Heronries in Carmarthenshire

This is the unedited version of an article I wrote for last week’s Carmarthen Journal.

I have also added some photos and background information that was not included in the article.

I also put the joke back in that the journal edited out – apologies for that!

“Is it a siege or a sedge of herons?” I wondered as I drove along the A40 towards Carmarthen and watched the magnificent grey bird rise up from the flooded fields by the Towy and fly back to the woodland near Whitemill. For me, these familiar birds conjure up imagery of pterodactyls and the link between birds and dinosaurs is easy to spot. The grey heron has a slow, almost lazy flight with its neck retracted in a S shape – this is characteristic of herons and bitterns and is what distinguishes them from spoonbills, cranes and storks which fly with their necks extended.

The Towy valley has provided a good home for herons for centuries and has West Wales largest heronry, which holds about 10% of the area’s grey herons. A surprising number of heronries are found in the grounds of old mansions, probably because of the well managed woodland and conservation work undertaken by the owners. Newton House is noted to have had a “splendid heronry” containing “scores of herons” in the 1850s and there is still an area near the deer park named The Heronry today. Other significant heronries were noted in the Carmarthenshire Bird Report of 1983 near Llwynywermod and Aberglasney mansions.

I wish to thank Dilwyn Roberts for the fantastic information I was able to gather from his report on Heronries in Carmarthenshire that appeared in the County’s Bird Report of 1983

Studying the archived Bird Reports that are kept hidden away in a back room of Llanelli library was an absolute delight. I sat in a corner while the storm raged outside and lost myself in pages of recordings of years gone by.

Herons do move nesting sites and it appears that birds from the Newton House heronry eventually moved downstream to Allt y Wern near Llangathen, but by 1971 this new site was abandoned and 35 pairs of birds relocated to Allt y Gaer near Dryslwyn. By the mid 1970s this was thought to be the largest heronry in Wales with around 60 nests and it was still well occupied in the 1984 survey of the county’s birds with 56 active nests. The reasons for these relocations vary and is thought to be driven by adverse events. The 1928 census of British heronries notes how a large heronry in Carmarthenshire was destroyed during the Great War of 1914-1918 when timber was felled as part of the war effort. The Napoleonic and Armada periods were also significant times for the destruction of heronries. British records go back to the 13th century and some of these recorded nest sites are still in use. I wonder which heronries were in the Tywi valley when the Princes of Deheubarth were founding castles here?

Place names can indicate the history of wildlife in an area and although Creyr isn’t a word seen much on maps (but please do let me know if you have examples), the Welsh word derived from ‘Crane’ is more frequently used. There are numerous place and house names containing ‘Garan’ and many are near water, both inland and coastal. The grey heron is able to feed on both fresh and salt water fish, as well as amphibians and small mammals but these creatures are vulnerable to pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals so it’s important that ponds, rivers and ditches are protected from pollution for the sake of the life within them and for the rest of the food chain.

Herons are unusual in other ways too. They have a special type of feather on their breasts called powder down, which they crush with their feet into granules and spread over themselves. The powder soaks up the dirt from the heron’s feathers, which it then scrapes off with a serrated claw. It also helps waterproof the birds. Powder down is often found in birds that lack preen glands, such as parrots, herons and tinamous – a Central and South American ground dwelling bird.

The Towy valley has flooded every weekend for weeks. This heron was photographed in a field a long way from the riverbank.

As well as the familiar sight of the silent, solitary, riverbank hunter waiting to stab a fish with lightning speed accuracy; herons are often seen standing still in the middle of a field. This puzzled me initially because they aren’t known for hunting worms like buzzards or blackbirds do. Herons don’t have a crop or gizzard to help with digestion and they swallow their food whole. Fish are usually swallowed headfirst and eels are subdued by being bashed against the ground or stabbed with the beak and eaten. The heron’s S-shaped neck has a special vertebrae that enables the bird to strike quickly and forcefully at its prey as well as having a role in making its flight more aerodynamic and in courtship rituals. The heron can take a long time to digest its food so will stand silently to do this. And why so often are they stood on only one leg? The answer isn’t “because if they lifted it up they’d fall over”. Think about how you keep your hands warm when you put them in your pockets. Birds often stand on one leg to reduce heat loss from their exposed limbs.

My favourite view of a heron was at Oakwood theme park this summer. I had taken my son and his friend and it was a wet and gloomy day which meant crowd numbers were low. The boys decided to see if they could have back-to-back rides on the Megaphobia rollercoaster and I volunteered to hold their coats and watch!  As I stood by the boating lake waiting to hear the screams as the rollercoaster dropped, I saw a heron fishing. I watched it for around half an hour and although families walked past me to join the queue for the ride, only 2 people spotted it. One of whom asked their dad if it was a real heron or animatronic. This bird was so used to the clatter of the wooden rollercoaster and the screams of excited and terrified people, it didn’t flinch each time the ride went past and it just carried on watching the lake silently, occasionally moving a little and then suddenly stabbing at a fish. It demonstrated how well animals and birds adapt to the artificial environments humans construct as long as they can still meet their needs for food, safety and somewhere to live. It also reminded me how many people go about their day to day life without noticing the nature on their doorstep and how important it is to share the wonder of the natural world so that when that young girl next sees an unfamiliar bird, she feels inspired to learn about it and not assume it’s a robot! `

Wellbeing Wildlife

Why it’s good to be a bad photographer…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife Facebook Group cover photo

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

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

Loch Ard taken on my Scottish holiday

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