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







Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The vista



There's some truth in the saying 'you're a grumpy old man'. As I'm getting older my intolerance and propensity to irritation have increased markedly and it doesn't take much for me to step on to my metaphorical soap box. For example my walk up to Coity Pond behind Big Pit, Blaenavon is a case in point. This is a nice linear feeder pond that was once used to support the activities of the pit and is now a significant biological resource. My visit to conduct the annual moonwort count, of which there are only 31 this year, was marred by a plethora of crisp white private land signage. Whilst access is still available its limited to just the eastern side. And here I go! I detest the creeping privatisation of green space - something that's increased stealthily during these times of austerity. I'm sure someone will correct me if not factual but it's my understanding this pond is (was) part of the Big Pit complex and therefore government owned. If this is the case, limited access flies in the face of public bodies well-being obligations. A bit bullish I know, but I won't be prevented from accessing land that I've used all my life!


With that off my chest the pond supported four male tufted duck and a single cormorant. Calling from its immediate environs were reed bunting, tree pipit, stonechat and linnet. A distant peregrine also called. On the invertebrate front a green tiger beetle showed well and a flowering cotoneaster shrub provide a source of nectar for a number of tree wasps and early bumblebees. Bashing a broom bush produced a record of broom bush beetle.













Saturday, 18 June 2016

One wet evening



The American Gardens above Pontypool Park is something of a local novelty. A collection of redwood trees,other conifers and various rhododendrons grow in an entanglement around a roadside pond. For years devoid of management the dark overgrown domination of rhododendron has now given way to a new feeling of openness and light. Selective felling and a pond makeover has now put the site on the naturalists itinerary. 


Between rain showers and a visit to the local supermarket I risked a foot drenching for a short walk around these gardens. The pond supported a couple of male mallard and several black domesticated fowl.. A coal tit called as I examined a discarded tree trunk complete with chicken in the woods fungi. The only invertebrate of note was the long horn moth  Nematopogon schwarziellus



Saturday, 11 June 2016

Shrouded in mystery



Its not the semi-buried miners helmet or the recently discovered stash of unused NCB branded pit props that gets me to Forgeside, its the myriad of hidden wildlife that's grown to forgive the worst excesses of human exploitation. In nature time is a great healer, and for me this is a much more interesting narrative than the overpowering retrospectivness that's enveloped this community. That said much of the wildlife I cherish as a local born and bred naturalist is only there because the landscape has been wrung out and left to dry by former economic activity.



On the Gilchrist Thomas Industrial Estate there's an area of limestone slag - a by product of the Blaenavon Ironworks - that seems to have eluded those keen on industrial artifacts. Whilst there's much tub thumping about the damage caused to spoil tips by bikers this unique habitat is being nibbled away by the operational requirements of a nearby business, all of which appears to be beyond the gaze of landscape historians.

The recent warm weather has been ideal for invertebrate watching. Sweep netting through the verdant vegetation that's now a welcome feature of Blaenavon will reveal much for a biological recorder. A few examples are illustrated below.

Mottled Grasshopper
Nemophora degeerella
Micropterix aruncella



Thursday, 2 June 2016

Wash day blues



 Monday evening I fell down. Plodding through the indiscriminate upland environment that is Garn yr erw the Molina grassland hid some substantial sodden caverns and over I went! This gymnastic event produced two wet feet, one of which extended a good way up my trouser leg covering it with a peaty, red oxide cocktail. Those in my household who know about such things, claim, with some assertiveness that my Tesco discount jeans are now ruined.




Before I went face down in a bilberry bush it was pleasing to produce a count of 31 moonwort from a walkway spoil tip. There were at least two pair of calling stonechat and an a male wheatear in alarm mode. A heron went north, two mallard went east, a couple of swift went west and a lesser black backed gull was all over the place. The hidden gem that is the former industrial reservoir at Garn yr erw was complete with discarded camping/fishing kit but supported a four egg carrion crow nest in a single waterside willow tree. The nest was constructed of brittle heather stems of a type that is a remnant of heather burning.




Sunday, 29 May 2016

Ladybirds of Gwent


Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)

Harlequin Ladybird - dark form

7 Spot Ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata)

24 Spot Ladybird (Subcoccinella vigintiquattvorpunctata)
It appears to be a very good year for ladybirds. These were just a few images of three common species encountered during my lunchbreaks in the Cwmbran area last week.





Wednesday, 18 May 2016

BBS - first leg



In panoramic view of the mist laden agricultural lowlands of Monmouthshire the Foxhunter car park at 6.30am on a Sunday morning was populated by a couple of camper vans and a car that may have had a back seat sleeper. I volunteered to append a second Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) square to my long standing existing square on Mynydd y Garn Fawr so was prepared for an extended transect walk. 


The majority of my double square is dominated by Calluna vulgaris thereby limiting the avian composition. And so it was. Approaching the end of my transects the species tally was just skylark, meadow pipit, three calling red grouse and a fly over carrion crow. As I was about to wrap up some salvation came in the form of a male wheatear, a swallow and a distant cuckoo, albeit outside of my square.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

New internationalism



The Monmouthshire - Brecon Canal is another post-industrial artifact that engenders a sense of watery eyed nostalgia among some. Retirees give up their time to point brickwork and sit on stewardship committees hoping to arrest decaying processes. It's a somewhat thankless rear guard action, compounded by the clinical hands of post war newtown planners. From the tranquil rural landscape of Monmouthshire the canal  feeds through the grey infrastructure of Pontypool and on to Cwmbran. Here this aged transport channel has been severed like one big waterway vasectomy cut into a series of barely connected parts. No longer will the marriage of urban and rural be consummated. 

Despite the periodic displays of public affection the canal environment is a litmus test of what society really thinks of this green urban thoroughfare. A short walk through any built up section will more often than not produce a shopping trolley or two or a floating polystyrene takeaway container with associated lager cans. Where the vegetation thins, peer into the water for more historic evidence of Calor gas bottles, chopper bikes and ring pull drinks cans. And the towpath has a liberal helping of dog faeces. 

For modern day ecologists who believe the prevalence of non-native species is a reality of  globalism - see The New Wild by Fred Peace - the canal offers rich pickings. Above the layers of inter-generational fly-tipping and silt accumulation this wetland supports a cosmopolitan array of biodiversity from around the world. Botanically Himalyan balsam, and Japanesse knotweed sit cheek by jowl with American water fern, South American parrot's feather, Canadian pondweed and New Zealand pygmyweed. Canada goose, American mink and red-eyed terrapin from Ninjiland are all commonplace. And then there's the goldfish and koi crap from where I do not know!


Looking beyond the non-natives you will find some gems. As highlighted in a previous post the canal is poorly recorded.  This week a couple of meadow long-horn moths was noteworthy.


Sunday, 8 May 2016

An evening with Chris Packham


I've a bit of time for this chap. An 'in the blood' naturalist and committed conservationist he's certainly not afraid to offer a view. Moreover he's done more than anyone to popularise the fundamental importance of the natural world through the contemporary concept of citizen science, and in so doing given BBC's Springwatch a much needed leg up. With his memoir 'Fingers in the Sparkle Jar' just published I couldn't miss the opportunity to see him in conversation with Polly Morland at the Savoy Theatre, Monmouth - another date is scheduled for Chepstow!

I arrived at the venue to be greeted by a queue, but thankfully nothing like the snaking black monster I dealt with at last years Robert Plant gig, so it was no great hardship - although the couple behind we agitated by the wait. The theatre filled quickly and was obviously a sell out. The age demo-graph of attendees covered the full spectrum but with the vast majority aged 50+  and female.

The stage set was basic with a rolling backdrop of greyscale images and more colourful artwork from the book. Chris articulated his influences and experiences of his early years growing up in Southampton. Like many boys in the seventies collecting was important from eggs to insects and reptiles. The biggest influence during his teenage years came in the form of a school teacher who was a naturalist and bird ringer along with a kestrel that was stolen from a nest and trained as a companion. Among the undoubted passion and joy for his subject there seemed a large dose of melancholy. His TV persona of a chirpy, knowledgeable and accessible naturalist slipped as he talked movingly about the affect the death of his kestrel had on him. A period of depression ensured. Then the cuckoo in the nest was exposed, Chris has Asperger's Syndrome. Chris was quick to draw the positives from this choosing to celebrate his uniqueness, and as a grandfather of a toddler who is on the autistic scale I wholeheartedly support his assertion. He talked about his years in University when the study of biology took precedence over the student bar. And then came the raw energy of punk years when hitch hiking (whatever happened to that!) to gigs to see bands like The Clash and The Undertones was his main preoccupation.




The evening finished with a question and answer session including a defense of wild boar in the Forest of Dean, drawing a loud round of applause when ridiculing ignorant local politicians for calling for a cull. The lights went up and the grey haired throng shuffled to the front to purchase a signed copy of the book from an impressively well stocked stall. All in all a very enjoyable evening. Next up George Monbiot! 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Terminal decline



There's a small breeding population of lapwing on coal spoil above Garn-yr-erw, Blaenavon, and despite being harassed by sheep, dog-walkers, bikers, fell runners and corvids the number of breeding pairs has remained more or less constant at around 4-6 pairs, That is until this year! With just a single pair showing this weekend it now seems the colony is in terminal decline.

The primary objective of my visit however was to track down a medium size pond that is clearly evident on aerial photographs but one that seems to have avoided my gaze to date. It didn't take too long to locate said water-body, a deep, dark, oligotrophic pond with a vista of rural Monmouthshire and promising summer odonata prospects.





Birding was very much focused on calling birds. Cuckoo, Canada goose, snipe and pheasant were all detected calling from within the wider landscape. The most interesting record however was a couple of sand martin feeding low over molina grassland.



Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A lack of respect?



There's a small pull-in on Waterworks Lane just below the now decommissioned Nant y mailor reservoir. I maneuvered carefully to avoid a pile of bricks and bare, brittle, privet hedge cuttings. A cream coloured plastic casing from an early model computer monitor had been thoughtfully deposited out of harms way. I kitted up for my naturalist ramble around this part of Lasgarn Wood but before moving off I took the opportunity to peer into the adjacent stream. Here is an impressive stand of ramsons sweeping down from the mixed woodland to the waters edge like a green succulent carpet. Too early for these plants to be showing their distinctive white flowers but ample compensation came in the form of a pristine looking 'white goods' microwave and several black bags some with spilling contents.

Back tracking a few yards to where the stream travels under the lane through an attractive stone culvert is where toothwort often grows. Here the micro climate has changed. A ham-fisted attempt to lay a hedge has changed the feel from a dark humid environment to one that is much brighter. There were no toothwort.

I plodded on, up a steep gradient to view the now out of commission and disused Nant y mailor Reservoir, It's scruffy, unkempt demeanor stimulated a memory of better days. My formative years were peppered with birding excursions to the Lasgarn wood at a time when this reservoir was full and managed. A local hill farmer was employed to cut the grass, paint the metal fencing and shout 'oi' to anyone risking a better look at the environs of this small waterbody, where dipper, kingfisher and common sandpiper were exciting finds for a Young Ornithologists Club member.

The part-time reservoir caretaker was notable for is attire. A typical sheep farmer who's preferred mode of transport was a gun metal grey Massey Ferguson tractor driven at a time when black and white metal number plates were still common place on. Bill, who's going out footwear was always turned down wellies, wore a donkey jacket with style kept together with contrasting baling twine. His threadbare flat cap, complete with grubby, waxy handling zone on its peak was no doubt purchased from a local gentlemans outfitters, was positioned at a jaunty angle and saw many a tupping season. A thin rollie completed the look. A nice man of few words, his Desperate Dan looks were matched by a voice that displayed an interesting vocabulary based on a combination of  'heal, heal', 'come bye, come bye', and  'damn you' interspersed with a impressive whistle fashioned through an irregular set of teeth.


Pushing on and leaving the reservoir the walk took me through a metal kissing gate and briefly on to the mess that's recent clear- fell. Three siskin sang loudly overhead. Thankfully I didn't need to go far to drift back into mature native beech woodland. Had I been taking part in some trial to measure the value to health and wellbeing of nature here my blood pressure would have surely improved. Large sentinel like beech and oak where calling nuthatch and green woodpecker were clues to its longevity. Ground flora of emerging bluebell, wood sorrel and opposite leaved saxifrage added to the picture. 


Beyond this ancient woodland is another large area of clear fell. Not content with removing the larch those engaged in this work cut a swath through the beech, hazel and oak setting down a hardcore track complete with simple drainage. Although the tree feller's pillaging is over a legacy of disrespectful clutter remains. A number of the smooth barked beech were daubed with yellow paint along with the liberal use of marker plastic tape. Overall its a mess!




Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Gordon Bennett!


It seems the old farmers favourite of land drainage is alive and kicking in the south Wales valleys. The idea that holding water in the landscape for as long as possible to help buffer the impacts of increased rainfall on the lower river catchment appears lost on some old school land managers. A channel cut through the water absorbing, sphagnum topped, layer of peat is working depressingly efficiently. I can only guess the aim of this work is to agriculturally 'improve' this part of the 'ffridd' landscape. And to cap it all its liberated a nice cocktail of mine water pollutants.


Elsewhere a walk around the lower slopes of Mynydd Farteg Fawr was notable for this nice linear water body that on this visit supported a 'drop in' swallow - my first of the year. This pond is a relatively new feature, probably formed as a result of a blocked culvert. If the aforementioned water drainage busy bodies get the bit between their teeth its long term prognosis is not good. However, we need more actions in the uplands that seek to retain water for as long as possible instead of the shortsighted actions of the few!


From the pond I made my way to an area of remnant dry stone walling looking for an early male wheatear. The walling is restricted to three smallest compartments that once formed the immediate surroundings of a lost farmstead called Yew Tree Farm, One assumed, logically, it was called such due to the presence of a yew tree. There was no sign of a living tree but a large dead stump now with a rowan sapling hitching a ride is testament to what would have been a long lived specimen.








Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Industrial treescape






I happened on an interesting website recently, www.ukeconet.org showcases the social history of woodlands through projects such as Tree Stories and Industrial Woodlands. This prompted me to have another ramble through the Lasgarn Wood, near Abersychan. Perched on a ridge of carboniferous limestone this woodland is full of industrial archaeology along with tree cravings of a more contemporary nature. Shallow mine workings sit close to a remnant dram line that was once used to transport limestone across the valley to The British Ironworks. Associated with these workings are other features such as drystone walling and a curious circular stone pit. 

I've documented tree carvings in the woodlands around my home before. Some of the inscriptions are found way off the beaten track in unexpected locations. Few are beyond that of peoples initials but some have attempted to be a little more creative. The one above carved into a tree close to an abandoned mine working appears to depict a small hat wearing character with the associated word, lost.! Close by was another inscription that clearly marks the year as 1963. Not an earth shattering discovery I would grant, but for me this illustrates the role woodlands once played as a venue for recreation in the south Wales former mining communities. The disappointing aspect of all is that no one seems very bothered about cataloging these tree markings for posterity.

Monday, 21 March 2016

High 'n' dry




Once again it's that time of year when Welsh Water flings open its doors to all and sundry. Gone are the cold war years when birders were barred from Llandegfedd Reservoir - unless you coughed up for a permit from this not for profit company that is. The cost of which increased year on year without any apparent justification. Nonetheless the spirit of glasnost has now arrived in rural Monmouthshire and its open access again.

There remains a vestige of pre-privatistion times when sincere attempts were made to accommodate those interested in the natural sciences, A sturdy hide positioned on the fringe of the woodland core on the island overlooks Green Pool and once commanded good views to the east. Now an iron curtain of impregnable willow scrub prevents any meaningful view, so its now high 'n' dry, without friends to embrace its functionality as a look out post. Today its only use, judging by the cover of underfoot detritus, is as a sheep shed. This structure, so much a part of the social history of birding in Gwent could be useful again, brought back into service but only if the trees that blight the margins of this part of the reservoir are managed appropriately. Little wonder the once formidable flocks of grazing wigeon are just a memory, they simply can't access sufficient grassland!


This posting relates to Sunday 13th March when the first sunshine of the spring stirred the cockles of the heart of an aging, yet grumpy, naturalist. A momentary distraction from bootlace adjustments, I looked skywards as ten scolding fieldfare were a reminder that winter has yet to give up the ghost. The two small ponds dug for the purposes of environmental education are now a remnant of more progressive times but they still harboured frogs spawn and a number of active caddis fly cases. From the little I know about these fisherman's friends, species can sometimes be separated by the material selected for case construction. The upper image shows a caddis that's chosen a covering of freshwater limpet that's somewhat reminiscent of the Victorian shell grotto era. 


The sunshine did its best to promote a decent show of early season flowering plants. Primrose, and wild daffodil could be found with the more numerous lesser celendine. It was the celendine that seems to attract what could be found of invertebrate activity. According to my copy of Steven Falk's Field Guide to Bees of Great Britain and Ireland (2015) the small mining bee pictured below has affinities to Wilke's mining bee (Andrena wilkella).




Thursday, 10 March 2016

Renegades of the edgelands


Diverted from gull watching by car parking restrictions and road closures in Newport I returned to the valleys for some peace and tranquility, seeking refuse in the peri-urban environment of Blaenavon.

A pair of in flight calling Canada geese alerted me to a couple of wild water swimmers in Keepers Pond. But it was not long before my efforts at escapism and some breathing space was thwarted by the loudening approach of a posse of quad bikers. And so it was to be, a couple of hours outdoors was remarkable not for the recording of the first summer migrant but for the amount of off road activity - they were ubiquitous! Total group counts were as follows:-

Quad bikers - 3 + 3+ 2 = 8

Scrambler bikes - 5+ 5+ 3+ 2 = 15

Three quad bikers passed at speed but were respectful in sharing the time of day. However, within a few minutes I was surprised to come across them again. On this occasion they were tending to a break down to one of the bikes, As I approached an inquiry was made as to whether I had a screw to fix a puncture. I responded negatively, wondering if I looked like the type of person that carried a DIY kit on a walk in the countryside, nonetheless this was promptly followed by a supplementary question. 'Wha' you after'? I quipped  I was a naturalist. There was an instant deafening silence as the three hapless mud covered bike riders stood motionless mentally computing my response. Within a few seconds I was around the toe of a nearby coal tip and out of sight, far enough away to avoid the need to explain that a naturalist isn't a person that takes his/her clothes off in public!


This set the tone for my outing. Bikers appeared with depressing regularity often emerging on top of a tip pausing to rev their machines menacingly whilst pondering their next move, and with the sun rising behind them reminiscent of a scene from the Planet of the Apes. These renegades of the edgelands are  free spirits who ride the landscape with impunity, sticking a metaphorical two fingers up to those wishing to prevent them. Illegal it is, controllable it isn't!

Away from the roller-coaster micro landscape that is Canada Tips, bikers race along linear desire lines in the macro landscape that on quieter days are populated  by only sheep, skylarks and the occasional walker accompanied by the ever present brisk breeze. Here speed and peat are the fun ingredients. If you're unfortunate to be facing the on coming bike traffic you're obliged to give way and step aside, doff your cap and say good day sir, for to do otherwise risks injury.


Okay there maybe some beneficial ecological spin offs resulting from this type of habitat disturbance as it helps reset the successional clock. However, this is repeated uncontrolled damage on a grand scale that's replicated throughout the valleys and the authorities are powerless to prevent it.


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