Hurrah for the House Sparrow
Thousands across North Wales spent an hour of last weekend record garden visitors for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. My highlight this winter has been the regular appearance of House Sparrows. This may be a familiar visitor for many readers, but for me it’s a real rarity even though a small number have lived in a thick hedgerow on the edge of our village for years. I first heard House Sparrows from the garden during the first Covid lockdown in April 2020. With most traffic noise banished, I heard the cheeping twitter of sparrows on the breeze. They were several hundred metres away, a big distance for a House Sparrow, as most spend their whole life in a tiny patch. But as people turned to nature for solace during the pandemic, new feeders appeared in village gardens, and the sparrows followed. Now I get to see one or two from my home office window most days. It may not be a classic songster, but I treasure that sound.
House Sparrows are making a recovery, with numbers having almost doubled in Wales since the mid-1990s. But the population remains much lower than in the 1970s and earlier, especially in large urban areas, from which they’ve disappeared in some cases.
More unusual garden visitors this week are a Lesser Whitethroat, probably of Asian origin, in Holyhead and a Swallow at Bodorgan on Monday. Also on Anglesey, a Cattle Egret is on fields west of Bodedern, nine Whooper Swans were on Llyn Llygeirian at the weekend and seven on the Braint estuary on Monday. Four Greenland White-fronted Geese are with Whoopers near Garreg in the Glaslyn Valley, and a Ring-necked Duck on Llyn Tegid can be seen from Llangower station.
A Snow Bunting is on the Great Orme, the Iceland Gull remains on the Little Orme and Hawfinches in the Conwy Valley include singles at Llanrwst and Betws-y-Coed, and six at Llanbedr-y-cennin. Up to 20 Twite are on Flint marsh and a Snow Goose flew into the upper Dee estuary with Pink-footed Geese, perhaps a genuine visitor from Arctic Canada that has arrived via Lancashire.
We may be shrouded in mid-winter greyness, but this Common Tern is probably making the most of the tropical weather in the Gulf of Guinea, off west Africa. That is the winter destination for most Common Terns that nest in Britain and Ireland, including those from the two colonies on Anglesey and one in the Dee estuary, the only breeding sites in Wales. Terns will soon start to make their northward journey, arriving off our coast in mid-April. The pin-sharp photo of one resurfacing from a dive into Cemlyn lagoon was taken last summer by Lewi Burgess, then age 17, and won him the Young Photographer of the Year title in the Welsh Ornithological Society’s 2021 photo competition. Lewi, from Rhosgoch, won a week on Ynys Enlli, as the award is sponsored by Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory. The observatory is also offering a week on the island for £75 at Easter for 10 students at universities in Wales and the West Midlands.
It proved to be a double win for northwest Wales, as the overall top image in the competition was taken in Bangor, of an adult Tawny Owl with two ‘branchlings’, young birds that have left the nest but are yet to take their first flight. It was also taken by a talented young photographer, Jonathan Bull from Gloucestershire, while he studied at Bangor University. He graduated with a BSc in Zoology last year. All of the prize-winning pictures feature on the birdsin.wales website, where details of the 2022 competition will be announced in July.
Sightings this week include some long-staying visitors, such as an Iceland Gull among dozens of Grey Seals in Angel Bay, on Llandudno’s Little Orme, where more than a dozen Fulmars have returned to nesting cliffs in the old quarry and several Velvet Scoters were offshore on Sunday. A Glossy Ibis remains near Rhosneigr, three Swallows overwinter around Newborough and a Snow Bunting is near Talacre. A Ring-necked Duck is among Tufted Ducks on Llyn Tegid, south of Llangower, a group of European White-fronted Geese remains beside the Clwyd estuary and three of the Greenland race were near Llanfrothen. A Black Redstart was in Hawarden Industrial Estate at the weekend and a Cattle Egret on Bardsey is only the third island record.
Seize every moment of daylight
Photographers call it the golden hour, but by the time I get out in late afternoon, it’s more of an apricot half-hour, the sun already below the peaks of Y Carneddau. As fingers of frost creep across parked cars, the longer daylight has triggered the Song and Mistle Thrushes to sing into the dusk, as lines of chattering Jackdaws fill the fading sky, heading to roost. As I wander home, Tawny Owls duet their call-and-response: the female ‘ke-wick’ and the male his quavering ‘who-oo’. That hour of nature after work revitalises me in winter and fortified me through multiple lockdowns.
In a trial in Edinburgh, published this week, 350 patients were prescribed nature as part of treatment for 32 different health conditions and 74% felt it had benefited their recovery. Over 90% of health professionals said they’d like to prescribe nature as part of the treatment, and now RSPB Scotland is looking to expand the trial. Essential to such a plan, however, is a network of good places for nature in rural and urban areas. Could nature be part of the future thinking of public health in Wales too?
The calm days and flat sea enabled birders to find at least three Surf Scoters off Old Colwyn/Llanddulas, along with Velvet Scoters, Scaup, Black-throated Diver and Long-tailed Duck among thousands of Common Scoters. A family group of two adult and a young Glossy Ibis near Llyn Maelog, Rhosneigr, is part of an influx of over 100 birds across Britain and Ireland, presumably from Spain, in recent days.
A flock of 130 Pink-footed Geese flew along the coast at Prestatyn on Friday, while five European White-fronted and three Pink-footed Geese remain in fields by the Clwyd estuary upstream from Rhyl and the overwintering Scaup at the nearby Brickfields Pit. Scaup are also at RSPB Conwy, Cefni Reservoir and on flooded fields at RSPB Cors Ddyga, a surprising location for a diving duck.
An Iceland Gull continues to feed among the Grey Seals in the Little Orme’s Angel Bay. There are Black Redstarts at Amlwch, Benllech and the mouth of Afon Dysynni, and Firecrests at Traeth Bychan, and between Penymynydd and the A55 in Flintshire. Four Slavonian Grebes remain in Beddmanarch Bay and at least one is in the Menai Strait, off Aber Ogwen.
Inland, four Hawfinches have been in trees in St Grwst churchyard, Llanrwst, a Great Grey Shrike holds territory in clearfelled forestry south of the Sportsman’s Arms near Llyn Brenig, and Willow Tits are visiting the feeders outside the reservoir’s Visitor Centre.
A well-timed initiative from BirdTrack this week provided its thousands of users in Britain and Ireland with a personalised infographic summarising the contribution that we each made to the scheme in 2021. BirdTrack.net is the online bird-recording app from the British Trust for Ornithology, Welsh Ornithological Society and the RSPB among others. Birdwatchers shared their statistics on social media, and it struck me how most focus recording in their local area, increasingly conscious of the need to minimise fossil fuel use, as well as restricted travel during a second year of the pandemic.
A little more digging into BirdTrack’s databank revealed that more than 435,000 bird records were submitted in Wales in 2021, bringing the total to over 4.9 million since 2000. After falling back during 2020, the number of contributions in North Wales increased by 14% in 2021. The greatest growth was on Anglesey, reflecting the number of people from across Britain who visit the island to see its wildlife. You can sign up to BirdTrack.net at any time, and it’s completely free. Your sightings help local and national conservation organisations to track the fortunes of birds across the country. For more details, visit the BTO website, and I would recommend these short videos to help you get started.
Among the sightings recorded on BirdTrack this week were over 100 Red-throated Divers off the Little Orme, and one that pitched up at Gresford Flash near Wrexham. Three Bewick’s Swans at Shotwick are the first in Wales since a couple at the same site last January, as climate change means that fewer winter this far west. On Anglesey, Black Redstarts remain at Amlwch and Benllech, and a Cattle Egret is north of Valley. A Snow Bunting was at Fairbourne, Great White Egret near Llanrwst and Firecrests at RSPB Conwy and Llanfairfechan sewage works over the weekend, while on Monday a Marsh Harrier flew over Rhos Point and five European White-fronted Geese remained on fields east of the Clwyd estuary.
New year lists full of promise
A new year brings fresh impetus to get out birdwatching. Daylight is slowly lengthening, the first Chiffchaffs and Sand Martins may be only eight weeks from arrival, and resolutions are made to spend more time in nature. Despite a strong wind taking the edge off the warmest ever New Year’s Day, there was plenty to see for those who had not partied too hard the previous night.
Among the highlights on 1st January were a Long-tailed Duck on Shotwick Boating Lake, Scaup on Cefni Reservoir, RSPB Conwy and Rhyl’s Brickfields Pit, and an Iceland Gull on the Little Orme, where more than 200 Grey Seals have hauled up recently. The fine lines of an Avocet stood out on the Alaw estuary, while a Black Redstart close to Benllech beach and a Firecrest at Llanfairfechan sewage works added a touch of colour. Great Northern Divers were in Holyhead harbour, off Rhos Point, Benllech and in Beddmanarch Bay, with a couple of Slavonian Grebes at the last of these. Siberian Chiffchaffs were at Porth Meudwy and Pontllyfni, these winter visitors now occurring more frequently or birders are becoming more familiar with identifying them. Single Snow Buntings were at Talacre and Caernarfon airfield, a couple of Jack Snipe in Glanwydden and flocks of Pink-footed Geese at Llanbadrig and Cemlyn.
The subsequent couple of days have seen Spotted Redshank at RSPB Conwy, Black Redstart at Porthdinllaen, and four Whooper Swans at RSPB Cors Ddyga. Five European White-fronted Geese remain on fields beside the Clwyd estuary and a Little Gull flew past the end of Pen Llŷn. Short-eared Owls hunted at Aberffraw, Cors Ddyga and near Kinmel Bay, and up to seven are on the Dee estuary.
Ornithologists on the Solway Firth had a more grim start to the year, counting thousands of dead Barnacle Geese that have fallen victim to Avian Influenza. Kane Brides, Research Officer at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, reported that over 20% of the Svalbard Barnacle Goose population – all of which winter on the Solway – are thought to have died so far. For more on the outbreak, see this blog from last month.
The fastest bird sightings report in the UK was published before midnight on New Year’s Eve by Martin Jones. His Anglesey Bird News blog provides a weekly update of sightings on the island, all wrapped up in a report for 2021, for which he is seeking donations to the Cemlyn Wardens’ fund for North Wales Wildlife Trust.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.