active sand dunes, Alauda arvensis, bird behaviour, Black-headed Gull, Buck's-horn Plantain, cormorants flying, herring gull, kestrel, Kinmel Dunes, moss in sand dunes, sand dunes, Sand-hill Screw Moss, seashells, skylark, tree mallow
Much of the sand dune system that once stretched along the eastern end of the North Wales coastline has long-since disappeared, flattened to make way for ‘coastal development’, but a small fragment survives at Kinmel Bay, which lies between Rhyl and Towyn on the Wales Coast Path. This active dune area is designated as a Local Nature Reserve, which means that its worth to wildlife is recognised, but that it is also an amenity area for people; a challenging balancing act for those trying to maintain it, particularly so in a small space that is also regularly severely battered by strong winds and powerful tides.
This was my first visit here, and my first impression was that although proudly and prominently signed as Kinmel Dunes Nature Reserve, this is firstly an amenity area for people. The large tarmacked car park placed at the centre of the dune area, effectively dividing the reserve area into two, was the first indication of that. Then there are toilets and a refreshment kiosk at the beach end of it, both firmly closed up for the winter. It is clear though that the Reserve area is valued and cared for and there are several interpretation boards informing about the dunes themselves and the wildlife that may be found there. There are also North Wales Wildlife Trust guides to things you may find on the beach and details of how to record anything you might find.
Later on it struck me that if you were walking the Wales Coast Path you quite possibly wouldn’t realise that you were walking past, or through a Nature Reserve here as there are no signs on the path itself at either end to inform you of that.
To get an ‘overview’ of the Reserve area I followed a track from the carpark to the top of a small hillock topped with picnic tables, which I’m fairly sure would have been man-made as a view point over this otherwise flat and otherwise featureless stretch of coastline.
The view above shows the North Wales Path/Wales Coast Path coming in on the right (east), from the direction of Rhyl, then passing the public car park and the beach café, which is currently firmly closed for the winter. In the forefront a surfaced path curves through the dune area, which attempts to encourage people to refrain from trampling across the fragile dune area itself. On the shore edge you can see where the surfaced Coast path has been cut through the dunes for part of its length and where they gradually peter out to be replaced by a shore of shingle.
Leaving the viewpoint on the other side, I joined the Coast Path, which is also marked as ‘The Dunes Trail’. Today the path was heavily strewn with sand either washed from the dunes by high seas or rain or blown out by strong winds. Probably a combination of all three. As usual I hadn’t formulated a plan as to what I’d do when I got here, so for no particular reason turned left to head towards Towyn, back past the car park and the firmly-closed refreshment kiosk. There are numerous notices, warning signs about the dangers of the sandy shore area, keep off the sea wall, no dogs from May to September and a life-saving ring.There is also one of the iconic colourful Cycle Network signposts informing me that I am 1¼ miles from Towyn and 1½ miles from Rhyl in the other direction.
It soon becomes clear that signs and warnings are to be significant features of this stretch of path as here too is the more traditional Wales Coast Path sign, informing that Pensarn is 3 miles away.
The path is long and straight and bounded by a wide low concrete sea wall. The surrounding landscape appears flat and quite featureless, but in front of you can see the not-too distant hills rising on the horizon and stretching all the way round to the headland of the Great Orme.
Countless numbers of times I have stood and looked at the view from points high and low across the other side of this expanse of sea, so it was interesting to be standing at a point I’ve probably photographed many times.
Out to sea are the turbines of Rhyl Flats Wind Farm, situated in Liverpool Bay. This started out as a modest 25 units back in 2008/9, but the ranks of turbines has since expanded greatly so that now there seems to be continuous lines of them stretching from one side of the bay to the other.
I find it amazing that any wildlife can survive, let alone thrive in harsh, well-trodden habitats such as this, but it’s also a wild(ish) strip of land on the border between human habitation and the seashore, so although not ‘pure’ sand dune, it can be interesting and well worth exploring. I left the path when I saw the beginning of a sandy path wending its way through and around the dunes.
I got off to a good start – a few steps in I spotted a bird flying in towards where I was standing, and was treated to a display by a hovering Kestrel. It may have spotted some movement on the ground below as it lingered for a moment, but there was no downward swoop and it soon moved away.
I was facing into the sunlight, so couldn’t make out all the beautiful details of the bird, but there’s no mistaking that shape and seemingly effortless aviation skills.
The dominant plant of the dunes is of course Marram grass, of which there is plenty here holding everything together. I’m sure there will be flowering plants in amongst it later on, but today the star plant was, quite unexpectedly, lovely bright green moss. I’d never connected damp-loving mosses with dry sandy dunes, but I’ve since learnt that they are often found on their damp sheltered sides and are important stabilising plants in dune systems. I’ve said before that I’m fairly clueless about bryophytes (mosses & liverworts), but I do love to see and photograph them and am trying to learn to recognise at least a few. Going on its location, i.e. sand dunes, and its distinctive ‘starry’ appearance, this might well be Sand-hill Screw Moss – Syntrichia ruraliformis. Growing close by to this lovely spread was another smaller, similar-looking patch with fruiting bodies, which may (or may not) be Redshank Moss – Ceratodon purpureus. Apparently the two species often do grow close together.
To add to my identification issues, I found another patch that looked different again, but I think it’s the same Sand-hill Screw Moss, which protects itself from dehydration in dry conditions by rolling up its leaves around its stems, giving it a completely different appearance. I guess it’s this habit that gives the plant its ‘screw moss’ common name.
The path I was on soon met up with the surfaced path that I now realised had started from the car park, also marked as The Dune Trail.
An interpretation board at the end of this short trail, where it rejoins the main path, indicates it as a dotted red line. The board also shows the size and scale of the reserve and the proximity of ‘developments’, such as the Asda supermarket and its carpark.
All too soon I’m back on the main path and spot a length of chestnut post and wire fencing, (which in my mind at least, made a connection to my last post about the Sweet Chestnut tree). I’m not sure if the fencing is there to help stabilise the dune or to deter people from trampling over it.
Growing in the crevice between the path and the retaining sea wall, a flourishing clump of Buck’s-horn Plantain, clearly showing the leaf shape that gives the plant its common name.
Standing quietly atop the shingle bank behind the sea wall a Black-headed Gull. The birds’ heads are actually white in the winter with just a black spot behind each eye, then approaching the breeding season the head begins to take on colour as this bird’s is, darkening gradually to a rich dark chocolate brown; not actually black as in its name.
Also on the shingle, a patch of new Sea Beet leaves. The plants waxy-leathery leaves give it the protection it needs to withstand the tough conditions here.
More signs! This really can be a dangerous place for the unwary or foolhardy.
This coastline is reknowned for its many hundreds of mobile homes, most of which are actually static and available to occupy for 10 months of the year. I wondered if the intimidating fencing along the boundary of this site was designed to keep people out or in?
As a walk for anything other than fresh air and exercise this section of the Path, at least while the tide is high feels more like a corridor between mobile homes and the hard lines of the sea wall and the defensive rip-rap.
At the next bend I decided to turn around and head back the way I’d come. The backdrop to the houses is the Clwydian Hills.
The tide was beginning to recede. I wasn’t sure if the fisherman on the edge of the shingle bank was setting up or packing up and I wonder if he caught or will catch anything.
On the developed side of the path between the retaining wall and the houses is a wide strip of mown grass. On its edge there’s a patch of Rockrose with Ribwort Plantain growing through it.
Lower down, in the sheltered crevice where the wall meets the path, more opportunistic plants are flourishing. A left-over, rather sad flower on Sea Mayweed; freshly flowering Groundsel; leaves of Dove’s-foot Cranesbill surrounded by new Chickweed sprouts and most surprisingly, several plants of Tree Mallow.
And here a lovely aggregation of leaves of wildflowers-to-come in a pretty array of shapes and shades of green, which includes Dove’s-foot Cranesbill, Common Stork’s-bill & Common Chickweed.
I wondered if the origins of the Tree Mallows might be this tall and seemingly well-nourished specimen.
Along part of the edge of wall where it meets the grass a line of Marram Grass has established and left to grow. As it is in a straight line, perhaps it’s been deliberately planted to protect the grass from some of the salt spray and wind. I wonder why they don’t just let it revert to its natural state? It would look so much better and wouldn’t need cutting.
If you look closer, the concrete walls aren’t totally featureless, there are patches of lichens growing there, which I’m not attempting to identify, other than to say some are greyish-white, others yellow or orange.
The skies brightened, showing up some of the green on the Little and Great Ormes through a lighter haze.
Sea Holly is another tough but beautiful plant that can handle these harsh conditions, evident for now by patches of dry stems with prickly leaves still attached, held in place amongst Marram stems.
I glimpsed a flash of a bird that dashed from the dune side of the path to land on the shore side, quickly disappearing into the cover of Marram grass. My first impressions were that it was small, brown and maybe a Rock Pipit. Fairly well concealed amongst the dry grass stems it carried on foraging amongst them, in no great hurry, keeping half a wary eye on me and allowing me quick glimpses as it moved further away towards the beach. Possibly because I expected it to be, I had convinced myself this was a Rock Pipit, but I’m very grateful to Tony, who in his comment below has given me the much more exciting identification of a Skylark!
I know much less about Skylark behaviour than of Rock Pipits, so it was great to know they are here and to get so close to one. I’ll have to go back later in the year to see if I can catch any singing.
Another bird flew in front of me heading from the shore across to the dunes; a Magpie which landed on top of a Dune Trail marked post. I didn’t realise until I saw the photograph later that I’d caught it having a poo (sorry!); it looks like this might be a favourite perch for the purpose.
The sun continued to shine and as it felt a bit warmer and being in no particular hurry, I decided to carry on for a while and walk towards Rhyl.
At intervals along the path steps, safeguarded with iron railings allow you to cross the sea wall onto the beach.
All of those I’d passed walking in the opposite direction had been closed off, but one here was open. Taking the opportunity to get off the long straight path I thought I’d have a meander along the strand-line to see what I could find.
Views along the beach: above towards the Great Orme and below towards Rhyl.
I’m surprised anything survives being pounded by waves against the stony bank, but there were seashells there as well as clumps of Whelk egg cases and the egg case of a Ray.
More random was a plastic bottle I found on the sea edge full of pebbles that I guessed may have been used to anchor something down and a sea-smoothed fragment of a house brick bearing part of its maker’s name.
As always there was the usual rubbish entwined amongst the seaweed, nylon fishing line, dried-out wipes, bottle tops etc. Also the wrapper from a packet of biscuits, nearby Asda store’s own brand & some sticky plastic tape. I picked up as much as I could stuff into my pocket as I’d come without a bag.
I carried on until I could see Rhyl on the near horizon. The lifeboat was out and ready to go, hopefully not imminently and the landmark ‘Sky Tower’ that is visible from far across the other side of the bay.
Back in the car park a pair of Herring gulls were investigating the overflowing rubbish bin. They’d pulled out some to study further, but I don’t think there was much there to tempt them. I picked up a few more bits that had blown across the carpark and left them to it.
Lise Mayne said:
Another beautiful post. So nice to walk through nature with you. And to see green plants, in the middle of our cold Canadian winter.
Unfortunately, you always have to take a bag with you, no matter where you roam these days. I collect one bag of trash each day on my dog walk, in my tiny village. So sad. People are so thoughtless of nature. Your post brings nature to the fore, in the tiniest creatures. Thank you for your contribution to a beautiful world.
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Thank you for your very kind comments Lise. At least you have the consolation of knowing where you stand with the seasons, for now at least, although I’m sure you’re experiencing changes? Here our winters are already all over the place! Sadly I have to agree that most people are thoughtless of nature, especially noticeable in places such as this, where I fear its nature is under ever-increasing pressure from over-use by we humans. I hope you don’t have too much longer to go before you begin seeing greenery once more, best wishes, Theresa
Thanks for the walk. Seems quite desolate of life but you show some of the variety. Good to see a lark too. I love your phots of the kestrel and the cormorant fly past.
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Thank you. It certainly seemed pretty desolate here on this cool, breezy winter’s day with the tide high, but I’m hopeful there’s more life here than met my eyes – I’m planning to go back later in the year, but on a weekday and before it gets taken over by people. The birds were lovely to see, I got lucky with the Kestrel and the Lark!
Thank you for sharing your experience and information Teresa. Did you see any sign of the Snow buntings that have been there for several weeks? Suzanne Coleman Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
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Thank you for taking the time to read it Sue. No Snow Buntings, sadly – I think maybe I needed to be a bit further on towards Rhyl? I’m never quite sure exactly where they are likely to be; one day I’ll get lucky!
Tony Cumberlidge said:
I really enjoy reading about your travels along the North Wales coast,your plant identification really helps me as I am learning all the time.In your recent post about the Kinmel dunes to Towyn,you show a couple of photos of a Rock Pipit which I think is a Skylark,a Rock Pipit would be more drab looking plus more of a pointed bill.Tony.
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Thank you Tony. I did initially wonder if the bird was a Skylark, as I’d read that they are here, then I thought I was being fanciful and thought it much more likely to be a Rock Pipit! I’d never seen a Skylark that closely before, and I’m really happy that’s what you think it was. I will change the post accordingly! Thanks again.
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I agree Tony – the overall rich markings, thickish bill and suggestion of white outer tail feathers all point to it being more likely a Skylark. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Rock Pipit in the field though.
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Many thanks to you Clive. I see Rock Pipits fairly often, which is probably why they come to mind first when I see a brown bird by the sea. A Skylark is a rare treat!