I have written before about the enjoyment I get from visits to ‘my’ allocated squares for the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), organised by the British Trust for Ornithology with support from the RSPB and Joint Nature Conservation Committee. As well as noticing annual changes in birds, mammals and habitat in my square, satisfaction comes from knowing that, combined with effort in almost 4000 other squares across the UK, my few hours of volunteering helps to track populations of the most abundant birds. Last week saw the realisation of our time well spent with publication of the BBS results up to 2021.
The long-term trends are, perhaps, the most important, informing Birds of Conservation Concern, which assesses the red, amber and green lists. Of the 58 species monitored in Wales since 1995, 28 have increased, headed by the introduced Canada Goose, up 429%. However, populations of the other 30 have fallen, none more so than Greenfinch, down 79%, all in the last decade. Numbers of six other species have more than halved in Wales: Yellowhammer (-75%), Swift (-74%), Curlew (-73%), Rook (-63%), Starling (-63%), all once common birds of farmland. The decline of Goldcrest (-53%) is hard to explain, since counts in England were up over the same period. While numbers of another species associated with conifers, Coal Tit, were down 25%, Siskins have increased by 160%.
There are several other species for which Wales is important but which are not common enough on the sampled squares to create a country trend, but which are falling across the UK as a whole. Among these are Wood Warbler (-83%), Pied Flycatcher (-55%) and Whinchat (-53%).
There’s better news for Cuckoos, whose numbers in Wales have increased by 43% over the last decade to levels only just below those of 1995, and Song Thrush, whose numbers are 29% up over the long-term. Wheatear numbers returned to 2015 levels after several poor years, but remain 28% down on a decade ago. However, House Martin and Swallow numbers are down 47% and 40% in 10 years, and in just five years, Buzzards are down by 15%, Carrion Crow by 10% and Raven by 8%. There’s a wealth of information in the latest report, visit bto.org/bbs to find out more, and to sign up as a volunteer for next year.
Scarcer visitors to the region last week include Black Redstarts at RSPB Conwy, Llanbedr and in a Penrhyn Bay garden, two Roseate Terns at Cemlyn lagoon, and Hooded Crows at RSPB South Stack, Traeth Dulas and the Clwyd estuary.
Leading a course in the Carneddau on Sunday, it was good to see young Wheatears foraging among the rocks, a Pied Flycatcher dropping from a branch to grab insects, and a pair of Redstarts commuting with small green caterpillars to a nest in the roof of a cottage. For others, such as the Siskins calling from the highest branches of the forestry plantation, the breeding season is already a distant memory. So too for the Ravens tumbling over the summit and Long-tailed Tits working their way through the oak trees, having already formed a flock in readiness for winter.
We heard two Cuckoos, which may be my last until next April. Many are already heading south. Of 12 Cuckoos tracked by the British Trust for Ornithology, six are in France including one already close to the Riviera resort of Cannes. They should soon be joined by JAC, ringed near Llandegla in 2021, which is heading south through Herefordshire after spending spring in the same area of moorland near Wrexham. Another Welsh-tagged Cuckoo - Daniel - remains in Montgomeryshire, mainly on moorland above Lake Vyrnwy but with occasional forays to a site 20 miles east on the Shropshire border, identical to movements that it made last summer.
A Wood Sandpiper at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on the Dee estuary is another sign that the northern hemisphere is about to tilt away from the sun. Over the coming weeks, expect to see more waders dropping into North Wales as they head towards the equator from their Arctic breeding sites.
Hooded Crows were again at RSPB South Stack and the Clwyd estuary, with one over Cors Bodeilio, near Pentraeth. A Rose-coloured Starling was near Caernarfon airport, and a moulting Whooper Swan remains around Porthmadog Cob having been unable to fly to Iceland with the rest of the Glaslyn flock in spring.
As my groaning shelves testify, I love a bird book. A well-researched volume is more definitive in its answers than an internet search, and I love the feel of the pages, the rich artwork and photographs in my hand. But there is some information for which the web is far superior, especially for sharing and visualising data almost in real time.
The United Nations Convention on Migration Species recently launched a Eurasian-African Bird Migration Atlas, which for the first time maps the movements of millions of individual birds that have been ringed and found subsequently, over more than a century. The results, open to all at migrationatlas.org, enable ornithologists to understand better how different parts of the flyway are connected between seasons, but also how that is changing with climate disruption.
It is a goldmine that I will doubtless spend long winter evenings digging into. At the weekend, I watched a male Ring Ouzel feeding three begging juveniles that had not long left their nest in the Carneddau. From the Migration Atlas, I can see that there have been just two exchanges of Ring Ouzels from North Wales: one between Bardsey and southwest France, the other between Conwy and the Grampian Mountains. However, added to all the Ring Ouzel data from both continents shows that these form part of a movement between Britain and Morocco, where they spend winter with other Ring Ouzels that breed in the Alps and Scandinavia. In a few months, these young Carneddau birds could be sharing Juniper berries with birds hatched in Norway and Switzerland.
Understanding bird movements is also essential for those tracking highly pathogenic avian influenza. A lack of testing makes it hard to be certain, but reports from seabird colonies across Scotland, and in tern sites in eastern England, the Netherlands and France, indicate that ‘bird flu’ could be catastrophic for some species. Wales’ only Little Tern colony at Gronant – which now has a live stream from the beach - is having a record year, with over 200 nests, so wardens will be watching nervously for symptoms. The Animal & Plant Health Agency urges anyone finding a dead bird to report it on 03459 335577 and not to touch it.
Rose-coloured Starlings have been spotted in gardens in Llandudno Junction and Llanfechell in the last week, perhaps the start of a westward European movement that we have witnessed in the last two summers. A handful of waders, such as Whimbrel at RSPB Conwy and a Greenshank on the Alaw estuary, are a sign of southward migration as failed breeders leave their Arctic breeding grounds and make an early move to their wintering areas. A Yellow-legged Gull was at RSPB Conwy on Sunday, a Hooded Crow on the Clwyd estuary and six Mediterranean Gulls on Porthmadog’s Llyn Bach, including one ringed near Leipzig last summer. Two Black Swans on the Inland Sea and one at Aber Ogwen originate from a collection.
At the tip of Pen Llŷn, Ynys Enlli is known for its spiritual heritage and a destination for Christian pilgrimage. It is equally significant as a sanctuary for weary travellers migrating up the west coast of Europe. The Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory has played a vital role in the study of bird migration since it opened in 1953, and next year will celebrate its own platinum jubilee.
The everyday work involves counts and bird-ringing, supplemented by monitoring of breeding seabirds through the summer, but last Thursday was one of those that the wardens dream about. A Thrush Nightingale sang into the late evening but moved on overnight. It is a species never seen alive in Wales before, with just a single record of one found dead on the island in 1976. Earlier in the day, a Golden Oriole and a Red-spotted Bluethroat, also spring overshoots from the European mainland, were found in the space of 30 seconds. A supporting cast of Black Redstart, Turtle Dove and Wood Warbler that day wasn't too shabby either, and Spotted Flycatchers continue to arrive there from Africa.
Another Golden Oriole was found there on Saturday and a Marsh Warbler on Monday, while a Siberian Chiffchaff has taken up territory on the island. Although singing enthusiastically, is unlikely to attract a female, since those should all be on their breeding grounds in Russian forests.
Elsewhere, two Hooded Crows are at RSPB South Stack and another flew ashore at Gronant on Saturday, with a Little Gull at nearby Talacre. Little Stints were at Point of Ayr, Afon Wen and the Alaw estuary last week, and a Curlew Sandpiper at Foryd Bay on Sunday. A Roseate Tern is on Cemlyn lagoon and a Black Tern spent several hours at RSPB Conwy last Tuesday. A Quail is calling above the Conwy Valley, and four have been ringed near Pengroeslon in the last week.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.