It’s almost as if there’s too much to see at this time of year and working really doesn’t help accomplish seeing any of it! Since leaving the RSPB accommodation and moving into Holyhead however, I have started biking to work and this means I get that little bit of outdoors on my way to and from the office. I’m not going to claim any rarities or life ticks, but what I have had are really intimate encounters with some of our more familiar birds, particularly the lovely wrens and robins. It seems they are less bothered by me on my bike than on foot. Is this because I can sneak up to them more quickly?! Not with my squeaky seat and panting breaths. It feels as though I am being serenaded all the way as blue tits, chaffinch, house sparrows and now chiffchaff brighten up my commute. Another added bonus of this new path to work is that I’ve caught up with something I’ve somehow missed before; the beauty of a collared dove. What elegant little fellows they are?! A bit too relaxed about moving out of the way, but stunning nonetheless.
I’m currently sat outside writing this blog, perched on a rocky outcrop near to Trearddur Bay. I love it here. Were it not for the haze in the distance I’d see Snowdonia and the Lleyn laid out before me, but as it stands I’ve got Rhoscolyn beacon and the rocks of Trearddur Bay, glimmering sea to my right and the collection of holiday homes to my right. Down on the water in front of me there’s four oystercatchers having a good old beep and a rock pipit displaying over to the left. It might not be as warm as the past week, but out of the wind that sun’s got some heat in it!
Moving on…I want to transport you back to 3:15am last Monday. Now there aren’t many things worth getting up at this time for, a holiday, (insert hearthrob here), or a Black Grouse Lek. I wonder which did it for me?!
Ken and I left in the black of the night to pick up Etienne from Bangor and joined Brian at RSPB Conwy to go off on one of Alan Davies ‘Biggest Twitch’ tours. By this point I had breakfast on the mind. Arriving at our destination, World’s End (interesting name!), we stepped quietly out of the car to see what we could pick up. Sure enough, from the slope across the valley we heard the incredible sound of Black Grouse bubbling calls echoing across the moor, intercepted by a shrill bark (please ask Alan to imitate this – he does it very well!). With his scope, Alan picked up the white bottoms of the grouse bumbling about in the distance as the sun rose behind us, this was worth getting up so early for.
Just as it was light we headed along the road through the moorland and pulled up in a spot where we were to see six black grouse lekking right in front of our eyes, just thirty metres from the car. Wow! We were able to watch their incredible display for a couple of hours. A few noted observations being, they generally just waltz up to each other and back away before they have to fight, they do this with the appearance of being attached to each other by an elastic band (envisage fencing and the stepping back and forth) and that there were no ladies to be seen!! You have to wonder what the female black grouse think to all this bravado. Etienne, a student at Bangor University, is also a photographer and has very kindly let me have access to his photos from the day. You can see all his work at http://www.flickr.com/photos/etiennelfr/page3/.
On from this spot we stopped in a nearby plantation and headed uphill to see what we could see. There were crossbills at plantation level although it took us a while to each see them. From half way up the hill, Ken spotted something on the far side of the valley perched in a tree – a great grey shrike!!! Now, this bird had been seen in the area but we were all impressed at Ken’s spot that morning – it was so distant! I’ve not been birding very long so to have two great grey shrikes under ‘my belt’ seems a bit too good to be true!
We toddled a few steps further up the hill and I stopped to have a look back at the shrike and spotted something unusual in a tree nearby. I couldn’t pick it up in my bins and asked Alan to set the scope on it. It was a female black grouse!! Alan was so impressed by my spot that gave me an enthusiastic pat on the back which took me and my feet by surprise! I felt happy to have contributed to what was turning out to be an amazing days birding.
Spending a little while longer on the heath we saw stonechats and meadow pipits galore. Watching the meadow pipits chase each other around in their courtship display was like watching butterflies fluttering over the heath.
This is where I have to give Alan’s car a big shout out. It looks a little bit like a spaceship inside and was very comfy, the best bit for me though was the glass roof – I was sat wedged in between Ken and Etienne and yet I had near on panoramic views! Brilliant for looking for those high up birds of prey.
The sun was beaming down on us that day and we took in Grey Wagtails and Dipper at Llangollen, dozens of buzzards and even a red kite on the way back up to the coast.
Next stop Kinmel bay to see if the last remaining Snow Bunting had moved on. Although we didn’t find it, we did have lovely views of some waders. Etienne’s photos tell the story. Here we also saw the most incredible view of a skylark. It sat, bold as brass, on a post just metres from us! I have never had such good views of the species.
I had already been awake for about twelve hours when we took one final stop at Old Colwyn. Here, it has been estimated, there are around 30,000 of the sea duck Common Scoter. At times it apparently looks like an oil slick. I saw nothing at first glance but then the little black dots started appearing out of nowhere, there were thousands of ‘invisible’ birds. Amongst the lot were two drake surf scoters, a few velvet scoters and a long-tailed duck. Velvet scoter and long-tailed duck were new birds for me. I could easily identify the velvet scoter but the long-tailed duck took more pinning down. At this distance it would be easy to say you’ve seen a bird when in fact you could see none of it’s features. Eventually I felt the duck was tickable, but I would like to see one at a closer range.
Phew, we were exhausted. So exhausted in fact, that when we picked up our cars from RSPB Conwy we didn’t stop to look around the reserve, missing a visiting Iceland Gull- doh!
Anyway, great thanks to Alan of ‘The Biggest Twitch’ for an incredible day out – apparently they even put on the weather! You can check out tours with Ruth and Alan at http://www.thebiggesttwitch.com/ . Also, big thanks to Etienne, Brian and Ken for making up a thoroughly enjoyable birding party 🙂
Literally just as I finished typing that last sentence a sandwhich tern flew over the water in front of me and had dived for fish a number of times in Trearddur Bay in the distance. I could get used to this outdoors writing!
And now a cormorant is having a splash.
Thanks for reading,
P.s- as I headed home to post this blog a group of twelve Chough playfully escorted me back to the car. These guys must be the non-breeding individuals as the others are paired up already.
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.