Category Archives: Nature

Early July dune flowers, more foraging

July already.  How on earth did that happen?  A sunny day today, and a welcome change from the recent wet weather.  The day before yesterday it wasn’t actually raining in the afternoon, although it had all morning, and the feeling of going stir-crazy after all the rain was immense, so it was a relief to go and see what else had come into flower in the sand dunes, which seem to be changing all the time.

 

The sea holly is just coming in to flower, one of my favourites (Eryngium marititinum).  There seems to be less of it in the dunes than in previous years, but that may just be an impression.  The leaves are a lovely silvery-blue colour and the flowers are a stunning powdery cornflower blue, forming little domes.  It loves full sun and dry coastal and rocky habitats.  Surprisingly, given its appearance, it is  a member of the carrot family.

Common/yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) looks so exotic, like an orchid, but is relatively commonplace.  It is a perennial that flowers between July and October.  Narrow leaves grow spirally up the stems.  The flower is two-lipped and only large long-tongued bees can push the two closed lips apart to reach the nectar.  Colloquial names include squeeze-jaw and bunny-mouth.  It likes open fields and sandy soils.

 

Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) is new to me.  It has many small dark crimson flowers, each with five petals, on hairy stems.  After flowering, the fruit is a spiked nutlet that starts green and goes through deep purple to brown.  They hook on to the fur of a passing animal.  The ones in the dunes were courteous enough to have both flowers and nutlets on show.

Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) grows on the wasteland and the edge of cultivated land and footpaths, with a preference for semi shade.  The toothed leaves look rather like nettles.  They grow up to 1m tall.   It was renowned from the 16th Century for its healing properties, and it has proved to be mildly antiseptic.  White markings on the lower lip of the two-lip flower guides bees to nectar.

Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) is a spreading perennial up to 1.5m tall.  It colonized bomb sites during the Second World War and became known as “fireweed.”  It spreads both by rhizomes and by seed, so where it is found, it is usually widespread, and the the rhizomes mean that a whole patch may actually be a single plant.  Delicate Four-petalled pink flowers with white stamens that climb the stem go over first at the bast and continue to be in bud at the top, meaning that they may stay in flower from June to September.  Its leaves used to be used as in infusion to substitute for tea.

Before flowering, old man’s beard, or traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba) looks just like clematis and is probably the next most widespread plant in the dunes after marram grass, hugging the lower lying areas.  It spreads over everything, and provides a natural protective home for the wild pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) that grows in the dunes.  The name old man’s beard refers to the hairy, air-born seed heads that appear in autumn and extend into winter.  The flower begins as a tiny, spherical white bud and bursts into lovely, starry white flowers with four white sepals and a burst of stamens.

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is common in the area,  in the hills, fields, wasteland, and in the dunes.  It is poisonous to birds, horses and cattle, particularly when dry, but for some reason sheep seem to be immune.  It may be either biennial or perennial.  Although it can be mistaken for goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) from the flower alone, the leaves are very different.  Where goldenrod has long, thin leaves, common ragwort’s leaves are untidy, dissected and multiple-lobed.  Senecio is almost the only specie that can be used for food by the day-flying red and black cinnabar moth’s (Tyria jacobaea) caterpillar, striped bright orange and black, absorbing the plant’s poison as a defense against birds.  In spite of the fact that they can be seen between May and August, there were none on view that day.

Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius) is a French perennial that has colonized many other countries.  A vigorous scrambling plant that uses tendrils to colonize hedges and shurbs.  It was brought from France to Britain as a garden plant and has gone native.  The flowers are larger than most of the other pea family of flowers, up to 3cm across, with shades of dark pink and purple.

Marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) is very similar to the more widespread wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris), but grows in marshy areas, whilst wall pennywort grows, as the names suggests, out of walls (and is widespread in Aberdovey).  This particular marsh pennywort was growing out of the side of one of the drainage streams on the golf course.  It is less waxy and succulent than wall pennywort, as it doesn’t need to store as much water.  Both are edible as leaves in salads and as garnishes with much the same flavour.  The flavour can be variable, so although it tastes a bit like cucumber, it can be bitter, and a leaf should be tasted before picking more.

White stonecrop (Sedum album) has now spread over huge areas of the lower parts of the sand dunes, particularly near the road where the sand is mixed with soil, its succulent leaves forming mats, and its white star-like flowers clustering at the top of the short, slender stems.  Drought tolerant, thanks to the succulent leaves that store water.  Like Sea rocket (Cakile maritima) it has apparently benefited from the lack of people around, colonizing areas that would otherwise be used for reaching the caravan park, the golf course and the beach.

The perennial sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima) and the orache are side by side at the edge of the dunes, both huge clumps, both common at the edges of sand dunes. Sea beet has a tall, spiky clumps of flowers straggling across the top of the plant.  Sea beet is both drought and saline tolerant.  It is the wild version of a version that was cultivated in the Middle East for its roots and leaves.  Sea beet is easily confused with fat hen (Chenopodium album) and both are members of the Chenopodiaceae, but the leaves have very different edges.  Sea beet leaves have a smooth, untoothed margin, whereas fat hen leaves look more like orache, with a toothed margin.  Sea beet is a popular foraging ingredient, with smaller, younger leaves used in salads and bigger leaves spinach in a tiny amount of water for a few minutes, like spinach.  Squeeze out the water, return to the pan with some butter, and you have a much tangier version of spinach.  On my to-do list.

 

Artemisia absinthium or wormwood seems to come in a variety of forms, many with a lot more foliage than this, but there are a lot of photographs of it online looking just like this.  Small fdsfsfas of tiny yellow flowers tit on a network of silvery stems with silvery leaves.  I haven’t put it to the test, because I didn’t know what it was when I took the photograph, but it is the primary flavouring of absinthe, much beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries.

The last triumph of the day was the discovery of some field mushrooms and some baby puffballs.  I had the puffballs tossed in butter and added at the last minute to a slow cooker stew with French smoked sausages, onion, garlic, dried ceps, savoy cabbage and peeled baby new potatoes.  The puffballs were mushroomy but delicate, a real treat.

Wild flowers in the sand dunes, a week on

As occasionally happens, I wrote this and then forgot to hit the Publish button, mainly because I meant to do more work on trying to find what the hawkweed-like plant actually is.  These photos were take on on the 20th June, just one week on from a previous visit.  If it ever stops raining, which seems doubtful right now, I’ll go and see what’s there now that we’re into early July.  Hopefully the sea holly will be in flower soon.

Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) is a perennial grass, reaching up to 120cm tall, each leaf touch and rolled, sharply pointed.  Ammos means sand, philos, loving in Greek; arena is latin for sand.  It is one of the most important sand-stabilizing species, forming large clumps with matted rhizome roots that help to prevent sand dune drift. They attract the Shore Wainscot moth (Mythimna litoralis), whose larvae feed exclusively on Marram, and the L-album Wainscot (Mythimna l-album) whose larvae feed mainly on Marram. The leaves were once valuable in local craft activities, woven into mats, used to make barn roofs, and to produce fishing nets.

Dune Brittlestem.  Psathyrella ammophila.  I often see these toadstools in the sand dunes, and these were two of a dispersed cluster of seven that I spotted, plus some very tiny ones. They have very dark brown gills. They grow at the base of marram grass, but in the absence of any other type of plant life.  Over time the cap begins to turn upwards, as shown here.  Apparently not poisonous, but has a very unpleasant flavour.

Sea bindweed (Clystegia soldanella) is a member of the convuvulus family.  The lovely pink and white striped flowers look like field bindweed, but are much bigger, and the kidney-shaped, slightly fleshy and waxy leaves quite different.   They spread from a rhizome that not only helps to fix them in the sand, but helps them to gather water, and helps to fix stabilize sand dune.  This was part of a fairly vast network very near the top of a very exposed sand dune, on the sheltered side.

Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae).  Lovely blue-back wings and bright red spots make this very easy to see when it is moving around in a flower.  There are two types of Five-Spot Burnet as well (Zygaena trifoli and lonicerae).  The rear wings, hidden hear under the forewings, are red with a black fringe.  They particularly like bird’s foot trefoil but can be found between June to August in most grassy areas and sand dunes, although I don’t recall seeing one in the dunes before.

Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias).  An upright perennial that inhabits sand dunes and rocks.  The tiny yellow flower is protected by large greenish bracts.  It has slightly succulent evergreen leaves that march up the stem and which, like all succulents, minimize water loss.  It’s poisonous.

Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum).  Well adapted to grassland, scrubland and sand dunes, it spread along the ground, its flowers sometimes slightly upright.  The leaves are distinctive, growing in whorls around the slender stems.  The flowers form in small branches of clusters.  Apparently it gets its name because it was used to stuff mattresses.  In Germany it is called Mary’s bedstraw because the Virgin Mary was supposed to have given birth on a mattress of bedstraw.  They have a slight aroma of honey, but when dry they small of hay.  It was used in cheese making in the past, as it contains an astringent that curdles milk.

The pyramidal orchids that were dotted around earlier in June, had spread widely through the lusher parts of foliage at the base of sand dunes, and were easily spotted.

Hawkbit, Hawkweed? They are all so similar that it’s impossible to tell, even with photographs of the underside as well.

Sea rocket (Cakile maritima).  An annual member of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae Mustard) family, which is happy in very barren areas, and can grow in unprotected sand, colonizing large areas if left undisturbed.  They combine succulent leaves that retain water with long taproots which search for water deep beneath the surface.  Flowers can be lilac, pink or white.  It does not object to being buried in sand for extensive periods, and its seeds can float unharmed on the sea.  The leaves, stems and flowers are edible and are rich in vitamin C but have a very bitter taste, so if using the leaves in salad, they are best used young.

Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre).  An evergreen perennial that forms mats with strong stems and short, thick and waxy succulent leaves that retain water.  It is drought tolerant, and is perfectly happy in inhospitable sand dunes and rock cracks.  Not poisonous, but not edible.

I always like to walk up Balkan Hill on the way back home, because the verges are an excellent mix of escapee garden plants and true wild flowers.

Gardeners will be very familiar with Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), which has a small, pretty flower and red-tinged leaves, but is ruthlessly invasive.  Fortunately it pulls out very easily with the root attached, but it spreads like crazy.  The leaves are slightly scented.  The name geranium derives from the Greek word Geranos, “crane,” referring to the long, beak-like carpels.

Dove’s Foot Crane’s-bill (Geranium molle).  An annual member of the geranium family, with explosive seed pods that spreads widely on wasteland, verges and sand dunes.

Great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum).  A common garden weed, as it spreads both by seed and rhizomes, giving it a great advantage.  It likes the damp, and in this case sits  where water runs down the side of the road into a drain.  the “hirsutum” in its botanical name refers to the tiny hairs on the stems.

A typical mixture of feral garden flowers growing along the edge of the road on Balkan Hill, with hydrangeas in a hedge growing outwards over a patch of evergreen Brachyglottis/Senecio, an import from New Zealand, attractive to gardeners because of its lovely silvery green- grey leaves.

 

Exploring the origins of Tal y Llyn lake (Lake Mwyngil)

Tal y Llyn from the northeast. Source: Coflein, catalogue number C868164

Introduction

This post explores why the Tal y Llyn lake and valley look the way they do.  This involves investigating its pre-glacial, glacial and post-glacial history to understand how major geological and geomorphological events and subsequent alluvial processes have modified the landscape until it has arrived at what we see today.

When I started writing this, I was going to wrap up this account with details about the human historic heritage of the valley, but there was far too much information to amalgamate into a single post.  There turned out to be more to say about the geology and geomorphology than I initially realized.  Then, the history of the relatively few buildings surrounding the lake proved to be far more difficult to track than I had anticipated. Finally, the Tal y Llyn slate quarries, in the hills to the east of the lake, also deserve a post of their own.  I have therefore separated the story of Tal y Llyn into three parts, and the second and third parts will come at a later date, yet to be written.

The OL23 Ordnance Survey map, part of which is shown below, shows the lake’s name as “Ta-y-Llyn Lake / Llyn Mwyngil.”  Tal y Llyn means “end of the lake,” which is the name of the cluster of buildings at the southwestern end of the lake.  I expect that eventually naming the lake after the buildings was much the same as the situation with the village of Bala, where the lake is often referred to as Lake Bala, when its real name is actually Llyn Tegid.  I have no idea what Mwyngil means.  My excellent book of Welsh Place-names is silent on the subject, my Welsh-English dictionary is no help, and Google Translate translates it, somewhat bewilderingly, as “Morelil.”   I’ve gone with the name Tal y Llyn, just because it is how it is most commonly referred to today.

Tal y LLyn shown on the Ordnance Survey OS23 Explorer map (annotated). Click to enlarge and see more detail.

The current form of the valley in which the Tal y Llyn lake sits is primarily the outcome of two great  events, millions of years apart.  The first is the creation of a major geological fault.  The second is the geomorphological action of the last glaciation, the Devensian (c.90,000 – 10,000 years ago).  Between them they created the ideal conditions for a ribbon lake.  A third impact on the appearance of the valley is alluvial processes that occur when rivers and streams enter the valley, dropping sediment as they enter the lake.

The Bala Fault (Bala Lineament and Tal y Llyn fault)

Photograph showing the line of the Tal y Llyn fault. Source: Coflein, catalogue C867365

 

Map of main structural elements of Wales, showing the Bala Fault (no.7). Source: Howe and Thomas 1963, p.xiv

What is often referred to as the Bala Fault extends from Cardigan Bay into the Upper Dee lowland and into the Vale of Clwyd at the Cheshire borders, as the map on the right shows.

Musson says that the Bala Fault is better described as a lineament (a linear feature), consisting of three sub-parallel faults trending northeast to southwest, and consisting of the Bryn Eglwys, Bala and Tal y Llyn Faults, all probably tectonically active for much of Lower Palaeozoic era (the Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian periods, c.541 – 419.2 million years ago).

These faults are tear or transform faults and occur when two pieces of the earth’s crust are moving horizontally relative to each other.  The resulting faults formed a lineament, a natural line for water to follow.  Over time, water courses carved out a series of valleys along the Bala lineament.

Tear/Transform Fault. Source: Howe and Thomas 1963, p.3

Howe and Thomas (1963, p.4) say that strata on the southern side of the fault have moved horizontally towards the east for a distance of about two miles.  This is particularly visible at Llanwychllyn, at the foot of Lake Bala.  The Bala lineament is easily traceable on an Ordnance Survey map.  The faults of the lineament separate the Snowdonia-Arennigs-Rhinog group of mountains from the Cadair Idris-Aran-Berwyn group.

The only coherent account I have managed to find of the fault, in spite of looking through various books and papers, is the following from Wikipedia.  There is, however, no indication as to where the author of the piece acquired the information, so although it sounds plausible, it is unverified at the moment.  I will update the post if I find more information:

The fault is thought to have initially formed during the opening of the Iapetus Ocean in late Precambrian times (>541 million years ago) when Laurentia (North America) and Baltica (Europe) separated. As the Iapetus Ocean began to open tension cracks opened in a NE-SW direction parallel to the continental margins. These eventually became the Bala Valley, the Menai Straits and the valley at Church Stretton along the line of the A49. Between the Menai fault and the Stretton fault the land sank, forming the Welsh Basin with the Bala fault possibly forming an underwater escarpment. . . . . The scale of geological movements in the deep past can be seen near Llanuwchllyn where the two sides of the fault would have to be slid back for a distance of two miles to get the geology on either side to line up.

Seismicity of North Wales. Source: Musson 2006, p.5.11

In January 1974 there was a report of a minor earthquake, magnitude 3.5, along the fault at Bala, followed by a more unusual phenomenon known as “earthquake lights.”  The earthquake was not particularly unusual.  A number of seismic events have been recorded in north Wales since the 1600s.  Although the Bala fault was originally suspected as the source of the earthquake, Musson (2006, p.5.15) concludes that “there are numerous north–south and east–west lineaments in and around the plausible epicentral area (as identified by the two instrumental locations and the macroseismic epicentre) and any of these could be the host feature for the Bala earthquake. . . . Consequently there is no evidence at present that the
Bala Lineament is active in any neotectonic sense, and it is unlikely that it would be in present stress conditions.”

The river valley along the Tal y Llyn Fault that preceded the last Ice Age supported a river, but not a lake. Before the last glaciation, the Tal y Llyn valley consisted of interlocking spurs, the river wending its way between them along the line of the fault.

The Glacial Valley

The valley’s appearance is very different today from its days as a pre-glacial river valley, and that’s thanks to the last major cold phase, the Loch Lomond Stadial or Readvance (c.11,000-10,000 years ago) during the last, Devensian glaciation (c.90,000 – 10,000 years ago).  Episodes of glaciation are characterized by warmer (interstadial) and colder (stadial) phases, with later episodes frequently wiping out most traces of earlier ones.

River valley before and after glaciation. Source: Howe and Thomas 1963 p.77

In the case of Tal y Llyn, the late Devensian glacier travelled down the line of the fault, the line of least resistance, and carved out a broadly u-shaped, or more accurately parabolic profile, smoothing valley sides where previously there were interlocking spurs.  At the same time it scoured the base of the valley.  The erosional impact of the ice on the profile of the valley is particularly stark on southeastern side of the lake, where Mynydd Rugug, Graig Goch and Mynydd Cedris drop steeply towards the lake, the slopes carved dauntingly into a single, flattened profile scarred with steeply dropping streams.  This is clearly visible in the photograph below, where the landslip is marked.  On the other side of the valley the erosion was less drastic, although still severe, and some truncated spurs are still just visible.  At the same time, the abrasive and scouring effect of the glacier, as it carved its way through the valley, lowered the level of the valley floor.  Throughout the Devensian, during the summer months water will have escaped the glacier in the form of meltwater, draining down the valley, finding its way across the earlier floodplain.

Photograph of Tal y Llyn, annotated to show the landslip scar and some of the debris that blocked the glacial trough, allowing the ribbon lake to form. Source: Coflein, catalogue number C868164

Unlike similar-looking ribbon lakes much like many of the Lake District lakes (e.g. Windemere) and Scottish lochs (e.g. Loch Lomond, which also sits on the line of a geological fault), Tal y Llyn does not sit in a conventional glacial trough in a rock basin, but was formed due to its southwest end being blocked.  A post-glacial land slippage deposited huge blocks of material from the southeastern hillside at the foot of the lake into the valley bottom.  There it formed a barrier where the lake now ends at the Pen y Bont hotel, described by Shakesby as “neither of bedrock nor of moraine, but of a huge mass of fractured and disarranged blocks” (1990, p.64).  This was discovered by Watson in the early 1960s, and described by him as follows:

In the part of the bar north-west of the river, the surface is moundy, but smoother and in clean pasture except for gorse patches on the mound summits. There is almost everywhere a complete turf cover but immediately underneath, on each mound top, are closely packed angular mudstone fragments similar to the debris found immediately overlying rock. That the smooth fields could lie on rock is proved by the road-side exposures north-west of the church. Occasional scars on tracks show rock or angular rock debris while three shallow pits dug to a depth of 18 inches showed the same rock debris on the slope bounding the bar to the south-west. On the slope behind Maes-y-pandy Farm, rock with varying cleavage direction is exposed.

As Shakesby’s comment above suggests, until Watson’s 1962 paper in the Transactions and Papers of the Institute of British Geographers, this blockage was incorrectly thought to have been either bedrock or a terminal moraine (debris pushed by the leading edge of the glacier, and dumped when the glacier stops moving forwards), or both.  The landslip left an enormous scar above the scree and rockfall, above the foot of the lake, which according to Shakesby was caused by the retreat of the glacier, “leaving the valley sides, over-steepened by glacial erosion, in an unsupported condition prone to collapse.”  The Tal y Llyn lake formed behind this landslip barrier.

There is extensive periglacial activity at the head of the lake, where extensive broken rocks rest on bedrock, accompanied by extensive scree.  Periglaciation is the process whereby areas under ice are subjected to successive phases of warming, thawing melting and re-freezing, which causes cracks in the rock.  Eventually the cracks cause rocks to break away and drop towards the valley bottom.

Hanging valleys, fast streams and alluvial build-up

Stream entering Tal y Llyn at Pentre Farm, crossing the alluvial fan. Source: Geograph, Des Blenkinsopp

Tal y Llyn is a form of ribbon lake 220 acres in surface area, with an average depth of 8ft (c2.5m) and maximum depth of 12ft (c.3.6m).  The head of the lake is fed by a number of smalls steams fed by the flanking slopes.  The main streams that feed the lake are Nant Yr Allt-ioen, which travels along the valley below the A487 where it runs through the Tal y Llyn pass; the Nant Cadair stream that runs out of Llyn Cau on Cadair Idris, dropping steeply to the valley floor; the stream and waterfall that flows down Cwm Amarch, above Pentre Farm on the northeast side of the lake; and Nant Cildydd, and another small stream from the east.  There are two stream emerging from a freshwater springs, almost opposite each other at the far northeast and northwest of the lake.

A stream plummeting down Cwm Amarch, above Pentre Farm, on the northeast side of the lake on a very rainy day in late June 2020

The main streams feeding into Tal y Llyn, showing a footpath that crosses all of the major streams. Source: GPS-routes.co.uk

Tal y Llyn northwest end of the lake, showing how the build up of sediment has been converted into fields, and showing a patch of brown where boggy marsh meets the lake.  Source:  Coflein, catalogue C650435

These streams pass through a large flat area of green fields used for grazing, that becomes brownish boggy marsh where it meets the lake, shown very clearly in the photograph to the right.  This flat zone is the result of a build-up of alluvium dropped by steep and hanging streams, and is still expanding into the lake.  The alluvial flats are created by the sudden slowing of the water as it hits the valley floor, a common feature with hanging valleys, where water drops sharply down a hillside.  As soon as water stops falling and hits the flat valley surface, it slows down and instead of carrying material downstream, it drops it.  The heaviest particles are dropped first, with lighter components dropped further downstream, and slowly these built up to form an alluvial plain.  Where streams drop particularly steeply towards a river or lake, this effect is exaggerated.

Alluvial delta in front of Pentre Farm. Source: Geograph by Bill Rowley.

In the case of Tal y Llyn, the valley was carved out by a glacier, lowering the level of the floor beneath the level of the tributary streams, leaving “hanging valleys,” steep, narrow v-shaped stream beds that drop sharply towards the the erosional valley floor.  The streams flow with great speed down these hanging valleys towards the floor below, and slow abruptly when they hit the flat base of the glacial valley, dropping much of their load.  This build-up of river sediment extends along the north-west side, under Cadair Idris, towards the middle of the lake where it develops into a broadly fan-shaped delta in front of Pentre Farm.  This build up of sediment has considerably constricted the width at the top half of the lake and has reduced its length.  It is easy to see, in the above photographs, that this process is ongoing and unstoppable.  Eventually the lake will fill completely with alluvial deposits.

Lithograph of the lake by Samuel Prout, 1783-1852. Source: Wikipedia

The foot of the lake opens out into the Afon/River Dysynni at the Pen y Bont hotel, through the landslip.  It is crossed by the B4405 between the Pen y Bont hotel and St Mary’s church.  The bridge is a very different affair from the one shown in this picture dating to the first half of the 19th Century.  The river wends its way through its floodplain, along the fault line, as far as Abergynolwyn, where it joined by the Nant Gwernol and turns away from the fault line,  instead heading to the northeast before again changing direction with a turn into the Dysynni valley (Dyffryn Dysynni), where it is joined by Afon Cadair before resuming its southwestern course parallel to the fault line.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OS23 showing the path of the river Dysynni as it changes course, having flowed out of Tal y Llyn to the northeast. I’ve loosely sketched the path of the course change in a deeper blue so that it can be seen more clearly.

Dramatic, informative and very beautiful aerial view towards Tal Y Llyn in the background at the northwest with Abergynolwyn clearly visible as a white strip of buildings to the south of the lake, with part of the village hidden behind the large tree-covered spur (Mynydd Rhiwerfa) that intrudes into the valley.  The river turns westwards before the spur at Abergynolwyn. The B4405 continues down the former river valley, following the line of the fault.  The tiny cluster of white buildings in the foreground is Dolgoch. Nant Dolgoch flows into the Afon Fathew, which in turn flows into the Dysinni near Bryncrug, not far from the river’s mouth. Source: Coflein, catalogue number C821258

The Dysynni is another, and far more complicated story and will be covered on a future post.

Sources:

Howe, G.M. and Thomas, P. 1963.  Welsh Landforms and Scenery.  Macmillan

Etienne, J.L., Hambrey, M.J., Gasser, N.F. and Jansson, K.N. 2005.  West Wales.  In Lewis, C.A and Richards, A.E. The glaciations of Wales and adjacent areas.  Logaston Press

Harris, C. Periglacial landforms.  In (ed.) Stephens, N. Natural Landscapes of Britain from the Air. Cambridge University Press

Musson R.M.W. 2006. The enigmatic Bala earthquake of 1974. Astronomy & Geophysics, Volume 47, Issue 5, October 2006, p.5.11–5.1
https://academic.oup.com/astrogeo/article/47/5/5.11/231627

Shakesby, R. 1990.  Landforms of glacial and fluvioglacial deposition.  In (ed.) Stephens, N. Natural Landscapes of Britain from the Air. Cambridge University Press

Watson, E. 1962.  The Glacial Morphology of the Tal-y-llyn Valley, Merionethshire. Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers) No. 30 (1962), published by Wiley on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), p. 15-31.

Websites:

Coflein website

 

A late afternoon stroll in the hills behind Aberdovey, with wildflowers

Monday at 4pm was looking dicey.  I started out in a light rain coat, because it was spitting fairly firmly and the sky looked ominous, but thankfully it stopped.  I rolled up my coat and put it in my rucksack, the sun came out, and we had no rain for the rest of the two and a half hour walk.  The combination of sun and cloud in the late afternoon made for some very nice contrasts in the scenery, and the wild flowers were splendid.  The foxgloves, which have been rampant for weeks, have truly come into their own in the hills behind Aberdovey, and were really rather spectacular.  Another terrific walk without another person in sight.  There were a lot of sheep and lambs around, the lambs now fairly stocky.  On the other side of the valley, cattle were grazing on the hillside.  We saw several tiny frogs in a narrow stretch of water where there had been tadpoles earlier in the year, and a couple of rabbits on the return leg of the journey at the top of the hill, and could here the larks singing.  Apart from the glorious views, the main source of interest was the wildflower population.

The foxgloves dotted around in the new green bracken provide lovely splashes of colour at the moment.

This is not in flower yet, but looks from its leaves and its spikes like wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia).  It should flower between July and September, producing creamy-yellow lipped flowers.  It is a member of the mint family.  It is drought tolerant, and is often found in coastal areas including sand dunes.

English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum)
A succulent acid-loving 5-petalled perennial, flowering from May to August.  Retaining water in its waxy leaves allows it to tolerate dry environments and poor soil and to survive drought conditions.  The leaves may turn red if it is exposed to a great deal of sun, a protective chemical response to sunlight, which can damage green chlorophyll.  To protect itself from wind-scorch, it grows very low to the ground.

Sheep’s-bit (Jasione montana)
Sometimes called Sheep’s-bit scabious, this is actually a perennial member of the campanula family, even though it has no obvious resemblance to the usual bell-flowered character of campanulaceae and at first glace looks much more like a true scabious.  Unlike scabious, it has small, alternate hairy leaves. and tiny narrow petals.  According to the Wildlife Trusts website, pollinating insects, which see a different light spectrum to humans, find it highly visible under ultraviolet (UV) light, and use the patterns and colours on the petals to guide them to the nectar and pollen.  It usually starts flowering in July, but thanks to the remarkably warm spring, a lot of species are flowering early.  It likes a wide variety of environments, including dry grassland, and is often found in coastal areas.  It is an excellent pollinator.

Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion/Epilobium angustifolium).
Also known as “fireweed” because it colonized burned and scorched sites, and “bombweed” due to its expansion on World war I and II bomb sites.  Heat from this type of site assists with the germination process.  It has rhizomes, so a single large patch can be one plant. Its seeds also establish themselves freely, each fitted with cotton-like ‘parachutes’ that carry them over long distances. The Latin “angustifolium” simply means narrow-leaved.  It is a biennial that flowers from June to September.  Its leaves are edible and have a wide range of uses.  For more on the multiple uses, see the Wikipedia page dedicated to Rosebay willowherb.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)
One of my books says that the dark violet flowers have a hooked upper lip that in the 16th century was supposed to look like a sickle, so according to the doctrine of signatures, it was believed to men wounds from sickles and billhooks.  Although there were one or two isolated examples in verges, this perennial has creeping roots and in open grassland and on heaths usually grows in patches from June to November.  The Latin “vulgaris” means common.  They are pollinated by long-tongued bees.

A tiny frog, about 3cm long, in a very small stream where we had seen tadpoles earlier in the year.  There were several of these little amphibians, and they would have been completely invisible if they hadn’t hopped around, their damp skin catching the light.  It’s a lousy photograph, because I was trying to hold back some grass with one hand and steady the camera and focus it with the other, but you can just about make it out.

Marsh Thistle (Cirsium palustre)
Like most thistles, this has spiny protection both around its clusters of flowers and along its stem, and even has spiny leaves.  It looks fairly lethal to unprotected hands and judging by its proliferation, it is a good defense against being eaten by sheep, cattle and rabbits.  It was spread all over the hillsides, and it is easy to identify from a distance due to its distinctive form.  As its name indicates (“palustris” means of marshes), it prefers damp conditions and meadows, but seems to be doing well at the moment, even after the recent drought conditions.  It is biennial (flowering every other year), pollinated by bees and butterflies, and usually flowers between July and September.

Occasional white examples of the purple marsh thistle were dotted around.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Foxgloves are going mad at the moment, in verges, in amongst the bracken or as here, on disturbed ground.  They began flowering in early May, although they don’t usually appear until June, and flower until September.  The foliage is poisonous, which is probably why in Wales it is known as elves’ fingers or gloves, and in Ireland it is called fairy thimbles.

Bittersweet or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
All parts of the plant are poisonous but in humans usually cause only upset stomachs.  The latin species name “dulcamara” means sweet-bitter, which describes the bitter taste, followed by a sweet after-taste.  In Germany physicians used it as a cure for rheumatism and it was hung around the necks of cattle to ward off evil.   It flowers from June to September and is happy in hedgerows and woods.  After flowering it produces egg-shaped berries that start off green, as above, and slowly become a bright, shiny red.

This is tiny, just a few millimeters across.  I still haven’t tracked it down but will update this page when I do.

White foxglove (Digitalis)
The hills are covered in the distinctive purple spikes of Digitalis purpurea (“purpurea” means purple) at the moment, so the appearance of a single, pure white foxglove, near the stream in Happy Valley, was something of a novelty.

Afon Dyffryn Gwyn in Happy Valley.  Afon means river, but it’s more like a big stream. Dyffryn means valley, and Gwyn can mean white, fair or blessed.  The water is always beautifully clear.  In the shallow stretches by the ford, where the plunging track meets the valley floor, well-camouflaged fish can be spotted maintaining position in line with the flow, as below.  Most of them were about an inch long, but this one was about four inches.

The stream was being visited by cows and their calves, all calling to each other in loud, low, resonating voices.

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
Beautifully-scented, honeysuckle has evolved to attract pollinating moths.  When the flowers go over, clusters of red berries replace them.  They flower from June to October.  This was was growing in a hedge by the side of the road leading up to the Panorama.  Lonicera is named for the German botanist Adam Lontzer (1528 -1586), and periclymenum is the term for honesuckle, derived from Greek.

Dog rose (Rosa canina)
Although similar in appearance to the bramble flower, the distinctive heart-shaped petals of the dog rose make it easily distinguishable.  It climbs through hedges and bushes, lending colour to otherwise unremarkable shrubs.  The white petals are often tinged with pale pink, as in this example.  After flowering a red rosehip is produced, and as well as being eaten by animals and birdds can be used to make rose-hip syrup, which has high quantities of vitamin C, and can be used to produce wine and liqueur.  It flowers from June to July.

The Afon Leri and the 5000 year old Cors Fochno peatland with the hills of Cerdigion rising behind.  A shame about the disfiguring wind farm on the otherwise undisturbed hillsides, but you can’t have everything!

View from the top of the hill across to the cliffs of Ceredigion, looking very beautiful under the gathering clouds

Wildflower information sources used in this post:

The Wildlife Trusts – Wildflowers
https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers

Grey-Wilson, G. Wild 1994. Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe.  Dorling Kindersley

Fletcher, N. 2004. Pocket Nature Wild Flowers.  Dorling Kindersley

Spencer-Jones, R. and Cuttle, S. 2005.  Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland.  Kyle Books

 

A gull’s egg in my garden – how eggshell pigment is formed

I caught sight of this broken egg shell when I was checking my back lawn for stones and large twigs prior to mowing.  Quite what it was doing in the middle of my lawn I have no idea, but it is beautiful, with a remarkable set of muted colours.  I had never seen one before.  It took me a while of following hyperlinks (most of which were about eating gulls’ eggs) before I found an explanation of how the colours are formed, on the All About Birds website in an article by Pat Leonard entitled The Beauty and Biology of Egg Colour:

An egg’s story begins in a female bird’s single ovary. When an ovum is released into the oviduct and fertilized, it is just a protein-packed yolk. The albumen—the gelatinous egg white—is added next. The blobby mass then gets plumped up with water and encased in soft, stretchy membrane layers. The first globs of the calcium carbonate shell are then deposited on the exterior, with the mineral squirting from special cells lining the shell gland (uterus). Pigmentation, if any, comes next, with an overall protein coating added before the egg is laid. It takes about 24 hours to build a single egg.

In his book, The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, University of Sheffield zoologist Tim Birkhead compares the pigmentation process to an array of “paint guns.” Each gun is genetically programmed to fire at a certain time so that the signature background color and spotting of a species’ eggs is produced.

“Examination of birds’ oviducts at the time the color is placed on the egg suggests that the color is produced and released over a very short time frame,” Birkhead says, “usually in the last few hours before the egg is laid, and that makes it very hard to study.”

Despite the variety of egg colors and patterns, the palette is surprisingly small. Egg pigments are versatile substances made of complex molecules synthesized in a bird’s shell gland. Only two pigments are at work. Protoporphyrin produces reddish-brown colors. Biliverdin produces shades of blue and green. More of one pigment, less of the other, and the egg gets a different background color, spots of a different color, or a combination of both.

The speckling is thought to be camouflage, to disguise the egg and hide it from potential predators, and is common to nearly all foreshore birds.

There is loads more truly fascinating information in the article.  Did you know, for example, that an egg loses 18 percent of its mass, on average, between laying and hatching, mostly from water loss through shell pores. Or that up to 10 percent of the calcium used for shell formation can come from the female’s bones.  The article is well written and is well worth reading, so if you have a moment do go and have a look.

 

An interloper on the goldfinch feeder

Warfare often breaks out on the goldfinch feeder in the cherry tree.  This is usually the case when the seed runs low and four or more goldfinches are attempting to beat each other off in order to gain access to the last three inches.  Sometimes battle ensues because one bird is a particular bully and attempts to drive the others off to have the whole feeder to itself.   It never wins – the others gang up and stand up for their rights.  The signal for any dispute is a change of voice.  Goldfinches chatter all the time, a light, attractive and cheerful sound that one of my bird books describes as “tinkling.”  When battle ensues, the sound is a harsh, brittle, discordant squawking sound.  But I had never heard the likes of the noise that emanated from the cherry tree a couple of days ago, when all hell broke loose.

I was working at my desk, and the noise was so loud, so intensely shrill and angry and issued by so many birds that I was startled, and turned round to see what on earth was going on.  A greenfinch had landed.  Looking robust and unwieldy by comparison with the delicate, flitting goldfinches, it attached itself firmly to the bird feeder and remained stolidly unimpressed by all the fuss.  Eventually the riot eased, and a few goldfinches took up wary position on the feeder and began to resume their meals, whilst others remained perched on branches, watching.  In spite of the apparent resumption of peace, there was no sound at all.  The goldfinches were eating, but they weren’t happy.  They were there in an uneasy state of truce for around an hour.  The greenfinch left and hasn’t, as far as I know, returned.

Aberdovey beach with the clouds gathering, wild orchids and good company

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Thank goodness for my friend Caroline who came round to drop something off yesterday afternoon.  I was not at my best with a stinging eye infection, and when she asked if I wanted to accompany her on a walk I felt so grim that I wasn’t at all sure it was a good idea, but I was so fed up of being stuck in the house that I simply grabbed my sunglasses and bag, and went with both gratitude and relief.  As it happens, the salty breeze did my eyes a power of good, and by the time I returned to the house, things were amazingly improved.

As we walked down the hill, maintaining diligent social-distancing, which we did for the entire walk, the weather looked iffy.  Although there were a few white fluffy clouds and some blue patches, the sky was dominated by deep blue-black monsters that were edging closer all the time.  We were lucky – it didn’t rain, and even though the wind got up it was relatively warm.  We started off with an ice cream each from The Sweet Shop, and then headed to the beach.  The lighting was stunning, with the sun blazing intermittently through gaps in the clouds, and the colours were wonderful.  As we threaded our way back towards Aberdovey through the sand dunes, the wild flowers were stunning.  The highlight was probably the wild orchids, which Caroline knew where to find, but there was so much else to see too.

Sea Bindweed (Calystegia soldanella), with deep green, loosely funnel-shaped leaves that are fleshy and retain water.  A member of the convolvulus family.

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis).  I had never seen one before, but apparently it is one of the most common of the wild orchids, and can be found on just about any calcareous soil, including any sand that contains at least 1% CaC03 (calcium
carbonate) by weight.  Insanely pretty.

Lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum)

Lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum)

Female stonechat (Saxicola torquata).  There were a pair of them, a male and female, very vocal and jumping from bush to bush, presumably trying to draw attention away from their nest.

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare).  The flowers change from pink to violet as they mature. There were lots of them in the more open ground near the car park, which fits in with their preference for dry open spaces, sand and disturbed soil.

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) are succulents, their leaves retaining moisture.

Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum)

Common restharrow (Ononis repens).  The flower looks like a member of the pea (vetch – Fabaceae) family, but the leaves seemed all wrong.   It is in fact a vetch, creeping along the dune floor with small hairy leaves.  According to the Wildlife Trust website, “common restharrow has extremely tough, thick roots that spread in a dense network and, during the days of horse-drawn cultivation, could stop (‘arrest’) a harrow in its tracks.” Apparently, when eaten by cattle it taints dairy products. The roots are reputed to taste like liquorice when chewed.

Unidentified at the moment, but when it flowers matters might become clearer.  It may turn out to be Hound’s Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)

Sea rocket (Cakile maritima), a member of the mustard family.

Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias).

 

Video: Goldfinches feeding in high winds

The high winds recently have been a challenge for some of the local garden birds.  When I did this video the weather was dry but wow what a gale!  I had to strap my bins down with bungees to prevent them flying down the hill.  I am always entertained by the way that the goldfinches take all sorts of weather in their stride, but this was particularly fun.  The cherry tree looked like a whirlpool of movement, but the bird feeder was remarkably still, and the goldfinches were apparently oblivious to the the surrounding chaos, scoffing away with admirable dedication.  Sadly there are only muted sounds of the wind, because I’m not daft and was safely indoors when I shot this 🙂

 

Video: For absent visitors deprived of the sea at Aberdovey

A little video (four and a bit minutes), to bring back the sounds as well as the sights of the seaside at Aberdovey.  The crystal clear waters of the estuary and the sea peaceful under a clear blue sky on a very peaceful May day.  Whenever I was absent from Aberdovey for long periods, long before I moved here, it was the the sea that I most missed, so I put this together for regular visitors who may be missing it as much as I did.

 

 

Late spring in the hills above Aberdovey

The hills behind Aberdovey are always particularly spectacular on fine day, with broad strokes of colour given a bright sparkle by the sun.  Eyes down, and there are wildflowers everywhere, tiny explosions of concentrated intensity.  It always astounds me how such delicate little things can stand up to their exposed position and the extremes of the weather.  Tiny pale butterflies replace the big, glossy garden species, and everywhere there is birdsong even though the birds themselves are often invisible.

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chaemaedrys)

A patch of Wild Pansy (Viola Tricolor), also known as Heartsease

Wild Pansy (Viola Tricolor)

Heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis)

It is difficult to see what this is, but it may be a whinchat (Saxicola rubetra).  The colouring is right, with a flick of white at the base of the head (visible when I lightened the image in Photoshop), and its preferred habitat is open ground, moorland and mountain plains.  It is found throughout most of Wales, but is a summer visitor, migrating to central Africa.

Stonechat (Saxicola Torquata).  One of my books described its call as a metallic ‘whit sac sac’ which sounds like stones being smacked together.”  It favours low vegetation such as gorse and thickets.  I had never seen one before, so was particularly pleased to see it.

Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus).  Double-brooded, appearing in early summer and then again in late summer.  Found in unimproved grassland and coastal areas.

Dune Pansy (Viola tricolor ssp. curtsii).  Favours dry coastal grassland areas.

Sea mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum)