Conwy Marine Walk

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It was a view from Conwy’s town walls while on my earlier jackdaw trail that prompted this walk, reminding me that though I’ve often walked the Coast Path in both directions almost to and from the town and beyond, there were parts in the middle I had missed, including this stretch from the end of the quay around to the marina. It’s not a long walk and I imagine that at times it could get busy, but on this out-of-season winter weekday I met very few people and those I did all exchanged ‘hellos’ or at least a smile.   

To my surprise the town was quiet when I arrived here today, with less traffic and people than I think I’ve ever seen; at not far off noon on a sunny winter’s day I’d thought it would be busier. 

Castle Street, Conwy

The quayside was almost deserted, emphasised by the scarcity of herring gulls calling or hanging about on the alert for an opportunistic snack.

Conwy Quay looking towards the castle and bridge

The tide was out, which always changes the dynamic of a place too; many birds rest, conserving their energy for when the tide turns, hopefully bringing fresh food in with it. Numbers of herring gulls were gathered together sitting peacefully on distant sandbanks in the shallow water, while two nearby were alternately preening with just standing in the sunshine.

View from the quayside across to the hillside of Marl Woods

Other birds, like this oystercatcher and a redshank, continue to forage, stalking the exposed mud and sand on the hunt for buried shellfish.

The quayside is itself on the  route of the Coast Path and accessible to walkers. Cyclists have either to dismount or take a detour around the town, but they do have the option to rejoin it at the point I was heading for a short way beyond the harbour wall. 

Menai Strait & Conwy Bay special Area of Conservation 

On the far side of the wall, a board informs that “The water you see in front of you is a Marine Protected Area. It is special because of the way the sea is channelled down the narrow strait, creating whirlpools and areas of fast currents, and then opens out into Traeth Lafan and Conwy Bay, where slow currents lead to sediments being deposited in large sand and mud flats. It is a wonderfully diverse area which supports a rich array of marine wildlife such as corals, sponges and brittlestars, and birdlife like common scoter, wigeon and oystercatcher.”

Beginning at the top of a gentle downhill slope, the first view from the path takes your eye across to the far side of the estuary to the distinctive hill known as the Vardre, rising behind the small town of Deganwy. The path looks intriguing. Curving around between the shoreline and woodland, I imagine each bend will reveal a different perspective on the panoramic views. I can’t decide whether the palm tree adds or detracts from the view, but it looked quite at home against the blue sky on this sunny day.    

The path levels out and the wall lowers, opening up the view onto the exposed shore and the hills across the river.   

Rounding the bend you get a great view of Deganwy fronted by its promenade with the centrally-placed shelter and backed by the iconic double-summited Vardre.

View to Deganwy and the two summits of the Vardre

Bodlondeb Woods

The woodland which shades the path and is contained behind the stone wall is Bodlondeb Woods. Located in what were once the grounds of a Victorian mansion, they are now managed as a Local Nature Reserve. Presently the woods are home to a variety of trees, including a number of non-native species such as this enormous holm, or holly oak which leans dramatically over the wall, extending almost all of its branches and heavy evergreen canopy of leaves across the path. It seems plans for future management of the woods include the removal of some of the introduced trees to encourage native species and improve conditions for wildflowers. I’d like to think this one will be safe for as long as it stays healthy.

Holm oak – Quercus ilex – also known as holly oak or evergreen oak

Rounding another curve the view opens up to the headland of the Great Orme and the point at which the river meets the Irish Sea and the end of the Menai Strait.

As I stopped to photograph this view, a little party of wigeon swam into view , they were travelling slowly along the water’s edge, their eyes on the water, foraging for food. There’s a lot of seaweed along this part which in places covers piled rocks that slope from the path boundary down into the water. Exposed now by the receding tide, partly coated with mud and drying out in the sun, it wasn’t smelling particularly pleasant.

A little further along, some distance away I could make out a group of birds on the edge of a stream of water coursing along between high banks of mud. They were difficult to see in the bright sunlight, but having seen the three wigeon a short while before, and from their ‘gis’, I’m sure these were more of the same.

Half-hidden beneath the rise of a mudbank a little egret was focussing on something in the shallow water, intently following its movements, turning its head and shifting position, ready to strike. No luck this time though. The redshank behind the egret demonstrated a different hunting technique – it had its head almost completely immersed in the water.

Little egret and redshank

Rounding another bend, the path passes by a school and ends quite abruptly, emerging out onto a path running alongside the A547. The view in front of you now is filled by the rugged bulk of the headland of Penmaenbach, a part of the Carneddau Mountain range which marks the northern end of the Snowdonia National Park.   

If you were trekking the length of the Coast Path, you’d now have a decision to make. You can continue to follow the Coast Path towards Llanfairfechan, which after a bit of detour through a housing development you can rejoin, or you can take the considerably longer, but spectacularly scenic route up and over Conwy Mountain and across the hills. A map here shows your options, although it’s a bit high up on the fence and the ‘you are here’ right at the top of it, which is not too helpful to less-tall people like me.

As I’m not trekking the whole length of the Coast Path, I had already planned to make the Marina today’s destination as it’s still more or less on the Path and is the site of some interesting local history and humanly-altered geography. To reach it I turned right here to follow the road, which soon crosses over the A55 Expressway, then cut through the housing development to reach the walkway that runs the length of the frontage of the Marina. 

Conwy Marina

Despite how it now blends into the river scenery, the Marina is not a natural harbour, but came about as a result of the construction of the Conwy Tunnel, which takes the A55 Expressway beneath the estuary and was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on the 25th October 1991. The site the marina now occupies was once a part of Morfa Conwy, but one of the first processes undertaken when the tunnel work began was to excavate a huge basin, within which six sections of the tunnel tube were cast. When they were completed, an opening to the estuary was created, filling the basin with water. The tunnel sections were kept afloat with buoyancy devices, towed to their final positions in the estuary and lowered into a trench dug across the bed. The water-filled casting basin was developed to provide 500 pontoon berths, making it the largest marina in Wales, and opened in 1992. 

Mulberry Harbour

The plaque on the seating shelter overlooking the harbour commemorates both the 50th anniversary of the Normandy D-day landings of WWII, and also the construction here at Conwy Morfa of the Mulberry Harbour which was used in the landings.

‘Mulberry’ was the codename for a World War II project to build parts for two harbours which would be floated to northern France to aid the re-occupation in 1944. The original prototypes for them were designed by Hugh Iorys Hughes, a civil engineer originally from Bangor who foresaw that the Allied troops would need to build harbours on distant beaches because the main French ports were too heavily guarded. From 1942 to 1944, almost 1,000 men worked here to construct three giant caissons, known as Hippos. A major training exercise in July 1943 demonstrated the difficulties of landing troops and supplies on beaches, and in its wake thousands more men around Britain were diverted to the project, constructing more than 200 caissons in various parts of the country. The structures were towed to France and linked to form two harbour walls, enabling large numbers of vehicles, personnel, communications equipment and other supplies vital to sustaining the frontline forces as they pushed deeper into enemy territory, to be taken ashore.

A further memorial can be found beyond the marina on Conwy Morfa, reached either from here by following the path around the left of the marina, or if the memorial is your destination, from the nearby car park.

Marina to Conwy Quay

A547 to Conwy town-Cast Path entrance is opposite the pine tree.

Leaving the memorial I retraced my steps, followed the walkway that runs the length of the marina,  turned right past the The Mulberry restaurant and bar and cut across its carpark to get back to the A547 and the path back to the quay. 

The little egret had worked its way further upstream along the muddy channel and was much closer to the path now, almost at the point where the stream runs beneath the road. They are such a joy to watch, stirring up the surface of the sand or mud they are standing on then watching intently for a movement, keeping focussed, waiting for the right time to strike with its long dagger of a bill.  

A blue-painted footbridge crosses the stream; it’s closed off at the moment, otherwise I’d have been tempted to walk over it to see where it goes. 

On the muddy but grassy bank below the wall I spotted a bird moving around, surprisingly well camouflaged it took a minute of trying to focus in to realise it was lovely plump meadow pipit.

The mud is so soft and oozy that even this lightweight redshank (they weigh only about 120g) was leaving quite deep footprints behind it.

RedshankPibydd Coesgoch

The resting flock of ducks was still there in the sheltered valley between the sloping mud banks. With a better view of them from this angle I was happy they were indeed wigeon, with one or two redshanks in  amongst them too.

wigeon

Another huge tree leaning over the wall may be a sessile oak (or may not); I’ll have to come back and check in a few weeks time when it has leaves.

The woodland is on a hill and as the sun lowers behind them, the trees cast a wide shadow over the shore. 

Another tall tree with a interestingly contorted branches frames a view of the castle and bridges half-concealed in a shadowy haze.

There were foraging birds on the shore now, jackdaws were probing the pebbles, and a redshank and an oystercatcher were inspecting the muddy sand. A herring gull was watching the oystercatcher intently, whilst stalking towards it.

The oystercatcher stopped, probed its bill deeply into the mud and pulled out a large shellfish, a mussel I think. 

I must have looked away for a split second and missed the action, but next thing, the herring gull has the prize! It either snatched the mussel directly from the bill of the oystercatcher, or the oystercatcher dropped it momentarily and the gull grabbed it. The poor oystercatcher left the scene, probably in a huff, while the herring gull carried its ill-gotten gains away; now it just had to work out how to open it.  

At the end of the path the robin was singing as it had been when I began my walk, but this time I could see him perfectly and allowed me to take his photograph. I thanked him of course. 

Blowing Away the Cobwebs

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Wednesday last week started out enticingly clear and sunny, perfect weather for a walk on the coast path to blow away the cobwebs. But, despite knowing full well how changeable the weather can be here on the North Wales coast, I dilly-dallied, doing stuff that could easily have waited till later. By the time I was ready to go it had started to cloud over and there was a strong breeze blowing. But it wasn’t raining and from my window I could see sun shining over the far side of Colwyn Bay, so that’s where I decided to head for.  

Llanddulas, with an interesting landscape and mix of habitats, is the perfect place to combine meandering-with-intent and if required, a brisk walk along the coast path, despite its bleakness on days like today. As I pulled in to park my car behind the defensive wall of rip-rap, two hopeful gulls landed on the ground close by, one a black-head gull, the other a herring gull. Even here the local gulls have come to associate cars with people with food, especially since lock-down brought more visitors and subsequently more people in camper-vans. 

 

The river (Afon Dulas)

The river’s water level is low at the moment, giving the opportunity for repairs to made to parts of its banks that have been quite badly eroded. The worst affected spots are those where people regularly leave the path to get down to the water; these spots, already weakened have been further damaged at times when the river level has been higher after storms and heavy rainfall.        

Looking downriver towards where the river soon meets the sea there are more eroded areas, one spot on the bend reaches very close to the edge of the coast path.

Crossing the bridge, I stopped to watch three mallards that were heading upstream towards me; a female  flanked on either side by two males. They seemed to be in no particular hurry, cruising steadily along paddling against the flow of the river, dabbling as they travelled. The water was surprisingly clear, and though it was rippled and textured by the wind, I could see the ducks’ heads as they searched the riverbed. All are looking very handsome in their bright breeding colours and I wondered about there being two males and one female; mallards start to pair up around October or November, so was one male hoping to entice the female away from the other, or was she torn between the two?

The wind was getting stronger and as it was blowing from the north-west, I could feel it pushing me along as I carried on following the course of the river to where it meets the sea. It was invigorating and all cobwebs were quickly dispatched, and I tried not to think about the walk back against a head-on wind.

The Strandline

At its end, the river is guided to its meeting point with the sea by a great man-made wall of piled rocks and it’s behind that the shoreline becomes accessible. 

The tide was just on the point of turning, and the wind was pushing some big waves towards the shore where they crashed and left foamy trails as they receded. There is no shelter from the elements anywhere along this exposed section of the coast and today, even the hardy herring gulls, often here in great numbers, were conspicuous by their absence.  

When the tide is in there is no visible sand, so it’s not greatly attractive to people, but this rough stony area of the shoreline is always interesting, both in terms of what plants grow here and what the waves may have carried in and left behind them on the strandline.  

The strandline here at Llanddulas is almost always interesting and is a good place to find some of the bigger and tougher shells, although many get damaged by the rocks and stones on the lower shore. A lot of twiggy and small pieces of wood get mixed in with the drifts of seaweed too; some is probably  driftwood, but as there are trees on the other edge of the path it’s likely that much of it is from there. Sadly, there’s also usually a lot of plastic waste amongst the treasures, endless metres of fine fishing line that gets tangled into seaweed, discarded wipes, plastic bottle tops and spent shotgun cartridges are some of the most frequently found items. I always pick up what I see and today ended up with at least half a bag full of stuff to put into the rubbish bin, but it’s frustrating knowing there’s a lot more out there that really doesn’t need to be.

The gulls may have been spending their day elsewhere, but there were several carrion crows about. One flew in and landed close to me on the rise of pebbles on the sea edge, perhaps interested to see if I’d found anything edible as I probed in the piles of seaweed. 

My activity also caught the interest of a free-running dog that came racing over towards me from the path, taking no notice of its owner’s attempts to call it back. It was a cute dog, but I didn’t want its excited company, and more importantly, I’d spotted a line of resting birds along the sea-edge just ahead of me and didn’t want the the dog to catch sight of them too and race over and disturb them, something that happens all too often here. This time I managed to divert it back towards its owners and the birds were left in peace. 

Oystercatcher – welsh Pioden y Môr

Oystercatchers seem, happily, to be maintaining good-sized populations along this coast and Welsh estuaries, but that is not the case generally, as highlighted in this recent post by Graham Appleton:

Over recent decades, numbers of Eurasian Oystercatchers have declined. In 2015 the species was reclassified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN’s Red List (Birdlife International) and “Vulnerable” within Europe. It is also Amber listed on the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to its European status, the concentration of its wintering population in protected sites and the international importance of UK breeding and wintering populations.

When Oystercatchers can’t find food
 / GRAHAM APPLETON

Not shells

Moving on, a bit higher up on the beach there was more to see, including pieces of ‘stuff’ that are found blowing around on beaches practically everywhere and some that I’ve only recently become aware of.

whelk egg cases & horn wrack

On the left of the photograph, a bundle of the dried empty egg-cases of the common whelk.

On the right is a piece of dried almost fabric-like hornwrack. It looks like a dried piece of seaweed, but is actually a colony of animals, meshed tightly together, each animal contained in a little box. When it’s alive, hornwrack grows only during spring and summer, forming bushy clumps attached to shells, stones, cobbles or rocky seabeds and is a pale beige colour.

dead-man’s fingers

I first came across a piece of the stuff in this photograph on New Year’s Day whilst out collecting shells with my little granddaughters on Rhos on Sea beach. There was a lot of there and I was intrigued by it, although they both said it was ‘disgusting’! It does look a bit odd, I admit and it feels strange, very light and a bit corky or spongy. It turns out that it is commonly known as dead man’s fingers, which in its life is a soft coral whose scientific name is Alcyonium digitatum, which also references fingers, an indication of how it grows.

It was interesting to find it here too and others have found it on beaches further along the coast, so I wonder if it all originated in the same place, brought in by a recent storm and carried on currents to be washed up in various places?

fresh leaves of yellow horned-poppy

On a calmer day I might have lingered here longer, but my hands were getting cold and I can’t operate a camera with gloves on. I took them off again to photograph this surprising sight ; the new green leaves of a yellow horned-poppy plant, then headed back over to join the coast path.

Back on the path I deposited my rubbish collection in a bin in front of the café/bar next to the caravan site and carried on, still blown from behind by the wind. This stretch of path towards Pensarn is edged on the sea side by a narrow strip of ground which in the spring and summer  months becomes a colourful border full of wildflowers. 

Presently, it is largely covered by grass and spiked with tall dried stalks, the remains of last year’s flower stems, but already the bright green leaves of Alexanders are growing strongly.   

Watching the sea crashing in against the fortified shore brings home just how powerful it is and how vulnerable to its effects the land is.

In the near distance I could see a few gulls flying around the posts of one of the groynes and although tempted to turn around here, I wondered why they were here when all others were elsewhere. As I got nearer I was more mystified; the gulls were perching on the tops of posts and flying up just as each big wave broke behind them, momentarily covering the post. It was entertaining to watch, almost as though they were playing a game of ‘chicken’ – seeing who could stay the longest before being hit by the rising water. 

Common gulls – the perched bird has its first-winter plumage

I couldn’t get close enough to the birds for a really good look, even with a zoom lens, but at least two  were definitely common gulls, which we don’t get to see many of; in fact here is the only place I have seen them for myself. These gulls are slightly bigger than a black-headed gull but much smaller than a herring gull. The common gull also has greeny-yellow legs rather than the red of the black-headed gull and the pink ones of a herring gull. The best photograph I managed was of one flying, which shows its bill, finer and more pointed than that of a herring gull and the larger ‘mirrors’ on its wingtips.  

Common gull – Larus canus

My original plan had been to carry on walking to Pensarn beach, but the thought of walking back against the cold and increasingly strong wind from even further away took away my enthusiasm for that and I headed back. As suspected, it was indeed a bracing walk back and I stopped only once for long enough to take a photograph of the view in the direction I was now walking in. I think I’d be a bit concerned if I had one of those mobile homes close to the shore edge. 

Note to self: don’t park your car this close to the sea wall on windy days- salt spray is not good for it!

On the Trail of the Jackdaws of Conwy Town

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The walk around Conwy town and its wonderfully preserved town walls is one of my all-time favourite trails, particularly on a clear sunny day; the views over the town, the estuary and the surrounding countryside are spectacular, whatever the season. There are many ways to enjoy this iconic town, but on this Trail I’m hoping to give a different perspective through the lifestyle of one of our most familiar everyday birds, the jackdaw, which have a special status here.

A jackdaw is the town’s unofficial mascot and appears as an icon crowning its signposts. 

The ramparts of Conwy’s iconic medieval castle and the walls that enclose the town have been home to countless generations of jackdaws since its construction during the 14th century, and the birds are an integral part of the town’s everyday nature and it’s culture. People born within the town walls can claim to be a Jackdaw, although their numbers are declining today as most of those that qualify for the title have reached their 80s and 90s, and the majority of babies are now born in hospitals outside the town.

Jackdaws are the smallest members of the crow family and familiar residents of most parts of Britain, with their presence and numbers being largely influenced by the availability of  locally suitable nest sites. They  nest naturally in places such as cavities in trees and on cliffs, but the greatest number choose to live alongside us, taking advantage of habitats we have created, including the exposed rocky walls of quarries, ruined and occupied buildings and, since the advent of central heating, in chimneypots. Historically, they are also well-known for nesting in church steeples, as noted in the first verse of ‘The Jackdaw’, by the 18th century English poet William Cowper (1731-1800):

The Jackdaw
There is a bird who, by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.   

In Welsh folklore, this particular nesting trait led to the bird being considered sacred and evidently being shunned by the Devil as he ‘hates the church and everything belonging to it’. 

The Trail

There are several options for parking in and around the town, but having driven here and because of the route I had in mind for my trail, I began this one from the Gyffin Road carpark, which is ‘Pay & Display’ and located a short way beyond the town walls off Mill Hill (LL32 8NN). A first encounter with jackdaws is very likely to here, as ever-opportunistic there are often a few strutting around the carpark on the look out for treats. 

A brightly-painted subway leads from the carpark to the town and amongst other depictions of aspects of the town and its surrounds is a Jackdaw, Jac y Dô in Welsh, and above it the first verse of a ‘nonsense’ rhyme, still traditionally sung by children, including mine many years ago.

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It so happens that it’s one of the few that I remember the words and tune to, so every time I pass this I have it stuck in my head for the rest of the day! In Welsh it scans nicely and goes:

Jac y Do
Mai welais Jac y Do
yn eistedd ar ben to;
het wen ar ei ben y dwy goes bren
ho ho ho ho ho

In case you were wondering, it doesn’t translate well into English. The words don’t rhyme and don’t fit the tune at all!

The Jackdaw
I saw a Jackdaw
sitting on the roof;
a white hat on his head and two wooden legs
ho ho ho ho ho

Leaving the subway there are two options to get up to town level, either via two flights of fairly shallow stone steps or a zig-zagged slope. At the top is a stone archway between two towers of the town walls and in my picture you can just make out a tiny bird perched on the spotlight in the ‘window’ of the left-hand tower, which close to is an actual jackdaw.

The other side of the archway one of the access points to the town walls is found. Above the archway you can see a square hole in the stonework, one of many peppering the castle and town walls. These recesses, thought likely to have supported scaffolding as the castle was being built, account largely for the jackdaws’ presence here. They make perfect nesting places, snugly recessed within high sheer walls and safe from predators. 

In front of you is one of the afore-mentioned town signposts topped with a jackdaw icon, the town’s unofficial mascot. Close by is the visitor centre & art gallery and across the road St Mary’s Church. 

Jackdaws about town

At the bus stop

On Castle Street, on top of the gables of number 11 you are sure to see jackdaws, as forged from iron they can’t move far! The building bears the date 1539, but has origins in the mid-15th Century. It has undergone many changes of use since then: in the 18th century it became an inn, called the Black Lion, and is now a private house. The jackdaws are a 20th addition by a previous owner of the house; perhaps they commissioned them as they had been born within the walls and this was their way of stating their birthright? They are very convincing.

Iron Jackdaw on top of the gables of 11 Castle Street
conwy_jackdaw_chair

In the town’s Guildhall on Rose Hill Street, there is a Jackdaw chair on display, a large wooden chair that bears the town crest and a jackdaw. Apparently the chair was once housed in the Castle Hotel and legend has it that whoever sat in it had to buy a round of drinks. It’s not clear how or why, but the chair left the premises and came to light when put up for sale in an auction in the south of England. It was bought by the Jackdaw Society who gifted it back to the town. (The Guildhall was closed on this visit, due to Covid restrictions, so the photograph is from the History Points website.)

A few real birds were hanging out around the rooftops and archway leading to the harbour. They may have been foraging for insects hiding in the stone crevices as well as keeping an opportunistic eye out for any dropped food scraps. At this time of year there are less visitors and less gulls, so less competition for the smaller jackdaws.

To access the town walls from here, I went through the archway to the harbour, a slightly convoluted way to get to the wall access I was heading for, but much more scenic. At the far left-hand end of the harbour I walked through the arch and then left up the hill to where a Postern Gate is located. The gate is double-arched, one over the road, where Town Ditch Road curves into Berry Street, which leads into Castle Street and the smaller one for pedestrians, behind which are steps giving access to the walls. 

This is the longest continuous length of the wall and is on a fairly steep slope in sections marked by towers leading up to the Watchtower.

From here on the views are pretty spectacular. The photograph below shows on the left-hand side the harbour and beyond it the volcano-shaped hill called the Vardre. On the nearside is part of the Bodlondeb woodland, in glorious autumn colour, around which curves the Wales Coast Path leading towards Bangor via Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan.  

On the right-hand side you can look down on Lower Ditch Road and across it to Bodlondeb Park and the railway line where it emerges from Conwy tunnel heading to Holyhead.

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On the wall of the road-bridge is a plaque which commemorates the commencement of the railway in 1845 and Robert Stephenson the famous engineer largely responsible for its construction.

A little further along is the much more recently constructed Culture Centre with more lovely trees surroundingit.

Jackdaws don’t have sole tenancy of the walls, especially outside their breeding season. The shadow reaching towards the building is cast from one of the towers that punctuate the wall and this particular one has been taken over by pigeons, two almost completely white ones and at least three pairs of the more conventionally coloured ones. They were clearly in the throws of nesting (pigeons breed throughout most of the year), noisily asserting their places in the recesses, or ‘pigeon holes’, in the stone walls with their breasts and neck feathers puffed out. The holes must reach a good way into the walls as you can’t see the birds once they are inside, but you can certainly hear them – the stone acts as an amplifier and increases the volume of their ‘cooing’ to almost car-engine level! If I hadn’t seen the birds and only heard the sound I wonder if I’d have known what was making it.

As I mentioned before there are not as many Herring gulls around town at the moment, but despite people’s best efforts to deter them there are always some. They’re way too canny to be taken in by a couple of stone owls.

As I got close to the Watchtower I spotted the first Jackdaw I’d seen for a while, but it didn’t stay long.

This is the highest point of the wall and the logical place for a watchtower; the views, as near to bird’s-eye as you can get, are far and wide, especially on a clear sunny day such as this, and just breathtaking. 

This is also the junction of the walls from where you can look back along the way you have come and change direction to walk downhill towards the town and to meet up with the castle itself.  

The walkway slopes down to the next tower, which is Upper Gate -I like the little sign warning you that the entrance to it is low.

Beyond that I carried on walking to the Mill Gate and took the steps down to leave the wall, which bring you down near to the railway station. To get back into town, walk along the station platform, take the steps up to Rosemary Lane and turn right to cross the bridge. At the end of the road you are at the junctions of Lancaster Square, Rose Hill Street and High Street.

From the bridge you get a view of the archway in the old walls that the railway line passes beneath. It’s a much-photographed sight and despite the proximity of the station and the town, it has an ethereal feel to it and wouldn’t be out of place in a Tolkein story.

From here I retraced my steps back towards the castle, and in the hope of spotting a few more jackdaws, I followed the path through the archway to the back of the castle. From here the scale of the castle and the height and sheerness of the curtain walls is most apparent and awe-inspiring. How could you fail to be impressed by the symmetry and roundness of the towers? It really is an incredible achievement of design and engineering.  

At the side of the path is an intriguing piece of machinery: I don’t know what it is although I have a few theories: I will keep trying to find out, but am hoping someone reading this will know and help me out.

Jackdaws foraging on the grass at the back of the castle

If you continue to follow the path towards the estuary you see the entrances to the tubular railway bridge. This was a pioneering design credited to the renowned engineer Robert Stephenson, although he is said to have enlisted the help of others including Isambard Kingdom Brunel and William Fairbairn. The ingenious engineering takes the route around the south of the castle on a purpose-built ledge, disappearing into two iron “tunnels” which are also a bridge over the estuary.

And it was here that I finally saw Jackdaws as I’d hoped – peering down at me from a niche in the rounded wall of a tower. The perfect way to end a wonderful walk.

The Butterfly Effect

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Just a few short short weeks ago things weren’t looking too hopeful for our summer butterflies; the cold, damp start to the season had kept their numbers low and every sighting of any species was gratefully received and shared on social media. With many species already in decline, the predictions for the success of this year’s summer broods were edging on pessimistic and on many days, when out on walks I didn’t see a single one. Half-way through this month, a guided ‘Butterfly Walk’ was scheduled by a friend that regularly records the butterfly transect around Bryn Euryn, the limestone hill in North Wales which is at the centre of my ‘patch’. In preparation he’d done a recce the day before and his sightings were so few that he put out a warning that evening suggesting people may want to postpone the event and try again in a week or two! No-one cancelled, probably as most of are of an age where we’re not constantly checking our emails or social media sites, and about 20 of us gathered as arranged. Perhaps we were also a little giddy with the excitement of our very recent release from some of our Covid 19 restrictions (Wales has been a tad more cautious than England), and this was the first time we’d been allowed to meet up outside of Zoom since lockdown began. So in the spirit of ‘mad dogs and English/Welsh men and women’, we set off on this boiling hot Sunday afternoon (the beginning of the heatwave) to walk up to the top of the hill, 430 feet (131m) closer to the sun in the hope there’d be at least a few butterflies putting on a show for us.  

Long grass on the cliff-edge providing perfect habitat for meadow butterflies

Of course it was well worth the effort, or I wouldn’t be mentioning it; in the space of 24 hours the butterfly species count had magically rocketed from practically zero to most of those we’d expect to see here on a good day at this time of year, plus day-flying moths The count for each species wasn’t high, but the majority of those we saw were fresh and all were highly mobile and in a group that size, numbers of pairs of eyes meant we didn’t miss seeing much. But the best part was watching the effect these particular insects have on people of all ages; some excitedly enjoyed the first sightings of rapid-flying Dark Green Fritillaries while others crouched down around a plant to witness the mating of a pair of Small Skippers. All captivated by the fluttering of wings and for a few magical moments, completely absorbed and transported into another dimension. Butterfly chasing should definitely be put on prescription!

Although I’d thoroughly enjoyed the company and butterfly sightings seen by the group, I’d missed photographing the fabulous-but-flighty Fritillaries, so as the hot weather seemed to be holding, I wanted to go around again at my usual meandering speed and a couple of days later I set off to see if I could fill in the gaps. This time I wandered up through the woods where the paths and trails are shaded and it’s a pleasant degree or two cooler than out on the open hillside, which surely has to be one of the best reasons for planting more trees in a warming climate. 

A lovely fresh Comma and its shadow were a great start to my walk
Woodland paths are edged with False Brome grass

Now the tree canopy is more or less closed and limiting the light reaching the ground, flowering plants are scarce and as the earth dries out any that aren’t designed to cope quickly wilt. Built to withstand such conditions, one exception is Wood Sage, whose flowers seem particularly suited to Common Carder bees. Nipplewort, an annual plant with tiny yellow flowers and slim wiry stems always seems to find a few agreeable spots along these paths too.

As always I stopped at the fence on the woodland boundary to look out over the meadow on the other side. The long grass was cut on a mild, sunny day back in January this year, which at the time I remember thinking seemed like a strange time to be doing that, but it doesn’t seem to have mattered as now it’s grown tall again and I could see there’s also Hogweed and Ragwort in flower and it’s full of Knapweed in bud. I could also see it was alive with butterflies – mostly Meadow Browns as far as I could see, which was a good sign there would be more to see in more accessible places higher up. There were clearly other insects about too – my photo was ‘bombed’ by what could be a wasp or maybe a hoverfly!

Meadow with long grass and butterflies

Stepping onto the Woodland Trail that circuits the Nature Reserve it was hot – too hot now for insects such as hoverflies that would all be hiding away under leaves or on tree branches. Birds are mostly beginning a ‘time-out’ in which to rest after a busy breeding season and to moult their old feathers and grow new ones, so it was very quiet. The total lack of a breeze was even keeping down the ever-present traffic noise from the valley below.

Leaving the woods behind I joined the Summit Trail, more or less at the point where we’d begun the butterfly transect on Sunday. The small field here used to have a good patch of long flowery grass at this lower end, but perhaps due to more trampling and changes in the weather patterns, it’s not as good as it used to be for butterflies. Today there were a Small Skipper and a few Meadow Browns flitting about in the grass, but far more of the latter around the field edges where there is scrubby vegetation with low bushes of bramble and gorse. I  counted to roughly 30, all busily chasing about low in the grass and around the brambles, with none settling for even a quick snap. The wildflowers are a bit sparse too, some Lady’s Bedstraw, a scattering of Rockrose, a few clumps of Keeled Garlic and the odd Harebell were all there was to see. The huge spread of Hemp Agrimony is just beginning to open its flowers and on the opposite side of the field the Burnet Roses have a good crop of hips; red now, but they’ll ultimately ripen to black. One of my favourite sights now are the feathery globes of Goat’s-beard that stand like little beacons in the shorter grass. 

From the open field the trail goes up through the woods again, so there’s another short break from the heat, although the slope is steep. At the top is the clifftop with the long grass and scrubby vegetation pictured at the beginning of the post, and it was here that during the last two days, butterfly numbers had increased the most dramatically. Where there had been maybe 20 or so on Sunday, now there were more than I could have counted of Meadow Browns, a good number of Gatekeepers, lots of little Small Heaths, several Small Skippers, one or two Brown Argus, a Grayling and possibly even a Dingy Skipper. Standing out amongst the crowd of brown and orange butterflies were dramatic red and black 6-spot Burnet moths. All of these species are dependent on tall grasses as food plants for their caterpillars and as adults they take nectar from flowers, so where there’s a good area of long grass with wildflowers in it, they don’t need to move far. 

6-spot Burnet Moth on Creeping thistle

The hot sunshine had coaxed more flowers into bloom too, particularly the blue-lilac Scabious, which is a favourite of butterflies and of many other species of insects too. 

On a cooler day I would have lingered longer around this one spot and doubtless found even more than I did, but the heat out on the open hillside was intense, and if I was to find Fritillaries I had still to get up to the summit and down the other side of the hill. When I first began exploring this hillside, back in 2012, the management of it was quite different; the long grass would have been kept shorter and Ragwort considered a noxious weed and kept at bay. Gradually attitudes have changed and over the years the plant has spread considerably and a result, as well as providing important nectar and pollen for invertebrates, the numbers of plants supporting the unmistakeable black and yellow striped caterpillars of Cinnabar moths has also increased; some plants had several, others one or two. 

6-Spot Burnet moths mating above a newly-vacated cocoon

Going down the other side of the hill it was Burnet moths that dominated the airways, flying low in, over and about the grassy slope. Many would have been newly emerged from their alien-pod like yellow which are frequently seen attached to grass and other plant stems. Often there is a mass emergence, with males emerging first. They then sit above the cocoon of a female and wait for her to emerge, pouncing on her to mate before she’s barely had time to draw her first breath of fresh air.

Amongst the grass on this side of the hill you can find some of this site’s loveliest wildflowers, Common Spotted Orchids; most are at the end of their flowering now, but while following one of only two Dark Green Fritillaries I saw today I found a few fairly fresh ones. There was some Dropwort too, the dry limestone grassland relative of the similar-looking moisture-loving Meadowsweet.

On the other side of the trail, where the hillside is left much to its own devices a lovely pink-purple haze of Rosebay Willowherb stands out against a backdrop of trees. 

Rosebay Willowherb

Despite my best efforts, I didn’t get my photo of a Dark Green Fritillary, but it was too hot to chase about, so I sat on the grass for a short while and enjoyed watching those I saw; they are impressive – and very fast on the wing! Luckily I have a stack of photographs taken on other occasions in this exact spot, so here’s one I made earlier.

Dark Green Fritillary on Scabious

As so often happens, there were compensations; close to where I’d stopped a Brown Argus landed on Ragwort and another fresh Gatekeeper on nearby Hemp Agrimony.

Then as I was about to turn and head back home, my favourite of all the summer butterflies, a perfectly beautiful little Small Copper landed first on a stone at the edge of the trail then flew up to a nearby Ragwort; my first sighting of one this year and a perfect note to finish on.

Wintergreens

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January arrived quietly this year, bringing with it a mix of winter weather. It’s been consistently pretty cold, with even the mildest days barely rising above 4° C, but we’ve had ethereally misty days, drizzly-rainy days, bright sunny frosty days and even some snow. In between, more than a few days have been dull, sunless and still, the kind of winter days that feel like time’s been suspended and the day somehow never really got started before it was over. But little by little the days are getting longer, and on my restricted Covid-lockdown-exercising-only-from-and-to home-route around my local woods, there are definite signs that spring is not so far away.

A wintergreen path carpeted with shed leaves

The shed leaves of the deciduous trees, mostly oaks, ash and sycamores lie in a thick carpet on the woodland floor and are still covering the less-trodden tracks. Their absence allows through the bright winter sunlight and also highlights the extent of the permanent greenery here; indeed, there’s so much of it you might feel you were in a tropical forest if it wasn’t so cold. There are several species of evergreens contributing to the winter verdure; dark brooding yews, tall twisted Scots pines and masses of shiny holly, all of which are native plants. Then there’s Holm oak (also known as Holly oak or Evergreen oak) and cherry laurel, both non-natives and classed as invasive. But most responsible for creating the jungley ambience and linking everything together, is just one species of plant; ivy. It is quite literally everywhere, covering the ground, clothing tree trunks and forming leafy frames to woodland views.

How ivy affects trees

Although prolific amounts of ivy may look unkempt and alter the appearance of trees, there are some common misconceptions regarding the effect this climbing plant has on them. The first is that ivy kills trees: be assured it doesn’t, and neither is it parasitic. Strong, healthy trees are not adversely affected by ivy; its roots take no nourishment from or through a tree’s bark, and the tree’s leaves don’t allow enough light through for the ivy to grow too vigorously.

It is only when a tree is naturally weakened and begins to die back that ivy will reach into the thinner crown, so ivy doing particularly well in a tree might indicate a tree that is already struggling, but it will not have been the cause of the tree’s sickness. In this instance though, the ivy may make a tree more vulnerable to wind damage; the added bulk of the ivy increases its resistance during high winds and may make it more likely to be blown over, so hastening the tree’s demise.

About ivy

There are two subspecies of ivy that grow in these woods, both of which are native to Britain: these are the climbing Hedera helix ssp. helix and Hedera helix ssp. hibernica, which doesn’t climb, but spreads across the ground.

Specialised hairs on ivy stem

Ivy is an evergreen, woody climber which can grow to a height of 100ft (30m). The stems have many fibrous, clinging, adhesive-covered roots which help it to climb. Mature older plants develop thick woody stems that can allow them to become self-supporting.

The leaves are dark green and glossy with pale veins. The leaves on non-flowering young plants have 3-5 lobes and a pale underside. On mature plants leaves are oval or heart shaped without lobes, although leaf edges may sometimes be wavy.

Ivy is an essential part of the habitat, providing food and shelter for a diverse range of different organisms.

Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus

Being evergreen, ivy provides year-round dense cover for a wide variety of wildlife. During the winter it offers hibernation sites for many insects, which in turn attracts birds that come to forage for them. Butterfly species which survive the winter in their adult form often hibernate in ivy, including the lovely Brimstone, usually amongst the first species on the wing in the spring. Ivy is also the foodplant of the second, or summer generation of the caterpillars of the beautiful little Holly blue butterfly. In late July/August female Holly blues lay their eggs on swelling buds of ivy flowers, which caterpillars burrow into and eat from the inside. Once fully grown they leave the buds and pupate on the underside of Ivy stems where they will overwinter and emerge as an adult butterfly in March/April the following year.

In some instances very dense ivy may provide winter hibernation sites for bats.

Nuthatch working its way up through ivy

One of my favourite woodland birds is the handsome Nuthatch. Although they are colourful, these beautiful birds can be hard to spot when they are foraging around tree trunks and branches, but when they choose to be heard, particularly when singing or crying out in alarm, they have a very loud voice. On a recent walk I traced the whistling sound one was making to an ivy-clad tree a few metres away. Believing itself to be well-concealed I was able to watch it carry an acorn from somewhere around the bottom of the trunk right up to near the top. I momentarily lost sight of it several times as it wove in and out of the ivy, travelling in an erratic kind of spiral up the main trunk, but I managed to follow it disjointedly until it got so high it was making my neck ache to watch it. I couldn’t see if it still had the acorn when it got to the top, it’s quite likely it may have cached it for later consumption somewhere along the way and was foraging for hibernating grubs or caterpillars to eat now.

Perhaps the greatest gifts that ivy gives to wildlife are firstly that it flowers late in the summer or early autumn, providing a bounty of late nectar to a wide range of insects from hoverflies to bees to butterflies. Then following the flowers come generous crops of berries, some of which begin to ripen in the early winter and others slightly later, providing a bountiful progression of nutritious food, lasting through to the spring, which feeds a great many birds, both residents and winter migrants.

Male blackbird feasting on ivy berries

The amount of ivy and the resultant bounty of berries it produces are a great draw to two species of birds in particular, Blackbirds and Wood Pigeons. Winter walks are practically guaranteed to be accompanied by a soundtrack of rustlings, flappings and often crashings as birds of both species fly from one ivy vine to another. From the blackbirds there are frequent alarm calls too; there’s a lot of competition for the best berries and they’re worth squabbling over. Neither bird is really purpose-built for the acrobatics required to reach the berries dangling temptingly out of range, but that doesn’t stop them trying. Blackbirds often launch themselves upwards to grab a dangling berry, a rather ungainly method, but who cares if it works?

Wood Pigeons are more ponderous and considered in their approach, eying up the best-looking berries before stepping cautiously towards them, craning their chicken-like necks forward as far as they can and making a grab for them, sometimes losing their balance and flapping madly to restore it.

Ivy berries are loved by other species of birds too, including the song thrush, mistle thrush, redwing, blackbird and blackcap. Although the berries appear in October-November, birds don’t tend to start eating them until later into the winter, shorter-lived berries such as rowan and hawthorn are eaten first, leaving the longer-lasting ivy berries until last. The berries are a great source of protein and, according to the RSPB, gram for gram contain nearly as many calories as a Mars bar! No wonder our local Wood pigeons are looking so plump!

The Wilds behind the Sea Wall

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August is the month during which many seabirds and waders begin to return to our coasts from their breeding grounds, and locally, many will gather here around Rhos Point. Some will stay with us until next Spring; others will grace us with their presence for a while to feed up and rest before migrating onwards to their winter feeding grounds. My favourites of the latter group are the gloriously graceful, gregarious and excitable Sandwich Terns, most, if not all of which will be members of the colony that breeds annually at Cemlyn Bay on nearby Anglesey (Ynys Môn), so will be a mix of adults and this year’s young ones. They have been here for a while now but, so far, I’d only managed to see them from a distance when the tide’s been out, gathered right out on the tip of Rhos Point, where they are but small white blobs amongst Gulls and Oystercatchers. You can be sure they are Terns though from the mighty noise they make.

The perfect opportunity to finally get some good views of the Sandwich Terns and other recently-returned birds arose last weekend as I was house-sitting for my  daughter and keeping their dog company. Only a mile or so from my own home, but close to the sea meant I could better time a walk along the Prom as the tide was coming in; usually the best time to see wading birds here as they gather to feed on what it brings in. Already too late on Friday evening, I heard and saw a lot of Terns, but they were too far out to see properly. I did find one little group to zoom in a bit closer to and realised there were Curlew there too, they are so well-camouflaged I wouldn’t have seen them if not for the Terns.

Curlews & Sandwich Terns

09:54 It was predicted to be hot today, and with it being the weekend as well, there’d be bound to be a lot of visitors heading our way this morning to spend the day here. I’d left at this time judging that the tide would have reached a good place to get a better view of the birds on rocky seashore, in particular the Sandwich Terns, and also before the Promenade got busy. Reaching the spot in front of the tiny St Trillo’s Chapel, which sadly has been locked up since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, I saw I’d almost got my timing right. The tide was coming in and the furthest tip of the land spit, where the birds had been last night was covered with water but it would still take a while for it to be high enough to get close views of any birds.

Promenade looking towards Rhos-on-Sea with St Trillo’s Chapel

The calls of the Sandwich Terns were reaching here from further along the shore towards Penrhyn Bay, so as there were as yet only a few people about, I could walk that way at my usual stop-start meandering pace without disturbance or obstructing anyone. I hadn’t walked this way for months, so I’d also take the chance to note any wildflowers along the way and perhaps add to my list of coastal plants.

There’s a significant change in the level of the Prom here by the chapel and you can either take the ladder-like metal steps up, or follow the curving slope around and up.

The base of the retaining wall is one of the places where seeds of wildflowers often end their travels, and I’m always interested to see what’s landed there. A few perennials, such as Cat’s-ear always seem to manage to survive any ‘tidying up’ sessions, and usually the annual Scarlet Pimpernel, one of my favourite wildflowers will have managed to lodge a seed or two in the right place.

Empty Prom towards Penrhyn Bay & the Little Orme

The grassy banks between the Prom and the road are usually mown to look ‘tidy’ for visitors from Easter onwards, but this year have been left to their own devices. This may be an outcome of cutbacks due to the Covid 19 lockdown, or it may be that our local council has been persuaded that such spaces are important resources for our declining insect populations and have left it to benefit both the wildlife and their annual maintenance budget. Time will tell.

Whatever the reasons, flowering now there is golden-flowered Ragwort, a lot of the ubiquitous Cat’s-ear and a fair sprinkling of the pretty burnt-orange Fox-and-Cubs, which is well-established here but which was once most likely a garden escape. I’d like to say it was buzzing with insects, but sadly not, just a very few Buff-tailed bumblebee drones and a couple of honeybees on the Ragwort. It was still on the cool side and quite early, so maybe there would be more later on.

10:01 A short way along you reach steps that lead down from the main Prom and onto a narrower path that is bounded by the recurved sea wall on one side and the piled giant-sized rocks that form the additional ‘rip-rap’ sea defences on the other. To most it may not look as appealing a route as the Prom, which has wonderful uninterrupted views over the whole of both Colwyn and Penrhyn Bays – in this direction as far as the Little Orme- but I would always choose this path, it’s so much more interesting!

As well as the afore-mentioned Sandwich Terns, this rocky shoreline is also blessed with the presence of the iconic and endangered Curlew. They too begin to return from their spring/summer breeding grounds during August and come here to forage amongst the rocks and along the sea-edge. Despite their size and distinctive outline, they are exceptionally well-camouflaged and difficult to spot with the naked eye in this landscape unless you happen to spot one move or locate one from their unmistakable evocative call. There were a few here this morning, but views of them weren’t close; the photograph below is one I took last evening; I think it illustrates quite well how well they merge into their surroundings.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Another favourite little wildflower is Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which I found at the bottom of the steps. Following the progress of the Curlew towards Penrhyn Bay I spotted a bird flying high across the road high, which then banked around in front of the Little Orme. At first I’d thought it was a Buzzard, but as it turned and I got a better, although still distant view, I knew it was a Grey Heron.

I’ve seen Grey Herons here on the shore once or twice in past years, but it was an unexpected sight, and I was pleased to see it turn again and head down to land. Even better was that it landed to join four more Herons already staking out the shallow water of the sea edge. They were still distant, but I guessed this was a family group and perhaps a lesson in sea-fishing for the juvenile members. What a treat (for me)! I could hardly wait for better views as I got nearer to them and as the tide grew higher.

Grey Heron family of 5 – Penrhyn Bay

Meanwhile there were more wildflowers to see. Buck’s-horn Plantain which takes its name from its distinctive antler-shaped leaves. Then Pellitory-of-the-Wall, which was once used as a medicine; following the Doctrine of Signatures, if a plant could break into rock and grow, it could surely break up gall or kidney stones.

I am always amazed by the ability of any plants to take hold in such spartan conditions as those here, and wonder how they got here in the first place, especially when little groups of differing species grow in the same spot. One such gathering had Common Storksbill, Herb Robert, Dandelion and flowering Scarlet Pimpernel. Nearby, a healthy-looking clump of Common Mouse-ear had stems flowering and others setting fruit.

One of the flowering treats of this path is the shrubby Tree-Mallow, with this being the only spot along the length of the Bays that I’ve found it growing. (I’d be happy to hear from anyone that knows if I can find it anywhere else within that stretch!) The first plant I found was flowering but looking the worse for wear, its leaves dry and shrivelled, but close by there was a fresh one growing. These are biennial plants, so if it survives, it may flower next year.

I reached the old concrete access ramp, which I don’t imagine gets much, if any use by vehicles of any kind now, judging by the rocks you’d encounter at the bottom. The undisturbed growth of seaweed and algae, still damp and shiny from its last covering of seawater, shows how far the high tide regularly comes up.

10:20 The joyful sound of the Sandwich Terns had accompanied me the length of my walk so far, and I was hopeful that from the ramp I’d get some closer views of them. I did; there was a sizeable group of them, still a fair distance out, almost all with their backs to me, facing the incoming water. This slightly closer view showed up a mix of ages of birds, some juveniles and adults in varying stages of their heads changing from summer to winter plumage.

There was the added bonus of better views of the Herons too. There were definitely two adults and three juveniles, such a lovely sight. One adult was showing some interesting fishing technique too, hunching over and holding out its bent wings to create a ‘parasol’, shading a patch of water to better see or coax in fish.

I zoomed in on two that were standing on small rocks on the sea-edge and was thrilled my frame was photo-bombed by a Curlew flying past!Fishing didn’t seem to be going too well, but the birds didn’t seem too bothered, perhaps, like the Terns, they were waiting for the tide to get a little higher.Back up on the path a sign warns to keep off the rocks. Such advice isn’t always heeded, but the danger presented by them is fairly obvious and I for one wouldn’t risk bringing my adventurous smaller grandchildren along here. I know what I was like myself – climbing them would have been a huge temptation to me!The rip-rap is piled high here and impossible to see over the top of, so no view other that of the Little Orme and Penrhyn Hill, but the compensation is that the extra shelter from the sea and winds has allowed a colourful array of flowering plants to establish. A veritable secret rock-garden flourishes; the number of species isn’t huge, Red Valerian dominates, but there are others, more of some of those seen earlier and also a sizeable Buddleia in full flower.

Brushing past a patch of Red Valerian I disturbed a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly from its nectaring. It flew up, but didn’t go far, settling nearby on a rock; a lovely surprise, I hadn’t anticipated seeing butterflies here.

There were nectaring bumblebees here too, more Buff-tailed males, who unlike their working female kind have only themselves to feed, so can do so at their leisure and keep up their strength just in case a new Queen happens by.

Around the curve in the photograph above a St John’s Wort shrub is in flower, the common garden one whose smell always reminds me of rhubarb when you brush past or cut it.

There’s also wild clematis, or Traveller’s Joy, a huge plant, rambling its way up and across the rocks and flowering profusely.

Nearby densely leaved Ivy has taken a hold and it too covers an impressive area.

There’s Great Willowherb in flower too, which I photographed as much for the rock behind it as the plant itself.

10:39 The height of the rip-rap is lower again from here, and you can see the whole of the Little Orme rising above it.

A bright green Polypody Fern looks to be putting its fronds out tentatively

I disturbed another beautifully fresh Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, which again left a Red Valerian flower and landed on a nearby rock. It was opening and closing its wings to try to warn me off as I watched it, while touching the rock surface with its proboscis. I wonder if it was testing for salt or whatever other minerals butterflies often seek. These are one of our most charismatic butterflies, I think.

10:44  The next unobstructed viewpoint is from a set of steps leading down to the rocky shore. The view to the regimentally straight lines of wind-turbines lining the horizon is clear and the sea blue and gently textured. However, the scene changes dramatically on windy, stormy days when the sea pounds the shore in huge waves and foamy water is funnelled up the steps, sometimes splashing right to the top.

The only occupant of this stretch of shore was a lone Great Black-backed Gull staring across the waves.

10:44  The path narrows and peters out as you near Penrhyn Bay and for the last few metres you are actually walking along the base of the sea wall. It also passes close to an unpleasant-smelling drain, or what may even be a sewer outlet. Usually, as today, this can be passed quickly, but I have lingered to watch Pied Wagtails chasing flies here on a couple of occasions. From this angle I always think Penrhyn Bay, backed by the quarry-altered bulk of the Little Orme and much of its shore covered with a deep layer of almost-white stone chippings, has an almost other-worldly appearance.

It certainly doesn’t look promising as a place to find wildlife. But as is so often the case, first looks can be deceptive. At the end of the path is a flat area of land, sparsely covered with short grass and bordered by rip-rap, which forms a breakwater.

Lesser Sea Spurrey-Spergularia marina

The first wildflower I found was one I recognised as a spurrey, but I wasn’t sure which one. Checking later I’m fairly sure it’s Lesser Sea Spurrey, a new one for my list.

Almost every gap, nook and cranny of the breakwater has a plant growing from it, mainly Sea Beet and Sea Mayweed, but there’s also Sea Campion and back nearer the wall, Curled Dock and Ragwort.

Walking back towards the wall I caught a glimpse of a bird moving around on the rocks. My first thought was Linnet, as this has often been a good place to see them, but they are usually in a small flock and I could only see the one.

I moved to a spot from where I could zoom in without frightening it away, and saw it was a Wheatear; from its mostly buff and brown plumage, either a female or a first-winter juvenile male. It was lovely to see, but a little bit sad too as it means summer’s coming to an end and they are preparing to leave our shores to spend the next six months or so in sunnier climes.

Turning my attention back to the wildflowers, from a patch in front of the wall I added Common Mallow and more Red Valerian to my list. There was also Greater Plantain, Perennial Sow-thistle, Cat’s-ear and a clump of Michaelmas Daisies just beginning to open their flowers.

There are some good clumps of Ragwort too, but despite all of these wildflowers on offer to insects, there were very takers; just a very few bumblebees.

On the Penrhyn Bay shore side of the breakwater, where the stone chippings are banked up and piled deeply, plants are colonising as they would a sand dune and I wonder if they will have a similar stabilising effect. There’s a small amount of Marram Grass, in flower now so it looks as though it’s establishing well and the patches of green in my photograph are mostly Sea Campion.

There is a good amount of the Sea Campion here, much of which has the expected white petalled flowers, but interestingly there are also a significant number of plants that have completely pink flowers.

It’s not unusual to find white flowers tinged with pink, but this is the only place I’ve seen them totally pink; even the bladders are tinted pink. Very pretty, if a little strange.

The peace is broken by a loud mechanical buzzing and looking out to sea there is a line of fast-moving Jet Skis cutting across the bay. They probably originated at the water-sports centre at Porth Eirias on Colwyn Bay, so were hopefully being supervised and watching out for the local Grey Seals.

11:16 The activity and the fact that it was getting increasingly warm made me aware that time and the tide were moving on and in and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get some more and hopefully closer views of the Terns, and maybe even the Herons. So back along the narrow path at the base of the sea wall, from where I could see above me there were a good number of people on the Prom walking in this direction.

Path along the sea wall towards Rhos on Sea

Viewed from this direction you can see better the extent of the lovely Red Valerian flower border; it is quite possibly the best display of it I’ve ever seen

There was yet another Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

and a patch of fern, this one Wall Rue, which I hadn’t noticed on my way past earlier on.

Growing round the bend; Red Valerian, Hypericum, Traveller’s Joy and Ivy, all as mentioned previously, but again, a better view from this side. There was Michaelmas Daisy here too.

11:30 The incoming tide had brought the Herons and the Sandwich Terns in closer as I’d hoped and I risked walking about half-way down the steps, where I could get a good view of them while managing to be half-concealed by the rocks of the rip-rap. These views of the Heron family are probably the best I’ve ever had of these amazing waders.

The views of the Sandwich Terns were good too, although I wasn’t quite tall enough to see properly over the rocks and ‘lost’ the bottom of a few images. They were good enough to make out their varying states of plumage in a bit more detail though, with some being more advanced in losing their black caps than others. It’s great to see so many juveniles too.

The length of path from here back to the Point is noticeably more stark, but I like the shapes and patterns of shade and shadow created by the recurved wall and lengths of iron railings, which change according to the degree and angle of sunlight. The structure as a whole is a pretty impressive feat of engineering and construction, although under ever-increasing pressure from the might of storms and rising sea levels.

I find the rocks of the additional rip-rap defences fascinating too. They come in and array of differing surface textures and many are patterned with seams and veins of minerals; such as glistening quartz, the verdigris of copper and rusty red iron. Some have traces of ancient seashells and many are encrusted with lichens.

I took a last look at the shore from the access ramp where a Herring Gull sat comfortably enjoying the sunshine atop an oddly pudding-shaped rock

and a small number of Oyster Catchers were passing the time preening, resting or foraging on the sea edge.

A Cormorant flew low over the sea in the direction of the Little Orme. There’s a sizeable colony of them based there, and birds racing back and forth are a regular sight throughout the year, but I always love to see them.

11:50 Almost back where I started from and the roadside is full of parked cars. I’d passed a good number of people already and more were heading towards me on foot and on bikes. I hoped they’d all enjoy their day here and wondered how many would notice the nature.

Midsummer Hillside

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Emerging from the shelter of the Woodland….

12:05 The steps lead up from the Woodland Trail and into an open sloping grassy space, whose character changes from year to year, largely according to the weather. The soil covering over limestone rock is very shallow and susceptible to erosion by the elements and by people walking over it; consequently it dries out rapidly when it’s as hot and dry as it was throughout this May. The grass is cut every year, sometime during the autumn or late winter and by now it would usually have grown quite tall again at the bottom end of the slope, but this year it is struggling to recover. A few days before I took this photograph, before the rain returned, it was completely brown and dry. There’s still time for it to pick up though, particularly if it keeps raining: plants that grow here are tough.

With no wildflowers there were of course no bees or butterflies or indeed anything much to tempt me to dither about here, so I carried on up the slope towards the trail that leads up to the summit. The view from higher up, looking westwards along the valley gives some indication of what a strange day this was. Low cloud hung as a heavy mist obscured the mountains from view and despite it being windy the warm air charged with moisture made it feel heavy and humid too. Traffic on the Expressway was still light compared to pre-lockdown days, but the sound of even a few vehicles can manifest as a roar at this height.

The nature of the vegetation on the exposed cliff-edge side of the Trail has evolved into an interesting area of what I think of as pre-woodland scrub, by which I mean it’s presently a mix of long meadow grasses becoming populated with patches of low-growing bramble, dog rose and young trees. I’m not sure if these trees are self-sown or were deliberately planted, perhaps a mix of both.

12:37 It was windy up here, which is by no means unusual, but there were butterflies and bees flying about, all keeping low and in the shelter of the vegetation. There were Ringlets, the first ones I’ve seen so far this year, some were chasing around not settling at all, but there was one that found a sunny spot on a low bramble leaf that it kept returning to. I couldn’t get a better angle for a photograph, but I was happy to get one at all.

Another first of the year sighting was a lovely Large Skipper that was much more obliging about posing.

Amongst the grass summer wildflowers are beginning to show, not in great amounts, but I think that makes them a bit more special.

On a Dog-rose briar were several shiny new 7-spot ladybirds and a Rose Sawfly. Adults of this species are distinctively coloured black and gold and have smoky wings. Female sawflies lay eggs in soft young rose stems and the emerged larvae are sometimes considered to be ‘pests’ in gardens as they feed on the soft tissue of rose leaves, leaving just the leaf ribs. Happily they’re safe from human interference here, although doubtless there’ll be predators awaiting future larvae.

A Meadow Brown butterfly intent on feeding on bramble flowers stayed put for long enough for me to take some photographs; opening its wings each time another insect flew close to it.

13:09 Back on the path I disturbed a Grayling that had been basking on the warm bare earth. There are never very many here on the Bryn, and there have been years when I haven’t managed to catch sight of one at all, so I was happy to see it, but sad I’d missed it. Fortunately it didn’t go far and after a fly around it landed back almost in the same spot. These beautifully-marked butterflies are so well camouflaged you can easily lose sight of them until they move or flash their eyespots.

Grayling-Hipparchia Semele

Rather than following the bend in the trail that climbs up to the summit of the hill, I  carried on towards the far edge of the cliff, watching out for more Graylings.

There were no more to be seen today, but a Small Tortoiseshell sunning itself on a rock, more than compensated for the lack of them. It was very restless, opening and closing its wings and adjusting its angle, but it stayed until a large dragonfly flew close over the top of it, then it took off and left at speed.

13:29 I turned around then and walked back to re-join the Summit Trail where it slopes down then up again, forming quite a deep U-shaped dip. I often look for reasons to spend a few minutes here as by the magic of its geology, it’s almost always sheltered from the wind and the only spot that I know of on the Bryn that somehow escapes the constant noise of the Expressway traffic. Today there was sound though, not traffic, but a constant and strangely muffled rumbling of thunder that was emanating from behind the distant cloud-covered mountains. Then to add to the already strange atmosphere of the day, the still air here held the briny scent of the sea; most peculiar! The grassy border on one side of the path here is one of the best spots I know to find numbers of lovely Pyramidal Orchids and they seem to be particularly abundant this year.  Traveller’s Joy, our wild clematis, seems always to be threatening to take over this ground, but thus far the orchids appear despite its encroachment.

The opposite side of the track, fronting a Blackthorn thicket, has a slightly different character. Not so dominated by the clematis, here there is bramble, Rosebay Willowherb and a few Ragwort plants, which could be why I was got a rare glimpse of a striking red and black Cinnabar Moth. It may have been a newly-emerged one as it was clinging upside down to a blade of grass. There was another Ringlet here too, feeding on bramble and holding open its velvety chocolate-brown wings.

Goat’s-beard-Tragopogon pratensis-Barf yr afr Felen

Walking on up towards the summit over the remains of what were once part of the defensive walls of the old Hillfort, I was keeping an eye out for a glimpse of a Dusky Skipper butterfly; I’ve seen them here before in previous years, but there’s so little in flower here now I guess there’s nothing to tempt them.

What there was though were the big round seedheads of Goat’s-beard.

The summit, which as you see from a distance, is gently rounded and surprisingly grassy and well-vegetated. There is a huge raspberry-bramble patch, which is always slightly later to flower than those plants lower down the hill, which was attracting the attentions of a Red Admiral and another Small Tortoiseshell butterfly.

13:46 I walked towards the summit edge to look at the view and passed more bramble, which had a big orange and black fly feeding on its blossom; a distinctive orange and black, very bristly tachinid fly – Tachina fera.

Heavy cloud completely misted out the view across Colwyn Bay. We get at least two types of mist here; there’s downwards mist that falls from heavy cloud moving over the mountains, then there’s upwards sea-mist drawn up from the surface of the water by warm air. I think it’s likely that today’s was a blend of both.

 

The trail carries on around the trig point and opens out again onto the other side of the hill. The view from here was fascinating, a thick band of low cloud obscured the Little Orme, moving across the headland and snaking wraith-like out over the sea.

14:40: On this side of the hill the steeply sloping open grassland is more exposed and open to the elements, mainly from the North and East. It was very windy and although it appeared that we were surrounded on all sides by misty cloud it was actually a very warm, almost hot afternoon. Days like this can sometimes be good for finding insects as in the wind they tend to be less mobile and stay closer to the ground. It helps that they still need to eat too; I spotted a female Swollen-thighed Beetle on a Rockrose flower and a lovely shiny green Forester Moth on Cat’s-ear.

Tucked down into the shelter of the grass were a Small Heath butterfly and another day-flying moth, this one a Six-spot Burnet.

This more open grassy part of the Bryn is also good for orchids, this time the pretty pink Common Spotted species. As with most orchid species, numbers of plants fluctuate from year to year, which can be for a number of reasons, but I wonder if there are less now as the character of the habitat is changing. A few years ago this slope was predominantly short grassland, but is quite quickly developing into more ‘pre-woodland’ grassy scrub with bramble, gorse and trees being left to grow. I had to hunt to find some today, then came upon this perfectly beautiful little group of them set amongst Cowslips going to seed.

I was hoping to see at least one Dark Green Fritillary butterfly here today and finally got my wish as I stood up from my orchid photographs. Their size, colour and speed of flight are pretty distinctive, so I recognised the one that galloped past in front of me, but it quickly disappeared into the middle of the scrub. I found a narrow track through which I followed in the hope of finding more of them within its shelter, passing by a bramble where a Painted Lady butterfly sat feeding and disturbing a Silver-Y Moth, both of which are migrants, so could have been recent arrivals.

14:20 I sat for a while in a clear spot amongst the scrub and did see more Dark Green Fritillaries, but they were very mobile and of course chose the most inaccessible parts of the vegetation to fly over. But at least I know they are out and about now, so can come back to find them another day. At the bottom of the slope there were more brambles and more insects. Butterflies: another Large Skipper, a Red Admiral and a Speckled Wood to add to my day’s list.

Below is a selection of other insects I photographed there:

15:36 The weather may have been a bit strange, but I headed back home feeling more than happy with the diversity of the wildlife I’d seen during the course of a few hours; then not far along on the path back through the woodlands, lying stretched out and motionless was a perfect Slow Worm. Looking more closely I could see it was lying belly-up and although it looked to be unharmed, I thought the poor thing was dead as it was making no attempt to move.

I couldn’t, and still can’t imagine how it had ended up in that position, but it was shady there and I wondered if it had got too cold to right itself. I picked up a stick lying nearby and gently rolled it till it was right-side up and to my relief after a few seconds it moved off into the vegetation at the side of the path. Thank goodness I reached it before a curious dog found it….

 

 

Midsummer Woods

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It had been a good while since I’d spent the best part of a day meandering around the whole rich patchwork of varying habitats that make up my local nature reserve of Bryn Euryn, so a sunny morning that was forecast to stay that way into the afternoon offered the perfect opportunity to spend a day outdoors.

09:59 – Woodland Path

Once outside I realised it wasn’t quite as warm as I’d thought it was going to be, but the air felt fresh, if slightly humid. The copious rainfalls of previous days have done wonders; plants that had looked sad and wilted a few days ago were perked upright and the leaves of the trees washed of dust and good as new. A Speckled Wood butterfly on ivy and the chirpy calls of foraging Blue Tits greeted me at the beginning of the path, which has also benefitted from the dust-settling cleansing rain.

The specialist woodland wildflowers of the early Spring have long-since finished flowering now and are directing their energies into producing seeds. There are a few later-flowering plants that can cope with the reduced sunlight though, including the beautiful Honeysuckle, one of my lifetime favourite plants whose fresh perfume I would happily fill my home with, if only someone could capture it perfectly.

An arch of Honeysuckle

It’s been a good year for this  fragrant twining-climbing plant which has given me cause to make even more frequent stops on my walks; the scent of it in the air, particularly in the cooler mornings and evenings is as much a highlight as anything I might see or hear. It has maybe passed its peak of flowering now, but there’ll be occasional blooms to enjoy for a while to come.

Also happy in partial shade and flowering now are Navelwort, which is usually more easily recognised by its distinctive round fleshy leaves and Wood Sage, which despite its name is not confined to woodland paths; it’s a tough plant that is equally as happy growing out on exposed heaths and coastal cliffs.

10:12 Covered with white blossoms and well-refreshed the bramble patch at the top of the first rise of the path, was my first stop this morning. Gradually being lit and warmed by sunshine, it was already busy with a variety of insects.

Honeybee on bramble blossom

A Blackbird was singing from a tree somewhere close by, his melodic, relaxed song lending an element of calm to the scene of frenetic insect activity. There were bumblebees: Tree Bumbles  definitely the most numerous, some looking fresh, their heads and thoraxes bright deep tawny brown others faded to a pale blonde, perhaps bleached out by the sun. A few smaller Buff-tailed workers are busy between them and there are a small number of Honeybees, some of the first I’ve seen this year.

Butterflies joined the party, two Speckled Woods, which must have been a male and a female as they behaved amicably together, feeding almost side by side until disappearing together to the privacy of the leaves of an overhanging Sycamore. A Large White scooted over but didn’t stop, but a Red Admiral, missing a piece from a hind wing stayed for the whole length of time I was there, only moving short distances between flowers.

Most interesting of all were the big yellow-and-black beetles, that for some reason don’t seem to have a standardised common name, so are  known to me as Strangalia maculata, (which is apparently no longer correct as they’ve changed it to Rutpela maculata!). In the midst of the tangle of bramble, honeysuckle and ivy stands the remains of a tree, which was snapped in a storm a few winters ago. I wonder if it’s within its damaged fabric that they spent their larval stage and from which they have emerged. For a while now I’ve seen them here each time I’ve passed by, several at a time. Until now all of my past and more recent sightings of these lovely beetles have been of them calmly feeding on flowers, so it was interesting to see them very active this morning, flying rather clumsily from flower to flower, not lingering for long on any.

The distant mewling of a Buzzard calling from above diverted my attention and I caught glimpses of it as it circled high above the trees.

This was the first one I’d seen in a while, so I wondered if it might appear back over the field, perhaps with its family, so moved on in that direction. It was a sun-in-and-out morning, surprisingly cool on the shady path when the breeze picked up.

Path edged with False Brome

Paths are edged with grasses, which are flowering now. False Brome predominates, covering large swathes of the woodland floor in places throughout this site, and there are lesser amounts of other species such as the distinctive Cock’s-foot.

 

10:40 There was nothing to see at this edge of the woodland except the wind rippling over the long grass of the meadow, and it was too cool to linger.

The sun came out again as I walked between the pine trees. This has become one of my favourite parts of the woods. I love the characterful Scots Pine trees with their tall, straight trunks crowned on high with heavy, strangely twisted branches in all seasons; but today with their rust-red bark still slightly damp and darkened by rain and highlighted by filtered sunlight they had a special glow.

There were no birds to be seen and for a while no sound of them either, until their silence was briefly broken once again by the Buzzard and the familiar contact calls of more Blue Tits working their way through the trees.

PATH EDGES

Nipplewort-lapsana-communis

Opportunistic wildflowers crop up randomly along the path edges, mostly of those species that seem to travel alongside the blackberry brambles, accompanying them wherever they go. In flower now are nettles, dock and delicate-looking Nipplewort.

All have value to insects in their way, either as sources of pollen and nectar or via their leaves which are either eaten from the outside or mined and eaten from the inside.

10:47 – My next stop is at the brambly-scrubby patch at the junction of three woodland paths. In recent weeks this has been buzzing with a variety of bees, in particular Tree Bumblebees that clearly have a nest nearby, or there may even be two. There have been a lot of Early Bumblebees too, but lesser numbers of other common species and so far I’ve only seen one or two Red-tailed bumblebee queens; no workers.

Predominately a raspberry bramble patch, which flowers earlier than blackberry, there is less blossom here now so is less of a draw for foraging insects now. There were a few Tree bumblebees about though, some working, one or two taking short rests on nearby sun-warmed leaves; poor things have probably already been out working for hours. This has been a great spot for hoverflies this Spring too, where I’ve  added a few ‘new’ species to my list. It was starting to get warmer, which doesn’t seem to bother bees, but hoverflies often seek shade under leaves, so I wasn’t too surprised there were few to see. Then I spotted one of the largest of our UK hoverflies, a Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens) on some more shaded brambles. Not a new species for me, but I’d not seen one in this spot before. In contrast there were also a few of one of our smallest and commonest hoverflies about, little Marmalade Flies (Episyrphus balteatus).

10:46 A bird landed in an Oak tree a few metres behind the Sycamore tree, on first impressions quite big,heavy-ish landing so probably a Wood Pigeon. I almost didn’t take any more notice, but then it came to mind that this is a good spot to see Jays, which I am always keen to try to photograph as they are quite elusive, so I focussed on it and was excited to see it was neither Wood Pigeon nor Jay, but a dark handsome Buzzard. What a beautiful bird, and posing so nicely too.

The Woodland Trail

11:10 As I walked on, I remember thinking that the sighting of the Buzzard and managing to get a half-decent photograph of it was going to be the main highlight of my day. But then you just can’t predict what you may or may not see on any given day in this treasure trove of nature, as I later discovered.

Reaching the Woodland Trail, I crossed it to sit on the bench for a few minutes to enjoy the sunshine and to listen to what was around me whilst I wrote some notes. I’m always fully aware of the soundtrack of my walks, but unless I get lucky and can photograph or record a singing bird can’t always properly recall what I heard. This is what I wrote here ” … for 30 seconds, maybe a little longer there are no extraneous sounds; no noise from the road, no dogs barking, no human voices, only the sounds of twittering birds – most likely Blue Tits reassure me I haven’t gone suddenly deaf! A Robin’s just flown into the tree above me. It sits and looks at me for a few seconds before flying into the woods I’ve just left. I see a Small Heath butterfly; it lands but I didn’t spot it in time and it flew off, surprisingly rapidly for such a tiny butterfly, ditto a Meadow Brown!

As I got up to carry on I caught sight of a small gingery-furry bee flying over a fallen tree branch, which I thought might have been a Tawny Mining bee. I tried to focus in on it, but it was flying and although I pressed the shutter a couple of times I knew the bee wouldn’t be in focus, but may do as record shots. I can’t even begin to describe my feelings when I looked at those photographs on my computer later that evening. Expecting to see an out of focus bee, there too was also an almost perfectly in-focus lizard lying motionless and perfectly camouflaged along the length of the fallen branch which the bee was flying over. It had probably been watching me and wondering whether it should stay still or risk making a move. I’m grateful it chose the latter option.

Part of me was glad I hadn’t noticed the lizard, which is a Common or Viviperous Lizard, as I’m sure I’d have been so excited to see one in a position where I might get a photograph that I’d have fumbled with the camera and likely have missed it. But then I think it would have been nice to get a proper look at one rather than just a glimpse of a disappearing one, which is all I’ve managed so far in my years of tramping this hill! Mainly I’m just more than happy to know it was there and I have a photograph, however I managed it!

Being oblivious at this point to my lizard ‘capture’, and back in insect-seeking mode, I wandered along to the huge bramble tangle that once in flower has always been a brilliant place to spot a good variety of insects in a relatively short space of time with minimal effort. Years ago, this was the first place on the reserve that I recognised as an insect ‘hotspot’. There was a fair amount of activity here this morning, mostly from bumblebees, but there was also another Gt Pied Hoverfly, a Red Admiral butterfly, a Strangalia maculata beetle that only showed me its antennae and legs and a few different species of flies. Getting photographs was tricky, insects were constantly moving, the sun was shiningly brightly, but probably more to the point the path was getting busy with people and dogs and I got fed up having to keep moving to let them pass at a ‘safe distance’.

Tutsan growing alongside the bramble already has ripening berries. Its flowers hadn’t the same degree of appeal to insects as bramble, but I did catch a little Marmalade Fly visiting it.

The woodland is at the peak of perfection now, leaves are fully grown, in a myriad of shapes and uncountable shades of fresh green; climbers and ramblers are not yet over-reaching themselves to become sprawling and untidy and the plants along the path edges are not yet spilling over it.

 

Speckled Wood butterflies were stationed every few metres along the path, whether basking on the ground or perched on leaves overhanging the path. Constantly on alert, they readily explode into action to see off any intruders into their territory.

 

Trees arch across the path creating shady leafy tunnels

First wild raspberry

Generally birds are much quieter these days, apart from the Blackbird I heard earlier the only ones still singing to any extent are our summer breeders-Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

The closed canopy makes it too shady for there to be much in the way of ground-level plants for a while, so there are few distractions, other than Speckled Wood butterflies of course and the occasional sight of a Blackbird foraging in the safety of the dappled shade.

No matter how often I walk along this Trail, several times a week sometimes, each time I see it with fresh eyes. Looking up there are places where trees on opposite sides seem to avoid contact, leaving fascinating space between their contrasting leaves.

The same scenery changes according to the lighting effects; the varying cloud cover and the angle of the sun at different times of the day as the seasons progress all contribute, as do the weather conditions, particularly on days when there’s wind and how strong it is. On the ground, complex shadow patterns may be cast on the uneven canvas of the bare-earth path.

12:05: The steps up from the shady sheltered Woodland Trail lead into what could be an entirely different dimension….

a good place to take a break..

Tiny Tree-top Dancers

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Every year, from around about the end of the third week of April, I begin to watch out for the arrival and mass gatherings of insects I find particularly enchanting; the strangely beautiful day-flying Green Longhorn Moth. Their arrival and group dancing displays have become one of the highlights of the Spring for me, not just because they are entertaining to watch, which they are, but equally as this is an event that occurs at this same point in time each year. In changing times it’s reassuring to see that some elements of Nature’s complex pattern continue to repeat as and when they should, although each passing year I breathe a quiet sigh of relief when I see them for the first time, then feel the joy.

Green Longhorn Moths around an Oak tree

Seen individually and more closely, you could be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of a fly rather than a moth. Tiny insects; from outstretched wingtip to wingtip they might stretch to about 1½” (14-18mm).They have long black shaggy-looking hairs on their head and thorax, giving them a furry appearance and well-developed eyes. But then they brandish a pair of outlandishly and seemingly disproportionately long, white waving antennae, with those of males being longer than the females. Their beauty though is in their gorgeous iridescent wings. The basic wing colour is usually described as metallic green, hence the moth’s common name, but depending how the light catches them they can appear in a range of shades from bronze, through greens to violet.

There are several spots around Bryn Euryn where I have seen gatherings of the moths most years, that you could say are reliable. One is around Oak trees, which the insects are known to be associated with, and another is over an area at the edge of a Trail which is lined with more scrubby vegetation including blackthorn and gorse. Most noticeable in large groups dancing around the outer leaves of trees, sometimes high up, sometimes lower down, I have also found them in smaller groups in spots on woodland paths and even occasionally alone.

Ready for take off

My own best views though take little effort on my part, as the moths gather and perform in sometimes large numbers directly in front of my kitchen window, dancing in the sunshine around the top of the Wych Elm. I took the following video, which I think gives a much better idea of how the insects look and behave in action than photographs can. My videoing is not the best, but I think anyone that has never seen this little spectacle before will get the general idea! The dancing moths are accompanied by a Blackbird singing, with a few notes thrown in by a passing Herring Gull, plus a few creaks and squeaks from my zooming camera lens which is a tad bent out of shape since I dropped it….! You may also spot the odd hoverfly and a Speckled Wood butterfly.

(you can click on the video to make it bigger to get a better view)

Timeline 2020: This year I spotted my first arrivals in one small group on April 23rd. I think it’s safe to say, all males. Numbers increased over the next few days and I’m sure there have been more than in previous years, but they’d be very difficult to count! Numbers have fluctuated over the last few days, perhaps in connection with the cooler rainy weather we had earlier this week, and yesterday, May 2nd there are only a very few to be seen, in scattered small groups. But this morning they were back in force, with a lot of activity, then by 11am I couldn’t see any at all. I wondered if like with many small insects they need to stay out of the hotter direct sunlight.

Despite some careful watching, I don’t think I saw any females, for whom all of this frenzied displaying is for of course.  I definitely didn’t see any mating happening, but I’m hopeful it will have and that there will be more performances to look forward to this time next year.

 

 

 

 

The Birds and the Bee-flies

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Firstly I want to say I sincerely hope that you are keeping safe and well, are making the best of your self-isolation and/or social distancing and, most of all, that you are able to get outside to enjoy this Springtime, if only to your garden. I am desperately missing seeing my family, especially my little grandchildren, but I can honestly say I have never been more grateful for the location of my home! I live on the third floor of a small block of flats that has a communal garden, mostly lawned, but I chose this flat as it is right on the edge of woodland that fringes a Nature Reserve. For the last five years I’ve loved living here and have posted accounts of my local walks many times, but in recent weeks I’ve appreciated even more how lucky I am to be here. I can get outside for my ‘exercise allowance’ and

23/03/20-First Comma sighting

Since ‘lockdown’, the range of my outings has been much less than it would be in ‘normal’ times, restricted for now to the woodland I can easily access and wander around. Here I meet only the occasional local dog and their walker using the Public Footpath en route for the wider spaces of the reserve, and as we’re pretty well behaved up here, everyone so far has carefully observed the distancing rule. Tricky at times on these narrow tracks!

The walk, or more like meander, that I’m describing today is a ‘mash-up’ of two outings I took in the last week of March, during the spell of lovely Spring-like weather we had when it was sunny and warmish, and the skies were clear dark blue. Although I didn’t go far at all, there was a lot to see and now I know where to see it, I’ll be following a similar pattern in my meanders to check on the season’s progress.

Eristalis pertinax (f)

The first part of my path into the woods is dominated along one side by overgrown Cherry Laurels. They are reminders that this was once a shady woodland walk within the grounds of the grand house that stood here, long demolished and replaced much less grandly by flats, in one of which I live. The shrubs, or now small trees, can seem dark and gloomy, but they’re in flower now, lit up with candles of heavily-scented creamy-white blossoms offering up nectar to earlier-emerging insects. On bright sunny days like today, light shining through the leaves creates shadowy reflections of the flower spikes and gives away the presence of hoverflies enjoying basking on their sun-warmed platforms.

A few metres along the path I reach a patch I know to be a ‘hot-spot’ for insects. I’ve always been slightly mystified as to why it’s such a magnet for them, but I think it’s for a combination of reasons. Firstly, we’re almost 100m above sea level here, on the side of a wooded hill that that faces more or less South. A break in the line of Laurels exposes the view down the steeply-side slope, revealing there are very few large trees for quite a distance down, which has created a version of a woodland clearing. Shrubby trees have taken advantage of the space and light and filled the gaps, creating an understorey jungle of Holly, Hawthorn, brambles and of course ivy.

On the other side of the path is another patch clear of trees, about a metre wide, with a retaining bank or perhaps an overgrown wall, at its back. I wonder if this spot was deliberately created as a view point in the old garden and if a seat would have been placed here. It would have been a lovely spot to sit for a while. Facing more or less South, now it gets the benefit of full sun until about midday, after which trees begin to shade it out, but likely there were less then. With less impediments the view would have been across to the other side of the valley of the wooded hills with sloping green meadows. It would have been more peaceful too before the advent of the busy North Wales Expressway running along the length of the valley bottom!

All that I imagine was once here is long gone and the space has slipped into a somewhat scruffy, scrubby strip of rough vegetation that has become a great spot for the peaceful contemplation of an array of insects from early spring to late summer. Today there were a number of large hoverflies, Eristalis pertinax or Tapered Drone Flies, mostly males but there were one or two females too. They were flying briefly, zooming mainly from one sunny resting place to another.

One or two Buff-tailed bumblebee queens flew in low over the vegetation, zooming then off up into the woods; perhaps they were still seeking a good spot to nest, or maybe carrying pollen to stock up one already made. Another emerged briefly, then crawled back under leaf litter and disappeared from view. A Common Carder Bee queen emerged briefly from beneath dry leaves but quickly crawled back and I had a similarly brief view of a Tree Bumblebee. It will be interesting later on to see if there are signs that all, or any of them have made nests here

There were other insects too, a number of different species of flies, which I’m working on being able to identify, so maybe more of them in a future post, and the first of one of my favourite insects, a Bee-fly Bombylius major. They look cute and furry, but are actually a sneaky predators of hard-working mining bees.

A Wild Cherry tree marks the far end  of this patch and is now almost in full blossom and looking beautiful against the deep blue cloudless sky. The flowers offer another source of nectar to insects, particularly to bees.

A bit further on, where the path gets steeper for a way, I stopped to listen to a Wren singing and tried to find him. I caught a glimpse as he was perched on a thick branch a couple of metres above the ground, which I was happy with. I love these tiny little birds with loud voices that completely belie their size, and they’re not always easily seen. As I stood a pair of Jackdaws flew into a tree nearby. This is the first year I’ve seen Jackdaws this far up the hill and never in these woods before. Their nesting stronghold is the cliffs of the Little Orme, and then there are others further down the hill towards the village centre that gather around the roofs of houses throughout the winter, but until now our quieter, leafier part of the village hadn’t seemed to appeal. Then a couple of weeks ago I spotted a pair visiting the bird feeders in the garden next door and last week was surprised to see a pair perched together in a tree in the woods not far from where I was seeing them now. This has to be the same pair, and they clearly feel at home, as now they were gathering sticks to make a nest.

Most nests constructed from sticks look a bit haphazard and maybe a bit untidy, but birds such as corvids and of course Wood Pigeons are actually quite selective in their choice of twig. The Jackdaws were carefully scanning for one that looked right, which they then snipped off and gave further inspection. If they were still happy they carried it away, those that didn’t pass muster were dropped to the ground.

As so often happens when you stop to watch one thing, something else comes in to distract your attention. I spotted more movement high in a tree further back from where the Jackdaws were and it came back to me that I’d spotted a Nuthatch on that tree last year and had hoped it might be planning to nest in the hole there. I was sure some bird had worked on the hole though as it was perfectly round and its edges looked fresh. Maybe a Great Spotted Woodpecker had made it? But there were no further developments and as far as I know it remained empty.

Checking out the hole today was a tiny Blue Tit. Surely it wasn’t contemplating it as a nest site? The hole is way too big! None-the-less it was in and out and pecking around it as though checking its possibilities, but I think it more likely it was just foraging for insects.

I had another surprise flash of déjà-vu  when I got a better look at the Blue Tit; it’s one with a distinctive face pattern, different to the norm, with a white streak in its blue head cap and blue speckles in its face; one I’m sure I recognise as having seen in this very location last year.

Moving on I reached my next insect ‘hot spot’. Completely different in character to the last one, this is a little higher up and at the junction of two well-trodden paths. Still South-facing the downward slope is again open and missing large trees, some of which have succumbed to storms in recent years.

200323-1208-BEWP- (148s)-Platycheirus albimanus (f)

Platycheirus albimanus (f) on Greater Stitchwort

Two days ago I was standing here watching a small black hoverfly on the Greater Stitchwort flowers and from the corner of my eye I saw what I took to be a dog coming down the path towards me. I was preparing to move 2 metres further on as I thought to let its owner pass, when from behind the big Sweet Chestnut tree on the corner of the junction, trotted a Fox! Equally taken by surprise, for a split second our eyes met and we both froze, then it spun to its right and ran away beneath a Yew tree. Amazing! What a lovely animal. From now on I will always think of that path junction as ‘Fox Corner’.

A gorgeous Peacock butterfly landed on the ground in front of me. Another first species sighting of this year.

 

Bee-fly on Lesser celandine

In this spot last year there were mining bees, and where there are mining bees, prowling predatory nomad bees and as before-mentioned, Bee-flies. I supposed that the presence of several Bee-flies here today indicated that they had recently emerged from one of last-year’s mining bee nests. They are fascinating insects to watch.

More about Bee-flies and their relationship with mining bees here: Tawny Mining Bees & the Bee-fly

 

Orange-tailed Mining Bee-Andrena haemorrhoa

I had a good look around for signs of mining bees and eventually spotted just one feasting on a celandine. It’s difficult to tell from this photograph, but based on what  little I’ve learnt about these tiny bees and help I’ve had with identifying others found in this locality, it’s likely that this is an Orange-tailed Mining Bee.

Carrying on down the path I’m reminded of how much evergreen foliage there is here. In this photograph and just a little further back there is Holly, Ivy, Yew, Evergreen/Holm Oak and Spurge Laurel. I still can’t wait for fresh foliage though.

By its nature, a wander has no shape to it, so I can’t describe a trail to you as I often do, and to appreciate one fully takes a particular mindset. They are not for the impatient walker with an aim in mind, or for those whose idea of birdwatching is to see one and tick it off a list!

200323-1056-BEWP- (34)-Larch Tree-top laden with tiny cones

Larch-Larix decidua

This is typical of how things go with me: I’m wandering along the path in the photograph above and remember that the other day I noticed for the first time that one of the trees growing at the side of this path is a Larch, not a common tree here. So, as one of my aims this year is to try to identify as many of the different species of tree in this patch of woodland as I can, the tree is in my mind as one to investigate further. Larches are deciduous of course, but is this one, full of cones at the very top, but altogether very dry and brown-looking, alive or dead? Just before I reached it I noticed what I thought was a large branch that had fallen from said Larch, so I detoured slightly onto another path to get a better look.

As I was photographing (for future refence) the cones still attached to what is actually a whole, if skinny dead fallen tree, I spotted a bird fly onto the branch a few trees back from where I was standing. I knew straightaway that it was a Mistle Thrush and grabbed a quick snap in case I didn’t get another chance. I moved forward slowly to get a better look and although it had clearly seen me it stayed put. They are handsome birds, their upright posture giving them a strong confident presence, but they are also wary and always on the alert.

Their colouring and arrangement of their markings is highly effective when it comes to camouflage, sitting perfectly still in dappled shade they blend in perfectly.

After a few minutes I realised that the thrush had no plans to move far, which led me to think that it may well be nesting somewhere nearby. Mistle Thrushes are early nesters, so this could have been the male of a pair keeping watch over his nest and territory. The bird moved further back again, towards what I think of as the Pine Grove, where a dozen or so tall, wind-contorted Scots Pines are gathered at the edge of this patch of woodland where it meets an open field. Perfect Mistle Thrush nesting territory.

I thought I’d hang around for a while to see if the birds might give me a clue as to where the nest was. I headed for this sawn Scots Pine tree stump as a likely place to sit, but realised just in time that it was oozing beads of resin, so it must have been felled recently. I didn’t sit on it. Counting the rings from my photograph later on I reached somewhere around 60. I wondered why it had been felled as its wood looks quite strong and healthy.

This small patch of the woods is a favourite place of smaller birds too, especially tits and particularly Great Tits. While I was standing still I was treated to a song by the strongly-marked male above. I’m sure I photographed him last year, he’s quite distinctive, or is that heavy black genetic? I had lovely views of two Long-tailed Tits foraging up around the trees and along the field fence.

I was hoping to get at least a glimpse of a Nuthatch here, a few days ago there were a pair flitting about here exploring the top branches of the pines; I took a photograph, but  facing into bright sunshine it’s not great, but a record at least. I could hear a male calling persistently and loudly, but try as I might, I couldn’t locate him today. Finding singing or calling birds in trees is definitely not my strong point.

200319-1341-BEDC- (31a)-Nuthatch- 1 of 2 - in Scots Pine

19/3/20 – Nuthatch

Meanwhile, the Mistle Thrush had flown up to a tree branch and sat in full and open view with his chest feathers puffed out, making him look a completely different shape and much bigger; from a distance he looked a bit like a female Sparrowhawk. He was still fully alert though and quickly dashed out when a kafuffle broke out around a neighbouring tree. A Magpie had flown in and perhaps deliberately, must have got close to the nest. I assume the female had been sitting on it and launched herself at the Magpie, which was screeching loudly. Both Mistle Thrushes went on the attack, also calling loudly and saw the Magpie off. Peace resumed and the male went back to his perch, re-fluffed his feathers and sat quietly once more.

I’d been standing still in one spot for a good few minutes, then as I turned to continue along the path I was on to head back home, this lovely little Treecreeper flew onto a pine tree almost right in front of me. It spent a while exploring the bark of the tree, probing into crevices with that long slim wickedly-curved and pointed beak, moving around and slightly up before flying across to another one that had ivy growing up it.

Between watching the Mistle Thrush and the Treecreeper I’d stood and looked over the fence to see if there was any sign of Buzzards there. Two days ago I’d spotted one circling low over the trees here, that had flown in from across the valley. It was joined then by another and they both flew out over the field, circled around, high and low, then both landed in the big tree in the corner of the field. They didn’t stay for long, but I’m really hoping that they were prospecting for a nesting site and that they might choose one close by.

Today it seemed there were no Buzzards to be seen, but then, just as I was walking away one flew in low over the trees. I turned back and walked quickly back to the field edge where I saw it had landed on a tree branch. It was hunched over and peering down intently….

…..then it launched itself from its perch, flew low over the grass and dropped suddenly. It  had landed behind a hillock near the top edge of the field so I couldn’t see it on the ground, but it soon took off again and as it flew in my direction I could see it had something gripped in the talons of one foot. I couldn’t get in close enough to make out what it was, and my photograph doesn’t help with whether it was live prey or carrion. It was interesting that it carried it away too and didn’t eat it where it found it, which made me wonder if it was intended for a mate? Buzzards don’t usually lay till late April, so maybe a bit early for that. Another of life’s little mysteries.So much seen in a small patch of woodland and because I spent longer in each spot I feel the quality of my sightings was good too. Staying away from the main Reserve, where I would have expected to have met more people meant I hadn’t got close to my usual target of 5,000 steps, indeed, I hardly made it to 1,000! But if I’d continued as I would normally have done I’m sure I would have missed a lot of what I saw today. I’m looking forward to more restricted wanderings in the days to come.

Stay safe!