Promoting observation, free range exploration, sense of place and citizen science.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Baked alive

In South Wales most early season grass fires occur in bracken, gorse, heather and conifer woodland and have a habit of coinciding with school holidays and a period of dry fine weather. Whilst I'm not totally convinced that the finger blame for all of these upland fires can be pointed in the direction of misbehaving valleys youth (those who wish to burn the uplands for other reasons may hide behind this assumption) those that occur annually at The British are odds on for young delinquent fire starters.  

This year the impact on Gwent's most celebrated of brownfield sites has thankfully been relatively low with only a small outbreak on the heathland dominated bank around the disused engine shed. Nonetheless, the ecological impact of any uncontrolled fire should not be underestimated. Its easy to focus on the loss of breeding bird habitat but its not just birds that feel the heat. A kick around in the carbon rich remains of a charred landscape is likely to turn up all manner of barbecued biodiversity. The image below is just a small collection of grove snail (Cepaea nemoralis) collected from a patch of approximately a metre square. At least birds have the ability to leave a site quickly once alight those other less mobile species are doomed. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

The fabric of summer birding

A chilly 7.30am start for walk around The British -see Birdwatching Walks in Gwent for details of route. My chosen parking spot was strewn with the excesses of the previous nights social activity in the former mining communities of this part of the eastern valley. Empty beer cans, soft drinks and takeaway wrappings mingled with bags of builders rubble, a ceramic toilet and a homemade compact disc of the Lighthouse Family's Greatest Hits.  

Heading off with purpose in my stride I was immediately struck by the number of singing willow warbler - they seemed to be everywhere! Other singers included a few chiffchaff, a number of in flight redpoll, a pheasant and a drumming great spotted woodpecker.

Arriving at Big Pond - a de-watered former industrial waterbody, there were meadow pipit, skylark a single parachuting tree pipit, raven, buzzard, two reed bunting and three wheatear but no ring ouzel.

Is it just me or does the frontage of this disused engineering building look like a character from Thomas the Tank Engine or Chuggington?

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Bit of a mess

An hour through SEWBReC's Square of the Month for March near New Inn, Pontypool was highlighted by a fair amount of badger activity. Most of this centred on runs through hedgerows and under fencing augmented by some latrine territory marking. Avian interest was modest with a distant singing chiffchaff, a pair of goldfinch and a mistle thrush about the long and short of it. Nice show of woodland edge flowers though.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Open House

After years of indifferent access to Llandegfedd Reservoir Welsh Water has thrown open its doors to all and sundry. I made two visits this Bank Holiday Monday to a site whereby my last attempt to 'get in' was barred by a double padlocked gate. This time no problem at all. The Fisherman's Car Park was well populated with vehicles including baseball cap wearing lads in their Vauxhall Corsa's playing trance music. Walkers drifted through the gates and around the site with gay abandon - it was surreal! I encountered dozens of walkers, a jogger, several photographers, many dog walkers some with man's best friend on leads but most not, as well as the more traditional residents in the form of fisherman, sailors and yes birdwatchers. Am I angry about Welsh Water's sudden conversation to recreation for the masses? No I don't think I am. For far too long Welsh Water has sought to barr those who don't pay for the privilege of using their sites. As for the SSSI status and its component wildfowl I sense the impact will be small but engaging GOS to conduct a survey to collect the evidence just like the winter sailing survey would have been a useful exercise helping to re-build bridges with the birding fraternity.

The morning visit was to see the garganey reported the previous day from Green Pool bay. Unfortunately the birds had seemingly moved on. Tom Chinnick was on site and he pointed me in the direction of a distant mid water avocet but I missed an earlier osprey. Other birds of note include a singing blackcap, teal and tufted duck. A small patch of wild daffodil made of an attractive spring image.

A couple of free hours came to me unexpectedly in the afternoon so in a hope that the garganey had returned I made my way back to the reservoir. Alas the only addition to the mornings tally was a redshank, a flowering cowslip and several dark-edged bee flies.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

A woodcutter's wander

From Waterworks Lane I lumbered uphill past the disused Nant y Mailor Reservoir into a mature beech woodland where the smooth bark of this western edge of distribution tree were carved with the initials of walkers from generations past. A tawny owl was flushed from small limestone slump shortly followed by a woodcock from the herb layer. The copse showed signs of the ravages of recent winds with a number of trees uprooted and others with limbs lost. The woodland edge, exposed by felling, supported a pleasing population of in flower wood sorrel and dog violet

Into the clear fell where the drystone walls of previous marginal field patterns where once again exposed to the sunlight of an early Spring afternoon. The larch I remember planted when a teenager in this corner of Lasgarn Wood has now been felled leaving a landscape akin to First World War trench warfare. Walking off the haul road was testing. Panting and stumbling over brash, stumps and other wood felling detritus I found easier terrain along the edge of a lodgepole pine stand. Here two crossbill disappeared and meadow pipit and skylark could be to heard from the open moorland beyond. Taking a southerly path past a field with several Welsh black cattle a small valley with more mature beech came into view. Woodpeckers of the great spotted and green varieties were heard but not seen, so too were the chucking of several fieldfare. Up ending a sliver of discarded cut larch revealed three small black weevils. The examination of a voucher specimen whilst keeping an eye on Carry on Camping identified the species as the spider weevil (Barypeithes araneiformis).

Saturday, 28 March 2015

At the second attempt

When I heard of a sighting of a great grey shirke on my local patch at Blaenserchan I was keen to get out at the earliest opportunity. But it took two attempts to connect with the bird.

Visit 1 - Sunday 22nd March 

This first excursion failed to locate the target bird but a leisurely meander through the valley on a mild spring afternoon had plenty more to offer. A singing chiffchaff was my first of the year and a male stonechat near to where the shrike had been sighted was a bonus. Here too was a peacock butterfly taking advantage of the sun traps provided by the remains of the pit head bath house. On to the head of the valley where ancient beech woodland dovetails with an industrial terrain. A clatter of wings and branches preceded a flush of around 250 wood pigeon; a raven called loudly.

When the wildlife thins out I drift on to the many remnants of cultural heritage that this open mosaic habitat on previously developed land provides. A few mature beech trees that survived the ravages of decades of coal excavation within the core of the site reveal some interesting penknife graffiti.

Who Billy Chapman was is any ones guess but the Blaenserchan valley has a long history of mining toil. The most notable event was the Llanerch pit disaster the resulted in the death of over 170 men and boys. The local history society are fund raising for a more fitting memorial to those who died 

Visit 2 - Wednesday 25th March

Having failed on Sunday to track down the target predator a days leave (use 'um or lose 'um) on Wednesday gave me just enough time for a further visit. I had purpose in my stride as I made my way at pace to the area where the bird had last been seen by other birders. This time I located the bird quickly by its song. It was eventually picked on top of a hawthorn tree then alternating between these smaller trees and the tops of nearby mature beech.

Saturday, 21 March 2015


Black Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum) is a widespread fern in Monmouthshire. In the Flora of Monmouthshire author Trevor Evans refers to the population growing between the stonework of  Hill Pits chimney at Garn yr erw near Blaenavon as the highest known location in the vice county. Also notable of late is a Common Whitlowgrass (Eruphila verna). This early flowering plant was recorded recently growing between pavement slabs in Magor and Caldicot town centres. Probably under recorded.

Dunlop Semtex Pond has largely been de-watered for engineering works exposing a margin of smelly mud and assorted urban clutter hoisted in by environmentally friendly locals. However de-watering exercises can provide opportunities for biological recording. In among the debris are many hundreds of dead Horny orb mussel (Sphaerium corneum).

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Spoils of industry

The role of water in the making of Blaenavon's industrial landscape is something of a neglected subject I feel, yet the management of this resource has left a legacy of features that any 'from scratch' nature reserve designer would be proud of. Water based artifacts abound, from numerous reservoirs, some breached and barren features to others still supporting standing water often protected by a thick margin of Juncus. Juncus also delineates the many now disused channels that once transported water from the water bodies to the point of industry use. These days wildlife has moved in to fill void vacated by miners, iron workers and water operatives.

Yesterday's visit to the wetland that is Garn yr erw was marked by numerous singing skylark a bird that's still holding its own in the upland. Several reed bunting called from the willow that's now maturing around the fringes of a number of ponds. From the purple moor grass expanse a snipe called infrequently contrasting with the frequency of red grouse. Here too was a stonechat. To Cefn Garn yr erw where a more contemporary reclaimed land form was marked by around 8 lapwing at home on the Cladonia dominated coal spoil. This is a landscape that delivers much but promises so much more for an inquisitive naturalist!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Aspiration realised

Each time a SEWBReC Square of the Month is released I promised myself a trip to an under recorded 1km no mans land. This aspiration however always seems out of step with spare time availability so as night follows day the enthusiasm  remains unfulfilled - until now perhaps! 

Just like the coincidental Valentines Day release of Fifty Shades of Grey those clever marketing bods at SEWBReC unleashed the March square in time for the first flush of a new spring. Half expecting the Gwent 'box' to be another 'out in the Monmouthshire prairie lands' where rye grass meets ruminant meets barbed wire fence I was taken aback to find this hitherto biological recording whiteout to be just a five minute drive from my workplace. So what self respecting naturalist can resist such over whelming temptation? The gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down!

Despite a quick look at the OS map revealing not much more than fields, a sunken lane, a trig point and a place name of Great Beech, a pond and some woodland offered better prospects for pan species listing, I made my way for a lunchtime recording session motivated by a chaffinch in full song.

A pair of highly polished black Marks and Spencer office shoes prevented any straying off into the agricultural wilderness. So for now backstage of this particular show will remain for another day, but there was enough to whet ones recording appetite. Distant mistletoe, badger runs and ancient beech trees are tempting prospects. A pond just off a Public Right of Way may require some creative navigating. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Five gull spectacular

Now don't get excited today's five gull haul from Tredegar House Lake comprised of 75 black headed gull, and singles of common, herring and lesser black-backed gull. The only larus gem was a single Mediterranean gull. Otherwise there were a couple of cormorant around 10 tufted duck and the usually assortment of common wildfowl including a rooftop moorhen.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Dancing on ice

This weekend the lakes around Brynmawr were 90% frozen with resident wildfowl restricted to small areas of open water. This made for easy viewing. 

At Machine Pond a white call duck rallied the troops and those falling in line included 66 Canada goose, 2 teal, 3 wigeon, 2 great crested grebe, 2 mute swan, a single snipe as well as decent numbers of coot, mallard and moorhen.

The roof top gull breeding site opposite ASDA was well populated with herring gull with a smattering of lesser black-back's. Notable was the return of a pair of great black-backed gulls. These birds have bred at the site for the last two years and are back taking up a position on the roof which is exactly the same as previous years.

Dunlop Semtex Pond has been substantially de-watered thereby reducing wildfowl numbers. The resident pair of mute swan were both ringed birds the male being the colour ringed individual that originates from mid Wales.

At Beaufort Pond there was a pleasing count of 38 wigeon and the small population of mainly immature gulls included a 1st winter (2CY) herring gull with an extra long bill.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Few and far between

My efforts at ring reading, mainly gulls, this winter have been poor. At the main sites its only Tredegar House Lake that's turned in anything worth pursuing. A single black headed gull carrying a Dutch ring has been around for a couple of months or so now. It is hoped things will improve as birds drift back eastwards for the breeding season. 

Last week at Cwmbran Boating Lake, the black swan was still around but by yesterday it had left. A very confiding water rail was only seen on a single day and up to four goosander were constant. At Tredegar House Lake there were a maximum of 11 little grebe and 18 tufted duck. Gull numbers were over a hundred on all recent visits. Botanically marsh marigold was in full flower.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Along the strandline

There was once a time when a mid winter visit to Llandegfedd Reservoir would be dominated by hundreds of grazing whistling wigeon. Seems this evocative scene is now history. Yes sure enough wigeon can still be found but in far fewer numbers than previously. Its a measure of how this site has lost its wildfowl mojo that Sunday's visit involved long periods of padding out with strandline searching. I did however find a dead cormorant not washed up on the strandline but in a grassland near to the Fisherman's car park. Finally 'twas nice to chat to Stephen Shutt who was conducting the monthly wildfowl count he had earlier recorded an over wintering chiffchaff.

Monday, 12 January 2015

I carried a pencil

It was fate that on a day when the French turned out in their millions to demonstrate against a bloody challenge to democracy, I found myself walking around Tredegar House Lake with a pencil wedged between the pages of my naturalist field note book - Je suis Charlie! That said my attempt to fashion a satirical cartoon out of an up-ending pintail failed miserably. 

The lake was well populated with water birds with gulls preferring the open water and wildfowl tucked into the shelter of the tree and reed fringed western end. The count was therefore reasonably healthy with a single male pintail, two mute swan, singles of grey heron and cormorant, eight little grebe, 18 tufted duck and a population of coot, moorhen and mallard. The raft of gulls included four herring, a single lesser black-backed, c 200 black headed and a single adult winter Mediterranean. To finish off a lap around the outskirts of Tredegar House in the hope of a black redstart produced nothing more an goldcrest, goldfinch, mistle thrush and pied wagtail.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Wrong choice

As I approached Brynmawr it became evident that heading north this morning was something of a mistake. At no time during my entire two hour visit to the lakes of north west Gwent did the fog lift beyond 20 metre visibility.

At Bryn Bach Park the freezing fog rendered the walkaways almost inaccessible with ice as I tried to pick out the wildfowl from the gloom. Birds in view included a couple of great crested grebe, 9 goosander, 4 pochard, a single cormorant, 4 Canada goose and good numbers of coot, mallard and tufted duck. The rather confiding female shovelar was still present came close enough to show its pink plastic coiled ring.

At Beaufort Ponds thankfully a modest gathering of wildfowl were close in, including 4 mute swan, 26 wigeon, 3 pochard, a single female goosander and 5 tufted duck.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The last post

Its interesting how the administration of ringing schemes vary from country to country. Take the Icelandic scheme for example if you have a relevant ring or darvic number you are able to get an instant answer to your query by interrogating their online system. Contrast this with the Belgium scheme which still operates on the snail mail approach. The above letter arrived in yesterdays post providing details of a black-headed gull noted from Tintern in early 2014.

Monday, 29 December 2014

No need for wellies

The boot of my car looks like an allotment holders shed. Three jackets - summer (camo for lurking in the bushes), waterproof and florescent with pockets hiding useful nic-nacs. Three items of footwear carrying variable amounts of dry mud - walking boots, steel toecaps and wellies. This attire competes for space with a bag of assorted optical aids and a scope. All of which, I try to convince my wife, are essential components of a naturalists' boot. I plead that I'm misunderstood, but forced, under protest with a man sulk, to have a periodic clear out when the distinctive smell of damp clothes threatens the well-being of those brave enough to share a lift. 

It was therefore fortunate that yesterdays session of urban birding in Newport didn't require any thick brown corduroys and turned down wellies just soft shoes and tidy going out clothes. First up was the comfortable surroundings of Newport's Riverfront Walk. To my surprise a very confiding adult Mediterranean Gull was loafing with a number of black-headed gulls on the railings outside of the theatre. I thought I'd cooked my (mother) goose when the bird took off only to disappear in the distance over Newport Castle and out of sight. Thankfully it returned shortly afterwards. Here too, was a single black-headed gull carrying a ring, but as I fiddled with my camera and battled with the increasing disturbance from cyclists wearing their new Christmas Lycra, I was only able to take one shot before it too took off never to return. The joys of ring reading!

Next up was an attempt at tracking down the nearby black redstart reported from St Woolos Cathedral earlier in the week. I tried to time my visit to avoid the busy period of Sunday mass, but alas, got caught up in a bottle neck of chattering ladies some carrying fresh looking leather bound bibles, as I pushed through the lych gate. It wasn't long before the path took me around the southern edge of the building where the bird was located in full sunshine of the roof. It stayed briefly before dropping out of sight. Despite two more circuits I failed to relocate the bird, suggesting its home patch is wider than just the Cathedral's roof and graveyard. All in all a very enjoyable morning of best clothes birding.

Saturday, 27 December 2014


I love pottering about, that's why I chose a local patch scramble around the Lasgarn Wood clear-fell in preference to a morning visit to Llandgefedd Reservoir. Having grown up calibrating my internal sense of direction around the paths and track ways through homogeneous stands of larch it was somewhat disorientating to find myself walking an extensive open space without a treescape by which to fix my compass. 

I'm warming to clear-fell, not only does it turn back the successional lineage but provides an ecological vacuum by which 'things move in' - the prospect of a first patch great grey shrike is now a real one! It also reveals the true character of the landscape from a time before government sponsored soft wood tree planting sort to influence the composition of the valleys in-bye land. The Lasgarn Wood forestry operations have indeed exposed some glimpses of this past. Some cracking fragments of beech woodland with ample standing and fallen deadwood, a sunken land and dry stones with moss aplenty.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Above all be discrete

Gull ring reading is a challenging pursuit, frustrating, yet rewarding when things fall into place. Imagine the scene, you've found your gull spot but how do you get close enough to read a shiny 10 mm metal ring with inscriptions? 

The most valuable tool in the ring readers carrier bag is bread and the staler the better. Its amazing how just the sight of the white stuff is enough to get the birds gliding in off the water to alight on adjacent fencing or brickwork. Once you've attracted the attention of Larus the next difficulty is spotting the bird carrying the ring from a scrum of frantic feeding gulls. For this I find the best approach is to 'keep 'em keen'. This can be achieved by the economical use of bread with extended periods of no feeding often allowing birds to line up in single file in anticipation of the next shower of feed. Its at this point you can scan for rings.

Now if you are lucky enough to find a ringed bird patience will be an important virtue as to read a ring fully you will  require 360 degree vision and this can only be achieved by field craft. Viewing from just one angle won't get the full sequence you desire. To do this you may wish to adopt the 'dog show judging technique', strut you stuff, stand back, pace up and down, get closer and bend down. 

So to recap, you've found your spot, you've brought the birds in and there's one with a ring. Next its best to call on the services of a camera! I use a Panasonic bridge camera, it has a 32x optical lens giving more than enough reach for ring reading. You will want to take as many photo's as possible as some birds appear and then disappear quickly. Its nothing to take several hundred shots on a good session. And finally the fun bit. Download the images over a cup of tea and hope there's enough of the ring to determine the number.

So there you have it the dummies guide to ring reading gulls. You'll do well to be aware that feeding birds in public places - however much you feel that you are contributing to the knowledge of science - is viewed by some as anti-social, so above all be discrete! 

The following images were taken last weekend and illustrate the challenges of capturing enough of the ring to read the number and country of origin. 

14 Dec 2014.Black headed gull. Tredegar House Lake, Newport
Holland  (full sequence)

13 Dec 2014. Black headed gull. River Wye, Tintern
Belgium  (part sequence)

14 Dec 2014, Black headed gull. Tredegar House Lake, Newport
Finland  (part sequence)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...