Updated 28 September 2018 - New blog post - The #PeoplesWalkforWildlife

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Kenfig Nature Reserve - Summer Solstice 2014

Saturday 21st June 2014

The weather was beautiful and seeing as it was the longest day of the year we wanted to make the most of it by going to a place where we could have a good walk as well as seeing some fabulous wildlife – so we choose Kenfig Nature Reserve.

Kenfig Nature reserve is a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific interest) with over 1,000 species of animals and plants. It is situated near Porthcawl, Bridgend and I only live about 20 minutes away - a short drive down the M4. There’s plenty of free parking and the visitor centre has lots of information as well as toilets. There are a number of routes you can do (all colour coded) – but we tend to just start on one and end up exploring another – there’s so many paths and trails – the best advice I can give is just explore.

From the car park we headed to the left of the visitor centre, our intention being to walk down to Sker beach. We made our way through the high sandy hedgerows and within the first few minutes of walking we had already seen a number of wildlife – an abundace of butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies making the most of the sunny weather, plus loads of colourful wild flowers in bloom and bird life everywhere (including blackcaps, greenfinches and dunnocks).

Kenfig Nature Reserve visitor centre.
The sandy paths with an abundance of shrubs and plants.
Common Blue Damselfly.

The route we took takes you through Pyle and Kenfig golf course, you are allowed to walk over the greens (following the path) and there are signs warning you of golfers playing to either your left or right. Even on the golf course wildlife was thriving with rabbits, birds and butterflies, as well as wild flower.

A pair of magpies working out their handicap :)
Small Tortoiseshell butterfly.
We continued following the path until Sker House started appearing in the distance – A historical building which was a originally built as a monastic grange of the Cistercian order over 900 years ago. It fell into dereliction during the 19th century and in 1979 it was declared unsafe. In March 1999 the building underwent significant restoration which ended in July 2003. Today it’s privately owned and is painted yellow. Quite a charming building with a few tales to tell, including the odd ghost story!

Around the house were impressive thistle plants that were in bloom, the flowers were huge and the bees were loving them. There were also a number of meadow pipits flying around.

Sker House
Fantastic thistles in bloom
Not far from Sker House is a rather large pond. There were a number of huge dragonflies flying around, mostly broad-bodied chasers and a herd of black cattle were chilling out nearby. Whilst taking some pics of the cattle I happened to see an unusual looking bird sitting on the back of one of the cows. I had my binoculars with me and took a closer look – it was a bird I couldn't identify. Dan managed to get some good pics and we scratched our heads trying to work out what it was.

Pond with Welsh Black cattle grazing nearby
The mysterious bird on the back of a cow (Photo by Dan Turner)
When I got home I looked through all of my bird books and online to try and identify the bird – I couldn't find it anywhere! We were puzzled and seeked help on Twitter. The one and only (and rather witty) Bill Oddie tweeted Dan with this:

So what we saw was a bird from Asia called the Bank Mynah and after a number of comments off other people we came to the conclusion that it wasn't migrating but had probably escaped from a private collection.

From here we made our way down to Sker beach (or Kenfig Sands) - it is a 2 and an half mile long beach, reaching from Sker Point at the south end to the Kenfig River at the north end. It's a very pebbly beach with a number of rock pools. The horizon was very clear and you could see Exmoor in the distance.

Kenfig Sands with Sker Point in the distance
A sailing boat on the horizon with Exmoor silhouetted in the distance
Time out to cool our feet down and have a little paddle exploring the rock pools
This part of Kenfig Sands is very quiet, I suppose being a pebble beach it doesn't appeal to the bathers and they choose the much sandier section the other side of Sker Point. This was great for us of course, because it meant the wildlife was undisturbed and we got to see a  number of coastal birds. Oystercatchers and gulls congregated on the rocks, whilst a solitary ringed plover hunted for food among the seaweed. We made our way along the pebbles towards Sker Point where we saw many fishermen casting out to sea.

Oystercatchers and gulls
Ringed Plover
We decided that this was a nice spot to have some lunch so we climbed up on the banks where we were treated with views of Swansea Bay and South Gower. As we were tucking into our sandwiches we noticed a number of red and black moths flying around us, finally one settled nearby and we realised it was a five spotted burnet. We literally saw hundreds of them on our walk :)

The sandy part of Kenfig with Port Talbot Steelworks in the background and Swansea Bay on the horizon.
Five spotted Burnet on flower
From here we decided to make our way back into the nature reserve and started walking over the sand dunes. In the 13th and 15th centuries wild storms and huge tides created the Kenfig dunes as they threw vast quantities of sand up over the coast. This buried the borough of Kenfig and its castle. The dunes now make up part of the largest active sand dune system in Europe, they are also home to a variety of rare species of plants, including the fen orchid. I didn't find that orchid but I did see a number of other plants and these attracted lots of butterflies and moths.

Large Skipper
Silver-barred Sable moth (Pyrausta cingulata)
Thanks to the Nature Watch group (Especially Stuart Williams) on Facebook and
@ukbutterflies & Justin on Twitter for helping me ID this moth :)
A Pyramidal Orchid in bloom
(Thanks to @npaulroberts on Twitter for helping me ID this flower)
The further you walk back into the nature reserve the more it becomes boggy and a lot of natural ponds star tot appear, full of dragonflies and wild flowers. There are also newts here but unfortunately we didn't see any. The bird life is also thriving in the wetlands, with a lapwing spotted flying high above us.

Bogs and wetland flowers appear - creating a haven for dragonflies.
There are lots of pocket's of wetlands in the reserve, all thriving with different wildlife.
Lapwing flying in a cloudless sky.
From here we started making our way towards Kenfig Pool, the paths remain sandy and are lined with beautiful wild flowers all the way. We saw an interesting beetle named the poplar leaf beetle, very similar in look and size to a ladybird minus the spots.

The pretty wild flowers that line the paths.
Poplar leaf beetle
When we reached Kenfig Pool we headed straight to the hide so we could have a sit down and see what waterfowl was around. The hide overlooks the 70 acre lake with the hills of Margam in the distance. Kenfig Pool is infact the second largest natural freshwater lake in South Wales and is a valuable stopping point for migrating birds. A number of rare birds have been sighted there, including the elusive Bittern.

Whilst we were there we could see a lot of commotion in the water and when we looked very closely we could see huge amounts of small fish. Among the reeds were coots and lots of dragonflies, whilst a wedge of Swans flew past the hide.

The view of Kenfig Pool from one of the hides

A wedge of Swans fly pass over Kenfig Pool.
Many fish in Kenfig Pool.
After a little break in the hide we started walking around the lake to get to the castle. A little muddy in parts, we gradually made our way around and again saw a number of wildlife on the way including a common frog and a number of tiny toadlets. We reached a stile and made our way onto farm land where the castle is situated.

Common Frog.
A tiny toaldet.
Dan crosses over the stile towards the castle.
After walking a little while we started seeing the top of the castle through the vast amount of shrubbery that had grown over it. It is said that the castle was built by the Normans around the same time as the town in the late 1140s, originally constructed using timber. It suffered many attacks and in the 15th century there was encroachment of sand that covered the castle and town, leaving both abandoned. Since then, there has been virtually no disturbance to the landscape, with remains of the town buried beneath sand dunes at depths as deep as 30 metres. In the 1920's the castle was partly excavated where they found pottery, leather and various iron artifacts. Today, all that is left is just the top of the castle, who knows how much is left under the sands?

We sat by the castle for while where earlier in the year we had seen buzzards. We thought we would wait to see if any appeared - as we were waiting we did see a fox and a herd of cows and just when we had given up hope a buzzard flew past us and perched in a nearby tree. What a treat! We had only ever previously seen them flying high above.

Kenfig Castle.
The time was getting on so we decided to make our way back to the car. Firstly we had to cross back over the stile and make our way back around the lake. On the way we were surprised how many dragonflies were basking in the sun.

Broad-Bodied Chaser Dragonfly.
Common Darter Dragonfly
By the time we reached Kenfig Pool the sun was already setting. It was  beautiful to see flocks of Canadian Geese silhouetted against the sunset and a swan was swimming with her cygnets. The only wildlife we weren't enjoying were the midges that were out in force - thankfully so were the swallows having a good feast on them.

The sun sets on Kenfig Pool silhouetting flocks of Canadian Geese 
The midges were out in force!
A swan and her cygnets on the lake
We sat near the solitary tree that is so iconic to many who photograph Kenfig and watched as the rest of the sun set. It was so quiet and a truly wonderful evening. It was topped off when we glanced above and saw a large group (or siege) of grey heron's flying above us. I have only ever seen herons on their own, possibly a pair - but never a siege like that.

So beautiful...the Summer Solstice sun sets on Kenfig Pool
A siege of grey herons fly overhead
Dan and I enjoying the sunset after a perfect day :)

Kenfig Nature Reserve truly is one of the hidden gems in South Wales. The vast amount of wildlife, beautiful scenery and awesome walking routes make this one of my favourite places to visit. I recommend you pack a picnic, pick a nice day and go spend it down Kenfig - I promise you won't be disappointed. I will be returning very soon :)

Friday, 13 June 2014

A magical visit to Skomer - 5/6/2014

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire is a nature reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales - to me, it always appeared to be a magical place to visit.

Seeing it was early June and the puffins were there we looked at the weather forecast for the coming week and booked the next 'nice' day off to visit. We picked Thursday 5th June and the Met Office had given full sun for most of the day - we hoped the weather wouldn't be unpredictable and change.

We headed out early with the intention of arriving at Martin's Haven before 8am. The boat to Skomer sails three times a day with a capacity of only 50 people per crossing on a first come first serve basis. For this reason it is best to get there early to guarantee your ticket.

Martin's Haven is two miles from the village of Marloes in Pembrokeshire and we parked up at 7.30am in the National Trust car park (parking is £5 a car or free if you are National Trust member).

Martin's Haven welcome sign and info about the area

We made our way to the Wildlife Trust's Lockley Lodge which was just down the road from the car park. It was 7.40am and there were at least 10 people already queuing up for tickets outside the lodge. As we waited I noticed a few caterpillars on the nearby fence and bushes, pretty, brightly coloured creatures that were the caterpillar of the lackey moth.

There were a number of caterpillars of the lackey moth near Lockley Lodge

Lockely Lodge is a gift shop/tourist information centre which opened at 8.20am for us to get our tickets. Luckily we managed to get onto the 10am boat. It costs £10 landing fee to get on to Skomer and an £11 boat ride (which you pay onboard). Being members of the Wildlife Trust South and West Wales we didn't have to pay the landing fee, just £11 each for the boat ride. After getting our landing tickets we made our way back to the car, looking back there were still many people waiting for tickets.

After getting our tickets at Lockley Lodge there was still quite a queue for tickets

We had our breakfast in the car, got our rucksacks (full of food, fluids and other emergency items) and decided to go and explore Martin's Haven. We walked through the gate of the deer park (there's no deer there though) and climbed up the steps to the cliffs whilst getting great views of Lockely Lodge and the car park.

Before the boat trip we had a little stroll around Martin's Haven - The view of Lockley Lodge and the car park.

We continued climbing up the steps - there were lots of birds and butterflies at the top. There was one bird I couldn't identify, so whilst writing this blog I asked a few people including Simon King and Bill Oddie on Twitter...here were they replies:

I could hardly believe it - I actually saw and took a photo (not the best photo in the world) of a rare bird. I am still not 100% sure what bird it is, but when highly respected birders like Bill Oddie & Simon King say it’s a Sardinian Warbler then that's good enough for me :)

A Sardinian warbler or Whitethroat? Will I ever know?

Other animals we saw on the cliffs of Martin's Haven included Common Blue butterflies, Chough and cows grazing.

Common Blue butterfly
Cows on the cliffs

We stayed on the path, passing the Coastguard Hut and started walking to the edge of the cliff. Skomer was in front of us and the views were breathtaking. We got really excited that we would be spending the next 5 hours on that island and the weather was glorious.

Pink thrift with Skomer in the distance

At around 9.30am we made our way to the jetty ready for our 10am boat crossing. On the way down we stopped in the toilets and were immediately greeted by Swallows. Whilst in one of the ladies cubicles I heard a bird tweeting and looked up to see a Swallow staring at me, can you get any privacy these days? lol! We got to the jetty at 9.40am and started queuing.

We were greeted with Swallows at the toilets, including a rather cheeky one in the ladies cubicle :)

The jetty on Martin's Haven

It wasn't long before our boat the 'Dale Princess' arrived and we all climbed aboard. 50 of us all squeezed on and off we went. Whilst on our journey we gave the boatman our £11 for the trip and he showed us all how to put on life jackets incase we needed them (yikes, I can't swim!)! It wasn't long before we saw an array of birds in the water: guillemots, razorbills and of course the puffins.

Life jacket lesson!

The sail across was calm and very relaxing - the sky and water was the most beautiful blue. As Skomer got nearer the numbers of birds increased. We all got off the boat and made our way up the steps where we were greeted by staff from the Wildlife Trust with a few island rules. Basically the most important rule of them all was 'stay on the path' - the whole island is full of burrowing birds like Manx Shearwater and Puffins as well as rabbits. You must stay on the paths to avoid collapsing burrows and squashing birds or eggs.

The steady climb up
Island rules by the lovely Wildlife Trust staff

This cheeky jackdaw watching us whilst we were told the rules of the island

So off we went to explore Skomer - the main thing we wanted to do was see the Puffins so we headed to 'The Wick'. As we made our way we were blown away by the scenery and the carpet of Bluebells and Red Campion that adorned the island. We instantly fell in love with the place and knew that the next five hours were going to fly by. There were birds and rabbits everywhere!

Beautiful scenery everywhere you looked
Dan walking through a carpet of Red Campion
One of the many rabbits on the island

One good thing about the island is everywhere is sign posted, with some informing you how long it takes to get to a specific area - the Wick was 30 minutes away. On the way we were starting to get sightings of Puffins as well as Herring/Greater Black-Backed Gulls and Choughs. There were also huge numbers of seabirds bathing in the sea.

Good clear signs help you get around
Great Black-backed Gull with many birds in the sea
Guillemots in the sea

We started to get our first glimpses of dead Manx Shearwater which unfortunately fall victim to the Greater Black-Backed Gulls. There are over 120,000 breeding pairs of Manx Shearwater on Skomer and  if they do not reach the safety of the sea or burrow by dawn then the gulls get them - they leave the wings, feet and head as they can't swallow or digest them. We were warned about the dead birds when we arrived on the island and there were indeed many, but they count for only a small proportion of the total number of birds and you do get used to seeing it.

A dead Manx Shearwater - unfortunately one of many

Eventually we reached The Wick and already we were getting glimpses of Puffins.The Wick is a sheer cliff which forms a valley, it has carved ledges which are perfect for nesting birds such as Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes - these can be easily viewed from the opposite cliff.  The puffins definitely were one of the stars of the day and I had never seen one before and was surprised with how small they were. They didn't seem too bothered with everyone taking photographs, in fact some were coming really close so someone like me with a small point & shoot camera could get a half decent pic. They are very mesmerizing and extremely cute going about their day to day duties. There were many photographers there, so we didn't want to overcrowd them and continued on the path which headed to 'Skomer Head'.

The charismatic puffin
The Wick
A puffin arises from his burrow

On the way we saw many other birds including: wheatear, wren and oystercatcher. Before we got to Skomer Head we stopped to look over the cliff and saw a grey seal splashing around in the sea below. When we got to Skomer Head we were blown away with how beautiful it was, the cliffs were covered with Pink Sea Thrift and you could see the island of Grassholm in the distance covered in 'snow'. Infact the island is home to 39,000 breeding pairs of Garnets giving the illusion of a snowy mountain.

The view on top of Skomer Head
A pair of breeding Oystercatchers
Grassholm Island - Not snow but 1000s of Garnets

From here we made our way to the Garland Stone to have our lunch and we were hoping to see porpoises and more seals. It was surprising how much we had walked and how hot it was, making us realise how important it is to bring a packed lunch and plenty of fluids. Out in the distance was Ramsey Island which is owned by the RSPB.

This is where we saw the grey seal

A close up of the grey seal (Pic by Daniel Turner)
Lunch overlooking the Garland Stone with Ramsey Island in the distance

From here we headed towards the old farmhouse, this is also where there is overnight accommodation and more importantly the toilets. We had heard that a little owl can be seen around here but unfortunately we didn't see it. We did see Meadow Pipits and lots of rabbits though. There was also a trig point near the farmhouse which we couldn't resist climbing up to. I have to admit it was no Pen Y Fan, but still an achievement to be standing on the highest point of Skomer at 289 feet.

The Farmhouse in the distance
Me and the trig point, with the farmhouse in the background
Meadow Pipit

We glanced at our watches again, it was already 2pm - oh no, we only had an hour left on the island! We decided to head back to 'The Wick' to see the puffins one last time. After a few more pictures of the colourful characters we decided it was time to make our way back to the boat.They advise you to be there at least 10 minutes before departure so it's not one mad rush. Whilst walking back we passed 'The Mew Stone' and just took in the scenes once more - it's like nowhere else I have ever been before and I didn't want to leave.

The Puffins are so sweet and it's unbelievable how close they come to you
The Mew Stone
Beautiful views all around the island

As we were waiting for the boat we saw a few razorbills nesting on the cliff edges and watched them until the 'Dale Princess' arrived on time. We all got back on board and sailed safely back to Martin's Haven.

Razorbills on the cliffs
The Dale Princess approaches

It was truly a magical day and everything I ever dreamed it would be. We popped into Lockley Lodge to get a few mementos and started talking to the nice chap on the counter. He asked us if we enjoyed and told us we should come back for the Manx Shearwater Week when the Manx fledge. You get to stay overnight and he explained that he would take us to where they fledge, with the Manx using you as a launch pad to get into the air. Amazingly from this point they don't stop flying until they reach Argentina. Of course Dan and I wanted to do this and have booked for a night in August.

It you love nature and pure escapism then a trip to Skomer is a must. There is so much to see and it really is a magical place. I certainly can't wait to return and I'm looking forward to see how the island changes throughout the seasons.

A treasure island indeed :)