Slow worms

Rennie writes…

Morning Everyone, The arrival of warmer weather has brought the Slow worms ( Anguis fragilis ) out of their winter hibernation — I found one winding its way across the south drive the other day. It is very inappropriately named as it is certainly not a worm — although snake like in appearance it is in fact one of our three native species of lizard. It probably evolved into its legless form to enable it to burrow more effectively and it has the typical lizard’s ability to shed its tail to evade predators. Slow worms are a beautiful bronzy – gold colour and their skin has a lovely clean, cold quality to it – not slimy or wet as you might imagine from the glistening appearance.


I don’t encourage the handling of wild creatures unnecessarily but I can never resist the tactile experience of allowing a slow worm to slide gracefully through my fingers. Slow worms give birth to around 12 live young in the summer and can often be found under logs or debris in hot weather as they can overheat in high temperatures. Nerdy type fact : Some lizards and snakes give birth to live young, some lay leathery eggs which hatch out, but in fact the only difference is that former hatch out inside the mother’s body instead of outside. ( Slightly more complex than that , but more or less the way it works ).

Rennie writes,
Morning Everyone, besides the Redstart, the other summer visitor that has returned to CAT is the lovely Pied Flycatcher ( Latin name: Ficedula hypoleuca / Welsh name: Gwybedog Brith ) spotted by Grace in the trees behind the display gardens. This is one of the classic birds of Welsh woodland and although it can be difficult to spot as it spends a lot of its time hidden in the tree canopy, if you see a smallish black and white bird in a Welsh wood in summer it is almost certain to be a Pied Flycatcher.

The provision of nest boxes with hole openings can give a dramatic boost to the number of breeding pairs in woods and it looks as if all the boxes around site put up by Biology could pay real dividends. Although Flycatchers are so called because of their typical feeding behaviour of catching insects in flight, the Pied has a more varied technique than its commoner relative ( the Spotted Flycatcher ) and also searches the leaves and bark of trees for caterpillars and will probe the woodland floor for ants and beetles. But then I suppose the title of ‘ The Pied Flycaterpillarbeetleantandotherinsectcatcher ‘ would be a bit cumbersome. Incidentally just think — despite all the human activity on site, the Wise construction, the hundreds of visitors — right in the centre we have a thriving bird population including shyer ones like Redstarts and Flycatchers. We must be doing something right !! Cheers Rennie x

CAT’s Rennie Telford takes a look at Life in the Slow Lane

glasssnail21After a spell of rain or a summer shower, snails appear from out of their nooks and crannies in search of food -much to the annoyance of gardeners as they make a bee line (or should that be a snail line) for all your carefully tended young plants – but don’t dismiss the humble snail as just an uninteresting pest – if you take a closer look they are quite fascinating creatures.

There are several species of snail apart from the familiar Garden or Common snail. Look out for the Glossy Glass snail with a thin translucent shell and deep blue colouring on its body. Then there are the two ‘punk’ species, whose shells are covered with patches of ‘ hairs ‘ – the Hairy snail and the Silky snail.

Continue reading “CAT’s Rennie Telford takes a look at Life in the Slow Lane”

Dandelion wine and spring folics

Rennie writes….

Morning Everyone,
There are so many spectacular wild life sights in this area at this time of the year it’s a job to pick which one to draw your attention to — the Red Kite soaring high above the mountains, the amazing spectacle of aerial skill as a flock of starlings come in to roost, the lightening fast swoop of the Peregrine as it hurtles earthwards etc. etc. — so I thought we would consider the Dandelion today.


The roadside verges are a mass of golden colour at present as the dandelions are in full bloom but have you ever looked a little closer at these familiar flowers? In fact the ‘flower heads’ are complex structures made up of tiny florets which look like a single flower. Look a bit closer — is it a dandelion or a lesser dandelion ( found in drier areas ), a Marsh dandelion ( wet areas), a red – veined dandelion or is it perhaps a Hawk’s beard ( in which case is it a Stinking Hawk’s beard or a Marsh Hawk’s beard ) or is it a Hawkweed ( in which case is it a Mouse ear Hawkweed or a Leafy Hawkweed ) or is it a Hawkbit or ????   Ok I  can practically hear you all yawning, so back to the basic common or garden dandelion ( Welsh name Dant y llew– tooth of the lion– because of its jagged leaf edges ) An old vernacular name is Jack -piss- the – bed  — a reference to its well known diuretic properties. It is also an extremely useful plant — the leaves can be used as an alternative to lettuce in salads, the flowers ( traditionally picked on 23rd April St Georges day) make one of the best flower wines, the roots can be dried and ground to make a coffee substitute and perhaps most importantly of all the hollow stems can be transformed into a sort of whistle type thing which produces impressive raspberries when blown properly.
What better way to spend a summer evening than getting sloshed on last years dandelion wine and then sitting in a circle blowing raspberries at each other — well it works for me !
Oh yes and the humble dandelion probably inspired Shakespeare ( a well known writer apparently ) to come up with the much quoted lines : Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney sweeps all come to dust

Naycher Corner – ‘When gorse is not in blossom, kissing is out of fashion.’

14 April

Yellow seems to be the predominate colour of the early spring flowers. Lesser Celandines are popping up everywhere with their heart shaped leaves and bright butter yellow flowers, whilst daffodils, primroses and dandelions are all in full bloom. Although gorse seems to be in flower all year round (hence – when gorse is not in bloom, kissing is out of fashion) it is particularly colourful at the moment. One plant which will be coming into flower soon bucks the trend – Ramsons, or Wild Garlic. You can already smell the pungent aroma of them from the woodland as you walk over the bridge at the entrance to CAT. Wild garlic leaves are much milder than cultivated garlic bulbs so you don’t have to worry about your breath so much if you intend to get up close and personal with someone. The Latin name (showing off again) is Allium ursinum though where the connection with bears comes in. I’m not sure and interestingly the Welsh name is Garlleg yr arth which translates as Garlic of the bear.

Continue reading “Naycher Corner – ‘When gorse is not in blossom, kissing is out of fashion.’”

7 April

The bluetits are well into their courtship rituals at present and will soon be sorting out their nesting sites. The courtship follows a set sort of pattern and is easily observed as there are so many of them around. The initial ‘chat up’ will take place on a branch or hedge when the male will tentatively proffer an offering of food, usually a tasty grub or caterpillar to a likely looking female. If she fancies him, she will respond by crouching low and opening her beak, and sometimes fluttering her wings coquettishly. ( the avian equivalent of fluttering eyelashes perhaps?) If she accepts the present then the male has pulled and he will cockily continue to bring her other delicacies while they search for a suitable nest site. When they find somewhere and start to think about building a nest, the behaviour subtly changes and the male can be a little hesitant in entering the nest area with food until he is sure the female is happy with him.


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Naycher Korner- Update

Rennie ( and Ovy) write….

1st April

Morning Everyone
Today let’s draw attention to the waters of our lake where migrating European Pool Flies have taken up temporary residence and have been mating for the past 48 hours.This rare species has become a worrying addition to our shorlord-howe-island-stick-insectes this year, normally confined to the continent. They are easily identifiable by their reddish wings and large jagged proboscises with which they deliver a vicious bite, by way of injecting their eggs into a warm blooded host. These eggs incubate within 12 hours after which the Pool larfi (up to 100 at a time!)break through the host’s skin — not a pretty sight.They then transform to adult state after a further 24 hours of gorging themselves on their host of choice.

Preventative tactics then—- Should you wish to avoid being a banquet for the voracious Pool larfi!!! The adult fly is highly adverse to Theobromine ( A mild natural stimulant and molecular “cousin” of caffene).Luckily for us Chocolate is one of nature’s or should i say Naycher’s most concentrated sources of Theobromine,so would highly recommend topping up frequently with chocolate and a smear of melted chocolate to exposed areas (face,hands,arms etc)is essential.There was also a chocolate based deterant spray on sale in the so would suggest enquiring there also.

This should deter the fly from landing upon you and starting the whole grizzly process.
The “laying” season should commence today for a 24 hour period and would strongly recommend that afore mentioned precautions are taken to minimise cases.

Enough said—– so all that’s left is to wish a Happy Easter to one and all!

2nd April

Keep your eyes open for a bright splash of red on the ground amongst the bits of twig and rotting wood in the surrounding woodland — it will be a small fungus that is relatively common in this area during the winter and early spring— the Scarlet Elf Cup. It grows directly out of sticks and small logs and looks like a small goblet ( hence its name) up to 3cm across with a brilliant scarlet interior and a pinkish white outside. They like damp and soggy conditions and there seem to be quite a few around this year.scarlet-elf-cup-sew-6-4-9-08
Fungi have some really imaginative and descriptive common names ( although serious mycologists only use the dry Latin names)– just wrap your tongues round these: Dog Stinkhorn,Death Cap, Fly Agaric, The Blusher, False Chanterelle, Spindle Shank, The Sickener, Red Staining Inocybe and best of all The Destroying Angel !
In fact , it’s a fungi thing, but since I’ve discovered toadstools there is not mushroom in my life for anything else.  Sorry!

6th April

In Charlie’s Orchard ( that’s the little area of woodland by the river ,on the right as you turn off the main road ) the ground in the centre is covered with two small blankets of one of our earliest spring flowers — the Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa ). These lovely little woodland plants flower early before the leaf canopy shuts out the light. Another name for them is Windflower because of the way they  turn away from any breeze. They respond quite actively to light, opening out when the sun appears and closing up when it clouds over and at dusk. They do not seem to produce viable seeds and spread very slowly through their root structure, so they are fairly localised and are usually a fairly accurate indicator of ancient woodland if found in large quantities. I suspect that our flowers may have been introduced but I’ll throw that open to any much more knowledgeable botanists out there. Whatever, they are very pretty little flowers with a lovely musky smell.  There is a beautiful bluish form of Wood anemone found in North Wales and I once came across some when exploring woodland near Portmadoc I think , but it was after a few pints at a local pub with some friends so the details are a bit hazy. In fact they were probably bluebells!

Naycher Korner

Rennie Telford continues to keep us enthralled with his spring updates- every day more green shoots push out from the soil, buds uncurl a little bit more and the primroses and daffodils add vibrant splashes of yellow across the CAT site.  Here is a selection of this weeks Naycher Korner

19th March

Hope you have all had your breakfast and you are not eating anything at the moment because I thought we might consider the dietry habits of the Magpie ( Pioden in Welsh ). I walked in this morning along the back lane and came across a couple of  magpies feeding happily on some unidentifyable animal remains. These striking looking birds will eat just about anything — carrion, grain, insects, worms and ( brace yourselves ) dog faeces. In bygone years they would join ravens in picking over the corpses on battlefields, but probably their most distressing ( to us ) activity is their relentless raids on other birds’ nests to collect eggs and nestlings. In the breeding season a pair of magpies will systematically work a hedgerow, flushing out nesting birds and emptying the nests of eggs and fledglings often ignoring the frantic parent birds valiant attempts to protect their young. I would love to know if anyone has ever seen a successful defence of a nest by  targeted birds.

Mind you they are only doing what magpies do and as a species they are great survivors. Listen out for their machine gun like chattering from the fields bordering the south drive most days.

18th March

There is a welcome splash of colour after a long grey winter, as you come up the garden steps.  One of the first of the spring flowers has appeared, a little later than usual, –the coltsfoot or as it is sometimes called ‘ son before father ‘ — so called because the flowers come out before the leaves. In the morning they are closed up quite tightly but later in the day the bright yellow flowers really catch your eye. Nerdy type fact — the leaves used to be collected and dried to make a form of herbal tobacco.

Carrying on the theme of yellow I spotted a lovely male yellowhammer by the lake yesterday feeding on the grain put down for the ducks. It is really good that we have these birds at CAT as they have been in a steady decline for some years now. The males start to sing in March and the usual mnemonic for their song in bird books is ‘ little bit of bread and no cheese ‘ — although it never sounds anything like that to me. I used to hear the song throughout the summer as a boy in Somerset but  it is now sadly not heard so frequently.  One of the Welsh names for the yellowhammer is Melyn yr Eithin which I think translates as yellow bird of the gorse — a beautifully apt name as so many of the Welsh names are.

17th March

Listen out for the gentle croaking of frogs as you come up the garden steps — mating is in full swing now the weather is a bit milder. There are two ponds near the steps, one in Roger’s garden and another deeper one at the end of the Cabins, both of which frogs return to regularly for spawning.
The males are the first to arrive and they wait  around  the edges of the pond for the arrival of the females — a bit like the lads at a Saturday night dance. They don’t have much finesse though, because as soon as they see a female, they leap onto her and grasp her in a tenacious hug called ‘ amplexus ‘ and resist all attempts by other males to dislodge them. Their grip is helped by knobbly ‘ nuptial pads ‘ which develop on the males’ front feet during the breeding season, and there is something rather endearing about the sight of two frogs locked together in an embrace with what appear to be beatific smiles on their faces. But then as mating can carry on continuously, night and day for up to a week, I suppose they are entitled to look a bit pleased with themselves. Of course the prosaic scientific reason for the male’s vice like grip is to ensure that it is he alone who fertilizes the eggs, but my preferred interpretation is that they like a bit of a cuddle ( or an amplexus if you like ).

15th March

A bit more about buzzards. March is the time when, if you are really fortunate, you might see buzzards shake off their customary lethargy and perform their  amazing sky dancing routines. Several birds ( I have seen up to 12 ) circle high in the sky, uttering their plaintive mewling cries and demonstrating their complete mastery of the air with some truly breathtaking aerial gymnastics. If you ever come across this event, just stop whatever  you’re doing and watch — it really is one of the top wildlife sights of this country in my opinion.  One bird will climb vertically, then stall and go into a long downward free- fall, then flip onto its back in a corkscrew action, perform a couple of rolls and sometimes finish off with a steep controlled dive. Each buzzard may perform, apparently trying to outdo the others and then one by one they disperse.  Just as spectacular are the courtship consolidation displays — on one occasion I watched as the slightly smaller male swooped down on its mate in a sort of mock attack and just when a collision seemed certain, the female flipped upside down, their talons touched briefly and they flew apart.  There are probably learned scientific reasons for this behaviour, but i prefer to believe that they do it out of sheer enjoyment and just because they can.  Incidentally, bird books often portray the buzzard in flight with out stretched wings as seen from below and above. Now, below I can understand, but  I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many times when you’re likely to be viewing it from above, unless you’re falling off a mountain or something, in which case you are unlikely to be too worried about bird identification— so it seems a bit pointless!

We catch up with Rennie, CAT’s nature expert as he reports last weeks sightings around CAT

cmshrew1By Rennie Telford

1 March

Following on from last Friday’s Naycher Korner, my candidate for Britain’s most ferocious predator is the shrew — more specifically, the common shrew (we have 5 species). These diminutive (3 inches long) but belligerent creatures live in nature’s fast lane and spend most of their short lives (they live for about a year) hunting, eating and fighting. They even have to sleep in short snatches, as if they go without food for more than about 3 hours, they will starve to death. Their diet consists of earthworms, woodlice, caterpillars and just about any insect they can catch during a ceaseless search for food. They are solitary, extremely territorial animals and if two rivals meet, they hurl themselves at each other with unmitigated fury, emitting what they probably consider to be ferocious and bloodcurdling roars, but which sound to us like high pitched squeaks. In fact this sound is usually the only indication of their presence you will get, unless you spend a lot of time skulking around the bushes on your hands and knees  –(I don’t do that any more, since the incident in the park — my case comes up next week).

Oh yes– and their saliva is poisonous – if one bites you it leaves a burning sensation and believe me, they will bite when handled. What I love about shrews is that they don’t seem to realize that they are small and to see one determinedly hauling an earthworm much longer than itself out of the ground or defiantly chewing your thumb are sights to behold. They are one of our commonest mammals so there are bound to be plenty around the Quarry — You have been warned!

2 March

tree-creeper1Another interesting little bird to keep an eye out for around the site is the Treecreeper. This has been spotted by several people although I’m a bit miffed because I haven’t seen it myself yet. This time of year is a good time to catch a glimpse of this unobtrusive bird as it does what its name implies and creeps up the bark of the trees searching for insects which it digs out with its slender bill. It spirals around the trunk always going upwards and then flies off to the base of another tree to repeat the process. I have made a V shaped nest box which I think Biology have put up somewhere to try and encourage it to nest — being almost exclusively insectivorous severe winters take their toll so it needs all the help it can get.

Some of the older bird books will tell you that it can easily be confused with a mouse as it climbs around the tree, but after years of observation I have noticed some subtle differences. Mice tend to have four legs, fur and a long tail, but the Treecreeper on the other hand. You pick up these little aids to identification as you go along.

3 March

messent-rooksYou all probably have your own sight or sound that is a sign that spring is on the way — the first daffodils,  newborn lambs etc. — but for me the real harbinger of  spring is the raucus noise of a flock of rooks beginning their annual repairs and renovations of their rookery nests. I was watching the rooks down by the railway station in town the other night while waiting for the train — they were returning to their roost for the night –and were arguing and jostling each other for the prime positions. They are intensely gregarious birds– I hesitate to use the word sociable as they seem to be constantly bickering with each other. Here at the quarry we get predominantly crows rather than rooks –the old rule of thumb is; if you see a rook on its own it’s a crow and if you see lots of crows together they are rooks — a bit of a generalisation but more or less true. Adult rooks have a bald patch at the base of their bills and also have a more ‘ baggy trousered ” appearance to the feathers at the top of their legs. If you get a chance it is well worth spending a few minutes watching  a flock of rooks –there is something almost human like in their interaction with each other —  squabbling, playing –exercising their dominance but  at heart  enjoying the company of each other. It reminds me of somewhere, I just can’t place it?

5 March

willow-warblerIt’s around time for the annual invasion of the warblers. These unremarkable looking little birds are in fact extremely remarkable   — they are the first of the summer migrants to arrive and thousands of them are at present battling the elements on their, perhaps two thousand mile journey to Britain. The first to arrive is usually the onomatopoeically named Chiff Chaff– In fact some may already have arrived although I haven’t heard one yet myself. This little greeny -brown bird is the Seasick Steve of the bird world — it only knows two notes and it repeats them over and over — but it’s another welcome sign of spring. Listen out for it, especially over by the north drive or in any mature deciduous woodland. In a couple of weeks time the other warblers will start to appear, the most common one being the Willow Warbler (Telor yr Helyg in Welsh). This is practically identical in appearance to the Chiff Chaff but has a beautiful melodious song. Another more uncommon one often found in Wales is the Wood Warbler, again extremely difficult to identify by sight (at least to me) but with a subtly different song.

In fact all the warblers look much the same and can be incredibly difficult to differentiate between. After spending a couple of hours with a rather nerdy friend, who was pointing out at great length the subtle difference between (I think) a Grasshopper Warbler and a Cetti’s Warbler (something about the colour of their legs I seem to recall) I have now given up and just enjoy them as little brown jobs that sing beautifully. I’ll never make a twitcher.