Visiting the Brecon Beacons – Pen y Fan and Corn Du

Pen y Fan (left in my photo) in the Brecon Beacons National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Bannau Brycheiniog) is the highest peak in south Wales at 886 metres above sea-level. The twin peaks of Pen y Fan and Corn Du (on the right) is 873 m. The pair were formerly known as Cadair Arthur meaning Arthur’s Seat.

Pen y Fan comprises rocks of the Old Red Sandstone (which isn’t always red and isn’t always sandstone) laid down during the geological era known as the Devonian period (a 60-million year epoch spanning the end of the Silurian, 420 million years ago to the beginning of the Carboniferous, 360 Mya. The Old Red Sandstone describes a suite of sedimentary rocks deposited in a variety of environments in the North Atlantic region. It extends in the east across Britain, Ireland and Norway and in the west along the northeastern seaboard of North America. It also extends northwards into Greenland and Svalbard. The relatively large Anglo-Welsh basin of the ORS extends across much of South Wales and into Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire with outliers in Somerset and north Devon.

What lies beneath? Well, carboniferous limestone formed in shallow tropical seas during the Paleozoic era more than 300 million years from the shells and skeletons of ancient sea creatures.

What does a brimstone butterfly look like?

This brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) was so obvious as it fluttered around the woodland understory at Wandlebury with its sulfurous wings. However, as soon as it settled and closed it was suddenly as well camouflaged as any insect might be while feeing on a periwinkle (Vinca minor).

According to Wikipedia, across much of its range, G. rhamni is the only species of its genus, and is therefore simply known locally as the brimstone. I’m dubious about their claim that the word “butterfly” comes from this insects in that its yellow upper wings led early British naturalists to call it the butter-coloured fly. Much more pleasing is the idea that the yellow faecal paste butterflies produce is known in Dutch as boterschijte and that’s where our word butterfly comes from. Sounds ridiculously contrived, almost as contrived as the idea that these insects alight on uncovered butter and eat it. It’s really just that lots of butterflies have a buttery colour and they fly.

Common dog violet

If you see violets growing in the wild, on a woodland walk in Wales, say, the species in question is most likely to be the common dog-violet (Viola riviniana). It’s odd that the called it both common and dog, given that dog attached to a name, particularly a plant, viz. dog rose, usually implies the former. V. riviniana is widespread and grows in woodland, on grassland, heaths, in hedgerows and in old pastures, flowering from April to June. This specimen I photographed in Powys, Wales in late April 2017.

One thing V. riviniana lacks is a scent, unlike its obviously named cousin, V. odorata, the sweet violet, which was used by the ancient Greeks as a perfume and even in mediaeval Britain as a deodorant.

Meadow pipit – Anthus pratensis

A meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) being all pretentious and abandoning the fields in favour of a tree from which to view the photographer. There were at least three or four of them larking about on the lode about half a mile upstream from the Rampton bridge.

It is mainly a bird of open habitats, uncultivated or low-intensity agriculture, pasture, bogs, moorland, and presumably meadows. It can also be seen sometimes on arable cropland. In winter, it might retreat to saltmarshes and open woodlands although it may also migrate to Southern Europe and Africa. Well-grounded bird, always feeds on the ground, but will fly to elevated perches such as bushes, hedgerows, fences, or overhead cables to watch for predators and photographers.

Willow warbler – Phylloscopus trochilus

The willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) is common and widespread, breeding throughout northern and temperate Europe and Asia, from Ireland east to eastern Siberia. It is, however, strongly migratory and almost the whole population winters in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is greenish brown above and off-white to yellowish below; the wings are plain greenish-brown with no wingbars. Aside from its pale legs it looks almost identical to the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). However, if you think you’ve seen a willow warbler but it’s making an almost metronomically regular t’ss, t’ss, t’ss, t’ss… sound and has dark legs it’s a chiffchaff, the warbler has a much more warbling, melodious song. Here’s a recent photo and a snippet of his song that I recorded in late April 2017 in Rampton Spinney, South Cambs.


Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis)

The meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) is a small passerine (perching) bird that breeds across northwestern Eurasia, from southeastern Greenland and Iceland to beyond the Ural Mountains in Russia, from south to central France and Romania. It is generally migratory, spending its winters in Southern Europe, North Africa and Southwestern Asia, but is also resident year-round in Western Europe (heading off higher regions to the lowlands in winter). I photographed this bird on moorland close to the Brecon Beacons, Powys, Mid-Wales, April 2017. Now added to my growing gallery of British birds.




How to get research papers for free

Some papers are created open but some are more open than others. For many authors, Open Access means open access, there should be no paywalls, no publisher barriers to their paper being found, read, downloaded…used. There are numerous online repositories where authors can upload their OA papers and under some publisher copyright restrictions their non-OA papers. Mayn funding bodies make it obligatory that research they pay for must be published OA. There are preprint and reprint servers and institutes often keep online copies of their researchers’ output. Finding those versions of a paper and sidestepping the publisher paywalls and logins legally is not always straightforward.

If you install the Unpaywall extension for Chrome or Firefox and find a paper of interest doing a literature search it will take you directly to the legal author-uploaded version of that paper. Fundamentally, it’s simply redirecting you from the publisher version of a paper to the online “reprint” that tha author has legitimately made available. No doubt there are some tightly bound publisher terms & conditions for some journals that strictly speaking don’t allow this, but I’m not aware of any pending testing of the legality. Moreover, publishers attempting to prevent authors sharing their papers with interested third parties are under increasing pressure to be more open even if they don’t open up fully.

Of course, for non-OA papers, to stay within copyright law you can generally only access them via a legit subscription or through the publishers’ paywalls. I did a couple of pseudo-random searches on PubMed to bring up a few papers. The first was not OA and was published by a major international publisher. The Unpaywall “lock” remained greyed out: No legal OA version of the paper online.

The second paper I found was OA and I could see the whole paper on the publisher’s site without having to go through any login/paywall. Unpaywall was still greyed out, but was redundant anyway. None of the next half a dozen papers I tried were available either…so not sure whether this is a generally bad sign or just that there aren’t many authors in the particular niche I searched that have uploaded their OA papers. According to a review of Unpaywall in Nature (a month after the launch of the browser extension) it searches more than 5300 repositories, preprint servers, institutional repositories and the like, apparently it has 86 million DOIs, and a hit rate of 30%…not for me, your mileage may vary.

There are other OA search tools, Nature reports, often with very early-2000s web 2.0 type names: oaFindr, oaFindr+ and the Open Access button.

Meanwhile, there is a well-known scientific hub that circumvents all of these issues, but it’s probably best that I don’t promote that, it’s not necessarily compliant with copyright legislation under certain jurisdictions and I’m sure everyone who feels that is an acceptable alternative to paying for a paper or locating an OA version will already know the URL.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) is, according to the RSPB website, mainly found in the north and west of the UK, with the greatest concentrations in Wales (I photographed this bird on woody encircled moorland in the Brecon Beacons, Powys, towards the end of April 2017). The species particularly favours oak woodlands, hedgerows, alongside streams and parkland. They dine mainly on insects, spiders, worms, and berries and you will spot them from April to September. They are yet another species, like the robin, that were originally classified as thrush-type birds (Turdus) but have been proved genetically to be old world flycatchers, Muscicapidae.

Red kite – Milvus milvus

The beautiful red kite (Milvus milvus) was persecuted to near extinction two centuries ago because of the mistaken belief that they were a threat to livestock. A committee was formed in 1903 to protect nests and eggs from hunters and collectors. In 1986, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and NCC (now Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage), combined forces to tender the idea of reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland. In 1989, six wild birds acquired from Sweden were released in northern Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird were released in the county of Buckinghamshire. In total, almost 100 birds from Sweden and Spain were released at various sites into the early 1990s. Successful breeding populations established themselves quickly.

I photographed these red kites in the Brecon Beacons in April 2017.



Barn swallow – Hirundo rustica

The barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) is the “British” bird with which we most commonly associate a sighting as being the arrival of summer (cuckoos are not so often seen, but heard). Of course, one swallow does not a summer make, as Aristotle (384—322 BC) had it. It is a distinctive passerine, perching, bird with glossy, dark blue-black upperparts, a ruddy throat, an off-white breast, and famously, a long, forked tail. Feeds on small invertebrates and is often seen swirling in flocks low over water to drink and eat, or gatherong on overhead wires. The perching swallow pictured here was photographed on an April evening (very early summer) in Trallong, Powys, Mid-Wales and the pond-dipping swallow on the moor top a few miles from there.



One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy