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

Saturday, 17 February 2018


Stepping out into a keen Blaenavon wind I soon questioned the wisdom of choosing to walk the Garn yr rew landscape as an alternative to a more sheltered lowland location. Waiting to cross the main Blaenavon to Brynmawr road a police mobile speed camera obscured my footpath access. Traffic slowed accordingly, bunching into mini conveys to ensure compliance with the 40 mph limit. As I scampered across I passed close to the parked speed correction unit. The seemingly unmanned vehicle complete with darkened windows clicked, whirled and hummed just like the grumblings of a loafing predator.

Away from the road into the expanse that is post-industrial Blaenavon, the wind dug deep, dislodging my hat and watering my eyes. A buzzard drifted over as two hardy sheep appeared, staring at me from the summit of a coal tip, in motionless disbelief. I peered at the lichen heath community that is such a feature of coal spoil in this area. Past Hill Pit chimney pondering my route. South it was to be, passing the part restored engine break wheel and a shiny length of discarded motorbike exhaust. A small valley with a stone outcrop caught my eye so changing direction I followed a muddy bike track. Dropping into the weathered depression there was a freshly dug hole complemented by the pungent odour of fox. A mature overhanging patch of scrubby flowering gorse focused my attention. A closer look revealed the distinctive colour of  golden jelly fungi, frequent on gorse around the valleys.

By this time my face felt abraded by the icy blast as I trounced towards the disused reservoir near Ty Abraham Harry (a derelict building).  As I did a couple of croaking raven scoffed as they flew overhead. The reservoir was full of water but without any hint of sheltering tufted duck and even a solitary pochard. That was it, I resolved to make it back to the refuse of my car. All downhill through a mosaic of wet and dry heath, molina and acid grassland- not a passerine in sight!

Saturday, 3 February 2018

This weeks gull round-up

It was only a whistle stop visit to a few waterbodies around Brynmawr in between the routine domestic chores. It was pleasing to see a party of around 23 wigeon at Beaufort ponds along with three goosander. At Dunlop Semtex Pond a group of 30+ very mobile gulls included this adult yellow -legged gull.

A midweek lunch break jolly around Cwmbran Boating Lake turned in the usual flock of baying Canada goose and other assorted bread feeding wildfowl. It seems the two water rail present the week before had gone, to be replaced by a pair of great black-backed gull - not a regular occurrence at this venue. Within the ever present yet flighty black-headed gull assemblage was this German ringed bird. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Snowy and the sniffing dogs

Tredegar House Lake supported a healthy flock of around 250 mainly black-headed gull. It took a while but I eventually landed on a adult Mediterranean gull shortly before a member of the public asked me if 'all those white things were ducks'? 

On the roof of the boat house there was a steady exchange of loafing birds. The Dutch ringed black-headed gull was prominent along with the German white colour ringed bird. This is the third consecutive winter this bird has been noted at the lake.. At this point it seemed that every uncontrolled dog appeared keen to sniff around my feet thereby flushing everything nearby. Then, briefly, a bird carrying a green Darvic ring alighted. This was subsequently pinned down as a Norwegian bird.

Elsewhere on the lake Snowy the leucistic coot appears to be holding territory. Three cormorant where feeding and the number of tufted duck was up to 23.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

New years eve visits

Two of the nine Little Grebe on Tredegar House Lake

New years day is traditionally the day when active birders get stuck in to their new list. For me its new years eve that's historically my day out. Having developed a taste for urban birding it was Tredegar House Lake and River Usk in Newport Town Centre that were the initial venues on my list.

Having neglected Tredegar House over recent months I decided this would be my first stop off. Naturally, being the end of year holiday period the site was very popular, especially for dog walkers. It seemed that those without a dog in tow were the exception. Throwing and retrieving the ball from the lake was very popular and another couple had some type of automatic ball launcher that looked like a gun and sounded like an air rifle.

The lake supported a healthy population of black-headed gull one of which carried a Dutch ring. Previously this site was good for Mediterranean Gull but scanning the flock none were present. What was evident though was the changing head plumage of the black-headed gulls. Several were now starting to obtain their summer head plumage. Other notables on the lake were nine little grebe and six tufted duck. I moved on.

Dutch ringed Black-headed Gull at Tredegar House Lake

Black-headed Gull developing summer head plumage
Along the Riverfront in Newport Town Centre I was greeted by a long line black-headed gull standing expectantly on the promenade railings. None were carriyng rings. Disappointingly the number of larger gulls were very low. But a scan of those present revealed the long standing adult yellow-legged gull.. This bird eventually left headed northwards. 

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, Riverfront, Newport
Leaving Newport Town Centre I wanted to check the flooded field that has been present on the River Usk floodplain just south of Caerleon for a number of years. On the way my eye caught sight of a large flock of c250 black-headed gull feeding on the waterlogged playing fields at St Julians. I made a quick detour to track down this flock of gulls parking close to Newport bowls club. Due to more dog walkers the birds were frequently disturbed but they alighted long enough to pick out an adult Mediterranean gull. Satisfied there was nothing more to see, I returned to my car to check the flooded field at Caerleon on my wat home.

Adult Mediterranean Gull on playing fields at St Julians, Newport
As the Caerleon field is not accessible the only known way of viewing it is from the St Julians road and then scoping through the vegetation. Amongst the smattering of birds were c100 lapwing, 2 wigeon, c20 Teal, 3 shovelar, a common gull and an adult yellow-legged gull. 

Adult Yellow-legged Gull on flooded field south of Caerleon

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

To the hum of a chainsaw

It was only a hour out but my stroll through the ancient woodland part of the Lasgarn Wood and onto the NRW clear fell was greeted by the hum of a chainsaw. From a distance some bloke was cutting up a windblown oak, probably for firewood - technically theft I suppose. Here too, two in flight crossbill called loudly. Back through the woodland some replanting appeared to be less then random. A lemon slug was grazing on the fallen branch of a mature beech and a search of the many hart's tongue fern produced only two leaf mines of the fly Chromatomyia scolopendri

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Pontypool Park

The hybrid black poplars that line the banks of the Afon Lwyd through Pontypool Park support an every increasing population of mistletoe. I've seen the 'clumps' increase steadily over recent years. Some were also growing on two small ornamental type hawthorn trees close to the hallowed turf of the rugby pitch, but alas these small clumps have now been pilfered. No doubt hanging over the doorway of some local hoping to get lucky this winter festival.

The recent snow has removed some branches on the veteran sweet chestnut trees that are an iconic feature of this historic parkland environment. I fear for their future as I have little confidence in the willingness of park decision makers to retain in-situ for as long as possible these deadwood sentinels. 

The hart's tongue fern that is plentiful in the park under the shade of the wooded canopy looks moth eaten, not by moths of course, but by the actions of fly larvae. I suggest the holes in the upper photo are the creation of the fly Psychoides filicivora and is damage regularly encountered on this fern. The middle image is that of the fly Chromatomyia scolopendri. I've also found this distinctive leaf mine in the Lasgarn Wood but it seems there are few records in the vice county. Finally the abundant and widespread damage of the holly leaf miner Phtomyza ilicis.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

View from the bikers hut

The self named Bikers Hut at the very top of the Blaenserchan Valley was a convenient resting stop for a weary naturalist. And so it was that on Saturday morning I launched into an early morning walk looking for hawfinch a bird that seemed to have been seen by everyone apart from me. 

The valley was alive with redwing and fieldfare along with a healthy blackbird population feeding on the abundant crop of hawthorn berries. A large stand of pearly everlasting was still green enough to photograph. And vivid blue of cobalt crust - the current SEWBReC record of the month- was a nice find on my return.

Saturday, 4 November 2017


Walking around the margins of Dunlop Semtex Pond recently reminded me of my old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, still fantastic but now a bit threadbare. Its not so much that the ecological value of the pond has diminished, in fact there is a case to say that its improved. A floating island and now a lush margin of vegetation is different to the semi-sterile pond of its former industrial origins. However the brave new world of retail park and general lakeside redevelopment is starting to show the tell tale signs of neglect. 

Having championed this site for many years and witnessing its change from decaying factory environs to one that now feeds modern day consumerism I can't help recalling my effort to ensure that the regeneration proposals considered the actual and potential ecological value of the pond and adjacent grassland. At one stage there was talk of the pond being drained so I raised my redevelopment concerns at Gwent Ornithological Society meeting and recollect being countered by an argument that 'it was the biggest eyesore in Gwent'. For me this exemplified the general dismissiveness of some in the nature conservation movement at that time toward the Gwent valleys. So, what has changed? The former Dunlop Semtex factory building with its almost unique domed structure of archaeological significance has been replaced by a modern supermarket and the adjacent species rich semi-natural grassland now lost to a housing estate. The retail park is very popular, but the interface between the shopping culture and its natural environment is becoming grubby and neglected.

In spite of signage warning that shopping trolleys will not be able to be taken off site due to inset path control mechanisms, a number of trolleys are still lodged in the edge of the lake. General litter and dog mess prevail and the built features that were designed to encourage people to enjoy the natural environment are either inaccessible or require urgent maintenance. 

This is a very popular retail park and one assumes those businesses are turning in good profits but this project for me exemplifies the somewhat 'development at all costs' blinkered nature of some planning decisions. The house builders and retail businesses achieve their objectives but little effort and resource is afforded to the environment in which they operate. This for me is what separates a  bog standard development from a sustainable development.

With that of my chest here are the wildfowl counts for DSP and Machine Pond ( 29/10/2017):

DSP                                         Machine Pond

Wigeon                        9                       23
Tufted Duck              23                       12
Coot                          45                       41
Mute Swan                 4                         4 
Moorhen                     3                         4
Great Crested Grebe   2

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Wrestling with a duvet: Gwent's Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush

I'm amazed how some birders are able to respond almost immediately to a shout of a rare bird. Have I made a big mistake in the organisation of my life when I say that work and family commitments prevent me from making the same priority? That said the appearance of the rufous-tailed rock thrush on my (greater) patch needed a visit despite a somewhat elderly yearning for more pipe and slippers time. I knew that if I didn't make the eight mile or so round journey to Gilwern Hill last Sunday morning my chance of seeing this once in a lifetime occurrence will have passed, probably to my regret when drafting my Natural History of the Eastern Valley or Memoirs of a Valley Naturalist in later life - they say there's at least one book in everyone!

Come 6am on Sunday I was between a rock (thrush) and a hard place. I was embroiled in a tug of love between getting out of bed and vacating that warm duvet environment or driving in semi darkness to a foggy, chilly, Welsh mountainside to search for a bird in the craggy, limestone post-industrial wilderness. To my credit the latter prevailed.

I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for loading the car with cameras, scope, walking boots etc. the night before as this allowed me a quick cup of tea before leaving. No need to stir the wrath of family and neighbours by crashing around looking for kit at a time when most sensible people are still in bed.

On the Cwmavon Road I gently swerved through instinct to avoid several grey squirrel before arriving in semi-darkness at Gilwern Hill. To my surprise there were already around a dozen vehicles on site including a camper van. Most cars were empty of their occupants another was in the process of being vacated by birders with a clear Essex dialect. Striking up a conversation I discovered they had started out at 3.30am. Of the 50 or so birders around the site that morning I met people from Cardiff, Stoke, Leeds and Birmingham.

The first quarry was where most attendees has set up camp, scopes in position and binoculars employed to scan the grassy tussocks between the grey quarry face. We then waited and waited and waited and I wandered and wandered and wandered. Steve Smith turned up to help break the boredom. After nearly three hours of nothingness, just the watching of birders drifting past, I started the trek home resigned to not seeing the bird, when a birder silhouetted against the sky and with mobile phone in hand shouted  'its in the third quarry'. Around the bend and in view of the third quarry I could see a gathering forming with a trail of others rushing to join. I did an about turn. Out of breath I eventually arrived at the chosen spot, set up and quickly located the bird, proud and visible, preening happily. After a while it dropped down out of sight enabling a pause in the regular background noise of the clicking of motorised cameras. At this point I decided to leave satisfied that all the effort had proved fruitful.

Back at the car the parking had become crictial. Cars were parked in a broken line either side of the road as far as the Lamb and Fox pub. A Police car passed but didn't stop. I heard later that one birders vehicle has got stuck in a ditch. I'm not surpised.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Wing of a goldfinch

Got to Garnlydan Reservoir early this morning. Parked in Powys and walked back into Gwent hoping this upland reservoir was about to produce something worth the effort. It didn't, there were no waterbirds at all. The best on offer was a party of around 30 goldfinch, 200+ meadow pipit a couple of skylark and a single reed bunting.

Friday, 15 September 2017

End of the drawdown zone

Its with some sadness I have to report the signposting of the end of Llandegfedd Reservoir's fantastic drawdown zone. Sunday's visit was against a backdrop of rushing water a sure fire indicator the squeaky wheels of giant Welsh Water valves have been cracked open and sparkling spring water from the River Usk Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has started to cascade through the inlet to fill this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) - somewhat perverse maybe?

So why am I bemoaning the loss of low water levels? Well as an naturalist the muddy reservoir margin during late summer is ideal for passage birds especially waders. Moreover, the herbage that fills this niche includes some botanical and bryological gems. This same vegetation provides an accessible food source for winter wildfowl such as wigeon once water levels return to maximum.

Kicking around the drawdown zone is just like an inland version of beach combing. Not only is there wildlife to be discovered but also an assortment of discarded human clutter. Much will be of modern day origin but some may have a bit more longevity.

Monkey flower

Marsh cudweed

Liverwort Riccia cavernosa

Zebra mussel


Any ol' iron

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Between the posts

This is a late post, from last weekend in fact, when I took any early morning walk around the edgeland habitat of Garn yr rew on the northward upper margins of Blaenavon. The abundant fencing in this locality is always good for a passage birds at this time of year. So taking advanatage of these elevated postions where many meadow pipit, at least two family parties of stonechat and single whinchat and spotted flycatcher. Elsewhere there was a single male wheatear, a female reed bunting and around 50 swallow on nearby wires.

Beyond the fenced enclosures and out into the post industrial landscape a disused reservoir with excessive feather drop appeared to have been home to a moulting flock of Canada goose. On the margins was a flush supporting hundreds of round-leaved sundew and a single lesser skullcap.

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