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

Monday, 13 June 2022

High above a valley

The felling of a considerable block of oppressive conifers high above the A472 Cwm y Glyn between Crumlin and Pontypool has opened up the prospect of a new area to explore. The resultant clearfell is quickly regenerating with both native broadleaves and unfortunately conifers but the elevated views from the haul road are impressive, including a whole new perspective of Graig Major ancient woodland. 

At its entrance there's the standard Natural Resources Wales (NRW) signage welcoming the visitor to Hafodyrynys Forest. From here, the track with its short flower rich margin climbs in a winding fashion through the landscape. A solitary southern marsh orchid was found along this track. As the road meandered upwards it travelled through an area of mature beech trees with a distant signing redstart. At its highest point there were commanding views over the valley. Here several tree pipit sung whist a two banded longthorn beetle alighted nearby.

This is a site that merits further investigation especially for the possibility of nightjar. The only disappointing aspect was the presence of four off road motorbikers.


Saturday, 11 June 2022

A portrait of fence posts

There's something very photogenic about wooden fence posts. Knaweled, pitted, weathered and colonised by lichens and bryophytes they stand as witness to a changing landscape. In an industrial setting many are remnant field boundaries, often associated by drystone walls, but others will have surrounded a working landscape of coal and iron. Few are lightweight giving them the longevity to see out the ravages of upland weather. Most that remain are wooden beasts the size of railway sleepers, strapped into place with the heavy ironmongery of now rusty bolts and brackets that is a trademark of the way valley communities lived. These rugged blocks of timber are sentinels standing watch of a uniquely varied  landscape. Long may they remain. 


Wednesday, 1 June 2022


Earlier this month I pushed my dodgy knees to the limit by exploring the lower upland slopes between the top of Graig Ddu near Talywaun and Waunwen. This is an area I've explored infrequently and is charaterised by stone wall field boundaries and mature beech trees. The fields and their remnant walled boundaries are part of a nearby lost farmstead. Now the enclosures are dominanted by billberry, bracken. heather and gorse with a landscape once fashioned by sheep grazing now replaced by extensive linear interventions of scrambler bike activity.

My ramblers on this day uncovered a couple of landownership boundary markers. The first is a well weathered stone marker at the entrance of Griag Ddu woodland . The second is one more in keeping with the localities industrial heritage and is made of cast iron inscribed with W&BM apprantly meaning Waunwen.

In terms of nature I was hoping for a singing pied flycatcher but drew a blank. Otherwise, there were serveral signing redstart, another possible Greenland wheatear, a whinchat and several linnet and redpoll around a large patch of gorse. 


Saturday, 7 May 2022

Some nature from Hill's Tramroad

The section of Hill's Tramroad that nestles under the east facing slope of Blorenge mountain, is a delightful walk. It starts at a disused farmstead with its enclosures of drystone walls and weatherbeaten hawthorn, blackthorn and sycamore trees and takes the walker within touching distance of bracken dominated ffridd habitat. The views are also impressive with the Skirrid to the south east, the Sugar Loaf to the east and the Usk Valley and the Brecon Beacons to the north.

This stroll was with my son who is discovering photography with a new micro two thirds camera, so it was less a naturalist walk more a photography session, but this didn't stop me picking up the odd interesting biological record. The first thing that struck me was the sound of singing willow warbler, there were many taking up position in the scrubby interface between now clearfell confier woodland and ffridd. Here too were serveral parachuting tree pipit. A male wheatear alighted on the top of a drystone wall, two red kite passed over and a pair of stonechat stone chatted. This intergrade from woody habitat to open upland was notable for its flowering plants. Wood anemone, wood sorrel and emergeing bluebell were evident as was a patch of moschatel or townhall clock. A bloody nosed beetle lumbered along the track side.

Back at the discused farmstead the sun shone on a copse of brillant white flowering blackthorn complete with bracket fungus. The yellow flowering gorse accommodated a pair of linnet, no doubt with a nest somewhere contained. A springtime swallow rounded off a pleasing afternoon.


Saturday, 23 April 2022

Two days at The British (upper and lower)

Sunday 10 April - Upper

Acid grassland with yellow meadow ant mounds and scrambler bike damage in background.

I was out early to beat the bikers and to hopefully pick up on some of those Spring migrants. Taking the footpath on the western fringes of the enlclosed grassland towards Big Pond the morning was bright and sunny. A fieldfare type call soon alerted me to the presence of a male ring ouzel. Emerging from the shadow of a large beech tree the birds white cresent plumage could be seen prominent and eye catching against the strong morning sunlight. As I moved closer the bird guilded to the comfort of a nearby tree giving continued good views. 

Satisfied that I'd connected with a very notable passage bird I moved on to Big Pond. Here the damage to the hillside from continuous scrambler bike activity stopped me in my tracks. The extent of this damage is shocking, with those involved clearly having no regard for the environment or the farming community thats seeking to earn a living from this land. But even more disheartening is the inability of the Police to counter this illegal activity. 

Male Ring Ouzel

Friday 15 April - Lower

Male Redstart

The lower part of The British is well known for its Big Arch enterance feature and its disused buildings with a steep moulded backdrop of gorse covered coal spoil. The day before had been notable for an influx of Spring migrants so I was hopefully this visit would produce a similar result. 

The morning was still, with little breeze so ideal for picking out bird song. The first clear song was that of the chiffchaff. These birds have been around for a few weeks now so most will no doubt be singing from there chosen breeding territories. And then my first willow warbler could be heard singing from an area of gorse scrub. As I walked around the ampitheater type setting of this lower part of The British I could hear more willow warbler - three maybe four singing in unison.

I knew the now ramshackled National Coal Borad (NCB) building with its maturing self seeded trees had supported a breeding pair of redstart in the past, so through the hum of my tinnitus I listened carefully and sure enough a male was signing proudly from the environs of this crumbing building.

Not too much on offer from a botanical perspective but a dead elder complete with jelly ear fungus at the top of a tip proved a challenge to access, but I managed it with a few odd stumbles. Here it was also pleasing to find a mature specimen of wild privet. So all in all a reasonable Good Friday.

Dead elder with jelly ear fungus


Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Putative Greenland Wheatear

Its said that familiarity breeds contempt and that was certainly the case when I photographed this male wheatear on the lower slopes of Mynydd Coety recently. Wheatears are widespread on the hills around Blaenavon and following the inital notirity of seeing the birds returning in March they are relegated to 'banker' status for a birding walk throughout Spring and Summer. It wasn't until I posted a photograph on my Twitter account was the prospect of a Greenland wheatear given any consideration. It was a suggestion from local birder Graig Conatance that got me to give this bird the level of scrutiny it rightly deserved.

Greenland wheatear sub-species Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa breed in Iceland and Greenland but pass through Britain on their way to their breeding grounds. Although one can never be sure this is O o leucorhoa there are field signs that can help. Note this bird has a strong brown tinge to its mantle. The Greenland race is said to be chunkier - note the pot belly. And the breast coluration is extensive. 

So there you have it Greenland wheatear, yes or no, take your pick.


Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Botanising in a cemetery

For some, botanising in a cemetery on a Sunday morning in early Spring may seem a touch bazaar but burial grounds can be rich pickings for an inquisitive naturalist. The interest in such sites lies within the blend of remnant semi improved grassland, parkland type trees and the variety of introduced memorial plants that have naturalised this type of setting. 

Panteg Cemetery on the outskirts of Pontypool is large and old. It still accepts burials but for a naturalist its the aged parts that keep the attention the most. Primroses frequent grave surfaces and have colonised extensively throughout the cemetery. A large patch of the non-native three-cornered leek occurs under a tree with individual outlying plants some distance away suggesting that it won't be too long before it become more widespread. As its early Spring some small stands of snowdrops were in flower. Another grave was covered in the winter flowering sowbread. Red valerian was widespread with many displaying evidence of the gall Trioza centranthi.

There was certainly enough on show to whet the appetite of a naturalist and diary mark further visits during the coming Spring and Summer.

Three-cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum)

Abraham-issac-jacob (Trachystemon orientalis)

Wood Surge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

Sowbread (Cyclamen hederifolium)

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) with leaf roll (Trioza centranthi)


Sunday, 6 March 2022

I never tire of this landscape

It was the end of February, the sun was spring-like but the wind bracing as I stood alone on the highest point of Canada Tips, Blaenavon. Looking east towards the Keepers Pond, its car park was popular and a single wild swimmer laboured. Beyond and on the horizon I could see the Foxhunter car park and from it a couple of groups of excited school children complete with walking poles and maps in waterproof covers emerged. Later a mini-bus resplendent in the Cranbourne School crest arrived to collect the returning walkers. 

I moved to seek refuge from the wind, just in time to view five unlicensed scramblers pick their way between the spoil tips only to cross the Abergavenny Road and motor in characteristic lawless style along the road to the Foxhunter car park then out of sight. The bikers had left their mark on the landscape cutting through the peat in a damaging care free manner. As I paused to take some photographs of the abuse laid bare in front for me a skylark climbed in song, but not quite full summer song, and then another and another. 

Striding through the straw coloured molina I was startled by a red grouse that took off low over the upland vegetation and then down, surely to hunker down out of the keen wind. An old industrial reservoir breached long ago and purged of most of its water held sufficient to generate some interest. And so it proved my first clumps of frog spawn of the season were visible. On my return I peered rather gingerly into the crevices of a weathering sandstone outcrop to view a number of oak fern.


Thursday, 3 February 2022

Messing about on the river

This was a Sunday morning visit designed to check the 300 + black- headed gull that were residing at Cwmbran Boating Lake, for birds carrying rings. With no rings in sight and with the numbers of dog walkers increasing quickly I diverted my attention to the nearby Afon Lwyd in an effort for some peace and quiet.

Taking the bankside path from the Boating Lake to the river bridge near to Burton's biscuit factory, I was struck by how much this river had been modified by bank revetment work. Almost every twist and  meander was characterised by moss covered blockstone. In addition the tentacle type root systems of the riparian trees were festooned with discarded clothing and other urban rubbish. These features hint at the on going abuse of this valley river that hit a peak during industrialisation but continues to this day.

Otters are known to occur along the whole length of the Afon Lwyd. Although rarely seen, signs of their presence can be found. A large rock in mid stream and just below the boating lake supported some old and some new spraint. A grey wagtail picked its way around a pebble beach and a dipper alighted briefly before moving on.

The Afon Lwyd runs the whole length of Torfaen from its headwaters above Blaenafon to its convergence with the River Usk at Caerleon and like so many other areas in the South Wales valleys receives little attention from naturalists. My occasional visits suggest there's much yet to be discovered.

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