Due to general incompetence at organising a family holiday this year, we ended up taking on a last minute offering from some friends who were unable to go on their holiday. So we found ourselves heading off to mid-wales, more specifically Penbryn in Ceredigion to stay in a log cabin which was close to the sea. I was hoping that I might have another opportunity to practise my sea-watching skills which, as regular readers of this blog will know (if there are any!) is something that I've been working on this year with rather mixed results. Moreover, I had recently bought myself a new scope, a Swarovski 80HD no less, complete with carbon fibre tripod, as a reward after I came into a bit of money. I was therefore very much looking forward to getting to grips with sea-watching with a decent scope to see how much of a difference that made. I was not holding out too much hope on this holiday from a birding point of view but was hoping at least for some manx shearwaters and possible a chough or two.
The cabin proved to be only a short 5 minute walk from the beach, through some pleasant woodland in the valley of a stream. I quickly got into the routine of getting up early and walking down there whilst the rest of my family slept, this way I wasn't being too antisocial on the family holiday. The beach wasn't exactly an ideal sea-watching as it didn't in any way jut out into the sea so this meant that the birds tended to be very distant. However, there was usually not much wind which meant that I could got up to high magnification quite comfortably. It immediately became apparent that the new Swaro made all the difference with the sea watching and I was able to see things pretty clearly even up to x60 mag. I won't bore the reader by listing things on a day by day basis but in general the following were seen:
manx shearwaters: lots (some days more than 1000) of these flying around though mostly at a distance; plenty of the usual gannets, quite a few kittiwakes, a few fulmars, razorbills, guillemots and common scoter. A few waders flew past as well: mostly oystercatchers, though some sanderling and a distant flock of what were either curlew or whimbrel.
On the last morning of sea watching, there was a large flock of birds at a great distance, basically more or less on the horizon. The light was pretty good and there was bright sunshine lighting the birds up so at full mag it was possible to make out the gannets and the shearwaters flying around in large numbers. At that moment a dark bird flew into view and I managed to see it as it opened its wings up, flashing some white markings on its primaries. It was clearly a skua and even at that distance I could tell it was of a reasonable size so I was pretty confident in identifying it a great skua. I was just basking in the glow of another year tick when a flock of 5 geese came into view. Four were clearly canada geese but the 5th was a blue morph snow goose! I have subsequently spoken to the former county recorder for Ceredigion who told me that an escapee was known to be in the area so that was almost certainly it.
Apart from the sea watching a few birds were seen en passant. On three separate occasions I managed to see a pair of chough and I even managed a passable digi-bining photo (taking a photo through the binoculars) as I didn't have my scope with me. Here's the best effort:
Choughs on a cliff
We quite often saw red kites as we were driving about. In Oxfordshire this is no big deal and they are becoming common place due to the re-introduction scheme but I told my VLW (very lovely wife) that these were genuine rare kites. Subsequently, however, I found out that they have been reintroduced here too!
Due to its woodland setting, the were quite a few birds in the garden of where we were staying, with plenty of willow warblers and chiffchaffs around, an occasional nuthatch and a regular family of goldcrests. One evening we heard a tawny owl "kewick" -ing from across the valley. My eldest daughter and I decided that it would be fun to see if we could lure it over so I used my bird calls installed on my mobile phone and played both the kewick and the hooting song. There didn't seem to be any response so after a few minutes I stopped. A minute or so later we suddenly heard a loud kewick and some snarling from the end of the garden. We ran over and just managed to see a tawny owl flying off, obviously having come over to see off the apparent intruder. I was most pleased about this as this was the last owl that I needed for my year list.
Whilst there, I did have a go at digiscoping with the new scope. I'd also bought a new camera (a Nikon P5100) and though it's early days, I did manage a couple of ok shots (though the buzzard is somewhat out of focus).
A rabbit on the lawn
A local buzzard
At the end of the holiday we went northwards to Snowdonia for an annual camping fest with some of my VLW's relatives. On the way up I suggested that we stop off at Ynyslas NR for a quick look round. I had promised my VLW a nice cup of tea at the visitor's centre and she was none too impressed when it turned out that there wasn't any. With this faux pas, I felt that I couldn't spend long there and had to be content with a very quick scan round. The heat haze there was remarkable and even with the Swaro it was difficult to see clearly at any distance but I did manage to make out one turnstone, a few dozen dunlin and sanderling and a dozen or so sandwich terns. I was most pleased about the latter as I needed this for my year list. Apparently there were some knot about as well (another I need for the list) but they weren't seen during my brief stay.
In Snowdonia itself there weren't many bird sightings of interest as the weather was pretty poor with constant heavy rain the first day and strong winds on the second. A few goosander on Llyn Peris by Llanberis were interesting and I managed a distant photo using my hand-held P&S camera.
On the foothills of Snowdon itself I saw a few meadow pipits, a wheatear and several ravens. At the camp site there were several buzzards and families of linnets and stonechats to view. I had hoped for a redstart there, having seen one a couple of years ago (when I wasn't actively birding) but I couldn't find any. I also heard a little owl during the night but didn't bother to get up to find it.
So a surprisingly good trip with quite a few new ticks:
188 manx shearwater
190 tawny owl
191 great skua
192 snow goose (though probably plastic)
193 sandwich tern
With regards to the plasticity of the snow goose, strictly speaking three of my year ticks are plastic wild fowl: barnacle goose, ruddy shelduck and now the snow goose. There is also the release scheme great bustard as well. At present I am keeping plastic ducks and release birds in the list as it's my first go at a year list. However, in future years I shall be more strict on myself. Only seven more birds to go to reach the magic 200 level.