birds who had learned the puzzle solving technique remained, they and the new naïve birds demonstrated an extremely pronounced preference toward using the original solution that had spread previously, rather than finding alternative solutions.

Overall, the study by Aplin et al found evidence for a relationship between social learning and innovativeness. Most birds chose to fit in but it wasn’t essential for success. Although information about how to go about solving a problem was passed on, the actual solution was frequently unique. This ability to find your own way of solving a problem is essential for any species, not just birds. Mavericks within a species can often find innovative solutions and are essential for surviving in changing environments. Blue Tits don’t have a source of high fat food readily available on people’s doorsteps anymore and they have different problems to solve. Birds are incredibly adaptable – woodpeckers will drum on drain pipes because they create a louder noise than some trees and all sorts of birds will strip putty from windows to eat the linseed oil. I like to remind myself that in a world that changes so frequently, it’s good to watch how others do things but its good to find your own solution too.