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

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Marsh Harrier and the ledden skies

The moral of this post is that you never know what you may see on a shitty day in the valleys. What possessed me to go out for a walk at 7.30pm on a Friday evening when heavy rain was forecast I don't really know, but I stubbornly did (pointing finger in defiance). Setting out from Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve (LNR) to cross the road into that divine coal spoil landscape abused by our grubby handed ancestors I was somewhat surprised to see white bryony sprawling over the charcoal grey ironwork fencing of a deserted play area. This climbing plant is common and widespread in lowland Gwent but somewhat unusual in the valleys.

The skies were continuing to darken, but nothing was going to stop me pottering about these upland habitats. A small flush encircled by a couple of dominant spoil tips generated sufficient interest for me to rest my naturalist bag and start parting the vegetation like a school nit nurse. A number of sphagnum mosses, lesser spearwort and bog pimpernel fuelled my boy scout enthusiasm to press on. A deeply incised gully that takes water from higher up has been interfered with by apprentice civil engineers who seem oblivious to natures ability to 'do its own thing'. Instead of working to keep water in the upper landscape a system of failed pipes and blockstone lay bare these unsustainable and futile practises. Scrambling up the crumbling tip I emerged in view of Hill Pits, I paused with hands on hips to catch my breath, a man walked hurriedly by as if expecting the imminent arrival of rain and sure enough looking down the valley it was! Two dewatered waterbodies, now filled with common cotton grass attracted my attention as light rain started to fall. Here I found a significant population of round leaved sundew. Onwards and upwards I ploughed on through the hard work of molina grassland towards that large bunded waterbody on the horizon. The rain had now stopped but the evening was darkening even more. As I glanced skyward a raptor appeared in the distance. It was clearly something more special but too faraway for definitive views. I reached for my camera and started taking random images. I struggled to follow the bird through the viewfinder as it moved intermittently over the open landscape of Garn yr erw. Was it an inland marsh harrier?

At the unnamed waterbody a single Canada goose and a female mallard with three decent sized offspring moved around the lake. A quick circuit and I was on my way back via the ruin of Tir Abraham Harry and that single posing wheatear. Now thinking that I really should make an effort to get home dry I increased my pace. Back at Hill Pits the walker I saw earlier was marching back to whence he came. Beyond was another partly vegetated tip that deserved my attention. Festooned with lichens and shrub heath here I found a population of small cudweed. To my surprise a photographer walked past with tripod visible from his backpack. Back home my wife quipped about going out to play again as she pointed at my trousers that were sodden to knee level.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Riverbank exploring

River upstream

With water levels exceptionally low now is a good time explore to those hard reach river side areas. Urban rivers can be rich pickings for naturalists with an often eclectic mix of native and not so native wildlife. With this in mind I called into a nice accessible spot on the Afon Llwyd at Ponthir. A wide pebbly margin was ripe for stone turning producing good numbers of ground beetles including Elaphrus cupreus. Plant life included the now omnipresent invasives of Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam. Here too were good stands of pendulous sedge and a some wood-club rush a plant somewhat surprisingly on the 2017 Monmouthshire Rare Plant Register. Also frequent were remote sedge and hairy brome. Other plants include figwort (with mullein moth caterpillar), water chickweed, lesser spearwort and brooklime.

River downstream

Wood club-rush

Water chickweed
Remote sedge
Mullein moth caterpillar

Friday, 20 July 2018

A liitle oasis

It's more than a week since I ventured to the Varteg for my annual visit to the reclaimed landscape of The Balance. A makeshift hand written sign attached to a field gate advised dog owners to keep them on leads due to the presence of cattle. And sure enough positioned inconveniently just the other side of a footpath stile were a dozen or so grunting, tail swishing, pat forming cattle taking advantage of the shade provided by a number of mature trees. A quick detour took me beyond the cattle and into an open vista of gorse, bracken and acid grassland, here marbled whites, ringlets and grayling butterflies were in abundance. I could feel the sun burning the back of my neck as I fumbled to photograph one of these busy insects - unsuccessfully!

The land form here is characteristic of a 1970's land reclamation scheme. Gone is the randomness of industrial abuse and in is a smooth, ironed out, sheep grazed blandness where you need to work to find nature. However, through the heat and the dust of a sheep track and just like a head scarf draped over the shoulder of a Bedouin tradesman came a green verdant river of vegetation adorned with white nodding heads of scattered common cotton grass. With purpose in my stride I quickly arrived at a substantial spring flush still with running water. Here I was surprised to set a single snipe to flight. Dropping to my knees for a closer examination of the herbage I discovered a mass of ivy-leaved bellflower, bog pimpernel and round-leaved sundew.

Following the running water to an area of open water, that was clearly characterised by odonata I began to search for these colourful insects. Keeled skimmer were the most numerous, but thrown in for good measure were a golden-ringed dragonfly and a broad bodied chaser. Scarce blue-tailed damselfly move slowly through the stream side herbage. A male yellowhammer sang from the top of a nearby gorse bush.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

The fossil path

The fossil path was the pet name we gave to a small limestone quarry on the northern edge of the Lasgarn Wood near Abersychan. The spoil tips therein contained a wonderment of shelly limestone from the Carboniferous period, and as kids we made trips to dig the fossils. Today the disused quarry has lost the majority of its calcareous grassland to bracken and scrub, but some patches remain. These contain a variety of fine grasses and other herbage - quaking grass is one notable.

Working my way through the parched remains of a disused reservoir a group of southern marsh orchid were found thriving within the dappled sunlight of an area of willow scrub. Onward through the coolness of an ancient woodland a wood warbler called as I transversed a now dry stream. Beyond the woodland was an area of larch clear-fell now home to thousands of flowering foxglove. I could hear tree pipit and whitethroat. A golden-ringed dragonfly patrolled and a comma butterfly alighted on a bramble thicket.

Arriving at the fossil path my mind drifted to a once open landscape of limestone grassland now largely lost to scrub dominated by field rose; a large field maple, unusual for the locality, appeared to be doing well. Some butterflies presented themselves including the first marbled white of the summer. In the heat of the afternoon meadow grasshopper were stridulating. Once a popular recreation area for local people today I meet or saw no one.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A cold wind doth blow

A couple of evenings ago I spent an hour at the reedbed site of Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve. It was cloudy and by the time I'd ventured onto the reedbed a fine drizzle had set in whipped up be a strong wind. The water channel around the western edge of the site was low but it was clear the mat of phagmites planted by the local authority in recent years were now taking hold. There were few odonata on the wing save for a common blue and several blue tailed damselfly; a female four spotted chaser struggled to fly in the cold wind. On the plant front there were hundreds of southern marsh orchid and a few common spotted and many heathly stands of ragged robin supporting a number of bilberry bee. Some sweep netting of the phagmites produced my first personnel record of a marsh click beetle (or could it be hairy click beetle?) along with many reed beetles (Donacia spp). A narrow-bordered five spot burnet moth was obliging for a photograph.

Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet

Common Spotted Orchid
Putative Marsh Click Beetle

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Wildflowers of Pontypool Town Centre

Red Valerian 

Now don't get excited urban Pontypool is nothing like a species rich hay meadow in the spring but it does have a variable mix of wildflowers, or weeds as some wish to refer to them as. Despite humankinds best effort to spray them out, pavement plants survive and in some places are no doubt thriving. A mid evening walk around the centre of Pontypool produced nothing more than a got number of mainly annual plants, growing from walls, unmanaged planting beds and from the base of walls. The following images represent a selection.

Black Spleenwort
Hedge Bedstraw

Hedge Woundwort

Hairy Tare
Lesser swine cress

Woody Nightshade

Common Chickweed
Red Campion

Oxford Ragwort

Unidentified grass spceies (non-native?)

Sunday, 17 June 2018

New patch for my patch

On the western slopes of Coity mountain above Blaenavon is a hitherto unexplored landscape of semi -improved meadows, disused farm buildings, remnant drystone walls and a scattering of mature trees. Where the ffridd habitat bleeds into the marginal farmland is a new patch for me, emphasising that even a lifetime of observing local wildlife it's still possible to find areas untouched by the childlike curiosity of a valley naturalist.

At the Garn lakes Local Nature Reserve (LNR) north car park I pushed my way into a small flower rich meadow where a couple of ponds augment the reassuring scruffiness of this mass of tangled botany. Struck by the hundreds of southern marsh orchid I paused to watch around half a dozen four-spotted chaser dragonfly using the pond, here too some well meaning individual has introduced a white water lily. When photographing a stand of ragged robin and lesser stitchwort I felt something crawling through my hair it was the long horned beetle Rhagium mordax.

Back on the road westwards pass the Whistle Inn with its raucous inhabitants and onwards past the adjacent camping and caravan site where some campers were sitting out enjoying the warm late evening sun, I turned south through a metal gate. A farm track and public footpath avenue was flanked by drystone walls and scattering of stunted hawthorn trees some in flower. The view from this point had a calming influence and offered a new perspective on this part of Blaenavon. Here an agrarian landscape with it's backdrop of spoil tips characterised the variety contained herein.

Through a very large stand of Japanese knotweed I found the remains of a farm building with a line of mature plum trees and a bolted rhubarb plant with its rosette of large leaves. Beyond and through binoculars I could see a field of scattered orchids and yellow rattle and a frenzy of flying invertebrates silhouetted against the June setting sun.

The track at this point was shadowed by trees on both sides but not dark enough to prevent about half a dozen heath spotted orchid from flowering. Back in the open sunshine a small wetland flush supported lesser spearwort; a tree pipit was singing in the distance. Shutting another squeaky metal field gate the footpath took me through a field of horses feeding a safe distance away, but all raised their heads in unison to check me out as I got closer. The horses eventually continued grazing and I reached an impressive disused farm building unmolested. But what an idyllic location! The large structure with its small cottage windows evoked images of children playing, their mother keeping a watchful eye in her floral pinny and father in flat cap drinking a mug of cider -stereotypical I know. A quick rummage through a decaying pile of timber produced a stand of white stonecrop. I retraced my footsteps knowing that I would return to this spot again and hopefully before the summers out.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Writer's block

I sense I have a touch of writers block these days. Getting out and recording the wildlife on my local patch isn't the problem, sitting down and writing about it is. Not sure why this should be, perhaps I've said everything that needs to said in my previous postings and I just don't have anything new to talk about. Or its a symptom of extended periods of mental exhaustion that are more prevalent as I plough towards the big 60. Whatever the reason its there and I just have to manage it. 

This posting is from a couple of Sundays ago when I visited the Black Ranks area on the outskirts of Blaenavon. Here, once stood a row of terraced housing so called due to the black water repellent coating painted over the houses. Now with these miserable structures long gone all that remains is a rough roadside pull-in and a collection of garden escapees that hint at the areas previous inhabitants. Against a backdrop of constant road traffic I wandered the lush roadside herbage complete the net, binoculars and camera accompanied by the occasional car horn blower who obviously wasn't accustomed to seeing such a person with such kit. I can't get my head around how a couple of lads wearing baseball caps backwards, driving a souped up BMW adorned by oversize wheels and various silly window stickers finds a roadside naturalist so laughable.

The afternoon was very warm and thrashing through the vegetation produced a number of day fly-moths including a cinnabar, mother shipton, the mint moth (Pyrausta aurata) and a burnet companion. A couple of dingy skipper completed the lepidoptera list.

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