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

Monday, 29 August 2011

Rings, rings, everywhere

A black headed gull on a building close to Tesco's Pontypool carrying a metal ring was an interesting addition to the Town Centre shopping experience. At Llandegfedd Reservoir the ring theme continued with another black headed gull and cormorant with shiny rings and a lesser black backed gull with a large dark colour ring. What does all this mean? Absolutely nothing as I was unable to get close enough to the birds to read any inscriptions!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Urban Birder

Its refreshing to find an example of public art that actually depicts some of our natural heritage for a change. All too much of the creative effort that adorns the town centres and public parks of Gwent's valleys is based on a variation of cloth capped, ragged trousered miners, a railway carriage named after a local pit or a rugby folk hero. Lest we forget the exploitation of working class communities, the origins of the trade union movement and socialism but how about something a little more contemporary that looks to the future not back with misty eyed nostalgia?

In amongst another extensive homage to the industrial revolution that is the mosaic mural covering the walls of the Riverside underpass (p**spass) in Newport, you can find, if you look hard enough, a couple of great black backed gulls chucked in for good measure. This shock discovery gave me good reason to pull out and flick through the quality glossy pages of Simon Holloway's Poyser book 'The Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland 1875-1900 ' just to see if the GBBG was in fact the gull most likely to be encountered on the dockside in Victorian Newport.

Its always difficult to retro-fit breeding bird populations especially to a time when the only reliable records were determined via the barrel of a gun or through the egg collections of Jardine Society members, but the atlas makes for interesting reading.

It seems GBBG's bred mainly on the coasts and islands around Scotland. Holloways assessment of GBBG's further south is as follows:

'It is likely that human persecution was responsible for the almost total lack of non-coastal breeding records for this species during the last quarter of the 19th century and their withdrawal from many coastal cliffs in S England and Wales'.

I'm sure the designer of the Newport mural will have just used the GBBG for illustrative purposes only without determining if this species was in fact the one most likely to be encountered along the lower reaches of the River Usk during the 19th century. Nonetheless I applaude any public realm artwork that contributes to reversing our 'nature deficit disorder'.

Next time- the Fourteen Locks dragonfly artwork should it really be a lesser emperor?

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

How to be a naturalist on a budget: the grapnel

Why buy expensive biological recording equipment from ecology suppliers when with a bit of wartime improvisation you can make your own at a fraction of the price.

Here's how to make a grapnel:

1. Purchase egg whisk from Wilkinson's or any other cheap 'n' cheerful High Street shop (cost 99p)
2. Chisel free the wire loops and bend in to hook shapes
3. Attach a length of redundant electrical cable or rope to handle

Note: When fitted with jack plug grapnel doubles up as an effective field aerial on which to pick up your favourite pirate radio station such as Valley Naturalist FM.

Grapnel was field tested by my son at Garn yr erw yesterday and from the image it can clearly be seen to be effective in sampling aquatic macrophytes.

Elsewhere around the watery Blaenavon landscape there were plenty of common hawker, black darter and golden ringed dragonflies on offer, and a large patch of flowering round leaved sundew was a welcome find. 

Ornithologically a grasshopper warbler could just be made out in scrub adjacent to a small pond, a single wheatear and reed bunting, as well as hundreds of meadow pipit and hirundines feeding on a good crop of emerging flying ants. Also good numbers of goldfinch.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A pleasant afternoon outdoors

Yesterday afternoon's summer holiday stroll through this green and pleasant land was very therapeutic. Not too many fisherman just the background hum of neighbouring farmers bringing in the hay with a fleet of assorted Massey Ferguson. There's now a substantial draw down zone at Llandegfedd Reservoir just in time for some passage waders- here's hoping.

Apart from good numbers of willowchaffs there didn't seem to be too much passing through. The Canada goose with the shiny metal ring was still around and masses of great crested grebe could be picked out all over the reservoir. Five tufted duck in Green Pool got me excited just very briefly. The best on offer however was a little egret. Note: Sigma 500mm lens just doesn't perform well fully extended and hand held. Oh yes a kingfisher as well.

A female migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta) was a nice find and the Roesel's bush cricket continue to be in fine voice. A silver washed fritillary was again evident near to the inlet hide.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


Its always nice to see this little upland specialist. The hieroglyphic ladybird (Coccinella hieroglyphica) is probably widely distributed where heather occurs in vc 35 but is under recorded due to the lack of active recording in the uplands. I've come across this species several times in the Blaenavon area and can be readily found by sweep netting dwarf shrub heath. By the way I note a new UK ladybird distribution atlas has recently been published!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A morning up north

Arrived at Beaufort Ponds car park just in time to view yet more Canada geese along with a single greylag leaving the waterbody for a nearby reservoir.

On to Garnlydan Reservoir hoping for a significant shoreline and some passage waders. For a large reservoir by Gwent terms Garnlydan, for me, has flattered to deceive. Sure enough it can produce some nice birds whooper swan, ruff etc. but often the effort to get to the site hardly seems all the huff 'n puff. Water levels were unseasonably high (always seemed lower in days of British Steel ownership) and apart from a couple of snipe flushed from adjacent mire habitat the only other wetland bird of note was a single great crested grebe loafing about with all the reservoir to its own.

Away from the reservoir was a tad more interesting. Dozens of grayling butterflies and hundreds of black darter were punctuated by the odd golden ringed and migrant hawker dragonfly. Around four wheatear were moving between fence posts and a single sulking sedge warbler was flushed from juncus on the edge of a small pond.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Roesel's at last!

Within the giddy heights of Gwent orthoptera recording Roesel's bush cricket (Metrioptera roeselii ) was the most eagerly awaited new kid on the block. Known as a rapid coloniser it was expected to have spread quickly after the first county record from Dingestow Court about four years ago. But following false alerts from Solutia in Newport last year it wasn't until this year that the second record from a road verge in Cwmbran was confirmed by Roo Perkins.

Despite having 'prog rock' induced damaged hearing the very distinctive 'crackling' stridulation of this cricket was picked up from tall herbage close to the inlet at Llandegfedd Reservoir yesterday. After a protracted search one was found and obliged for some photography- there were at least three present.

When birds are a bit conspicuous by their absence inverts can full the gap and for me Llandegfedd Reservoir is now as important for bugs as it is for birds. A silver washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia ) flying strongly near to the North end park was a also new site record for me. Also plentiful was the distinctive kidney-spot ladybird (Chilocorus reinpustulatus) from sallows around Green Pool. The fast running ground beetle Bembidion dentellum was also easy to locate under stones in the draw down zone.

On the bird front - well not a lot. There was some indication of passerine movement with both chiffchaff and willow warbler in abridged autumn sub song. In my days of active bird ringing I remember LR being reasonably productive at this time of year for both species. A party of well over 100 Canada goose including the single Barnacle were close in the north end and amongst them was at least one with a shiny metal ring, maybe the product of the recent Llangorse Lake round up. Otherwise, there were 100's of great crested grebe and a single great black backed gull. 

Saturday, 6 August 2011

How the mighty have fallen

Yes it could be a reference to Jan Molby's pending appearance in the Oily Rag, Pontypool - hope it gets a lick of paint and a new damp course beforehand! But no its the ornithologically challenged Llandegfedd Reservoir once again, and all I could muster was a male tufted duck and two teal. There was some saving grace in more Essex skippers an emperor dragonfly and the fleabane tortoise beetle (Cassida murraea). Desperate I turned to kicking about the shoreline and was taken by the frequency of dis- articulated crinoid fragments on show - now thats stumped you!

Stemmed fossilised crinoids and often abundant in rocks from the Silurian periods, hence their presence at Llandegfedd. Although they still occur today in the depths of our oceans they are not as plentiful as they were all those millions of year ago. In some parts of the world these fragmented stems are collected and made into necklaces and wrist bands- now there's idea maybe I could make a few flog 'um on Ebay to offset Welsh Water's wicked £8 birders access ransom.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Food for free

'No tea for me tonight luv I'm going foraging, I'll return full and satisfied without being a burden on the family budget'. 'Yeah right' was the reply. Historically hoards of locals harvested natures billberry bounty  on the hillsides around Blaenavon. A local budding capitalist even patented a 'billberry picking tool' to make the sustainable pillaging of the uplands that little bit easier. Today billberry foragers are few and far between.

The billberries on Mynydd y garn fawr were plump, juicy and tasty and true to my legendary greediness I took advantage. Two handfuls later and after a close shave with a rouge crowberry I moved on.

A small quarry with a combination of wet and dry heath provided a suitable distraction. A black streak of an unidentified bryophyte remains just that - although I'm sure SB will know what it is. Otherwise the hillside was quite, a pair of stonechat were still noisy however, a female wheatear moved from stone to stone while a distant reed bunting was still in song. Grayling butterflies are now on the wing and a few small heath were still evident.

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