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Five minute read

Pooing on your legs, and getting spiky – how the natural world stays cool in the heat!

The United Kingdom is facing it’s first ever red weather warning for extreme heat, and unprecedented temperatures of >40 degrees C are predicted.

News stories give advice on how to stay cool and sleep at night and organisations like Age UK have information sheets available with suggestions for helping our most vulnerable. Of course, a red warning means that EVERYONE, and not just the most vulnerable, need to follow advice about staying healthy in the heat.

What about our wildlife? We can make sure we have areas of shade and water to drink in our gardens and yards, but unlike some humans who are relishing the idea of a suntan and possibly risking their health in a heatwave, animals tend to take extreme weather more seriously and look after themselves without needing to be told what to do!

How animals keep cool:

Humans are animals – and one of the ways we stay cool is to sweat. In extreme heat, our body opens up the blood vessels that are close to the skin. Blood carries heat from inside of our body to the surface, where it can benefit from the cooling effect of sweat evaporating.

You might not realise your pet dog can sweat too. Dogs sweat through their paw pads but it is not as effective as human sweating, which is why dogs use panting as a cooling mechanism instead. This works because of the cooling sensation of moisture evaporating from their mouth and tongue, and exchanging the hot ait from their lungs with cooler air from outside. The Battersea dogs home has some good summer advice for dog owners.

Camels are renowned for their ability to survive the harsh conditions of the desert and contrary to what we may have heard, their humps don’t in fact carry water, but fat. A camel uses its hump(s) to regulate its body temperature. At night when the soaring daytime temperatures drop dramatically, the store of fat keeps the camel warm. In the daytime it prevents the sun from penetrating the camel’s body so keeps it cool. The energy (fat) stored in a camel’s hump is what keeps it going when food is scarce, and this ungualte’s (an ungulate is a hooved mammal) secret to staying hydrated is down to its oval shaped blood cells and not storing water in its hump. A camel can drink 113 litres (30 gallons) of water in 13 minutes and rehydrates faster than any other mammal.

Longleat 2009

Birds have a variety of ways of keeping cool:

  • Birds head for the shade, take a dip in cooling water or change their routine to make use of the cooler parts of the day for activity and the hotter times for rest.
  • You might see a bird panting or doing a special type of movement by vibrating their neck muscles, called a gular flutter. Some birds, including the heron can open their beaks and then flutter the gular muscles in their throat while breathing rapidly. This quickly carries heat out of the bird’s body and brings in cooler air.
  • Urohydrosis is used by some birds in really hot environments. Birds have a single opening (called a cloaca) for their digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts. This means their poo and wee comes out mixed together. Some vultures and storks excrete their droppings onto their scaly legs to cool them down. It works in a similar way to sweating or panting. The evaporation of the liquid has a cooling effect.

All the above examples are of warm blooded animals and birds that need to keep a relatively constant temperature. Whatever the outside temperature is, they need to keep their internal temperature regulated. Us humans know only too well how a change in body temperature of only one or two degrees when we are unwell can make us feel dreadful and unable to do much at all. That’s why we need to take it seriously when heatwaves are announced.

Cold blooded animals are different. They get their heat from the outside environment and their body temperature can fluctuate as the outside temperature fluctuates. The size and shape of an animal often indicates whether it will be warm or cold blooded. Large animals like walruses, elephants and rhinos are warm blooded because it would be very difficult to heat up an elephant using an external heat source like the sun! Cold blooded animals tend to be long, thin or flat shaped in comparison.

Reptiles can overheat though and need to find shade so they can reduce their temperature when they get too hot.

How plants keep cool:

Animals can regulate their temperature by moving in and out of shade and heat, or doing activities that help them cool down like panting or even pooing on their own legs! But what about those living things that can’t get up and move?

A plants structure can help it survive extreme heat:

  • Waxy leaves conserve water, and tiny leaves have less surface area for losing water.
  • Some plants like cacti have no leaves at all which results in a low surface to volume ratio and reduces water loss.

On a molecular level, something quite incredible happens when plants get too hot:

  • Plants have a group of proteins called heat-shock proteins or stress-induced proteins. These proteins are found in all living organisms, including us, and are produced when cells are briefly exposed to temperatures above their normal growth temperature.
  • Plant heat shock proteins can protect cells that are exposed to high temperatures.

What about the insects?

Insects are cold blooded so we will find more of them out and about in the warm weather soaking up the sun’s energy. We often take delight in a beautiful butterfly but find the flies seeking shade in our cooler houses are annoying!

Juvenile insects like larvae (caterpillars, for instance) are less able to escape extreme heat. They are less mobile and lack the wings needed to fly away and take shelter in a shady bush (or kitchen with it’s ready supply of food).

Scientists are noting that climate change is having an impact on insects ability to reproduce, and even a slight rise in temperature can have a dramatic effect. Insects are responsible for about 80% of the pollination of trees and bushes on our planet, so it is essential we do what we can to reduce further climate change.

Tortoiseshell butterfly, my garden in West Wales 2021

Stay cool!

It’s important to remember that every living thing will be affected by the heatwave we are expecting in the UK. Look after your pets, keep those bird feeders and ponds full, create some shady places, water your plants, stay hydrated and why not change your routine to suit the weather conditions, like many of the other animals do.

Categories
Five minute read Wildlife

The Secret Life Of An Arable Field – Plants, Animals and the Ecosystem

The Secret Life of an Arable Field
https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Secret-Life-of-an-Arable-Field-Hardback/p/19262

Rosie, from Pen and Sword Books contacted me to see if I’d like to review this new book. Having never written a book review – and having been away from my own writing for most of this past year due to illness and other reasons, I wasn’t sure if it was something I could do, but I agreed and was sent a copy – and thankfully it inspired me to get back to writing, and attempt a book review too!

The book opens with some statistics: “First there is food. Agriculture in the UK is a £5.3 billion pound industry…… and uses 69% of the land mass”. Given that; this book is incredibly relevant. Agricultural land is such a rich part of our ecosystem, but something I certainly – and probably many others, tend to bypass by jumping in the car and heading off for the more exotic mountain, forest and coastal landscapes. Fields are everywhere. Having recently driven across the whole width of the UK in pursuit of some rescue ferrets (which is another story for another day!) I was reassured to see that the UK is indeed full of natural wonder.

On my journey, I passed through South and Mid Wales and watched the land as it rose up out of the dairy farms and meadows in the Towy valley and into the Brecon Beacons with their misty forest tops and hardy sheep feeding below. The M50 was nothing but 4 lanes of traffic with intermittent hard shoulders that passed through endless fields before joining the M5 and the subsequent motorways I took on my trip to the East Coast of Yorkshire. In the latter part of my journey I was aware of how high up I was, yet how few mountains were in sight – and all the time I was surrounded by fields – red fields, yellow fields, green fields, brown fields, and the occasional grand old Oak or Beech tree standing proud overlooking the bare landscape. But did I see much wildlife? Not really. Gone are the days of motorway journeys being punctuated by kestrels hovering over the verges, or deer grazing in the fields. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there – and Sophie McCallum’s book reminds us that the wildlife we find living their lives in arable land, is indeed secret. We need to get out and look for it – we need to in the words of William Henry Davies take the time to “stand and stare”.

Leisure

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

William Henry Davies

Can you spot the Red Kite? I’m glad I stood and stared at this particular field…

The Secret Life of an Arable Field is the type of book I loved when I was growing up. It is a book I want to handle and flick through and sit with and enjoy. The content is factual and not dissimilar to searching for information about various species online, like a glossy hardbacked wikipedia – but having all that information in one place is valuable, and unlike online research, you can lose yourself in the beautiful photographs and get drawn into discovering other related species.

At first I found the book’s lack of personal opinion and emotion quite unusual – I am used to hearing what other people think and feel about the natural world and this book is full of good, solid facts, and incredible photographs – and not much else. It didn’t instantly engage me like some wildlife books but it was a grower. I like that it isn’t preaching. I like that it presents the reader with lots of accurate information and brings together the whole ecosystem of an arable field with the trees, insects, birds, mammals and plants all having equal place in the book – and all arranged in alphabetical order. Going from Poppy, to Potatoes, to Powdery mildew, to Primrose, and then Rabbits gives a powerful message about the interconnectedness of species and how they are all important and play a vital part in the food chain and ultimate survival of all species.

This book is going to be a favourite. It can be picked up and savoured for the top quality colour images, and it can be used to learn more about a particular species. It is not a guide book for taking out into the field, but in these days of mobile phone cameras it is a valuable reference resource to use back at home. I wondered upon first picking it up if it would be a bit random – a collection of nice photos ‘forced’ into a text book – but The Secret Life of an Arable Field is anything but. This book has a powerful message that enables the reader to uncover and link together the various species and realise the importance of them all, and what really makes the field a special place for both human and wildlife alike.

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I was not paid for this review – but was sent a complimentary copy of the book. I was simply asked if I would be interested in reviewing the book on my blog – no suggestions were made as to how I write the review or what to include.

Categories
Five minute read

Snowdrops: a symbol of hope and rebirth

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.

Photo by Miriam Fischer

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.

Photographed on 27th November 2020

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!

One of my favourite feathers (great spotted woodpecker)

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.

This small tortoiseshell has decided to spend the winter in our bathroom – popping out to warm itself on the windowsill on sunny days.

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

Categories
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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Fallow Deer in West Wales

This is the time of year when we may be lucky enough to observe deer during their annual rut. I have been able to hear the blood curdling bellows and groans of the fallow bucks on several occasions this past week as they have strutted around their territories, showing off their suitability as a breeding male. If you are very lucky, you may even get to see the strongest males battling it out head to head, using their magnificent palmate antlers as weapons in a competition to identify who will be the successful choice for the does to mate with.

Autumn 2020 at Dinefwr park, Llandeilo

My best sightings of the rut have been at Dinefwr Park in recent years, although there were many impressive sightings of bellowing bucks to be had at Gelli Aur in years gone by. Fallow deer are the most common deer species in Wales and were introduced to the UK around 2000 years ago but possibly died out after the collapse of the Roman Empire. They were probably reintroduced in the 11th century. Herds tend to be managed so that humans and deer can live alongside each other, and deer parks have been in existence since Medieval times. In Carmarthenshire, a deer park is shown on a map of Llansteffan dating back to the 14th century.  Whereas, the Tywi valley herds date from the 18th century and are associated with the mansions of Golden Grove and Newton House – many of the deer around Gelli Aur today are descended from the deer park herd and have established themselves in the surrounding woodland and countryside, providing drivers with the occasional treat (or shock!) on their way to and from work at dawn and dusk.

All the following photos are of deer from the Gelli Aur area – taken in either 2009 or 2011

Fallow deer are the only UK deer to have palmate antlers. The males develop these around 3-4 years of age after the rut is over, the antlers are shed in spring and regrown by the summer, I have yet to find any on my walks but I’d love to have a pair.

The does separate from their herd so they can give birth to their fawns in June, and who can resist the cute Bambi-like youngsters safely hiding away in the bracken, or pronking in alarm before taking flight. The does and fawns return to their herds around July. The terms used to describe members of deer families varies from species to species. Males, females and young are known as stags, hinds and calves in the Red and Sika deer species. Fallow, Roe, Muntjac and Chinese water deer have bucks and does. The young have different names but in our familiar Fallow species they are called fawns.

2018 Dinefwr

I enjoy spotting the various individuals in the herd at Dinefwr. They can be told apart by the male’s antler shapes and sizes and by their colouring. Their common colour – a light brown which gives rise to their name ‘fallow’ tends to turn greyer in winter and some individuals are melanistic dark brown/black; others are white with subtle markings; there is another colour combination called menil, which is paler with white spots all year round.

As we enter a couple of weeks of limited travel I will probably miss this years battles between males but I know they have started and have had the pleasure of seeing some photographs taken by a young nature lover Megan George who has allowed me to share with them with you. Thank you Megan.

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Five minute read

Blowing the cobwebs away on a crisp autumn morning stroll

Autumn is well and truly upon us. I have delighted in those recent dawns full of of mists and mellow fruitfulness. There is something magical, warm and lazy about the light at this time of year and the leaves are beginning to turn to gold, the rowans and rosehips are dripping with red fruit, and the trees and fields are covered with intricate gossamer blankets, woven into perfectly formed geometric shapes and dripping with the early morning dew.

Spiders build webs all year round, but autumn is a fantastic time to see them because their transparent silk threads are often found covered in the seasonal mist and watery droplets of dew. Spiders are often fully grown in autumn and on the lookout for a mate, so we are more likely to see them at this time of year too.

On my morning walks I’ve seen several types of web. The dense garden hedges seem filled with sheet webs – like dozens of silky hammocks waiting for flies and bugs to fall in and get stuck or get knocked onto the horizontal webs by the tangle of threads securing the sheet web to the hedge, grass or low lying bush they are frequently found in.

I love to see the classic orb webs that are synonymous with spiders everywhere.  The spider constructs radial threads that act as a scaffold and then adds spiral after spiral of silk until the web is complete, often spending up to an hour building a new web every day. In the UK, these webs mostly get their stickiness from a glue-like coating added to the threads that holds the captured prey in place, but one type of spider uses a special type of silk that acts like Velcro against the bristly legs of any unsuspecting insect landing on these webs.

adapted from nasa

In recent years, newspapers have been reporting on “Spider season” when spiders are more visible around our homes. They are not all coming in from the cold outside to seek the warmth of our houses – many have been living quietly alongside us throughout the seasons, but are more visible in the autumn because they are out and about looking for a mate. Courtship rituals involve elaborate movements, gestures and dances and the smaller males are often at risk of being eaten by the females.

Not all spiders use webs to catch their prey, some hide and jump out and use a surprise attack. Their eight eyes aren’t particularly good when it comes to locating their next meal and they rely on their sense of touch and the ability to sense the tiny vibrations of insects landing in their webs. Then they’ll trap their prey in a cocoon of silk before injecting poison into it.

In Wales we have around 500 species of spider – some of which are found almost nowhere else in the world. They play an essential part in the diversity of life and sadly many are endangered or even critically endangered. Spiders in the UK pose little trouble to people and whilst I know that some people are scared of them, my world feels a much better place for having them in it and for being able to share the joy of a cobwebby autumn morning.

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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
Uncategorized

Traveling Trees and Plants…

It’s that time of year when people are considering travel. Of course, 2020 has panned out very differently to recent years; some of us may be reading this in the local paper whilst on our holiday – welcome to our beautiful county of Carmarthenshire! Or perhaps we are planning trips with our families to visit those friends and relations we’ve been apart from for so long. Some of us may decide to stay put this year and keep close to home. Whatever your destination, it is unlikely to be as far reaching or unusual as some of the travels our plants and animals go on.

We are all familiar with the migration of animals like the swallows who will soon be lining up on the telephone wires, ready to head off to Africa – or the inevitable Manx Shearwaters that turn up inland when blown off course on their mammoth 10,000 km return journey from Skomer to South America. I wonder if they are surprised to hear the Welsh language all summer in Wales and then again over winter in Patagonia?

But have you ever considered the traveling habits of plants? How do they get around? Diversity is essential for life – whether that’s the diversity in the ecosystem that ensures we have oxygen and clean water; or the diversity of cultures, neurologies, and races that makes our world a more interesting and productive place. Plants migrate in order to promote species diversity and ensure survival. But how do they do this without legs or wings?

There are two ways that plants disperse their seeds. Autochory, which means spreading seeds by their own means, and allochory – spreading seeds with outside help.

Autochory involves a few familiar techniques. One of the most common uses gravity (known as barochory).  At this time of year, the horse chestnuts are beginning to ripen in their hard, prickly seed cases. They’ll either drop when they are ready, or when the wind or a successful clunk from a thrown stick brings them falling to the ground, where the protective seed case opens to reveal a lovely shiny conker. Far more impressive in my opinion is the method known as ballochory – this is the method the ballistic plants use. Gorse is a familiar example, and I delight in those walks on the coast path  on a hot summer’s day when the gorse pods dry out in the afternoon sun and with a tell-tale ‘pop’ their seeds are flung out far and wide with a delicious accompanying aroma of sweet vanilla and coconut.

Taken in my back garden

Although trees can’t move themselves around, they certainly make use of animals that can. This is where the various types of allochory come in useful. Unsurprisingly, the use of animals to transport seeds is known as zoochory. I’ve noticed that the berries are beginning to ripen on the bushes and trees, and whether it’s a blackberry being eaten by a hungry badger, or a rowan berry being gobbled up by a blackbird, they share a similar fate. The tasty berry is enjoyed by the creature and the inedible seed passes through their digestive system and is deposited elsewhere – in a handy dollop of fertiliser. We have a friendly squirrel in our village that likes to hang about our oak tree. I’ve been keeping an eye out for it burying acorns in our lawn to keep it going through the colder months. Of course, many of the seeds cached by jays and squirrels go on to take root and grow into new oak trees and help our forests grow and spread.

Not all plants offer their animal hosts a tasty reward. My dog frequently comes in covered in barbed or sticky seeds that have clung to her fur and get rubbed off elsewhere. Some of these will grow into plants, but most get picked off by me – much to her annoyance! They are incredibly sticky and persistent.

The wind helps seeds disperse too. Spring can feel a nightmare time for hay fever sufferers. Pollen is produced in large amounts by trees like the hazel. They take advantage of the lack of leaves and produce catkins full of pollen that can be blown by the wind and hopefully come into contact with female plants. Taking advantage of the wind conserves energy. Instead of putting energy into providing tempting nectar for pollenating insects, they use the energy of the wind instead.

Other plants that make use of anemochory include the maples and sycamores with their ‘helicopter seeds’. Rather than falling due to gravity and bouncing or rolling to their new location, these seeds travel quite spectacularly using the lift from the wind.

Some seeds and fruit can travel for thousands of miles using hydrochory. Palm trees can grow from seeds that have travelled the ocean currents; and closer to home, foxgloves often grow near rivers where their seeds fall and float further downstream to grow in new locations. Some seeds are fragile and lightweight, whereas others have air pockets that keep them buoyant.

Finally, humans have been responsible for dispersing seeds for as long as we have been on this planet. Whether through trading in prehistoric times; or deliberately cultivating in agriculture; or accidentally carrying them with us when traveling the globe. Often humans are responsible for those ‘invasive’ species that were introduced as an exotic or decorative plant but ended up unmanageable and unwanted. Us humans have also been responsible for reintroducing plants, saving species, developing seed banks and ‘seed bombing’.

Whatever your travels this summer, why not take a look at the sedentary plants and trees when you are next outside and reflect on the journeys their species may have been on too.

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
Butterfly Five minute read Lepidoptera Moth Wildlife

The beauty of butterflies and moths

Many of us have been enjoying tending our gardens and have been busy harvesting the various salad crops and veg that have had their recent midsummer growth spurt. It’s not just us humans that appreciate a well-stocked garden – caterpillars are aplenty, and all four stages of the butterfly and moth life cycle may be observed if you look closely.

I have a lifelong passion for butterflies – some may call it an obsession! They are remarkable creatures and I can spend many an hour transfixed by the way they fly in such seemingly random ways from flower to flower – if you’ve ever tried to photograph a moving butterfly, you’ll know how tricky it is. Many butterflies fly a deliberately complex and unpredictable path in order to avoid predators. That’s not surprising considering how big, bright and attractive some of them appear, they need their erratic flight paths in order to reduce the risks of being eaten by a hungry bird!

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

Butterflies also keep themselves safe by making use of camouflage or mimicry. Speckled Wood butterflies can be seen on my local walks at the moment, but when they are resting, camouflaged against the leaf litter on the woodland floor, they blend in so clearly, you’d hardly notice they are there. Mimicry can take several forms – some moth caterpillars resemble twigs; there are butterflies that look like more poisonous butterflies; and others that have markings in the shape and colour of flowers, stripes and even eyes!

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

In Wales we have 42 species of butterfly, plus some migrants too, like the Painted Lady. Last year was known as a “Painted Lady Year” – a particularly good year for migrants, with millions of them being spotted across the UK. Moths on the other hand – well, why not go out and start taking a look at moths too? There are over 1700 species of moths to be found in Wales and not all of them only come out at night! The Hummingbird hawk-moth is often spotted in Carmarthenshire gardens, and can be seen in the daytime, hovering form flower to flower like a tiny hummingbird drinking the nectar using its long proboscis.

Painted Lady.

Just like people, butterflies and moths are diverse in their appearance, habits, and needs. Many are also polymorphic, which means the same type of butterfly can have different variations. (Polymorphism is common in nature – consider the Jaguar: you get spotted ones and black ones; or the  sexual dimorphism in birds: like the Mallard drake with his iridescent green head and the duck with her mottled brown one.) Making our environment attractive to insects is relatively easy. Some butterflies prefer trees; others love the brassicas we grow for our dinner; and of course, we are all familiar with the sight of a beautifully coloured Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell butterfly landing on our buddleia.

My garden has a variety of species, I spotted a brown butterfly in the apple tree yesterday – I’m not sure of its name, but then again, I don’t expect it knows mine either! There are lots of white butterflies too – the ones that enjoy laying eggs on my cabbages so that the young caterpillars have food when they emerge. Tortoiseshells are instantly recognisable, and the Comma is making a comeback in Wales too.  As the summer progresses, we will hopefully see our other favourites – the Peacocks and Red Admirals.

The beauty of the natural world is you can study it in its most intricate detail and you can stand there and just enjoy it for the most simple sensory pleasures its brings without needing to think at all.

http://www.magicoflife.org/ This butterfly house near Aberystwyth is one of my favourite places. They have exotic species indoors, as well as stunning gardens and local walks. They’re a charitable educational trust and do some fantastic conservation work. Well worth a visit in person, or to their website where you’ll find information on bee and butterfly friendly gardens.

https://butterfly-conservation.org/

See the source image