August, bird behaviour, coastal birds, coastal wildflowers, Curlew, Grey Heron, lesser sea spurrey, migrant birds, Northern Wheatear, opportunistic wildflowers, Oystercatcher, rocky seashores, sandwich tern, sea campion, small tortoiseshell
August is the month during which many seabirds and waders begin to return to our coasts from their breeding grounds, and locally, many will gather here around Rhos Point. Some will stay with us until next Spring; others will grace us with their presence for a while to feed up and rest before migrating onwards to their winter feeding grounds. My favourites of the latter group are the gloriously graceful, gregarious and excitable Sandwich Terns, most, if not all of which will be members of the colony that breeds annually at Cemlyn Bay on nearby Anglesey (Ynys Môn), so will be a mix of adults and this year’s young ones. They have been here for a while now but, so far, I’d only managed to see them from a distance when the tide’s been out, gathered right out on the tip of Rhos Point, where they are but small white blobs amongst Gulls and Oystercatchers. You can be sure they are Terns though from the mighty noise they make.
The perfect opportunity to finally get some good views of the Sandwich Terns and other recently-returned birds arose last weekend as I was house-sitting for my daughter and keeping their dog company. Only a mile or so from my own home, but close to the sea meant I could better time a walk along the Prom as the tide was coming in; usually the best time to see wading birds here as they gather to feed on what it brings in. Already too late on Friday evening, I heard and saw a lot of Terns, but they were too far out to see properly. I did find one little group to zoom in a bit closer to and realised there were Curlew there too, they are so well-camouflaged I wouldn’t have seen them if not for the Terns.
09:54 It was predicted to be hot today, and with it being the weekend as well, there’d be bound to be a lot of visitors heading our way this morning to spend the day here. I’d left at this time judging that the tide would have reached a good place to get a better view of the birds on rocky seashore, in particular the Sandwich Terns, and also before the Promenade got busy. Reaching the spot in front of the tiny St Trillo’s Chapel, which sadly has been locked up since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, I saw I’d almost got my timing right. The tide was coming in and the furthest tip of the land spit, where the birds had been last night was covered with water but it would still take a while for it to be high enough to get close views of any birds.
The calls of the Sandwich Terns were reaching here from further along the shore towards Penrhyn Bay, so as there were as yet only a few people about, I could walk that way at my usual stop-start meandering pace without disturbance or obstructing anyone. I hadn’t walked this way for months, so I’d also take the chance to note any wildflowers along the way and perhaps add to my list of coastal plants.
There’s a significant change in the level of the Prom here by the chapel and you can either take the ladder-like metal steps up, or follow the curving slope around and up.
The base of the retaining wall is one of the places where seeds of wildflowers often end their travels, and I’m always interested to see what’s landed there. A few perennials, such as Cat’s-ear always seem to manage to survive any ‘tidying up’ sessions, and usually the annual Scarlet Pimpernel, one of my favourite wildflowers will have managed to lodge a seed or two in the right place.
The grassy banks between the Prom and the road are usually mown to look ‘tidy’ for visitors from Easter onwards, but this year have been left to their own devices. This may be an outcome of cutbacks due to the Covid 19 lockdown, or it may be that our local council has been persuaded that such spaces are important resources for our declining insect populations and have left it to benefit both the wildlife and their annual maintenance budget. Time will tell.
Whatever the reasons, flowering now there is golden-flowered Ragwort, a lot of the ubiquitous Cat’s-ear and a fair sprinkling of the pretty burnt-orange Fox-and-Cubs, which is well-established here but which was once most likely a garden escape. I’d like to say it was buzzing with insects, but sadly not, just a very few Buff-tailed bumblebee drones and a couple of honeybees on the Ragwort. It was still on the cool side and quite early, so maybe there would be more later on.
10:01 A short way along you reach steps that lead down from the main Prom and onto a narrower path that is bounded by the recurved sea wall on one side and the piled giant-sized rocks that form the additional ‘rip-rap’ sea defences on the other. To most it may not look as appealing a route as the Prom, which has wonderful uninterrupted views over the whole of both Colwyn and Penrhyn Bays – in this direction as far as the Little Orme- but I would always choose this path, it’s so much more interesting!
As well as the afore-mentioned Sandwich Terns, this rocky shoreline is also blessed with the presence of the iconic and endangered Curlew. They too begin to return from their spring/summer breeding grounds during August and come here to forage amongst the rocks and along the sea-edge. Despite their size and distinctive outline, they are exceptionally well-camouflaged and difficult to spot with the naked eye in this landscape unless you happen to spot one move or locate one from their unmistakable evocative call. There were a few here this morning, but views of them weren’t close; the photograph below is one I took last evening; I think it illustrates quite well how well they merge into their surroundings.
Another favourite little wildflower is Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which I found at the bottom of the steps. Following the progress of the Curlew towards Penrhyn Bay I spotted a bird flying high across the road high, which then banked around in front of the Little Orme. At first I’d thought it was a Buzzard, but as it turned and I got a better, although still distant view, I knew it was a Grey Heron.
I’ve seen Grey Herons here on the shore once or twice in past years, but it was an unexpected sight, and I was pleased to see it turn again and head down to land. Even better was that it landed to join four more Herons already staking out the shallow water of the sea edge. They were still distant, but I guessed this was a family group and perhaps a lesson in sea-fishing for the juvenile members. What a treat (for me)! I could hardly wait for better views as I got nearer to them and as the tide grew higher.
Meanwhile there were more wildflowers to see. Buck’s-horn Plantain which takes its name from its distinctive antler-shaped leaves. Then Pellitory-of-the-Wall, which was once used as a medicine; following the Doctrine of Signatures, if a plant could break into rock and grow, it could surely break up gall or kidney stones.
I am always amazed by the ability of any plants to take hold in such spartan conditions as those here, and wonder how they got here in the first place, especially when little groups of differing species grow in the same spot. One such gathering had Common Storksbill, Herb Robert, Dandelion and flowering Scarlet Pimpernel. Nearby, a healthy-looking clump of Common Mouse-ear had stems flowering and others setting fruit.
One of the flowering treats of this path is the shrubby Tree-Mallow, with this being the only spot along the length of the Bays that I’ve found it growing. (I’d be happy to hear from anyone that knows if I can find it anywhere else within that stretch!) The first plant I found was flowering but looking the worse for wear, its leaves dry and shrivelled, but close by there was a fresh one growing. These are biennial plants, so if it survives, it may flower next year.
I reached the old concrete access ramp, which I don’t imagine gets much, if any use by vehicles of any kind now, judging by the rocks you’d encounter at the bottom. The undisturbed growth of seaweed and algae, still damp and shiny from its last covering of seawater, shows how far the high tide regularly comes up.
10:20 The joyful sound of the Sandwich Terns had accompanied me the length of my walk so far, and I was hopeful that from the ramp I’d get some closer views of them. I did; there was a sizeable group of them, still a fair distance out, almost all with their backs to me, facing the incoming water. This slightly closer view showed up a mix of ages of birds, some juveniles and adults in varying stages of their heads changing from summer to winter plumage.
There was the added bonus of better views of the Herons too. There were definitely two adults and three juveniles, such a lovely sight. One adult was showing some interesting fishing technique too, hunching over and holding out its bent wings to create a ‘parasol’, shading a patch of water to better see or coax in fish.
I zoomed in on two that were standing on small rocks on the sea-edge and was thrilled my frame was photo-bombed by a Curlew flying past!Fishing didn’t seem to be going too well, but the birds didn’t seem too bothered, perhaps, like the Terns, they were waiting for the tide to get a little higher.Back up on the path a sign warns to keep off the rocks. Such advice isn’t always heeded, but the danger presented by them is fairly obvious and I for one wouldn’t risk bringing my adventurous smaller grandchildren along here. I know what I was like myself – climbing them would have been a huge temptation to me!The rip-rap is piled high here and impossible to see over the top of, so no view other that of the Little Orme and Penrhyn Hill, but the compensation is that the extra shelter from the sea and winds has allowed a colourful array of flowering plants to establish. A veritable secret rock-garden flourishes; the number of species isn’t huge, Red Valerian dominates, but there are others, more of some of those seen earlier and also a sizeable Buddleia in full flower.
Brushing past a patch of Red Valerian I disturbed a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly from its nectaring. It flew up, but didn’t go far, settling nearby on a rock; a lovely surprise, I hadn’t anticipated seeing butterflies here.
There were nectaring bumblebees here too, more Buff-tailed males, who unlike their working female kind have only themselves to feed, so can do so at their leisure and keep up their strength just in case a new Queen happens by.
There’s also wild clematis, or Traveller’s Joy, a huge plant, rambling its way up and across the rocks and flowering profusely.
Nearby densely leaved Ivy has taken a hold and it too covers an impressive area.
There’s Great Willowherb in flower too, which I photographed as much for the rock behind it as the plant itself.
10:39 The height of the rip-rap is lower again from here, and you can see the whole of the Little Orme rising above it.
A bright green Polypody Fern looks to be putting its fronds out tentatively
I disturbed another beautifully fresh Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, which again left a Red Valerian flower and landed on a nearby rock. It was opening and closing its wings to try to warn me off as I watched it, while touching the rock surface with its proboscis. I wonder if it was testing for salt or whatever other minerals butterflies often seek. These are one of our most charismatic butterflies, I think.
10:44 The next unobstructed viewpoint is from a set of steps leading down to the rocky shore. The view to the regimentally straight lines of wind-turbines lining the horizon is clear and the sea blue and gently textured. However, the scene changes dramatically on windy, stormy days when the sea pounds the shore in huge waves and foamy water is funnelled up the steps, sometimes splashing right to the top.
The only occupant of this stretch of shore was a lone Great Black-backed Gull staring across the waves.
10:44 The path narrows and peters out as you near Penrhyn Bay and for the last few metres you are actually walking along the base of the sea wall. It also passes close to an unpleasant-smelling drain, or what may even be a sewer outlet. Usually, as today, this can be passed quickly, but I have lingered to watch Pied Wagtails chasing flies here on a couple of occasions. From this angle I always think Penrhyn Bay, backed by the quarry-altered bulk of the Little Orme and much of its shore covered with a deep layer of almost-white stone chippings, has an almost other-worldly appearance.
It certainly doesn’t look promising as a place to find wildlife. But as is so often the case, first looks can be deceptive. At the end of the path is a flat area of land, sparsely covered with short grass and bordered by rip-rap, which forms a breakwater.
The first wildflower I found was one I recognised as a spurrey, but I wasn’t sure which one. Checking later I’m fairly sure it’s Lesser Sea Spurrey, a new one for my list.
Almost every gap, nook and cranny of the breakwater has a plant growing from it, mainly Sea Beet and Sea Mayweed, but there’s also Sea Campion and back nearer the wall, Curled Dock and Ragwort.
Walking back towards the wall I caught a glimpse of a bird moving around on the rocks. My first thought was Linnet, as this has often been a good place to see them, but they are usually in a small flock and I could only see the one.
I moved to a spot from where I could zoom in without frightening it away, and saw it was a Wheatear; from its mostly buff and brown plumage, either a female or a first-winter juvenile male. It was lovely to see, but a little bit sad too as it means summer’s coming to an end and they are preparing to leave our shores to spend the next six months or so in sunnier climes.
Turning my attention back to the wildflowers, from a patch in front of the wall I added Common Mallow and more Red Valerian to my list. There was also Greater Plantain, Perennial Sow-thistle, Cat’s-ear and a clump of Michaelmas Daisies just beginning to open their flowers.
There are some good clumps of Ragwort too, but despite all of these wildflowers on offer to insects, there were very takers; just a very few bumblebees.
On the Penrhyn Bay shore side of the breakwater, where the stone chippings are banked up and piled deeply, plants are colonising as they would a sand dune and I wonder if they will have a similar stabilising effect. There’s a small amount of Marram Grass, in flower now so it looks as though it’s establishing well and the patches of green in my photograph are mostly Sea Campion.
There is a good amount of the Sea Campion here, much of which has the expected white petalled flowers, but interestingly there are also a significant number of plants that have completely pink flowers.
The peace is broken by a loud mechanical buzzing and looking out to sea there is a line of fast-moving Jet Skis cutting across the bay. They probably originated at the water-sports centre at Porth Eirias on Colwyn Bay, so were hopefully being supervised and watching out for the local Grey Seals.
11:16 The activity and the fact that it was getting increasingly warm made me aware that time and the tide were moving on and in and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get some more and hopefully closer views of the Terns, and maybe even the Herons. So back along the narrow path at the base of the sea wall, from where I could see above me there were a good number of people on the Prom walking in this direction.
Viewed from this direction you can see better the extent of the lovely Red Valerian flower border; it is quite possibly the best display of it I’ve ever seen
There was yet another Small Tortoiseshell butterfly
and a patch of fern, this one Wall Rue, which I hadn’t noticed on my way past earlier on.
Growing round the bend; Red Valerian, Hypericum, Traveller’s Joy and Ivy, all as mentioned previously, but again, a better view from this side. There was Michaelmas Daisy here too.
11:30 The incoming tide had brought the Herons and the Sandwich Terns in closer as I’d hoped and I risked walking about half-way down the steps, where I could get a good view of them while managing to be half-concealed by the rocks of the rip-rap. These views of the Heron family are probably the best I’ve ever had of these amazing waders.
The views of the Sandwich Terns were good too, although I wasn’t quite tall enough to see properly over the rocks and ‘lost’ the bottom of a few images. They were good enough to make out their varying states of plumage in a bit more detail though, with some being more advanced in losing their black caps than others. It’s great to see so many juveniles too.
The length of path from here back to the Point is noticeably more stark, but I like the shapes and patterns of shade and shadow created by the recurved wall and lengths of iron railings, which change according to the degree and angle of sunlight. The structure as a whole is a pretty impressive feat of engineering and construction, although under ever-increasing pressure from the might of storms and rising sea levels.
I find the rocks of the additional rip-rap defences fascinating too. They come in and array of differing surface textures and many are patterned with seams and veins of minerals; such as glistening quartz, the verdigris of copper and rusty red iron. Some have traces of ancient seashells and many are encrusted with lichens.
I took a last look at the shore from the access ramp where a Herring Gull sat comfortably enjoying the sunshine atop an oddly pudding-shaped rock
and a small number of Oyster Catchers were passing the time preening, resting or foraging on the sea edge.
A Cormorant flew low over the sea in the direction of the Little Orme. There’s a sizeable colony of them based there, and birds racing back and forth are a regular sight throughout the year, but I always love to see them.
11:50 Almost back where I started from and the roadside is full of parked cars. I’d passed a good number of people already and more were heading towards me on foot and on bikes. I hoped they’d all enjoy their day here and wondered how many would notice the nature.