Birding North Wales: Black Cocks at Dawn and More

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If North Wales hasn’t yet come up on your radar screen as a brilliant destination for birds and wildlife, then you simply haven’t been looking hard enough. It’s often overlooked – where? Wales?? – but there aren’t too many places in the world where you can enjoy mountain peaks, moors and uplands, wide glaciated valleys and cosy crinkly nooks, trickling streams and broad estuaries, sandy beaches and seabird-encrusted cliffs, pine forest and ancient oak woodland, all within an hour’s drive of one another. We’ve been lucky to visit 27 countries in one year but North Wales is still the place we come back to and call home. There’s simply nowhere else like it!

Let’s dispel a few myths first. No, it doesn’t rain all the time in Wales though we do get our fair share, as the green landscape will testify. And no, we don’t all go round singing in choirs. You’re unlikely to see a dragon but you will see plenty of other wildlife, and if it’s fire you’re after, many of the quaint inns will have a roaring log fire to sit around and toast your toes after an adventurous day enjoying the great outdoors. And you can try speaking in Welsh too. All those w’s, y’s and ll’s may look a bit daunting, but it’s quite straightforward when you get the hang of it!

Birding in Britain

Britain as a European birding destination is in a perfect position. On the northwest edge of Europe, we have a mild climate and a wide variety of resident species, and we’re also en route for many birds on migration. This includes those species such as warblers and waders heading north from Africa to breed in summer as well as those such as geese who migrate south from the Arctic to overwinter here.

And it gets better.  Britain is right on the edge of Europe, so we’re lucky enough to pick up the occasional rarity blown off-course from Asia, like the Black Lark that wowed thousands of birders in North Wales, though it’s more usually found in Kazakhstan. And with the prevailing westerly jetstream, we often have unexpected arrivals from the United States like Lesser Yellowlegs and Common Yellowthroat or this past fall’s Cape May Warbler.

Maybe that’s why we have so many birders in Britain, because you never know just what you may find around the next corner.

Life on the edge

North Wales is on the western edge of Britain and it’s the last point of land before the Irish Sea, so we get plenty of exciting migrants compared to much of Britain. With great birds and stunning landscapes, we are truly spoiled.

A week would give you just enough time to visit the best areas for birding North Wales, and if you wanted a concentrated birding trip, a three-day guided tour would give you a great introduction to all the highlight species in the area. But why rush? There is plenty to see and enjoy so why not take your time and explore the area thoroughly. Here are just some of the highlights.

Black Cocks at Dawn!

Black Grouse © The Biggest Twitch

Black Grouse © The Biggest Twitch

No, not an adult movie (!), this is the amazing spectacle of male Black Grouse at their lekking grounds on the high moors. These pumped-up male gamebirds strut their stuff and joust with one another with all the flair of a fencing champion. Backwards and forwards, these glossy black birds dance and feint, attacking but rarely making contact, their red combs erect and their white tails fanned to show off their eligibility while the dowdy brown females lurk unseen in the heather. You have to get up extremely early to witness one of the best British birding spectacles, as most of the show is over just after dawn. However, as daylight creeps over the wild heather moorland revealing the source of the bizarre bubbling and gurgling sound, you won’t regret leaving your warm bed to see these wonderful birds in full display. Best experienced from March to May, this is definitely one of THE highlights of the birding world!

The Conwy Valley

RSPB Conwy © The Biggest Twitch

RSPB Conwy © The Biggest Twitch

The Conwy Valley runs south from the North Wales coast, a classic U-shaped valley if you’re into your physical geography, and it is just stuffed with history, stunning landscapes and birds. Conwy itself is an ancient walled town with a picturesque harbour, but your wildlife tour here should start with a visit to the Conwy RSPB Nature Reserve. This 49-hectare reserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds comprises saline lagoons, scrubby areas, freshwater pools and a tidal estuary so it offers plenty of birdlife all year round. It has turned up a good number of rarities over the years, and there aren’t many other reserves that offer views of a mediaeval castle from the hides! Expect to see around 50 species on a visit to the reserve.

Further down the Conwy valley, ancient oak woodlands provide a summer home for our Welsh woodland specialist birds including Common Redstart, Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler. Check the rushing streams for a Dipper bobbing amongst the stones, while the uplands are a good place to look for raptors including Red Kite and Hen Harrier cruising overhead, as well as offering breath-taking scenery and lung-bursting walks if you’re feeling more active!

Snowdonia National Park

Wheatear © The Biggest Twitch

Wheatear © The Biggest Twitch

As National Parks go, Snowdonia may be tiny on a global scale but it still packs a punch. The craggy mountains provide a stunning backdrop to your visit and it’s a wonderful area for hiking, climbing, mountain biking or simply soaking up the view. Home to a number of wonderful birds including Red-billed Chough and Ring Ouzel, this area is a must-see on any visit to North Wales.

Don’t be fooled by their compact nature, these are still real mountains to be taken seriously and the mountain rescue teams are regularly called out to save lives. Of course if you fancy scaling Snowdon without the hard work, you can always cheat and take a steam train to the top – the views on the way up are still just as dramatic. Birds may not be so numerous here as on the lower levels, but any you encounter will be all the more special, such as Peregrine Falcon, Common Redstart, Wheatear and Stonechat.

The Isle of Anglesey

Tern dread Cemlyn © The Biggest Twitch

Tern dread Cemlyn © The Biggest Twitch

Legend has it that Merlin the Sorcerer and guardian of the Holy Grail lived on Anglesey. If so, he certainly picked a good spot to hang out. Even today, Anglesey makes you feel that you are going back in time. The island is dotted with sudden outcrops of rock bursting out like pimples and traditional white stone cottages hunker down with their backs to the prevailing wind. If walking’s your thing, you can follow the Anglesey Coastal Path, all 125 miles of it, right around the edge and you’ll encounter a mix of wide sandy beaches, shingle ridges and dramatic sea cliffs.

Birders tend to migrate towards RSPB South Stack, a nature reserve right on the north-western corner of this island, the last piece of land before the sea-crossing to Ireland. This is the best place to catch up with Red-billed Chough, a real busybody of a corvid with a decurved blood-red bill and matching legs, which is often seen right outside the RSPB café! Visit between April and late June and the cliffs will be covered with the hustle and bustle of a seabird colony as Common Guillemots and Razorbills balance cheek-by-jowl on the precarious ledges and Atlantic Puffins barrel into their grass-roofed burrows.

Just down the road, a visit to Wales’ largest tern colony at Cemlyn in the breeding season provides a real assault to your hearing – and your sense of smell if you’re downwind! Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns all breed here. But if you prefer your wildlife watching to be more quiet and contemplative, don’t worry, Anglesey’s got that covered too. Certainly the Atlantic Grey Seals that are frequently seen basking on the rocks just offshore always look pretty relaxed about life!

But hang on a minute, what about the dramatic Lleyn Peninsula, a spring and autumn migrant trap as it stretches like a pointing finger westwards into the Irish Sea? And don’t forget the hidden creeks and squelchy marshes of the Dee Estuary, home to thousands upon thousands of waders and wildfowl. Or the beautifully tranquil west-facing Dyfi estuary and its spectacular feeding frenzy of Manx Shearwaters just offshore in summer. Did we say a week was long enough? Well, maybe you’d better make that two! However long you can visit, croeso y Cymru, as the locals would say!

Intrigued by the possibilities of birding North Wales? Be sure to check out A Big Twitch around Llandudno, a trip report by one of Alan and Ruth’s clients!

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