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

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

To the hum of a chainsaw

It was only a hour out but my stroll through the ancient woodland part of the Lasgarn Wood and onto the NRW clear fell was greeted by the hum of a chainsaw. From a distance some bloke was cutting up a windblown oak, probably for firewood - technically theft I suppose. Here too, two in flight crossbill called loudly. Back through the woodland some replanting appeared to be less then random. A lemon slug was grazing on the fallen branch of a mature beech and a search of the many hart's tongue fern produced only two leaf mines of the fly Chromatomyia scolopendri

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Pontypool Park

The hybrid black poplars that line the banks of the Afon Lwyd through Pontypool Park support an every increasing population of mistletoe. I've seen the 'clumps' increase steadily over recent years. Some were also growing on two small ornamental type hawthorn trees close to the hallowed turf of the rugby pitch, but alas these small clumps have now been pilfered. No doubt hanging over the doorway of some local hoping to get lucky this winter festival.

The recent snow has removed some branches on the veteran sweet chestnut trees that are an iconic feature of this historic parkland environment. I fear for their future as I have little confidence in the willingness of park decision makers to retain in-situ for as long as possible these deadwood sentinels. 

The hart's tongue fern that is plentiful in the park under the shade of the wooded canopy looks moth eaten, not by moths of course, but by the actions of fly larvae. I suggest the holes in the upper photo are the creation of the fly Psychoides filicivora and is damage regularly encountered on this fern. The middle image is that of the fly Chromatomyia scolopendri. I've also found this distinctive leaf mine in the Lasgarn Wood but it seems there are few records in the vice county. Finally the abundant and widespread damage of the holly leaf miner Phtomyza ilicis.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

View from the bikers hut

The self named Bikers Hut at the very top of the Blaenserchan Valley was a convenient resting stop for a weary naturalist. And so it was that on Saturday morning I launched into an early morning walk looking for hawfinch a bird that seemed to have been seen by everyone apart from me. 

The valley was alive with redwing and fieldfare along with a healthy blackbird population feeding on the abundant crop of hawthorn berries. A large stand of pearly everlasting was still green enough to photograph. And vivid blue of cobalt crust - the current SEWBReC record of the month- was a nice find on my return.

Saturday, 4 November 2017


Walking around the margins of Dunlop Semtex Pond recently reminded me of my old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, still fantastic but now a bit threadbare. Its not so much that the ecological value of the pond has diminished, in fact there is a case to say that its improved. A floating island and now a lush margin of vegetation is different to the semi-sterile pond of its former industrial origins. However the brave new world of retail park and general lakeside redevelopment is starting to show the tell tale signs of neglect. 

Having championed this site for many years and witnessing its change from decaying factory environs to one that now feeds modern day consumerism I can't help recalling my effort to ensure that the regeneration proposals considered the actual and potential ecological value of the pond and adjacent grassland. At one stage there was talk of the pond being drained so I raised my redevelopment concerns at Gwent Ornithological Society meeting and recollect being countered by an argument that 'it was the biggest eyesore in Gwent'. For me this exemplified the general dismissiveness of some in the nature conservation movement at that time toward the Gwent valleys. So, what has changed? The former Dunlop Semtex factory building with its almost unique domed structure of archaeological significance has been replaced by a modern supermarket and the adjacent species rich semi-natural grassland now lost to a housing estate. The retail park is very popular, but the interface between the shopping culture and its natural environment is becoming grubby and neglected.

In spite of signage warning that shopping trolleys will not be able to be taken off site due to inset path control mechanisms, a number of trolleys are still lodged in the edge of the lake. General litter and dog mess prevail and the built features that were designed to encourage people to enjoy the natural environment are either inaccessible or require urgent maintenance. 

This is a very popular retail park and one assumes those businesses are turning in good profits but this project for me exemplifies the somewhat 'development at all costs' blinkered nature of some planning decisions. The house builders and retail businesses achieve their objectives but little effort and resource is afforded to the environment in which they operate. This for me is what separates a  bog standard development from a sustainable development.

With that of my chest here are the wildfowl counts for DSP and Machine Pond ( 29/10/2017):

DSP                                         Machine Pond

Wigeon                        9                       23
Tufted Duck              23                       12
Coot                          45                       41
Mute Swan                 4                         4 
Moorhen                     3                         4
Great Crested Grebe   2

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Wrestling with a duvet: Gwent's Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush

I'm amazed how some birders are able to respond almost immediately to a shout of a rare bird. Have I made a big mistake in the organisation of my life when I say that work and family commitments prevent me from making the same priority? That said the appearance of the rufous-tailed rock thrush on my (greater) patch needed a visit despite a somewhat elderly yearning for more pipe and slippers time. I knew that if I didn't make the eight mile or so round journey to Gilwern Hill last Sunday morning my chance of seeing this once in a lifetime occurrence will have passed, probably to my regret when drafting my Natural History of the Eastern Valley or Memoirs of a Valley Naturalist in later life - they say there's at least one book in everyone!

Come 6am on Sunday I was between a rock (thrush) and a hard place. I was embroiled in a tug of love between getting out of bed and vacating that warm duvet environment or driving in semi darkness to a foggy, chilly, Welsh mountainside to search for a bird in the craggy, limestone post-industrial wilderness. To my credit the latter prevailed.

I gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for loading the car with cameras, scope, walking boots etc. the night before as this allowed me a quick cup of tea before leaving. No need to stir the wrath of family and neighbours by crashing around looking for kit at a time when most sensible people are still in bed.

On the Cwmavon Road I gently swerved through instinct to avoid several grey squirrel before arriving in semi-darkness at Gilwern Hill. To my surprise there were already around a dozen vehicles on site including a camper van. Most cars were empty of their occupants another was in the process of being vacated by birders with a clear Essex dialect. Striking up a conversation I discovered they had started out at 3.30am. Of the 50 or so birders around the site that morning I met people from Cardiff, Stoke, Leeds and Birmingham.

The first quarry was where most attendees has set up camp, scopes in position and binoculars employed to scan the grassy tussocks between the grey quarry face. We then waited and waited and waited and I wandered and wandered and wandered. Steve Smith turned up to help break the boredom. After nearly three hours of nothingness, just the watching of birders drifting past, I started the trek home resigned to not seeing the bird, when a birder silhouetted against the sky and with mobile phone in hand shouted  'its in the third quarry'. Around the bend and in view of the third quarry I could see a gathering forming with a trail of others rushing to join. I did an about turn. Out of breath I eventually arrived at the chosen spot, set up and quickly located the bird, proud and visible, preening happily. After a while it dropped down out of sight enabling a pause in the regular background noise of the clicking of motorised cameras. At this point I decided to leave satisfied that all the effort had proved fruitful.

Back at the car the parking had become crictial. Cars were parked in a broken line either side of the road as far as the Lamb and Fox pub. A Police car passed but didn't stop. I heard later that one birders vehicle has got stuck in a ditch. I'm not surpised.

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.

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