Promoting observation, free range exploration, sense of place and citizen science, through the field notes of a naturalist.

Saturday, 21 March 2020


Water is generally an unacknowledged landscape feature of Blaenavon. Disused reservoirs, ponds, streams and marshy grassland all conspire to mop up after a period of rain. So on a recent excursion to the Garn yr erw area it was no surprise to find this sodden environment extensively damaged by the repeated actions of bikers and four wheel drivers. Modern day tram lines were etched in the mud along a promoted walking route. I wonder about the mentality of those who pursue this activity. Yes, fun it may be, but highly damaging to a landscape with an international status. Do they care? It doesn't look like it. They ride without fear of the consequences. Three youngsters passed me on their bikes. Down a footpath they went opening two field gates on the way, churning up the path in their wake, then up the main Blaenavon to Brynmawr Road. No licence plates, no insurance, no Police to be seen. Modern day bandits, stealing a landscape from those who have a deeper and more appreciative understanding of its history both natural and social.  

On a cheerier note, nature has a habit of fighting back, after all this area was abused by our mining forefathers but is now an ecological treasure trove. There was some birdlife. Meadow pipits were widespread with several skylark too. A couple of stonechat regularly dropped out of sight from their fence post perches just to reappear from the cover of ground vegetation moments later, gradually working their way along a checkered field boundary of wooden posts and remnant dry stone walls, with an occasional lichen covered hawthorn. While five bikers rode a nearby tip I watched a red kite drift overhead. Turning up hill away from the hum of  the bikers I flushed a snipe from beneath my feet. I could hear a reed bunting eventually finding it ground feeding on a bank of a small redundant reservoir.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Street art and wildlife: Another trip to Fuerteventura

First things first, I don't do birding holidays. Holidays have always been for the family, doing things dads do on family holidays does not include the self indulgent pursuit of birds. But now my children are adults with their own lives, holidays have more flexibility. So while my wife absorbs the benefits of sun shiny days I can take myself off for an hour here and there to track down the local wildlife.

Last November we took ourselves off to what has become our second home. We have been holidaying in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands for the last ten years or so using the same apartments, frequenting the same nights spots and dining in the same restaurants. We are just like swallows returning to the same farmhouse porch year after year, creatures of habit. 

So the following holiday report is based, not on a race around the island chasing the many endemic species that are present, but more on opportunist encounters fitted in around conventional holiday activities.

Day One

After a delayed flight and a hotel transfer that took an age, we arrived late evening, so, predictably,
day one started mid morning. There's a patch of rough land just on the outskirts of town that is part unfinished development and bare part volcanic rock. Here, on a previous holiday, I was surprised to find a couple of stone curlew. This time there was no such joy, but a Canarian crested grasshopper provided the compensation.

On the way back I drifted through the now largely disused water park. Unkempt and unmanaged this theme park is abandoned apart from a few satellite buildings including one that appears to be a heavy metal club, decorated with half decent street art. Street art that is somewhat more eye catching than the Sharon loves Kevin en-devours of the South Wales valleys. A hoopoe glided between buildings, alighting on patches of available grass. 

The afternoon was arranged around a coastal walk. This provided the first opportunity to make contact with the wading birds that are so accessible in this part of Fuerteventura. Totals for this walk included, 6 turnstone, 13 Sandwich tern (two with metal rings), 2 common sandpiper, 1 whimbrel, 2 ringed plover and 4 or more yellow-legged gull.

Our hotel complex contained the expected community of urban birds, collared dove and Spanish sparrow were widespread. To my surprise a walk through the grounds produced a Monarch butterfly easily the largest butterfly I've seen.

Day Two

I said we are creatures of habit so day two retraced our footsteps of the previous day. The two mile beach walk was populated by 3 little egret, 1 grey plover, 2 greenshank, 1 Kentish plover, several ringed plover and numerous yellow-legged gull. On the return journey a couple of hoopoe flapped through the holiday homes and a great grey shrike showed briefly.

Day Three

Today we went to Flag Beach where there are more naturists than naturalists. I felt a bit uneasy carrying binoculars and a camera, but its their choice to take their clothes off not mine. The now busy road to the beach skirts a National Park that consists mainly of sand dunes. For the first time I picked up a couple of cattle egret. No need for binoculars as they were running across the road chasing what appeared to be geko type lizard. Thankfully they survived. On the shore there were a few colour-ringed Kentish plover. Seems there is n on-going a colour-ringing project on Lanzarote. 

Day Four

Today the bird haul included, a party of up to 20 sanderling, a number of whimbrel, several grey plover and the usual kentish and ringed plover. Singles of common sandpiper, turnstone, raven and Berthelot's pipit. Back at the hotel, both little egret and great grey shrike put in an appearance. On the invertebrate front it was home from home with a single red admiral.

Day Five

This was a more overcast and breezy day than the previous one. A low tide produced the now somewhat familiar community of wading birds, including turnstone, ringed plover, grey plover, Kentish plover, dunlin, common sandpiper, whimbrel and black tailed godwit. Off shore there was a good raft of Cory's shearwater with regular Yellow-legged gull.

Day Six

The last full day of birding was all about improving my stock of photos - so here we are.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Heritage hawthorns

Heritage in the South Wales valleys is one dimensional. Ask any layperson what they understand by heritage and I wager their response will be framed around our industrial past. Yet heritage comes in many forms and whilst I understand peoples affection to coal mining and the valley towns that grow around the employment that the winning of natural resources brought, for me my heritage is rooted in nature. 

There are of course strong links between industrial heritage and nature. Some of the most biodiverse habitats occur on areas formerly despoiled by mineral working. Coal spoil tips, redundant reservoirs and quarries all conspire to create a landscape that can tell us much about the regenerative nature of the natural environment as it does about mans short sighted drive for a society based on carbon.

With such a focus on the industrial revolution it can be easy to oversee that there was a worked agricultural landscape that pre-dates heavy industry. To find evidence of this one needs to look at the landscape with a different eye. This can be done through the medium of trees. Therefore my recent, new found quest to record notable, mature, veteran and ancient trees had me searching the disused farmsteads and field patterns of Blaenavon for evidence. 

Along with dry stone walling, hawthorn field boundaries were common place in the uplands of South Wales. Whilst stone walls have fared better it can now be difficult to find extensive field margins of hawthorn - nowadays replaced by fencing. All that often remains are remnant features. But it is these natural artifacts that will often contain some of the more aged trees that I seek. And its these remaining features that I believe are as important to the story of Blaenavon as the Ironworks or Big Pit.

A couple of hours in the field towards Pwll Ddu provided enough evidence that notable hawthorns can still be found. The tree illustrated below measured approximately 2 metres in girth. All hawthorn trees over 1.5 metres girth are regarded as ancient trees.

Whilst I was able to measure the above tree, others that appear to be more aged proved to be just out of reach on private land. I was only, therefore, able to view and photograph from adjacent common land. Below are some of the images to whet the appetite.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Recording trees

Despite the advent of Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) and Felling Licences I feel trees have little effective protection. Any sense that a tree is a health and safety risk it will be dealt with in swift time, so any additional protection must be well received. A small step in the right direction came last year when the publication of Planning Policy Wales Edition 10 introduced a requirement for planning authorities to consider trees listed on the Ancient Tree Inventory when arriving at their decisions. However the inventory is only as good as the information it contains, so it came as no surprise to find that there are no trees at all listed for my local patch in the upper Afon Lwyd valley - nothing between Pontypool and Blaenavon. So in an effort to alter this I spent a hour walking around the Lasgarn Wood with tape measure and camera.

The good thing about recording trees at this time of year is that notable individuals can be easily picked out in a woodland landscape devoid of its foliage. Although the Lasgarn Wood is an ancient woodland it was worked for its limestone during the industrial heyday and thereby lost most of its mature trees. However, some remain on its margins and it was these I sort to record.

Measuring the girth of trees is easier said than done. Securing the tape measure at approximately 1.5 metres on uneven ground is an acquired skill. Nonetheless I measured two beech trees, I considered worthy of a closer examination.  The first measured around 5.28 metres with the second being 4.63 metres. These will be added to the inventory is soon as possible and will start me on a journey of recording notable, veteran and ancient trees on my patch.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

After a fallow period

A series of regular autumn visits to the River Usk in Newport Town Centre has produced next to nothing in terms of rarer gulls and birds carrying rings. In fact the numbers of larger gulls has been disappointingly low. This week has seen a bit of a turnaround in ring reading fortunes with a British ringed black-headed gull from Tintern and a couple of Canada goose from Cwmbran Boating Lake.

As is often the case with Canada geese the two birds at the boating lake were very confiding, following anyone who with a packed lunch. Although one bird had its ring on upside down - something I know ringers are keen to avoid -  I suspect both birds were ringed at Llangorse Lake. I will report all three birds to the BTO as soon as I can and report any interesting information here or on my @valleynature Twitter feed. 

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