Have you ever looked at the measuring pole in the water in front of the Coffee Shop and wondered what we actually use it for? At this time of year, our conservation management focuses on pumping plenty of water onto the Shallow Lagoon so that we have enough to keep us going through the summer. The only natural source of water for our lagoons is rainfall (they are completely separate from the estuary), but this isn't enough to fill the lagoons up again over the winter if we've had a dry summer like the last one. So, instead, we have to pump water in from the Afon Ganol, the small stream at the far boundary of the reserve. The measuring pole helps us to decide what water levels are best for birds using the lagoons at different times of the year, and when we need to start and stop pumping. Without being able to predict the weather for the next nine months, it's a bit of a juggling act to decide what water level to go for on the lagoons by the end of the winter - we want just enough so it will last the summer (the Afon Ganol dries out in summer, so there's no option for pumping then), but not so much that we don't get any nice mud exposed for feeding waders at migration time. From past experience, we've tried to set the levels that we think will allow this to happen, and now we just have to get there! We've pumped on nearly 40 cm of water in the last month or so, and we're hoping we'll manage to get another 20 cm on before the end of February, and then we can relax, knowing that there's a good chance we'll last through until we can pump again next November. If you see the level get up to 9 on the measuring pole, you'll know we've done it!
There's still plenty of interest out on the reserve, with up to 2 firecrest being seen by the Bridge Pond, a jack snipe and 2 rock pipit on 16th January, and a goosander on the Ganol on 12th January. The kestrels are still hunting daily along the Estuary Track, there are small numbers of goldeneye on the lagoons, and a kingfisher has been a regular in the trees overhanging the Bridge Pond (early morning is best).
In midwinter, it can be tempting to wrap up in a duvet and curl up until spring. But the new year brings fresh impetus for birders; the yearlist is wiped clean and we start again for 2015. Top of many local birders' list is firecrest, at least one of which is still here today, though keeping low in the scrub during the blustery conditions, and the Cetti's warbler was heard from the Bridge Pond area this morning. The first woodcock of the year was seen here too this morning.
A couple of choughs are seen most mornings, at first light, flying southeast towards Glan Conwy, and it's great to see a couple of kestrels hunting over the saltmarsh regularly, the first in many months, much to the demonstrable annoyance of the carrion crows, ravens and buzzards. If you're aged over 30, you'll remember when kestrels were a common sight hovering over roadside verges; sadly, we've lost one-third of our kestrels since 1995, and at Conwy, we tend to see them only in the winter, when they move down from the surrounding hillsides.
On the lagoons, goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers feed and display (and mate); small numbers of pochards and shovelers are here, and a goosander was reported on Saturday (3rd).
A great crested grebe has been on the lagoon for a couple of weeks now; could this be one of our breeding birds back already, or is it a wintering bird choosing our slightly more sheltered location over the stormy seas?
Bullfinches are very evident at the moment, with small groups of three or four feeding on various parts of the reserve. Siskin has been a scarce visitor this winter, though a male was seen on Thursday (8th). Water rails are more easily heard than seen, although one beneath the feeders in the Wildlife Garden this week was taking advantage of the leftovers chucked away by the busy blue tits and chaffinches.
Don't forget that the Big Garden Birdwatch is on 24/25 January, when we can all help take stock of our garden birds; it take just one hour, and you can register here. Next weekend (17/18 January), why not join us for our Get Ready for Big Garden Birdwatch, when we'll have lots of activities and advice. It's all free - just turn up between 11am and 3pm. Click on the link for details.
When I was a child, the RSPB Film Show coming to town was a highlight of my autumn. Other kids might have looked forward to the funfair coming to town, but that was the kind of child-geek I was.
Each November, the Prince of Wales Theatre in Colwyn Bay (now Theatr Colwyn) would be packed with people for an evening of RSPB films. One of the first that I went to see - I must have been age 10, cos I've just looked up the year it was made - was The Commendable Crow, a brilliant film about choughs. I'm pretty certain I hadn't seen a real chough then, but nagging my parents, we went to RSPB South Stack Cliffs the following summer and I saw my first. Amazing birds, capable of aerial manoeuvres that the Red Arrows cannot achieve, it was their ringing 'chee-ow' call that I most remembered from the film, and which I loved hearing echo off the cliffs.
Back then, I couldn't see choughs around Conwy, but in the last 30 years they have moved into several local sites, though they are still rare over the reserve. Each morning since 23rd December, I have seen one or two pairs of chough flying south over the reserve each morning, presumably to feed somewhere in the Conwy Valley. Yesterday afternoon, warden Sarah saw nine choughs flying northeast, and we suspect that they may be birds that roost on the Little Orme. We are guessing that this is the highest count ever over the reserve.
Two firecrests continue to be seen regularly around the Bridge Pond, yesterday a male and female, and there are several goldcrests and a chiffchaff in the same area. Bullfinches are very obvious at the moment, with up to 10 seen among the scrub. Siskins have been very scarce so far this winter, but some were seen yesterday (Tuesday 30th).
On the lagoons, a few more goldeneyes have arrived, and the pochards and red-breasted mergansers look very smart as they come into breeding plumage. A small flock of black-tailed godwits are semi-resident on the lagoons, numbering between 15 and 25. There are lots of snipe around the reedy edges, and water rails in various places around the reserve. A couple of woodcocks have been seen, but these tend to be early in the morning, and usually in flight.
A merlin was seen over the Paddocks on Sunday (28th), the second sighting in 10 days; a greenshank was here on Christmas Eve; two whooper swans flew up river on Tuesday (23rd) and a kingfisher was seen on Sunday 21st. But it's the ringing call of the choughs that has made my Christmas week.
Stoats have been several times this week, and a weasel was photographed in the Wildlife Garden at the weekend.
Happy new year to all our readers and visitors, and we look forward to seeing you here in 2015 - our 20th anniversary year.
*As a post-script, I discovered on the British Film Institute website that The Commendable Crow was filmed by Mike Potts, who lives in Colwyn Bay, and also worked on various BBC Natural History Unit films - he's a talented stills photographer too, check out his website.