The reason we arrived atthat first Black Grouse lek so late was that we’d spent the majority of Saturday exploring Llandegla forest. This is a superbly managed, privately owned plantation which borders the main Grouse moors and is home to the RSPB hide which kick started this whole adventure. Although we wouldn’t be taking advantage of its facilities I thought it only fair that we stop by and drop a little cash in recognition of the enterprises efforts. The chance that we might still stumble across a few Grouse didn’t hurt either.
Things got off to an exciting start as Emma decided that we should ignore the sat-nav and instead follow our OS map. Revolutionary I know in this day and age but we quickly discovered that we may have ever so slightly misjudged things. Perhaps it was the sign stating “unsuitable for motor vehicles” or maybe the huge ruts which faced us but were we deterred? Of course not. This was our first opportunity to do some proper off-roading and the car came through admirably. Apologies for the smug looks as we joined the main road again to some curious glances. Having picked up a trail guide we were soon enjoying the forestry proper, an interesting mix of tree ages, species and spacing, all managed to help increase the attractiveness of this area for wildlife. And boy was it working. Whereas plantations can be dark places devoid of birdsong, Llanedegla was positively bursting with life. Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs led the charge with a backing choir of Goldcrests and Coal Tits plus the occasional Blackcap. That still didn’t stop us diverting out onto the moor at our first opportunity however, just in case there were a few lingering Black Grouse still around.
It was a pretty dull morning but the landscape spread out before us was unlike anything I’ve seen before. For as far as the eye could see there was a patchwork of colours, a direct result of the heather cutting which takes place here to encourage new growth and provide lovely fresh, juicy shoots for the Grouse. Sadly their main beneficiary was keeping a low profile though we did turn up a curiously plumaged Reed Bunting as well as plenty of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits plus a hunting Kestrel. All good signs of a healthy moor. Pushing back into the forest we were soon walking alongside a large recently felled area when two interesting calls reached our ears. The first was clearly a distant male Cuckoo, result, followed by something which I couldn’t immediately place. A few moments later the culprits arrived in the shape of a flock of small birds which despite their penchant for landing out of sight we managed to pin down to Lesser Redpolls. Now this is a species we hardly ever seem to see so it was an excellent surprise to find at least twenty flitting about. Of course the next challenge was to try and get one on camera which was no easy task. I definitely could have done better.
It was while being led on a merry chase that another small bird caught my attention, this one clearly a Tree Pipit parachuting and calling from one of the few trunks still standing. Although initially distant I was able to creep in until only a few meters away, eventually getting my best shots of this species to date. There were at least another couple present in the same area and if we’d stopped to look more closely at each pipit we passed that number would almost certainly have climbed a whole lot higher.
This was turning into an unexpectedly excellent trip, and things were about to get even better. Back amongst more thickly wooded areas we picked up the unmistakeable calls of a Crossbill somewhere nearby. Straining our necks to peer up at the canopy revealed a male and female pair, both in brightly coloured plumage which still comes as a shock in a country where small and brown is often the norm. This seemed to open the floodgates as for the next couple of miles we were either seeing or hearing Crossbills with numerous flocks roaming the trees. Most were incredibly tricky to photograph being both high up and silhouetted but I’m pretty pleased with what I managed to get.
Llandegla still had one more surprise up its sleeve however. Remember that Cuckoo we’d heard earlier? Having fallen silent since we’d assumed it had moved on until I spotted a suspicious looking shape atop another lone tree. Our first Cuckoo of the year and great views as it called a few times before flying on to a more distant perch. Nice light though so a record shot had to be attempted.
Yet more Crossbills accompanied our final few miles until we were once more back at the car. Forget what you think you may know about conifer plantations as Llandegla perfectly demonstrates what a little bit of good management can do for both wildlife and visitors. More of the same please.