Let’s go to the beach

This week didn’t kick off with a bang, but rather some very heavy frost. It took me twenty minutes to get into my car on Monday morning it was so iced up! And freezing weather for the rest of the day is obviously the best weather for heading out to a nature reserve. Actually, it was a good idea because 1) the reserve looked awesome in the frost, 2) I got some nice close-up photos of frozen leaves / lichens / etc, and 3) it was actually sunny so the light was good. This was a new reserve to me, Abercamlo Bog, which is quite near to Llandrindod Wells. I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty chuffed with the last photo, of the fungi. Most fungi photos I take end up looking blurry (unless I use the flash), because the fungi I’ve come across so far seem to not have sharp edges / patterns.

The middle of the week saw me driving south-east back to Dorset. I was visiting the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre for a job interview (I didn’t get it, but I enjoyed my visit and was chuffed enough to have got an interview). I got there super early, so had a lovely (albeit damp) walk along the beach.

At the weekend, I took part in the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch – a long term citizen science project. I did it twice, first at Radnorshire Wildlife Trust‘s offices in Llandrindod Wells (you can see the results at the Facebook page). Then back at house, where the highlight was 11 Long-tailed Tits at the end of the hour.

After doing the Birdwatch, I went for a walk in the garden. Suddenly above, there appeared 10 red kites, followed not long after by about 100 crows. Evidently, the crows had spotted the kites as they were flying straight towards them and cawing away. Down by the river, I checked the usual rock for otter spraint, no luck. I had been eye-ing up another rock by the river, and managed to find a way down to it. My instinct was right, and there I found some spraint! Relatively fresh as still dark in colour and still whiffy with that distinctive musky smell – a mix of jasmine and fish (as odd as that sounds, that’s what it is!).

And lastly, a rare nice photo of me, taken by one of my line managers last week when we went to Gilfach (as described in last week’s blog post).

*I know that I said that my posts would be fortnightly now, but I underestimated the amount of wildlife I would see during winter!

Wild Winter Days

Brr, what a cold couple of weeks it has been! Not all that surprising mind, since it is mid-winter in central Wales! We’ve even had snow, which was very exciting indeed! Just below are my photos from the offices in Llandrindod Wells when the snowfall began. The last one looks a bit Narnia-esque with the falling snow and that lantern! If there was more grass / trees, it could almost be Lantern Waste (not far from the Land of Spare ‘Oom!).

The snow started falling a bit heavier, so I decided to make a dash for it. Where I’m living currently is very definitely in the middle of nowhere and any sort of snow / ice makes travel a little difficult! Actually scrap that, living in the middle of the Welsh hills means driving through the little Welsh country lanes, which is always difficult – whether you’re turning a corner to suddenly being faced with a large lorry taking up the whole road, or a Tak-tak (how I pronounced tractor as a child) rumbling towards you, or a confused block of sheep bleating everywhere. That’s not taking into account the potholes / puddles that are dotting the road, or the occasional open field gate, or ALL the mud and / or hay strewn across the road.

Nonetheless, I enjoy the commute – it takes me up over one of the big local hills and shows off some fantastic views, which are even more spectacular when in the snow! I did love this drive, as the altitude increased, I could see the snow level also increasing. I absolutely had to stop and take some photographs, but I couldn’t stop for long. With the darkness rolling in and some heavy snow clouds rumbling up and over the hills behind me, I had to get myself back to the house before it got dangerous.

I went to sleep quite excited, I knew that heavy snowfall was due overnight. And what a vista I woke up to – a thick blanket of snow sparkling in the mid-winter sun. I chucked on the wellies and waterproofs and got out there, chasing the dogs through the snow, hurtling down the slopes on a sledge (slightly worrying since there is a stream and trees at the bottom of the slope) and generally having a wonderful time! I did get round to doing some work in the end of course.

A couple of days I was back at certain reserve, can you guess which one? Gilfach of course! As usual, it was absolutely stunning!

I also had a look at some lichens down by the river. Whilst I have no idea what they are, some helpful people on Twitter gave me some insights to the world of lichens – C.coniocraea, C.chlorophaea, U.florida, and P.membranacea/hymenina.

A last couple of photos from the day. My line manager’s awesome wizard-like stick, where the swirls were caused by honeysuckle. A hailstone caught in some moss. And being in the back of a little truck briefly when we were on a farm – it’s was like being back in South Africa and going round in the back of the bakkie (truck!), except for the temperature!

Round and about the place

Winter has set into place in mid-Wales, with some heavy frosts providing some slightly scary commutes (mainly getting out of a very icy driveway!) and even the first snows being reported (and then remaining in place on the very tops of those looming hills).

On one of these oh-so-frosty-and-blimey-it’s-cold(!) days, I headed over to Pant-y-dwr for their Christmas Fayre with a stall for work. It was lovely to meet local people and chat about local wildlife and nature reserves, with a small quiz to test their ID skills. Naturally, I included some moths – two of my favourites, the Canary-shouldered Thorn (which can be seen in this blog post) and the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth (which can be seen in this blog post). A number of people were surprised that they could be moths, after all, moths are viewed as stereotypically being brown, dull and boring! So I have converted a few more people to my Moth Appreciation cause!

To drive there, I went through Gilfach Reserve (what a fab commute hey!). As previously mentioned, it was very frosty! I absolutely had to stop the car and take a few photos because it was just stunning! There is something about frost and nature that is just fantastic. Wait, erase that … nature is always fantastic, no matter the weather!

Later on, I joined the volunteer work party at one of the reserves – Llanbwychllan Lake (which I have previously visited, you can read about my visit here). They were cutting down trees in order to help the wetland grass area – it was very boggy (since I’ve just said wetland, that’s kind of obvious) so I got to wear my fantastic wellies that I got when I was with Dorset Wildlife Trust, they’re so comfy and warm! Due to so much being cut down, a lot of the wood was being burnt in bonfires, which my inner pyromaniac was loving! Fire is just so entrancing, and there is something magical about the wood being burnt.

Oooh, pretty fire

Oooh, pretty fire

As I write, I’m back in London, and have visited my local park. I’m not going to lie, it’s nothing special (as far as I’ve found out anyway) but it is lovely there, and I’ll pretty much always approve of big green spaces that are used by local people. There are a group of ring-necked parakeets living there, and boy do they make a racket sometimes! I didn’t manage to get a decent photo, but the photo below gives you the gist of what one looks like. I also saw a decent sized flock of goldfinches, plenty of starlings, magpies and crows, and very excitingly – a great spotted woodpecker! Although I didn’t get a photo of it (grr!). My dog helped me out with finding wildlife, obligingly picking up a stick that had some interesting slimy stuff on it. Naturally, I photographed it and tweeted it – current suggestion is a Crystal Brain Fungus (thanks Sean Foote and Ryan Clark!).

On a slightly related note, my Caymanian relatives have also found some interesting wildlife recently – one photo of which was put on Facebook and I was tagged because it was of two moths, and everyone knows how much I love moths! Their photos reminded me of some of the wildlife I had seen when visiting them, and I thought I would add in a butterfly photo of mine from Grand Cayman.

And to end, an urban sunset photo.Sunset across the roofs of London

 

PS – My writing is been spreading out from this blog, including this recent post on the A Focus On Nature blog, where I wrote about Chesil Beach and Gilfach. There is a post every day during the Advent period by members of AFON, on the theme of their favourite reserve / patch. I couldn’t decide, so went for both places!

PS #2 – I’m thinking of doing another species / taxon group profile blog post soon, do let me know what you would like me to write about! Perhaps a certain moth? Or maybe a group such as newts or dragonflies?

A Quiet Appreciation For Nature

Now that winter is upon us, I am changing to posting on this blog once a fortnight as I won’t be seeing quite the variety of wildlife that the British summer provides, especially when combined with the increased hours of darkness. Whilst this is saddening in itself, the spare time provided by winter evenings will enable me to sort through various records (moths and otherwise) and submit them to county recorders, catch up on my reading (I’ve got some great magazines and books to sink into), and watch nature documentaries (including catching up on the fantastic new Attenborough series).

So the last two weeks – not a great variety of wildlife, and not too much different from my last blog post. I spent the weekend up at Gilfach Nature Reserve again, becoming mesmerised by the waterfall until being dislodged from my daydreams by the sudden flash of salmon leaping out of the water.

My first new species of this blog post is the Western Conifer Seed Bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis. An interesting insect, but not a good one to find as it is an invasive species, originally from America, imported to Europe on timber. As an invasive, there is a recording scheme in place, so if you spot one, do let the scheme know! When I saw it, it was actually on the sleeve of a visitor to the centre, and I initially thought that it may have been a type of shieldbug. However, as soon as I saw it, I knew that it was the Western Conifer Seed Bug despite never finding this species before. This is because I had seen photos of it in a couple of the insect-related Facebook groups that I’m part of. Social media is very useful sometimes.

I should add, my finding of this insect caused much excitement when I got back to the office. One of my colleagues is the invertebrate county recorder, and it turns out that there have been only 4 other recordings of this species in the vice-county, AND he had never seen one. So he was thrilled when I turned up with my specimen.

Western Conifer Seed Bug

Western Conifer Seed Bug

Naturally, I also put out the moth trap overnight. I didn’t quite catch the ridiculous number (61!!!) of December Moths that I caught the weekend before – but still a decent number at 14. I took this opportunity of calm weather to hold up one of the December Moths up against the light. You can see it in the middle of the photos below, showing the translucence of its wing. I also caught a new species for me – the Mottled Umber Moth, and another species that I had seen before but not caught myself, the Satellite moth.

This weekend, I decided that I’d not seen enough birds recently so headed over to RSPB’s Ynys-hir Nature Reserve. Whilst I didn’t see anything particularly spectacular, I had such a lovely afternoon, which is what the title of this blog post relates to. I had a relaxed walk around part of the reserve, all in beautiful light. I took the time to appreciate some of our more normal birds, watching and photographing a robin and a blackbird for a while.

Further down the reserve, I spend some time sitting a couple of the hides looking out across the landscape. It was stunning and a calming way to spend a couple of hours.

Upon spotting water, I immediately thought otter and started looking for spraint. Remembering that they spraint in obvious spots, I searched the mounds of grass and soon found some. Of course, I had to double-check so got my nose in close for a good whiff. Definitely otter! Naturally this was the point at which another person appeared in view, I felt I needed to explain what I was up to! I also saw two new bird species for me – Lapwing and Barnacle Goose, as well as Oystercatcher, Meadow Pipit and more.

A Weekend of Firsts

This weekend has been one of those really great couple of days, there’s been fantastic wildlife, half-decent weather and some lovely people (and dogs). I spent it working up at Gilfach – the visitor centre is opened up at the weekends when the salmon are leaping so that people can warm themselves up after watching out for them. On either side of manning the centre, I went down to the viewing platform to see if I could see the salmon myself, and I did indeed! There were some impressive leaps, it’s really quite spectacular. I only got one photo, it is really blurry!

Watching the salmon is quite funny, there’s a little bit of a trick to it. You need to be really patient – they’re typical wildlife in that they make you wait around a bit. And since it’s mid-November, it’s important to layer up so that you don’t get cold. Then it’s a case of just watching the falls. I find myself getting quite mesmerized, going into a bit of a trance. Normally, I’m in the middle of daydreaming, when suddenly a salmon leaps and I get startled, almost like I’ve forgotten why I was there!

A very blurry salmon

A very blurry salmon

I commented to someone there, that it is a bit like cheering on someone in a race, because you’re going “oooh, go on, you can do it!!”, but they don’t always make it and sometimes end up being washed downstream again. I honestly don’t know how they do it, the water is really flowing fast down the River Marteg, crashing down over and between the rocks. It’s not quite loud enough to drown out your thoughts, but it isn’t far off!

My commute in this morning was intriguing, it felt a bit like the valley was on fire – the trees were yellow / orange / red in colour, and the mist was down across valleys. The photo below is at Gilfach, when the mist has lifted a bit, and the trees aren’t so bright, but you get the gist. Whilst driving through the reserve, I also saw a Green Woodpecker which was fantastic. I’ve seen Greater Spotted Woodpecker, but I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen a Green before. But now I can definitely say I have!

With spending two days in a row at the reserve, I was not going to miss the chance to put my moth trap out! I put out the work one, which has a MV (Mercury Vapour) bulb (i.e. really bright). I wasn’t expecting too much, it was a bit chilly overnight and it’s quite late in the season. I was thinking maybe between 5-10 individuals, from maybe 2 or 3 species. Boy was I surprised when I open up my moth trap, it was one of my highest catches for individuals. Better yet, there were 4 new species for me – December Moth (P.populi), Winter Moth (O.brumata), Red-green Carpet (C.siterata) and Scarce Umber (A.aurantiaria).

Even more exciting, the number of December moths was really rather extraordinary! I counted at least 61 individuals, and talking to a few moth-ers, anecdotal records seems to be that only a few are caught usually. So 61 does seem pretty amazing! I’m hoping to get in touch with Butterfly Conservation and find out what the highest amount of these moths caught in one night is, maybe I have a new record (unlikely, exciting stuff like that doesn’t happen for me!).

Talking of species, I’m thinking of becoming a pan-species lister. This involves keeping a record of EVERY species that I see in the UK (there are a few rules, but it’s not strict and people can pick and choose which ones they follow). I’m probably quite low in numbers currently, because I’ve not been keeping exact records for most things (particularly botanical!), so I will probably have seen more than my total will add up to.

Off to my summer haunt

You may remember that I was spending rather a lot of time at Gilfach Nature Reserve earlier in the year (well, August). I headed back to this lovely reserve during the week, and it really is just so fantastic there.

I was visiting Gilfach for a specific reason, every autumn madness descends upon the River Marteg as salmon leap up the waterfalls (yes you read that correctly) to reach their spawning grounds further up this tributary. These salmon have been maturing in the Atlantic, facing numerous dangers both natural and from humans. They return to the rivers of their birth to breed again, facing yet more threats as they journey all the up the River Wye. One interesting fact I discovered recently is that upon re-entry into freshwater, they stop feeding in order to develop their gonads. Seems a bit OTT to me, but each to their own. Unfortunately, I didn’t spot any salmon on this visit, but I shall be there again soon enough and they grace me with a view. You can follow the updates on Twitter with my new hashtag – #SalmonAtGilfach (and don’t forget #GilfachReserve, for general wildlife updates there).

Despite the lack of salmon, I had an enjoyable visit. I had roughly 6 layers on – I knew that patience is required to see salmon, so many layers are needed to prevent coldness – and although drizzling, the weather wasn’t too rough. Gilfach is currently a great mix of rusty reds and luscious greens as autumn sets in across the reserve.

I also found a massive pile of otter spraint near the river, so large I believe as it is protected by an overhang which means that it won’t get washed away in the rain. I often get asked how I know when it’s otter spraint, particularly since the size, shape and colour can vary depending on what the otter has been eating. But there is one particular factor that is really distinctive and memorable – the smell! It’s a fantastic smell, and trust me I’ve smelt a lot of different faeces (I used to work / volunteer in a zoo, cattery and animal rescue centre remember). There a whiff of sweetness, usually described as similar to jasmine (I can now no longer drink jasmine tea as a result), with a touch of fish and muskiness. I normally just describe it as a musky jasmine smell. The smell fades over time, so if it’s an older spraint (turned a bit grey), you really have to get your nose in there and take a big old sniff.

This might be why some non-nature people think I’m weird … but I don’t mind, like I said, it’s a relatively decent smell and it’s from an amazing animal. Plus, I’m normally finding / collecting spraint for conservation purposes, so it’s for a good cause.

I also thoroughly enjoyed being by the river, recent rain meant that it was flowing very well (possibly too much for the salmon to leap up against?). It was thundering down against the rocks, so loud that I could barely gather my thoughts! It was truely spectacular and worth going out in the drizzle.

A visit to heaven, and a busman’s holiday.

You may be quite intrigued by the title of the blog post, but you’ll have to wait a little bit longer to find out what it applies to. A clue though, it is to do with my weekend off. To start off with, I shall fill you in on my working week.

There has been a lot of office work this week – I’m creating a large spreadsheet from scratch, with thousands of entries, so that’s taking up a lot of my time. I can’t say it is the most exciting of work, but the spreadsheet will be very useful once it is in existence, and I’m coming across a variety of scientific names which amuse me – one of my favourites so far as been Veronica beccabunga, which is a plant called Brooklime. I often listen to the radio whilst typing as well, need to catch up on my favourite BBC Radio 4 comedy!

 

Thursday saw 60-ish local primary school children descend upon Gilfach Reserve for an organised day of environmental education, organised by the Radnorshire Outdoor Learning Network Group. It was a fantastic day where the children and teachers tried out a range of cool activities, including my favourite of river dipping! I reckon it’s my favourite because (a) you get to wear wellies, and wellies are awesome, (b) the children are discovering what is literally a whole new world – minibeasts underwater, where they can learn all about the fascinating adaptations, (c) it’s pretty much always lovely down by a pond or river, (d) more reasons that I can’t think of right now. You can find out more information about the great day we had over at RWT’s Facebook page.

Now onto the title of this blog post. This weekend I’ve had one of the ‘parentals’ visiting and on Saturday we took a little trip over to somewhere that is heavenly for the both of us – a town FULL of bookshops, antiques, charity shops (with more books!), boutique shops and a fabulous stationery shop. Can you guess where I’m talking about? If you guessed at Hay-On-Wye, aka the “town of books”, then you would be 100% correct, well done! Now I know this has little to do with nature, however I just had to include it in this blog post as I had so much fun there! I managed to resist buying too much, and it was lovely to have a potter around looking in all the shops and admiring the books (something I do often as a bookworm).

Sunday was spent on a busman’s holiday as we went over to Gilfach Reserve, and what a perfect day we chose for it! It was gorgeously sunny with just a touch of a breeze. It was great fun to introduce my mum to somewhere I loved – her first word when we entered the reserve was “Wow!”. NB: Gilfach does look absolutely stunning in autumn! She comments that it does feel like stepping back in time – very much in keeping with “the farm that time forgot”, and pleasingly (for me) that “there was more to the visitor centre than I expected”. We had a very relaxing time visiting all my favourite spots on the reserve – one of the fields near the visitor centre, the waterfall and the picnic benches at Pont Marteg (near the entrance to the reserve). We listened to the birds, admired the rushing waters and peered at interesting insects.

We then proceeded on to somewhere I had heard much about, but hadn’t got round to visit, the Elan Valley. What a fabulous spot, and we had both completely underestimated how the expanse of the valley – it is HUGE! As I asked at one point, “How many dams [and reservoirs] are there?!” I was rather pleased as I managed to score a moth record in a new location, a Canary-shouldered Thorn resting in a corner of the visitor centre. I believe the visitor centre staff/volunteer were rather bemused by my enthusiasm for the moth, but then, it is one of my favourites as it is a great example of how moths can be just as pretty as butterflies!

Being the stereotypical enthusiast that I am, I was soon pointing out the ID features of various wildlife to my mum (including the former insects), particularly discussing the trees by the dam. Below are two features of one tree, an Ash tree, which was one of the first trees that I learnt to identify – back when I was volunteering/working at ZSL London Zoo (Ash can be used as food / enrichment for a range of animals including giraffes). The two features I remember most are the leaves and the buds.

  • LEAVES: The leaves you see on a stem are actually called leaflets, and are in pairs with an odd one on the end. The leaflets are pointed and slightly toothed.
  • BUDS: The buds are rather distinctive, they are black and quite ‘velvety’ in in appearance (in the photo below, you can just about make out the black buds).

Having had a yummy lunch at the Elan Valley visitor centre, we decided to squeeze in some more food with tea and cake at the Penbont House Tea Rooms, and I’m very glad we did. First, it was very yummy. Second, it was very quaint with cute china. Third, it has a fantastic view looking out from the Tea Rooms. Fourth, we loved watching the cheeky chickens looking for crumbs. Fifth, I had a very close encounter with a chaffinch who evidently didn’t realise I was there and came to less than a foot away from me! It was great because he was obviously looking at me, but hadn’t realised that I was not just a new part of the furniture! I am gutted that I didn’t have my camera out, but I didn’t dare try because I didn’t want to scare him off!

Last but not least, I finally stopped off on the route back from Rhayader to take a photo of the wooden sculpture on the side of the busy road. A brilliant celebration of local wildlife – an otter chasing salmon.