After last night’s negative vibes it’s back to the good stuff today following a visit from my parents over the weekend. With them not having been down for a good six months or so we had plenty of new locations to share and first up on Saturday was Cardiff. Not perhaps your first port of call when looking for a place to walk and watch wildlife but as I’ve hopefully shown during our recent trips to Cardiff Bay, preconceptions can be well wide of the mark. Even better is that with Emma working in the city we have an extra set of eyes and ears hunting out those less well known spots and it was to one of these that we headed first. Junction Canal once connected Bute East and West Docks and although truncated today it’s still a watery oasis and currently home to a pair of nesting Great Crested Grebes. When we arrived one bird was sat tight with the other fishing nearby.
Leaving them to it we didn’t return until later in the day and could not have anticipated what happened next. As one of the adults approached the nest a tiny black and white striped chick suddenly appeared to feed on whatever juicy morsel was being offered. A few moments later and the sitting bird stood up only for another two chicks to literally tumble out of the nest and down its sides. This seemed to create momentary confusion as the parents simultaneously cleared away broken eggshells and attempted to collect the family back together. Given the nest’s height this was no mean feat as the tiny birds struggled to clamber back up. With us all on tenterhooks they did thankfully make it though it was clear that none had been in the land of the living for more than a day at most. Now Great Crested Grebes carrying chicks on their backs is something I’ve been longing to see for years and in the most unexpected circumstances that was exactly what we got next. Though two of the chicks remained hidden beneath their mothers wings the other was clearly still hungry and stuck its head out to demand a feed. The parents duly obliged providing a huge Dragonfly larvae which was wolfed down despite its size. All this whilst standing on a main road in the middle of a city. Remarkable.
Of course events such as this, as great as they are, usually lack context and you’re often left wondering what the full story is or was. Thanks to several friendly passers-by however we soon had the full background on this celebrity family. Started less than a month ago the nest originally belonged to a pair of Coots but the Grebes soon muscled in and quickly finished off the job. Four eggs appeared a few days later and on Friday two of those had hatched. The third chick we saw looked to have hatched just a few hours earlier, probably since our morning visit, a theory backed up by the egg shell we saw being cleared away. Fast forward to Monday and the nest is now empty, the parents having presumably taken their young family to safer waters out on one of the nearby docks. That means from start to finish these birds took about three weeks to build a nest, lay eggs, incubate, hatch and leave. No wonder I’ve always missed them in the past.
Just around the corner from the Great Crested Grebes sits Atlantic Wharf, a mixed use development of apartments, hotels and offices alongside the now abandoned Bute East Dock. Opened in 1859 this 1.3 kilometre long stretch of water was once surrounded by railway sidings and warehouses, a far cry from the tranquil scenes which meet visitors today. The presence of a preserved crane and sensitive architecture has however managed to preserve a little of the areas character which is enhanced no end by the presence of Eben Haezer. I’ve been able to find no information as to her history but she must have been here for a very long time as the dock is now land locked and I can’t imagine anyone having gone to the trouble of moving her in since then. In the light breeze she was gently drifting in and out against her moorings, perhaps one last attempt to break free before the inevitable end.
The real surprise though was the sheer abundance of wildlife calling Atlantic Wharf home with Tufted Ducks, Coots, Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes and Mallards all present. Nothing particularly spectacular you may argue but the Coots provided some of the most bizarre behaviour I’ve seen from the species. There were two pairs constructing nests outside the town hall and both, when they weren’t squabbling amongst themselves at least, seemed intent on using human rubbish for building materials. We watched as a discarded coffee cup and plastic bag were brought in, the first proving to be a particularly challenging item for a bird to drag through the water. Thank god it didn’t see the disdain with which its partner let the cup drift gently away after having failed to lift it up on to the nest. Now I know Coot’s don’t have the most expressive of faces but I’m sure I picked up a look of derision on one after this particular episode.
A little further along and it was the turn of a trio of Cormorants to amuse and impress, not for any bizarre antics this time (they just sat there) but for just how close they allowed us to get. Normally Cormorants are seen at distance but these were barely a few metres away and at such close range the true beauty in their plumage shone through. One adult in particular exhibited a series of almost scale like feathers whose bronze sheen was a far cry from the black one might have expected. Equally eye opening were their heads where a similar intricacy was revealed.
Other than a few fishermen we had the place to ourselves, a surprise considering we were just a stones throw from the hustle and bustle of Cardiff Bay itself. With this being the end of the Easter holidays there were plenty of people about and as my parents took in the tourist sights I couldn’t resist photographing the Water Tower once more.
Having run the gauntlet of shoppers Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve came as a welcome respite. Almost immediately we picked up the calls of at least two Cetti’s Warblers as a Grey Heron drifted across the reeds and Goldfinch flew overhead. From the board walk I counted a remarkable twenty two Great Crested Grebes with at least two pairs on nests as was a Mute Swan a little further away. Sadly the Lesser Scaup remained elusive (I have yet to see it here with all my previous sightings coming at Cosmeston) but several Linnets and a pair of Song Thrush provided suitable photographic diversions. The latter looked to be building a nest nearby and they may even have chicks already as this individual was seen carrying away a beak full of worms.
More Great Crested Grebes punctuated the rest of our walk although one pair face a perilous few days ahead with these huge Pike waiting nearby.
Other than Chiffchaffs and one or two Willow Warblers migrants were very few on the ground though I gather that’s all changed over the last couple of days. Typical. Still at least we were in the right place at the right time to watch the Stavros S Niarchos tall ship pull in to Cardiff. Once scenes such as this would have been commonplace but now they offer a glimpse back to a lost way of life not only for the city but South Wales in general.
On our way back to catch the train (yes this was an even greener trip than usual) we had chance to check in again on the urban wildlife with which Cardiff’s residents now share their city. Seeing the way in which nature has found a way to survive and indeed thrive within our urban setting is heartening and seems to be having a positive effect on those living nearby. The excitement shown by those who stopped to talk to us about the Great Crested Grebes with which I opened this post was equally matched by my own and will be something I remember for many years to come.