With all that’s been going on during the past week our trip to Strumble Saturday before last seems like a lifetime ago. Back then storm Ellen was still making her presence felt which meant big winds, big waves and even bigger birds (at least in terms of the amount of thigh rubbing induced). Spring tides too were playing their part which was the main reason for us starting our day at Banc y Lord, an early nineteenth century seawall overlooking Kidwelly Marsh.
On a normal tide the vast area of saltmarsh stretching out before you would be a combination of marshland (obviously), fields and muddy channels. Line up the sun and moon however and the whole area disappears beneath the waters of Carmarthen Bay, pushing birds which would otherwise be spread far and wide much closer. Having lived here for over a decade the fact that I’d never visited this particular vantage point before now is a surprising omission but as the saying goes, there’s no time like the present.
Rising at an unsociably early hour (what do you mean seven isn’t early?!) we were in place not long after and could immediately sense that this was going to be a good day in the field. Hirundines filled the air, skimming low over the visibly rising water and perching on nearby fences whilst both Little Egrets and Common Sandpipers were constantly on the move. It was nice to see the latter in particular as having not been able to make our usual summer trip up to Scotland we had feared that our chances for sightings this year would be limited. Other wader species were well represented with numerous Curlew calling and a small flock of Common Snipe flying overhead. A rather nice Greenshank also dropped in briefly but we never did manage to get eyes on to the Water Rail, heard but not seen, buried deep in reeds on the landward side of the bank.
As good as all this was it was the birds of prey who, for me at least, stole the show although a pair of Kingfisher erupting from a small pool and flying within inches of our heads certainly gave them a run for their money. First up was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon which spent much of our visit harrying the gathered flocks off towards the airfield. Then, way down towards Kidwelly itself, an Osprey suddenly appeared. Circling high above the estuary we had our fingers crossed for a spot of fishing but in the end the bird drifted back the way it had come and was soon lost from sight. As a result you’ll have to make do with one of my legendary record shots which does include an Osprey, honest.
As quick as the tide rose it was soon heading in the opposite direction which, with a heavy shower incoming, was our cue to bid a hasty retreat but not before one final treat. We’d checked a small flock of Mute Swans upon arrival but giving them one last scan we came up trumps with a Whooper Swan! I vaguely remember seeing one here a couple of years ago so I’m not sure if this is the same individual lingering or a new bird.
Next stop was Kidwelly Quay where we walked a loop following the canal and opposite side of the marsh from earlier. Birds proved relatively scarce with the exception of a lone Wheatear and at least sixty Redshank following the retreating waters downstream. Mixed in were a couple of Ringed Plover and this confiding Whimbrel that had us checking the guides to make absolutely sure of our id.
And that was really all we had planned but with the sun now shining we made the decision to head over to Strumble Head in the hope that there’d be a few seabirds about. Boy did that prove to be the case. From the approach road we could already see a mass of white water and raging waves which immediately delivered numerous Gannets and large flocks of Kittiwakes. Scattered between were at least thirty Fulmar which, more used to watching them soaring along cliffs, always causes me to do a double take when spying one out in open water. Cory’s pops to mind before Fulmar more often than not. Setting up my scope it wasn’t long before I was enjoying brilliant views of at least a hundred plus Manx Shearwater as well, the majority heading from right to left and showing fantastically well in what must have been near perfect viewing conditions. Indeed such was the air clarity that I was able to pick up a Great Skua harassing a couple of Kittiwakes way out on the horizon.
Better was still to come however as I spotted a small black dot that was quickly absorbed in the swell. I thought nothing more of it until another hove into view about mid channel. With everything crossed I managed to get the scope locked on and blow me if it wasn’t a European Storm Petrel dancing its way across the wavetops. Again we had superb views allowing us to see full plumage details and those characteristic dangling feet. Even magnified the Petrel was tiny compared to its environment which makes the way this species lives its life all the more remarkable. I’m not ashamed to admit there were a few whoops emanating from our little camp, easily our most exciting bird encounter of the year and one that left me smiling for the rest of the day.
Sadly photos were out of the question but I couldn’t leave this tale without one more terrible record shot but this time of a new lifer. And no it wasn’t a bird! Towards the end of our vigil another scan of the waves happened upon a large fin travelling at pace across our field of vision and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I immediately thought it a cetacean. Behaviour and movement however were distinctly odd with the fin flapping up and down. What we had instead was an Ocean Sunfish, something I’ve been wanting to see for years and now we’d seen two as a second, smaller individual passed through shortly after. Weighing up to a tonne these are huge fish and from our vantage point we could clearly see that bulk beneath the water’s surface. Amazing creatures.
Other odds and sods from Strumble included a couple of Stonechat, pair of Chough and one of the resident Grey Seals bottling away the afternoon without a care for the drama unfolding behind it. Easily my best seawatching session from Strumble so far. Next target a few of the rarer Shearwater species I think.