Tawny Mining Bees & the Bee-fly

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April 1st – Garden, Rhos on Sea

In the late afternoon sunshine a number of little bees were zooming around in a corner of the front garden, pausing frequently but briefly on the warmed surfaces of ivy leaves. I have seen similar ones here each spring for the last five years, so was pretty sure they were male Tawny Mining Bees, but I had to wait a while for a prettier and more distintinctive female to take a breather from her nest-building labours to be sure. Males significantly outnumbered females here this afternoon, probably because they don’t contribute in any way to constructing nests or to raising offspring, so once mating is accomplished by a lucky few, they are free agents.

Tawny Mining Bee – Andrena fulva

The rich fox-brown colour and furry coat of the lovely little Tawny Mining-bee (Andrena fulva) makes it the most distinctive and obvious of all the Spring-flying solitary bee species.  It is a common bee in much of England and Wales, which nests underground and leaves a little volcano-like mound of soil around the mouth of its burrow. Nests can often be seen in lawns and flowerbeds in gardens and parks, or in mown banks and field margins in farmland and orchards.

Description

Size: Females 10 to 12 mm and males 8 to 10 mm long.

The Tawny Mining Bee is a small rich gingery-orange coloured bee that can often be seen visiting its nest in grassy areas such as lawns during the springtime.

Females are larger than males and covered in a dense layer of fox-red/orange hairs. Their underside is black.

The males are quite different to the females. They are much slimmer, covered in less dense orangey brown hair and have a distinguishing pronounced moustache-like tuft of white hairs on the lower face. They play no part in nest building or providing for their offspring.

When to see it

The bee has a single flight period each year and is on the wing from early April until early June; the males emerging well before the females.

Peak activity coincides with the flowering periods of fruit trees such as Pear, Cherry and Apple and also of fruiting shrubs such as currants, gooseberries and other Ribes species and are important pollinators. The female collects pollen and nectar for the larvae which develop underground, each in a single ‘cell’ of the nest, and hibernate as pupae over winter.

Habitat

Tawny Mining Bee feeding on Alexanders

The bee is common in gardens, parks, calcareous grassland, orchards and on the edges of cropped agricultural land.

Andrena fulva nests are constructed in the ground, and the nest entrances are surrounded by a volcano-like mound of excavated spoil. Nests are often in loose aggregations in tended lawns, flower beds, mown banks and in sparsely vegetated field margins. Pollen is collected from a wide range of plants including flowering trees and shrubs, weeds and garden species. 

Life History

Having hibernated through the Winter, Tawny Mining Bees emerge in Spring as adults; the males emerging well before the females. After mating, the female seeks a place to make a nest. The bees’ tunnelling throws up small heaps of waste soil, that look like tiny molehills or volcanos with the entrance/exit hole at its summit. You may notice these little heaps in your lawn without associating them with the bees. They won’t spoil your lawn! The nests are short lived and do not damage plants or harm earthworms. 

The bee’s mining throws up small ‘volcano-like’ heaps of soil with an entrance at the summit

Nests will often consist of one small, main tunnel, with perhaps 5 or so branches, each containing an egg cell. The nest is a vertical shaft 200 to 300 mm (8 to 12 in) with several brood cells branching off it. The female fills these cells with a mixture of nectar and pollen, on which she lays one egg in each cell. The larva hatches within a few days, grows quickly and pupates within a few weeks to repeat the cycle as new adults emerging the following spring after hibernation.

 

Sometimes more than a hundred females build nests in a few square metres but the Tawny Mining Bee normally does not create a colony: each female has her own nest. 

Distribution in Europe

According to BWARS, the Tawny Mining Bee is common across most of England and Wales, there is only a single confirmed Scottish record, and only old, tantalizing records from Co. Kilkenny in Ireland. On continental Europe, the species is widespread and common from Britain eastwards across central Europe. It is not found in Scandinavia and is restricted in the Mediterranean region. 

April 7th

Checking up on the Tawny Mining Bees today I noticed a number of the diagnostic little ‘volcanos’ have appeared in the bare line of earth between the lawn edge and the ivy-covered front wall.

Female Tawny Mining Bee covered with dusty earth from her nest

I spotted females going in a few times and there are still males hanging around close to the nest sites. I photographed one female as she had emerged from her nest, her legs, head and furry body coated with a layer of dusty earth.

As this garden is having a bit of an overhaul at the moment, there are very few flowering plants for the bees to nectar on, so they are having to seek food elsewhere. Poor things must be worn out, all that digging, producing eggs and having to fly across the road to find food.

An Enemy in the Camp

The bees carried on industriously, seemingly unaware they were being watched by a potential murderer of their offspring. The sinister character, a Bee-mimic, looks a little strange; it has a long rigid proboscis at the front of its head which it uses to tke nectar from flowers while hovering over them and long trailing legs. They are also quite cute, furry, lovely to see and entertaining to watch – this was a Bee-fly Bombylius major.

 

Bombylius major has several host species, including beetle larvae and the brood of solitary wasps and bees particularly digging bees such as Andrena, like our Tawny Mining Bees.

The Bee-flies mimic bees to allow them to get close to the bees nest entrance. When close enough, the female will flick her eggs into or near the nests of the host insects. The larvae will then hatch in the nest and feed on the food stored, as well as on the young solitary bees or wasps.

I knew this is how Bee-flies behaved, but hadn’t witnessed their egg-flicking behaviour before today. I have to admit it is fascinating, while feeling a bit sad about the possible outcome for some of the poor hard-working Miners. But then I like to see the Bee-flies too…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lonely Purple Sandpiper

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February 17th

Rhos Point will soon become a quieter place as the wading birds that arrived during last late Summer and the Autumn leave us and head back to their more northerly breeding grounds. Each year Turnstones come in a fairly consistently sized flock of about 60 birds and I think it’s likely that a more unusual visitor – one that draws birdwatchers here to search for it – arrives amongst them; the Purple Sandpiper. I’d met people claiming to have seen them here earlier in the winter, but I hadn’t had even a glimpse. Until today. Taking my baby granddaughter out for some very fresh air on the Promenade, as always with one eye scanning the shoreline and one watching where I was steering the pushchair, I’d noted the tide was on the turn. Only a strip of the rocky shore below us was exposed and yet there were two people walking along it, chatting and following behind their loose and randomly wandering dog. I wasn’t thinking kindly about this as a) I don’t understand why anyone would risk their dog injuring itself on the slippery uneven surface and b) why they don’t notice or seem to care about the disturbance to any feeding birds. But in this instance they were quickly forgiven as the dog flushed a single elusive Purple Sandpiper from where it had probably been resting on the lower rocks of the rip-rap sea break.

It didn’t go far, just across to the smaller rocks on the edge ot the water where it stayed.March 1st

Having now seen where the Purple Sandpiper had been lurking during high tides I went back to try to see it again and whether there may be more of them. I’d waited until the tide was at its highest and soon spotted the Turnstone flock quite high up on the rocks

I enjoyed the lovely close sighting of these gorgeous little birds, but really wanted to see Purple Sandpipers. And there he was, on the edge of the group and still apparently alone.

A lonely little Purple Sandpiper. I stayed and watched for a while in case any others popped up, but no. He was the only one. I walked a little further on, still searching, but found only two Redshanks. Again, lovely close up view of great birds, but not the colour I was looking for.

PURPLE SANDPIPER – Calidris maritima; Welsh: Pibydd Du

The Purple Sandpiper is a winter visitor to almost any rocky coast in Britain and Ireland. They are widely distributed around the coast though they are most abundant in the northern isles – Orkney and Shetland and along the east coast of Scotland, north-eastern England and Devon and Cornwall and scarce elsewhere.

The Purple Sandpiper is a medium-sized wading bird, slightly larger, stockier and darker than a Dunlin. It is mainly dark grey above and whitish below. It has a slight down-curved beak and distinctive short bright orange legs. In flight it shows a thin white wing-stripe on otherwise dark wings.

Above photo: January 28th 2012-Purple Sandpiper with Dunlin – Rhos on Sea

World Distribution: BREEDS Arctic & Subarctic Eurasia & North America, WINTERS: south to S Europe and Southern US.

Diet: Invertebrates, also some plant material, often feeds on rocks near tide edge.

March 2nd

Back again for another look. I didn’t even have to search for myself as a serious photographer, in full camouflage kit and sporting a super-long lens had him in his sights, saving me the effort. Today he was completely alone, with not even a Turnstone for company. He was quite lively though, having a good preen then skipping around the rocks, splashed by sea spray and totally in his element. Still sad to see him all alone though.

Closer views of the active bird today better show the purplish tint to the plumage that gives the species its name.

Maybe next year he’ll bring some friends.

Purple Sandpiper is currently AMBER listed in the Birds of Conservation list based on a Non-breeding Population decline by more than 25% but less than 50% and a UK breeding population of less than 300 pairs.

 

Keeping up with the Herring Gulls

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January 9th – Chimney Pots, Rhos-on-Sea

After a few months of being relatively quiet and peaceful, our Herring gull neighbours are back and making their presence heard and seen throughout the village. Pairs stake out their territories early in the year and will defend them vigorously and vociferously from now until nesting begins, continuing to do so until this year’s offspring have grown and are mature enough to leave the site. It all looks and sounds like a lot of effort and hard work, but that is the price this pair are prepared to pay for a prime high-rise site.

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These particular chimney pots are atop my daughter’s 3 storey house, offering well-elevated accommodation and boasting unrivalled 360° views extending over rooftops and the surrounding landscape, which includes the sea. It is a mere two-minute, maybe less, flight to the seashore. Both the male and female of the pair take responsibility for defending the site, sometimes together and sometimes on their own. They must need to take frequent breaks to restore their energy levels after a bout of meaningful squawking at the sky.

10: 29 – Female flies to roof edge, has a quick look around then takes off,

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leaving the male in charge. I didn’t notice while I was taking these photographs, but he was not left entirely alone. To my amusement, a male Starling had his back. He has located his family home in the eaves of the adjoining property.

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He seemed to have his work cut out, although from where I was standing in the garden I couldn’t see what or who he was directing his attention towards.

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I couldn’t quite catch him in full squawk this morning, but he was making plenty of noise. He is still sporting his winter plumage and appears to be in pretty good shape, but he’s not a young bird. When I looked at my images I recognised him by his eyes, or rather by the lack of feathers around his eyes as the male of a pair I spent a lot of time watching back in the spring and summer of 2012.

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As you can tell from the next couple of images he is looking a bit scrawny around the neck area, not as plump and well-filled out as he was back in the day.

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Herring gulls breed for the first time at age 4 and a typical lifespan is 12 years. The oldest recorded Herring gull (from ringing records) was  32 years 9 months and 25 days old. This record was set in 2013. 

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10.39am – the female arrives back with a flourish and lends her voice to the warning-off aria.

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he may be older, but clearly still has got what it takes to attract a mate and this one appears younger. It must be something to do with the status of his domain.

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10.40 – She’s a bit on edge though and leaves again a minute later, I think she was chasing off another gull from their airspace, perhaps a rival female. It started to rain quite heavily then and he left shortly afterwards too.

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Then and now

This is a head shot of the male showing his ‘scabby’ eyes taken this January

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and below is one I took on July 24th 2012. He’s in his brighter summer/breeding plumage here, but had the ‘scabby’ eyes even then. It’s too much of a coincidence for it not to be the same bird isn’t it? He was considerably better-padded then too. If 2012 was his first year of breeding he would have been 4 plus the 5 years from then till now would make him 9, but I think he could be older.

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This was him and his mate in full squawk back then, after they had successfully reared a chick that had fallen out of the chimneypot nest and landed on the flat roof below. More about that here:   https://theresagreen.me/2013/06/20/theres-a-new-gull-on-the-roof

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He was and I’m sure, still is a brilliant and attentive parent, bringing regular and diverse meals back to his hungry youngster. Including a starfish and regurgitated chips.

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January 24th 2017

Back to the present. I was out taking my baby granddaughter for a walk along the prom and spotted this chap paddling for worms on the grass embankment. Old scabby eyes himself.

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The Herring gull remains on the RED list of European threatened birds and it is illegal to harm them or damage or remove their eggs from nests.

 

Sights & Sounds of the Little Orme (2)

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January 20th – Little Orme – Upper reaches

I‘d spent longer watching the seals than I had intended, so almost talked myself out of doing some proper walking and heading up to the summit. It was cold, the sun was already sinking lower in the sky and I knew the upward tracks were going to be muddy. But one of my aims for this outing had been to check to see whether or not the cormorants had begun nesting yet, so onwards and upwards it was.

At the bottom of the steep upward slope, Rabbit Hill to locals, a bird sat perfectly still at the top of a smallish ash tree. The sun in my eyes was so bright I could only see it as a black shape, so made another assumption that as this is about the highest point on this windswept clifftop and a favoured perch for crows, magpies and jackdaws, that it was a corvid. Only when I lightened up the photograph I took did I realise it had been a Kestrel.

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The bracken and brambles that covered the slope to the landward side of the track have been cut back hard; this vegetation provides cover for a variety of small birds, including resident Stonechats and Whitethroats that come here for the breeding season. I’m sure it will have grown up again by the time they arrive.

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I was right about the mud! It was almost take one step forward and slide back two. I pictured my walking pole lying uselessly in the boot of my car. I should use it more often, but it gets in the way when I want to stop and take a photograph. I took a breather to turn and photograph the view; no matter the number of times I have done it, it’s just so amazing I can’t resist. The spit of land projecting finger-like into the sea is Rhos Point and despite the hefty sea defences I know it has in place, it looks so vulnerable from here, perhaps more so to me because it’s where my daughter and her family lives and I can pick their house out from here!

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At the top of the slippery slope is a levelled area where much of the stone was quarried out. The cliff wall at the back of this now grassy area is Jackdaw city, with many pairs of birds nesting in its nooks and crannies. You realise how many of them there are when the Buzzards glide into the airspace above and numbers of them suddenly zoom up and surround them, determinedly driving it away while making a heck of a racket.

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(click on image to enlarge)

Herring gulls often join in the mobbing party too; it may seem that they prefer roofs and chimneys to nest on, but some do prefer the more traditional option of a bit of cliff. It’s interesting that although they may rob other birds of their eggs and chicks, they’ll join forces to drive off  any potential predators of theirs. It’s not too clear from my photograph who’s who, but one Buzzard is very slightly left of centre  and the other approaching the far left, with defending birds approaching mainly from the right. Poor old Buzzards, every other bird picks on them, even much smaller Starlings!

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The edge of the cliff is crumbly and eroding but is a favourite spot for Jackdaws to sit and look down on the lower levels of the headland. There were several pairs sitting doing just that this afternoon, probably ones with nest sites nearby on the cliffs of the lower level.

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I took a photograph looking down into Angel Bay from up here; it looked as though quite a number had moved off.

170120-lo-73-a-higher-view-into-the-bayOne of my favourite sights is golden gorse flowering against the background of a blue sea.

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It’s always sad when a tree dies, but the skeleton of this Elder is now beautifully adorned with lichens and a fungus, which I’m sure is now past its peak. I’m not great on fungi, but I do know the one most closely associated with the Elder is Jew’s ear or jelly ear Auricularia auricular-judae; is it that Annie? I wish I’d seen it earlier.

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The grass up here is grazed by sheep and further nibbled by rabbits, so is always neat and well-groomed. The path curves into this small clearing that looks almost like a cleverly landscaped wild garden designed to lead you to the stunning vista.

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click on image to enlarge

The nearest rounded hill is Bryn Euryn which I’ve walked you around many times and shown views from there to here, but you can see they would be a fairly short flight away from one another for Buzzards, which nest on Bryn Euryn, and Ravens which regularly overfly both.

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Some of the hawthorns here still have good crops of berries.

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And there is lots of glorious golden fragrant gorse.

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Another wider view from higher up over Colwyn Bay and towards the Clwydian Range of mountains where Offa’s Dyke begins.

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click to enlarge

The low sun gives a wonderful texture to the rough grass and rocks. I always wonder how rocks such as this one arrived where they are, but this one I use this one to recognise the point where I leave the path and approach the cliff edge, extremely cautiously, to get a better view of the site of the cormorants’ colonial nesting site.

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They don’t appear to be doing much yet, in fact there were just two there when I first looked, although a few more did fly in to join them as I watched.

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The Great Orme – click to enlarge

I climbed up a bit higher to admire the view across Llandudno Bay to the Great Orme. The pier looks toy-like against its great bulk.

The sun had dropped further and was almost hidden by the highest part of this headland to my left. The view from here is across Llandudno town to Anglesey and the bulky headland of Penmaenmawr. If you were looking at this as a walker of the Wales Coast Path travelling in this westerly direction, you could roughly trace your onward path and see where you would be in a day or so’s time.

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Llandudno Bay, town and beyond – click to enlarge

Low light lends a different atmosphere to this place, especially when you’re alone and have an imagination such as mine. Rocks cast shadows and a solidity not as apparent in bright sunlight. I wonder how it looked before its bulk was reduced by quarrying? Are these squared off rocks remnants from that time or were they deliberately placed before then for some other purpose.

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The remnants of  a dry stone wall lead the eye to the wonderful view.

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click to enlarge

Then  there are Hawthorn trees, contorted into wonderful shapes by the strong prevailing winds and features long associated with tales of witches and magic……

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Even in broad daylight I wonder about the spot in the image below. I can easily imagine as some kind of mystical meeting place guarded by the trees and I know that as a child I’d have found a way around the fencing and sat on the top of that little hummock letting my imagination run riot, most probably giving myself nightmares.

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I fancy other mystical markers – a  hawthorn branch heavily covered with lichen that reaches out over the track and frames the view.

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and a little tree well covered with lichens and further embellished with sheep’s wool.

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The atmosphere is further enhanced by a pair of Ravens, companions of witches and wizards,  ‘gronking’ as they passed overhead.

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And a rabbit, moving strangely slowly around behind the wire fence. It didn’t bounce away from me like rabbits usually do and I wasn’t sure if it was just old or not well; its eyes looked strange and it may not have been seeing properly, if at all. It put me in mind of rabbits we used to see years ago with Mixomatosis, but is that still around? (see footnote)

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A chaffinch foraging around in the gorse and blackthorn scrub led my eye to this sunlit spider’s web and distracted me from further over-imaginative thoughts!

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Had a bit of a slithery walk down Rabbit Hill then headed back to leave the site. I took the path closest to the cliff edge to avoid oncoming late afternoon dog-walkers and spotted this bird sitting on the top of a gorse bush seemingly looking out to sea. Once again the sun was obscuring it from proper view but there was no mistaking this was a Kestrel, a young one I think. It was very cold now but the bird was sitting perfectly still with its feathers fluffed out.

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I risked walking back around to get some better lighting, expecting it to fly off, but although I think it was aware of me it stayed put. I did get to a point with a better view – and the camera battery died! Time to go.

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More about Myxomatosis

When I wrote this post and mentioned the ‘poorly’ rabbit I had seen, I hadn’t realised that the horrible disease,  Myxomatosis, was still present and affecting rabbit populations in the UK. As a country-bred child back in the ’60s, I remember seeing many affected rabbits which I found distressing, and as the poor rabbits were sick they were easily caught by our cats, who didn’t kill them, but did bring them home. I also didn’t know then that it could be passed on to pet rabbits; now they must be vaccinated against the disease.

The disease called Myxomatosis reached the UK in 1953, where the first outbreak to be officially confirmed was in Bough Beech, Kent in September 1953. It was encouraged in the UK as an effective rabbit bio-control measure; this was done by placing sick rabbits in burrows, though this is now illegal. As a result, it is understood that more than 99% of rabbits in the UK were killed by the outbreak. However, by 2005 – fifty years later – a survey of 16,000 ha (40,000 acres) reported that the rabbit populations had increased three-fold every two years, likely as a result of increasing genetic resistance, or acquired immunity to the Myxomatosis virus. Despite this, it still appears regularly at rabbit warrens.

If you’ve never seen an affected rabbit, I can’t stress how awful it is. Initially the disease may be is visible as lumps (myxomata) and puffiness around the head and genitals, which progresses to acute conjunctivitis and possibly blindness; this also may be the first visible symptom of the disease. The rabbits become listless, lose appetite, and develop a fever. Secondary bacterial infections occur in most cases, which cause pneumonia and purulent inflammation of the lungs. In cases where the rabbit has little or no resistance, death may take place rapidly, often in as little as 48 hours; most cases result in death within 14 days. Not a good way to die.

Wild rabbits tend to recover quickly once the disease has passed; a certain density of rabbits is needed to keep the disease going and once the number of rabbits drops below that level the disease will disappear until the rabbit numbers increase again.

Sights and Sounds from the Little Orme 1

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January 20th – Little Orme, lower level

When the first sound I hear on my approach to the Little Orme is that of a Raven gronking, I take it as an omen that this is going to be a good walk! And so it was today – the old Raven perched high on the edge of the cliff, proclaiming his territorial rights, his distinctive call echoing off the surrounding rock. As yet there were no signs of Fulmars having returned to begin claiming nesting spots on the cliff below him. Notoriously noisy, they too would have been heard before being seen for sure.

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Ears being more effective than eyes on this bright winter afternoon, I heard birdsong emanating from a small nearby tree. I didn’t recognise the song at first and with sun shining directly into my eyes, it took a couple of minutes for me to recognise that the singer was a Great tit. I edged slowly towards him, circling to try to reach a point where the sun was less blinding, expecting him to spot me and take off any second, but he was confident and intent on his purpose and chose  to ignore me. I was delighted, I don’t recall ever being this close to a singing Great tit before and was impressed by his tuneful renderings.

He was indeed handsome and as the test of a male Great tit’s virility is displayed in the strength of the black markings that run from his throat to his nether regions, this one looks like he’d be quite a catch.

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The ground here was frosted and in shaded places the grass was crunchy underfoot, but a pair of blackbirds, feathers fluffed out against the cold had found a more insulated mossy spot and were out hunting worms. I wasn’t sure if the female was deliberately collecting nesting material or if I’d disturbed her whilst probing and the grass had stuck to her bill.

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Close by a Robin was singing quietly, almost to itself as it perched low and spied, head cocked, for insect movements on the ground below.

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Reaching the cliff edge which overlooks Penrhyn Bay, all I spied was a distant single cormorant. (Well, I assumed it was a cormorant, but a sharp-eyed friend pointed out it was actually a Shag – so really happy about that as I see far fewer of them.)

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A closer look shows the Shag has a narrow bill and a steeper forehead than a Cormorant and also lacks the white cheeks patches of the latter. A lesson learned, I will look closer in the future and not make assumptions!

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Sitting atop the rocky mound that forms one edge of Angel Bay were a pair of large black birds. One had his back to me, looking out to sea – Ravens, surely? As I approached they flew down almost to the base of the rock.

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Feathers gleaming with shades of purple and green they are magnificent birds, but you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that enormous dagger-like bill.

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As well as local folk, people come here from miles around in the hope of a sighting of the Grey Seals that have claimed Angel Bay as their own. Today I was one of a small crowd of spectators that were given a real treat; there must have been at least 40 of them ranged along the tide-line the whole length of the little cove.

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Perfectly camouflaged to blend with the rocks and  pebbles here, it takes a few minutes to get your eye in and work out which shapes are animal and which mineral. I make a total of 20 in the image below.

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At first glance there didn’t seem to be much activity other than sleeping going on, but sounds arising and a closer look reveals that here and there things were not entirely tranquil.

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Some see rocks as a sun-warmed resting place

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while to others they are just obstacles to be overcome; going over the top must be easier than getting someone to move.

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These two took to the water, they could be a male and a female as one appears smaller than the other.

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They started off peacefully enough,

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but things soon started to get a bit rough

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and developed into what appeared to be a serious display of aggression or power assertion of some kind. ( I wasn’t entirely off-track here, but it has been pointed out that this was quite likely mating behaviour. I thought that mating happened sooner after the birth of the pups.)

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Their interaction was quickly dissipated though when several more seals lumbered from the shore, showing  a surprising turn of speed, and entered the water with much deliberate splashing.

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Then sped off with purpose, keeping their heads above the water

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to check out two kayakers that had paddled into the bay. The guys in the boats must have been thrilled to have had a close encounter with at least eight curious seals.

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Back on the shore another pair having a bit of argy-bargy

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this time more vocal than physical.

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And that is where I left them to get on with their day while I got moving to warm up, with one quick last look over the edge of the cliff from the other side of the bay.

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On the far side of the bay I scanned the cliff for any signs that the Ravens may be re-using the nest site that has been occupied for years. There was nothing I could see, but there were plenty of pairs of Jackdaws that seem to have already claimed or reclaimed holes and ledges on the cliff wall. Jackdaws are so numerous here that a black bird of a certain size usually registers subconsciously as such, but again it was hearing different sounds called by a small group of four black birds flying up that alerted me to the presence of the far less common Chough.

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More wary than the resident Jackdaws, the presence of Chough, probably visiting from the Great Orme that forms the other side of Llandudno Bay, always takes me by surprise and that is my excuse for failing to get a decent photograph! That and the fact they soon spotted me standing out in the open pointing a long lens at them, so they took off and disappeared over the cliff edge. I have seen and photographed the pair below feeding here before, quite distinctive with all their leg bling, but the one above has none yet. Is that because it’s a young one I wonder? Please tell me if you know.

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I couldn’t leave this lower level of the reserve without a nod to a Jackdaw, whose home this really is, so snatched this just before a dog followed by its owner sent him off too.

 

 

Everyday Birds – The Blue Tit

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Although blessed with visitors from a good range of species, Blue tits are without doubt the mainstay of my window birdwatching and  have given me hours of viewing pleasure. There are few moments in the day when there are not at least one or two to see and at certain times there can be a good few more; counting them accurately is tricky, they’re too quick and mobile. I admit I hadn’t noticed any difference in the numbers of birds I’ve been seeing this year compared to previous years, so I was surprised to learn that according to BTO records, on a national scale there are significantly less of them this winter.

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Throughout the UK Blue tits have always ranked amongst the most numerous of our garden feeder visitors, but last November (2016) BTO Garden BirdWatchers reported the lowest numbers of Blue Tits in gardens since 2003.  They say:

” The explanation for our missing birds can be found by looking back to the early summer. The wet weather across the breeding season, particularly in June, would have made it difficult for the adults to feed themselves and their chicks. Normally we would expect to see large numbers of newly fledged young come into gardens to seek food, but this year BTO Garden BirdWatch results show the lowest numbers of Blue Tits in August for eight years. This indicates that fewer young birds survived than usual this year and these findings are supported by the preliminary results from the BTO Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and Constant Effort Sites Scheme (CES) which found that Blue Tits had their worst breeding season on record, thought to be due to a lack of young birds this year.”

All the more reason to appreciate these endearing little birds and continue to help them out where we can.

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English name Blue tit Scientific name Cyanistes caeruleus (formerly Parus caeruleus), Linnaeus, 1758; Other names Eurasian Blue tit, European Blue tit Welsh Titw Tomos Las Conservation Status: UK: GREEN

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Blue tits are tiny birds, measuring 12 cm (5″- 6″) long and weighing in at just 11 grams.

Blue tits are small. acrobatic birds with a gregarious nature, they have short legs and a sturdy bill which suits their omnivorous diet of mostly insects and spiders in the summer and a wide range of fruit and berries in autumn and winter.

The wings and tail feathers are bright blue and the back is olive-green. The underparts are yellow with a greyish-black stripe running down the belly which is usually narrow, but can vary. The cap, or crown, is a stunning bright blue. The face is a clean bright white accented by a narrow black stripe that runs through the eyes, there is a black chinstrap and a small black ‘bib’ under the bill. Males and females are the same, but males show brighter blue than females. Like all birds, Blue Tits can see ultra-violet light: the bright blue feathers on the front of their heads glows brightly under UV light and it is the quality of this feature that is thought to be the deciding factor in the females’ choice of partner.

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It may seem to us that only a dozen or so Blue Tits use our garden feeding stations in the winter, but the truth is there could easily be many times this number passing through during the course of a single day. Blue Tits are largely sedentary in their habits, but studies of the local movements of British and Irish Blue Tits have shown that birds range over an area and move around in small flocks, or feeding parties, that often include other tit species, Goldcrest, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and even the occasional wintering Chiffchaff.

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A Stranger Passing through

As one Blue tit looks pretty much like another, it’s almost impossible to tell who is who, so spotting through-visitors is tricky. But earlier this week  I happened to spot an individual that looked ‘different’ to the ones I usually see.

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Looking at him through the camera lens I could see he had an unusual dark patch of feathers above his beak and between his eyes and also a band of darker feathers around the top of the breast, giving it a slightly dirty appearance. This is the first Blue tit I have seen with darkened plumage, but the condition, known as melanism is apparently not that uncommon, although more common in the related Great tit. He didn’t stay for long as he was chased away by other Blue Tits. He must have stood out to them as looking ‘different’. (The BTO keep records of birds reported with abnormal plumage shown here.)

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 Acrobats

For the past couple of weeks I have been entertained by their acrobatic prowess as the small overhanging tree-of-unknown-species in front of my window has buds that are beginning to swell. This is their tree of choice in which to wait their turn for the birdfeeders down at ground level, to which they return to eat their snatched prize. Now they often have quick forage around the twiggy branches seeking out any lurking insects or larvae that may be hiding in them.

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Blue tits are brilliant acrobats and can hang upside down from branches to search underneath them for insects. This agility and their light weight also enables them to search to the very tips of twigs.

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The males are singing too – I photographed my first singer of this year on January 23rd.

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Blue tits and us

The Blue tit and other tit species were long known as the Titmice, a name taken from Middle English (Icelandic) ttr = small,  and mouse – in Old English mase=small bird. ‘Tit’ referred to any small object or creature and is of pre-7th century Norse origin. The first known use of ‘titmouse’ has been dated back to the 14th century and ‘Tom titmouse’ to around the 17th century. ‘Titmouse’ was used for this genus by most old authors, but Yarrell in his first edition shortened the name to ‘Tit’ and his example has been followed by many later authors.

The sheer number and variety of common and local variations of names bestowed upon them is a good indication that Blue tits have long featured in the lives of man. There is Blue Cap, Blue Bonnet (Shropshire & Scotland); Blue Ox-eye, Blue Spick (N Devon); Nun; Pedn-play, tree babbler (Cornwall); Pinchem (Bedfordshire); Tinnock, Yaup; Bee Bird (Hampshire); Willow Biter, Billy Biter (Midlands); Pickcheese (Norfolk); Tom Tit, Hickmall, Heckymal; Titmal (West Country.

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Blue tits excel at problem-solving. Faced with intelligence test apparatus contrived by researchers, modern-day Blue tits have learnt to pull out a series of pegs or open matchbox ‘drawers’ to get at food. They have adapted readily to man and have been seizing opportunities to benefit from our lifestyles and habits for hundreds of years; sometimes this has worked out well for them but sometimes their opportunism has put them in harm’s way.

In the seminal account of English nature, The Natural History of Selbourne, which was  first published in 1788, Gilbert White records his observations on the tactics local birds used to survive (or in some cases not) during harsh winters:-

“The blue titmouse, or nun, is a great frequenter of houses, and a general devourer. Beside insects, it is very fond of flesh; for it frequently picks bones on dung hills. It is a vast admirer of suet, and haunts butcher’s shops. When a boy, I have known twenty in a morning caught with snap mousetraps, baited with tallow or suet. It will also pick holes in apples left on the ground, and be well entertained with the seeds on the head of a sunflower. The blue, marsh and great titmice will, in very severe weather, carry away barley and oat straws from the sides of ricks.”

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Friend or foe?

It’s hard to imagine that Blue tits have not always been regarded with fondness and affection by everyone and were actually once thought of as ‘foes’ by many gardeners with fruit orchards. The following is an extract from one of my favourite old nature books, which according to the inscription in the front was given as a birthday gift in 1923. The chapter is entitled ” Attracting Wild Birds to Gardens” and written by Oliver G.Pike FZS, FRPS who was clearly already spotting the signs that our wildlife was in need of our support.

“I have watched the Blue Tit  and its mate busy on one of my apple trees in the month of April; they were carefully searching the branches for buds which contained insects, and these were quickly destroyed – that is, both bud and insect. They seemed to be doing a lot of harm, but I allowed them to continue, and later on in the year that same tree had a fine crop of excellent apples. So many gardeners see a bird destroying buds and immediately jump to the conclusion that it is a pest and ought to be destroyed. I knew one gardener who in the course of one season trapped and destroyed over fifty Blue Tits. He quite overlooked the fact that by doing this he was allowing for the increase of 100s of 1,000s of insects which would do far more harm to the crops. One pair of Blue Tits which succeed in bringing up their family of, say ten young, will during the period of feeding them account for not less than 10,000 insects, the majority of which are very injurious to many garden crops and flowers, and every one of these will be captured within 100 yards of the nest.”

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The successful breeding of chicks is dependent on sufficient supply of green caterpillars as well as satisfactory weather. Breeding seasons may be affected badly if the weather is cold and wet between May and July, particularly if this coincides with the emergence of the caterpillars on which the nestlings are fed.

Infamous behaviour

But Blue tits are perhaps most well known, amongst our older generations at least, for raiding milk bottles. It was first noticed in Southampton in the late 1920s that the local Blue tits had somehow learnt to remove the caps of milk bottles that had been delivered by the milkman each morning. The birds pierced and tore the lid, sometimes removing it completely, then helped themselves to the rich cream that had floated to the top.

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Even though blue tits rarely travel farther than a few kilometres from where they’re born, they learned this behaviour from each other by watching their neighbours. Thus, by 1935, the Blue tits living in London were regularly stealing cream, too. The behaviour soon radiated outwards and became familiar nationwide to anyone that had milk delivered to their doorsteps. I’m sure if the delivery service was still available, the cheeky little birds would be helping themselves to this day, they certainly were still taking mine back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It had to be milk with cream that rose to the top of the bottle though; they can’t digest milk, so the skimmed stuff is no good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Redwing

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For a few magical days earlier this month I enjoyed the privilege of close sightings of Redwings as they travelled around our local woodland foraging for food. Special sightings indeed, and better still I didn’t even need to leave my flat: all but one of the  following photographs were taken from my kitchen window.

December 31st 2016 

09:10 Thrilled to see Redwings this morning – several flew through the cover of the trees and shrubbery behind the building, with one pausing briefly in view of the kitchen window. There was a flurry of bird activity around that time; they were preceded by a mixed group of small birds, including Long-tailed, Great & Blue tits and seemed to have a variety of blackbirds travelling with them, so may have been a thrush feeding party following a tit feeding. The light was poor and I only managed to get one not-so-good photograph, but at least it is a record of the sighting.

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English name: Redwing Scientific name: Turdus ileacus Welsh: Coch Dan-aden Status in the UK: RED Redwings are red-listed in the UK as although the majority are autumn-winter residents, we have a very small breeding population, restricted in range to the northern third of Scotland.

Other local names: Swinepipe, Wind Thrush  Scientific name from: Latin: turdus=a thrush and Latin: iliacus=of the flanks (from ile=flank)

Redwings are Autumn-Winter residents of the UK and the smallest and daintiest of our thrushes. Smaller than the Song thrush, they are often shy, but a close view reveals a prominent whitish supercilium (eye stripe), warm rust red patches on the flanks and under the wings and cool grey-brown upperparts. Males and females are alike.

January 2nd

This was the day of my encounter with the flock during my walk in the woods, already described in the previous post. There were blackbirds with them then too and I went on to see the mixed small-bird feeding party just minutes later.

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The Redwing’s diet is mainly composed of invertebrates, supplemented with berries in autumn and winter. Wintering Redwings may be seen together with Fieldfares foraging in open fields, but they also feed with other thrushes in grassy paddocks or in woodland. Visits to gardens may be brief and are usually prompted by harsh weather.

January 5th

A frost last night left the ground hard and sparkling white this morning, and it remained cold for much of the day despite the bright sunshine. The hard ground may have driven the Redwings to seek easier food sources. This was brilliant for me as from early morning a small flock of them arrived intermittently throughout the day to pick at ripening ivy berries. So once again from my window I had a succession of fairly close-up views of them, although most of the time they were at least partially hidden behind tree twigs or within ivy foliage.

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The majority of Redwings arrive into the UK during  September and October as birds cross the North Sea from Scandinavia and Russia. Those arriving into Wales and other western areas are most probably Icelandic birds. Redwings are night-time migrants, and if you are lucky and listen out on dark clear autumn and early winter nights, particularly in the east of the country, you may hear the thin ‘tseep‘ of  a flock overhead.  As winter arrives Redwings will have largely finished their journeys, settling in the warmer and relatively frost-free areas away from the east coast. They stay with us till March, although hard weather may force them to migrate further, with Scandinavian/Russian birds (the iliacus race) continuing westwards to Ireland or southwards into southern Europe. 

Taking a few minutes to rest in the warm sunshine:

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“Any attempt to estimate the size of the wintering population of Redwings in Britain and Ireland meets with the same problem as for the Fieldfare: the numbers vary from year to year, and also in the course of a single winter, and major shifts of population may take place in response to weather and feeding conditions. “

( David Snow 1987 – The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland, edited by Peter Lack)

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Another interesting observation I made today was of a Grey squirrel that seemed to be ‘guarding’ the ivy berries. I watched it chase away another squirrel several times, but also noticed it was chasing the Redwings away too, charging at them by running along branches towards them at speed, tail all fluffed out!

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January 6th

Milder temperatures may have allowed the Redwings to move on in their constant search for food and today I saw just one bird from my window. It wasn’t in the usual hurry and lingered for a few moments, not moving far and presenting itself to me from various angles so I got some lovely views of different aspects of its plumage and general ‘giz’. They really are beautiful birds.

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I saved the best for last.

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Wintergreens and Birds in the Woods

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January 2nd – Bryn Euryn 

Clear blue skies and frosted grass sparkling in brilliant sunshine were too much to resist, this had to be the perfect day for my first long walk of the New Year. Less than five minutes along my path into the woods I knew this was set to be a slow walk when I stopped to photograph berries on a holly tree. I was surprised to find so many remaining uneaten and noted ripe ones fallen and peppering the ground beneath. If not for that I may well have missed the flock of beautiful redwings that burst from the trees on the steep lower slope of the Bryn, exploding from their cover and rapidly scattering like shot from a gun, targeting branches of trees close by. There were a number of them, but impossible to count as once landed they are really difficult to spot. I was thrilled to see them and to be able to watch them and delighted that I got any photographs at all, so of two, this was the best.

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Redwing – Turdus iliacus

I knew there were redwings around as I’d been fortunate enough to see some from my kitchen window on the morning of New Year’s Eve and one a couple  of days before that, but I had no idea whether they were just passing through or were here to stay. I’m not certain, but I think they were searching through ivy for ripe berries. Now I am hopeful they will stay for a while, at least while they are finding food.

Ivy berries are in varying stages of ripeness

Ivy berries are in varying stages of ripeness

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Polypody fern

The majority of deciduous trees are bare now, but there is much that is green. Here we have our native holly, copious amounts of ivy, yew, a few Scots pines that are a native but that were most probably introduced, and rather a lot of laurel, once much beloved by Victorian gardeners.

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At ground level there are ferns, the polypody in the photograph above, and also hart’s tongue and male ferns.

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Hart’s tongue & a small male fern

And there’s lots of moss.

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Then my reward for wandering slowly and numb fingers on my gloveless right hand, left free to focus and press the shutter button on the camera; suddenly I was surrounded by the joyous energy and excited sounds of a number of small birds. A feeding party, a collective of a variety of species of small woodland birds united in the eternal search for food.

It’s impossible to say who arrived first, I didn’t sense that there were leaders and followers, more that the flock was operating as a single entity arriving at a pre-determined spot with potential for all members. Of course there were blue tits, also great tits and a couple of coal tits.

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Blue tit

An encounter with a feeding party of birds is a magical, uplifting and energising experience. The birds themselves exude excitement and energy, seeming to delight in the thrill of being part of a gang.

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Coal tit

The enchanting long-tailed tits were there too.

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Long-tailed tit

Once arrived they quickly settled to foraging amongst the trees and shrubbery, splitting back into their families or species groups. I would have been happy with the company of just the exuberant tits, but have to admit my attention was stolen from them when I noticed the treecreepers. Often included as members of a feeding party, there were two on a tree in front of me and then another two, closer to the side. What a treat to have that many of these gorgeous little birds so close and not only in range of the camera but with the added bonus of bright sunlight too.

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Treecreeper

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I lost track of time watching the birds, but they gradually moved away and passing people walking a dog and chatting  broke the spell and I too turned to continue my walk. But there was one more little treat to come – two tiny goldcrests, that may or may not have been with the feeding party, were working their way through a small holly bush nearby. I watched them for a good while, but they eluded capture by my camera, they are much too quick especially when trying to contend with foreground vegetation. The shot below was the best one I got!

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Goldcrest

Before heading on to the trail around the Bryn I had a look at the view over the boundary fence. The higher peaks of the Carneddau mountains have snow with clouds above them that look to be holding more. The warming sunshine had them shrouded in a light veil of mist, with more rising from the Conwy river in the valley below.

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Waders v Weather

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Colwyn Bay, on the Irish Sea, has big tides and at some high tides water levels can rise by 8 metres or more. On windy days big waves are driven in and as the tide reaches its highest point they crash dramatically, in places causing spray to rise and splash over the sea defences. Regardless of the weather, for the gulls and wading birds that feed here it is business as usual. For people, walking along the promenade on such days can be hard work and exhilarating, but for the birds that feed here on Rhos Point it has to be business as usual and whatever the weather or state of the tide the birds know instinctively exactly when to arrive and depart to best take advantage of fresh deliveries or deposits of food.

Interested to see how the birds responded to challenging conditions, I took these photographs on an exceptionally windy day when the incoming tide was set to be particularly high.

12:51 – Curlews begin to leave.

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12:52 – Most of the oystercatchers that feed here don’t travel far, passing the time between the tide-turns gathered together on the rocks of the seabreak in Rhos Harbour, a short flight away. Some linger longer than others.

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Herring gull, Oystercatchers, Turnstones and Redshanks

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12:53 – A group of Turnstones all facing towards the incoming water

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12:54- Big and bulky, Greater Black-backed gulls seem impervious to the rough conditions.

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12:57 – This photograph of an adult and juvenile Great Black-backed gulls cries out for a caption doesn’t it? I’m leaving it to your own imaginations though.

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12:58 – Turnstones on the sea edge, most standing on stones to keep their feet out of the water.

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12:59- Another Curlew leaves, calling to announce its departure.

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12:59- Turnstones and Oystercatchers. Interesting that they are all facing towards the incoming water but weren’t actively foraging for food. I think they are all facing into the wind, which would make them more aerodynamic and streamlined so they don’t get blown over.

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13:00 –

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13:03- Smoothing feathers ruffled by the wind back into place.

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13:05 – A Turnstone takes a bath, or is that a jacuzzi?

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Turnstone rock- hopping to higher ground

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13:07- The Turnstones are more-or-less gathered together now. They are difficult to count as they merge so well into the background of small rocks, but I got up to about 56 individuals and I’m sure there were others behind rocks and one another, so the actual number is probably 60 plus.

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13:08- Some Oystercatchers are getting restless, preparing to go while others seem in no hurry

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13:12

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13:18- As the tide encroaches some begin to leave

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But the turnstones stay put, despite the rising water

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13:21- A Crow arrives and announces his presence loudly

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13:23- Another Oystercatcher is ready for the off.

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Some stay and scrutinise the water for any last-minute tidbits

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13:25: The Turnstones seem unperturbed by the water rising up around their small rock islands

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and are the last birds standing.

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13:45- The water has covered the Point.

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13:46

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Black-headed gulls are the only birds still flying. Low to the surface they seem to positively enjoy the rough conditions.

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13:50

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13:53 – The bigger gulls are unphased by the rush of the incoming tide and rather than fly away simply allowed themselves to be launched onto the water and rode the waves.

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13:54- Wind-driven waves smash onto a flight of concrete steps and shows how high the water would reach if the rip-rap defences were not there; those steps below the middle are worn smooth and their edges rounded by the regular scouring of the waves.

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Ivy Bee update

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October 9th

If you’ve been on the lookout for Ivy bees, the latest updated map of sightings (including mine!), has been published on the BWARS Facebook page today:

More news on Colletes hederae. The total number of records received as we head into the second day of the BWARS AGM weekend stands at 521. Today we received the wonderful news that the bee has been found in Lancashire for the first time, at Heysham. This is by some distance the most northerly record on the west coast. Perhaps a really thorough search at points between the north Wales population and the newly discovered one at Heysham might be possible? I know we have some very keen bee folks in Cheshire and west Lancs. I repeat that we still want records from sites which have had C. hederae in previous years, as well as multiple visits over the 2016 flight period.

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