Promoting observation, sense of place and citizen science.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Footsteps in the spoil

Its almost pure carbon but this plateau at The British is an informal recreation hot spot. Accessible space for local bikers, dog walkers, den builders and naturalists, an unholy alliance of outdoor user groups.

A late posting from last Sunday when the weather was a touch indifferent. Best of a poor bird bunch was a yellowhammer supplemented by linnet, redpoll and blackcap. Vascular plants included western gorse, bell heather, common centuary and the remnants of small cudweed

Off road drivers making a valuable contribution to freshwater ecology by keeping an area of a small pond free of vegetation. Who needs a team of conservation volunteers?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Cefn Ila - birthplace of a modern day naturalist

It seemed fitting that shortly after marking another annual milestone I should choose to visit the site at which I was forceply encouraged to join the world. For a person wedded to the South Wales valleys and my socialist background to realise I was born in true blue rural Monmouthshire rather than on a rug in front of a coal fire is pause for thought indeed. Nonetheless I take comfort in the fact my birthplace is within one kilometre of that of Alfred Russel Wallace.

Cefn Ila was a former maternity hospital on the outskirts of Usk. Burnt down in 1973 the remnant buildings and manicured grounds gradually, over time, reverted back to a jumble of wildlife friendly habitat. Now under the ownership of the Woodland Trust the site and its surrounding grassland has been reborn. Extensive native woodland planting can be appreciated via a circular footpath that takes you to within touching distance of adjacent arable fields and the boundary fence of BAE Systems complete with keep off or you could have your legs blown off warning signage.

Much of the site with its oak and hazel planting is still young enough to qualify as scrub with long grass, thistle stands and bramble thickets all well represented. I had been tipped off by friend and voluntary warden Mike Kilner that a number of interesting invertebrates could be found on site. So the main purpose of my visit was to track down the attractively marked wasp spider.  

From the car park onwards the walk was dominated by the sound of summer orthoptera. Roesel's bush cricket was in fine voice. From the grassland thatch to arable field margins this in my experience is now the best place to see this recent county coloniser.  A hobby passed through at speed and a party of 22 mistle thrush passed over, otherwise it was only goldfinch, bullfinch and blackcap that dared to utter a note. Butterflies were dominated by meadow brown and gatekeepers with small and Essex skipper thrown in for good measure. But the jewel in the crown was a single wasp spider found adjacent to a footpath which obliged nicely for a number of photographs unperturbed by a middle aged naturalist rolling about in the roughage in an effort to get in position.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Late evening in an LNR

Took the mutts for a late evening walk through the extensive lush grasslands of Tirpentwys Local Nature Reserve just north of Pontypool. The sun was setting and the grassland lepidoptera were bedding down for the evening. The butterfly list included Essex and small skippers, small heath, peacock, marbled white, meadow brown, ringlet, small white and common blue. Botanically ladies bedstraw was widespread. The day flying moth Pyrausta purpuralis also showed.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Trevor Bailey, Keith Fletcher, Graham Gooch, Nasser Hussain .........

Those keen on the beautiful game will have possibly already made the tenuous links between the title of this posting and the continuing increase in the number of Essex skipper in Gwent. At Llandegfedd Reservoir on Sunday the butterfly community was populated by small, large and Essex skippers, a dark green fritillary feeding on meadow black knapweed was a surprise and just two marbled white seemed rather low for a species now very widespread. Other lepidoptera included, peacock, gatekeeper, small white, common blue, meadow brown, ringlet and small tortoiseshell.

July and August are peak months for orthoptera. Roesel's bush cricket was in electrical song at around the Usk inlet, dark bush cricket was also noted. The attractive yet common hoverfly Chrysotoxum bicinstum was present in the species rich meadows that now encircle the northern end of the reservoir. 

There was no evidence of any significant bird movement. Chiffchaff and at least three reed warbler were still in song and a great created grebe was sitting on a late brood. However, gull numbers were building with two great black backed gull among a gathering of around 50 birds.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Box of bees

In a roadside pull in just outside Blaenavon there's a regular mix of garden through out plants, but thrown in  for good measure was a cardboard box containing a mini swarm of honey bees. The things you find!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

On Balance it was a good day

The Balance near the Varteg is sandwiched between two areas of post war land reclamation where the rufty-tufty land forms of a proud coal mining community were smoothed over and set to agriculture with simplicity the governing criteria. 

Following a well marked and maintained public footpath I recollect from my last visit some years ago, the presence of a pond and watercourse. These features are no longer visible suggesting some more recent civil engineering activity, which I suspect was executed outside the boundaries of regulation. Progressing beyond agriculture enclosure the path opened onto common land where diverse acid flushes contrast with the hard sun baked spoil. 

A spring with associated sphagnum and common cottongrass was a hot spot for invertebrate activity. While a yellowhammer sang and linnet passed overhead I followed a golden ringed dragonfly patrol in a linear fashion looking for prey - in total I recorded four of these odonata during my visit. Here too was a keeled skimmer a species of dragonfly that appears to be more regularly encountered in the upland margins of the south Wales coalfield. However the most striking sight was that of flowering ivy-leaved bellflower once again a plant that is at home in acidic wetland habitats.

Moving upwards it became apparent it was going to be one of those iconic summer butterfly days. Marbled whites, ringlets, small heath and small skippers were numerous. These were augmented by a good population of grayling that were happy to alight on the well trodden path as I puffed uphill. Other less frequent species included a single gatekeeper and two rather worn small pearl-bordered fritillary.   

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Beside a concrete plinth

In  the edgelands of Blaenavon just short of a turning to Llanelly Hill and in view of the largest upland bog in Gwent (a site waiting to be valued by those charged with valuing such valuable habitats!) is an unofficial, bootleg roadside pull in. This highway notch provides easy access to another fading facet in the over exploited valleys landscape. Here the remnants of a concrete plinth fractured by the freeze thaw activities of an often hostile winter climate has bedded down with coal spoil a tarmac track and a perished size 8 Wellington boot to provide a botanical past time for a child at heart inquisitive naturalist.

Just like the first bend of an Olympic 1500 metres final plants jostle for position behind the pace setting purple moor grass (Molina caerulea) and common cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium). On the edge of a short length of the black stuff 20+ bee orchid (Ophrys apifera ) are just coming into flower. These are late individuals but no surprise given the lofty elevation in which they've chosen to frequent. Elsewhere wild thyme (Thymus drucel) flowers along with the dainty fairy flax ( Linum catharticum ). A single moonwort (Botrychuim lunaria) pushes its way through a bed of moss whilst overhead up to 30 meadow pipit and an odd goldfinch line an electricity wire calling to fledglings hidden in nearby thatch. The larval cases of burnet moths litter the storks of gramineae species but the only visible was a single adult narrow bordered five spot (Zygaena lonicerae) on a now withering southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa). The diminutive blue fleabane (Erigeron acer) dominates the otherwise lichen dominated skin of this upland rudural feature. All in all enough to satisfy the simple demands of a working class naturalist, one of more pure breeding would no doubt make a longer list  

Friday, 4 July 2014

Blast furnace slag slope

I make an annual pilgrimage to the limestone blast furnace slag slope (bit of a mouth full!) on the northern edge of the Gilchrist Thomas Industrial Estate, Blaenavon around this time of year for the plants and associated invertebrates. I've not done any specific research as to the origin of this slag but its a fair assumption that its a by-product of the nearby Blaenavon Ironworks now managed and showcased by CADW.  However what limited knowledge I have about the industrial heritage of this area suggests that this mountain of slag has largely gone unnoticed by local armchair industrial historians.

This south facing slope is fringed in trees offering a micro-climate that benefits plant diversity, and as its a mainly limestone substrate it provides an island of variety within a wider sea of acidic habitats. The sparse yet colourful habitat is dominated by cats ear ( Hypochaeris sonchoides), ox eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and birds foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). Search more carefully and you will find blue fleabane (Erigeron acer), wall pepper (Sedum acre), southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) and common restharrow (Ononis repens). Day flying moths are represented by the limestone loving micro Pyrausta despicata and orthoptera by the mottled grasshopper (Myrmeleotettix maculatus).

Friday, 27 June 2014

You've avoided the boiling oil and then........

Usk Castle has adopted a modern day defence system by allowing a stand of giant hogweed to mature within its grounds. Not sure why they've not chosen to deal with this species but it was an interesting sight nonetheless.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Heading east

Dropped down into the Usk Valley for some true country walking in rye grass dominated fields beside the River Usk at Llanwenarth. It was not long before my way was barred by a horse and several immovable tail swishing cows.This had me scrambling down a bank onto the pebble dominated river margin. It was not long before I pick up the call of a common sandpiper actively feeding on the extensive shoal deposited along this part of the river. The soft sandy banks provided nesting opportunities for sand martin with two separate colonies noted. A couple of heron dropped in and a kingfisher and grey wagtail flew past.

Insects were is little thin on the ground and in the air. A stand of nettle edged with thistle supported a number of small tortoiseshell and a fly past red admiral. On the return journey I chased a male clouded yellow through a field until it alighted long enough for a photo. Twelve or more male banded demoiselle danced among riparian herbage.  

Friday, 20 June 2014


A couple of evenings ago I took a bus mans trip to Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve where I was in search of dragonflies around the recently established reedbed.  Success came in the form of hundreds of scarce blue-tailed damselfly and two black-tailed skimmer. A healthy supporting cast included the reed beetle (Donacia vulgaris), several reed bunting, many hundreds of southern marsh orchid and a single bee orchid.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Welsh Chafer

Another lunchtime One Hour Challenge had me chomping on my sandwiches whilst wandering around a meadow in Llanyrafon - this is multi-tasking in action. An in flight coleoptera alighted on a patch of Rubus and turned out to be the Welsh Chafer (Hoplia philanthus). A not often recorded beetle but under recorded rather than rare I suspect. Same bramble patch supported the large attractive hoverfly (Volucella Bombylans) and in the meadow were a couple of Narrow-bordered Five Spot Burnet moths.

Friday, 13 June 2014

One hour challenge

I like Springwatch especially Unsprung so in true Nick Baker fashion I took the One Hour Lunchtime Challenge hitting the Mon and Brecon Canal for some odonata watching. I was pleased to be able to track down a dozen or so red eyed damselfly among the azure and blue tailed. A tree bee also performed.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Leapt on

A marathon three hour session in the Blaenserchan valley looking for tickable lepidoptera ended in a right royal soaking. This unsuspecting small heath got pounced on by a lying in wait crab spider. The number of active small pearl bordered fritillary peaked six and green hairstreak at just a single. Other notables included an early cinnabar moth. Interesting plants didn't get much beyond a couple of moonwort. 

Saturday, 7 June 2014


Made my way this morning to that large area of bracken and gorse dominated heathland otherwise known as Cwm Lickey. With the skies still dark and the continued threat of another bout of thunder, lighting and heavy rain I didn't venture too far in case of getting caught out by a trouser wetting downpour. Linnet, skylark, tree pipit, meadow pipit, raven, redpoll and willow warbler weren't too difficult to track down. A horse grazed meadow that had clearly been agriculturally improved in recent years was supporting a population of around 150+ common spotted orchid.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Heritage trees

There's a disused forgotten farmstead on the hillside above Blaenavon by the name of Tir Abraham Harry. For readers of the human landscape its not too difficult to trace the remnants of a farm building, some collapsed drystone walls - now covered in bilberry - and a fragmented field boundary of gnarled and stunted hawthorn with two similarly weathered crab apple trees.   

Crab apples are not something often found in the uplands as text says the altitudinal range of this species is about 400 metres. Tracing the contour line on my Landranger puts these two trees at just over this limit. For a landscape elevated to global status for its historical unsustainable use of natural resources its reassuring to find at least some escapees from those scorched earth times.  

Kicking about in this landscape I flushed a sitting meadow pipit and encountered a pair of stonechat defending their nest site, skylark were widespread, a reed bunting sang and linnet and redpoll were frequent. Although is was early morning several large red damselfly were on the wing and the attractive upland click beetle was in flight.

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