It seems that we may be in for a spot of winter weather after all if the last week is anything to go by. Both Thursday and Friday saw good levels of snowfall across the Brecon Beacons and let me assure you that there’s nothing quite so frustrating as sitting at work with the white peak of Pen y Fan visible off in the distance. If we’d been around over the weekend I’d have been up there in a flash but due to some relationship anniversary or other it was off to Aberystwyth instead, my home from home and a place I’ll never tire of visiting. The drive up on Friday night was interesting to put it mildly with heavy rain turning to snow across the hills resulting in a road surface that was not only slippery but also rapidly disappearing from view. Fearing a night stuck in Lampeter (the horror) we pushed on and thankfully made it without incident. Checking in to the Belle Vue Royal Hotel was everything I wanted it to be; friendly staff, dodgy décor and a cracking breakfast following a good night’s sleep. Anything else just wouldn’t have felt like a proper British seaside break. That early morning feed was just the start we needed as, following a brief pinkish glow as the sun rose, we were in for another day dominated by cloud, rain and all pervading dullness. This was supposed to be a test weekend for my new camera (more details to come providing this post is suitably adorned with photographic masterpieces and thus it hasn’t been returned) and with little promise of change ahead it was certainly going to be pushed to the max.
As is traditional with our winter visits here we began the morning with a search for Purple Sandpipers along the seawall by Old College. With the tide out chances were high that they’d be off feeding elsewhere and so harder to locate but we struck lucky with a lone individual on rocks in front of the castle. It was only present for a moment of two, just long enough for me to find a route down to the beach in fact, before taking flight and disappearing around the corner. Giving chase we soon had it relocated on the aforementioned wall where light was almost non-existent and as a result photography difficult. Hanging over railings whilst trying to keep steady against the wind is always a fun challenge but I persevered and for a first attempt with the new camera the results weren’t half bad.
While fiddling with the autofocus to better suit my feathered targets Emma spotted a Black Redstart up on the castle walls which vanished almost as soon as it had appeared. Despite not seeing it depart a more thorough search of the ruins revealed no sign, a frustrating experience but par for the course when it comes to this species, us and Aberystwyth. A brief scan through the Ceredigion bird sightings blog would have you believe that a sighting is all but guaranteed on the towns rooftops but do you think we can ever find one? Not a bit of it. This brief encounter therefore was actually something of a triumph and timed coincidentally with the appearance of said blogs editor. We got chatting and it turns out the male Black Redstart often recorded (ours was a female) is ringed and as a result known to be the oldest living individual of the species ever recorded at just over five years of age. Not bad going but none of my platitudes could coax it out of hiding atop Old College.
Instead we turned our attention to some of Aber’s other residents which this morning included a couple of Herring Gulls dancing for worms, successfully I might add, and a whole army of Turnstones working the North beach tide line. The latter were a non-stop flurry of blurred legs and tipped shingle with me crouched somewhere in the midst of it all. I always find Turnstones the most accommodating of waders and this bunch were no exception. I just wish they’d pause for thought a little more often as getting a blur free image proved challenging.
With much of the morning already spent it was back on the road for a short journey up to Ynys-hir. Viewers of Springwatch should already be well acquainted with this fantastic RSPB reserve, nestled on the banks of the Dyfi and encompassing woodland, estuary and raised bog habitat. If you want your birding up close and personal though then there is no better place than the centres feeders, today as always packed with everything from Nuthatches through to Siskin. The latter was particularly nice to see as we find them so rarely back home and they gave as good as they got when it came to battling with the bigger and more aggressive Greenfinches and Chaffinches. Also present were Coal Tits and a couple of Treecreepers up high, not to mention at least five Squirrels one of which looked for all the world as if it was about to jump on me from a nearby branch.
Out on the reserve proper first stop was the Marian Mawr Hide which gives a commanding view over the estuary and nearby pools. We were greeted by hundreds of Teal and Canada Geese, careful searching of which revealed a lone Barnacle Goose but sadly no sign of any Greenland White-fronted which overwinter here. Another loner came in the shape of a female Goldeneye whilst out on the river flocks of Curlew, Oystercatcher and Shelduck completed the scene. Our stay was prolonged by a light drizzle breaking out but that did allow us to pick up Little Grebe and Bullfinch as well as admire our snow-topped surroundings.
With a steady rain now falling we squelched our way first to the old heronry and then Saltings Hide, both of which allowed better views of species already mentioned as well as delivering our first Wigeon of the day. More woodland fare including several Treecreepers (they really seem to be doing well here) accompanied us into the next section of the reserve where historically we’ve been used to walking straight down to the rail embankment before completing a loop of the main scrapes. No longer. Instead a boardwalk redirects into the midst of the reserve where several years worth of effort has resulted in the restoration of raised bog habitat from what was once conifer plantation. Indignation at having our traditional route changed was quickly replaced with admiration as the place looks fantastic and must be alive with life come spring and summer. Over the winter months I can imagine it being a prime target for Hen Harriers, a comment I voiced only moments before we spotted a ringtail from Ynys Feurig. Talk about timing! It appeared to come in off the estuary before quartering the scrapes briefly and then headed out of sight. This did not go down well with the gathered Teal and Lapwing who took to the air in their thousands. Impressive stuff. I can’t wait to come back here in a few months time.
The next section down to Breakwater Hide was reportedly flooded but we thought we’d chance our luck and although it was very wet and muddy underfoot, we managed to remain dry. It was worth the effort as we spotted a trio of Common Snipe, enjoyed the high pitched calls of Teal and watched a flock of Starlings steadily grow in size, perhaps a staging point before they headed to roost at Aberystwyth pier. Best of all though was another Treecreeper which by some fluke I managed to have the camera on just as it extracted an insect from its hiding place. Light levels were non-existent but the new camera more than did its job and delivered a very pleasing result. I’d say we could be on to a winner here.
As if sensing that the day was drawing to a close the sun put in one final effort and managed to break through the clouds, albeit briefly. Nevertheless that was all we needed to light up the snow covered hills and when a passing train provided the perfect foreground, well, it would have been rude not to take an image or two.
In the last few minutes before sunset we scanned the bog for any sign of the Hen Harrier but alas it was not to be. There weren’t even any Buzzards or Red Kites, both strange omissions from the day, but that didn’t detract from what had been a most excellent outing. Based on what we’ve seen I’ll have to make a concerted effort this year to get back a couple more times to see how things vary through the seasons. There may even be a chance of catching up with one of the elusive Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers which are occasionally reported though seldom seen. Personally I think they’re a myth but am always open to the possibility.