Seabird colonies in North Wales are quietening as the breeding season draws to a close. I visit Rhos Point, hoping to find Sandwich Terns before they leave our shores, perhaps some with coloured leg rings that indicate their origin. I arrive soon after the sun rises, turning the brown kelp a deep amber. The ribbons form waves between rocks encrusted with barnacles, among which Ringed Plovers huddle, their feathers mimicking the stones. They appear to sleep, but one eye is alert to an overhead Peregrine.
Curlews look up too, twisting their heads to probe for a small crab. Or a large crab. Their rolling whistle, the Cri'r Gylfinir, connects this place to the hills from which they've come: farms in Hiraethog or the Pennines perhaps, or the plains of northern Germany or peatbogs of Finland.
A Turnstone pushes over a pebble in search of a morsel. Another splashes in a rockpool to clean his rusty orange, black and white plumage, briefly creating an arc of silver sparkles. A brush-up after the long haul from Greenland. At the top of the beach, Starlings move as one, scrabbling over the decaying seaweed pushed here by last winter's storms. They forage for sandflies, as does a young Pied Wagtail that picks nervously amid the throng.
As the tide falls, Sandwich Terns call across the bay and settle on emerging rocks, each finding its place after a light jostle. I check their legs while they preen. No rings on these, but no matter. I'm just grateful to see them. They are survivors of a journey that brought them from South Africa in spring and of bird flu that has ravaged their number.
Farther out, a few Gannets pass. No other seabirds today, although others saw more at the weekend: several Arctic Skuas passed Bull Bay, Storm Petrel and Arctic Skua off Criccieth, and Grey Phalarope and Cory’s Shearwater were seen from Bardsey. But these were nothing compared to remarkable counts in Cornwall where 6,500 Cory’s Shearwaters were seen from a single headland on Sunday.
Back at Rhos Point, early morning runners and dog walkers wish me a good day. It is. My perfect way to start a day.
Young Ospreys made their maiden flights this month, a vulnerable time for any bird. Two left their nest platform at Cors Dyfi last week, followed by two at Llyn Brenig and brothers at Pont Croesor, upstream from Porthmadog, at the weekend. Youngsters will remain within short flights of their home nest for another month, learning to fish and navigate before starting their first journey to West Africa. There is a lot to learn and it’s not without risk, as illustrated by the fate of one at Llyn Clywedog, near Llanidloes, which was the first Welsh Osprey to fledge this year. Ten days after its first flight, a Goshawk predated the young male while it was tucking into fresh fish brought to the nest by one of its parents.
Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife, which monitors and protects the Ospreys at Pont Croesor, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Ospreys nesting in Wales, which occurred there in 2004 . They have a weekend of events on 12-13 August – you can find out more and book tickets here.
Ospreys found their way to Wales naturally, although several adults that have nested here originate from reintroduction projects in England. White-tailed Eagles are much less likely to arrive in Wales without assistance, but a proposal is being developed with farmers and landowners around the Severn estuary, as visitors to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show have been finding out this week. Planning and consultations are underway, boosted by news of the first White-tailed Eagle chick to fly from an English nest for 230 years. Its parents were released as juveniles on the Isle of Wight in 2020; an immature bird released on the island has been on the Mersey estuary, at Hale, throughout July and was perhaps the one on Anglesey the previous week.
Scarcer seabirds passing our coasts at the weekend included a Sooty Shearwater off Cemlyn, Arctic Skuas and Little Tern near Criccieth, and a couple of Roseate Terns were at Penmon last week. Mediterranean Gull numbers are increasing, with 40 at Hafan y Môr and 25 at Nefyn.
Sites around the Irish Sea are being devastated by avian influenza this summer. All five Welsh colonies of Common Terns have been hit, with those at Cemlyn, Shotton and The Skerries reporting numbers well down, and dead adults and chicks across the sites. Arctic Terns and Sandwich Terns have died on Anglesey, and from across the water the disease has hit Rockabill, an island in Dublin Bay that is home to 1750 pairs of Roseate Terns, 60% of the whole European population. It illustrates the vulnerability of terns having so few places suitable for nesting in North Wales. A century ago, there were several dozen tern colonies but increased use of beaches by people have greatly reduced their options. This can increase disease risk and leaves few alternative sites to which they can move.
Guillemot is the latest species to test positive for bird flu on Anglesey, with dead birds and abandoned cliff ledges at several sites including South Stack, near Holyhead. Auks may also have been affected by the early summer heatwave that produced surface temperatures 4-5 degrees Celsius above normal, with unknown effects on marine creatures that form the food chain on which seabirds depend. These are just two issues that RSPB Cymru has called on Welsh Government to address in its promised Seabird Conservation Strategy.
Stormy weather at the end of last week brought Storm Petrels past Cemlyn, South Stack and Criccieth, and a Little Gull off Pen Cilan. Sandwich Tern numbers are building at roosts in Liverpool Bay, including Rhos Point and the Clwyd estuary, where colour-rings show that birds from Scotland, the Netherlands and Northumberland roost alongside those from Irish Sea colonies. Arctic Tern and Mediterranean Gull were among birds gathering at Rhos Point on the incoming tide and a Roseate Tern was with Little Terns on Gronant beach.
Two pairs of Ringed Plovers have nested on shingle at Cemlyn for the first time in many years, thanks to watchful Wildlife Trust wardens and visitors keeping dogs on leads.
The Natural History Museum’s index of biodiversity intactness (BII) estimates nature loss across the world, and placed the UK just 12th from the bottom of the list of 240 territories. If the four countries of the UK are assessed separately, Wales does only marginally better, 224th in the list , with 49% of our nature depleted. Within Wales, there is likely to be considerable variation depending on factors such as the type and intensity of land management, and the amount of human infrastructure. The altitude and climate means that some places naturally have more or fewer species.
Birds on your Doorstep uses the vast data archive of the British Trust for Ornithology for anyone to see the changes in local birdlife over the last 50 years. Visit https://data.bto.org/doorstep-birds/ and enter a postcode.
Which part of North Wales has lost the greatest number of bird species in the breeding season? The answer lies around the western end of the Menai Strait, in a 10-km square (SH46) that includes Caernarfon, Malltraeth, Newborough and Brynsiencyn. Up to 21 breeding species have been lost from here since 1970, including Water Rail, Snipe, Cuckoo, Nightjar and Tree Sparrow, some of which have gone entirely from Anglesey. Others such as Black-headed Gull and Arctic Tern have disappeared from this square and nest only at a couple of other sites on the island, each badly hit by bird flu this summer. SH46 has seen a net loss in bird diversity. Against the 21 lost species, 13 others colonised, including Greylag Geese (introduced by wildfowlers), Goshawks and Buzzards that returned to Anglesey following many decades of persecution, and Siskins that took advantage of maturing pines in Newborough Forest.
The distinctive spatulate shape of a Spoonbill toured the region last week, flying over Llyn Brenig on Wednesday to spend a couple of days at RSPB Conwy, before moving to the Dee estuary. RSPB Conwy hosted another couple of large waterbirds in the form of Great White Egrets, dispersing from breeding sites in southern England and the near continent. Two more are on the Clwyd estuary and one at RSPB Cors Ddyga. Crossbills are on the move too, their ‘chup’ calls heard on the coast away from their coniferous breeding areas.
Terns that did not succumb to avian flu at the North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Cemlyn reserve have now fledged and the adults departed, but all the young Avocets – the first to hatch on Anglesey – sadly perished. The biggest news of the week, however, was a Black-browed Albatross seen from a boat eight miles from shore as it flew west past Gwynt y Môr windfarm in blustery conditions on Monday afternoon.
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Four members of the auk family nest in North Wales. The most abundant are the Guillemots that line ledges on the Ormes, four sites on Anglesey and a further 14 on Pen Llŷn and its islands. Second are Razorbills, which share some of those colonies but in far smaller numbers, and which also lay a single egg each season. Third is the poster-child of the seabird clan, the Puffins that nest in burrows on a few sites locally and is especially vulnerable to Rats that have become re-established on Anglesey’s Ynys Seiriol (Puffin Island) 20 years after their eradication.
Our rarest nesting auk is Black Guillemot, with just a handful of pairs. We lie on the very southern edge of its climate distribution – although they occur farther south in Ireland. In summer, their glossy black plumage is offset by striking white wing patches, and if you see one close up, the bright red legs, feet and gape (inside the bill). They were probably always scarce here, but ceased breeding in the 19th century, returning as a regular breeder in the mid-1960s, nesting under boulders and in rock cavities.
This is a critical time for seabirds, facing a raft of threats that include bird flu and climate-induced shifts in the fish on which they depend, as well as predation from mammals and disturbance from coastal humans. Black Guillemots are a common sight in Scottish ports where they nest in harbour walls. Artificial nests have been built within the secure part of Holyhead port, and last week four chicks were ringed by BTO volunteers in only the second use of a nestbox, the last being in 2018.
In other auk news, a Razorbill seen on Bardsey this week was ringed there as a chick in 1988, making it – at 35 years – among the oldest recorded in Britain & Ireland. The species' longevity record is also held by a Bardsey bird, ringed as a nestling in 1962 and still alive there in 2004, at 42 years.
A Black Guillemot flew past Talacre last week, unusual so far east during the breeding season, and perhaps the same that has been seen off Hilbre this year. Up to three Roseate Terns are at Cemlyn, with another off Pwllheli, and six Storm Petrels passed Porth Ysgaden in blustery winds on Sunday. Up to 14 Mediterranean Gulls have been on Porthmadog’s Llyn Bach, with others at Llanbedr and Rhos Point.
A White-tailed Eagle, from a reintroduction project in southern England, was tracked across North Wales last week and seen in several places on Anglesey, hunting gulls on the seacliffs. This top predator is also at risk from bird flu: a NatureScot report published last week found that breeding success in the Outer Hebrides has fallen by almost two-thirds, to just 24% following outbreaks of avian influenza.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales, published in The Daily Post every Thursday.