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  • Peacocks, coltsfoot and chiffchaffs - the weird winter continues

    red-breasted mergansers (Bob Garrett)

    We've no idea where January went! We've been busy on the reserve, planning our events for this year, making some alterations to the kitchen in the Coffee Shop, cutting back bramble along the trails and creating new micro-habitats, and installing solar PV panels on the roof of the Visitor Centre to generate electricity - continuing towards our goal of reducing our carbon emissions at Conwy.

    While we were busy, nature was skipping 'Winter' and hurtling headlong towards Spring. As well as snowdrops, we've spotted primroses and coltsfoot in flower this week, there are catkins on the alder trees and some of the blackthorn bushes are in full blossom. If it weren't so windy, perhaps we might have seen the first queen bee, but any sensible insect is probably keeping low, sheltered from everything the Atlantic has thrown at us in recent weeks. We have, though, had our first butterfly of the year - a peacock on Friday 22 January!

    Although numbers of teal and wigeon have dropped in the last few weeks, there are still pochards and goldeneyes around, sometimes displaying to each other. A few more shelducks are starting to appear, returning from their moulting grounds in northern Germany, and the red-breasted mergansers are looking equally resplendent.  There are more little egrets too - with grey herons starting to refurbish nests in the Benarth colony on the west bank of the estuary. Two great crested grebes were on the lagoon this morning, one in full breeding 'headgear' but the other in winter plumage. A single barnacle goose has been present this week; it appears to have an injured wing, so may be around for a while. 

    Our winter survey of water rails, undertaken by monitoring their response to a CD of their call, found 20 birds in mid-January, equal to the highest count we've ever had. Also using our reedbed are the starlings, around 10,000 of them roosting each night. On calm evenings, the 'murmuration' has been impressive; visitors have shared some great photos on social media, and judging by the number of younger visitors, children at Ysgol San Sior have all been enthused about starling roosts. A water pipit, presumably one of the birds present before Christmas, was seen last weekend (30th)

    Small birds have been hard to see in the stormy conditions, but bullfinches have become more obvious this week and treecreeper and goldcrest were seen yesterday (4th), but the last sighting of a firecrest was on 24 January. At least one chiffchaff is still overwintering, but siskins have become far scarcer, perhaps having exhausted the supply of alder cones. Choughs have been seen on several mornings, usually a pair or two, flying south to feed on the hills above the Conwy Valley.

    With the half-term not far away, our thoughts are turning to the events we have planned for the week, and if the weather is favourable it's not impossible that the first summer visitors from Africa will start arriving in Britain before the end of this month. We are just left wondering whether there will be any daffodils left in flower by St David's Day!

  • New year, new birds and a new offer for schools in North Wales

    Is it boring to start with the subject of rain? Today is our 60th consecutive day of rain at the reserve - the last dry day here was 11 November! Some of the paths are now pretty wet, and we recommend wellies or walking boots over the next few days. But there is snow on the peaks of the Carneddau mountains and it's certainly colder today, so perhaps we'll start to see a few more birds arriving here from farther north and east.

    The reserve's bird tally was 150 species last year; how many will we see in 2016?

    Our firecrests are still here; we're not sure how many, but they are seen in the reedbed next to the boardwalk, around the Bridge Pond and near the railway, so there are probably four or five. At least one chiffchaff is overwintering, but the Siberian chiffchaff seen last Saturday (2nd) hasn't been seen since. Siskins and lesser redpoll have been seen, but in smaller numbers than before Christmas. A treecreeper has been spotted regularly here over the last few weeks, and a few goldcrests have been seen too.

    The goldeneyes have been on the shallow lagoon this winter, and the males are now actively displaying to the females, throwing back their heads in a sign that the breeding season is just around the corner. A goosander was with the flock of a dozen red-breasted mergansers on the deep lagoon this morning. A short-eared owl was seen flying onto the reserve over the A55 on Friday at dusk, while a kestrel over the Paddocks this morning was the first of the winter.

    Before Christmas, we cut the reeds near the Benarth Hide, and the snipe just love them. You need to get your eye in because they are so well camouflaged but if you look closely, there can be a dozen or more in there.  Not all are quite as showy as the one in Colin Jones' excellent photo posted to our Flickr page. A couple of black-tailed godwits roost regularly with the curlews, while a couple of bar-tailed godwits remain on the estuary. A woodcock was seen at dusk on New Year's Day, the same afternoon that a hooded crow was reported on the estuary. The water pipits that were on the saltmarsh in December haven't been seen since 1 January, but could still be on the estuary.

    Starling numbers have started to increase, with a roost of around 3000 here each night this week. They've been tending to head straight into the reeds, without a spectacular murmuration, but if it goes even colder this week, the fun may start. No sign of the stoats yet this year, but we've recorded otter on our trailcam on several nights in recent weeks, and a weasel was seen on the reserve trails during the week.

    Finally, a couple of other bits of news from the reserve:

    • The Coffee Shop will be closed from Monday to Friday this week, as we are having some work done to the kitchen and having solar PV panels fitted to the roof (of both buildings). The reserve trails, toilets and shop will be open as usual, and the Coffee Shop will reopen next Saturday morning (16th).
    • We are delighted that Michelle Rogers is our new Learning Officer, who started last week. We're taking school bookings for 2016, and the even better news is that the costs of visits to the reserve by primary schools from North Wales (Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham) is being funded by Aldi, which is donating the profit from the sale of plastic bags to the RSPB in order that we can help to connect half a million children with nature (not all at Conwy!). So, schools just have to pay for their transport, and Aldi covers the rest. If you know a primary school teacher in North Wales, why not tell them about our learning programme.  Full details are here.
  • Higher water levels brings us a wisp of snipe

    Snipe (Bob Garrett)

    Thankfully, the Conwy Valley flooding hasn't affected the reserve, except that it's created some new ponds where we didn't have them before. The levels in the lagoons are rising back towards where we want them to be for the forthcoming nesting season, and this has pushed feeding snipe from the reedbeds out into the open. Benarth Hide is a good place to get views of these wonderful waders, with groups of 10 or more together; a jack snipe was reported from here this morning. Did you know that the collective name for snipe when on the ground is a 'walk' and when they're in flight, it's a 'wisp'?

    The shallow lagoon is also hosting as good range of ducks, including goldeneyes, pochard and tufted ducks that, here, are usually found only on the deep lagoon. A couple of great crested grebes are on the deep lagoon. Water rails are also being forced into the open by higher water levels, and you might also see them skittling away from the temporary ponds on the paddocks.

    It's not usually a time of year to see 'migrant' waders, but two bar-tailed godwits on the estuary this morning and a turnstone in front of Benarth Hide on Thursday (23rd) were unseasonal. A barnacle goose on the saltmarsh on Saturday (19th) was also unusual, but must be classed as "of unknown origin".

    Two water pipits were on the estuary for a few days (13th-15th) and may still be in the area, as was a Scandinavian rock pipit (littoralis) - they tend to favour the tideline north of the reserve, approaching Conwy Cob.

    At least two firecrests are still on the reserve today, along with a treecreeper (far rarer here), which has been seen several times in recent weeks. The firecrests will almost certainly be overwintering here, but they are difficult to see on wet and windy days, staying in low scrub to feed where it is more sheltered.

    Look in the alders around the Bridge Pond for siskins, while a lesser redpoll was seen here on Wednesday (23rd). A Cetti's warbler was heard and seen again on Saturday (19th), when a chiffchaff was singing. Song thrushes and robins are also in 'Spring' mode, with their songs creating a dawn chorus this week. Bullfinches have also been very evident, with flocks of half a dozen feeding in scrub at the south end of the reserve.

    The reserve is open every day throughout the Christmas holidays, 9.30am-5pm (coffee shop 10am-4.30pm), and all the trails are open, although we recommend wellies or walking boots as some footpaths are wet. Unfortunately, we have had to close part of the Tal-y-fan Hide, which was vandalised over Christmas, and it will take us a few days to complete the repairs.