If you've visited the reserve over recent weeks, you'll have seen our new building, The LookOut, emerging from the earth bank next to the Coffee Shop. When it's finished, we'll use it for all sorts of events and activities, and it'll be open to visitors most days to enjoy the wildlife on the lagoon. But this is no ordinary building. If you've been following progress on our blog, you'll know that it's mostly build of wood, straw and clay. Yesterday, we started with the fun (and messy!) bit. Here's how we got on.
The timberwork has all been created by a team from Greenbuilt, but the roof and floor insulation and the walls are being built by a team of staff and volunteers. None of us has ever built a straw-bale building before, but we know a woman who has built plenty. Barbara Jones (right) of Strawworks has designed The LookOut and is training us to build it. First up was a safety briefing, to ensure we would be safe and that we wouldn't damage the building. We had to be very careful to stand only on the beams - if we put a foot through the birch plywood ceiling, we'd wreck it and risk falling through.
The first task was to break open the straw bales donated to us by The Crown Estate, and grown and baled for us at their farm in Cheshire. The bales are smaller than the size that most farmers would use today, and we hear the farm manager had to find an old baler that would do the job. He's done the job perfectly, and we split each bale roughly in half and pushed it into the void between the beams. This involved a fair amount of pushing and smacking (of the bales, not each other), then packing the gaps with loose straw so that there was as little air as possible. All this straw will keep the building toasty-warm in winter. And makes it totally cool!
Meanwhile, other members of the team were mixing sand and milled clay, which is a by-product of brick-making. This was hoisted up to roof height and we pushed and pressed the clay mix onto the tops of the bales. This forms a fireproof barrier and protects the straw, while still allowing to breathe. This bit was very messy and by far the most time-consuming part of the job/
This is what the roof looks like when it's nearly done (the loose straw on top of the clay had blown from elsewhere on the roof). We completed about half the job yesterday and we hope to finish the work today. Then Greenbuilt will put wood over the top to seal it all in. Tomorrow, we'll be trained in building the walls of straw, which is when we'll really start to get an idea of how The LookOut will feel. We'll update the blog as we go so you can see what we're up to.
Over the weekend, we'll make the final decision about what will go in the time capsule, which will be placed among the straw insulation in the floor. Thanks to our Twitter followers and Facebook friends for the great suggestions. Check back here next week to see what's going in.
The LookOut is part of our Conwy Connections project, giving RSPB Conwy a makeover - read more about it here.
These last few weeks have seen amazing aerobatic displays from hundreds of swallows, martins and swifts, zooming past at head height busy feeding up on insects after their long journey back from Africa. The one benefit of all this rain is that at least it makes the displays even more spectacular - in these conditions the insects keep low and so do the birds, hawking for them sometimes only feet from the ground. Visitors to the reserve may also have noticed clouds of these birds skimming the lagoons on some days, hunting for food. So what are they eating? At this time of year, we get big emergences of the adult stage of the chironomid (non-biting) midge's life cycle, and it is probably these that the birds are picking up. If you look closely in the cobwebs in the corners of the hide windows, you'll see lots of these tiny creatures, which make ideal food for the hirundines. Their larval stage lives in the mud at the bottom of the lagoons, and ultimately it's these that we are trying to manage the lagoons for, as they're also great food for all the waders. Lots of birds on the reserve depend on this tiny overlooked creature!
Swallow photo by Alan Rogers
This time of year is all about nests and young, and we've got a few lapwing broods, Canada goose goslings and mallard ducklings about, and the great crested grebes, in contrast to previous years, actually seem to be staying with their first nest rather than making several attempts. Fingers crossed they make it first time for once! The stoats have started to become much more active too, being seen most days by the Coffee Shop or by the car park entrance. And the really exciting news is that Ceri Morris from the Mammals in a Sustainable Environment (MISE) Project, who's been working with us looking at mammal populations on the reserve, caught some footage of two otters playing on the reserve on her trail camera. We regularly see spraint (droppings) round the reserve, but seeing the actual animals is much harder, and it's thanks to her persistence that she finally caught them on camera!
We still have a few migrants passing through though, with big numbers of wheatears on the Estuary Path last week, a few white wagtails still, a cuckoo on 4th May, a grasshopper warbler on 6th May, a yellow wagtail on 10th and 11th May, and up to 27 whimbrel on the estuary. High tides have also brought sandwich terns into the estuary to look for fish - they're most easily picked up by their distinctive rasping call, wonderfully described in the Collins Field Guide as "like pressing amalgam into a tooth"! Now there's a description that will stick in the mind.
Conwy Wildlife Explorers have been raising money to help the RSPB's Rockhopper penguin appeal. Rockhopper penguins live mainly in the south Atlantic Ocean and their numbers have been dropping - less than one tenth of what it was in the 1950s. The reason for this isn't clear and so the RSPB want to investigate. The money that we raise will go towards buying gadgets like data loggers and satellite tags that will be used to track the birds to find out what is going on. Hopefully then work will start to stop the decline of this fantastic looking bird. It's name comes from the way it jumps over rocks and stones at the seashore !
Here's what Peter Jenkins age 8 had to say about our fundraising effort:
"Today we did a sponsored bird race around the reserve.
That’s a bird spotting race where you are supposed to spot as many birds as you can in 1 hour 20 mins! We spotted 38 birds! The other team got 38 but they cheated, they counted the penguin they were carrying so we said they had 37. Altogether we spotted 48 different bird species.
My favourite bird that I spotted was a buzzard. It was gliding across the estuary and it was the best because it was the biggest.
We have taken home a sponsorship form to raise money for Rock hopper penguins and that is what we have been doing today."
The latest part of our Conwy Connections project has really started to shape-up this week. And now we can reveal what we're going to call the new building that will soon grow next to the Coffee Shop.
This week has seen a load of steel work arrive on site. The only steel in the finished building will be the door and its frame, but to ensure we can build everything safely, we have created a scaffold 'cage' to enable us to work at height. It starts to give us an idea of the scale of the new building, but of course, it will look much nicer than all these tubes.
The straw was transported from The Crown Estate's farm at Tabley in Cheshire last week, and we're storing it temporarily in a big barn at one of our other reserves. We've brought some of the bales to Conwy, and that's why there's now a large blue shipping container on Y Maes. That's not too pretty either, but it will mean we can keep it dry and the team can do some carpentry work when the weather is bad.
On Monday, the big deliveries of wood arrived. And we mean big! The beams that run the length of the building are each 12 metres long. Most of these are made from softwood and ply, but even so it took four people to move each one from the car park to the worksite. And then the mother of all oak beams arrived. I'm not sure what it weighed, but it took ten of us to move it, and even then it was a struggle. We knew that if we put it down, we'd probably never pick it up again. Thanks to all the volunteers and staff who came to help This piece of oak will be the central supporting beam, and it's going to be fun winching it up to roof height!
From the outset, we had a working name for the new building, but we hadn't revealed what we would call it when it's finished. It's going to be The Lookout (and Tŷ-gwylio in Welsh). We've called it that because it's going to be a great place from which you can see wildlife and enjoy the view. It'll also be a great space for small events that are about getting closer to nature.
In a few weeks' time, we'll start to stuff the roof and floor with straw as insulation, and then we'll stack and pin the bales to create the walls of The Lookout. Within the floor we'll place a time capsule, and we're delighted that so many people suggested items to put in it. We're working through the list to work out what will fit in the box and what we can easily get hold of, and we'll post up a list and some photos in a couple of weeks. But our first thank you goes to regular visitors Brian and Alice, who after reading last week's blog about the time capsule, gave us their limited edition Golden Curlew pin-badge for the time capsule, and gave us a generous donation too. Diolch yn fawr!
One of the highlights of our spring is the displaying Lapwings, as Conwy is one of only a handful of sites along the North Wales coast where these once-common waders now nest, following a serious decline across Wales. Last autumn, we scalped the islands on the lagoons, removing all the vegetation so that when the Lapwings returned in March, they'd have short grass on which to nest (they like it short so they can keep an eye on what's happening around them). At this time of year, Sarah's alarm clock goes off extra early so that she can count the nesting waders and waterbirds. The cold weather has rather messed up the Lapwing's breeding season, but we currently have four Lapwings sitting on eggs, and there are several more pairs that haven't quite got round to it yet. Their aerial display flight, captured so well in Aled Williams' photo, involves them swooping to the ground from height, shouting their 'pee-whit' call which gives them their old English name. Their Welsh name Cornchwiglen is also onomatopoeic, the 'chwig-len' sounding like their call. Fingers crossed for a successful breeding season.
Many of our summer migrants are now with us: there are now lots of Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Whitethroats around, though Blackcaps still seem a bit scarce. The first Garden Warbler arrived on Thursday (25th) and our first Whinchat was here the same day, though unlike the others, it won't stay to nest. There were also up to 30 Wheatears and a Yellow Wagtail that morning. The most surprising spectacle of the week came with a slow-moving weather front of drizzle on Thursday morning, dropping at least 32 Common Sandpipers on the reserve, of which 17 were feeding in a single flock on the Paddock! The same day brought a good arrival of Sedge Warblers, holding territory despite the slow growth in the reedbeds.
A few waders have been moving through: a small group of Dunlins this morning, Greenshank, Knot and Whimbrel on Wednesday and Thursday. Several Arctic terns were seen earlier in the week, and there have been plenty of Swifts, Swallows and House Martins. A dead Bottle-nosed dolphin was, sadly, washed into the estuary on Tuesday morning. On a more positive note, Cowslips are abundant around the Coffee Shop and if you're walking along the estuary track, look out for Lady's Smock and Dog Violets growing along the bank, part of which we cut over the winter to encourage a wider variety of plants and insects on this southwest-facing slope. Like the management work we do for the Lapwings, we're working hard to give nature a home. Enjoy it!