Finding Our Way Home

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This morning, like most Sunday mornings, Blaze – my scruffy dog, and I took our walk around the village to check on what’s what. I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the ‘regulars’. The pair of magpies that look like they may nest in the tree next to the school; the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker, noisily staking its territory in the woods by the bridge; the red kites busy re-establishing their pair bond ready to mate and hopefully raise chicks in last year’s nest.

This Sunday, the same as last week and the week before, a skein of loud, honking geese came flying overhead on their way – I expect, to the river by the castle to graze on the floodplain meadows and gather with all the other hundreds of geese that congregate there each day. I drive over the bridge by the river several times a week and I haven’t seen the huge flocks for a couple of days. I wonder if they’ve left for the summer to go back north to Scandinavia. My Sunday birds may be joining them or maybe they are like many of the Canada geese in the UK and resident here?

What tells them that it is time to migrate? Why even bother?

When we think about migration in animals and birds we are typically considering seasonal migration from north to south (or vice versa) as a reaction to resource availability. Food availability changes depending on seasonal fluctuations, and this influences migration patterns. Different species, like some fish, may migrate in order to reproduce. Cenarth Falls on the River Teifi  is the first barrier the Salmon and Sewin have to leap whilst traveling upstream to mate before returning to the sea. It is a fantastic and picturesque spot for watching this incredible natural phenomenon.  Temperature is also a driving factor of migration and many birds migrate to warmer locations during the winter to escape poor environmental conditions.

Migration isn’t the only solution to living on a planet that has changing seasons. Some animals stay put and hibernate like the hedgehog that uses our garden. I have had my trail camera out waiting for it to reappear and I expect it could come out of hibernation any time now. Other animals adapt to their environments – stoats living in very cold areas may turn white in winter and their ermine coats help them stay camouflaged in the snow. Jays and squirrels cache food for leaner times and foxes change their diet to take advantage of fruit and insects in the warmer months and rodents in the winter.

I am hoping to see this hedgehog again any day now.

Migration can be obligate – where animals “must” migrate; or facultative, meaning they can “choose” to migrate or not. Not all animals in a species migrate – sometimes it is complete; sometimes it is partial; and sometimes it is differential, here the difference between migratory and non-migratory individuals is based on age or sex. While most migratory movements occur on an annual cycle, some daily movements are also referred to as migration. Think of the tide coming in and out each day, filling the rock pools and creating a food rich intertidal zone. Typically we think of migration taking place over large areas like the intercontinental migration of the Arctic Tern, or should that be the Antarctic Tern? Who is to say where its ‘home’ really is when it flies up to 50,000 miles each year! There are smaller migrations too and some animals like the earthworm don’t travel across the land or sea, but downwards into the deeper earth away from the cold frosts each winter.

Although animals frequently adapt to change by moving from one less advantageous area to an area with more advantages, it is not always because of migration. There are key differences between migration and dispersal. In migration, an animal is moving under some sort of pattern, influenced by seasonal, tidal, or circadian cycles for example. Triggers such as changes in the amount of daylight or in hormones sets them on their way. Dispersal is different because the animals are moving to a new location and not returning to the original site. Dispersal is heavily reliant on chance and the animal’s ability to find a home with the necessary resources to survive. It may look at many places before picking a home.

Humans have described bird migration for thousands of years and prehistoric people from Micronesia and Polynesia are thought to have used their knowledge of bird migration, as well as their skills using stars, currents and clouds to navigate the seas and find new lands. Aristotle, on the other hand – who in my opinion appears to have spent too much time indoors thinking and not enough time outdoors enjoying nature – suggested that swallows and other birds hibernated. He also proposed that robins turned into redstarts when summer arrived. The barnacle goose was explained in Medieval manuscripts as either growing like fruit on trees, or developing from goose barnacles on pieces of driftwood. Another example of a misunderstanding involving the swallow is that it hibernated underwater, buried itself in muddy riverbanks, or in hollow trees. This belief persisted as late as 1878 when there were no less than 182 scientific papers dealing with the hibernation of swallows.

Many bird populations migrate long distances along a flyway. The most common pattern involves flying north in the spring to breed in the temperate or arctic summer and returning in the autumn to wintering grounds in warmer regions to the south. Swallows are a common site in the UK and I await the annual return of ospreys with great excitement, hoping to spot one stopping off on its journey to the nesting sites in mid Wales. These routes typically follow mountain ranges or coastlines, sometimes rivers, and may take advantage of updrafts and other wind patterns or avoid geographical barriers such as large stretches of open water. The specific routes may be genetically programmed or learned to varying degrees. The routes taken on forward and return migration are often different to take advantage of ocean currents and trade winds. My blog ‘Belonging…or what’s in a name?’ describes the epic journey by Manx Shearwaters and how they follow the Atlantic gyre when they leave Wales for South America, just like those Welsh people setting out on the Mimosa in search of “a little Wales beyond Wales” back in 1865.

The geese I saw this morning flying overhead and the other waterfowl down by the river will no doubt be getting ready to head off to their breeding grounds if they haven’t already left. On a physiological level, animals undergo massive changes in readiness for migration. Some will be able to forage along their migratory routes, but for many, food will be scarce. Internal circannual rhythms can trigger intensive feeding behaviour for some animals, and they will stock up on fat stores to use as fuel for their journeys. Migratory birds kept in controlled conditions with no seasonal variation will still experience this internal biological rhythm that tells them to stock up on food even without environmental cues. Some birds can double their body weight in order to prepare for migration. Of course, carrying additional weight uses energy so other adaptations take place such as an increase in size of their hearts and flight muscles and a decrease in size of their stomach, gut, liver and kidneys. These organs return to their normal size once the bird’s journey is over. Insects adapt in a similar way and Monarch butterflies only develop sexual organs once they’ve made their migration journey.

When they are about to leave, animals will exhibit particular behaviours. House Martins gathering in flocks and lining up on telegraph wires are a familiar sight in autumn. Individual whooper swans will use intricate head and neck movements to indicate they are getting ready to form a flock and fly so that their mates recognise it is time to go and don’t get left behind. Traveling in groups can make migration safer and species may migrate with others of their type or take part in mass migrations like the Serengeti annual ‘great migration’ that include around 1.7 million wildebeest plus hundreds of thousand of gazelles, zebras and other animals.

I have always been amazed by how animals can make their way back to the same spot year after year. How do they navigate such huge distances? There has been much research done on this topic but knowledge is still very much in its infancy and it is a fascinating area that we know very little about.

Navigation uses a variety of senses. In particular, the senses of sight and smell. There is another sense that is involved called magnetoreception (also magnetoception). It is a sense which allows an organism to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location and is used by a range of animals for orientation and navigation, and as a method for animals to develop regional maps. Migratory animals use magnetoreception to detect the Earth’s magnetic field.

Magnetoreception is present in bacteria, arthropods, molluscs, and members of all major taxonomic groups of vertebrates. Humans are not thought to have a magnetic sense, but there is a protein (a cryptochrome) in the eye which could serve this function. I personally believe that some humans do have an awareness of this sense but I have no scientific evidence of this and am reluctant to share my thoughts in case I sound mentally ill or a conspiracy theorist! There is evidence that large mammals including red deer and foxes could be using magnetoreception. Foxes tend to jump onto prey in a north-south alignment and their most successful attack direction is clustered around north. Grazing deer and cattle tend to align their bodies in a geomagnetic north-south direction in the absence of other influencing factors. If magnetic fields are altered e.g. under power lines, these grazing mammals will realign themselves randomly. Birds are understood to use a sun compass and they can even make compensations based on the time. When I was at school, I was told that there were 5 senses. These are the senses we were told that humans have: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Years later at work I learned about 2 more senses: proprioception (knowing where your body is) and vestibular (balance). More recently, it is recognised that there is an 8th sense: interoception (knowing what you are feeling). Of course, these are the human senses and animals may have many others we don’t share. We already know that other animals have magnetoreception and electroreception and I wonder whether these senses and any others we haven’t named yet exist in humans. It will be interesting to know how many senses we recognise in 20 years time.

Migratory birds may use two electromagnetic tools to find their destinations: one that is entirely innate and another that relies on experience. On its first flight, a young migratory bird will use the Earth’s magnetic field to set it off in the correct direction. But it obviously doesn’t know how long the journey is. It is similar to going for a walk and having a compass but no map. As it undertakes its journey, the bird uses its other senses to recognise landmarks by sight and smell and also by using magnetoreception. Magnetites (magnetically sensitive crystals found in biology and geology) located in the trigeminal system (if you’ve experienced trigeminal neuralgia you’ll know where I’m talking about – those nerves that go through your jaw, face, eyes and ears) tell the bird how strong the magnetic field is in a given place. This means they can use lots of different sensory information to make a visual, an olfactory and a magnetic map of their journey. Birds tend to migrate along a north-south route and the Earth’s magnetic field is at different strengths at different latitudes. The bird is able to use this information to ‘know’ when it has arrived at its destination, regardless of whether the visual landmarks have changed. There is research being undertaken to identify if birds can actually “see” the magnetic field of the Earth (there is a neural connection between a bird’s eye and the part of the brain used during migrational navigation).  

As well as using a sensory map to know they have arrived at their destination, young birds form attachments to particular breeding and overwintering sites. My blog ‘The Ugly Duckling’ explores some of the themes around attachments. Birds will use cognitive skills as well as sensory information to guide their journeys and older birds are better at making corrections to their journeys e.g. to account for wind drift. Migration routes can be taught as part of reintroduction programmes and cranes and geese have both been conditioned to follow microlight aircraft and learn safe migration routes. Birds can still get lost though and ‘overshoot’ their destination and some birds have neurological or genetic differences which means the innate programming used in migration doesn’t work as it should and these birds end up as vagrants thousands of miles out of range – this is known as reverse migration. The bird confidently sets off on its journey, oblivious to the fact it is going in a different direction to the rest of its flock. (That would be me then!) There is also a phenomenon called abmigration. This is where birds join similar birds and follow them back on their migration routes. I saw a snow goose one winter with the flock of overwintering geese down by the castle, I imagine something similar happened to that bird – it got in with the wrong crowd and ended up miles from home!

I started this blog with a poem. It is by Mary Oliver, a poet I only discovered recently. I have often found poetry too abstract and the symbolism passes me by but I love Mary Oliver’s work and her relationship with the natural world. Wild Geese is one of my favourites because it captures the personality of geese so well in my opinion. Harsh and exciting, over and over announcing their place in the family of things. When I watch the geese down by the river, something I have done for decades now (and written about frequently) I am always filled with their confidence. They don’t care one bit about anything else, they just do their goose thing and that’s it, no excuses, no pretending to be anything other than a goose. Some people seem to dislike that and I have at least one conversation with a random stranger each winter on the bridge overlooking the Towy where they ask me what I’m looking at, then ask me if they’re rare (and are disappointed that they are not) and then ask me “aren’t they vermin?” I have never said that if the criteria for being vermin is having an increasing population and being noisy and requires you to be culled, then people had better look out! But I think it every single time and try to smile and just say “mmm”, slowly raise my binoculars to my eyes and go back to looking at the geese.

As I watch the overwintering birds come and go each year I wonder whether they have a sense of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. I explored how we think of migratory birds like the Manx Shearwater as “our” birds when they are on Skomer each summer and I wondered whether someone else sees them as “their” birds down in the Southern Hemisphere. I never know whether the geese have come home each winter to the Towy valley or whether they are going home now, back to Iceland or wherever they have travelled from. Do they even think of it as home?

People anthropomorphise animals all the time – in fact I have always thought people anthropomorphise people too but I know that isn’t the correct term to use. There is certainly a very particular way of attributing human and animal characteristics to each other but that can wait for another blog. Some humans still live nomadic lives but less so nowadays. Historically we would have followed food and moved with the seasons to take advantage of weather and resources. I wonder how important the sense of belonging to a place was then? People can spend their lives searching for their ‘home’ or where they belong and I have certainly wasted my time, like many others, trying to figure out where I fit in, where is my flock, what is home? I choose to be like the Manx Shearwater. I too have made a long journey. I am sure the Manx Shearwater doesn’t spend the British winter worrying because it is hanging out with penguins in South America and it isn’t really a penguin or the British summer looking at the puffins and wondering whether it is ok that it is hanging out with them now. It has no need to identify where it belongs because it belongs where it is. The Earth is a big place thank goodness and there are times when I question if there is anywhere on it that is for me and where do I fit in? And that is when I think about Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and I remember that I too must announce my place in the family of things.

Autism Wildlife

The Ugly Duckling


Swans are the largest living members of the waterfowl family and fossil records of the genus Cygnus date back to the late Miocene epoch which means they have been on earth for well over 5 million years. They were swimming in ‘our’ rivers before gorillas had even evolved and long before Australopithecus, let alone more modern women and men had appeared. Fossil records of prehistoric swans found on Mediterranean islands reveal a bird that was 2 metres long from beak to tail – which makes it bigger than the local dwarf elephants that were also around at the time!

It comes as no surprise that these magnificent creatures have filled mythology and legend through the ages and swans hold a special place in many cultures; including stories of Norse swan maidens and the holy, pure birds that drank from the Well of Urd in Asgard, the home of the gods. Helen of Troy was described in Greek mythology as being conceived by Leda and Zeus who was disguised as a swan and the Irish legend of The Children of Lir is about a stepmother who transforms her children into swans for 900 years. The swan’s beauty and tendency to mate for life has captivated the imaginations of people and they symbolise elegance, true love, and longevity.

Llanelli WWT

I can’t discuss the role of swans in storytelling without mentioning that most famous of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales ‘The Ugly Duckling’. This tale describes the trials and tribulations of a young swan hatched from an egg in a duck’s nest. Most of us are familiar with the story of how the young swan was humiliated and mistreated for being different until in the end he left and tried to find a place where he could belong and be accepted. Sadly he couldn’t find a place to fit in while he was still young; whether that was with the wild ducks and geese, the old woman and her cat or the farmer and his noisy children, so in the end he hid in a cave next to a frozen lake for the winter. When the swans arrived in spring, the now fully grown duckling decided he could not live a life of solitude any longer and threw himself to the mercy of the swans, expecting to be rejected, but as we all know, he was immediately recognised as one of them and when he saw his reflection in the lake he realised that he too was a beautiful swan.

There are many critiques and much analysis of this popular fairy tale and it has been said that the story may be autobiographical. Hans Christian Anderson is described in a biography by British journalist Anne Chisholm as such: “Andersen himself was a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet, and when he grew up with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for the theatre he was cruelly teased and mocked by other children”.  Speculation also suggests that Andersen was the illegitimate son of Prince Christian Frederik (later King Christian VIII of Denmark). It is said, but certainly not proven, that he found this out some time before he wrote the story, and that being a swan in the story was a metaphor not just for inner beauty and talent but also for secret royal lineage.  Hans Christian Anderson is often described as being on the autistic spectrum and whilst the word autism wasn’t in use during his lifetime (1805-1875), it has certainly always existed as a type of neurodivergence (or difference in brain neurology such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD amongst others). It feels safe to assume that the author clearly understood how it felt to be different and it draws up some interesting questions about how belonging and fitting in can be so difficult for people.

An interesting variation on the Ugly Duckling tale at my local river. These three hang around the Towy at Llandeilo

Christa Holmans is a business professional from Texas who blogs as ‘The Neurodivergent Rebel’ (She is rebelling against a culture that values assimilation over individuality, if you were wondering). Christa is happy for me to use her quote and I think it sums up the story beautifully: “The ugly duckling grew up believing – falsely – that he was an ugly or defective duck.  Eventually the “duckling” learned he wasn’t a duck at all.  In the end, the duckling was a perfectly “normal” “average” swan and this knowledge set him free.” 

This also ties in nicely with the thoughts of social scientist and author Brené Brown (she has the fourth most-watched TED Talk of all time. It’s called “the power of vulnerability” and it has nearly 31 million views.) “The greatest barrier to belonging is fitting in”.

Brown says that when we “fit in” as opposed to “belong,” we acclimatise to the situation instead of standing for our authentic self.

So how did the ugly duckling not know that he was actually a swan, I wonder? How do any of us ‘know’ that we are human or what our gender or sexuality or opinions are? What seems like an obvious question to start with is actually extremely complex when you explore what identity is. There is an interplay of many complicated themes such as attachment, personality, free will and conditioning and the whole nature-nurture debate.

In the animal world, some birds don’t innately recognise their parents or even their own species. They will use environmental cues to identify and attach themselves to a parent figure. This type of imprinting happens shortly after birth and the parent figure does not even need to be the same species. It is called filial imprinting. This type of imprinting tends to take place in precocial birds (otherwise known as nidifugous birds) –  they are developed enough to leave the nest and feed when they are very young, so the ability to identify a parent that will keep them safe is important for survival. There are other types of imprinting: sexual imprinting, where an animal learns the characteristics of a desirable mate and limbic imprinting, where very early experiences contribute to lifelong psychological development.  I remember watching cartoons as a child and filial imprinting was a fairly common topic, with hilarious consequences.  

A screenshot off the internet of a 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon

These cartoons are from a time when behaviourism was a very dominant school of psychology and it was widely viewed that behaviour is influenced by the environment and you can pretty much train anyone to do anything if you punish or reward them hard enough. Less emphasis was placed on internal mental, emotional or sensory states. The 1955 Tom and Jerry cartoon called ‘That’s My Mommy’ is a fine example. A baby duckling imprints on Tom the cat and develops an attachment to him as its mother. Despite Tom’s far-fetched schemes to cook and eat the young bird, the duckling continues to love Tom and see him as his mother, and violently reject Jerry’s attempts at rescue. The cartoon ends with Tom setting up an elaborate plot to cook the duckling in a pan on the stove top. The poor bird is so attached to its mother figure that it tearfully walks up a spoon and attempts to plunge itself into the boiling pot – but at the last minute, Tom has a change of heart and grabs the duckling and they go outside and the cartoon ends with a view of Tom swimming in the pond with his young charge happily copying his every move whilst saying ‘that’s my mommy’.

Humans have exploited filial imprinting in birds to create fantastic wildlife documentaries where they have been able to fly in hang gliders alongside great flocks of geese. They have also used imprinting as part of conservation projects to teach birds that were bred in captivity how to fly and follow migratory routes. Imprinting has also been used to ‘prove’ that chickens can count! I’m not sure why this is important and I hope that scientists aren’t trying to create a master race of maths genius chickens. It is known that the chicks of domestic chickens prefer to be near large groups of objects that they have imprinted on – safety in numbers perhaps? In a series of experiments, the chicks were made to imprint on plastic balls and could work out which of two groups of balls hidden behind screens had the most balls in it.

Alongside imprinting, attachment also takes place. This is the important process of forming bonds so that social and emotional development can take place. Attachment theories have changed over the years and people form different types of attachments or connections to each other. Some of these connections are reciprocal e.g. between adults, and some aren’t e.g. a baby and its care giver. Back in the days of Tom and Jerry, attachment was viewed as a learned response i.e. a baby learns (through classical conditioning) that its mother will give it milk. The baby naturally likes milk and learns to associate its mother with being fed so learns to like its mother too.

The most famous example of classical conditioning is probably Pavlov and his dogs. I won’t describe his experiment here as it is so familiar and is easy enough to research if you want more information. Instead I will tell you about a Pavolvian experiment that my dog unwittingly took part in.

Last summer my family and I were in New Quay, West Wales. We had been on the beach looking in the rock pools and had found some awesome creatures including periwinkles, shrimps and a venomous weever fish. We’d wandered back up near the harbourside to look out to sea for dolphins and to avoid the crowds that had come on holiday and/or to see Chris Packham who was there as part of his Bioblitz project around the UK.  Surprisingly, or maybe not, Chris Packham also appeared to be avoiding the crowds that had come to see him and was enjoying a piece of cake in peace. We had an interesting chat and he made a big fuss of our dog Blaze and gave her some of his lemon drizzle cake. Blaze is quite spoilt and thinks that everyone should adore her and feed her. Blaze and Chris were quite taken with each other to be honest. Roll on to October and Autumnwatch on TV. Blaze is a lazy dog in the house and not at all interested in television or anything other than sleeping or occasionally raising her head if she hears a kitchen cupboard door open, just to check. She may even get up and investigate if she hears the biscuit tin lid being removed. Anyway, Chris started to introduce the programme and Blaze was bolt upright and up on the sofa watching him. He has a distinctive voice and Blaze had learned to associate it with lemon drizzle cake. She now expects to have a piece every time Chris is on the TV!

Prior to meeting Chris Packham, Blaze liked cake – we can describe the cake as an ‘unconditioned stimulus’. Blaze already had an ‘unconditioned response’ i.e. she got excited by the smell and sight of cake – this was innate, she didn’t have to learn it. She had previously seen Chris Packham on Springwatch but had shown absolutely no interest in him. Chris could be described as a ‘neutral stimulus’. By pairing Chris with the cake, Blaze now experienced him as a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and whenever she has seen him since, a ‘conditioned response’ occurs regardless of whether he has cake or not – Blaze is excited because she associates Chris Packham with lemon drizzle cake!

Of course, behavioural approaches to understanding why humans and other animals do what they do aren’t the whole picture. I remember briefly studying biology and psychology as A levels and it all seemed a bit disappointing because experiments were frequently about being horrible to my fellow living creatures in order to find out how they worked. Whether that was dissecting a frog to examine its intestines when there were plenty of amphibian anatomy diagrams readily available instead or hearing about sleep deprived cats or baby monkeys that were taken from their mothers and given a wire ‘mother’ instead to see what happened. Personally, I didn’t need to do an experiment to tell you the result. They didn’t like it and it screwed them up long term – particularly the frog! As a professional I often describe behaviour and analyse behaviour to try and work out why people do what they do (the negative things usually – or rather the things that are most annoying to other people – I frequently feel that an individual’s difficult or challenging behaviour tells you more about the person observing or being on the receiving end of it than the motives of the person exhibiting it – but that’s a topic for another article). Learned responses aren’t everything and psychology has moved on since Tom and Jerry’s days. Attachment is now recognised as far more than a learned response and innate features like biology, genetics and neurology have a major part to play too. The way living things relate to each other isn’t just based on very early experiences and I hope that means the Ugly Duckling in the story got to experience some fulfilling relationships with his fellow swans despite his early experiences.

Thank you Moira, swan trainer at Wells Bishop’s palace

I was delighted to see that one of my very first childhood friends was involved in some animal training herself. Moira and I lived in the same street, and attended the same playschool, primary and secondary schools. Although we live a fair way from each other these days, we are in touch via social media and I frequently feel a pang of jealousy when I see her Facebook posts. Moira works at the medieval Bishop’s palace in Wells and among her roles is my personal favourite job title – Swan Trainer. Moira’s job is to teach any new swans how to carry on the 150 year old tradition of ringing a bell by the Gatehouse for food. The old cob Bryn died in 2018 and his mate Wynn and her cygnets departed from the moat later that year, probably to set up a new home on the Somerset levels. Swans tend to mate for life and if a partner dies, like Bryn did a couple of years ago, the pen will often seek out a new mate. The palace acquired some new swans named Gabriel and Grace, from a rescue centre in South Wales and Moira’s task was to train them to be good tourist attractions and ring the bell. She did this by repeatedly feeding them at the window and ringing the bell and throwing them food. Moira slowly introduced them to the rope and they learned to ring it themselves and immediately receive food in response. The trained swans then trained their cygnets to do the same. I would love to know what approach the adult swans used to teach their youngsters and whether they feel that it is actually them conditioning Moira to throw some food whenever she hears a bell?

The swans in Wells are the UK’s only resident swan, the mute swan. These birds weigh around 10kg on average and are pretty heavy for something that can fly. The heaviest flying bird of any species on record was a male Polish mute swan that weighed 23kg (51lb). Mute swans have a reputation for aggression – I have been told “they can break a man’s arm” but have no idea of whether that’s true or not – probably not, their bones have a honeycomb type structure to make them lighter so they can fly more efficiently. They do give impressive displays when under threat and can rise up with wings outstretched and hiss and attack other creatures in order to protect their nest. This display is called busking. Swans also give a nasty bite with what feels like teeth but are in fact jagged lumps on the serrated edges of their bills that are used for catching slippery food like algae, frogs, fish and aquatic plants. Mute swans do make vocal noises but are quieter than other types of swan and they don’t call when in flight but their wings make a loud swoosh that can be heard half a mile away and is used as a form of communication.

The other two types of swan found in the UK are winter visitors – the whooper swan and the Bewick’s swan. Whoopers are the noisiest of the three species and have a yellow and black bill rather the orange bill with black knob of the mute swan. They are large birds that migrate from Iceland to overwinter in the UK and they are often found grazing in fields near large expanses of water. Whoopers use some very sophisticated communication including flapping their wings, bobbing their heads and shaking their necks. This is done to signal to other birds to form a flock and take flight and seems to serve a purpose for getting mates to recognise that their partners are going to take off and ensures they keep to the same flock.

The Bewick’s swan is smaller than the whooper swan and comes to the UK from northern Russia. Like the whooper it has a yellow and black bill but it has less yellow than the whooper and to my  mind looks less clumsy too. The beak patterns on Bewick’s swans can be used to identify them individually and Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust would sit with his family in their home at Slimbridge and paint the visiting swans. The family learned to recognise each individual bird and gave them names.

Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. The Studio in the Scott House. Artworks by Peter Scott. Nicola, daughter of Peter Scott. 08-11-2011 Photograph by Martin Godwin.

 So we’ve learned how animals imprint on things and form attachments that give them a sense of identity and we know that good observers like Peter Scott and his wife and children can even tell different swans apart. So why did the Ugly Duckling not realise something as obvious as his differences? There’s an interesting theorem proposed by Japanese theoretical physicist Satosi Watanabe who was one of the fundamental thinkers on pattern recognition, and its named after the Hans Christian Andersen story. The Ugly Duckling Theorem argues that classification is not possible without some sort of bias. Basically, it shows that a duckling is as similar to a swan as two ducklings are to each other. All differences are equal unless we have some prior knowledge. It is the weighting we put on the categories we put things in that dictates what we view as a similarity. I’ll try and describe it without using complicated equations. Take these 3 objects: An orange, a banana and a ginger cat, like my favourite old tom cat Mojo. Most people would say that the banana and the orange were most similar because they are fruit. That’s because people tend to put a higher weighting on ‘fruit’ as a category than they would on say, ‘colour’. Maybe in a world where fruit is not significant, Mojo and the orange are more similar because of their colouring. If you took another category such as ‘ability to write’ then none of them would have anything in common. To try and find the similarities, you need to make more categories, and the list will be infinite and for every category where you find a similarity, there will be another where there is nothing in common. It is impossible to say which two of these three things are the most similar unless you introduce some bias about what is important to you. And that bias is totally subjective. And that is why I love the Ugly Duckling Theorem – as a lifelong pain in the backside to teachers and all-round smart arse I am thankful to Satosi Watanabe who perfectly describes my total disregard for the biased categories that people usually choose to put things in with maths! I like to think that some of the other people mentioned in this blog may enjoy the theorem too. Many autistic people are great at seeing patterns that other people don’t see and frequently find the neurotypical biases in society puzzling and baffling. Just as baffling as one of my old teachers would find it if I said a cat is more like an orange than a banana is because they’re both orange.

Uncategorized Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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