Many will, I’m sure, be quite happy to put 2020 behind us and look forward, perhaps with guarded uncertainty, to 2021. Before we do, however, let’s not forget the good things that we came to notice in the last 12 months.
Lockdown 1.0 in April and May brought almost endless sunshine and, with quieter roads and skies, many people discovered the wildlife on their doorstep. Thousands participated in impromptu activities such as the RSPB’s Breakfast Birdwatch and, while many wildlife surveys were cancelled, people contributed sightings to schemes such as the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch. During the first 100 days of lockdown, nearly half a million records were submitted to the Biological Records Centre’s iRecord, 54% more than in the same period in 2018.
We discovered local footpaths that had always been there, but un-noticed and under-valued. A survey by Natural England found that 87% of adults agreed that “being in nature makes me happy” but research by Friends of the Earth and People’s Postcode Lottery also found that 20% of people do not have a garden, public park or open fields within walking distance of their home.
Nature thrived in some places where footfall was lower, such as in Snowdonia, and rarities came too. The star was a Sooty Tern briefly at Cemlyn in June, but an Isabelline Wheatear at Carmel Head was also unusual and an Eastern Yellow Wagtail was a great find on Bardsey, where Bird Observatory staff had self-isolated through much of the summer.
As we enter 2021 in Lockdown 3.0, sightings over Christmas include a Bittern at NWWT The Spinnies, Great White Egret at Trefriw and Water Pipits near Penrhyn Bay. A Rose-coloured Starling remains at Amlwch Port, two Little Auks flew past the Little Orme on Sunday and a Black Redstart was in a Llandudno Junction garden. A Glaucous Gull was off Uwchmynydd at the weekend and four Snow Buntings at Llanfairfechan.
However you mark the turning of the year, may 2021 bring good birds but also that we hold on to the things we cherished in 2020.
I write this in the washed-out dawn of 2020's shortest day, whose gloom probably reflects the national mood. However, as I stepped out of the shower half an hour ago, a Robin was singing lustily from somewhere nearby, perhaps under a streetlamp in the darkness. It's not alone. Out walking yesterday, the notes of a Mistle Thrush crossed the field from a treetop, appropriate for the time of year given it shares its name with the hemi-parasitic plant beneath which it is traditional to kiss at Christmas.
I don't think you can put a price on how much better I feel for having birdsong in my life. I know how much poorer I'd feel without it. The restrictions brought about by covid-19 have highlighted the importance of access to greenspace for our well-being, but that greenspace is even better for our mental health when it's rich in wildlife. A study published recently by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research showed that having an additional 14 bird species in your neighbourhood is equivalent to an average household in Europe feeling £1,400 better off every year. My quick maths puts that value as around £2 billion in Wales alone.
Paul Roberts' photo of Pied Wagtails roosting in the decorated Christmas tree in Bridgend town centre has brightened the mood of many people this week, again illustrating how nature can see us through the dark times. This species is known for its use of buildings to stay warm through a winter's night - I recall seeing them emerge from flue of a Post Office heating system and horticultural greenhouses. Perhaps a little heat generated by the Christmas lights attracted them, as well as the dense structure of the pine. Roosts of up to 2000 Pied Wagtails have been recorded in Wales, one of the largest in the north being 600 at Bangor's Ysbyty Gwynedd in 2000.
Birds found on walks from home over the weekend include Snow Buntings at Cemlyn and Llanddona, a trio of Water Pipit, Rose-coloured Starling and Black Redstart at Amlwch Port and Long-tailed Duck at Foryd Bay. Three Velvet Scoters are with over 8000 Common Scoters off Llanddulas, four Scaup off Kinmel Bay and a Slavonian Grebe was reported in the Conwy estuary at the weekend.
Two Curlews are now wearing ‘backpacks’ with a transmitter that will send their movements to a base-station in Anglesey’s Cefni Valley. The British Trust for Ornithology wants to find out more about their movements over the next few weeks as part of a multi-partner ECHOES project looking at the effects of sea-level rise in Wales and Ireland. Many of the Curlews that winter along the North Wales coast come from breeding areas in northern England and northern Europe, but satellite-tracking by ornithologists shows that breeding on farmland in northwest Germany visit our coast too. A colour-ringed Curlew photographed in north Anglesey recently had been hand-reared at Nordhorn Zoo on the German border with the Netherlands. Having been released into the wild in July 2012, this recent Welsh sighting was the first since.
Hundreds of European White-fronted Geese have arrived in Britain from Russia in recent weeks. These are the same species, but a very different population, as the Greenland White-fronted Geese that winter on Anglesey and on the Dyfi estuary. The Russian birds have mostly been found in central and eastern England, but a couple made it to Wales, including one at Llanfrothen in the Glaslyn Valley on Saturday.
Most of Britain’s Swallows should be in South Africa for Christmas, so two in St Asaph on Sunday must have been feeling the cold. They are not the latest in Britain this year, however, as a Swallow was on the outskirts of Edinburgh on Monday, nor are they the latest ever in the Flintshire recording area, as there was one in Rhyl on 15 December 2016.
On Anglesey, three Slavonian Grebes and eight Scaup are on the Inland Sea and the overwintering Rose-coloured Starling remains at Amlwch Port. Four Black Redstarts were together on a rooftop in Llandudno last week, part of an influx across the region that brought nine to Anglesey. Two Great White Egrets were on the Conwy river south of Caerhun on Sunday and one at RSPB Conwy on Monday, while others were at Llyn Llywenan and Worthenbury in the Dee valley last week. Starlings continue to gather at dusk over RSPB Cors Ddyga, alongside a Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl hunted over the weekend.
TraIrrespective of the Brexit deal, the bonds between Wales and Ireland remain strong for migrating birds. Records from Bardsey, for example, show that some birds which nest in Ireland make the journey to or from their African wintering grounds via Wales, and during freezing winter conditions, birds such as Skylarks and Starlings look for feeding grounds free of snow, flying first to the Welsh coast, and then to Ireland if necessary. Satellite tracking shows that rare Greenland White-fronted Geese move between Ireland and Wales during the winter.
Colour-ringing shows that Pale-bellied Brent Geese, which winter around the Menai Strait, are part of an Irish Sea population, which make an epic flight from their breeding area on Ellesmere Island. One satellite-tracked by the University of Exeter spent this summer near the Nunavut settlement of Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world, 500 miles from the North Pole. En route, it flew directly over the Greenland ice-cap, a distance of more than 1000 miles.
Another type of Brent Goose, the Dark-bellied form, breeds in Siberia and winter mostly in eastern and southern England. One, colour-ringed W2NC by Steve Dodd near Caernarfon in January 2018, was in Tralee, southwest Ireland in September 2020. It is the first ringed Dark-bellied Brent Goose seen in Ireland, presumably having travelled from Taimyr in central Siberia, 3,250 miles away. W2NC was with its mate and a juvenile hatched during this summer, which means junior made that immense journey within weeks of learning to fly!
This week on Anglesey, eight Scaup are on the Inland Sea, four Great White Egrets on Llyn Alaw and four Snow Buntings at Holyhead’s Soldier’s Point, while a late Swallow was at Llangoed on Saturday. On the mainland, a Long-tailed Duck is off Pensarn and a Snow Bunting at Morfa Madryn.