Recorders’ Newsletter 22 (Spring 2010)
Six years ago there was an area of damp grassland, next to the Bowls Green, in Ynysangharad Park, Pontypridd. This tiny remnant of floodplain grassland, sandwiched between the River Taff and the pristine Bowling Green sward, was a management problem. It always seemed to be wet when the mowers went to cut it, and more than once it was churned up and left just a little spat-out. However the Park’s application for ‘Green Flag’ status provoked a change of thought and instead of trying to tame this sodden piece of ground, there was a decision to let it flourish. As a ‘Park’ flood meadow, there was desire to give the area a little help with early spring colour and so some snake’s-head fritillary and Tenby daffodils bulbs were planted. Although neither of these species occurs in RCT, they are native UK plants which occur in wet grasslands. I am not usually one for bulb planting but, in these circumstances and with no pretence that these plants were native, it seemed appropriate. However the bulb planting would have been wasted without the right management. Left uncut until the dry ground of mid summer, hay cuts are now annually taken by the Countryside Rangers with the ‘arisings’ removed and composted. With each cut the nutrient loadings in the soil have fallen, and low nutrient levels mean greater floristic diversity.
While the success of the ‘daffs’ and snakes-heads (235 flower heads in 2010) has been gratifying, the real pleasure has been the natural colonisation by wet grassland plants. After 6 six years, what had been a boring area of Yorkshire fog and creeping buttercup, now has greater bird’s-foot trefoil, black knapweed, cuckoo flower (hundreds of flowers this spring), hemlock water-dropwort, meadow buttercup, lesser spearwort, red clover, meadowsweet and silverweed. It’s not yet SSSI quality, but it is definitely a little wildflower meadow. In the early days the Green Flag judges ‘tutted’ over the broad-leaved dock in the grass and recommended its removal. But we wanted the docks because they supported a tiny, but beautiful colony of small copper butterflies (which feed on dock). Anyway, after six years, the docks are naturally reducing in numbers (as the soil fertility has gone down) and so there was no need for intervention by herbicide.
What does it go to show? That given half a chance the processes of natural restoration and rehabilitation can be successful. Also, the sobering thought that six years has flashed by, it is tempered by a realisation that we haven’t had to wait long to see the real benefits of biodiversity informed land management. Oh, and by the way, the Green Flag judges now love this little piece of wildflower flood meadow.
Coldest Rhondda Winter Since 1985!
This sounds like a tabloid newspaper headline, but Paul Marshman confirmed the severity of last winter. The effects on wildlife were noticeable with spring flowers and frogspawn all weeks later than we’ve grown accustomed to. Paul highlighted this ‘phenological’ phenomenon through reference to the flowering cherry tree in his garden. In 2008 it was flowering in early February, the colder winter which followed meant that flowering was put back to March 2009, while this year no flowers appeared until late March 2010.
Marcus Middlehurst provided some interesting autumn rainfall reports from Blaenrhondda. This showed the tail end of the dry autumn, with 177mm (6.97 inches) mm in October, 573 mm (22.56 inches) in the wet mild November that followed, and397mm (15.62 in) in December plus a further 95 mm of the winter’s first snows and including a deluge of90mm rain on December 5th.
Marcus Middlehurst had a pair of jays regularly visiting his Blaenrhondda garden in the autumn. Kevin Oates saw a woodcock in cold weather at Clydach Vale on January 5th, Mark Evans reported woodcocks in the Cynon Valley roost he monitors, and Paul Marshman saw a woodcock at woods at Penrhys, and a snipe (in January) in freezing weather at an exposed altitude of 400 metres above sea level. The impact of the cold winter was all around and obvious by the lack of skylark on the hills above Llwynypia , in recent years Paul has found skylark returning to the Rhondda ‘ups’ to set up territories during January, this year Paul’s skylark didn’t return until February 5th, when conditions were still rather bracing.
Paul Simons rang early in January to report a red kite, which had spent the previous few weeks in Glyncoch. Similar reports came from Ade Williams, and a number of our Cynon Valley naturalists reported frequent sightings of kites throughout the winter. A sure sign of the hard winter was the increase in red kite sightings around towns and villages. A dead heron was found at Barry Sidings, having succumbed to the deep freeze, but at least cold weather makes bird watching easier, and Gwyn James and his Grandson Cole had a very tidy list of pochard, wigeon, tufted duck, little grebe, mallard, coot, moorhen and water rail at the top lake at Dare Valley Country Park in late January. The importance of birdfeeders in the deep mid (and late) winter was proven by Sonia Knowles who put up fat balls at Llwyn Castan (in the centre of Pontypridd) and was rewarded with hungry robins, blackbirds and great tits.
Tony Swann provided some more excellent records for Llanharan. These included lapwing flying over (NB I also saw a flock of 50 plus heading towards Llanharan from Pontyclun in late December), red kite (‘much closer to habitation than normal’), male brambling (at the balancing ponds at the old coal ‘washery’ site) and three yellowhammers in March. Tony Adams reported fewer numbers of snipe and jack snipe from Hirwaun this winter, again because of the hard weather, and the frozen ground. Tony illustrated the struggle for many birds ‘while driving fro Mountain ash….a snipe tried to land on the tarmac in front of the car, it goes to show how they are really struggling’. Mark Evans also saw ‘stressed’ snipe ‘the first was a bird feeding along the walled edge of the Aberdare Canal on the 6th (January), then on the 9th another singleton flew across the Aberdare by-pass, in front of me, as it made its way from the drainage ditch behind the old Welsh school to the continuation of the same drain on the River Cynon side of the road’.
Tony Adams also had good numbers of woodcock, a pair of red kites (on and off),and a small flock of lapwing this winter. Referring to his BTO Tetrad Square, in the Llanwonno forestry, Tony also recalled watching a mixed flock of small birds. Mixed flocks are one of the joys of winter bird watching, and Tony’s mixed flock was a rather special one, when in a couple of larch trees he watched a mixed flocks of 30 crossbill and another 30 redpolls, ‘a couple of goldfinches. And one or two coal tits’ …’all singing away in their different contact calls at the same time’.
In mid February Paul Marshman was watching goshawks moving high over the Rhondda Valley and terrorising jackdaw flocks. His Llwynypia bird feeders had 5 finch species (chaffinch, bullfinch, greenfinch, goldfinch and siskin). Paul also described a sparrowhawk kill that he witnessed from his window. Having picked up a sparrowhawk in his binoculars sitting in a tree 150 metres from his garden, he proceeded to follow its attack flight, low and fast, straight into his back garden and onto a hapless sparrow.
Shirley Folwer saw Dipper in Rhondda Fawr by Penpych School, Blaenrhondda, plus nuthatches, sparrows and chaffinches from her bird table. Four little grebes were present at Clydach Vale Lake (PM) and in March Strinda Jones saw a woodcock cross the main road at Cefnpennar.
Mark Evans has continued to monitor the Cynon Valley raven roost, with 110 in January rising to 219 in May
First spring migrants included wheatear and chiffchaff at Llwynypia on March 22nd, with swallow (March 31st) and willow warblers and blackcap by April 6th (all PM), chiffchaffs were at Church Village on March 25th (Ray Edwards). Mark Evans saw sand martin in Aberdare on March 25th. However the winter weather has left it mark. No song thrush territory in my garden this year, and Paul’s stonechats in Llwynypia had tumbled down from eight pairs to one pair and one unpaired male on March 31st. Still, red kites seem to be hanging around with reports from several places this spring and Paul had newly fledged siskin in his garden in late April. By now the summer migrant influx is full on, and on Paul Marshman’s patch first records included tree pipit and redstart (April 13th) wood warbler and swift (April 23rd), house martin (April 25th) and garden warbler and cuckoo (April 27th). However the first cuckoo of the year goes to David Gordon whose Cefnpennar cuckoo re-appeared or more accurately ‘re-cuckoo-ed’ on April 17th, further reports came from Caerlan Farm, Tonyrefail on April 27th (Barbara Williams) and Dare Valley Country Park (John Eddington).
Mark Evans has started to detect some of the impacts of the cold winter, on his first BBS square surveys of the spring he noted that collared dove, wren and goldcrest numbers were down, which ‘given the severity of last winter, isn’t surprising’. Mark and Martin Bevan also survey squares on the Mountain between Aberdare and Merthyr and as Mark describes ‘being upland and mainly bilberry heath, with a steep bracken slope, it is mainly skylarks and meadow pipits, but there were some nice surprises, such as a red kite, hunting over the heath, a sparrowhawk and first tree pipit of the year. I also saw first green tiger beetles of the year plus a peacock and my first two brown-lines moths.
Ade Williams saw a live polecat (I emphasis ‘live’ because usually we only hear about ‘run-over’ ones) on the Maendy Road, upper Upper Church Village in January 2010 and his son also saw a polecat on the same lane. Barbara Williams is proving something of an expert in finding old harvest mouse nests, and this year she found more nests in Tonyrefail’s marshy grasslands, after the recent grass fires on the new SSSI ‘one was a burned black ball, and two were where the fire had flashed over the top’. The popular image of harvest mice, which is repeated on many a set of ‘coasters’, is a nest and two ginger ‘fured’, long tailed mice, set amongst swaying corn and corncockles. However, in reality arable farming doesn’t suit and ‘they’ much prefer wet marshy fields, where they can make their nests in tall tussocks of purple moor-grass. In fact in just the type of places that Barbara finds them.
Amphibians and Reptiles
The award for first frogspawn of the year went to Barbara Williams who saw some at Caerlan Farm, Tonyreafil on January 23rd. Kevin Oates hadfrog spawnat Barry Sidings on February 5th and Paul Marshman found spawn in the Llwynypia area on February 9th. Common lizards were active in early April at Cefnpennar (David Gordon) and Peter Sturgess had several adders at Aberaman at around the same time.
Shirley Fowler reported some possible brown trout from the Rhondda near Penpych School.
Butterflies and Moths
Another feature of the late spring was the absence of early butterfly records. A comma on March 16th (Paul) at Llwynypia was the first I received. The next burst of sightings didn’t happen until early April when finally all the brimstones seemed to take to the wing on the same day (Kevin Oates, Strinda Jones and Gwyn James). I saw my first orange tip on the early date of April 10th at Llantrisant Leisure Centre, where along a south facing, wildflower rich limestone wall I also saw brimstones, comma, small tortoiseshells, peacocks and lots of bee flies. So perhaps the cold winter may actually have helped our butterflies. Instead of brimstones and red admirals being continually stirred from hibernation by mild mid winter days, only to be blasted with frost the next day (which has been the winter norm in recent years), this winter they stayed hibernated and out of harms way until spring proper arrived. Also, one of the big winter enemies of butterfly eggs, larvae, pupa and adults (different species past the winter in different metamorphic stages) is winter damp. Wet winters kill butterflies, while cold dry winters are perfectly fine. This is one reason why winter snowbound Alpine meadows have more summertime butterflies than British meadows. The cold winter certainly seemed to suit the 62 herald moth which Mark Evans, Mike Hogan and Richard Dodd found while looking for bats in a disused tunnel.
The first speckled woods and green veined white of the year emerged in Mid April (Mark Evans and David Gordon) and it has been very pleasing to see so many more small tortoiseshell’s this year.
Richard Phipps followed up a previous Newsletter report of house climbing millipedes with the following ‘the article about Tachypodiulus niger millipedes in the latest Newsletter has encouraged me to look at some millipedes that keep appearing in the male toilets at Groundwork. I don’t think they are Tachypodiulus niger, not black enough, and has a thin light brown strip down its back between the darker brown shading on the sides’. This type of original observation, in the least likely of places, is exactly what local biodiversity is all about…however despite our best efforts we couldn’t work out which species of millipede is frequenting Fedw Hir’s lavatories!
If you visit the new biodiversity gallery in the National Museum in Cardiff, you will stumble across a fascinating study of spittlebugs (the same insects that produce ‘cuckoo spit’) in the Cynon Valley. Mike Wilson of the National Museum explains more about the dark coloured spittlebugs of the Cynon…
Industrial melanism is “adaptive melanism (dark coloured morphs) caused by anthropogenic alteration of the natural environment in terms of industrial pollution”. Most will know of the industrial melanism shown in some adult butterflies and moths - the peppered moth is perhaps the best-known example.
However there are a good number of others insects in which this has been shown and among them the common spittlebug Philaenus spumarius. This is an abundant insect in many habitats in the UK and continental Europe. It is a xylem sap-feeding insect feeding from a wide range of herbaceous plants. There is one generation each year, overwintering as eggs and the nymphal stages are present within spittle masses on the host plant. The adult insect occurs in a wide range of colour forms, which depends on the amount of darker pigmentation. The proportion of the different forms in different locations has been widely investigated both in the UK (e.g. Lees et al. 1983 Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 19: 99-114) and especially in Scandinavian localities.
There are a number of dark forms, which are found to occur in relatively low percentages in most of the UK. Around 30 years ago dark forms were found to predominate in the vicinity of the ‘Phurnacite’ factory in the Cynon valley in South Wales. The results of a sampling programme were published by Lees & Dent (1983 Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 19: 115-129). The factory was a significant source of local particulate air pollution and Lees & Dent found a strong relationship between the combined melanic morphs in the proximity of the factory. Over 98% of the insects were melanic immediately adjacent to the factory and declined to normal proportions for South Wales 1.5-6 km depending on the direction. The melanic frequencies were far higher than any found elsewhere in the species range in Europe, Asia and North America.
It was suggested that the relationship was due to the selective effects of the local air pollution from the factory. It was not clear if selective predation, direct effects of pollution or thermo-regulation are the factors involved in the prevalence of melanic forms.
This change in melanic frequency (reported in 1983) occurred in less that 40 generations since the factory was first operated from 1942 (and expanded from 1951-1968).
The factory was removed around 20 years ago. What would be the proportion of melanics at the original sites some 20 years later? A similar relationship was also found in the Cardiff Docks area. With the benefit of a Nuffield Science Bursary to Jenny O’Neill, a second year student from Cardiff University, we have this past summer sampled from as many of the original sites both in the Cynon Valley and in the Cardiff Docks.
Preliminary results, based on evaluation of over 8000 specimens from around 50 sites show that percentages of melanic morphs have decreased from the peak of 98% to around 50%. Full results are under analysis.
So, it seems that as air quality has improved, the advantages of being a dark coloured spittlebug have similarly declined. It is a fascinating study. If you have the chance go and see the display in the Museum with shows examples of the normal ‘light’ coloured bugs and the ‘darker’ Abercwmboi ones.
Steve Murray sent through some very intriguing photos of the diminutive gem, Moschatel.This is small spring flower has a five faced flower – if you can picture that –hence its alternative name of Town Hall Clock. Not only is Steve’s record from woods north of Pontypridd a new locality for this species (which usually prefers the limestone woodland around Pontyclun and Llanharan), but the flowers were positively blousy in comparison to normal Moschatel.
Thanks for the records, and apologise for any I’ve forgotten, please keep them coming.
Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC