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

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Energy levels

Prevailing weather conditions and a dip in personal energy levels conspired to reduce my field activity of late. Nonetheless this Fridays snatched visit to Llandegfedd Reservoir was interesting. It was pleasing to chat to a family from Caerleon out looking for the recent osprey and Gareth who was out with his new Ebay purchase of a Canon DSLR complete with 300mm lens photographing this female redstart that posed obligingly on post and wire fencing. This increase in visitors engaging with wildlife is a pleasing outcome of Welsh Water's more relaxed approach to access, an improvement on the backward lockdown approach of more recent years.

A chunky fly-by wasp led me to an active hornet nest in the base of a mature tree. A little egret flew from meadow to tree whilst on the reservoir a mid water immature black tern was very mobile. A large grounded pike was an attractant to a number of gulls, a heron and a couple of carrion crow

Hoverfly Eupeodes luniger

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Black ranks

Now long gone the Black Ranks were two rows of roadside miners cottages on the outskirts of Blaenavon. They were so named due to a coating of a black tar type paint that help waterproof the dwellings from inclement weather. Today all that remains is a rough hard surface providing convenient  parking for white van man and litter louts. 

From here I made way into the open upland landscape. A pair of stonechat called loudly as if defending a breeding territory. In the distance the 'peep peep' of the heritage steam railway conjured images of grubby middle aged men in National Coal Board overalls waxing lyrical about rack and pinions, pounds per square inch and release oil, drinking builders tea from a chipped enamel mug. 

From the species poor sheep grazed pasture I climbed to the coal spoil plateau that is Cefn Garn yr rew. With the springtime breeding lapwing now elsewhere it was down to the small heath and grayling butterflies to fill the vacant void.  At a pond a mallard alighted and emerald damselflies and black darter dragonflies were numerous.

Off the plateau I followed a fenceline keeping sheep from wandering onto the highway. The road margins here were rich in wildflowers otherwise referred to as weeds by those who have no appreciation of our natural heritage. A flowering bramble bush was complete with half a dozen or so bilberry bee (Bombus monticola). 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Opportunist mothing

Beautiful Yellow Underwing  Anarta myrtilli  caterpillar

I've a few moth traps from the portable actinic to a couple of 250w mercury vapours. Running the latter, although very efficient, lights up the back garden like a searchlight and runs the risk of complaints from the neighbours, so unfortunately I don't often get the chance to use them. So most of my mothing these days is of the opportunist nature, recording as flushed from vegetation etc. when I'm out and about. The images here are a selection of recent encounters.

Chequered Pearl Evergestis pallidata

Shaded  Broad -bar Scotopteryx chenopodiata

Pyrausta purpuralis

Scarce Footman  Eilema complana

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Urban patches

Hoverfly - Scaeva pyrastri
Whether its a vacant building plot, a post industrial site, a canal, road verge or unkempt corner of a park patches of green space are the life blood of urban wildlife. Many of these patches are ephemeral with there very existence in accordance with the ebb and flow of urban regeneration. All towns have patches, look had enough and you will find. These images were taken in Cwmbran over the last couple of weeks.

Hoverfly - Chysotoxum bicinctum
Water fern  Azolla filiculoides
Least duckweed Lemna minuta

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Whiter shade of pale

Great White Egret
At a time when the summer sports scene is dominated by those wearing white its only fitting that the local wildlife should wade in with its own contribution. Thursday evening at Llandgefedd Reservoir the great white egret showed well along with at least two little egret. Marbled white where on the wing and a clay pipe was a nice find semi- emerged in the drying mud of the drawdown zone.

Remains of clay pipe

Little Egret
Marbled White

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Punchbowl

View over Punchbowl lake
It seemed that every gate post on the way towards the Woodland Trust's Punchbowl reserve was erected specifically for the benefit of attaching signage. A tasteful 'all welcome' sign gave way to a number of Brecon Beacons plagues warning that motor vehicles were banned. Another wooden post symbolized with various icons struck through warning those interested in camping, fishing and motor bike riding that these were not permitted. The value of this sort of clutter was soon realised when I passed the time of day with half a dozen overnight campers and a scramble bike rider. There were no fisherman present, but a passer by referred to me as such solely on the basis that carried a sweep net, the fact that I clearly had no fishing rod didn't seem to matter. That said The Punchbowl is a very interesting site for a naturalist and well worth a visit.  

New Zealand Pygmyweed
A singing yellowhammer faded as the descent towards the lake was marked by the buffering influence of an avenue of impressive beech trees. The site itself sits at the foot of the Blorenge SSSI and is shrouded by a cloak of woodland. At the lake edge it was clear there is a problem with the invasive non-native New Zealand pygmyweed as the margins were completely swamped by the cushioned effect of this plant. Nonetheless there was much more on view to satisfy a quizzical botanist. Plants included pond water crowfoot, marsh pennywort, bottle sedge and rigid hornwort. It was no surprise to see a pair of Canada goose was a couple of young and at last I was able to get a few shots of a male emperor dragonfly - I've always found this species difficult to get close to. A striped longhorn beetle topped the visit off.

Marsh Pennywort

Emperor dragonfly

Longhorn beetle Stenurella melanura

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.

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