We've just returned from a wonderful, wild week in West Wales.
Well... truth be told, we've been back for a week now, but we've been getting on with other things, so I've only just now got around to writing this blog post - something I promised I would in the visitors' book we wrote in before leaving our holiday cottage this year, in Nevern, Pembrokeshire.
I've had to split this blog post into 2 parts as the website wouldn't allow me to write such a large post. This will be part 1. Part 2 will be published at the same time.
Yes... we stayed at a wee place called "Penwaun". About 3 miles inland from Newport in Pembrokeshire. (That's NOT the more famous Newport in Gwent or now Monmouthshire by the way).
This blog post will not form a review of the cottage itself - I'll not talk about the accommodation or state of the beds, nor the shower room/lavatories or facilities of our holiday cottage (nor even the dog poo left in the garden from the previous tenants, nor the empty bottles of beer in the bins) - I'm pretty sure my wife will get to reviewing the cottage on google or tripadvisor or west wales holiday cottages.
No. This is a wildlife blog - so I'll basically just brief you, dear reader, on the basic lie of the land at Penwaun and then write about some of the wildlife we watched there.
If you *do* want to get a better idea of the accommodation itself after reading this blog (perhaps you even may be interested in renting the bungalow for a week) - you could do far worse than visit Penwaun's website HERE.
After a pretty horrible drive across England and especially South Wales (it's *always* horrible driving through South Wales... they never really sorted the M4 past Cardiff and Newport (Monmouthshire) especially did they?) we arrived shortly after 3pm on Saturday 6th August (last Saturday as I write this). We all know that this summer has been very like 1976 across vast swathes of England and Wales, so I'll not bore you with any more weather related details in this write up, other than to say I don't think we saw a single cloud ALL WEEK in Wales - the week just got hotter and hotter each day, from 24C on Saturday 6th to 31C on Saturday 13th. The weather was SO un-Welsh in fact that sitting on the kitchen balcony patio during the afternoons was almost TOO hot. A ridiculous thing to write in a Welsh holiday write up!
For the remainder of this blog post I think I'll bullet daily wildlife sightings. If I do any more than that, you'll need a flask of tea to get through all my prose, I fear!
Saturday 6th. "ARRIVAL".
It was immediately obvious to us that Penwaun might be a veritable goldmine of wildlife for us and before we even unpacked the car, we just had to explore the outside of the cottage and land (from woodland to river).
Swallows were nesting in the smaller holiday cottage (Penwaun Bach) next to Penwaun, which the owners had kindly not offered up to other holiday-makers whilst we were renting the bigger cottage, Penwaun itself. (All privacy would have been immediately lost if that was the case - so the fact that we had the whole plot to ourselves was immediately and greatly appreciated). This would have been the swallows second brood (most swallows try for two broods a year if conditions are right - and conditions were certainly right this season!)
House martins and swallows were thick in the azure sky over the plot. Chatting to each other and metaphorically making hay whilst the sun literally shone.
As Ben and I waded into the river, I heard and then saw a green sandpiper whiffle down to a stony beach about fifty metres or so downstream of where we stood. What a bird to welcome us! (We only saw and heard a few more green sandpipers during our stay at the cottage - all in the first two days as it happens).
Dragonflies were everywhere. Mainly golden-ringed dragonflies as it happened (as a couple of my photos below (taken with my phone!) will prove) but I expect there were also other big hawkers dogfighting around in the sun over the meadow and slower parts of the crystal-clear waters of the river Nevern. As there were banded demoiselles.
It was also lovely to see my favourite birds of all - swifts, from West Wales, not only from the garden at Penwaun, but also high in the sky from the pub beer garden we had our evening meal at ("the Salutation Inn" at Felindre Farchog - just a couple of miles from Penwaun).
At the pub that evening, Ben and I were also lucky enough to watch a dipper in the river Nevern, under the bridge in the pub's beer garden. Lovely, lovey birds - and certainly something that we were keen to see during the week. Well... we'd seen one on the river Nevern at the pub (that's the same river that flowed past the cottage two miles away). An immediate score!
Back to the garden then, for a wee swing under the willow tree! Bliss!
On sitting on the kitchen balcony patio after putting the boys to bed, Anna and I were treated to big Noctule bats (Britain's biggest bats) flying over the cottage, much smaller bats (I suspect Natterers bats or Pipistrelles - but I can't be 100% sure as I didn't bring a bat detector - I may well be wrong but they do look like Natterer's (originally called "red armed bats on account of their pink arms - see my poor photo below, where admittedly the bat is being highlighted by the strong, low sun) flying around our heads - and Daubenton's bats flying over the river below us. I adore bats and this was a REAL treat.
As the sun disappeared and the waxing full(ish) moon appeared from the wood to the south, the local tawny owls began their evening chorus (one in even alighted on the low telegraph pole by the boys' bedroom).
Finally - something I (nor Anna) had even considered. I took my thermal imager down to the cottage - and just before we went inside for the night - I thought I'd scan the large plot of land for any life. The garden. The flood meadow (horse paddock really). The river bank. The woodland edge.... and I immediately saw a badger through my thermal scope, in the pitch dark, in the meadow about 100 yards from us. My favourite British animal of all. Here in "our garden" for the week. I set up the moth trap in the garden as we headed inside (yes I brought that down to the cottage too!) and we went to bed smiling!
Sunday 7th. "CHEEKY GULL".
Ben and I emptied the moth trap on getting up and were a little disappointed to be honest. Our moth haul on the Isle of Wight (for example) was nothing short of spectacular, but here in Wales, and being the moth snobs we are (I know I know) only a few Black Arches, Rosy Footmen, Rosy Rustics and one Brimstone moth really got our attention. (The photo below is of a speckled bush cricket by the way, which seemed to like to use our bottle of sun-cream as a lookout perch, but I'm sure you knew that already).
One of the local herons (which probably fished for Sewin (Sea Trout) and Brown Trout) in the River below the cottage squawked its indignation at our moth haul too that morning. Or so it seemed.
On our first full day at Penwaun, we thought we'd quickly check out the nearest beach at Newport. Yes... of course... the unbroken sunshine of the week helped, but Newport sands certainly ticked all our boxes. Nice gentle shelving sand for the boys, warm(ish) water for us all to swim in if we wanted, a private cove type thing (Welsh black shale cliffs providing the privacy) for sunbathing - and most importantly for me at least - some brilliant rockpools to explore. During our rockpooling and in among the limpets, barnacles, periwinkles and sea anemones (which were everywhere) we discovered a rather lovely, if hapless, compass jellyfish.
Lugworms, ragworms and razor clams were also everywhere on Newport beach - this was heaven to wading birds I thought to myself...
I spent sometime showing the boys the delights of popping bladder wrack and trying to impress on Anna the skin rejuvenating properties of the jelly in the seaweed bladders!
We ate lunch at the Cat Rock Cafe at Newport Sands golf club overlooking Newport bay in wall-to-wall sunshine of course, and the boys watched in delight as a cheeky Herring gull took apart the table next to us, after the diners had left.
On our drive back to the cottage we stopped at the iron bridge over the Nevern estuary to see if there were any wading birds around. Well... lots of crows and gulls and geese and then I heard a peregrine in the distance and pointed it out to the family as it arrowed overhead like a fighter pilot returning to its aircraft carrier.
We had tea at the Trewern Arms - the nearest pub to Penwaun (about a 5 minute slow walk). And very nice it was too - there was a Celtic folk band in the beer garden and the Fore-rib burger that I had was really, really good!
More badgers in the evening of course. With thermal camera. And trail camera (yes I took a trail camera as well as my thermal camera and moth trap and landscape DSLR and sports/action DSLR!) overnight too. More on that later. Much more!
Monday 8th. "RIVER WADING".
I decided to put a little peanut butter and oats mixture out in the meadow on the night of the 7th/morning of the 8th, spread under (badgers would have no trouble turning over a heavy slate, but most other animals would struggle) a heavy, old, broken bit of roof slate. I had established on the 6th and 7th that badgers were coming out of the woodland at night to hunt for worms in the flood meadow/horse paddock and turn over the horse poo there, looking for insects to eat and also dropped apples to snaffle from the large(ish) apple trees in this part of the plot - all laden with fruit. There was quite a bit of evidence of badger activity in the horse paddock/flood meadow. Diggings. Badger poo. Badger paths etc. So out in the meadow went the slate with the peanut butter. And out went the trail camera too. Overlooking the peanut butter smeared slate. And what a set of video clips I managed to record. At least three badgers bickering over this sweet treat. Our badger watching would get better and better (read on) but this was a marvellous start to the week!
As the river Nevern below the house looked SO wonderful,
we thought we'd take a little time to explore it on the Monday of our holiday. We didn't see a dipper on this exploration, but we did see herons, kingfishers, pond skaters, grey wagtails, minnows, little trout (we assume), more dragonflies and demoiselles of course, with buzzards and swifts overhead.
Just a lovely day exploring the plot a little and then a wee drive around the area, getting to know where everything was (local shops, boozers, garages etc) - and then sitting again on the kitchen balcony patio, watching the swallows catch food for their young (one young swallow was ejected from the nest on this day by the way - I assume it was sick) and the fledgling blue tits and robins dance about in the apple tree below the patio. All again in quite ridiculous weather - we all had a Mediterranean tan by the end of the week!
Word of warning here to anyone visiting this site after looking in the Penwaun visitors' book. I'll not go into details as like I said at the start of this blog post - this is NOT mean to be a review of the holiday - whether that be a review of the Penwaun accommodation itself OR the local pubs etc. That said... we ate tea at the Royal Oak at Newport on this Monday. Want a word of warning or advice? Just don't bother. The Royal Oak is no more than an Indian takeaway for the locals now, just *posing* as a pub or gastropub. We ordered food at 1730 (so hardly in peak food ordering time - but we didn't get served until nearly 1900, after asking twice what was going on. To add to that... the food was barely edible either. A gurt big dollop of luke warm, microwaved tinned spinach and tinned potatoes billed as "fresh seasonal vegetables"?! Hey... you probably won't know me if you're reading this as a holiday maker in Penwaun, looking for tips etc... but take it from me, I'm no food critic, I'll eat pretty-well anything - but I would strongly suggest you stay WELL clear of the Royal Oak at Newport - it really, honestly is one of the worst pubs I've ever been to - and again you won't know me... but I've been to lots of pubs!
Finally on the 8th, Ben and I set up the moth trap again - but this time in the "front garden" (complete with small apple trees) of Penwaun, as the back garden's haul two nights previously, disappointed a little.
Tuesday 9th. "THE BEACH".
Ben and I emptied the moth trap after the sun came up. A much better result from the front garden it seemed, with a few Canary-shouldered thorn moths, a Pale prominent moth and a magnificent Swallow prominent (which I'm told is common and widespread, but to be honest I can't ever remember seeing before).
Ben saw a kingfisher dart down the beautiful, clear, sparkly river (as I packed the car for the beach), and I had heard a few during the previous two days (*all* my family now know what a kingfisher sounds like, so they never will need to tell me (like many people do) that they've never seen a kingfisher on the river - it's EASY - they literally TELL you that they're flying down the river each time they take flight!)
Tuesday was beach day - that was going to take up the whole day basically and why not?! A large, sandy beach with plenty of rockpools to explore for people that can't or won't sit still on a towel - plus we were convinced, all manner of coastal wildlife to gawp at. Ben and I took an immediate adventure up to the north end of the beach where we found a lot of peace and quiet as the sand turned to rock and pebbles and green seaweed. As we scrambled over this part of the shore, we found a mermaid's purse (or dogfish (in this case) egg case (incidentally the dogfish as I knew them, when I was dissecting them as an A level student are now classified as "cat sharks" *siggghhhhh*)) were treated to what we counted to be forty curlew all gathered under the cliffs in the rocks (occasionally breaking into flight in small groups to head inland) and quite a few noisy oystercatchers - piping their way low over the water to another rocky outcrop to hunt for something to eat. Rock pipits danced on the pebbles and cliffs around us and Ben managed to catch a prawn in a large rockpool, as well as the more common shrimps. There was evidence of spider crabs around us too on the beach, (as well as shore crabs of course) but we didn't manage to see a live example.
One more thing to note regarding the beach was that we found quite a few dead sand eels in the sand and gently breaking waves on the sandy beach. I assume the tide just did for them - and I've read also that mackerel often chase them out. Nothing to worry about I guess - and Ben (like all small children and some adults!) was fascinated by them - so ended up collecting quite a few in a bucket.
We ate tea at the brilliant Castle Inn in Newport. The complete opposite of the dreadful Royal Oak - I can and will now thoroughly recommend this big gastro pub for eating and drinking. Yes... it's very, VERY expensive (£48 for one prawn salad and one crab salad - WOW!!!) but the curries are superb (and we are aficionados of Sri Lankan curries after all) but this was not going to be the last time we visited this pub during the week. Superb, it was.
When we returned from the pub to put Finn to bed (shortly after 7pm), we noticed wee bats flying from the garage of Penwaun, through what appeared to be ventilation holes in the eastern wall of the garage. Lots of them. We also noticed other bats climb down under roof tiles and from behind gutters of both the Penwaun cottage that we were staying in - AND the wee, one bedroom annexe, Penwaun Bach, that the garage was joined to. Again... LOTS of bats. In fact two or three bats started and ended their nightly flights from the roof tiles just by the clock on the kitchen balcony patio - as we sat there. If you are reading this, sat on that patio, and bats are almost brushing your hair for you each evening, know this - they WON'T ever touch you (their echolocation is far too sophisticated) but you ARE sitting right in front of their front door, sat there on the patio. You're in their porch (not the other way around). We adored seeing these incredible animals all week - bats are right up there in the league table of my favourite British animals - they're basically super-powered, flying mice! I got a few very poor photos of them but I haven't (yet) managed to 100% establish that they were indeed what I suspect to be natterer's bats (or perhaps the far more common pipistrelles (either common or soprano)). We certainly watched Pips and Daubenton's bats too at Penwaun, but these were hunting over the slower-moving parts of the river as Daubenton's bats do
- the bats that came out of the buildings seemed to hunt around the woodland in the main (as Natterers and Pips do). I also took a couple of videos of the holes of in the garage, as the bats were noisily-talking to each other all day long when they weren't flying. Just lovely to hear.
We were also intrigued to read in the "book of suggestions" at Penwaun (for holiday makers to offer suggestions to the owners of the cottage) that someone had suggested bat boxes and swift boxes? Well... the entire place is demonstrably and already a *perfect* bat box for them it seems (they simply don't need bat boxes - they just need their current homes under the roof and in the attic protected -which they should be of course - bats are VERY protected in UK Law. I should (of course) know). As for swift boxes.... not many swifts would want to nest in a box on a bungalow. Swifts need 5M or so drop from any nest box or nest site. Bit difficult that, on a bungalow. I assume the person writing that suggestion meant swallow or house martin nest boxes.... but they don't nest in boxes. Strange, but there you are. At least the suggestions were more thoughtful (I guess) than my suggestion of Bristol rugby beer glasses please, not the dreadful Bath rugby beer glasses that were provided!
If you like, please read part 2 of the blog post here.