It was glorious to spend the sunny weekend exploring the woodlands, hills and coast of Meirionnydd, where the delayed unfurling of the leaves made it easier than usual to find the classic Welsh woodland trio returning to the worryingly dry rainforest. Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts were exploring holes in the lichen-dressed trees as potential nest sites, while a freshly-arrived Wood Warbler uttered its staccato song, reminiscent of a coin spinning to a stop. I finished on the Dwyryd estuary, hearing the seven whistles of a flock of Whimbrels refuelling en route to Iceland. Large flocks of Whimbrel elsewhere in the region included at least 80 in Bangor harbour and 57 on Bardsey.
I failed to hear a Cuckoo, but others were heard from several upland locations from the 20th, and other first migrant records included Lesser Whitethroat on the Great Orme on 22nd and a Swift at RSPB Conwy on the 24th. Demonstrating that spring migrants can appear anywhere, a pair of Whinchats was a good find on a farm at Glanwydden and a Wryneck was a top tick in a Rhyd-y-clafdy garden, near Pwllheli.
Rarest bird of the week was a Black Kite over South Stack on Monday, marking the opening of the new RSPB Visitor Centre. A single Dotterel was on the summit of Foel Fras, a White Stork was reported near Wrexham and a Lapland Bunting showed well near Cemlyn. Two Wood Sandpipers and up to seven Mediterranean Gulls are at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands.
Another pair of Ospreys has set up home in the Glaslyn Valley: a four-year-old male that fledged from Cors Dyfi in 2017 with a three-year-old female that hatched in Scotland but was released in Dorset’s Poole Harbour as part of a translocation project. Other Ospreys have been spotted around Llandudno, Bangor, Dinas Dinlle and Cemlyn this week.
The cool airflow of the last week probably suited two Dotterels that landed in heather at RSPB South Stack at the weekend. These plovers nest high on mountain plateaux in Scotland and Scandinavia, but a few stop in North Wales each year. Some rest-points are used every spring, especially in the Carneddau mountains, but a quarter of Welsh records are coastal, such as the Anglesey headland adopted by these two males. Unusual among birds, male Dotterels have less colourful plumage than females. Once she has laid eggs, the male incubates alone, using his muted colours to hide him well among the bare ground and sparse plants. His mate moves on, perhaps hundreds of miles to the north, to find another male with whom to repeat the process before she heads back to North Africa for the winter.
Dotterel numbers in Scotland are in decline, but the reasons are complex, and appear to be related to late-lying snow, nitrogen pollution and rainfall in their African wintering grounds - there's a great WaderTales blog by Graham Appleton that explains the latest science.
Other summer migrants continued to arrive this week. It was great to wander around RSPB Conwy, reopened to visitors last week, to the scratchy songs of Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler. The first Whinchat of the year was at Dinas Dinlle on Monday, and RSPB Cors Ddyga hosted a smart male Garganey and early Reed Warbler. A few Redstarts arrived back in Welsh woodlands this week, and more Black Redstarts dropped in on their way back to breed in Scandinavia; most are coastal, so one near Penmachno last week was unusual. Ring Ouzels and Whimbrels have been in evidence along the coast, and Grasshopper Warblers are reeling at several wetland sites. A Wood Warbler was singing at Capel Curig on Monday and Twite are back in Snowdonia’s Nant Ffrancon.
An Iceland Gull followed the plough near Cemlyn, a Great White Egret was in the Alyn Valley near Caergwrle, a colourful Slavonian Grebe in summer plumage in the Menai Strait and a White Stork flew over Ruthin last Friday.
More than a million people participated in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January, including a record 53,000 people who counted 1,094,355 birds in Wales. Once again, the House Sparrow took top spot, while Starling stepped up to second and Blue Tit dropped to third place. Cold weather may have pushed Starlings west into Welsh gardens, while Blue Tit numbers have fallen by almost 20% in the last decade following several poor breeding seasons.
The annual Birdwatch is just one way to connect with birds. A YouGov survey found that 35% of people in Wales had seen wildlife near home over the last 12 months that they had never noticed before. It also revealed that 63% of people in the UK said watching birds and hearing their song added to their enjoyment of life during the pandemic, with 51% saying that lockdown has made them more aware of their local nature. So, how to maintain that enthusiasm as lockdown eases?
Spring migration provides one opportunity, and although cool winds slowed the arrival of some species, birdwatchers in North Wales saw good numbers of Ring Ouzels at the weekend: at least 10 in the Nant Ffrancon Valley, half a dozen each in Carneddau’s Anafon Valley and Tal-y-fan, and five at Minera, near Wrexham. The ‘Mountain Blackbird’ is Red-listed because of huge declines, but Snowdonia National Park is a stronghold and it’s vital that the right levels of grazing continue to support these special birds.
White Wagtails streaming north to Iceland are stopping on our beaches and fields to refuel. The Cors Dyfi and Glaslyn Ospreys have each laid their first eggs, while a new pair has occupied the nest platform at Llyn Brenig. Winters hangs on with Scaup on Llyn Brân, Surf Scoter off Llanddulas and a Snow Bunting atop Moel Eilio, just north of Eryri.
The sharp drop in temperature will be a shock to hungry migrant birds arriving from Africa, and the insects on which many depend. It may also hinder resident birds that are already nesting, including those such as Mistle Thrush, Grey Heron and Dipper that have hatched young by early April.
Ahead of the northerly winds, migrants had been streaming in. Huge numbers of Sand Martins fed over Anglesey’s Cefni Valley last week, with smaller numbers of Swallows and House Martins, and Pied Flycatchers have been seen in several woodlands across North and Mid Wales. Other migrants seen this week include Whimbrels, Tree Pipits, Ring Ouzels and Common Sandpipers. Several Ospreys were spotted in local airspace, and a remote microphone recorded a Stone-curlew over Penrhyn Bay, a rare bird in Wales.
The RSPB’s Cors Ddyga nature reserve was filled with the calls of Curlew and Golden Plovers on Sunday morning. More than 200 of the plovers fed in the pools, many in their striking black-and-gold plumage ready to nest as soon as they arrive on the Icelandic, Greenland or Faeroese tundra. They shared the reserve with many White Wagtails also heading to Iceland, and several Little Ringed Plovers. Skylarks’ powerful song mixed with the falling cadence of freshly-arrived Willow Warblers, and early visitors heard the deep boom of Bittern. Earlier in the weekend, I’d counted 180 Eider ducks off Penmon Point, the largest number I’ve seen in the Menai Strait.
In Mynydd Hiraethog, a Black Redstart was on the dam at Llyn Aled Isaf on Sunday, a Scaup on nearby Llyn Brân and two Little Ringed Plovers on Llyn Brenig, where a pair of Ospreys has been seen. A Surf Scoter was off Llanddulas at the weekend, another close inshore off Talacre, and the wintering Iceland Gull remained at Rhyl’s Brickfields pond to Sunday, at least.
A new national avifauna, The Birds of Wales, will be published in July. Liverpool University Press is accepting pre-orders for £25 (plus p&p), which is £20 below the published price. Click here for details and to order, using the code WALES50 to get the discount.