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.
Several days of strong southwesterly gales and rain made bird-finding a challenge this week, but blew in a top-class North American songbird to Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory on Saturday, where it was caught and ringed. The Red-eyed Vireo, frequently shortened to ‘The REV’ by birders, is only the eight Welsh record and the third for the island, although the first one to have been found there alive since 1985. Widespread in woodland across the United States and southern Canada in the breeding season, the vireo would have been migrating to South America when it became caught in high-level winds that thrust it across the Atlantic. Remarkably, it was recaught at the Observatory on Monday afternoon, having gained two grammes, perhaps around 15% of its body weight. It is only the second North American songbird to be found in Britain this autumn, and gives hope to anyone scouring the headlands of Anglesey or Llŷn.
The southwesterlies also pushed seabirds inshore, including Sabine’s Gulls and several Long-tailed Skuas off Bardsey and Point Lynas, Leach’s Petrel off Cemlyn and a Long-tailed Skua and Grey Phalarope off Aberdaron. The weather system may also have been responsible for a Ring-necked Duck found on Llyn Alaw.
Elsewhere, a Surf Scoter is with a Velvet and Common Scoters off Pensarn, and Garganey and Spotted Redshank remain at RSPB Conwy. Earlier in the week another American visitor, a Bonaparte’s Gull, dropped onto the beach between Rhyl and Prestatyn but stayed only a couple of hours.
Following last week’s mention of Jays on the move, even greater numbers were reported over the weekend: flocks of 22 and 15 over Anglesey’s Inland Sea, 20 over Uwchmynydd and several smaller groups. Even larger numbers have been reported from South Wales, including 161 over Kenfig nature reserve in 90 minutes on Monday morning.
Jays are on the move! Small flocks have been reported away from the woodlands in which they spend most of the year. Over the weekend, there were 14 over the Great Orme, a flock of 23 over the Dyfi estuary and groups of up to seven at the western end of Llŷn, where Jays are usually scarce. Naturalists in eastern Britain report that the acorn crop is sparse, so Jays may be roaming the countryside in search of oak trees, since these are a crucial part of their diet. If you see any large counts, let me know.
The Squacco Heron remained for a second week in the wetlands around Gronant, and a Wilson’s Phalarope from North America was a fine way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of RSPB’s Burton Mere Wetlands. Of the 13 Welsh records of this wader, this was the fifth in Flintshire. A Rose-coloured Starling remains on the rooftops of Llandudno Junction, and nearby two Garganeys and a Spotted Redshank are at RSPB Conwy. The first divers of the winter were seen off our coast, with a Black-throated and Great Northern Divers in Anglesey’s Beddmanarch Bay and a Red-throated Diver retaining some of its summer plumage off Llandudno, while a Slavonian Grebe is off Llanfairfechan. Low water levels on Llyn Alaw have attracted huge numbers of waterbirds, among them a Pectoral Sandpiper, Wood Sandpipers, Little Stints, Garganey and eight Great White Egrets.
It has been a good breeding season for Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland, judging by the large number of young birds in flocks migrating south this week. I’ve seen groups feeding at RSPB Conwy and Malltraeth Cob, but a flock of 19 over the Llŷn was more unusual. Also arriving from Iceland are flocks of Pink-footed Geese, heading to winter on the Dee estuary, and the first Redwings of the autumn were heard over Anglesey last Tuesday (21 September).
A rare heron has made an unexpected appearance in northeast Wales, but proved elusive for birdwatchers hoping to see it. Photographers at North Wales Wildlife Trust’s Big Pool Wood nature reserve shared news of the Squacco Heron after finding it feeding on frogs, fish and dragonflies at the side of the pond. Its streaky brown plumage helps it to remain camouflaged among waterside vegetation, but with completely white wing feathers, it is far more obvious in flight. However, it has ranged widely, frequently hiding in ditches that criss-cross the fields behind the sand dunes.
This is only the fourth Squacco Heron recorded in the region, according to The Birds of Wales published earlier this year. The first was shot on the banks of the River Conwy at Furnace Farm in 1828, and there have been two sightings on Anglesey, both near Cemlyn, in 1988 and 2015. Squacco Herons nest in wetlands around the Mediterranean basin, where they have benefited from rice cultivation, and have expanded north into France’s Loire Valley in recent decades. The unusual English name derives from the Italian name Sguacco, which perhaps describes its harsh ‘squawk’ call.
A young Rose-coloured Starling is among a flock of Starlings roving the rooftops of Llandudno Junction while another remains at Amlwch, and a Turtle Dove is in Cemaes Bay village. A Dotterel was a surprise find on Tal-y-bont beach near Barmouth last week and another called over Penrhyn Bay in the early hours. A Curlew Sandpiper was in Pwllheli harbour on Sunday, a Firecrest and Black Tern were seen on Bardsey, and a Black Redstart and Firecrest were near the Great Orme’s St Tudno’s Church. Garganeys remain at RSPB Conwy, Burton Mere Wetlands and the 'mitigation pool' adjacent to Anglesey’s Inland Sea, with four on Cefni Reservoir last week.
Since its inception in 1929, this column has been primarily about the birds, but this week I’m making an exception, to feature a birdwatcher. Just as Emma Radacanu stepped onto court in New York last Saturday, 10-year old Levi Gravett walked off stage at Spurn Migration Festival in Yorkshire as the Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder 2021, a competition co-organised by the British Trust for Ornithology.
The first ever Welsh winner of the title, Levi had been selected for the finals of the under-13 category only a few weeks previously. The competition involved going out with the judges into different habitats around Spurn Bird Observatory, identifying at least three birds in each and answering questions about them. During the seabird session, Levi correctly identified a Long-tailed Skua, a relatively scarce species that he’d never seen previously.
In addition to the field challenge, finalists had to answer questions in what Levi called “the dreaded lab-test”. As well as identifying birds by song and naming the different parts of bird plumage, Levi had to explain the reasons that Turtle Doves are declining and Red Kites are increasing. Levi only took up birdwatching at the start of lockdown in March 2020, going for family walks in the woods near his Penrhyn Bay home, where he was captivated by seeing both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.
Levi’s success is being celebrated by his friends at Ysgol Glanwydden, which has organised a special assembly to hear about his birdwatching exploits, that are also shared on his Birding With Levi Twitter and YouTube channels. Expect to hear more from this enthusiastic and knowledgeable youngster…
Levi’s win came in the same week that the Welsh Ornithological Society launched its Young Birder membership, offering annual digital subscription to the organisation for just £5 for anyone aged under 25.
While Levi was being grilled in Yorkshire, birdwatchers in North Wales were enjoying autumn migration, including a Whinchat on the Great Orme, Curlew Sandpipers at Pwllheli and Porthmadog’s Llyn Bach, three Wrynecks on Bardsey and another with a Common Rosefinch at Porth Meudwy. A juvenile Rose-coloured Starling is at Amlwch, Garganeys at RSPB Conwy, Llyn Maelog and on a pool by Anglesey’s Inland Sea, and Little Stints at RSPB Conwy, Point of Ayr and Morfa Madryn. A night-time recorder picked up a Ring Ouzel over Penrhyn Bay in the early hours of Sunday and a Dotterel early on Monday.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.