A new report shows that one-third of Europe’s bird species are declining and 20% are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. The European Red List of Birds, published last week by BirdLife International, uses pan-continental data to assess how close each species is to extinction in Europe. It rates seabirds, wildfowl, waders and raptors as the most threatened, and that the majority of larks, buntings and shrikes are declining.
The speed of some declines are shocking, and include birds that are or used to be regular in North Wales. Among the species that have moved from the Least Concern category to threatened status since 2016 are Merlin, Snipe, Redshank and Rook, while Swift is now considered to be Near-Threatened. All have declined in breeding abundance in Wales in the last 30 years. Several birds that winter here from elsewhere in Europe have also moved into the highest risk categories, including Pintail, for which the Dee estuary is the most important site in the UK.
On a more positive note, some birds have moved in the other direction, to categories of lower concern including species that have been the focus of intensive recovery efforts, such as Red Kite and White-headed Duck. Others, such as Black-tailed Godwit, are benefiting from climate change, at least for now.
Our birds’ connection with the rest of Europe is illustrated by a big influx of Redwings and small groups of Whooper Swans this week, along with winter arrivals that include Lapland Buntings and Firecrest on the Great Orme, Black Redstart at South Stack and a Scaup at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond. The long-staying Garganey at RSPB Conwy has been joined by a showy Jack Snipe and a Spoonbill is on the Inland Sea. Yellow-browed Warblers have been very scarce this autumn, though one was reported on the Great Orme on Saturday.
Although fewer Jays have been reported on the coast this week, larger flocks inland reported by readers include up to 25 over the Ogwen Valley and 11 over Ewloe. Read this previous blog to find out why.
I’ve spent a week in Northumberland, exploring the coast for winter migrants arriving from Scandinavia. One of the sadder sights, however, has been Guillemots and Razorbills washed up on the beaches, dead or dying. It’s a sight that has been reported down the east coast since late summer, from Orkney to Norfolk, and now auks have been washed up in Norway and the Netherlands. Others have been seen unusually close inshore and even several miles up rivers, but there have been no reports from around the Welsh or Irish coasts, indicating that the problem is in the North Sea.
Many of the auks are emaciated, less than half their typical weight, yet reports from anglers suggest that there is no shortage of small fish. The incidents appear unrelated to stormy weather, which can make it difficult for seabirds to feed and tests by Scotland’s Rural College proved negative for Avian Influenza. One theory is that naturally-occurring algae in the North Sea may be responsible. The bloom was evident on satellite images in September, but it is not yet known whether toxic algae, which can be taken up by fish and shellfish and in turn seabirds, were present. Marine scientists predict that the occurrence of algal blooms will increase in a warming climate, which piles further pressure on species of seabirds that are already in decline.
Back in Wales, the northwest saw the best of autumn migration, with a Red-eyed Vireo at Porth Meudwy, near Aberdaron, just a week after the eighth Welsh record occurred on Bardsey. The island’s Bird Observatory registered a smart Red-breasted Flycatcher, Richard’s Pipit and the only two Yellow-browed Warblers of the autumn. On Anglesey, a Long-tailed Duck and Black-throated Diver are off Benllech and a Cattle Egret at Llanynghenedl, north of Valley. Farther east, a Lapland Bunting is on the Great Orme and a Surf Scoter off Pensarn. The Jay influx continues, with flocks seen on coastal headlands, including an impressive 72 at South Stack on Sunday. If you see four or more Jays together, please do email me with the details.
Several days of strong southwesterly gales and rain made bird-finding a challenge this week, but blew in a top-class North American songbird to Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory on Saturday, where it was caught and ringed. The Red-eyed Vireo, frequently shortened to ‘The REV’ by birders, is only the eight Welsh record and the third for the island, although the first one to have been found there alive since 1985. Widespread in woodland across the United States and southern Canada in the breeding season, the vireo would have been migrating to South America when it became caught in high-level winds that thrust it across the Atlantic. Remarkably, it was recaught at the Observatory on Monday afternoon, having gained two grammes, perhaps around 15% of its body weight. It is only the second North American songbird to be found in Britain this autumn, and gives hope to anyone scouring the headlands of Anglesey or Llŷn.
The southwesterlies also pushed seabirds inshore, including Sabine’s Gulls and several Long-tailed Skuas off Bardsey and Point Lynas, Leach’s Petrel off Cemlyn and a Long-tailed Skua and Grey Phalarope off Aberdaron. The weather system may also have been responsible for a Ring-necked Duck found on Llyn Alaw.
Elsewhere, a Surf Scoter is with a Velvet and Common Scoters off Pensarn, and Garganey and Spotted Redshank remain at RSPB Conwy. Earlier in the week another American visitor, a Bonaparte’s Gull, dropped onto the beach between Rhyl and Prestatyn but stayed only a couple of hours.
Following last week’s mention of Jays on the move, even greater numbers were reported over the weekend: flocks of 22 and 15 over Anglesey’s Inland Sea, 20 over Uwchmynydd and several smaller groups. Even larger numbers have been reported from South Wales, including 161 over Kenfig nature reserve in 90 minutes on Monday morning.
Jays are on the move! Small flocks have been reported away from the woodlands in which they spend most of the year. Over the weekend, there were 14 over the Great Orme, a flock of 23 over the Dyfi estuary and groups of up to seven at the western end of Llŷn, where Jays are usually scarce. Naturalists in eastern Britain report that the acorn crop is sparse, so Jays may be roaming the countryside in search of oak trees, since these are a crucial part of their diet. If you see any large counts, let me know.
The Squacco Heron remained for a second week in the wetlands around Gronant, and a Wilson’s Phalarope from North America was a fine way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of RSPB’s Burton Mere Wetlands. Of the 13 Welsh records of this wader, this was the fifth in Flintshire. A Rose-coloured Starling remains on the rooftops of Llandudno Junction, and nearby two Garganeys and a Spotted Redshank are at RSPB Conwy. The first divers of the winter were seen off our coast, with a Black-throated and Great Northern Divers in Anglesey’s Beddmanarch Bay and a Red-throated Diver retaining some of its summer plumage off Llandudno, while a Slavonian Grebe is off Llanfairfechan. Low water levels on Llyn Alaw have attracted huge numbers of waterbirds, among them a Pectoral Sandpiper, Wood Sandpipers, Little Stints, Garganey and eight Great White Egrets.
It has been a good breeding season for Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland, judging by the large number of young birds in flocks migrating south this week. I’ve seen groups feeding at RSPB Conwy and Malltraeth Cob, but a flock of 19 over the Llŷn was more unusual. Also arriving from Iceland are flocks of Pink-footed Geese, heading to winter on the Dee estuary, and the first Redwings of the autumn were heard over Anglesey last Tuesday (21 September).
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.