A rare heron has made an unexpected appearance in northeast Wales, but proved elusive for birdwatchers hoping to see it. Photographers at North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Big Pool Wood nature reserve shared news of the Squacco Heron after finding it feeding on frogs, fish and dragonflies at the side of the pond. Its streaky brown plumage helps it to remain camouflaged among waterside vegetation, but with completely white wing feathers, it is far more obvious in flight. However, it has ranged widely, frequently hiding in ditches that criss-cross the fields behind the sand dunes.
This is only the fourth Squacco Heron recorded in the region, according to The Birds of Wales published earlier this year. The first was shot on the banks of the River Conwy at Furnace Farm in 1828, and there have been two sightings on Anglesey, both near Cemlyn, in 1988 and 2015. Squacco Herons nest in wetlands around the Mediterranean basin, where they have benefited from rice cultivation, and have expanded north into France’s Loire Valley in recent decades. The unusual English name derives from the Italian name Sguacco, which perhaps describes its harsh ‘squawk’ call.
A young Rose-coloured Starling is among a flock of Starlings roving the rooftops of Llandudno Junction while another remains at Amlwch, and a Turtle Dove is in Cemaes Bay village. A Dotterel was a surprise find on Tal-y-bont beach near Barmouth last week and another called over Penrhyn Bay in the early hours. A Curlew Sandpiper was in Pwllheli harbour on Sunday, a Firecrest and Black Tern were seen on Bardsey, and a Black Redstart and Firecrest were near the Great Orme’s St Tudno’s Church. Garganeys remain at RSPB Conwy, Burton Mere Wetlands and the 'mitigation pool' adjacent to Anglesey’s Inland Sea, with four on Cefni Reservoir last week.
Since its inception in 1929, this column has been primarily about the birds, but this week I’m making an exception, to feature a birdwatcher. Just as Emma Radacanu stepped onto court in New York last Saturday, 10-year old Levi Gravett walked off stage at Spurn Migration Festival in Yorkshire as the Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder 2021, a competition co-organised by the British Trust for Ornithology.
The first ever Welsh winner of the title, Levi had been selected for the finals of the under-13 category only a few weeks previously. The competition involved going out with the judges into different habitats around Spurn Bird Observatory, identifying at least three birds in each and answering questions about them. During the seabird session, Levi correctly identified a Long-tailed Skua, a relatively scarce species that he’d never seen previously.
In addition to the field challenge, finalists had to answer questions in what Levi called “the dreaded lab-test”. As well as identifying birds by song and naming the different parts of bird plumage, Levi had to explain the reasons that Turtle Doves are declining and Red Kites are increasing. Levi only took up birdwatching at the start of lockdown in March 2020, going for family walks in the woods near his Penrhyn Bay home, where he was captivated by seeing both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.
Levi’s success is being celebrated by his friends at Ysgol Glanwydden, which has organised a special assembly to hear about his birdwatching exploits, that are also shared on his Birding With Levi Twitter and YouTube channels. Expect to hear more from this enthusiastic and knowledgeable youngster…
Levi’s win came in the same week that the Welsh Ornithological Society launched its Young Birder membership, offering annual digital subscription to the organisation for just £5 for anyone aged under 25.
While Levi was being grilled in Yorkshire, birdwatchers in North Wales were enjoying autumn migration, including a Whinchat on the Great Orme, Curlew Sandpipers at Pwllheli and Porthmadog’s Llyn Bach, three Wrynecks on Bardsey and another with a Common Rosefinch at Porth Meudwy. A juvenile Rose-coloured Starling is at Amlwch, Garganeys at RSPB Conwy, Llyn Maelog and on a pool by Anglesey’s Inland Sea, and Little Stints at RSPB Conwy, Point of Ayr and Morfa Madryn. A night-time recorder picked up a Ring Ouzel over Penrhyn Bay in the early hours of Sunday and a Dotterel early on Monday.
Little Stints are the tiniest shorebird that we see regularly in Wales, the same length as a Robin, but a bird that travels from the coastal tundra of northern Russia to sub-Saharan Africa each autumn. In September, we mostly see youngsters that hatched just a couple of months ago, with pale ‘tramlines’ down the back. Breeding success in the Arctic is related to the lemming population: when there are fewer of the little mammals, predators eat more wader chicks. In recent years, no more than 60 have been recorded in Wales each autumn, far short of numbers in the 1990s: on 26 September 1993, a flock of 102 Little Stints were at Gronant, near Prestatyn – that must have been quite a sight!
This week has seen Little Stints scattered across North Wales, including six at Malltraeth Cob pool, three in Beddmanarch Bay, and others at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, Conwy and the Alaw estuary. Good years for Little Stints can also be good for Curlew Sandpipers, which have been seen at Malltraeth, Traeth Dulas, the Alaw estuary, Foryd Bay and Glan-y-Môr Elias near Llanfairfechan. Other waders in the region include Ruff at RSPB Cors Ddyga and on the Afon Glaslyn, and it’s been a good week for Greenshanks: 10 on Pwll McAlpine, 15 on the Alaw estuary and 16 at Aber Ogwen.
Two Garganeys and a Great White Egret have been at RSPB Conwy, with another egret at Llyn Maelog. A Scaup is unseasonally early in Foryd Bay, 89 Mediterranean Gulls were counted on Anglesey’s Inland Sea, while a Stone-curlew was reported from the golf course at Morfa Conwy. A Blyth’s Reed Warbler was seen briefly on Bardsey, with the island bird observatory also recording a Wryneck and a fall of smaller migrants including 49 Spotted Flycatchers, a Barred Warbler and an Icterine Warbler.
A gaggle of Barnacle Geese on Anglesey’s Dulas estuary at the weekend included three wearing engraved coloured leg rings. More petite than the Canada Geese that have lived in North Wales for more than a century, wild Barnacle Geese breed on rocky outcrops on the tundra of Greenland, Svalbard and Russia. Those from western populations winter on the Solway Firth, although until the 1870s they were said to have wintered on the Dee estuary in their thousands. The soft calls of a flock of Barnacle Geese is one of my favourite winter sounds, recalling cold, frosty days on the Scottish border.
So, from where had this trio originated? The answer was somewhat less remote. These had been ringed on Derwentwater and Ullswater in Cumbria earlier this year as part of a project to track the growing naturalised population of the species. In the coming weeks it’s likely that more will drop onto the North Wales coast and rivers before resuming their journey south. Many will spend winter on the Dyfi estuary, where numbers have grown from a handful in the early 1990s to more than 600 in recent years. The organisers are appealing to birdwatchers in North Wales to report colour-ringed Barnacle Gesee to their website, which will generate a history of other sightings of that bird.
The Dulas estuary also hosted a Curlew Sandpiper, with another on the Cefni estuary along with a Little Stint and an Avocet. RSPB Conwy’s lagoons had a busy weekend, with a Black Tern, Little Stint, Garganey, Spotted Redshank, Knot, Pintails and a couple of Ruffs. Little Stints have also been at Llyn Trawsfynydd and on Anglesey's Inland Sea. An easterly airflow last Wednesday brought three Wrynecks to Bardsey, probable Melodious Warblers on the Great Orme and Holyhead, and two Cranes dropped into RSPB Cors Ddyga overnight.
A major review of crimes against wild birds in Wales has shown a welcome reduction in cases of eggs and chicks being taken from nests of birds of prey over the last 20 years. The number of clutches taken by egg-collectors has fallen by almost 99% since the end of the 1990s, coinciding with the introduction of custodial sentences for offenders. Red Kites and Peregrines had been particularly targeted, but Chough eggs in North Wales were also taken: there were 28 known nest thefts in 1990-99 and 11 in 2000-08, but thankfully none reported since.
The review, using data collected by the RSPB over the last 30 years, was published in the Welsh Ornithological Society’s journal this week. It also showed a fall in the number of eggs and chicks stolen for illegal falconry, although incidents still occur, believed to be associated with falcon-racing in the Middle East. However, the number of confirmed incidents of illegal shooting, trapping and poisoning of raptors has not fallen in the last 20 years, and poisoning has actually increased. Given that laying poison baits in the open has been illegal for 110 years, that’s worrying news. The report also found that the probability of raptor persecution was three times higher in areas where driven shooting of gamebirds was sold.
An easterly airflow brought a couple of Melodious Warblers and Pied Flycatchers to Bardsey, and a Honey Buzzard over the A55 at Bangor on Monday. A small fall of migrants at RSPB South Stack on Friday included Whitethroats and Spotted Flycatchers, with more flycatchers at Cemlyn and on the Great Orme. An adult Rose-coloured Starling remains in Nefyn, a Little Gull was seen briefly at Amlwch, Spoonbill at Penrhos coastal park near Holyhead and a Wood Sandpiper has been at RSPB Cors Ddyga all week.
This almost white Swallow stopped Anglesey farmer Phillip Siddall in his tracks while checking his cattle on a drizzly evening near Newborough last week (11 August). Almost unable to believe his eyes, he called on local birdwatcher Michael Thackeray, who took some photographs as it swooped over the pasture with other Swallows and House Martins.
Most birdwatchers know about leucism, the term for a genetic mutation that inhibits the dark melanin pigments from being deposited in the feathers, but that is the limit of knowledge for most of us. I sought the advice of Aurora Tarodo, an ornithologist studying for a PhD at the University of Gloucestershire, who has studied colour pigment aberrations in wild birds. “What an amazing bird!” she said, “it’s the first time that I have seen this mutation in a Swallow”.
“I’d call this non-phaeomelanin schizochroism,” explained Aurora. The bird is lacking phaeomelanin, the body’s chemical that provides reddish colours. Feathers that are usually black, dark blue or red grow as white, or sometimes shades of grey as on the head and rump of this Swallow. The short tail-streamers suggests that it hatched this year, perhaps locally, but it will soon be on its way to spend winter in Africa. It’s impossible to know whether the genetic mutation was passed from its parents to a whole brood or was spontaneous in this individual.
Other sightings at the weekend include a scarce Melodious Warbler at Port Meudwy and a Wood Sandpiper at RSPB Cors Ddyga, while up to 77 Mediterranean Gulls have been on Anglesey’s Alaw estuary. Eight Spotted Redshanks are at Connah’s Quay nature reserve and RSPB Conwy hosted two Ruddy Shelducks and an Osprey on the ground beside the lagoon. Strong winds on Monday brought Great and Arctic Skuas around the coast, and Balearic Shearwaters past Point Lynas and RSPB South Stack.
Remarkably, within a week of publishing the photograph from Newborough, two more 'White' Swallows were brought to my attention. On Saturday 14 August, a photo of one was posted on a Facebook group in Ireland, seen in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, and on Friday 20 August, one was photographed by North Wales birder Marc Hughes while visiting Spurn, East Yorkshire. It is very tempting to believe that all three could have come from the same source to the north, perhaps in Scotland - but we will never know. Click on the thumbnails below to see the images.
I have spent several mornings recently carefully scanning the flock of Sandwich Terns at Rhos Point, looking for legs that carry engraved colour-rings. With a few other tern-watchers along the North Wales coast, we have recorded more than 250 different birds so far this autumn and since at least 4000 Sandwich Terns are roosting across Liverpool Bay at Formby Point, along with the Elegant Tern that summered at Cemlyn, we may have some busy mornings yet to come. Each day has brought more waders to the seaweed-covered beach, perhaps their first landfall since leaving Svalbard or Iceland after the breeding season. Some will have begun their journey even farther away, such as the Bar-tailed Godwits that may have originated in Siberia or the Turnstones from Greenland or Arctic Canada.
It is always a joy to watch Turnstones, the adult males still in their smart plumage of orange and black. The English name accurately describes their feeding behaviour, turning over pebbles and seaweed in search of invertebrates that sustain them on migration to West Africa or through a European winter. Some Canadian-breeding Turnstones arrive in North Wales via Scandinavia, such as one ringed in Sweden in 1983 that was seen at Rhos Point in three successive winters.
Seaweed is a complex mosaic of microclimates, and the invertebrate food available to shorebirds increases as the wrack decays. Stacks of seaweed also provide shelter and warmth for the birds, providing they are not disturbed by walkers, so the beds along the North Wales coast really can be a life-saver for these birds on their long-distance journeys. To read more about the value of seaweed for waders, have a read of this WaderTales blog.
Other waders in North Wales this week include a Pectoral Sandpiper at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, up to four Spotted Redshanks at RSPB Conwy and eight at Connah’s Quay nature reserve, with Whimbrels and Greenshanks scattered along the coast.
Burton Mere Wetlands, one of the excellent RSPB nature reserves on the Dee Estuary, hosted a new breeding species for North Wales this summer, when a pair of Pintails reared a brood on the Flintshire part of the reserve. Only a handful of breeding records of this resplendent duck have been confirmed in Wales, all in the southwest, although nesting was suspected on Anglesey in 2004. The Dee is an important refuge for thousands of Pintails arriving from Iceland and northeast Europe each winter, but a breeding record there was unexpected.
The latest Dee Estuary Birding Newsletter also reports a pair of nesting Bitterns, 60 pairs of Avocets, at least two pairs of Bearded Tits and 10 young Great White Egrets that fledged from three nests at Burton Mere, and two pairs of Cattle Egrets attempted to breed. On the saltmarsh, 56 pairs of Redshank and 89 pairs of Lapwing nested, while there were six pairs of Mediterranean Gulls and four Marsh Harrier nests on the upper estuary.
After four weeks at North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Cemlyn reserve, the Elegant Tern crossed Liverpool Bay to roost at Lancashire’s Formby Point, but there is every chance that it will visit North Wales again before it heads south with other terns in a few weeks. Colour-ringed Sandwich Terns spotted along the north coast this week originated from around the Irish Sea, including sites in Ireland, Cumbria and Wales, as well as several from farther away in Aberdeenshire and The Netherlands.
A Pacific Golden Plover was a great find at Malltraeth for a couple of days last week, only the second Welsh record, as was a Long-billed Dowitcher at Burton Mere. Other highlights over the weekend included a Spotted Redshank at RSPB Conwy and Hooded Crows at Mynachdy and South Stack.
The breeding season is drawing rapidly to a close for seabirds that nest along the North Wales coast. Most Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills have left the cliff ledges but remain on the sea with their flightless young for several weeks, making them especially vulnerable to irresponsible watercraft users. Within a few weeks, these auks will move out into the Irish Sea and then the North Atlantic, set for a winter in the toughest of sea conditions.
Many Sandwich Terns have already left the North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Cemlyn nature reserve, although for now the Elegant Tern from the Pacific Ocean continues to offer fishy gifts to any Sandwich Tern within range. Before embarking on the journey to the west coast of Africa, young 'Sarnies' spend a few weeks getting their bearings and learning to fish, often remaining in family groups and begging for food from their parents. Sites such as the Clwyd estuary, Rhos Point and Glan-y-môr Elias near Llanfairfechan can host up to 1,000 Sandwich Terns on the high tide, so it is critical that people and their dogs give them space as they rest up before their long migration. They dive from a similar height to gold medallists Tom Daley and Matty Lee, entering the water with closed wings and barely a splash to seize a sandeel or sprat.
Local birdwatchers will be looking closely for coloured rings that were fitted to their legs when they were chicks. One at Rhos Point on Friday had been ringed at RSPB Hodbarrow in Cumbria last month, a colony that accounts for around 10% of late-summer Sandwich Tern sightings in North Wales. Around one-third originate at Cemlyn and a quarter from Lady’s Island Lake at the southeastern tip of Ireland, but others come from North Sea coasts as far away as Denmark.
The first Pied Flycatcher and Grasshopper Warbler of the autumn on Bardsey, Wheatear and Redstart on the Great Orme and a Wood Sandpiper over Penrhyn Bay are signs that migration is underway. Ospreys were over Point of Ayr, Caerhun, Beaumaris and Penrhyn Bay, and Hooded Crows at Aberdaron, RSPB South Stack, Church Bay and Cemlyn. Mediterranean Gulls are at several locations, including nine at Afonwen and eight on the Inland Sea. In the Dee estuary, a Melodious Warbler was ringed on Hilbre and a Long-billed Dowitcher is at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands.
Satellite tags deployed to study wetland birds on Anglesey show the importance of the North Wales coast as an international flyway. BTO Cymru tagged several Curlews on the Cefni estuary last winter to track their daily movements as part of the ECHOES project. The €2.7 million EU-funded project, involving partners in Wales and the Republic of Ireland, is assessing the effects of climate change on habitats for birds around the Irish Sea.
Curlews are declining rapidly as a breeding species across the UK, and estimates for Wales vary between 400 and 1,500 nesting pairs. It’s a more common sight outside the breeding season, when Curlews feed on estuaries, but wintering numbers in Wales have declined by more than 40% in the last 25 years.
BTO Cymru scientists have shared maps on Twitter (below) showing that three of these Curlews spent the summer in very different areas. While one stayed on Anglesey, a second made a breeding attempt near Hebden Bridge in the South Pennines and the third, a female, flew to Oulainen in western Finland. The BTO’s Dr Rachel Taylor calculated that after leaving Finland at 6.30pm on 26 June and making a stopover in Sweden, she flew 585 miles non-stop across the North Sea and rested for just a couple of hours before crossing England to Morecambe Bay. The average speed of the sea-crossing was an impressive 38mph. Another tracking project showed that a Curlew that nested in Germany in 2020 spent last winter on the Menai Strait, commuting to fields in the Carneddau foothills above Llanfairfechan. These initial results show the international effort required to save Curlews across Europe.
The Elegant Tern has now displayed to Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn NWWT nature reserve for more than two weeks, with birdwatchers there also spotting Roseate Terns and a Marsh Harrier, with a rare Montagu’s Harrier also reported on Sunday. Two Ruddy Shelducks were on the Broadwater at Tywyn on Sunday; the listing authorities are currently reviewing this species’ status in Britain, as there is now an introduced population in central Europe.
Several organisations, including RSPB Cymru and the Welsh Ornithological Society, are backing a petition that calls on the Senedd to prohibit the use of lead ammunition in Wales. Although lead shot has been banned over some wetlands in Wales for almost 20 years, the volume of toxic lead used across the wider countryside where it can poison a wide range of bird species, has led to this call by a community nature group in South Wales. Shooting groups have committed to phasing out lead shot by 2025, but not to a legal ban.