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Wildlife Chronicles

A Nature Blog by Elfyn Pugh

May 2007

Strumble Head - Stack Rocks - Skomer (almost!)- Cors Caron - Welsh Ospreys

The month of May seems to have flown by. As you all know the weather has been a rather mixed bag. Some of us may have put away our winter woollies only to fetch them out again mid month! Bird wise its been a relatively good month for me. During the 2nd week my wife and I enjoyed a welcome break and stayed in our favourite cottage in Pembrokeshire and I was eager to get some birding in at Strumble head. I guess for the dedicated seawatchers its not so interesting as the late summer/autumn period in terms of migrant sea-birds but I just love to see the early morning movement of manx shearwaters passing Strumble and they can be counted in their thousands! Going north into Cardigan bay to feed in the morning and then back south to their Pembrokeshire breeding haunts on Skomer & Skokholm islands in the evening. I was the only solitary soul at Strumble at 6am on the morning of the 14th May. The conditions were rough and windy. The weather was more akin to an autumnal day than spring. As the waves crashed on the rocks below me fine mists of sea spray would cascade over the observation building where I sought solace from the buffeting wind. At sea there were numerous auks gannets and kittiwakes & fulmars passing in both directions. A couple of choughs were foraging on the footpath leading down to the building and porpoise ‘surfed’ in the tide race. A grey seal broke the surface momentarily. A ringed plover flew past the head and later that morning I saw the characteristic flight profile of a red-throated diver battling north against the wind.

On the 16th of May following a fine lunch at the Boathouse café on Stackpole quay we took a walk around the Bosherton pools just a short drive away. The pools are famous for the lilies which bloom here in May there were a few flowering but they had not yet attained their full glory. We took a stroll on the picturesque bridge with the eight arches. A mute swan sat on her nest with her head tucked in under her scapulars having an afternoon nap the cob (male) was nearby keeping a watchful eye. The ‘piece de resistance’ of the day was undoubtedly our visit to the seabird colonies on the Stack Rocks (Elugug Stacks) on the Ministry of Defence Castlemartin firing range. On the stacks there were many thousands of guillemots standing ‘cheek by jowl’ all vying for a place on these magnificent free standing rocks. We only saw a couple of birds with their single ‘pyriform’ shaped eggs the deep jade colour of the shell marked with blotches and a scribbled pattern stood out against the greyness of the rock. I scanned with my scope through the myriad of birds present and could only find one guillemot of the ‘bridled’ variety (or morph) which is far more prevalent the further north you travel (about 25% of the whole population). You can pick these ‘bridled’ birds out by looking for the narrow ‘spectacle’ around each eye and a white line extending along the indented ‘furrow’ behind the eye. The vast majority of guillemots however just show the normal dark indented furrow behind the eye. There were many razorbills on the stacks too but they looked more sedate than the constantly squabbling and excitable guillemots. These stacks offer a fine spectacle of a seabird colony at close quarters and if you wish to study their behaviour in detail then I can think of nowhere better in Wales to do so than at this location. If you wish to visit the stacks then the timing is critical as access to this coastal area may be temporarily restricted during firing times on the range these are normally between the hours of 9am - 4.30pm for day firing or 7pm to midnight for night firing. In order to get the precise timing for firing check the 24 hour answering service on 01646 662367. If you want more detailed information or further assistance contact the Castlemartin ranger ‘Lynne’ on 07866 771188.

On the 17th we attempted to get a boat trip to Skomer. As we stood at the embarkation point at Martins Haven with 50+ other expectant and eager folk we were told that the boat couldn’t take us across due to the high winds and the forecast for later in the day was that the weather was going to deteriorate so we had to abandon the idea of getting on the island that day. We consoled ourselves by taking a very pleasant walk around Wooltack point and from where Skomer looked tantalisingly close to the mainland. The turbulent water through Jack sound looked treacherous. We saw chough, wheatear and ravens and out at sea were gannets, fulmars and rafts of auks. Following our walk we had lunch at the Clock House café in the village of Marloes (they also have a fine b&b if you are interested take a look at their website www.chmarloes.co.uk ). During the afternoon we took a stroll around Marloes Mere an interesting wetland habitat which is managed by the National Trust. Apart from the usual birds which you would expect to find in this habitat we got good views of a rather nervous drake Garganey the striking white crescent over the eye down to the nape was quite distinctive. On the 19th May before I headed home I conducted another early morning seawatch at Strumble head. There was a particularly heavy movement of swallows with a few house martins and a handful of sand martins. Where were they all heading to I wondered - Ireland perhaps? The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Iceland gull (2nd year immature plumage non-breeding) which flew past the head. It was immediately apparent that its plumage was different to the other gulls present which were mostly herring gulls. My guests this month on my ‘safaris’ have hailed from as far afield as Cleveland, Cornwall and South Wales and we have had some good birding the highlights being seeing a pair of common sandpipers in the Elan Valley, a peregrine above the Caban Quarry and a good display of Kites at feeding time at Gigrin farm which included a tagged kite reared in 2006 originating from Dumfries & Galloway in Scotland (green tags both wings). Other guests I have taken to Tregaron bog (Cors Caron) where we saw teal, redshank, snipe, reed & sedge warbler, willow warblers & whitethroats, reed bunting, larks & pipits, swifts & hirundines, we heard a cuckoo, and just as we were about to egress the bog a hobby made an appearance just above us no doubt feasting on the numerous dragonflies which were on the wing over the bog or perhaps it was eyeing up the hirundines for its next meal! Following a nice lunch in the Hafan café in Tregaron we ventured to a private (but licensed) kite feeding station nearby where my guests were enthralled by the display of kites at close quarters. Earlier that day whilst on route to Tregaron we took a brief stop at the old iron smelting mill at ‘Dyfi Furnace’ where we watched a pair of dippers in the vicinity of the waterfall on the river Einion.

On bank holiday Monday with my good friend and eminent wildlife photographer Janet Baxter I visited our only pair of Welsh ospreys in the Glaslyn Valley near Porthmadog. We spent many hours watching the birds at the RSPB’s Glaslyn Osprey project site and we witnessed some interesting aspects of osprey behaviour. We saw the male bringing in rainbow trout from an inland lake or river to feed the three young chicks. The male had removed the head from the fish. The female delicately fed small slithers of fish to the chicks. The male eventually polished off what remained of the fish including the tail. We saw the male bringing in a large stick to re-enforce the nest structure and we were worried that he might ‘brain’ one of his chicks with this stick. In one instance he brought a great clod of earth onto the nest! We saw the male bird chase away a carrion crow which had ventured to close to the nest. You can get spectacular ‘live’ views of the activities on the nest on three large TV screens in the public viewing hide as well as looking at the distant nest through telescopes provided by the RSPB on site. The RSPB’s knowledgeable and friendly staff will enthral you with a fascinating insight into the natural history of the osprey. If you want to catch sight of the male osprey bringing in a fish to the nest situated a few miles inland then you should position yourself on the cob just before Porthmadog if he’s fishing for mullet at sea or further up the Glaslyn Valley if the male decides to fish for trout on the inland lakes in Snowdonia. Its basically a combination of time patience and perseverance which will reward your efforts. If you see the ospreys catching fish either at sea or the inland lakes then please convey the location and grid reference to the RSPB staff at the Glaslyn Osprey project they are keen to receive such information.

Early May

The countryside is a pure explosion of the colours of spring. The woodlands and hillsides of central Wales are carpeted with the blossoms of bluebells. Over the bank holiday weekend I heard my 1st cuckoo saw my 1st wood warbler and a couple of swifts too with their sickle shaped wings displaying their mastery of the skies. Swallows have arrived inland in droves and are busy chasing each other around but there is still a definite movement of these birds along the coast. A couple of high tide visits to Ynyslas point at the mouth of the Dyfi estuary was worthwhile producing sightings of growing numbers of gannets and manx shearwaters offshore. There were still a few red-throated divers lingering about in the bay. A few terns were moving through too and Janet Baxter told me that she saw an arctic skua harrying them early one morning. Janet also told me that she has seen in the region of 400 bar-tailed godwits along the beach and shoreline at Ynyslas and I was lucky enough to see a flock of about a hundred many were showing their summer breeding plumage. They were stopping off on their long journey northwards their peace occasionally interrupted by a chasing dog. There were whimbrel on the shore or on the golf course too with the odd dunlin or golden plover amongst their flocks. It was possible to get surprisingly close to these waders. Ringed plover were present singly or in small flocks along the shore.

I was told of two youths who were seen throwing stones at the whimbrel on the beach effectively using them as target practice! I think it is about time the authorities took a more pro-active approach into protecting these passage waders on their brief stopovers on the Dyfi NNR. Why not put signs up ‘politely requesting’ people to control their dogs in the ‘immediate vicinity’ of feeding or resting waders and to encourage the public to report any act they witness which may be injurious to these birds. They face ever increasing environmental and man induced pressures along their route from their African wintering grounds and all of us who enjoy watching birds and those who use the beach area responsibly should unite to demand a more concerted effort to afford them a safe sanctuary on our shores. Whatever your views about the RSPB I think it highly unlikely that you would witness an incident of a similar nature if it occurred on one of their reserves and they are without doubt a highly effective charitable organisation yet here we have a scenario whereby the birds are exposed to danger and constant disturbance on a national nature reserve under government control! So come on C.C.W. (Countryside Council for Wales) get to grips with this problem! Closer communication with the local police wildlife liaison officer (and I know there is one) may prove beneficial.

Last Saturday with my companion Kevin McCoy I took a boat trip from New Quay (Ceredigion) to look at the seabird colony on ‘Birds Rock’ (Craig yr Adar). The numbers of auks and kittiwakes were building up nicely at the cliff colony with the occasional nest of a shag or cormorant. We used the ‘Ermol’ boats and at six quid per adult for an hour boat trip it was good value. You can of course see some of the birds from the footpath above the cliffs but I think you get better views of the seabirds from a boat. From here Kevin and I headed for the other ‘Bird Rock’ in Merionydd to view the cormorant colony and here looking up at the rock we saw chough, raven and wheatear.

On the Sunday my first task was to find a dipper for Kevin which I am glad to say was duly achieved. I looked under a bridge where they nested last year but they obviously had found a new site this year. We watched the bird feeding in the stream upriver of the bridge. I must give due thanks to the farmer who helped us in locating the bird. I was able to show them both some otter ‘poo’ (spraint) on a rock under the bridge. Searching for signs of the presence of otters by looking at their ‘poo’ can appear to be a strange occupation to the uninitiated! But with an animal which is chiefly nocturnal in its habits a bit of detective work is called for. Their spraints invariably contain tiny fish bones or traces of fish scales and if you have the courage (or insanity!) to have a sniff of the ‘poo’ then you will find it emits a not unpleasant sweet ‘musty’ odour! Whereas the ‘poo’ of that other horrible riparian feral beast the mink will have an unpleasant smell. But a word of warning if you find the dried out remains of otter ‘poo’ don’t inhale as if you were ingesting some ‘snuff’ or you will end up with tiny fish bones firmly wedged up your nostrils which may entail a visit to your local A & E unit! It has happened I am reliably informed. Anyway just in case you are eating your breakfast whilst reading this I will promptly get off the subject!

The same morning I checked some of my nest boxes in a local woodland for occupancy. I was glad to find three occupied by pied flycatchers (2 nests with 5 eggs and 1 with 2) as well as sitting blue tits and a great tit.

On a remote moorland somewhere in Wales we watched a beautiful very pale male hen harrier quartering the ground for prey. We continued our journey along a track and saw two female hen harriers and possibly another male hunting over ground where the heather was knee deep. It was encouraging to see this species flourishing at this location a bird which is now rarer than the red kite in Wales. We peered over a steep escarpment and watched a male kestrel bravely ward off a raven which was probably over flying the kestrel’s nesting territory.

During the afternoon we headed for the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve in our quest for wood warbler which we finally got on the last leg of our long walk around the reserve. It was good to hear and see the rather retiring reed warbler again too and it is at
Ynys-hir that I heard the cuckoo. We were not short of mammal sightings either. Just before the breakwater hide we came across a feeding hare which showed no fear of us as it chomped away at some long leaved herbage (my botany is not good folks!). Its immense eyes watching us and its ears twisting independently of each other catching every sound. Surely you could never sneak up on a hare he has such well developed senses. At one point it stood upright on its hind legs studying us intently and it immediately conjured an image in my mind of the March Hare’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I couldn’t help but chuckle at this moment. Those who came after us were equally fascinated by a close encounter with this rather bold hare.

We continued our walk into a wood carpeted with spring flowers and then suddenly there was a movement in the grass ahead of us and peering at us no more than about 15 feet away was a stoat. It bounded away from us showing the distinctive black tip to the tail. Earlier that day we had seen a rather large polecat (’ffwlbart’ in Welsh) too but sadly this had been a road casualty. Still it presented us with an opportunity to study the animal closely showing its characteristic white facial band and ear-margins (facial mask) and a dark chocolaty coloured coat much darker than the stoat we saw later that day which has a warmer brown pelage.

I knew it the tawny owls have nested in my cypress trees again this year! How do I know because one morning during the middle of last week at 5.50am I looked out of my bedroom window and a well feathered tawny owl chick was peering at me at eye level from one of the trees. It may have been watching the feeding woodpigeons and blackbird on my lawn. Anyway after a few minutes it turned about and nipped back into the safety of the trees perhaps it was fed up of the cock chaffinch that kept buzzing about its head!

On the Friday I found an envelope through my letterbox with a local location written on it inside the envelope was an empty hazelnut shell its contents having been consumed by a rodent. I realised that it had been found by my local postman Gwilym Thomas a knowledgeable countryman he knew that I have an interest in hazel dormice as we had talked about this endearing species of mammal quite recently. Looking closely at the neatly gnawed hole made by the animal to get at the kernel inside I reckoned that it had been made by a dormouse. I will have to get some nest boxes up in that area where the nut was found to establish the presence of dormice and to encourage them to construct their nests in them but first and foremost I would have to enrol on a training course with the Mammal Society as I would need a licence to disturb or handle this species. Research suggests that the population of Dormice is on the decline. The National Dormouse Monitoring Programme aims to gather data in an effort to establish the true picture of the population in the UK.

Its bank holiday Monday and with my wife I visited an exhibition of wildlife art by the internationally renowned wildlife artist Elaine Franks who now lives in Wales. Her work is being exhibited at the Oriel CAMBRIA Gallery @ Rhiannon in the Square at Tregaron in Ceredigion until the 16th June 2007 so why not go along to view Elaine’s excellent artwork. My personal favourite is the painting of the ‘sow badger’ at the set entrance. I wish I had a rich aunt who could buy it for me! While you are there why not dine at the excellent Hafan café next door. If you want to really splash out then why not purchase one of Rhiannon’s lovely hand crafted jewellery made on the premises. For more details visit www.cambriaarts.org.uk.


Elfyn PughElfyn Pugh, retired police officer and life-long observer of the natural world, now leads bird and wildlife trips in Wales through his company Red Kite Safaris.