Last week finally saw our first snow of the winter. Not enough to deliver that all important day off work but certainly sufficient to coat the nearby hills and deliver an occasional five minute blizzard down at lower altitudes. Just the conditions I hear you say for an evening drive to mid Wales which, disappointingly, passed off with only a couple of brief flurries. I had hoped to enable “snow mode” on our 4×4 but I guess that particular thrill will have to wait a little while longer. Our reason for being on the road was a weekend away in Aberystwyth, something of an annual tradition at this time of year and a chance to enjoy one of our favourite haunts without the crowds which descend during warmer times. They felt a long ways away indeed as we stepped from our warm cocoon into a strong Northerly, bitingly cold and whipping the sea into a frenzy. Far from the worst sea state we’ve ever experienced here but still enough to cause waves to break with some regularity over the seawall, drenching a couple of unsuspecting evening strollers in the process. My mirth would soon come back to haunt me.
Next morning and after a full English it was back out into the wind to enjoy another high tide. Again waves were breaking well over the prom, particularly alongside Old College and out by the harbour where camera and dignity were risked in a an effort to bring you, loyal readers, a little taste of Wales at its most fierce.
Despite a couple of close shaves we remained relatively dry and having taken our fill of wave action set about searching for Purple Sandpipers. These have taken to roosting on the sea wall in recent years though whether or not they’d still be doing so in the face of such an onslaught was anyone’s guess. Initially we drew a blank turning up only a lonely Turnstone before finally spotting six individuals seemingly clinging on for dear life. Huddled together far higher up the wall than usual I was amazed that they hadn’t decamped to somewhere a little less fraught but at the same time pleased that I’d get to spend some more time with these attractive little birds.
With light levels incredibly poor I’m pretty pleased with the photos I managed to get though never quite managed to capture bird and wave in one convincing shot. The closest I came was spoiled by the Purple Sandpipers taking flight, an event proceeded moments later by a distinctly damp feeling all down my back. It appears that an errant wave had somehow managed to break at the exact position I was standing causing a degree of soaking and much mirth on the part of my other half.
Significantly wetter and colder than an hour previously we jumped in the car and set off for our main target of the day, Nant y Arian. Owned by Natural Resources Wales this is one of three Red Kite feeding stations within an hour of home and probably one of the most dramatic. Set at the head of a valley with hills all around it regularly attracts up to 150 birds in winter, several of which were already circling in the vicinity as we pulled up. For now though they’d have to wait as seeing the snow covered mountains further inland we couldn’t resist heading a couple more miles up to Nant-y-Moch reservoir. Remarkably I’ve never been here before despite living in Aberystwyth for five years and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Despite a couple of heavy rain showers passing through there was still plenty of snow about and not a single other soul for as far as the eye could see. With the cloud base barely clearing our surroundings it felt about as isolated as anywhere we’ve been of late, and I loved it.
Having endured the freezing wind for as long we could we were soon back at Nant y Arian. Wrapped up in an extra couple of layers we took in a very enjoyable four mile walk along the top of the site where views have been opened up considerably in recent years by the felling of conifer plantations. On a clearer day it would have been stunning and even with our limited visibility was pretty darn good.
We spent much of our walk in the company of Goldcrests whose high pitched calls were an almost constant presence though the birds themselves were rarely seen. We were also treated to a spectacular Raven flypast who seemed to delight in flipping upside down, all the while surrounded by an ever growing number of Red Kites which were getting more and more vocal as each jockeyed for air space above. This bode very well indeed for the coming main event which was still just over an hour away. Eager to get a spot we walked down to the lake on whose shores the birds are fed but for some reason there weren’t that many people about. It’s almost as if others don’t like freezing cold, grey winter days. Talking of grey it was by now so dull that I seriously doubted that we were on to a winner photographically. The presence of five Goosanders (four male, one female) gave an opportunity to at least attempt however and this one came out rather well I think.
Then it was feeding time. The appearance of a wheelbarrow full of meat sent the gathered Kites into raptures of excitement as birds homed in from all directions on their quarry. Numbers were impossible to judge but the sky was soon filled with a swirling cyclone of life, concentrating into a single mass the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced. As the first morsels hit the ground Red Kites started dropping out of the sky like missiles only to pull up at the last minute, valuable winter nourishment grasped within dangling talons. Squabbles were breaking out everywhere with ever resourceful Crows more than happy to step in and take whatever they could get their beaks on. Despite being across the water we had Kites regularly flying within a few metres of us and it was very much a case of not knowing where to look next.
The whole event only lasted a few minutes before the food supply was exhausted and birds began to disperse back into the surrounding countryside. An epic encounter which revealed another surprising beneficiary. In their eagerness the Red Kites dropped several pieces of meat into the lake itself which the Goosanders from earlier were only too happy to pick up. This was certainly new behaviour for me and I wonder if these birds have just happened upon this in passing recently or now make a habit of overwintering here in order to get an easy meal.
Our day finished with the Starling roost under Aberystwyth pier and a surprise but very welcome Kingfisher fishing in the harbour just as the last few streaks of light were draining from the sky. We were able to watch it make a couple of dives before it shot off across the water, quickly lost to the deepening murk. An awesome way to round off what had been an excellent day.