The week has been book-ended by two rare species. Monday kicked off with a great white egret, only the second reserve record (and the first to plant its feet firmly on reserve mud). The size of a grey heron, it dwarfs the many little egrets feeding in the Shallow Lagoon, as shown in Adrian Foster's excellent photo. The great white is still present today (Sunday 24th). Aside from its size, its bright yellow bill is distinctive, but a close look shows traces of black at the tip of the upper mandible, remnants of its breeding-season coloration farther south in Europe.
Friday's surprise was a white-letter hairstreak, a scarce butterfly in North Wales, although there is a breeding site a couple of miles northeast of the reserve. It was photographed by Dennis McCann on Friday (22nd), who shared his pictures on Facebook, enabling us to confirm the sighting and add it to our records. It's not the first time that a good digital photo has helped us to add a record to the reserve's list, so please do snap and share - via Flickr, Facebook or Twitter.
The first wigeons and shovelers of the autumn arrived this week, another signal that the northern breeding season is coming to a close. Teal numbers are also on the up, while waders include a couple of hundred curlews, a few black-tailed godwits, dunlins and whimbrels, a single greenshank and green sandpiper, with a little stint reported on Thursday (21st). A skylark on Saturday and common gull on Wednesday (20th) are further signs of autumnal change. A juvenile wheatear present all week retains some downy plumage, which suggests that it hatched not too far from Conwy; a juvenile redstart here on Monday (18th) is also likely to have been a local breeder. Kingfisher has been seen most days this week, while highlights of the previous week include a yellow wagtail and a hooded crow on Saturday (16th), the latter the third reserve record, but perhaps all relating to the same individual that has been in the valley since the start of the year.
There are loads of six-spot burnet moths flying (check the flower heads of knapweeds and field scabious), and the many black-and-yellow striped caterpillars on ragwort suggest that we'll have plenty of cinnabar moths emerging in the coming weeks. A few migrant silver-Y moths have been spotted this week, the first common darter dragonflies, and gatekeeper, red admiral, small tortoiseshell and meadow brown butterflies are on the wing.
The week started with our reserve Bioblitz, when lots of pairs of eyes, ears and equipment came to scour the reserve to survey the wildlife on the reserve. With almost 1000 records in, the current total stands at 439 different species recorded in one day, of which 56 species hadn't been recorded here previously. Once we have all the records in, we'll do a separate blog-post about the event, but in the meantime, you can see details of what we recorded on the Cofnod website.
Further small signs of Autumn migration came this week in the form of green sandpiper and black-tailed godwits (today), whimbrel and dunlin (yesterday), whimbrel and knot (Friday 8th), green sandpiper (Thursday 7th) and greenshank and wheatear (Sunday 3rd). Lots of sand martins have been feeding over the lagoons this week; unlikely to be local breeders, these are probably feeding-up as they make their southward journey back to Africa. These hirundines drew in a hobby last Sunday evening (3rd), a bird that only occurs once or twice a year at Conwy. An adult Mediterranean gull was found last Sunday and was seen intermittently through the week, up to Friday (8th).
Our great-crested grebe chicks are now quite big, almost the same size as the adults, and the mute swan family still contains four chicks.
The sunshine has been hard to find this week, but when it did appear, so did the butterflies, with ringlet, small tortoiseshell and painted lady on Monday (4th). During the bioblitz, we were pleased to see both emperor dragonfly and black-tailed skimmer ovipositing (egg-laying) in our ponds, the latter being the first proven breeding record at the reserve. Thanks to Shirley Bain for capturing a photo of the emperor dragonfly during our survey walk.
Look out for the sea lavender now in flower on the saltmarsh, and there are plenty of other colourful flowers too - check out our blog of 12 species to see here in July.
Last month, I wrote a blog featuring some of the more obvious wild flowers at Conwy that you could see if you visit in June. It proved popular, so here's another one with flowers you might see this month. I haven't repeated any of the flowers from the June blog , but some of those will continue to flower throughout the month, particularly common centaury and yellow-wort, while some bee orchids can also be seen until at least mid-July.
This slender spike of yellow flowers grows in a few places around the reserve, the most obvious being just outside the back door of the Coffee Shop. It has long been used by people, both to dye wool yellow and for its herbal qualities. Anglo-Saxons called it garclive and said that it would heal wounds, snake-bites and warts, and its dried leaves and stem are still used by some people to make herbal tea.
Brackish water crowfoot
If you look in the smaller ponds, and in the Shallow Lagoon as the water level falls in summer, you can see strings of tiny white flowers emerging from the surface. This is brackish water crowfoot, which suits the slightly salty conditions of the coast. It has declined in western Britain in the last century, but seems to do well here perhaps partly because the ponies graze the pond edges and scuff up the ground.
Broad-leaved everlasting pea
This is an introduced species, but I've included it because there is one obvious patch of these flowers along the estuary path, close to Benarth Hide, and we are often asked what it is! It's a climbing species, which has escaped from gardens, but is now widespread in southern Britain, northwest England and the North Wales coast.
This is one of several low-growing yellow flowers on the reserve. Superficially similar to a buttercup or rockrose, the trailing stems of the cinquefoil can be found in the grazed areas at the southern part of the reserve. It is the food plant of caterpillars of the grizzled skipper butterfly, which is now rare in North Wales and does not occur at Conwy.
Tall stands of great willowherb grow at the southern end of the reserve, close to the Conwy Valley rail line. It's related to the more dominant rosebay willowherb, but it has fewer flowers on each stem, rather than the huge spike of rosebay willowherb flowers. Great willowherb's old name was Codlins-and-cream. Codlins were cooking apples, and it probably got the name from the petals, which are rosy on top and creamy white beneath.
This tiny pink flower can be found from early Spring to late Autumn, usually at the base of larger bushes. It's a type of geranium and was used as a remedy for toothache and nosebleeds, while its odorous freshly-picked leaves are said to repel mosquitoes when rubbed on your skin. It is named after St Robert, a French monk and herbalist who lived around 1000 years ago.
Look for this delicate flower near the footpath just beyond the Bridge Pond, behind the Coffee Shop and at the base of the sea wall along the estuary path. It used to be stuffed into straw mattresses, especially in the beds of women soon to give birth, since the smell was believed to kill fleas. Its flowers smell of honey, so not surprisingly attracts bees and flies, and as a dried flower, it was used to give Double Gloucester cheese its rich colour.
This was a prolific flower of damp meadows, and got its English name because it was used to sweeten mead, a popular drink in Medieval times. You can find it in several spots around the reserve - look by the footpath near Benarth and Carneddau Hides for example. Get down and give it a sniff: the flowers have scent of marzipan, and the leaves of pickled cucumber! It's a great pollinator, so there are usually hoverflies around its frothy flowers.
A member of the mint family, this has long used as a balm for cuts and bruises, until at least the mid 20th century. It grows in the grazed areas of the reserve, and alongside the trails that are regularly trampled, as it is easily overpowered by stronger grasses and bramble. It often grows in garden lawns and is used by many insects, including moths, so don't try to get rid of it: love thy selfheal!
This is a climbing member of the pea family, often growing out of the thicket of grasses and creepers at the base of bushes - look for it along the Discovery Trail and near Carneddau Hide. It's a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies, and is also known as cow vetch because it is grown as a forage crop for cattle.
This grows in a few clusters near the reserve entrance, but hardly anywhere else on the reserve. It likes sandy, disturbed soil, and as the flowers come out, it attracts bees and flies; painted lady butterflies especially like it. The name may come from the long red stamens that protrude from the flowers like a snake's tongue.
Deadly nightshade is notorious for being poisonous, but woody nightshade is far less so. Its bright red berries do contain solanine (which leads to vomiting), but they taste so unpleasant that you'd be unlikely to eat them anyway (its other English name is bittersweet). It favours shady areas, and seems to do well at Conwy on the edge of the reedbed. Look alongside the boardwalk and among the grass to the sides of the trail between here and Tal-y-fan Hide. The flower petals reflex behind the central yellow cone to give them a bell-like appearance.
Photo credit: thanks to Colin Metcalfe for the photo of agrimony.