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  • Green is the colour

    Chiffchaff (Anthony Pope)

    For me, green is the colour of spring time, of blackthorn bushes bursting into leaf, the yellow flower-heads of the cowslips pushing through the green crown of leaves, and the first shoots of this year's reed growth poking their heads above the water's surface, amid the straw-coloured stems of last year's reeds.

    Of course, green is also the international symbol for 'go', and this week it seems that the traffic signals somewhere in southern Europe were switched on. The chiffchaffs were, as usual, first to arrive, with the first one seen on 8 March, and now there are more than a dozen singing around the reserve. Next came sand martins, with the first birds on 14 March, and small numbers of birds on most days since. Then came the first swallows, on the early date of 22 March and the first wheatear on 24 March - we've been surprised by how few wheatears have been seen, the second was only this morning.  Waders have also started to arrive, with the first little ringed plover today, and several black-tailed godwits too. With southeasterly winds over the next few days, we're hoping and expecting more arrivals this week. If the skies are clear, look up for ospreys - one flew over Llandudno Junction yesterday (28th), which almost certainly came over the reserve.

    Green is the colour of a female crossbill, and I was delighted to find one, and then a red male, perched in the top of an elder bush on the Ganol Trail on Monday morning (24th).  A few are heard flying over each year, but we think that these may have been the first to land on the reserve. These too are migrants, but moving within Britain or from the near-continent, back to their forest breeding habitats. Similarly, we've seen more meadow pipits, siskins and a red kite (Wed 26th), which may be a migrant.

    Green is the smart head colour of the shelduck, whose numbers are building up on the estuary and the lagoons - there have been over 50 some days.  They gather here before heading into the hills to nest, in an old rabbit burrow. Many of our other ducks are winter visitors, so they have been shipping out: we haven't seen a pochard for several weeks, we were down to just two goldeneyes by Thursday (27th) and both the overwintering female scaup have left, though the smart male is still on the deep lagoon.

    Green is the upperwing colour of the lapwings, which are now displaying regularly, alternately flashing the green and white as they tumble towards the ground. We only seem to have three, perhaps four, pairs this year, and our survey work through the spring will monitor their progress.  A great crested grebe has arrived on the deep lagoon, where a pair bred last year, so we're hoping for its mate to turn up soon.

    Within the green water of the ponds (okay, I'm struggling with this whole green thing now), the first tadpoles have emerged from the clumps of frogspawn. We've only had one real frost all winter, so hopefully the spawn and tadpoles will survive. The sunny days have been bringing more stoat sightings too, though with no discernible pattern: they've been seen along the estuary, around the wildlife garden and near the Coffee Shop, where hundreds of cowslips are flowering. We've not had many reports of butterflies, but small tortoiseshells do seem more abundant so far, which is great news as it's one of the species that has become scarcer.

    This is a great time to get outside and enjoy the amazing changes that nature gives us.  Time to stop reading this and go see!

  • Is this the last blog of winter?

    Tomorrow is St David's Day, our national day, and there seem to be plenty of daffodils already blooming in the Conwy Valley, which always signals to me that our spring is early. The hedgerows already have that faint hue of green that, if the weather remains mild, is a prelude to the blackthorn bursting into blossom over the coming weeks. With news of swallows and sand martins in southern Britain, it's easy to be impatient for spring to arrive, but let's take it slowly and enjoy one of the best times of the year.

    Here are a few signs of spring that we've noticed this week

    #1 Frogspawn: the children who came to Muddy Puddle Club on Tuesday had a great watery-themed time, and they spotted the first frogspawn in the pond while they were looking for underwater insects. It's the first time in four years that the pond hasn't frozen solid, so we hope that we don't get a late frost that jeopardises them transforming from eggs to tadpoles to frogs.

    #2 Lesser black-backed gulls: you might think of swallows or cuckoos as the portents of spring, but often the first returning migrants that we see at Conwy are lesser black-backed gulls. Unlike the resident herring gulls, the LBBs leave us in autumn and start to return in February. The British Trust for Ornithology have been tracking their travels from a breeding colony in Suffolk, demonstrating that some go to southern Spain and North Africa, and others stay closer to home (see here for the details and a feature about the project on BBC1's The One Show). We assume that Welsh-breeding birds do something similar, and now they're back.

    #3 Stonechats: again, you might think of stonechats as resident, but in fact about half Britain's breeding population heads south to Europe and North Africa; it's a sensible strategy: although the resident birds might be first to occupy the best territories following a mild winter, if the weather had been snowy and frozen, the stayers might have perished. As it is, the stonechats we've seen hear this week (up to four reported along the estuary) are probably birds that have wintered along the coast and are now starting to move back into the uplands.

    #4 Coltsfoot: this is a small yellow flower that is one of the first to appear at the sides of the trails - it's easy to mistake for a small dandelion. It's also known as butterbur or coughwort, because it supposedly had healing properties for colds and flu (but actually contains toxins, so don't put it in your tea). Being one of the first flowers to appear, it'll provide sustenance for the first bees - though we haven't spotted any yet.

    But March can be a deceptive month, and we - and nature - know that it can have a cold sting in its tail.

    Elsewhere on the reserve, our three scaup are still here, now in fine breeding plumage, but for how much longer? There are just a few goldeneyes and little grebes remaining, while a great crested grebe on the estuary was unusual - will a pair return here to nest, we wonder? A kestrel has been regularly hunting near the Coffee Shop, which is a bit unusual for here, and also notable are several sightings of rooks feeding on the pasture or perched in trees - we usually only see them flying over.  Lots of songbirds are tuning up, and it's a particular joy to hear many song thrushes - including one that is mimicking a chough, a bird that doesn't occur here regularly, so has the thrush moved here from somewhere along the coast?

    The weather forecast for this weekend looks okay, so celebrate St David's Day in the great Welsh outdoors.


  • Rising waters

    It'll surprise no-one that the continued rain and storms have dominated this week. Principally, our thoughts are with all those affected by the serious flooding in southern Britain, particularly in the Somerset Levels where RSPB staff, volunteers and supporters live.  I've heard some rather odd things said about flooding, farming and why all this has happened, but here are three things worth a read if you want a clearer picture:

    • The RSPB's view of dredging in the Somerset Levels - Martin Harper's blog
    • A vision of the future for the Somerset Levels, shared by farmers, local authorities, government agencies and conservation charities
    • Comments by the Chief Scientist at the Met Office suggesting a link between climate change and the frequency and intensity of this winter's stormy weather

    Thankfully, we've had nothing on the scale of southwest England's weather, but our own rainfall records shows that last winter we had 44.1 cm of rain between 1 October and 9 February, and this year we've had 59.5 cm over the same period. That's 35% more rain, compared to 2012/13 (which itself was wetter than average).  After last summer's dry weather, we did pump into the Shallow Lagoon for a while, but it quickly became clear that nature was doing the job for us, and the level is now as high as we've seen it for years, with some of the lower islands submerged. It won't get much higher in this lagoon, however, as it falls over the top of the sluice into the Deep agoon, with its much greater capacity.

    The deeper water has meant that many of the diving ducks have moved nearer to the Coffee Shop. Our three long-staying scaup, for example, along with some of the pochards, goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers. The teal, however, have mostly gone elsewhere, probably to shallow floods in fields elsewhere in the Conwy Valley, and we haven't seen a pintail since 30th January.

    Our bird feeders have been very busy this week, particularly the ones in the Wildlife Garden that are more sheltered from the wind.  Several smart bullfinches have been prising seeds from the feeders, a great spotted woodpecker has been visiting regularly and siskins are in the tall alders nearby. A firecrest has been several times over the last fortnight, usually near the railway line but occasionally near the Bridge Pond, most recently last Sunday (2nd), the same day as a woodcock, our second of the winter. A kestrel has been hunting the flooded paddocks, looking for mice and voles that have been flooded out of their burrow, while a merlin has reported a couple of times, most recently on Tuesday (4th)

    We have a great opportunity coming up at Conwy, as we are recruiting a Visitor Experience Manager, a new post for the reserve. Details are on our website, and the closing date for applications in 28 February.