As hard-working staff from Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory prepare to leave for winter on the mainland, their final week’s ringing included a Pallas’s Warbler and their third Red-breasted Flycatcher and Long-eared Owl of the autumn. And just before taking down the nets for the last time, they caught a Red-flanked Bluetail, an eastern jewel whose breeding range has spread west from Siberia. This was only the seventh recorded in Wales, although it’s the third on the island off the tip of Pen Llŷn.
On the mainland, a Grey Phalarope was pushed inshore by strong winds in Cardigan Bay and fed off Borth-y-Gest on Friday, another was reported off Traeth Dulas on Saturday, while a Leach’s Petrel passed Criccieth. Firecrests have been found at Holyhead, Benllech, Moelfre, Brynteg, Bangor Mountain and RSPB Conwy, where a Jack Snipe and Long-tailed Duck were seen over the weekend. A Yellow-browed Warbler has spent a week at Llangfairynghornwy, a Tree Sparrow was with Linnets at Point Lynas and a Spotted Redshank at Morfa Madryn. Late Swifts over Prestatyn and Groesffordd at the weekend may have been Pallid Swifts, of which over 30 have arrived across Britain on the plume of warm air from North Africa that have dropped unusual moths across the country, including five 'firsts' for Britain in a week! A Pallid Swift was over the Little Orme last Monday, but quickly disappeared out to sea.
A Cattle Egret brings a touch of the Mediterranean to the outskirts of Rhyl, beside the Clwyd estuary, and a few terns remain, including Sandwich Terns off Rhos Point, Arctic Tern at RSPB Conwy and Common Terns past Penrhyn Bay and Bangor. Late summer migrants included a Sand Martin over Traeth Lligwy and a Little Ringed Plover in Pwllheli Harbour. Thoughts of a ‘Waxwing Winter’ are being fuelled by large numbers crossing south over the Baltic last week.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Bar-tailed Godwit has made an astonishing flight, equivalent to flying from Llandudno to Papua New Guinea. Read more here.
November brings winter visitors from the east: Fieldfares, Bramblings, Waxwings and Woodcocks. The first full moon of November is a Woodcock Moon, such is its association with winter arrivals for generations. Woodcock are unusual among waders for being crepuscular, moving out of woodlands at dusk to probe for worms, insect larvae and snails in soft earth on pasture. Their large eyes, capable almost of 360-degree vision, watch for predators as they feed.
Woodcocks that breed in British woods are declining rapidly. When the shooting season opened on 1 October, they were at risk from shooting, before migrants arrive from the east. In response to a petition to Parliament, which has now passed 75,000 signatures [on 28 November] and calls for the shooting season to be delayed until 1 December, the Government has said that it “intends to review the list of species, including Woodcock, on Schedule 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 including the benefits of altering the close season”.
Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust says that “for those that shoot Woodcock, beginning shooting after 1st December provides a useful rule of thumb… Delaying shooting until the majority of these migrants, that originate from stable continental populations, have arrived reduces the risk of any possible impact to vulnerable resident populations.”
Many shoots prohibit Woodcock shooting until later in the winter and some support a change in the law as being in line with scientific advice. The GWCT advises that “Restraint when shooting Woodcock makes sense even in areas where there are no local breeders, because we know that the majority of migrant Woodcock are extremely faithful to the same wintering site year on year. Overshooting will therefore break the migratory link with your shoot and is likely to lead to fewer Woodcock being seen in future."
Sixty years ago Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring woke the world to organochlorine pesticides in the food chain. Sparrowhawks rang the alarm bell, when they disappeared from large areas of Britain in the 1960s. Pesticides accumulated in the hawks’ liver, leading to their laying eggs with thin shells, which broke easily. Their prey was small birds, which fed on cereal seeds dressed with pesticides from the 1940s. Subsequent generations of more toxic chemicals such as aldrin and dieldrin killed adult raptors.
Concerns have been growing about second generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs) for 20 years, especially on birds such as Barn Owl that feed on small mammals and on scavengers of dead mammals, such as Red Kite.
A new study tested Sparrowhawks that died in Britain over 20 years and found at least one SGAR in 81% of birds. One compound, difenacoum, occurred in 72% of sampled birds. But how do bird-eating hawks get dosed with rat poison when they rarely eat rodents?
Research in Germany found that a third of songbirds around farms are contaminated with SGARs, especially Great Tits, the ideal size meal for a Sparrowhawk. Songbirds have not been tested for SGARs in Britain, but the same may be happening. Although few Sparrowhawks contained levels high enough to kill them, sub-lethal effects have been implicated in the Kestrel’s decline. Aerial hunters have to be fully fit to survive, and SGARs may impair hunting performance.
The news will concern the Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use which said “There can be little doubt that rodenticide leakage into non-target wildlife arises largely from rural use, whether by gamekeepers, farmers or pest-controllers”. In the last year, SGARs have been found in Sparrowhawk, Goshawk and Buzzard in North Wales analysed by Welsh Government’s Wildlife Incident Investigations Scheme. Seven times the quantity required to kill an eagle were involved in the high-profile death of a White-tailed Eagle in Dorset earlier this year, raising fears that SGARs are also used to target rare raptors.
Either way, the evidence increases the demand for greater regulation of rodenticide use.
The study, by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, British Trust for Ornithology and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.
Miniaturisation of technology is enabling us to gain insights into the lives of animals that could not have been imagined just a decade or two ago. Radio-tags, which a generation ago could be used only on large-bodied birds, are now used on hawkmoths in central Europe, with researchers using a plane to follow the insects for up to 50 miles into the Alps. Ornithological researchers use several different types of radio and satellite tags which, combined with solar-cells rather than batteries, enables birds to be tracked across the globe.
Last month, the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand tracked a young Bar-tailed Godwit on its autumn migration. It left the shores of Bering Strait in Alaska on 13 October and flew a minimum of 8,475 miles in 11 days and one hour. To Australia. Without stopping, so far as the researchers can tell. A Boeing 777 is capable of just 80 more miles on a full tank of fuel.
Crossing the International Dateline southwest of Hawaii, it flew close to Kiribati and Tuvalu, then over Vanuatu and New Caledonia. It continued south into the Tasman Sea before making a sharp right turn to land in Anson’s Bay, in northeast Tasmania, on 24 October.
It’s a record non-stop flight for any shorebird, more than 300 miles more than another tagged Bar-tailed Godwit that landed on the Australian mainland in 2021. Of course, it’s only thanks to the technology that we know of its travels, but it more than likely travelled with several others. Favourable weather conditions enabled it to average 32mph on a journey equivalent to Llandudno from Papua New Guinea.
That is 32mph for more than 11 days without a break to eat or drink, less than five months after the bird hatched from a 39g egg, around the size of a small hen’s egg. Wow!
Clear and still nights in October are the classic conditions to listen for the high-pitched ‘tseep’ of Redwings arriving from Scandinavia. When dawn breaks, you can find flocks, sometimes with Fieldfares among them, feasting on berries before continuing their journeys southwest. Last Wednesday (19 October), strong winds pushed them westward during the daytime, enabling some remarkable counts to be tallied.
By the end of the day, over 400,000 Redwings and 50,000 Fieldfares had been recorded from British watchpoints on the European migration website Trektellen, including 122,600 Redwings over Crosby, near Liverpool. Large counts from the near-Continent included 350,000 Redwings over Westenschouwen in The Netherlands and huge bird movements were visible on radar across northern Europe. To illustrate the scale of the arrival, three of the four highest-ever Redwing counts from Britain on Trektellen were last Wednesday. Many more will have passed over, uncounted.
Counts in North Wales were modest, but included an island record 4792 Fieldfares and 1907 Redwings over Bardsey, 1388 Fieldfares and 662 Redwings over RSPB South Stack, and 1000 of each over the Great Orme. Fieldfare numbers were higher from west coast locations, suggesting that many of the Redwings had stopped to feed up.
Other visitors from the east this week included Pallas’s Warbler, Barred Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher on Bardsey. Ring Ouzels scattered across Wales included over 30 in the Elan Valley and three at Holyhead’s Breakwater Country Park on Sunday. Woodlark and Lapland Bunting flew over RSPB South Stack and Bardsey, and several Yellow-browed Warblers and Firecrests are dotted along the coast, with a couple venturing farther inland. Rarest visitor of the week was a Pallid Swift over the Little Orme on Monday morning.
A Long-billed Dowitcher at Morfa Madryn is different to one ringed at Aber Ogwen recently, and perhaps a third bird was at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands at the weekend. A Little Ringed Plover at Pwllheli harbour should be somewhere warmer by now; only one in Wales has been recorded later in autumn this century. A Swallow was in Broughton on Saturday, and the Long-tailed Duck has returned to RSPB Conwy.
RSPB Cymru and the British Trust for Ornithology have thanked Meirionnydd householders for stopping supplies of food and water for birds in their gardens during the autumn. The suspension followed concerns about the spread of disease in Hawfinches, a Red-list bird for which the county holds significant numbers. Although they have given the green light to resume feeding, the organisations have warned that Trichomonosis remains a real threat to garden birds. They are asking people across Wales to pay close attention to the health of birds, to clean feeders and water bowls regularly, and suspend feeding if they witness sick birds. More details of what to look for are on the Garden Wildlife Health website.
I spent Sunday in north Meirionnydd, where a Brambling from Scandinavia was among flocks of Chaffinch and the first Whooper Swans were back from Iceland in the Glaslyn valley. Another dozen Whoopers were on Anglesey’s Llyn Alaw and several on the Dee estuary. The last taste of summer came with Swallow and Sand Martin on Llyn Llywenan and a handful of Sandwich Terns off Rhos Point.
A Cattle Egret was beside the Clwyd estuary, Firecrests at Rhoscolyn and Penmon Point and a Slavonian Grebe at Shotton. Around the coast, five Yellow-browed Warblers were on Bardsey, with others spotted at Amlwch, Uwchmynydd and more surprisingly in a Lixwm garden in Flintshire. Two Long-eared Owls were ringed on Bardsey, caught within an hour of each other, and a Richard’s Pipit was seen there last week. Long-tailed Ducks are off Benllech and at RSPB Conwy, where a Lapland Bunting flew over on Saturday.
Farther afield, it has been an extraordinary couple of weeks for rare American landbirds on this side of the Atlantic. Britain’s first Least Bittern arrived in Shetland, but died soon afterwards, while Ireland recorded its first Alder Flycatcher. A smart Blackburnian Warbler has been on the Scilly Isles for several days and a Myrtle Warbler in Ireland. Wales joined the action, with the nation’s first Tennessee Warbler dropping onto Skokholm in Pembrokeshire, but a Baltimore Oriole was just out of reach, on Lundy in the Bristol Channel. From Siberia, a Red-flanked Bluetail was found just outside Cardiff.
Author and campaigner Mary Colwell was awarded the RSPB Medal, the charity’s highest honour at its Annual General Meeting last weekend. Mary has campaigned tirelessly to raise the profile of Curlew conservation across the UK, initiating collaborations that led to a Wales Recovery Plan for the species last year. She generously gave me her time during a walk from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast of England in 2016, which led her to write Curlew Moon – you can read here my Daily Post article that resulted from that day in Y Berwyn. Mary has also successfully campaigned to secure a Natural History GCSE, which becomes available to students in England from 2025.
Bangor Bird Group, celebrating its 75th year, has returned to online talks for its autumn season, enabling both visitors and speakers to join from across the world at 7.30pm every Wednesday evening. View the programme and join the Bird Group here, or follow the Group on facebook.
Much of our understanding of bird migration - and of breeding performance of birds in the UK - comes from ringers, highly trained in ways to safely catch and release birds. Usually self-funded, ringers are among the most dedicated ornithologists I know, each spending hours each month adding to our collective knowledge. More than 1.2 million birds in Wales have been ringed since the turn of this century.
Shorebird ringers are especially hardy, patiently waiting hours on estuaries in winter for the right moment to catch a flock of birds, then quickly weighing, measuring and ringing them to minimise stress. The Shropshire, Conwy and Anglesey (SCAN) Ringing Group has been recording waders on the Menai Strait for decades and last weekend was targeting Redshanks for a long-term project at Aber Ogwen, when there was a surprise in the net. Along with 150 Redshanks, one of which had been ringed already, in Iceland, was a Curlew Sandpiper and a Long-billed Dowitcher.
The Dowitcher was the real surprise, only the 23rd recorded in Wales and the ninth in the north. Little is known about its breeding, since it nests in northeast Siberia, one of the most remote places on earth. Some cross northern Canada in autumn and follow the Atlantic coast to winter around the Gulf of Mexico. Its English name originates from an Iroquois word, indicating that First Nation people were used to seeing Dowitchers pass through the Great Lakes over many centuries. Saturday’s catch was only the third Long-billed Dowitcher ever ringed in Britain & Ireland, the last in 1979! Of course, the chances of this ring being reported again is tiny, but you never know…
Elsewhere in North Wales, highlights this week include a Black Tern past Rhos Point on Monday and a Little Stint there on Saturday. A Cattle Egret was at NWWT Spinnies and a Little Stint at Barmouth on Sunday, and Slavonian Grebe at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on Saturday. A Black Redstart and 70 Mediterranean Gulls are on Bardsey, with the island’s third Cetti’s Warbler, and Yellow-browed Warbler and Firecrest are in Wylfa Woods. The Red-breasted Goose remains at Ynys on the Afon Dwyryd, and Black-tailed Godwits have numbered an impressive 84 at Porthmadog’s Llyn Bach.
October has arrived with a blow. A few Swallows are still heading south, including four at RSPB Conwy today, but Redwings are arriving in the hills and along the coast. Yellow-browed Warblers have been at the outer edges of North Wales, this Siberian waif found at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on the Dee estuary, RSPB South Stack and on Bardsey, which also produced a Common Rosefinch and a Barred Warbler. A Firecrest ringed at Rhostryfan is likely to be another arrival from Scandinavia. Autumnal weather hasn’t persuaded the long-staying juvenile Osprey to move on from Aber Ogwen, now present for its fourth week.
Whooper Swans are making landfall from Iceland, with small numbers along the north coast and one family dropping onto Alwen Reservoir, on Mynydd Hiraethog. A Red-breasted Goose on the Dwyryd estuary is associating with Canada Geese, so probably one of several from a domestic origin that wander widely, rather than a genuine arrival from Arctic Russia. Also from northern latitudes was a Lapland Bunting at RSPB South Stack on Monday, along with a remarkable flock of 37 Ravens.
A few passage waders remain in the region, including 63 Black-tailed Godwits with a Little Gull on Porthmadog’s Llyn Bach. Curlew Sandpipers numbered eight on the Cefni estuary, with singles on Anglesey’s Inland Sea, Valley, Morfa Madryn, Foryd Bay and Clwyd estuary. Five were with a Little Stint at RSPB Conwy, where diggers are reprofiling the lagoons for wildlife and for visiting watchers.
Strong winds brought globally threatened Balearic Shearwaters to Rhos Point and Cemlyn. Several more passed Bardsey last week, with Sooty Shearwaters and a Sabine’s Gull, and there’s been good news for the island’s breeding Manx Shearwaters, which remained free of avian influenza and fledged young from 81% of burrows monitored by the Bird & Field Observatory.
A Red-crested Pochard at Gresford Flash probably stems from the growing breeding population in the English Midlands, but remains a scarce sighting in Wales, as does a Ruddy Shelduck on the Dee.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.