A year soon rolls round and with it the annual pilgrimage to Wales with the Theale Area Conservation Group. A chance to get some great views of species such as Dipper, Redstart, Wood Warbler & Pied Flycatcher amongst a whole host of other welsh specialities. I have been coming on this trip with the TABCG since 2004 and it's certainly the highlight of the spring calendar for me, a chance to see some fantastic birds and enjoy the welsh scenery.
We arrived at Goldcliff with some familiar faces greeting us as we meet up with the rest of the TABCG group, even a Chiffchaff calling from the same tree in the car park just as it has on previous years was in full song. As the rest of the group had already walked the site and the fact that some members of the group were already tucking in to their packed-lunch boxes it was a good time for Roy and I to head off and have a look. We were told that it was a bit quiet but a Spotted Redshank was present on the far side of pools.
As we approached the first screen a light drizzle began, the pools themselves were very quiet and I can't recall seeing them quieter than this on previous visits. A solitary Redshank appeared then disappeared, Shelduck were present along with Lapwing and what looked to be a Plover that disappeared round the back of the main island and out of sight, It didn't reappear. As I scanned through the gloom and around the back of the wetlands a pair of Avocet were being harassed by a Shelduck, this continued until all three took flight and headed off across the wetlands. As I viewed the far side of the wetlands I noticed a small black blob which could be seen hugging the waters edges around the reed beds. It soon became evident that it was a Adult Spotted Redshank, it was a pity we couldn't have had better views of it due to the weather and distance but it was certainly nice to see. Black-tailed Godwit also present. It soon started to rain again and the decision was made to head back to the car and catch up with the other at RSPB Newport Wetlands.
We arrived at RSPB Newport Wetlands and headed out on to the reserve to meet up with the group, it was cold, wet and windy so there would be little chance of us finding any Bearded Tits but try we did. As we walked up the path towards the wetlands Cetti's & Willow Warbler could be heard along with a few Chiffchaff calling from nearby. From the first screen we scanned the reed bed where we had seen them on previous years, Reed & Sedge Warbler were present and could be heard signing from the Reeds, the odd Reed Bunting appeared clinging on to the reeds in the wind but little else. On the water was Little Grebe, Pochard and Tufted Duck, a few Mute Swans, Canada Geese and Coot.
Roy and I continued to the lighthouse to find the group on their return, the tide was in and there was little to be seen and of course the weather was still sh*te. We wandered back to the first screen for one last view before a cup of tea in the visitor centre and got some great views of large groups of Swallows clinging to the Reeds, you know I've never really given it much thought to why they do this? is it to take a breather from all that frenetic energy whilst on the wing? are they watching insects rising from the water and picking them off as they do so? or are they simply getting out of the weather? oh so many questions and so little time!
We made it back to the visitor centre dry but a little cold, a cup of tea was on the menu for some while others perused the shop. We soon met an incredibly nice gentlemen who works at the reserve, in fact I'm pretty sure he is the reserve warden(apologies if I'm wrong), anyway after introducing himself as Matthew Meehan we had a good long chat with him, he gave us a few more sites to visit for next years itinerary and whilst we were chatting I noticed the new Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition. I'm going to digress for a minute so please bare with me as it will all make sense in a minute or so. I've been wondering whether to buy the 2nd edition since it's release and every time I am somewhere where it's on sale I have a look at it, unfortunately these are usually brief glimpses as I flick through the pages. I know all of us will have a variety of favoured bird guides but for me the Collins Bird Guide is the best, I was first introduced to it by my late father back in 2002 ish when he gave me a spare copy of his when I took up birding again. He thought of it so highly he referred to it as his bible and as such I saw it fitting to place his copy in his coffin when he passed away in 2004. It soon became a favourite of mine and is always close to hand, those of you that haven't got a copy then the new 2nd edition would be highly recommended. So anyway back to the RSPB visitor centre at Newport Wetlands where I giving close scrutiny to the 2nd edition and also chatting with the group and Matthew Meehan, I'm thinking to myself which species needed improving in the old edition and I'm soon heading to the Shrike page to see if the Brown Shrike has been updated...... it has and just as I view the pictures in the book the conversation around me turns to the Staines Moor Brown Shrike, freaky moment as nobody saw what page I was on!!!! (I have since bought the Collins 2nd Ed from Amazon at a bargin £8.99) From the visitor centre windows a Cuckoo was found perched on a dead tree bow, it remained in sight for a few minutes giving everybody a chance to see it, we were fortunate as we didn't get to see or hear anymore during the trip. As we left the visitor centre we were halted in our tracks by a singing Lesser whitethroat in the hedge, patiently we waited for it to show which it did before quickly dropping down in to the hedge again, Chiffchaff were present as was a Blackcap singing from the car park.
Our next stop is one of my favourites on the day and has remained a very faithful site over the years to see Dipper. A small bridge with room for one car to pass over at a time straddles a fast flowing river with rock formations pertruding from it's stony bed, the bridge itself has a number of small viewing places along both sides allowing views up and downstream. After leaving the Newport Wetlands amongst wet and cloudy skies it was uplifting to see the sun breaking through the clouds, the glints of sunshine seemed to bring life to the river below and on which we looked down upon. No sooner had we arrived at the bridge a Dipper was spotted below, it sat preening on the rocks at the waters edge giving great views of this fantastic bird before darting under the bridge and downstream, a quick shuffle to the other side of the bridge brought the bird back in to view. I've been trying for as long as I've been coming on this trip to get some decent photos of the Dippers here but due to their inability to sit still for too long they can be difficult to digiscope at the best of times, the fast flowing water doesn't help with the auto-focusing either and the majority of my attempts end up in the recycle bin. I seemed to have a bit better luck this year when I was lucky enough to have a Dipper sit on a rock just upstream from the bridge, I managed to grab a few shots just before it flew off which are certainly my best attempts to date. Also from the bridge a pair of Common Sandpiper were together on the rocks at the waters edge and also the regular sighting of Grey Wagtail. I could stay here all day and watch the Dippers they really are fascinating to watch as they search for food under the fast flowing water but time was ebbing away and it was time to leave for our next destination.
We headed off to Llangorse Lake in Powys with the hope of seeing both Garganey and Whimbrel that had been reported the day before. As were driving along the tight country lanes I suddenly recalled a visit here 2 or 3 years ago when we arrived just as a local church was emptying, it was mayhem as there is very little space to let cars past but luckily we were later this year and had missed the church turn out. As soon as we got to the car park we immediately spotted 6 Whimbrel sat on the waters edge, most of them were preening except one individual who was stood up and obscuring another wader in front of it. Whilst we waited for the unknown wader to show itself I spotted a male Garganey next to one of the nearby islands, it was hiding behind a rock formation and often going out of sight but despite this when it was on show it looked stunning. The unknown wader appeared from behind the Whimbrel and to our delight it was a Bar-tailed Godwit which was a very pleasant surprise, the Godwit remained with the Whimbrel feeding in the grass along the edge of the lake giving really good views and I can't recall ever seeing one so close. The skies above the lake were filled with Swift, Swallow, Sand & House Martins busily feeding on the wing and in the hedgerow next to the car park a Garden Warbler sang at length giving us time to track it down and see it.
Whimbrel & Bar-tailed Godwit.
Whimbrel & Bar-tailed Godwit.
Whimbrel & Bar-tailed Godwit.
I have to say that I love the Welsh countryside, the rolling hills and steep mountainous terrain, the fast flowing streams and rivers and more importantly the vast open desolate spaces devoid of human interference. Maybe it's because of this that our next stop is my favourite part of our trip to Wales. I was inspired the first time I came to the Elan valley, not just because of the bird species that I would see here but the overall grandeur of the place.
Roy and I headed off towards the footpath that leads across the river and zig-zags up the side of the hill on the edge of Cnwch Wood. We hadn't gone far and were approaching the bridge when we heard and spotted a Pipit singing from a tree about 100yards in front of us, it was slightly obscured by branches so we moved to a suitable position to get a better look and were rewarded with great views of a Tree Pipit. It continued singing from the tree before taking flight and rising upwards in full song, once at a suitable height it held it's position in mid-air whilst still singing until it changed song pitch and spiralled back down to the tree. It's been a bit hit and miss over the last few years catching up with them here so it was a good start to the walk, unfortunately only 4 or 5 people from the group saw it as it flew off when a car drove down the visitor centre road.
We continued across the river and to the beginning of the footpath stopping immediately as we neared the gate, a Pied Flycatcher was calling and it was close. We stood scanning the trees whilst it continually called and then suddenly it dropped down from a tree and in to view, we had fantastic views as it flew to the trees beside us and it remained in the area that the rest of the group caught us up and got to see it as well. It had a lot of brown in the wings especially the primaries and some on the head, nape and shoulders, possibly a 1st Summer bird. Frustratingly it didn't sit around long enough for me to get more than a couple of photos at a time which wasn't ideal.
A Redstart called and appeared soon after followed almost immediately by a calling Wood Warbler and a Treecreeper, we hadn't even started up the footpath so things were looking promising. A few hundred yards along the path and a crescendo of Warbler song greeted us, Wood, Garden & Willow Warbler all singing along with Chiffchaff and Redstart, what made life a little easier for us was the fact that many of the trees still had very few leaves on them. They seem to be 2 or 3 weeks behind the trees in the home counties in leaf foliage. By the time we reached the top of the hill we all had seen some great views of the species we set out to see, Goosander, Red Kite, Common Buzzard and Raven added to the sightings but sadly no Tawny Owl or Peregrine this year.
Fox Moth Caterpillar.
Before we head for home we always stop off at a few locations up in the hills near Elan giving us the chance to look for Wheatear, Stonechat and Whinchat. Leaving Elan a pair of Goosander were seen flying over a reservoir and at our final destination both Wheatear and Stonechat were present along with Meadow Pipit. So it was an incredibly long day but despite the initial cold and wet weather it was very enjoyable with some added additions to our usual trip sightings.