Sunday, 25 September 2016

Chasing Welsh Dragons

As Autumn approaches, at this time of year I start to think about the University run and what to do on the way back. Actually this year I had not one but two of them to think about as our younger daughter was now also starting her Psychology course at Swansea University. Whilst the Durham trip has various obvious appeals in terms of east coast birding in the autumn, I wasn't so sure what south Wales was going to have to offer me. With the Wales trip now upon us and with the weather forecast at the start of the week looking rather uninspiring I was at a bit of a loss to know what to do. Fortunately the forecast improved so that there was now the promise of bright sunshine and with that my thoughts turned to dragonflies. Regular readers know that I had a failed attempt at seeing Moorland Hawker (I refuse to call it "Common" as it's anything but that) earlier in the year in the New Forest. A bit of random Googling revealed that there was an excellent site for this species on the Gower Peninsula no more than half an hour or so from Swansea so I resolved to give it a go. I did a bit of pre-trip research and contacted the county recorder there to get some more info and suitable prep'ed up I waited for the Friday excursion.

Friday duly came and I woke up far too early at 5 a.m. I've been having problems about waking too early quite a bit of late, mostly to do with work which is rather busy at present but I also seem to suffer from Pre-trip Early Waking Syndrome whereby I often wake up far too early whenever I'm going on a trip of some kind. Anyway, it couldn't be helped and my daughter and I got the car packed and set off into the busy rush hour traffic along the familiar route westwards. Actually the traffic wasn't too bad and we made steady progress. Once over the border into Wales I started to explain to my long-suffering daughter how I thought the Welsh place names were pronounced, having read a book on it once. To her credit she put up with my nonsense with good grace. The two and a half hour journey passed smoothly enough and just as the scenery started to get more interesting with the first sign of some mountains we were pulling off the motorway towards Swansea or Abertawe as they like to call it in Wales ("Aber" meaning "mouth of the river" in the same way as "Inver" does in Scotland and Tawe being the name of the river that flows into the sea there). My daughter had never actually been to Swansea before and I got the impression that the rather industrial landscape that we first went through wasn't so far overly impressing her. We crawled through the traffic along the main drag looking out for glimpses of the sea but that too was apparently "the wrong colour" (she's been rather spoilt by the beautiful coastal scenery of Cornwall I feel). Anyway, finally we turned off the main road and up the hill towards the student village that was to be her home for the next term. There an efficient army of people marshalled us through the induction process and we drove past row upon row of purpose-built student house until we found her one. There were countless other cars dropping off students so we had to park a little way away and make several arduous trips to unload the car but eventually all her stuff was piled up in her modern but clean and functional room and we said our goodbye's. I'd already been through this with Daughter no. 1 but I still felt quite emotional about it all. I left her to sort out her room and I headed back to the car.

My dragon site was a place called Broad Pool (located here), in the Cefn Bryn area (Cefn meaning "rear" or "ridge" and Bryn meaning "hill"), which is a central strip of moorland running up the middle of the Gower peninsula. The pool was at the start of the moorland area and after a drive of a little less than half an hour I arrived. I parked up on the side of the road and as it was past 1 p.m. already I decided to have my lunch first. The weather was nice and sunny as forecast though there was a stiff breeze blowing and I did wonder whether it might be too windy for any dragons to be flying but I needed have worried as I saw a couple hunting along the edge of the pool just whilst I ate my sandwiches.

Broad Pool
Suitably refreshed I got tooled up and decided to explore around the main pool first. I headed over to the upwind side where the bank-side vegetation offered some shelter on the surface of the water and where perhaps there might be some lurking insects. As good as this theory was there was nothing to be seen apart from a small patch of Fringed Water-lily which I'd read about as part of my trip preparation. Apparently this had at one stage completely overrun the pool and had had to be managed. Also present was some White Water-lily and various usual marginal plants.

Fringed Water-lily - not looking its best at this time of year
Having explored half the main pool shore-line without seeing any dragonflies at all I decided to head off to one of the numerous satellite ponds that were scattered about around the main pool. From my previous experience in the New Forest I knew how problematic it could be trying to find small heathland pools in terrain like this because you can't see them at all until you're right upon them. Fortunately however I'd already loaded up a map of the area into my phone Google Maps app and as there was a reasonable 4G signal I could track where I was in relation to the pools so it was really straight-forward to navigate around. I headed off due North to the largest satellite pool which I soon found.

One of the satellite ponds
To my excitement I immediately spotted a Hawker hawking away over this pool. Now, having only previously seen Moorland Hawker on one occasion down in Cornwall back when I was a beginner at dragonfly ID and which I'd only retrospectively identified, I was keen to see how I'd get on now that I was much more experienced. I'm pleased to report that I was immediately able to tell that it was a Moorland. For a start the long thin yellow ante-humeral (shoulder) stripes really stood out and it's jizz was very different. It was much more "in-your-face", being very inquisitive (even more so than a Southern) and would often fly really close to me. It was constantly on patrol, never once stopping as it endlessly did circuits of its pool and a smaller one nearby. On a few occasions another male Moorland would appear and there would immediately be a loud clash of wings as the interloper was quickly seen off the premises. 

I spent quite some time trying to get some photographs but I was armed only with my superzoom bridge camera which is very bad at flight shots so it was largely a fruitless effort. I tried a bit of video as well as staking out one spot on its circuit with the focus pre-set but all to no avail. In the end I did somehow manage to fluke one half-decent shot and in the circumstance I was more than happy with this.

Moorland Hawker - the one flight shot that came out
Pleased with having had such good success, after a while I headed back to the main pool where I did a bit more botanising though of course at this time of year there were few flowers about and it was all about leave shapes. In passing I saw a couple more Moorland Hawkers as well as a smaller Darter species that I couldn't get a decent view of.

Ivy-leaved Crowsfoot
Time was marching on and having finished at Broad Pool I pondered what to do. I was feeling really tired from my early waking and somehow hadn't managed to shake it off all day. Still, it seemed a shame to head home so soon and I had prepared an optional bonus exploration of a nearby salt marsh where a couple of Lapland Bunting had been reported recently. After weighting it up, in the end I decided to take a  quick look at this second site before heading home. Now the exact location was a bit vague but it seemed like an interesting little spot so whilst I wasn't holding out great hopes of actually finding the birds at least it would be a different bit of habitat to explore and there were bound to be some interesting plants to look at. So I duly set off for Landimore, a small village some twenty minutes away on the north coast of the Gower peninsula.

I'd done some pre-trip research and had found a bridleway which gave access to a track along the edge of the salt marsh and thought that this was probably the spot that was mentioned in the reports. I parked up and, still feeling very tired, walked the short distance down through a flock of sheep and onto the salt marsh. This turned out to be a large flat expanse extending almost as far as one could see with the sea a long way in the distance. The nearer region consisted of grass and lots of Rushes but in the distance it was all very close-cropped grass and very flat. It was rather all striking.

Looking towards Weobly Castle
Looking out across the extensive salt marsh - it's actually very close-cropped grass all the way out
I'd read that the Lap Bunts had been seen "at the start of the track" with Linnets and there was a spot where a stream ran out over the path where Linnets were coming down to drink regularly but despite waiting quite a while I couldn't see any other birds in amongst them. I wandered along the track some way towards Weobly Castle though there didn't seem to be any obvious spot where one might find a Lapland Bunting. There was of course the vast expanse of the Llanrhidian Marsh out there where a Bunting could easily hide unseen so it was a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack task. There were lots of Linnets and Meadow Pipits and out on the marsh were a few distant gulls but little else of note. Still, I rummaged amongst the plants there and came up with some interesting salt marsh specialities. There were lots of gone-over Sea Aster and I found a few things that I didn't recognise so there was something of interest to keep me occupied. I even ventured a bit out onto the marsh to see what it was like and the ground turned out to be very firm with this very close-cropped grass - not at all the boggy terrain that I was expecting.

One of the Glasswort's, I'm not sure which one
Sea Milkwort
A rather tired specimen of Sea Wormwood
I was starting to feel increasingly tired now so despite the lack of any Bunting sightings I decided that it was best to head back to car and to set off for home. I steered the car along the minor roads back up to the M4 and joined maelstrom of the rush hour traffic. Actually, apart from slowing to a stand-still on a couple of occasions it wasn't too bad and the main problem was my increasing tiredness. I really had to focus hard on staying awake and did even contemplate having to stop for a power nap. In the end I perked up and the rest of the journey was uneventful. I made it back to the bosom of my remaining family, now with one less daughter, at a little after 7 p.m., exhausted but still pleased with my first Uni-run excursion to Wales.

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