Starlings and a side order of goose

Suddenly the weekend is upon us again. The working week has taken its toll, with Friday being particularly tough. It has left an emotional hangover lingering well into Saturday, with the metaphorical dementors hovering over my shoulder once again. But no chance of a duvet day as I play the role of working mum on her second ‘job’- running about trying to catch up on all of the household chores I haven’t completed during the week. By 4pm (having been up with the mini farmers since 7am) I really, really needed a break. Fortunately it was tea time, so whilst F took the mini farmers in for tea, I headed off in search of Starlings.

 

 

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Sturnus vulgaris from the RSPB

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are listed on the RSPB Red status list. This may come as a surprise, as they are still one of the most abundant birds at UK bird tables. However, European flocks have declined substantially (by 80%) over recent years.

At first glance,these birds are extraordinarily beautiful. Dappled plumage, gleaming iridescent green and purple-black as it catches the light.They are noisy and gregarious, full of personality. Their mechanical song, full of clicks, whirs and chirrups is delightful to listen to. Delightful, that is in, when there are only one or two.

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Autumn time sees the arrival of hundreds if not thousands of starlings to our farmland. This year they seem to have arrived a bit later than usual, normally arriving by the 19th. Over the past few weeks they have appeared in small flocks of 10 or 20 birds, but by the end of this week our trees were adorned with thousands of them.

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The birds spend their days roosting in trees around the farm, heading down to the fields or into the cattle sheds to feed. Just before dusk they start to gather, getting ready to head off for their night time roosts, in reed beds, woods or even farm buildings. As daylight fades they come together in flocks of hundreds and thousands, until their number reaches into the hundreds of thousands.  This is the time to see their aerial performances, the spectacle of the murmuration.

If you have witnessed a murmuration you will know how mesmerising they are. Thousands of small bodies seemingly flying as one, a massive feathery swarm that shape shifts, dives and belly rolls over your head. Why it occurs is a bit of a mystery. Varies theories have been postulated, including sensible suggestions of dilution effect (whereby the large flock of starlings will make it harder for a predator to single out an individual victim as prey) and heat conservation. Whatever the reason it is still a sight to behold.

As I make my way across the Croft field a flock of starlings rises up from beyond the field boundary hedge. It spirals upwards, tornado like, before splitting in two. One flock settles back down behind the hedge, the other atop a sycamore tree.

A distant honking signals the arrival of geese. According to F these have been coming to feed on the stubble aftermath for several weeks now, but I haven’t had the chance to see them. Sure enough they perform a fly past, in v formation, before banking right and landing in the stubble. I later count 70 individuals, honking and waddling their way across the shorn field.

 

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My camera battery died so I had to resort to iPhone back up! you can just make out the mass of birds against the hedge line….if you squint!!

I make it to the gate between the croft and the barley stubble field. From the middle of the field came a tidal whoosh and crash as hundreds of starlings took off as  one. They swirled overhead, individual dots set in almost Brownian motion across the steel grey sky. Like a cloud of midges on a summer evening, the hover over head, swooping and soaring around the field margin before settling back down again. Apparently each bird’s movement influences the flight pattern of its closest seven neighbours only, which explains  the fluidity of their flight en masse.

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Despite my awe at murmurations I must confess to having a love hate relationship with S.vulgaris. The zoologist in me sees a fascinating bird, capable of creating one of natures most amazing phenomenon. After several years of living on a farm and working with other farms where starling flocks roost, I can also see the downside. Every year our cows, and cattle on other farms, suffer from Starling pressure. Cow feed is an easy free meal for our feathered friends, and it is nigh on impossible to keep them out of the barns. We have tried everything, from bird scaring devices to mesh bird screens, and even helium balloons (a pink flamingo worked for a short while!)The sheer number of birds that arrive on the farm means that a lot of food is eaten, food that is meant for the dairy cows. The cows can even become ill, with stary coats, and look a sorry sight if they end up covered in starling poo. Its not just the cows that suffer either. After a couple of days of living with thousands of starlings outside your front door, the novelty soon wears off. Everything gets covered in starling droppings, and their incessant chatter en masse is deafening! I can understand why people (including myself) get fed up with them. I guess this is just one small scale example of living with conservation- the birds are protected under law. We live in an area which provides suitable habitat for them to roost. Loss of permanent pasture and pesticide use has been attributed to the decline in Starling numbers, but as you are now more likely to see a rural rather than urban starling, questions need to be asked about what has happened to push the birds out of the towns where they used to roost historically (e.g Manchester and Newcastle.)

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As a result of our fields full of winter stubble and plentiful supply of easy feed we end up living cheek by beak with thousands of starlings for approximately 6 months of the year. We have to put up with a lot of noise and mess, to the point that 2 year old C refers to all bird poo as ‘naughty starling poo’! On the flip side, we do get to witness spectacular murmurations without having to venture too far at all.

 

Singing hawthorn

I have been back at work for a month now. 30 days that have passed in a blur of consultations and operations, laboratory results and medications. I have survived my first weekend on call, spending a whole 48hrs slightly on edge waiting for my pager to bleep. I have seen hamsters, doves, cats, kittens, puppies, dogs and even a bat. Some cases have been straightforward, some not so, and there have been a few ‘final goodbyes’ too.

It has been nice to be back, doing a job that I love but my gosh the weekends are needed! I have missed my mini farmers, I have missed the outdoors and I have missed my own four legged companions! Fortunately Saturday mornings come round quickly, and whilst the mini and not so mini farmers are breakfasting, I slip out to spend some ‘quality time’ with the goatlings.

They call to me as I put on my boots. My whispered hello is usually met with a volley of bleats, getting louder as I get closer. As soon as I open the stable door they are pushing forward, eager to be out. Lead reins attached we set off along the road, with the autumn sunlight casting our 10 legged shadow across the tarmac.

The quarry field is a particular favourite of mine. A wide flat expanse of lush green grass greets us as we step through the double gates off the main road. To our left the cow track acts as a field boundary, snaking down into the valley to meet the stream. We bear left, heading towards the old quarry. The grass underfoot glistens with dew.

We pass the midden, adorned with a crop of inky blue fungi. A narrow animal track runs

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past the dung heap, footprints in the mud suggest hedgehog, as well as gulls and other birds. Badger and fox frequent this field too, snaffling up worms and rooting through dung bats to catch beetles.

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Behind the midden lies a dense patch of nettles and brambles. We skirt around it and head down into the hollow that marks the start of the old quarry. This is the spot where we sighted our camera trap, and we know that at least 3 foxes count this area as part of their territory. The camera also caught sight of one large badger, one large hedgehog and a murder of magpies who came to steal my fox bait.

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At the back of the nettles and brambles stands a hawthorn, squat and twisted from the onslaught of the wind. It is glowing with berries, and alive with birdsong. Warbling fills the air, crystal clear notes trilling and tripping out from the branches. I try to push closer through the tangle of weeds to get a better look. A small dark bird perches on a twig at the top of the tree. I can make out a handful of others flitting amongst the branches, but I can’t get close enough to make out the species. Black redstart perhaps? Or a warbler?

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We dip down into the bowl of the quarry, the goats picking their way gingerly down the muddy bank. They hate to get their feet wet! Beneath the trees is another world, dank and dripping with raindrops from the branches overhead. It is cooler down here, and the stench of fox is overpowering. I feel as if we are intruding.The goatlings leave swiftly, and I follow.

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We head back towards the gate, and I am aware again of the hidden history lying inches beneath my feet. Less than a hands breadth of soil covers the remains of a roman settlement.

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Credit Dyffed archaeological society

When the site was dug a few years ago the local archaeological society were quite excited.Amongst the expected shards of pot, coins, charcoal and beads they found evidence of a potential fort, or possible outpost of the roman army. A typical fortification, complete with substantial timber structures and even a roadway, which is amazingly preserved.

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Credit Dyffed Archaelogical trust

Until this site was excavated, archaelogists believed that the most western welsh roman remains were in Carmarthen.  I still can’t quite grasp the fact that over a thousand years ago a roman centurion may have stood in this spot and gazed out across this valley.

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If it hadn’t been for this fields role as grazing, these treasures of our ancient past may not have been so well preserved. Farming, especially small family farms, has an important place in the preservation of not only wild flora and fauna, but our culture and heritage too.

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We make our way back to the gate, the goatlings stealing mouthfuls of grass as we go. Back on the road we dodge the rush of Saturday morning traffic, mums and dads ferrying kids too and from soccer, leaving us to jump into the hedge as they zoom past. I feel like we have rejoined the ‘real world’ again, and quite a large part of me would like to step back into the quarry field, close the gate gently behind me and just keep walking, photographing and writing as I go. But that, well…it wouldn’t pay the bills now would it.

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The lady and me #EndTheStigma

The other day I met a lady who reminded me of me.

She stood in front of me, shaking, scared, hyperventilating, trying to speak through a stream of tears and fear. She wanted help, but she didn’t have anyone to turn to.

Something small, probably trivial to you or any other onlooker, had made her think all of the worst things in the world were happening to her at once.

She was terrified.

And my heart imploded.

Because she is me.

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I know that fear. It follows me round too. A sickening dread, as if something terrible is about to happen and there is no way I will be able to stop it. Except there isn’t anything bad going to happen. Or if there is, it is something that to most people is so small and insignificant, something that can be rationalised and a likely outcome can be guessed. Something mundane and everyday.

Or if there is no fear there is a niggly doubt. A little gremliny thought that nibbles and worms its way around my head, goading me. Something I can’t put my finger on, although I do my best searching my mind for what it could be.  On good days, when my medication (yes that’s right, I have medication, lucky me!) is working the daemons fade, the dementors shrink and I can smile. My sense of humour, my ‘patronus’, can ward off the darkness and keep the anxiety at bay.

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On bad days, throwaway comments or gentle teasing by others will hit me like daggers,stabbing at my insecurities. For most people, these comments would slide over their head like rain off a ducks back. But the lady and me, we aren’t like ‘most’ people. We are one of the ‘1 in 4’ mental health statistic that you might have heard about. Mental health practitioners (and society in general) like labels. My particular labels are ‘General Anxiety Disorder’ and ‘Depression’. I could probably have a small sticky label with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder too, but that one isn’t official yet.

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I don’t like labels. Labels define, pigeonhole and box people in. My problems are not well defined shades of black and white. They are grey. But society likes labels. They like to know what they are dealing with. They like to be able to categorise, and separate ‘normal’ from ‘not normal’. I guess to most , the lady and I would fall into ‘not normal’. I can’t speak for her, but I can speak for me, and I’m ok with that. I don’t want to be normal. But I don’t want to be ‘crazy’ either.

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‘Crazy’ is how other people saw the lady. ‘She’s acting weird’ they said ‘She’s crazy’. No, I tried to explain. She has anxiety. Her brain works differently to yours, and she is scared. She thinks the worst thing is happening. She might even think she is going to die. You need to reassure her. You need to calm her. You don’t need pity her.  You don’t need to be afraid of her. Talk to her normally,don’t roll your eyes or snigger behind her back. Don’t say she is being silly, however silly or small or pointless you think her fear is. To her it is real. And that is all that matters.

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We’re going to the zoo!

Pembrokeshire is quite a special place to live. Not only are we spoiled for choice when it comes to beaches, countryside and wildlife spotting opportunities there are many attractions to take advantage of too. Unfortunately these tend to come with a hefty entrance price. Soon we will enter the territory of ‘three and over’, apparently the age at which you must start paying for children. I have no idea why. Three year olds don’t take up that much more space than two year olds. Anyway, I’ve decided to make the most of the last month of getting both children in free…well as least legitimately anyway.

Anna’s Welsh Zoo is somewhere we have been before, and it has always been a lovely experience. Although it has competition from Folly farm, another zoo a few miles away, I have found it to be a completely different experience. From the minute you pull into the car park, it feels much more like a safari park than a zoo. It is spread across 52 acres of Pembrokeshire parkland, which provides a stunning backdrop for the animals.

C was super excited. We hyped each other up a wee bit on the short journey to the park, singing back to back zoo themed songs (‘we’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo…how about you you you?) and guessing which animals we might see (me- wallabies C- dinosaurs Jo Jo-I think she said ‘baa’ so I guess she meant sheep…probably).

The entry price was actually very reasonable, just over £13 for me. I managed to push cost up by buying some ‘special ‘wallaby’ food (£1 a packet, seemed a bit overpriced for 3 pieces per bag, but I couldn’t say no.Walked myself into that one, well and truly).

Once in, we made a pit stop at the hand washing station. To minimise risk of infection,visitors are asked to wash hands before and after going into the exhibits. As you can see, the stations are the perfect height for children.

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The walkthroughs are one of the best bits of Anna’s zoo. The animals are incredibly relaxed, and do not seemed stressed out by human presence at all. If they decide they don’t want to hang out with people, they have plenty of space and hideaways provided for them to retreat to.

There are lots of signs up explaining how to get the most out of the experience. Basically the advice (very good advice) is to let the animals come to you. I was surprised by how much C enjoyed the wallabies. She even managed to feed some!

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We made it to the Lemurs just in time for feeding. This walkthrough is one of the largest of its kind in Europe, and it is amazing. Red Ruffed and Ringtailed lemurs are 2 of the 5 species that swing, lollop and scramble around this enclosure. And they come right up to you.  C sat on a log next to one lemur who was busy stuffing a vegetable into his or her mouth. She had a lovely, if slightly one sided conversation about the weather, the colour of her shoes, and what the lemur was eating. The lemur was not bothered one iota. Jo Jo loved it too. She spent her time craning out from her buggy, making appreciative cooing and ahhing noises. To me the entrance ticket was worth just seeing the girls enjoy watching these amazing creatures.

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Lemurs and toddlers -in tune and at one.

The Valley of the apes walkthrough is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. I think it should be renamed valley of the funky gibbons, as they are the only species residing there. Still, what’s not to like about a gibbon.

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The Gibbon family were tucking into lunch when we got there. Steve, an original resident who predates the creation of Anna’s Welsh Zoo, was possibly feeling a bit antisocial as he went into his indoor area as soon as we arrived. We do tend to have that effect on some humans too, so I won’t hold it against him.

The Warren with its Flemish rabbits is a recent addition. Jo Jo seemed to make pals pretty quickly, despite the fact that the rabbits were as big as her!

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The last walkthrough is the African Village, the inhabitants of which include Pygmy goats (including one who looks very preggers at the mo), a Spur thighed Tortoise, assorted Chooks and some Cameroon sheep. The girls were quite enamoured with one of the sheep. She was spread eagled in the middle of the path, and didn’t budge whilst they gave her a very gentle hug.

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The walkthroughs are probably only a third of what the wildlife park has to offer. The African Grasslands, home to rhino, ostriches and zebra,  is what I imagine safari to be like. Obviously you also have to imagine the warmth, lack of rain and generally sunnier climate since we are in Pembrokeshire, but you get the drift.

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Pembrokeshire …or Kenya?!

There are also Prezwalski’s horses, noisy Emu, Alpacas, Oryx, Capybara, Marmosets, Tapir and Camels in the park.

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New for 2016 are the Tigers and work is still ongoing  with their housing (brave builders eh?!)

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Play time

No matter how amazing the animal enclosures are, the lure of soft play cannot be avoided.  The new indoor area, installed this year, is fantastic. It is housed in three rather space age looking domes. One contains Little Tikes cars, rockers, wheelybugs and space hoppers. The middle one is a seating area and the other large dome houses a multi level soft play. I literally had to bribe the children to leave it.  Slides, trampolines, ball pit…it had something for everyone. Normally soft play to me is akin to dantes 7th circle of hell. This one, not too shabby!

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The  indoor hay play area proved great for letting off some steam too.

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There are some ‘traditional’ outdoor play areas with slides and climbing frames, as well as two huge sand pits.Then there are the assorted out door toys scattered across the front lawn,  with the bouncy castle and dragon stage too. All of which can be seen from the outdoor seating for the café.

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Munch time.

I broke one of my cardinal rules and bought lunch today. Fortunately it was yummy. The girls had a cheese sandwich to share between themselves and the ‘Ostentation’ (that really is the correct collective noun) of peacocks that loitered around our table. rsz_dsc_0687

I had a vegan onion Bhaji sandwich and seriously good coffee. There are hot options available too, and the café is very child/baby/breastfeeding friendly.

Exit via the gift shop

I broke another cardinal rule by stopping in the gift shop. I couldn’t resist a Koi Carp wind sock (god knows where I will hang it) and the girls had a toy snake each. To be fair, there is a lot of choice, with many affordable items and everything is zoo related.

By now the girls had started to become tired and cranky so we called it a day. Hopefully we will return soon, so we can make use of the bubble ticket (buy twice, go as many times as you want) before the inevitable third birthday!