Part 1 – to Morfa Madryn
Located about halfway between Conwy and Bangor, Llanfairfechan is linked to the other small seaside towns of the North Wales coast popularised by adventurous Victorians by the main Chester to Holyhead railway line and more latterly the A55 North Wales Expressway. The town grew on a narrow strip of coastal land backed by the steep hillsides and mountains of the Carneddau range. Its continuing wide appeal is easy to see. The scenery and views are spectacular and there is an array of well-established wonderfully diverse walks along the coast, through woodland, along the river and in the mountains behind it.
Once mostly privately owned, much of the landscape is now the responsibility of Conwy Borough Council and managed as a series of Local Nature Reserves and I was heading for one of them, Morfa Madryn, which sounds and often looks like it belongs in a Tolkein novel, but is the salt marsh area that lies to the west of the town. I’m trying to improve my recognition and knowledge of ducks, so I was particularly hoping to see some of the ducks and waders that are permanently resident or that overwinter here.
The route I took on a gloriously sunny November day began and ended in the seafront car park at the beginning of the Promenade. As always I found a great deal of interesting stuff to see along the way and on the way back; too much for a single post, hence this being Part 1.
12:12 The tide was out, it was cold, a bit windy but brightly sunny with a bit of a haze on the horizon. Being a Saturday, the (free) car park was already busy. The café was filling up but a good few people were out walking along the Promenade, or the Cob as it is known locally and there were others on the beach. It’s a popular spot with dog walkers. The great bulk of Penmaenmawr Mountain fills the view to the east, but then from the Promenade the sea views are wide and spectacular. Vast expanses of the sands of Traeth Lafan are exposed and the bulks of rocky headlands are dwarfed under endless skies. The Great Orme could almost be mistaken for an island, but today you can see the tenuous connection, upon which Llandudno is built, that tethers it to the mainland.
A bit further along are Puffin Island and the distinctive lighthouse painted with black and white rings that stands in the sound between the island and Penmon Point on the tip of Anglesey.
I followed the Promenade and crossed the bridge over the river, the Afon Llanfairfechan, the water was shallow but fast-flowing and the resident flock of Mallard was hanging around hopeful of some easy lunch. Dippers are often to be seen further upstream, so it’s always worth a look for one here, although I’ve yet to see one this far down.
The bridge leads into the landscaped recreational area with lawns, tennis courts, bowling green, children’s playground and a large lake. Originally built as a Model Yacht Pond it is still used today by enthusiasts of engine-powered model boats. In the shelter of the pavilion sun-faded information boards show the ducks and waders most likely to be spotted here. Ducks include Shelduck, Gt Crested Grebe, Widgeon, Goldeneye, Teal, Red-breasted Merganser, and of course Mallard. Waders pictured are Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Greenshank, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Turnstone and Knot. I guess the spikes on top of the boards are to deter less desirable birds from roosting in the shelter.
An orderly line of well-groomed pine trees stands to attention along the edge of the path.
On the grassy lawns around the lake Black-headed Gulls rest or seek prey in the grass. Their heads showed varying stages of plumage; most now have lost their dark heads and sport the winter-white head with the black spot to the side of each eye. One was darker around the eyes; I’m not sure if it’s late changing from breeding to winter plumage or already beginning to gain back its breeding plumage.
The Promenade here is a safe and popular spot for outings with families and with dog walkers, so there are many signs advising what not to do. Lakeside, one such reminds folk to resist the temptation to feed the ducks and swans with bread and chips! I’m not sure how much notice is taken of that one.
Most of the resident ducks are recognisably Mallards, but a few clearly have both Mallard and domestic ducks as ancestors, inheriting characteristics from both as have this pair I passed on the edge of the lake. Typically a blend of Mallard, Rouen and Runner ducks, these are Khaki Campbells Anas platyrhynchos domesticus and are often kept commercially for their generous egg production. They come in variations on three basic colours, khaki, dark and white. A Khaki Campbell drake is mostly khaki coloured with a darker head, usually olive green and without the white ring (male) of its Mallard ancestors; the duck (female) typically has a more modest plumage of khaki covering her entire body.
One notice on the wall, placed there in 1908 is well worth stopping to read; a reminder that this wild and free land was once privately owned and public access granted under sufferance and a strict code of conduct!
Small ferns push out their fronds from crevices in the stone wall that bounds the woodland. Mostly Common Polypody, there are also a few smaller, finer plants of Maidenhair Spleenwort. Both species have seed spores, sori, on the backs of their fronds.
The pathway soon rejoins the Promenade and continues past a few houses and fields on the landward side. Residents here have enviable views over the sands and the Menai Strait to the coast of Anglesey, but it gets wild here in the winter.
I stopped to watch an Oystercatcher in a pool of water. The mud and sands hold a bountiful supply of cockles, mussels, lugworms and small fish which draws in large numbers of wading birds. Needless to say the food supply also attracts humans and the gathering of shellfish together with water pollution is impacting on the fragile ecology of the area.
The exposed sand is left patterned and textured by the movement of water rippling over it creating fascinating artistic effects. Changes in level results in tidal pools of varying depths being left; good hunting places for the birds. In the bright sunlight it took a while to ‘get my eye in’ and spot wading birds, especially when they were as distant and well camouflaged as this Redshank was. Camera at full zoom I watched as it stalked knee-deep in water, scanning intently for prey, then stopped to plunge the entire length of its long bill below the surface.
Another stalked the sands, better showing its diagnostic red legs. Stopping it too probed deep into the sand and pulled out something, maybe a smallish flat fish which it carried away clamped in its bill.
12:46 A metal fence/gate with more notices pertaining to dogs, fines and disturbance safeguards the entrance to Glan y Môr Elias Reserve.
I love the log tied on with rope that acts as a counter-weight to keep the gate closed. Simple but effective.
A short way into the reserve a movement on the sands below gave me my first view of the day of a Little Egret. A lucky spot as its bright white plumage rendered it barely visible in the bright sunlight.
It elegantly and stealthily stalked prey in a shallow stream of water, its lethal dagger-like bill poised then struck at speed.
Thus far the path had followed the woodland edge. Now it was open and exposed to the elements on both sides allowing a wonderful view of the mountains. The field boundary fence has remnants of traditional slate ‘posts.’
12:56 The main Chester to Holyhead train track defines the boundary of the reserve. Trains pass by frequently, this one an Arriva operated train (now Transport for Wales).
A wooden bench located here offers two widely-differing panoramic vistas.
You can sit and gaze both at the mountains and out across the exposed windswept mudflats where Puffin Island and the tip of Anglesey are visible on the horizon. I was surprised to find Sea Daisies still flowering here. Despite the sunshine the wind was keeping the air temperature down, not a day for lingering on benches, best to admire the views while in motion.
13:02 The Wales Coast Path includes the section of the Promenade I’d followed to here and it continues on to follow the line of the seashore as a grass trail along a raised embankment. Before carrying on I obeyed another sign in front of a gate to STOP. It asks that from March-August: Please keep off the spit (Shell Island) at all times. This is to prevent disturbance to breeding birds. September-February: Please keep off the spit (Shell Island) when the tide reaches the base of the white-topped fence post. This is to prevent disturbance to roosting birds at high tide. And another plea to keep dogs under close control.
It took a few minutes for me to realise that there was a large flock of ducks on the ground in front of me, but to be fair you can see how tiny they were in the landscape and they were moving very slowly if at all.
Wigeon, or Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope, are our largest native dabbling duck and unusual amongst ducks as they often graze on grass like a goose. They are the most numerous of the overwintering species: the BTO quote an estimate of 440,000 pairs throughout Great Britain. There must be several hundred here. Intent on grazing they were lovely to see, but tricky to get good views of, so I left them to it, hoping for better views later.
There was a sign to say the coastal section of the path was closed. There were people peering over a plastic barricade to see why that might be. I decide to heed the sign and continue around the alternative more inland track. As I was about to move on, a flock of noisily-chatting Starlings descends on the bank and lands in the long grass. They can’t seem to settle and flit around restlessly, seeming to be squabbling amongst themselves.
The track I’m heading for sweeps around the marsh in front of the line of trees.
I spotted a single wading bird, again regretting my lack of binoculars as the sun directly on camera lens. It seemed quite large but perspective is a funny thing and it didn’t have much in the way of identifying features. Most likely another Redshank.
Whilst looking in that direction I spotted a Curlew.
A flowering Gorse brings a touch of gold to the landscape. The fields and farms in the background are on Anglesey.
Towards the end of this section of the path which is damp and shaded by trees I was surprised to find Yarrow still blooming.
You can choose whether to follow the grassy path around and back to where you started (the track that’s supposed to be closed), or follow the slate fence around to continue on the Wales Coast Path as indicated by another signpost.