Tomorrow is St David's Day, our national day, and there seem to be plenty of daffodils already blooming in the Conwy Valley, which always signals to me that our spring is early. The hedgerows already have that faint hue of green that, if the weather remains mild, is a prelude to the blackthorn bursting into blossom over the coming weeks. With news of swallows and sand martins in southern Britain, it's easy to be impatient for spring to arrive, but let's take it slowly and enjoy one of the best times of the year.
Here are a few signs of spring that we've noticed this week
#1 Frogspawn: the children who came to Muddy Puddle Club on Tuesday had a great watery-themed time, and they spotted the first frogspawn in the pond while they were looking for underwater insects. It's the first time in four years that the pond hasn't frozen solid, so we hope that we don't get a late frost that jeopardises them transforming from eggs to tadpoles to frogs.
#2 Lesser black-backed gulls: you might think of swallows or cuckoos as the portents of spring, but often the first returning migrants that we see at Conwy are lesser black-backed gulls. Unlike the resident herring gulls, the LBBs leave us in autumn and start to return in February. The British Trust for Ornithology have been tracking their travels from a breeding colony in Suffolk, demonstrating that some go to southern Spain and North Africa, and others stay closer to home (see here for the details and a feature about the project on BBC1's The One Show). We assume that Welsh-breeding birds do something similar, and now they're back.
#3 Stonechats: again, you might think of stonechats as resident, but in fact about half Britain's breeding population heads south to Europe and North Africa; it's a sensible strategy: although the resident birds might be first to occupy the best territories following a mild winter, if the weather had been snowy and frozen, the stayers might have perished. As it is, the stonechats we've seen hear this week (up to four reported along the estuary) are probably birds that have wintered along the coast and are now starting to move back into the uplands.
#4 Coltsfoot: this is a small yellow flower that is one of the first to appear at the sides of the trails - it's easy to mistake for a small dandelion. It's also known as butterbur or coughwort, because it supposedly had healing properties for colds and flu (but actually contains toxins, so don't put it in your tea). Being one of the first flowers to appear, it'll provide sustenance for the first bees - though we haven't spotted any yet.
But March can be a deceptive month, and we - and nature - know that it can have a cold sting in its tail.
Elsewhere on the reserve, our three scaup are still here, now in fine breeding plumage, but for how much longer? There are just a few goldeneyes and little grebes remaining, while a great crested grebe on the estuary was unusual - will a pair return here to nest, we wonder? A kestrel has been regularly hunting near the Coffee Shop, which is a bit unusual for here, and also notable are several sightings of rooks feeding on the pasture or perched in trees - we usually only see them flying over. Lots of songbirds are tuning up, and it's a particular joy to hear many song thrushes - including one that is mimicking a chough, a bird that doesn't occur here regularly, so has the thrush moved here from somewhere along the coast?
The weather forecast for this weekend looks okay, so celebrate St David's Day in the great Welsh outdoors.
It'll surprise no-one that the continued rain and storms have dominated this week. Principally, our thoughts are with all those affected by the serious flooding in southern Britain, particularly in the Somerset Levels where RSPB staff, volunteers and supporters live. I've heard some rather odd things said about flooding, farming and why all this has happened, but here are three things worth a read if you want a clearer picture:
Thankfully, we've had nothing on the scale of southwest England's weather, but our own rainfall records shows that last winter we had 44.1 cm of rain between 1 October and 9 February, and this year we've had 59.5 cm over the same period. That's 35% more rain, compared to 2012/13 (which itself was wetter than average). After last summer's dry weather, we did pump into the Shallow Lagoon for a while, but it quickly became clear that nature was doing the job for us, and the level is now as high as we've seen it for years, with some of the lower islands submerged. It won't get much higher in this lagoon, however, as it falls over the top of the sluice into the Deep agoon, with its much greater capacity.
The deeper water has meant that many of the diving ducks have moved nearer to the Coffee Shop. Our three long-staying scaup, for example, along with some of the pochards, goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers. The teal, however, have mostly gone elsewhere, probably to shallow floods in fields elsewhere in the Conwy Valley, and we haven't seen a pintail since 30th January.
Our bird feeders have been very busy this week, particularly the ones in the Wildlife Garden that are more sheltered from the wind. Several smart bullfinches have been prising seeds from the feeders, a great spotted woodpecker has been visiting regularly and siskins are in the tall alders nearby. A firecrest has been several times over the last fortnight, usually near the railway line but occasionally near the Bridge Pond, most recently last Sunday (2nd), the same day as a woodcock, our second of the winter. A kestrel has been hunting the flooded paddocks, looking for mice and voles that have been flooded out of their burrow, while a merlin has reported a couple of times, most recently on Tuesday (4th)
We have a great opportunity coming up at Conwy, as we are recruiting a Visitor Experience Manager, a new post for the reserve. Details are on our website, and the closing date for applications in 28 February.
This week we finally achieved something that I've been itching to do for the last few years - tackle some of the really dense bramble at the far end of the reserve near the railway line. This area hasn't been touched since the reserve was created, and has developed into a thick block of impenetrable bramble. As this becomes over-mature, its value to wildlife decreases. So why have we not got in before now and cut it back? The area is set down in a steep-sided hollow edged with a carpet of rocks, and it was thought that the ground below was full of rocks too (we couldn't get in to look as the bramble was too dense), making it too dangerous to cut with a brushcutter (the metal blade would shatter and fly off), and too uneven to take a tractor in. So we'd talked about trying to manage the bramble at various meetings over the years, but decided that there wasn't any practical way to do it, so it would unfortunately have to be left to its own devices. But RG Hire, the company from Anglesey that do all our digger work, mentioned last time they were here that they had a flail that you could mount on a tracked digger, so we asked whether this machine would be able to go in and safely cut the bramble, and they were happy to give it a try.
Our skilful digger driver John came in last week with the flail, gingerly made his way down over the rocks and opened up a series of bays in the bramble, and once he had cut a few, we could see the ground below, exposed for the first time in 20 years, was actually much more even and rock-free than we'd thought. Hopefully this means that we'll be able to get in every few years and give it a good bashing!! Opening up these bays will benefit a range of species - the young bramble that grows back will be more suitable for nesting birds, and the open areas will act as sheltered sun traps (does anyone remember the sun?), the edges of which will be great for butterflies, bees and wasps, all feeding on the nectar-rich bramble flowers. And by connecting the open bays up with the path along the edge, it should be much easier for folk to see birds flitting across the open spaces, instead of having the frustrating feeling of being able to hear something singing in the depths of the bramble but never seeing more than a second's glimpse of it! It's so satisfying to finally get this done.
Our bird populations seem to have been fairly stable over the last few weeks; the 3 scaup are still with us, we have up to 5 goldeneye, 16 shoveler, 19 black-tailed godwit, 8 pochard and a single pintail. Snipe numbers are creeping up, with 52 seen yesterday, there were 116 lapwing this morning, and siskins and lesser redpolls have finally put in a late appearance this winter. A merlin was spotted on 9th January, and 2 rock pipits were on the estuary earlier in the month. All the recent rain has meant that we're finally near to achieving the winter water levels that we'd like in the lagoons too - the Deep Lagoon has gone up by 20 cm in the last 3 weeks by rainfall alone, which is great news for all our wintering wildfowl, and hopefully also means that we'll go into the summer with enough water to last through until next winter without the Shallow Lagoon drying out completely. Dry ground sounds like a very strange concept at the moment though!