My bike to work became even more enjoyable last week as Swallows and Linnets added to my ‘commuting list’. I hope I can get away with saying the swallows stopped me in my tracks as I peddled up south stack hill…? I was obviously going to make it up before I saw them! That evening on the ride home more swallows were zipping across the road in front of me. I had a big beam on my face – I had missed these guys. The volunteers accomodation at South Stack has a swallow hatch above the garage so a worthwhile place to check out on your way past. I opened the hatch nice and early in anticipation so I hope they come back this year!
Friday saw my last day of work at RSPB South Stack and I was sad to leave behind the magical place. It looks like the chough are on eggs. The pair that are the stars of cctv displayed in Ellin’s Tower and the new visitor centre were both sat on the nest when we first switched on the camera a matter of weeks back now. They had just landed with huge beak-fulls of animal hair (probably from the fields opposite the visitor centre) and it was a lovely sight to be greeted with. Since then they’re visits were sporadic, until about this time last week when ‘Mrs Mousetrap’ began spending increasingly more time tweeking the nest below. It is hoped that she is now sitting on eggs – the exciting news being that we soon be able to watch the nest-cam online, I will broadcast when it is up and running as it truly is a wonderful and special thing to see.
Friday night was home to a quiz organised as my leaving do. I love quizzes. I remember sitting by my father on the river bank while he was fishing and after I had raced the maggots and made snail caravan parks I would annoyingly plead “Ask me questions?! Ask me questons?!”. This abnormality of my mind has not left since this time. Hayley, one of the staff at RSPB South Stack, did me proud with this quiz. I loved it, thanks! Oh, and of course my team won :). Before we quizzed we had chips down by Holyhead harbour where I was twitched!! Two sandwich terns swung by to say hello to the new tern warden at Cemlyn (that’s me!) and then promptly came back with three more of their friends. I hope rare birds feel that privileged when we twitch them! My guess is that they’re not so egotistical, but there you go. It made me smile.
Another highlight of my weekend was watching a sandwich tern off Traeth Bychan, near Moelfre, diving beak-first down in to the sparkling blue sea whilst the mountains of Snowdonia and the Carneddau glistened, snow-capped, in the background. If you can picture this, I was making the noises of someone watching fireworks as I watched it plunge time and again. A magnificently elegant bird! I cannot wait to see more of them at Cemlyn soon.
Sunday and a roadtrip down to Pembrokeshire with my mate Sam. The journey down was beautiful, firstly though the mountains then the lush valleys of mid-Wales with two red kites to boot, the sun setting over the enormous expanse of sea below Aberystwyth and darkness approaching as we neared our destination of St David’s.
Monday took me over to Ramsey to visit the lovely RSPB Island Assistant, Nia. Nia did some work up at South Stack last year so we lived together for about a month and I thought I had better pop and say hello! As we rocked up at St Justinians lifeboat station the weather wasn’t looking too good and the slipmaster advised us that the weather might restrict our visit and that we should return to the mainland on the twelve o’clock shuttle. That would give us only two hours on the island and so we decided to risk the four o’clock boat being cancelled – the thought of being stuck on Ramsey wasn’t much of a deterant to be fair. As we bounded across the sound I saw Fulmars gliding around the cliffs. Seeing them from this perspective was a joy as I normally look down upon them from the tall cliffs of South Stack. I met a very interesting lady on the boat, Sarah Beynon from Oxford University, who is looking into the dung beetles that the resident Chough eat. It sounds like she may have some very interesting findings soon to be published and if you watch ‘Coast’ in the not to distant future you will be able to catch Sarah discussing the subject on there. It looks as though her work will reinforce the habitat conservation work already undertaken by organisations such as the RSPB in ‘special areas of conservation’ aimed at chough populations which is, of course, great news. As Sam and I wandered around the island we stumbled across a splendid fellow (pictured below) and wondered if this is one of the species Sarah was recording..? Sam and I had our bellies to the grass watching this guy cross the path in front of us. Stunning in his shimmery blue outfit!Ramsey Island is a very similar habitat to South Stack. As I said to Sam, it’s like South Stack crossed with the Isles of Scilly. The excitement I feel when on Scilly, I felt as I looked back at mainland Wales from Ramsey. Real life is accessible but somewhat detached.
It only took a few hours to quite slowly tour the island and we sat for lunch watching Grey Seals frolicking in the bay below intrigued by the tourist boats circumnavigating the island.
Behind the wardens cottage was an ideal drop-in spot for migrant birds; a fresh water pool surrounded by gorse. Here we sat for some time aquainting ourselves with varuous chiffchaffs and my first blackcap of the year.
We saw an oystercatcher mobbing a Raven near the slipway which caused me to comment and for Sam to agree that “Oystercatchers are the gentlemen and gentleladies of the bird world”. Very true I think! Dressed up to the nines in their suits with their fancy orange beaks, peacefully existing along our shorelines. I was glad to see them sticking up for themselves!
Lambing was in full-swing on the island so we didn’t see much of Nia or the other staff and volunteers. We had time for a quick catch up before the four o’clock boat sailed (the weather had gradually improved throughout the day) and we were very sad to leave behind the lovely vibe of the island. There was a real family feel to the group left there to manage things. I would recommend a visit or volunteering stint to anybody, I don’t imagine you’d be disapointed!
That evening we strolled around a dimming St David’s and the grounds of the STUNNING cathedral. The ambience exaggerated by the Rookery in full chorus in the silouetted trees.
The weather has not entirely been on our side, however we have sat amongst sea thrift having lunch, attempted to surf at Whitesands bay and had a cosy pint in the smugglers cove of Porthgain so I’d say that was pretty good so far. By Friday I have to be in Newport, so between now and then let’s hope we can squeeze in some more holiday fun!
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 🙂