Recorders' Newsletter 21
Recorders’ Newsletter 21 (Christmas 2009)
Grassland Action Plan
As part of the revision of Action for Nature, (our Local Biodiversity Action Plan) the steering group has tried to develop a user-friendly account of our grassland riches. While the species-rich grasslands of Rhondda Cynon Taf are one of our greatest biodiversity assets, they are perhaps one of the least understood. The idea of the new grassland plan is to try and bridge the gap between the sometimes dry (but essential) terminology of the National Vegetation Classification and the visceral thrill of standing in a wildflower meadow in early June awash with floristic colour and the buzz, hum and whirl of hundreds of pollinating insects. So, if you aren’t a botanist, how do you identify species-rich grassland? If you are a budding, but perhaps nervous, botanist what key grassland indicator species should you look for, and if you want to go to see a particular type of grassland, where can you go? These are the types of questions that we are trying to consider in the grassland plan. At the moment it is still in a draft, and all comments are welcome. If you’d like a copy please contact me at the address below, we can email it or post as you prefer.
I have had some very nice migrant reports. Mark Evans reported a group of around thirty swallows, a mixture of adults and juveniles, heading south, over Cwmdare, on the morning of October 6th. On the 28th Sep ‘there was a Chiffchaff singing at Pleasant View residential caravan park, Trecynon’. In late September I also had whitethroats and chiffchaffs foraging in my garden. Paul Marshman saw small groups (11 and 2) of swallows passing down the Rhondda Fawr at Llwynypia on Oct 16th. Amazingly the swallow passed through shortly after Paul had seen two groups of 25 Icelandic redwing moving south on the same route. That is a nice mixing of migrations, with the last summer visitors of the year, being overtaken by the first winter migrants. Paul reminded me that a few years ago he counted 11,000 redwings passing through the Rhondda on one day. In October Mark Evans reported that ‘There was a heavy passage of winter thrushes, down the valley (Cynon), yesterday morning; made more obvious by the low cloud, forcing them down into the valley, instead of being able to cross over the hill tops. There were frequent flocks in excess of one hundred birds, and although I was unable to stop work to count them properly, I estimate that a few thousand must have come through: Redwings and fieldfares’. Strinda Davies reported the first Pontypridd redwings also on October 16th.
Peter Speller of Llwyncelyn sent the following ‘I was going to tell you of the grandstand view I had of a buzzard eating a jackdaw in our back garden. He seems to have taken it while it was perched as one of the large gang that sits in the ash tree at the end of our back garden. He sat on it on the lawn for a couple of minutes while its mates tried (rather half-heartedly) to disturb him from his prey by swooping and making a general racket. He seemed to be trying to suffocate it, and every now and then would release the pressure slightly to see if his weight had had the desired effect. After a couple of minutes more, there were no signs of resistance from below, so he stepped aside and started to enjoy his meal. Another five minutes and all that was left was a few primary feathers. As you say in the newsletter, you can do a lot from your own doorstep!
Sometime in the autumn, I came across a female sparrowhawk trying to resolutely extinguish a jackdaw on the pavements of Pontypridd. I however disturbed the scene and the sparrowhawk and jackdaw flew off in very separate directions. Dave and Joanne at Dare Valley Country Park also sent me a photo of a male Sparrowhawk who paid a visit to their feeding station at the back of the reception one Sunday morning.
Peter Speller also found the remains of a peregrine on the bridleway above his farm ‘the head and a few black and white barred feathers all that remained. Couldn't tell if it was predated (again by our local buzzard?), or shot. Not enough left for anyone to determine cause of death’. Sarah Illsely also saw a peregrine flying over the car park of the Crown Inn pub on Llantrisant Road, Llantwit Fardre in late October.
Red kite reports glided in during the autumn. Mark Evans saw one over Gray's Place, Llwydcoed on September 25th. Sarah Illsely sent the following at the same sort of time, ‘thought you might like to know that I've just been watching a Red Kite from the office window here at Ty Elai (Williamstown). No mistaking its silhouette as it worked its way along the mountainside but confirmed when I eventually tracked down some bins’.
Keeping with birds of prey Paul Marshman told me of a merlin hunting meadow pipits at Cwm Bodringallt, Ystrad on December 10th and Ray Edwards saw a merlin flying across the St. Gwynno road, above Ynysybwl (ST049939) on December 8th. These two reports aren’t far from each other (only 4km as the merlin flies), and I wonder if Paul and Ray saw the same bird?
This autumn saw some excellent wild fruit crops. In Llwynypia the rowans were heavy with berries and a group of 20 mistle thrushes were seen resting on telephone wires after gorging themselves (PM). Next to the Church Village by-pass construction offices in Cross Inn Llantrisant I noticed that the hawthorn bushes (similarly laden with berries) were alive with redwings, song thrushes and blackbirds. On the evening of November 19th Mark Evans saw a flock of around 250 starlings flying over Cwmbach and Kevin Oates has reported starling flocks over Pontypridd.
Clydach Vale Lake is drawing lots of bird watching interest and added to the little grebes noticed in the summer, Paul Marshman has now added tufted duck to the waterfowl list.
Just as wet winter weather might begin to lower spirits, our songbirds lift them again by setting up territories and shouting at the neighbours. So, in Miskin the dawn chorus is building with the robins joined in early November by the song thrushes (including the bird which sings in the dark, every morning, from my neighbour’s bramley apple tree) and now coal tits and the occasional dunnock. For the resident songbirds the year has already turned.
(NB a mistake I made in the last newsletter was to report David Gordon first cuckoo of the year in Cefnpennar as May 29th when in fact it was 10 days earlier).
Bird Counts at Barry Sidings
Through funding arranged by the Glamorgan Biodiversity Advisory Group (GLAMBAG) and CCW, bird feeders at Barry Sidings have been set up since September 7th. Kevin Oates has monitored the increasing use of these feeders and his summary results are:
robin (4), blue tit (7), coal tit (5), great tit (9), long tailed tit (flocks of 12), nuthatch (4), chaffinch (16), bullfinch, greenfinch (11), goldfinch (from 8th Nov with larger flock (15+) feeding on seed heads on our biodiversity bank), dunnock (5), magpie (7), carrion crow (4), jay (2), green woodpecker, greater spotted woodpecker and sparrowhawk.
Stuart Jones of Graig, Pontypridd sent through the following ‘when I went to let my chickens out in the allotment this morning there was a young polecat in a live catch rat trap. I know many of the polecats are now hybrid ferrets but this one did display classic characteristics - white ear tips, distinctive mask and dark guard hairs etc. I didn't want to release it back onto the allotment given the chickens so released it in some woodland on my way to work’. The BBC Springwatch went to huge (and largely unsuccessful) attempts to see a live polecat. From the evidence of road kills, we suspect they are well established in RCT, but I have only once seen a live one (trotting down the access road at Dare Valley Country Park) and Stuarts record is very interesting.
Richard Phipps sent through a report of a mink running through Groundwork’s Fedw Hir grounds, heading to the river (it was, as Richard states ‘quite large, and very black’). Kevin Oates had a stoat absent mindedly wander into the visitor centre at Barry Sidings.
Richard Dodd sent me some bat reports, which include a large soprano pipistrelle roost (100) near Treforest Industrial Estate railway station. Some interesting work as part of annual monitoring around Llanwonno revealed more common pipistrelle activity after the clear felling of a large part of the FC plantation, due to the edge effect I imagine.
In the early autumn I was sent a photo of a millipede and an account of an invasion of the ‘pine end’ of a house by hundreds of millipedes. I checked the picture in the ‘Collins Guide to Insects’ and it appeared that the species was a millipede called Tachypodiulus niger. According to the book, not only is this one of the millipedes, which can curl up like a watch spring, but it also arboreal and will ‘climb trees to brows of mosses and algae’. My conclusion, therefore, was that the house must have algae and/or mosses on its roof or gutters, and the local millipedes were making the most of it. It is not something I’ve ever witnessed and I wonder if anyone else has seen this natural phenomenon? In the summer I get the oak bush cricket crawling around the ceilings of my house mistaking the bedrooms for the canopy of an oak tree. Recently, in the loft of my parent’s house (whilst re-finding the subbuteo football boxes, and the Preston North End team with the nine broken players) I came across two beautiful wasps nests, hanging from the rafters. Every year the drainage holes in the underside of my double glazed windows are used as nest sites by leaf cutter bees, so it seems millipedes are just another species happy to make use of our houses
The mild, calm early autumn weather was good for butterflies. I had speckled woods and red admirals flying round my garden well into October, and on October 21st, with John Berry I watched a female small copper egg laying on sheep’s sorrel high on the Graig Common, Llantrisant. However the wet of November seemed to have finished all that, so it was surprising that on the first dry sunny day of December (the 10th) Paul Marshman saw a red admiral and possible peacock flying in Cwm Bodringallt. With the icy blast, which quickly followed, I hope they found somewhere safe to re-hibernate.
Mark Evans reported harlequin ladybirds and a late hawker dragonfly
during the lingering, long autumn. On November 19th, in his Cwmbach garden, Mark still had a wasp ‘nectaring’ at a fuchsia flower and a queen bumblebee, of the lucorom/hortorum/terrestris type. During the same balmy interlude, and during a Local Biodiversity meeting in Ponty Park cricket pavilion, we witnessed an influx of 50 or so harlequin ladybirds coming in through the open windows. I think it is safe to say that harlequin ladybirds have arrived in RCT.
Wildlife gardening is often the topic of wildlife and gardening magazine, and frankly I’ve seen the same lists of insect friendly plants re-hashed on too many occasions. So to buck the trend, I wish to throw a highly unlikely name into the mix of wildlife friendly garden plants: radishes!
Every spring as the allotment soil warms, I sow several rows of radishes (from several different packets of different radish seeds). I don’t really know why I sow radishes, because we (as a family) don’t seem to particularly like them, but they do well and leap into life (and the slugs don’t like them). Anyway this year many a radish went un-thinned and then unpicked and by early July there were hundreds of beautiful white and pink crucifer flowers (which turn into very beautiful seeds). The ‘veg’ plot was full of hoverflies, bees and white butterflies. The radishes have continued to flower as a succession of garden flowers have come and gone, and now in the bleak mid winter, they are the only ones still going. No one can complain about six months of garden nectar. The radishes were also the scene of a gruesome encounter, when I watched a wasp ambush a female large white butterfly. A desperate struggle ensued, but the wasp wrestled the butterfly to the ground and proceeded to neatly cut away the body and abdomen. After 5 minutes all that was left were four wings lying in the dirt. What’s the point of wasps? Well for a start they eat large white butterflies and help save my purple sprouting broccoli from ruin.
Marcus Middlehurst sent through some rainfall records for his Tynewydd (Treherbert ) home; ‘having started earlier this year to record rainfall in the valley bottom of Tynewydd (back garden) , with my home made, but strictly to Met Office dimensions, gauge I now offer you -(belatedly)- significant rainfall figures. This was started as a suspicion that local met figures were not correct, in the 1980's when I owned Ty Draw Farm, Blaencwm, they would not believe the figures found on their own monitoring gauge placed - by my request, in my field!!!!
July 2009 416.5 mm (16.31 inches, August 2009 186mm (7.32 inches), September 2009 113mm (4,44 inches) over 100mm of which was recorded in the first 4 days.
Marcus’s reports fit nicely into the July reports in Newsletter 20 from Paul (Llwynypia) and Glyn (Treforest). So, starting with Marcus at top of the Rhondda and passing down the river catchment to the southern edge of Pontypridd we have a nice trend of July 09 rainfall levels with 16.3 inches at the top, 14 inches a third of the way down and 11 inches at the bottom. So there was a difference of 5.3 inches of rain over a distance of 10 miles.
Coming up to date, not surprisingly the warm, dry (ish) September and October weather didn’t last and in November Paul reported a further 20 inches of rain in Llwynypia.
Natur Cymru (the Wildlife Magazine for Wales) is running a wildlife writing competition open to all, and with a handsome £500 prize. The details of the competition are described within the website. There is, in addition to the website and to help get the message to students something called a Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=148899482239&ref=nf. Further details from Huw Jenkins01766 541062 www.naturcymru.org.uk
Request for more records for Blaencwm/Blaenrhondda
Marcus Middlehurst has appealed for more records from the northern end of the Rhondda Fawr. Now the Recorders’ Newsletter is entirely based on self help, so I thought we should perhaps raise an appeal for any reports from the Blaencwm / Blaenrhondda area to prove to this area is just as biodiverse as any other part of the County Borough. I can kick off with peregrines over Blaencwm, superb wimberry heath and the beautiful mountain bumblebee Bombus monticola on the flanks of Pen Pych, swarms of southern marsh orchids on the lower slopes of Mynydd Ty-isaf, with dark green and small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies. I have also had tantalising reports of hunting barn owls and adder high on the valleysides, brown trout in the Rhondda and nightjar in forestry clearings. So that’s a start, anyone with any more records and reports?
The Rhondda Cynon Taf area has been recently included within the existing Gwent Amphibian and Reptile Group (GARP). It might seem strange to be in a group with a Gwent title, but we are very grateful (that together with Merthyr) to have been adopted into this recording group. If anyone is interested in joining the Group then contact details can be found at www.sewbrec.org.uk/garg.page. The next meeting will be at Barry Sidings Countryside Park on Monday 8th February at 6.30pm.
While we know that slowworms and common lizards are very widespread in RCT (and dare I say abundant), we have much less of a clear picture of grass snake and adder. In recent years a number of new adder sites have been added entirely through local recorders letting us know about them. We are always interested in new sites and now we have a reptile and amphibian group please let us know of any sites.
Bioluminescence in the Cynon Valley
In August 2008, Mark Evans related to me the following encounter, which he had literally stumbled across in the forestry above Cynon valley. In Marks own words ‘it was still dark when I got to the place, from which I observe the ravens and the short fescue turf was waterlogged after the recent heavy rain. While I was setting up my seat (the ravens seem much less wary of me when I'm seated), I looked down and was, amazed and puzzled to see the area, I'd been trampling about on, covered with dozens of tiny, bright specks of pale electric blue light, 1mm or less across, even on the surface of the submerged turf, in some shallow, temporary puddles, I'd stepped in. At first I thought I was seeing things, or that there was dew reflecting some other source of light. There was no other light, and closer inspection confirmed that these were indeed glowing by their means. I tried illuminating some of them, to try and discover the source, but there didn't seem to be an obvious one. The light was quite bright, to my dark-adapted eyes, and faded away, after about thirty seconds. The trigger seemed to be disturbance from me trampling. I tried pressing my foot onto areas with no lights and hey presto, I removed my foot and there they were. I suspect that the source of these mysterious and beautiful lights were some sort of fungus, alga or bacteria: I'll probably never know for sure. All I know is in all the years that I've lurked at night, in similar habitats, and in all the times I've visited this site in similar circumstances, I've never come across anything remotely like this phenomenon. Have you any ideas?
Well I had no idea, but Mark produced an Article for the Merthyr Naturalist Magazine called “Fairy Sparks” (page 25 in Newsletter 29, January 2009). This led to much research by Roy Perry and correspondence with two World experts on bioluminescence (Professor Herring and Dr Stanley). Quoting from Roy Perry’s article the up-shot is that is the bioluminescence originates from worms. Apparently various worm species can produce the effect including the common earthworms. In documented cases ‘the source of light was shown to be due to the presence of numerous small worms of genus Enchytraeus. This description is not unlike the one that Mark Evans provides’ (quote of Dr Stanley from Roy Perrys article in Merthyr Naturalists Magazine). So, as Mark pointed out what he saw wasn’t bioluminescent fungi or bacteria (so called fairy sparks), but bioluminescent worms. There is nothing so strange or wonderful as nature. The Merthyr ‘Nats’ article goes on to point out the importance of darkness for such sighting ‘it is only when the observer has been in total darkness for many minutes that the eye becomes dark-adapted and is able to see these usually minute amounts of light’. It makes me realise how much we have lost in our modern sodium street lit world. True darkness brings all sorts of lost wonders, from the Milky Way above our heads to bioluminescent worms beneath our feet.
If you are tempted to look at lichen but terrified where to start then have a look at the following web site http://www.opalexplorenature.org
It is primarily a very simple air quality key, based on lichen types.
Butterfly Conservation (South Wales)
Richard Smith has forwarded a full programme of winter events with Butterfly Conservation. There are lots of opportunities to get involved with practical management on sites, and on January 4th there is an illustrated talk on the much-discussed fate of the small tortoiseshell butterfly by Dr Owen Lewis. Contact me for details of all events, or look on their website http://www.southwales-butterflies.org.uk/index.html>.
I had the following from Mark Evans, ‘these last two mornings, I have been spending a couple of hours at the Darranlas targets, near Perthcelyn. Yesterday, in the mist and gloom I photographed a Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus (Cordiceps militaris), which lives in the underground pupating larva of various moth species. It was the first time I'd ever seen this species.
The day before, while exploring the area, I saw lots of grassland fungi, including waxcaps, and more of that peculiar jelly than I've ever seen before. Some of the jelly was transparent and some opaque, but it was all on the shorter turf. I don't know what produces it, or even whether it is animal, vegetable or fungal in origin’.
The autumnal fungi were late this year (because of the dry early autumn weather) however dampness returned with vengeance and Steve Murray sent the following ‘found White Spindles (Clavaria vermicularis) on the hillside out the back of my house (Coed-Y-Cwm, Nr Pontypridd). Lots of other fungi there as well. I say I found it - it was my 10 year old son’. I asked Steve for some more info on the site and he described it as a meadow full of ‘meadow ant nests, some large and only a couple of meters apart. It feels old and it is certainly unimproved. It is a mosaic of short grazed pasture, usually horse sometimes sheep. Bracken has invaded the hillside’. It sounds like a very interesting fungi site, so well done to Steve’s son Emrys.
Happy Christmas and biodiverse New Year.
Thanks again for all the reports and records, and apologies for any I have lost or forgotten,
Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC
Pontypridd, CF37 2YA