Look out for Rooks
Despite the cold wind, spring showed its face at the weekend: frogspawn in a farm pond, bright yellow Lesser Celandine flowers unfurling in the verges and Rooks arguing over the growing piles of sticks in trees whose leaves are yet to bud. The rookery at the edge of my village has grown from two to ten nests in the last week alone.
The Welsh Ornithological Society is seeking help with the second year of its national survey of rookeries. This farmland crow has declined by more than 60% since 1995 and since 2019 it has been illegal to kill Rooks or destroy their nests. The WOS survey asks people to census 2-km squares and to report any rookeries they count to the local records centre, Cofnod. Full details of how to take part are on the WOS website birdsin.wales.
A Cambridge University study has highlighted the slow take-up of alternatives to toxic lead ammunition. Lead shot from spent cartridges is ingested from the ground by birds and fragments of bullets and shot in carcasses can be scavenged by birds such as raptors and Ravens, as well as mammals. Up to 100,000 birds are thought to die of the sub-lethal effects of lead poisoning each year, even though lead shot use over wetlands has been banned in Wales for two decades. The new study shows that 94% of Pheasants sampled contained lead shot. The proportion of Pheasants shot with a non-lead alternative has increased from 1% to 6% in the last year, but there are just another two years before farming and shooting organisations had planned a voluntary end to the use of lead shot. Professor Rhys Green from the University’s Zoology department said “If UK game hunters are going to phase out lead shot voluntarily, they’re not doing very well so far. The small decrease… is nowhere near on track to achieve a complete transition to non-toxic ammunition in the next two years.”
Having gone missing for a week, the male Baikal Teal is again in Foryd Bay, along with a Scaup. Two Surf Scoters and up to 10 Velvet Scoters are off Llanddulas and a Slavonian Grebe off Pensarn. A flock of Pink-footed Geese is at Gronant, with Twite, Jack Snipe and Yellow-legged Gulls nearby. Water Pipits were spotted at Gronant and at RSPB Conwy, where another Scaup and a couple of Spotted Redshanks have wintered. A Firecrest was in Newborough Forest at the weekend and a group of Ruddy Shelducks on the Clwyd estuary last week. A Hooded Crow remains at Bychestyn, near Aberdaron, and Slavonian Grebes and Scaup are on Anglesey’s Inland Sea.
With early Sand Martins already in southwest England and Wheatears in west Wales last week, keep an eye open for the flash of a white rump on coastal headlands or the hills, although northerly winds will surely slow down the advance guard of migrants.
Bangor Bird Group meets in person for the first time in three years on Wednesday 1 March, with a free public lecture at Pontio by Professor Tim Birkhead. Birds and Us reviews human interactions with birds throughout our 12,000 years of documented history from Egyptian Ibis Mummies, through scientific experimentation, engineering mimicry and artistic inspiration, to concern for their conservation and wellbeing. For details and tickets, book here.
Seaducks, known as scoters, feature regularly in Bird Notes, but rarely interest anyone without a high-powered telescope. Even then, a view usually involves black dots flying halfway to the horizon or bobbing on the sea, glimpsed briefly between the waves. Small numbers of Common Scoters winter in Cardigan Bay and larger flocks are frequently off Benllech and Llanddulas-Pensarn. Liverpool Bay is designated a Special Protection Area for Common Scoters (and several other species), requiring the UK and Welsh Governments to take measures to secure their conservation.
Aerial surveys ahead of windfarm installations show the scoter flock in Liverpool Bay to be very mobile. It has numbered almost 290,000 birds in recent years – remarkably, that’s more than twice the current estimate of the average UK wintering population, and more than one quarter of the global total. Numbers may peak in late winter as Russian- and Scandinavian-breeding Common Scoters here since October are joined temporarily by those that wintered in the North Sea and stop here on their way to Iceland.
Each winter, a few rarer scoters are seen from shore: Velvet Scoters that also breed in the Eurasian tundra and Surf Scoters, their rarer North American relative. Last week, all three species were unusually close to land, enabling some of the best photographs to be taken in Welsh waters. The image above won Henllan photographer Tony Pope the Photo of the Week award from the Birdguides news service. Up to eight Surf Scoters have been seen at one time off the Conwy coast in the last decade, and it’s interesting to speculate where these go each summer, as well as how many more there are beyond our eyesight.
Other sightings in the last week include a Green-winged Teal at RSPB Cors Ddyga, Cattle Egrets at Valley, Water Pipit at Gronant and Ring-necked Duck on Cefni Reservoir. Slavonian Grebes are off the Great Orme, Pensarn and in Beddmanarch Bay, Hawfinches at Llanrwst and Llanbedr y Cennin, and long-staying Black Redstart and Snow Bunting at Kinmel Bay.
Anglesey wetland is booming
Wetland creation at RSPB Cors Ddyga in Anglesey’s Cefni Valley has been a spectacular success, as a weekend walk illustrated: to the bass notes of a booming Bittern, 500 Lapwings fed on the fields, interspersed with Pintails, Shovelers, Wigeons and a single Ruff. Marsh Harriers quartered over the reedbed and a Merlin perched up, taking a rest from hunting Meadow Pipits that it has perhaps followed down from the moors. I failed to hear the pinging call of a Bearded Tit reported here on Friday, the first on the island for some years. Habitat restoration here looks good for Bearded Tits to live year-round, and it would be great if they could establish a western outpost to add to their colonisation of the upper Dee estuary since 2019.
Rare waterbirds remain a theme of the North Wales birding scene, with the Baikal Teal at Foryd, west of Caernarfon, and Ring-necked Duck on Cefni Reservoir. A Surf Scoter is with several Long-tailed Ducks off Benllech and two are with Velvet Scoters off Llanddulas. A Slavonian Grebe was off Pensarn and five wereoff Penmaenmawr, a sight that used to be more frequent here. More than 50 Great Northern Divers are in Caernarfon Bay, off Pontllyfni, a regular gathering point in late winter before they head to their Arctic breeding grounds.
Whooper Swans were with Goldeneyes on Llyn y Dywarchen, near Rhyd Ddu, on Sunday as I walked up nearby Mynydd Mawr to the honking calls of barrel-rolling Ravens and a Kestrel hovering over the heather. The swans may be passing through, as were a flock of Meadow Pipits near the summit. An overwintering Snow Bunting remains at Horton’s Nose, Kinmel Bay, while a group of Pale-bellied Brent Geese at the mouth of the River Clwyd and a Long-tailed Duck in the estuary were unusual.
Volunteers at RSPB Conwy are organising a walk for young birders (age 8-16) during half term, on 25 February, with the potential for more such events if there is sufficient interest. Visit the RSPB website for more details and to book.
A rare duck that breeds in northeast Russia and usually winters in Japan and Korea, was a surprise find in Foryd, west of Caernarfon, on Sunday. It is the first Baikal Teal recorded in North Wales, and comes less than a month after the first in Wales, at Llangorse Lake in Powys. It is tempting to assume this was the same male and there’ll be close scrutiny of the photographs, but interestingly the Powys bird was with Teal and the Foryd bird with Pintails, which may point to different individuals. Waterbirds that are out-of-range often stick close to birds from the same area, and while Wigeons and Teal originate from the east, the few ringing recoveries of Pintail in north Wales suggest an Icelandic origin – although some Pintails in Ireland arrive from the east. To add to the intrigue, a female Baikal Teal was at a South Yorkshire gravel-pit in mid January, and individuals have also been seen in southern Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece this winter.
Baikal Teal had a slow journey onto the list of birds accepted as wild in Europe because its colourful appearance made it popular in waterfowl collections. Modern science was key to changing our understanding. Stable isotope analysis can be used to infer diet, foraging and climatic origin from a feather sample, using the ‘signature’ embedded during its growth. A Baikal Teal accidentally shot by a hunter in Denmark in 2005 had an isotope signature characteristic of the climate found in the extreme tundra of Russia, suggesting that the species could make it to Europe. The Danish results prompted testing of a museum specimen obtained in Essex in 1906, and this too had feather isotopes likely to be from northern Asia. Up to 2021, a dozen Baikal Teals considered to be wild had been recorded in Britain, but none in Wales.
Other unusual ducks in the region at the weekend include Ring-necked Ducks on Cefni Reservoir and Llyn Tegid. Two Surf Scoters off Llanddulas proved to be different from one off Benllech at the same time, the latter along with at least six Long-tailed Ducks and three Velvet Scoters. Five Ruddy Shelducks beside the Clwyd estuary on Sunday may have more questionable origin, and perhaps include birds seen recently on the Dee. Firecrests were at Bodnant Garden and Morfa Madryn, a Black Redstart at Aberdaron, four Hawfinches in Llanrwst, and Snow Buntings at RSPB South Stack and Kinmel Bay.
*This post has been updated from the original to reflect relevant information to the Baikal Teals seen in Yorkshire and Norway*
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.