Monday, July 8, 2013

Wales II

27th June, 2013                                                                      
..................... ........... ........  .....   ...    .   .      .       .                  .                                            .

Part of the stay in Snowdonia involved two days with the tour leader in North Wales known as Gareth Jones. Advertisements for his tours were strung all over birding sites and hides. A prompt 4 am departure does not sound pleasant but its the norm if you hope to be into birds. Though it is true that all you can see at 4 am are many shades of black and darkness, this early rise was needed to locate one of the target birds which was the black grouse. The species is quite local and sparsely distributed, and they, like most bird species, are far easier to locate earlier in the morning. In the grouse's case it was because they lek only during sunrise, and after 7am they tend to disperse into the dense bracken where they become extremely elusive.

A notably narrow labyrinth of farmland roads were traversed for what felt like an eternity before reaching a location with a Welsh name (sorry, I didn't write these names down). A "No Parking" sign hanging off a pine tree where the car promptly "stopped" and we both "accidentally" got out and walked off down the trail. The shade of the pine forest quite rapidly opened out into a moorland-heatherland type habitat. It was a hilly location where bracken abounded and trees grew only fleetingly. It took another 10 or so minute walk before the first black grouse flew over the valley, presumably a male that had already finished its calling/lekking on the "lek site" from the hillside to the left. It landed, thankfully, though in a dense clump of bracken. It was most certainly identifiable by its black figure, white markings and red eyebrow, though views could always be better. Another 10 or so minute walk and the scope was set up aimed at the lek site where a few more grouse were seen occasionally. They would hide in the bracken and sometimes jump up every now and then, rarely staying exposed for so long. It was most certainly like a rusty whack-a-mole game.

There are 2 black grouse in this poor but acceptable
 image. The most visible one was the only grouse that
gave confiding views.
With black grouse over and done with (well not really, since I'd rather have closer views!) this site was done with. Well nearly. Before moving on it was suggested that both whinchat and grasshopper warbler (or g'ropper to you lazier birders) were regular in the area, and both had been recording here recently. The whinchat's name is one I have not been able to find sources on, and one of the species that hides in the back of the field guide. Only serious birders would probably have heard of it, for it isn't one that tends to perch on the garden wall. I did not know what to expect of the whinchat. I had seen its commoner cousin the stonechat widely, and I wasn't certain whether whinny (insert cringe by other birders who just read that word, but yes, carry on with your "normal" abbreviations like gropper, mipit and piefly. PS I made up whinny just for the purpose of this conversation) was a fairly confiding bird of open areas just like its cousin.

The chorus of mistle thrush and other assorted common birds was broken by a distinct call for a long time, though it apparently took a few minutes before either of us really picked up on it. I certainly would have mentioned it earlier if I noticed it, but it was probably the most basic and simple call I had ever heard. If I had heard something as complex as a veery or wood thrush I no doubt would have asked "what bird is that" but for something that sounded so basic I never even considered asking! The sound came from a male whinchat perched on an exposed branch of a tree along with a "mipit". Though it was not as attractive as its cousin, it was still quite unique. There is no other bird that really resembles the male in shiny breeding colouration.

But talk of femalechats, moultingchat and juvchats during
autumn and winter and people groan at the idea
of trying to seperate them.

The next stop was a woodland place with a Welsh name some distance from the first location. This mixed woodland was supposed to hold many target birds, and I certainly didn't doubt that. A jay was present on one of the picnic tables, and though I'm sure I have seen them before this is the first real look I've had at one of these pink crows (and more importantly the first time I've seen one while I've had a camera). I won't post a picture because everyone knows what a jay looks like and this blog is highly limited in what I can upload. If a reader doesn't know what the european jay looks like (not the funny blue ones in America) then my vague (but relevant) description will have to suffice.

                                                                                 Imagine a crow. But louder. And pink. 
                                                           (Image from
                                PS: Increasing your volume for a more dramatic effect while visiting that link
                                                                     is recommended.

The picnic bench used for lunch was unfortunately occupied, but the occupants which consisted of hundreds of irritating biting midges were more than happy to let us sit there. A convenient insect repellent spray was simply raised in the air and sprayed directly on the swarm which caused it to dissipate rapidly. Though, it only took 5 minutes before they wanted their seat back.

A bullfinch called its distinct piping whistle from the distant trees, but Gareth did not agree on grounds it sounded too sharp, though he could not offer an alternative ID.  However he was perfectly happy with calling a supposed pied flycatcher, which, from the fleeting views I personally saw, looked no more different from a female chaffinch, something that was abundant in the vicinity. I feel that a male pied flycatcher as he described it would have looked entirely different, though perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. It did not return, and multiple attempts made for this species elsewhere on my time in Wales did not locate this bird. A distant crossbill was heard over the forest, as were lesser redpolls and siskins. Wood-warbler was not located. Redstart was heard singing, but (as usual) not seen. Little else was seen here, though the scenery was nice. An unknown bird perched fleetingly on a pine tree, and it was a tricky ID with poor lighting and angle. All the people I have sent the image to have concluded at a 70-90% chance that it must be spotted flycatcher.

Gareth suggested a scan over the moorlands outside the forest with the Welsh name, as such a location was noted to be a regular haunt for hen harriers (the male of which is his favourite bird), short-eared owls, merlin and golden plover. Of course the rain and drizzle was off-putting, and none of these special birds were seen. Some of the small lakes were quite interesting, having singles of both black-backed gulls despite the distance from the sea. A small non-descript bird scattered across the road at one point, and looked quite wader like. It was a juvenile common sandpiper, and a slightly agitated adult bird flew up to a post nearby. This adult bird, presumably a little concerned about its young running around the roads, cheeped its defiance at us from its post and was quite tenacious. It did not budge even when down to less than a metre.. Of course the car had to be reversed, since such a close bird was far too close for my telephoto lens. It sat there infinitely, sticking to its perch even when the car drove onwards about 12 minutes later. Its presence by the road made it impossible to give it a wide radius (something a good birder should always do regarding nesting birds) but we tried not to bother it any more than required. It was there on the return as well.

A distant northern wheatear was looking quite good, even in the overcast weather.

Views of willow warbler and a single tree pipit (the latter after considerable effort) were obtained further down the path. The next series of stops (and the last I will include in this post) involved the search for a rather plump river bird known as the dipper. This bird irritated Gareth on this one day, as he was frustrated with the absence of any sightings along regular rivers for the bird. To find it we actually had to visit a nesting site itself, where it frequently turned up. It was always on the far side of the river, yielding only far away views, but I won't complain.

A dipper...uh...dipping. Yeah, let's go with that.

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