Promoting observation, sense of place and citizen science.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Well I'll be damned

Okay I won't be required to fill out a Gwent Rarities Committee description pro-forma for this latest noteworthy record from Llandegfedd Reservoir. These 24 shoveler most in late summer eclipse plumage were present today close to the dam wall and must be one of the largest counts at the site in recent years. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014


The upper reaches of the Afon Lwyd are canalised in true nature conquering style. This heavily engineered section appears to have been constructed to take water away from the now disused adjacent railway line. A pleasant stroll from Garn Lakes LNR this railway cutting with gnarled wooden fence posts takes you deep into the heart of Waun afon bog. Yesterdays visit was populated by four stonechat, three whinchat, a single reed bunting, a hunting sparrowhawk, chiffchaff in sub song and several meadow pipit.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A minor twitch makes a welcome change

Gavin Vella's discovery of a juvenile black tern at Llandegfedd Reservoir produced a minor twitch amongst local birders and once again focused my thoughts on the decline of a site that was once at the core of Gwent's ornithological community.

Yesterday evening the number of visiting scope carriers may have broken through the four mark. This made it one of the most significant gatherings of 'tickers' at the site since the head turning creation of the Newport Wetlands conspired with Welsh Water's access barriers to reduce birding opportunities. What is of lingering concern is that over recent years the long series of comprehensive wildfowl counts that featured so predominately for decades in the Gwent Bird Reports appears to be faltering. And as a venue that's designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its wintering wildfowl, this indifference to data collection and the maintenance of the ornithological legacy must be a worry for all those who consider regular survey to be the bedrock of modern day nature conservation ethic. This is not to decry the efforts of some that have tried to keep the flag flying but with so few birders committed to a monthly wildfowl counts it can often be hard to maintain continuity. I feel there's a role for Gwent Ornithological Society in reversing this trend. Why not return to the days when the outdoor programme was built around a framework of LR wildfowl counts? I'm sure the Bert Hamar Memorial Hide would also benefit from a regular gathering of GOS members.

That said notable birds on offer yesterday included the aforementioned black tern, a passing wheatear and two barnacle goose within  a party of between 250-300 Canada goose. Waders included a ringed plover and two redshank.

Friday, 5 September 2014

A big thumbs up

I was pleased to attend today's launch of GWT's Wildlife Hero's project at Ebbw Vale. Patron Iolo Williams was quest speaker waxing lyrical about nature and well being and the rich biodiversity that can be found in the South Wales valleys - see I'm not the only one! Thanks to Veronika and her team for a very enjoyable event. 

Chatting to Iolo later he was keen show me a couple of examples of the plant gall Robins pincushion. Elsewhere I called in on the big three Brynmawr Ponds. At Beaufort the first two wigeon of the autumn were present along with a calling little grebe, five tufted duck, an adult and immature great crested grebe and a family of mute swan. At Machine Pond a flyover redshank and two tufted duck was just about it. Dunlop Semtex Pond saw the count of dumped shopping trolleys reach a peak of eight whilst coot numbered 40 but tufted duck only seven. Otherwise the raft of fringed water lily was doing well.  

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Look I've got a tenner!

On my way northwards this morning I was confronted by a lad at the roadside frantically waving a ten pound note. I suspect he was looking for a lift after an all nighter - would have stopped but for another car tight on my rear!

As the light was good with blue skies this mornings objective was taking landscape type photos in the Canada Tips area of the Blaenavon landscape. A wheatear posed briefly on a fence post before moving on out of sight and a stonechat called from a monoculture of heather. As the temperature improved odonata stirred  with emerald damselflies and black darter dragonflies the main protagonists. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What a difference a day makes........

Two visits to Llandegfedd Reservoir over the Bank Holiday weekend produced contrasting fortunes. First up on Sunday afternoon the weather was good but passage bird count was poor. Singles of green sandpiper, redshank and three common sandpiper hinted at a slight wader movement. Other notables included four reed warbler, two tufted duck and two teal. There was a colour ringed lesser black backed gull amongst a group of around a 100 birds and a metal ringed Canada goose was also present. Both birds too distant to read any numbers. 

Away from the birds, butterflies could still be found with meadow brown, small tortoiseshell, and common blue present in decent numbers. Singles of gatekeeper and small copper were noted along with a fresh looking painted lady feeding on the extensive stands of fleabane. Also Roesel's bush cricket could still be heard.

And so to Bank Holiday Monday. The rain had moved in and the cloud was low so it came as no surprise to find a fall of commic tern reported from the dam end. A quick visit was rewarded with two common tern on the buoy's close to the boating pontoons; a little egret was also present here along with two great black backed gull.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

GWT - Abergavenny Group

I was pleased to lead a walk for the Abergavenny Group of GWT from Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve to the heather covered Coity Tip and on to Mile Pond. Around 30 attendees included botanical recorders Steph Tyler and Elsa Wood enjoyed a varied landscape from opencast restoration to old spoil tips, ponds and the tourist attraction that is the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway.

With the botanical season coming to close flowering plants were at a premium with monkey flower and devil's bit scabious the best on offer. At Garn Lakes there were up to 10 coot, a single little grebe and three tufted duck. I fear I may have flushed a sedge warbler from the lush marginal vegetation of the upper pond only to see it clattered by a sparrowhawk moments later. Later an adult little grebe with three young was present on Mile Pond.

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.

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