Carmarthenshire With Added Smew and Ring Necked Duck

Saturday, February 27, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


As the title of this post indicates I have had a rather successful days birding in Carmarthenshire with two new life ticks added. The weather on waking was looking very changeable so I decided on an impromptu road trip to check out a few new locations. Despite living on the county border I have never really explored Carmarthenshire apart from passing through on the way to Pembrokeshire. To correct this we chose a couple of targets and headed off into the great unknown.

Our first destination was Pencarreg Lake four miles south west of Lampeter. Just about visible from the main road a small lane leads down to the edge of the lake where good views can be had across the water. We were quickly on to a male and female Goldeneye while two Little Grebes were feeding just off the near bank. On the far side we could see a couple of male Tufted Ducks accompanied by our target bird and the first lifer of the day; a female Ring Necked Duck. Despite spending most of its time asleep the bird did occasionally pop its beak out to show the white ring near its tip and also the white colouring around the eye to provide us with a definite identification. Sadly it was far to far away to get even a record shot. Much closer though were a noisy flock of Starlings whiling away the day in a large tree whilst the photos below show a very friendly Dunnock who was more than happy to sing his little heart out for our pleasure.

12014 - Dunnock at Pencarreg Lake 12015 - Dunnock at Pencarreg Lake

With one success under our belt we set off to the Talley Lakes near Llandeilo. The lakes consist of two bodies of water separated by strip of land that holds a Norman Motte and are owned and managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. The Upper Lake held several Canada Geese but it was the lower lake where things got exciting. Unfortunately we couldn't work out how to access the lake itself but from a high vantage point on a small road we were able to pick out another couple of Goldeneyes and also five Smew! The group consisted of a male and four females and was my second life tick of the day. I have always wanted to see Smew ever since seeing the birds in the captive collection at WWT Slimbridge. Back in those days I considered these an exotic that I was never likely to get to watch in the wild but today happily I was able to prove myself wrong.

By now the rain was moving in so we decided to head back to the coast in the hope that the weather would be clearer. For once in this country the weather played ball and by time we were on the Gower Peninsular the sun was shining and the skies were blue.

12020 - The Marsh at Penclawdd, Gower 12021 - The marsh at Penclawdd, Gower

As high tide was due in another hour or so we decided to visit an area of Llanrhidian Marsh that we had not yet so far managed to reach. Just past Penclawdd there is a man-made breakwater that stretches right out to the edge of the marsh offering excellent views across the Burry Inlet. Despite some very muddy ground we eventually made it and as the pictures above show it really does offer very good views. Across the water and marsh we counted the following: Brent Geese (60+), Shellduck (20+), Pintail (10+), Oystercatcher (5000+), Great Crested Grebe (30+), Widgeon (10+) and Curlew (100+). The Brent Geese were a particular highlight as they were the best views I have ever had of this species. We were close enough to be able to hear them chattering away to each other which gave a lovely bit of atmosphere to proceedings. The Grebes were also a surprise as I have never seen a single gathering this large before. On the 20th Feb 347 were counted off Aberavon Beach by another local birder so there certainly seem to be plenty around at the moment.

12022 - Hen Harrier at Llanrhidian Marsh

To finish the day off we headed to the other end of the marsh to sit and wait for the Hen Harriers to put on their show. I have been down a couple of times after work during the last week and each time have been treated to some superb views. Today was no different with two female birds busy hunting. Eventually one came close enough for me to get my first record shot of this species, but unfortunately the sun had already set behind the hill. Despite it being pretty rubbish you can clearly see what it is and for that reason its a keeper.

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Back Garden Starlings

Saturday, February 20, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


This weekend I am unfortunately housebound due to work commitments requiring that I be constantly in the vicinity of my laptop. This is annoying at the best of times but doubly so when the weather outside is absolutely gorgeous. Not to be beaten though I decided to try and photograph some of the bird species that regularly visit my garden. After a brief stint stood outside it quickly became apparent that approach was never going to work without the aid of a hide. As a result I headed back inside and took up position sitting on my kitchen worktop with one of the windows open. This worked much better and the birds soon returned and completely ignored me.

Normally I take my photographs with a Panasonic Lumix FZ28, which is a so-called bridge camera boasting an 18x optical zoom. This works very well for the majority of the time, but suffers badly in low light and never quite has enough reach for photographing smaller species. I have had an old Canon EOS 10D and an even older 75-300mm lens lying around for ages now but have always had my concerns about the sharpness of the pictures that the combination produces. Over the last few weeks I have begun to seriously consider a move into the land of SLR's with something along the lines of a Nikon D300s and a 400mm lens. To check that I wanted to go this route I got the old Canon out and these are the results.

12008 - Starling in my garden
12009 - Starling in my garden 12013 - Starling in my garden

I rejected most of the pictures as they just weren't sharp enough for my liking, but the couple above really worked out well. Thanks to the SLR's larger sensor I was able to sharpen these images into something acceptable. With a more modern camera and a higher quality lens I think my photography could really move onto a new level. It is definitely time to get serious and work out which of the many SLR's out there I want to get.

Apart from the Starlings the garden was an absolute hive of activity for most of the day. I had visits from two Coal Tits, two Robins, several Chaffinch and House Sparrows, three Blue Tits, a Great Tit, a male Blackbird as well as six Jackdaws. Overhead were two Herring Gulls, two Buzzard and a magnificent Red Kite which glided right along the back of the houses. All in all not a bad day considering I couldn't go anywhere!

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Watching Hen Harriers over Llanrhidian Marsh, Gower

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


12004 - Llanrhidian Marsh, GowerThis evening was a perfect example of why I love living where I do. After being in work all day I headed straight from the office down to Llanrhidian Marsh which borders the Burry Inlet on Gower. My aim was to try and see the Hen Harriers (one of my bogey species) that have been coming into roost at this location for the past couple of weeks. I wasn't to be disappointed. As soon as I got out of the car I was straight onto a female Hen Harrier hunting just above the tops of the reeds, eyes down in a constant search for her prey. The sun was very low in the sky but the lighting was absolutely perfect as it illuminated every inch of the birds expansive wingspan. The white area at the base of the tail was clearly visible as were the rings on the tail. I had always wondered if I would be able to tell a female Hen Harrier from a Buzzard but when the moment came there was no doubt. The behavior and demeanor of the Harrier is completely different, and the way in which they are able to float above the reeds is simply spectacular.

I was able to watch the female hunting for several minutes at a time before it would drop down into the reeds and disappear. During these gaps in activity there was certainly no shortage of other bird life over the marsh. A Kestrel could be seen hunting in the distance whilst a flock of Lapwings cartwheeled over the estuary and the odd Heron slowly flapped overhead as it came into roost. I was also very pleased to find a new Little Egret roost which finished up with ten individuals by the time the light had gone completely.

I would have been happy to end it there but there was one more event to finish off a perfect evening. Far out across the marsh I spotted another large bird rise up from the reeds and blow me if it wasn't a male Hen Harrier. There was just enough light left to pick out his grey plumage and the black ends to its wings as it hunted. It was slightly surreal seeing the male at last as it is something that I have been dreaming about for a while now and have hunted for on numerous occasions in the past. I will certainly be back out over the coming days to watch these birds again before they move out of this area and into their breeding grounds further north. I should also thank the fellow birder with who I spent the evening for being as friendly and chatty as everyone else who I have encountered on Gower and in the surrounding areas.

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Cormorants and Goldeneyes on the Ogmore River

Sunday, February 14, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


Following on from my post yesterday comes a couple of photographs of a Cormorant on the Ogmore River. This particular individual came in to land much closer than normal and allowed me to get some decent shots. Light levels at the time were extremely poor and the wind-chill factor meant that my fingers were frozen to the bone. Despite the pain the pictures I feel are worth it. Apart from being my first Cormorant pictures they also show the white thigh patches and neck streaks of the breeding plumage that appear for only a few weeks in late winter and early spring. Cormorants tend to breed very early on in the year hence the breeding plumage already being fully developed.

11983 - Cormorant on Ogmore River 11985 - Cormorant on Ogmore River

Also out on the river was a flock of twenty four Goldeneye consisting of both sexes and also a good number of juveniles. The Ogmore River is a regular winter haunt for these seasonal visitors though this bunch seemed unusually flighty. They were even taking to the wing when walking past a good distance from the river. I fear that the presence of dog walkers has made these birds overly cautious. A couple of the males were throwing their heads back as part of their courtship display which was nice to see.

11982 - Goldeneye on Ogmore River 11981 - Goldeneye on Ogmore River

Elsewhere the river was very well populated with the usual Gull species as well as several Redshank. A pair of Gadwall were a nice addition as was a single male Wigeon. The lower reaches had far more Oystercatchers present than I have seen here before, and the resident Mallards seem to be edging closer and closer to the sea at the Rivers mouth. I wouldn't be surprised to see them give up the river completely one day and head off out to sea. I have seen Mute Swans in the sea off Aberystwyth beach before so a precedent has been set.

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Honeycomb Worms on Ogmore Beach

Saturday, February 13, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


If you are puzzled by the image that you see below then you would not be the only one. Whilst walking along the cliffs at Ogmore beach this afternoon we noticed some strange looking structures on the rocks below. A quick glance with the binoculars seemed to suggest a sponge like covering over large areas. This just didn't seem plausible so we headed down for a closer look.

11994 - Honeycomb Worms on Ogmore Beach

What we found was quite amazing. Large swathes of the recently uncovered foreshore were covered in structures not dissimilar to coral reefs. Some of the groupings were at last waist high and a good three of four meters across. As you can see from the picture above though these structures were anything but coral. They were in fact hundreds if not thousands of tiny tubes with walls made from single grains of sand, rock and shell. The workmanship was simply astonishing and must rank up there as one of the most intricate things that I have ever seen mother nature create. I quickly realised that these tubes must be home to some sort of creature; a conclusion that was further borne out by some careful listening. When the wind dropped down it was possible to hear small scraping noises coming from within some of the tubes.

11997 - Honeycomb Worms on Ogmore Beach 11989 - Honeycomb Worms on Ogmore Beach

A bit of research on the interweb this evening and I have the culprit for these engineering masterpieces; the Honeycomb worm or Sabellaria Alveolata. These are marine filter feeding worms that live in tubes of sand that pack together to form the reefs that I had seen. The grains of sand that make up the tubes are held together by a mucus which the worm generates and secretes from its lobed mouth. Amazingly they can live for up to nine years and feed by popping their feathery feeding tentacles out of the tube end when the tide covers the reef. As long as their is a good supply of sand a reefs position remains relatively stable as successive generations add their own tubes. Over time other species of marine life also come to rely upon the reef for protection. I certainly saw plenty of anemones tucked into the crevices of these reefs.

11998 - Honeycomb Worms on Ogmore Beach 12000 - Honeycomb Worms on Ogmore Beach

As the picture above left shows, the tubes quickly absorb anything that is in their path. This pair of sandals were well and truly stuck in position whilst other areas had incorporated large shells and other pieces of beach detritus. The Honeycomb Worm stretches along our coasts from south west England to the Solway Firth and east to Lyme Bay. Unfortunately there are concerns about its population with numbers dropping across its range. Much of this is down to the structures fragile nature leaving it susceptible to coastal developments or just plain old trampling by beach users. I know that I will certainly be keeping my eyes out for it in the future.

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Pontarddulais Sunset

Thursday, February 11, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


After being stuck in the office looking longingly at the gorgeous weather all day, I decided to try and get back home in time to catch what I was hoping would be a nice sunset this evening. By the time I reached the house the sun was already well on its way to the horizon so I grabbed my camera and pretty much ran up the hill at the back of the house. Having only lived here for a couple of months I haven't attempted to photograph a sunset from this location before but I'm pretty happy with the results.

11969 - Sunset over Pontarddulais
11962 - Sunset over Pontarddulais 11976 - Sunset over Pontarddulais

The view you can see is taken looking over Pontarddulais with the Loughour estuary at high tide in the middle and the Gower peninsular in the distance. If you look closely at the bottom right picture you can see Whiteford point and the Bristol Channel poking out in the far distance. Prior to looking at these pictures I hadn't realised just how far you could see. The road I take to work looks over the same scene but from a much higher elevation. I have been meaning to take my camera with me for a while now to capture the view so will make a point of doing that tomorrow given that we are forecast another gorgeous day.

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Mewslade to Tears Point, Gower

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


On Saturday we headed down to Mewslade Bay on Gower to see how the bird life had changed since my last visit when the country had been in the grip of heavy snow and freezing conditions. It was immediately apparent that the large flocks of Redwing and Thrushes that had been dominating the area had dispersed completely, which certainly made the driving far less hazardous on the country lanes than it had been. In fact I didn't see a single Redwing throughout my visit. The number of Blackbirds however was still very high as surprisingly were the number of Wrens that were visible. I was very pleased to see that such a large number had survived the harsh weather as it is the often the smallest species that are the first to succumb to the elements. The first signs of Spring were also definitely in the air with the first buds starting to appear on a couple of bushes and a pair of Collared Doves necking each other in a nearby tree.

On the way down to the coast we took the high route through Mewslade valley and stopped off at the Nitten field in the hope of spotting one of my bogey birds, a Hen Harrier. They are known to frequent the area so hopes were high. Whilst we waited numerous Reed Buntings flitted through the sacrificial crop and a solitary Yellowhammer was seen flying past. Within a couple of minutes we had a good candidate on our hands in the shape of a large raptor that had landed on the grass on the opposite side of the valley. Unfortunately I am not brilliant at identifying birds of prey beyond the common species yet and as a result couldn't state a positive ID without seeing the bird in flight. We moved to a higher vantage point and waited for it to get restless. After a short wait the bird took to the wing and flew directly towards us but due to our height at a lower level than us. What we were treated to was a superb vision of a back lit Buzzard soaring slowly beneath us, every one of its feathers picked out in absolute clarity. Seeing these birds every day it is easy to take them for granted but a moment such as that helps to remind you just how amazing, and large, they are.

11955 - Kestrel at Mewslade Bay 11957 - Fall Bay, Gower

As were reached the coast we disturbed a female Kestrel which I then spent the next half hour or so trying to stalk to get a decent picture. Unfortunately I fear it was wise to my tactics as it always managed to land just too far out of range for my camera. The sight of me crawling along the side of a stone wall seemed to amuse the local surfers though so all was not lost. We spent the next hour so walking the length of Mewslade and Fall Bay before arriving at Tears point and the end of our walk for the day. Bird wise it was relatively quiet with the only notable species being Meadow Pipit, an Oystercatcher and the usual Gulls.

11959 - Fall Bay, Gower 11960 - Fall Bay, Gower

The lack of wildlife didn't really matter as the highlight as always with this part of the world was the scenery. Conditions were very hazy due to the amount of spray that was being thrown into the air but at certain angles the lighting still managed to catch this rugged coastline perfectly. If you have never visited this part of the world then I highly recommend it.

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Peregrine Falcons at the DVLA, Swansea

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 Adam Tilt 1 Comments


I have mentioned in passing previously on this site the pair of Peregrine Falcons that live and hunt off of the top of the DVLA building on the outskirts of Swansea. I have the joy of spending my working week on the fifteenth floor there and the occasional glimpse of one of these magnificent birds as it soars past on the wind currents that whip around the structure is always a great lift for the soul. Usually we are treated to a couple of fly pasts a day, and occasionally something more. A good example would be an occurrence late last year when I was staying in the office later than normal to monitor some processing. Whilst stood at the window chatting with a co-worker the female bird flew straight at us, talons reaching out and wings outstretched before pulling up at the last minute to land on the windowsill of the floor above. I had never seen a Peregrine at such close quarters before and certainly not in such an action packed situation. The only thing separating us had been a couple of inches of glass and air and the effect certainly wasn't lost on the rest of those present in the office that night.

This week however the Peregrines have really been outdoing themselves. I had suspicions previously that the pair may have managed to rear a couple of young last year after noting that the female bird seemed to differ in size from day to day, and I have finally been able to confirm that. On Thursday we were able to watch four Peregrine Falcons doing acrobatics around the building pretty much non-stop from early morning until late evening. At times the birds were flying around individually whilst at others seemed to be chasing each other. The speeds that they were reaching were far in excess of anything that I have seen them achieve thus far and really gave a sense of what formidable hunters they are. At times we saw a bird return to the building with some prey clasped tightly in its claws. I didn't get to see a kill being made due to having to do some of that annoying work stuff but my co-worker did. I did however get to see an extraordinary bit of behavior that I would love to hear feedback on if anyone else has seen anything similar. I watched one of the Peregrines carry a piece of prey out from the building as another approached from the side. The second bird swept underneath the first and flipped over to grab the prey from the other Falcon in its talons. The two then carried on flying and were lost to sight. Now I am fairly sure that this wasn't a 'hostile' event if I can use that term, as both birds seemed relaxed and to be expecting the situation to unfold. My best guess is that this could have been some form of bonding exercise in preparation for the upcoming breeding season. This could certainly tie in with the increased activity that day that hasn't been repeated since. Wikipedia also seems to point to this being the reason.

As to be expected there is good evidence around the site of the successful nature of the hunting in the vicinity. We regularly see feathers dropping past the windows as the latest kill is plucked, whilst many of the flat roofs hold at least some part of one bird or another. I was surprised however to find the head of a male Mallard outside one window though. I hadn't realised that Peregrines would also take ducks in flight as I had always associated them with being almost exclusively pigeon eaters. Unfortunately I don't have any photographs due to security restrictions on site but I will keep you posted as I hope for another successful breeding season.

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