Imagine being a chick. For the last few weeks, you've been cosseted in an egg, warmed by the downy feathered lining of your nest and the warm belly of your parent(s). Most birds - generally females - have a 'brood patch' of bare feathers so that eggs and chicks get warmth from the adult's blood vessels.
Then, when you're too big to stay in the egg any longer, you fight your way out of the egg, chipping away the inside of the shell with a little 'egg tooth' a temporary spike on your tiny bill. This world is a very different place now you've hatched, and all seems fine until your Mum gets off the nest, and you feel the chill Arctic winds blowing over you.
That's how I'd imagine the first mallard and Canada goose chicks have been feeling this week, but with plenty of downy feathers of their own, they're well equipped for cold air and cold water. The oystercatcher chicks are still inside their eggs under brooding adults on the islands in the lagoon. Let's hope the weather improves by the time they hatch so that there are plenty of insects for them to eat.
The last couple of weeks has seen all of our remaining summer regulars turn up. Since our last blog, we've recorded our first whitethoat and whimbrel (both 12 April), swift and reed warbler (both 17 April), garden warbler on 21 April and lesser whitethroat on 24th. In fact, whimbrels have been here in good numbers, with counts of 28 on Saturday (23rd) and 31 on Tuesday 19th. Other migrants to occur in number include five common sandpipers on Tuesday this week (26th) and a remarkable 54 wheatears on Tuesday 12th. Another good count was of 237 shelducks on Friday (22nd), gathering in the lower estuary before heading upriver to find a nest in an old rabbit burrow.
April should be the peak wagtail month, but so far only small numbers of white wagtails have been spotted, though a blue-headed wagtail on the deep lagoon islands this morning was a welcome visitor, our first for a couple of years. Large numbers of sand martins are feeding regularly over the water, perhaps their only source of insects in the cold wind. Other scarce visitors seen recently include stonechat on Wednesday/Thursday (20th/21st), a twite on the same two days (which had been colour-ringed on the Dee Estuary in February and is perhaps heading back to the small breeding population in Snowdonia) and a redstart (Tuesday 19th). A spotted redshank was seen on the estuary at high tide over the weekend (22nd-24th) and a few dunlins have been feeding on the deep lagoon islands
Some of our winter birds haven't quite felt the urge to leave yet, with a few teal and gadwall, a pair of wigeon and a male goldeneye still here; a single male pochard was here until last Friday (22nd) and a pair of shovelers until last week.
The warmer, sunny weather last week brought out some early butterflies: comma, speckled wood, peacock, orange-tip, small tortoiseshell, green-veined white and brimstone, and our insect surveys have been finding plenty of bumblebees too. Sarah added a new mining bee species to the reserve list last week, when she found a colony of Clarke's mining bees (Andrena clarkella). Thanks to Richard Knisely-Marpole for taking a series of excellent photos for us. There are lots of common dog violets in flower along the sea wall, and cuckoo flowers (also known as ladies' smock) in bloom around the reserve.
With May just around the corner, there are still plenty more migrant birds to come, more flowers to emerge and lots of insects to hatch. Who knows what you'll find here over the bank holiday...
April has dawned with its typical weather of sunshine and showers. But between the rain and hail, new birds are arriving and Spring bird migration gets properly underway. So, what's the consensus about arrivals so far?
The first sedge warbler (Friday 8th) was earlier than the average, though not our earliest (5th April 2011) - thanks to Dave Williams for the photo. A fly-over yellow wagtail (Sunday 3rd) was very early - our previous first was 14 April 2013 - and the first white wagtail was on 28 March, but April is the month for larger numbers to stop here and feed before they continue their journey to Iceland. The first willow warbler was on Sunday 3rd, two days later than our previous earliest (in 2009, 2010 and 2014). Yesterday morning (Saturday 8th), there were dozens of willow warblers all over the reserve, feeding on the ground and in the reedbeds, a sure sign of birds on the move, brought to earth by overnight rain. By contrast, wheatears have had a slow start to their migration, with just a handful of birds, though there are three along the estuary today.
Good numbers of sand martins have been feeding over the lagoons each day, with smaller numbers of swallows and house martins. The first blackcap was singing its sweet song on Tuesday (5th)
On the water, wildfowl have started their nesting season, and there are now half a dozen Canada goose nests on the islands. Our great-crested grebes have built a nest in reeds opposite the Coffee Shop, and it's in a reasonably sheltered spot, so we hope it will be successful. We rarely see duck nests, so the first sign is fluffy chicks on the water; our first mallard ducklings were spotted on Friday (7th). Our water rail survey this week found six calling birds in the reedbeds.
But April is a cross-over month, so expect to see 'winter' birds for a few weeks yet. A couple of goldeneyes were still here today (Sunday 10th), pochards until Wednesday (6th) and a few wigeons are still here. Passage birds this week include stonechat (Saturday 9th), greenshank (Thursday 7th), water pipit (Wednesday 6th) and lesser redpoll (Tuesday 5th).
Newts, frogs and toads are all visible in the ponds, and there are a few dark-bordered bee-flies during warm and sunny moments. Volunteers Rob and Ruth have started the weekly insect surveys, and found five different species of Queen bee nectaring on the willows this week: buff-tailed, white-tailed, red-tailed, early bumblebee and common carder bee. We've seen a few wasps too!
Typically, as soon as the schools broke for Easter, the weather broke after almost a month without rain. But the rather grotty weekend weather didn't deter people from getting out and seeing wildlife.
This was our first week of 'proper' Spring migration, with small groups of sand martins passing through since the first on Sunday evening (20th), swallow on Wednesday (23rd), wheatear on Saturday and Sunday (26th/27th), and a willow warbler reported yesterday (the latter does seem early but the Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory has already recorded a couple). Several chiffchaffs are now singing around the reserve, and house martin seen on Friday and over the weekend is our earliest ever sighting.
A jack snipe has been seen intermittently from the Coffee Shop, among a small group of snipe, while the wintering water pipit remains (to Sunday 27th at least). Waders are starting to pass through, with black-tailed godwit yesterday and a ringed plover on Saturday. A lesser redpoll has been seen throughout the week around the wildlife garden and boardwalk, amazingly 'tame', and a goldcrest has been singing in the same area - last year, one held territory here; will it do the same again?
On the lagoons, shelduck numbers are increasing, a few more shovelers have turned up, and a couple of pochards remain, but the goldeneyes have gone (last on Sunday 20th). A second-summer Mediterranean gull was a good find on Friday (25th). The starlings are still murmurating, but now we're in British Summer Time, they don't start until around 7.15pm. Over the next couple of weeks, we expect numbers to diminish as they head back towards Russia.
Queen bees are the first to venture out, looking for a suitable place to found a colony, and we've seen a couple of buff-tailed this week. Still no butterflies - surely the next sunny day will bring our first. But the ponds have been alive with spawning frogs and toads - the Bridge Pond is the best place to look, but we've seen them in both the main lagoons too, hopefully a sign of good water quality. Thanks to Brian Mottershead for sharing his frog photo on our Flickr page (we think it's doing pull-ups in its own gym).