It was good to feel the sun and hear birdsong at the weekend, nature providing solace in dark times. I watched a pair of Long-tailed Tits busily adding moss and feathers, bound with silken spider webs, to their cylindrical nest in a bramble bush that is yet to grow its protective shroud of greenery. It’s a reminder that the nesting season is already here. Farmers know that they must not cut or trim trees between 1 March and 31 August (except for safety reasons) and this is good practice for garden owners too, says Rob Taylor, Wales Police Wildlife Co-ordinator.
“One of the most frequent wildlife enquiries calls the police receive during this time is that of hedge or tree cutting, potentially damaging nests and threatening the future of certain species,” he says. His advice, if you see someone cutting a hedge during this period, is to “speak to them and politely mention the risk to birds’ nests and the laws protecting nests. If they proceed and you know there is an active nest at risk, contact the police on 101 and ask to speak with a wildlife officer. Wales has several highly trained police wildlife officers and PCSOs who will be able to advise further and if needed investigate any potential offences”.
While resident species are starting to nest-build, most summer visitors are still some weeks away, so a Sand Martin at Llyn Pen-y-Parc near Beaumaris on Sunday was exceptional, the earliest Anglesey record this century. The weekend also saw a Ring-billed Gull in Beddmanarch Bay, two Surf Scoters off Llanddulas, and Cattle Egrets on Bardsey and near Llanynghenedl. A Hen Harrier drifting over Llandudno Pier on Saturday was a surprise to promenaders. At least 29 Great Northern Divers are in Caernarfon Bay, the start of a late winter build-up before they head north to breed.
The leak of around 80,000 litres of oil into the Irish Sea last week highlights the importance of Liverpool Bay for wintering waterbirds. Monitoring of the spill, and its effect on wildlife, from an undersea pipeline approximately 20 miles north of Rhyl was hampered by the series of storms since last Wednesday. Photos shared on social media at the weekend reported oiled Oystercatchers and showed an oiled Herring Gull at Seaforth, north of Liverpool. Oil had been predicted to move east onto the Lancashire coast.
Liverpool Bay is designated as a Special Protection Area for Red-throated Divers and Common Scoters. The birds move around the Bay through the winter, so it’s unclear how many could be affected by the leak. Aerial surveys in 2015-20 found up to 290,000 Common Scoter ducks wintering in the area, which is more than double the previous population estimate for the whole of Britain. Some of these birds will soon depart over the Pennines and across the North Sea, heading for their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Russia. It was the waterbird most greatly affected by the Sea Empress tanker spill in Pembrokeshire, 26 years previously to the very day.
The weekend storms pushed other seabirds into coastal waters, including Little Gulls off Criccieth. An Iceland Gull was off Porthmadog Cob, with a second joining one overwintering on the Little Orme. Dozens of Kittiwakes and a number of auks including Black Guillemots made their way back out to sea via the Menai Strait on Monday. Greenshank and Golden Plovers sheltered from Storm Franklin on Rhyl’s half-drained Marine Lake, while long-stayers included a Cattle Egret near Valley, Long-tailed Duck in Foryd Bay and a trio of Greenland White-fronted Geese in the Glaslyn valley.
Scaup remain at Rhyl’s Brickpits Pool and RSPB Conwy, with a Spotted Redshank at the latter. A Water Pipit is at Brynsiencyn, three Slavonian Grebes on the Inland Sea and a Hen Harrier on the Artro estuary.
Fulmars: masters of the updraft
The wild weather makes spring feel some way off, but longer hours of daylight encourages birds to sing and, for some species, to begin nest-building. On Anglesey, I stopped to watch Ravens carry sticks to a steep cliff, additions to a huge nest platform that has been used for decades. Fulmars are back on their cliff ledges, attracting a mate with deep, guttural cackle, then taking to the air on stiff wings, masters of the updraft.
Fulmars are a seabird in trouble, on the Welsh coast as across the rest of Britain, so I cherish sharing their world for a few moments. It is one of several seabirds at risk as ‘bycatch’, a term that belies death by drowning. Up to 9,100 Fulmars each year die on fishing nets or longline hooks in UK waters, along with thousands of Guillemots and hundreds of Gannets and Cormorants. There is no data for Welsh waters, so we know nothing of what happens here but they roam widely on fishing trips during and outside the breeding season, so the effects of trawlers many miles away can be evident on the cliffs of North Wales. The RSPB has released a short animation to highlight the issue, and press government and the industry to fix it, as fisheries elsewhere have reduced albatross deaths by simple measures.
The Iceland Gull remains on the Little Orme, Snow Bunting on the Great Orme, Ring-necked Duck on Llyn Tegid, a Scaup at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pit and a pair at RSPB Conwy. A Water Pipit and Dark-bellied Brent Goose were good finds on the Dwyryd estuary saltings at Ynys last week. Three Firecrests are at Penrhos Country Park, and others at Conwy and at the Gwynedd end of Britannia Bridge. Hawfinches in Mynydd Hiraethog were a surprise, while a Great Grey Shrike continues to overwinter near the Sportsman’s Arms. On Anglesey, a Swallow manages to survive the winter in Bodorgan and 17 Black Guillemots were counted off Fedw Fawr, while one off Pwllheli was unusual for Cardigan Bay.
The Welsh Ornithological Society is calling for volunteers to help survey one of the most familiar farmland birds in Wales this spring. Groups of Rook nests in bare trees are obvious in late winter, and birds will soon return to these traditional colonies to repair and rebuild in readiness for the breeding season. A few adults were hanging around these rookeries in the Conwy Valley on Sunday, but more will return by the start of next month.
Rooks are a bird in decline, now listed as vulnerable to extinction in Europe and recently added to the Amber list of the UK birds of conservation concern. In Wales, the decline is greater than elsewhere in the UK, down by 58% since 1995. This means it qualifies for the Red List, alongside Curlew, Cuckoo and Yellowhammer. When Rooks were more common, they were regarded as an agricultural pest because they eat newly-sown seed and emerging crops. The speed of loss has resulted in Natural Resources Wales making it illegal to kill a Rook without holding a specific licence.
The WOS Rook survey involves a single visit to a pre-determined tetrad (2km x 2km grid square) between 1 March and 15 April, repeating a survey undertaken in 1996. WOS is reminding birdwatchers that nil counts are just as important as confirmed rookeries, and urges people to be ‘zero heroes’. Details of how to take part are on the WOS website.
Highlights of a windy week include a Firecrest at Penrhos coastal park, a dozen Hawfinches in Llanrwst, two Avocets at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands and Snow Bunting on the Great Orme. Long-stayers include a Great Grey Shrike near Llyn Brenig, Scaup at RSPB Conwy, Iceland Gull on the Great Orme and Cattle Egrets on Bardsey and near Bodedern.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.