September is always a fruitful month. Fruitful because the reserve is rich in the autumn fruits, with blackberries and rosehips especially plentiful this year. and fruitful because autumn migration peaks, with lots of birds heading south - some departing, others arriving.
There have been lots of waders this week, feeding on the muddy edges around the lagoons. The Shallow Lagoon, and the muddy margin in front of the Benarth Hide have been particularly good. Two spotted redshanks have been since Monday (8th), and are still present today. Up to six little stints have been here, with one still here today, smaller even than the dunlins. A couple of curlew sandpipers have been here since Friday (12th). And add to that knot (today), a garganey (Thursday 11th to Saturday 13th) and increasing numbers of snipe and wigeon, it really has been a great week to go birding on the reserve.
Some migrating birds are making smaller, local movements. Often, these are the changes we understand the least. For example, a Cetti's warbler was found here this morning. This is a skulking bird of the scrub, usually found near water. It's unusual among warblers in that it's a resident bird (apart from Dartford warbler and a few chiffchaffs, most of the rest of the family head south in autumn). But Cetti's warbler is not resident at Conwy, and it's been recorded fewer than 10 times since the reserve was created. The nearest breeding birds are at wetlands in Anglesey and the Llŷn Peninsula, but could this have come even farther?
There are plenty of chiffchaffs here at the moment, some singing as though it's spring, and over the last few days, garden warbler, sand martin and wheatear have all been spotted. Will these be the last of the year? Blackcap, reed and sedge warbler are still here too, and should stay on for another week or more.
Grey wagtails have been more prominent recently, seen daily, and a couple of kingfishers have been bombing around the lagoons and the estuary. We're hoping that both are back here for the winter. Likewise, water rails are being seen more frequently - check the reedy edges of the lagoons. A firecrest was near the entrance gate on Saturday (6th), but wasn't seen again, while a stoat on the estuary track this morning was the first sighting for a while.
The warm weather has brought out butterflies and dragonflies: speckled wood, red admiral and small copper, and we also received nice photos of black darters, a dragonfly of boggy pools, taken here at the end of August. It's only the second time they have been recorded here - where did they come from?
When we had those months of rain and wind last winter, the lagoons filled with more water than we had seen for years (see, for example, this post from 9 February). Actually, this was pretty good news, as it meant that the islands were surrounded in Spring, making it hard for mammals to get to the places the birds nest. We're still totting up our waterbird breeding counts (there are still young moorhens on the reserve), but we think it's been a fairly good year.
Now that Autumn migration is in full swing, we drop the water levels and keep on gradually dropping them, as the ideal is to expose fresh areas of wet mud suitable for feeding migrant waders each week. Not easy for us when we have no real water level control mechanisms, but the levels are looking great at the moment, and continuing to drop gradually. If you stand in the Coffee Shop, you might think that there's not a lot of water in the Shallow Lagoon, but walk a couple of hundred metres to the boardwalk and you'll find the right amount of water, lots of mud, and lots of waders!
Redshanks are most numerous, but look among them for greenshanks and knot that have been here this week. Small numbers of dunlins feed among them, and while we've been out on the mud this week, we can spot their feeding holes, like someone has been jabbing thousands of knitting needles into the lagoon. A green sandpiper was here on Tuesday (19th), a curlew sandpiper was reported on a couple of dates, and a few common sandpipers are still passing through (photo by Alun Williams on our Flickr page).
The great crested grebe chicks are now independent of their parents, and we think that one has now left the reserve, and we've been regularly seeing three little grebes on the Deep Lagoon. A female-type scaup was on the Deep Lagoon on Tuesday (12th), but was gone the following day.
The heavy rain showers brought lots of chiffchaffs, blackcaps and whitethroats into the bushes around the hides this morning (Friday 22nd), and we're still seeing reed and sedge warblers around the reserve. A swift yesterday (Thursday 21st) might be our last, however. A kingfisher has been spotted several times this week, including in front of the Coffee Shop. Let's hope it becomes a regular visitor through the winter.
We were out on the mud on Monday collecting core samples of mud from different parts of the lagoon. We do this each summer to check on how much food is available for our migrating waders. In particular, we count and measure chironomids, non-biting midge larvae, to calculate the density of tasty wader food. Densities are slightly lower than last year in the Shallow Lagoon and have increased in the Deep Lagoon, but our wetland ecology experts are happy that we've got reasonable levels in both.
Warden Sarah and volunteers Rosie and John were interviewed about this work for BBC Radio Wales Science Café, while Julian was interviewed about the monthly Wetland Bird Survey counts that help us monitor sites that are valuable to wetland birds across Britain. Listen out for it on Tuesday 26th August and Sunday 1st September, when the whole programme comes from the reserve.
The Conwy estuary, as are all good wetlands, is like an airport restaurant, open to visitors from all over the world. But its opening times are determined by the tide. When the tide is rising or falling, the runways are busy, bringing more wading birds to feed; but when the tide is high, the doors close while the muddy shelves are re-stocked, and the birds move on to the lagoons, either to carry on feeding, or to have a rest.
August is one of the busiest months at Conwy International. For example, it tends to be the month with the highest count of curlews, as adults and this year’s juveniles from northern Britain and Iceland stop for a few days – or longer – to feed up. There are several hundred redshanks too; the Vardre Viewpoint, which we built last year, is the best place to see them.Among this week’s visitors to the reserve have been black-tailed godwits, a few dunlins, multiple common sandpipers and green sandpipers, whimbrels, greenshank and a small number of snipe. Our great crested grebe chicks are now quite large, and we’re hopeful that they’ll fledge to adulthood. Little egrets have not quite reached the three-figures of the previous week, but 66 on Monday (4th) was a good count nonetheless.Wednesday (6th) saw a small ‘fall’ of migrating warblers. That’s always a bit exciting, as you never quite know what’s going to pop up next in any bush. There were several garden warblers, lots of blackcaps, and a reed warbler next to the estuary, not a place we expect to see them! A few sand martins have been among the many house martins, and a swift on Sunday (10th) is worth noting, as it could be the last one until April.We’ve had good views of stoats this week, mostly along the estuary, but also on the Ganol Trail, and there have been lots of butterflies, including common blues, and lots of gatekeepers. A few common darter dragonflies are flying, around the dipping pond seems a favourite habitat. There are still plenty of six-spot burnet moths too – look on the thistle flowers or the ragwort; thanks to Adrian Foster for the photo.