Well it may seem like a long time ago now, but I thought I should finally get around to telling you about my team’s birdrace. I loved it!
Firstly, I got to spend the weekend with my Dad which is always good and secondly, we saw far more bird species than I had ever imagined!
The night before my team (Me, my Dad, Ken and Dave) went for dinner at the Seacroft in Trearddur Bay where we took advantage of their two for one deal – a perk of hanging around these windy shores in winter time. Here we planned where we would head the following morning on our birdrace. We’d already decided that an early start wasn’t the way forward for us, especially as one of our team has a problem with getting up early (uh humm, Dave!) and opted for latter six hours of daylight.
Starting at South Stack and after a hearty breakfast (always), Ken, Dave and I set off down the path from Plas Nico car park down the path to Ellin’s Tower. If you have visited the reserve before, that is the path from the lower car park diagonally through the heath to Ellin’s Tower. If you haven’t visited the reserve before (get yourself over here!), Ellin’s Tower is the RSPB’s lookout over the breeding seabird colony which is open for visitors April through to September – a point of note being the new visitor centre and cafe on the reserve so now you get a warm welcome when visiting any day of the year! I digress, My Dad had headed up the hill in his car where we were going to meet him after our initial pre-eleven o’clock reccy.
Soon our plans were dashed though as I saw a ‘little brown job’ on a telephone wire above the heath. I shouted it out and we were able to pin-point it as a Meadow Pipit (the sort of bird that might craftily evade us on a bird race), as I scanned the heather I saw a female Stonechat standing proud atop a gorze bush. That was it, we just had to start – we couldn’t risk that those two birds would show up again somewhere else. Dad would have to miss them. Sorry Dad! From here we charged along the path to Ellin’s tower as now the clock was ticking. Add Magpie.
From Ellin’s Tower we saw thousands of Guillemots and a rapid scan for Razorbills was to no avail. There were also a couple of Fulmars nestled on the ledges. Tick Tick. Making our way up to Dad on the road above Ken and I saw and heard a Rock Pipit zooming around the cliff tops. Get in. When we got to the top we stopped for a group photo and got Dad up to speed with the cliff-side species adding a Kestrel, Greater Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and a last-minute obliging Chough.
Looking out from the car as we headed back down the hill we saw Starlings and Jackdaws with a Blackbird and Songthrush in my garden.
Leaving South Stack and heading towards Holyhead we stopped to scan the small reservoir on the side of the road and picked up Gadwall, Coot, Tufted Duck, Teal and Pochard. A Black-headed Gull flew over. This is the point at which Dave was mostly lost to the world of Dad’s camera – worked quite well really as we birded and he recorded.
A Blue Tit flashed across the road, only visible to me and my Dad in the front of the car and the House Sparrow bush in Llaingoch did not let us down. In fact, Dad pulled up on the side of the road in this unassuming looking place on the outskirts of Holyhead and found us Greenfinch, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Robin, Carrion Crow and a Mistle Thrush!
A Feral Pigeon flew high above the houses as we drove down towards Holyhead Harbour overlooking the breakwater (1.5 miles long don’t you know?!). Scanning the harbour we were happy to pick up Black Guillemot, Oystercatcher and an unexpected Razorbill.
Quickly back into the car and along to Soldier’s Point, in the shadow of Holyhead Mountain and flanked by the breakwater. Down in the sea we saw a Curlew atop an exposed rock and the usual Redshank – I’m sure he’s the same one…always there by himself. Also down by the waters edge was a Turnstone and there was a Little Grebe sailing the waters. Flitting around in the shrubs were a couple of Goldfinch and Ken spotted a ‘stripey-eyed guy’ for me to have a look at, a Redwing foraging amongst the blackbirds of the horse field. Behind us a Woodpigeon flapped it’s way into the trees. Next, much to my Dad’s embarrassment I announced that “I’ve got Great Tits” (an oldie but a goody and always completely by accident). We pop our heads round the grasses to seek out our familiar Water Rail but he’s a no show. Carrying on down the road we add Chaffinch and Wren. We couldn’t resist searching for our Water Rail again on the way back to car but he’s still not out to play. In his place we find a Grey Wagtail though (!!) and a Bullfinch shows us his rump. Elated with these bonus birds we march onwards. Ken as relentless as ever scours behind us as we near the car and picks up a Moorhen and behind that a Water Rail! There you are!!
Pied Wagtails escort us along the harbour-side where we see Common Gull (new for my Dad I think?), Shag, and Red-breasted Merganser.
I swear by there always being Rook in Morrisons car park so we head there on our way out of Holyhead, none. None in McDonalds’ car park either! “Rook” I scream as one zooms out of everybody else’s sight down Porth Dafarch Road. Damn!
It’s always a relief to pull in at Penrhos Coastal Park as you will always be greeted by some familiar faces, tick Mallard. We use scopes out on the estuary and see Dad’s first Brent Geese as well as Knot, Grey Plover, Curlew, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Shelduck, Goldeneye, Great Crested Grebe and Slavonian Grebe. At this point it suddenly dawned on us that we hadn’t yet been to many of the places on our list and we’d been out nearly two and a half hours. The clock suddenly seemed to have sped up. Not deterred we thought that there were a few key species we might hope to see in the woodland beyond the duck pond. A couple of small dudes zipped across the trees in front of our eyes. They evaded us for a few moments and then we had them again, a Coal Tit and a Siskin! On the otherside of the path a flock of Long-tailed Tits, it’s like the birds knew what we needed on our list. A magical moment in the woods.
Worried about time and having already seen some of the species we hoped to pick up there we ditched Trearddur Bay and headed straight for Four Mile Bridge and surveyed the Inland Sea. A flock of Lapwing overhead was our first of many sightings over the day. With many shore birds ticked off already we had to ignore the vast majority of the birds in terms of the birdrace, although Wigeon finally made an appearance! Using a scope though, Dave sprang back into action asking me who the black and white stripey guys were…his first Ringed Plover and a bird needed for our list. I can safely say that this was Dave’s bird of the day. A Meditteranean Gull was chilling out in the middle of the expanse. Then in the revelry of Dave’s find we nearly missed the Little Egret flying in right in front of our faces – Ken was nearly spitting feathers, how apt.
Passing out snacks around the car we moved on to Valley Lakes, our second RSPB reserve of the day. Almost apoplectic than none of the black birds around were Rooks I shouted up a field of ominous looking fellas skulking in a field beside the road we travelling on. Dad and I hopped out the car as Ken attended to his newly painful foot and tiptoed to look over the hedge (Dad is 6’3” so I’m pretty sure he didn’t tiptoe). Whoo hoo, a Rook. Finally.
Valley lakes is surrounded by the houses and runways of RAF Valley and we pulled up in a lay-by alongside the most accessible lake. As Dad, Ken and I picked up Shoveler (hundreds swarming around and around in a perfect circle), Mute Swan, Lesser Black-backed Gull (bonus) and Cormorant, Dave was being questioned by a man in uniform back at the car! You’d think scopes, binoculars, and loitering by the side of the road in a military area were perfectly normal, surely?!
On our way to pick up some more woodland species we stopped to look across fields close to Valley wetlands for more Geese species and were a tad disappointed to see only lovely Greylags. I desperately tried to put someone on to the Pheasant I could see many fields away but a working description evaded me as no one could see where I meant. But oh, a Raven honked way above us!
A Pheasant teetered by the edge of the road before we checked out the usual feeders at Presaddfed and clocked up a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Reed Bunting! Ken saw it first and we had to wait for it to show above the wall again. I willed a Nuthatch to make an appearance but no such luck.
A buzzard and father and daughter nearly come to blows as I criticise his stop-time. Apparently it has something to do with other road users, but I tried to explain that this was different. It was a birdrace!
A flock of Grey Plover have taken to the skies, but we have already counted these. Amongst them Ken spots a glittering golden gem, a Golden Plover. Hee hee.
Our list is looking pretty impressive by now, but there are more sites on the island we think we can make it to for some of those species we haven’t seen yet. As we wind our way across the island we keep an eye out for Fieldfare and soon see masses in a field. A quick stop and a tick. Then we only went and had a Merlin dashing across the fields to our left!! I was giddy (more than usual).
Ken had a ‘nailed-on’ spot for some Whooper Swans and unlike his ‘nailed-on’ spot for the Shropshire Starlings it was successful (read his Shropshire Starlings write-up in the previous blog)!
We paced on down the island to Benllech to search the sea and I’m afraid to say that I had to dash off with Dave to find a proper loo. I’m all for ‘nature wees’, but in Benllech I think it would be punishable by law. Whilst I was otherwise occupied Dad and Ken scoped out Common Scoter and a Great Northern Diver. Well done boys!
Hang on a minute, where has all the time gone?! There’s only an hour left and we are on precisely the opposite side of the island to where we planned to end up to spend time looking for Hen Harriers coming in to roost… Insert expletive here.
Well, we were here now so we’d thought we go for Snipe at Red Wharf Bay, the pointy-beaks weren’t playing, the Jack Snipe neither. Wasted more time! Full speed ahead across the island. Ken and I had taken full control now and decided that for sake of the race we’d sacrifice our Hen Harrier sighting, clock up some other species and go for the Harriers after our allotted time.
As we approached Llyn Coron near Aberffraw I spotted another bird of prey (I was having a good day!), this time a Sparrowhawk – tick! Ken watched as it zoomed down into the grasses and saw it dash back up as quickly as it had gone down. At this moment a male Hen Harrier emerged from nowhere – wow, wow, wow!!! My first Hen Harrier 🙂 And a stunning male, just as I had imagined and even better, it was still within our race time! What a high?! Unbelievable. We like to think that the Sparrowhawk thought *ummmm that looks tasty* only to be surprised by pouncing on the harrier – who knows??
Llyn Coron gave us Canada Goose and White-fronted Goose, thank you. There was a matter of minutes left in our six hours so we hot-footed it over to Malltraeth Cob. Ken and Dad picked up a Spotted Redshank as I sprinted along the cob. I was embarrassed to realise that I was racing towards Jane and David on their bird race and that I was thumping my way along the path (most un-birderly). Pintails, yes! With seconds to spare. Then I realised I was the only member of my team there…”DAVE!!DAVE!!” I bellowed along the cob (sorry quiet birders), he got there just in the nick of time.
Rejoining Dad and Ken back at the road, I caught up with elegant Spotted Redshank and was suddenly exhausted by our amazing, eventful day.
Dozily, I daydreamed in the car back to Menai Bridge and had time for a quick change of clothes and a cup of coffee before joining other bird racers in Bangor.
I was so pleased to hear how everybody else had gotten on that day in North Wales. Everyone was buzzing and I was so pleased that we had all done it. As mentioned previously, Dan, Nigel and Eddie won the race in our Area, only beaten by the Norfolk birders.
I am immensely proud of all your efforts. Thank you.
Even if you didn’t take part then please take the time to vote for your ‘best race’ and ‘best bird’ from the previous blog.
P.s- just as I’ve come to post this entry I have been sat in the office watching with satisfaction as my washing dries on the line and was fascinated by a Magpie in glorious plumage that swooped down into my garden, pecked around in the grass and then proceeded to hop in manic magpie style over to the bush in the corner. I saw him work his way up inside the bush and come out with a piece of nesting material as long as himself (including his tail), he struggled to get away as his wing got caught on his impressive find. Full of the joys of spring 🙂
This time last week my Dad and his girlfriend arrived for a weekend visit. With a relaxed start to Saturday morning with bacon and egg butties for my Dad and Elaine and crumpets (my absolute favourite!) for me, we joined Ken and Cal (the South Stack volunteer) for a day out.
As mentioned in a few of my blogs now, my Dad is suddenly absorbed in bird-watching and, knowing that he has his daughter so well placed in Anglesey with renown bird expert Ken Croft in tow, decided he’d like a tour of what the island has to offer!
The Fulmars were once again down at Hen Borth, but they were difficult to see as they plunged down behind the cliff edges. From the description I gave of these rigid-winged seabirds Cal decided that he’d also seen these a few days previously near the lighthouse. We visited our usual haunts of Soldiers Point, Penrhos Country Park and then meandered through the centre of Anglsey ending up at Llyn Llywenan. We saw a buzzard circling high above the lake and various waterfowl such as Greylag Geese, Shoveler and Goosander below. As my Dad got to grips with Shoveler in the scope I took the opportunity to get a better view of the Buzzard, now much closer by. It struck me that I rarely get lasting views of the majestic creatures, I normally whizz past them on the A55 or they are far to high for me to make out much detail. It struck me that this Buzzard looked a bit different to how I usually thought of them, it’s head looked odd. It was then that Ken asked if I’d had chance to have a look through the scope at the Shoveler, I said “Yes, I’ve just been watching the Buzzard quartering over those shrubs”. At the word ‘quartering’ and knowing that this was not characteristic flight of a Buzzard, Ken grabbed his binoculars, hurriedly looked over in the direction of the Buzzard and exclaimed “that’s a Marsh Harrier!!”. So, having apparently learnt nothing from Martin Garner and his talk about questioning things that appeared different, I spent a good minute watching an ‘unusual-looking Buzzard!” – idiot!! In my defence, this was a first for me, I’d never encountered a Marsh Harrier before and because of this I will probably always recognise them straight off. The female harrier continued to give us great views as she quartered back and forth, a quality birding experience we all agreed. I shame-faced got back in the car.
Another highlight of the day for me was seeing Yellowhammer, not a bird I had encountered on Anglesey before. They were once commonplace here, but as with other birds that thrived on Anglesey, the once bread basket of Wales, have become virtually extinct with the change in farming practises.
We finished the day off at Benllech sea front with my Dad spotting a Red-throated Diver flying off into the distance and a Guillemot popping up right in front of us. Having worked at South Stack all summer with the 8,000 odd Guillemots I can say that this was the closest I’ve been to one…and luckily I had Dad’s camera with me to show you just how close.
On Sunday we yet again went out birding – we’re insatiable! We completed our haul of Corvids (the crow family) when a Jay flew across the road in front of us as we’d seen a Hooded Crow flying near Hen Borth the previous day. We took in Eider ducks from some distance close to Penmon Point on the far corner of the island (diagonally opposite to South Stack). We totalled 75 species of bird over the weekend (including three new species for me!) and had glorious views of many so I’m hoping Dad thought it worth the trip!?
The following day, yet again, had clear blue skies and glorious sunshine. I took an afternoon trip into Snowdonia to climb Cnicht. A mountain that looks like one you draw as a child, a full-on pointy triangle! I could not quite comprehend that I would make it up there without some serious climbing equipment as I started out, but the ordinary people I met walking back down did enough to reassure me and the school group I could see up ahead (thank goodness for binoculars!). As I rounded one corner I saw an elusive Tree Pipit in the path ahead, but alas the altitude was getting to me and it was Meadow Pipit certainly at this time of year. The mountain afforded stunning views of Snowdonia and down the Porthmaddog estuary. The day was perfectly lit and I was warmed by the exertion, only cooling if I admired the view for too long. Throughout the climb I could see a Raven circling the summit and was pleased to be greeted by it and it’s partner as I reached the top for cheese and pickle sandwiches. One of the Ravens (presumably the one I’d seen circling from below) came really close in to check us out. The wind whistled through it’s wings as it effortlessly soared. Then, a new noise. My ears pricked up instantly. I thought there’s not much it could be up this high and upon my return and after my rendition of what I can only describe as a rattling trill, Ken confirmed it must have been a Red Grouse. I couldn’t see it though. Making our way back down the hill a flock of Linnet flew overhead. Although there are many Linnets at South Stack in the summer months, this was my first meeting with them this year. Right down at base camp, a village named Croesor, was a field full of fieldfare. Along with sheep, that completes the list of wildlife I saw that day and quantity cannot out compete the quality of those encounters. I find mountains (along with the sea) bring out a spirituality in me and sitting on that pinnacle watching a Raven fly around in front of me with a huge drop below is really not a thing which, to my mind, can be beaten.
That evening I had been invited to dinner with Alan Davies and Ruth Miller of ‘The Biggest Twitch’ fame. Alan and Ruth hold the world record for the most bird species seen in a year and ‘The Biggest Twitch’ follows their quest to do so. After a lovely dinner, Ruth showed me their photographs from a recent trip to Botswana, I promptly fell in love with the Black Crake. It fits my ideal description of a bird; yellow beaked, black bodied, long-legged and red legs just for the wow-factor – yes please! I have not yet read Ruth and Alan’s book, but came home on Monday night with a signed copy that I have promised them I’ll read after I’ve finished David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Air’.
One last thing to share with you before I sign off is a couple of photographs of Snow Buntings at Cinmel Bay along the North Wales coast. A beauty of a bird, a year tick for me and an absolute pleasure to watch as they posed on and around a log on the beach.