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

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)

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Clear-fell good or bad?

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is chipping away at its obligations under a Plant Health Order delivered by DEFRA. The issue is the Phytophthora ramorom infection in stands of European larch that's best resolved through a policy of clear-fell. In Gwent characteristic stands of conifer plantations from Wentwood to Cwmcarn and all relevant points in between are being axed in an effort to protect commercial forestry interests.

My local patch at the Lasgarn Wood was one such plantation earmarked for felling. This raised a few eyebrows among local birders due to the presence of breeding buzzard, raven, siskin, goshawk etc. not forgetting the red wood ant (Formica rufa) colonies. For me, I am more relaxed, after all these trees were planted as a crop to be harvested at some point anyway. Its also fair to say that many of these trees will have been planted on ancient woodland sites and NRW is looking at this work as an opportunity to escalate their native woodland restoration aspirations - they are even seeking to retain some standing deadwood!

Like many land management perturbations there will be winners and losers but in this case the breeding birds affected are arguably of least conservation concern, although goshawk is a schedule 1 bird! The cleared land with its brash, deadwood and a few remaining sentinel like native trees that avoided the chop will be colonised by a different community of birds come next breeding season. The prospect of grasshopper warbler, nightjar and other assorted summer migrants is mouth watering and one that I intend to keep an eye on.  In the meantime a great grey shrike would be nice.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Category E

Like most of the non-native species that grace our shores the Black Swan would have struggled to have found its way to the British Isles without a leg up from humankind. Its therefore an anomaly, not on the county list and regarded as a Category E by those at the British Ornithologists Union (BOU) who slot all our birdlife into a relevant pigeon hole. That said to ignore the occurrence of these species is folly. By recording the spread of introduced organisms we are able to flag up at an early enough stage any problems that invasive species may cause.

I've been aware of an increase in sightings of the Black Swan in Gwent over the last year or so. The long staying bird at Llandegfedd Reservoir has now moved on, but may have been the same as that photographed and published in the Pontypool Free Press from Cwmbran Boating Lake. I was also interested to see photograph of a bird at Beaufort Ponds Brynmawr that could now be the bird now residing at Llangorse Lake. The bird in the above picture is present on the canal at Ty Coch Cwmbran. Its associated with a couple of Mute Swan very similar to the Llandgefedd Reservoir scenario in the summer. Despite its non native tag these birds represent more of an interest to me than simply counting Blue Tits. If birders and naturalists ignore these non-natives due to some prejudice based on their British List category we could be sleep walking into an ecological impact that will fall on future generations to resolve.  

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Some ringing returns

I've not posted for a while but that's not to say I've been inactive. The Sunday before last I managed to get around some of the north west Gwent water-bodies. Starting with Bryn Bach Park, the ban on feeding wildfowl appears to be working at least in respect of Canada goose with only two birds nibbling the amenity grassland. I find that many of Gwent's recreational lakes seem to acquire an increasing assortment of domestic waterfowl. Who introduces these birds is anyone's guess. The newest bird on offer was a Chinese goose so tame that it tugged at my trouser leg for food. On the lake were a couple of great crested grebe, up to 50 tufted duck and a shoveler. A dipper arrived via the concrete over flow channel and quickly turned tail and returned whence it came. A few fieldfare and redwing featured as well.

At Beaufort Ponds a cluster of mallardcoot, mute swan and few tufted duck assembled quickly at the water's edge on my arrival, suggesting no such bird feeding ban was in place here. Mid pond 16 wigeon milled around.

Some flood risk reason has been given for the reduction in water level at Dunlop Semtex Pond. Work to achieve this appears to be underway producing a margin that tells a story about the a lack of local appreciation of the site.  Numerous drinks cans and bottles sit cheek by jowl with discarded timber and other urban detritus but the most shocking was half of dozen or so shopping trolleys - why don't the local businesses retrieve them! In amongst Steptoe's junk were 10 wigeon, a cormorant, 60+ coot and a few tufted duck

And finally I got off my backside and reported four ringed black headed gull from the end of last year. To my joy I've already received information for three quarters of them - with some interesting results!

  • EY66023 - ringed 26 June 2013 Dunkirk, Little Downham, Ely, Cambridgeshire. 
                            photographed 14 Dec 2013 Cwmbran Boating Lake, Cwmbran, Gwent.

  • EP33914 - ringed 17 June 1996  Farmoor Reservoir, Oxfordshire.
                            photographed 23 Nov 2013 River Wye,Tintern, Monmouthshire 

  • ST291.205 - ringed 26 June 2012 Tammela, Finland
                               photographed 29 Dec 2013 Riverfront, River Usk, Newport

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The daily commute - bird driving.

Through the pages of this cyberspace journal I will have mentioned my wife's on-going concern about the quality of my driving. It seems I have a tendency to use my innate naturalist observational skills to search for roadside botanical delights and avian flyovers whilst travelling the highways and byways of this fair county. A reminder that a clean licence and a healthy no claims bonus are an evidence base to prove that any worries about the risk I pose are simply unfounded. That said going about the everyday humdrum can be enhanced by continuing to look out for wildlife on the move. This week is a case in point. 

Even though I consider myself lucky enough to only a have a three mile or so commute to work it is surprising how much wildlife can be seen from a pause at the traffic lights or a queue of stationary traffic - damn those utility companies for digging up the road again! Nonetheless Pontypool does seem a bit of a hotspot for 'bird driving' - I must copyright this phrase!  As from the Wainfelin traffic light intersection to the Pontymoile junction (jumble) there seems much to offer. The last few days turned in the following:
  • 22/10/14. 07.43 hrs.  Pontymoile Traffic Lights - 4 cormorant (heading north west)
  • 23/10/14. 07.55 hrs   Pontymoile Traffic Lights - 4 cormorant (heading north west)
  • 27/10/14. 16.25 hrs   Pontnewynydd stationary traffic - 1 red kite (drifting south east)
  • 30/10/14. 07.41 hrs   Tesco Roundabout stationary traffic - 100s wood pigeon (east to west)
  • 31/10/14. 07.43 hrs   Wainfelin Traffic Light Intersection - 100s wood pigeon (east to west)
  • All week. 07.40 hrs onwards.  Pontypool Civic Centre Roof /Tesco Car Park - 30+ assorted black headed gull and lesser black backed gull.
At this point I must confess that all this bird driving has also allowed me to witness the progress of a colony of feral pigeon that is thriving beneath the Pontypool by pass bridge just beyond the Pontymoile traffic lights. Yes and before you dismiss me as a lightweight feral pigeon is on the county list!

Finally the disclaimer. Bird driving can be a useful way of building a picture of the activities of local wildlife but don't take risks. An excuse that you were 'bird driving' when having your collar felt by the local constabulary in the wake of a driving without due care and attention charge will not cut the mustard.

PS - this weeks commute has been a multitask fest as a secondhand copy of Richard Mabey's audiobook A Brush with Nature along with an eye on the roadside wildlife has raised my personal well-being assessment to good touching very good on times.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Two visits to the Riverfront Newport on consecutive Sundays either side of the clocks going back with the intention of looking out for ringed gulls. Sadly there were none. There were a couple of common gull on view including an immature bird that was very confiding 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Whetting one's appetite

Its this time of year that I start to trawl the flocks of urban gulls looking for those carrying rings. And when I'm successful I fill this blog with bland photos of the culprits - boring I hear you say. Nonetheless I spent my lunchtime today getting back in the groove by scouring a flock of around 70 black headed gull on the Southfields football pitches near Cwmbran Boating Lake. There was just one with a ring. Watch out for more over the coming months. I can't wait!!

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