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Hen Harrier, Ystradfellte

I’ve written how bleak I found the Brecon Beacons, not just in terms of landscape but also of birds (although the one frequently implies the other). A business trip to Cardiff gave me an opportunity to check this against the more westerly reaches of the National Park. And to explore a couple of the famous Welsh valleys.

The first, running up through Aberdare, was inconsequential so I was soon heading into the Park. At its border a red kite boded well for the day. My target spot, up the course of Avon Llia, was pretty enough for a Forestry Commission plantation, thanks to the stream itself. Surrounding moorland provided a third habitat and plenty of edges between all three.

There was even a sheep carcass on the track down to the car park; scavengers could be expected! Indeed, more red kites obliged. A walk up through the pines was quiet though, apart from one squawking jay and a few coal tits, goldcrests and long-tailed tits.

I was aiming for Ystradfellte Reservoir but downed trees blocked my way and forced me back to the moors, where I only expected meadow pipits. They didn’t disappoint but a search along the Llia for dippers did produce two grey wagtails – always a result.

Keeping tabs on the occasional kite brought me the star of the day. This bird flapped low to the horizon above me. Flapped low, glided, then wheeled to display a perfect and unmistakable white rump. A ringtail! A female or juvenile hen harrier. My first in nearly three years since one near Brancaster in Norfolk.

How often have I scanned moorland ridges for just such a sight? And how often succeeded? If I say millions and none, it would exaggerate but the ratio would still be right. Also a first for Wales, this harrier hunted for a matter of seconds before the ridge swallowed it up. I tried to yomp higher but that was it for the show – a few seconds for a 200-mile round trip. Priceless.

Some of those miles on the return journey took me down the Rhondda Valley over from Hirwaun. This is where the last deep-coal mine in the valleys supplied Aberthaw power station until 2008. Nearby evidence still abounds of open-cast and drift operations. Which all rather prepares one for the grey grandeur of the head of Rhondda Fawr. Scoured deep by the last Ice Age’s glaciers, the cliffs wouldn’t have been out of place on Frodo’s journey into Mordor.

Of course it was all once so much mellower before the coal industry stripped away the trees for pit-props. And where did that lead us? In part to the nasty towns that snake the rest of the way down the Rhondda. Progress, my arse.

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