Saturday, 31 March 2012

Wheatears at Sker Point

The arrival of spring is gaining momentum. Reports from all over the UK speak of falls of migrants. Sand Martins, Wheatears and Chiffchaffs still feature most, but others like Blackcaps and Willow Warblers are creeping in too.

At Sker Point there’s a nip in the air, but freshness too. A brisk breeze propels clouds steadily across the sky; the sea is deep blue one minute, grey the next. Although it’s chilly, there’s genuine warmth in the sun. Sker Point itself is no more than a flat grassy knoll and the scene of a famous shipwreck over half a century ago; it’s deserted. The calls of unseen Oystercatchers ride the wind and winter plumage Knots rest on the rocky shore, silvery in the sunlight. Far-off on the beach to the north, Sanderlings dodge the waves.

The old fields behind the Point are alive with Golden Plovers and Lapwings in winter and a few remain. In splendid summer plumage now, silent Golden Plovers stand alert in the damp grass and the displaying Lapwings move me like no other wader can. A male Wheatear perches proud on a rock as if to proclaim ownership, but he’ll probably have gone north by the morning. I hear disturbing news of this smart trans-Saharan migrant. The BTO reports that Wales has lost at least a quarter of its breeding Wheatears in the last 15 years and there have been significant reductions in Scotland too. This first wave will be followed by the larger Greenland race in a month’s time, these true long distance travelers migrating a full 5,000 miles.

The Great House at Sker, beyond the fields dates to the 11th century and is said to be haunted; saved and recently restored it dominates the flatlands. Ancient limestone walls surrounding the old outbuildings providing perfect perches for more Wheatears and a smart Black Redstart with shimmering tail.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Our Three Breeding Wagtails

Three types of wagtails breed in the UK. By far the commonest is the Pied Wagtail, which is widespread and usually breeds near water. Grey Wagtails breed only along rivers and streams and are nothing like as common as Pied Wagtails. Yellow Wagtails visit us during summer months and are mostly confined to the south and west of England, where they breed on wet pastures, but they have become relatively scarce in recent years.

All three make up a wonderful group and are quintessential birds of the British Isles.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Our Three Common Leaf Warblers

Spring sees the arrival of our three common leaf warblers. Chiffchaffs are already back and singing well and I hear of a few Willow Warblers on the south coast of England. Wood Warblers are the last to arrive, filling western Oak woodlands with their glorious song in late April and early May.

The three are not difficult to seperate. Knowing their songs is best, but even so with a little practice they are are not too difficult to identify. Chiffchaffs are usually small and most have blackish legs. Willow Warblers are often greener at this time of year and have pale brown legs. Wood Warblers have distinctive white underparts and are normally only found in the tops of trees, particularly Oaks.

All three are wonderful little birds and make up for their relatively drab plumage with some of the most beautiful sounds of spring.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Curlews, Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Cockles

Brunel built the railway carrying me on the local train towards Carmarthen. It glides past the flat coastal marshes under the solid remains of Kidwelly Castle and I alight at the little seaside village of Ferryside, once the centre of the cockle industry in Carmarthen Bay and a stopping off point on the pilgrims’ route to St David’s Cathedral to the west. It’s a peaceful place, just a main street following the railway and a few houses beyond. Set by the side of the Tywi, one of three rivers entering the Bay, solitude and the calls of Curlews and Oystercatchers make it special. Just a few steps from the train and I’m on the beach; wide open golden sands stretch in each direction and across the river green fields, woodlands and the 13th century Norman castle at Llanstephan beckon. The old ferry has long gone; only the birds get across quickly now.

The tide runs out swiftly, exposing sandbanks attracting hundreds of Oystercatchers competing with bent figures of cocklers scraping with hand and sieve; I could be in another age. Redshanks, Dunlins, Sanderlings, Cormorants, Grey Herons and Shelducks mix with gulls in a world little affected by the new century. The sandy beach to the south following the path of the railway is long and heads for the open sea beyond the mouth of the Three Rivers. Grey and Pied wagtails and Rock Pipits jostle amongst the flotsam in the warm sunshine looking for newly emerging flies and a migrating Wheatear flits on and off the stone railway embankment. I feel as though I could walk forever, but the tiny parish of St Ishmael tells me I’m entering the mouth of the Gwendraeth where the beach runs out. My plans to take the train home from Kidwelly are in tatters and I plod back to the sanctuary of The White Lion for lunch.

Friday, 9 March 2012


These most beautiful of British finches will have started to tear away the buds of apple, pear and other trees already and are the bain of many commercial fruit grower. Until recently it was legal to trap and kill them.