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

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Gulls at ground zero

These are scenes from a somewhat chaotic colony of inland breeding gulls at Brynmawr. I've known this colony for at least 10 years and during this period birds have nested on the pitched asbestos roof top of a unit type factory. Following the abandonment of the factory and it's subsequent demolition earlier this year I fully expected the birds to move on. However, and much to my surprise, they have returned and are now nesting at ground level on the concrete foundation of the former building. 

I counted at least 30 sitting birds of both herring and lesser black-backed gull, along with a single great blacked-backed. There may have been as many as 200 noisy birds in or around this site with a significant number engaged in courtship posturing or actual mating. During my visit the birds were disturbed by a drilling rig just outside of the perimeter fence suggesting its redevelopment is not too far off. Furthermore at ground level it was clear by the number or corvids present that raising a brood will be something of a challenge for the gulls.

Sunday, 13 May 2018


The small parking area at the northern access to Waunafon Bog is temporally reduced to accommodate the heavy machinery and welfare facilities of a nearby civil engineering project. Nonetheless, there is still space and its free! As I pushed my way through a kissing gate and adjoining fence colourfully decorated with a variety of poo bags complete with bulging contents, a peregrine flew north. It was only just past 6am but the noise from the constant traffic of the Brynmawr - Blaenavon road hindered any attempt to detect a reeling grasshopper warbler - or anything else for that matter.

Away from the noise pollution the meadow pipit and skylark were more discernible. A Canada goose called loudly from the bogs vast interior. A steady flow of water was exiting a culvert pipe under the now disused pit road, fed by a deep channel. Its no surprise the bog appears to have a growing expanse of drier areas when unjustified and environmentally damaging water management actions are allowed to continue unchallenged. As I made for a small disused feeder pond I became aware of heavy breathing as the first off road cyclist of the morning pumped his way past without a nod or a wink. The solitary mature ash tree that stands alone on the lower slopes of the Coity marked the location of said pond. Here too are the remnants of historic fly-tipping composing of a large quantity of asbestos sheeting and a pair of white Adidas trainers, but more concerning is the vast bare and deeply incised ffridd slope roadways of scrambler bikes. 

Kicking over an area of developing lichen heath community on a patch of plateaued coal spoil I paused to ponder the prospect of a more forensic examination of the bogs moister areas. I declined.  Before climbing back onto the nicely surfaced redundant pit road I knelled to photograph the showy red tips of cladonia lichens. Now on a mission to return back a couple of calling linnet flew over and then, as if from nowhere, a second cyclist approached from behind. This time I was greeted with a stout, 'morning' as he slowed to strike up a conversation. A nice engaging cyclist, we shared man talk, that focused on camera equipment and posting on line. Interestingly he asked if I posted on the Blaenavon and Beyond Facebook site, the very same question was postulated exactly a week ago by a dog walker on Mynydd y Garn-fawr. Therefore is this site the leading authority on all things Blaenavon, I ask?

Monday, 7 May 2018

A closer look at Mynydd y Garn - fawr

Another early morning start, this time to Mynydd y Garn -fawr east of Blaenavon. According to the South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre (SEWBReC) this section of the wider Blorenge Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is very much under - recorded. Parking at Capel Newydd a nearby roadside sycamore has become a shrine to the passing of local people. From this part of Torfaen I made my way towards the Monmouthshire potion of Mynydd y Garn-fawr. A roadside bench was marked by a lost pair of reading glasses. A cuckoo and several redstart sang from the scattered trees of the nearby enclosed farmland. Once on to the upland habitat a small valley caught my eye with various wetland features from running water to wet flushes. One such flush contain a large patch of  fountain apple - moss (Philonotis fontana) and a female reed bunting.

After falling into a hidden stream and receiving a wet foot and lower leg I made for a stand of heather and promptly put up a red grouse. Walking through this habitat was hard work but after awhile I located a well used footpath and made my way back. A male wheatear was very obliging perched on top of a small conifer. The roadside electric cable supported a male stonechat and a number of vocal siskin flew around the nearby forestry plantation.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Weeds are wildflowers too!

Now you may consider that I've lost the plot, but on a weekend when the aisles of garden centres and DIY centres will be doing a brisk trade in gun shape packaged weedkiller (Resolva) you will forgive me for not revealing the location of this urban weed -fest. That said at some stage I expect this small car park to be sprayed by the council or over zealous community spirited individuals.

This site is an example of how the hard features of the urban grey infrastructure can be softened by relaxing the old fashioned intolerance many have for pioneering wildflowers or weeds. As rough back of envelope count produced 14 plant species as well as a very active hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes).

Barren brome 

Shining crane's-bill

Ivy-leaved toadflax

Oxford ragwort

Red valerian

Common field speedwell

Common toadflax

Female Hairy-footed flower bee

Sunday, 29 April 2018

That was the week (three weeks) that was

I've been a bit slow in getting new posts to this blog of late, so this posting aims to bundle together some of my recent visits to my local patches this month.

Saturday 7 April 2018 - The British, Talywaun

Around this time of year I like to make the pilgrimage to The British hoping for a spring ring ouzel. To see these birds you need to be very lucky and my luck has been out for a number of years. However my best historic encounter was an autumn one when a number of leaving birds were brought down with a fall of winter thrushes.

As usual I started off early and was greeted by several singing willow warbler and chiffchaff. Three stock dove left a red brick engine house as I passed toward the Big Pond area. At Big Pond there was little to offer and certainly no ring ouzel. Attention drifted to some of the other natural features and in particular the impressive remnant beech trees that litter the ffridd landscape in the Gwent valleys. Moving between the trees I came across the characteristic hole of the minotaur dung beetle Typhaeus typhaeus fashioned in a pile of sheep droppings.

Saturday 14 April 2018 - Garn yr erw, Blaenafon


It was a very warm Saturday afternoon and Dine Steel Incline was populated by intermittent parties if rucksack carrying teenagers, possibly taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh award scheme activity. From a distance I could hear them howling, screaming and giggling as they transversed the particularly muddy lower stretches of this listed structure. My own encounter with a muddy feature was a seasonal pond that on closer examination appeared to support a healthy population of pedunculate water starwort Callitriche brutia. The pond that overlooks Canada Tips and the wider Usk Valley around Abergavenny was in fine condition reflecting the clear blue skies. A couple of wheatear chose to move between fence post and stone and a reed bunting could be heard in the distance.

Wednesday 18 April - Lasgarn Wood, Abersychan

This was a bit of a flying visit to the Lasgarn Wood clear fell. To get there you pass through some nice beech woodland, notable on this occasion by at least three vocal nuthatch. In the clear fell I was greeted by a single peacock butterfly closely followed by a small tortoiseshell. A number of willow warbler were in song along with a single tree pipit. A pile of stacked fire charred larch logs were slowly being colonised by, appropriately, fire moss.

Saturday 21 April - Waunafon Bog, Blaenafon

Another early Saturday morning visit this time for grasshopper warbler and was lucky to track down two reeling birds. Other notables include a male stonechat and a reed bunting. However the most unusual for the location was a male pheasant. There was an active green tiger beetle but the strangest occurrence was a group of cultivated daffodils growing from within an extensive area of purple moor grass.

Wednesday 26 April - Canada Tips, Blaenafon

It was blowing a gale and very cold so apart from a singing skylark birds were keeping low. I was pleased to be able to relocate both alpine and fir clubmoss.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

From Malaga to Newport

Puerto de la Calleta de Velez, Malaga, Spain.

Thanks to Jose Sanchez Cordero I've now recieved information about the colour ringed lesser black-backed gull I reported from the River Usk in Newport recently. It was ringed in late March last year (2017) at Puerto de la Caleta de Velez, Malaga, Spain and was subsquently reported four times up until early April that year.

Interestingly it was ringed a Larus fuscus intermedius. There are three recognised subspecies of fuscus;

  • L.f.fuscus is the smallest and darkest of the subspecies. Its alternative name is the Baltic gull and breeds on the Baltic coasts of Finland, Sweden and Estonia and migrates to sub-Sharan Africa in winter.

  • L.f. intermedius and L.f.graellsii are more simarly to one another than fuscus. Intermedius normally breeds from Belguim and the Netherlands eastwards into Scandinavia, and graellsii which breeds in Britain, Ireland, France, northwest Spain, Portugal, Iceland and Greenland. Both subspecies largely winter in southwest Europe and northwest Africa.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Even in the most hostile of environments

Rue-leaved saxifrage
Finding nature in an urban environment isn't everyone's idea of a day out, but with a keen eye and a willingness to search those forgotten corners, wildlife can be found. Previously my forays to urban Newport have been primarily for gulls and colour ring reading but with the numbers of birds dropping - all black-headed gull have now left - attention drifts to wider things. Last weekend it was noticeable some of those pavement weeds that residents and local authorities love to exterminate were starting to come into flower. The small white flowered common whitlowgrass was showing in abundance along the grey infrastructure near to Friars Walk. This is a widespread annual plant of urban areas that  I've also recorded in car parks in Brynmawr, Abersychan, Pontypool and Caldicot. Also around the Millennium Bridge in Newport were a number of rue-leaved saxifrage although recorded widely in the vice county its less plentiful.

Common whitlowgrass

Petty spurge

Back to the gulls and all of the birds alongside the falling tide of the River Usk were the larger Larus species and most will be local, breeding on the rooftops of urban Newport. Amongst about 70 or so  birds was a single great black-backed gull and an adult lesser black-backed gull with a white colour ring. After some investigation it appears this is a Spanish ringed bird. Interestingly I could not find a a standard metal ring on this bird. Although it could have been ringed on the tibia and therefore not visible.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Pwll du revisited

The mist swirled around a newly erected roadside chevron sign as I left the Blorenge destination Pwll du. Booting up, the rain started to fall and the normally impressive views of the Usk valley were obscured by a greyness matched only by the colour of my hair. 

The entry point to this impressive landscape was a mud bath but the nearby close cropped sheep grazed turf supported a healthy party of feeding skylark and meadow pipit. Here too is the obligatory collection of signage pointing walkers in the right direction and telling them how to behave. At the quarry there was little avian interest apart for a fly-over raven. I walked into the bottom of the this geological scar looking for anything that might interest a rambling naturalist - the rain became heavier. Beyond I climbed through an extensive area of gorse but all was quite. At the transmission pylon a male wheatear flew from rock to rock until it was lost in the distance. 

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