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.  
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