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.
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 🙂