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

Wednesday, 30 December 2015


The beauty of time off from holding back the steady drip drip of environmental damage is having the space to ponder and potter. This week I made the short journey to scuff around a couple of the few remaining urban wildspaces of Blaenavon's inner town. 

St Peters churchyard is large. From its lime tree lined entrance it quickly opens up into a naturalists dream of unkemptedness. Grave stones, at more angles than a draughtman's set square, emerge from a threadbare, weather beaten, tangled mass of vegetation. A great spotted woodpecker called as it alighted in one of the several mature Scots pines followed quickly by the less aggressive call of a coal tit. I pushed my way through bramble and brittle stalks of rosebay willowherb over uncertain terrain that hid the remnants of graves and all the associated decaying stonework. A desire line that marked the lower boundary of this urban oasis and a road with a small cul-de-sac of houses was littered with discarded drinks cans. I knelt to examine an ornate headstone with the forms of wildflowers traced in the stonework and found some fresh dogs mess.

Leaving this place of the dead through a stand of Japanese knotweed and a newish wooden five-bar gate with a missing latch making its closing impossible, I left for the nearby Beeches house. A gully with a locally distinctive stonewall complete with a coping of slagstone led to this, another unmanaged urban green space.

Ty Mawr or The Beeches is a large former NHS nursing home and before that a base for industrialists to organise grouse shooting parties during the Victorian times. Now disused the house and grounds have declined significantly. Several mature beech trees carry the penknife carvings of teenage lovers from the 1960's  - an unrecognised cultural subject. A small common duckweed covered pond was populated with debris including a chair. I looked for a makeshift headstone that I remember seeing a number of years ago that marked the grave of a dog that was probably a shooters companion, but this could not be found. A fallen tree colonised with what appears to be oyster mushroom was compensation.

Saturday, 26 December 2015


It seems an obvious statement but the study of leaf-mines is a somewhat specialist area of the natural history spectrum. Nonetheless having checked the leaf-mines website this one on hart's tongue fern appears to have been 'dig' by the larvae of the fly Chromatomyia scolopendri and something of an unusual occurrence west of the Wye Valley. This one was found today on the edge of a limestone quarry near to Lasgarn Wood, Abersychan.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Baltic birds

I re-visited Newport Riverfront on Sunday morning in the hope the Lithuanian ringed black-headed gull that I was previously unable to read the full ring number, would still be present. Thankfully it was and a complete number was obtained. There was also a Belgium ringed bird on view. However, today during my lunch break I located a second Lithuanian bird, this time a first year bird, at Cwmbran Boating Lake. I will submit via the Lithuanian ringing scheme website (and BTO) and let you know in due course.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Lithuanian

Having promised to give a talk as part of next years Gwent Ornithological Society's indoor programme on 'Ring Reading: An Exercise in Citizen Science it was about time I started to gather some more information otherwise it could look a bit threadbare. Armed with  a small bag of assorted scarps from pizza crusts, bread and stale chips I made my way in pouring rain to Riverfront, Newport. A very obliging population of black-headed gulls were happy enough to line up single fine on the riverside railings but none carried any rings. Moving position some 200 yards or more south ward past the University of Wales building I seemed to attract a different crop of birds, soon attracting a Polish colour ringed adult black-headed gull. With food waste running low I was delighted to also locate a Lithuanian ring bird that was a bit flighty which was frustrating as I wasn't able to obtain a complete ring number before food ran out.

Leaving Riverfront to check out Tredegar House Lake I called in to ASDA for some of their own bread -33p a loaf. The good thing about this bread is that its baked stale, and if you doing believe me try some! A gathering of about 100 gulls made for a promising feel and soon it proved so with a German colour ringed bird among the scrum of squawking birds.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Photography redefined

Taking an image of a great northern diver that was mid reservoir, in a howling gale and with a camera that doesn't perform the best at full magnification was something of a challenge. I think its called a record shot!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Putative intermedius

Among the many lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus graellsii) feeding on the edge of a falling tide along the Riverfront, Newport last weekend, was an individual that clearly sported a darker mantle. Although care needs to be taken when separating lesser black-backed gull subspecies it does suggest this bird is of the subspecies f.intermedius a species known to breed in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Natural play- a generational thing.

I was heartened to discover a make shift rope and stick swing in the Lasgarn Wood last weekend. These used to be commonplace in the peri-urban woodlands of my youth but are now largely replaced by more formal play spaces, fenced off, British Standard equipment with soft fall rubber matting to help ensure all risk is removed from play. I remember some monster rope swings slung from a bough of a veteran beech that once mounted would thrill the most discerning thrill seeker.

The woodland was largely quite but unseasonally warm. A sunny glade was populated by a single red admiral butterfly that repeatedly alighted on a tree trunk. In the heart of the wood where trees were at their densest and sunlight was at a premium slugs and snails were widespread. Plaited door snails could be found cheek by jowl with the lemon slug Limax tenellus, an ancient woodland indicator species. Not many records from the vice county of Monmouthshire but then who bothers to record slugs! 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Back for the winter

Having been immersed in my own little citizen science project of ring reading for a few years now, I'm starting to record birds more than once and over successive years. The last posting is a case in point. Black-headed gull colour ringed white REY was first noted last winter (year) and has returned for another spell eking out a living among the highly productive mud of the River Usk.

This intertidal substrate is also an attractant to the now familiar multi ringed Redshank that's back on its patch at Riverfront, Newport, for at least the fourth year. Away from the colour ringed birds an adult Black-headed gull carrying just the bog standard aluminium ring proved a challenge to photograph at Tredegar House Lake last Sunday 25 October. A Dutch inscription with number 3728.630 rang a bell. And so it was, this bird was noted from the same location on 10 November 2013.

Away from the ringed birds a very confiding one footed Rock Pipit was very much at home on the concrete walkway/cycleway in front of the Riverfront Theatre. Dropping down to the muddy margins of the River Usk when disturbed by a cyclist or jogger it was more than happy to return to hopping around when the relevant fitness fanatic was a safe distance away.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A weekend of firsts

Last weekend was good for firsts. A very obliging first year colour ringed black-headed gull at Tredegar House Lake was the first bird I've recorded from Poland, A short video is the first on the new Valley Naturalist You Tube channel. 

Earlier white REY on the railings near to the Riverfront Theatre, Newport rang a bell. This Danish ringed bird was first recorded from the same location in November 2013 (see blog post).

Saturday, 10 October 2015

As suspected

I've heard back from the BTO regarding the colour ringed black headed gull photographed on top of Tredegar House in Newport on 24 September this year.

As suspected the bird marked white 2P34 was ringed as a nestling at Cotswold Water Park on 20 June 2010.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The oldest tip in the book

My copy of Martin Haigh's The Evolution of Slopes on Artificial Landforms, Blaenavon. UK (1978) claims this tip to be the oldest in the Blaenavon industrial landscape complex. Sitting in Mynydd Coity's ffridd habitat and overlooking the expansive Waunafon bog the tip with its large' black eye' of unvegetated coal spoil purports to originate from early Victorian times. Having promised myself a closer look I finally made the effort late Friday afternoon, scaling a hillside where nowadays only ponies and bikers dare venture.

It was some trek, through tussockly stands of molina that hid drainage ditches and rocks I came across long forgotten features of man's efforts to conquer nature. A pair of railway sleepers bridged a drainage ditch leading to a large rusty lichen encrusted water value that in turn revealed a small reservoir of open water with extensive margins of sphagnum moss. This legacy of water management paraphernalia seems to be off the radar of those who champion cultural both and natural landscapes. 

Where gazing animals are able to browse there was dung with associated dung fungi and where the grass was short grassland fungi such as the golden spindles fungi Clavulinopsis fusiformis could be found. I took advantage of my elevated position to view Waunafon bog from the west and in doing so noticed a couple of distant walkers seemingly collecting magic mushrooms and a stonechat moving between thistle tops. 

Having reached the tip it was something of an anti-climax. Not sure what I expected but the oldest tip in the book was much like all the other tips I've frequented doing my time as an advocate of post in industrial landscapes. Nonetheless the extent of mature dwarf shrub heath that clothed most of the tip hinted at its elderly nature. Why the eastern flank remains devoid of any green biomass is conjecture. Could be the angle of repose or a hostile chemical composition?  A fast running stream that emerged from the hillside cut its route close to northern side suggesting the tip was deposited almost slap bang on top of this running water feature. Another example of the lack of appreciation surrounding the dynamics of natural resources displayed by our industrial forefathers.

The tip!

Dung fungi

Golden spindles fungi 

Stream to side of tip

Sleepers across a ditch

Man made pond with draw down pipe.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Scribbling in the margins

Waunafon bog
My latest biological recording excursion took me from the north of Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve on through the disused railway cutting that forms the eastern margin of Waunafon bog. The deformed lichen encrusted fence posts that once prevented grazing animals from straying onto railway line are often good perching birds. And so it proved with meadow pipit, stonechat and a single whinchat all using these features intermittently. The most novel sight however was that of a nuthatch that took flight from a small willow only on alight onto one of these bogland fence posts. For a species normally associated with mature woodland, parks and gardens it was somewhat bizarre to see.

It was pleasing to still encounter a good variety of flowering plants complete with a number of noteworthy invertebrates. Along the disused cutting with its bed of limestone clinker was the non-native blue fleabane along with eyebright and fairy flax. These flowering plants were juxtaposed with heather, purple moor grass, bracken and willow scrub including a couple of specimens of creeping willow that seemed to prefer the edge of the railway cutting.

Butterflies were still on the wing including a number of common blue and singles of red admiral and small heath. A bog hoverfly and a caterpillar of the broom moth provided further colourful entertainment.

Fencepost nuthatch

Bog hoverfly Sericomyia silentis
Broom moth caterpillar
The railway cutting

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Grey Phalarope at Ynys - y - fro

I've not really bought into this long distance twitching game, preferring to build up a picture of local wildlife is much more rewarding for me. That said should a noteworthy species occur within a twenty minute drive I will sometimes make the effort. A case in point was yesterdays grey phalarope at Ynys-y-fro Reservoir. A couple of weeks leave coincided nicely with this bird turning up.

Ynys -y -fro Reservoir has always been a little bit of an enigma to me. Well watched in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s coverage dropped off when Welsh Water invested time and effort in fishing and sailing largely to the exclusion of birdwatchers- there must be an answerable equality issue here?  For me a visit to Ynys-y-fro has rarely involved a walk around the lower reservoir due to a lack of clarity around access and a perception that the tenant fishing club has a monopoly. Wentwood Reservoir is just as bad littered with keep out signs thereby pushing birders and naturalists to the outer limits peering in like pervy voyeurs. This is why I cautiously welcome the new public access arrangements for Llandegfedd Reservoir. You never know should Jeremy Corbyn succeed at the next election we may eventually see our vital natural resources back in public hands with recreation services managed for all not just the few! 

I digress. On arrival I scanned the distance shore unsuccessfully for the diminutive bird, only to discover it was feeding on the margin just four metres away. A supporting cast came in the form of a few pochard and a wheatear that incredibly was more obliging to the camera than the aforementioned phalarope.

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