The mountain is alive with the sound of bird songs

Willow Warbler blasting its tune out.

Yesterday after watching the sunrise in Cwmynyscoy I made my way to the Mountain Air common land near Penyrheol Pontypool. It's a large area of heathland that borders the slopes of Mynydd Maen, Mynydd Twyn-Glas and Mynydd Calch. It has become one of my local birding patch "hot spots". The gorse habitat is particularly home to a wealth of birds that breed in the thorny bushes for protection from predators.

If you are quiet and find a spot in the gorse you will soon pick up the calls of Stonechats noisily singing and proclaiming their territories. They almost incessantly repeat their contact calls. This is where they get their name from as it is said to sound like two stones being banged against each other. I find the call very distinctive once you get familiar with it and it helps me home in on them in the gorse. These small robin-sized birds are full of character and they are quite accommodating to photograph, on this visit I watched a few fledglings being fed by their parents. I managed to get some great Boca effects as the light was amazing.

Male Stonechat showing the natural Boca affect that occurs with the morning sun

A Stonechat on "Togger alert" as he sees me approaching.

Perched on nearly every other hawthorn tree amongst the low gorse bushes were Willow Warblers. I don't think I have seen so many for a long time. Early in the morning, they are easier to approach and I was able to get some nice photographs of one bird singing its little heart out. Willow Warblers look extremely similar to their close relatives the Chiff Chaff. Many a birder can struggle to identify them correctly when out in the field. Many years ago I was lucky enough to hold both species when I accompanied some ringers and even then close up it was very very difficult to tell the difference. The easiest way is to listen to their songs. They are completely unique to each species and the best way to tell them apart in the field.

The loudest song by far to be heard was that of the diminutive Wren. This little bird has a huge song and they really blast it out - I chuckle and think of them as the bird equivalent of a mini "Tina Turner". 
I was fortunate earlier just before dawn to get a lovely silhouette picture of a Wren singing just before the sun rose.

A Wren hitting the high notes at dawn.

A Wren rocking and rolling its heart out.

The gorse also is home to several finch species. Tweeting usually in a small flock as they fly overhead Linnets can be found throughout the Mountain Air. They are pretty finches and I found several male birds perched up calling from the top of Gorse bushes. Sometimes the Linnets are accompanied by a smaller species of finch called Lesser Redpolls. I only ever usually see Redpolls in the deepest winter on my garden feeders.

Lesser Redpolls join the party

A male Linnet

Whilst walking through the gorse habitat in the direction of Blaen Bran I began to hear a Cuckoo. I thought it was coming from the woodland so I started to head down a track to that a local runner stopped and told me that it was likely to be on top track heading up Mynydd Maen. She was certainly on the money and very thankful for her advice as I changed my direction and headed up the mountain. Within a short time, the Cuckoo flew right over my head back towards where I had just walked. As I turned to track it back it was perched on a tree branch about 300 meters with the sun glaring behind it. I had to settle for a record shot and watch it call several times before it flew off.

One of the evasive Cuckoo's

So as I was halfway up the mountain I decided to carry on up to the mountain top and enjoy the view.
The mountain tops are covered in heathland grass, heather and whinberry bushes. At this time of year, the whole area is alive with insects and birds.  Shooting up into the sky as I walked along the mountain tops singing on the wing were Skylarks. Their song is so distinctive and really is a sound of summer mountain heathland. I just love listening to it and I know this sounds a little weird but I associate the song with peacefulness. When you are up the top of the mountain ( and there are no scrambler bikes!!!) it is so quiet apart from the Skylarks singing. They don't really disturb the quiet they just emphasise the fact that you cant hear the hustle and bustle of life down there in the "valleys" so to speak.

Whilst enjoying the peace and tranquillity in my own little world (and no I was not doing a Julie Andrews and running about singing the "Mountains are alive with the sound of music !"), I almost stepped on a Red Grouse which exploded out of the heather and scared the hell out of me for a minute or so. I love seeing these gamebirds and it was good to see one locally. I hope it does not get shot by someone.

Reaction shot of a Red Grouse that shocked me out of my reverie on the mountain top.

Another species similar to Skylarks was all over the heathland - Meadow Pipits. These birds look very similar but are not on the same par as Skylarks when it comes to singing on the wing. Most of the time I just hear their contact calls and then see them perched on a bush. They are quite skittish and don't tend to hand about that long for pictures.

Meadow Pipit

As I walked down the slopes of the mountain near Cwm Lickey I heard another Cuckoo in the woods above the pond. It kept ist head down so I did not catch sight of it.

On the path, I saw two Wheatears. My first record this year in this location so that was good.  I had a walk around Cwm Lickey pond and noticed some Cotton Grass growing. Now that's a plant that I for some reason associate with Reed Buntings. Every time I find it when I have walked in similar locations in Blaenavon it has been growing in rather boggy wet areas and Reed Buntings turn up. As I was taking some photos of the Cottongrass as if on cue I heard a Reed Bunting singing. I looked up and there was solitary male perched up on some bracken. A nice little find and another first record for me up the mountain.

Common Cotton Grass

Male Reed bunting singing away

I finished my morning's expedition up the mountain having had a great time. The dawn sunrise had lifted my spirits, the fresh air and exercise had made me feel healthier and the bird song had given me a bit of joy.

Bird List-

  • Collared Dove
  • Swift
  • Swallow
  • House Martin
  • Stonechat
  • Jackdaw
  • Carrion Crow
  • Robin
  • Dunnock
  • Starling
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Song Thrush
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Linnet
  • Lesser Redpoll
  • Blackcap
  • House Sparrows
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Skylarks
  • Cuckoo
  • Herring Gulls
  • Bullfinch
  • Wren
  • Red Grouse
  • Reed Bunting
  • Great Tit


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