You Don’t Need To Visit A Major-level Reserve To Have A Good Days Watching

As you may know, I enjoy a spot of photography, and whilst neither Chris Packham nor Andy Rouse have anything to worry about, I can produce results to be happy with. The trouble is, I haven’t been out doing it recently (for a few months in fact, and although I have a couple of minor excuses, I don’t actually have any real reasons.) A couple of days ago, as a first step in remedying this, I left the house at about 06:30. This is rare for me- I class myself as an opportunist wildlife photographer. Basically this means that I go out with the camera as and when, shoot whatever presents itself, and I rarely stay in the same spot for more than 15-20 minutes. Admittedly, it’s not the most successful technique, but when it is, I feel that the pics have a certain honesty to them. Anyway, it was pretty windy and there weren’t many opportunities presenting themselves, so as I strolled I had time to reflect on a few things. Mainly my surroundings- I was in Porthkerry Country Park.

Let me tell you about Porthkerry. It’s a council-run place featuring four woods, a couple of meadows, hedgerow, several streams, four fields, an orchard, two ponds, cliffs, a stretch of coast and a small patch of salt-marsh. It’s a lovely place any time of day or night. It got me thinking about how there are many places around the country, both like this and unlike this at the same time. Places with their own identity and character, their own unique collection of residents. Places not managed by the major charities (RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, WWT etc), but still looked after, usually by councils, sometimes by volunteers, sometimes by the smaller charities. All too often, when we talk about great places for wildlife, we mean the larger, more famous reserves and National Parks. Places like The Lodge, Dungeness, Slimbridge, Snowdonia, Brecon Beacons, Peak District, Lake District, The Highlands, The Wash, The Thames Estuary amongst others. But what about the smaller places? They need their praises singing to the world. I say we do a poll and make a TV series about the top 30, showcasing 3 per episode (not that I’ve thought about it at all!). When I look at the four that have featured predominantly in my life (chronologically, they are Priory Country Park in Bedford, Hampstead Heath and Finsbury Park (including Railway Fields) in London and Porthkerry Country Park in Barry), I can count 133 species. That’s not a species count for the sites as a whole, but the number of species from my own sightings on these four alone- I know of at least 20 other species regularly seen at one or some of them, that have so far eluded me. The list also counts all bats as one species. Before you get all angry at me, it’s because I cannot identify bats and I figure this is the more honest approach. Also, inverts, fish and plants are not included. 50 of these species I’ve seen at Porthkerry since December (I’ve seen 82 at Priory, but that’s over 20 years of going there).

Admittedly, there are a fair amount of your “ordinaries” that I’ve mentioned in previous posts (Blackbirds, Woodpigeons etc),  but there are some regulars that will always feel special- species like Adders, Grey Wagtails, Goldcrests and Rock Pipits, or even Coal Tits, Buzzards and Goshawks. Yes, I’m aware that these aren’t particularly rare, but it’s all relative. If you live somewhere that a certain species doesn’t live, and you move to somewhere that it does inhabit, it’s very hard to lose the thrill you get when you see it, regardless of how often it happens. Even more so if it’s something you’ve always wanted to see. Porthkerry is already home to a few of my firsts. It’s the first time I’ve been able to witness Green Woodpecker courtship, as well as Crows mobbing Buzzards, which I’ve now seen several times (but never with my camera!)

For all the Botanists out there, there’s a fantastic patch of Purple Gromwell, and from what I can ascertain, it’s also home to around 80% of this country’s True Service Tree population. These two plants are the reason the Cliff Wood is designated as an SSSI. There are Bluebells that blanket patches of the floor in Viaduct Wood, and these are beautiful, feeling almost magical. The whole of the park is covered with Primroses, Wood Anemone, Sweet Violet, Dog-violet, Herb Robert, orchids and various ferns (including Adder’s Tongue and Hart’s Tongue). If entomolgy is your thing, I can’t help much except to say that I’ve seen at least four species of Bumblebee and at least a dozen Butterflies.

There are the ruins of a 13th Century mill, and in Mill Wood, you can find another mill which, as far as I can tell, is the only known mill in the country fed by two leats. There are also some ruins of the lost village of Cwmcidi, which used to stand in what is now the eastern end of the park, and in it’s day, was bigger than it’s neighbour, Barry. One of the things you will notice is the victorian viaduct which, believe it or not, doesn’t look out of place at all. Indeed, it spans a small valley, emerging from Knockmandown Wood, and vanishing into Viaduct Wood (for some reason I see it as travelling right to left even though it’s two-way!) The fact that it goes into the woods means that it feels like a part of the place, as it stands overlooking the park like a protective guardian.

I went back a couple of days after my 06:30 outing at around 6am to take photos of plants so I can learn to identify them. Plants are a new thing for me as I’ve never been interested in them, but as I learned more and understand their importance, I figure it’s time to learn about them. I have absolutely no idea if what I see is common or rare, but to me they’re all new and exciting. Even more exciting was the Nuthatch fledgling. I heard a noise like someone having a sword fight with sticks and although I knew it wasn’t a woodpecker, I didn’t know what it actually was. I finally saw it, and there was the aforementioned Nuthatch fledgling. It was sitting on the side of a branch, banging it’s beak against the wood, not back and forth like a woodpecker, but sideways. Nuthatches eat nuts and seeds, and they will wedge them into bark in order to crack them open. I assume that’s what this one was doing- either that or practising. It’s something they do many times a day, and yet, in all my years seeing them, it’s something I’ve never seen until now- another of my firsts at Porthkerry!

Something else I really want to tell you about happened as I was crossing the pitch n’ putt course. I was strolling along wondering if it was too early to check the reptile mats, when WHOOSH! There it was zipping past me at Mach 3, at a knee-height altitude and around two feet away- a Swallow, too close and too fast to photograph. I stood and waited for it to pass again so I could get a shot, and it refused to even get near ground level, let alone me, so I gave up and headed off again. Moments later, and the same thing happened again, so when the third pass came about I forgot the camera, and just watched. It was absolutely amazing to see, and in all seriousness, time seemed to slow down like it did when I was in a car accident, only much more worthwhile. For that moment, I wasn’t a person, I was with that Swallow, I was part of the park. And there’s another of my Porthkerry firsts- I’ve never before, and almost certainly will never again fly with Swallows. It was a genuinely moving and emotional experience.

All these things, whether it’s courting woodpeckers, harrassed Buzzards, flying with Swallows, Adders under mats, rare trees, or hard to find Purple flowers that are actually blue, all these things are part of the overall picture that makes Porthkerry Country Park what it is. I know I’m singing the praises of just one place, but the same can be said for hundreds, if not thousands of smaller “independently” run parks and reserves. Don’t get me wrong, the bigger places still need support too (indeed, there are four semi-near me that I’ve got my eye on for a visit- Brecon Beacons, Ynys Hir, Newport and Skokholm), so please don’t stop going to them, but how about visiting the little guys as well?

Please feel free to recommend anywhere that you’re fond of, and if you want to see that list of species I’ve seen wild, and not on a big reserve, click here. Please don’t think this is me shouting look at what I’ve seen. It’s not- there are many ordinary species on the list, and I’ve seen plenty more than what’s on there. I show it merely to highlight just how worth going these places are.

One last thing- if you’re in the area, pay Porthkerry a visit, and if you let me know, I may just come with you and give you a tour!

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