In my garden is a large oak. I often wonder just how many species are supported by this one tree.
Its roots spread far and wide drinking up the rainwater and helping to keep our village safe from floods. The solid trunk hosts lichen and offers shelter for tiny insects and caterpillars within its fissured bark. Ivy creeps up from below and provides a frost-free environment for treecreepers scurrying ever upwards amongst its waxy leaves. The magnificent canopy provides shade for my garden and then drops its tasty seeds in the form of acorns. In autumn my tree sheds its golden leaves, which provide litter for hibernating hedgehogs and the opportunity for my family to scrunch and crunch and kick through the crispy leaves on a cold morning. No wonder the oak tree holds such a prominent place in the folklore and history of people from all over the world.
Alongside the seasons that arrive and depart with predictable regularity, the tree has its own life cycle that can span many hundreds of years. I measured the girth of my tree and estimated it to be 180 years old. Old and very grand, quite definitely – but certainly not ancient by oak tree standards.
The oak tree is ripe with metaphors. The reminder that great things can grow from tiny beginnings, is the one that first springs to mind for me in the famous ‘out of acorns, mighty oaks grow’. But this beloved tree of mine has held a new significance for me more recently. The very top or crown of the tree has entertained me for years as I have watched the birds – corvids mainly, compete for the best vantage point. My tree has what is known as a ‘stag’s head’ appearance.
There is an old saying that ‘oaks grow for 300 years, rest for another 300 years and then decline for a further 300 years’. Like me, my tree is not yet ancient, but its vascular system is no longer up to the job of maintaining it in its previous glory. In order to preserve the vital parts of the tree, the extremities start to die off, enabling light to reach the inner crown and stimulate new growth in dormant buds. The outer branches are hardy and remain, looking like wooden antlers standing proud and erect – often for decades or even centuries.
My tree still follows the usual cycle of the seasons. New leaves sprout in spring – albeit ones that are closer to the heart. Acorns develop and drop with the potential to provide food or new life. Leaves turn from green to gold and shed on my lawn, leaving the bare wooden structure of the tree looking the same as it always has each winter. As spring returns, the trees energy is placed where it is most needed in the inner crown and the stags head is left as a perch for the birds.
The tree has not died, in spite of unfounded complaints by neighbours that it has become dead and dangerous! It is conserving its energy where it is most needed and providing a new purpose in its final years.
It has taken me a while to write this blog. The natural world has long provided me with rich meaning, both physically as a place to escape to and gaze in amazement, and as metaphor for my life. Like my oak tree, I recognised my own vascular system slowing down, the extremities of both my body and my mind not receiving the nourishment they need to flourish as they once had. Like the oak tree nurturing its new inner crown, I have chosen to place my limited energies at the heart of my being and focus on those core activities, relationships and interests that provide me with the most meaning and purpose. Maybe like the stag headed oak, I will find new purpose in the latter part of my life?
Just like my neighbours who demanded I cut my tree down as it is dead and dangerous, I recognise my own biases in misinterpreting the old and frail as past it or lacking usefulness, and how I may internalise those judgmental thoughts. But like my tree, I am not past it. My ideas still come like the acorns, providing food for thought and potential for growth. Like autumn leaves, I will shed those prejudiced thoughts on what makes a living thing purposeful, and approach winter by hunkering down through the harsh weather ready for new life next spring. And I shall delight in those birds making use of my oak’s topmost branches as they loudly and boldly declare the new usefulness that has come about through the natural dying of the tree.
A distinctive rhythmic hum vibrated my ears into action, and I paused and looked to the sky. I knew this sound, and I knew it could be coming from up to a mile away.
The hum changed in tone and frequency as the wedge of Mute swans flew closer and closer. The noise changed into a powerful but gracefully slow; swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – and I gazed skywards as the elegant birds with necks outstretched and heads pointing towards the lake ahead; passed over me without a sound leaving their beaks.
I smiled to myself because this was the second wedge of swans to fly over that morning. The earlier birds were easily recognisable as Whooper swans and not Mutes. There was no building up of wing noise with the Whoopers – but their raucous bugling and honking alerted everything within range that they were approaching and on a mission!
Swans are truly awesome – how can something so enormous, fly so beautifully – and over such long distances? The Mute swans live in the valley, but the Whoopers join us every winter from Iceland – making a sea crossing of around 800-1400km. Swans are amongst the largest flying birds and have evolved to do this as efficiently as possible – they have hollow bones for instance – this puts paid to the stories of swans breaking a man’s arm with just a flap of their wing. A swan’s wingbeat is certainly powerful, but it is also lightweight and designed for flight and communication, and not as a weapon.
Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher, spoke of nothing being permanent except change. He is also attributed with saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. And that perfectly sums up why I have never lost my passion for the natural world. I have never bored of taking the same walk several times a day.
This year has been like no other. The world has been united in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, we have found the natural world to be a reliable friend through the uncertainty and disruption that has surrounded us. Many people have rekindled their relationship with the great outdoors, others have noticed for the first time the huge variety of wildlife on their doorstep – perhaps they have spent years working hard in jobs away from their home and haven’t had the opportunity to pause and just notice the diversity of life surrounding them. All have learned first hand, the benefits to our wellbeing of time spent enjoying the nature and wildlife.
Pausing and noticing are two of the most valuable wildlife watching skills I possess. No amount of studying animal tracks, signs, and behaviour; or buying the best quality binoculars or camouflage clothing is a substitute for just getting outside as often as possible. I switch my thinking brain off from planning and analysing and worrying – and switch over to letting my senses lead the way and show me without prejudgment or opinion, what is around me.
This year I watched the small strip of woodland floor that I visit most days turn from leaf litter and the odd bramble; into a carpet of wood anemones that were followed by bluebells; then nettles and new shrubs, trees and bushes. Occasionally punctuated by an early purple orchid, earthball fungus, or phallic and putrid smelling stinkhorn mushroom.
The woods turned shady and dark once the acidic green beech leaves unfurled and filled the canopy – along with the leaves of the neighbouring oak, hazel and rowan; blocking out the sun and providing shelter from the unusually frequent thunderstorms we experienced over the summer months. The months passed and the leaves turned to gold and dropped; and the last few hangers on have just been blown away by the north wind – the same wind that helped those swans on their migration flight.
I watched the swallows arrive at the bridge on 11th April – they nested underneath, and the cacophony of tweets and chirps was almost deafening. It was a successful year for breeding, which I witnessed in the sheer number of swallows gathering together by the beginning of September, to prepare for migration. It was an honour to witness this half of these birds’ lives over here in West Wales – and I wonder if there is someone showing them as much interest now they are back in Africa?
One of my favourite birds is the Tawny owl. I am truly blessed to lose sleep because of the noisy male birds “hoo-hoo”-ing outside my bedroom window in response to the female birds call of “keewik”. Sadly, I was brought an injured owl back in April. It had been hit by a car and my neighbour and I did our best to make it comfortable but it was beyond help and now rests in peace under my oak tree. It’s feathers were amazingly soft and fluffy and quite beautiful as the wind ruffled them – the colours and textures were gorgeous.
I’ve recorded tawny owl numbers for some time and taken part in the BTO survey too. I hoped that the loss of this owl wouldn’t affect this year’s breeding population. Tawny owls spend the winter establishing their territories, that’s why they’re so vocal at the moment in the run up to Christmas. They mate and lay eggs in late winter or early spring, with the chicks hatching around 30 days later, and fledging in May.
In July we started hearing baby animal noises coming from our back hedgerow and the oak tree, we weren’t sure whether they were from a bird or mammal. Gentle chirrups in the dark, that built over the weeks into sounds that were similar to a female tawny owl, but clearly immature. There were two distinct “voices” of what I imagine were two fledgling owls. After a couple more weeks, the voices got deeper and the calls became distinctly female (too-whit) and male (too-whoo). And now, they have joined the other owls in the village and can be heard down the track; in my neighbours garden; on the roof; beyond the back hedge – all vying for territory and making their way in the world.
Many animals live shorter lives than us humans, and this gives us the privilege of seeing them grow, change and develop. I’ve followed a family of magpies nesting near the village school which was closed for the summer. We’ve had blue tits nest in a hole in our apple tree and yesterday I spotted a great tit checking it out. Our oak tree has nuthatches and treecreepers making use of the warm ivy’s antifreeze properties, and our bathroom has a tortoiseshell butterfly keeping warm over winter.
I’ve always been a “noticer”. I’m blessed with senses that never switch off! I can find pleasure in the simplest things, and I gain a sense of safety, belonging, and of my place in the world when I immerse myself in nature. The pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty and unpredictability to the humans in the world, but the swallows still came and went – the leaves still ‘remembered’ to fall – creatures were born and died. The changes we can be certain of still took place; and brought myself, like many people, a sense of hope for the future.
“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.
As well as an ability to silently disappear when I need to, I have a remarkable sensory processing system. Like many autistic people, my sense organs see, hear, and smell in a fairly average way. But my brain processes that sensory information quite differently. This means that some of my senses work in a way that is quite muted and requires lots of input to register a sensation, whereas other senses need hardly any information to register what is happening. This fluctuates and can become more extreme when I am under stress, worried or having to process lots of information (sensory or otherwise).
An example of where one of my senses may often be muted (or hyposensitive) is in my proprioception – the sense that tells us where the various parts of our body are in space (close your eyes and stick your arms in the air – wave them about – whether your arms crash into each other or not is down to your proprioception). My sense of proprioception is responsible for many of my accidents when I trip over my own feet, misjudge a step, or bump into a doorframe.
On the other hand, my senses may by heightened at times (hypersensitive) – and this has its pros and cons. I can find the noise of a door closing incredibly loud, to the point of it making me jump with fright and my ears hurt. But I can also hear the wasp chomping on the wooden frame of my living room window while it gathers material to mix with its saliva to help build its papery nest.
As well as having particularly keen senses, another trait of my autism is that I can’t filter out so-called ‘unnecessary’ information. I sense everything with equal intensity and importance. This can make me appear ‘lost’, confused or slow when I am in a new environment as I am taking absolutely everything in and trying to consciously work out which bits I should or shouldn’t be focusing on. It makes me a fantastic spotter of wildlife though! I will be the person who notices the Speckled Wood butterfly camouflaged on the woodland floor. My brain will not be fooled into thinking those patterns on the insect’s wings are part of the leafy detritus it is hiding against. My olfactory processing is so sophisticated I can tell whether the repugnant smell of rotting corpse is dead badger, dead deer, or simply a Stinkhorn mushroom.
Not everyone has a sensory processing system that works like mine does, but we can all ensure we take more notice of what is around us when we are out and about, and tune into our sensory experiences.
I have practiced Mindfulness for many years. It comes naturally to me, as I have always been someone who notices things. Being Mindful means, you make a special effort to notice what’s happening in the present moment (in your mind, body and surroundings) – without judging anything. It has roots in Buddhism and meditation and there is good scientific evidence to prove its benefits. You don’t have to be spiritual, or have any particular beliefs, to try it and it can be incredibly beneficial for your wellbeing . Mindfulness also sits well with me because my inability to filter things means I tend to be quite open-minded and non-judgmental anyway. I find Mindfulness particularly valuable because it reminds me to take a break from all the classifying and categorising and naming of the natural world, and just be in that moment, noticing it with my senses.
For people starting out with a hobby like bird watching, or who want to develop more awareness and knowledge of the natural world, I would recommend taking a Mindful approach and just get out there, walk, and notice things. Don’t think about whether you recognise plants or animals, or if you can name them or know what they are. Nature can be enjoyed without any of these things. Try using each of your senses to notice what is happening around you.
Humans are currently said to have eight senses. The five we learned at school – smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing. Vestibular – the sense of how gravity effects our body (our balance and awareness of spinning and jumping etc). Proprioception – knowing where the various parts of our body are in relation to each other. And finally, Interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel internally (our emotions and bodily functions like feeling hungry, tired or needing the toilet).
Interestingly, other animals have additional senses, and humans share the physiology that enable some of these senses too. Magnetoreception helps migrating birds find their way using the earth’s magnetic field. Thermoreception enables animals to detect heat and forms part of the infrared sensing systems found in some snakes and in vampire bats. Electroreception is well known in some sharks and other fish.
Here are some ways you may like to notice nature using your senses. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I believe that with practice people can get more attuned to using their senses and it gives such an added layer of appreciation of our natural world:
Vision – stand still and notice how many different species you can see. Don’t worry about recognising them. You may be surprised at how many different living creatures you are sharing your space with at any given time.
Smell – notice a smell and move about until you can find the source of it, notice where it gets stronger or weaker. If you find something really smelly, like honeysuckle or even fox poo, focus on the aroma and then notice how far away from the source you can get while still smelling it.
Hearing – pause and notice how many different sounds there are. Let yourself notice each one. There may be sounds in the foreground like your breathing or footsteps, as well as sounds further away like birdsong, or a nearby road. Notice any background noise like the wind or water.
Taste – if you are confident at safely identifying wild food, then enjoy a blackberry or other fruit. Otherwise, practice with fruit and veg in your garden.
Touch – feel how cold the water in a stream is. Notice how things that look similar, may feel different. Find white clover and red clover in a field. Stroke the stalks of each and notice how one is hairy and one is smooth – you will forever be able to impress others with your knowledge of clover identification even when there are no coloured flowers to give the answer away!
Vestibular – close your eyes and notice whether you can sense if you are at sea level or much higher up.
Proprioception – bring your attention (without looking) to various parts of your body and see if you can notice where they are. Let the feel of the ground under your feet and the air against your skin help you notice where the respective parts of your body are. Realise you are part of the natural world.
Interoception – notice how you feel when you are in the natural world. Does it bring you joy, curiosity, peace?
Not only does using a technique like Mindfulness help us relax and connect with nature by disconnecting with the stresses and strains of our busy, daily lives, it helps us recognise how much is going on all around us all of the time. Once we start recognising this, it is more likely we will notice those elusive badgers, otters or whatever else we hope to spot. I have genuinely seen people walk past the most incredible creatures because they have been so focused on their phone, or their conversation, or lost in their own thoughts.
As well as practicing noticing things, its worth studying and learning all you can too. I bought my very first nature book whilst on a caravan holiday as a six or seven year-old. I remember going into the book shop in Williton, on the edge of the Quantock Hills and using my holiday pocket money to buy a copy of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Animals, Tracks and Signs. This is my favourite Spotter’s Guide because it opened so many doors for me. It wasn’t just a simple identification guide that helped name the species I was lucky enough to spot, it taught me the craft of getting up close with nature by understanding it.
Here are some of my favourite pages:
Gaining knowledge of how animals live, as well as what they look like, increases your chances of spotting them. Habitat, diet, and behaviour are all important parts of this. Understanding these helps identify animals and plants too. It increases the likelihood of seeing them when out and about. Consider my trip to Brean Down to watch my beloved rabbits. I knew that they would be out at dawn and dusk – I understood their behaviour. I knew there would be a warren on the isolated headland – I understood their preferred habitat. There was plenty of grass for them to eat – diet. Rabbit poo is decidedly easy to spot and correctly identify. My rabbit spotting trips are an obvious example of using knowledge to increase your chances of seeing a wild animal, but the principle is the same for other animals too. Though it provides no guarantee of a sighting!
Otters are a favourite animal of mine, but have frequently eluded me, despite my extensive knowledge. I now live within walking distance of otters and I’ve been out before dawn, I’ve set my camera trap up, I’ve even photographed their footprints, and smelt them. But my only local sighting was a chance encounter in a pond, rather than in the river where I know they live.
These tips that I’ve given about studying animals can act as a useful checklist for ensuring correct identification too. Sometimes we may spot a creature or plant that we are unfamiliar with. It is very easy for wishful thinking or past knowledge to affect our judgment when trying to identify it. My tip is to jot down exactly what you see. This is where another of the advantages of my autism comes in. Sometimes autistic people are labelled as great with the finer details but not good at seeing the bigger picture. Personally, I would disagree with this. I am very good at seeing the bigger picture – but I make it up out of all the tiny bits. This takes time and if you are after a quick answer before I’ve processed all the individual pieces into an overall scene, then you may wrongly assume I haven’t seen the bigger picture at all. My ability to appreciate every aspect of the world without judgment also comes into play – that lack of ability to filter information I described earlier. Autistic people are often “bottom-up thinkers”. The American scientist, Temple Grandin describes:
“I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph… That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.”
Suppose you see a bird that you can’t name. Very often people will tell me they have seen a brown bird that was probably a type of sparrow. They hand me the bigger picture information, and this is usually followed by a time consuming and tricky process of me asking lots of questions about things they haven’t noticed. Whereas, a person who describes small details accurately, helps me identify the bird much quicker, even when there are key bits of information missing. A member of a Facebook wildlife group I set up, reported seeing a bird she didn’t recognise – and with only a handful of very specific details I could identify it instantly, show her a picture and have the id confirmed. She described it as thus: Cornish coast, size and shape of a tit, black head and wings, white collar and under wings and a reddish underside. It was in July. I pieced these bits of information together and knew what it was straight away.
I used the visual information and then checked off whether the following were likely: habitat – coast, and time of year – summer, location – South West England.
Checking the likelihood is always important – a Golden eagle in the skies above Wales is almost undoubtedly a buzzard.
A cuckoo seen in the winter is probably a sparrowhawk, like this one that took a blackbird down in my garden back in the winter of 2010. The cuckoo is a brood parasite that uses its resemblance to a sparrowhawk to frighten away the parent birds when it is hoping to lay its eggs in their nest in the spring.
When birds look very similar, like the curlew and whimbrel, you can use your knowledge and senses to help with id. If you listen, whimbrels make a rapid tittering of very short whistles, whereas a curlew’s call has a much more ringing tone and the male in displaying flight in spring has an almost liquid sounding song that crescendos into a bubbling trill. UK based whimbrels only breed in Northern Scotland and is seen elsewhere in the country as a passage migrant in spring and autumn. It can take off and fly from a standing start, whereas a curlew will take a run at it. Although side by side, the beak length is a giveaway, it is unlikely you will ever have the luxury of seeing that, so understanding how they behave helps.
Of course, we must always be careful of how we interpret things and remember that all sorts of creatures can turn up in odd places – like the Tregaron golden eagle, or the bearded vulture currently roosting in the English Peak District. Vagrant, escapee, albino, and hybrid animals are frequently spotted. Whilst this can feel exciting for some bird watchers or nature spotters, the outcome is rarely positive for the animal – a raccoon dog (tanuki) was destroyed in Carmarthenshire only last week and I still feel distress at the hunt killing an albino stag in Somerset where I grew up.
On a lighter note, Bill Oddie tells a story about identifying a bird, that reminds me that even when using common sense and a bottom-up approach, you may still be surprised: Bill’s friend works for the RSPB and received a telephone call from a lady asking for help identifying a bird. He gleaned information about the bird’s buff colouring, and the bit of black and a bit of red on its head. This bird had been feeding at her bird table. The RSPB chap considered the information, matched it to the most likely suspects, and confidently told the lady it was a goldfinch. But she was not in agreement at all! He asked her to describe what the bird was doing, and she explained that it was stood by the bird table pecking at seed. He enquired whether it was able to reach up and get the seed, and the lady informed him that this large, heron shaped bird was actually stood next to the bird table and was leaning down pecking at the food. The bird was not a goldfinch – it was a crane!
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…
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…
Shakespeare wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. He was probably describing people coming together through shared experiences and emotions, but I like to consider this quote using another use of the word “nature”. The pandemic situation we find ourselves in is global, and it has also united us around the world in our love of nature and the outdoors. I have found many kindred spirits in the Facebook group I created, Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife. People are enjoying their gardens more than ever – so much so there is a shortage of compost at garden centres around the county! We are noticing more wildlife and also destroying less with our cars.
The beauty of wildlife gardening is you don’t need much space, lots of specialist equipment, or expert knowledge. The internet is full of advice and tips and most of the wildlife trusts have downloads and pages dedicated to making the outside areas of our homes more welcoming to wildlife
Our garden has some extremely overgrown areas that we’ve left fairly wild, so that our resident hedgehog has somewhere to snuffle and look for worms. We have a hedge boundary so it can come and go as it likes, and live its best hedgehoggy life all around the village – even turning up on a neighbours decking during a late night barbecue!
Our garden has evolved with our family. A pond wasn’t a priority when our son was small but he once he outgrew his sandpit we put it to good use as a pond. . We’ve added some stones to enable anything that ventures in to get out safely and a kindly neighbour has given us some native plants from their established pond. Hopefully the oxygenating effect will clear some of the algae and enable us to get even better views of the frog and newts that call it home. Our first two newts were a ‘gift’ from a neighbour who had found them and asked if they could be homed in our garden, they’ve been here for seven or eight years. Newts enjoy ponds for part of the year and use them for breeding; they need dry land too – logs, stones, wooded areas – anywhere safe to hibernate for the winter.
Last year in the spring we found some frogspawn in a puddle in the middle of Brechfa forest, nowhere near a pond or stream. I scooped it up in my travel mug and brought it home, where it lived in an old fish tank while we studies it, before being added to the murky pond, which at that time had no plants but hopefully offered a better chance at life than a puddle – and if all else failed, the newts would be fed!
Wildlife rarely needs to be brought into your garden, if you make your garden attractive to wildlife, it will usually find its own way. We have the mammals and amphibians I’ve just described, along with the occasional reptile and plenty of bird species to delight me in the early morning with their chorus. We’ve kept an area of nettles next to our compost bin and we have a buddleia that is about to bloom. Plenty of butterflies are already checking it out in anticipation! Butterflies have been a lifelong interest and passion of mine and I’m always a little disappointed by the contradictory values many gardeners have. Some seem to love a butterfly but hate a caterpillar. Hopefully this year’s caterpillars will enjoy the nettles and wild plants and leave our veggies alone. It can always be fun to have a caterpillar collecting competition with your family and throw them over the hedge to your neighbour when you’ve finished! No, I’m joking. Definitely don’t do that, put them in your wildlife area so they can grow and become butterflies or be fed to birds who will have plenty of young to feed.
An average garden accommodates more than 2,000 species of insect. Most of them benefit our gardens by eating the other insects that can damage plants, and acting as food for other animals. And of course, they are essential for pollination. We’ve built our garden’s insects a new bug hotel that we’ve named ‘The Biolblitz Ritz’
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.
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.
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.