Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Woodpeckers, ravens, a fox, hares and a rat

Senni, Brecon, Powys, Wales

After a gap of some years, I am going to write again about interesting natural history events here in my home in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales. Perhaps the first thing to celebrate was my first good sighting of a green woodpecker here. I have heard them many times and seen them fleetingly, calling as they fly across the fields. This view was spectacular as it was on the back and then the side of a nearby tree. As I watched it with my binoculars, a small head with a red colour on the nape appeared quite close to it: a greater spotted woodpecker. I soon saw why they were there. Two crows, which are regular inhabitants of that tree were on the top branches and the woodpeckers had come to investigate them further.

I'm sure the birds take a great deal of interest in each other, looking at each other's feeding habits, predation strategies and flight patterns, providing information about possible predators and opportunities.

A few days earlier, at least 10 ravens were filling the sky above the mountainside behind the house with their raucous cries as they interacted in flight, doing their remarkable flip turns and graceful dives. I guessed that these were probably this year's young ravens, setting up partnerships which I have read are lifelong.

Several sheep have died in the field behind the house over a short period while I was away. The farmer has removed the bodies of course, but I noticed a fox which was interested in the places where a carcass had been lying by a springs.

I am disappointed that this food supply is no longer available to the scavenging animals and birds here.

A neighbour let his dog out at night and as it was coming home in the dark in the same field, his torch lit its bright reflecting eyes but behind it was another pair of reflecting eyes shadowing it as it came back to the house. Perhaps this was the same fox.

I have been clearing up leaves from the grass in the field in front of the house. I am impressed at how decaying leaves inhibit grass growth. I wondered if there was a direct inhibitory effect of the fungal bodies on grass or whether this was simply because the blackened mat of leaves cut out the light.

A young hare met me on the road as I drove at night to a neighbouring town. These are well known in the area and the shooting party who cover some of the fields, always spare the hares. They are a good source of information about where they are normally found.

A dead hedgehog in the road was a sad sight for me. I was not so unhappy when I saw a large dead rat in the road in front of the house. I suspect this was the male rat which has been feeding from my ground birdfeeders for at least a year. Rats live for about two years and can grow to quite a size.. I suspect it was too slow climbing the wall up into the hole where I have seen it scrambling previously. Two other rats continue to exploit my food source.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Harlequin ladybirds in Wimbledon

I saw my first Harlequin ladybird in the garden here in Wimbledon on 29/04/2007.

I sent the photo to Peter Brown at http:/www.harlequin-survey.org/ and he confirmed that it was a Harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. It is also known as the Multicoloured Asian Ladybird and the Halloween Ladybird. He also told me that a colour ladybird identification sheet was available http://www.ladybird-survey.org/UKladybirds/UKladybirds.htm.

This species of ladybird was first seen in the UK in 2004 and it has now spread over much of the country. Unfortunately, it appears to out-compete the native species and can even eat them.

I saw others two years later and reported this on 23/7/2009 and sent the next photo:

In the winter of 2009 -2010, which had many days that were well below freezing for several weeks in January, I found many dead Harlequin ladybirds on and inside the back window of the house, overlooking the garden where I found the Harlequins. I have not found any live ones so far this year.

I suspect that the northern spread of this species from Continental Europe may be a feature of global warming. The loss of many over-wintering Harlequin ladybirds suggests that they are cold-sensitive. Britain does not have a 'Continental' climate with wide swings of temperature, but extra-cold winters have significant effects on many species, as suggested here.

Christopher Spry
Wimbledon, London
21:12, 26 June 2010

On 6 July 2013 I found that my Bramley apple tree, in the garden where I had first seen Harlequin ladybirds, was severely infested with their larvae. These were feasting on aphids. There were no apples that year.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Leaf miners: tracks left in leaves

Here are three examples of leafminer tracks.

The first is
Chromatomyia primulae (Robineau-Desvoidy, 1851) in a primrose leaf. The 'mine' is white, long and narrow, with frass in conspicuous, widely spaced black lumps. It is harmless to the plant.
Scanned on 25/06/2010. Leaf from a garden plant in Wimbledon.


This contrasts with the expanding track of Stigmella aurella in a bramble leaf below. This is one of the commonest miners in Britain and again, it is harmless to the plant.
Photo taken 06/04/2010. Leaf from a bramble in a hedgerow in Senni.


The third is an infected leaf of a Horse Chestnut tree on the southern side of Wimbledon Common, where almost all the leaves were heavily infected by the Horse chestnut leaf miner Cameraria ohridella.
Scanned on 28/06/2004. Leaf from a Horse Chestnut tree on Wimbledon Common

This leaf infection was first discovered in Macedonia in the late 1970s. They were first found established in the UK in the trees on Wimbledon Common in July 2002. Its spread in the UK is being monitored by the Forestry Commission http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/INFD-6YUBY5 who have issued an 'Exotic Pest Alert'. This year, in June 2010, the same trees are again heavily infected.


Besides moths, similar tracks can be left by a number of beetles, flies and sawflies as they grow and feed on leaves before they burst out of the leaf covering (a useful defence). See http://www.leafmines.co.uk/ where I hope that I identified these leafminers correctly.

Christopher Spry
Wimbledon, London
Updated 21:45, 27 June 2010

Ermine moth webs

Christine Havard photographed these 'silk' webs on the hedgerows in a lane in Senni.

 Norman Lowe, the moth recorder of the Brecknock Wildlife Trust, identified them:

These are webs of the 'Bird-cherry' Ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymella, the larvae of which feed almost exclusively on Bird Cherry, although there are related species on other trees and bushes. So the Spindle Ermine has been in evidence producing similar webs on spindle a few weeks ago. Numbers of both species vary from year to year but in good years they can be very numerous and obvious.
Although the damage seems serious, the Bird Cherry bush generally recovers very quickly. The larvae feed for only a few weeks in June and shortly afterwards the plant produces a lot of new growth and doesn’t seem to suffer any long-term damage. The two species (moth and bush/tree) are both native and have evolved alongside each other for thousands of years. Certainly Bird Cherry is very common.
Interestingly,  on BBC's 'Springwatch' TV program earlier this month, Simon King showed similar pictures of extensive webs made by the 'Spindle' Ermine mothYponomeuta cagnagella.

Christopher Spry
Wimbledon, London
21:00, 25 June 2010

Geological features of the Melte and Nedd Fechan Valleys

This walk in the southern part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, South Wales has a great deal to offer those interested in geology and its effects on landscape and the natural world.


Two major rivers, the Afon Mellte and the Afon Nedd Fechan, rise on the Old Red Sandstone slopes of Fforest Fawr and flow south across the limestone outcrop, here two to three kilometres wide, before uniting at Pontneddfechan. Both rivers show clear evidence of relatively recent rejuvenation, with steep-sided gorges incised into the floors of more gently graded V-shaped valleys. This rejuvenation may be due to isostatic uplift following the removal of the great weight of ice which once covered this area. Under low flow conditions water for both rivers sinks close to the junction of the limestone with the Old Red Sandstone, ascending stratigraphically through the limestone succession to resurge where the limestone passes beneath the overlying Millstone Grit further to the south. In flood, surface rivers continue across almost the entire limestone outcrop although both rivers have short sections over which surface flow has been abandoned permanently.

1. Church Sink (SN 932133)
In dry weather this is the sink for all of the water from the upper reaches of the Afon Mellte, although it is often choked with drifted vegetation and silt and might easily be overlooked. During prolonged periods of dry weather the river bed carries no surface flow for the next kilometre as far as the entrance of Porth yr Ogof.

2. Porth yr Ogof (SN 928124)
Porth yr Ogof is a classic example of a river cave and has the largest and most spectacular entrance of any cave in Wales, almost 20 metres wide and three metres high. In dry weather the water from Church Sink enters the main cave via a much smaller passage some distance inside the entrance, but in flood the river flows straight into the Main Entrance, sometimes almost completely filling the cave. The scale of such floods is obvious from the large tree trunks littered through the system and also from the small dissolutional scallops on the roof; these demonstrate flood velocities of more than one metre per second which, when combined with the cross-sectional area of the cave entrance, indicate a discharge of more than 50 cubic metres per second in extreme floods! The main river passage meanders gently southwards for nearly 300 metres but the route straight ahead from the entrance is soon blocked by a pool. In dry conditions the non-caver can cross the river to a large wide opening on the right hand wall a short distance in from the entrance. With the aid of a torch this can be followed, ignoring smaller side passages, to where light pours down a natural shaft from the surface. On the far side of the skylight chamber a lower passage can be followed towards the sound of running water. A few paces of 'gorilla walk' lead to where the roof rises into the splendour of the Great Bedding Cave, more than 30 metres wide. The wide, roofed shape here and at the Main Entrance are due to development on a series of closely-spaced bedding planes.
Upstream of the Main Entrance a short gorge, littered with large limestone blocks, has formed by collapse of the former upstream extension of the cave. Several small entrances on the east bank upstream of the Main Entrance give access to the underground flow from Church Sink and provide a very watery connection, suitable only for properly equipped cavers, with the main cave.

3. Dry valley and Porth yr Ogof resurgence (SN 927122)
Overlying the cave to the south of the Main Entrance lies a small rocky gorge. This is the former surface course of the Afon Mellte, prior to its capture underground, and can be followed for several hundred metres to the resurgence exit of Porth yr Ogof (see front cover). Several major collapse dolines along the route connect with the cave beneath and hint at its ultimate fate. The resurgence itself lies some 700 metres upstream of the faulted margin of the limestone and is free-draining, a simple river outfall.
N.B. Only experienced cavers should attempt to enter or exit the cave via the resurgence. This site has claimed more lives than any other cave in Britain.

4. Glan Mellte (SN 926116)
The Afon Mellte cuts through a small rise in the limestone floor of the valley to form a small gorge some ten metres wide and up to six metres deep. The walls are vertical and the river bed is littered with large blocks. There is at least one small cave in the side of this gorge and it is possible that the gorge itself is, in part, a collapsed cave analogous to Porth yr Ogof. The Carboniferous Limestone dips beneath the Millstone Grit a short distance downstream of the gorge.

5. Sgwd Clun-gwyn waterfall (SN 925110)
Although developed on the Millstone Grit rather than limestone, this waterfall illustrates the effects of geological controls on drainage. The waterfall has developed on a fault which downthrows the harder sandstone bands some 15 metres to the south, on its downstream side. The easterly dip of the sandstone beds is causing the river channel to shift eastwards, undercutting the east bank and leading to abandonment of the west side of the channel except in flood.

6. The Millstone Grit ridge
The watershed or interfluve between the Afon Mellte and the Afon Nedd Fechan to the west of Sgwd Clun-gwyn lacks any obvious karstic features since it is developed on Millstone Grit with the limestone more than 50 metres below the surface.

7. Pwll Du (SN 912121)
This pool within the rock amphitheatre is the flood resurgence for all of the caves further upstream in the Afon Nedd Fechan. In dry weather the pool is static and all of the underground flow issues from gravel on the opposite bank. To reach these two risings the water from the Nedd Fechan caves must pass to a depth of at least 30 metres beneath a downfaulted block of Millstone Grit. A short distance up the path to the north of Pwll Du an elliptical, joint-guided phreatic tube, Ogof Cagoule, descends a few metres into the crag. It may have acted as a resurgence during an earlier period of the caves history before the river had incised to its present level.

8. Pant Mawr Rising (SN 912123)
To reach this point may require some scrambling down a steep bank which is rather treacherous
in wet weather. In dry weather water can be seen to resurge from bedding planes and gravel banks
in the river bed at the junction of the limestone with the overlying Millstone Grit. Water resurging here is derived from Pant Mawr Pot, four kilometres to the north-north-west, rather than from the Nedd Fechan underground drainage to the north-east.

9. Nedd Fechan Gorge (SN 911135)
The Nedd Fechan has incised a narrow and remarkably straight gorge more than a kilometre long in the floor of a much broader V-shaped valley. This gorge is developed, at least in part, along a fault. Towards its northern end the gorge is entirely in limestone. Small patches of rounded limestone pavement, formed below a former soil cover, lie adjacent to the footpath above this end of the gorge. At its southern end the gorge has cut through the Millstone Grit into the underlying limestone. Several collapse dolines are developed in this grit cover to the west of the gorge (SN 899132) and have been caused by dissolution of the limestone beneath the grit cap.

10. Pwll y Rhyd and White Lady Cave (SN 911137)
Pwll y Rhyd is a large gaping rift in the bed of the Nedd Fechan, formed by collapse into a phreatic rift. In dry weather Pwll y Rhyd and the riverbed for more than 300 metres upstream is dry, but in flood the river plunges into the rift and passes underground to emerge at White Lady Cave. A small, narrow gorge carved through the limestone continues on the surface downstream of Pwll y Rhyd. This is the former surface course of the river prior to its capture by the cave passages beneath, but now it is completely abandoned by the surface river; it carries only a trickle of water fed by small percolation inlets. At several points bedding planes in the walls of the gorge form undercuts, widened by dissolution when this was the main flow route. At the lower end of the abandoned gorge a two metre descent, climbable only in dry conditions, gives access to the entrance of White Lady Cave, a large phreatic tunnel which has been breached by downcutting of the gorge. Deep pools just inside the entrance prevent access to non-cavers. A short distance downstream on the west bank the narrow rift passage of Town Drain is another inlet to the main cave system under the eastern bank. Under normal flow conditions much of the surface river sinks at a bend in the river just upstream of the bridge to enter the Little Neath River Cave system, containing almost nine kilometres of explored passages accessible to experienced cavers. Other inlets to the system lie at several points upstream and downstream of the main sink. The cavers' normal entrance lies in the riverbank upstream of the bridge and is a small, twisting passage accessible only in low flow conditions and clearly formed by relatively recent capture of the surface flow. A second entrance, located in a large depression just downstream of the bridge, leads into the much larger passage of Bridge Cave. This connects with Little Neath River Cave via an 18 metre flooded section. The difference in size between the two entrance passages illustrates the progressive upstream capture of the surface river by the underground drainage. A short distance further downstream, at the foot of a small crag on the west bank, lies another major sink, though often choked with flood debris.

12. The Carboniferous Limestone ridge
Returning eastwards across the Carboniferous Limestone outcrop to Ystradfellte the topography is very different from that seen when the Millstone Grit ridge further south was crossed. The surface is pock-marked with subsidence dolines where the limestone is blanketed by only a thin glacial till cover, allowing drainage into and dissolution of the limestone beneath. On higher parts of the ridge, bare limestone is exposed at the surface to form small crags and patches of rounded limestone pavement.

Christopher Spry
Wimbledon, London
21:01, 25 June 2010

Heath spotted orchids are in flower

In Senni, there is a Site of Special Scientific Interest which has large numbers of Heath Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) that flower in June and July. I found a new collection of these beautiful plants in a nearby field  (51°53'15.04"N 3°33'30.39"W) which contained many rushes and which was being grazed by cattle.

These orchids are only found on one side of the Senni River, although we used to find them on the other bank 20 years ago. I suspect that cattle grazing benefits them.

Christopher Spry
Wimbledon, London
12:29 25 June 2010
Setting the scene for my blogs about the Natural World

The purpose of this blog is to record and share things I see and learn about the Natural World in two places in the UK: a town setting in Wimbledon, London and a remote mountain setting in Senni, Wales. The houses in these two areas were built in the 19th century and have gardens which I tend. They are also close to open spaces with a range of wild life and plants which I plan to discuss here.

As the natural cycle of changes take place  during the year and the effects of climate change begin to alter these environments, my observations have often surprised and delighted me. I plan to share them here.

So, this is just setting the scene for the blogs to follow.

My blogs about my Intel/Windows computers and how I manage them are at http://cspry.blogspot.com/.

Christopher Spry
Wimbledon, London
13:11 on Friday, 25 June2010