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

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Post breeding movement?

At any other time of year the sight of a black headed gull drifting effortlessly around the margins of Llandegfedd Reservoir would hardly be worth raising your binoculars for, but yesterday evening was different. A single bog standard adult bird in pristine summer plumage that glided in and around Green Pool bay suggests that the westerly post breeding movement of this gull is already underway. I say this, as, to the best of my knowledge the closest colony of breeding black headed gull to the vice county of Monmouthshire is Cotswold Water Park. Not massive distance but far enough to imply the cutting of family ties, at least for this bird has happened.

The mesotrophic grassland (MG5) around the Fishermans car park is fast reaching its peak. Hundreds of spikes of common spotted and southern marsh orchid are juxaposed against a backdrop of seeding yellow rattle, birds foot tefoil and grasses all fringed by hemlock water dropwort. Walking through this habitat I was struck by the invertebrate biomass. At times the vegetation heaved with the movement of late instar grasshoppers like a scene from a Hammer Horror film. Meadow browns are now on the wing as well as large skipper and burnet companion. But none of the azure and common blue damselflies was pale enough to suggest a white legged. A good population of burnet moths were active. Given its still June I am plumping for narrow-bordered five -spot?

Monday, 22 June 2015


Parking opposite the Lamb and Fox public house I was once again struck by Abergavenny's mountainous vista. Under feet was the first flowering wild thyme and wall pepper. Toward Pwll du there were a small noisy group of youths riding a variety of Heath Robinson vehicles. A scrambler bike, something a lot smaller - akin to one of those tiny pedal cycles circus acts used to ride - and a truncated quad looking thing belching smoke that drifted over the heads of a nearby group of grazing animals. A more mature off road enthusiast emerged from over the horizon that is Canada Tips. Passing close by, there was no number plate on view so probably no insurance either. Nonetheless he joined the highway for a short distance before pulling into the pub for a pint of best scrumpy no doubt. This is modern day lawlessness, untouchable recreation in the peri-urban environment.

Despite the blue skies there was a keen wind that kept active wildlife under wraps. A female wheatear was in alarm call mode as I negotiated the rough terrain. Where the valley narrowed I entered a tyre strewn landscape where hundreds of the black round things are being enveloped by vegetation. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Nationally scarce - notable b

Common spotted orchid
Omaloplia ruricola 
A visit to Pant yr oes Reservoir, woodland and grassland was a break from the norm but nonetheless very enjoyable. A mature beech/oak woodland gives way to a reservoir boundary of species rich grassland alive with invertebrate activity.

Highlights of  a long species list (soon to be unloaded on the SEWBReCORD site) includes the nationally scarce beetle Omaloplia ruricola, the longhorn moth Nemophora degeerella, early instar dark bush cricket, common lizard and a pair of breeding great crested grebe. Keep tuned for news of visits throughout the summer. 

Nemophora degeerella
Micropterix calthella

Friday, 12 June 2015

Take heed

Students of ecological processes will be familiar with the principles of succession. This is the often linear progression of vegetational development from bare ground to early pioneer plant (and animal) communities through to grassland, scrub and onto climax woodland. From the start of the industrial revolution landscapes have been used and abused for the winning of minerals leaving large areas despoiled with waste material. It was only a short time ago that government agencies viewed an industrial landscape as derelict and something worthy of re-profiling, mass rye grass seeding and tree planting. Thankfully the Blaenavon landscape has avoided the ravages of tax payer funded landscaping schemes, thereby leaving nature and its sucessional process to advance uninterrupted.

On display during last weekends early morning visit around Canada Tips, Blaenavon were all stages of re-vegetation. This variety, officially branded as open mosaic habitats on previously developed land, is one of the most interesting habitats in Gwent. But changes in tree cover are becoming more evident. Hawthorn, rowan and conifers are now appearing more frequently among stands of heather. Whilst the odd tree adds to diversity, unchecked the landscape overtime will change to one that is effectively wooded. 

Given this landscape is of international heritage value this in itself suggest that the current open vistas with differing types of spoil tip development should be retained as a management priority.  So how can the move to scrub and woodland be arrested? It seems that in the absence of herds of grazing animals employed to control woody species that the only activities that are helping to slow down succession are the villains of the piece the motor sports enthusiasts. Those charged with managing the wider Blaenavon landscape would do well to plan for a future whereby tree management should a priority otherwise the tips, ponds and acid grassland that are so much of a feature of the area will be lost to woodland. 

Monday, 1 June 2015


Despite the dire warnings of pending extinction I've found cuckoo to be relatively widespread this year. Whether its the Blaenserchan valley, off the Blorenge, Waunafon bog or the flanks of the Coity the call of this bird has been a banker on my early morning excursions this spring.

Saturday I was marching around the modern day heritage features of Big Pit's environs. The landscape now littered with 'you are here' and 'this is where you need to go' signage still holds that old fashioned naturalist magic if, of course, you can access it before the tourists arrive to sample a day of paying homage to our mining forefathers.

The large coal spoil tip adjacent to Big Pit car park was the venue for my annual moonwort count. Although this little fern has just started to show the count of 187 was impressive. Next time 200+?

Other notables included several goldfinch, a good number of linnet and a calling reed bunting. A dingy skipper alighted as the sun warmed the spoil.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Windowsill wildlife

As an obsessive biological recorder I'm always keen to collect more data. Be it commuting to work, shopping with the domestic goddess or just going about ones business, there's always an opportunity for another record. 

Take windows for example, invertebrates have a habit of flying into them often with fatal consequences, the windowsills below can therefore be rich pickings for biological material. I recently flicked through the debris on a windowsill in a community building in Blaenavon. Here I was able to record the following:
  • Small magpie moth (3)
  • Varied carpet beetle (many)
  • Heathland bug Scolopostethus decoratus 
  • Dung beetle Aphodius foetidus

Monday, 18 May 2015

How brave am I?

On another failed foray into the Blaenserchan valley to track down the green-winged orchid found by Steve Carter, I happened on this small spider crossing a well worn path among regenerating heathland. Not knowing its name I took several photographs before letting it go about its business. Transpires it's Steatoda phalerata one of the false widow spiders and related to those deadly individuals periodically portrayed by the Daily Mail as 'venomous spiders'. 

Seems its been recorded in the vice county before but it depends on which data source you access as to it's frequency.
  • National Biodiversity Network (NBN)  - just a single 1km record;
  • LRC Wales - two 10km records
  • Spider and Harvestman Recording Scheme - six records covering four 1km squares.  

Saturday, 16 May 2015

C is for canal

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal seems to have escaped the attention of naturalists. Why this should be is as mysterious as the whereabouts of Lord Lucan. A linear chiseled water body vaguely connecting the River Usk Special Area of Conservation, along the margins of the South Wales coalfield, through urban and rural and on to the Brecon Beacons National Park, it joins the dots on the page marked nature conservation sites in Wales in the NRW staff handbook. Birders, botanists, entomologists, freshwater ecologists and the newly branded citizen scientists should be crawling all over it, but alas this doesn't seem the case. Is it that naturalists are as old fashioned as a pipe smoker and that there's not enough to go around? Whatever the reason there's surely a bestseller there for someone who can articulate the romanticism of this feature.

Anyway, last Wednesday I grabbed my chicken sandwiches and stormed out of the office vowing to myself never again to sit in doors on a day that was sunny and promised so much for a red data book naturalist. So I headed for the canal just south of Pontypool for a walk that was little more an 100 metres either way along the towpath. 

Although the marginal vegetation was still waiting to burst into flower, the ribbon of greenery supported much to please. The first of the years odonata were on the wing with a number of azure and blue tailed damselflies patrolling. Reed beetles were aplenty along with a number of hoverflies and aquatic molluscs. A very mobile great pond snail moved in consort with several tadpoles and there were many small fishes in the shallows. A gentleman stopped to remove dog mess from his footwear and in doing so took the opportunity to tell me of a basking terrapin further up the canal. And then it was back to attack my inbox with renewed determination to fight the good fight for future generations. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Journal of Earth Surface Processes

If you haven't read Martin J Haigh's Slope retreat and gullying on revegetated surface mine dumps, Waun Hoscyn, Gwent (1980) published in the Journal of Earth Surface Processes then why not. I made my way to this post Second War land reclamation scheme on the flanks of Mynydd Farteg Fawr south of Blaenavon to look for wildlife in this civil engineered landscape.

I know this area well from the days when I was a fervent nest recorder finding nesting lapwing and snipe on the poorly vegetated coal spoil. Nowadays there's greenery, displacing at least the lapwing to other sites with less biomass.

I ambled across a plateau interspersed with shallow ponds and deeply incised gullys. Skylark and meadow pipit were widespread; a female wheatear lingered stubbornly around a watercourse complete with ample nesting sites. A singing male whinchat was located in among a large stand of heather along with a number of active linnet. As I dropped off the plateau into a small well vegetated valley I could hear a reed bunting and to my joy a snipe called repeatedly. The water that runs off this compacted substrate is not free of pollutants the tell tales signs of iron oxide minewater pollution are still evident. On the return back to the car a cuckoo called and was located on a fence post, but as I made a hash of extracting my camera from a tangle of bag straps it took flight and out of range.

Monday, 4 May 2015

IDCD + 1

A day late I know, but yesterday was a wash out so I did my bit for International Dawn Chorus Day (IDCD) this morning. A 6.15am start at the railway cutting on the edge of Waunafon Bog was greeted by a man was a greyhound followed quickly by a reeling grasshopper warbler. Into the cutting and the ram-shackled boundary fencing was just the ticket for scolding food carrying stonechat of which there were three pairs along it's length. A distant lapwing called from its breeding site yonder hillside as well as a cuckoo, reed bunting and a number of linnet. Among the stands of molinia was plenty of evidence of fox activity, including feeding areas with abundant bird feathers and patch marking scats.

A quick end of walk visit to the conservation lake at Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve (LNR) turned in a couple of coot, a male tufted duck and a single Canada goose.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Patella problems

Real naturalists don't follow paths. If you seriously want to discover nature, following a track way formed by shufflings of other people ain't always going to give you the variable experience you crave. After all wildlife isn't conditioned just to occur within arms length of a dotted line on a map. That's way I've tried to explore the areas where soft shoe dry weather weekenders can't reach. Take last Saturday's early morning Blorenge excursion. Sure enough it was helpful to follow a path part way as it doubled up as a count of stubbed out fag ends all within spitting distance of tinder day dwarf shrub heath habitat, but at a point where the townies run out of puff the path become less discernible. It's at this point rugged bare armed wildlife watchers become hardcore. Hidden stones, heather hiding depressions, molina dominated grassland and during high summer, head bracken, all test your resilience. There was a time when I would find trans-versing this characteristic upland habitat in pursuit of a whinchat nest second nature and great fun, nowadays my knees reach their tolerance threshold more quickly. 

With my knees creaking with the strain I looked for sheep tracks as a way of picking my way through this fine SSSI. In doing so I was scolded by at least four red grouse and many skylark. A wheatear was briefly seen where close grazed acid grassland provided lower limb solace. Here too a female ring ouzel alighted on a rock. On reaching the Foxhunter road a cuckoo, tree pipit and whinchat sang and a stonechat and reed bunting called. And just as I thought I would finish my walk without recording a Canada goose two were flushed from the moorland edge. So home it was for a dose cod liver oil.

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!

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