MacCulloch's Fossil Tree, Isle of Mull

A walk to MacCulloch's fossil tree at Burg on the magnificent Isle of Mull.

Climbing Ben More

We finally bag our first munro in the shape of Ben More on the Isle of Mull.

Isle of Mull - A walk to Treshnish

Classic walk in NW Mull to Treshnish Headland.

Rare Crystal Jellyfish on Gower

We find a very rare Crystal Jellyfish washed up on Whiteford beach, Gower..

Snowdon - 30 Years in the making

After almost thirty years of trying we finally get perfect conditions for an ascent of Snowdon.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Night Photography at Mumbles Lighthouse

I have taken a bit of a break from blogging this last week for a couple of reasons. Firstly the weather has been frankly atrocious and what sun there has been has coincided rather nicely with the hours that I am in work. Secondly I have been getting stuck into some more jobs that needed doing on the house that I have been overlooking with the arrival of longer days. Something tells me that this is going to be a battle that will only get harder as summer approaches.

One of my only trips out last week was a drive down to Bracelet Bay on Gower one evening to have a pick-nick. A rather strange thing to do I agree but I enjoyed it. I have been wanting to try and photograph Mumbles lighthouse in the dark for a while now but could never come up with a composition that I thought would work. This time though I just decided to get the camera out and see what I could produce. The results are I think pretty good. There is something nice about the contrast between the lighthouse, something we associate with times gone-by, and the modernity of Port Talbot steelworks in the background on the other side of Swansea Bay. I wish that there had been a bit more light available to highlight the lighthouse tower itself, but I doubt my other half would have been willing to trek over to provide the necessary illumination.

12161 - Mumbles Lighthouse with Port Talbot in the background
12163 - Mumbles Lighthouse with Port Talbot in the background 12165 - Mumbles Lighthouse with Port Talbot in the background

The only trip of the weekend was to Kenfig NNR on Saturday. The Black-Necked Grebe from last week was still on show but as ever had decided to stay on the most inaccessible part of the lake. The highlight was the large numbers of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaff that surrounded the lake. Almost every bush had a mixed flock of four or five birds and the air was once again alive with the sounds of Spring. I have never seen these birds in such a high density before so I presume this is the first place that they have made landfall and haven't yet moved on due to the plentiful supply of food. The chorus around the lake was further added to by the calling of several Cetti's Warbler (though yet again I didn't see one) and a Water Rail somewhere within the reeds. The walk to Sker Point delivered a hunting Kestrel, male and female Stonechats and Reed Buntings as well as my first singing Skylarks of the year. The Meadow Pipits were trying to compete but their voices will just never be a match for that of the Skylark. The beach itself was relatively quiet bar a small flock of Golden Plovers that flew overhead, catching the sun nicely in the progress. Much to my disappointment the walk failed to deliver any Wheatears. Nevertheless I live in hope. My luck must change soon.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Chiffchaffs are back!

Yesterday I spent the majority of my time at the WWT site near Llanelli. It has been a good few months since my last visit and the changing seasons are really starting to show themselves well in terms of the birds that are present. The best sign of Spring so far was the sighting of my first two Chiffchaffs of the year in the woodland around the Millennium Wetlands. The sighting was enough to satisfy me but they then launched into their familiar "chiff-chaff" call to cement their arrival. The Chiffchaffs weren't the only vocal birds around with this Robin singing its little heart out.

12139 - Robin singing 12140 - Robin singing

Out on the scrapes the number of Widgeon have fallen dramatically whilst the Shellduck population has increased at least ten fold as they prepare to breed. The Black Headed Gulls are also circling the site noisily as they prepare to establish their breeding colonies once again. Last year the islands on the main lake were absolutely packed with nests so I am hoping that this year will be the same. The Gulls certainly add an impressive background soundtrack to any visit. For once our trip also coincided with high tide which meant that there were a decent number of waders within viewing distance. Black Tailed Godwits numbered in the several hundreds with flocks on most of the main areas of water. I also saw my first Dunlin of the year in front of the British Steel Hide where a group of around seventy were happily snoozing the morning away. This hide also provided good views of a Spoonbill, two Spotted Redshank and a Greenshank. It seems so normal writing Spoonbill these days as there has been one or two birds present here for the majority of the last twelve months!

The highlight of the day bird wise were six Pintails (four male, two female) viewed from the back of the British Steel Hide. This beats my previous best of two birds at the same location from last year. The resident Little Grebe seems to have found a mate whilst I saw several pairs of Robins and a very colourful pair of Bullfinches. I did notice that the number of Gadwall was significantly lower than my last visit with only about ten birds visible. One pair had landed on one of the show pools and the male let me get close enough for some photographs.

12149 - Male Gadwall at WWT Llanelli 12146 - Male Gadwall at WWT Llanelli

Further signs of spring were in evidence with the first of the captive Nene geese goslings out and about with their parents and also my first butterfly of the year, a Comma.

12137 - Nene Gosling 12160 - Comma Butterfly

Whilst exploring we came across the baby Rabbit that can be seen below. This was one of two that were feeding in the undergrowth and was relatively tame. The female Mallard also shown below was just too forthcoming not to have photographed so I duly did.

12151 - Rabbit at WWT Llanelli 12136 - Female Mallard at WWT Llanelli

I will be visiting here more often over the next few weeks as the Spring migrants continue to arrive and the birds begin to get into the breeding season more heavily. I am also hoping to capture some of the Gull colony activities this year as they are certainly very entertaining. Any pictures will of course be posted up here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

First Sand Martins of the Year and a Sunset

Today has been one of those days that I like to call 'none' days. I was busy for most of it but don't really feel like I have achieved much beyond a hair cut and having a go at some more DIY. The situation wasn't helped much by the day being dominated by wet, windy and foggy weather conditions. I did have time for a quick walk around Sandy Water Park near Llanelli at midday and was very pleased to find my first Sand Martins of the year. A group of nine were flying over the lake and nearby fields. Who knows what they must be thinking after arriving from Africa to this. Also out on the lake were a good number of Tufted Duck along with a couple of Pochard and a Little Grebe.

Just as I was settling down for the evening the sun finally decided to put in an appearance. As the valley was lit up with a lovely orange glow we headed up the hills at the back in the hope of catching a decent sunset. The walk up provided a rather nice opportunity with some sheep in the foreground whilst the view from the top offered some interesting variation in the lighting of the clouds.

12129 - Sunset over Pontarddulais

12131 - Sunset over Pontarddulais

Sadly the actual sunset itself was behind the headland so didn't light up the Burry Inlet. Nevertheless it was a very enjoyable end to the day and certainly helped to blow the cobwebs away. Even the Moon came out to say hello.

12134 - Sunset over Pontarddulais 12132 - The Moon

The walk back down was absolutely full of birdsong with the Robins and Blackbirds going at it full tilt. There were also a couple of haunting squawks from Buzzards which were hidden from view. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day in terms of weather as I am on the look out for my first Wheatear of the year after todays success.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Lugworm and Ragworm on Rhossili Beach, Gower

The last few posts have been very bird focused so I spent yesterday evening researching a couple of photographs that I had taken during the recent low tides on Rhossili beach. As you can see below the subject isn't particularly glamorous but it was interesting for me as I was able to expand my knowledge a bit more. The first two photographs show a large number of Lugworms that have been left high and dry as the tide has retreated. The highest concentration were around Burry Holme where the rock pools were packed full of them. I presume this is a regular occurrence and not some specific event that had led to so many being left exposed. Normally the only signs of these worms are the small piles of sand that are left on the beach as they burrow underground.

12035 - Lugworm on Rhossili Beach, Gower 12036 - Lugworm on Rhossili Beach, Gower

Slightly further along the beach back in the direction of Rhossili I found a worm that I have not seen before. Unlike the Lugworm this one had many small legs along the length of its body and was much redder in colour. After a lot of googling I identified it as a Ragworm. The particular example below had been attacked by a Gull so isn't perfect but it still shows the features off well.

12121 - Ragworm on Rhossili Beach, Gower

As with a lot of seaside creatures, I have found it hard to find a decent site on the web to help me identify what I have found. I used to have an absolutely brilliant book as a kid that contained pictures and text covering pretty much everything you could hope to find at a beach. Unfortunately this has been lost over the years and various moves. As a result I am once again on the look out for a similar book. Does anyone have any recommendations of what would be good to get?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Mistle Thrush or Song Thrush call? Hard to decide.

After work last night I headed up the hills at the back of the house to get some fresh air and stretch my legs. Near the top is an abandoned building surrounded by mature trees. In the past these have held Buzzards and the usual farmland species, but this time a strange call caught my attention. It sounded to me almost like the rasping noise made by the teeth of a comb if you run your finger along them. I had a scan around and saw what I thought was a Song Thrush sitting at the very top of one of the nearby trees. As it continued to call I heard a reply and quickly located a second bird on a fence post a hundred meters or so away. They continued to call for the next five minutes before the original bird flew off. As I have said I assumed that both of these birds were Song Thrushes, but that they were using a call that I was unfamiliar with. Most of them around here tend to like mimicking Oystercatchers which always amuses me when you hear them in a forest.

When I got back to the house I had a listen to the calls again as I had recorded them on my phone, and now I am not so sure that my original ID was correct. I couldn't find a similar sound anywhere on the web. The closest I got was to part of a Mistle Thrush's alarm call. As I didn't expect to see any Mistle Thrushes I hadn't even thought to look any closer at the time. I am now wondering if I did in fact see two Mistle Thrushes issuing territorial calls to each other. The sound clip is embedded below if anyone wants a listen and can offer any advice. You will need to turn the volume up as the sound levels are quite low. The first of the mystery calls appears a few seconds in and can be clearly distinguished from the background bird song.


I also recorded a second clip which includes two of our most common birds, the Blackbird and the Robin. It is great to have so much birdsong back in the countryside after such a long hard winter. The Robin is the bird that is doing the singing whilst the short sharp calls are those of the Blackbird.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Rhossili to Llangennith and Back Again

Sunday saw us taking on another lengthy walk starting from Rhossili Church before walking the length of the beach to Burry Holme and on around the coast to the Blue Pool. This is a supposedly bottomless rock pool that looked anything but. The return journey took us back along the beach to the campsite at Llangennith at which point we headed up to the top of Rhossili Downs and the highest point on the Gower peninsular.

The House Sparrows around Rhossili Church were in fine voice and have clearly sensed the imminent arrival of Spring as several of the males were seen to be carrying nesting material from the surrounding vegetation into the churchyard. I couldn't work out where they were building the nests exactly but I am sure this will become evident in time. The steep descent to the beach also gave us some superb views of a hunting Kestrel over the dead bracken. In fact we saw this bird on numerous occasions throughout the day as it patrolled the whole of the coastal section of Rhossili Downs. The best views were had when we were above the bird which I think is always the finest way to view Kestrels.

12120 - House Sparrow at Rhossili Downs 12119 - House Sparrow at Rhossili Downs

Down at Burry Holme we were accosted by a Rock Pipit who seemed quite put out at our arrival. There was also a pretty sizable gathering of various Corvids who seemed to be enjoying playing in the wind currents coming up off the sea. We also bumped into our first caterpillar of the year although I don't know of what species as I rather foolishly forgot to take a photo of it. This may have been because I was preparing to tackle the ascent to the top of Rhossili Downs. It seems that no matter how fit I am the walk up is always an effort. The view at the top though was as good as ever as the photographs below show. These were taken looking back towards Llangennith and Burry Holme.

12122 - Rhossili Down looking to Llangennith, Gower 12123 - Rhossili Down looking to Llangennith, Gower

If you have been regularly reading this blog then you may have seen my post concerning the grass fires that have been engulfing Gower. The first of these started just over a week ago and covered 100 hectares of Rhossili Downs. I was pretty keen to see what the damage was like as I had only really discovered the beauty of this particular area late last year. I had a great encounter with a Woodchat Shrike there and it was also the only place that I had found where you could be pretty much guaranteed to see Yellowhammers. As a result I hoped that the damage wouldn't be too severe. Unfortunately it was. The whole of the Downs has pretty much gone up in smoke, coming perilously close to one particular house in the process. The pictures below show the extent of the damage.

12126 - Aftermath of the Rhossili Fire, Gower 12125 - Aftermath of the Rhossili Fire, Gower

As expected there was almost no life to be found up there amongst the blackened ground apart from several Crows living up to their sinister nature. I have no idea how long it will take the ground to recover but I can be pretty sure that we wont be seeing the Heather in flower this year. Feeling pretty down we walked the couple of miles up to the highest point when a very distinctive call caught my attention. What was that floating just off the edge? Yes it was the first Chough of the year! Moments later a second joined the party before both swept off. I can't tell you how glad I was to see that they were at least still in the area as I was worried that the events of the last week or so would have scared them off or worse killed them. There was further good news back at Rhossili where two very new lambs were just getting to their feet and starting to suckle.

12128 - New Lambs at Rhossili 12127 - New Lambs at Rhossili

It sounds corny but those two events really lifted my spirits. It just goes to show that even though things may not be going well in one place, nature has a way of battling on. I shall keep a close eye on Rhossili Downs at it will interesting to see how things develop.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Black-Necked Grebe at Kenfig NNR

After being relatively lazy for the last week or so I fancied a good long walk out in the countryside, but being fortunate to live in a place with so many options I was having trouble deciding where to go. A quick look at the Glamorgan birds sightings page had my mind quickly made up as a Black-necked Grebe had been seen on the lake at Kenfig NNR for the last couple of days. I have never seen a rarer Grebe beyond the normal Little and Great Crested varieties so the possibility of adding my fourth life tick in three weeks and the opportunity for a good walk was too good a combination to miss.

I arrived at ten and popped into the nearest hide to see what was about. I wasn't expecting much luck as searching for a small diving duck on the largest natural lake in South Wales was never going to be easy. Remarkably I was on to the bird within a couple of minutes. Unfortunately it was on the far side of the lake from where I was. Nevertheless it was a new tick and I'd had good views but I decided to see if I could get closer to at least take a record photograph. What followed was four hours of walking across dunes, marsh and flooded paths as I travelled around the lake three times trying to get a closer view. The best I got was on my first pass where the Grebe happened to swim past a small gap in the reeds allowing me to snatch a single shot. As you can see below though the blighter was looking the other way. I tried in vain to see it again but the Grebe stayed well hidden for the rest of the day apart from when I was on the far side of the lake from it. Typical! I have included a map showing the area that it seems to frequent (long red line) and I recommend looking here first if you try and find it yourself. The two hides are shown as red squares.

Kenfig NNR 12115 - Black-necked Grebe at Kenfig NNR

Whilst on my walks I heard four of five Cettis Warbler singing from the reeds which are my first this year. A very attractive male Reed Bunting was also around as were numerous small flocks of Long Tailed Tits. I was also treated to prolonged views of a Kingfisher from the southern hide as it sat in the nearby willow tree for a good ten minutes before flying off over the reeds. The lake itself had several Goldeneye displaying to each other as well as a small flock of Shovellers which was nice to see. There was also a male Cormorant in full breeding plumage sat on the remains of the old boat house.

12117 - Cormorant at Kenfig NNR

On a side note the first spring migrants are starting to make their way into the area although I have yet to catch up with any myself. Reports of the first Swallow came in from just a few miles away from my house, whilst the first Wheatear was also seen today at Sker farm near Kenfig. I shall certainly be keeping my eyes open as the sky has seemed very empty without the Swifts, Martins and Swallows these past few months.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Red, Black and White Kites at Gigrin Farm

To finish off our trip to mid Wales we stopped in at the Red Kite feeding station at Gigrin Farm. This was the first feeding station of its kind in the country and has done a great deal to support the population of the Red Kites in Wales and spread the message of their struggle far and wide. If you want to get close and personal with hundreds of Kites then this is the place. Recently the farm has had the added attraction of a Black Kite who turned up at the beginning of the year and is still around. We first caught site of it sitting in a tree near to the feeding area but the view was obscured somewhat by a very glary sun. We later saw it flying high above the other Kites but never got a close enough view to photograph it. Truth be told there were so many Red Kites coming in to feed that I could have quite easily missed it as I was looking elsewhere. Nevertheless it's yet another life tick for me in what is proving to be a productive few months. Instead of rambling on I think a picture storyboard will tell the tail of the day well so here we go.

Long before the food was put out for the Red Kites, the Buzzards, Rooks, Crows and Ravens were already lining up in the trees and across the fields in anticipation. The Kites themselves don't actually come down to feed until these birds have made a start as their presence signals that the area is safe to approach.

12078 - Buzzard at Gigrin Farm 12079 - Rook at Gigrin Farm

At 2pm sharp the farmer appeared in front of the hides with his tractor and trailer full of fresh beef. He liberally scattered the food on the ground as we waited for the fun to start.

12082 - Feeding the Kites at Gigrin Farm 12084 - Feeding the Kites at Gigrin Farm

Initially only a few Red Kites came in and began to circle overhead checking out their surroundings.

12086 - Red Kite at Gigrin Farm 12091 - Red Kite at Gigrin Farm

This relative tranquility didn't last long however as within a few minutes the sky was alive with Red Kites swooping and diving as they jostled for position both in the air and on the ground. It was at this point that I realised just how hard it was going to be to photograph these birds. Once I had gotten over the frankly astonishing site that I saw before me I started to attempt to follow a single bird as it came in for food. This quickly proved almost impossible as the Kites rapidly changed direction in the air and became lost in the crowd. Eventually I pretty much gave up and sat back to watch events unfold. Once the main rush was over individual Kites began to feed at a much more leisurely pace allowing a novice such as myself to attempt a few more photographs.

12103 - Red Kite at Gigrin Farm
12093 - Red Kite at Gigrin Farm 12088 - Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

As touched on by the title to this post, Gigrin doesn't have just Red and Black Kites. It also plays host to a White Kite in the form of a Leucistic Red Kite. This particular Kite hatched 30 miles away from the farm in 2003 and has been a regular visitor ever since. Due to their pigmentation differences Leucistic Kites tend not to survive very long in the wild due mainly to harassment from other birds. Fortunately this particular bird has found refuge in the feeding station.

12098 - Leucistic Red Kite at Gigrin Farm

I shall finish off this post by including a couple of Buzzard shots. I particularly like the one on the left as it shows the competition that exists between the birds. The Buzzard is watching the Rook like, if you will excuse the pun, a hawk!

12100 - Buzzard at Gigrin Farm 12102 - Buzzard at Gigrin Farm

All thats left to say really is to recommend that you pay a visit yourself as it really is a very special place and very worthy of your support.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Video of the Starling roost at Aberystwyth Pier

As a follow up to last night post I have put together a short video showing the Starlings in action as photographs really can't do justice to the way in which the birds move through the air. Things really kick off about half way through when the seemingly settled flock takes to the air one final time before calling it a night. It is also worth checking out some of the other videos on YouTube showing the Starlings at Aberystwyth as people have managed to capture some truly remarkable sights. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Starling Roost Over Aberystwyth Pier

After our exploration of Ynys-Hir we headed back to nearby Aberystwyth where we had a B&B booked for the night. I spent five happy years at university in this town so it was great fun to get reacquainted with the place. One of the most amazing natural spectacles to be seen in Aber is the huge Starling roost that gathers throughout the winter on the old pier. Each evening as dusk approaches various smaller flocks congregate in the air above the pier, merging with others until one monolithic mass is formed. After an aerial display that has to be seen to be believed they make one final swoop underneath the steelwork before settling down for the night. No one is sure why the birds put on such a dramatic performance as the energy involved must be significant. One theory is that the birds use the exercise as a way of checking out a roost site for safety before landing. This certainly seems plausible as while I was watching a Peregrine Falcon swooped in and took a bird for its evening meal.

12070 - Starlings over Aberystwyth Pier 12069 - Starlings over Aberystwyth Pier
12066 - Starlings over Aberystwyth Pier 12074 - Starlings over Aberystwyth Pier
12076 - Starlings over Aberystwyth Pier 12071 - Starlings over Aberystwyth Pier

Even after the birds have settled down the noise emanating from beneath is very loud but no where near as offensive as the odour from all those droppings. How they get any sleep I do not know! Speaking of droppings it is worth mentioning that if you do happen to be in Aber when the Starlings come in to roost, make sure that you are stood nowhere near the pier. Past experience teaches me that the promenade gets absolutely pelted with little Starling treats. I narrowly avoided a disaster myself a few years back thanks to some quick running and a handy rain shelter. No sooner had we dived inside than a wall of droppings fell all around us. It was quite a surreal experience but one of those moments that really sticks in my head.

RSPB Ynys-Hir

Most of our time on Saturday was spent at Ynys-Hir, the RSPB reserve on the banks of the River Dyfi. For those that don't know it I highly recommend a visit. The range of habitats on offer is really rather exceptional with mature woodland blending into open grassland, mudflats, salt marsh, reed beds and open water of the tidal and pool varieties.

You always know that you are going to have a good day when the car park itself offers up more variety than you would normally expect from a whole reserve. The small lake here held a good few Teal as well as a couple of Mute Swan and a very colourful male Shoveller. Surprisingly this was also the only place that we saw Coot or Moorhen during the entire day. There were a couple of Pheasants stalking the nearby fields loudly and the first of many Song Thrushes was happily sitting right at the top of a large dead tree. A loud drumming noise heralded the arrival of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers. At one point I could hear three individuals drumming one after another heading further back into the trees each time before a male came and landed at the top of the tree that I was stood by. He proceeded to examine the trunk before heading off back into the wood screeching as he went. The nearby feeders had the usual Blue, Great and Coal Tits present along with lots of Chaffinch and several Robins and Dunnock. Despite watching for a good half an hour I only saw one Greenfinch pay a visit which is far less than I have ever seen here in years past. I can only presume that the disease that has been decimating the population countrywide has also reached these isolated parts. A great shame. I did get to see my first Nuthatch and Goldfinch of the year which cheered me up. The mood was further lightened by the presence of five Grey Squirrels. Now I know the bad press that this species gets but I can't help liking them despite it all. This group were busy trying to find ingenious ways to gain access to the bird feeders as well as feeding on catkins from the surrounding bushes. They must have tasted delicious as the squirrels were certainly eating their fair share.

12058 - Grey Squirrel at RSPB Ynys-Hir 12055 - Grey Squirrel at RSPB Ynys-Hir

We headed down to the first hide, Marain Mawr, that overlooks the estuary. The tide was just peaking at its maximum which normally bodes well for finding waders. Unfortunately this time we were to be out of luck as I fear that we were slightly too late in the year to catch the overwintering birds. The best on offer was a solitary Redshank, twenty Oystercatcher and around thirty Curlew. The river offered up three female Goldeneye heading upstream with another female present on one of the inland pools. The pools also had several very noisy Canada Geese, more Teal and Mallard but not a lot else. We were about to head on when I caught a glimpse of a large bird heading up the estuary towards us. I had a quick scan with my bins and had to do a double take as I couldn't believe what was on its way. Within a few seconds I didn't need binoculars at all as a male Hen Harrier glided past on his way to the reed beds on the opposite side of the river. Considering I had spent years looking for this species before four turned up on my doorstep I now had another sighting to add to the list. I have had similar experiences with my first Snipe for example where after you have seen one you see lots as you have got your eye in. I can't believe that the same is happening with the Harriers as they are fairly difficult birds to miss. I guess we have just been incredibly lucky.

12061 - Reed Bunting at RSPB Ynys-Hir 12062 - Reflection at RSPB Ynys-Hir

The walk around to the Breakwater hide delivered a solitary Greylag mixed in with the Canada Geese, as well as a couple of Little Egrets and a Grey Heron. I was very pleased to spot a male and female Stonechat along the railway embankment and a male Reed Bunting just outside the hide. The flooded fields held several Lapwing and yet more Teal but nothing to get too excited about so we carried on walking. The return route headed back through the forest where we got out first Long Tailed Tits of the visit and also picked up a Red Kite and a couple of Buzzards. There were yet more Great Spotted Woodpeckers flying around and as the photograph above shows, an absolutely stunning reflection of the hills in the water from the Yhys Eidiol Hide. A great way to round off the visit and I will try not to leave it another year this time before I visit again.

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