Category Archives: Nature

Day trip: Ynyslas and Borth in February

On a lovely day, quite unprecedented for February, I decided to go a bit further afield than my usual strolls on Aberdovey beach and go to Ynyslas.  I had been meaning to go for a long time.

Ynyslas carries with it the novelty of parking on the beach.  There is a nominal fee when the visitor centre is open (from Easter to the end of September), but it is free in the winter months when the visitor centre is closed.   The drive to Ynyslas from Aberdovey takes about 40 minutes via Machynlleth, and of course you are driving in a loop around the Dyfi estuary because Ynyslas is immediately opposite Aberdovey.  There used to be a passenger ferry between the two, which had been operated for centuries, but eventually became redundant when the railway was built and the roads improved to handle the growing number of cars.

Visitor Centre, Ynyslas

Ynyslas is a nature reserve, properly entitled the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and Visitor Centre and as well as the sand dunes and the beach,  includes the Cors Fochno raised peat bog, which is of international importance.  I have only been to Ynyslas once before, and then only very briefly when it was an exploratory mission tacked on to a visit to the terrific mill at Furnace (covered on a previous post).  The visitor centre was open then, and had stacks of books on tables for visitors to consult, information boards, and a good collection of relevant books, greetings cards and small toys to buy, as well as a coffee and tea machine.  Considerate to out of season visitors there is a big board outside, by the entrance, showing the layout of the nature reserve, with the paths clearly marked.

Out of season Ynyslas is virtually empty of bodies, just a few dog walkers in the dunes and rather more on the beach.  I decided to do the circular walk that leads through the dunes, out on to a stretch of beach, and then back along the mouth of the estuary to the car. The dunes are of particular interest because they demonstrate all the stages of dune formation and growth, and there are multiple types including both fixed and mobile dunes. There was not a lot to see other than marran grass at this time of year, but come the spring there will be all sorts of flowering plants and insects to see including wild orchids, mosses, liverworts, fungi, insects and spiders.

 

Fringe of pebbles between the dunes and the beach at Ynyslas

Where the path tips you out on the beach there is a big ribbon of huge rounded grey pebbles that lies between you and the vast, eternal vistas of sand.  You need to be a bit careful as they shift constantly underfoot.  Once safely installed on the beach there is tons to see, and it is quite different from the stretch between Tywyn and Aberdovey.  For one thing, there is a sense that you can see forever down the beach along Cardigan Bay.  It is a very wide, open stretch of beach, with the waves chasing each other up the sand in long white-topped lines for as far as the eye can see.

Ynyslas beach (click to enlarge)

Before the beach reaches the estuary, the sand is largely uninterrupted by the mass of small cockle, razor clam and tellin shells that scrunch underfoot on the stretches on the north side of the estuary.  Instead, there are occasional shells of a completely different character, and even the usual species like cockles are generally much larger.  Gigantic Icelandic cyprine and common otter shells are dotted around, big common whelks are a frequent sight and the pod razor clams reach their maximum lengths along this section of beach.  Of the smaller species the limpets were a pleasant surprise, as were needle whelks and acorn barnacles.  Some of the shells contained keelworm tubes (spirobranchus).  In the sand itself there were dozen upon dozen of sandhopper burrows.  I was surprised at how many articulated bivalves I found, both halves still connected, including well preserved cockles

The Icelandic cyprine (Artica islandica, also known as the ocean quahog) is particularly fascinating.  It has a dark brown periostratacum (outer skin of a shell) and lives so long that it is amongst the longest living of any animal – up to 500 years.  Amazing to think that an Icelandic cyprine shell could have contained a creature that was alive when Shakespeare was writing.  The oldest known, its age determined by counting growth rings, was 507, and was nicknamed Hafrún (c. 1499–2006) .  This example is 10cm (4 inches) from top to bottom.

Dog whelks (Nucella lapillus), which are lovely to look at and beautifully constructed along a spiral axis, are actually somewhat stomach-churning in their feeding habits.  Like all gastropods, whelks have a toothed tongue called a radula.  They use it to drill through the shells of other gastropod, and produce a chemical to help with the process.  Once the shell has been pierced, they inject other chemicals into the shell cavity to paralyze and liquefy their prey before extracting it through the hold in the shell.  You can spot the holes in shells on the strandline.

One of the whelks had keelworm (Spirobranchus) tubes.  These calcareous tubes are made by the keel worm with an open and closed end.  The open end allows it to put out tentacles with which it feeds on organic detritus, whilst safely armoured in its shell.  Like keelworm tubes, barnacle shells are also found on shells of other organisms.  There were several examples of acorn barnacles at Ynyslas, like the dog whelk in the above photograph, all in clusters because barnacles form colonies.

Sandhopper burrows (click to enlarge)

Sandhoppers (Talitrus salafor) are interesting too.  At around 20mm in length, they look rather like fleas, with their backs arched.  They live in burrows at depths up to 30cm and emerge at night to feed on the strandlines.  Although they live on the strandline they are terrestrial and cannot survive in the water so when the tide comes in they dive into their burrows, backfilling with sand to plug the passage and protect themselves.  They are targeted by some species of wading birds.

I found two nursehound eggcases, which I dutifully reported to the Shark Trust.  One of them was partially covered with what look like tiny shells, as well as some keelworm tubes.  I thought at first that the shells might the blue-rayed limpet (Patella pellucidum) but quite apart from the fact that they are the wrong shape, I cannot see any of the radiating blue lines that ought to be present if this identification were correct.  Perhaps they are very early on in the growth cycle.

The limpets are common in some areas, but I have never seen one at Aberdovey.  There were plenty on the beach at Ynyslas.  Like dog whelks they have a toothed radula, but they infinitely more friendly to other species.  They feed on algal spores left behind when the tide recedes, and in clearing patches of seaweed they create opportunities for other species to colonize rocks, increasing biodiversity along the seashore.

 

Ducks

As I returned towards the car I thought I could hear oyster catchers, but all I could see were ducks.  If you are a refugee from an urban environment, like me, you might associate ducks with the coarse quacking of mallards, but these sounded more like oyster catchers, with a a high-pitched peeping noise as you can hear in the video.  They were feeding in the marsh grasses in the muddy zone at the edge of the estuary waters.

The views from Ynyslas towards Aberdovey, as you round the corner from the open sea into the estuary, are breathtaking, particularly on a gloriously sunny day.  Beyond the town you can see down the Dyfi, a long peaceful arc of water flanked by low hills.

Aberdovey from Ynyslas

The BBC website has a good suggested walk beginning at Ynyslas, which goes further than I did and can take up to three hours.  The Natural Resources Wales website gives more information about what to see at Ynyslas, and it offers a number of suggested walks of different durations.  I plan to return to do the Cors Fochno walk, and to do another dune walk when there will be plants in flower.

I drove past the golf course into Borth for a quick stroll along the seafront, overlooking the pebble beach and rolling waves.  Now a seaside town, it used to be the main source of sailors for the local shipping trade in the 19th Century.

Borth

 

Vintage Postcards #26 Cadair Idris

Cadair Idris, the Chair of Idris, the local giant, is a dominant feature of the area.  I’ve walked to the summit a number of times on the Minffordd Path, but that was many years ago and I’ve no idea where those photographs are now.  When spring arrives it will certainly be time to do it again.  The first photograph (Valentine’s AG105), which is unused, superbly captures the solid mass of Cadair Idris, its massive presence.  The sharp outcrop in the foreground is both a great piece of photographic composition and a reminder of the enormous geological forces that lifted up the Welsh hill ranges.  Below it, a well-used track carves a route well into the distance.

Painting of Pen y Gader, the summit of Cadair Idris,  by Thomas Compton 1812-1818 (lithographer Daniel Havell). Source: Wikipedia, via the National Library of Wales

Cadair Idris was a popular destination from at least the late 1700s, when tourists were first attracted to Llyn Cau, the glacial cwym lake.  Llyn Cau has attracted tourists ever since, and it became a popular destination throughout the 19th Century.  Richard Wilson painted Llyn Cau in the late 1700s, and early 19th Century artists continued to produce various interpretations of Cadair Idris, including Edward Pugh (1816), John Skinner Prout (1830), Samuel Jackson (1833) and Sidney Richard Percy (1874).  A painting by Compton is shown here on the left, and some other examples can be seen on the Campaign for National Parks website.  A few brave souls reached the summit, like Thomas Compton who painted it in the early 19th Century.  At 2927 feet the summit and highest point of of Cadair Idris is called Pen Y Caer.

What is remarkable about the summit postcard to the right is that the women reached the summit in those long skirts!  What a nightmare, even if they took one of the easier routes.   All were sensibly armed with sticks, but their footwear is hidden from sight.  They look as though they are heading out for a shoot.  That photograph (Valentine’s 32025), was postmarked1918.  The message on the back, sent to Derby, says that the writer hopes to climb it one night!  The mind boggles, quite frankly.

Photographs today of Tal y Llyn, Llanuwchllyn and Bala

On my travels today I was lucky enough to see some remarkable weather.  Things started out with a sky so blue and a sun so yellow that the colours seemed almost fantasy-land.  The grass was white-topped and scrunched under foot when I left the house, and the air was so cold that it froze my breath.   It was a challenge, after turning right at Bryncrug and heading towards Tal y Llyn, to keep my eyes on the road, because the scenery was so glorious as it emerged from its icy white lace.  Tal y Llyn itself was simply spectacular, mirroring the sun-lit south-facing slopes in a near-perfect reflection.  At this time of year the contrast between sunny colours and black shadows is dramatic.

Tal y Llyn

As I approached Llanuwchllyn, which sits at the foot of Llyn Tegid (Lake Bala) and according to the Visit Bala website means “Church at the top of the lake,” there were fascinating horizontal bands of cloud sitting above the ground and beneath the hilltops.  On the south-facing slopes these were against bright hillside colours and blue skies.  On the north-facing slopes they sat above trees and fields still spiked with frost, the sun so bright that the sky seemed silver against the darkness of the hills.  My lovely Canon digital SLR (known for reasons lost in the mists of time as Josephine The Second) turned out to be impossible to get to in a hurry, so I used the little Sony that I keep in my handbag.  It struggled desperately with some of the lighting conditions, but I have posted the photos anyway because they do capture something of the magic.

 

 

These strands of white mist presaged, to my surprise and dismay, a tediously dreary fog.  Ahead of me a car was just a ghostly shape, and beyond that any other vehicles were a mere suggestion.  The lake was invisible.  I had been expecting to stop and take photographs of another beautiful mirror image, another spectacular vista, but beyond the road that runs along its north bank there was nothing but a dense veil of unvarying, damp, impenetrable murk.  In the picture below, where I pulled the car over, I am standing at the water’s edge.  Normally the lake would stretch out as far as the eye can see, contained within a sloping valley, very beautiful.  Today even the seagull floating only a few feet away from me was seriously blurred and ill-defined.

When I quite suddenly re-emerged into the sunshine, the impact was rather like stepping off an air-conditioned plane onto the top of the mobile steps in a very hot country – a moment of pure sensation and a blissful sense of mild disorientation and very pleasurable surprise.

Vintage Postcards #23: Tal y Llyn Pass

Whenever I return to Aberdovey after visiting Chester this is a defining moment in the drive after the climb from Sarn Helen, when I come over the summit of the A487 and a whole new world unfolds before me.   The Tal y Llyn pass.  The road, carved into the side of a deeply impressive and imposing steep-sided valley, plunges its winding way under Craig y Llam towards an almost sublimely perfect stretch of water at the foot of Cadair Idris.  The slopes change character throughout the year, at their most colourful during heather, gorse and bluebell seasons.  I have seen it looking seraphically innocent and picturesque on sunny blue-skied days, the lake a blissful saphire mirror.  On other days, in wind and torrential rain, snow or hail, everything merges into an undifferentiated vista of muddled shades of  grey and brown, with waterfalls cascading fiercely down the steep slopes, the lake indistinct. I have also driven over that summit when the fog has been so thick that I have only been able to see six feet ahead of me.

In the card to the left, the artist has tried to capture the pass on one of its more socially acceptable days, the colours evoking the valley on a typical cloud-on-blue-sky autumn day, with patches of deeply coloured heather, the lake a moody blue-grey, all very mellow and scenic.  When the heather and broom flower together, purple and yellow, with the heather metamorphosing into bright rust as it goes over, the colour combinations produced could only ever work in nature, and they bring a brightness to the valley that transforms it.  Unused, it is in the Valentine’s “Art Colour” series (number A299) and is from an original watercolour by Brian Gerald.  There’s a lot of information about Valentine’s on the MetroPostcard website, which says that the Art Colour series were produced during the 1940s and 50s using the tricolor technique that was introduced by the company in the early 1900s:  “The basic idea behind tricolor printing is to reproduce a full color image by printing with only three primary colors. This can be used to reproduce illustrations, but the primary goal was to create photo-based images in natural color. While this remained the ultimate goal it did not stop printers in the first half of the 20th century from utilizing the method in various ways that produced very unnatural looking pictures” (MetroPostcard.com).

I took the photographs above on 3rd January 2020, silvery in sun and cloud, on my way back to Aberdovey from Chester, a singularly beautiful trip.

In the second photograph, the road and lake form a dramatic  silver slash across the dark landscape, a sensational image.  I suspect from the bright surface of the lake that it was actually a sunny day, but the darkness of the hillsides evoke the valley on one of its angrier autumn or winter moods.  It was posted from Aberystwyth in August 1953 to an address in Warwickshire.  The writer of the card asks the recipient to bake her a loaf for her return.  It’s the first postcard in this blog series that was produced by Photochrom Co. Ltd., “Publishers to the World,” in Tunbridge Wells, number 5726.  According to the MetroPostcard website, Photochrom originally produced Christmas cards before becoming a major publisher and printer of tourist albums, guide books, and postcards in black and white, monochrome, and colour.

The third card, unused, is a delight less for the view than for the lovely car that drives straight up the middle of the road.  Not that driving up the middle of the road is an uncommon sight in mid Wales, but here it carries much less risk than today!  This is the only postcard that I have produced by Jones Corner Shop in Machynlleth, in their “Maglona” series.  I assume that the series refers to the dubious identification of the name Maglona with the Roman fortlet Cefn Caer at Pennal, near Machynlleth.  All of the photographs in the series were of local views.

Video: The Dyfi Estuary at Aberdovey

This was a very windy late afternoon in mid December 2019, and I have been messing around in my software to figure out how to eliminate the intense sound distortion that ruins the sound tracks of many of my videos.  It is clear that I need a dead cat mic (charming name!) but it is impressive how well the software can compensate once the damage is done, leaving the gentle sounds of water on the seashore and the bright birdsong in tact.

 

Videos: Pheasant preening after breakfast; Pen Y Bryn in rain and sun

The first video shows a male pheasant preening in a burst of sunshine – a post-peanut mellow moment.  Two male pheasants arrived today, some time after the females had arrived, eaten, sat for a while with their feathers puffed up, and left.  It had finally stopped raining and at mid-day the garden was bathed briefly in a thin silvery sunshine, which lasted for about an hour and a half before the rain resumed.  The familiar harsh loud squawk announced their arrival so I threw down some peanuts and went down into the village, leaving them to it.  When I returned they were pottering around in the garden, and one of them was enjoying an industrious preen, the bright feathers given a thorough going over.

The second video shows two views of Pen Y Bryn from my garden, one clip from yesterday in the pouring rain and the second in the today’s brief reprieve when the sun came out before the rain returned.  Both are shades of grey, but the main difference between the two scenes is the sound.  In the first clip, even in the downpour Pen Y Bryn looks atmospheric but the sound of the rain is unrelenting.  In the second, with light glinting off the water, peace and quiet has been restored.

I should perhaps apologize for the completely gratuitous scrolling text.  I’ve been messing around with new video editing software, as my previous prog was at all not user-friendly and it had the antisocial habit of freezing solid.  Many of the features in the new application are very gimmicky, with shades of PowerPoint, but the ability to add text in various different forms is useful.  This is the fourth piece of video editing software that I have tried, so I am seriously hoping that this one will be a keeper.