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







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.








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