As a young child my late father used to visit the nearby area of Marshfield with his good friend, and I tagged along on many an occasion. Sadly, the area we used to bird watch was eventually built on, but we were aware of Peterstone having visited there too, and so on one occasion many years later I started to visit this area again. Now, I make regular visits here and I have had some great sightings over the years and memorable moments, from birds and plants to fungi to fossils, and this well-managed area is another testament to the sterling work of the Gwent Wildlife Trust and its partner agencies.
Out and about at the Gout!
Peterstone Gout consists of a tidal flap controlling the outflow into the sea near to Peterstone Wentlooge. Sitting in the estuary of the River Usk, it is the main drainage point here into the sea. Gwent Wildlife Trust own the fishing rights to around two square kilometres of the foreshore. An agreement exists with the Wentlooge Wildfowling and Conservation Association to have a 'no shooting' zone in an area to the west side of the mouth of the Gout - which is welcome news as this area holds a good population of wintering and breeding birds.
There are a number of paths leading to Peterstone from the main coastal road, but I tend to access the area close to the golf course. I have a set route I like to do where I can take my time and stop and scan at key spots to maximise the amount of species I am likely to see, depending on the seasons of course. Forming part of the Wales Coast Path, this is a beautiful section of the Levels where you encounter several walkers taking in the sea air and views, so you get a chance to talk to some interesting people. The habitat is quite varied, with open farmland on the one side and bordering the golf course on the other, with a few Willow copses here and there and a well-established hedgerow running along the edge of the golf course. Of course, there is the seawall as well with views across to Portskewett and beyond, and when the tide is out there are expanses of exposed mudflats where a good variety of waders and ducks can be found. A deep channel has been carved out in the mud from the water action and leads into a pool with reeds along the one side. Once the tide is in, this deep channel disappears and the only place the waders can go is either on the pool or further up the coast along the saltmarshes and exposed mudflats, returning once the tide recedes and the mud becomes exposed again.
For me, I like to do a set route which covers some areas of interest, and this includes: Passing the golf club house and car park, I walk up to a copse of mature Birch trees which in the autumn may see some species of fungi around them. Here there is a little inlet and an outflow with a walkway. The inlet leads down into the pool under a stone bridge (no access allowed) and around here on occasion I have seen the Kingfisher, sometimes perched on the pipe of the outflow itself. It soon darts off upon my arrival and showing off the vibrant 'electric blue'. Warblers can be good around here as there is some thick scrub, and Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Common Whitethroat are likely. Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Wren, Dunnock and Robin all feed around this spot and sometimes Mallards and Canada Geese are on the fairway behind me (no eagles or albatross though). The occasional shout of 'fore' always makes me a little nervous though but thankfully a stray golf ball has never come too close. On the rough track I have just diverted off to view the outflow, there is a metal kissing gate which leads onto a long straight path. Up until recently you could walk up onto the raised grass bank and scan down into the pool below, but a fence has since been erected, which is actually for the better, as the birds on the pool now have more peace and quiet and the sudden silhouette of a person no longer alarms them.
On my right is a reen where the usual Duckweed abounds and shows the tell-tale signs of a Moorhen that has passed through leaving a narrow gap in the green weed. Mallards can be seen in the reen but it is the thick vegetation along the whole length of the bank and the line of Phragmites Reeds that is of interest. Consisting of thick Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Holly it is a haven for birds. Here the Common Whitethroat is joined by its scarcer cousin the Lesser Whitethroat, and the loud short call of the Cettis Warbler is never far away. Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and on occasion Garden Warbler can all be seen, and patience will reveal a beautiful songster that eventually shows itself - the Reed Warbler. I watched one on this stretch once with a large green caterpillar in its beak, making its way towards its nest. At least one hungry chick was about to have a hearty snack. Blue-tailed and Common Blue Damselflies abound here and dragonflies often include Broad-bodied Chasers, Migrant Hawker, Hairy Dragonfly, Southern Hawker, Emperor and on occasion one of my favourites, the Golden Ringed Dragonfly. Ladysmock, Dock, Dandelion, Lesser Celandine, Daisy, Shepherd's Purse and a host of other little plants grow along the fence line and grass bank. My fondest memory of this particular spot involved an early morning visit one June with a friend I was guiding, and over the pool was a stunning Hobby hawking for dragonflies. We watched it for about five minutes before it eventually moved off without a care in the world.
Migrant Hawker Dragonfly
I have seen Hobby here on a number of occasions, but the Kestrel and Common Buzzard are much more likely to be seen, as is the Sparrowhawk who is always on the lookout for a Blackbird, Meadow Pipit or Woodpigeon. Around August and September, I keep a look out along this section for the Clouded Yellow butterfly that seems to like this particular spot. The whole area has a good mix of butterflies including Small and Large Whites, Green-veined White, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Holly, Common and Small Blues, Brimstones, Small Copper, Meadow Brown, Gatekeepers (Hedge Browns) and Painted Lady to name a few.
Soon the path reaches a fork, and I like to turn left and stop on the bridge over the outflow with its large steel pipes. This is a good vantage point to look into the pool below with minimal disturbance to roosting and feeding waders. The right side of the pool has thick reeds along the length with a lesser amount on the left side, but Moorhen and the occasional Water Rail can be seen. The pool seems to be a popular spot for the Common Redshanks, with numbers into the hundreds on occasions, and it offers me a chance to scan through them carefully not just for any ringed birds but for other species mixed in too. Greenshank and Dunlin have mixed in on occasion as did a Spotted Redshank on one memorable morning. Towards the top of the pool a Grey Heron can be seen stalking the smaller fish with the rocks beyond by the stone bridge being a popular and regular spot to see Grey Wagtails. Sometimes a Dipper can be seen and Pied Wagtails too.
Behind me, the deep mud channel leading out to sea can be good for Redshanks, Greenshank and Dunlin especially when they are taking a rest and the mud is exposed. On both sides are an exposed area of short grass with rocks and little pools where Meadow Pipits can be seen feeding with Linnets and sometimes a pair of Collard Doves. I have seen both Rock Pipits and Water Pipits here on occasion and in April a Wheatear is also possible, feeding before making its way to the uplands. A Little Egret or two are never far away and enjoy this channel where the small fish can sometimes get funnelled into the shallower sections. Moving on I join the narrow (and sometimes muddy path) and climb over the little wooden stile and walk the thirty or so yards to the seawall. This is a cup of tea time (after I have first scanned the vista ahead of me for ducks, geese and waders). Nothing beats taking in the sea air, looking out over the exposed mud with the sea beyond, listening to bird song and calls and having a flask of tea and some nibbles, and watching nature in all its glory. The exposed mud here can be a hive of activity, with Common Redshank, Lapwing and Curlew feeding alongside Shelduck (the latter sometimes in their hundreds), Mallards and (in April and early May) Whimbrel too.
Using my telescope as well as binoculars, I carefully scan across the mud as there will be smaller waders feeding such as Dunlin with the occasional Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper mixed in. Knot and Oystercatcher can also be seen sometimes in good numbers with the Shelduck being the prominent duck species. Autumn will see higher numbers of waders here with Grey Plover also likely and sometimes a single Ruff. Gadwall, Pintail, Wigeon and Teal also share this area for feeding and Grey Herons and Little Egrets can be seen in good numbers. The ever-present Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are sometimes joined by the larger and even more aggressive Great Black-backed Gulls. The smaller Black Headed Gulls tend to keep away from their larger and noisy cousins. The large open area here sees a formidable predator taking advantage of the small waders when they are busy feeding, where a low stealthy approach causes panic among the birds. Here the Peregrine Falcon has the pick of the bunch and rarely misses its intended target. It is always a sad sight-seeing a Teal, Dunlin or other small bird you have just been watching now being carried off in the strong talons of the Peregrine, but that is all part of nature.
There are some lovely scenes to be had here, from the sunrise at dawn to the sunset at evening, where an orange-golden glow casts shadows over the landscape. Sometimes the sea is calm and hardly moving and on other occasions it is choppy and uninviting looking. When the latter occurs, it can be a good time to scan for sea birds and a passing Gannet is not unusual. The mud flats when exposed are criss-crossed by thousands of prints from where the birds have been walking back and forth in search of food in the mud. One early morning when the tide was out, I saw an unusual visitor stray onto the mud - a beautiful Fox. It looked like a vixen, and she painstakingly made her way out to where a group of gulls were perched, hoping possibly for a tidy bit of breakfast, but it wasn't long before she was spotted, and soon the calm scene erupted into chaos, with the larger gulls flying around her and calling loudly. The vixen gave up, and as soon as she made it back to the rocks the local Crows took over from the gulls to harass her some more. She crossed down the bank and out of sight into the thick vegetation. All resumed to calm again and I had about ten minutes of great entertainment.
Creeping Thistle and Teasel grows well along the bank of the seawall and Goldfinches and Linnets take advantage of this. Contented with having scanned carefully across the mud and fuelled up with some tea, I walk down to the bank to follow the hedge line and reen (on the edge of the golf course) back towards the pool, keeping an eye out along the hedgerow for Goldcrests and warblers. The thick hedge line here can be good for feeding warblers and if a Firecrest is reported in the vicinity, this is one of the spots they can be seen. Back at the pool I now follow the path straight, heading towards a small copse of mature Willows. At this point I always get the urge to scan along the metal fencing and water pipes, as one year a Wryneck (a species of woodpecker about the size of a sparrow) was reported.
Reaching the Willows, I use one of them to lean up against where I scan the large open ploughed field ahead of me where Skylarks abound. Lapwings feed in this field on occasion, sometimes in good numbers, and Meadow Pipits, Carrion Crows, Rooks, Jackdaws, Woodpigeons and Pheasants can all be seen - with the occasional pair of Stock Doves mixed in. A Pheasant occasionally strays into the field and the Song Thrush and Blackbird are always along the field edges and joined by the Robin and Dunnock. Swallows aerial feed over the field as do the Common Swift and House Martins. The resident Sparrowhawk will come in for a tasty morsel as well and overhead the Common Buzzards like to give out their 'mew' call as they move in wide circles on the warm thermals. In the winter time, a Merlin makes for a small, but interesting sighting as it likes to patrol the coastal area where pipits, larks and wagtails can be sought out.
Crossing a stile next to the Willow copse, I like to drop down onto the exposed salt marsh to my left, bordered with large Limestone boulders strategically placed to hold back the water. If you look closely, these rocks reveal fossils of Coral and the occasional Ammonite. They are also covered with beautiful lichens such as the bright orange Xantorina aureola. The narrow strip of saltmarsh and exposed little pools along here attract the Little Egrets, and along the edge of the rocks are tree stumps and drift wood. One autumn, the large washed up Oak stump that can be seen here had a striking Spectacular Rustgill fungi growing from it, which really stood out. At migration time, it is not uncommon to see several local bird watchers huddled up against these rocks and monitoring the passage of seabirds. In the autumn they have large counts of migrating Woodpigeon with records involving birds in their high thousands. They are a dedicated group of around three friends who produce some interesting records of passage numbers. I like to walk along here and looking out to sea, watching the coming and goings of the birds. At the end of this short section is a memorial plaque placed in the rocks for a past dedicated bird watcher. Now I am on the raised bank again where just ahead of me is a wooden stile and fence. I like to stop here and scan another section of the mudflats that can't quite be seen from my earlier stop at the seawall. I find this particular section better for Curlews closer in, and the salting's stretching out along the sea wall can see good number of Little Egrets feeding amongst both Canada and Greylag Geese, with several Mute Swans mixed in as well. Did you know the Mute Swan gets its name as it is the only species of swan that does not call when flying?
There are larger expanses of saltmarsh to be seen from here where more Curlew, Shelduck and waders can be seen. There are always more Little Egrets here and in the winter flocks of Meadow Pipits and Linnets mix in together - safety in numbers. A Short-eared Owl is always a possibility out on the saltmarsh but can be quite elusive. The fields down to the right have a good mix of berry laden shrubs and here the winter visiting Redwing and Fieldfares from Scandanavia take advantage of this rich food source. They are joined by the resident Blackbirds and Starlings and look carefully amongst any Blackbirds for those with a dark bill, these could be ones from the continent? Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Dunnocks are always amongst these shrubs with Goldfinches close by on the seed heads of Thistles and Teasel. The Cettis Warbler will still be heard and is now a resident warbler here. There is of course the chance of seeing an overwintering Chiffchaff or Blackcap now as our winters tend to be a little milder, saving them a long hard journey to Africa and back.
Red Admiral butterfly
There are larger expanses of saltmarsh to be seen from here where more Curlew, Shelduck and waders can be spotted. There are always more Little Egrets here and in the winter flocks of Meadow Pipits and Linnets mix in together - safety in numbers. A Short-eared Owl is always a possibility out on the saltmarsh but can be quite elusive. The fields down to the right have a good mix of berry laden shrubs and here the winter visiting Redwing and Fieldfares from Scandinavia take advantage of this rich food source. They are joined by the resident Blackbirds and Starlings and look carefully amongst any Blackbirds for those with a dark bill, these could be ones from the continent? Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Dunnocks are always amongst these shrubs with Goldfinches close by on the seed heads of Thistles and Teasel. The Cetti’s Warbler will still be heard and is now a resident warbler here. There is of course the chance of seeing an overwintering Chiffchaff or Blackcap now as our winters tend to be a little milder, saving them a long hard journey to Africa and back.
A steady walk back following the reen to the start of the walk, gives me time to reflect on the good mix of flora and fauna I have seen that day. Reed Buntings always add some character to the landscape and the hedgerow here is always alive with birds. I comfortably walk around this area within several hours and always see a good mix of birds and wildlife, encounter some interesting people and see some lovely scenes. Of course, it is always worth checking the weather forecast as the whole area is open with very little shelter if the rain comes. I know that from experience. And a cold winter morning here, if there is an icy-cold breeze you really will feel it, so come prepared.
Article and pictures copyright of Neville Davies. @ecology_cymru