Saturday dawned bright, sunny and very cold, but at least it wasn’t windy. The sunshine encouraged me out to walk and I headed for the beach where I had hoped to take advantage of the clear light and take some shots of the mussel beds that are central to the presence of the wading birds. However, when I reached the end of our road I could see the tide was almost fully in, so that put paid to that idea. The sea was remarkably calm, but it was penetratingly cold and I almost turned around to go back for the car and drive somewhere more sheltered. Then I spotted a couple with telescopes peering out to sea and naturally had to find out what they were looking for. As I approached them I spotted a bird on the rocks, a Rock pipit was foraging along the boulders of the sea-break. It was a lovely healthy-looking bird and getting around quite nimbly despite the fact that the poor thing had lost most of one of its legs.
It turned out that the couple with the telescopes were hoping to see divers, although apparently without much luck today. I know many birders enjoy sea-watching and spotting some of the less commonly seen species of sea birds, but as the best sightings are during the colder months and a lot of patience is required to achieve often very distant sightings, it’s not really my cup of tea. I am interested by the fact that it is possible to sight the birds around this coast though, and did a little research into them in the warmth of the house. The following information is from the RSPB website and from that I think the Red-throated diver is the species most likely to be seen offshore here.
Black-throated Diver- Gavia arctica
Family : Divers – (Gaviidae)
Streamlined diving birds that sit low in the water and dive with consummate ease. On land they are clumsy, barely able to walk with their legs so far back on their bodies. They are easily disturbed when breeding and their vulnerability to marine pollution make them a vulnerable as well as rare breeding species.
Red-throated Diver- Gavia stellata
Family : Divers – (Gaviidae)
The smallest of the UK’s divers, its grey-brown plumage and up-tilted bill readily distinguish it from the other species. In summer it has a distinctive red throat. They usually jump up to dive and can stay underwater for a minute and a half. They are very ungainly on land, only coming ashore to breed. A recent moderate population decline make them an Amber List species.
Shetland is the UK stronghold for this species with other key populations on Orkney, the Outer Hebrides and the north Scottish mainland. They are also found along the whole of west Scotland south to the Mull of Kintyre. Outside the breeding season it is numerous along the UK’s east coast, and occurs patchily along the west coast, with concentrations off west Scotland and around north-west Wales.
The sea-watching couple had seen a couple of guillemots out at sea and also mentioned a Purple Sandpiper they had spotted on the breakwater rocks, which piqued my interest and sent me off my own ‘twitch’. I walked along the promenade, scouring the rocks in the hope of catching sight of the little Sandpiper, but with no luck. I also paid more attention to the sea and got out my binoculars for a closer look at a distant bird swimming around on the surface. Cormorant-like, but smaller, with yellow patches at the base of its bill and around the eyes and with a distinctive raised crest on its head, it was a Shag – Phalocrocorax aristotelis.
Walking back, another swimming bird, closer to shore this time definitely was neither a cormorant nor a shag. I had no picture in my head then of what a diver looked like, but this was behaving like one, diving frequently and staying under the water for a good while before popping up again. It occurred to me that it was a Great crested Grebe, although I’d never seen one at sea before. It was a delight to watch, swimming around at some speed then diving elegantly. Once it came up almost directly beneath a floating black-headed gull, that was most put out and then just seconds later it dived again and came up with a sizeable fish.
It was too cold to stand around for long and my fingers on the camera controls were numb, so I walked back home via the shelter of the neighbouring streets. It’s been a while since I walked that way and I was very surprised by the amount of flowers in bloom in the front gardens. There are already snowdrops, crocus, grape hyacinth, the occasional daffodil and most surprisingly, wallflowers. The weather forecast for next week is not good - overnight frosts, sleet and below-freezing temperatures are not so good for too-early flowers.
An hour in the house with a cup of tea and a sandwich and I’d warmed up enough to venture out again. This time I took the car as I was intending to drive over to the RSPB reserve on the Conwy estuary. (Point of interest: this morning’s sea-watchers had also told me that a firecrest had been ‘twitched’ there earlier in the day.) That was not why I was going there, but anyhow as I approached Rhos village I thought I’d pull over and have a quick look around the harbour beach for the Purple Sandpiper. The winter sunshine had drawn a lot of others out to walk too and I parked in the first available space and took the steps down to the promenade. There, almost right in front of me were a group of small birds peacefully dozing on the rocks waiting for the tide to turn. I recognised the turnstones and ringed plovers immediately, but was not so sure of the identification of the members of the majority of the group. I had to wait for one to stand up and show itself properly to be fairly sure they were dunlin – it was the long bill, slightly decurved at the end that clinched it.
I was more than happy to those three species together, but things got even better when I realised there were a small number of purple sandpipers tucked in there as well ; fortunately they are much more distinctive and I recognised them with no problem. I saw 3 in total, but there could have been more tucked down lower on the rocks.
The Purple Sandpiper is usually a strictly coastal wader that visits Britain in the non-breeding season and then flies north to breed during the summer. They are seldom found on sandy beaches but prefer rocky coasts, where they can be seen searching for molluscs and crustaceans among the rocks and rock pools. In the North West They can turn up on any rocky coast from the tip of the Llyn peninsular in North Wales to Morecambe bay in the North. They begin to arrive in October, reaching a peak by November and start to leave again in April. By June, at the latest, they are gone.They are about the same size as a turnstone, with whom they are often seen, and a dark bird overall.
The purple sandpiper is the only small dark wader with yellow/orange legs likely to be seen on rocky shores,frequently in association with turnstones. They have a rather round-shouldered appearance, the wings are very dark grey, the head and back a slightly paler shade and the partially streaked breast an even paler shade. They have a longish beak for their size which is dark grey/black with a yellow or orange base. Their legs appear fairly substantial and are bright yellow or pale orange. In flight they appear very dark with just a faint, narrow white wing-bar and bold white edges on a black/dark grey tail.
The birds were so close to the promenade that quite a few people passing by noticed them; some of whom stopped and asked me to identify the species for them. Perhaps not too surprisingly, it was the attractive Ringed Plovers that aroused the most amount of interest.