The breeding season is drawing rapidly to a close for seabirds that nest along the North Wales coast. Most Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills have left the cliff ledges but remain on the sea with their flightless young for several weeks, making them especially vulnerable to irresponsible watercraft users. Within a few weeks, these auks will move out into the Irish Sea and then the North Atlantic, set for a winter in the toughest of sea conditions.
Many Sandwich Terns have already left the North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Cemlyn nature reserve, although for now the Elegant Tern from the Pacific Ocean continues to offer fishy gifts to any Sandwich Tern within range. Before embarking on the journey to the west coast of Africa, young 'Sarnies' spend a few weeks getting their bearings and learning to fish, often remaining in family groups and begging for food from their parents. Sites such as the Clwyd estuary, Rhos Point and Glan-y-môr Elias near Llanfairfechan can host up to 1,000 Sandwich Terns on the high tide, so it is critical that people and their dogs give them space as they rest up before their long migration. They dive from a similar height to gold medallists Tom Daley and Matty Lee, entering the water with closed wings and barely a splash to seize a sandeel or sprat.
Local birdwatchers will be looking closely for coloured rings that were fitted to their legs when they were chicks. One at Rhos Point on Friday had been ringed at RSPB Hodbarrow in Cumbria last month, a colony that accounts for around 10% of late-summer Sandwich Tern sightings in North Wales. Around one-third originate at Cemlyn and a quarter from Lady’s Island Lake at the southeastern tip of Ireland, but others come from North Sea coasts as far away as Denmark.
The first Pied Flycatcher and Grasshopper Warbler of the autumn on Bardsey, Wheatear and Redstart on the Great Orme and a Wood Sandpiper over Penrhyn Bay are signs that migration is underway. Ospreys were over Point of Ayr, Caerhun, Beaumaris and Penrhyn Bay, and Hooded Crows at Aberdaron, RSPB South Stack, Church Bay and Cemlyn. Mediterranean Gulls are at several locations, including nine at Afonwen and eight on the Inland Sea. In the Dee estuary, a Melodious Warbler was ringed on Hilbre and a Long-billed Dowitcher is at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands.
Satellite tags deployed to study wetland birds on Anglesey show the importance of the North Wales coast as an international flyway. BTO Cymru tagged several Curlews on the Cefni estuary last winter to track their daily movements as part of the ECHOES project. The €2.7 million EU-funded project, involving partners in Wales and the Republic of Ireland, is assessing the effects of climate change on habitats for birds around the Irish Sea.
Curlews are declining rapidly as a breeding species across the UK, and estimates for Wales vary between 400 and 1,500 nesting pairs. It’s a more common sight outside the breeding season, when Curlews feed on estuaries, but wintering numbers in Wales have declined by more than 40% in the last 25 years.
BTO Cymru scientists have shared maps on Twitter (below) showing that three of these Curlews spent the summer in very different areas. While one stayed on Anglesey, a second made a breeding attempt near Hebden Bridge in the South Pennines and the third, a female, flew to Oulainen in western Finland. The BTO’s Dr Rachel Taylor calculated that after leaving Finland at 6.30pm on 26 June and making a stopover in Sweden, she flew 585 miles non-stop across the North Sea and rested for just a couple of hours before crossing England to Morecambe Bay. The average speed of the sea-crossing was an impressive 38mph. Another tracking project showed that a Curlew that nested in Germany in 2020 spent last winter on the Menai Strait, commuting to fields in the Carneddau foothills above Llanfairfechan. These initial results show the international effort required to save Curlews across Europe.
The Elegant Tern has now displayed to Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn NWWT nature reserve for more than two weeks, with birdwatchers there also spotting Roseate Terns and a Marsh Harrier, with a rare Montagu’s Harrier also reported on Sunday. Two Ruddy Shelducks were on the Broadwater at Tywyn on Sunday; the listing authorities are currently reviewing this species’ status in Britain, as there is now an introduced population in central Europe.
Several organisations, including RSPB Cymru and the Welsh Ornithological Society, are backing a petition that calls on the Senedd to prohibit the use of lead ammunition in Wales. Although lead shot has been banned over some wetlands in Wales for almost 20 years, the volume of toxic lead used across the wider countryside where it can poison a wide range of bird species, has led to this call by a community nature group in South Wales. Shooting groups have committed to phasing out lead shot by 2025, but not to a legal ban.
The North Wales Wildlife Trust reserve at Cemlyn has seen a steady stream of visitors this week, coming to see the Elegant Tern and enjoying the sounds and smell of a busy breeding seabird colony. ‘ET’ spends each day on the lagoon islands, regularly taking to the air as neighbouring Sandwich Terns defend their tiny nesting territory from this Pacific Ocean interloper. The other tern species, Common and Arctic as well as Sandwich Terns, are busy commuting off North Anglesey, returning with small fish to feed their growing chicks. Up to three Roseate Terns have been at Cemlyn, and there was good news this week from Rockabill island in Dublin Bay, where a record 1,704 pairs have nested, 85% of the northwest European population. Birdwatch Ireland wardens report a productive season, with more chicks than in recent years. Three Roseate Terns were among the high tide count of Little Terns at Gronant on Sunday.
Autumn wader migration is underway, with Whimbrels dropping in from Iceland, four Spotted Redshanks at Connah’s Quay nature reserve, Wood Sandpiper at RSPB Cors Ddyga and 11 Greenshanks on the Alaw estuary. Three Great White Egrets are at RSPB Conwy and one at Connah’s Quay, perhaps from RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, on the Dee estuary, where three pairs have raised ten young. A record number of Redshanks have nested on the reserve saltmarsh this year, and Bitterns and Marsh Harriers have nested in the reedbeds.
A Rose-coloured Starling remains at Moelfre, an unseasonal Black Redstart was reported in Rhos-on-Sea, an Osprey flew over RSPB Conwy on Saturday evening and a Spoonbill was at Connah’s Quay. Hooded Crows have been at RSPB South Stack, Amlwch and the River Clwyd south of Rhyl, and the hybrid offspring of a Hooded and a Carrion Crow on Holyhead breakwater. Mediterranean Gulls are starting to arrive in North Wales from across northern Europe, with 19 on Anglesey’s Inland Sea.
All terns are, in my book, elegant: sleek seabirds that wander the oceans. They connect North Wales, which is home to four species of tern at five busy colonies, with the western and south coasts of Africa, and even the edge of the Antarctic. But by its name, one tern is more elegant than others – and its appearance at Cemlyn, on Anglesey, on Sunday and Monday provided a dose of birding excitement between the rush of spring and autumn migration.
The Elegant Tern, found at Cemlyn on Sunday morning, originates on the Pacific coast. Up to 95% of the world population breeds on a single island, Isla Rasa, in the Mexican state of Baja California. A few hundred pairs also nest in San Diego Bay in the USA, and in winter they feed along the coast as far south as Chile.
Elegant Tern is an incredibly rare visitor to Britain, although one has already visited North Wales, at Black Rock Sands near Criccieth in 2002. Sporadic appearances in Britain and Ireland are believed to relate to a small number of birds that have summered in western Europe over the last 20 years. One or two pairs have bred at Albufera de Valencia, a coastal lagoon in eastern Spain, in the last decade and Elegant Terns have also been seen on Noirmoutier Island, at the mouth of the River Loire. A pair is currently feeding two chicks there, the first breeding record for France. Individuals have previously bred with Sandwich Terns in France and Spain, producing hybrid young. It’s not clear what led to this massive expansion in its global range, which began in the 1970s, but the trend has been attributed to greater frequency of El Niño, the warming of currents in the Pacific Ocean.
Cemlyn, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a North Wales Wildlife Trust reserve this year, is no stranger to unusual terns. Staff and volunteers warden the important breeding colony of Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns, joined in some years by Roseate Terns. That means there are extra pairs of eyes to pick out surprising visitors, and the reserve has hosted Caspian Tern (1980 and 1988), Bridled Tern (1988), Sooty Tern (2005) and White-winged Black Tern (2014). With occasional Little and Black Terns too, has any other site in Britain hosted 11 different tern species?
Elsewhere in North Wales, unusual visitors include Rose-coloured Starlings at bird-feeders in gardens in Moelfre and Rhos-on-Sea, four Avocets and three Great White Egrets at RSPB Conwy and a Cattle Egret at RSPB Cors Ddyga. One of the eagle owl species, almost certainly an escaped captive bird, has been hunting around Amlwch harbour in recent evenings, perhaps the same bird that was seen in Pentraeth forest during the winter.