Midsummer sees herons and egrets, among the earliest birds to nest in the spring, disperse across the country. As well as the Grey Herons and Little Egrets that breed in North Wales, recent years have seen more Great White Egrets spread into North Wales from June to September. There were four, perhaps as many as six, at RSPB Conwy on Thursday and two remained over the weekend. One bore a ring that showed it was a nestling at the RSPB’s Ham Wall nature reserve, Somerset, just a few weeks ago. Great White Egrets have bred in Britain for less than a decade, including on the Dee estuary since 2017. Another Great White at Porthmadog Cob was joined briefly by another three on Monday, their larger size compared to Little Egrets being evident in Elfyn Lewis’s photo.
Egrets have been recovering from centuries of wetland drainage and persecution. The long, wispy feathers that grow from the head were hugely popular in ladies fashion and for ceremonial military dress during the 19th century, leading to the killing of huge numbers of egrets. They nest in colonies so were easy targets and numbers quickly crashed as thousands of chicks were left to starve to death. Each dead Great White Egret yielded a quarter ounce of feathers, worth $7, equivalent to £166 today. Up to £20 million worth of birds’ feathers were traded through London each year, over £200 million at current prices, from all over the world. The trade, dubbed “murderous millinery” by campaigners in late Victorian England, contributed to the decline of many species and the extinction of several more, such as the unique Huia wattlebird in New Zealand that was regarded by Maori as sacred.
1 July 2021 is the centenary of the Plumage Act becoming law. It followed decades of campaigning by the RSPB, formed by a group of women in 1889 to push for just such a law. Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP, took up the cause following her 1919 election victory. The law banned imports of feathers, although it would take several amendments and a change in fashion for sales to cease. The story of the trade and these women is powerfully told by Tessa Boase in Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved The Birds, which I can thoroughly recommend. Whenever I see an egret, I think of those pioneering women.
Beside the Great White Egrets, other sightings this week include Hooded Crows on Bardsey and the River Clwyd, Roseate Tern at Cemlyn lagoon, Spotted Redshank at RSPB Conwy, and Quail singing at Aberffraw, Holt and Glaslyn.
There are just hours to go to order a copy of the new national avifauna, The Birds of Wales, at the pre-publication price of £25 (plus p&p). Click here for details and to order, using the code WALES50 to get the discount. The offer is valid until 30 June, after which it is published and will cost £45.
The quintessential sound of the Cuckoo is almost ready to depart for another year. I heard my first while on a moorland surveying for Black Grouse in April, and have doubtless already heard my last this year. Since they don’t raise their own young, once pairs have mated and the female has laid eggs, they begin their return migration to Africa.
The classic ‘cuc-koo’ song is that of the male, whereas the female utters a chuckling or bubbling call, especially after leaving her egg in the nest of the unwitting foster parents. That call is a similar to a raptor, which distracts the nest-owner, and makes it less likely to reject the cuckoo’s egg. The female with a rusty-brown collar, as shown in the photo, or all-over chestnut in some individuals, lays a single egg in each of up to 20 nests, most typically those of Meadow Pipits, Tree Pipits, Dunnocks and Reed Warblers.
The British Trust for Ornithology has resumed its satellite-tracking of Cuckoos this year, including two males in Wales: one near Llandegla, west of Wrexham, and one at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy nature reserve that has already made two forays 30km down the valley to Shropshire. By 15 June, three of the 11 tagged birds had already crossed the Channel on their southbound migration. You can follow them at bto.org/cuckoo.
Cuckoo numbers in Wales halved between 1996 and 2010, but have made a partial recovery in the decade since. The Breeding Bird Survey shows that numbers in 2019 were still more than 25% lower than the mid-1990s, but no updated figures are available for 2020 as the covid pandemic prevented surveys from being undertaken. Several readers have commented that they’ve heard Cuckoos in more places in North Wales this year, not only in the uplands but also on Anglesey, although the UK reporting rate on BirdTrack is more than 10% lower than usual.
While Cuckoos are already on the move, it will be another few weeks before autumn migration gets properly underway, and some smaller birds are now skulking quietly as they moult their feathers after the nesting season. Notable sightings in North Wales last week were a Rose-coloured Starling near Harlech, a Roseate Tern at Cemlyn lagoon and a Hooded Crow at RSPB South Stack. At least 10 Red Kites were on Anglesey last Tuesday, where it has until recently remained a scarce sight.
Conservation and animal welfare organisations have issued a reminder to leave young birds alone. June is the peak month for chicks to make their first forays from the nest, and many songbirds spend their first hours on the ground. Nestlings that are not fully-feathered may have fallen, and if you can find the nest nearby (checking that the chick looks like the others in the nest), you can attempt to return the chick to its home. However, in most cases, youngsters have feathers and are being fed, or cajoled into flight, by the parents. These should only be moved if they are in danger, such as from road traffic or cats, and then only a short distance to safety, so that mum and dad can still hear their calls.
Phoning an animal welfare charity or vet should be a last resort (they are overstretched at this time of year). Only put it in a box and remove it if the bird is clearly injured, and then seek professional advice. Abandonment by parent birds is rare, as the bond to their chicks is very strong. The useful flowchart above was produced by the RSPB, who have more advice on their website.
Most songbirds make their maiden flight early in the day, and it has been assumed that this increases the chance of survival, perhaps by maximising the number of daylight hours in which to feed on their first day. However, a recent study of Blue Tits by scientists at Oxford University and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany found no evidence for that hypothesis. They suggest that young birds fledge when they reach a certain point in their development, and since that moment will occur for some birds during the night, a greater proportion leave the nest in the first few hours after sunrise simply because the time is right.
The influx of Rose-coloured Starlings has continued, with pink-and-black adults at Valley and Tregele on Anglesey, but birds on Bardsey and at Morfa Nefyn last week have moved on. Three Roseate Terns are at Cemlyn lagoon, where wardens from North Wales Wildlife Trust report Sandwich Tern chicks are hatching. A Quail was found dead near Bryngwran earlier in the month. Farther afield, Britain’s first Sulphur-bellied Warbler was identified, on Lundy in the Bristol Channel and an Egyptian Vulture is on the Isles of Scilly, more than 150 years since the last accepted record in Britain.
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. Offer is valid until 30 June.
I made my second visit on Sunday to the two squares above Conwy that I monitor for the Breeding Bird Survey, the main source of our knowledge of trends in populations of widespread species. There were so many birds, it took me almost an hour to walk each kilometre, carefully recording everything I saw and heard. In the square counted almost every year since 1994, this year has seen a record number of species (42) and the highest ever counts of Blackbird, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and House Sparrow.
Improved weather conditions last week are welcome news for birds whose eggs hatch in June, but may have come too late for some species. The dry and cold April meant that insects were in short supply, especially for aerial feeders such as Swallows and House Martins. The hard, dry ground made it difficult for wader species too, such as Curlews and Lapwings. Walking on moorland in April, even the sphagnum was crispy underfoot, conditions we often don’t witness in Wales even in late summer.
It was the wettest May in Wales since records began, with several centimetres of snow lying in the uplands early in the month. This suppressed insect numbers, with moth enthusiasts reporting a terrible start to the season. Swollen rivers washed out first nesting attempts by Sand Martins and Kingfishers, and many broods of Starlings, Great Tits and Blue Tits starved in their nests. These single-brooded species will be especially hit, as they rarely rear a second brood. Birds that can lay another clutch of eggs may do better, although later broods are usually smaller.
Some warblers have arrived later than usual, some by a couple of weeks, and for those that nest in reedbeds, such as Reed and Sedge Warblers, the reeds are only now large enough to support a nest. Choughs in west-facing nests suffered during windy and cold conditions in early May, but elsewhere they have fared better. Pied Flycatchers in southwest Britain have nested later than usual, with smaller clutches of eggs than usual reported, but ringers in North Wales report eggs hatching on typical dates last week and good size broods.
The warmer weather also brought an influx of birds from continental Europe. A Golden Oriole sang at Llanfairynghornwy, near Wylfa, on Friday, a Common Rosefinch sang in a Holyhead garden and others were at Cemlyn Bay and Bardsey. A Quail sang near Ynys, on the Dwyryd estuary, and a female in meadows near Penygroeslon became only the 138th ever to be ringed in Britain & Ireland. Rarity of the week was an Eastern Subalpine Warbler near Carmel Head, only the second in Wales away from Bardsey or the Pembrokeshire islands. A Spoonbill on the Glaslyn Marshes was only the third record there and two Avocets at RSPB Conwy on Saturday are likely to have been failed breeders from elsewhere.
Pink-and-black Rose-coloured Starlings have arrived in huge numbers in southwestern Europe in the last week. Around 100 have been reported in Britain in recent days, including three in Holyhead, and singles in Valley, Beaumaris, Cemaes, Cemlyn Bay, Rhyl and on Bardsey. We could be on course for a record year, and unlike many rarities, these Rosy Starlings are quite likely to turn up in towns and gardens.
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.