Mental Health Awareness Day

Coincidently, today’s activities have a direct link to Mental Health Awareness Day, so here’s what happened;

October last year I finished a dream Job with Aden Production, and with nothing lined up afterwards, I knew I had a struggle ahead. If I was physically and mentally well enough, I probably would have accepted any work at the time, but I’ve been there before, and pointless Jobs do not get you anywhere in life, unless of course, you have a strategic plan to use a Job as a stepping stone to get you where you want to be, but stable work is hard to come by and once obtained, can be tough to let go of. For many countless souls, a stable job can end up being a barrier between you and your dreams. Time is precious and nobody wants to live with regret. I’ve always taken risks with employment, putting myself totally out of my comfort zone in order to move somewhat in the right direction, but this time was different. Something in me had switched and I’m not quite sure how to turn that switch back on yet.
I turned to the government for financial help, but the system let me down. While I totally understand that many people exploit the benefits system and as a result, rules have been tightened, but I genuinely needed help at one of the lowest times in my life where my social anxiety was that bad I couldn’t even leave my own home. I did everything that was requested of me by the government, enduring cramped waiting rooms full stereotypes that I didn’t want to be around. It was deemed by a ‘health professional’ that looked younger than me, that I was ‘fit for work’ having only awarded me 12 points in their scoring system: 15 of which you needed to qualify for help. Awarding somebody points for their physical and mental illnesses, like it’s some sort of game, was probably one of the most demeaning things I’ve done. Especially when you’re told at the end that there’s nothing wrong with you and you should be working. Society facilitates this message over and over again as it’s easier to treat you all as numbers on a sheet, ready to switch out whenever convenient. The lack of humanitarianism is seriously frightening.

I wasn’t happy with this, so I appealed the decision and 7 months later, a date was set for my court case, but the appeal was postponed the day before the hearing. Of all the days, my rescheduled date ended up being today, which just so happens to be Mental Health Awareness day, which for some reason gave me a little more strength than I otherwise would have. I had help with the appeal process from Roger at the Disability Advice Project in Cwmbran. If it wasn’t for Roger, I wouldn’t have appealed at all, as the process was stressful and nowhere near as easy as it should be. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Roger couldn’t make the appeal today, so I had to go it alone, to what ended up being the most demeaning process I’ve ever been through. I don’t think I managed to string a single sentence together that made any sense to man, but in the end, I won the tribunal case. They awarded me ‘18 points’ for my mental health. I’m not sure what this means exactly yet, but they’ll likely give me the help that I should have received in the first place. If only they could wipe out all the stress and worry its caused to me and my family this year, not to mention the thousands of other people who have also been denied help, people of which have far worse cases than mine, but if there’s any message to take from this, it’s to stick up for yourself, don’t allow anybody to palm your illness off and say there is nothing wrong when you know deep down there is. Get help. Our minds are not invincible, they have a limit and they can break, just like a bone, only it takes a lot longer to heal.

He might be small, insignificant, hiding in his safe zone, but he’s processing the world as it rushes by. So long as he concentrates on himself and the things that are most important, he’ll survive the winter ready to burst into life again next spring.

Common Lizard

Iolo's Street Life

If you missed the first episode of Iolo’s Street Life, it’s showing on BBC iPlayer for the next 24days.
Here’s the Link

The next episode is on tomorrow (Friday 27th) at 7:30pm on BBC One Wales so there’s time to get it on series link if you’re able.

For those that haven’t been following my blog over the last year, this series was my first time working on a major production, commissioned by the BBC and produced by Aden Productions. I was employed by Aden as a researcher and as a researcher, it was my job to ensure that everything on the day of filming was pre-planned to ensure we made full use of the limited days we had Iolo and the production team booked.
Not an easy task when you’re dealing with subjects as unpredictable as Wildlife and as you can imagine, to ensure things went perfectly on the day, it required many hours prior, sleeping in random hotels all over the country, staying up all hours monitoring cameras, laying camera traps, speaking with local people on the phone, at their doorstep, on the streets… Pretty much anything it took to get the knowledge we needed to film wildlife on the streets.
It was a great pleasure to work on the program and everyone at Aden was so welcoming, supportive and generally such a good bunch to work alongside. I mainly worked with Associate Producer, Osian Griffiths, who helped guide me in this new role, but I also spent some time with Kathy James who was also new to the role of Researcher but she had her own series to concentrate on called Iolo: Saving the Land of the Wild. A truly epic series that touched upon some really important topics we’re facing in this country at the moment so well worth watching if you haven’t already.

I probably should have took more behind the scene pics for my own memory sake but I didn’t want to be the one playing about with my phone on a major shoot. Below are some of my setups, some footage of which you’ve already seen of the Owls and Foxes but some that also didn’t make the cut like the Otters at Haverfordwest and Sparrowhawks in Michele Hughes Garden. For every one item you see in the program, we must of had 3 extra as reserves, backup plans, or items that simple didn’t meat the criteria in the final cut.

I must admit, the whole experience filming with Iolo and being such a critical part of the filming process, was such an honour, but I’ll be totally honest, it took a tole on my mental health, and all I’ve really concentrated on since then, was getting myself back on track, both physically and mentally. Very soon I’ll be co-launching a new community interest company called ‘In Our Nature’ with Veronika Brannovic. The company aims to improve wellbeing for people who suffer with mental illness, by utilising the power of nature and everything it has to offer. More about this on a future blog post.

For now, I hope you enjoy the program, please let me know what you think via the comments, on social media ect.

In the present, I think I just about made the most of the last bit of autumn sunshine I could get, getting some more time with the Brown Hawkers at Ebbw Vale and finding a very late Male Black-tailed Skimmer which usually peaks in June-July.

Something else I stumbled upon by accident was later identified by Steve Williams, was a possible Tufa Spring. - Read more about it here. I’ve seen this before at this exact location and I’ve mistaken it for some sort of pollution incident, almost ringing NRW to check on it too as there was a burn out car nearby and I’ve found random chemical containers up there in the past. If this is a natural Tufa Spring, it'll be worth examining the flora around the pond as there may be some rare plant life that usually associates themselves with calcium-rich waters.

Dragon's Continued

I know insects aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but the way I see it, I have all winter to concentrate on Birds and Mammals and these guys aren’t going to be around for much longer. I was reminded how short this period was during my pursuit to increase the dragonfly species count at The Canyon this year. I’ve noticed that there weren’t any Chasers or Skimmers present when there is usually several buzzing around the lake on a hot sunny day like today. I was reminded on Twitter though, that the season for these types of Dragonfly have already passed and most of the adults have reproduced and have since perished during August. It’s such a short life for a Dragonfly and they all have slightly different peak emergence times throughout the year, which makes a lot of sense from a survival perspective, as this way, they aren’t competing for the same food supplies. Black Darters emerge rather late in the year in comparison to other Darter species, so thankfully there are lots around. 10+ Males are 3 females were spotted in the last two days, which is more than I’ve ever seen at the canyon.

Black Darter Pair - Left Male | Right Female

I’ve known of a couple sites in Ebbw Vale for a while now that holds a rarer hawker species called a Brown Hawker. I’ve been meaning to make a visit myself and was given an extra push after a tweet from Lee Gregory who reported 2 Brown Hawkers at Waun-y-Pound ponds. As the weather was good and I had a meeting in Ebbw Vale, I went straight over there and connected with 2 Brown Hawkers almost instantly upon arriving at the middle pond. I didn’t realise they were so big! I watched one catch a mating pair of Common Darters and it actually ate them both! What a monster! I couldn’t get a great pic but the one I did get shows just how camouflaged they are and also the habitat they chose to roost in which is primarily heather patches.

Brown Hawker

Brown Hawker

Here’s a Southern Hawker, Painted Lady Butterfly and some more of a very obliging male Black Darter.

August went fast..

All I seem to be doing is blogging about my lack of blogging lately so let’s get straight to it. Lot’s to talk about, so I’ll naturally let my photographs do most of the talking as that’s mostly what people come here to look at anyway. The order is backwards, in that I took the Wasp Spider pics just yesterday.
Since finding the Southern Migrant Hawker at Llandegfedd with Craig Constance, I’ve turned my attention to bugs even more, which is a good thing as we won’t be hanging onto these guys for much longer. Cold and wet will eventually take over, and then I’ll have to wait till next season all over again.

I gave up on my Nightjars too early this year as I’ve been told in parts of England, 3rd clutches were recorded. If I could predict the weather we had in August, I probably would have continued to record them. Partly my decision to leave them though, was made due to having to send my recording gear off to Sweden for a service. Jon Strandberg at Telinga Microphones has always been very good with customer care and has offered to upgrade my microphone to the version 3 which I’m quite excited about. For my birthday in July I also upgraded my sound recorder, which I ended up having to send back due to a fault.. After quite some time emailing back and forth America and Germany, it was finally decided that a replacement unit was needed, which ended up being perfect timing for me, as the new version of the recorder was released this week so I get to have the new one (Or so I’m told)… time will tell. The reason I’m telling you this is because the new device has a feature that will drastically help me collect ‘nature data’ in that it can record a much wider dynamic range, which is hugely beneficial when recording nature as you don’t always know how loud, or quiet your subject is going to be and sometimes you end up recording things by accident but didn’t have the right levels to compensate. This ability is made possibly via 32bit Float recording which Sound Devices has just added to their Mixpre version 2 line of recorders. Time will tell if it’s as good as they make it sound on paper but it’s got many sound recordists quite excited as it lends itself to many different applications.

A Rare Day

The Canyon - Terpentwys

A sunny day and I aimed to have a ‘dragonfly’ day at a place called The Canyon, which has a number of cool species like Keeled Skimmer and Black Darter that I like to find each year. Having got there however, the wind was so high, I wasn’t even seeing any butterflies on the wing, so on the way back down the mountain, I picked up good friend Craig Constance and we headed to Llandegfedd to salvage the day. We didn’t have much to report on the bird front but Craig spotted his regular Yellow Legged Gull which was good for me as I could finally get a decent view of a full adult bird right next to both Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gull for reference. I must admit, I’ve always shied away from identifying Gulls like Yellow-legged in the field as I’ve not been confident with the features but I certainly feel more confident now. Our last stop before heading home and we popped into Green Pool hide, which in all fairness, we never do these days as it’s usually overgrown but Welsh Water has cleared a nice channel through the reeds and just as well! as the Dragonfly we had been watching for a while in-front of the hide, ended up being a mega!

We had a male Emperor Dragonfly and quite a few Common Darters on the water but we had two Hawkers coming in close but there was so much blue on the one, it honestly looked like a small emperor at first glance. I said to craig at this point, “you know, there is a really rare dragonfly called the ‘blue eyed’ or ‘Southern Migrant Hawker’… from which seconds later the hawker landed right in-front of the hide and I went completely red in the face in shock. As soon as I saw the thin black lines in the thorax and those bright blue eyes, I went into complete panic mode, trying to get a photograph and my battery died!!! Spares of which were in my car! #schoolboyerror. Craig instantly called Lee Gregory who is an all-round naturalist with great species knowledge and he arrived shortly after I got back to the hide with some spare batteries. At this point I still hadn’t got a picture to confirm the ID! Thankfully it returned right in-front of the hide as Lee got there and the first picture had me dancing like a little kid. Lee Gregory instantly knew that this could be a first record for Wales and today it was confirmed that this is the first confirmed sighting for Gwent and Wales, so this would be my second ‘1st’ for Wales this year. This doesn’t happen very often, not for me anyway.

The Southern Migrant Hawker is a vagrant that’s apparently trying to colonise the Uk from southern Europe and more Mediterranean habitats. It’s been spotted mostly in southern and eastern parts of England but sightings in Wales have been very minimal. To have the first confirmed sighting is nice but honestly I was just glad that I knew what it was as we both could have quite easily walked away without giving it a second glance. The first four pics below are of the Southern Migrant Hawker, showing vibrant blue eyes, blue on the thorax with those thin black lines through the yellow which you wouldn’t see on an Emperor which is of similar colours. It is quite a bit smaller than an emperor but in flight, sizer can be difficult to judge.

I’ve started a project to record as many species of Grasshopper as I can, and in a high sample rate so that I can lower the pitch and slow the recording down so that everyone can appreciate the quality. I thought it was probably wise that I make the most of my ability to actually hear them as one day I’m sure I’ll lose that end of the frequency spectrum and I won’t even know where to point the mic! In lowering the pitch, I hope that everyone can enjoy the variety of sounds we have in our countryside. I used to be able to hear some species of Bats when I was a kid. If I knew how much i’d miss that when I was older, I would have done it more often.

Calm Before The Storm

Summer is coming to a close with wet and windy breaking up whats left of those long drawn out days. It’s probably a little early to talk about autumn, but for me, it feels so far away from spring already. I was reminded of this while watching one of my Nightjar chicks fledging this week, both of which are nowhere to be found now, so I suspect they’ve travelled to more suitable feeding grounds while preparing for the big fly back to Africa!. Here’s a pic of the Chick before fledging. I think their first clutch failed, or they were just very late breeding this year. The parents are the two birds photographed in my last blog here. Look how short his/her bill is! Pretty adorable.

While we’re on Migration. I was sent this by my friend Craig last week. For those that wonder how these birds migrate over vast oceans, well, sometimes they do need a rest! And what better way todo that than on a big quiet ship deck? Check these birds out! Some really rare stuff too but the best by far is at the end.

Tomorrow we’re due for another storm, and today you could feel the calm before the storm as it was beautiful and really low wind! It’s not very often that I can take the windshield off around the coastline but conditions were perfect today so I tried to capture a Long-winged Conehead with the rising ride in the background.
As our Coneheads reach to almost the limitations of our hearing range, I’ve slowed the recording down slightly so you can appreciate the quality more but it’s not too slow that you can’t hear the sea background.

Long-wined Conehead

Birthday on Skomer

This week has been a bit overwhelming. For my 30th Birthday my loved ones organised a trip to Skomer Island, knowing that I’ve failed in previous years to get on due to it being so busy at peak season. I wasn’t going to let that happen again, so Jodie and I arrived at 5am. People didn’t start turning up till around 6:30-7 and even then, only around 20-30 people cued up by 8:30, so there wasn’t any need to get up that early. Either way, I’m glad I was, because I got to watch thousands of Manx Shearwaters heading towards Skomer to start the day.

It was my first time on the island so we spent most of the time roaming the shoreline, sussing out where everything was. I should have just spent more time with the Puffins but either way, it’s a little late in the year now so there weren’t many left feeding chicks. The hours flew by quickly and before we knew it, we were being waved off by a Seal waiting in the harbour. It was a fantastic experience, I’ll most certainly make the effort a bit earlier on in the season next year, maybe even organise a few trips as it’s so worth the effort!

Prior to my Skomer trip I had another daytime session on one of my more elusive males that I’ve now named ‘Crossbill’ as his upper mandible slightly curves left. Below him is a pic of his female that I haven’t seen for quite some time, presumably because she’s now sat on eggs or chicks. I did visit a couple nights in a row and I can confirm a new spot where she’s being particularly protective over so another daytime trip is due to confirm.

I assume his female is the same one, in which case, this is her below, just 2 feet from where I found him roosting.

Before the Rain

Spring might have been a wet one, but it’s been great so far this summer for bugs. I usually turn my attention to bugs this time of year as some species have a small window of opportunity before they all disappear again till next year. If you like Grasshoppers and Crickets, it’s worth visiting the north side of Llandegfedd as the meadows are alive with Roesel’s, Dark, Oak & Speckled Bush-crickets, Green, Meadow, Field and Mottled Grasshoppers, Long & Short-winged Coneheads and even Ground Hoppers with more to discover I’m sure.
As you know I like to record the sounds of nature, but as many people cannot hear some species of Grasshopper as they’re too high pitched, I’ve started a project that aims to record as many different species of Grasshopper / Cricket as possible and to slow those recordings down so that you can listen to the finer detail of each and every stroke of the wing cases. It’s not for everyone, but i find stuff like this fascinating as it reveals frequencies that you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Listen back to these insects in slow-motion helps you enter their world for a moment and also highlights how important it is for us to start consider the environmental impact our noise pollution has on species that are dependant on sound in order to reproduce.

I tend not to go anywhere simply for the walk these days, partly because I can’t walk far at the moment as I have gall-stones that are playing havoc, but also because I only walk 2 minutes before spotting something interesting to photograph, record or just appreciate. It doesn’t do anything for my fitness levels this way but I’ve made so much luck this way, slowly walking through the landscape, trying to appreciate everything that I see. If you do this, you’ll be rewarded more and more, and this was evident when I was accompanied by a Stoat that was quite shy, but I would have easily missed it if I was walking with the intent to walk. If you want to see things, you need to slow right down.

A Week for Welsh Bugs!

I’m back on the Nightjar, this time at a completely different location, just to switch things up a bit . So far I have 3 pairs , including this Male that’s switching his roost up every night but does come back to the same ones every now and again. Each roost he uses though is pretty well covered so I won’t be trying to get close photographs of this one, which does not matter to me at all, as once you’ve spent as much time as I have researching them, just finding one without disturbing them gives you such a great sense of achievement and most of the time I just rock up, look at them through my bins from a distance and go straight home.

Male Nightjar

The great thing about searching for Nightjar, it requires similar searching methods to how you would search for rare insects, paying great attention to the small details. I always bring my macro lens with me and this week, I’m so glad that I did, as not only has it been fun photographing a variety of different species in beautiful sunshine, every now and again you stumble upon a gem!

A short walk along the Gwent Levels and upon arriving back at the car, I noticed a very small Hoverfly that was so brightly marked I thought it was a wasp. It just to happened to be a member of the Chrysotoxum family which are ‘wasp mimics’ and if it weren’t for the featherlight flight pattern, it would have had me fooled!.
I’m not going to pretend like I knew what it was in the field, as I didn’t. All I knew was, I’ve never seen one of these before, as I do have a photographic memory. I managed to snap a few different photo angles, trying to get the full back pattern and the antenna which are usually key features in identifying hoverflies. There are around 280 different species of Hoverfly in the Uk, some of which are isolated populations in specialist habitats. In the case of Chrysotoxum, they are described as being ‘The Difficult Five’ as they are very similar and usually requires close examination by an expert in order to ID them. Luckily for me I always take multiple angled pictures when photographing insects as I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not always possible to ID via a photograph. This is why so many bug specialists take home life samples to study under a microscope.
As soon as I got home I looked in my Hoverfly book which I downloaded on my phone, it’s called ‘Britains Hoverflies’ and it’s written by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris. The book was great, and the description / images provided me with enough detail to rule out a few species straight away and it was looking good to be Chrysotoxum Verralli. This is still new territory for me though, so I went straight to my ‘bug friend’ Liam Olds, who has a vast amount of bug knowledge and is very open to receiving the odd ID request from me, which I’m truly grateful for! He quickly checked for key features and as I suspected, it looked good for Chrysotoxum verralli, but he requested I still ran it by the Uk Hoverflies facebook group to be 100% sure, as if it was C.Verralli, it would be a first record for Wales!

The stakes just went up! so I popped all my pics on the facebook group and who should comment, but the co-author of my Hoverfly book! Roger Morris himself! and confirmed that it is indeed Chrysotoxum verralli. I couldn’t have had a better person to confirm that for me so I’m chuffed to bits.

Chrysotoxum Verralli

I shouldn’t get too excited though, as this actually happens quite a lot. In the same week, Martin Bell discovered a Sandrunner Shieldbug in Slade Wood which is another first for Wales! The truth is, there’s probably a lot more out there that we simply have not discovered yet and I am living proof that anybody, no matter how much experience you have, can discover something new, if you just slow down and pay attention to the details.

Gwent Naturalists

If you’re on Facebook and live in Gwent, you might be interested to join a new group called Gwent Naturalists.

It’s an extension of the Gwent Birders group that has over 600 members so far and every now and again we get questions about butterflies, moths, dragonflies and flowers, which is fine, but it made me realise that we could do with a group that covers more taxonomic groups.

We’re very lucky in gwent to have dedicated naturalists that have spent a life-time studying nature in their respective field. Whether it’s spiders, slime moulds, mosses, micro moths, birds, bats, reptiles, flowers, bees, beetles, you name it, there is somebody out there with the knowledge.
This isn’t to take away from the existing - South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre group - which I still highly recommend you join.

The Gwent Naturalists group isn’t just a place to share photos and ask for ID’s, I hope that we can use it to discuss conservation topics in our area, organise field events, and generally work together to help encapsulate our knowledge and work together towards a common goal.

My second pair of Nightjars were victim of an egg thief just two days from hatching, so I’m giving them plenty of space as they choose their second location for clutch 2, which is so far looking to be a much wiser choice, in a clear-fell that has much more cover, making the nest less exposed. I did wonder if their first choice was a good one, as it wasn’t far from a major dog walking route, and they did get quite a few close fly-bys from Jays and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, but the list of predators for ground nesting birds is huge, so it’s lucky they’ve adapted to this by not putting all their eggs in one basket, having a second clutch as a backup plan should the first choice go wrong. With the hot weather though, I’ve turned my attention to the vast amount of insects that are now at peak.

I did note 3 Silver-washed Fritillaries on the wing this week at a local woodland which could be a good sign that this species is spreading out. I usually go to the Forest of Dean to get my Silver-washed fix but instead of doing that I’m going to make more of an effort this year to find them on my doorstep. I’ll leave you with this incredibly out of focus, cropped image :D