I wasn’t the only one to exclaim “they’re back!” to no-one in particular last week. Through the open window came the scream of Swifts over the village rooftops. My partner teases me for my enthusiasm about their return, but knowing the dramatic decline in their numbers across Britain in recent years, I can no longer take their arrival as a certainty. And from comments on social media, I know that I'm not the only one to celebrate their return. As Blur once wrote about feeding sparrows, the Swifts' arrival gives me a sense of enormous well-being.
I heard Swifts over Llanberis and Penmaenmawr too, and witnessed a pair mating as they flew low over my house at the weekend. Their tiny feet had not touched anything solid since they left the edge of their nest cup last summer and headed to the humid air above the forests of central Africa. North Wales Wildlife Trust has installed over 500 nestboxes on buildings around the region since 2014, and another 80 have been put up in the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve this winter by the Machynlleth Climate Action Group. Read more about what local people are doing for Swifts in this article written for The Daily Post.
Another welcome spring sound, that of the Cuckoo, has rung across the hillsides in recent weeks. One, called Daniel that was tagged by the British Trust for Ornithology last June, has returned to RSPB Lake Vyrnwy after spending autumn in Chad and winter in Cameroon. After weeks of satellite silence, he popped up in Sicily in late April before arriving back in mid Wales via central France. Follow his travels on the BTO website.
A third pair of Ospreys has set up home in Nant Glaslyn near Porthmadog. In addition to the long-standing site used annually since 2004, a second nest had been occupied there in 2021 by a female released in Dorset’s Poole Harbour in 2018 and a male hatched on the Dyfi estuary in 2017. Now another Scottish female translocated to Poole Harbour in 2019 has set up home with a Dyfi fledgling from 2018. More details on the Birds of Poole Harbour website.
Most migrants are already on their breeding territories, and the last to arrive – Spotted Flycatchers – arrived in a rush from Monday, with a dozen on the Great Orme and almost 80 on Bardsey on a single day. A Hen Harrier over Bardsey on Saturday was unseasonal and a Short-eared Owl rested briefly on the Great Orme last week.
Two sites in North Wales have upheld their deserved reputation as among the best in Britain for scarce wagtails. RSPB Conwy scored first, with a Yellow Wagtail of the Iberian race found on Friday and relocated on Sunday. It is the first ever seen in Wales, although the nature reserve had a ‘near miss’ in April 2008 when a likely candidate was seen, but it proved impossible to record its call to clinch the identification. No such problem this time, with more birders carrying recording equipment and this week’s bird more vocal.
On Sunday, a possible Citrine Wagtail heard near Cemlyn lagoon on Anglesey was confirmed by a sighting in a nearby field. The bird remained all day, alongside a Blue-headed Yellow Wagtail. It’s only the 10th Citrine Wagtail in North Wales, a bird that breeds no closer than the Finnish border with Russia. By coincidence, the first Citrine Wagtail in North Wales was at RSPB Conwy in April 2008, found when I went looking for that putative ‘Iberian Wagtail’.
Now is the time to visit our broad-leaved woodlands, as the fresh leaves of Oak and Beech unfurl. For places to visit, check the excellent Celtic Rainforest Wales website. The project is doing great work to restore these sites by removing invasive Rhododendron and reintroducing grazing by ponies and cattle. Listen for Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and Wood Warblers that recently arrived from Africa. The first two species nest in holes, but Wood Warblers nest in foliage on the ground, which is another reason to keep dogs on a lead in the countryside this spring.
Good numbers of Swallows finally arrived this week, with smaller numbers of House Martins and Swifts. Hooded Crows were on the Great Orme, Clwyd estuary, Bardsey and RSPB South Stack, while three Dotterels were on the summit of Foel Fras on Sunday. Two Avocets spent last Wednesday on the Conwy estuary, but didn’t linger.
The curious sight of the back end of a Chough wiggling above the grass, its head buried deep into a Rabbit hole, indicates the tough times that birds are having. The rabbit burrows on the Great Orme provide the Choughs with access to more moist and less compacted soil than on the surface, into which they can probe for invertebrates. Swallows and House Martins, now finally arriving in North Wales, will need wet mud with which to build their nests, but puddles are hard to find after an April that saw Wales receive less than half its average monthly rainfall. As any farmer can attest, the region’s grasslands that are home to our last remaining Curlews and Lapwings are dry, and will these hold enough insects for wader chicks to forage in the coming weeks?
With no substantial rain forecast, garden owners can help their local birds by providing a shallow bowl of water for birds to drink and bathe, and I know farmers who ensure there are puddles in the muddy corner of farmyards that Swallows can use. For the Choughs and waders, we have to hope for rain – but, then again, not so much that it washes the caterpillars out of woodlands just as the Pied Flycatchers hatch.
We are hitting the peak of spring migration, and last week saw a second wave of Ring Ouzels and Wheatears. ‘Our’ birds are already holding territories in the mountains, where some have already hatched their first chicks, but along the coast are birds that will head farther north: the Wheatears to Iceland, Greenland and even northeast Canada, and the Ring Ouzels to Scotland or Scandinavia. Up to half a dozen Ring Ouzels and two dozen Wheatears have been on the Great Orme each morning.
Rarity of the week is a Pectoral Sandpiper, a wader en route to its Arctic Russian breeding grounds but pausing in the southeast corner of Llyn Trawsfynydd, where an Osprey has been fishing regularly. The first Swifts and Spotted Flycatchers have been seen across North Wales in recent days and a Wood Sandpiper was at RSPB Cors Ddyga over the weekend. A Nightingale sang on Bardsey last week, the island had its first ever spring record of a Black Tern, and a 32-year old Manx Shearwater was caught and released. It had been ringed there in August 1989 and had not been handled since August 2000, two days before ringer and assistant warden Ed Betteridge was born!
Colour-ringing, the practice of attaching lightweight plastic markers to the legs of birds, has its critics. Seeing birds with a colour ring makes some people feel that birds are ‘de-wilded,’ an illustration of human intervention. I’m not a bird-ringer, but when it’s done for the purpose of gaining new knowledge and especially to contribute to their conservation, I see its real value. Because it can be seen with optical equipment, the reporting rate is far higher than standard rings, which are only found when caught by another ringer or after the bird is dead. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve found Black-headed Gulls in North Wales that hatched in Poland and Nottinghamshire, illustrating the wide area from which birds visit our coast. Our understanding of places used by foraging Choughs is greatly enhanced by a long-running project in North Wales.
Most Ospreys hatched in Wales are colour-ringed, and this week Dan Brown - originally from Bangor and leading a wildlife tour in Scotland - photographed an Osprey at RSPB Loch Gruinart on Islay in the Hebrides. It had hatched beside the Afon Glaslyn in 2017, but this was the first sighting of ‘Z8’ since it departed on its first migration five years ago. It probably stayed in West Africa for a couple of years, so where is it heading to breed? This year’s Osprey nest at Glaslyn has two eggs, while the nest at Cors Dyfi already has three, and the first was laid at Llyn Brenig on Monday. Passage Ospreys have been over Belgrano, Gronant, Mochdre, Penrhynside, Malltraeth and Holyhead in the last week.
On my visits to Pen Llŷn and the Great Orme over the weekend, dozens of Greenland Wheatears paused on migration before the final leg of their journey north. But my counts were small compared to more than 200 on Bardsey on Sunday. Whinchats were at several coastal watchpoints on Monday, while other migrants included a Dotterel at RSPB South Stack, Little Gulls at Connah’s Quay and off the Great Orme, and a Curlew Sandpiper on the Alaw estuary. An Egyptian Goose that was briefly on the Conwy estuary, and an unusual bird in North Wales despite breeding widely across central England, has relocated to RSPB Cors Ddyga. A Hawfinch on a feeder near Denbigh is a superb garden record.
Many people are wondering where the Swallows are, with far fewer reported than is usual at the end of April. Unsettled weather in central and southern Europe may be responsible, so let’s hope for a change over the weekend.
This Thursday is World Curlew Day, the annual celebration of the eight species of curlew found worldwide. Two of the eight are almost certainly extinct, one is listed as Endangered and two more are Near Threatened, which means the outlook is not bright. The last category includes Eurasian Curlew, of which 400-600 pairs nest in Wales but are at risk of extinction here by 2033 without urgent action.
Musician Merlyn Driver has travelled across the UK to produce a double album from various artists inspired by, and including, Curlews. Merlyn visited Mynydd Hiraethog and the National Trust’s Ysbyty Ifan last summer to record the birds on their moorland breeding grounds. The first track, Simmerdim, was released this week, with profits going to the RSPB’s Curlew conservation work. Fans are hoping that with enough downloads, Curlews could make it into the charts.
Organisations involved with Curlew conservation are asking for readers’ help monitoring breeding birds across Wales this spring. Partners in Gylfinir Cymru, which includes the Farmers’ Union of Wales, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, RSPB and BTO Cymru, have joined forces with Local Environmental Records Centres Wales so that anyone can report suspected territorial pairs. You can report sightings away from the coast at bit.ly/curlewcymru (neu bit.ly/gylfinircymru yn Gymraeg). BBC Radio Wales is marking World Curlew Day with a special edition of Country Focus devoted to the people who are helping to save the species from extinction in Wales.
One member of the family not currently at risk of global extinction is Whimbrel, and it was good to hear its seven short whistles on the Conwy and Anglesey at the weekend. Spring passage was boosted by improved weather: Wheatears flooded in from Wednesday and the sky was full of Swallows at Carmel Head on Monday. Star bird was a Black-winged Stilt that dropped into RSPB Cors Ddyga briefly on Sunday before flying to Lancashire, while a Dotterel at Llanfwrog was a good find on Monday. A Hoopoe was reported at Penmon, the first Wood Warbler of the year on the Great Orme and Lesser Whitethroat at Amlwch. Cuckoos were seen at several locations last week, and the first Swift of spring in North Wales was at Fairbourne last Thursday.
North Wales Police, along with the three other Welsh forces, launch Operation Seabird Cymru this week, to highlight the impact of disturbance on coastal wildlife from recreational disturbance. It comes after increased reports of incidents, and the police hope that engaging local and visiting coastal users will prevent crimes against birds and mammals taking place.
Officers will patrol key locations and launch points through the summer, starting in Colwyn Bay and Abersoch this Thursday. Operation Seabird highlights problems such as collision of watercraft with whales, dolphins, seals and flightless seabird chicks when they leave their cliff-ledge colonies; noise disturbance by speed boats and jetskis; unleashed dogs chasing birds; and visual disturbance by walkers, paddleboarders and kayakers. The force is urging readers to report disturbance events to the Rural & Wildlife Crime team via 101 or the NWP webchat facility. The initiative coincides with the release of the Wales Coast Explorer smartphone app that includes the Marine Code of Conduct for coastal users.
RSPB Cymru has published the results of January’s Big Garden Birdwatch, in which over 36,000 people participated in Wales. The top five species were identical to 2021: House Sparrow, Starling, Blue Tit, Blackbird and Great Tit, with Goldfinch up two places to eighth and Woodpigeon to 10th. Long-tailed Tit dropped out of the top 10, to number 12 with numbers recorded down by 22% on the previous year. The only species in the top 40 that fell by a greater amount was Coal Tit, down by more than 23% and in 16th place.
The biggest change saw Jay climb from 33rd to 22nd place in the Welsh rankings, no doubt a result of birds dispersing to feed in gardens over winter following a UK-wide shortage of acorns that saw a record movement of Jays from around southern Britain to the Welsh coast.
In North Wales, the results were generally similar to the national picture, but Starling was number one and Chaffinch in fourth place on Anglesey, while in Gwynedd gardens Chaffinch was the third most abundant species and Starling was down in fourth. In Conwy county, Jackdaw was in fifth place, appropriate given that the name is borne by those born within the walls of the historic town. Blue Tit was the second most common species in Denbighshire gardens, after House Sparrow, while in Flintshire, Woodpigeon made the top five. The full results for Wales are on the RSPB website and those for each local authority in North Wales appear in the tables below.
The waiting ended at the region’s Osprey nests, with pairs reunited at Llyn Brenig, Llyn Clywedog and Cors Dyfi. A soap opera is developing at Glaslyn where returning female ‘Mrs G’ has moved to a nearby nest to join Aeron, after waiting a week for her usual mate, Aran, to arrive. Aran returned from Africa on Sunday afternoon, but will Mrs G return to her nest or move in with the younger male…? With live-streaming of the nests, web viewers will be the first to find out.
Continued northerly airflows and unsettled weather in Spain slowed migration last week, but that is set to change with southeasterly winds forecast. The first Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers were reported from Llanberis at the weekend, where a Snow Bunting fed beside Llyn Padarn. Single Snow Buntings were at Bull Bay and Uwchmynydd last week, and a Pied Flycatcher singing in a Queensferry garden was unusual. Willow Warblers, Swallows and House Martins were in several locations at the weekend, and there were good numbers of Sandwich Terns around the Anglesey coast. Two Great White Egrets flew over Bodysgallen on Saturday, a Greenland White-fronted Goose was at Morfa Dinlle, Black Redstart on the Little Orme and Iceland Gull on the Great Orme.
Ring Ouzels are on territory in the Aber Valley and Nant Ffrancon, while four on the Great Orme (with a few Tree Pipits) on Monday and others along the Llŷn coast were stopover migrants. Most remarkable were at least 21 Ring Ouzels at Penycloddiau on Saturday afternoon, and another was seen near Minera.
It seems only a few weeks since I was counting Siskins in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, the results of which are due to be published on Friday. But as the Earth tilts towards the sun, the birds in my garden are ringing the changes. I haven’t seen the overwintering male Blackcap here for a couple of weeks, but today one sang enthusiastically – perhaps the same bird, but more likely a new arrival from Africa as the wintering bird returned to central Europe. A Blackbird is feeding worms to chicks hidden away in next door’s garden, and a smart male Bullfinch is fiercely defending the seed-feeder from Goldfinches and Blue Tits. It's only the second Bullfinch that I've seen here in 15 years, so I hope there may be a pair and that the species is turning the corner after a long decline. I remember when Bullfinches could be killed under a General Licence because of agricultural damage, and the anger in some quarters when they were given improved legal protection...
Home-working over the last two years has really made me appreciate the annual cycle of the garden visitors. The British Trust for Ornithology is still offering free access to its year-round Garden Birdwatch, to which you can contribute valuable data without leaving home.
Northerly winds have put the brakes on the arrival of summer migrants, although Ring Ouzels were at Talacre and World’s End at the weekend. The first Swallow of the year in North Wales (save for one that overwintered on Anglesey until early February) was at RSPB Conwy on 29 March, with others past South Stack and over Rhyl Brickpits the following day. Several Mediterranean Gulls, along with Sandwich Terns, were welcomed to Cemlyn by North Wales Wildlife Trust wardens who have set up the lagoon islands with nesting shelters and an electric fence for the breeding season. Single Ospreys await the return of mates from Africa at nest sites in the Glaslyn Valley and Cors Dyfi, with others seen at Llyn Brenig and over the A55 near Rhosneigr.
Large numbers of Fieldfares were moving east through Mynydd Hiraethog last week, a Snow Bunting was on the Little Orme on Sunday and a Pink-footed Goose on Bardsey was only the tenth island record. Two Velvet Scoters remain among Common Scoters between Penrhyn Bay and Pensarn, and an Iceland Gull at RSPB Conwy was perhaps the bird that overwintered on the Little Orme. Several Green Sandpipers were on Anglesey at the weekend, Black Redstarts at South Stack and Rhoscolyn, and a Garganey at RSPB Cors Ddyga.
This week’s weather forecast may prove to be winter’s last gasp, but northbound migrant birds are leaving North Wales as days lengthen. Snow Buntings were this week at RSPB South Stack, Porth Ysgaden, Morfa Madryn and beside Llyn Aled Isaf, high on Mynydd Hiraethog. Most are probably Icelandic breeding birds, mainly females that migrate farther away from their nesting areas than males. It is suspected that more winter in the Welsh mountains than are found, since flocks that are discovered tend to be larger than on the coast.
Other winter migrants include Whooper Swans at Rhuddlan and Bodelwyddan, Iceland Gull on the Little Orme, and Twite at Connah’s Quay nature reserve, where a Little Gull remained all week. Long-tailed Ducks and a Black-throated Diver are off Colwyn Bay and a Lesser Whitethroat, most likely one of the Siberian races, has visited a bird table in Chirk. Passing through were a dozen Black Redstarts on Bardsey last Wednesday, three at RSPB South Stack and one at Mynydd Bodafon. Lapland Buntings were over the Great Orme and South Stack.
Early summer arrivals include the first Little Ringed Plover at Bodelwyddan, Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn and Willow Warblers at South Stack and Amlwch last Wednesday, and a Sedge Warbler at Morfa Madryn on Sunday. Several Ring Ouzels are back on breeding territory in Nant Ffrancon, below Ogwen Cottage, and at Aber Falls.
Glaslyn’s female Osprey returned to the nest platform at Pont Croesor on Saturday, perfect timing for volunteers who re-opened the Visitor Centre on Monday. ‘Mrs G’ was soon fishing off Porthmadog Cob, where an Avocet was reported among Teal last week. Ospreys were also in the Conwy and Artro estuaries last week. A White Stork photographed over Queensferry on Sunday was perhaps one seen over Buckley last month.
Spring is truly my favourite season. Longer days encourage me to spend more time outdoors, knowing that birds are moving and almost anything is possible. An early Saturday walk at RSPB Conwy was brightened by a pair of Garganey. Another two males swam into view, joined by a fourth male. The presence of a female among the quintet led to much scrapping, the males emitting an excited throaty call akin to running a drumstick down a washboard. The call is the source of its unusual English name that has made a complex etymological journey from Italian via Lombardy, with the same root as the verb ‘gargle’.
But these birds had come even farther. Garganey winter in sub-Saharan Africa and rarely breed in Wales so those seen here in spring are probably heading for Scandinavia. Five at Conwy and six at Malltraeth Cob on Saturday were the earliest seen in North Wales this century, and singles followed at RSPB Cors Ddyga and RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on Sunday. They are among at least 250 Garganey reported to the Birdguides website in the southern half of Britain since Friday.
The wardening team have returned to Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory for the summer and are already busy recording migrants, including the first Manx Shearwaters in their nest burrows, Firecrest and Black Redstart; another Black Redstart was across the sound at Uwchmynydd on Monday. As well as large numbers of Chiffchaffs and a handful of Sand Martins and Wheatears, summer migrants in North Wales include the first House Martin of the year at RSPB Cors Ddyga and an Osprey at Malltraeth on Monday, and a Little Gull and four Avocets at Connah’s Quay nature reserve on Sunday. A Ring-necked Duck on Cefni Reservoir is only the fourth recorded on Anglesey.
After the smoke cleared following shocking images of the Dee marshes ablaze at the weekend, RSPB nature reserve staff revealed that the extensive blackened area should be home to breeding Bittern and Cetti’s Warbler in a few weeks, and a pair of Marsh Harriers that were building a nest. The marshes will hopefully recover with new growth in the coming weeks, although it will take longer for insects and small mammals to recolonise. Cheshire Police report that three teenage boys have been arrested on suspicion of arson. The impact would have been more devastating had it occurred in late April, as happened with a similarly large fire at reedbeds on the Tay estuary in 2020.
I contributed to the Welsh Ornithological Society’s rookery survey at the weekend, finding two rookeries in a 2km x 2km square in the Conwy Valley. The woven collections of sticks are evident in bare trees and the raucous, squabbling calls carry across the fields. Counting Rook nests is fairly straightforward too, except for those in the canopy of a tall Scots Pine. But identifying the tree species, especially deciduous trees that have yet to bud or leaf, is trickier. Thankfully Cofnod, the North Wales Environmental Records Centre gathering the records, allows you to upload a photo of the tree, so experts can verify my identification later. WOS reports that volunteers have signed up for 70% of priority tetrads, but there are still a few squares on Llŷn, north Anglesey, central Denbighshire and along the English border that need coverage in the next couple of weeks, before the leaves emerge. Visit birdsin.wales to sign up (and see the priority squares that need surveying here).
My survey was accompanied by double-noted Chiffchaffs, which arrived in number over the weekend. Wheatears landed on coastal headlands across the region, having travelled from sub-Saharan Africa. Other summer migrants include a Ring Ouzel near Minera on Sunday, White Wagtails and Sand Martins at RSPB Conwy, and a White Stork - the national bird of Ukraine - over Buckley on Friday.
Overwintering birds remaining include a Great Grey Shrike in Mynydd Hiraethog, near the Sportsman’s Arms, Iceland Gull on the Little Orme and Cattle Egret on Bardsey. Hawfinches were again in Llanrwst and Blaenau Ffestiniog, two Surf Scoters off Pensarn on Monday and a Great Northern Diver off Ynys Llanddwyn. Birders were shocked to learn of an attempt to steal eggs from a Raven nest on Anglesey at the weekend, providing a timely reminder not to publicise the presence of nesting birds on social media.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.