Category Archives: Southeast Wales

The Uskmouth Savi’s Warbler

A Savi’s Warbler (Locustella luscinioides) at the RSPB’s Uskmouth Nature Reserve has now entered the third week of its stay. The bird was found by Mathew Meehan and is the first record for Gwent. It is holding territory in a small strip of reedbed in the centre of the reserve, flanked on one side by a track and on the other by open water, so (unusually for this species) it is quite easy to observe. If visiting, please keep to the paths: as well as the Savi’s Warbler, nesting Bearded Tits (Panurus biarmicus) and Cetti’s Warblers (Cettia cetti) are present in the same area.

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Savi’s Warbler, 1 June 2014, Uskmouth Nature Reserve, Martyn Hall (www.martynhallphotography.com)

If the physical appearance of Savi’s Warbler is a little dull, its song certainly isn’t: it sounds like a loud, prolonged cricket. I emphasise loud: on my first visit, I could hear the bird from at least 100 metres away as I approached. Click here to listen to a recording of the Uskmouth bird by Darryl Spittle.

Savi’s Warbler is at the northwestern end of its world range in Britain, and numbers have fluctuated considerably since it was first discovered here in the early 19th Century. Back then, it bred in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, but with drainage of the fens, this population died out by around 1850. It remained a rare migrant for the next 100 years, but then established a breeding population again, initially in Kent, then in Norfolk, Suffolk and a few other southern and eastern counties, although still in tiny numbers: the peak population was of c.30 singing males at a total of c.15 sites in 1977-1980. Numbers have since declined, to the point where ten singing males constitutes a good year.

Most of our local birds have occurred on the Somerset Levels, where around a dozen have occurred, with two clusters of records: four birds at the gravel pits around Bridgwater between 1970 and 1988, and five birds in the Ham Wall/Meare Heath area between 2005 and 2010. Chew Valley Lake has had four, the last of which was in 2001. In Gloucestershire there have been just two: at Frampton in spring 2001, and at Coombe Hill Meadows in 2013. Wiltshire has also had just two, at Coate Water, Swindon in May 1965, and at the Cotswold Water Park in 2006. Almost all of these birds have been singing males in spring, so no doubt other individuals have occurred undetected. With the increase in records from the Somerset Levels in the last decade, there’s perhaps a good chance that Savi’s Warbler will become a regular breeding bird here one day.

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Uskmouth Reserve’s Penduline Tit

This male Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus) is entertaining the crowds at the RSPB’s Uskmouth Nature Reserve, near Newport, at the moment, feeding on dead flowerheads of Bulrush (Typha latifolia), right by the reserve’s visitor centre.

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Eurasian Penduline Tit (to give it its full English name, as there are about nine other species in Asia and Africa) is one of several bird species which have spread northwest from eastern Europe in recent decades. The first British record was in the 1960s, at Spurn, the famous migration watchpoint in Yorkshire, but now almost 300 have occurred here, including several small flocks. There has long been speculation that Penduline Tits might colonise southeast England, but so far it hasn’t happened – and we can say this with a fair amount of certainty as the nest is a conspicuous pouch which is constructed hanging from a tree branch above or close to water, and one of these would surely have been noticed considering how well-watched Britain’s wetlands are.

The Uskmouth bird can be identified as a male by its large black mask, with a rusty bar across the forehead, whitish head, intense chestnut upperparts, and small reddish-brown breast-streaks. Females have a narrow face-mask, pale grey head, paler upperparts and plain underparts, and juveniles have a completely plain pale brown head.

Uskmouth’s bird is the first for Gwent, but there have been several on this side of the estuary (see below), and with the trend towards increasing numbers, plenty more can be expected.

  • Westhay Moor, two birds from January to March 1997
  • Berrow reedbed, three birds in December 1997 and February 1998
  • Shapwick Heath, two birds in December 1999
  • Ham Wall, four birds in January 2004
  • Portbury Wharf, two birds in January 2012

Uskmouth reserve is just west of the small village of Nash, east of the river Usk, south of Newport, and is signposted from junction 24 of the M4 motorway.

People? What are they?

I’m stretching my geographical boundaries a little farther than normal to the northwest with this post, but I think the subject deserves it. This is a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), which turned up last week on Rhaslas Pond, just east of Merthyr Tydfil, and has spent the weekend entertaining birders and photographers at point-blank range. Rhaslas is a small artificial reservoir in the middle of bleak moorland, which goes to show that rare (i.e. lost) birds can turn up anywhere.

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Long-billed Dowitcher is generally thought of as a North American bird and those occurring at this time of year are most likely to have originated in the Canadian Arctic and been brought across the Atlantic by low pressure weather systems. However, there is also a significant population in Arctic Russia, and some Long-billed Dowitchers occurring here, particularly adult birds in late summer, probably come from that direction. The third possibility is that once here, they stay and migrate up and down the East Atlantic flyway, with godwits or other European shorebirds.

There are much better photographic efforts than mine on the Cardiff Bird Club blog. The photo below shows just how close everyone was able to get (the red arrow points to the bird); indeed, while I was there it kept walking towards the photographers rather than away from them.

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Arctic-bred shorebirds have been known on previous occasions in Britain to be just as tame: there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis) in Somerset a few years back which allowed an equally close approach, for example. Most famous of all is an Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) which occurred on the Isles of Scilly in the 1980s which was so tame it took a worm out of a birdwatcher’s mouth. These birds are invariably juveniles on their first southbound migration and the theory is that because they’ve never seen people before, they don’t associate us with danger: bad news for the individual bird, but great news for birdwatchers.

Upright Spurge in the Wye Valley

Yesterday I paid a visit to Ravensnest Wood in the Wye Valley, to see one of the rarest plants found in this area, Upright Spurge (Euphorbia serratula). As a native species, Upright Spurge is found in Britain only in an area centred on the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean. It is also naturalised in scattered locations, mainly in southern England. Although a rare plant in Britain, globally, it is found eastwards to central Asia.

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Upright Spurge’s habitat is woodland on limestone, but not the dense dark parts: instead, it is found in the open, and does best on disturbed ground. Newly created forestry tracks and clearings are where it does best, particularly if limestone chippings are laid. Ravensnest wood held 500 plants in 1997, presumably when the access track there was very new. Yesterday I counted a much more modest 17 plants: along much of the track, grassland had become established, crowding the spurge out, and it was only present in areas where there was still very sparse vegetation. Here is a map of the location:

According to Sell and Murrell’s Flora of Great Britain and Ireland, the most authoritative reference work on Britain’s flowering plants, Upright Spurge occurs in only about 24 British localities. The densest concentration is around Tintern and so, predictably, it has acquired the local name “Tintern Spurge”. Other locations in the Wye Valley are spread throughout a 10km-long stretch from about Wynd Cliff in the south to around Whitebrook in the north. In the Forest of Dean, its main concentration is just to the west and north of Lydney. Much further east, it grows in Highnam Woods, just west of Gloucester. West of the Wye Valley, it occurs in Chepstow Park Wood and in Coed Wen Wood, east of Newport (note that the Grid Reference in Trevor Evans’ Flora of Monmouthshire for this last site is incorrect).

Seeds of Upright Spurge can lay dormant in the soil for years, possibly decades, and so if a site becomes overgrown, fresh disturbance can boost the population. At Highnam Woods, the RPSB does just that, using a rotavator, and so the population there is likely to be secure. At other sites, Upright Spurge has declined or even vanished, but could no doubt be encouraged to flower again if similar techniques were applied. How about it, Gwent and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trusts?

Common Clubtail on the River Wye

I haven’t featured a dragonfly on this blog yet, so I’m going to remedy that now with a rather good one. This is a female Common Clubtail (Gomphus vulgatissimus), photographed by Martyn Hall next to the River Wye at Monmouth yesterday.

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Common Clubtail, 9 June 2013, River Wye, Monmouthshire, Martyn Hall (www.martynhallphotography.com)

The river here is a well-known site for this species, and with the good weather today, Martyn & I thought we’d give it a try. We walked north-east up the west bank from the Wye Bridge, and eventually found this individual on a stretch of the river to the north of St Peter’s church, at this location:

Older books just call this species the “Club-tailed Dragonfly” but there are several other closely-related species in Europe that this name could apply to, and this is the one with the widest range, hence the newly-coined name. In Britain, however, it’s not common at all, being confined to just eight river-systems. As well as the Wye, it’s found on the Severn, reaching downstream as far as Tewkesbury, on the Thames in Oxfordshire, the Lugg in Herefordshire, the Dee in Cheshire, the Arun in Sussex and two rivers in west Wales, the Teifi and Tywi. A slow water flow, lack of pollution, a silty river bottom, plenty of bankside vegetation and nearby woodlands are all essential habitat requirements, which explains the restricted British range.

Common Clubtail has quite a short flight period, but should be on the wing here for a few more weeks. After emerging in May, they leave the river to feed in surrounding woodlands and then return to set up territories, so numbers on the river may not yet be at their peak given the late spring. There were also around 20 Banded Demoiselles (Calopteryx splendens), but no other dragonflies on this visit, although this site does also have White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes) later in the season.