East Glamorgan habitats - and their distinctive birds

From the grassy slopes of the towering 100m cliffs of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast it is possible to see Fulmar, Peregrine, Rock Pipit and Red-billed Chough in every month of the year. Go inland 40km to the north-eastern edge of the area in a river valley with a tumbling stream lined with deciduous woodland, and in spring/summer Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Wood Warbler, Redstart and Pied Flycatcher constitute an assemblage more typically associated with the Welsh uplands. Less than 20km to the west is the highest point in the area at 600m. This lies above the north-facing glacial corrie of Craig y Llyn, a refuge for montane plants but no longer the haunt of breeding Ring Ouzel.

Within this relatively densely populated region of about 1600 sq km variations in geology, topography, altitude, rainfall, agriculture and industry provide a range of habitat types, virtually all of which have felt the impact of man's activities. These factors continue to influence the distribution and abundance of its birds.

Water and wetlands are generally 'hotspots' for birds, and Kenfig Pool, the natural freshwater lake within the recently designated NNR, is the location best known nationally. To the east, Cosmeston Lakes within the Country Park have developed since 1970 on a former quarry. Both are favourite wintering Bittern sites. Cardiff Bay resulted from the construction of the barrage across the mouths of the Ely and Taff rivers in 1999, permanently inundating the tidal mudflats and depriving the site of its waders and SSSI status. Amongst a different suite of waterbirds present now, predominantly wildfowl and gulls, more unusual species such as Lesser Scaup and Bonaparte's Gull have recently been regular winter visitors. The lower reaches of the River Ogmore in the west provide year-round interest, with a flock of wintering Goldeneye a speciality. In the east the mudflats of the River Rhymney and the stretches of foreshore on either side are best for wintering wader roosts. Little Egrets, first reported in 1988, are now frequently reported on the coast but there are no breeding records as yet.

Rivers flowing southwards from the higher ground are increasingly favoured by wintering Goosanders and breeding success will surely follow. These river valleys suffered sustained and serious ecological damage from years of coal mining and heavy industry. In the past 50 years reclamation of spoil tips and opencast sites, development of lakes and parks, tree planting and improvements to river quality have resulted in attractive landscapes with new opportunities for wildlife and enjoyment. The country parks created at Cwm Darran, Cwm Dare and Cwm Clydach all have water features in semi-natural surroundings; so too does the Wildlife Trust's Parc Slip Reserve near Bridgend. Lakes at Rhaslas Pond on Merthyr Common in the north and Llanilid near Bridgend have attracted rarities but both are threatened with development.

A prominent feature of the higher ground above the valley sides are the extensive commercial conifer forests. These attract Siskins, Lesser Redpolls and Common Crossbills, while breeding Nightjars and Tree Pipits and wintering Great Grey Shrikes favour the clear-fell areas for a few years where mature stands have been removed.

Deciduous woodland, some of it classified as Ancient, is more prevalent on the lower ground to the south particularly on the fringes of Cardiff. Wildlife Trust Reserves at Coed y Bedw and Coed y Bwl are good examples. It is astonishing to realise that Buzzards were eliminated from the region in 1862, but this is now a widespread breeding species in woodlands large and small. Whether the Red Kite, which suffered a similar demise, will follow the same pattern remains to be seen; increasing sightings throughout the area suggest breeding will surely soon occur. Persecution is a persistent threat to all raptors.

Between the cultivated valley sides and the open moor or common, a distinctive Welsh habitat of bracken, heath and scrub (ffridd) is perhaps the last refuge of the declining Whinchat. Dartford Warbler has a recent albeit precarious hold as a resident bird on heathland. Since the 1940s, agriculture has become increasingly intensive, whether on extensive grazing land mostly north of the M4 or arable cultivation southwards, limiting the scope for breeding birds and passage migrants. Breeding species undergoing decline include Kestrel, Grey Partridge, Lapwing, Cuckoo, Little Owl, Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer, with feeding opportunities in winter affecting the last two.

Recent substantial renewable energy installations, of wind turbines on higher ground and solar farms in the lowlands, have introduced new features in the landscape. Although subject to environmental impact assessments intended to avoid damaging changes, their long-term effects on wildlife remain to be seen.

In residential areas, gardens constitute a significant habitat type that can have positive effects for birdlife. Wildlife-friendly gardening and more generous use of nutritious bird food products are gains, with Goldfinches and Siskins benefitting from the latter, and Wood Pigeons too.

Flatholm Island in the Severn Estuary 8km south-east of Cardiff supports a substantial gull colony of about 5000 pairs, mainly Lesser Black-backed with some Herring Gulls. The increasing use of roofs of buildings in coastal urban centres for nesting is generally not welcomed. Seabirds such as Gannets, shearwaters and petrels nest further west nearer the open sea but turn up in numbers on passage in stormy weather, visible from prominent coastal sites such as Lavernock Point and Porthcawl.

So with a variety of habitats, from coast to countryside, from moorland through river valleys, fertile farmland and human settlements to estuaries, it is no surprise that the list of species recorded in the area tops 300, with over 140 noted as possible, probable or confirmed breeders in the 2007/11 survey.