Elusive Tern

Saturday, August 10, 2013 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

I'm sure we've all experienced relationships that don't quite go to plan. You put in the effort year after year and still feel like you're the only one that's properly invested in making things work. Unlike me however you're opposite number probably isn't a Roseate Tern. Perhaps I should explain.

Back in 2008 my interest in birds was rekindled following a move to South Wales and the realisation that a wealth of wildlife was to be found literally on my doorstep. Those early months were full of exploration with the discovery of Sandwich Terns between Burry Port and Pembrey Harbour being a particularly memorable day. Not only were they a completely new species for me but here I was, barely half an hour from home and with hundreds of these noisy birds collected together for my viewing pleasure. Since then they've become something of an annual pilgrimage at this time of year and regular readers will no doubt have seen my most recent visit detailed here just over a week ago. 

There is however a shadow waiting in the wings (no pun intended). Each time I visit, and this is literally without exception, a Roseate Tern is reported within the next couple of days. Obviously I rush back at the earliest opportunity and again, without exception, the Tern has vanished. History repeated itself this week when a Roseate was reported on Tuesday just four days after I'd last been in attendance. It was there again on Wednesday so the following day I was back well before high tide to watch the roost. Immediately it was obvious that Sandwich Tern numbers had increased to well over a hundred whilst the number of Mediterranean Gulls remained constant at around the ten to twenty mark. As you can imagine this was a fantastic sight but it did make picking out one particular bird slightly more difficult.

P1050949 - Sandwich and Common Terns, Burry Port
 Common amongst Sandwiches

Half an hour later and I'd looked at every individual present and was once again safe in the knowledge that the Roseate had done a bunk. There was a brief moment when I thought the stars had aligned but a clearer view revealed a Common Tern instead of its rarer relation. Again very nice to see but not what I was after. There were consolation prizes of course with a small flock of Dunlin and another perfect demonstration of how fast the tide rises along this coast. Let's just say that it's worth keeping an eye on your feet while scanning with binoculars! As for the Roseate it remains an enigma, a paradox if you will where by the two of us shall never meet. In a way I quite like that. After all, wouldn't life be boring without the occasional nemesis to test your mettle.


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Patchwork Challenge 11 - Spotted Tick

Wednesday, August 07, 2013 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

On Saturday afternoon I headed out onto patch and managed to complete my largest circuit for some time. Starting at Goppa Hill there was once again a complete lack of Whitethroats but singles of Buzzard and Red Kite, quickly followed by super close views of two Sparrowhawks, more than made up. The latter were a particularly nice find as if memory serves me correctly it's only the second time that I've seen them here this year. A little further on and it was the turn of a Yellowhammer to put in an appearance although unfortunately for me a passing car spooked it before I'd had chance to whip the camera out. More Yellowhammers could be heard calling from the slopes beneath Cwrt-mawr farm (which coincidentally is also the name of my first university halls of residence) but I didn't fancy a diversion through the Bracken to try and find them. Still it's very satisfying to see that they are once again present in good numbers. The same vantage point also afforded me a birds-eye view of the old colliery site and to my surprise it would appear that Welsh Water have already started work on their flood relief scheme for Pontarddulais.

P1050903 - Water Management, Cefn Drum

P1050904 - Water Management, Cefn Drum

I wrote about the planning application for this area back in February and was particularly interested in the phrase "creation of wetland habitat". It seems that good progress is being made in that respect with the once barren area of cleared buildings and spoil already reshaped into a series of much more natural contours. There's obviously a long way to go still but it bodes well for the future. The presence of these works has also had a surprising, and most welcome, side effect in that the quantity of illegal off-roading taking place on Cefn Drum has drastically reduced. Even while I was watching two separate vehicles arrived and quickly departed once it was obvious that their main means of access was blocked. I can only hope that once Welsh Water have finished a similar situation will prevail and the fragile slopes are given chance to recover.

By this point I'd already been out for well over an hour and my decision to not take a drink was beginning to look slightly foolish. As a result I very nearly didn't climb the old incline that takes me onto the western spur of my patch, but in the end that overriding sense of potential that every patch birder must feel drove me onwards. I'm glad that it did because at the top I found more Golden-ringed Dragonflies, one of which even perched just long enough for me to grab a photo.

P1050905 - Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Dulais Valley

Returning via the lower slopes of Cefn Drum a single Wheatear was a welcome surprise. It would be interesting to know if this was a resident bird or one on passage, perhaps the latter given it's very wary nature. Either way it quickly scarpered and I thought that was it from what had been a relatively quiet outing. As it turned out the patch had saved its best for last though in the shape of a single Spotted Flycatcher just behind Cwmdulais cottage. My initial views were very distant but its take off and landing from exactly the same perch immediately set alarm bells ringing and after a few minutes of working myself closer I had the identification confirmed. For me this is absolute patch gold and a real surprise find after having seen another single bird further down the valley last year. Back then I assumed that it must have been just passing through but now I'm not so sure. Admittedly a second individual twelve months later doesn't disprove that theory but it would be nice to think that the small woodland on my patch has yet more secrets to reveal.

We both headed back out last night in the hope of perhaps seeing an owl but instead had to make do with Green Woodpecker's (as consolation prizes go that's never a bad one) plus great views of a Buzzard lit up beautifully in the evening light. There was also the unusual sight of a Grey Heron perched high up in the trees, no doubt attracted by the farm pond which was in very close proximity. Surprisingly that's the first time I have ever seen a heron actually grounded on patch as opposed to simply flying over. Perhaps it was there, like us, to watch what turned out to be another stunning sunset.

P1050939 - Sunset, Cefn Drum

P1050940 - Sunset, Cefn Drum

On an unrelated note I also found my first Cinnabar Moth caterpillars of the year yesterday and will hopefully try and photograph them tomorrow.

64/68 (2013/2012)


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Penclawdd - A Welcome Sunset

Tuesday, August 06, 2013 Adam Tilt 1 Comments

The torrential rain of yesterday morning and afternoon held little clue as to the glorious evening that would follow. Having not watched a decent sunset for a few weeks I found myself being inextricably drawn towards Penclawdd where I whiled away a few hours watching mother nature do her thing.

P1050927 - Penclawdd sunset

P1050932 - Penclawdd sunset

P1050920 - Penclawdd sunset


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Burry Port - Graylings, Med Gulls and a Rescue

Monday, August 05, 2013 Adam Tilt 2 Comments

Burry Port

I had a few hours free on Thursday afternoon so headed over to Burry Port for the first time in months. My arrival was greeted with blue sky, a blazing sun and plenty of holidaymakers which initially put a dampener on my plans to watch the high tide roost. Fortunately most of the birds were still present, if a little more distant than I would have liked, out on the sand bank between Pembrey harbour and the lighthouse. There a large gathering consisted of at least 40 Sandwich Terns, 10 Mediterranean Gulls, numerous Black Headed Gulls, a single Great Black Backed Gull and one drying Cormorant. Even further back a couple of hundred Oystercatchers were quietly roosting, right up until two cyclists appeared and flushed the lot. Unsurprisingly the Terns and Gulls were also disturbed although thankfully they didn't travel far and actually ended up a little closer to my position.

P1050875 - Sandwich Terns, Burry Port

A lack of any small waders was slightly disappointing but a Gannet just off Whiteford Point made up for their absence. The sun also seemed to have brought out the butterflies with at least three Grayling feeding, and often fighting, over several flowering Sea Holly plants. I'm used to seeing the latter around autumn time so it was nice to see such pristine examples, most of which were centred on the old stone breakwater east of Pembrey harbour.

P1050861 - Grayling, Burry Port

P1050871 - Sea Holly, Burry Port

Down on the high tide line there were literally hundreds of tiny Moon Jellyfish scattered wherever I looked. Most had suffered under the unrelenting sun but there were still a few in fairly good condition, one of which is shown below. There have been several articles in the national press recently covering a large influx of jellyfish to our waters and I have no doubt that this stranding is just another symptom. It's not the first time and I doubt it will be the last.

P1050884 - Moon Jellyfish, Burry Port

Good as all that was it was humans who ultimately provided the best entertainment of the day. For those who don't know our local area has the second highest tidal range in the world which means you've got to be a little more careful than usual when it comes to enjoying the sea. Burry Port is a perfect case in point where large and inviting expanses of sand are cut off in a matter of minutes when the tide starts to rise. Sadly most visitors don't realise the danger (or simply don't care) and it came as no surprise to see the coastguard and RNLI rescue craft heading along the beach. Sure enough a couple of girls had become stranded but were soon in safe hands thanks to our excellent rescue services.

P1050864 - Rescue at Burry Port

P1050865 - Rescue at Burry Port

P1050867 - Rescue at Burry Port

There were another four or five people who were in a similar situation but appeared willing to either wait for the tide to drop or to take the long route back across Pembrey Burrows. Rather them than me that's for sure.


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Patchwork Challenge 10 - Keeled Skimmer, Butterflies and Excuses

Saturday, August 03, 2013 Adam Tilt 4 Comments

It's probably not escaped your notice, and it certainly hasn't mine, that the last few months have been somewhat barren on here when it comes to updates concerning my Patchwork Challenge. The reasons for this are nothing beyond the usual; lack of time, work and holidays. On a personal level the gap is more than a little annoying as I was really hoping to keep up a good frequency of visits to give a true representation of what's out there. Realistically that was always going to be tough so to make amends I got right back on the horse last Sunday with a couple of hours spent exploring the western end of Cefn Drum. My hope was that we wouldn't be too late to find a few Whitethroats but sadly didn't manage to hit lucky in the areas we searched. There were however plenty of other birds around, many with young, which gave us a great opportunity to confirm a few patch breeders. Stonechats were the most obvious with at least two family groups whilst nearby we watched a Willow Warbler carrying food into the undergrowth. We also got good views of a young Green Woodpecker which was avidly calling to one of its parents hidden nearby and will clearly be a master of the 'yaffle' when it grows up. There was also a family of Crows which makes me wonder if they may have been offspring from the nest I mentioned in my previous patch update.

All the regulars were also present which was good to see although the Skylarks have stopped singing and thick Bracken now covers what back in May was open grassland. The Yellowhammers are still calling though and we got good views of at least two individuals, but I'm sorry to say the Swifts look to have headed south on their long migration. The patch will be a much poorer place without them. One bird definitely still here however are the Jackdaws and boy do they look to have had a good year. They've always been pretty numerous here but we currently have a huge flock patrolling the area, a fact that this Red Kite now realises thanks to an ill-timed visit. I doubt it's ever been mobbed in quite such numbers before.

P1050826 - Red Kite being mobbed

So no new species for the patch bird list but there were a few new ticks when it comes to butterflies and dragonflies. Despite the ground being absolutely parched there were several Keeled Skimmers patrolling what's left of the boggiest sections including a female avidly laying eggs. Their discovery was as much of a surprise as their identification because to be honest I'd not heard of the species before. Just goes to show that we're always learning.

P1050850 - Keeled Skimmer

There were also a couple of Golden-ringed Dragonflies and what I think were Common Hawkers down in the wooded lower section of the valley. A lack of wind there had created something of a sun trap which was also attracting various butterflies in good number. All were quality species, especially the Peacock which remarkably may be my first of the year. Bit late I know.

P1050840 - Peacock

P1050842 - Gatekeeper

P1050845 - Green-veined White
Green-veined White

P1050849 - Meadow Brown
Meadow Brown

P1050855 - Large Skipper
Large Skipper

We also spotted a rather curious insect resembling a bee but which I'm almost certain is not. I've had a good look through my reference books and have so far drawn a blank. Any ideas?

Update 06/08/2013 - Many thanks to AJ for identifying the mystery insect as a Large Tachinid.

P1050831 - Unknown Fly

63/68 (2013/2012)


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Mull - The Birds

Friday, August 02, 2013 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

It's perhaps appropriate that I should bring this series of Mull entries to a close with a post covering the area of natural history where my greatest interest lies. You've already seen the magnificent Golden Eagles with which we share our valley as well as rare breeders including Red Throated Diver and Golden Plover. That however is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Across two weeks we saw a remarkable 102 bird species including notable firsts such as a reeling Grasshopper Warbler and the previously detailed Red Grouse. Then of course there were the calling Corncrakes on Iona, a Short Eared Owl hunting at the end of our track, summer plumaged Great Northern Divers, male Hen Harriers, Greylag Geese flocking in their hundreds, Eiders on almost every beach, more Lesser Repolls than I've ever seen, recently fledged Sea Eagles, diving Gannets and even a leucistic Meadow Pipit. Given the season we also managed to confirm breeding not only for the aforementioned rarities but also for Oystercatcher, Redshank, Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Black Guillemot, Shag, Pied Wagtail, Cuckoo, Greylag Goose, Eider, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Dunnock, Robin, House Sparrow, Blackbird, Starling, Common Gull, Arctic Tern and Common Tern to name but a few. There's no way I could ever hope to cover everything on here so instead I shall focus on those species which managed to fall under my cameras spell, starting with the ubiquitous Wheatear. Everywhere we went they were a constant companion and with juveniles in abundance it was never too hard to find a poser.

P1050278_2 - Wheatear, Isle of Mull

P1050446 - Wheatear, Isle of Mull

P1050282 - Wheatear, Isle of Mull

P1050283 - Wheatear, Isle of Mull

Over on Iona the calling Corncrakes remained tantalisingly out of sight. At times we knew they couldn't be further than a few meters from our position but the lush vegetation kept them safely hidden, a consequence of our late season visit. The island held other delights however including a very obliging adult and juvenile Song Thrush, the former smashing a snail shell open before feeding the contents to its offspring.

P1050545 - Song Thrushes, Isle of Mull

P1050552 - Song Thrushes, Isle of Mull

Rooks were our treat on Iona's two main sandy beaches, a species that to my knowledge is not found anywhere else on Mull. One pair in particular took my attention as they defended a large and well developed chick, but sadly only the adults came into range.

P1050558 - Rook, Isle of Mull

Calgary beach is probably Mull's most famous location due in no small part to its white sand and tropically clear and blue waters. Holiday makers flock there every summer, but so to it seems do Eider. Each year we've seen at least one family group take up residence and this time was no different with at least six adults and twenty chicks present. Unusually they were being incredibly tolerant of human disturbance and were even mingling amongst people paddling and swimming. That's not something you get to see everyday.

P1050388 - Eider, Isle of Mull

P1050383 - Eider, Isle of Mull

As I mentioned above, Lesser Redpolls were very abundant this year for reasons unknown. Perhaps they've had a particularly good spring or maybe I've just got better at spotting them, but either way they were a delight to see. From Treshnish in the north to Fionnphort in the south we always seemed to be bumping into singles and at times even family groups of these colourful little birds.

P1050662_2 - Lesser Redpoll, Isle of Mull

Such an abundance of bird life also meant that we had a spectacular opportunity to brush up on our identification skills when it comes to Common and Arctic Terns. And when I say brush up I mean completely refresh as I've never been entirely happy with either. At Langamull beach a single pair of both species have managed to successfully raise at least one chick each with the adults now regularly patrolling the bay. Any perceived threat, no matter how distant, was met with a barrage of noise and skull threatening bombing runs, each one allowing up close views of what my guide reliably tells me are distinctive differences. After over an hour of intense observation I still don't think I'm any clearer so hopefully this is an Arctic Tern as I believe.

P1050463_2 - Arctic Tern, Isle of Mull

I couldn't do a bird post from Mull without including our mascot, Geoffrey. For the uninitiated Geoffrey is of course an Oystercatcher and boy was he making himself heard. Every inch of the coastline echoes to the sound of their calls and to be honest I'd not have it any other way.

P1050535 - Oystercatcher, Isle of Mull

Even now I'm barely scratching the surface so here's a quick run-down through some other birding highlights.

P1050302 - Sand Martins, Isle of Mull
Sand Martins

P1050294 - White-tailed Sea Eagle, Isle of Mull
White-tailed Sea Eagle

P1050233 - Hooded Crow, Oban
Hooded Crow, Oban

With our must successful visit yet under our belts, thoughts naturally turn to what we can do to go one better next time. Ptarmigan have to be a natural target and are probably one of the trickiest birds to see on Mull due to their limited numbers and love of high altitude habitat. Then of course there are the occasional visitors such as Black Throated Diver and any number of passing sea birds, not to mention rare vagrants from the mainland such as Nuthatch, Magpie and Jay. Those latter three are likely to increase in number over the coming years so I suspect it wont be too long until we bag at least one, if not all. Time to start counting down the days until next time I think.


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Carsaig Arches and Goats

Thursday, August 01, 2013 Adam Tilt 1 Comments

Walking eight miles along a rocky, tick infested shoreline may not be everyone's idea of fun but that's exactly what we put ourselves through towards the end of our stay on Mull. Such madness was not without reason however for this was the route from Carsaig pier to two magnificent natural stone arches that bare the same name. These wave created features have long been on my list of places to visit, not just for their sheer spectacle but also for the sense of danger that descriptions of the path conjure. Anything that's associated with phrases such as "one slip could be fatal" and "vertiginous drops" is a must experience in my books. As it turned out a little bit of care was more than enough to overcome the various obstacles which gave us plenty of opportunity to enjoy our surroundings. Words really can't do them justice.

P1050681 - Carsaig Cliffs, Isle of Mull

P1050682 - Carsaig Cliffs, Isle of Mull

P1050683 - Carsaig Cliffs, Isle of Mull

There was an immense sense of isolation in having such a narrow stretch of the island to explore with the towering cliffs to our right forming an almost unbroken wall beyond which almost anything could have existed. For such a brutal landscape there was a wealth of wildlife present from a family of Spotted Flycatchers through to numerous Yellowhammers and a pair of noisy Ravens. Butterflies and insects crawled over every inch of vegetation while out in the water things got even more spectacular. A splash glimpsed from the corner of my eye soon materialised into a trio of Bottlenose Dolphins travelling at speed just a few meters from shore. We watched mesmerised as they headed back the way we'd come, frequently breaking the surface but never long enough to get the camera onto them. Even better was to come though as one of the three dove completely clear of the water and revealed itself to be a small juvenile. Is there nothing that this island can't deliver? It would appear not as about an hour later they were back, retracing their route and once again giving us simply outstanding views. After that you'd think that a couple of stone arches would have trouble matching up, but match up they did.

P1050706 - Carsaig Arches, Isle of Mull

P1050710 - Carsaig Arches, Isle of Mull

Formed through hundreds of years of sea erosion these two natural wonders are one of Mull's best features and well worth the effort it takes to get to them. The closest and largest almost obscures from view the second but we really didn't fancy pushing on any further as from here the path truly is little more than a precarious goat track. Speaking of goats there was one final surprise in store courtesy of an animal that I'd hoped to see and which well and truly delivered.

P1050713 - Wild Goat, Isle of Mull

P1050714 - Wild Goat, Isle of Mull

P1050715 - Wild Goat, Isle of Mull

P1050716 - Wild Goat, Isle of Mull

P1050694 - Wild Goat, Isle of Mull

These are of course wild mountain goats (or feral goats depending on which terminology you prefer), a small population of which call the Ross of Mull home. Precise details concerning their origins have been lost to the mists of time but prevailing thought seems to be that they are either the remnants of stock once farmed by long gone crofters, or more exotically animals which swam ashore from Spanish shipwrecks. Either way they are an intriguing and charismatic addition to Mull's ecosystem that are well worth hunting down if you have the time and inclination. They also seem to bare an uncanny resemblance to the flying dog from "Neverending Story".


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