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

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

White out

It seemed appropriate that the first significant snowfall of this winter coincided with the appearance of the first bay window Christmas trees in Blaenavon. With a waxwing reported from Weston - super-mare I was hopeful one may turn up on one of the berry laden urban street trees in Brynmawr or Ebbw Vale. Alas this was not the case but the berries were providing a feast for the local thrushes.

There was not much on Beaufort Ponds except for a single male goosander. Machine Pond was not much better but a pair of stonechat that moved around the adjacent grassland. By contrast Dunlop Semtex Pond was full of wildfowl. To my surprise there were still around 49 wigeon present along with a single female teal. However the most notable was three gadwall - one male, two female. Although I've recorded Gadwall from Beaufort Ponds before this is thought to be the first site record for DSP.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Late afternoon at a gull roost

I've noticed the walkers car park at Welsh Water's Sluvad Works had been partly used as a contractors compound of late, so was uncertain if this was still available for Joe Public. As it happened it was so I decided to make my way down hill to the Pettingale hide at Llandegfedd Reservoir to assess the extent of the winter gull roost.

At the hide I was greeted by another example of lack of investment in facilities for birders. Litter was strewn around the inside of the structure and views were restricted due to rampant vegetation, A maturing willow is now obscuring observation to the south and another to the north west. However, there was hardly a breath of wind thereby providing ideal conditions for reservoir watching.

At around 2.30pm a large raft of very vocal Canada goose were being paired off into smaller groups by the actions of dingy sailors. At the same time a group of around 100 mainly lesser black backed gull was forming toward the north of the reservoir. Over the next hour and a half the roost built up to around 3000 birds with many arriving from the south and west. The gathering didn't appear to contain anything that warranted closer scrunity, there was however a single great black backed gull and around 10 common gull.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Pond mud snail

With a record of the infrequent pond mud snail (Omphiscola glabra) from nearby Brynmawr I tried my luck with a search of the myriad of ponds in and around the Canada Tips area of Blaenavon. Arriving at a pull-in to the west of Keepers Pond I was instantly confronted by several tame sheep anxious to see if I had a spare cheese sandwich or something else edible. The wind was brisk and had an edge that said winter is on its way. The good thing about this location is that its not far to the first aquatic point of investigation, a shallow yet extensive habitat dominated by common spike rush and lesser spearwort with a linear tract of open water that's clearly the product of four wheel drive activity. Ten minutes or so sweeping through the murky water produced no molluscs at all the best finds centred on a single palmate newt and many greater water boatman.

A lone meadow pipit called as I transversed the hillocks of coal and sandstone spoil to the next watering hole. This pond was deeper nestling at the foot of several towering tips providing enough shelter and warmth for a common darter to alight on the stony track. To my surprise a man walked by with a dog on a lead, my greeting was met with silence. Maybe he was nervous and surprised to encounter another person in the heart of Blaenavon's former industrial landscape on a midweek afternoon. Otherwise he was hard of hearing. Whatever the reason he was soon out of sight and I commenced with my objective of finding the elusive pond mud snail. Despite a prolonged effort and another couple of palmate newt later I draw another blank and moved onto a find the next pond.

This one has featured in this blog before as an example of how off road driving is inadvertently keeping small water bodies from succeeding to vegetation dominated marshland. This was a much more fruitful site, not because there were any pond mud snail here either, but for an increase in species variety. An example of the large black ground beetle Carabus problematicus was found drowned and a late black darter dragonfly repeatedly alighted. There were at least two species of pondweed (Potamogeton spp). This group of plants is notoriously difficult to identify to species level. To compound the identification dilemmas I dragged up just one mollusc not the target species but one of the pea mussels (Pisidium spp.) that are also a touch tricky to sort out.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

More Wigeon at DSP than LR

Catching up on a bit of leave from work has given me the opportunity to get around a few waterbodies I've neglected of late. Recent engineering work at Dunlop Semtex Pond, Brynmawr has resulted in a marginal reduction in water levels, this in turn has produced a useful draw-down area but also promoted a growth in submerged macrophyte vegetation proving an attraction for grazing wildfowl. Although I wasn't able to find the recently reported female shoveler a pleasing count of 48 wigeon with a supporting cast of many, coot, moorhen, tufted duck, mute swan, mallard, great crested grebe and 45 Canada goose. The Dutch colour ringed cormorant was also present sunning itself on one of the floating islands.

Previously a visit to Llandegfedd Reservoir was notable for how little bird activity there was. Four teal was about the long and short of it. Its a paradox and a measure of SSSI mis-management by stealth that DSP now supports more wigeon than LR. Whatever happened to those large grazing flocks? With a scarcity of avian interest I turned my interest other taxonomic groups. Water chickweed was still in flower and some stone turning was good for ground beetles.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Two quid. you must be joking!

I sometimes wonder who reads this frequent (recently in frequent) narrative of my nature rambles. But to the small collective of individuals who do, you will have picked up that one of my regular winter venues is the nice comfortable environs of the Riverfront in the heart of urban Newport. Comfort of course is subjective as anyone encountering the wind whipping up this part of the River Usk on a January morning will question this assertion. However refuge from the biting wind can be obtained by using the convenient Sunday morning free car parking status of the Riverfront car park, that is until recently. It now seems Newport City Council has introduced a new £2 car parking tariff. This of course is blatant opportunism as the said parking facility is opposite the Friars Walk shopping emporium. Local authorities tend to get excited at the prospect of generating additional income to a point where nothing else matters but the money. I'd be surprised if any consideration was given to the wider well-being benefits of free Sunday morning car parking for those, like myself, who wish to enjoy the riverside walk rather than shopping for cherry red lip gloss. Not to be deterred by this punative penalty on non-shoppers and now displaced to parking in a nearby residential area, I made my first visit to this site last weekend.

I blame it on the unpredictable biorhythms of the male menopause in not sorting out the tide times and arrived at high tide which is not best for birding. But to my surprise a party of 40 or more redshank were squeezed onto a small patch of exposed inter-tidal mud. A few images were obtained before all birds took flight disappearing down the river and out of sight. As a muddy fringe of a falling tide started to appear so did the gulls, but there was little to dwell on save of a metal ringed black headed gull. This bird only stayed briefly but appeared to be carrying a Lithuanian ring.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Garnlydan Reservoir: a birders enigma

I can't quite square the circle that is Garnlydan Reservoir. Historically it's produced some nice passage birds but it seems nowadays that this has all but dried up, How much of this is due to high water levels is anyone's guess but compared to the range of birds recorded from Rhaslas that's but a few miles along the Heads of the Valleys road, Garnlydan is a massive disappointment.

Twelve lapwing flushed from a small pond adjacent to the reservoir flattered to deceive. There was absolutely nothing on the reservoir, however four snipe took off from marginal Juncus. Here too was a dew encrusted black darter dragonfly and a water scorpion was the only other notable.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Bang, bang!

Four sheep were grazing on a patch of community owned green space and moved between parked cars as I pushed through a kissing gate on to the lower slopes of Mynydd y Garn-fawr. The metal structure clattered as I paused to absorb the vista. The heather was at its purplest best, the air full of black dangly legged red-thighed St Marks fly and pollen. A swallow flew low over the colourful patchwork, calling briefly. The objective was a disused rifle range part way up the hillside. This remnant 20th century feature of large bank, stone revetment  complete with pock marked cast iron plates and pre-cast concrete building is one of the few discernible features on this part of the Blorenge Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). 

The sheep track weaved through a mosaic of bracken, heather and acid grassland. Scrambling over a outcrop of scree a pile of weathered red grouse pellets blended well with a background of bleached sandstone rocks. A painted lady butterfly fluttered over the dry baked soil of the path before taking off into the distance. For its age the pre-cast concrete building was in relatively good condition and to my surprise supported a swallow nest containing two large young. A hovering kestrel appeared on the horizon, and on closer inspection was wrestling with a large dragonfly that its eventually dropped. A few meadow pipit were flushed on my way back. At this time of year upland fences and dry stone walls can be rich pickings for migrant passerines. Hence a nearby wall proudly displayed a pair of vocal stonechat and a female wheatear.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Herbal essence

Leaving Garn -yr-erw there's an area of cleared land that once supported a couple of rows of miners cottages. All that now remains is the green space that was once the back gardens of these properties, complete with remnant garden plants. Flowering garden mint (Mentha sp.) continues to thrive among the overgrown vegetation. As with many flowering plants at this time of year, they prove very attractive to insects. A patch of two metre square mint was home the the giant fly Tachina grossa; a single mint moth Pyrausta aurata and a strong population of green tortoise beetle Cassida viridis.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Crackling and a cackling

With the massive industrial size aerator now gone, car parking at Fisherman's, Llandegfedd Reservoir was easier, so I took full advantage by simultaneously opening both back doors of my car whilst togging up for my visit. 

A fisherman repeatedly threw stones at a family of mallard invading his swim as I blazed a trail along the west bank. A group of around 80 Canada goose supported the putative cackling goose that's at least half the size of a regulation Canada. Two birds carried standard BTO metal rings that were too far away to read. This is where colour ringing produces much better results!. A large stand of flowering betony was a pleasing find as I shuffled my way onwards through the meadowland.

Birding centred on accumulations of commoner waterbirds. The aforementioned 80+ Canada goose were supplemented by approaching 100 cormorant, 75 + great crested grebe and a raft of 150+ assorted gulls, complete with a variety of species, and ages thereby offering the best opportunity for birding.

Most of the gulls were lesser black-backed with a few herring and black-headed thrown in for good measure. A couple of suspect yellow-legged went unconfirmed. There were two adult great black backed gull positioned on convenient bouys. However one bird stood out. A leucustic bird was clearly visible reminding me of one photographed on the River Usk, Newport several years ago.

The visit ended with a march around The Island and Green Pool where a little egret, three common sandpiper and several calling reed warbler where the only notables. What was remarkable was the number of  singing Roesel's bush cricket. Their crackling song was widespread.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Bristol Two

Lesser black-backed Gull. Blue C+D Maesglas Retail Park, Newport. 31 July 2016
Not all of the colour-ringed gulls I find on my travels and near continent movements. These two birds are likely to be dispersals from the work of Peter Rock in urban Bristol.

Lesser black-backed Gull. Purple D+N Lakeside Retail Park, Brynmawr, 17 July 2016

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Orthoptera training course

It's my 'just in time' approach to project management that had me finishing off my presentation for the recent Gwent Wildlife Trust Grasshoppers and Crickets training course just the day before it need to be rolled out. Despite my misgivings about cumulative SSSI impacts by stealth, Welsh Water's Watersports Centre at Llandegfedd Reservoir was a nice venue for a course. Spacious room and balcony over looking the reservoir was complete with excitable teenagers, canoeing, falling in and screaming with adolescent fun - those were the days!

A friendly bunch of attendees stoically endured my morning biology and identification Powerpoint session. After lunch it was in convoy around the lanes to the Glascoed end of the reservoir for a couple of hours of practical field work. We were joined by Gavin Vella who had been out all day waiting for the summering osprey to appear instantly pointing a large moth, probably red underwing, resting motionless high up on tree trunk.

The troop of budding orthoperists moved on to the nearby meadows where excitement was barely contained as Roesel's bush cricket was netted followed quickly by long and short winged coneheads. Further vegetation bashing turned in meadow and field grasshopper and speckled and dark bush cricket. A successful day was rounded off by some keen naturalists sniffing and reeling back at the pungent smell of a potted sexton beetle caught by Elaine Wright. The smell of death is the trademark of this coleoptera.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Radio silence

Broad-bodied chaser. Cwmbran

Its a conspiracy! With two of my children moving house at around the same time and an elderly father who's care needs are demanding more commitment, my naturalist activities are restricted to bite size morsels these days. That said my intermittent lunchtime forays provide some opportunity.The following collection of images are a montage of recent notables.

Redshank. Llandegfedd Reservoir

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary. Garn Lakes LNR

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

An isolated pond

There's a small solitary pond on top of a large former coal tip at the Varteg that's an interesting little feature. Not because it supports a cluster of biological rarities but just for its sheer variety. Common water-plantain is not a regular occurrence in the acidic uplands, its a plant more at home in the lowlands. A few sweeps of the trusty net produced the dark blue reed beetle Plateumaris sericea.

Thursday, 30 June 2016


My first thoughts were limestone fern a species that's something of an enigma to me. Apparently recorded in their thousands on exposed east facing slopes around Blaenavon I've yet to find them myself. That's why when examining a disused agricultural building complete with post-medieval enclosures north of the Keeper's Pond known as Pen-Rhiw-Ifor, it was a fair assumption that the extensive population of ferns growing from the mortar of the brickwork were in fact the infamous limestone fern. Alas after closer examination they weren't, but there were a interesting diversity of ferns on view nonetheless.

Brittle Bladder Fern

Hard Fern

Maidenhair Spleenwort & Harts Tongue Fern

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Lemon Scented Fern

Wall Rue

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The vista

There's some truth in the saying 'you're a grumpy old man'. As I'm getting older my intolerance and propensity to irritation have increased markedly and it doesn't take much for me to step on to my metaphorical soap box. For example my walk up to Coity Pond behind Big Pit, Blaenavon is a case in point. This is a nice linear feeder pond that was once used to support the activities of the pit and is now a significant biological resource. My visit to conduct the annual moonwort count, of which there are only 31 this year, was marred by a plethora of crisp white private land signage. Whilst access is still available its limited to just the eastern side. And here I go! I detest the creeping privatisation of green space - something that's increased stealthily during these times of austerity. I'm sure someone will correct me if not factual but it's my understanding this pond is (was) part of the Big Pit complex and therefore government owned. If this is the case, limited access flies in the face of public bodies well-being obligations. A bit bullish I know, but I won't be prevented from accessing land that I've used all my life!

With that off my chest the pond supported four male tufted duck and a single cormorant. Calling from its immediate environs were reed bunting, tree pipit, stonechat and linnet. A distant peregrine also called. On the invertebrate front a green tiger beetle showed well and a flowering cotoneaster shrub provide a source of nectar for a number of tree wasps and early bumblebees. Bashing a broom bush produced a record of broom bush beetle.

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