A multitude of ‘Birds’
December 2007 and January 2008 will be months which I shall remember for the great numbers of birds I have seen in their winter flocks ranging from that dashing little continental finch the Brambling, swirling masses of Starlings at the pier in Aberystwyth and huge numbers of waders around the Ribble estuary in Lancashire.
I’ve seen good numbers of Brambling at two locations locally. There is a fine stance of mature beech trees on the edge of the village of Derwenlas near Machynlleth where a good crop of beechmast has kept a couple of thousand of these lovely finches happy rooting around the woodland floor. I watched scores of them during one particular windy afternoon the occasional strong gusts of wind was blowing the vast accumulation of leaves about and the Brambling looked perfectly camouflaged amongst the browns of the dry rustling leaves. Brambling, or Pinc-y-Mynydd in Welsh, arrive in Britain in great numbers from their northern breeding grounds from mid September onwards. Huge flocks of two to three million birds may be seen in mainland Europe in winter where roosting flocks of about 20 million birds have been recorded! They breed in open upland birch and mixed birch and conifer forests from Norway through to Russia to the shores of the Bering sea and as far south as Italy. They also breed irregularly in Iceland, the Faeroes and they have even bred in northern Britain. In summer their diet consists of seeds, caterpillars and other insects. In the winter they switch to a seed diet with a particular penchant for beechmast. In Britain you can often see mixed flocks of Chaffinch and Brambling and they are regular garden visitors in fact I’ve had a couple of Brambling in my garden this winter and its easy to miss them in a group of their smaller cousins.
On the 16th January I popped up to an area of extensive forest called ‘The Arch’ or ‘Y Bwa’ in Welsh, situated between Devils Bridge and Cwm Ystwyth this location has the delightful name of ‘The head of the pass of lost existence’. The Arch itself is a stone structure which was erected in 1810 by the Thomas Johnes family of the nearby Hafod estate to commemorate the golden jubilee of George III. Until recently this landmark construction spanned the road but following damage to its structure by a vehicle a new road construction now bypasses it.
I set up my scope in the car park at ‘The Arch’ and watched an enchanting group of about 23 Common Crossbills (Y Gylfin Groes in Welsh) feeding on pine cones. These acrobatic ‘parrot’ like birds were breaking off the cones with their beaks and carrying them to a nearby branch where they held the cones under foot against the branch which allowed them the leverage to prise open the cones with their specially adapted ‘crossed’ bills in order to extract the nutritious seed. The beautifully rosy-red and pinkish colour of the male bird was quite striking. Whilst I was watching them I glanced to my left and vast numbers of Brambling flew through a woodland gap into the main body of the forest ahead of me there were lines of them then a break then another group of birds they must have numbered thousands. In this forest too there is a 200 year old stance of mature beech trees thus providing the Brambling with a source of beechmast vital for their winter survival. I suspect that the British winter of 2007/2008 will prove to be good for ‘Brambling’ and of course this may be coincidental with the heavy snowfall in mainland Europe during the winter preventing the birds from reaching the beechmast forcing great numbers of them to fly westwards to the shores of Britain where our landscape has been relatively snow free.
During the afternoon I called by the Nant-yr-Arian kite feeding station and here counted about 80 Red Kites at feeding time. They looked stunning in the excellent sunlight. Through my scope I was able to read a few ‘kite wing tags’ on perched birds which I subsequently passed on to the Welsh Kite Trust to record on their database. I finally ended the day at the Pier on Aberystwyth’s seafront to witness the nightly return of the Starlings to this regular winter roost. The swirling masses which arrive here in groups of thousands before dusk are an impressive sight. They occupy every available nook and cranny on the pier structure.
The last weekend of January my wife and I spent in Lancashire. On Saturday we paid a visit to the Martin Mere Wetland Centre managed by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). This magnificent wetland reserve covers 150 hectares and as well as a resident collection of 100 species of the World’s rare and endangered ducks, geese, swans, cranes and flamingos it is also a home to thousands of wild wintering wildfowl. During our walk around the nature trails we saw a couple of thousand pink footed geese, hundreds of Whooper Swans, ducks of all kind - Wigeon (see below), Teal, Pochard, Mallard, Gadwall, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, hundreds of Lapwing and in terms of birds of prey we saw three Peregrine Falcons. This is a really family friendly centre with lots for kids to do with an outdoor adventure playground and craft rooms for children where they can paint ceramics, make badges or do some brass rubbing amongst other things. A great place to ‘dump’ your kids with grandma or grandpa while ‘Mum and Dad’ do some birding around the nature trails and visit one of the excellent hides. Martin Mere is an exceptionally fine centre to introduce your family to the fascinating world of waterfowl.
For more information about the centre or the work of the trust please visit their website on www.wwt.org.uk or call the centre on 01704 895181.
Wigeon by Craig Shaw
The following day there was a good spring tide so we took a spin along Southport’s Marine Drive. Here you will find the Ribble Estuary National Nature Reserve which is the most important site in the UK for wintering waterfowl hence its designation as a ‘RAMSAR’ site and an ‘SPA’ (Special Protection Area). It occupies over half of the Ribble Estuary including extensive areas of mud and sand flats. It supports over 250,000 wintering ducks, geese, swans and wading birds. On the south side is the RSPB’s reserve at Marshside. There are two hides and three viewing screens here where you can watch the birds without causing them disturbance. On this area of wetland pools and grassland we saw literally thousands of Wigeon and other ducks such as Shoveler and Teal. Numerous Black-tailed Godwits and thousands of Lapwing. There were good numbers of Ruff too. We took a stroll down past the sand-works to watch the almost ‘fluid’ masses of countless wading birds which were escaping the rapidly flooding tide in the estuary. We watched them at a safe distance from the incoming tide busily feeding or resting on the mud flats. There were Dunlin and Knot, Grey Plover and Redshank along the edge with three Little Egrets flying about. Its best to park on the Marine Drive next to the sand-works. The end of the Pier at Southport is also a good spot to watch the concentration of waders at high tide.
The mystery of the bird feathers
Recently I have been finding patches of pigeon feathers scattered about on the ground at numerous locations near my home for instance in my garden, in the field below our house, in the woodland, on the edge of the road, and its pretty clear that the local woodpigeon population has been taking quite a hammering from a predator of some sort. I have had my suspicions as to the culprit and when I took ‘Taff’ the dog for a walk around the woodland behind us between Christmas and New Year I disturbed a large bird of prey perched in a solitary tree on some open ground. From the brief view that I had of the bird I am fairly sure that it was a large female Goshawk but I am not definite about its identity. That would indeed account for the large amount of pigeon feathers I’ve seen. Of course it could also be a Sparrowhawk. I have ruled out a Peregrine Falcon as I think I would have found the remains of the wings and breast skeleton of the prey item. However the jury is still out on this one perhaps some day I will catch an avian raptor in the act!
Suggested reading for a ‘birding’ trip to the Ribble Estuary and further afield is ‘Where to watch Birds in Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire’ by Jonathan Guest & Malcolm Hutchenson published by Christopher Helm.
We stayed at a former coaching Inn called the ‘Millstone at Mellor’ near Blackburn which is a comfortable and quiet country hotel situated in a quaint village perched atop a hill. Here you will receive a warm welcome from the Chef Patron Anson Bolton and his staff. The hotel’s cuisine has deservedly earned it the award of 2 AA rosettes. The food is delicious and the portions are ‘generous’. There is an excellent wine list too and you must try the locally brewed ‘Thwaites’ beer which is really good of course it has to be as the original founder of the brewery Daniel Thwaites is buried in the cemetery next door!
See the hotel’s website on www.millstonehotel.co.uk
This article has been written by Elfyn Pugh who runs a bird tour venture in mid-Wales called Red Kite Safaris