NORTH WALES WONDERLAND
As Kathy’s be-gloved hand passes me my second cup of coffee in as many hours, I hunker down into the welcome sanctuary of the MPV to scan the Menai Straits. I cannot help but wonder where else in the world might I see Gannets – my first of the year – highlighted against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains? I know spring is late this year but this is ridiculous. And so continues my North Welsh experience in the hands of the unpredictable British weather!
I have to admit that North Wales gets criminally overlooked when I am considering a British birding destination. The good people from Naturebites and The Biggest Twitch hope to show me how wrong I’ve been when I am invited to join them in April 2013
Naturebites’ leisurely mid-week breaks are based at the wonderful Outbuildings B&B at Llangaffo, though they also offer ‘bird race’ type days out and shorter guided walks for those with less time on their hands. A pre-breakfast stroll around the farm revealed a few Wigeon, Pochard and Teal on the property’s marsh and a candidate for Anglesey’s first Caspian Gull, partially hidden in a ploughed field. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite clinch it and the distant snow-covered Carneddau Mountains seemed to be mocking my feeble attempts at the finer points of gull identification. A slap-up full English breakfast more than made up for my failings.
Naturebites is a duo of guides: Kathy James and Ken ‘Birdman of Anglesey’ Croft. Kathy has worked at the RSPB’s South Stack reserve and the North Wales Wildlife Trust’s tern colony at Cemlyn Bay. Ken knows the island quite literally like the back of his hand and discovered the Gray Catbird in 2001 and identified South Stack’s famous Black Lark, as well as finding many other rarities and scarcities such as Black-browed Albatross, Icterine Warbler and numerous Barred & Yellow-browed Warblers, etc. I am in very capable hands for the next couple of days.
Kathy and Ken arrived in their MPV to collect me and the rest of the group at the appointed time and we were soon on our way to South Stack. By now, the weather had taken a turn for the worst and as we approached the famous reserve, rain was spattering the windscreen. This didn’t stop us from seeing a pair of Red-billed Chough feeding in a roadside field, though it was pleasing to see some of the group becoming very excited at the close-up views of Meadow Pipits in their spring finery. It’s not often that happens!
We were now in the hands of the weather. During such early season sea-frets as this, the auks take it upon themselves to desert the cliffs and head out to sea. There wasn’t a single Razorbill, Guillemot or Puffin to be seen!! We did, however, find a very bedraggled Peregrine sheltering under an overhang on an offshore island. He did not look happy. After watching Ravens, Stonechats and Wheatears on the bank of heather (memories of the Black Lark came flooding back), there really was nothing to do but admit defeat, so we retired to the reserve’s café for some warmth-inducing soup and a cuppa.
Thankfully, the rain eased in the afternoon and we were driven a short distance to watch Black Guillemots at point blank range. We then settled down for a leisurely scan of the extensive mudflats of Beddmanarch Bay (or the ‘Inland Sea’ as birders usually call it). Dapper Pale-bellied Brent Geese allowed prolonged views, Mediterranean Gulls performed well but the five displaying Slavonian Grebes were more distant. My quest to find a Whimbrel amongst the mass of Curlews ended in failure. We ended the day at Valley Lakes where Ken spotted the wintering Long-tailed Duck hiding amongst the commoner wildfowl and Kathy excitedly found the first hirundines of the late spring!
Just like the first, the second day’s weather kept us on our toes. A quick stop at the nearby extensive RSPB Malltraeth Marsh did not produce the hoped-for Bittern and Kathy’s friends at The Stack phoned to say that the Auks had not yet returned to the cliffs from their untimely mini-vacation. Local knowledge had saved us a wasted journey.
Instead, we soon found ourselves in the middle of a large town showing delighted passers-by the showy Dipper on the river by the main shopping centre! In contrast, we didn’t see another person at our next port of call: the beautiful, secluded Red Wharf Bay.
As the sea lapped at the stony shore, we watched two Snow Buntings hopping about and then noticed a hunkered down flock of Ringed Plovers next to us on the beach. Red-breasted Mergansers and Sandwich Terns rested in the bay and my first Greenshank of the year flew past. Idyllic.
Lunch was taken in a charming tea shop in Moelfre while we sheltered from the wind and rain. By the time the soup and hot chocolate had slipped down, the sun was peeping through allowing us to admire the Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes at sea and a Goldcrest so close in the bushes that we didn’t need our binoculars to see every detail of its tiny feathers.
Each new corner of Anglesey produced new birds and different weather. One decidedly chilly stop found us watching Eiders and the aforementioned Gannets and then came a first for me: the only Smew I have ever seen on the sea!
It was testament to Kathy’s organisational skills that we arrived right on schedule at Malltraeth. She also hoped we appreciated the dash of warming sunshine she’d ordered for us! The conditions showed off the roosting Black-tailed Godwits to perfection on the golden-hued pools. As is the norm at this time of year, the birds were in various states of moult from the drop-dead-gorgeous full breeding-plumaged birds to blotchy individuals showing a bit of colour while others still sported their dowdy winter plumage.
Each port of call on the itinerary of the two days’ birdwatching had been timed to coincide with the ideal light and tide conditions to give us the best chance of seeing a wide range of bird species in optimum viewing conditions. You just can’t beat local knowledge. To end the day, The Outbuildings had laid on tea and cakes in front of the log burner in the lounge: bliss!
After much begging and bribing on Thursday night, Kathy and Ken finally agreed to let me leave Anglesey as long as I promised to return on Saturday! This, and the flexibility of the staff at The Outbuildings to accommodate my birding foibles, allowed me to keep my early morning Friday appointment with The Biggest Twitch team of Alan Davies and Ruth Miller for their North Wales Coast and Valleys tour, one of several options available depending on the time of year. We were blessed with a wonderful, sunny morning as we rendezvoused in the car park at RSPB Conwy.
As soon as I stepped out of the car, it was obvious that migration had finally started in earnest. After quick introductions all round, Alan suggested we take a stroll around the reserve. Once again, I was in very capable hands: as well as being co-author of Best Birdwatching Sites in North Wales by Buckingham Press and kingpin of Birdline Wales, Alan used to be the Site Manager at Conwy and was born and bred not far from here. Alan and Ruth are famous as the couple who notched a record 4,341 bird species on a world twitch in 2008, but it is their local knowledge I am interested in today.
Numerous Chiffchaffs, a few Willow Warblers and a smattering of hirundines give us hope that we may see a few migrants today. After a quick scan of the pools – finding my first Common Sandpiper of the year – we head for the migrant hot-spot that is the Great Orme.
Ruth and Alan live in the shadow of The Orme and they talked lovingly of the birds they had seen here as we drove up the ‘mountain road’. It didn’t take us long to see Ravens, Meadow Pipits and catch a quick view of a Wheatear. I realized that all those species had been possible thanks to the glass roof of their MPV (fondly known as The Birdmobile): birds could be seen as they flew above and over us!
Shamefully, this was my first visit to Great Orme and it didn’t disappoint. A few Wheatears were hopping across the grassy plateau by the car park and even better, we located a couple of Ring Ouzels at the old quarry. A few weeks later, Ruth rather cruelly texted me to say they were showing another group a ‘stunning Dotterel’ at this very spot!
We dropped down into Llandudno and headed for Snowdonia. Ruth and Alan were keen to show me more of their patch. One thing they couldn’t show me were the lekking Black Grouse: the moorland roads were still closed due to snow. However, this left us plenty of ‘waiting time’ to give us a fighting chance of seeing several other target species, the first of which being Hawfinch.
As we got out of The Birdmobile, it started to rain. A joint decision was taken to leave the brollies in the car, as ‘it is only spitting’. Cue a downpour of Biblical proportions but at least the Hawfinches seemed to like it; twelve birds sat in the tops of the churchyard trees singing away merrily, allowing full-frame telescope views for their soaked admirers!
After a drying-off break with coffee and cakes, The Birdmobile took us through the wooded hills to a viewpoint. Our arrival coincided with the arrival of the sun. Intense scanning produced a few Buzzards and a Kestrel before the target bird soared into view: it’s not often one gets that close to a magnificent Goshawk!
Fast becoming a feature of this whole North Welsh break are the quaint cafés I am being ‘forced’ to visit. Local knowledge comes in more than one shape or form: Ruth has written a series of books called Birds, Boots and Butties and one such stop produces yet more wonderful pastries. I make a mental note to return here to see the Pied Flycatchers in the nestboxes.
Alan and Ruth felt it worthwhile pressing on into Snowdonia even though some of the roads were still snowbound. This proved to be a wise choice, as we were soon admiring a male Ring Ouzel and a few singing Wheatears in a spectacular valley.
We dropped down to sea level to scan Aber Ogwen. The former produced a tideline crawling with waders – despite the depressingly predictable presence of an uncontrolled dog marauding along the shoreline – and incredibly, an old friend: here was yesterday’s Smew right across this side of Conwy Bay!
The final stop of this circular route was Llanfairfechan. Thankfully, there were still a few lingering Red-throated Divers and a couple of Slavs on the millpond-like water. The final demonstration of how local knowledge can be advantageous came when The Biggest Twitchers circumnavigated (via Alan’s childhood home!) a massive tailback on the A55 to deposit me back at my car with the minimum of delay.
Quality and quantity had been the order of the day. I had been shown 84 species in just eight hours, including such sought-after goodies as Hawfinch, Goshawk, Ring Ouzel and Red-throated Diver. Add these to the previous days’ excellent tally with Naturebites and I ended up with a very respectable total indeed. So the next time you are looking for a British birding destination, whether it be for a day, a mini-break or a full holiday, I strongly suggest you add North Wales to your list of possible choices. All you need is a bit of local knowledge…
Neil Glenn would like to thank The Outbuildings B&B for his stay while in Anglesey, courtesy of Judith Williams. He would also like to say a huge thank you to the following for their hospitality, expertise and good company during his trip to North Wales:
Mini-breaks: 2013: 17th-20th September; 15th-18th October; 19th-22nd November
2014: 21st-24th January; 18th-21st February; 18th-21st March
Regular guided walks and bespoke days out around Anglesey and North Wales
The Biggest Twitch
Alan Davies and Ruth Miller: Birdwatching day trips and longer tours in the UK and Europe (01492 872407); set departures and individually-crafted custom tours available throughout the year.
E-mail [email protected].com
Judith Williams, Bodowyr Farm, Llangaffo, Anglesey (01248 430132
E-mail: [email protected]
Best Birdwatching Sites in North Wales by Alan Davies & Owen Roberts (Buckingham Press).
This article first appeared in Bird Watching magazine (UK).