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

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Through the generations

Its walk number 23 in the Birdwatching Walks in Gwent (GOS 2013) book, but for me the Lasgarn Wood is more than just an ancient woodland with a characteristic community of woodland birds. Its part of my local patch, its where I cut my naturalist teeth and therefore part of my heritage. I remember with fond memories those outdoor activities that used to occupy the time of a youngster growing up within a bow and arrows distance of such a fine habitat. Losing yourself for half a day or more was easily done. Camp building, tree climbing, bird nesting and latterly girl kissing and cider drinking was boys own stuff but sadly is lost on today's Twitter generation. Stranger danger and the fear of accident from an unmanaged tree branch and other miscellaneous trip hazards conspire to rob the youth of natural play opportunities and the wonderment of exploration and discovery. Richard Louv's text Last Child in the Woods articulates this loss; a must read for those who understand the modern day disconnection from the wild.


To many the western valleys of Gwent are just about coal and the impact that industry had on both the natural and social landscape of the area. Yet its oft' forgotten that the south Wales coalfield is edged by a margin of carboniferous limestone akin to that in the Wye Valley and its this geological variety that provided the natural resources for the manufacturing of iron and steel. Now long gone its legacy adds to the rich current day ecology of this part of Gwent. 

Sitting on top of the limestone the Lasgarn Wood is pock marked with disused shallow workings, winnable stone that was transported during the Victorian era via tramroad across the valley to the ironworks at The British. Now reclaimed by secondary woodland the dingles of quarry workings take some tracking down. Once found however their tangled mass of dead wood, bryophytes, pteridophytes and ancient woodland indicator plants hide a world that few currently appreciate. 

Away from the features of economic exploitation, there are more subtle signs of the woodlands recreational value. I've talked before about tree carvings or culturally modernised trees. These etchings are widespread features of beech woodland in the valleys hinting at there accessibility and wider usage by past yet recent generations. Granted they're not as elaborate as those carved by prisoners of war on Salisbury Plain but nonetheless still culturally significant to valley communities, yet largerly ignored by local historians. They are ephemeral, lasting only as long as the tree stands with many becoming indecipherable by the actions of epidermic growth way before tree succomes.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Brambly hedge

Some local people are baying for its demise but the thick bramble scrub that dominates the view from my bay window is a nature magnet and I want it kept!!! Its worth to urban wildlife was once again demonstrated yesterday when having just visited the recycling box, I caught a glimpse of a female sparrowhawk alighting within the thicket. The predator remained long enough for me to return indoors grab a camera and take a number of shots through the infamous bay window hide. The worth of this green space goes unnoticed by those so detached from the nature that their only thrill is to see the patch trashed by a team of 'landscapers' armed with brush cutters.   

Later I thought a visit to check out the Brynmawr urban gull metropolis and maybe the tufted x pochard hybrid that was recorded on Dunlop Semtex Pond on Saturday was in order. Disappointingly the weak count of three tufted and a single pochard didn't include any sign of the cross. Otherwise nesting coot, mute swan and great crested grebe provided entertainment.

Regarding gulls the lichen clad asbestos pitched roof of the nearby industrial unit seems to have been vacated by its business tenant. This doesn't appear to be to the detriment of the gulls as 100+ noisy birds were gathered rooftop. Amongst the herring and lesser black backs were a pair of great black backs but only one with a colour ring this unfortunately too distant to read the number - i'll try again.      

Elsewhere, Machine pond supported 15 Canada goose, a single cormorant, three tufted duck, a pair of mute swan, and small numbers of coot, moorhen and mallard. A number of reed bunting were also calling.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

View from the bay (window)

Although a beautiful spring morning I was obliged to engage in a modicum of domesticity. A bit of window cleaning, a brake light bulb change and a shop visit meant I was in and out a fair bit. Nonetheless this didn't stop me from touching base with the natural world. See I'm not one of those people who think nature is only for special places, where a convenient car park, a cafeteria, some swings for the little uns and a 'wildlife this way' finger post are pre-requisites. No sirree, when going about the mundane I'm always on the look out for an opportunity to weave living world well-being into my life.

Now most of you will have a good understanding of the remarkable population expansion of the Canada goose over the last few decades. However, whilst this bird is a banker for any small to medium sized waterbody, its regular local movements that can be witnessed at the top and tail of the county on a winters afternoon has to date escaped my humble abode here in the socialist heartlands of Gwent. That is until last weekend when changing a fiddly bulb on the motor I detected the distant 'honking' of two geese from the south east quarter, only to eventually witness a couple of loudly calling birds past directly over head destination north west. As soon as the reverberating calls had  faded away were they replaced by the less forceful tinkling song of my first chiffchaff of the year coming from within the liberal comfort of the mature landscaped gardens attached to the detached properties on the hill. With more house stuff filling the morning frequent glances out the bay window were rewarded with playful house sparrows, a male bullfinch and a high flying small tortoiseshell butterfly. All in all a very rewarding session of citizen science at home.  

Thursday, 13 March 2014

A whoosh and a bubble

With the jet stream wobbling north to be replaced with a ridge of warmer high pressure over the southern part of the British Isles there was a slim chance of an early wheatear as I arrived in the (natural) heritage landscape. But it was those early Spring atmospheric sounds that took centre stage.

Overlooking the green baize that is rural Abergavenny and set against the mist shrouded flanks of the Sugar Loaf a rush of wind caused me to look skyward just in time to catch a couple of tumbling peregrine in pursuit of a frantic wood pigeon - yes, please note wood pigeon not racing pigeon! Alas and in a frenzy of aerodynamics all birds disappeared quickly out of sight over the county border into the grand duchy of Monmouthshire. There's a possibility that woody found refuse in a copse of trees just in the nick of time, but I fear not, he's almost certainly collected his last nest building stick. I pause for thought.

With heavy heart I plodded off to seek gainful employment as an amateur naturalist deep within the tightly clenched bowels of the now familiar post industrial peri-urban edgeland. In doing so I immersed  myself in stone turning and debris sifting in the hope it would erase the lingering mental images of peregrine-plucking-pigeon action. I searched for a biological gem. This was successful when a partly embedded hardboard kitchen drawer bottom, possibly of MFI vintage, was prised from its carboniferous substrate to expose at least four motionless common lizard to a shower of morning sunlight.

The rest of the excursion took the form of a geological photo essay all to the accompaniment of singing skylark. The hill and hollow features of colliery spoil deposition has produced a landscape of dry and wet habitats. In the many hollows were many frogs and during a momentary pause in background traffic noise the massed ranks of amphibians croaked in random unison. One frog was seen to repeatedly blow bubbles on the surface of the pond. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

News from the pit head

A brief visit to one of the best kept landscape secrets of Gwent. The Blaenserchan valley  near Pontypool was left to nature when the National Coal Board pulled out in the 1980's. A patchwork of grassland, mature trees and colliery spoil promotes a rich diversity of wildlife. That said its still a touch too early in the year to see this area at its best. A couple of calling nuthatch, a great spotted woodpecker and around half a dozen meadow pipit summed up the ornithological interest. Otherwise frog spawn has started to put in an appearance and this bloody nosed beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa) demonstrates the invertebrate world is starting to wake. Nonetheless the  most colourful thing in the valley was a collection of ladies knickers. These were not randomly scattered in an impromptu fashion but purposefully wired to trees throughout the valley. I counted eight in total and for those with an interest in the detail, they appeared to be mainly thongs ranging from black lace, to animal print and red with sequins!    
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