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

Sunday 28 April 2024

Spring flora of churchyards: Llanfoist, Abergavenny.

Nipped into this churchyard while waiting to pick up my son from his friend. Not visited this site before so was instantly struck by its different feel when compared to the churchyards in the valleys. The vegetation was uncut allowing plants such as cow parsley to thrive. There were, as with many public sites, a good population of Spanish bluebell some complete with bluebell rust. All in all a very pleasing churchyard that's certainly due another visit


Thursday 4 April 2024

Spring flora of churchyards: Llanfihangel Pontymoel

Having visited this churchyard many times over the years, I'm reasonable familiar with its flora. However, I sense a decline in its value that's evident through the felling of a couple of mature trees and an a gradual extension to a more uniform grassland sward.

As with most churchyards at this time of year there are many native and cultivar primroses. A small watercourse that runs through part of the site is flanked by ancient woodland indicator plants, such as dogs mercury, wood anemone and ramsons. The native bluebells that carpet part of the churchyard have yet to come into flower, but the increasingly widespread Spanish variety is now showing well. I've only found Solomen's seal in this churchyard, but I've yet to determine if this specimen is native or a garden hybrid. Troublingly there's also a patch of Japanese knotweed.

In terms of birds a couple of goldcrest moved between several yew trees, a chiffchaff called from just beyond the churchyard with a blackcap in the distance.

Monday 1 April 2024

Spring flora of churchyards: Llanfrechfa

Despite having no affinity to religion, churchyards are go to locations for me. For a naturalist they are often a refuge for nature squeezed from the surrounding landscape by creeping urbanisation and intensive agriculture. Spring can be a good time to visit as many churchyards are clad with the colour of early flowering ground flora, and early enough to beat the first  'tidiness' cut of busy parishioners. These islands of semi- naturalness dovetail native plants with naturalised cultivar varieties making biological recording both exciting and challenging.

This churchyard overlooks the sheep grazed fields of Ponthir and the animal sanctuary of All Creatures  Great and Small. The green space itself wraps around a large imposing church, and, like many churchyards has an old more species rich burial area that's juxtaposed with intensively managed contemporary burial plots.

The treescape is dominated by a number of mature beech trees. There is the obligatory yew tree, along with Irish yew, cherry laurel and a few conifers. On entering wood forget-me-not and greater celandine has taken hold at the base of the boundary stone wall, and the colour of a carpet of lesser celandine and primroses is impressive but weakens as it progresses towards the modern day burial area. On closer inspection, and as expected within the abundant flowering primroses, there are a variety of colour and shapes. Here too, a chiffchaff could be heard singing in the distance with greenfinch closer by. 


To accompany the novelty primroses there are flowering grape hyacinth and Spanish bluebell. A detailed more forensic examination of the sward revealed several vetch species, dog and early dog violets, pignut, herb robert, red dead nettle, wood anemone and creeping cinquefoil. 


Sunday 12 November 2023

The big three

The big three is a bit of a misnomer. These are the three medium sized waterbodies around Brynmawr that I once studied closely through weekly wildlife counts. The sites are Dunlop Semtex Pond (DSP), Beaufort Ponds, and Machine Ponds. These days with less time and energy counting for me has become more occasional and ad hoc. However, my son's new found photography hobby is generating some new found motivation to get out during the winter months. So this is just a brief account of last weekends (05/11/2023) wildfowl counts at the 'big three', complete with some site background notes.

1. Beaufort Ponds

Tucked behind houses off the Brynmawr to Ebbw Vale road this was once the feeder waterbodies for Ebbw Vale steelworks. Always holds a small number of wildfowl. The most significant species from many years of counting was three Bewick's Swan. Can also be useful for gull watching especially when during cold spells.

Mute Swan - 1 

Goosander - 12

Tufted Duck - 14

Wigeon - 2

Coot - 14

2. Machine Pond

This pond is behind the Lakeside Retail Park and has seen investment over recent years to improve access for walkers and anglers. It has a nice developing margin of phragmites and a floating island that sadly lacks vegetation.

Kingfisher - 1

Goosander - 3 (including 2 fly over)

Canada Goose - 2

Moorhen - 1

Mallard - 12

Tufted Duck - 11

Coot - 8

also a single Stonechat

3. Dunlop Semtex Pond

This site first came to my attention following an item in the Gwent Bird Report in the 1980's by Jonathan Avon highlighting a record of a smew at the lake. Then the pond was surrounded by the derelict Dunlop Semtex Factory with its distinctive concave roof. Around its northern margin was also an area of rough semi improved grassland that supported many hundreds of orchids such as southern marsh. Nowadays a regeneration project has resulted in the demolition of the factory for a new supermarket and a housing estate on the aforementioned grassland. Most notable changes in the assemblage wildfowl has seen pochard counts fall from a peak count of over 90 birds to zero, contrasting with an increase in wigeon numbers especially from the months of September and October. This species appears to be taking advantage of extensive rafts of Nuttell's pondweed that covers large parts of the lake in late summer early autumn.

Coot - 80

Mallard - 22

Mute Swan - 4 ( 2 ads, 2 imms)

Moorhen - 4

Tufted Duck - 40

Wigeon - 20

Canada Goose - 8

Sunday 9 April 2023

The whoosh of a wind turbine and hum of a bike.


High above The British, near to Talywain is a hillside road that takes you over Mynydd Llanhilleth and past St Iltyds church before descending into Llanhilleth itself. Its a road that was once a popular resting place for stolen cars. Vehicles were booted to the top of the hill then dumped by allowing them to free fall into the Cwmbyrgwm valley below. Crash, bang, wallop! On occasion the army were deployed to winch the stricken cars out, but they soon returned. Nowadays better vehicle security and a line of roadside blockstone has reduced the local notoriety of this valley above The British, to a fading memory, only resurrected when trawling through my equally opaque slide film collection.

So above The British is upland. Species poor rush pasture and sheep grazed acid grassland amply scarred by the actions of bikers. This is where cars and bikers race without fear of the law and where fly- tipping is as part of the modern day culture of this landscape as much as sheep and skylark. Here too the occupants of misted up cars rest to eat their takeaways or partake in something stronger. It was no different when I recently took the opportunity for an evening visit to look for early spring migrants. Cars were intermittently placed along the roadside, some were clearly radio enthusiasts defined by those large aerials stuck on top of their vehicles, some others appeared full of youths smoking weed. I parked well away, as getting too close only generates puzzling looks or immature comments when I pull out my binoculars and camera, let alone a sweep net.

There was a keen wind. Bikers could be heard in the distance and a whirl of the nearby wind turbines was occasional. Here the interface between upland and enclosed grassland is delineated by dry stone walls and a number of impressive beech trees. It seemed spring had sprung, meadow pipit were moving overhead and skylark were in full song. Walls and fence posts are great for bird spotting. So when in an upland setting tracking down these features is part of a naturalists field craft. A male stonechat alighted on a wall in the distance only to be joined by a male wheatear - the first of the year. In the distance a crowd of around 200 thrushes took flight from a field only to perch in a line of beech trees, on closer inspection they were fieldfare. I watched as they glided back to their feeding ground of the tight sward of a sheep grazed field.

Saturday 11 February 2023

Early morning urban birding

Cwmbran Boating Lake and its wider green space environment of sport pitches and kiddies play areas is an urban park and as such attracts a multitude of users. Fisherman, dog walkers, runners, model boat enthusiasts and swan protectors, they all jostle for a slice of this watery cake. Because of this I've not spent much time at this site over recent years, preferring to avoid crowds in favour of less populated locations and the solitude this brings. Nonetheless, a brief taster visit for work was just enough motivation for a Sunday sunrise visit.

Its unlikely Cwmbran Boating Lake will ever become a regular venue for die hard birders, but for local patchers such as myself its always worthy of a visit, albeit at a time that avoids the crowds. On this visit there was the usually crop of urban type water birds. The four grey lag goose were new site records for me merging with the every present growing number of Canada goose. The weather battered floating island supported up to four cormorant, some resplendent in breeding season regalia. A pair of little grebe and mute swan were also keeping close to this island. Around four goosander moved freely around the lake, among the growing number of coot, mallard and moorhen. 

Shortly after sunrise the gulls started to arrive with up to 100 black-headed gull along with single figure counts of lesser black-backed and herring gull. The black-headed gull are very approachable due to the availability for free food hand outs provided by the frequency of duck feeders. So this provides the ideal setting for ring reading. In amongst the gulls were three birds carrying single metal rings and one carrying a dutch colour ring. This bird was previously noted by Craig Constance earlier this winter. I will report the record in due course.

An hour or so after sunrise, the park was starting to get busy. With dogs often flushing the gatherings of birds, I left satisfied that I'd seen enough. 

Sunday 28 August 2022

Punching above its weight


The walk to the Woodland Trust's Punchbowl Reserve was one of relative ease. All down hill through the golden bracken covered slopes of the lower Blorenge and onward through sheep pasture interspersed with veteran beech trees to the Punchbowl lake itself. 

We were not alone on our trek, it was a Sunday afternoon there was a family, a biker, a young couple and a father with two children and a dog - this is a popular destination. The well worn path was sandy in places and peppered with the chambers of the solitary bee heather colletes. An adjacent field complete with gorse and an upper drystone wall boundary was unsurprisingly home to a male stonechat.

The lake itself was turbidly green, its margins carpeted with New Zealand pygmyweed. In the water was soft hornwort and where there was exposed mud its cousin rigid hornwort could be found. A patch of soft rush attracted my attention. Contained therein were several long-winged conehead, a Roesel's bush cricket, field and meadow grasshoppers and ground and slender groundhoppers. Here too were common blue and blue tailed damselflies. There was little to see on the water but when the sun appeared and the temperature increased the surface became alive with busy small red-eyed damselfly, yet another site in the range expansion of this species. 

The walk back was marked by frequent breath gathering stops and the overtaking by those walkers much younger and fitter than me. My accompanying son bemoaned the fact that I carried too much naturalist paraphernalia for my own good. 

Saturday 30 July 2022

An idiot with a gun - toxic masculinity.


A midweek walk around one of my many local patches ended up with an altercation with a person carrying a firearm. Foolhardy you may say but I detest guns and the gun culture especially when those wishing to pursue their intimidating pastime choose a public site to exercise their testosterone filled activity. 

For those who know the area, this poor excuse for a person was carrying an uncovered rifle around the grassland just beyond the Big Arch, and was working his dog through dense scrub. Not wishing to become a victim of a stray bullet I moved to a position where this idiot could see me. After a short while I decided to make my way back to my car and prepare to leave. Whilst packing up I noticed the man in the distance still carrying his weapon and making his way in my direction, this was no surprise as the vehicle parked next to me was clearly his. Bizarrely as he arrived to where his car was parked his gun was no where to be seen he had clearly noticed me looking at him and had hidden the gun en route. He then chose to aggressively challenge me on why I was looking at him etc. I responded by saying that I didn't care for him carrying a gun around in a well used public space. Interestingly, he then walked off feigning a limp, under the Big Arch but without his weapon and car giving the impression he had walked to the site, but he had not. A subsequent check of his car number plate revealed he had no MOT. To sum up this person owned a firearm, was aggressive, and had no regard for the law. In other words an absolute tosser!

In terms of wildlife  there was not too much to report other than a stridulating Roesel's bush cricket and several early instar long-winged conehead.

Monday 13 June 2022

High above a valley

The felling of a considerable block of oppressive conifers high above the A472 Cwm y Glyn between Crumlin and Pontypool has opened up the prospect of a new area to explore. The resultant clearfell is quickly regenerating with both native broadleaves and unfortunately conifers but the elevated views from the haul road are impressive, including a whole new perspective of Graig Major ancient woodland. 

At its entrance there's the standard Natural Resources Wales (NRW) signage welcoming the visitor to Hafodyrynys Forest. From here, the track with its short flower rich margin climbs in a winding fashion through the landscape. A solitary southern marsh orchid was found along this track. As the road meandered upwards it travelled through an area of mature beech trees with a distant signing redstart. At its highest point there were commanding views over the valley. Here several tree pipit sung whist a two banded longthorn beetle alighted nearby.

This is a site that merits further investigation especially for the possibility of nightjar. The only disappointing aspect was the presence of four off road motorbikers.


Saturday 11 June 2022

A portrait of fence posts

There's something very photogenic about wooden fence posts. Knaweled, pitted, weathered and colonised by lichens and bryophytes they stand as witness to a changing landscape. In an industrial setting many are remnant field boundaries, often associated by drystone walls, but others will have surrounded a working landscape of coal and iron. Few are lightweight giving them the longevity to see out the ravages of upland weather. Most that remain are wooden beasts the size of railway sleepers, strapped into place with the heavy ironmongery of now rusty bolts and brackets that is a trademark of the way valley communities lived. These rugged blocks of timber are sentinels standing watch of a uniquely varied  landscape. Long may they remain. 


Wednesday 1 June 2022


Earlier this month I pushed my dodgy knees to the limit by exploring the lower upland slopes between the top of Graig Ddu near Talywaun and Waunwen. This is an area I've explored infrequently and is charaterised by stone wall field boundaries and mature beech trees. The fields and their remnant walled boundaries are part of a nearby lost farmstead. Now the enclosures are dominanted by billberry, bracken. heather and gorse with a landscape once fashioned by sheep grazing now replaced by extensive linear interventions of scrambler bike activity.

My ramblers on this day uncovered a couple of landownership boundary markers. The first is a well weathered stone marker at the entrance of Griag Ddu woodland . The second is one more in keeping with the localities industrial heritage and is made of cast iron inscribed with W&BM apprantly meaning Waunwen.

In terms of nature I was hoping for a singing pied flycatcher but drew a blank. Otherwise, there were serveral signing redstart, another possible Greenland wheatear, a whinchat and several linnet and redpoll around a large patch of gorse. 


Saturday 7 May 2022

Some nature from Hill's Tramroad

The section of Hill's Tramroad that nestles under the east facing slope of Blorenge mountain, is a delightful walk. It starts at a disused farmstead with its enclosures of drystone walls and weatherbeaten hawthorn, blackthorn and sycamore trees and takes the walker within touching distance of bracken dominated ffridd habitat. The views are also impressive with the Skirrid to the south east, the Sugar Loaf to the east and the Usk Valley and the Brecon Beacons to the north.

This stroll was with my son who is discovering photography with a new micro two thirds camera, so it was less a naturalist walk more a photography session, but this didn't stop me picking up the odd interesting biological record. The first thing that struck me was the sound of singing willow warbler, there were many taking up position in the scrubby interface between now clearfell confier woodland and ffridd. Here too were serveral parachuting tree pipit. A male wheatear alighted on the top of a drystone wall, two red kite passed over and a pair of stonechat stone chatted. This intergrade from woody habitat to open upland was notable for its flowering plants. Wood anemone, wood sorrel and emergeing bluebell were evident as was a patch of moschatel or townhall clock. A bloody nosed beetle lumbered along the track side.

Back at the discused farmstead the sun shone on a copse of brillant white flowering blackthorn complete with bracket fungus. The yellow flowering gorse accommodated a pair of linnet, no doubt with a nest somewhere contained. A springtime swallow rounded off a pleasing afternoon.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...