Hearing the squawk of Ring-necked Parakeets on tv instantly transports me to the heat and aromas of India, where these bright green, long-tailed birds are abundant. The species is not native to Britain, but has been spreading since the 1960s. Its call still takes me by surprise when I hear them in London, or the Thames corridor and there are small populations in other urban areas of England, but it remains unusual in Wales. Indeed, the latest Welsh Bird Report published this week, has removed Ring-necked Parakeet from the official list of Welsh birds because of an absence of evidence that those seen here originate from the naturalised population and are not escaped pets. A pair bred at Gresford Flash, near Wrexham, in 1979 and attempted to breed there in 1980, but there have been no subsequent Welsh breeding records.
Now a citizen science project by researchers at Imperial College London is seeking readers’ help to map the state of Ring-necked Parakeets across Britain. Two flew over Rhyl last week, and at least one was subsequently at the nearby Brickfields Pond nature reserve. Parakeets are regular visitors to gardens in southeast England, and one has been visiting feeders in Llanddulas since mid-December. If you have seen a Ring-necked Parakeet recently, please report it to paratweets.com.
Less exotically colourful, but more typical for winter in North Wales, four Snow Buntings are on the Great Orme and at Kinmel Bay, with another six on the summit of Carnedd Llewellyn on Sunday. The sunshine encouraged a Redwing into song as I walked my local woods on Sunday, while a Willow Warbler singing at Llanddeusant on 25 February was either the earliest Welsh migrant this century or a rare overwintering bird. An Iceland Gull is at Brickfields Pond, Long-tailed Duck on Cors Erddreiniog and Avocets have arrived at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands.
‘Tea-cher, tea-cher’ was the strident call on Monday morning, not only from primary pupils returning to school after lockdown, but from Great Tits in my local wood, where a Great Spotted Woodpecker has resumed loud drumming on a hollow tree. This week’s burst of spring-like weather brought out the first butterflies and hoverflies and encouraged more birds into song, and even nest-building. Last week saw the first Wheatear and Sand Martins make landfall in South Wales, and in recent days there has been a Garganey in Cheshire and Swallows in southwest England.
Southerly winds mean that one or two should make it to North Wales this week, but for now a few overwintering ‘summer’ migrants have stirred: Blackcaps were singing at Llanfair PG and Wrexham, Chiffchaff at Amlwch Port and a Common Sandpiper remains on Church Island in the Menai Strait. Several Chiffchaffs have wintered near Penrhyn Bay, including at least one of Siberian origin. Increasing numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, many of which will have wintered in Iberia, are another sign that spring beckons.
Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were on the move over the Little Orme at the weekend, but otherwise the region’s sightings retain a wintry feel: Iceland Gull and Scaup on Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond, Long-tailed Duck in Beddmanarch Bay, Snow Buntings on the Great Orme and at Kinmel Bay. The overwintering Rose-coloured Starling is at Amlwch Port, Firecrest in Gloddaeth Woods and nine Great Northern Divers were in Caernarfon Bay, with another off the Great Orme.
Great White Egrets are on the Afon Glaslyn at Pont Croesor, on the Clwyd floods by the A55 near St Asaph and on the River Dee at Shotton. A Cattle Egret remains near Valley, six Pintails are at Llay Pool and a Marsh Tit reported in Bangor was a rare westerly record. A flock of 90 Choughs near Aberdaron was encouraging to see after the recent ice and snow.
Photographer and sound-recordist Ben Porter has produced a wonderful seasonal audio-visual journey through the nature and landscape of Pen Llŷn as part of the LIVE collaboration between communities on the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland and the Llŷn Peninsula. If you fancy an escape during lockdown, I strongly recommend five minutes immersing yourself in it!
A Hen Harrier that hatched in Snowdonia in 2019 and returned here to nest last year, is spending her second successive winter in the Navarra region of northern Spain. Nicknamed ‘Bomber’ (as her leg-ring was inscribed ‘B2’), she is part of an RSPB scheme that uses GPS satellite tags to track the birds’ movements. This has found around 10% of British-bred harriers migrate across the Channel in winter. A previous study by Natural England shows that Hen Harriers are ten times more likely to die or disappear on moorland managed for grouse-shooting than other land-uses.
Bomber’s return to the same Spanish valley, after flying over 1000 miles in just two weeks, has coincided with heavy snowfall and the lowest temperatures for 20 years. Last year, she didn’t return to Wales until May, so the team will be watching the data closely to see when she begins her journey north this spring.
There's more about Bomber, and the equally surprising travels of 'Apollo' from Lancashire's Forest of Bowland on the RSPB blog.
Technology has also been deployed by the BTO on Greenland White-fronted Geese wintering on Anglesey. Several have been fitted with GPS tags that send data to local base-stations, enabling their use of the island’s wetlands to be studied. Local birdwatchers have been asked to report any sightings of neck-collared geese via greenlandwhitefront.org.
Last week’s cold weather brought an increase in Woodcock sightings, including several in gardens. Snow Buntings remained at Holyhead’s Soldier’s Point, Kinmel Bay and the Great Orme, Black Redstarts at Amlwch and Beaumaris, and Water Pipit and Firecrest near Glanwydden. Great Northern Divers were on Llyn Tegid and off the Little Orme, and Amlwch Port’s Rose-coloured Starling was resighted after a week’s absence. A Cattle Egret remains on a flooded field near Valley. As the weather warmed on Monday, a Peregrine took a surprise mid-afternoon meal over Llandudno when a bat woke early from hibernation.
Freezing winds and widespread snow are expected to push birds eastward into Wales this week. Hundreds of Woodcocks were found in Yorkshire and Northumberland on Sunday ahead of the cold conditions, including many washed up dead on the tideline. Many have evacuated Norway, with large numbers reported to have died along the coast at Stavanger, and doubtless others will have perished on the journey across the North Sea. The harsh weather will add stress to some birds that are already struggling as a result of avian influenza. Wading birds have been found dead in the Waddensee, Europe’s largest wetland, and authorities have confirmed the disease caused the death of 750 Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans at a nesting colony in Senegal.
On a walk from home on Sunday, it was evident that Redwing numbers had increased overnight, with birds feeding among the woodland leaf-litter, which has not yet frozen. A Firecrest dropped onto a bare branch at eye-level, although this one has been in Gloddaeth Woods above Penrhyn Bay all winter. Look out for Bramblings and Blackcaps at garden feeders this week, and keep water unfrozen if you can.
Snow Buntings are on the Great Orme and at Holyhead’s Soldier’s Point, and Water Pipits at Glanwydden and Llandudno’s West Shore. A Cattle Egret and Green Sandpiper remain on a flooded field north of Valley on Anglesey and other long-stayers include two Black Redstarts at Amlwch, Iceland Gull and Scaup at Rhyl’s Brickfield Pond, and a Long-tailed Duck in Foryd Bay.
A Tundra Bean Goose was feeding among Pink-footed Geese at Ridleywood in the Dee Valley on Monday, and in recent days there has been a small flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese on the Clwyd estuary, two Great White Egrets in the Cefni Valley and over 20 Velvet Scoters off Shell Island, near Llanbedr.
Garden birds were the centre of attention for last weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch, with the RSPB reminding participants to submit sightings via its website. Among the more unusual visitors overwintering in north Anglesey are a probable Siberian Lesser Whitethroat at Carreglefn and a Rose-coloured Starling in Amlwch Port.
Many people have reported Blackcaps, visitors from mainland Europe, in gardens in recent weeks. Bangor University student Toby Carter collated records from Daily Post readers and reports on social media during January. He received sightings of 263 birds in 158 gardens across North Wales. Most were along the coast, with concentrations around Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Bangor and Menai Bridge, whereas only a handful was reported on Llŷn and around Cardigan Bay. Not surprisingly, there were none in the mountains, but there were some inland, as far south as Corwen.
Two Black Redstarts remain at Amlwch, with others in Beaumaris, near Llanfairfechan and at the tax office demolition site in Porthmadog. A Long-tailed Duck and four Slavonian Grebes were on Anglesey’s Inland Sea, with another four of the grebes north of the A55 in Beddmanarch Bay and two off Aber Ogwen. Three Snow Buntings are on the Great Orme, two remain on Holyhead breakwater and two returned to Horton’s Nose, Kinmel Bay, after a break of several weeks. An Iceland Gull and Scaup remain at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond, a Little Gull was reported off Rhos Point and more than 30 Twite feed in saltmarsh off Flint Castle.
A flooded field near Gronant held 550 Black-tailed Godwits, an impressive count for North Wales, and presumably part of the flock of over 7,000 that feeds on the Dee estuary. Another flock of 58 was in Bangor harbour, where 53 Goldeneyes were counted at the weekend. Great White Egrets are off Porthmadog Cob and near Llyn Alaw.
A photo of a smart male Black Redstart feeding amid the demolished rubble of Porthmadog tax office last week reminded me of post-war images of these songbirds nesting among the shattered remains of cities following the Blitz. Others were seen in Amlwch, Trearddur Bay and Llandudno over the weekend. It’s a common species across mainland Europe and Asia, all the way to central China, and is really a bird of dry, rocky mountains, but spread to villages and towns across the continent in the last century. Although Black Redstarts occasionally nest in Welsh quarries, small numbers also occur here in winter and on migration. These probably originate from the Low Countries, and some individuals return to the same place each winter. One ringed at Aberystwyth in December 2010 returned there in 2012 and 2015.
New sightings during lockdown walks this week include a Cattle Egret on a flooded field south of Llanfachraeth in western Anglesey and four Snow Buntings on the Great Orme. Two Great Northern Divers are off Beaumaris and Hooded Crows at Holyhead and Dyffryn Ardudwy. Overwintering Water Pipits remain at Glanwydden and Llandudno, the Rose-coloured Starling at Amlwch Port and a dozen Whooper Swans near Llyn Llywenan, while a Scaup and Iceland Gull were at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond throughout last week. Snowy conditions resulted in small movements of Redwings and Skylarks across the region.
Following last week’s appeal, readers have reported Blackcaps from across North Wales, mostly along the coast and on Anglesey, but with some farther inland. We’ll report on the results next week, but in the meantime it’s the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend, which requires nothing more than an hour sitting at a window with a mug of tea. It starts on Friday, so could be part of home-schooling this week…
Visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch for details.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com. 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.