After the wind abated, I spent a glorious afternoon exploring Anglesey’s wetlands on Sunday. A Slavonian Grebe fed frenetically among Goldeneyes and Great Crested Grebes on the Inland Sea, but the real highlight was a golden hour at RSPB Cors Ddyga. With recent floods receding, the shallow water is alive with hundreds of Shoveler, Teal and Pintail that winter here from northeastern Europe. I missed Water Pipits and Great White Egrets that were spotted earlier in the day, but really didn’t mind. The magical sound of hundreds of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits and Lapwings remained in the cold air long after it was too dark to discern their fine plumage, the airspace patrolled by an elegant grey male Hen Harrier. Thousands of Starlings streamed across the orange sky as the sun set, finding overnight sanctuary in the reedbeds. It really is a very special place.
Purple Sandpipers are roosting in Trearddur Bay and Rhos-on-Sea, lashed by waves that brought a Little Auk past the Great Orme and Great Northern Divers to Llandudno Bay, Holyhead harbour and the Menai Strait. Eight Whooper Swans touched down at Morfa Dinlle near Caernarfon airport on Monday, recent arrivals from Iceland. Long-tailed Ducks have been on Shotwick Boating Lake, Foryd Bay and Morfa Bychan but the Smew admired by visitors to RSPB Conwy for the last week has moved on. Single Scaup remain at Conwy and Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond.
At least two, perhaps as many as four, Great Grey Shrikes inhabit the clear-felled forestry around Llyn Brenig, but these master hunters roam widely across their winter territory, so it’s hard to be sure how many are involved, and it’s easy to miss them. Black Redstarts are at Moelfre, Amlwch and near Rhoscolyn, and a very late Swallow was at Malltraeth village on Sunday.
Publication of the latest Birds of Conservation Concern shows that 70 of the UK’s 245 regularly occurring bird species are now on the Red List, almost twice as many as in the first assessment in 1996. Most are placed on the Red List because of severe declines, having halved in numbers or range in the UK in recent decades. The ‘traffic light’ assessment by government agencies and charities is revised every five years.
Swift and Wheatear are among the summer visitors added to the Red List following alarming declines, their populations in Wales decreasing more rapidly than the UK average. They join other migrants, such as Cuckoo and Wood Warbler, already on the Red List. Several winter visitors have also been added to the Red List, including Bewick’s Swan. The forthcoming annual report by the Welsh Ornithological Society will show that not a single one of these Siberian-breeding swans was seen in Wales in 2020.
The familiar Greenfinch has moved directly from the Green to the Red List after a population crash (71% in Wales since 1995) caused by a severe outbreak of the disease trichomonosis, an infection spread through contaminated food and water. Garden owners can help slow transmission rates by suspending feeding if ill birds are seen and ensuring that garden feeders are cleaned regularly. Rook is also moving from the Green to Amber List, but its decline – by more than half since 1995 - is more rapid in Wales than elsewhere.
There is better news for a few species, including Song Thrush, Grey Wagtail and Pied Flycatcher, which have been moved from Red to Amber owing to less severe declines. Red Grouse, Mute Swan and Kingfisher have moved from Amber to Green owing to improvements in their European status, or the UK no longer holding internationally important numbers.
The report, published today in the journal British Birds, was compiled by the Birds of Conservation Concern partnership, comprising the British Trust for Ornithology, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, NatureScot and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The gales of Storm Anwen brought tens of thousands of gulls to beaches along the North Wales coast, feeding on the starfish and other marine life washed ashore. Birdwatchers will be checking the flocks carefully this week for Iceland and Glaucous Gulls from the Arctic-edge. A Smew was a great find at RSPB Conwy, in the same part of the lagoon as the only previous sighting there, in 2007. A Scaup, a duck that is more usually found offshore, is also at the wetland reserve, and a Jack Snipe has endeavoured to blend into the reeds outside the coffee shop.
It took a brave birder to birdwatch in the teeth of Saturday’s storm, but highlights for the hardy include a Pomarine Skua off the Little Orme, a Grey Phalarope blown into Traeth Coch/Red Wharf Bay, eight Little Gulls off Traeth Bychan and others off Beaumaris and Rhos Point. Other northern waterbirds include a small flock of Whooper Swans on Cemlyn lagoon, Long-tailed Ducks off Benllech and on Shotwick boating lake, and Great Northern Divers south of Penmon. Several Brünnich’s Guillemots were seen along North Sea coasts and another off Cornwall, but no-one was able to find the first Welsh record of this auk species that breeds as close as Iceland but rarely ventures to the southeast.
Last week, before the sea became choppy, a Surf Scoter was off Pensarn and two Black Redstarts were in the old quarry on the Little Orme, a regular wintering site for these visitors. The Great Grey Shrike continues to hunt around clearfelled forestry northwest of Llyn Brenig. A lone Swallow was doubtless feeling chilly on the beach near Rhoscolyn on Sunday, but Snow Buntings at Llanddona and on both Llandudno’s north and west shores may have felt quite at home.
Farmers, politicians, scientists, conservation and game-management groups came together this week in a unique event to back a recovery plan for one of our most threatened birds. The plan was presented to Members of the Senedd by Gylfinir Cymru/Curlew Wales at an online event hosted by the Farmers’ Union of Wales. The Plan highlights that Curlews are at risk of extinction as a breeding bird in Wales by 2033 without urgent intervention, and proposes critical actions to reverse the decline.
The event heard from farmers, including two in North Wales, who care passionately about the Curlews that nest on their land. The Recovery Plan calls for focused intervention in 12 Important Curlew Areas, most of which are in north and mid Wales, of the type being deployed by the Cri’r Gylfinir LIFE Project in Hiraethog and Ysbyty Ifan. Management of the Curlew’s nesting habitat, including restoration of peatland, and of predation by foxes and crows are among the immediate interventions, but the plan also looks to Welsh Government to ensure that farming, tree-planting and renewable energy policies help Curlews to thrive. Since breeding territories are larger than many upland farms, collaboration is a key element to saving Curlews.
Chaired by Curlew Champion Mark Isherwood MS and addressed by the Climate Change Minister Julie James MS and shadow spokespeople Janet Finch-Saunders MS and Delyth Jewell MS, there was consensus about the problem and support for Curlew recovery. However, the key test is whether policies and urgent funding are available to help land managers to protect the last few hundred pairs of a bird that has a strong cultural heritage in Wales. As several speakers said, “we can’t watch this bird go wading into extinction”.
There’s more detail on the plan at curlewwales.org (English) and gylfinircymru.org (Cymraeg).
The birding highlight of the weekend was a Red-backed Shrike on the coast path south of Abersoch, which was the latest ever recorded in North Wales – and there has only been one Welsh record that has stayed later into November. A close relative, a Great Grey Shrike, remains in clearfell forestry west of Llyn Brenig, 25 Great Northern Divers are in Caernarfon Bay, two Snow Buntings are on Llandudno’s West Shore beach and two more in Gronant dunes.
By-passed by many people who head for Snowdonia, Mynydd Hiraethog is a special place for birds, even on a winter’s day that can feel desolate. Although the breeding Curlews of summer have left, there are still a few forest edges where Willow Tits hang out, the shiny red berries of Rowan trees attract Fieldfares and Redwings, and patches of clear-felled forestry can become the winter territory of a Great Grey Shrike.
It’s always a thrill to see the dark eye-mask of a Great Grey Shrike, a black swoosh set against a head of the palest grey, above its persil-white underparts. Only a small number winter in Wales, their presence sometimes given away by a ‘larder’ of excess food such as voles or small birds hung on the thorn of a bush or a barbed wire fence. These breed in Scandinavia and were truly scarce until the early 1990s, but more have been found in recent decades, with some suggestion that they are wintering farther to the west in Britain. The first of the winter is among felled trees above Pentre-llyn-cymmer, south of Llyn Brenig.
The most unusual sighting at the weekend was a Dusky Warbler near Talacre. It’s only the eighth Welsh record of a bird that breeds in central and eastern Siberia and should now be in southeast Asia. Six of those eight records have been in North Wales. Other warblers seen recently include Lesser Whitethroat in Holyhead and Uwchmynydd, Siberian Chiffchaffs at Port Amlwch, Great Orme and Traeth Lligwy, and several Blackcaps that are likely to be migrants arriving from central Europe.
A Slavonian Grebe is in the eastern Menai Strait, two Snow Buntings on the Great Orme and a Twite was at Conwy Morfa at the weekend. Several Swallows have been in north Anglesey in recent days, while 10 Water Pipits at RSPB Cors Ddyga last week was an excellent count for the region.
After an almost total absence of Fieldfares in North Wales this autumn, huge numbers arrived on Saturday. An hour or so after daybreak, I noticed their chuckling calls over RSPB Conwy, and watched dozens of flocks of 20-30 birds streaming southeast. The scene was repeated across Conwy county, involving many thousands of birds in just a couple of hours, accompanied by smaller numbers of Redwings. Birders on Anglesey and Deeside also reported thousands of Fieldfares, and by Monday large flocks were in Mynydd Hiraethog. These will stay for just a few weeks before moving on to western France or Iberia.
Whooper Swans have started to arrive for winter in the Glaslyn Valley near Porthmadog, with a few settling briefly at RSPB Conwy, Cors Ddyga, Llyn Llywenan and The Broadwater at Tywyn in recent days, and the first 14 Greenland White-fronted Geese have arrived on the Dyfi estuary. On Monday, three Spoonbills were seen over RSPB Cors Ddyga, where water levels are beginning to fall after recent flooding, and a Long-tailed Duck remains off Benllech. Snow Buntings were on the Great Orme and Talacre beach, with – unusually - others scattered across inland mid-Wales, including at Coed Hafren and Llyn Gwyddior. Also unusual were two Velvet Scoters on Lake Vyrnwy last week.
Four Twite were at RSPB Oakenholt Marsh on the Dee estuary on Sunday, along with an unseasonal Avocet when most of its brethren are already in southwest England or France for the winter. Equally unseasonal was a Quail reported calling in Aberffraw dunes. Black Redstarts were spotted near the maritime museum at Holyhead’s Mackenzie Pier and near Point Lynas lighthouse, and a Siberian Chiffchaff was in willows behind Traeth Lligwy. Single Swallows over Llandudno Junction on Wednesday and at Penrhos Coastal Park on Sunday may prove to be the last of the year.
Between last week’s deluges, our walk on Saturday from Porth Oer to Mynydd Anelog was interspersed with small flocks of Chaffinch and Skylark heading over the clifftops towards Ireland, just visible on the horizon. These probably originate from the uplands in northern England and Scotland. Typically, only a single bird among a flock of 10 or 20 would call, so it’s quite likely that many others passed over in silence while I concentrated on avoiding the mud and temporary streams. I love seeing these movements, and earlier that day, thousands of small birds were reported over the Great Orme once the rain had cleared.
More surprising was the sight of 15 Collared Doves in a single tree and five Great Spotted Woodpeckers, neither of which leap out as obvious migrants, generally making only short movements. However, both species have been witnessed flying out to sea from headlands on the west coast of Wales. DNA analysis shows that the colonisation of Co. Wicklow, just south of Dublin, by Great Spotted Woodpeckers since 2009 involved birds originating in Britain, so a route from Pen Llŷn seems quite plausible.
Aside from Redwings, migrants from across the North Sea have been scarce this autumn, with barely any Yellow-browed Warblers and very few Fieldfares, although on Anglesey there were a couple of the large grey thrushes over Cemaes last Monday and Llandegfan on Saturday. Birdwatchers in Finland report that it has been a mild autumn and large numbers of Fieldfares remain there, feasting on a good berry crop. However, we may be in for a bumper autumn for Bramblings, with 30 over the Great Orme and 20 near Brynsiencyn at the weekend, while there have been counts of more than 10,000 in Norway, France and the Netherlands in recent weeks.
Six Twite, presumably from the Hebrides, are back on the Dee estuary at Flint Castle and there were two at Mynydd Mawr, west of Aberdaron. Black Redstarts are in Beaumaris, Mynydd Mawr and at Cwrt, near Aberdaron, Snow Buntings were at Cemlyn, Bardsey and RSPB South Stack at the weekend and two Cattle Egrets with a Long-tailed Duck on the Border Pool at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands. A Scaup is at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond, a Surf Scoter with two Velvet Scoters off Pensarn, a drake Long-tailed Duck off Benllech and two Slavonian Grebes in Beddmanarch Bay. Two Sandwich Terns off Rhos Point on Monday are late leaving for Africa.
Walking in the hills above Nant Conwy at the weekend, the woods and hedgerows were alive with the soft ‘tseep’ call of hundreds of Redwings, fresh in from the east. Most were invisible to me, hidden by the leaves while feasting on berries. The arrival of the first frosts in northern Norway last week triggered a huge southwestern movement of migrants from Scandinavia, including thrushes and finches. ‘Vismig’, a portmanteau of ‘visible migration’, has become a popular activity for birders in autumn, with the keenest contributing their counts to a global database called Trektellen. Its website has reported large numbers of migrants in recent days, including more than 200,000 Chaffinches and 100,000 Redwings over a coastal site at The Hague in The Netherlands on Saturday.
Counts in Britain were far smaller, and it takes a few days for birds to filter through to North Wales, but on Sunday and Monday large numbers of Chaffinches were reported over north Anglesey and the Conwy coast. There were counts of more than 2000 Chaffinches at the end of Pen Llŷn, 300 Siskins over Bardsey, and smaller numbers of Bramblings. A couple of Twite flew over Mynydd Mawr and a Lapland Bunting and Tree Sparrow were on Bardsey. The first Fieldfares were reported too, at Cemaes and Hiraethog, and Black Redstarts were on the Great Orme, Bardsey, at Aberdaron and below Holyhead Mountain. Starlings have started to gather at evening roosts on Anglesey, at Rhosneigr, Parys Mountain and RSPB Cors Ddyga.
The last few stragglers of summer include a Swallow at Uwchmynydd, and Wheatear and Arctic Tern at Cemlyn on Monday. There was a Common Tern at Traeth Lligwy and Ring Ouzels on the Great Orme and by Llyn Trawsfynydd on Sunday, and last week a Woodlark was seen at Aberdaron.
A new report shows that one-third of Europe’s bird species are declining and 20% are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. The European Red List of Birds, published last week by BirdLife International, uses pan-continental data to assess how close each species is to extinction in Europe. It rates seabirds, wildfowl, waders and raptors as the most threatened, and that the majority of larks, buntings and shrikes are declining.
The speed of some declines are shocking, and include birds that are or used to be regular in North Wales. Among the species that have moved from the Least Concern category to threatened status since 2016 are Merlin, Snipe, Redshank and Rook, while Swift is now considered to be Near-Threatened. All have declined in breeding abundance in Wales in the last 30 years. Several birds that winter here from elsewhere in Europe have also moved into the highest risk categories, including Pintail, for which the Dee estuary is the most important site in the UK.
On a more positive note, some birds have moved in the other direction, to categories of lower concern including species that have been the focus of intensive recovery efforts, such as Red Kite and White-headed Duck. Others, such as Black-tailed Godwit, are benefiting from climate change, at least for now.
Our birds’ connection with the rest of Europe is illustrated by a big influx of Redwings and small groups of Whooper Swans this week, along with winter arrivals that include Lapland Buntings and Firecrest on the Great Orme, Black Redstart at South Stack and a Scaup at Rhyl’s Brickfields Pond. The long-staying Garganey at RSPB Conwy has been joined by a showy Jack Snipe and a Spoonbill is on the Inland Sea. Yellow-browed Warblers have been very scarce this autumn, though one was reported on the Great Orme on Saturday.
Although fewer Jays have been reported on the coast this week, larger flocks inland reported by readers include up to 25 over the Ogwen Valley and 11 over Ewloe. Read this previous blog to find out why.
I’ve spent a week in Northumberland, exploring the coast for winter migrants arriving from Scandinavia. One of the sadder sights, however, has been Guillemots and Razorbills washed up on the beaches, dead or dying. It’s a sight that has been reported down the east coast since late summer, from Orkney to Norfolk, and now auks have been washed up in Norway and the Netherlands. Others have been seen unusually close inshore and even several miles up rivers, but there have been no reports from around the Welsh or Irish coasts, indicating that the problem is in the North Sea.
Many of the auks are emaciated, less than half their typical weight, yet reports from anglers suggest that there is no shortage of small fish. The incidents appear unrelated to stormy weather, which can make it difficult for seabirds to feed and tests by Scotland’s Rural College proved negative for Avian Influenza. One theory is that naturally-occurring algae in the North Sea may be responsible. The bloom was evident on satellite images in September, but it is not yet known whether toxic algae, which can be taken up by fish and shellfish and in turn seabirds, were present. Marine scientists predict that the occurrence of algal blooms will increase in a warming climate, which piles further pressure on species of seabirds that are already in decline.
Back in Wales, the northwest saw the best of autumn migration, with a Red-eyed Vireo at Porth Meudwy, near Aberdaron, just a week after the eighth Welsh record occurred on Bardsey. The island’s Bird Observatory registered a smart Red-breasted Flycatcher, Richard’s Pipit and the only two Yellow-browed Warblers of the autumn. On Anglesey, a Long-tailed Duck and Black-throated Diver are off Benllech and a Cattle Egret at Llanynghenedl, north of Valley. Farther east, a Lapland Bunting is on the Great Orme and a Surf Scoter off Pensarn. The Jay influx continues, with flocks seen on coastal headlands, including an impressive 72 at South Stack on Sunday. If you see four or more Jays together, please do email me with the details.