Llandegla Forest – Tree Pipits, Cuckoo and Redpolls

P1070595 - Tree Pipit, Llandegla Forest
The reason we arrived at that first Black Grouse lek so late was that we’d spent the majority of Saturday exploring Llandegla forest. This is a superbly managed, privately owned plantation which borders the main Grouse moors and is home to the RSPB hide which kick started this whole adventure. Although we wouldn’t be taking advantage of its facilities I thought it only fair that we stop by and drop a little cash in recognition of the enterprises efforts. The chance that we might still stumble across a few Grouse didn’t hurt either.

Things got off to an exciting start as Emma decided that we should ignore the sat-nav and instead follow our OS map. Revolutionary I know in this day and age but we quickly discovered that we may have ever so slightly misjudged things. Perhaps it was the sign stating “unsuitable for motor vehicles” or maybe the huge ruts which faced us but were we deterred? Of course not. This was our first opportunity to do some proper off-roading and the car came through admirably. Apologies for the smug looks as we joined the main road again to some curious glances. Having picked up a trail guide we were soon enjoying the forestry proper, an interesting mix of tree ages, species and spacing, all managed to help increase the attractiveness of this area for wildlife. And boy was it working. Whereas plantations can be dark places devoid of birdsong, Llanedegla was positively bursting with life. Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs led the charge with a backing choir of Goldcrests and Coal Tits plus the occasional Blackcap. That still didn’t stop us diverting out onto the moor at our first opportunity however, just in case there were a few lingering Black Grouse still around.

P1070564 - Llandegla Forest

It was a pretty dull morning but the landscape spread out before us was unlike anything I’ve seen before. For as far as the eye could see there was a patchwork of colours, a direct result of the heather cutting which takes place here to encourage new growth and provide lovely fresh, juicy shoots for the Grouse. Sadly their main beneficiary was keeping a low profile though we did turn up a curiously plumaged Reed Bunting as well as plenty of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits plus a hunting Kestrel. All good signs of a healthy moor. Pushing back into the forest we were soon walking alongside a large recently felled area when two interesting calls reached our ears. The first was clearly a distant male Cuckoo, result, followed by something which I couldn’t immediately place. A few moments later the culprits arrived in the shape of a flock of small birds which despite their penchant for landing out of sight we managed to pin down to Lesser Redpolls. Now this is a species we hardly ever seem to see so it was an excellent surprise to find at least twenty flitting about. Of course the next challenge was to try and get one on camera which was no easy task. I definitely could have done better.

P1070569 - Lesser Redpoll, Llandegla Forest

It was while being led on a merry chase that another small bird caught my attention, this one clearly a Tree Pipit parachuting and calling from one of the few trunks still standing. Although initially distant I was able to creep in until only a few meters away, eventually getting my best shots of this species to date. There were at least another couple present in the same area and if we’d stopped to look more closely at each pipit we passed that number would almost certainly have climbed a whole lot higher.

P1070586 - Tree Pipit, Llandegla Forest

P1070595 - Tree Pipit, Llandegla Forest

This was turning into an unexpectedly excellent trip, and things were about to get even better. Back amongst more thickly wooded areas we picked up the unmistakeable calls of a Crossbill somewhere nearby. Straining our necks to peer up at the canopy revealed a male and female pair, both in brightly coloured plumage which still comes as a shock in a country where small and brown is often the norm. This seemed to open the floodgates as for the next couple of miles we were either seeing or hearing Crossbills with numerous flocks roaming the trees. Most were incredibly tricky to photograph being both high up and silhouetted but I’m pretty pleased with what I managed to get.

P1070598 - Crossbill, Llandegla Forest

Llandegla still had one more surprise up its sleeve however. Remember that Cuckoo we’d heard earlier? Having fallen silent since we’d assumed it had moved on until I spotted a suspicious looking shape atop another lone tree. Our first Cuckoo of the year and great views as it called a few times before flying on to a more distant perch. Nice light though so a record shot had to be attempted.

P1070602 - Cuckoo, Llandegla Forest

Yet more Crossbills accompanied our final few miles until we were once more back at the car. Forget what you think you may know about conifer plantations as Llandegla perfectly demonstrates what a little bit of good management can do for both wildlife and visitors. More of the same please.

Black Grouse at World's End - The Videos

Conscious that still images can only ever tell part of a story, I attempted to take a few video clips during our Black Grouse encounters at World's End. Strong wind, passing cars and a very persistent Skylark all did their best to make this as difficult as possible but the results are definitely worth sharing, even if just to hear that fantastic bubbling call once more.

For the full story on our Black Grouse encounter head here where images and words can be found in abundance.

Black Grouse at World's End

P1070718_2 - Black Grouse, World's End
It’s amazing where a little idle chatter can take you. For us that turned out to be World’s End, probably one of the best place names I think I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit. It all began just over a week ago when, whilst visiting family down in Kent, talk somehow turned to Black Grouse and the fact that my sister had stumbled across a few whilst walking the Dark Peak. Fantastic for her but somewhat irksome for my father and I who both have these moorland battlers on our “to be seen” list. It did however serve as a timely reminder that for the past couple of years I’d been musing on a potential trip to north Wales to try and see the leks there. Only a couple of minor points had been holding me back. Firstly I wasn’t entirely sure where to go, secondly there was the underlying worry that we’d come away empty handed following the long trip, and finally I really didn’t fancy those pre-dawn starts which seem to be par for the course if you want a quality encounter. That being said a fire had indeed been lit and a bit of internet research later had me in contact with the RSPB who run early morning tours near Llangollen. Sadly they were all full but fair play to Vera in returning my email who was more than willing to point us in the right direction. A few hours later we had a cottage booked and Saturday found us watching our very first Black Grouse lek.

P1070607 - Black Grouse, World's End

P1070615_2 - Black Grouse, World's End

Awesome doesn’t come close to describing the experience. Although distant we were able to enjoy the sights and sounds of up to seventeen male Black Grouse battling for dominance on a moor that literally felt like another world compared to what we lovingly refer to as ‘civilisation’ just a few miles away. The air was filled with an almost continuous bubbling call, interspersed with sharp shouts every now and again when things really started to heat up. I always find it strange finally seeing something in the flesh having been so familiar with it over the years through TV and the like and just couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t feel quite real. But real it was and we remained enthralled by the ebb and flow of the lek for at least the next twenty minutes before as one the flock took flight and left. One bird even flew directly overhead and let me assure you that they are neither quiet nor small when up close.

It’s worth noting as well that we had not arrived pre-dawn for this lek. Far from it in fact. Having spent the majority of the day walking we rocked up at World’s End around half five in the evening. A whole lot more appealing for this hater of early starts. The whole thing was viewed from the car, as recommended to avoid any kind of disturbance to the birds, and I still can’t believe that we finally managed to see a Black Grouse lek after all these years.

Of course there’s always the chance that we’d just been incredibly lucky so we returned around the same time on Sunday. Once again we found the lek, though this time in a more subdued mood, with most of the male birds seemingly happy to sit and tolerate each other’s presence. We wanted drama however so carried on along the road with eyes peeled for something a little more lively. We thought we’d found it when a head popped up from the heather but that turned out to be a Red Grouse instead. Nice to see but not what we were after. Less than a mile later though and Emma spotted a few black dots ahead and blow me if it wasn’t a lek happening right next to the road! Having pulled up I made a rather impressive dive for the back seats (so as not to exit the car and potentially disrupt proceedings) and started snapping away.

P1070694 - Black Grouse, World's End

P1070708 - Black Grouse, World's End

P1070712 - Black Grouse, World's End

P1070718_2 - Black Grouse, World's End

P1070721_2 - Black Grouse, World's End

If we’d thought our first lek impressive, this one was on a whole other level. Contests were breaking out in all directions as pumped up males first fanned their tales then began to charge their rivals. Most of these confrontations involved two individuals but as things continued to heat up brawls would often involve three, four or even more birds. Despite my best efforts I must confess to being at a total loss as to who, if anyone, was coming out on top but suffice to say we were probably the happiest living things out on the moor.

In the end a heavy rain shower limited any further photography but I was more than happy to simply sit back and watch events unfold. If you’d seen me I’m sure I would have had a massive smile plastered across my face. After almost an hour we left the Grouse to battle on into the gathering darkness, drawing to a close our time at World’s End.

More Spring Migrants

P1070488 - Whitethroat
I've not really been out with the camera a great deal this last month or so but when I have my run of luck with spring migrants has been pretty darn good. Back on the 8th April we enjoyed a nine mile walk around the heart of Gower, kicking off from near King Arthur's stone before taking in Mill Woods, Oxwich, Three Cliffs and Cefn Bryn. It's a route that shows off many of Gower's best features and on this occasion also delivered my first Willow Warbler of the year. It was singing its heart out above Reynoldston and hopped off the wires just long enough to pose in a patch of flowering Gorse.

P1070058 - Willow Warbler

Of course, where you've got Willow Warblers you've almost certainly got Chiffchaffs and again we found another showy individual less than a mile down the road. The angle definitely wasn't so great this time but I've learned not to pass up an opportunity where this species is concerned as once the trees leaf up they're a whole lot harder to find.

P1070065 - Chiffchaff

Fast forward to last weekend and we lucked in with a Whitethroat which seemed happy to pose and stare us down. In truth I think it had a nest somewhere in the vicinity so we only stayed for a minute or so before leaving the bird in peace.

P1070488 - Whitethroat

P1070500 - Whitethroat

By the time you're reading this we'll have had another long weekend with ours being spent up in North Wales around the Llangollen area. I won't tempt fate having not actually left to travel there yet (aren't scheduled posts a wonderful thing) but I'm feeling energised and eager to see what we can turn up next.

Penwyllt - Return to the Hills

P1070514 - Penwyllt
As much as I love Norfolk it suffers from a serious lack of elevation. Gentle undulations are about as extreme as the landscape gets which for this resident of Wales is a genuine shock to the system. So it was that our first morning back home we headed straight for the Brecon Beacons; Penwyllt to be exact. Its combination of disused railway, huge quarries and industrial remnants appeal to me on several levels, not to mention the chance of a Ring Ouzel or two popping up.

P1070505 - Penwyllt

P1070503 - Penwyllt

The site was much as I remembered it from our last visit a couple of years ago. That is to say dilapidated with nature beginning to reclaim and soften its scars. Straight away we picked up the calls of a distant Raven, remarkably one of the few species which we didn’t manage to record during our time out east. It was quickly followed by the first of what would turn out to be at least ten Wheatears, all showing well yet always just out of reach for my camera. The same could be said of a stunning male Redstart, our first of the year and a species which begs to be admired and photographed, even if the result can only best be described as a record shot.

P1070506 -Redstart, Penwyllt

Heading up onto the hillside proper there were yet more Wheatears accompanied by a multitude of Meadow Pipits and singing Skylarks but alas, no amount of scouring likely looking spots could turn up any Ring Ouzel. Not to worry as the views were reward enough for me. Look one way and Carmarthen Fan dominated proceedings whilst the other was a mass of Limestone pavement.

P1070510 - Penwyllt

P1070516 - Penwyllt

Shortly after the above photos were taken a weather front swept in obscuring Carmarthen Fan and the valley between us at a fairly rapid pace. It didn’t take long for the first drops of rain to reach us though we were able to avoid the worst by sheltering on the leeward side of a large outcrop. Gazing out across the moorland reminded me a great deal of our time on Mull, somewhere I can’t wait to get back to over the summer.

P1070514 - Penwyllt

P1070520 - Penwyllt

Fortunately the downpour was relatively short lived and with the valley clear once more we made our descent along one of the numerous inclines which cross this area. The shot above shows an interesting junction where a later construction cuts through an older, stone sleepered operation. I’d have loved to have been up here in the early 1980’s before most of the village and old buildings were bulldozed.

Eastern Adventures - Part 2

P1070229_2 - Bittern, Hickling Broad
If you've not yet had chance to read part one of the tale from our week out east then head over here first. No one wants to descend into anarchy after all.

Day 5 - Happisburgh and Hickling Broad
As good as things had been up until now, our Norfolk birding trip was about to kick into hyper-drive. It all started on another crystal clear morning though one which, I'm rather relieved to say, actually held a degree of warmth. After shivering our way through the past few days it made a pleasant change to be walking without coats along the coast path at Happisburgh. Now this was riskier than it may at first seem as in sections the path had dropped a good thirty foot onto the beach below leaving sheer drops that could quite easily catch the unwary off guard. Needless to say we gave these stretches a wide berth as just one glance at the crumbling cliffs told you that this was not a stable area. That feeling was backed up by nearby signs which showed how much of the village itself has been lost to the sea in recent years. Since 1990 an entire street has simply vanished and that rate of erosion is only emphasised further when you learn that in the not too distant past there used to be another entire village between Happisburgh and the coast. That's a crazy thought when one considers how solid and permanent we tend to think of the ground beneath our feet. Even worse is that as things stand there is no end in sight with any potential defences tied up in red tape and politics, a fact that will result in the loss of the village's church and lighthouse within the next decade unless something can be done.

P1070195 - Happisburgh

P1070198 - Happisburgh

But I digress. The reason for our visit had been a report from a couple of days previous that five Shorelarks were lurking nearby. Now Shorelark is one of those species which has been on my target list for several years now and was in fact one of the main reasons for our base of operations being located a little further east this tine around. On previous visits I've always noted that Great Yarmouth seemed a particular hotspot for these so was planning on heading there at some point, but with Happisburgh being a whole lot closer it would have been rude not to at least take a look. With acres of sand, cliffs and fields to search I didn't hold out much hope until Emma shouted that she'd found one on the path a little ways ahead. It couldn't be that easy, could it? Apparently yes! There in front of us was a Shorelark but our views were only brief before it relocated into a ploughed field just inland. For a yellow and black bird it camouflaged itself remarkably well but we soon had it relocated, along with another two of its compatriots. What a result. They were soon on the move again however and quickly vanished amongst the mounds of tilled earth but there was no taking away from the fact that we had our first lifer of the trip. I even got a terrible record shot to prove it.

P1070199_2 - Shorelark, Happisburgh

Sharing that ploughed field were six Turnstones, a pair of Ringed Plovers and a White Wagtail whilst back at the car another male Blackcap was in full song. From there it was a short drive down to the northern tip of the Norfolk Broads, or Hickling Broad to be more precise. This reserve is owned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and we'd not picked it for any other reason than when I googled "Common Cranes in Norfolk", this was the first site which popped up. Initial impressions were impressive with a freshly opened visitor centre and friendly staff followed moments later by a pair of Common Crane circling on thermals high above us. Now that is what I call delivering on your promises. Both were however incredibly distant but even so their sheer size was a sight to behold and looked almost completely alien in our skies. Indeed the species was almost entirely extinct from this country until a small breeding population re-established itself here in the 1970's. Very recent history but I'm so glad that they're back.

As we explored the rest of the reserve it was standard Norfolk fare in the shape of Sedge Warblers, Marsh Harriers and Avocets until I spotted a strange looking Crow lurking at the back of one particular pool. As I watched it slowly emerged revealing an entirely unexpected Hooded Crow! Now this is a species normally only found across Europe and in Scotland so to find one here was completely out of the blue. Indeed it may be a reserve first as when I reported it back at reception they certainly couldn't recall having one recorded here previously. Pretty pumped up after that we almost immediately stumbled into a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, our first of the year and an individual that was even visible, just about. Not often that you get to say that about Groppers in my experience.

P1070209 - Chiffchaff, Hickling Broad
Not a Grasshopper Warbler but a Chiffchaff.

And now for something a little different. At Hickling Broad it's possible to pay a little extra and enjoy a boat tour out onto the broad, stopping off at a couple of otherwise inaccessible hides. This sounded very tempting given the weather and thanks to our excellent guide we had a thoroughly enjoyable trip (plus another couple of excellent book recommendations - I'm going to need some more shelves). Along the way we spotted a pair of Bearded Tits, Common Terns as well as a superb male Pintail, but for me the highlight turned out to be the treetop hide. With this area being so flat it's hard to get a sense of your place within it at times, something which a lot of steps and a distinctly wobbly structure soon had solved. All around us for as far as the eye could see stretched reeds and waterways whilst off in the distance stood sand dunes and the sea beyond. Even the lighthouse at Happisburgh put in an appearance along with a stark warning from our guide that if the sea ever does manage to break through there, all of this area could be inundated. Now there's a sobering thought.

P1070211 - Hickling Broad

Back on dry land we had one final stop to make at the Bittern Hide, a name which always induces a sense of scepticism. So it was that we sat down, opened a hatch and were soon enjoying views of a Bittern crossing the expanse of low lying reeds spread out before us. Nope, I couldn't believe it either and yes we were very jammy. Even better was that the bird appeared in no hurry, periodically stopping to look around or grab a juicy morsel. I wish my photos could do the encounter justice but with distance, heat haze and errant reeds all playing their part, these were the best I could manage.

P1070215_2 - Bittern, Hickling Broad

P1070219 - Bittern, Hickling Broad

P1070229_2 - Bittern, Hickling Broad

But wait, there's more. Having lost the Bittern to taller reeds after twenty (!) minutes or so we were treated to the sound of it and some distant rival booming away. Our bird then climbed the reeds ahead of us and, whilst precariously balanced, boomed again in full view before stretching those wings and lifting off, soon lost to the expanse of Hickling Broad. My best Bittern encounter without a doubt.

Day 6 - Wells to Holkham
I really didn't think that anything could have bettered yesterday but somehow our last day in Norfolk had one more ace to play. It certainly wasn't the weather however which was distinctly grey and drizzly as we set off from Wells, a fact which meant that even the hundreds of Brent Geese feeding nearby couldn't entice my camera into action. No photos then unfortunately so my first Whitethroat of the year, seen in Wells Woods, escapes exposure on this blog. Saves me royalty fees I suppose. We still enjoyed a lovely walk and at Holkham Gap managed to spot a flyover Spoonbill and pair of Whimbrels. Would the birds ever stop coming? Apparently not. Common Scoter and Great Crested Grebes were making the most of a calm sea until we arrived at the dunes beyond Holkham. At this point the sun chose to put in an appearance as we begin to look through the scrubby vegetation during the first genuinely hot period of the past week. I've heard people speak before of how an area can feel rare and, after spending just a few moments here, I knew exactly what they meant. There was an inexplicable sense of expectation that, given the time of year and weather conditions, there just had to be something unusual out there. Once again our luck was in as we stumbled across not one, not two but six Ring Ouzels! By now even I was starting to believe that we were somehow blessed. Actually that's not strictly true as earlier in the day there had apparently been double figures reported so in a way this was a bit of a let down (I'm joking of course). Even after all that Holkham had one last treat in store for us with a lone Pink-footed Goose and at least three more Spoonbill from the hides. Now that's how you sign off. Thanks Norfolk.

Day 7 - RSPB Minsmere
If you've seen my Nightingale post then you'll know that by Saturday we were down in Kent. Along the way though we thought we'd stop in at a very cold, rather grey Minsmere. Now this reserve and I have history as back in 1997 it was the first time I had ever set myself the goal of seeing a bird and was determined not to move until I was successful. This probably irked my parents no end but after an hour or so of waiting I was treated to my first ever views of Bittern. That was also the first trip on which I'd ever carried a field notebook meaning that I have the moment preserved for prosperity.

27415 - Old Logbook from 1997

Indeed it was the Bittern we were again hoping to see when initially planning this trip but given our success over the last few days that no longer seemed like such a priority. Even so we still managed brief flight views and heard several birds booming but we were instead focused on a few of the rarer species on site that day. Stone Curlews were target number one but they sadly eluded us once more though we did get more cracking views of Bearded Tit and another reeling Grasshopper Warbler from north wall. At least 45 Sandwich Terns out on the scrape were another year tick as was a male Mandarin. What I really wanted to see though was a Savi's Warbler of which one had turned up the previous day outside Island Mere Hide. When we arrived late afternoon there were a series of scopes trained in the same direction which is always a good sign. Turns out that the Savi's had been seen twice for just a couple of seconds in the last three hours or so, always on the same very, very distant bush. As we settled in for a long wait more Bearded Tit's kept us entertained until a distant reeling drifted across to our ears. It's hard for me to explain in words but the call was distinctly different from that of a Gropper, a lower and flatter pitch about the best that I can come up with. Then the shout went up that the bird itself was visible but I couldn't connect before the moment was gone. Another bout of reeling and an hour later and again the shout went up though this time I locked on almost immediately. Despite the vast distance between us the Savi's Warbler was visible calling and preening intermittently for at least a couple of minutes. Given the previous day's brief sightings it seemed that we had lucked in once more. Lifer number two and another species I never expected to see.

And that, as they say, was that. Next stop Kent for another lifer (Nightingale) before home and back to work. Without a doubt this had been our best ever trip to Norfolk and frankly, I just can't wait for our next eastern adventure.
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