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Wildlife Chronicles

A Nature Blog by Elfyn Pugh

19th April 2007

Another visit to Ynyslas point this morning to take advantage of the high spring tides. The peak was later today and slightly lower than yesterday. I was on my own initially and there were fewer waders than the previous day. There were a number of dunlin, ringed plover and a couple of sanderling feeding along the creeping tideline and amongst them was a single red knot which was evident by his larger size. I watched a Lesser Black- backed gull which gulped down head first a decent sized mullet. There was a steady procession of manx shearwaters offshore many heading south and some came quite close inshore and again many followed the flooding tide into the estuary. There seemed to be more auks than yesterday and the majority were razorbills. I saw two divers flying south way offshore which I could not identify beyond doubt but later a red throated-diver flew south closer inshore. There was a bit of a mirage effect on the horizon and as I scanned I saw two bottlenose dolphins breach clear of the water a couple of times and one did a somersaulting dive. Because of the mirage effect their bodies seemed incomplete it was quite surreal. I was enjoying my birding until I became ‘brassed off’ to put it politely by an uncontrolled sheepdog breed running along the shoreline chasing the small flock of waders which were attempting to feed or rest this went on for ages and I shouted at the dog but it was oblivious to me. I was joined by two other birders who were equally incensed at the dogs behaviour. Moments after the flock of waders had alighted in one place they were disturbed by the dog and then they flew off to some other part of the shoreline this happened more times than I could count and I was becoming quite angered by this especially when I became aware that the owner of the dog was in the vicinity. My patience ran out when this uncontrolled hound raced around the area cordoned off for nesting ringed plover. If there were birds on nests at this moment there is no doubt that they would have been disturbed thus leaving any eggs exposed to predatory birds such as gulls. Where are the wardens of this nature reserve at such time? OK so a dog will do what comes natural to it but if you wilfully or recklessly allow an animal to continually harass a bird which is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act then in my mind that constitutes a breach of that act. Anyway in this instance inaction was inappropriate so I approached the owner of the dog and made him aware of my displeasure! I had no desire to get myself into a situation of confrontation and in fairness to the guy he could see my point of view. These birds are clearly on passage migration and the estuary and its confines are an important feeding and resting place for them on their long journey and as responsible birders we clearly have a duty to ensure their we

Wednesday 18th April

A high spring tide was predicted today so I thought it would be good to spend a couple of hours at Ynyslas point at the mouth of the Dyfi estuary so at 8am I picked up my mate Bob Relph and we headed for that location. The tide was flooding into the estuary so we had timed it well. We walked to the point and set up our scopes. There were many waders feeding along the waters edge or resting on the shore. We probably had a hundred each of dunlin and ringed plover and a handful of sanderling and a turnstone. we also saw a curlew sandpiper which was rather nice. I haven’t seen one for many years. There were scores of manx shearwaters too most were offshore and others seemed to be following the flooding tide quite a way into the estuary towards Aberdyfi.. There was the odd auk or two and a couple of gannets. We had about half a dozen sandwich terns and a trio took advantage of a channel buoy to rest upon to preen their feathers. We saw a group of Red- breasted mergansers which alighted on the sea near the mouth of the estuary. Occasionally a swallow or two would fly overhead. On the ebbing tide we made our way back to the vehicle which I had parked near the information centre. It was delightful to hear a skylark singing over the dunes. A kite was hunting in the distance. We saw a male wheatear in the vicinity of the information centre fuelling up perhaps to continue his journey to who knows where. We watched a pair of reed buntings in a shrub and their behaviour led us to believe that an act of copulation was imminent! We could hear the soft twittering of linnets. On our way back home we stopped briefly to scan a rather rough and muddy looking ‘paddock’ and here we counted at least nine lapwings and it was clear that a couple were probably sitting on eggs laid in a scrape on the ground. This has become such an uncommon sight today in our countryside unlike a couple of decades ago when lapwing were fairly numerous. We drove on and stopped again to watch a hare foraging in a field. I love hares their body shape remind me of a cross between a dog and a deer! They have sharp eyes and hearing and goodness me they can run at a fair pace when they have a mind to!

14th April 2007

On Saturday 14th April I took part in a coastal walk from the picturesque coastal resort of New Quay in Ceredigion with a group of like minded enthusiasts of the ‘fledgling’ Ceredigion Bird Club. Our leader was Liz Snell an exceptionally knowledgeable birder. We started from the main car park in the village and took a leisurely stroll on the public footpath heading southwards. Our destination was the former coastguard lookout. The weather was beautifully sunny and warm. Our group were a mixed bunch of young and not so young and consisted of experienced and less knowledgeable birders. At the start of the walk we checked the large number of gulls which were taking advantage of what they could find around the waste outlet from the shellfish plant. We looked for scarcer species such as Mediterranean gull. There were a few auks out in the bay such as razorbills and guillemots but their numbers increased as we reached their breeding cliffs towards Craig-yr-Adar (Birds Rock). There were just a few auks on their nesting ledges many more were out at sea singly or in small groups engaged in feeding or preening their feathers ensuring that they were in prime condition for the important task of breeding. I had thought a lot about auks during the winter months and the incessant battering they must have endured during those fierce winter storms I know that many perished. Kittiwakes were few in number on the cliffs as yet but there were some out at sea. Liz spotted a peregrine and we watched it as it singled out a jackdaw and then gave chase at great speed out of our sight around the cliffs below so we were unable to determine its fate. This is a great area to see peregrines. We spotted a couple of porpoise feeding just offshore. The sea was very calm offering perfect conditions for spotting dolphins and porpoise from the high cliff top. Along the way we saw wheatear, stonechat, linnets, goldfinch, dunnock, robin, wren, skylark, meadow pipit and swallows too. On the rocks and sea below we saw oystercatcher, shag and cormorant. We reached Bird Rock and cautiously peered down at a small group of ‘gillies’ on the cliffs. We watched a chough on a pinnacle of rock. There were fulmars too they form part of the family of birds known in the business as ‘tubenoses’ named as such because of the special feature of the bill which distinctly shows a raised bony canal running forward on the top of the upper mandible and enclosing the nostrils. There is an unproven theory that this group of birds possess a strong sense of smell. Also excess salt is excreted from the birds body through the bill in a kind of salty secretion (salt glands situated above the eye are especially well developed in tube-nosed seabirds). The fulmar has also a nasty habit of ‘puking’ an oily fluid at those unwise enough to approach to close to a bird sitting on a nest for instance so beware don’t attempt to push your luck if you ever come across one or you could end up going home smelling like a tin of sardines!

We continued our walk just beyond the old coastguard lookout as Liz wanted to show us a ravens nest at a traditional site. We reached the spot and disturbed a trio of chough which were feeding on the grassland and they flew past us calling indignantly. We trained our scopes on the ravens nest which was at eye level and watched the four chicks attended by a single adult but which was shortly joined by its partner. One of our party spotted a couple of sandwich terns some distance offshore they were flying north . We walked back along the path towards New Quay and I was looking forward to my packed lunch and a cuppa. Thrift (sea pink) and bluebell here and there poked their heads into the sunlight and sea campion was flowering quite abundantly. We saw a peacock butterfly and bumblebees. A cow Atlantic grey seal briefly surfaced on the sea below the cliffs showing her grey back and mottled underparts someone asked the difference between the bull and the cow seal and I pointed out that the bull is larger and his coat has a darker pelage he also boasts a distinctive ‘roman nose’.

It was an enjoyable morning and this is what a nature walk should be about people with a passion for birds selflessly imparting their knowledge to others. All to often nowadays you here of stories of inexperienced birdwatchers encountering less than helpful birders and being snubbed by them. What hope have we of educating the next generation to conserve what we have if experienced birders treat people with such contempt! This is undoubtedly the major benefit of joining an organised birding walk anywhere in the UK with a group such as the Ceredigion Bird Club where every participant is treated as an equal each sharing their knowledge for the benefit of others.

Early April 2007

I hope my readers have had an enjoyable bank holiday break and that you have all recharged your batteries. I have had a bumper week watching birds starting off on good Friday with an all day boat trip out into the waters off Pembrokeshire with a party of friends led by the inimitable Cliff Benson of ‘Sea Trust’. We were on Nick O’Sullivan’s seaworthy craft the ‘Celtic Wildcat’ (see panel on right for details). On a gloriously sunny morning we cruised out of Neyland marina into a calm sea. Our initial destination was to the sea area known as the Celtic deep in the hope of finding some dolphins or even whales. On our long cruise out we saw a few gannets puffins razorbills & guillemots we saw just a few manx shearwaters. Shouts of ‘bonxie’ went up and we looked up to see a great skua passing overhead showing the distinctive white under and upper primary wing patches. I spotted a small raptor flying with a determined purpose just over the sea unfortunately most of my party failed to get a view of it so we can only surmise as to its identity. One of our party Lyndon Lomax thought perhaps that it was most likely to be a peregrine but we will never know for sure. We reached the Celtic deep but it was rather bereft of cetaceans. We came across a Belgian fishing trawler from Osttend and there were numerous gannets and gulls in the vicinity of the boat as well as fulmars which flew above ours heads sadly though there were no ‘stormies’ this time (storm petrels). We motored north heading for the Smalls lighthouse and we hit a bank of fog. It was decidedly cooler as we cruised through the fog and the sea was a bit choppy but we all felt safe in Nick’s boat. Suddenly there was a cry of ‘Dolphins’ from the intrepid Janet Baxter our onboard photographer and then we were approached by a pod of half a dozen common dolphin which entertained us with a brief spell of bow riding in the pressure wave of the boat until they got fed up and eventually veered off to carry on with their business.

Smalls lighthouseEventually we came out of the gloomy fog bank the waters calmed and Nick cautiously approached the Smalls lighthouse perched on its lonely rock far from land. There were a number of Atlantic grey seals basking on the rocks & reefs round about many took lazily to the water on seeing us. You could see the submerged reefs occasionally poking theirs heads out of the water and could imagine the danger that they would pose to shipping sailing through these perilous waters. We marvelled at the magnificent solid granite structure of the lighthouse and you have to admire the men who constructed the present tower in 1861 and those who worked as keepers at this lonely outpost of Trinity House.
I will recount to you the oft-repeated story of the dramatic events which occurred here in the winter of the year 1800. In those days the light was manned by two keepers the fierce storms during the winter of that year caused the keepers to be cut off for over four months relief ships made unsuccessful attempts to reach the rock but the crews were able to report sighting one of the keepers in the corner of the outer gallery signalling with a distress flag. The light continued to shine unabated each night but when relief finally arrived it was discovered that one of the keepers had died and the survivor had lashed the body of his companion to the gallery railings instead of committing his body to the sea for fear that he would be accused of murdering him however it seems that the poor devil was quite mad. From thereon there were always three keepers stationed at this lighthouse. From the Smalls we voyaged towards the small rocky island of Grassholm in order to view the gannet colony and our excitement mounted as we got closer. Although it is still early in the year there were many thousands of gannets on the rock and we could see some flying in with nest material. There were kittiwakes on the ledges too. Grassholm (pictured below) holds the third largest gannetry in the World about 32,000 pairs.

Grassholm

Our next destination was the island of Skomer we spotted a porpoise feeding with an accompaniment of gannets. We cruised into South Haven and in the bay there were numerous puffins on the water and some checking out their burrows on the island. The kittiwakes and auks were back on their nesting ledges. We hove to for a short while just enjoying the serenity of this magical place. In due course we motored back to Neyland and finished the day with a welcome pint and an excellent meal in ‘The Bar Restaurant’ overlooking the marina (the restaurant is open every night contact 01646 602550 for further information).

Saturday was another gloriously sunny day and my wife and I decided to take a walk up Craig-yr-Aderyn (Bird Rock) in the Dysynni Valley. The climb up to the summit at 760 feet is very easy if you have a desire to walk it sometime. You can park your vehicle on the grassed area where the path commences near Llanllwyda farm which by the way hosts an excellent camping & touring park if you want to base yourself at this lovely spot (Tel- 01654 782276 for further details). As you near the summit of the rock you have to pass through the remains of an outer wall of an iron age fortification. Visitors to the site of this ancient monument today probably think that it is a more recent structure but it dates back to around 700BC to 43AD. Iron Age man may well have sought refuge here from the valley below to escape danger from other marauding tribes. They would have been afforded all round views from this natural fortress and I guess it would not have been easy to mount a surprise attack on the occupants. They must have been dangerous times to live in. I tried to imagine the scene then. The sea would have lapped at the foot of the rock. The area around would probably have been well wooded with oak. There may have been wolves brown bears and deer roaming the dense forest and possibly even beavers in the riverine habitat. The wildlife must have been abundant with food aplenty for the inhabitants of the area. The rock now holds no such dangers (only for those people careless enough to take a peek over the sheer precipice! So my warning to you is to keep an eye on your children.) It is the haunt of those immensely charismatic birds the chough (2 -6 pairs) and the superb king of the falcons the peregrine and of course the only inland colony of cormorants in Wales (about 60+ pairs). Sit on the summit awhile and you will get a birds eye views of its wild inhabitants and enjoy the panoramic views all around to Cader Idris and westwards down to the broadwater and out to sea. You can also see the ruins of the 13th century Welsh castle of Castell-y-Bere in the Valley below. The feral goats which once grazed around the rock have now gone the cause of their disappearance is speculative! On the summit and on the way up look out for the Wheatear a summer visitor to Britain they will make themselves obvious by the flash of their white rumps and upper tail-coverts. The male has an ash-grey crown and upper parts and a white supercilium, black eye-mask, black wings and a yellowish- buff colour on the throat & breast. The female is a warmer grey-brown above and buff colour below with darker wings and ear-coverts with a pale buff supercilium.

On Tuesday 10th April I saw my first Pied Flycatcher of the year this male bird was looking pristine in his black and white plumage. He peered into a nestbox by my house and chased some blue tits away who ventured to close. So it looks like he might be claiming a stake on this prime piece of property again this year!

Its Wednesday the 11th today and another gloriously fine day and with two companions I climbed up to the 2000 foot summit of Pumlumon (or Plynlimon). Bird life was rather minimal but we did see wheatear, meadow pipits, skylark and two swallows flying over the summit on their migration. Following our decent we headed for the Kite feeding station at Gigrin farm in Rhayader. Kite numbers were lower today probably because the breeding females will be firmly entrenched on their nests sitting on eggs. Lets hope they have a better breeding season than last year.

We ventured up the Elan Valley and stopped by the quarry near the Caban Coch dam to have a look for peregrines. We saw a group of birders with scopes and bins trained on the rock escarpment above the quarry of course being inquisitive I approached them intrigued as to what they were watching and when they said they were looking at a Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) my shocked reply was ‘You have got to be joking!’- but they weren’t I looked up and there it was a male Blue Rock Thrush looking resplendent in his magnificent slate-blue/grey plumage with darker wings (the colour reminded me very much of Welsh slate) we watched in awe as it fed on bumblebees thrashing them on a rock before devouring them presumably to extricate the sting and then it caught a common lizard in its bill which wriggled violently the creature no doubt sensing its impending demise. I saw the bird take a sip of water seeping from the rock face. Fortunately Pete Jennings the county bird recorder arrived having had word of its appearance. He confirmed its identity and he knew immediately it was a first record for the county. It was indeed a mega rarity we were looking at. Here it was looking quite at home in this montane habitat. The warmth and the sun kissed scene must have reminded the bird of its proper homeland much further south in southern Europe in France or Spain perhaps. Pete thought it had probably found its way here riding the warm air of the high pressure system which has no doubt brought with it an influx of our more ‘regular’ summer bird visitors too. My last sighting of a Blue Rock Thrush was on the island of mallorca in 1979. My wife and I were travelling around the island and I saw the bird in montane habitat remarkably similar to this location in the Elan Valley. The chap who first spotted this rare thrush at about 1.30pm that afternoon is Richard Spencer from Lancashire and he was incredibly modest about it. It transpires that this is only the 6th record of this thrush occurring in the United Kingdom and the 2nd record for Wales the last sighting in Wales was on the 4th June 1987 in Caernarfonshire! It was truly amazing to see this bird going about its business with apparent relish in its natural habitat without undue disturbance from our small band of birders without having to chase it to the point of exhaustion from one bush to another on one of the Isles Of Scilly or elsewhere a fate which often befalls such rarities. I felt very privileged to have shared a moment in time with our exotic visitor. What will become of him I wonder? I wish you well my intrepid traveller!

Elfyn PughElfyn Pugh, retired police officer and life-long observer of the natural world, now leads bird and wildlife trips in Wales through his company Red Kite Safaris.