A Blackthorn Winter

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Blackthorn was already blossoming on bushes in sheltered spots at the beginning of this month; probably triggered by the spell of warm sunny days we had back then before winter blew back in with the current icy winds.

March 2nd – Bryn Euryn

More usually, the blossom of the Blackthorn appears later in March and early April, coinciding with the time when in the not-so-distant past we would have half-expected to have been chilled by cold winds blowing in from the north and north-east. By then hedges and thickets of the dense thorny shrub would be smothered in frothy pure white blossom, looking very much like a covering of snow, and so a cold Spring became traditionally know as a Blackthorn Winter.

Native throughout the British Isles, Blackthorn most often grows to be a large shrub that spreads by suckers to form dense hedges or thickets up to 13′ (4m) high, but it may occasionally makes a small tree. These dense thorny growths make virtually impenetrable barriers keeping humans and grazing animals at bay providing valuable protection for plants growing beneath it and a safe haven for birds that nest amongst its branches. It grows in a variety of places; on the edge of scrub woodlands, in hedges and locally here extensively at the top of Bryn Euryn and the Little Orme.

During the winter when the leaves have fallen you can see better the dense criss-crossed knobbly network of dark twig, although many are covered with layers of velvety lichens and festooned with Reindeer Moss.

FLOWERS

The flowers appear in a dense mass, almost hiding the thorny twigs, in early Spring before the leaves break from their buds. Individual flowers are small, about ½” (60cm) across; they are pure white have five petals and central stamens tipped with gold.

Starwort was an alternative name for Blackthorn blossoms, which exactly describes their appearance. 

IMPORTANCE TO INSECTS

The flowers are pollinated by a variety of insects that take the nectar and pollen in early Spring. Its foliage is a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the Lackey, Magpie, Common Emerald, Small Eggar, Swallow-tailed and Yellow-tailed. It is also used by the Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies.

LEAVES

The leaves are small and alternate, a dull green above and hairy beneath.

FRUIT

The fruit of the Blackthorn is of course the Sloe, round in shape and purplish-black in colour with a grey bloom. They are not good to eat – a raw Sloe is so tart and sour it makes your tongue go numb and your teeth feel ‘furry’.  

It’s thought that the Blackthorn may be one of the parents of the damson and other domestic plums and its fruits have long been used to infuse gin to produce Sloe Gin, which to do properly traditionally involves waiting for the fruits to be ‘frosted’ before picking. These days freezing weather in late autumn isn’t a given, so we stick ours in the freezer for a while instead. Sloes are also sometimes mixed with Elderberries in the making of Elderberry wine, which when served hot makes a soothing and comforting remedy for a bad cold.

OTHER USES

The juice from Sloes also makes an indelible ink and the whole fruit yields a strong red dye.

If you scrape the bark from Blackthorn it shows orange beneath it, but the sapwood is pale yellow and the heartwood is brown. Being more of a shrub than a tree the trunks and branches don’t reach more than a few centimetres in diameter, but the wood is hard and tough and polishes well. In furniture making its use was for decorative inlays and marquetry work. More practically its durability made it useful for making the teeth of hay-rakes and it has long been used for cutting as walking sticks. Blackthorn is also the traditional wood used for the making of the Irish shillelagh, or cudgel.

FOLKLORE

Blackthorn is depicted in many fairy tales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen. Called Straif in the Ogham, this tree has the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore.

Blackthorn is the tree traditionally associated with Black Magic. Witches used walking sticks made from Blackthorn, which was known as a ‘black rod’ (no association with the Parliamentary Black Rod). They also allegedly used the long thorns for sticking into wax effigies of their enemies in order to cause them pain and wreak their revenge.

 

 

 

 

 

A Cosmopolitan Woodland

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Enjoying the sunshine of this glorious morning, a bright-eyed Dunnock sat on a platform of leaves of the Laurel hedge preening and soaking up the warmth.

Woodland Path

The sight of the sunbathing Dunnock sparked the idea of a theme for this morning’s walk, or rather the Laurel did. Bryn Euryn is almost an island, virtually surrounded by houses and running the length of the side I often begin my walks, is the busy A55 North Wales Expressway. Its summit was once the site of an ancient Hill Fort, where a Trig Point now stands. There are ruins of an old manor house and exposed rock cliffs around a field next to the car park mark the site of an old quarry. Opposite the car park there’s a large area of land given over to allotments. This long-reaching proximity of people and the plantings in their gardens, has inevitably led to the presence of trees, shrubs and flowers that wouldn’t be there naturally. Today I thought I’d make a point of looking out for some of the more obvious ones amongst the natives.

 

Cherry Laurel- Prunus laurocerasus

There’s quite a lot of Laurel growing in this particular spot on Bryn Euryn, doubtless planted when a grand house occupied the site now replaced with our small development of flats. This is Cherry Laurel, introduced from south-east Europe in 1547 and quickly popularised for creating ornamental hedges. Apart from the Rhododendron, it is the most common introduced evergreen in Britain. It’s beginning to flower here now: the flowerheads stand erect  like candles and are made up of small creamy-white flowers that smell a bit like marzipan.

Twining into the Laurel, reaching across the path is Honeysuckle, which is a true native; its leaves already almost fully grown.

Honeysuckle-Lonicera

Greater Periwinkle-Vinca major

On the edge of the track and scrambling up the woodland slope deep blue Greater Periwinkle is flowering. Evergreen under-shrubs native to Europe, north-west Africa and southern Asia, this would most likely have been planted here originally, but the Periwinkles are long enough established and widespread in the wild to be included in wildflower books, often listed as garden escapes.

A Song Thrush was singing its energetic and joyous song rising up  from somewhere on the steep slope below. eating Ivy berries, A Great Tit called out its signature ‘teacher-teacher’, loud and clear. Blue Tits were all around me, calling to one another as they flitted about investigating shrubs and trees in their endless quest to find food. I caught a glimpse of one above my head; it was pure luck that I caught one holding a twig in its claw while it pecked at a leaf bud. The marks above its head are insects, not specks on my lens!

Blackbirds were rustling around in thick Ivy, grabbing berries.

Another shrubby archway reaches over the path formed by more Laurel and Berberis, which is just beginning to flower. Berberis, or Barberry, is another shrub familiar in gardens. I also spotted a few small Mahonia plants along the way, all bearing flowers.

On a Polypody fern frond sat a bright shiny new hoverfly, gleaming bronze in the bright light. Two Greenbottle flies chose an Ivy leaf to sunbathe upon.

Towering over the greenery, bare trees, their branches silvery against the intensely blue sky, remind that there is still a while to go before the true Spring arrives.

Grey Squirrels have been active throughout this mild winter; there have been very few days when I haven’t seen at least one from my windows. I’m not a fan of this introduced species  because of their dominance over our native Reds and the  tremendous amount of damage they do to our woodland trees. I have to remind myself they have no natural enemies, it’s not their fault they’re here and they’re just trying to stay alive; how are they supposed to know better?

Like most people, I’m sure, I barely go a day without seeing a Wood Pigeon which are common and numerous just about everywhere in Great Britain. They’re another species that have taken full advantage of what we put out on offer and their populations seem to have benefitted from changes in farming practices. They are generally considered as pests by farmers, gardeners and gamekeepers as they’ll eat grains and greens, especially newly sprouting ones, all day long. I rather like them, most of the time they seem very laid-back and have that beautiful soft grey and pinky-purple plumage and the white neck patch; it is nice to see them actually in the woods.

Wood Pigeon – Columba palumbus

Gooseberry – Ribes uva-crispa

In one spot up near the top of this Woodland Path there’s a well-established Gooseberry bush, with a few smaller ones dotted around nearby on both sides of the track. More familiar in gardens and allotments, Gooseberry is frequently found in the wild, growing in woods, in scrub and in hedges and are probably mostly bird-sown.

Stopping to photograph the Gooseberry I heard a Wren singing. It was close to me but I couldn’t spot it. There are a few Celandines flowering, but they’re quite sparse, perhaps because it’s been so dry.

A native wild flower, Dog’s Mercury is flowering. It’s still short, not yet more than six inches (7.5cm) tall.

Dog’s Mercury-Mercurialis perennis

Here and there are clumps of pretty ferny moss. This one is in the middle of the Wood Sorrel patch, whose shamrock-shaped leaves are just beginning to unfurl.

Spurge Laurel – Daphne laureola

Spurge Laurel is one of the more unusual plants that grows here on the Bryn. It is a native plant that favours wooded chalky hillsides, so I have no reason to think it’s not here naturally, but I haven’t seen it on any other sides of the hill.  A very small shrub that must contend with much taller trees and shrubs  towering over it, it’s equipped with thick leathery evergreen leaves, resembling those of Laurel, that can withstand dripping rainwater. It produces its small green fragrant flowers early in the year to make the most of the light before a new canopy of leaves shuts it out.

The near hills and more distant mountains were veiled by a misty haze. Patches of snow clung to the highest peaks, another reminder that winter is still not past. As I stood looking at the view I heard a Woodpecker drumming back in the direction I’d just walked.

Alexanders puts out it new leaves early, often in early February and it’s quite well grown now. It has established on the path-side just before it reaches the reserve and although woodland is not it’s usual habitat, it seems to be spreading. Another introduced plant, Alexanders was brought in as a food plant by the Romans; it has a mild, celery-like taste. This a plant that isn’t usually found far from the sea; there’s a lot of it locally on the Little Orme and in recent years it has spread prolifically along the verge of Llandudno Road, which I suppose is not that far away as birds fly.

Alexanders – Smyrnium olusatrum

The Woodland Trail

Where the Woodland Path meets the Woodland Trail of the Nature Reserve, a Flowering Currant bush is in bloom.

Flowering Currant – Ribes sanguineum

 

A popular and familiar garden shrub, with pungently aromatic leaves,this one was again probably also bird-sown. As with the Gooseberry, Flowering Currant can be found throughout the British Isles naturalised in woods, scrub and on waysides.

 

 

The Trail is dry and baked hard. The unseasonal warm sunny weather is a treat, but we’re going to need some rain soon. Gorse is flowering more strongly now. I can never resist a chance to smell the warm coconut aroma of its golden flowers. Delicious.

As I reached the enormous bramble patch a Long-tailed Tit flew across the trail in front of me. It disappeared into the dense shrubbery, but then I saw another in the bramble patch. I could see it through the tangle of stems but not clearly enough to photograph. I waited for a few  minutes hoping for a better view, but no luck. About to walk on I heard a whistling call and watched a bird fly strongly over the track and land high in a Sycamore tree. It was clearly on the move, so I took a ‘panic pic’ in case I missed it, but just managed to catch it before it zoomed off; a Nuthatch. I was thrilled, I’ve had very sparse sightings of them here, and never this high up in the woods.

Nuthatch – Sitta europaea

Yew trees are our third native conifer tree, after Scots Pine and Juniper. They are widespread throughout these woods, where they grow well on the chalky hillside. A number of them line a section of the Trail, with other single trees on the other side.

One in particular was heavily laden with flowers. Yews are one of those species that have separate male and female trees. This one is a male; the female flowers are less conspicuous, being tiny and green.

Yew – Taxus baccata

Then there’s a line of Ash saplings, they are growing so closely together they almost make a living fence. More ‘invaders’ grow along the edge of this stretch of the Trail; Tutsan and the dreaded Cotoneaster, which has thus far escaped being routed out.

Beyond the Ash are the Hazels. From the way in which they grow it would seem that at some time in their history they were pollarded as now most of the trees are multi-stemmed and form a small thicket. They are all quite tall though, so if ever they were cut it must have been some time ago.

Because the trees are tall and growing on a steep slope, you perhaps don’t get the full effect of their crop of pale golden yellow catkins, you have to look up. 

There were more Blue Tits here exploring the Hazels and the surrounding vegetation. At the beginning of this month, on an equally blue-skied sunny day I’d stopped here to look for the female flowers of the tree, which are tiny and red and quite hard to spot, especially if you need reading glasses, as I do, but can’t be bothered to keep putting them on to look for things when out walking.

This was not the best place to look as even the lower branches are above my head, so the  photograph above is one I made earlier. Once again though, my hanging around brought a reward. Often a good spot for catching sight of parties of Tits, I was lucky enough to see a pair of Coal Tits arrive and spend a few minutes foraging through the trees. I loved the way they grasped individual Catkins, inspecting them closely to check for hiding insects.

A bit further along the Trail and on the other side from the Hazels, a tree smothered with frothy white blossom shown up perfectly by the deep blue sky; a proper floral treat.

This is a Cherry Plum, although not the truly native wild one as it has bronzy-coloured leaves and not the plain green of the wild one. It could be Prunus atropurpurea, which is a popular garden tree, but I’m not sure.

 

I don’t think its exact pedigree matters too much, it was lovely to look at and more importantly was also attracting the attentions of quite a few insects. All very high up though. There were definitely a couple of smallish bees and small long hoverflies.

The blossom won’t last for long; already petals are falling and strewing the ground below like confetti.

Another good reason to take one last photograph with the sun shining through it.

Back at ground level, the leaves of Lords and Ladies, or Cuckoo Pint if you prefer, are well grown now, they began to appear back in late January.

Lords & Ladies, Cuckoo Pint – Arum maculatum

and to finish, a first sighting this year of a single Dog Violet.

Birds today: Wood Pigeon; Carrion Crow; Raven; Magpie; Herring Gull; Nuthatch; Blackbird; Robin; Dunnock; Great Tit; Blue Tit; Long-tailed Tit Heard: Song Thrush; Wren; Gt Spotted Woodpecker (drumming)

Some Joys of Changeable Weather

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January 26th-Hornsey

Near the top of Hornsey High Street there are intriguing glimpses of a stone tower seen from the pavement through a screen of tall trees. This is all that remains of St. Mary’s Church, the Parish church of Hornsey.

The tower is a listed Grade 11 building and is within the Hornsey High Street Conservation Area. I think it may be possible to arrange to see inside the Tower; I’d like to do that, I do love old churches.

A sign set into the boundary wall of the tower’s grounds informs that this is a Garden of Remembrance and is a calm little oasis where people and wildlife can take a few minutes away from the busy High Street. It seems to be valued in the community and its gardens are always well-tended.

A quiet walk around the gardens is always a treat and today I made it a diversion on my way to the supermarket. I walked around, stopping to read the information board about the graves and tombs within the grounds.


I hadn’t noticed before that one of the chest tombs is the final resting place of the Morgan family from Bridgend in South Wales. It might seem odd, but this piqued my interest as Bridgend is where my two daughters were born and close to where we lived as a family for 17 years, and now one of my sons lives just around the corner from where they ended up. It might also be of even more interest and relevance to any Morgans out there whose ancestors once lived in Bridgend!

Enjoying a welcome sunny interlude on an otherwise cold day, I turned the corner of the path that leads up to the tower and almost collided with a huge bumblebee! She was a Buff-tailed queen that had flown off from the pretty creamy white flowers of a shrub. I was surprised to see her quite this early in the year; perhaps the sunshine coaxed her out, but did she know she’d find the shrub in flower or was it just an exploratory expedition?  I stopped to have a closer look, and to smell the flowers of the shrub: they were gorgeously fragrant. I don’t know what it is, maybe a Sarcocca species? I’m always keen to find plants that are good for early nectar & pollen-seekers. If anyone knows for sure what is, please let me know!

There was another surprise here; a large Eristalis sp. hoverfly was also out and about looking for food and sat for some time on one of the  shrub’s flowers. 

Also flowering was a Christmas Rose, or Hellebore and there was a light sprinkling of daisies in the grass.

The supermarket is located at the back of the New River Village development, so I walked back along the same gravel path that I’d taken a couple of days ago, but in the opposite direction. I was happy to see a pair of Mute Swans cruising slowly upriver towards me; another common species, but how can anyone not be charmed by their beauty and grace? I loved this image of a young Black-headed gull shadowing a Swan. Perhaps he thought he’d grow up to look like that one day?

Despite their calm and graceful demeanour, Mute Swans may be extremely quarrelsome and will bully smaller species. In the breeding season males stake out a large area of water, and as we witnessed at the end of last year, he defends this territory aggressively against all intruders. They are not entirely without a voice either, despite their name; when angry they hiss and snort and can occasionally manage to trumpet, albeit feebly. 

Most of the time though they cruise the waterways peaceably, often in their pairs, stopping frequently to feed on submerged water plants.

January 27th

I was going home today, but before I left there was time for one more walk up to Alexandra Palace, this time with my son and grandson who were both in need of some fresh air. Fresh air was certainly what we got, along with wind and a few showers of hail. This walk was a lot more speedy than my last one.

I didn’t linger on the side of the boating lake, but did spot the all-white duck out swimming with a Mallard drake. Are they a pair I wonder?

I was really pleased to see the Pochard drake out with a female to add to my collection. On my last visit he’d been out on his own.

Pochard female

The texture on the water surface was the effect of wind and hail; the golden highlights were a reflection of one of the moored boats.

This was just hail! Pretty though.

We stopped briefly on the terrace of the Palace where a pair of Magpies were flying about between perches – one settled on the top of a lamppost,

the other on a stone cornice.

Views of the city skyline were slightly better today, but still looming up from mist.

View to Canary Wharf

View of the City Skyscrapers

As we walked back down the hill to reach the pavement alongside Alexandra Palace Way, I spotted a flock of birds foraging on the grass. Beautiful Redwings.  

Redwing – Turdus ileucus

The redwing is most often encountered as a winter bird and is the UK’s smallest true thrush. The creamy strip above the eye and orange-red flank patches make it distinctive. In open countryside redwings favour hedges and orchards as well as open, grassy fields. They will come to parks and gardens, particularly in periods of bad weather when snow covers the fields. There were twenty or more birds here and they looked perfectly at ease; not at all concerned by people passing very close to them, or by me taking photographs for that matter.

An unexpected treat and a lovely way to end my visit, despite the wintry weather.

 

 

 

A New River Path to Alexandra Park

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January 24th – Hornsey

I’m in London for a few days to enjoy the company of my littlest grandson (and his mummy and daddy of course). They live in Hornsey, a district of north London in the London Borough of Haringey described by Wikipedia as “an inner-suburban, for the most part residential, area centred 6.2 miles (10 km) north of Charing Cross.” So, conveniently close to the centre of the city, but also well-blessed with easily accessible green spaces within and adjoining it. Close by there’s Alexandra Park, which surrounds the iconic Alexandra Palace, (better known to many as the Ally Pally), part of which is a Local Nature Reserve. There is also the added bonus of water in the form of The New River, which is much quoted as being neither new nor a river, as it’s a man-made waterway opened in 1613 to supply London with fresh drinking water from the river Lea in Hertfordshire. A rather disjointed Path runs the length of the river from its origins in Hertfordshire to its conclusion at New River Head in Islington, a total of 28 miles, two sections of which run through Hornsey.

Today I had a few hours in which to occupy myself, so set off on what has become a familiar and favourite route, taking in a short length of the New River, on through Alexandra Park Local Nature Reserve and up the hill through landscaped parkland surrounding the Palace building to the Boating Lake. There I was hoping to find a couple more species to help towards my aim for this winter of seeing and improving my recognition of ducks. The map above was taken from the info board at the entrance to the river and shows the route – it’s a bit weatherworn and marked with a graffiti ‘tag’, but is still legible. It was a cold day with little breeze, heavy cloud and a lingering mist, which I hope  all help bring interest and atmosphere to my photographs!

THE NEW RIVER PATH

The access point to this section of the New River Path is located more or less at the point where Turnpike Lane becomes Hornsey High Street and opposite the junction with Tottenham Lane. The entrance is a sort of kissing gate, which it’s impossible to get through with a buggy, wheelchair or a bike. 

400 years after its construction, the New River is still an important source of fresh water for North Water and the Path is open to the public at the discretion of Thames Water, who own it. All sections of the Path are subject to being closed if any maintenance works are being carried out. The Path is not surfaced and gets muddy and slippery in wet weather, so may not look too appealing unless you’re wearing appropriate footwear.

Fortunately there is an alternative path along this stretch of the river on the opposite bank bordering the ‘prestigious’ New River Village development. Views of the river are good from here and you’re less likely to disturb any wildlife that just might be out on the grass bank of the other side. Surfaced with gravel it’s better for walking on too, albeit a bit noisy and ‘crunchy’,  but it’s still not ideal for anything with wheels. The access to this path is a little further up the Hornsey High Street, on the same side just beyond the traffic lights. The Path by the river looked wet and muddy, so this is the path I took today.

I wasn’t anticipating seeing anything ‘exotic’ on this walk, but as much of the wildlife is used to the close proximity of people, it’s often possible to get better close-up views  than you can in wilder settings. The first birds I heard and glimpsed were Blue tits flitting and calling as they foraged through the trees and shrubbery in the landscaped grounds of the development. Pigeons are numerous throughout this whole area of course, and I couldn’t resist this one with its lovely slate and purple feathers puffed out against the cold perfectly illustrated the mood of the day.

Black-headed gulls are equally as numerous, if not more so. This one, whose head is beginning to show signs of summer plumage coming through, was sitting gazing downriver-

perhaps he found the pair of synchronised diving Mallard as entertaining as I did.

Somewhere near the middle of this section of the Path, a small building spans the river. This is a sluicehouse built in the 1850s as part of the Hornsey Waterworks; it would have been used to control the river’s water levels then, but I don’t know if it’s still in use. More Black-headed gulls sat in a straggly line along a metal fence here.

Sluicehouse

A Moorhen had been foraging on the far bank then dropped back onto the water, paddled across and left it again to patrol along the pipeline that runs the length of the river, where it is exposed to differing degrees. In this shaded spot below an overhanging bramble the water below was icy.

On the other side of the building is a depth gauge, which shows the water to be slightly less than 8 feet deep.

There’s a sign here warning of a ‘sudden drop to water’, with an amusing graphic of a tumbling figure conveying a serious message. It certainly wouldn’t be amusing to be floundering in 8′ of freezing cold water today, especially as the lifebuoy is behind a spiky iron fence on the opposite bank of the river. Another requests that you don’t feed the ducks. I wonder if that’s to protect the ducks or to avoid contaminating the water? More likely the latter as the river is still a main supply of water to North London.   

Cold, low-lit misty days like today may not be the most enticing to get you out of the house, but the rewards for making the effort can be great. The ordinary may suddenly become extraordinary. Light on water silvers its surface and the clear cold water captures deep reflections. A light breeze skimming across adds texture broken apart by the passage of jewel-bright dabbling ducks as they swim and dive, creating momentary complex patterns within patterns.

Mallard female

The light catches the red eye of a Coot and brings out the purple in its plumage.

A Canada Goose grazed on bright green grass which is already showing signs of new growth.

Canada Goose – Branta canadensis

I’d reached the end of this section of the river Path now; this look back shows the New River Path on the left bank, the gravelled path I walked along on the right and the sluicehouse spanning the water. The tall old building directly behind it is called Bank Chambers, appropriately as it did used to be a bank and is on the corner of Hornsey Hight Street and Tottenham Lane at the beginning of my walk.

I was standing on the bridge to take this photograph. Looking in the other direction, the river continues on through a fenced-off waterworks compound, where there is also a reservoir. Of course there’s a break in access to the NR Path here, but it can be picked up again further along.

The signpost indicates routes that are Greenways, a Government initiative to encourage the use of  “safe, quiet routes through parks, green spaces and lightly trafficked streets. They are designed for walkers and cyclists of all ages and abilities and encourage healthier, more sustainable travel and lifestyle choices. They are ideal for seasoned commuters, novice cyclists, family groups and responsible unaccompanied children”.

From here you get the first glimpses of Alexandra Palace.

The route to the Park passes a reservoir that is part of the Waterworks then around the back of a small housing estate and past a fenced-off Community Garden. From in there I heard the loud, cheerful cheepings, chirpings and chatterings of House Sparrows way before I located them in this leafless tangle of a twiggy shrub. They were so well camouflaged in there I could hardly see them; the level of sound told me there were a lot of them better than my photograph can show.

ALEXANDRA PARK & PALACE LOCAL NATURE RESERVE

The entrance to Alexandra Park Local Nature Reserve. My picture speaks for itself I think; damp, muddy, brown, misty, not much light, pretty much deserted today.

On the enlarged map below I’d come in via Gate 3, which is next to the red dot on the pointy bit on the bottom right. the path I would take then goes around that outside edge, meets Alexandra Palace Way then continues on up around the right-hand side to the Boating Lake.

Staged for full dramatic impact atop a natural platform, the Palace was veiled in mist. 

Another flock of Black-headed Gulls hang around on the muddy playing field.

The path winds sinuously onwards. This is often a good place to see small birds; there’s usually a Robin or two and Great and Blue Tits frequent the vegetation to the left of the path. I did hear a Great Tit calling and saw it fly away, but nothing else today.

To the right of the path the land is very often flooded and almost always at least damp and muddy. I don’t know if there is a stream or whether this is just a drainage ditch. Again the water was capturing perfect reflections. The pollarded tree is a Goat Willow, already showing forth the soft silver-grey catkins that give it is other name of Pussy Willow.

There’s fresh new greenery in the water; I couldn’t get near enough to see for sure what the plant was. Perhaps it will be in flower next time I visit.

There was other new greenery; clumps of cow parsley and nettles are both already a couple of inches high. There were Hazel catkins too.

At the end of the path is a charming little building set at the top of a flight of steps. There’s no information close by to tell you what it’s purpose was; I keep trying to find out – curious by nature, I like to know these things! An old ticket office maybe – there is a bricked-up doorway?

At last, a bird! A rather handsome Carrion Crow foraging for worms and any other titbits that may be found on a grassy verge.

ALEXANDRA PARK

I crossed over the road, Alexandra Palace Way, into the parkland surrounding the Palace. The path goes through an avenue of lovely old trees interspersed with elegant cast-iron lampposts, which are all numbered. Those at this end of the path are up into the 200s.

I love these huge old London Plane trees. There was a flock of bright green Ring-necked Parakeets screeching as they flew amongst their high branches, but they were too mobile and too high up for me to catch a photograph. I’d not seen them here before.

Remnants of snow and icy puddles show how cold it was, but walking uphill is a great way to keep warm!

It’s hard to convey the size of some of these trees, but the one below is enormous both in girth and height.

London Plane – Platanus x hispanica

London Planes keep their round woody fruits, which slowly break up over the winter to release their seeds. The seeds don’t have much value as food for birds and are probably only eaten by grey squirrels.

The enclosure to the left in the photograph of the big tree used to be home to a herd of Deer, but is now a climbing adventure park. Apparently an independent vet concluded that “the health of the herd was in slow decline and the animals were displaying symptoms of stress. This can be caused by a number of factors including the size of the enclosed area, proximity to the general public and general noise from the surrounding urban environment. As such the Park is no longer suitable for keeping deer. In the best interests of the deer they are being relocated to two well-respected existing deer parks in Devon, both larger than the enclosure in Alexandra Park, where they will be able to roam free and thrive.” I’m sure they’ll be much happier there.

THE BOATING LAKE

Between the entrance to the Boating Lake area and the Lakeside Café  stands this rather handsome statue of a lion. A collar round his neck names him Leo.

Disappointingly the café  was closed. In fairness they wouldn’t have had much trade this afternoon as there were very few people about.

The flotilla of brightly painted Swan and Dragon-shaped boats brought colour to the scene, but they weren’t operating either.

 

The Lake is huge and home to a good number of ducks and I didn’t have long to wait before I had at least one species to add to my afore-mentioned duck-sightings list.

As I’d hoped there were Tufted Ducks. Two drakes and a duck raced towards me, I’m sure hoping or expecting to be fed. There are no information boards showing what species you might here, nor are there any notices about not feeding the ducks or advice as to what food should be offered. Maybe that’s because getting out to feed the ducks is an important part of some people’s days and is often the first experience children have of contact and awareness of our wildlife, particularly in towns and cities. I have fond memories of doing just that with my grandparents in their local park in Northampton. Nowadays in most places, the ducks face stiff competition from the gulls.

Tufted Duck – Aytha fuligula (Drake)

Tufted Ducks have adopted many lakes and ponds in city parks and gardens, and despite being unknown in Great Britain before 1849, the species is now our commonest diving duck. They are often very tame and contend with the Mallards, Coots and Moorhens for any scraps thrown in by visitors.

Tufted Duck (female)

Further back, on the vegetated edge of the lake I spotted the rusty-red head of a Pochard drake, but no sign of a female.

He obligingly swam towards me too.

There are plenty of Coots here. I watched this one pull a twig from beneath the water, probably to investigate eating it, but maybe it’s nest-building already.

A Black-headed gull that came in to have a look was soon sent packing – Coots are very territorial.

This one was a little more serene and perfectly reflected in a patch of still water.

I’m sure you all know that this bird’s bare bright white frontal shield and bill explains the origin of the expression ‘as bald as a Coot’. As I said earlier, male Coots are feisty and territorial squabbles break out frequently between them. Their shields play an important part in displays of aggression when it is held forward, low on the water with wings and body feathers fluffed out behind to look as fearsome as possible. Did you know they also have fabulous, if slightly weird,  blue feet?

From a distance I’d assumed the flock of Black-headed gulls were floating on the water, but looking more closely they were actually standing on it- it was frozen! Their clear reflections doubled the apparent size of the flock, but there were a good number of them anyway.

This young Black-headed gull still has some of its adolescent feathers.

I set off to make an anti-clockwise circuit of the lake and was met by a Moorhen walking in the opposite direction foraging for scraps of food.

A grey squirrel scampered towards me and waited hopefully at the bottom of a tree. It was so close I think it would have come and taken food from my hand.

The view of the lake from the opposite far side gives a better impression of its size.

A flock of Pigeons perched up in a tree.

I stopped to smell the flowers of this pretty Viburnum shrub, gorgeous perfume.

Virburnum Bodnantense

They may be common and numerous, but I think our native Mallards are gorgeous-looking ducks; they are certainly colourful. Look at that beautiful emerald head, bright yellow beak and orange legs.

Amongst the Mallards sat this pure white duck, which could well be a throw-back from a past Mallard mating with an Aylesbury duck and creating Khaki Campbells, as I’ve posted about before. It’s the same size and shape as a Mallard but with a more orange bill. Maybe it is just an Aylesbury. I don’t know!

But then again there was another pair close by with a ‘proper-looking’ male Mallard and a very pale brown female with some white feathers around her rump, so it’s possible some inter-breeding of species has occurred at some time.

Canada Geese are much simpler to be sure about.

I’m fond of Moorhens too, which crop up just about anywhere there’s available water. They have bright yellow, chicken-like legs and feet and like Coots they also have a shield at the front of their heads, but that and their bills look to me like they’ve been daubed with sealing wax.

Having made a full circuit I was back in front of the café. Such a shame it was closed. But here I had a sighting that made my day – a Moorhen that from where I stood looked like it was walking on water. Of course it was really walking on ice! I wondered if it could see its own reflection?

as it stopped and stood for a few seconds looking a bit confused

then set off again.

From the Boating Lake I walked over towards the Alexandra Palace building. From the terrace in front of it there are spectacular view over North London to the City skyline. On this misty day I didn’t hold out much hope, but felt I had to look anyway. Walking beneath the trees I heard a Jay screeching as it flitted amongst the branches of a Plane tree.

A  pair of Magpies turned over leaf litter hunting for anything edible that may be hiding beneath them. They attracted the attention of two more that flew down to check out what they doing. This provoked quite a feisty response from one of the original pair resulting in the intruders being seen off with much loud harsh scolding and flapping of wings. I hoped this wasn’t parents chasing off their last year’s young ones.

Bulbs had pushed their leaves up through the cold winter ground; they’ll soon be flowering and heralding in the spring.

I reached the Palace terrace, but as I’d suspected there was no view of the City today; the skyscrapers just visible on the left horizon are in Canary Wharf. The still unfinished new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, known locally as ‘The Toilet Bowl’ due to its shape, can also be seen from up here – I’ll point it out on a better day!


I did have a nice view of a turning British Airways plane though.

And I was treated to an eye-level view of a Blue Tit that seemed to be determined to dig something out of hiding in the bark of a cherry tree.

There are several choices of route back, but I opted for the simplest downhill route through the landscaped parkland. The short grassy banks are a favourite feeding place for Wood Pigeons, there were several there today.

Blackbirds rummage around beneath the shrubs and hunt on the lawns for worms.

Blackbird female

A close sighting of a cute little Dunnock prompted my last bird photograph for the day. The daylight hours are getting longer, but days like these remind you there’s still a way to go till winter’s end and a warm home with tea was still a mile or so away!

Dunnock – Prunella modularis

 

 

 

 

Fine Dining for Crows

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Historically, the Carrion Crow Corvus corone, is one of our most maligned and persecuted birds and the species continues to sustain losses at the hand, or gun, of man. But as one of the cleverest and most adaptable of our birds they continue to thrive despite us. And in common with other resourceful species dependent on their wits and equipped for  scavenging, many can be found taking full advantage of our amenities and messy lifestyles.  I was reminded of that on a recent walk along the Prom at Rhos on Sea where the rocky shoreline and mussel bed are a regular foraging ground for Crows.

Carrion Crow eating a crab

I noticed a Crow dropping what I assumed was a shellfish onto rocks still exposed by the incoming tide quite close-in below us. (Us being me and my 16 month old grandson snug in his buggy). I’ve watched this fascinating behaviour before, but this was the closest view I’d had. Fumbling for my camera with gloved hands whilst manipulating the pushchair meant I missed getting a shot of the final successful drop, but I was able to watch the bird tuck into his tasty mussel snack.

This was one of three Crows foraging along this rocky stretch, one of which was rummaging amongst the dry seaweed and debris collected on the strand line.

It was working hard to extricate something from amongst the seaweed debris then having tugged it loose, it carried it off to a large rock nearby.

I couldn’t work out what on earth it was, but watching the bird tear off smallish pieces to eat, a piece of old, greasy chip paper came to mind! Even looking more closely at my photographs hasn’t enlightened me, so I’d be interested to hear anyone’s alternative suggestions. Whatever it was the Crow seemed more than happy with it, clamping it to the rock with its feet to make tearing easier.

As I said earlier, there were three Crows foraging more or less together. They seem to be adolescent birds, so could well be siblings from last year’s brood produced by the resident local pair. It wasn’t long before one of the others spotted the potential to share the bounty and, crouching low to the rock, tried to sneak in stealthily.

Going in from the front clearly wasn’t the brightest idea, and it was soon sent  packing.

It didn’t give up and soon tried again, this time more assertively. That didn’t work either, it just made the feeder more annoyed and this time the would-be robber was dispatched with cawing and an aerial attack.

Even that wasn’t enough to put it off though and it soon came back again, sneaking up from behind this time.

A determined lunge and a grab with its formidable beak finally secured it a piece of whatever-it-was and it fluttered off to a spot surprisingly close by to enjoy its stolen prize.


I’m sure the snack was all the tastier for not having had to work for it.

I thanked the birds for sharing their mealtime with me and left them to it.

 

 

Siesta Time On the Saltmarsh

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January 6th

11:19- A first view of the Oystercatcher roost. This regular high-tide spectacle was what I was here to see, but though I knew the birds would be there, that first sight always brings mixed feelings. Firstly there’s relief that things are as they should be, which is quickly followed by the delight of witnessing a truly amazing sight. The numbers of overwintering Oystercatchers are the reason that Traeth Lafan holds the status of Special Protection Area (SPA), which in theory means that measures are put in place to protect populations of specific species of birds of European importance. How that works in practise and what the measures taken are, I’m not too sure. According to Natural Resources Wales, there can be somewhere in the region of 5,000 Oystercatchers present over the winter months, which is at least 0.5% of the wintering Europe and North & Western Africa population. On the same basis as the SPA, the birds are also a qualifying component of the site’s SSSI status.

Oystercatchers roost, rest or preen at high tides when their feeding grounds are flooded

As I’ve confessed before, I’m not good at counting large numbers of birds at the best of times and these were packed tightly together with more out of sight over the far side of the raised spit, so I’m sure they number in the low thousands. Oystercatchers don’t always roost tightly packed together, so it was interesting to see how in this photograph a lot of the birds are pressed together and standing neatly in straight horizontal lines, particularly those on the outsides of the flock.

This roost wasn’t entirely about the Oystercatchers either; a number of Curlew were squeezed in amongst them and Redshanks had tagged on too. The Redshanks were the first ones awake and back in action at the very instant the tide turned and the water started to recede. I imagine the Oystercatchers resting more peacefully with Redshanks present which will sound off alarms at any potential threat.

A Shelduck was standing on the sandy edge of the stony spit enjoying a lengthy thorough preening session.

Shelduck – Tadorna tadorna

Once it had finished it too waddled into the shallow water to begin again the endless quest for food. Shelduck are surface feeders, taking mostly animal food from mud or shallow water.

The Redshanks were joined by a flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers that flew in and scattered along the freshly exposed sand; quite possibly these were at least some of those that I saw back at the beginning of my walk. 

A little further inland at the back of the Oystercatcher roost I’d spotted three ducks resting on a stony bank. There was one dark-headed male and two with reddy brown heads that I took to be either females or juveniles. They were quite a distance away and as they were sitting I had no idea what they were, then they got up and headed into the water.

On land the birds had seem plump and awkward, but out on the water they became elegant, gliding across the water and diving effortlessly and often. Based on the appearance of the male I thought Goosander, but then doubted myself as this species of diving duck usually prefer freshwater lakes and don’t often swim in the sea. If I’d only seen the females I would probably have thought they were Red-breasted Mergansers, which often swim on the sea and are associated more with this location.  The females of both species look similar, but there’s definitely no red breast on this male.

Goosander – Mergus merganser

The female Goosander has a similar brown head to the Red-breasted Merganser female, but the Goosander has a flatter crown.

Walking back the water had already almost completely drained from the channels that cut through the marshland.

 

 

Hearing a Redshank making a loud and insistent racket I walked towards the sound to see what was happening to alarm it. There was nothing I could see, but I was treated to a charming display of it stamping and dancing in the mud, which it accompanied with some loud piping.

 

 


A small flock of Wigeon were resting; some on a newly-exposed mud bank and more up in the grass.

A pair of Teal sitting up in the long grass was perhaps my favourite pic of the day.

Curlews were also still resting in the sunshine.

But the sheep were on the move, I met them head on as they were walking in single file back in the direction of the field the Curlew were in. I stood to the side so they could pass in peace, they startle quite easily.

On the seashore a few waders were already out searching for shellfish in the still-soft damp sand.It’s fascinating watching the birds in action, the Curlew with its long curved bill can probe deeply into the sand.

 

Oystercatchers walk slowly over damp mud or sand probing their bills into the sand right up to the base if necessary in search of shellfish. This one seemed to be doing well; I watched it retrieve several mussels as I watched it. Different individuals use differing techniques to get the animals out of their shells, some like this one, stab the muscle that holds the shell halves together and retain their pointed bill. Others take a less delicate approach and hammer the shell open, often on stones or rocks, which blunts the end of their bills.

Oystercatcher adeptly opening a mussel shell

A Little Egret stalked close to the shore. Gorgeous views of the sunlit bird against the steely blue seawater.

And to finish on dry land, lovely views of a pair of Mistle Thrushes also out hunting, this time on the damp ground of the grassy field. It could well be that they are preparing for nesting; the Mistle Thrush is one of the earliest species to breed, some nest as early as February.

The Mistle Thrush has the most upright stance of all of the thrushes and moves around with bold heavy hops. Unlike the more secretive Song Thrush they like to feed out in the open in large grassy spaces.

Sightings summary over two consecutive days: Goosander; Pintail; Shelduck; Mallard; Mute Swan; Wigeon;Teal; Grey Heron; Little Egret; Curlew; Redshank; Greenshank; Oystercatcher; Turnstone; Dunlin; Ringed Plover; Herring Gull; Black-headed Gull; Carrion Crow; Jackdaw; Mistle Thrush; Chaffinch; Dunnock & a lot of sheep

 

The Difference a Tide Makes

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January 6th

We’ve had a strange winter thus far, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised by today’s bright sunny morning, but now I just had to get out and enjoy it. Sunday is not my favourite day for heading to places I know are going to be busy, but I was very tempted to repeat yesterday’s walk on a sunny day. Recently my visits to Traeth Lafan at Llanfairfechan have been at times when the tide has been low, so before deciding to head there I checked the tide times and saw that high tide there would be at 10:36 am, so that settled it, I was going back to see what a difference the influx of water made.

 LLANFAIRFECHAN 

10:24- I’d timed my arrival perfectly; almost simultaneously with me reaching the Promenade and looking over the sea wall a flock of small birds flew in and landed neatly, like a ribbon unfurling along the stony sea edge. I am always impressed with their timing and precision, each bird dropping neatly into place only centimetres away from its neighbour. There were an impressive number of birds here, at a rough count around about 200 and strung out in a line so long it was difficult to get them all into the same frame. (click on the image to enlarge it)

A first glance gave Dunlins, looking tiny next to the Oystercatcher that must have been startled to find itself suddenly surrounded by incomers; I wondered if perhaps the flock leaders had made it their landing beacon.

Dunlins, Ringed Plovers and a single Turnstone surrounding an Oystercatcher

Within seconds of setting down many of the birds had switched to rest mode, tucking heads down and one leg up. They were just a few metres away from where I stood and I zoomed in on a small group for a closer look, realising then that there were similarly-sized Ringed Plovers amongst the predominance of Dunlins.

I was momentarily distracted from watching this peaceful scene by the cries and sounds of frantic flapping behind me. A gang of Black-headed Gulls were swooping down towards the edge of the lake where the Swan family had gathered to feast on food thrown in to them by a visitor.

The gulls had no hesitation in diving in amongst the Swans, not at all intimidated by the much larger birds. 

Turning back to the flock of little waders I sought out more Ringed Plovers.

These birds breed here and I could see both adult and juvenile birds, some of which I could see were ringed: I wondered if they’d been born and raised here. There were ringed Dunlins there too.

10:30 It took a while to get to the end of the line, but when I finally reached it I was happy to see the tail-enders were a flock of Turnstones.

Turnstone- Arenaria interpres

I could have stood and watched for longer, although the birds were resting, so not doing much, but I reminded myself that I wanted to make it round to the Oystercatcher roost before the tide turned and they all disappeared, so I tore myself away. Another Black-headed gull floating around on the sea caught my eye – I’m checking them all out in case one turns out to be a Little gull, which sometimes turn up along this coast. They look similar in winter plumage, both species having similar dark face patches, but the Little gull also retains a dark spot on its crown which this one didn’t have.

Black-headed Gull-larus ridibundis

10:38- It really did feel like a completely different place here today. The sunshine and lack of wind made it feel almost warm (the car temperature gauge had said 10º); the tide was high, the sea was blue, calm as a lake and completely covered the sands. It was still quite early, but there were people strolling along the Prom, not speed-walking with heads down against the wind like yesterday. Almost everyone I met smiled and spoke in greeting. 

 

I must have been doing the head-down-not looking-where- was-going-thing myself yesterday as I failed to notice the pile of huge rocks (rip-rap) that has been piled up and over the sea wall on the corner where the path bends round by the trees. I probably only noticed it today as I spotted the bi-lingual warning signs.

10:46-Almost at the end of the paved section of the path I see a distant flock of birds take to the air; something had disturbed and upped the Oystercatchers from their roost. 

10:48- I try not to dwell on what may have disturbed the birds and concentrate on the scene before me; grazing sheep behind a line of resting birds. Although distant, from the size and colour of them they could only be Curlews. 
10:50-Zooming in on them confirmed they were indeed Curlews, mostly lined up along one side of a deep channel of water. I smiled when I saw the next photograph and saw the two sheep standing face to face looking straight into the albeit-distant lens. It looks like one is whispering in the other’s ear.

I got onto the wide grassy track leading through the saltmarsh which forms one bank of a deep water channel, filled now by the high tide, which took me slightly closer to the birds. The majority of the Curlew were standing, all facing in the same direction with their backs to the water. They weren’t in a tight pack, but rather in small groups or standing alone; I reckoned there were around 40 birds. From this better vantage point I could see that there was a flock of Redshanks there too, standing behind the bigger Curlews and nearer to the water: they too were all facing in the same direction.

The sheep were travelling away, some were sitting down.

The birds are not far from the edge of the Menai Strait; the view behind them is of Anglesey and the town is Beaumaris – you can see Beaumaris Castle in the right of the picture.

A closer look at the Curlew shows most are standing still but not roosting with their heads tucked down. Perhaps these are the ones charged with keeping alert to spot potential dangers.

More of the Redshanks do seem to be sleeping.

The sheep are moving on.

10:58- I spot a pair of Teal rummaging around in the long grass on the far side of the channel I’m walking next to.

The male drake was probing the mud with his bill, digging it in deeply; I didn’t know they did that.

Another pair were foraging along the bankside from the water.

11:01-Across the other side of this channel stood a pair of Wigeon.

They had a good long look around them to make sure it was safe before getting down to preening.

11:02-A Little Egret flew in and landed in the water close to the Wigeon.


The egret stepped out onto the bank, watched by a Redshank.

11:06- A small flock of finch-sized birds passed overhead, twittering as they flew and landed on a patch of small rocks and pebbles. Exactly what Linnets do, which is what they were.

Linnet flock in flight

They are difficult to see amongst the stones.

Linnets favour stony ground

11:10 I have a good clear view of a pair of Teal, their colours in the sunshine showing as they should be.

11:10- A larger duck was sailing along the edge of a channel. He was difficult to see properly as he was in the shade cast by a muddy bank and his dark colours weren’t standing out well. My first thought was Pintail – based solely on its overall elegant appearance and the shape of its tail, which as the name suggests is long and sharply pointed. Could I be that lucky? I had no idea as to whether they might be present here, so hoped the photographs I managed to get would be good enough to help me later.

Pintail-Anas acuta

Checking my reference books at home later on I’m happy my instinct was right and it was indeed a Pintail. I’m so chuffed to have seen it, albeit briefly.

The Welsh for Pintail is Hwyaden Lostfain

11:13- The view over the watery saltmarsh to the sunlit mountains was amazing.

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

A Bleak Day on the Saltmarsh

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January 5th

Not a great day weather-wise; from my window I could see cloudy grey sky and more than a breeze blowing through the trees. But I hadn’t been out for a proper walk for a while and after a wonderful but hectic family Festive Season I needed fresh air and exercise. And I had a fitness-monitoring, step-counting watch gizmo as a Christmas present that I was keen to try out. Sticking to my resolve to improve my duck recognition skills and knowledge I decided to go back to Llanfairfechan, which would be sure to fulfil the exercise and fresh air part and would hopefully have birds too. My target ducks for the day were to be Teal and I was hoping to improve on the photographs I took at RSPB Conwy a few days ago.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

13:20 The car temperature gauge read 7°, and minded by Alfred Wainwright’s famous quote, I’d put on extra layers in anticipation of the cold, but a stiff breeze made the air that greeted me in the almost-deserted car park feel bitter: and worse, the café was closed! So no tea to thaw out with when I got back. For birds though, it has to be business as usual or starve, so there were the usual Mallards on the river and a few more on the grass; they and the Jackdaws were looking rather disappointed by the lack of human-donated titbits.

13:21 The Swan family was out sailing on the wind-rippled model boating lake.

The cygnets, if you can still call them that when almost fully-grown, are definitely no longer Ugly Ducklings, they have the size and grace of the adults and are turning white to differing degrees, which I guess must relate to the order they hatched in. They too are used to having food thrown to them by visitors and travelled towards me hopefully. I had nothing to offer even though they posed nicely for photographs.

Mute Swan – Cygnus olor

13:28 It felt cold there, but out from the shelter of the trees at the side of the lake the effects of the wind blowing into my face, it got worse. I met a few hardy souls making their way back, mostly dog walkers braving the elements for the love of their pets, but I almost had the place to myself.

1330: The tide was out but there were a few waders out on the sand close enough to see; a Black-headed gull, an Oystercatcher and a Redshank.

13:41 I reached the corner where the stand of trees gave a smidgen of shelter from the icy blast and stopped for a couple of minutes to look at the pine trees. They are very exposed to the elements here, but in the main they stand straight and tall and look to be a good age.

I think they are Monterey Pines – Pinus radiata, an introduced species originating from California that is probably the most widely planted tree in the world. It is characterised by having branches that radiate out from its trunk, hence radiata. The trees often has conspicuous cones that may fall or that sometimes remain on the tree for years. I must look for cones another day.

13:44 As always, the view over the slate-fenced green field dotted with sheep, with the hills and mountains beyond was beautiful, even on a dull cloudy day like today.

13:45 At the end of the Promenade I stopped again to take in the vastness of the view across the Menai Straits to the dark blue coastline of Anglesey.

 A lone Curlew stalking through shallow water seemed small and vulnerable out there on the expanse of sand, emphasising the bleakness of the day.

13:49 In the rough grass on the other side of the wire fence a small flock of lively Starlings were foraging and bickering amongst themselves as Starlings do.

Apart from the cheery Starlings, my first impression was that the saltmarsh was peaceful – and empty! The great flocks of Wigeon that were here a month ago are gone. I guess they’d exhausted the available food supply here and that most of them will have moved inland to fresh pastures. I’m so glad I got to see them while they were here and with luck thought there may still be a few remaining here to see.

Redshank

13:50 A Redshank, its bill half-covered with mud stood motionless nearby. It must be hard work for birds to find enough food to stay warm, let alone mobile on cold days like this.

13:51 As I said, my target ducks for today were Teal and I was starting to think they too had gone along with the Wigeon; then I spotted a pair swimming together along a water-filled channel. Against the background of the textured water surface they were a pretty sight and may have made a pretty picture if the light had been kinder. But at least I’d seen some and there could be more out there sheltering from the weather.

Teal drake & duck

13:52 Scanning along the channel for more ducks – I actually had binoculars with me today- I caught sight of a Grey Heron standing with its shoulders hunched up and its back turned to a stand of reeds. It was some distance away; in this picture showing the channel the Teal were swimming in, it’s the tiny grey dot on the right hand side, other side of the water just above centre and about an inch in!


It looked miserable; it’s plumage ragged and blowing in the wind and wings folded around itself like a cloak.Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea

I was distracted by some frantic and noisy wing-flapping coming from the muddy bank nearer to me. I felt a moment of dread, half-expecting to see a duck having been seized as prey by something, but it turned out to be Starlings who were dipping  into the water and flapping themselves dry. I couldn’t help thinking they must be hardy little migrants from Russia or Scandinavia or somewhere similarly cold, that water must be icy.

When the tide is out water drains back out of channels exposing the soft mud at the bottom.

13:59 – Thus far I’d not had much luck seeing birds, so I was more than happy to see another Redshank foraging on the side of an empty channel.

I’d rounded the bend in the track and was heading towards the Reserve boundary. The railway line runs through the middle of the photograph below and you can just make out the Expressway (A55) at the base of the mountain.  There were a few Mallards sitting on the edge of a muddy peninsular, more were sheltering below against the bank at the water’s edge.

Three more were hunkered down on top of a gravelly bank with their backs to the wind.

14:05 I’m happy to spot a pair of Teal resting on a muddy beach on the other side of the little peninsular where the Mallards sat.

A bit further along, higher up the bank I found some more.

The little flock was quite spread out, I counted about twenty that were visible, but there could well have been more nearby and further back.

14:08 A pair headed into the water, disturbing a bird already there that otherwise I may well not have seen. I thought for a minute that it may fly off before I’d had a chance to have a proper look, but it just gathered itself together and carried on stalking and scanning the shallow water for potential food.

Apart from having been engaged by the Teal flock, it’s not surprising I hadn’t spotted the wading bird by myself. The light was dull, the water grey, the mud a greyish-brown and the bird merged into all perfectly. I wasn’t holding out much hope of getting any really good images, but my thinking is that when you’re looking at a bird you don’t immediately recognise, take as many shots as you can and chances are some will be good enough to at least confirm an identification and serve as a record.

Greenshank – Tringa nebularia

As it happened I’d worked out what I thought it was as I focussed in on it. It must be a Greenshank, which are pictured on the information boards back at the beginning of the walk. This was the closest view I’d ever had of one though, and the first I’ve been able to photograph, but certain features rang bells: an elegant wader; long, slightly upturned bill and long legs that are as its name implies green. Although they looked more grey to me in this light.

The Welsh name for Greenshank is Pibydd Coeswerdd

In the UK Greenshank breed on the wild moorlands of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. In late summer and autumn they move south on migration, stopping to feed in marsh pools, on estuaries and rather less scenically, on sewage farms and are widespread in the south. Only a few birds remain in Britain over winter, mainly on the Irish coasts, so maybe that’s where this one is heading for. It’s not far to Ireland from here. It’s yet another bird on the BTO’s AMBER list because of breeding numbers and winter range declines. 
It’s moments and sights like this that make the effort of going out on days so worth it!

My favourite moment was when it was joined by a Redshank, which suddenly appeared from nowhere. I was so lucky to get the two related birds in the same shot.

Greenshank with Redshank

The bird carried on with its quest for food regardless of much bigger ducks entering the water nearby. I did wonder if they might be helping by stirring up the mud beneath the water and disturbing anything it may eat, like small fish or worms.
And to put the birds into scale and context within the landscape, this view shows the pool of water the birds were in, tiny specks just visible, and the adjacent bank where the Teal were roosting.

I carried on around the path to the other side of Shell Island and stopped just past the front of the bird hide of the Morfa Madryn Reserve. A few Mallards were resting in the rough grass and out on the gravelly sand; the pebbles may be hard but they’re mostly smooth and may have retained some warmth from the day’s scant sunshine. They gave me a focal point for the photograph too – I loved the zig-zag pattern and different shades and textures of the pebbles and grassy ground.

A few more were up and about foraging on the damp sand.

A Crow, that I’d hoped might have been a Raven, but wasn’t, was also hopefully patrolling the sand.

Once again I contemplated carrying on along the Coast Path for a while, but no, it was way too cold and windy for me to derive any joy from that today.

I took the more sheltered path back. On the scrubland gorse is coming into full bloom now, bringing a welcome and cheering touch of gold to the landscape. 

14:28 I had a closer view of the Heron walking this way. It was still in the exact same spot as before. It must have been sleeping.

The path ahead of me was unusually deserted.

Beyond the railway line Penmaenmawr Mountain, looking big, bulky and brooding.

14:45 I love the view across the Traeth. All you can see is the Pavilion, the café building, the Tower House and a stand of dark pine trees.  Promenade I see that there is only one person on the sands with a dog. At this time on a Saturday there would usually be a lot more. 

14:53  There were a few more birds to see on the way back; Oystercatchers, a Redshank, a Curlew and Black-headed Gulls out on the sand; and on the field side of the path a Chaffinch up in an ash tree and a Dunnock perched on the barbed wire fence.

I didn’t linger to look again at the Swans and other collected ducks and birds that were now gathered on and around the lake. I did wish the café had been open though.

Sightings for the afternoon: Grey Heron; Little Egret; Mute Swans; Teal; Mallard; Khaki Campbell; Oystercatcher; Greenshank; Redshank; Curlew; Black-headed gull; Herring gull; Carrion Crow; Starling; Dunnock

Not too many species today, but what was lacking in quantity was made up for with quality; the Greenshank was a real treat!

Oh, and I logged about 7.300 steps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wigeon in Winter

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Wigeon are generally known as winter visitors to the UK, although in some places, mainly in Scotland and the north of England, some are established as resident breeders. The birds begin to arrive back in their wintering grounds in the British Isles as early as September. The influx continues through October and November and by December the BTO estimate that they number around 440,000 birds. They gather in spectacular vast flocks mainly in coastal locations, moving inland at dusk to crop the grass in fields and meadows, but some winter inland, in flooded districts and on large lakes and reservoirs. Highly gregarious birds; flocks of Wigeon hundreds strong rest by day on estuaries and mud-flats.

November- Large flocks of Wigeon gathered to graze on the salt-marsh at Llanfairfechan

WigeonMaraca penelope (previously Anas penelope) Welsh: Chwiwell

Length: 48 cm: Wingspan: 80 cm: Weight: M: 800 g F: 650 g

Wigeon drake

The Wigeon drake is one of our most handsome ducks. Medium-sized and distinctively shaped, the head is dark chestnut with a wide creamy yellow stripe extending from the base of his short blue-grey bill upwards between the eyes to the crown of his head. The body is softly patterned grey, the chest pinkish-brown, the underbelly is white and the rear end a contrast of black and white. The wings are pointed and in flight he reveals white shoulders and green wing patches. In eclipse plumage (June-October/November), the male resembles a dark female, but with the white forewing. Immature males lack the white shoulders of the adult.

Wigeon duck

Similarly distinctively shaped, females are more subtly attractive, being more uniformly brown than females of other species. They are slimmer and have a more pointed tail than a female Mallard. As the male, they have a high forehead, but the head is a darker chocolate brown and the bill, still blueish, is smaller than the drake’s. Her back is patterned brown, she has a greyish-green wing patch visible in flight and a white belly.

Immature males lack the white shoulders of the adult

 

Wigeon are lively birds and the whistling of the drakes and low growling, or “purring” of the ducks, which don’t quack as other species do can often be heard when several birds are together.

181102-wigeon 7

DIET

Wigeon are classified as dabbling ducks and are closely related to Mallards, Shovelers, Garganey, Gadwall, Pintail and Teal. But they are unusual amongst ducks as they spend much of their time out of the water, where they graze in waterside grassy areas, rather like geese. Wholly vegetarian, their diet consists mostly of leaves, shoots, rhizomes and also some seeds, which seem to be what those in the photographs above and below are stripping from the grass stems.

Wigeon grazing on grass

The ducks do spend time in the water where they also feed on waterweed, occasionally dipping ‘bottom’s up’ as their cousins do.

Wigeon male, female & juvenile

BREEDING

The first Wigeon’s nest found in the UK was in 1834, in Sunderland. During the early 1900s Wigeon were expanding as a resident breeding British species, but by the late 1960s this came to a halt and there was then no regular breeding south of Yorkshire. The habitats they favour for breeding are lochs, rivers and marshes, especially those in wooded countryside, although they do occasionally nest on coastal marshes. The BTO estimate there may be somewhere in the region of 400 breeding pairs, mainly in Scotland and northern England. Their habitual breeding grounds are in the far north, in Iceland and throughout a wide Arctic and sub-Arctic belt that runs west from Norway across Asia to the Bering Strait.

ETYMOLOGY

The scientific name for the Wigeon as given by the BTO is now Mareco penelope (prev.Anas penelope) The more recent name derives from both Brazilian Portuguese: marréco=a (small) duck and Greek: penelops=a type of duck. The RSPB and bird books show the previous scientific name of Anas penelope.

Wigeon have been recorded in the British Isles since the Mediaeval times of the 16th century. According to the eminent language expert Professor Walter William Skeat, the name was then spelt “Wigion”. In 1767 Gilbert White in his History of Selbourne recorded seeing “multitudes of Widgeon and Teals (which) in hard weather frequent our lakes in the forest“. It is still referred to as “Widgeon” in one of my old nature books that was copyrighted in 1934. In another which is not dated, but titled “Birds of our Country & of the Dominions, Colonies and Dependencies” that must be of a similar age, the author refers to it as Common Wigeon. These days it is commonly known simply as Wigeon, or as Eurasian Wigeon.

Cream head stripe may have given rise to old name of bald pate

The Old English names are much more fun and evocative, most of them originating in Norfolk and the East of England or in Northumberland where historically the birds have wintered in their thousands.     Whew; Whim; Whewer and variations of these such as Pundle-whim and Pandled Whew, are all thought to have come about from the bird’s whistling call. “Whim” equates to whistle, as in the name of the Whimbrel, which translates as Seven Whistlers. I think the Welsh “Chwiwell” also derives from the bird’s musical call. A “pandle” or “pundle”, is a winkle, which it was thought the ducks collected as they fed on bottom-living water plants.

Another old name is “bald pate”, referring to the broad cream crown stripe and “lady fowl” – I’m not sure about that one!

DUCK HUNTING & CONSERVATION STATUS

The collective name for a flock of Wigeon is a Bunch.

Wigeon have long been hunted for eating. I read that historically, Wigeon were easy prey for wildfowlers, which may be why in the 18th Century the name also came to be used for a stupid person. They may not have always been the first choice of the hunters as according to my trusty “Birds of our Country & of the Dominions, Colonies and Dependencies” – They are not the nicest to eat, for they sometimes have an unpleasant fishy taste, although at other times they may be excellent. As with Wild Geese, which are always very ‘fishy’ when they first arrive but rapidly improve upon a diet of British greenstuff, the flavour of the Wigeon varies with its food. 

That prompted me to research current legislation on the hunting of wildfowl and learned that within the designated shooting season, Sep 1 – Feb 20 in England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland, it is legal to shoot Wigeon. I was surprised to see that: I naively assumed that birds’ with an Amber conservation status, which Wigeon have as a species with declining numbers, that they would automatically be protected. Clearly not. It is also permitted to shoot Gadwall, Goldeneye, Mallard, Pintail, Pochard, Shoveler, Teal and Tufted duck. I knew shooting Mallard, the classic Wild Duck, was approved and had my suspicions about Teal, but as for the rest, how does that fit with our horror at our European neighbours that shoot other migrating species of birds? I don’t suppose anyone knows how many ducks are shot in the wild each season, but game shooting is becoming an increasingly popular sport and without its feathers, who knows what you might be eating in a trendy restaurant with Wild Duck on the menu?

Conservation Status of Wigeon: (BTO)
UK: AMBER because Recent Breeding Population Decline (1981-2007), Recent Winter Population Decline (1981-2007), Recent Breeding Range Decline (1981-2010), Recent Winter Range Decline (1981-2010), Important Non-breeding Population
Previous Assessments: 2009-2014 AMBER 2002-2007 AMBER 1996-2001 AMBER

European: Least Concern Global: Least Concern

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Waterbirds

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31st December 2018-Conwy RSPB Reserve 

Location:  Llandudno Junction Postcode: LL31 9XZ
Grid ref:  SH797773

Located on the eastern side of the Estuary of the river Conwy, this reserve is a perfect example of how a once industrial site can be reclaimed by and for nature. The reserve  was created in the early 1990s from material dug out from the estuary during the construction of the A55 road tunnel that passes under the River Conwy to bypass the historic town of Conwy. The reserve also incorporates mudflats and saltmarsh, part of the Afon Conwy SSSI, important for migratory waders including curlew, oystercatcher and redshank.

Conwy Castle

I was meeting up with friends this morning and arrived a few minutes early, so I pulled into the parking area in front of the estuary to admire the views across and along the sands and mudflats of the estuary of the River Conwy. This is the eastern side of the estuary, so firstly looking north there are perfect views of Conwy Castle and town with Conwy Mountain behind it.

Most of the land on the opposite western side of the estuary is within Snowdonia National Park. To the south is the town of Glan Conwy.

 

 

A Pied Wagtail scuttling over a patch of lime chippings was my first bird of the day.

 

 

A flock of metal Lapwing adorn the entrance to the Reserve

As you enter the Reserve there is a man-made mound in front of you that acts as a vantage point from which to get an overview of the site. Circular walks have been created that pass through a variety of habitats such as reedbed, young woodland, grassland and scrub.

There are two lagoons, originally created to hold the sludge from the tunnel excavations; one holds shallow water while the other is much deeper, both of which attract waders and waterbirds, especially from August to March. The lagoons are filled with fresh, not tidal water and are dependant on winter rains to fill them. If they ever need to be topped up, water is taken directly from the nearby river, the Afon Ganol. Islands have been created within them providing havens for roosting and nesting birds. These are best for birds at high tide, when the river covers the mudflats pushing waders to roost and feed on the islands.

At low tide, as now, there are not as many birds to see as there may be when the tide floods back into the estuary, but our first sighting gave me another duck species to add to my list of ones I might recognise when I see them again. We worked out these were a pair of Gadwall, which are quite understated in their appearance, not colourful or flashy, but quite common so likely to be seen again.

Gadwall-Hwyaden Lwyd

11:19-The sun shining through a break in the clouds momentarily created a darkly dramatic, almost monochromatic view of the lagoon and the distant mountains.

We moved on and followed the boardwalk that wends through the reedbeds. Water Rail are resident here and sighted fairly frequently, so we were listening out for their distinctive calls, but all was quiet. We admired the surroundings instead; the dried reed stems glowing golden in the sunlight and reflected in the clear water of the well-filled pools are a beautiful sight.

11:19- A Coot cuts purposefully across the wind-rippled surface of the lagoon temporarily disrupting its pattern.

11:21- A pair of Mallard occupy on the end of a grassy island, the male standing watchfully over the resting female.

Mallard – Hywaden Wyllt

11:29 A Mute Swan glides across the water, wings raised.

11:30- A minute later the peace is shattered as another suddenly rears up in the water with a great deal of splashing and drama and sets off in pursuit of it.

The first Swan turned and travelled away as quickly as it could towards a narrow grassy island, the other in close pursuit and catching up just as it reached the edge of the spit of land.

The pursuer heaved himself from the water and on top of the other, which we now realised must be a female, his weight almost forcing her beneath the water as he positioned himself to mate. Mute Swans mate for life, so we couldn’t be sure if this was consensual or whether the female had been trying to escape or hoping to get onto the firmer ground of the island or just the shallower water at the edge of the island before she was caught. Either way it didn’t look like much fun for her.
Although it all took place in little more than a minute or so, the activity attracted the interest of another individual who sailed up close to the mating pair, its wings raised.

The mating male turned to face the intruder, rearing himself up with the poor female still pinned beneath him and the other mirroring the movement, stretching its neck up towards the other.

Was this a victory display?

Goldeneye (m)

Whilst all this had been going on a black and white duck had been unconcernedly carrying on with the business of searching for food nearby. It was tricky to follow as it spent much of its time below the surface, bobbing up only briefly before dipping down again. I managed only one quick snap of it, fortunately good enough to be identified later on by one of the staff volunteers as a male Goldeneye.

He also identified another mostly brown duck that had been behaving similarly in the water in front of the hide, as a female Tufted Duck.

Tufted Duck- Hywaden Gopog

Another Coot

11:38 – We got back out onto the path and turned off to head towards the eastern edge of the Reserve as indicated by the Magpie that landed on the signpost.

 

A short way up the path we spent a few minutes being completely charmed by a close encounter with an exceptionally confiding Robin. He, or she, sat on the tip of a bramble stem at the edge of the path, tilting its head to look at us. I think if we had been able to offer it food it may have come to a hand to be fed.

 

A grounded giant dragonfly

We reached the gate that gives access to the fenced area of wilder scrub vegetation.

This path leads to the Estuary edge.

To the left of the path in a dyke below us, a small party of Teal travelled slowly upstream, stopping frequently to feed.

The bright light and shadows weren’t helpful in showing off the real beauty of the little male, so you’ll have to trust me when I say he was looking splendid in his bright breeding colours.

The female may be brown, but she has her own subtle beauty in her brown-shaded plumage, with each of her feathers edged with white.   

A trail of freshly deposited poo on the path finally led us to the Carneddau mountain ponies that roam the southern section of the reserve where they graze down unwanted vegetation. They will happily munch on brambles, reeds and rushes as well as grass,  which they keep short creating the habitat needed by a wide variety of wildlife.

The sun came out again as we got to this spot, lighting up the Castle and Conwy Mountain behind it.

The bright sunlight also rendered birds feeding on the Estuary mud as silhouettes, most of their colour hidden in shadow. Shelduck are distinctive in size and shape though, and in the way they dip their heads to ‘hoover’ the ground in front of them.

The Shelducks were behind a large flock of foraging Redshank. The buildings in the background are in the village of Glan Conwy.

There were more along the edges of a channel of water

A few higher up on the bank made it possible to distinguish their diagnostic orange-red legs.

A solitary Little Egret stood stock still on the mud gazing intently out over the Estuary. Perhaps waiting for the tide to turn and bring in fresh food.

A surprise was this large patch of Sow-thistle in lush green leaf and in full bloom.

A view back into the reserve gave us Canada Geese, Mallard and a Goldeneye male, maybe the same one we saw earlier.

And on a narrow rock-strewn island in front of a hide, one of the iconic birds of the reserve, Lapwings.

They were too distant from where we stood to see them well, but just a few moments later as we continued to walk, something had disturbed them and the whole flock was up in the air.

There is another bird visible in the photograph, but it’s too small and distant to make out whether that could have caused the disturbance. Whatever the cause, a flock of Lapwing flying is always a lovely sight and particularly so today as the sunshine caught the white undersides of their wings turning them silver. Mesmerising.

Back down to earth and a much less glamorous sighting of a Dunnock gave us our final sighting. It had fluttered in front of us, giving the impression of something a bit more exotic – we’d been keeping an eye out for Brambling – but it was a nice sighting none the less and didn’t let us stopping to stare at it put it off having a little snooze in the sun.

The path leads back to the gate at the parking layby I mentioned at the beginning of the post that marks the boundary of the Reserve.

 

 

 

It too is embellished with Lapwing images.

The bars of the kissing gate resemble the wings of a Lapwing

I thought I’d finish as I started, with another view of the Castle, now lit by the sun before we headed to the café to thaw out with soup and a cup of tea.

Thanks to Jill, Pete and Christine for an enjoyable outing on which to end 2018 and a Happy New Year to everyone that reads this!