Monday 18 April 2016

Birding the Vale of Ewyas

Birding April 11 2016 Llanthony Priory and Gospel Pass, The Black Mountains, Gwent, Wales

This map shows the the location of the priory.
         I left Tintern at 7.00 am passed through Raglan and made my way to Abergavenny. A few miles along the Hereford Road I turned off the duel carriageway and toward Llanthony. Just like the Scottish Highlands the narrow country roads meant backing up to let other vehicles pass. I arrived an hour later to find the priory deserted. The sun was beginning to warm the air and the jackdaws already busy collecting twigs and other materials to build nests. There seemed to be nest building activity in every nook and cranny.

A Jackdaw sits outside its nest at the old priory.

Llanthony Priory
The Augustinian priory was founded in the 12th Century. It was completed around 1230 and was closed three hundred years later by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. Later a house and now a hotel was built amongst the ruins where monks once lived and worshipped. At the top left of the frame you can spot the modern hotel structure. The commonest residents these days apart from the tourists are the white wagtails, jackdaws, wood pigeons, goldfinch and house sparrows.

A pair of white wagtails take a break from their courtship display. The female bird appeared to be larger than its male counterpart.
I left the priority and continued past sheep farms and woodland. As I climbed the hills the roads narrowed and the potholes deepened.

My destination is on the other side of this hill. Although the village goes by its Welsh name note the bi-lingual signs.

The village of Capel-y-finn with its four small cottages even had its own red phone box, how quaint is that! Cel coverage is non-existent. The climb onward began to get steeper, the green fields were replaced by bracken ferns and gorse. 
As I climbed higher I finally arrived at a spot where I had been told I might find a wheatear or if very lucky even a ring ouzel, both birds would be lifers and target birds for the day. There might even be a chance of a red kite but I didn't want to push my luck. Three lifers from the Welsh hills would really make my day.
I was advised to check out the boulders for wheatear.
I stopped the car, got out, zipped up my anorak, raised my bins and scoured the scree laden hillside. At first I could hear but not see any birds. Finally after trudging up the hill for a closer view I spotted a movement on a rock, a female wheatear, my first lifer since arriving in the UK. I never did get too near to any of the birds even with the Nikon 200mm-500mm. I was happy enough just watch their antics as they hawked insect after insect from the air.
Wheatear (male)
One of the world's great migrants.
The entire population winters in tropical Africa but breeds in Alaska, Greenland, right across Europe and Asia 
About half an hour into my climb to photograph the wheatears I realized my trouser pocket, where I normally keep the car keys was wide open. Normally I make sure it's secured. Next came an awful sinking feeling as I thrust my hand into my pocket, there was nothing. I wondered if I had left them on the dash of the car or worse had they fallen out of my pocket as I clambered over rocks and boulders. Could I jump start an automatic? How would I get home? How far is the nearest farmhouse or was this a dress rehearsal for an another episode of An Idiot Abroad!
I took a deep breath and as any good birder would do continued birding. An hour later I had arrived back at the car and as I opened the door there were the keys, still in the ignition. Phew, another crisis adverted!

Not the type of place to loose a set of car keys.
As I sat in the car I can't tell you how relieved I was, so much so that I almost missed the sudden appearance of a red kite soaring over the bluff. As I grabbed my camera, my cheese sandwich which I had just began to eat fell from my hands between the handbrake and seat. To make things worse the camera strap got wrapped around the gear shifter, despite it all I managed to fire off this distant ID shot. A second lifer for the day and a most welcome sight after the stressful episode with the keys.

A view of a hunting red kite shot from the car.
Persecuted to near extinction in the 19th century there are now two thousand pair of red kite across the UK.

Meadow Pipit I think? 
Back in the car I finished off my sandwich and Jaffa cakes when I notice a movement in the short grass. I knew it's a pipit but which one. Later I photographed another pipit in a tree and counted it as a tree pipit but the one (above) has much more yellow. Below is the other bird for comparison but colouration could just be a trick of the morning light. I think they probably both are meadow pipits? Is there anyone out there who like to correct me if I am wrong!

Tree Pipit further along the road.

I continued along to the highest point called Gospel Pass where a few scraggly trees held a small flock of chaffinch and highland cattle grazed amongst the sheep. While admiring the view and the sunshine, a rare commodity in April a movement on the hillside caught my attention. At first I though it was a carrion crow but as I clambered up the hillside for closer view I realized it was a ring ouzel, the third lifer of the day. I couldn't get nearer than fifty metres before it took off. The ring ouzel is the mountain version of a blackbird which breeds on moorland and steep-sided valleys. The white band on the chest is a giveaway for ID purposes. Too bad I could get a clearer shot, the best time is when the birds arrive or depart on migration when they can be found almost anywhere and are more approachable. Check local birding forums for locations. On the mountainside the birds are cautious to the extreme. 

Ring Ouzel.

As I clambered down to the car I came across another mountain bird, the stonechat, its names derived from the sound it makes which is similar to two stones being hit together

It was almost noon and I had achieved my goal and seen all three 'target' birds plus a few others as an added bonus. It was time to go home. The mountains and valleys that had been shrouded in fog earlier in the morning were now bathed in sunshine. I think i'll stop off in Raglan for some fish and chips doused in copies amount of salt and malt vinegar!

Until the next time

"It's never too late to start birding"

John Gordon
BC Canada

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