Following last week’s BirdNotes on the changing migration of Blackcaps, Bangor University undergraduate Toby Carter is seeking readers’ help to map the birds. If you have seen a Blackcap in your garden this month, please email email@example.com with your postcode and a note of how many males (with a black cap) and females (with a rusty brown cap). I’ll pass on your records and publish the results in a couple of weeks.
Midwinter is a time of minimal movement by birds, so many of this week’s sightings have been present for a few weeks. On Anglesey, three Slavonian Grebes, two Great Northern Diver and a Long-tailed Duck are on the Inland Sea and a Rose-coloured Starling feeds in gardens in Amlwch. Two Snow Buntings remain at Holyhead Breakwater and one returned to Horton’s Nose, Kinmel Bay, after a gap of several weeks. A Great Northern Diver remains off Beaumaris and 11 were in Caernarfon Bay, but a Bittern over Bangor harbour on Friday was surprising. Water Pipits remain at Glanwydden and Llandudno’s North Wales golf course, and a Hawfinch was at Marl Woods in Llandudno Junction. Firecrests were in Conwy’s Bodlondeb Woods and Marchwiel Marsh, near Wrexham, while a Ring-necked Duck was on Llyn Tegid.
Red Kites, which surely should be national bird of Wales, are a more regular sighting than 20 years ago, part of a recovery across Europe that has led to its global conservation status being revised. Its Red List category has moved from Near Threatened to Least Concern, which means it has moved a big step away from the risk of extinction. Great news, although it’s not doing well in the southwest of its range, with declines in southern Spain and Portugal, and it has recently been lost as a breeding species in Africa.
The first few days of January saw a remarkable five different species of warbler in North Wales, a family of birds usually associated with long days of summer. Our one regular resident warbler, Cetti’s Warbler, lives around wetlands, primarily on Anglesey, and Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps occur in small numbers across the region. A Yellow-browed Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat on Anglesey are more unseasonal, however.
Blackcaps now occur regularly in Britain in winter. Hugh Linn, who lives near Rossett, Wrexham, currently has seven in his garden. Four are males, of which one is moulting out the ginger cap that it’s had since it fledged from its nest last summer. He remembers seeing his first winter Blackcap when he was Rector of Eccleston, on the outskirts of Chester, in the 1980s: “We had put out some fat with other edible offerings for our garden birds and we were very surprised to spot a male Blackcap tucking in, as in those days we had only encountered them as summer visitors”.
Blackcaps are found in around one in seven British gardens that participate in the BTO Garden Birdwatch project, and slightly more frequently in gardens of Welsh participants. Blackcaps are generally found along the coast, with numbers usually peaking in January or February. Their presence here in winter has been noticed since the 1960s, coinciding with the start of growth in people putting food out for wild birds. Numbers really grew during the 1980s, and have been fairly stable since the mid-1990s. Garden feeding has certainly helped Blackcaps to survive the second part of the winter, once the autumn berry crop is exhausted. A survey of BTO Garden Birdwatch participants found that 70% of Blackcaps fed on fat-based foods, such as suet balls, and 35% on sunflower seeds. In summer, they eat small insects, hence those that breed here migrate to the more temperate Mediterranean, although some travel farther and cross the Sahara.
Summer residents do sometimes stay beyond late October, when autumn migration is over. In the early 20th century, North Wales naturalist Herbert Forrest reported a Blackcap being “pugnacious” to other birds in a Porthmadog garden, and it has earned a bit of a feisty reputation for defending feeders from other birds, especially Blue Tits.
When people noticed more Blackcaps in winter, in the 1970s and ‘80s, many assumed that these were birds that had not migrated south. I remember attending a lecture by German ornithologist Dr Peter Berthold at the 1993 BTO Conference, at which he explained his orientation studies of Blackcaps captured in central Europe during the summer. In autumn, some of these showed a strong tendency to move to the northwest corner of their aviary and he was convinced that these were the source of Blackcaps wintering in Britain. In order to try and prove his theory, he got permission to catch a small number of wintering Blackcaps in Somerset, which then bred in captivity in his aviaries near Lake Constance on the Swiss/German border. Berthold and his colleagues showed that the following autumn, the chicks from those British birds also attempted to move northwest, back towards Britain, just as he predicted. I remember being staggered when I heard his talk, which was before any of the modern technology that enables us to track birds.
What was most astonishing was the speed at which the change had happened. Evolutionary biology had traditionally told us that it took hundreds, if not thousands, of years for such a radical change to occur in migration, but Berthold showed that it could happen in just a few dozen generations of birds if the conditions were favourable. Garden bird feeding in Britain has provided those conditions.
Berthold subsequently proved that the direction of travel was set by the birds’ genes. The first birds to make the journey, perhaps by accident, returned to their breeding areas earlier in spring than those coming from farther south, so they paired up with each other and thus the genetic selection for migration to Britain was strengthened. Fast-forward almost 30 years and technology has added more detail to those studies in the 1980s.
Tiny, ultra-lightweight geolocators, which record day length, were attached to more than 600 Blackcaps across continental Europe during the breeding season, and to over 130 wintering in Britain. When 100 of these birds were recaught, the data stored in the geolocators enabled scientists to back-calculate the position of the birds on most days in the intervening period. This showed that the trait for wintering in Britain is not restricted to the area of the original southern German studies, but extends from northeast Spain through France, and east through central Europe as far as the Polish border with Ukraine, a distance of over 2,000km (see the map in Fig. 1d of this paper). The same study found that British-wintering Blackcaps arrived back in their European breeding area 10 days earlier than those that travelled south. It is quite possible that Blackcaps in adjacent territories in Europe head to different places for the winter, but while they live close to each other, they are effectively divided by that 10 days, which means they are evolving separately.
It is rare for scientists to be able to study such a dramatic change within a lifetime’s work, and there is still much to discover about Blackcaps wintering in Britain. The highest densities are in southwest Britain, and over the last three winters over 600 have been colour-ringed in Cornwall as part of a study by the BTO, Oxford and Exeter Universities, so if you do see a Blackcap in your garden, check its legs for plastic rings, and send details of the combination to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how many Blackcaps are reported in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, which takes place on 29-31 January.
Besides Blackcaps, there have been plenty of other winter birds seen this week. Several Firecrests are wintering in Gloddaeth Woods near Penrhyn Bay, where a Water Pipit remains on nearby fields and another is on Llandudno’s North Wales golf course. Three Great Northern Divers are off Dinas Dinlle and one flew over Bangor Pier on Monday, and two Surf Scoters were off Llanddulas at the weekend. Two Long-tailed Ducks were in Y Foryd and another at Cors Erddreiniog until the lake froze at the weekend. Long-stayers include a Black Redstart in Beaumaris, Rose-coloured Starling at Amlwch Port, Iceland Gull at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond and Snow Buntings on Holyhead breakwater.
*BirdTrack is a partnership between the BTO, the RSPB, Birdwatch Ireland, the Scottish Ornithologists' Club and the Welsh Ornithological Society. Participation is free and open to all.
New Year is a day for new leaves and new lists. Unable to meet up for the traditional ‘first day’, keen birders in North Wales put on their boots to see how many species could be seen or heard within walking distance of home. In eight hours of daylight, my total of 63 included a Water Pipit feeding adjacent to a cattle trough on a nearby farm, although the absence of Greenfinch and Lapwing reflects the decline in both species in recent years. The Water Pipit had been found a few days earlier and is unusual in North Wales, especially away from coastal saltmarsh. Another was seen on Anglesey’s Dulas estuary.
My walk total was put in the shade by the efforts of others. On north Anglesey, Steve Culley saw 81 species, including two rare Tundra Bean Geese at Cemlyn, and on the mainland Simon Hugheston-Roberts saw 80 species around Caernarfon. Any total over 60 is pretty impressive in North Wales in mid winter. It was notable how many Blackbirds and Song Thrushes were seen along the coast, pushed to lower altitudes or out of northern Britain by recent snow.
An Iceland Gull and Scaup are at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond and a second Iceland Gull was, briefly, near Glanwydden. Snow Buntings remain at Holyhead breakwater and Cemlyn, and Slavonian Grebe and Great Northern Diver were off Beaumaris. A Grey Phalarope was reported on the Dee near Bagillt, and Firecrests at Llanrhos and Conwy’s Bodlondeb Park. A Yellow-browed Warbler was a great find at Anglesey’s Llyn Llywenan, and several Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps were reported. Even more unseasonal is a Lesser Whitethroat found inside a house at Carreglefn, near Amlwch, which may be one of the rare Asian subspecies.
A couple of Black Redstarts fed on berries in a Llandudno garden on Christmas Day, apparently overwintering here, and others were in Tudweiliog, Point Lynas, Holyhead Mountain and Amlwch Port, where a Rose-coloured Starling continues to visit local gardens. A European White-fronted Goose tagged along with the flock of Greenland White-fronts on the Dyfi estuary, and a flock of 21 Whooper Swans is on Lake Vyrnwy.
Speedy work by Martin Jones of the Anglesey Bird News blog saw a 2020 report on the island’s birds published when 2021 was only a few hours old! Raising funds for Bangor Bird Group, details of how to receive one by email are in this blog post.
Many will, I’m sure, be quite happy to put 2020 behind us and look forward, perhaps with guarded uncertainty, to 2021. Before we do, however, let’s not forget the good things that we came to notice in the last 12 months.
Lockdown 1.0 in April and May brought almost endless sunshine and, with quieter roads and skies, many people discovered the wildlife on their doorstep. Thousands participated in impromptu activities such as the RSPB’s Breakfast Birdwatch and, while many wildlife surveys were cancelled, people contributed sightings to schemes such as the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch. During the first 100 days of lockdown, nearly half a million records were submitted to the Biological Records Centre’s iRecord, 54% more than in the same period in 2018.
We discovered local footpaths that had always been there, but un-noticed and under-valued. A survey by Natural England found that 87% of adults agreed that “being in nature makes me happy” but research by Friends of the Earth and People’s Postcode Lottery also found that 20% of people do not have a garden, public park or open fields within walking distance of their home.
Nature thrived in some places where footfall was lower, such as in Snowdonia, and rarities came too. The star was a Sooty Tern briefly at Cemlyn in June, but an Isabelline Wheatear at Carmel Head was also unusual and an Eastern Yellow Wagtail was a great find on Bardsey, where Bird Observatory staff had self-isolated through much of the summer.
As we enter 2021 in Lockdown 3.0, sightings over Christmas include a Bittern at NWWT The Spinnies, Great White Egret at Trefriw and Water Pipits near Penrhyn Bay. A Rose-coloured Starling remains at Amlwch Port, two Little Auks flew past the Little Orme on Sunday and a Black Redstart was in a Llandudno Junction garden. A Glaucous Gull was off Uwchmynydd at the weekend and four Snow Buntings at Llanfairfechan.
However you mark the turning of the year, may 2021 bring good birds but also that we hold on to the things we cherished in 2020.
I write this in the washed-out dawn of 2020's shortest day, whose gloom probably reflects the national mood. However, as I stepped out of the shower half an hour ago, a Robin was singing lustily from somewhere nearby, perhaps under a streetlamp in the darkness. It's not alone. Out walking yesterday, the notes of a Mistle Thrush crossed the field from a treetop, appropriate for the time of year given it shares its name with the hemi-parasitic plant beneath which it is traditional to kiss at Christmas.
I don't think you can put a price on how much better I feel for having birdsong in my life. I know how much poorer I'd feel without it. The restrictions brought about by covid-19 have highlighted the importance of access to greenspace for our well-being, but that greenspace is even better for our mental health when it's rich in wildlife. A study published recently by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research showed that having an additional 14 bird species in your neighbourhood is equivalent to an average household in Europe feeling £1,400 better off every year. My quick maths puts that value as around £2 billion in Wales alone.
Paul Roberts' photo of Pied Wagtails roosting in the decorated Christmas tree in Bridgend town centre has brightened the mood of many people this week, again illustrating how nature can see us through the dark times. This species is known for its use of buildings to stay warm through a winter's night - I recall seeing them emerge from flue of a Post Office heating system and horticultural greenhouses. Perhaps a little heat generated by the Christmas lights attracted them, as well as the dense structure of the pine. Roosts of up to 2000 Pied Wagtails have been recorded in Wales, one of the largest in the north being 600 at Bangor's Ysbyty Gwynedd in 2000.
Birds found on walks from home over the weekend include Snow Buntings at Cemlyn and Llanddona, a trio of Water Pipit, Rose-coloured Starling and Black Redstart at Amlwch Port and Long-tailed Duck at Foryd Bay. Three Velvet Scoters are with over 8000 Common Scoters off Llanddulas, four Scaup off Kinmel Bay and a Slavonian Grebe was reported in the Conwy estuary at the weekend.
Two Curlews are now wearing ‘backpacks’ with a transmitter that will send their movements to a base-station in Anglesey’s Cefni Valley. The British Trust for Ornithology wants to find out more about their movements over the next few weeks as part of a multi-partner ECHOES project looking at the effects of sea-level rise in Wales and Ireland. Many of the Curlews that winter along the North Wales coast come from breeding areas in northern England and northern Europe, but satellite-tracking by ornithologists shows that breeding on farmland in northwest Germany visit our coast too. A colour-ringed Curlew photographed in north Anglesey recently had been hand-reared at Nordhorn Zoo on the German border with the Netherlands. Having been released into the wild in July 2012, this recent Welsh sighting was the first since.
Hundreds of European White-fronted Geese have arrived in Britain from Russia in recent weeks. These are the same species, but a very different population, as the Greenland White-fronted Geese that winter on Anglesey and on the Dyfi estuary. The Russian birds have mostly been found in central and eastern England, but a couple made it to Wales, including one at Llanfrothen in the Glaslyn Valley on Saturday.
Most of Britain’s Swallows should be in South Africa for Christmas, so two in St Asaph on Sunday must have been feeling the cold. They are not the latest in Britain this year, however, as a Swallow was on the outskirts of Edinburgh on Monday, nor are they the latest ever in the Flintshire recording area, as there was one in Rhyl on 15 December 2016.
On Anglesey, three Slavonian Grebes and eight Scaup are on the Inland Sea and the overwintering Rose-coloured Starling remains at Amlwch Port. Four Black Redstarts were together on a rooftop in Llandudno last week, part of an influx across the region that brought nine to Anglesey. Two Great White Egrets were on the Conwy river south of Caerhun on Sunday and one at RSPB Conwy on Monday, while others were at Llyn Llywenan and Worthenbury in the Dee valley last week. Starlings continue to gather at dusk over RSPB Cors Ddyga, alongside a Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl hunted over the weekend.
TraIrrespective of the Brexit deal, the bonds between Wales and Ireland remain strong for migrating birds. Records from Bardsey, for example, show that some birds which nest in Ireland make the journey to or from their African wintering grounds via Wales, and during freezing winter conditions, birds such as Skylarks and Starlings look for feeding grounds free of snow, flying first to the Welsh coast, and then to Ireland if necessary. Satellite tracking shows that rare Greenland White-fronted Geese move between Ireland and Wales during the winter.
Colour-ringing shows that Pale-bellied Brent Geese, which winter around the Menai Strait, are part of an Irish Sea population, which make an epic flight from their breeding area on Ellesmere Island. One satellite-tracked by the University of Exeter spent this summer near the Nunavut settlement of Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world, 500 miles from the North Pole. En route, it flew directly over the Greenland ice-cap, a distance of more than 1000 miles.
Another type of Brent Goose, the Dark-bellied form, breeds in Siberia and winter mostly in eastern and southern England. One, colour-ringed W2NC by Steve Dodd near Caernarfon in January 2018, was in Tralee, southwest Ireland in September 2020. It is the first ringed Dark-bellied Brent Goose seen in Ireland, presumably having travelled from Taimyr in central Siberia, 3,250 miles away. W2NC was with its mate and a juvenile hatched during this summer, which means junior made that immense journey within weeks of learning to fly!
This week on Anglesey, eight Scaup are on the Inland Sea, four Great White Egrets on Llyn Alaw and four Snow Buntings at Holyhead’s Soldier’s Point, while a late Swallow was at Llangoed on Saturday. On the mainland, a Long-tailed Duck is off Pensarn and a Snow Bunting at Morfa Madryn.
One of the largest Starling flocks ever seen in North Wales has been recorded at RSPB Cors Ddyga in Anglesey’s Cefni Valley. Counting the number of birds in the shape-shifting murmuration in the half-light of dusk is challenging, but estimates from experienced birdwatchers at the weekend varied between 750,000 and 1.5 million. The largest flock on the island was an estimated one million birds at Llyn Traffwll in 1983, and the most ever seen in Wales was a roost of 1.5 million in Glamorgan in the 1960s, so it’s spectacular in size as well as shape.
Many will have bred around the Baltic Sea, as demonstrated by one that had been ringed in Lithuania in summer 2015 and was among the hundreds found dead on a road near Bodedern last December. The Cors Ddyga roost has attracted the interest of hunting raptors, with Sparrowhawk, Merlin and Peregrine swooping in to catch a late meal.
Snow Buntings brought some wintry sparkle to local beaches, with four at Holyhead and singles on the coast path at Kinmel Bay, Cemlyn beach, Llandudno’s West Shore and Morfa Madryn nature reserve near Llanfairfechan. An Iceland Gull flew over Bangor Pier and 10 Whooper Swans over Queensferry on Friday.
Three Long-tailed Ducks were off Benllech last week, two are in Y Foryd and one on Anglesey’s Inland Sea. Also offshore are two Velvet Scoters off Dinas Dinlle and 24 Great Northern Divers off Aberdesach. Black Redstarts have been at several locations in the last week, including at sites where they have overwintered previously. Two are at Amlwch Port’s old Octel works and others at Bangor’s university Ffriddoedd Halls, Holyhead breakwater, near Trearddur Bay and on Gwynedd Council offices in Caernarfon. A late Swallow was at Rhostryfan on 28 November – will it be the last of the year?
Here’s a challenge for the celebrities at Gwrych Castle. Get from Arctic Canada to North Wales, using nothing but your own energy and limbs. You’re allowed to rest en route, but you must do the last leg from Iceland without stopping. When you arrive, you deserve a good kip. But you must sleep standing in a pool of water that is just a few degrees above freezing. Your bushtucker trial is to find enough worms, seaweed flies and molluscs every day to survive for the next four months. Then make the journey in reverse.
Who is King of the (Sand) Castle now…? A Purple Sandpiper, I’d say, though they prefer rocky coasts to sandy beaches. Four of these little waders are at Rhos Point, retaining a few of the shiny feathers that provide their name.
Other Arctic arrivals include Whooper Swans, at Beddmanarch Bay and over Llandudno, and Snow Buntings: five at Holyhead breakwater, two at Point of Ayr and two at Kinmel Bay. A single Snow Bunting at Llandudno’s West Shore was replaced on Saturday by a Lapland Bunting. A skein of Pink-footed Geese flew over the Little Orme on Monday, while Greenland White-fronted Geese are benefiting from extra legal protection since the Welsh Government banned hunting of these rare visitors this year. A flock of 18 was at RSPB Cors Ddyga, two near Pentraeth and two flew over the Great Orme.
Anglesey’s Inland Sea hosts a Long-tailed Duck, four Great Northern Divers, seven Scaup and a Slavonian Grebe, while a couple of Velvet Scoters are among a huge flock of Common Scoters off Old Colwyn. Raptors hunting for food in the limited daylight hours include Short-eared Owls at Amlwch, Conwy golf course and at RSPB Cors Ddyga, where a Merlin and a Hen Harrier were also seen over the weekend.
Small numbers of Scaup, an Arctic nesting duck that looks superficially similar to our more abundant Tufted Duck, spend the winter in Britain, and the first of autumn have appeared in Anglesey this week: two at RSPB Valley Wetlands and six on the Inland Sea. The latter site also hosts several Great Northern Divers, including one with a broken bill that has returned for at least its third winter, showing that it can feed effectively despite missing half its lower mandible. Little is really known about the wintering habits of these chunky waterbirds, known as Common Loon in North America, but this one clearly likes the sheltered shallow waters east of Holy Island. Another six were off Porth Ysgaden, one in Holyhead harbour and one fished crabs from the Afon Glaslyn near Porthmadog, Nearby, the first 11 Whooper Swans have arrived for the winter.
Five Great White Egrets remain together near Llanerchymedd, another was on the Mawddach estuary near Penmaenpool, and a Cattle Egret was on the Rhyl bank of the Clwyd estuary. At the other end of the scale, tiny Firecrests were at Morfa Madryn, Menai Bridge’s Church Island and in a Hawarden garden. Several Snow Buntings were found on beaches in the region, including two each at Holyhead breakwater, Point of Ayr and Kinmel Bay, and singles at Llanddona and Llandudno’s West Shore. North Anglesey’s long-staying Rose-coloured Starling fed in an Amlwch Port garden at the weekend.
Eight Spotted Redshanks are wintering at Connah’s Quay nature reserve, by far the most reliable site in the region for this wader, with another couple at RSPB Conwy. Three Purple Sandpipers rested on boulders at Rhos Point at high tide, seven at Trearddur Bay and an impressive 22 at Trwyn, near Cemlyn. A late Wheatear remained on the Great Orme on Saturday.
Join me and Mike Raine for the first in a new series of ‘Day in the Life…’ Q&A sessions on Mike's Notes from the Hill Facebook page this Wednesday (18 November) at 6pm.