There are a few things which have come to symbolise winter for me in recent years. The Daily Express forecasting deep freezes and unsurpassed levels of snowfall, muttered comments bemoaning the never ending creep of Christmas decorations into months where they have no rightly remit, shared emails of people trying to offload last year’s ‘must have’ tyre snow socks and perhaps even the John Lewis advert. As a birder I can also add Waxwing irruptions to that list, an annual natural event which sees varying numbers of these truly spectacular Nordic birds invade our shores. Living all the way down here in south Wales means we need a really stellar year to get our fix, something which has been achingly rare of late. In fact my last Waxwing sightings came care of Cardiff back in 2012, a pretty epic encounter that elevated a standard residential street to legendary status, at least in my eyes anyway. Between then and now my withdrawal symptoms have been growing ever stronger, enhanced no end by several failed attempts during our return from Leeds over the New Year. Kirkstall, Welshpool, Newtown, all promised so much yet somehow we were always just a couple of hours too late. It was with some relish therefore that I read the news of a flock being sighted outside The Range in Llansamlet a couple of weeks ago, the closest birds to home that I can recall in just about forever. Of course being a weekday we had everything crossed that they’d still be present on Saturday, a day which dawned crisp and clear. Perfect conditions in which to observe Waxwings, but what of the birds?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case, I couldn’t agree more. It took no more than a quick scan of the car park to locate our quarry, a loose flock of some 14 Waxwings perched high above us. Against a clear blue sky they looked amazing but what struck me most was their sound. I don’t recall any such audio delights from our Cardiff encounter but here there was a constant background noise of high pitched tweets, whistles and trilling. Yes a terrible description but it’s really one of those sounds that has to be heard first hand in order to be fully appreciated and one that will live long in my memory. As shoppers went about their business behind us, oblivious to the presence of one of the bird world’s most celebrated residents, we were treated to fantastic views as the birds began to fan out making regular trips to a nearby hedgerow dripping with berries, tantalisingly just out of camera reach behind a fence. Fortunately a nearby road afforded much better viewing opportunities and here I was finally able to get that classic berry in beak shot that had thus far eluded me my entire birding life.
Ironically the sun posed my biggest challenge from this vantage point as getting closer resulted in silhouetted views at best so my images aren’t quite as large in the frame as I’d have liked. Even so it was a very special way to kick start our weekend, even if I did leave with fingers feeling like blocks of ice.
Our main target of the day was Kenfig and after taking out Waxwing fill, that was where we ended up next. After recent cost cutting here it was good to see the visitor centre open once more complete with large new murals painted along its exterior wall and a full car park to boot. Of course this popularity meant that the main hide was pretty packed resulting in us taking the inspired decision to head straight to the lake shore instead. I say inspired because no sooner had we arrived than we were enjoying the sight of a majestic Marsh Harrier quartering the reeds opposite. If memory serves this is my first encounter with the species at Kenfig and we went on to enjoy great views as the bird slowly climbed before heading off across the dunes. This was turning into a spectacular days birding and things continued to improve as we encountered a flock of thirty Common Snipe winging their way across the water. Waterfowl numbers were also very impressive with Great Crested Grebe (9), Pochard (60+), Tufted Duck (lots), Goldeneye (2), Wigeon (2) and an impressive count of at least fifty Shoveller all being recorded. Commoner species included hundreds of Coots, a couple of Common Gulls, Cormorant, Grey Heron and several Gadwall of which one male gave some superb views as it briefly alighted nearby.
At North Hide we were also able to add a couple of Goldcrests along with Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits, plus the sound of a calling Cetti’s Warbler. Seeing such small birds on the wing at this time of year is always something of a marvel, particularly on days such as this where temperatures were absolutely freezing. Although the main lake was clear the hide inlet and nearby pools were frozen over giving a perfect excuse for me to get a little bit arty.
Another upside was that conditions were much firmer underfoot than usual meaning our walk through the dunes and on to the coast was much easier than it could have benn although bird life was almost non-existent. It was only after reaching the beach that we started to pick up the occasional Oystercatcher, Curlew, Turnstone and Stonechat around Sker Point. The Turnstones were particularly worthy of note as we found them feeding on grassland behind the main beach, perhaps in an attempt to shelter from that strong onshore wind.
We had no such luck and faced the brunt of conditions as we walked out to Porthcawl and back before returning to the car, adding a lone Skylark in the process. A quick glance down to the lake revealed no further sign of that mornings Marsh Harrier so it was time to head for home, contented and in need of a significant thaw.