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

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Pitch inspection required

Monmouth School cricket pitch along side the River Wye was completed flooded today. It caught my attention due to the sheer number of gulls using the field. Of the 300-400 birds present 75% were common gull.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Five a day

Got around five of north west Gwent's water bodies yesterday starting with Pen y fan Pond. More people and dogs than you could shake a stick at resulted in a depressing count of just two cormorant and half a dozen or so mallard. Next stop was Cwmtillery Lakes where 12 goosander, 4 coot and singles of little grebe and moorhen mingled with upwards of 100 mallard.

Beaufort Ponds was by far the most interesting, with a site busting count of 48 Canada goose, 13 wigeon, 22 tufted duck, 6 pochard, 25 coot with a small number of mallard and herring gull thrown in for good measure. Machine Pond was uncharacteristically quiet with 22 coot, 3 tufted duck and 2 mute swan. By the time I'd reached Dunlop Semtex Pond I was looking into a setting sun which didn't make for accurate count but there we well over 30 coot, 2 mute swan, 11 Canada goose and smaller numbers of tufted duck, mallard and moorhen.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Thank the Lord for Darwin

I was thrilled to have been able to get my grubby paws on a copy of the First Annual Report (1867-68) of Cardiff Naturalists' Society. Why? Because this, to the best of my knowledge contains the first documented evidence that naturalists were active in the south Wales valleys at the height of the industrial revolution. Contained therein is a report of one of the earliest outdoor events of the society, a joint walk with the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club of Hereford and the newly formed Cardiff Naturalists'. Interestingly both these natural history societies remain in existence today. 

Representatives from both learned societies arrived by train, meeting at Crumlin Station for a walk that would take them through the Crumlin Viaduct over the upland landscape towards Pontypool for an evening meal in the Three Cranes public house. En route the group, that included a high percentage of Reverends, stopped for a lunchtime presentation about local geology delivered by an attendee with a large map, before heading on towards Pontnewynydd about a mile from Pontypool.  Here they noted the presence of red backed shirke and a dead common shrew.

The report is stuffed full of historical insights, not only into the flora and fauna that occurred nearly a 150 years ago in south Wales but also includes some telling reminders as to the social make up and priorities of the time. I've already hinted at how religious preachers we activity involved in Victorian natural societies, an association that today is at best tenuous given current irrefutable evidence that God didn't create the earth and all things on it. It seemed that some of the essential attributes on the job description of Victorian clergy, was obviously to believe in creationism but to join a natural history society and show a healthy interest in the finer points of Cricket.

This deluded link to creationism is further evident on page 20 of the report. Rev Professor Gagliardi in his address about the Natural System to a General Meeting of the society on 3rd February 1867 opens his presentation and sets out his view.

'Each moss, each shrub, each shell, each crawling insect, holds a rank important in the plan of Him who form'd it;......'

The Rules of Cardiff Natuarlists' from this time also makes for interesting reading. The fact the society felt the need to state within it 'That Ladies be eligible as Members'  tells us much about equality and the status of women at the time. However, new aspiring members would need to be proposed and balloted in, but excluded by 'one black ball in three'. 

I am pleased to have been able to obtain this report (all for the princely sum of £2.49) as I'm sure other than those held in libraries in Newport and Cardiff University, few will now have survived into modern times. Moreover the National Museum of Wales project to digitise back issues of the Transactions of Cardiff Naturalists' Society doesn't appear to go back this far.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A late otter

Thanks to a tip off from ace road kill observationalist Chris Hatch I was able to photograph this recent unfortunate otter beside the A472 Pontypool to Crumlin road. Even though I've tramped the countryside for longer than I care to admit I've not had the good pleasure to see a live  beating heart otter. Yes, like any card carrying naturalist I've prodded and sniffed the sweet aroma of their do do's (spraint is the official scatological term), photographed footprints in the mud of the River Usk, recorded characteristic fish kill signs at Cwmbran Boating Lake and even seen several other dead specimens roadside and in the drink of the Monmouthshire-Brecon Canal but never one that is warm.

Dead specimens of all British mammals are always worthy of closer examination so I took the opportunity to take some images of those little dainty feet. Note the diagnostic pads that are the main feature of those prints in the mud we all look for.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The National Trust's seasonal mix

 The National Trust's Tredegar House Lake was rich in avian biomass but middling on the species richness curve. A substantial flock of circa 400 black headed gull contained nothing different save for a single herring gull. A small party of around four cormorant were flighty and seven little grebe hoovered up the minnows before a cull is called. Otherwise there were up to 30 coot a handful of moorhen, two heron and a single tufted duck.

On return my birding attire promoted a comment from two gentleman 'are you here for the French bird?' Somehow Coco Chanel rather than a hoopoe sprang to mind.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Football factory wingers

At last some photographable waxwing in Gwent. These little gems, over 20 of them, were using the trees around the Football Factory on the Avondale Industrial Estate, Cwmbran. Many were also using the grounds of the nearby primary school as well. There are some heavily laden ornamental rowan with white berries several hundred metres due south near to the Cwmbran Town Centre which I'm sure these birds will find  eventually - if not spooked by a couple of resident mistle thrush of course.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Not the first ringed Shoveler it seems

Two shoveler 'up ending' in the shallows of Bryn Bach Park were suspiciously confiding. It seems that a raft of Canadian and Nuttells pondweed was just enough to kept them occupied while I made my approach. One bird was clearly carrying a ring but was almost impossible to get a decent series of shots to allow the ring number to be read. Shoveler ring recoveries are not something I ever recall seeing on the pages of the Gwent Bird Report, but checking the ringing page on the BTO website there is at least one.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A full head of hair - unusual?

At the right time of year you wouldn't look twice at an adult black headed gull in summer plumage, but in late November its a different kettle of fish. This bird was feeding with about 200 other gulls in a howling gale on a playing field south of Pontypool at lunchtime today. I was intrigued as none of the other gulls came anywhere close to matching this birds summer plumage.

My copy of Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America (Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson 2002) provided an answer, it states. Adult with dark hood in midwinter rare but regular. Several birds showed traces of darker eye spot, others had fresh hood Nov-Dec, indicating that hood atypically may have been developed during autumn moult or as very early moult into summer; although mostly incomplete into mid-Jan. This has especially proven to be the case following a series of very mild autumns and winters.

It goes on to say. Earliest with winter head mid Jul (small minority mid-Jun probably failed breeders); by late Aug;90% have winter head. Small minority retain summer head to early Oct, exceptionally into winter.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Lower boat pond - standard stuff.

Having the need to visit Ebbw Vale on a day off work I dropped into lower Beaufort Pond, Brynmawr for a quick wildfowl count. No great shakes with an expected range of bog standard birds. However a count of about 40 wigeon was by far the most I've counted at this site in close to twenty years. Other birds include 10 tufted duck, 2 pochard, 16 coot and 30 mallard.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Remembrance Day report

The days of leaving home at sun up only to return at sun down complete with Filofax brimming with exciting ticks are fading into the memory. The onset of middle age spread and less free time has changed the dynamic of my birding. Give me a nearby car park, a nice accessible walking surface, benches and I'm yer man.

The Riverfront in the freshly urbanised metropolitan city of Newport is brilliant for this, that's of course if you can get into your chosen car park near the Riverfront Theatre! Displaced from this most convenient block of floodplain tarmac by several oily workman in florescent jackets, I found myself in the next available free place half a mile down the road in Asda Pill (three hour limit for customers only!) This had the result of forcing me across a road to confront the bold primary colours of Newport's urban artwork zone, on through narrow walkways between high rise buildings where students kicked empty Red Bull cans and smoked Moroccan black, onward across a dual carriageway before making it to the Riverfront walk - and relax!

Having not had the pleasure of birding in this part of Newport's edgelands before I quickly sought a vantage point from which to pick out the avian delights in amongst the tractor tyres, assorted twisted metal and a nose cone of a Lufthansa jet that were rising from the chocolate coloured depths of the River Usk's highly productive tidal ecosystem.  A redshank and cormorant later I quickened my step upstream towards my aforementioned, now barred, favourite parking spot, side stepping a number of leisure cyclists on the way. At a bench free from the oppressive affects of the new riverside accommodation, base camp was established all to the sound of distant marching and shouting. A Police officer with purpose in his stride passed me without even questioning why I was using binoculars in a public place. Here several redshank caught my eye one of which was the multi-ringed bird noted a couple of weeks ago. Here also were hundreds of gulls dotted along the shoreline like a string of pearls from bridge to bridge. Then at 11 o'clock a 'report' of artillery fire scattered all and sundry. With visions of an Asda car park attendant in price promise green uniform eyeing up my car  for an on the spot fine, I returned.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Taking the piscivore

I sense there's a new generation of Gwent goosander that's becoming that little bit more confiding. Contrast those distant birds at Llandegfedd and Garnlydan Reservoirs with this immature bird at Cwmbran Boating Lake, approachable down to three or four metres (shock, horror!). A one off you may think, but remember the summer bird loafing about on a sandy spit on the River Monnow in the centre of Monmouth? This bird too was oblivious to the proximity of homo sapiens in the form of a troop of portly middle aged Morris dancers shaking their jingly bells and beating their wooden sticks. A slightly worrying trend given the hostility a brewing amongst the hunting, fishing, good loving man brigade.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Some more gull nonsense

Numbers of black headed gull are on the increase again at Cwmbran Boating Lake. Several were having some fun with a short length of plastic tubing. Otherwise the lake supported a single female goosander, four moorhen, a pair of mute swan, 18 Canada goose, and single of coot and lesser black backed gull.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

More rings than a body piercers stock cupboard

Another trip to Newport Riverfront last Sunday with the objective of scattering some bread and attracting some gulls with those lovely colour rings. Despite drawing 50+ black headed gull and small numbers of herring and lesser black backed gulls none were dressed for the occasion. However somewhat crest fallen I returned back to my car but not before one final check of the gulls loafing about on the edge of the receding tide. Amongst which was a single redshank and to my joy its legs were liberally covered in more rings than an Olympic flag - six to be precise.

The ring sequence goes something like this:

Left leg: Tarsi- white and yellow.
Tibia - metal and blue.

Right leg: Tibia - blue and yellow

A quick world wide web check suggests this bird was ringed in Sweden, Germany or even Spain as I don't think British ringers attach metal rings above the knee- although I'm sure some clever Dick will put me right if I'm wide of the mark.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Alder buckaroo thorn

It's a bit like word association or even mind mapping but for me some of the common names of British wildlife have a habit of conjuring up other images, chough is a case in point. Another such obscure childish association is alder buckthorn for some reason the name of this scarce tree reminds me of the 1970s kids game Buckaroo. This as you will probably know is a brightly coloured plastic model based on a gold prospectors pack mule whereby various pieces of mining paraphernalia are gradually attached to the animal until it can take no more and bucks violently to release its burden.

I remember this game from my youth in the days when Christmas day always started with a light covering of snow followed by the excited release of the small items contained within the stocking at the end of my bed. This leg covering was of course one of my fathers old football socks stuffed full of goodies, including a pack of playing cards, a rubber (not the contraceptive type), a diecast matchbox model of a Ford Cortina complete with elevated lead content and assorted fruit and nuts for padding. The main prize however was always downstairs as this was where the fireplace was and therefore the only room accessible to Father Christmas. Amongst the goodies here would be the latest Blue Peter annual with plenty of photographs of the yummy Valarie Singleton, a new Subbuteo team usually the Arsenal away strip, a blue and white bobble hat and scarf, the latest Top of the Pops LP complete with cover photograph of a young scantily clad lady in a yellow crocheted bikini and of course a family game such as Buckaroo, Mousetrap or Monopoly.

Now I've been thinking, those south valleys industrial heritage concept marketers are surely missing a trick. Just like the plethora of limited edition Monopoly that is available nowadays, how about a local version of Buckaroo? This could take the shape of a forlorn blinkered pit pony in monochrome tones complete with hundredweight (cwt) bags of high carbon content anthracite as its load and instead of bucking with gay abandon the poor animal collapses in a heap when it can take no more. This sounds funny but with the current generation growing up without having the prospect of going down the pit to find work this twisted form of marketing could serve as a handy reminder of the working class exploitation and hardship that was endouered to harvest this black gold and with it the pillage of the landscape - there's a book in this somewhere!

Going back to the real purpose of this entry, as trees go alder buckthorn could be classed as a rarity or infrequent at least as its not a species I encounter often. But last weekend several inviduals were located adjacent to the Garndiffaith viaduct and checking the Flora of Monmouthshire confirmed its patchy existence. Its pleasing at least that the food plant of the brimstone butterfly still has a toe hold in the valleys.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Brow beaten

There's something about ticking twitching and me that just doesn't connect. Take last years Garnlydan Reservoir wryneck for example two visits without a sniff, last evenings Pant yr eos Reservoir common scoter, birds had vanished and today the Llandegfedd Reservoir yellow browed warbler was conspicuous by its absence. It  must be something to do with the fact I don't subscribe to rare birds texts, birding world magazine, the UK 400 club or have a note book full of ticks for lifers and megas.

Nonetheless my hour and a half's  tramp around the bramble infested scrub near the Fishermans car park produced some nice activity of the common bird front, including, several redwing, a goldcrest, reed bunting and chiffchaff, fly over redpoll and seed head hopping party of goldfinch.kingfisher also graced the margins of the reservoir. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

True migrants and pseudo migrants

Magor Pill on a falling tide was moderately interesting for common passage birds with four wheatear, the odd chiffchaff, a single male stonechat, 20 + swallow, some meadow pipit, linnet, goldfinch but no yellow browed warbler. Most of the passerines on the foreshore were scattered by a flat cap, green wellie wearing gentleman walking his two golden retrievers. This, in my experience is not unusual as during most of my visits to the coastline around Magor Pill I've encountered individuals walking their dogs through the mud, those who stick to the sea wall and newly labelled Wales Coastal Path rarely have the same disruptive affect.

In my last post I speculated as to whether we had seen the last dragonfly day of the year. Obviously from the above pic of an ovipositioning, less migrant more resident migrant hawker, we hadn't. In fact common darter and southern hawker were still widespread. A common groundhopper and Cetti's warbler at Magor Marsh rounded the afternoon off.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Up the promenade

Hour to spare yesterday afternoon so decided to try out the newly discovered unofficial gull feeding station along the promenade in Newport, for a spot of ring reading. Tide was low so there were plenty of birds loafing or picking their way through the assortment of muddy tyres, TV sets and hefty tree trunks that are a feature of the River Usk when waters out.

First up was a single great black backed gull doing what comes naturally. At the chosen spot I broke out open some stale bread and soon attracted a scrum of feral pigeon and 30 + black headed gull none of which carried any rings. Larger gulls seemed  more difficult to pull in but eventually several immature lesser black-blacked and a single adult herring gull alighted on the sturdy promenade fencing. One immature lesser black backed gull arrived carrying a black colour ring was yellow lettering. Thankfully I managed a couple of images before the bird was disturbed by a person asking me if I had some spare change - the bird failed to return.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Last dragonfly day of the year?

Could this be the last warm invertebrate friendly day of the year? Not about to take any changes I dropped in to Severn Tunnel Junction for a leisurely stroll around the interesting and newish Country Park.

A rash of flowering buddleja at this time of year is a banker for late butterflies so red admiral and small tortoiseshell showed well but never plentiful. Dragonflies were more numerous with common darter and southern hawker well represented. Hoverflies were common and widespread taking advantage of those ruderal flowering plants still in flower. Amongst the notable plants was vipers bugloss and common cranesbill all of which swayed gently in the wake of a passing Intercity Express. A few chiffchaff, a fly over meadow pipit and several hirundines covers the birds.

On to Magor Marsh where 100's of common darter where taking advantage of the thermal properties of recycled plastic boardwalks and wooden fencing. Several ruddy darter were also present and to my surprise a late common blue damselfly. A past its best emerald damselfly tricked me in thinking it was Wales first willow emerald damselfly much the same as the confusion between Wilson's phalarope with spotted redshank! It was still warm enough for the odd field grasshopper and calling dark bush cricket. Bird life on the pond was less than inspiring with five little grebe and a single nearby singing chiffchaff the only noteworthy avians. The afternoon finished with a petrified grass snake skin and a single German wasp on an exit gate post.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Upon reflection

The valleys are awash with heritage features some good some more questionable but with it comes a whole cottage industry of community writers quick to remind us of the likes of Mrs Evans at No 93 who had seventeen children all of whom lived in a two up two down miners cottage. So having heard about The Guardian at Abertillery, I had, partly dismissed it a just another piece of valleys 'also ran' commemorative industrial artwork.

The setting for this creative project is an 'off the peg' progressive 1970's style land restoration scheme with regulation  fenced tree planting, tarmac path and bench, but thrown in as a concession to modern day values is a very attractive and biologically diverse pond. What I hadn't been prepared for however was the impact this work would have on me. Towering over the valley its shear scale and open armed steeliness was biblical in its impression - I was taken aback and moved. So, just like a media studies student on visiting mini bus trip from the Ross on Wye Art College I set my camera to creative mode and shot a few abstract frames.

At Dunlop Semtex Pond I found a healthy colony of the alien mollusc, girdled snail (Hygromia cinctella). Originating from the Mediterranean region and first found in Great Britain in 1950 this snail is expanding it's range through the trade in potted plants.

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