As I mentioned in my last blog, I had a bit of a mega day down at Newport Wetlands last week. I think the species count is up to 42ish in the end, when we all compared notes. It was quite some visit.
One of the abiding memories of this time of year is the sky being full of all our African migrants.
We are right at the start of the all too brief visit of the Hirundinidae to our skies. The Hirundinidae family includes House Martins, Sand Martins and the Swallow, all of which can be seen right now. You have a very good chance of seeing House Martins and Swallows from the comfort of your own home no matter where you live, whether that is in a town, village or city. I saw several of them hawking insects in Cardiff City Centre at the weekend.
The Sand Martin, as the name implies, prefer a more coastal habitat or along a river bank. They are the smallest of the three birds. Apart from size the easiest way to identify the House Martin from the Sand Martin is to check the breast colours, the Sand Martin has a distinct bar from its “shoulders”, where the House Martin has a pure white chest.
House Martins are a far more familiar sight to towns and villages at this time of year. They have a habit of building their nests in the eaves of houses from mud, but you can lend a helping hand by buying nest cups from the RSPB shop. If you are lucky to get a pair set up home in your eaves, then you will be pleased to know they have a habit of coming back to the same nest site each year. During the last summer of my employment at my old factory we were fortunate enough to have House Martins nesting just inside the warehouse doors in the eaves. The warehouse boys put signs up to warn people of the nest, and not to shut the roller doors. You then had the sight of fully grown men going all gushy at the sight of a load of yellow beaks appearing over the lip of the nest when the parents came back with food. It really was a privilege to watch. All the chicks fledged successfully.
The most distinct of three of the species is the Swallow, its long tail streamers a very clear clue to the species of the bird. They also have the most wonderful red throats. They fly with the most incredible dexterity, performing twists and turns that seem to defy aviation laws! They are of course very visible when flocks perch on telegraph wires that bisect their feeding ground. They always remind me of notes on a piece of sheet music paper when seen from a distance.
The final aerial acrobat that is in plentiful supply if you look up at the moment is the Swift. It is not a member of the Hirundinidae family but another species, the Apodidae. The Swift is easily recognisable in amongst flocks of Martins by size and shape. They look like sooty coloured flying anchors. They also emit a piercing scream as they fly. There is nothing more spectacular in neither sight nor sound than a flock of screaming Swifts at late evening picking off moths and other insects in the air.
A couple of years ago the wife and I went down to the Sea Wall along the coast from Goldcliff. It was late summer, and the sea wall was alive with Swifts getting ready for their return to Africa. They are only here in the country from mid-April to August. The birds were flying incredibly close to us, sometimes with six feet, before veering away at the last second. It was exhilarating! We ended up lying in the long grass and just let the birds fly around us at breath-taking speed. It is a memory that will live with me for a long time. There is nothing quite like immersing yourself completely in nature!
Sometimes you head out with the camera and binoculars with great hopes and expectations, and come home slightly disappointed. It very rarely happens to me, as I have said countless times in these blogs now, I find the mundane interesting.
Whilst at Newport Wetlands on Wednesday I watched a Dunnock collecting nesting material from the sea wall, if was fascinating to see, and if that was the highlight of my day, I would have been reasonably happy. But Wednesday was not one of those ordinary days!
I went with my wife and met up with my pal Nigel, and as the weather had brightened up, we were there for an all dayer.
The first thing we noticed was the sky was full of aerial acrobats. There were well over fifty assorted House Martins, Sand Martins, Swifts and Swallows. They were all twisting, turning and diving for the hundreds of insects that had taken to the wing. I will be blogging more about these amazing birds next week, but if you get a chance, try and get out and watch some of these amazing insectivores. We stood quietly against a fence and they were flying within six feet at times, just veering away at the last second. I could have honestly stood there all day, and just gone wow, over and over again.
A large bird rose above the level of the reeds and caught our eye, but as is always the case, it dropped back out of view before we could get a good look through the binoculars. We walked on, and stopped to try and get a view of my perennial bogey bird down there, the Bearded Tit. It remained elusive so we walked on to the sea wall, as we rounded the corner; we flushed the large bird we had seen earlier. It was a stunning Short Eared Owl, which was looking for prey in the brambles and undergrowth. We had a fantastic view of it as it took off over the salt marshes. But you know you have had a good birding day when that was not the highlight!
The sea wall was teeming with life and birds. There were more Stonechats and Wheatears than I have seen before. I love Wheatears; they are very similar to one of my all-time favourite birds, the Nuthatch. Wheatears are a ‘catch them while you can’ bird as they are only passing through on a migration route, the window of opportunity is quite small, so to see so many, and for them all to be posing so photogenically was a real treat.
After lunch, we headed back out again, wondering what else we would see. The ticks kept on coming, Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Whitethroat amongst the highlights. I even saw TWO Bearded Tits! The weekend storms seemed to have dropped a wonderful variety of birds onto the reserve.
As were completing the day, we were back at the sea wall again. A group of people were watching a large bird of prey being mobbed by a flock of Shelducks. We thought it was the resident Marsh Harrier at first, but it had a white underbelly. It was hard to see with the sun behind it, and it remained tantalisingly off in the distance. It slowly worked its way around the headland and out of our view. A few people had whispered the O word... Osprey, but we were a bit doubtful, we had all seen a pale Buzzard before, and it was such a long way off it was hard to confirm, but its behaviour wasn’t Buzzard like. It looked like being one of those frustrating sightings you sometimes get that you can’t quite nail down, an almost Osprey tick if you like.
Then, bounding up the path, a group of people who had been on the headland point of the reserve came towards us, they had clear views of the bird and said; “Did you see it … did you see the Osprey?”
What a way to end the day!
We came home with a bird list of 45 birds and one very happy blogger!
There is plenty on at Newport Wetlands and all the other RSPB Reserves in Wales this Bank Holiday weekend. Have look at the website for your local reserve to see if there is anything that may interest you.
With the sweltering weather we have had over the past week, it seems a bit odd to be talking about spring. That time of year has come around again, when the wonder of the natural world is thrust into our living room with all the frivolity that is Springwatch. Once again the show is coming from the wonderful RSPB reserve of Ynys-Hir.
In much the same way that I got thinking about my Grand Slam Of Birds XV rugby team, I started thinking about if Springwatch was hosted by birds, which ones would get the job. So here I give you my presenters*, feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments box below.
*Any likeness to the real presenters is purely deliberate!
The show would clearly need to be fronted by a respected and intelligent host. They would also be prone to occasional bouts of head banging. Their famous shock of hair would also be a talking point. They would have been remembered for being on children’s television when you were younger; imparting their wisdom to a generation. Even their poo would be a talking point, the pellets made up from the hundreds of exoskeletons of the ants that form its diet. I would choose the Green Woodpecker, or Professor Yaffle to be my main front man.
The female co presenter would be a creature of diminutive beauty. This bird always makes you smile when you see or hear it. It has a relative calmness about it, and voice that makes you stop and pay attention; it is one of the best known birds by novices and seasoned bird watchers alike. It still retains that mischievous glint in its eye. I would choose the Robin to co-present with my Green Woodpecker.
My third main presenter would have to be another wise bird, synonymous with the countryside at large, and like Professor Yaffle, one commonly depicted with glasses perched on the end of its nose. It would need to have, dare I say it, a tussled look. It would be known for being slightly boisterous, and getting over excited at times. The Tawny Owl would be my final main presenter of the show.
But what of the guest presenters ….?
From Wales we would need a part time resident of Skomer Island, and one with a wonderful lisping accent. Their Pufflets would bring joy to the nation all week! I am of course talking about the wonderful bird synonymous with that island, the Puffin.
From Ireland I would choose a songster to reflect the wonderful accent. A bird of grace and charm and voice that lifts the soul, it would have to be the Song Thrush.
From England we would have the bad boy of the show, but in a loveable rogue sort of way. This bird would need to be cheeky, a bit of a boy about town, but full of fun and mischief. There is only one bird that fits that bill, and that is the Starling.
Keeping a watch on the chaos that the main avian presenters could cause, we would need someone quite level headed. Surely the Kestrel would fit this bill. Whilst all the others were getting in a flap, there hovering in the background the Kestrel would be rock steady, her eagle eye keeping a sharp look out at the proceedings going on all around. She will of course be able to turn to an old head in the shape of the Bearded Tit if they all get too out of hand.
I think this line up would keep as entertained as the real life presenters, Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Martin Hughes- Games, Iolo Williams, Liz Bonnin and Charlie Hamilton James will be giving us over the next few weeks. I, for one, am looking forward to catching up with the Dyfi Ospreys and their remarkable stories as they return from their migration, and the BTO Cuckoo’s that were radio tagged last year. This year’s show features live footage from inside a Kingfisher nest, and that really has to be something worth looking forward too!
Picture Credits: Tawny Owl fledgling by kind permission and © Nigel Desmond. Robin picture © Anthony Walton