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

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Wing of a goldfinch

Got to Garnlydan Reservoir early this morning. Parked in Powys and walked back into Gwent hoping this upland reservoir was about to produce something worth the effort. It didn't, there were no waterbirds at all. The best on offer was a party of around 30 goldfinch, 200+ meadow pipit a couple of skylark and a single reed bunting.

Friday, 15 September 2017

End of the drawdown zone

Its with some sadness I have to report the signposting of the end of Llandegfedd Reservoir's fantastic drawdown zone. Sunday's visit was against a backdrop of rushing water a sure fire indicator the squeaky wheels of giant Welsh Water valves have been cracked open and sparkling spring water from the River Usk Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has started to cascade through the inlet to fill this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) - somewhat perverse maybe?

So why am I bemoaning the loss of low water levels? Well as an naturalist the muddy reservoir margin during late summer is ideal for passage birds especially waders. Moreover, the herbage that fills this niche includes some botanical and bryological gems. This same vegetation provides an accessible food source for winter wildfowl such as wigeon once water levels return to maximum.

Kicking around the drawdown zone is just like an inland version of beach combing. Not only is there wildlife to be discovered but also an assortment of discarded human clutter. Much will be of modern day origin but some may have a bit more longevity.

Monkey flower

Marsh cudweed

Liverwort Riccia cavernosa

Zebra mussel


Any ol' iron

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Between the posts

This is a late post, from last weekend in fact, when I took any early morning walk around the edgeland habitat of Garn yr rew on the northward upper margins of Blaenavon. The abundant fencing in this locality is always good for a passage birds at this time of year. So taking advanatage of these elevated postions where many meadow pipit, at least two family parties of stonechat and single whinchat and spotted flycatcher. Elsewhere there was a single male wheatear, a female reed bunting and around 50 swallow on nearby wires.

Beyond the fenced enclosures and out into the post industrial landscape a disused reservoir with excessive feather drop appeared to have been home to a moulting flock of Canada goose. On the margins was a flush supporting hundreds of round-leaved sundew and a single lesser skullcap.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Fencepost season

We are now entering that time of year when fenceposts are ideal stepping stone features for passage birds. There's a super place on the margins of Waun afon bog just north of Blaenavon that is a combination of concrete and wooden posts that often support whinchat, stonechat and wheatear. However yesterday's stroll didn't really produce much, what birds were present kept mainly to the cover of developing willow scrub. At this altitute willow warbler, bullfinch and blue tit tend not to be present during the breeding season but all were calling frequently suggesting a local movement at least. A flyover peregrine got the meadow pipits up but the only skylark seemed just intent on moving south. A couple of scruffy looking stonechat were out numbered by around four reed bunting.

The former railway cutting was still notable for flowering plants. Widespread were eyebright, pale and common toadflax, blue fleabane and Aarons rod; creeping willow is still doing well. A small patch of what seems to be apple mint was new for the locality. The small day flying moth Pyrausta purpuralis was noteworthy.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The day I found Alpine Clubmoss

It was an excursion to the post industrial features of Blaenavon that was in the mould of all other rambles in this area. Through steep valleys of coal and sandstone spoil where water accumulates in shallow and some not so shallow ponds. Scrambling to the top of tips with boyish enthusiasm to enjoy the three hundred and sixty degree vistas, looking for that fragment of hitherto unrecorded biology. A flag thrust into the sparsely vegetated terrain proclaiming my achievement seemed fitting. A muddy pond caught my eye as an overhead swift battled southwards. Down the slope I slipped past the pond following a track through tips that framed distant Abergavenny like a glittering necklace on the bronzed silicon enhanced chest of a maturing film star. 

I emerged from the confines of this tight fitting landscape to view rural Monmouthshire in all its agricultural glory. I paused, before turning southwards into a brisk wind. I was on a mission for a cup of tea when a couple of medium sized birds took to the wing from the summit of an adjacent heather covered tip. Were they red grouse? I had never really seen a grouse on a spoil tip before. Could they have left a pile of characteristic pellets for me to confirm? I decided to investigate. Following a track through the heather cut conveniently by the actions of young bikers I ascended when my eye caught sight of a large sprawling patch of alpine clubmoss, snaking through the herbage like a sort of vegetational osmosis, its dead mans fingers pushing skywards. Although I had not seen this species before I was familiar with both fir and stags horn that also inhabit this landscape, so its identification wasn't a challenge at all and therefore instant, no need to deploy tedious keys. I sank to my knees in pseudo religious style but only to reach for my camera to collect the evidence that surely I would need for potential questioning verifiers.

An email to joint botanical recorders Steph Tyler and Elsa Wood and a Twitter post generated some interest as this record was thought to be the most southerly for Wales. I was therefore pleased to arrange for a small group of local botanists to twitch my unexpected find some days later.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Soft shoe patching

Its a romantic notion, but I've always considered myself an old school field naturalist, free spirited, rooting through undergrowth and vaulting fences in an effort to see, appreciate and record wildlife. Looking for nests, potting insects for closer inspection at home, taking voucher specimens, scribbling notes with pencil and paper, filling my pockets with a boyish eclectic mix of nature paraphernalia is all part of Enid Blyton type job description. This approach was, and still is, somewhat inspired by the writings of Gilbert White but more recently by the work of a new breed of passionate nature writers such as Stephen Moss and Tim Dee who scribe so descriptively about the wildlife, landscape and the characters of local patching. My motivation, driven to some extent by the prejudice and unwillingness of moleskin trousered policy makers to recognise the value and potential of post industrial Gwent, is to raise the profile of natural heritage in my own little patch of the south Wales coalfield and maybe leave a legacy in keeping with that of the traditional naturalist's of yesteryear.

That said my days of being shouted at by a farmer for a harmless intrusion onto private land seem to be fading in the memory. I look back with a wry smile to an era when as a small group of valleys teenage birder's were told to 'get off' by bailiffs at Llandegfedd Reservoir as 'you are trespassing.' How things have turned full circle! These days the growing commitments of supporting elderly parents and grandchildren have fashioned a less adventurous itinerary, I've now adapted to a more sedentary pace. Snapshot visits as opposed to day long excursions, urban nature instead of mountain birding, comfy shoes in place of wellies or walking boots and foreign holidays instead of wild camping. It's this evolution in activity that's brought me into contact with the varied nature of the grey infrastructure and with it a fresh appreciation of its ability to colonise and soften the stark, cold angular features of the built environment, despite municipal efforts to keep it at bay.

I have no real idea if I have an audience for this blog, but if you've dipped in occasionally you will have no doubt recognised a trend for birding around the banks of the River Usk in Newport. Here gulls are the main pull for a now increasingly portly, canvas shoe urban naturalist. With easy access to the waters edge and a circuit that, depending on what's to see, takes no less than a couple of hours, this venue is ideal for a time strapped, brow beaten family man.

On Sunday 23rd July the mid afternoon tide was at its lowest as I side stepped a small thinly distributed gathering of mainly parents and young children. It seems the Riverfront Theatre had organised a package of street theatre events including a Sherlock Holmes production by the Smallest Theatre in the World. Once the volume of these new age cultural activities had faded I settled into scanning the gathered masses of gulls that had alighted waters edge. Here the falling tide revealed a muddy canvas that is a montage, a continuum of strewn rubbish from bikes to CD players, garden tools, assorted building materials, shopping trolleys and traffic cones. Nonetheless the birds were here to feed on the rich marine diversity that sits between the trappings of a throw away society.

Regular patching promotes familiarity, enabling profile building of the local bird community, from numbers of birds, to species composition and even on to individual characters. The herring gull shown in the above image has been present for a couple of weeks now, its aberrant deformed bill suggesting some mutant gull wader cross, but according to my copy of  Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America (Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson) it seems this type of deformity is frequent in first year herring gulls. Also on show is another herring gull with an awkward twisted foot. It appears to manage well with the foot cushioned by the soft mud, but must be more uncomfortable on hard surfaces.

July is a good time to see yellow-legged gull. This is the season when post breeding adults and juvenile birds drift into south Britain in moderate numbers. My birding on this patch over the last year or so has produced infrequent single birds, of mainly adults. First year birds are swines to separate from herring and lesser black-backs but with an increasing knowledge of plumage's identifying my first juvenile yellow legged gull is surely not far away. Adults tend to be easier to sort, helped by visibility of leg colour. This adult has been around for a couple of weeks. 

Another quirk of gull watching is colour ring reading. The long term colour ring study of urban gulls by Peter Rock in Bristol produces a number of records from Newport. This bird, orange A+D, is a known Bristol bird, first noted by myself earlier in the year.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Purple Hairstreak twitch

It was good to spend an hour in the company of Craig Constance and Tim Griffiths at Llandgedfedd Reservoir recently. Craig had let slip he'd recently seen purple hairstreak around the tree tops on the Island at the Reservoir, so remembering that former Gwent birder Adrian Hickman had recorded them in the same area many years ago it was worth another look. Sure enough a single butterfly came within range resting on a nearby ash trees absorbing the warmth of the early morning sun light. This individual was soon joined by a second and a possible third was seen nearby. It's not that this species is unsual, but its notable in so much that looking for butterflies is generally a low herbage activity, looking in the tree canopy isn't often neglected.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Looking out for Gulls

Gull watching is hardcore; shunned by many as just urban pests or just too difficult to get to grips with. But those who chose to embrace Laridae quickly become enveloped in a world of variable plumage, ring reading, winter roost watching and the befriending of other gull watchers through specialists blogs. However, gulls are not just for the winter birder, shivering in dropping temperatures awaiting a roost to build on a local reservoir, gulls, are all year round value with breeding interest in the spring to early summer movements from June onwards.

As I write there is already a hint that post breeding movement is underway. Black-headed gulls are turning up at some of our best sites after breeding, and yellow-legged gull, especially, non breeding sub adult birds, start to appear from late June onwards. With this in mind I took to a loop around the Riverfront, Newport at low tide hoping for something more attractive than just the local rooftop breeding herring and lesser black-backed gulls. 

Although there was a pleasing count of birds along the tide line none were significantly different enough to warrant the scrutiny needed to separate a sub adult yellow-legged from a rank and file herring. But like many who's life is scratching a living from the often unforgiving urban environment some birds display the scars of this life style choice,often manifested by foot deformities. There was an adult lesser black-backed gull with a foot amputation and a rather bleached sub adult herring with a twisted foot at a right angle to its other.  

On the roof top in Brynmawr there are currently hundreds of gulls, swollen by the young of another successful breeding season. From my observations it seems the lesser black-backs start to breed earlier than the herring gulls resulting in the youngsters showing more maturirity. Disappointingly the pair of great black-backed gull that have nested for the past two seasons at this location appear not be present this year.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Heath Bumblebee

Photographed this little beauty at Blaenserchan recently. Its a heath bumblebee (Bombus jonellus), rather attractive bee with three yellow bands and a white tail. Note the heart shaped face that distinguishes it from the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and the yellow that makes it a male. Bumblebee Conservation class this species as common yet Aderyn the Welsh Local Records Centre database only shows two records for vice county 35.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve

Yes, I'm baised, but Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve is a super wetland site, of ponds, lakes, reedbeds and marshy grassland. Credit to all those in Torfaen Council (and partners) for managing the site so well! A whistle stop visit the other evening was sufficent to record a number of odonata, the colourful hoverfly (Leucozona lucorum) and a jumbo queen buff-tailed bumblebee. Well worth a visit.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Magor Marsh

The prospect of a variable damselfly and an unsual longhorn beetle was sufficent motivation for the drive to Magor Marsh last Saturday afternoon.Nice to see some young families using the reserve and a digiscoper photographing I know not what from the hide.

Mistletoe often resides in tall trees, out of reach to a naturalist with a sweep net. But there are some more accessible clumps on the reserve that I adjatated with my net. This produced several examples of the mistletoe bug Pinalitus viscicola.

Cetti's warbler, reed warbler and reed bunting could all be heard as I weaved my way over the snaking boardwalks to the meadow beyond. Here there were many blue damselflies but none could be made into a variable. Botanically it was nice to record a few saw wort specimens along with marsh ragwort. One of the many bird boxes was home to a triving nest of tree bumblebee.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

A spot of good luck

I stood in the same location of the Lasgarn Wood last year hoping to hear the churring of a nightjar but drew a blank, This time it was different but before I picked up that faint yet evocative churring I was tipped off to their presence by a knowledgeable jogger who directed me to a tree about a hundred yards away. And sure enough as I approached the said area I could hear a bird calling. To my surprised I could see the bird resting on the outer branch of a tree. After a few minutes another bird approach and both took off out of sight.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Tyr Abraham Harry

This is an area of industrial workings in the upland landscape of Garn-yr-erw, Blaenavon comprising remnant buildings and stonewalls surrounded by spoil tips and water management features. It seems that every time I tramp around this interfered with habitat I find new and interesting components. Some of the most notable are ponds that are a clearly of manmade construction given their shape.

It was a rather cool and blustery day as I made my way towards the Hills Pit area. There were a pair of wheatear in alarm call and as I scrambled through the heather covered lower slopes of a spoil tip a meadow pipit was flushed from a nest of six eggs. Beyond, there are a couple of ponds with intermittent willow scrub, here a couple of juvenile stonechat called, along with a reed bunting and a single snipe.

Monday, 22 May 2017

For how much longer?

Since the closure of Blanserchan Pit in the 1980s and the subsequent purchase of the valley by the local authority, I've witnessed a gradually change in this landscape. From a characteristic post industrial blandness to one that threatens to become woodland, sofening the Cwm in a carpet of birch and stubben conifer. The battle against scrub encroachment is now reduced to local authority guerrilla action; management when resources become available. However, without a concerted, consistent effort to reduce and restrict, the progression of succession from open vista with its blackened tips and seek and find fragments of industrail relicts will be lost, remembered only by those Facebook pages with monochrome images of the past.

Despite this ongoing change some patches of more open grassy swards can still be found. It was windy but that didn't stop a number of butterflies and moths taking flight. Around eight dingy skipper and three small purple-barred day flying moth were evident. According to the distribution maps prepared by Martin Anthoney (County Recorder), the small purple-barred has lost ground in the east of the county with just a few sites remaining in the west.

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