Zigzag wildflowers

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Back in June, I wrote a blog post about the insects I’d found when out walking along one of my local trails, the zigzag path that runs down to the marina from upper Penarth. I was critical in that blog of the man-made wildflower patch I’d found, a rectangular area adjacent to the path, where perfectly good local wildflowers had been ploughed up and the area sown with some artificial wildflower mix.

I had some contact following that post with the Vale of Glamorgan Council’s Parks and Open Spaces Officer, who was pleased to learn the insects were doing well on the site and said he was ‘surprised if they [the landscape team] didn’t try and use native wildflowers. Hopefully they will spread out and add to the seed-bank all over the site in time.’ I haven’t had the heart to tell him that Council operatives strimmed that wildflower patch a couple of months later, before the plants had even had time to flower, let along spread their seed. What an incredible waste of money that planting scheme was!

Luckily, the Council operatives haven’t yet strimmed or mown the rest of the vegetation growing alongside the path, and the steep banks have been awash with wonderful colour over the summer months. Even as recently as this Wednesday, when I decided to photograph all the different flower species I could find, there was still a lovely variety as you can see.

 

Hovering no more

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What a difference a week makes! Seven days ago I was still seeing quite a few hoverflies, feeding on the remaining wildflowers and basking on leaves in the occasional sunshine.

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Since then, we’ve had a couple of much cooler nights and the blast of wild, wet and windy weather that was Storm Callum, and the hoverflies seem mostly to have disappeared.

Is that the last I’ll see of them till 2019? Only time will tell.

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Saxicola rubicola

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Very few scientific species names roll off the tongue – most are more inclined to be tongue twisters – but the Stonechat has a name I find much easier to say and remember. Saxicola means rock dweller (from the Latin saxum, meaning ‘rock’, and cola from incola, meaning ‘dwelling in’) and rubicola means bramble dweller, so we have a small bird that lives amongst rocks and brambles.

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In fact, most of the Stonechats I see seem to prefer tall shrubs or hedgerows or wildflowers: at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, where there have been good numbers of Stonechats in recent weeks, some perch on the tallest branches in the hedges, and many seem to prefer sitting atop and hunting for insects beneath the tall umbellifer flower-heads that grow in the northern end of the west paddock.

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This time last year, that paddock was mowed and I assume that mowing will be scheduled to happen again soon, so I’ve been making an effort to see this year’s Stonechats as often as I can before they get forced to move elsewhere.

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Steart Marshes Longhorns

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As well as the stunning birdlife at WWT Steart Marshes on Saturday, I was particularly intrigued by these cattle, which one of my birding friends identified as English Longhorns.

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One of the advantages for local farmers of the wetland development on the Steart peninsula is that they can now graze their cattle on saltmarsh. This gives the meat of these cattle a unique flavour that is apparently highly prized by some human carnivores, so it attracts a better price for the farmers. I thought the beast shown below was already destined for the abattoir as it looked to be dead already.

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But no – turns out it was merely sleeping heavily and, after five minutes or so, raised its enormous head to blink sleepily at the passing humans. What an impressive beast it was!

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The horns of these cattle were fascinating: they seemed to grow in all different directions. One animal had one horn growing upwards, the other down, and the creature shown below must surely have had its horns cut, otherwise it would have been in danger of them piercing its face.

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For all their huge size, these seemed to be gentle giants. The younger animal in this photo came over and began to rub against and lick the head of the older beast – its mother?

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Still, I don’t think I’d want to venture into a field with any of them any time soon.

Birding at WWT Steart Marshes

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Storm Callum was wind-blasting the south-western counties of Wales and England with 50-mph-plus gusts yesterday but that didn’t deter 10 mad keen (some might just say mad) members of the Glamorgan Bird Club from heading to England, to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust property at Steart Marshes in Somerset, for a day’s birding. And what a magnificent place it is and an incredible day we had!

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This is a man-made landscape, engineered to deal with local flooding issues and future sea-level rises, but it has the advantage of providing much-needed and extensive salt- and fresh-water wetland habitats. You can read more and watch a video on the WWT website.

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I don’t have a lot of close-up photos to share from this trip. As I mentioned at the start, it was incredibly windy so the conditions for non-blurry photography were difficult, and many of the birds were distant so I was relying on my bins and the generosity of my birding friends and their telescopes for better views.

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That doesn’t mean you can’t see some incredible sights here with the naked eye though: the miracle of hundreds of Lapwings or Bar-tailed godwits rising and flying in unison is one of Nature’s finest wonders, as are views of birds of prey like Merlin and Hobby screaming like fighter jets across the marshes in pursuit of prey.

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We also saw small numbers of Roe deer and Hares, scampering about in the fields.

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For the serious birder, there was much to quicken the heartbeat, with 13 species of wader seen, 12 Cattle egrets, a Spoonbill and a Glossy ibis. I managed to add five ticks to my year list so I was well pleased.

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This is a site that will only improve in future years and will almost certainly continue to attract star birds, but it’s also a place for everyone to enjoy the many walking trails, the excellent wildlife viewing facilities and the stunning beauty of the saltmarsh, an environment more colourful than I had imagined it would be. If you can, do visit!

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My species total for the day was only 49 but this list is about quality, not quantity. Five of these were year ticks for me: Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Pheasant, Little Grebe, Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Cormorant, Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Merlin, Hobby, Moorhen, Coot, Ringed Plover, European Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Northern Lapwing, Knot, Little Stint, Dunlin, Ruff, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Common Redshank, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Woodpigeon, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Skylark, Wren, Starling, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Goldfinch and Linnet.

The ones I missed but others saw or heard: Eurasian Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mediterranean Gull, Stock Dove, Collared Dove, Raven, Jackdaw, Blue Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Blackbird and Chaffinch.

Flocking Linnets

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I seem to be seeing Linnets everywhere at the moment.

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There have been little flocks of four, six and ten browsing for seeds amongst the wildflowers that grow on the stones of the Ely River embankment in Cardiff Bay.

And then there have been much bigger flocks of 50 to 100 birds (sometimes joined by Goldfinches) grazing in the maize fields along the edge of the coastal path between Penarth and Lavernock.

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And, when those Linnets feel threatened by a predator (like the bird of prey in the top left of the second photo below), they very quickly join together to form enormous flocks of at least 500 birds that whirl and swirl to try to confuse the hunter. I’ve seen this incredible phenomenon twice recently and it is truly amazing to watch and to hear all those birds tweeting and twittering at once.

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Birding at Ogmore and Pant Norton

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Though a cool wind was blowing in off the sea, yesterday was a gloriously sunny day for our Glamorgan Bird Club outing to Ogmore. The fine weather also meant we had a great turn out of 26 people, more than usual for our field trips.

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We started off near Portobello House, scanning the dunes of Merthyr Mawr and checking the River Ogmore, where the ubiquitous Cormorants were adorning this big dead tree in the water.

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A Kestrel hovered over the dunes, and we witnessed a spectacular chase by a Sparrowhawk after a Meadow pipit – only very blurry photos of that, unfortunately. (The mipit escaped.)

Two Wigeon flew in to join the Canada geese, Mallards and gulls up river.

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After grazing along the muddy banks down river for a time, this Curlew flew upstream to find another place to feed.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our birding trips are not just about birds. Many birders are also interested in flora and other fauna so, yesterday, Dave was able to point out to us the invasive Buttonweed (Cotula coronopifolia) (he was the first to spot this plant in Wales!) and a Musk thistle (Carduus nutans). And another of our keen-eyed birders spotted this Wall butterfly, only the second time I’ve seen one of these beauties.

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After a wander up and down the riverbank we headed across the road and up a track into a series of small valleys, an area known locally as The Pant. As well as many other small birds, there were several Stonechats popping up and down in the shrubs and bracken.

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And then, what for me was the highlight of the day, really close views of a Kestrel hunting for its lunch. This handsome young male caught three creatures – probably voles or other small mammals – in the space of 10 minutes or so. It was incredible to watch how this bird’s amazing eyesight enabled it to hone in so accurately on its prey and, though I can’t help but have some sympathy for its victims, to see what an efficient hunter the Kestrel truly is.

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My total number of species for the day was 41: Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Little Grebe, Little Egret, Cormorant, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Eurasian Curlew, Greenshank, Common Redshank, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Woodpigeon, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Skylark, Long-tailed Tit, Common Chiffchaff, Wren, Nuthatch, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, European Stonechat, House Sparrow, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Siskin, Linnet, Bullfinch and Willow Warbler.
I must have wandered off when these birds were seen: Greenfinch, Stock Dove, Jay, Jackdaw, Rook, Raven, Goldcrest and Dunnock.

A seed waits

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‘A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance – to take its one and only chance to grow.’
~ Hope Jahren, Lab Girl