As snow and ice cover the eastern counties of Great Britain, Wales is bathed in celestial light — for a trice.
It’s chilly with a strange east wind (of change, perhaps). The prevailing wind here is nearly always wet and westerly — it brings our weather from the Atlantic and snow storms from America — not so today, its coming from the Urals (I’ve got my Russian hat on.)
The sheep have not been gathered in, against the storm, but wait in disgruntled groups for fresh silage, the sweet smell of which precedes the shepherd on the crisp cold air.
Our valley is muted in the winter shade but the tops are bright, scoured dry by the icy wind.
which sends the turbines spinning and brings the snow ever closer — unless it all drops on England first!
A few days ago we visited Anglesey and on our way home we stopped at Cemlyn Bay (it was on our way and there was a little red bird on the map so we thought we’d have a look). The bay has a strange eliptical shingle beach like the Chesil Beach but a perfect curve. At first we thought it was man-made — something to do with the atomic power station on the Eastern promontory but it is natural. There is a brackish lagoon behind this pebble bank.
Walking along the bank we were struck by the unfamiliar plant life — Sea Kale, Sea Campion, Sea Beet and Thrift.
At either end there were clumps of sweet smelling purple flowers which I assumed was the sea lavender that the information board boasted, but no, it is Wild Thyme. There was lots of Ragwort and Bird’s-foot Trefoil with many yellow and black striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth.
The Cinnebar Moths are protected from predation by absorbing the toxin from the ragwort that makes them foul tasting. When we were children one rarely saw Ragwort as it was zealously sought out and destroyed by farmers as it was known to cause liver failure and death in horses. The toxic alkaloid, Pyrrolizidine, is metabolized by the liver which it gradually destroys — however, nowadays the risk is not thought to be high as the dose needed is great — still, best kept out of pasture and hay.
There were lots of moths as well: Six Spot Burnet Moths, Zygaenafilipendulae (not Cinnabar Moths which are similar in colour but a different pattern).
Burnet Moth Caterpillars feed on Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil — interestingly this also contains a toxin, a cyanogenic glycoside which when chewed produces cyanide. This also protects them from predation as they are said to release cyanide when attacked.
As we walked around the bay the noise of chattering birds became louder, not gulls, but thousands of terns — clouds of them, swooping and swerving over the lagoon. As we got nearer we could see hundreds perched on rocks and a weir and standing at the edges of the water.
Common Terns with red bills, black at the tip, and Arctic Terns with plain red bills. Distinguishing these birds is easier when there are so many, together at close quarters, when one can compare them easily.
Sandwich Terns breed here in large numbers (third largest breeding colony in the UK), they are a little bigger with black bills with yellow tips.
All the time there were birds flying over us to fish at sea and coming back carrying fish and feeding young.
Walking out onto the headland we heard a strange sound, a mellow moaning, from out on the distant rocks where the surf was breaking,”I wonder…” said Bill raising his telescope, “Yes, Grey Seals!” They were lying like great curved pods, balanced on semi-submerged rocks with heads and tails in the air, waiting for the incoming tide.”
On our way back we met the Reserve Warden, I asked her about the strange walled area — was it military? She told us about the eccentric millionaire between the wars who bought the farmhouse that stands within the peculiar 20 foot ramparts. She said he had the walls built during the depression to provide work for local people.
For his birthday I bought Bill a book — Early Birds and Boys in Blue by Phillip Jones — A century of Radnorshire aviation. On the night we returned from Cemlyn he was reading about the pioneer aviator, Vivian Vaughan Davies Hewitt, the first man to fly from Holyhead to Dublin in 1912. When Hewitt retired from flying he had moved to Cemlyn Bay, immersing himself in the bird-life and creating the walled sanctuary upon which we had just stumbled and where the wild thyme grows.
Since the slight relaxation of the Corona Virus Lockdown in Wales we have renewed our search for the elusive chough. There are more in Wales than anywhere else in the UK but still probably only just over 200 pairs, mainly in coastal areas where they feed on invertebrates associated with grazing animals. They like a short sward and lots of creepy-crawlies in the droppings of the animals that crop the grass.
This time we went looking on Anglesey in North Wales. Almost the moment we got out of the car we were treated to a flypast — 16 birds all calling out their name!
We followed the flock to the coastal path where we could watch them on the rocks of the high cliff face.
This has been an exceptional summer in Wales and we have been out and about in the fields and pasture much more than previously and I am always commenting on the lack of the usual infuriating insects — this may be due to the hot, dry spring but we notice it more markedly in the grazed areas where one might expect to be pursued by a cloud of flies — not this year. I do wonder if the amount and efficacy of the pour-on, long-acting insecticides that are almost universally used on farm animals now are impacting on the bio-mass of insects. If so where will this leave the other creatures in the food chain — like the chough.
Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) used to be called Goatsuckers because they hung around goats and other domestic animals and as they seemed to do them no harm it was assumed that they fed on the milk of these animals. They do not. They eat insects especially moths that fly at dawn and dusk and sometimes throughout the night.
Maybe they picked the occasional fly from a sleeping mammal but modern pasture hosts far fewer insects than it did now that we Click our stock — spray them with long acting insecticide. If you want to see Nightjars today (or rather tonight) you need to go to the moors or a grazed heath but what they like best is recently felled and re planted conifer forest but you must start by listening. Spotting birds at night is a thankless task but male Nightjars announce themselves with a loud churring — a strange jarring, mechanical sound, each one modulating its chur slightly differently.
The first time I heard one, I was out lambing on a hillside just after dark, I had no idea what it was — I wondered if it was a chain saw up in the woods.
Last week Bill and I went up into the forestry at dusk and listened. True to form, just as we had given up and were wending our way home we heard the first chur. It was from the edge of a newly planted pine plantation around the clear-felled area we call the “Dead Zone”, where the mature pines have been cut leaving stumps and a matrix of dead sticks and broken branches tangled around ditches of stagnant water in a post-apocalyptic landscape. This whole area above our village has sections of pine wood at different stages of growth. As we stood, one bird would fall silent then another further along the margin would take up the call — all along the edge of a new plantation.
Night was falling fast and we headed for home across the Dead Zone, aware that large bats were all around, swooping overhead making a strange eerie sound as they passed close by.
On the longest day we visited again — at 10:15pm we started to be treated to churring from all around the amphitheatre — the felled clearing surrounded by young trees — the midges were biting as the land darkened and the purple hill in the distance seemed to grow against the fading light and the new moon appeared. “Not much chance of seeing one now,” then suddenly a giant swift came out of the dark, right in front of us, looping and swerving after its aerial prey — just a few feet above our heads — not a bat, after all — but a Nightjar!
This secretive, almost mystical bird, is having a come back — its numbers increasing — in the hilltops of Wales, where the forests rich in insect life are felled in rotation opening up the habitat so that these amazing birds can manoeuvre in open skies above the forest floor where they nest and rear two broods before heading back to the Congo, almost invisible as their camouflage is so good. This is an American cousin, very similar, that we almost trod on in Texas — look carefully — can you see him?
Here she is under a strangely blue sky, for Wales– Mother Magpie, unlikely heroine of my last blog — fighting to save her two (there may have been more) fledglings. They are both alive and she and Father Magpie are still feeding them. The Sun is still shining:
This is one of the chicks — having a flying lesson with Mum, fully fledged but smaller than the adults and with a shorter tail. At night they roost close to their original nest, next to the telegraph pole.
But look at this —
Last evening at dusk, not 10 meters from our door, waiting for the light to finally fade — Tawny Owl bides her time.
While we blustered about trying to find the tripod, she flew away and this morning the head count was the same — but she’ll be back!
We know it must be spring because the cock pheasants are rutting, fighting beak and nail while the hens pretend not to notice. These two are spoiling for a fight —
and it all kicks off!
Getting quite violent but balletic!
After several skirmishes the newcomer takes off with indecent haste leaving the resident cock to strut about guarding his territory while the eight females under the bird feeders, seemingly oblivious, continue to excavate the ground for peanuts thrown down by the picky nuthatch.
One hundred yards further up the valley another drama enfolds as the unusually sunny weather is drying out a shallow pond threatening the lives of several thousand tadpoles.
Enter International Tadpole Rescue with a bucket and dust pan!
All re-homed to a bigger pond further up the valley.
Over the road in our neighbors pond things are equally torrid as the toads, who pair later than the frogs, are only now laying their spawn. Here they are, photographed by Sue Whitehead (all rights reserved).
See how different the toad spawn is from the more familiar clumps the frog spawn.
We know that the mud at the bottom of these ponds is full of ferocious dragonfly nymphs and hungry newts and the surface today was sparkling with the ripples of a hundred pond skaters excited by the prospect of a juicy tadpole. How many adults will emerge from all this spawn?
When everything you know seems under threat you start to realize what really matters. Here’s a tribute to our local baker.
They make bread in the old fashioned way from simple ingredients — just flour, water, yeast and salt. Here’s some dough proving, slowly — waiting to be put into crocks…
and baked into delicious, crispy wheat or rye sourdough bread. There are wholemeal wheat, rye and spelt loaves and “Llanidloes specials” with the magic cheesy crust. There are olive ciabatte, Chelsea buns and almond croissants.
Baked each day and delivered to local shops. No plastic wrappers, tiny carbon footprint, no waste — they sell out every day but nothing for the birds as the humans fight for every last crumb!
I really want to see choughs in the wild. Delicate crows with fine scarlet beaks and feet. There are choughs on Bardsey Island, Enlli in Welsh .
Here is a wikimedia map of Wales to show the location of Bardsey Island, in the Celtic Sea, a couple of miles from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.
Below is what you see as you set out from Porth Meudwy.
I had waited 4 days for the sea conditions to be suitable and now they were — I was off to hunt the chough.
Colin the boatman, a local farmer, told us that this year was the first for thousands of years in which no one had overwintered on the island. Not so many years ago the population was about 80 — now they are mainly summer visitors.
As we arrived the tide was coming in and the grey seals on the beach were starting to bob around in the rising water, the larger ones, I guess male, lolling in the ripples making a soulful siren call which reminded me of the spiritual reputation of the island where 20,000 saints are said to be buried — Celtic saints.
Until the time of Henry VIII there had been a monastery on the island and it was a place of pilgrimage, three visits to Bardsey were equivalent to one to Rome. Presumably punters paid well for such potent indulgence and being buried there was de rigeuer for anyone with ambitions of canonisation!
The boatman told us to climb the mountain for the views and I did — no one else did. It was steep and painful and the only other people I saw there were two separate elderly ladies who were staying on the island, both walked with sticks and addressed me in Welsh, pointing out the landmarks. You can see the Mountains of Wicklow and the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland on a clear day. I could see Cardigan Bay all the way to Pembrokeshire and the nearby Llyn peninsula with Snowdon in the distance and the burrows of the Manx shearwaters but no choughs. “What, not seen a chough! They are usually here — must be nesting.”
By 3pm the waters around the island were getting choppy and the trusted boatman would not risk our precious lives to view the puffins from the sea but seeing our disappointment he kindly took a detour and showed us the Ynes Gwylan Puffin Colony on the two little isles off Aberdaron.
As we approached the plump little birds started whizzing overhead showing the white flashes of their flanks as they flew ahead of us to land in the water and dive for sand eels.
Safely back on land I drove to the tip of the peninsula where I had been told that choughs hang out but all I found was a hungry herring gull and a farewell view of Bardsey Island.