Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Birds the colour of rainbows and some black & white too! Wales 5th May

Every year Mrs Caley and I take the long journey west into deepest Wales to visit the sessile oak woodlands and to see the special birds that make them their summer homes. Although we have some nice woodland in Oxfordshire which do have some smart birds of their own, there is nothing quite like the Welsh wooded hillsides. The RSPB reserve at Gwenffrwd-Dinas near Llandovery is a fine example of such woodland and echoes in spring to the sound of recently arrived migrant birds and provides good nesting habitat for them too.

There was added attraction to this visit as well with the opportunity to "twitch" a vagrant Green Heron which had been found in a rural garden in Pembrokeshire by the property's owner. He had very thoughtfully provided access to birders allowing them to view the bird which was frequenting and staying very loyal to a small pond in the garden. We had seen a Green Heron before having been lucky enough to be in Cornwall on holiday back in October 2010 when a juvenile bird had turned up in similar habitat at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Back in those days I only had an old camera and short lens so wasn't able to get any photos of great quality then so it seemed prudent to go and have a look at the latest one which incidentally is only the 8th recorded in the UK.

Green Heron, Heligan, October 2010
We left home at 04:00 and hit the roads westwards which were largely deserted at the early hour. After paying the "get into Wales" fee it was getting light and the clear sky promised a beautiful day ahead. Trundling on the motorway past the major towns the sun rose behind us and it was indeed a glorious day. Sunshine makes birding so much easier and photography is a cinch even for me in brightly lit conditions. Then about 15 miles away from our destination just near to Carmarthen we hit a bank of fog. Thick fog at that! Unbelievable. The fog remained with us all the way to the designated parking area. The house and garden in question is in a fabulous rural setting and access to it was via a stroll through a lovely wooded valley which followed a gurgling stream. This stream fed several small reed edged ponds and it was the smallest of these right bang in the middle of the garden that the heron had chosen. We stood alongside just a handful of other birders in the murky and damp conditions, which at least had improved to just misty now. The heron was spotted immediately partially concealed in some reeds at the base of a small tree no more than 10 yards away. I love 10 second twitches! Takes all of the stress out of it. Within a minute the small heron flew a short way across the pond and landed on a partly submerged log but still within 20 yards of us. I wasn't ready to capture the flight though! Luckily my mate Del Latham did later on that day and allowed me to use one his fabulous images (see more at Del's Birds).

Courtesy of Derek Latham
 After a short appraisal of the bird in order to appreciate its beauty I set about trying to take some worthy images in the difficult light. I could only really get a shutter speed of 1/250-500th of a second with a low enough ISO so it was necessary to keep the camera really steady but we had the scope that served as a useful tripod. I also added the 1.4 extender to the mix which isn't normally a good idea on my part but the results seemed to come out okay in the end. Green herons are more than just green though. The breast and face are a deep russet red with a striped throat. The back and crown gleam to a bottle green colour which bend into iridescent purples if the bird catches the sunlight (which of course it couldn't for us since it was misty). The wing feathers are tipped with white and it has big yellow legs and feet. Hence my paraphrasing of a Half Man Half Biscuit lyric "a rainbow appeared, in black & white" from "National Shite Day" which also features a dead sandpiper but that's another story. More on the black & white bit later in the garble). Get it? No? Well it is rather tenuous to say the least!

After half an hour of standing rather motionless on the same piece of water furniture the heron flew to the farthest point of the pond (I missed the flight again) and commenced hunting. We did see it catch and devour a newt but it was mostly concealed by vegetation and too far away for any reasonable photos. It then stalked away into deep cover and was lost to view.

The leaden sky reminded us that the forecast sunny day was still a way off so after just an hour on site we made the decision to leave the heron, and its increasing crowd of admirers, to it and headed back to the car so that we'd have plenty of time to take in the oak woods. The farm yard that was serving as the car park housed several resplendent Peacocks (or male Peafowl for the pedantic). Stunning but noisy birds and worthy of inclusion here if only as a true rainbow bird.

Just a few miles up the road and by sod's law the sun burst through! At least we'd have good light for the rest of the day. We enjoyed a nice coffee and some Welsh Cakes (well you just have to) at a quaint little cafe near Llandovery and then took the narrow twisting road up to the RSPB reserve. Pleasantly surprised to find just a few cars already parked, by 11:00 we were walking along the newly renovated boardwalk and into a crescendo of bird song. How I'd love to be here at dawn when the sound must be truly exhilarating, maybe cause to consider a weekend break next year? In the first few yards we had clocked the songs of several different warblers as well as the more common species. 

male Blackcap
Then I heard a garden warbler gargling away from a nearby bush. Certainly not "rainbow" birds by any stretch of the imagination cloaked as they are in their nondescript plumage but they are still subtly beautiful and are pretty damn good singers too!

Garden warbler
The next bird we encountered definitely did fit in with the title of this piece when a fine male common redstart watched us from a fallen tree. Red isn't my favourite colour (blue boy that I am) but when it's sported by these little chaps then I can easily make allowances. Rainbow bird for sure! The male common redstart is a bird that I've never got a decent close image of and one which I'd be looking for  on this visit. For now I just admired that blend of red, grey and jet black plumage from afar.

my "usual standard" redstart photo
Next up was a fabulous male pied flycatcher and the black & white bird of the tale. Pied flycatchers are very accessible here and often afford very close views. This male was totally focussed on the female though and we got to witness a bit of flycatcher "porn" when he finally pinned (quite literally) her down. Unfortunately in the dark woodland I hadn't readjusted the camera settings (again) and the photos aren't great.

Flycatchers, oooerrr!
The male pied fly didn't let me down though and when it landed and sang (no doubt feeling pretty pleased with himself after his performance) on a branch just above where we stood, I was able to fire off some of my best shots ever! If I say so myself.

Over 200 pairs of pied flycatchers breed on the reserve mainly using nest boxes provided by their landlords and we managed to see a good 10% of them during our walk. The birds themselves were definitely still in courting mode as we'd seen but some were investigating their potential breeding suites.

Female pied flycatcher checking out a nest box
The flycatchers tended to keep fairly low in the trees so were reasonably easy to locate unlike the male redstarts which sing and cavort about in the canopy. None of the redstarts seemed to want to fulfil my wish of getting a nice image of one so I moved my concentration on to the other speciality of these oak woods and the yellow and green part of the rainbow, the wood warbler. I love wood warblers, the males put so much effort into their trilling song that they just shiver with the delight of it. We could hear many singing away in the trees but as regular visitors we knew where to go for a really good view. There is a section of the path that follows the river and which is set high above it on a slope. Here you can look into the canopy at eye level and see wood warblers without straining your neck. Last year we had very close views of  a male and although this year the bird we chose to study wasn't quite as confiding, he still put on a brilliant show for us. We also saw another bird close by that wasn't interested in showing off so presumably was a female bird. I could watch wood warblers for hours and indeed would have if time wasn't pressing and I wanted to get that redstart.

Many other species of birds breed in these woods and we watched a female nuthatch for a while bring in leaves in which to line it's nest. I only heard a single tree pipit (last year at the same time there were many more) and there were no spotted flycatchers seen all day which is a little concerning but maybe they're all just a bit late in returning still. We watched a female great spotted woodpecker drumming on a hollow branch. Up until then I had thought that it was only males that drummed. See, still learning! Cuckoos could be heard calling from high up the opposite hillside but weren't present in the wood themselves (mainly hole nesters here, so no good for cuckoos) and mistle thrushes rattled around too.

Then as we struck off back to the car I heard a male redstart in full song just ahead. Mrs Caley spotted it stood on a thick mossy covered branch about 30 yards away. This was my chance, my moment. Using adjacent trees as cover I edged closer expecting the songster to disappear at any moment but to my good fortune it stayed put on the oak limb. I made it to about half the distance, sat down and got some images better than any I've ever taken before of these nervy birds (so unlike their cousins, the black redstarts). 

At one point the redstart flew up and I though that was that but in fact it had captured a spider which it manoeuvred into position and ate! I was blessed, unlike the spider!

I took some more shots as the male bird continued singing before he flew off in pursuit of a rival bird and was gone. These proved to the better of my efforts and although not top notch, easily the best I've taken of a difficult subject. Next mission will be to bury the cuckoo hoodoo!

The walk back to the car was fairly uneventful with most birds having become far less active in the warm afternoon. But we were both very happy with the day which had been packed with really good birds (both rainbow coloured and black & white) and I had hours of pleasure ahead of me looking through the 500 odd photos that I'd taken. Definitely not a "shite day"!


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