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

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Tree art

Spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the company of Steve Carter last weekend woodland birding. Redstart were in fine song and a marsh tit was a useful addition to the mornings list. Out in the open a single garden warbler and a number of whitethroat were welcome as was a tree pipit and a couple of stock dove. Plant wise a flowering lousewort was notable.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Dug out

Dr. Stephanie Tyler, joint Botanical Recorder for the vice county of Monmouthshire, has recently reminded me that this year is the last year of recording for the new flora atlas of the British Isles. Stephanie impressed on me that the Pontypool area needs more records so with this lodged in my mind I took an hours evening walk just down the road to Riverside on the outskirts of the town. This  tranquil green space lies adjacent to the Afon Lwyd and is abutted by an ancient woodland, a football pitch and a popular riverside walk complete with mature parkland trees leading to and from the town centre.

Accessing the riverside it was evidence that there was a very population of ramsons (wild garlic) in flower. This species is a well known indicator or ancient woodland but was just at home next to the water. This part of the river used to be much more open and old photographs show a mill race and weir. Now the canopy is close and the weir hard to detect, nonetheless the river on its western side has been urbanised with pipework draining water from the town. In total I recorded about 30 plant species many, just like ramsons, indicators of ancient woodland, including bluebell and dogs mercury. A plant growing near to an adjacent small watercourse is thought to be large bittercress, an infrequent plant in these parts.

Making my way from the riverside I followed an access track towards a football pitch used by Trevethin Football Club. Here common comfrey was coming into flower and great horsetail was noted, another infrequent species in these parts. I didn't have time to explore the nearby woodland but another visit soon will ensure this area is covered adequately. 

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Industrial archaeology

There was a welcome in the hillside for those who risk letting their dog off a lead as I made my way past the Whistle Inn pub complete with nine unlicensed off road bikers towards the lower east facing slopes of the Coity mountain above Blaenavon. As the bikers made off splitting up to ride over common land and up the route of the National Cycleway Network I paused to view a disused farmstead encircled by a field pattern of drystone walls and a couple of maturing sycamore trees.

Thereafter the footpath progressed steeply through the typical habitat mosaic of sheep grazed acid grassland and rush pasture. There were a number of wheatear, and a single tree pipit cascaded into a hawthorn tree commanding good views. My destination was a small disused mine on the Coity hillside, one that I had viewed from afar but never found the motivation to make the trek for a closer examination. Now the time was right and I was determined to find the road that leads to this industrial artifact.

The vista from this side of the valley was one that I seldom experience, preferring the to do my birding on the Blorenge side of the valley, so viewing the post industrial landscape from the Coity gave a new perspective. The precision engineered Mile Pond a former feeder pond for Big Pit stood out in all its rectangular glory, another example of mans obsession with tidy sharp edged order. 

Finding the pit road I was struck by how quite it was, a few meadow pipit and an occasional distant singing skylark. A raven became noteworthy when normally it wouldn't. Within reach of the mine the terrain rose steeply again towards its entrance with its gate long gone, discarded nearby to be absorbed into an all encompassing bed of rush. 

Wandering around the remains of this small privately owned hillside mine I was surprised to find the now decaying remains of buildings and mine machinery, as if those who had worked the site had left in a hurry. Miners kit in the form Wellington boots, protective eye wear and well worn part rubberised safety gloves darkened by the handling of oily spanners, were commonplace as I picked my way through the site. Within the canopy of a steel framed building there was a row of small breeze block rooms, some empty others with shelving complete with a good selection of machinery spares, rusty nuts and bolts, filters, couplings etc. In one room I found a female blackbird siting on a nest built on a heating pipe and there were several other used nests from previous years. I spent an hour or so pottering around this industrial relic and not a better hour I will spend for along time.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Violet Oil Beetles

I was pleased to accompany Gavin Vella, Liam Olds and Michael Kilner to an undisclosed site in Monmouthshire countryside to view the violet old beetle. By coincidence the site is well known to me as it was an area where the late Percy Playford had a nest box colony in the 1970s and 80s supporting up to 10 pairs of pied flycatcher. Percy was my mentor and trainer in gaining my bird ringing licence.

The search for the oil beetles was straightforward with around 20 individuals noted as we walked the site. It was also pleasing to see both male and female pied flycatcher still using an area of former coppiced alder woodland.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

A good Friday

First day of the Easter break and I was up nice and early to explore the lower slopes of the Blorenge. Taking the tramroad from the road to the Fiddlers Elbow I passed disused farm building that is yet another example of the local decline in the rural population. Exploring remant drystone walls and a number of unkempt hawthorn and blackthorn trees, I could just detect the song of a whinchat. Despite the bird being fairly distant I did just about capture a couple of images.

Stumbling back to the tramroad route I noted another person in a camo jacket making their approach. As he got closer I could see it was Andrew Baker from Gwent Ornithological Society, out completing a BBS visit. We talked for a while about the folly of Brexit, Climate Change and Extinction Rebellion and my forlorn propects of retiring early. Saying our farewells I continued my walk to the sound of numerous singing willow warbler and the occasional flyover linnet. Pausing to observe the extent of NRW tree felling tree pipits were noted signing from several positions. On my return a cuckoo was very vocal and a male wheatear obliged for a photograph.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

High school old boys

Its been a few years since I kicked the dust around the lower Afon Lwyd. This section of the river is on the outskirts of Caerleon and not far from its confluence with the River Usk. From the Newport High School Old Boys rugby pitch access is easy to the rivers edge via well worn footpaths. As with most valley rivers there is an enormous amount of invasive non-native plant species on show, from Japanese knotweed, to Spanish bluebell and Himalayan balsam. But the most striking vegetational component was an extensive carpet of flowering ramson, along with clear evidence that some were being dug up. However much of the ramson population was suffering from damage caused by the arum rust fungus.

In an opening around half a dozen sand martin circled but there was no evidence of a nesting site. In a bend in the river were a number of otter spraints. Walking upstream I was in sight of the Star Industrial Estate where it appears heavy vehicles are accessing and damaging a nice wet alder woodland comprising marsh marigold and yellow flag iris. On the way back I could pick out a few flowering wych elm and a knot of slow worm were revealed from beneath a discarded builders rubble bag.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Cannabis factory

Forgeside above Blaenavon doesn't get much attention from naturalists, not sure why because it has some great ffridd habitat. Pushing my way through a willow thicket I stumbled across the remnants of a cannabis factory. I know this because of all those Police copumentaries that litter the TV channels these days. Stacks of compost with cut stems protruding from within.

The small disused private mine remains disused apart from a couple of wheatear. Leaving the mine to explore the wider Forgeside environs a meadow pipit appeared suddenly and feigning injury but a search for a nest produced nothing but some fresh hedgehog droppings. I made my way across the hillside to a single mature tree that I'd often caught sight of from the other side of the valley, thinking  I should one day make the effort to take a closer look. It turned out to be a sycamore that was growing from within the curtilage of a number of drystone walls of a lost farmstead. On the way back a pair of stonechat moved from perch to perch.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Mist and the ledden skies

Its early April and time for another visit to the Big Pond area of The British. This combination of scattered mature beech trees, marshy grassland, sheep grazed acid grassland and upland heath dominated by bracken has historically produced regular sightings of ring ouzel. So a cool misty morning appeared to be just the right conditions to pick up a bird or two passing through.

Following the route of an old tram line and through an avenue of self seeded alder trees I could hear both singing chiffchaff and willow warbler, a couple of redpoll called frequently as they flew overhead. I paused by a gap in the trees to view the wider landscape of The British heath. When I held a bird ringing licence this open landscape supported, whinchat, stonechat and tree pipit I even once found a grey partridge nest. Nowadays, it's rapidly losing its open feel in favour of scrub. Onwards towards an imposing yet derelict red bricked engine building two stock dove took to the wing.At Big Pond the air was filled with calling raven and single singing wheatear. Over the decaying Big Pond dam I caught sight of a couple of parachuting tree pipit, a reed bunting could be heard in the distance. On the return journey I made a mental note of a number of veteran beech trees to measure and upload to the Woodland Trust's Ancient Tree Inventory.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Chiffchaff all around

Only an hour or so available to me last Sunday so I decided to take in another local woodland. Craig Ddu is an ancient woodland on the lower slopes of Mynydd Varteg Fawr and is skirted by a mosaic of unimproved grassland, a stream and plenty of coal spoil most of which is located on or adjacent to the stream. 

The walk to Graig Ddu was via a footpath from Talywain Rugby Club. Snaking past the clubs main pitch the path emerged into an open landscape of land re-profiling and patchy tree planting schemes. A disused Rugby pitch, still with its rusting posts and clearly unused, is reverting back to rush pasture. A number of chiffchaff were in song accompanied by several greenfinch. Reaching Craig Ddu with its stands of sessile oak and beech I followed the tell tale signs of off road bikers down to an extensive area of coal spoil with its fast running stream. A couple of grey wagtail moved along the stream as I climbed a steep but eroding  tip  to view Mynydd Farteg Fawr. Here the remnants of a lost farmstead could be traced by its ramshackled dry stone wall and several mature trees. A skylark could be heard in the background. Turning for home serveral more chiffchaff were singing and the warmth of a the early spring sunshine brought out a peacock butterfly.

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