Hot on the heels of last weekend’s popular RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (don't forget to enter your results!), Friday sees the start of the GWCT Big Farmland Bird Count. It asks farmers to spend half an hour before 19 February counting the birds and submitting the results to bfbc.org.uk. Last year, 1900 farmers participated, recording Blackbird, Woodpigeon and Robin as the three most common species.
I wonder if any farmers on Pen Llŷn will be taking part? My coastal path walk from Aberdaron to Uwchmynydd on Sunday was rich in birdlife. A flock – clattering is the collective noun - of three dozen Choughs made their space-invader calls as they tumbled over the cliffs, which are grazed by a small herd of beef cattle. A little farther on, a Kestrel swept low over a field, scattering a flock of Chaffinches into the hedgerow and spooking 60 Skylarks upward in a cascade of liquid trills. Flocks of Lapwings and Curlews, both Welsh Red-listed birds of conservation concern, foraged in roadside fields. It’s good to see farmers and the National Trust producing good conditions for wintering birds.
Anglesey’s second Surf Scoter and an impressive count of 215 Great Crested Grebes were off Benllech at the weekend. The duck was probably the one recently off Llanddulas, where a dozen Velvet Scoters were seen on Friday. Black-throated Divers were off Moelfre and Pontllyfni, Ring-necked Ducks remain at Cefni Reservoir and Llyn Tegid, a Snow Bunting at Kinmel Bay and a Little Gull was off Llandanwg. Up to 2000 Pink-footed Geese were at Towyn, surely the largest flock in the area since the fields were drained for agricultural improvement. In Flintshire, a Yellow-browed Warbler was found at Basingwerk Abbey and a flock of over 6000 Common Gulls at Gronant included birds colour-ringed in Estonia, Poland, Germany and Norway.
The monthly Wetland Bird Survey takes me to the Conwy estuary, and my January visit generally sees the highest numbers of waterbirds. Well over 1000 Dunlin huddled on the rocky groynes and hundreds of Turnstones and Oystercatchers aggregated above high water. It’s the month when I see the greatest number of Common Gulls, which winter in North Wales from their breeding homes in Scandinavia. My counts are small compared to the Flintshire coast, where more than 4000 Common Gulls are between Gronant and Talacre, some with coloured leg-rings that shows their Norwegian origin. Smaller than a Herring Gull, with green-yellow legs and a bill with a thick black band, it’s not well named in English as it’s less common than our other regular gulls at most times of year.
Also off our coast is a Surf Scoter at Llanddulas, Slavonian Grebe off Beaumaris, Velvet Scoter off Criccieth, Black-necked Grebe and Long-tailed Duck at Borth-y-Gest, and another two Long-tailed Ducks off Benllech. A Ring-necked Duck from North America is on Cefni Reservoir, European White-fronted Goose on the Afon Glaslyn at Porthmadog, Black Redstart at Kinmel Bay, and several Twite and a Siberian Chiffchaff are at Gronant.
Next weekend is the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, the UK’s biggest citizen science event of the year. I remember taking part as an eight-year old in the 1970s and it’s great to see multiple generations participating. You don’t have to feed birds to take part, or even to have a garden. Visit your local park for an hour instead. If you provide food and water, give the feeders and bath a good clean this week, air-dry thoroughly, and fill with seeds and water. Watch for one hour next weekend and visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch to send in your results. Remember, the zeros or low counts are just as important as big counts!
The winners of the Welsh Ornithological Society photographic competition for 2022, announced last week, showcased a healthy crop of talent across Wales. Bangor University student Sophie Dorman was highly commended for her Snow Bunting image and runner-up in the Young Photographer category for her shot of an Osprey carrying a fish, both taken in North Wales. Third place overall went to Robin Sandham from Conwy for his Arctic Tern composition, while the winner was a fantastic interaction between a Jay and Great Spotted Woodpecker, by Linda Yeardley-Williams from Presteigne. To see more of the winners and shortlisted finalists, see the montage below and visit the WOS website.
Each morning’s additional two minutes of daylight encourages Robins and Song Thrushes to claim their territory with song. More signs of the breeding season were Fulmars sitting tight on cliff ledges and a very early Manx Shearwater off North Stack last Friday when most of its brethren will still be in the South Atlantic.
Slavonian Grebes are scarce, annual visitors to our coasts, but inland records are unusual, so one on Llyn Aled Isaf, the reservoir high in Mynydd Hiraethog, on Saturday was a surprise. Others were at Llandanwg, Beddmanarch Bay and Borth-y-Gest, at the latter with two Great Northern Divers. Another Great Northern Diver is far from the sea on Llyn Tegid, while a Surf Scoter is off Llanddulas and a Sooty Shearwater was reported off Porth Oer.
Ten European White-fronted Geese are near Holt in the Dee Valley, while another flock of Whitefronts are in Anglesey’s Cefni Valley, with 60 Pink-footed Geese at RSPB Cors Ddyga. It seems that Pinkfeet have spread around the Irish Sea this winter, with a flock on the Isle of Man also unusual. A single Snow Bunting forages among pebbles at Kinmel Bay’s Horton’s Nose, while two Long-tailed Ducks fed in the nearby Clwyd estuary south of Rhyl on Sunday and a Water Pipit is at Point of Ayr.
A selection of winners of the Welsh Ornithological Society 2022 photo competition (click to enlarge)
The British Trust for Ornithology and Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust are calling for volunteers to survey Woodcocks this spring. Males conduct a distinctive ‘roding’ display flight to attract a mate, and finding these is the best way to monitor breeding populations of a woodland wader that is superbly camouflaged on the ground. The Welsh population declined by almost 50% in the decade to 2013, so this is an important opportunity to understand what has happened recently. There are several dozen 1-km squares to cover in North Wales, each of which needs three visits in May and June – full details on the BTO website.
A flock of Twite is at Connah’s Quay nature reserve, although numbers are far smaller than used to winter on the Dee, reflecting the fall in breeding population across Britain. Despite windy conditions at the weekend, Firecrests were seen at Borth-y-Gest, Penrhyn Castle, Colwyn Bay rugby club and RSPB Conwy, where a Scaup, Spotted Redshank and Jack Snipe are on the lagoons.
Among Common Scoters off Llanddulas are a Surf Scoter, Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks, while another Velvet Scoter and two Little Gulls were off Criccieth and a Little Gull at Aberdaron at the weekend. A Snow Bunting remains on the beach at Kinmel Bay, with a Black Redstart there last week and two more at Amlwch Port.
In the Glaslyn Valley, a Greenland White-fronted Goose is with the flock of over 50 Whooper Swans near Garreg. A flock of Pink-footed Geese remains in the Cefni Valley, with a couple of Whooper Swans at RSPB Cors Ddyga and a Mandarin last week. In mid Wales, a Baikal Teal at Llangorse Lake is potentially the first in Wales, although it will require a close look to see whether it shows any signs of having escaped from a collection.
For a longer read about work by volunteer ringers to understand more about migrating Woodcock, read this Daily Post article from 2016.
The pre-Christmas arrival of Waxwings on the east coast of England, a few of which penetrated as far west as Merseyside and Shropshire, raised hopes of an influx into North Wales. One lucky householder in Mynydd Isa, near Mold, snapped one feeding in her garden last week, but otherwise these winter wonderbirds have steered clear. However, birdwatchers keen to see new birds in 2023 made a good start to the year elsewhere.
On Anglesey, a Grey Phalarope saw in 2023 in Trearddur Bay, a Cattle Egret was found near Llanfwrog, north of Valley, and a couple of Scaup were on the Inland Sea. A flock of Pink-footed Geese roam the island, the most recent sightings at RSPB Cors Ddyga and Traeth Dulas, with several hundred more heading west along the North Wales coast. Meanwhile, thousands of Guillemots made a pre-season visit to check out the cliffs around Puffin Island.
A Hawfinch and Firecrest were in Llandudno Junction’s Marl Woods, another Hawfinch at Llandrillo, in Y Berwyn and several more along the river in Llanrwst. Downstream, a couple of Great White Egrets are in flooded fields at Maenan Abbey.
A ringtail Hen Harrier quartered over reedbeds in the Conwy Valley this week, with others at Mynydd Bodafon and RSPB Cors Ddyga, which also hunt at the mouth of the Cefni estuary. Another is in the Glaslyn Valley, where over 40 Whooper Swans and a Greenland White-fronted Goose graze near Garreg. Smaller groups of Whoopers are near Llyn Alaw and at RSPB Cors Ddyga.
Three Long-tailed Ducks are off Benllech and another, more unusually, on the river Clwyd south of Rhyl, with an impressive count of 28 Goosanders on the nearby Brickfield Pond. A Black Redstart watched over shoppers in Llandudno’s Upper Mostyn Street at the weekend, and others were spotted at Tywyn, Kinmel Bay, Hawarden, Rhoscolyn, Amlwch and South Stack. Twite and a couple of Water Pipits are on Gronant beach, with more pipits and a Mandarin Duck at RSPB Cors Ddyga on Monday.
Three Slavonian Grebes are in the Menai Strait off Aber Ogwen and a Caspian Gull roosted at Gresford Flash. In north Cardigan Bay, a Black-necked and two Slavonian Grebes were with a Great Northern Diver off Borth-y-Gest, and a Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Duck remain off Criccieth.
2022 may be over, but Anglesey enthusiasts can already read about the birding highlights in the Anglesey Bird News annual report, online here with suggested donations to the North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Cemlyn Wardens appeal.
In case you missed it, here’s another take on the recently published Birds of Conservation Concern Wales, and why 2023 will be a critical year for policies to reverse the declines.
Earlier this month, a suite of organisations published the fourth edition of Birds of Conservation Concern Wales, which resulted in updated Red, Amber and Green lists (see this page to download the assessment). Having been involved as a volunteer collecting the sort of data that informs these periodic reviews, editor of the annual Welsh Bird Report published by the Welsh Ornithological Society and a co-author of previous UK and Wales assessments, I wasn't shocked by the results because I'd seen them coming. But I should be. We've almost come to expect each update will be worse than the last, because we see and hear these changes with our own eyes and ears. But it's only inevitable if society allows it to be. Those of us who care about nature should be livid every day about the lengthening red list and the declining abundance of birds we assumed would always be part of Welsh life.
Behind each component of the Red List is an unfolding tragedy
...usually of birds failing to rear enough young to replace themselves, although in some cases it's about survival after fledging or during the part of life spent outside Wales. For a few, it's likely to be 'short-stopping' whereby some individuals no longer travel to Wales because conditions closer to their breeding area are, for now, suitable for them to spend the winter there.
The charts below shows each species according to its population in 1995 and 2020 (or the nearest available date for which I could find data), enabling me to picture the numbers in relative terms. It's not the perfect way to present the information, as some populations numbered hundreds of thousands and others just a few dozen, and the count units are not always the same, as breeding birds are generally counted in pairs and non-breeding birds as individuals. It's also worth remembering that not all species declined by >50% during this 25 year period; some qualified for the Red List because of declines in abundance over a longer period, others because of a >50% contraction in their distribution or because they are at risk of global extinction.
KEY: orange = breeding population (usually pairs), blue = non-breeding population (individuals). Golden Plover appears twice because declines in both its (different) breeding and non-breeding populations qualified it for the Red List. RG=Red Grouse, PO=Pochard.
Some populations are so small that they don't show up well on this chart, so those in the white ring above are detailed here.
1. Ring Ouzel, 2. Tree Sparrow, 3. Black Grouse, 4. Merlin, 5. Turtle Dove, 6. Golden Plover, 7. Grey Partridge, 8. Little Tern, 9. Redshank, 10. Woodcock, 11. Yellow Wagtail, 12. Hen Harrier, 13. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 14. Long-tailed Duck, 15. Slavonian Grebe, 16. Bewick's Swan, 17. Purple Sandpiper, 18. Velvet Scoter, 19. Balearic Shearwater, 20. Red-breasted Merganser, 21. White-fronted Goose, 22. Leach's Petrel.
Breeding populations <20 pairs are not shown: Roseate Tern, Bittern, Corncrake, Corn Bunting and Honey-buzzard. Non-breeding populations <20 individuals are not shown: Little Auk.
And here is the equivalent chart for 2020. Species marked in red qualify as they are globally threatened. WdWb=Wood Warbler, BHG=Black-headed Gull, Lap=Lapwing, CU=Curlew, RG=Red Grouse.
Again, the species from the tiny boxes are listed below: 1. Ring Ouzel, 2. Tree Sparrow, 3. Black Grouse, 4. Merlin, 6. Golden Plover, 7. Grey Partridge, 8. Little Tern, 9. Redshank, 10. Woodcock, 12. Hen Harrier, 13. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 14. Long-tailed Duck, 15. Slavonian Grebe, 17. Purple Sandpiper, 19. Balearic Shearwater, 20. Red-breasted Merganser, 21. White-fronted Goose, 22. Leach's Petrel.
Breeding populations <20 pairs are not shown: Roseate Tern, Bittern, Corn Bunting (extinct), Corncrake (extinct), Honey-buzzard, Turtle Dove, Yellow Wagtail and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Non-breeding populations <20 individuals are not shown Little Auk, Velvet Scoter and Bewick's Swan.
The extinction of Corn Bunting as a regular breeding species during the last quarter century, preceded by Corncrake and with Turtle Dove heading in the same direction, is a particular shocker. The first two no longer qualify as Birds of Conservation Concern in Wales because they are now so rare as not to meet the minimum threshold. That does not mean we should write them off, especially as people are working hard to save them from extinction in other parts of the UK.
Global extinction risk
Nine species in the latest assessment are globally-threatened, none of which were in 1995. This criteria automatically qualifies them for the Welsh Red List, even if their numbers are increasing here. All are declining here too, with the welcome exception of Puffin, whose breeding numbers have grown in the last 25 years albeit they remain far lower than a century ago.
The square must shrink no further
Instinctively we know that populations of most of these species are falling. That is why many are on the Red List. It is birds of the wider countryside, such as Meadow Pipit, Starling, Greenfinch, Goldcrest, Rook, Swift, Yellowhammer, whose shrinking abdundance is most evident when you see the two charts together. These birds take up less space on the lower chart because they take up less space in the countryside, their collective sound diminishing by more than 40% in just one human generation. The 25 years between these two charts is nothing in the lifetime of the planet. If we had the numbers to go back to 1970, to 1945 or pretty much any other date is history, the contrast in size of these boxes would be even greater. Shifting baseline syndrome is a real risk in limiting our ambition to the state of nature in our own memory. It's not just a question of looking back, but using what has been learned to look forwards, to restore habitats and recover bird populations.
2023 must be an important year for nature in Wales. Commitments made by the UK Government at the recent UN Biodiversity Conference COP in Montreal and by Welsh Government in its five-year Programme for Government must be realised. The Agriculture Bill before the Senedd and the promises resulting from the 'Biodiversity Deep Dive' must reverse the shrinking square. And proper resources and energy need to be invested in Natural Resources Wales and the parts of government with responsibility for achieving change.
So, as the new year dawns, let's hope - no, let's ensure - that those in power do the right things to grow that square. And those who can, let's get out and count birds - if you don't already, make it your resolution to participate in BTO survey from 2023.
Population estimates sourced from a variety of surveys and papers, including Hughes et al. (2020), Pritchard et al. (2021) and calculated from the Wetland Bird Survey and Breeding Bird Survey, using UK trends where no Wales-specific trends were available.
Hughes, J., Spence, I. and Gillings, S. 2020. Estimating the sizes of breeding populations of birds in Wales. Birds in Wales 17(1): 56-67.
Pritchard, R., Hughes, J., Spence, I., Haycock, B., and Brenchley, A. 2021. The Birds of Wales/Adar Cymru. Liverpool University Press.
As the Northern Hemisphere tips incrementally towards the sun, longer days will trigger the urge for birds to migrate and breed. For the nomadic Crossbill, though, nesting time is determined by the abundance of conifer seeds, especially plantations of Sitka Spruce, so birds can find themselves brooding chicks in heavy snowfall. There were plenty of Crossbills around Llyn Brenig during our Boxing Day walk, plus two dozen Bullfinches also shining brightly in the winter sun.
Hawfinches have returned to riverbank at Llanrwst, with five seen so far, but more than a dozen were there last winter. A Lapland Bunting was at Dinas Dinlle last weekend, with three Great Northern Divers offshore. A Velvet Scoter is on the sea off Pensarn and a Grey Phalarope was reported from the Little Orme. A Snow Bunting is on Kinmel Bay beach and at least one Black Redstart at nearby Horton’s Nose. Another Black Redstart roosted in the rafters of Llanbadrig church during a candlelight carol service, departing when the church was opened the following morning.
A Pochard, now a scarce visitor to the North Wales coast, was found on Rhyl’s Marine Lake on Christmas Day, but was founded dead less than 24 hours later. A few Pochards are also at RSPB Conwy with a Scaup, and where a Jack Snipe is with several hundred Lapwings that moved west during the recent cold snap. More than 3000 Lapwings are beside the Clwyd estuary and several hundred more, with even greater numbers of Golden Plovers, feed on fields south of Aberffraw.
Saturday saw a flock of 1000 Pink-footed Geese tracked west over Rhyl, Penrhyn Bay and the Great Orme, and quite possibly now feeding on undisturbed pasture on Anglesey. A Green-winged Teal remains on a pool next to the Inland Sea and three Whooper Swans are at RSPB Cors Ddyga. Eighty Twite fed on the rising tide near Bagillt, half a dozen Purple Sandpipers are on rocks at Penrhyn Bay, and another 15 at Trearddur Bay.
I’d like to wish all BirdNotes readers a peaceful New Year, and good birdwatching in 2023.
Farmers and ecologists know that soil is the most important resource to protect in managing the land. But while it’s all around us, it seems far too easy to ignore, even though they are intrinsic to food webs and nutrient cycling in every cubic inch of land. Research by the British Trust for Ornithology, yet to be published but presented to a major conference in Edinburgh this week, pieced together more than 100 local studies from the last 90 years. They estimate that earthworm abundance declined by 33%-41% in the last 25 years, the greatest losses on enclosed farmland and in broad-leaved woodland. Earthworms feature in the diet of many birds, from thrushes to at-risk waders such as Curlews and Lapwings. If worms are in trouble, so too could other creatures such as beetles and fly larvae that are eaten by Choughs and Starlings.
It’s hoped that the assessment will lead to greater understanding of the effects of land management activities on soil invertebrates, since it’s in everyone’s interest for the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme to ensure we look after what we stand on.
If you’re heading out in search of birds over Christmas, a Long-tailed Duck was off Criccieth promenade on Sunday, 10 Goosanders on Rhyl’s Brickfields nature reserve and 17 on the Inland Sea at Four Mile Bridge. Three Surf Scoters off Llysfaen will be hard to locate in this week’s unsettled weather, but easier is a Great White Egret on fields at Glan Conwy. A Yellow-browed Warbler was among a flock of tits at Tesco in Llandudno Junction and Snow Buntings at Uwchmynydd and Horton’s Nose, the shingle ridge where the Clwyd estuary meets the sea at Kinmel Bay. The latter site also hosted a Black Redstart, with others at Rhoscolyn, the Gadlys Hotel near Cemaes Bay and Aberdaron churchyard.
This week’s cold snap will cause birds to move away from lying snow and icy weather. Some move down from the hills to the coast and, at a larger scale, southwest across Britain and even to Ireland, France or Spain. Fieldfares and Redwings have been reported in gardens across the region, grateful for windfall apples or Rowan berries that still hang from trees. It has been a few years since a ‘Waxwing winter’, but EuroBirdPortal maps show large numbers have crossed the North Sea in the last fortnight. Few have made it west so far, but four over Saughall, near Chester, on Friday may be a sign of things to come.
Other birds are forced out of their usual habits and pushed into the open. Water Rails, for example, may have to forage outside frozen reedbeds, and several people have reported seeing more Woodcocks in Wales. Some may have moved just a few hundred metres to find softer ground to probe; others will have arrived recently from Scandinavia or Russia. Snipe too are more visible, as they search for soft soils in which to find invertebrates.
Three dozen Pink-footed Geese over Porthmadog on Monday may be moving away from frozen fields on the Lancashire Mosses or Dee Valley, so look out for others in the coming days. High pressure means calm and bright sea conditions, enabling two Surf Scoters to be spotted from Llanddulas, a Long-tailed Duck in Foryd Bay and a Slavonian Grebe from Abergwyngregyn. The seasonal influx of Black Redstarts continues, with new birds at Aber shore and Holyhead’s Salt Island car park, and others still at Kinmel Bay, Amlwch Port and Hawarden industrial estate. A Ring-necked Duck has returned to Llyn Tegid, a Yellow-legged Gull was at Gresford Flash over the weekend and a Siberian Chiffchaff at Rhyl’s Brickfields nature reserve.
The new Birds of Conservation Concern published today shows that the Red List of birds in greatest trouble now numbers 60, one-fifth of those in Wales. Those 60 species, including Cuckoo, Curlew and Lapwing, have declined by more than 50% in my lifetime. Their calls should be familiar to everyone in the Welsh countryside, but sadly no longer are. The addition to the Red List of Meadow Pipit, a mainstay of the diet of several upland raptors, and Rook, whose noisy tree-top colonies are far smaller than a few decades ago, indicate the scale of widespread changes to nature across Wales.
Other species on the slide, and now on the Amber List, include Wheatear, Chaffinch and – perhaps a surprise to many – Magpie. There are no simple answers to the question of ‘why’. A combination of factors, many long-term and systemic have affected the quality of habitat and availability of insects and seeds to eat. These make many species more vulnerable to issues such as predation and disease. Greenfinch’s move to the Red List and Chaffinch to Amber are primarily a result of the disease Trichomonosis spread at bird feeders and bathing water. For migrants such as Red-listed Swift and Wood Warbler, and House Martin and Pied Flycatcher on the Amber list, solutions may lie both where they breed and in their African wintering grounds, or somewhere between the two.
The review says that the designation of protected areas and agri-environment schemes have been good at targeting species in greatest need, but on a scale insufficient to turn around the fortunes of these birds. It looks to the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme and commitment to effective management of 30% of land and seas by 2030. The direction of the population graphs and the size of the next Red List will be a measure of the success of those policies.
Birds of Conservation Concern in Wales is published by RSPB Cymru, Natural Resources Wales, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Welsh Ornithological Society. Download the summary report here.
Shortening days reduce time to get out birdwatching, but those who have enjoyed a late Swallow over Red Wharf Bay, Snow Bunting on Black Rock Sands, four Slavonian Grebes in Beddmanarch Bay and one off Harlech. At least a dozen Great Northern Divers are in Caernarfon Bay, Velvet Scoters among thousands of Common Scoters off Pensarn, several Twite east of Gronant, a Firecrest at Morfa Madryn and a Woodlark was reported on the Great Orme. A Green-winged Teal was on Anglesey’s Inland Sea and Black Redstarts at Dinas Dinlle, Rhoscolyn and the mouth of the Clwyd estuary, at Horton’s Nose. A Curlew Sandpiper, Black-necked Grebe and up to seven Water Pipits remain at RSPB Cors Ddyga, while a couple of Avocets and five Ruddy Shelducks were on RSPB Oakenholt Marsh at the weekend.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.