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

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, 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.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Unable to Finnish off!

I didn't go far beyond the Millenium Bridge in Newport's town centre last weekend as many of the riverfront's gulls were loafing on the bridges straining wires. These obliging birds made good for easy ring reading, First up was one of the long staying Lithuanian black-headed gulls. This bird that's been present for several months now, was very confiding. Conversely another ringed bird proved more of a challenge. Frustratingly I was able to determine a Finnish ring but was unable to get enough of a view to read the full number. I'm hoping the bird will still be around next week but with the breeding season fast approaching and a pending movement back north eastward I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Not from Denny Island it seems

Stuck in the middle of the Severn Estuary, Denny Island is the overseas territory of Gwent. Famed for its cormorant colony, breeding rock pipit and a few other bits and pieces this is the outcrop that veteran naturalist Colin Titcombe attempted to walk to at low tide. His book Gwent: its landscape and natural history (1998) recalls the resultant adventure. The cormorant colony was also the subject of an annual colour ringing pilgrimage by members of the Goldcliff Ringing Group. It was therefore reasonable to assume that the colourfully ringed bird loafing on the floating island at Dunlop Semtex Pond, Brynmawr  last weekend was the product of such a mission. Not so it seems! After some research and correspondence the bird (Green AR) in the above image was tracked down to the Dutch ringing programme. Although I still await specific details its been confirmed it was ringed at Oostvaardersplaseen in the Ijsselneer area.

I've also received other recovery news over the last week for a couple of black-headed gulls. Firstly white AF460 that's been around Tredegar House for most of this winter was confirmed as a German bird. Summary of its history is as follows:
  • Ringed at Helgoland, Germany 12 March 2013
  • Observed at Pilling, Northampton, UK 12 January 2014
  • Observed at Helogland, Germany 02 July 2015.

Secondly the bird that showed well on the urban frontage of the River Usk, Newport early December 2015 was, as suspected, a Polish bird ringed as a pullus at Zachodniopomorskie on 8th June 2012.

Finally I've not had a colour ringed lesser black- backed gull for a couple of years, so this one, white 7WH, on the rooftop around Asda, Brynmawr was a welcome change. Details coming some.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Brynmawr for gull watching

Whilst contemplating the destination of my usual Sunday morning excursion I had a recollection that around this time in previous years, gulls, mainly herring, were starting to congregate on their breeding site on the roof tops around Asda Brynmawr. And so it proved to be up to 60 birds were present on the undulating asbestos roofed redundant industrial building. My main objective was to check for colour ringed birds but on scanning the legs of herring gulls one stood out as not being pink.

This was my first yellow-legged gull in the north of the county and followed the Iceland gull found on the same building last February. The above photo illustrates some of the contrasting features between the yellow-legged and herring. Note the yellow legs, darker mantle, and bulkier head and neck form.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Long stayer

I recently reported the sightings of three colour ringed black-headed gulls to their respective schemes - two Polish and one German. A prompt same day response from Rafal Sandecki regarding white TTW2 (see blog posting  17 October 2015 ) confirmed that it was ringed as a chick on 8th June 2015 in Culianian - Pomeranian Province on an island in Lake Kusowo, Poland.

Meanwhile the bird carrying white AF460 that's been frequenting the environs of Tredegar House since December last year can still be found often amongst the line of birds on the roof top of said building. A brief sighing of another bird with a colour ring covered in mud proved frustrating. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Once an Olympic sport

Live pigeon shooting was a popular nineteenth century past time, even featuring in the 1900 Paris Olympic games. This blood sport that consisted of live pigeons being released from a box trap in front of a 'gun' is no longer practiced in the UK but countries such as USA and Spain still entertain this questionable activity.

Historically live pigeon shooting was readily reported in local newspapers just like the scorecard of a village cricket match is nowadays. Below is an example of a newspaper report from the turn of nineteenth century detailing one such match.

'On Monday a pigeon shooting competition took place between the members of the Blaenavon Gun Club, at the new cricket grounds. The weather was very favourable, and a large number of persons assembled to witness the shooting. The first competition was for a sweep stakes of 10s each; five birds 21 yards rise and 61 yards boundary. Seventeen entered. Messrs. Wride and Brinkworth shot in their usual excellent style, and were deservedly applauded, each killing five birds. They divided the stakes between the shots. .John Wride, 111X1; John Brinkworth,11111; Evan Adams,11110; John Pullman, 10111; Willliam Cox, 11110; Henry C Steel, 11010; Thomas Davies 11010. For the sweepstakes of5s each ten entered, but as there were not sufficient birds left the stakes were  divided between Messrs, Wilson, Pulman, Orchard, Edmonds and Lewis, each having killed three birds. Hammon, of London, as usual, supplied the best blues. 

Given their bad press it can be easy to forget that feral pigeon is on the BOC British List and its felt the population and distribution of this species in Gwent is poorly understood. The large population of several hundred birds centred on Newport Castle featured a range of characteristic plumage varieties for those wishing to cut there teeth on pigeon recording.






Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Greyscale birds

This weeks collection of monochrome waterbirds from just two lunchtime visits to Cwmbran Boating Lake. Water rail, goosander, kingfisher, and tufted duck joined the more numerous Canada goose, black-headed gull, moorhen, coot and mallard.

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