Because of the coronavirus nightmare of the past two years it had been almost four since we'd had the opportunity to travel to a certain very well known spot in North Wales to watch and listen to the very well known Black Grouse lek that takes place every spring there. Being privy to these chicken sized male birds strut their stuff on a patch of grass and gravel high up on a Welsh moorland is one of the pleasures of birding. There are few wildlife spectacles in the UK that can surpass the highly charged male Black Grouse battling each other for supremacy in an avian version of Love Island (whatever that is). So, with Mrs Caley's birthday approaching and the fact that we both needed a break away from the routine of everyday life, I hatched a plan to whisk us away for a few days during which we could marvel at the Black Grouse, get some quality birding in and see a few other birds not often found, if ever, in our local area for our year list. Rather than stay too close to the lek area (our choice of cottage for our last visit left a lot to be desired), this time I selected a fine looking cottage about twenty miles away which was also conveniently just about the same distance from the North Wales coast so we'd be able to cover a large part of the area easily.
Sunday 20 March;
A Dip Erased!
We set off on Sunday morning determined to right one of our few dips (those failed twitches when the target bird doesn't show) by heading to see a Great Grey Shrike that had been present for most of the winter period in a clear fell area in the vast forest that surrounds Llyn Brenig. Great Grey Shrikes are not rare birds in the UK but have become increasingly difficult to see in recent years. They are birds that tend to take up territory in rather bleak and remote moorland areas and can cover huge ranges so can be hard to pin down and can require long walks to connect with. We did see one in the New Forest towards the end of last year but had already failed to see one in Cambridgeshire in January so this one would find its way onto our year list should we find it. We knew we'd have to find it ourselves because there was unlikely to be any body else looking for it. But we were armed with full details of where to go and encouragingly most recent sightings of the Shrike had been from or near to a convenient lay-by on the road that traverses the forest. As expected there was no-one else around when we parked up just after ten o'clock. I had a quick scan from the lay-by but saw nothing of note except for a soaring Common Buzzard.
A track led into the clear fell from the lay-by so we elected to walk the short distance to an obvious high point that gave commanding views over the immediate area. I know that all Shrike species favour prominent perches, in much the same way that a Kestrel would, from which to look for their prey so I began checking all likely spots. Still no luck so I cast the net wider and after a few minutes was delighted to find the Great Grey Shrike at the top of of a conifer on the edge of the remaining trees. All well and good apart from the fact that, typically, the bird was around half a mile away. Photography was a nonstarter but at least we were able to enjoy good scope views. We stuck it out for an hour hoping that the Shrike would find its way much closer to us but despite it moving around and actively hunting it never got near enough for anything but record shots. But, as Nick Knowles would say, it's on the list!
|Great Grey Shrike (!)
A Dipper Added!
We did a recce past our cottage which was fifteen miles away placed between Ruthin and Denbigh, we weren't able to access it until later in the afternoon, and went in search for Sunday lunch. We found a nice looking pub, The Brookhouse Mill, next to a small river on the outskirts of Denbigh. As we walked over a bridge to enter the pub grounds I remarked that the rapid and shallow water looked good for Dippers and that we should take a careful look after eating. The lunch was excellent and we made a note of maybe returning to the pub on Mrs Caley's birthday should we be nearby. We remembered to take a look at the stream so dallied on a footbridge that spanned it. We had only been there a few seconds when a Dipper bombed past us heading downstream! I love it when a hunch proves correct.
We walked up to the road bridge and peered downstream from there. A small tree had fallen across the flow and there stood in the stream underneath it was the Dipper. Living in Oxfordshire we have no local sites for Dippers, the closest are in Gloucestershire so seeing this one here would save us travelling elsewhere to add one onto our year list (not that we'd need to since we have a holiday booked to Scotland later in the summer).
We settled in by the bridge and watched the Dipper which had begun doing what it does best, dipping in the river to hunt for its food. It wasn't particularly close but we enjoyed watching it as it ducked its head under the water, hopped up onto small rocks and even swum for a while. There was no problem with the light, strong sunlight beamed from behind us but an overhanging cloak of trees made getting precise images difficult but then what doesn't?
Our fun was terminated by a Grey Heron landing next to the tree which was too close for the Dipper which flew away downstream. We left and checked into our cottage which would become our place to sleep for the next three nights, we were unlikely to spend much time there otherwise with a good weather forecast and so many good birds to target in the area. The cottage overlooked a delightful valley to the hills beyond where we'd be heading to early the following morning.
Red over Black!
First though we wanted to do a recce up to the Black Grouse lek site to see if everything was still the same. When we'd last stayed in this part of the world our evening drive had been undertaken in some foul weather with driving rain and strong winds and yet we'd found some male Black Grouse feeding on a slope. This evening was beautiful but of course the good conditions had lured many other folk into the moors so there was no chance of any Black Grouse being close to the access road owing to the disturbance of bike riders and generally noisy goings-on. We did find a few Red Grouse, also new for the year, feeding surreptitiously in the heather and bracken. Red Grouse are increasing in number on these moors whereas Black Grouse are probably not. Red Grouse are much more tolerant of people and of the pressure that visitors put on the area. Only five years ago, Red Grouse were difficult to find here, this time they seemed to be fairly easy to see. For their scarcer relations we'd have to hope that the Lek was still active in the morning.
Year List additions;
147) Great Grey Shrike, 148) Dipper, 149) Red Grouse
Monday 21 March;
I fell out of bed at four o'clock ready to leave the cottage before five so that we'd be on station in the moors well before sunrise at just past six. An early start is always required to observe a Black Grouse lek. The lek takes place on a flat barren piece of ground and attracts male Black Grouse who argue and pretend fight for the honour of moving up the pecking order and gaining the chance to mate with available females. The females themselves are very elusive and seldom seen although on our last visit one walked straight through the arena. Well before we arrived at the parking area which overlooks the lek, we could hear the birds through the open window, the strange alien sounding noises travelling far in the still and clear air. I dimmed the headlights of the car and crept into the lay-by killing the engine. We were in luck, not only because we could see the Black Grouse already absorbed in their daily ritual, but also because we were alone. My hunch that few people visited the lek during the week had paid off and we would be alone for almost the entire duration of the Grouse lek, the only other interested folk didn't arrive until past seven o'clock.
It wasn't light enough for meaningful photography and wouldn't be for at least an hour but I took a few anyway, and some video, just in case the Black Grouse did an early bunk. It's quite stressful watching a lek because any number of factors could cause the fun to end quickly and I've read many stories of folks annual visit to see lekking Black Grouse ruined by a dog walker or a passing raptor or even birders who are not genned up enough and who get out of the car for a "better" look, all of which cause the Grouse to panic and head for the hills. So we always sit there, literally, on the edge of our car seats. The early photos are not worth airing but I did encompass the full moon and a Black Grouse in the same shot.
After watching the lek for a while it seemed to me that the birds weren't really going at it full tilt and it really was a case of handbags. There were thirteen of the male birds present (down from over twenty on my last visit) but at least three weren't interested in the shenanigans at all and just loitered around the edges. In fact one of those three decided that it wasn't interesting enough and just wandered off even before the sun illuminated the scene. I've never been able to work out which of the birds is the dominant one but apparently it's the one that occupies the middle of the dance floor and from there he's able to watch the proceedings around it. The trouble is working out which bird is in the middle. The best battle was taking place closest to the road but the main protagonists were slightly obscured by a hummock and were frequently out of view.
The closest bird to us, in all likelihood the same bird that was closest to us four years ago but how could anybody know unless they were all issued with numbers, tried his best to engage with the satellite males but with little success. So he spent most of the time hissing and doing little jumps and wing flaps trying to solicit some response but mostly he just ended up arguing with himself. He quickly became my favourite of the birds on display.
Suddenly all bar three of the birds were flying and it was only a quarter past six! A Raven had flown overhead causing consternation amongst the birds except for the ones tucked away in the thickest patches of grass. At least the panic gave me the chance to photograph some of the birds as they flew past, just a shame that I was stuck with a slow shutter speed with which to take them.
Luckily all of the Black Grouse returned back to the lek arena straight away but appeared even more subdued than they were before although the main contenders reaffirmed their own private battles including the one into self abuse. Even though it was now light the sun was yet to hit the lek because of a hill behind us. I urged the sun to rise further so that some proper light was cast and I'd be able to lower the ISO settings and gain some extra speed without the grain. In the meantime I concentrated on the nearest bird and on watching the proceedings.
Further anxiety spread through the Grouse when a Kestrel passed closely by but most of the birds just watched the Falcon until it had disappeared out of sight and didn't disperse as they had for the Raven earlier. Another of the satellite birds did exit stage left though so we were left with eleven birds and that number was reduced to ten when another wandered up to the top of the grassy bank and disappeared over its brow. The birds that I deemed satellite males were, I reasoned, immature birds that were not yet of a breeding age and thus just bystanders, and were probably picking up tips for when they were ready to take part at the lek in earnest. They were less regally attired with brownish hues to their plumage, especially in the wings, rather than the rich blues and blacks of the older birds.
The sun finally broke clear of the hillside and cast its full light on the entire parade ground at around quarter to seven, about an hour after we'd arrived. The effect on the show though wasn't what I expected, in the warming sunshine, it had been minus four degrees when we had parked up, seemed to have a soporific effect on the Grouse and they abandoned much of their squabbling and decided to preen instead. Now I had some better light the birds had just about called it a day. Occasionally a couple of them would attempt a bit of sparring but the interest had waned amongst them. The last time we attended this lek, at almost the same time of year, it had lasted for another hour at least but today it was over.
The birds wandered off in ones and twos until by quarter past seven there were only five left, the pair that had fought the most, a couple of birds who were more interested in cropping the short grass and the male nearest to us who couldn't find any other birds to argue with. I took more photos knowing that the opportunities would be limited and that proved true just minutes later when without any visible or audible stimulus all of the remaining flew up and away. The show was over.
It wasn't worth hanging around, the Black Grouse wouldn't be back until late in the afternoon, if at all, so we turned and headed downhill. On our way down we had a nice early spring surprise when we spotted a female Ring Ouzel at the side of the road next to a Juniper covered slope, our first for the year and probably our earliest ever. Unfortunately the Ouzel was away up the slope and disappeared over it so I'd have to wait before adding a photograph of the species this year.
Year List additions;
150) Black Grouse, 151) Ring Ouzel
We ate a hearty breakfast at the curiously named Sugar Plum Tea-rooms, before heading back to the cottage to collect some stuff. We had decided to head up to the coast and look for some more birds that are scarcely recorded in our local Oxfordshire area. Our first port of call would be Rhos-on-Sea, a place I'd never visited before. Rhos-on-Sea is situated astride a small bump on the coast in the wide sweep of Colwyn Bay sandwiched between the town of Colwyn Bay to the East and Llandudno with its attendant huge lumps of limestone that make up Great and Little Orme to the West. We'd be heading to Little Orme later after exploring the seafront at Rhos. Parking is free and easy in this part of the world (Cornwall and Norfolk please take note) so we picked our spot along the promenade. We were looking for Purple Sandpipers, charismatic little wading birds that quite literally, live their lives on the edge, between the sea and the rocks. Our friend Hughie had offered up first hand gen that there was at least a few still present, we just had to find them and for a first timer to the site that would prove to be tricky.
The obvious place to start was right at the little promontory where a small offshore island has been constructed to aid the boats that moor in the small harbour. A quick scan through the binoculars revealed a flock of resting wading birds, we had luckily timed our visit with high tide. We walked onto the beach opposite in order to get closer, although the island was still some way away, to the birds but I already knew that they weren't Purple Sandpipers. There were however, two new year ticks in the shape of Turnstones and a solitary Ringed Plover. Other birds loafing there included Oystercatchers, Redshanks and a single Dunlin. A Grey Wagtail fed along the strand line of the beach a little further away.
|Turnstone, Redshank & Dunlin
We headed back towards where the car was parked and then walked further to the West checking the rocks thoroughly as we went. The shore was constructed of large and sturdy boulders, a necessary requirement on many shorelines nowadays to protect the coast and the interests of mankind. I remembered a similar environment exists at Lowestoft where Purple Sandpipers also thrive. If any were around then they'd be sure to be right down where the sea lapped against the rocks. We had walked almost four hundred yards from the car and were almost out of rocks to check when thankfully I noticed some movement between two rocks. The bird I'd seen disappeared but I was certain that it had been a Purple one. We watched the area of rocks closely and a few moments later the Purple Sandpiper emerged into view again.
Purple Sandpipers are one of my favourite waders, they really are charismatic and live in the danger zone. No cushy living for them but rather a daily battle in amongst the sea drenched rocks where they seek out tiny marine morsels for food. They are incredibly adept at avoiding the breaking waves and somehow manage to leave it until the very last moments before taking evasive action. We found the bird again and I was struck by how long the bill was, I don't think I'd ever seen one with such a long bill before, all the better for probing around in the nooks and crannies of the rocks.
The Purple Sandpiper worked its way along the rocky edge, frequently disappearing from view before emerging again as it hopped over a gap. It was difficult to keep tabs on it, and views and photos had to be snatched quickly. At one such moment of opportunity, the Purple Sandpiper exhibited its skill at avoiding a breaking wave although it still got caught out by a splash or two. We did too since the weather that so far had been pleasant and warm, suddenly turned chilly and drizzly, presumably a result of the incoming tide. It seems that quite often when we watch Purple Sandpipers, the weather is less than clement.
And then were two. Another Purple Sandpiper scuttled along behind the other. It was shorter billed too but was also much more difficult to track through the rocks. I never once managed to get a shot of both birds together but nevertheless I was happy to grab images of the wily little birds whenever I could.
Purple Sandpipers aren't really a purple colour but rather a fusion of soft browns and greys with bright orange legs and feet and a largely orange based bill. I've been lucky to find a pair of Purple Sandpipers in summer, high up in the Cairngorms, when they look quite different in breeding plumage when the dusky greys are replaced by rich rusty browns, white edged feathers adorn the wings and the legs and bill darken. With just a handful staying to breed in UK mountainous areas, that sighting was very rare and fortunate.
We suspected that there may be have been another two of the birds present, making four in total, but never actually saw more than two together so couldn't be absolutely sure. They all became more difficult to get views of from our elevated position on the promenade and then when we spotted one tuck its head in behind its wings, we knew that the show was over.
Not quite though because as we walked back to the car, a Red-throated Diver bombed past heading westwards, another welcomed year tick even if the view was fleeting and distant. We will see many more in Scotland in June.
Year List additions;
152) Turnstone, 153) Ringed Plover, 154) Purple Sandpiper, 155) Red-throated Diver
Little Orme is the smaller partner of the well known and massive Great Orme, the huge chunk of limestone that juts out into the sea above the town of Llandudno and serves as a millionaires retreat in these parts. Little Orme itself protects a very nice housing estate with some beautiful houses and bungalows enjoying commanding views over the sea. Parking is freely available right at the end of the estate and gave us easy access to Little Orme. We had come to twitch an Iceland Gull which had been around the area for most of the winter and was spending prolonged periods in a small bay, known locally as Angel Bay, where a number of Seals loaf on the beach. The Gull along with some of its more common congeners was apparently attracted and enticed to stay in the area because of the continual supply of Seal waste products for nourishment. Yuk!
We walked through a very nice looking area of scrub and short grass, bordered by cliffs to one side and the massive walls of a former quarry to the other. Anything could turn up in a place like this, and probably has, particularly during the peak migration months. Common birds were everywhere and even before we reached Angel Bay we'd seen many Robins, Dunnocks, Song Thrushes and more. We had quickly added Fulmar to our year list, several were flying around the rocky faces and there were more already settled on their nests for the summer. Stonechats were very visible, as they always are, choosing anything and everything to perch prominently.
Angel Bay is a deeply scalloped small area of rocky beach cut into the north facing cliffs of Little Orme. We peered over the edge at the Seals below and I instantly saw the Iceland Gull, a juvenile, resting on one of the largest boulders below. This was our first Iceland Gull for three years. Known as white-wingers, along with the larger and more formidable Glaucous Gulls, because the usual black feathers that most Gull species have are completely lacking in their wings. The plumage of the northern Gulls is also much more pale and this juvenile stuck out clearly next to the more dusky and brownish feathering of juvenile Herring Gulls.
Almost immediately the Iceland Gull thanked us for coming to see it by flying off and out into the bay. Thanks a lot I thought, and perhaps it collected those sentiments because it turned suddenly and alighted on the cliff opposite. I took a few rapid shots of the Iceland Gulls immaculate and intricate open wings. The Gull took a quick look around and then nestled into the rocks once more.
Thinking that was probably the end of the Iceland Gull matinee show, I took time to watch the Seals but soon got bored of that, it really is only birds that get my bag, so looked up and watched the Fulmars and studied the Jackdaw flocks for Choughs but only came up with Jackdaws. Many of the Jackdaws were feeding on the close cropped turf of the clifftop so I took a few eye-level shots of one of the cheekiest. Jackdaws always look impish and as if they are up to no good.
I kept an eye on the Iceland Gull too but that was unmoving on the cliff opposite and appeared to be fast asleep. At the base of the cliffs were several Shags, another year tick, and many more Cormorants. There were frequent departures and arrivals from the cliff base and I took a few record shots of the Shags but for some reason the results were awful.
As we geared up to walk back to the car, the Iceland Gull graced us with another flying display, it was impelled off of the cliffs to attempt a mugging of a Herring Gull that had arrived with what looked like a chip lunch. The Gull then landed on the nearest large rock far below and looked our way as if to say, "Right, I've given you a full gamut of shots so now you can b****r off".
We loitered at a bench, a Rock Pipit was busy on the cliff below it but I failed to get a shot of another year tick. Instead it was the Stonechats that posed dutifully, as they always do, and I noticed that most of them were wearing jewellery suggesting that a study into them was taking place in the area or maybe that it was just an area used for catching and ringing birds in general.
We had one more scheduled stop that we wanted to make and that was at the RSPB's reserve at Conwy. We had visited the reserve in the past but had never made it any further than the cafe so had never seen much there at all. This time, after a coffee and cake in the said cafe, we vowed to have a look at the rest of the reserve. By mid-afternoon it had turned into a very warm day so refreshments were well received. Through the cafe windows you can watch the comings and goings on a shallow scrape. Many of the common wildfowl and wetland species were represented. We moved onto the saline lagoon which was fairly lively with birds. On one island stood around fifty Curlew and a dozen or so Black-tailed Godwits. A small party of Dunlin left as we watched.
|Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits & Shelduck
I had neglected to bring my scope with me so I had to scrutinise the birds with binoculars only but I still managed to find the long staying Spotted Redshank that I was looking for, in order to bolster the year list further. I took a photo to check the ID but I already knew. Happily I was able to share the discovery with some interested fellow birders in the hide.
|Spotted Redshank (centre), Redshanks & Curlew
A search of the open water yielded a couple of drake Greater Scaup although they were both very distant. The interest now was provided by a Little Egret that had flown in to right in front of the hide and proceeded to fish. It soon caught a tiddler and another and gave us a great exhibition of its fishing technique whereby it would use its feet to stir up the water and presumably disturb the small fry from their hiding spots.
|Greater Scaup (front)
Our day had yielded some fantastic birds and no fewer than eleven new year ticks. On the way back we put the icing on the cake with the discovery of a fabulous coffee stop, which served the best trifle that I've tasted in some time and for a fraction of the cost of our local places back home. This part of Wales has an awful lot going for it!
Year List additions;
156) Iceland Gull, 157) Fulmar, 158) Rock Pipit, 159) Shag, 160) Spotted Redshank