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

Monday, 29 December 2014

No need for wellies

The boot of my car looks like an allotment holders shed. Three jackets - summer (camo for lurking in the bushes), waterproof and florescent with pockets hiding useful nic-nacs. Three items of footwear carrying variable amounts of dry mud - walking boots, steel toecaps and wellies. This attire competes for space with a bag of assorted optical aids and a scope. All of which, I try to convince my wife, are essential components of a naturalists' boot. I plead that I'm misunderstood, but forced, under protest with a man sulk, to have a periodic clear out when the distinctive smell of damp clothes threatens the well-being of those brave enough to share a lift. 

It was therefore fortunate that yesterdays session of urban birding in Newport didn't require any thick brown corduroys and turned down wellies just soft shoes and tidy going out clothes. First up was the comfortable surroundings of Newport's Riverfront Walk. To my surprise a very confiding adult Mediterranean Gull was loafing with a number of black-headed gulls on the railings outside of the theatre. I thought I'd cooked my (mother) goose when the bird took off only to disappear in the distance over Newport Castle and out of sight. Thankfully it returned shortly afterwards. Here too, was a single black-headed gull carrying a ring, but as I fiddled with my camera and battled with the increasing disturbance from cyclists wearing their new Christmas Lycra, I was only able to take one shot before it too took off never to return. The joys of ring reading!

Next up was an attempt at tracking down the nearby black redstart reported from St Woolos Cathedral earlier in the week. I tried to time my visit to avoid the busy period of Sunday mass, but alas, got caught up in a bottle neck of chattering ladies some carrying fresh looking leather bound bibles, as I pushed through the lych gate. It wasn't long before the path took me around the southern edge of the building where the bird was located in full sunshine of the roof. It stayed briefly before dropping out of sight. Despite two more circuits I failed to relocate the bird, suggesting its home patch is wider than just the Cathedral's roof and graveyard. All in all a very enjoyable morning of best clothes birding.

Saturday, 27 December 2014


I love pottering about, that's why I chose a local patch scramble around the Lasgarn Wood clear-fell in preference to a morning visit to Llandgefedd Reservoir. Having grown up calibrating my internal sense of direction around the paths and track ways through homogeneous stands of larch it was somewhat disorientating to find myself walking an extensive open space without a treescape by which to fix my compass. 

I'm warming to clear-fell, not only does it turn back the successional lineage but provides an ecological vacuum by which 'things move in' - the prospect of a first patch great grey shrike is now a real one! It also reveals the true character of the landscape from a time before government sponsored soft wood tree planting sort to influence the composition of the valleys in-bye land. The Lasgarn Wood forestry operations have indeed exposed some glimpses of this past. Some cracking fragments of beech woodland with ample standing and fallen deadwood, a sunken land and dry stones with moss aplenty.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Above all be discrete

Gull ring reading is a challenging pursuit, frustrating, yet rewarding when things fall into place. Imagine the scene, you've found your gull spot but how do you get close enough to read a shiny 10 mm metal ring with inscriptions? 

The most valuable tool in the ring readers carrier bag is bread and the staler the better. Its amazing how just the sight of the white stuff is enough to get the birds gliding in off the water to alight on adjacent fencing or brickwork. Once you've attracted the attention of Larus the next difficulty is spotting the bird carrying the ring from a scrum of frantic feeding gulls. For this I find the best approach is to 'keep 'em keen'. This can be achieved by the economical use of bread with extended periods of no feeding often allowing birds to line up in single file in anticipation of the next shower of feed. Its at this point you can scan for rings.

Now if you are lucky enough to find a ringed bird patience will be an important virtue as to read a ring fully you will  require 360 degree vision and this can only be achieved by field craft. Viewing from just one angle won't get the full sequence you desire. To do this you may wish to adopt the 'dog show judging technique', strut you stuff, stand back, pace up and down, get closer and bend down. 

So to recap, you've found your spot, you've brought the birds in and there's one with a ring. Next its best to call on the services of a camera! I use a Panasonic bridge camera, it has a 32x optical lens giving more than enough reach for ring reading. You will want to take as many photo's as possible as some birds appear and then disappear quickly. Its nothing to take several hundred shots on a good session. And finally the fun bit. Download the images over a cup of tea and hope there's enough of the ring to determine the number.

So there you have it the dummies guide to ring reading gulls. You'll do well to be aware that feeding birds in public places - however much you feel that you are contributing to the knowledge of science - is viewed by some as anti-social, so above all be discrete! 

The following images were taken last weekend and illustrate the challenges of capturing enough of the ring to read the number and country of origin. 

14 Dec 2014.Black headed gull. Tredegar House Lake, Newport
Holland  (full sequence)

13 Dec 2014. Black headed gull. River Wye, Tintern
Belgium  (part sequence)

14 Dec 2014, Black headed gull. Tredegar House Lake, Newport
Finland  (part sequence)

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Clear-fell good or bad?

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is chipping away at its obligations under a Plant Health Order delivered by DEFRA. The issue is the Phytophthora ramorom infection in stands of European larch that's best resolved through a policy of clear-fell. In Gwent characteristic stands of conifer plantations from Wentwood to Cwmcarn and all relevant points in between are being axed in an effort to protect commercial forestry interests.

My local patch at the Lasgarn Wood was one such plantation earmarked for felling. This raised a few eyebrows among local birders due to the presence of breeding buzzard, raven, siskin, goshawk etc. not forgetting the red wood ant (Formica rufa) colonies. For me, I am more relaxed, after all these trees were planted as a crop to be harvested at some point anyway. Its also fair to say that many of these trees will have been planted on ancient woodland sites and NRW is looking at this work as an opportunity to escalate their native woodland restoration aspirations - they are even seeking to retain some standing deadwood!

Like many land management perturbations there will be winners and losers but in this case the breeding birds affected are arguably of least conservation concern, although goshawk is a schedule 1 bird! The cleared land with its brash, deadwood and a few remaining sentinel like native trees that avoided the chop will be colonised by a different community of birds come next breeding season. The prospect of grasshopper warbler, nightjar and other assorted summer migrants is mouth watering and one that I intend to keep an eye on.  In the meantime a great grey shrike would be nice.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Category E

Like most of the non-native species that grace our shores the Black Swan would have struggled to have found its way to the British Isles without a leg up from humankind. Its therefore an anomaly, not on the county list and regarded as a Category E by those at the British Ornithologists Union (BOU) who slot all our birdlife into a relevant pigeon hole. That said to ignore the occurrence of these species is folly. By recording the spread of introduced organisms we are able to flag up at an early enough stage any problems that invasive species may cause.

I've been aware of an increase in sightings of the Black Swan in Gwent over the last year or so. The long staying bird at Llandegfedd Reservoir has now moved on, but may have been the same as that photographed and published in the Pontypool Free Press from Cwmbran Boating Lake. I was also interested to see photograph of a bird at Beaufort Ponds Brynmawr that could now be the bird now residing at Llangorse Lake. The bird in the above picture is present on the canal at Ty Coch Cwmbran. Its associated with a couple of Mute Swan very similar to the Llandgefedd Reservoir scenario in the summer. Despite its non native tag these birds represent more of an interest to me than simply counting Blue Tits. If birders and naturalists ignore these non-natives due to some prejudice based on their British List category we could be sleep walking into an ecological impact that will fall on future generations to resolve.  

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Some ringing returns

I've not posted for a while but that's not to say I've been inactive. The Sunday before last I managed to get around some of the north west Gwent water-bodies. Starting with Bryn Bach Park, the ban on feeding wildfowl appears to be working at least in respect of Canada goose with only two birds nibbling the amenity grassland. I find that many of Gwent's recreational lakes seem to acquire an increasing assortment of domestic waterfowl. Who introduces these birds is anyone's guess. The newest bird on offer was a Chinese goose so tame that it tugged at my trouser leg for food. On the lake were a couple of great crested grebe, up to 50 tufted duck and a shoveler. A dipper arrived via the concrete over flow channel and quickly turned tail and returned whence it came. A few fieldfare and redwing featured as well.

At Beaufort Ponds a cluster of mallardcoot, mute swan and few tufted duck assembled quickly at the water's edge on my arrival, suggesting no such bird feeding ban was in place here. Mid pond 16 wigeon milled around.

Some flood risk reason has been given for the reduction in water level at Dunlop Semtex Pond. Work to achieve this appears to be underway producing a margin that tells a story about the a lack of local appreciation of the site.  Numerous drinks cans and bottles sit cheek by jowl with discarded timber and other urban detritus but the most shocking was half of dozen or so shopping trolleys - why don't the local businesses retrieve them! In amongst Steptoe's junk were 10 wigeon, a cormorant, 60+ coot and a few tufted duck

And finally I got off my backside and reported four ringed black headed gull from the end of last year. To my joy I've already received information for three quarters of them - with some interesting results!

  • EY66023 - ringed 26 June 2013 Dunkirk, Little Downham, Ely, Cambridgeshire. 
                            photographed 14 Dec 2013 Cwmbran Boating Lake, Cwmbran, Gwent.

  • EP33914 - ringed 17 June 1996  Farmoor Reservoir, Oxfordshire.
                            photographed 23 Nov 2013 River Wye,Tintern, Monmouthshire 

  • ST291.205 - ringed 26 June 2012 Tammela, Finland
                               photographed 29 Dec 2013 Riverfront, River Usk, Newport

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The daily commute - bird driving.

Through the pages of this cyberspace journal I will have mentioned my wife's on-going concern about the quality of my driving. It seems I have a tendency to use my innate naturalist observational skills to search for roadside botanical delights and avian flyovers whilst travelling the highways and byways of this fair county. A reminder that a clean licence and a healthy no claims bonus are an evidence base to prove that any worries about the risk I pose are simply unfounded. That said going about the everyday humdrum can be enhanced by continuing to look out for wildlife on the move. This week is a case in point. 

Even though I consider myself lucky enough to only a have a three mile or so commute to work it is surprising how much wildlife can be seen from a pause at the traffic lights or a queue of stationary traffic - damn those utility companies for digging up the road again! Nonetheless Pontypool does seem a bit of a hotspot for 'bird driving' - I must copyright this phrase!  As from the Wainfelin traffic light intersection to the Pontymoile junction (jumble) there seems much to offer. The last few days turned in the following:
  • 22/10/14. 07.43 hrs.  Pontymoile Traffic Lights - 4 cormorant (heading north west)
  • 23/10/14. 07.55 hrs   Pontymoile Traffic Lights - 4 cormorant (heading north west)
  • 27/10/14. 16.25 hrs   Pontnewynydd stationary traffic - 1 red kite (drifting south east)
  • 30/10/14. 07.41 hrs   Tesco Roundabout stationary traffic - 100s wood pigeon (east to west)
  • 31/10/14. 07.43 hrs   Wainfelin Traffic Light Intersection - 100s wood pigeon (east to west)
  • All week. 07.40 hrs onwards.  Pontypool Civic Centre Roof /Tesco Car Park - 30+ assorted black headed gull and lesser black backed gull.
At this point I must confess that all this bird driving has also allowed me to witness the progress of a colony of feral pigeon that is thriving beneath the Pontypool by pass bridge just beyond the Pontymoile traffic lights. Yes and before you dismiss me as a lightweight feral pigeon is on the county list!

Finally the disclaimer. Bird driving can be a useful way of building a picture of the activities of local wildlife but don't take risks. An excuse that you were 'bird driving' when having your collar felt by the local constabulary in the wake of a driving without due care and attention charge will not cut the mustard.

PS - this weeks commute has been a multitask fest as a secondhand copy of Richard Mabey's audiobook A Brush with Nature along with an eye on the roadside wildlife has raised my personal well-being assessment to good touching very good on times.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Two visits to the Riverfront Newport on consecutive Sundays either side of the clocks going back with the intention of looking out for ringed gulls. Sadly there were none. There were a couple of common gull on view including an immature bird that was very confiding 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Whetting one's appetite

Its this time of year that I start to trawl the flocks of urban gulls looking for those carrying rings. And when I'm successful I fill this blog with bland photos of the culprits - boring I hear you say. Nonetheless I spent my lunchtime today getting back in the groove by scouring a flock of around 70 black headed gull on the Southfields football pitches near Cwmbran Boating Lake. There was just one with a ring. Watch out for more over the coming months. I can't wait!!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Zebra mussel

Kicking around the strandline at Llandegfedd Reservoir over the weekend I came across this little sinister species. The zebra mussel  Dreissena polymorpha is officially on the invasive species hit list.  

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Spot the grouse

Save for an odd punt on the National Lottery I gave up gambling a long time ago. I was nonetheless once partial to the occasional five pence accumulator at the bookies in the days when betting shops had frosted glass frontage and monotone race commentary was from a single wall mounted speaker. But more frequently I would do the syndicate football coupon as the potential rewards were greater.

During my long spell with British Steel Friday afternoons was traditionally when the Littlewoods coupon man came around on his collecting rounds. An elderly chain smoking gentleman I worked with was a committed Spot the Ball enthusiast, deploying a magnifying glass deluded in the thought that he may be able to pick out the outline of the ball by forensically examining the goal mouth action with a x10 optical aid. The coupon itself invariably showed a fully out stretched Gary Sprake or a cluster of players in mid air action with surprised facial expressions and it was down to the skill of the punter to place an X were it was believed the ball to be. My colleague, once deciding on the area of the goal mouth to be targeted would 'max out' on small precision X's filling the chosen space with a flock of black pen marks like a murmuration of passing starlings.  Despite the subsequent innovative introduction of a pre-formed multi Xed stamp and ink pad he never won a thing. Gambling was certainly an important part of the culture of blue collar workers in the 1970s/80s.  

So why am I rambling as such? Well my early morning visit to the Blorenge last weekend reminded me of a spot the ball attempt as however hard I tried I failed to pick out at least three called red grouse from nationally important dwarf shrub heath. It was not until I moved to the highest vantage point on the hill did I hit the jackpot. A calling grouse in the distance looking into the sun but as soon as I made a move for a closer look it took flight only to disappear into a vast stand of bracken.

Apart from the calling grouse the Blorenge held a healthy population of skylark, probably over 50 in total many moving in loose gatherings of 6 or more. Swallow, house martin and meadow pipit were also well represented. The white rump of a wheatear was seen as it made its way from stone outcrop and drystone wall and two blackbird in a berry laden mountain ash, were, for a split second bound to be ring ouzel.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Facial markings

Having jumped to conclusions in the recent past and been embarrassed by the outcome I took a long hard look at this bird before deciding it to be a female tufted duck. Not before I ruled out lesser scaup and a hybrid. You must admit though its a lot of facial marking even for a tufted duck. Also on the dam at Llandegfedd Reservoir was a linnet and little grebe

Thursday, 25 September 2014

I was struggling a bit

Last Sunday's visit to Llandegfedd Reservoir turned in a less than memorable species list. Among the 250+ Canada goose were the two feral barnacle goose. There were well over 100 cormorant, a few teal, tufted duck and wigeon. A small movement of skylark overhead along with an odd meadow pipit was noted. However dragonflies showed well with numerous common darter and a good population 10+ of migrant hawker. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

On the county boundary

From a distance a substantial draw down zone at the dreadfully under recorded Garnlydan Reservoir looked very promising. But it flattered to deceive the best birds on offer were 3 teal, 6 wigeon and 14 lapwing along with numerous meadow pipit and skylark. Compensation came in the form of dragonflies with common darter, black darter and a couple of ovipositioning southern hawker.

Stopping off a Beaufort Ponds for a wildfowl count turned in 10 wigeon, 8 tufted duck, 4 mute swan, 2 little grebe, a great crested grebe and assorted coot, mallard and moorhen.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Well I'll be damned

Okay I won't be required to fill out a Gwent Rarities Committee description pro-forma for this latest noteworthy record from Llandegfedd Reservoir. These 24 shoveler most in late summer eclipse plumage were present today close to the dam wall and must be one of the largest counts at the site in recent years. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014


The upper reaches of the Afon Lwyd are canalised in true nature conquering style. This heavily engineered section appears to have been constructed to take water away from the now disused adjacent railway line. A pleasant stroll from Garn Lakes LNR this railway cutting with gnarled wooden fence posts takes you deep into the heart of Waun afon bog. Yesterdays visit was populated by four stonechat, three whinchat, a single reed bunting, a hunting sparrowhawk, chiffchaff in sub song and several meadow pipit.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A minor twitch makes a welcome change

Gavin Vella's discovery of a juvenile black tern at Llandegfedd Reservoir produced a minor twitch amongst local birders and once again focused my thoughts on the decline of a site that was once at the core of Gwent's ornithological community.

Yesterday evening the number of visiting scope carriers may have broken through the four mark. This made it one of the most significant gatherings of 'tickers' at the site since the head turning creation of the Newport Wetlands conspired with Welsh Water's access barriers to reduce birding opportunities. What is of lingering concern is that over recent years the long series of comprehensive wildfowl counts that featured so predominately for decades in the Gwent Bird Reports appears to be faltering. And as a venue that's designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its wintering wildfowl, this indifference to data collection and the maintenance of the ornithological legacy must be a worry for all those who consider regular survey to be the bedrock of modern day nature conservation ethic. This is not to decry the efforts of some that have tried to keep the flag flying but with so few birders committed to a monthly wildfowl counts it can often be hard to maintain continuity. I feel there's a role for Gwent Ornithological Society in reversing this trend. Why not return to the days when the outdoor programme was built around a framework of LR wildfowl counts? I'm sure the Bert Hamar Memorial Hide would also benefit from a regular gathering of GOS members.

That said notable birds on offer yesterday included the aforementioned black tern, a passing wheatear and two barnacle goose within  a party of between 250-300 Canada goose. Waders included a ringed plover and two redshank.

Friday, 5 September 2014

A big thumbs up

I was pleased to attend today's launch of GWT's Wildlife Hero's project at Ebbw Vale. Patron Iolo Williams was quest speaker waxing lyrical about nature and well being and the rich biodiversity that can be found in the South Wales valleys - see I'm not the only one! Thanks to Veronika and her team for a very enjoyable event. 

Chatting to Iolo later he was keen show me a couple of examples of the plant gall Robins pincushion. Elsewhere I called in on the big three Brynmawr Ponds. At Beaufort the first two wigeon of the autumn were present along with a calling little grebe, five tufted duck, an adult and immature great crested grebe and a family of mute swan. At Machine Pond a flyover redshank and two tufted duck was just about it. Dunlop Semtex Pond saw the count of dumped shopping trolleys reach a peak of eight whilst coot numbered 40 but tufted duck only seven. Otherwise the raft of fringed water lily was doing well.  

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Look I've got a tenner!

On my way northwards this morning I was confronted by a lad at the roadside frantically waving a ten pound note. I suspect he was looking for a lift after an all nighter - would have stopped but for another car tight on my rear!

As the light was good with blue skies this mornings objective was taking landscape type photos in the Canada Tips area of the Blaenavon landscape. A wheatear posed briefly on a fence post before moving on out of sight and a stonechat called from a monoculture of heather. As the temperature improved odonata stirred  with emerald damselflies and black darter dragonflies the main protagonists. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What a difference a day makes........

Two visits to Llandegfedd Reservoir over the Bank Holiday weekend produced contrasting fortunes. First up on Sunday afternoon the weather was good but passage bird count was poor. Singles of green sandpiper, redshank and three common sandpiper hinted at a slight wader movement. Other notables included four reed warbler, two tufted duck and two teal. There was a colour ringed lesser black backed gull amongst a group of around a 100 birds and a metal ringed Canada goose was also present. Both birds too distant to read any numbers. 

Away from the birds, butterflies could still be found with meadow brown, small tortoiseshell, and common blue present in decent numbers. Singles of gatekeeper and small copper were noted along with a fresh looking painted lady feeding on the extensive stands of fleabane. Also Roesel's bush cricket could still be heard.

And so to Bank Holiday Monday. The rain had moved in and the cloud was low so it came as no surprise to find a fall of commic tern reported from the dam end. A quick visit was rewarded with two common tern on the buoy's close to the boating pontoons; a little egret was also present here along with two great black backed gull.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

GWT - Abergavenny Group

I was pleased to lead a walk for the Abergavenny Group of GWT from Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve to the heather covered Coity Tip and on to Mile Pond. Around 30 attendees included botanical recorders Steph Tyler and Elsa Wood enjoyed a varied landscape from opencast restoration to old spoil tips, ponds and the tourist attraction that is the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway.

With the botanical season coming to close flowering plants were at a premium with monkey flower and devil's bit scabious the best on offer. At Garn Lakes there were up to 10 coot, a single little grebe and three tufted duck. I fear I may have flushed a sedge warbler from the lush marginal vegetation of the upper pond only to see it clattered by a sparrowhawk moments later. Later an adult little grebe with three young was present on Mile Pond.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Footsteps in the spoil

Its almost pure carbon but this plateau at The British is an informal recreation hot spot. Accessible space for local bikers, dog walkers, den builders and naturalists, an unholy alliance of outdoor user groups.

A late posting from last Sunday when the weather was a touch indifferent. Best of a poor bird bunch was a yellowhammer supplemented by linnet, redpoll and blackcap. Vascular plants included western gorse, bell heather, common centuary and the remnants of small cudweed

Off road drivers making a valuable contribution to freshwater ecology by keeping an area of a small pond free of vegetation. Who needs a team of conservation volunteers?

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