Saturday, 31 May 2014

Welsh May birdrace 2014 - By Zac Hinchliffe

So the current record for a May bird race in Wales in 143. This was set on 18th May 2008 by Marc Hughes, Chris Jones, Mike Duckham, Rob Sandham and Dewi Edwards. Back in the 1980s, a Welsh bird race featuring more than 120 was considered a good day, so 143 was astonishing. This record has yet to be broken, and the closest I personally have come was 133 back in 2012 featuring 3 of the current record holders. But as we all know, records are made to be broken!
As a result, 2014 was well thought out and following a relatively similar route to the record breaking day of 2008, we had a target set of 144. So how did we do?

Well, before I get to that, I'll paint a picture of what the day actually entailed.

I had intended on getting an early night the night before, but a late goal from Sergio Ramos put a stop to that! In the end, I think I actually fell asleep at about 1am (a mixture of excitement and the worry of not waking up to my alarm!) which made my 01:30 alarm seem all the more hideous! How was I going to last in a 24 hour bird race on 30 minutes sleep! Well, I didn't know, but a quick shower, cereal and some sandwich's made, I was picked up outside at 02:40 by Derek Evans and we rushed over to RSPB Conwy to meet Marc Hughes, Mike Duckham and Henry Cook. This was the first time an NGB was officially in the Welsh Bird Race, so I was keen to make an impact! We pressed 'go' on the bird race with a calling Water Rail, Sedge Warbler, Greylag Goose and Oystercatcher at 03:06.
Dawn birding on World's End
We started the first hour in a car, adding nothing to the list except a singing Robin and Blackbird before we arrived at our first major stop: World's End. (Well they do often say, the best stories start at the end! Then again, do they say that or have I just made that up?) Here we picked up some bird race goodies, such as Red Grouse, Whinchat, Red-legged Partridge, Tree Pipit, Bullfinch (a species that regularly gets missed!) and best of all Black Grouse. The site is famous for it and you couldn't go anywhere without hearing that fantastic bubbling and hissing of the lekking males...superb! Leaving World's End with 47 species on the list, it didn't take long to pick up Starling, House Sparrow and Lesser Black-backed Gull taking us to 50 by 06:08.

Adding Coal Tit to the list and getting remarkably excited...this is why bird races are brilliant!
Next stop was Shotwick boating lake, which is about as close to the English border as it's possible. Half the birds we saw here were in England on Burton Mere Wetland RSPB, but we were in it counted! A shout of 'Spoonbill!' saw me get on the bird as it fed in long juncus, swaying its head side to side. Something wasn't quite right though, which was soon evident when it lifted it's head and revealed a small orange bill! It was an 'Aylesbury Duck'! Potentially the mis-ID of the century! Things got a lot better with flying Avocet, Yellow Wagtail, Black-tailed Godwit, Teal (very hard to get at this time of year in North Wales!) and Wigeon. Mike came up with the bird of the site though by scanning a small pool and picking up a fantastic drake Garganey. Brilliant! That took us up to 75 species by 07.08.

Next stop, Gronant to visit the Little Tern colony. Here we got a couple of seabirds such as Gannet, Common Scoter, Sandwich Tern and a fantastic flock of at least 300 Little Tern, plus a bonus Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the dunes.

Now, to a place, I didn't really even know existed: Bodelwyddan Castle. Here we saw one of my favourite species: Marsh Tit, plus Jay and Long-tailed Tit. Two species that can be really easy to miss on birdraces.

Needless to say, we'd covered quite a lot of habitat at this point and the site visits seemed to be only picking up one or two birds, but there was still a lot of quality to add. A very very brief stop at Llanbedr-y-cennin saw 2 Hawfinch fly over calling, literally 10 seconds after setting foot out the car. Brilliant! Heading up onto the fields above Llanbedr, we got our 100th species at 10:35. Yellowhammer! Again, a bird in North Wales that are very few and far between.

Moving down the coast, we stopped off at Llanfairfechan to try and gain a diver sp to the list. This didn't disappoint with 9 species added to the tally including loads of Red-throated Diver, 3 species of auk, Common Gull (try and reliably see Common Gull in May in North Wales away from Aber Ogwen or Llanfairfechan...It's not easy!), but potentially the highlight of the day came from Marc who picked up a flying female/immature Velvet Scoter at 12:27. I soon got onto it as it flew into the bay with a couple of thousand unseasonal Common Scoter. What a cracking bird with massive white speclums!

I was nervous for the next bit... I was in charge! Some of you may know that I am studying a Research Masters at Bangor Uni specialising in Twite in the Nant Ffrancon Valley. It would be rude not to pay the valley a visit, so we did. I had a few targets set in my mind: Twite, Ring Ouzel, Common Sandpiper, Wheatear, Green Woodpecker and Wood Warbler. First off, we made a stop at the mouth of the valley and got a calling Wood Warbler. Next, we looked for Green Woodpecker and had our hopes raised by a few undulating Mistle Thrush, but sadly no peckers! The day prior, I was in the valley doing fieldwork and a bit of a raccay. I promised a 99% chance of Twite, a 90% chance of Ring Ouzel and a 100% chance of Common Sandpiper, however the previous day, I had to try really really hard to see a Wheatear...I was worried. Stepping out the car, I was pleased to hear a singing Ring Ouzel and within a few minutes, we'd picked up two Twite in almost the exact spot I said they'd be in! A Common Sandpiper was singing around us too. Leaving the valley, we made a mad stop on the A5 as Henry spotted a Wheatear. This was actually the only Wheatear we saw all day! We left the mainland on 120 species by 13:30 (I'd been awake for 12 hours at this point!)

 Orange, Blue, Lime - One of two Twite that featured in the bird race.

The very rare looking breeding Northern Wheatears lacking almost any orange.

Anglesey is a must for any Welsh bird race (OK, maybe not if you're basing your race around Pembrokshire). We had a target list of about 20 species which would take us to 140 and dangerously close to the Welsh record of 143!

As I said though, we had all been awake for 12 hours at this point, so a quick pit stop was in order. Our first Anglesey stop was at Penrhos Coastal Park. Yes, because it has the chance for decent waders and also because it has a really good burger van! We gave the incoming tide a really good luck and Henry picked up what looked like a black rock on the other side of the bay and claimed it looked like a Brent Goose. As Brent Goose had never been seen on a May bird race before and this must've been almost a kilometre away, I was somewhat sceptical, but the rock suddenly started to waddle and the sun caught it revealing a pale belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose! We also had Arctic and Common Tern here too. Next stop was South Stack which saw us pick up Puffin, Rock Pipit, Peregrine and Kittiwake.

The collie at Penrhos whom is the perfect tool to bring in the customers to give up lots of money! (it worked on me!)

Moving back across Anglesey now, we had Reed Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Pochard, Barnacle Goose, Sand Martin and rather surprisingly a drake Ruddy Duck. My first since 2011 (and they were on 'The Reservoir' in Central Park, New York!). It's a shame their libido is so unstoppable because they are stunning birds!

They are both a beauty and a beast!

We made a quick dash to Cemlyn before heading up to the moors above Betws-y-coed. At Cemlyn, we managed Lesser Whitethroat, Mediterranean Gull, Sanderling, Turnstone, Manx Shearwater and a fantastic Little Owl. So that was us leaving Anglesey and we managed 19 ticks taking us to 139! This was already equalling 2013's bird race and we still had quite a few birds left to get. Sadly, we dawdled a bit getting off the island trying a couple of spots for Barn Owl, which failed horribly and also meant that we wouldn't be able to get above Betws-y-coed for about 21:20, which meant we weren't able to do the moors looking for Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl or Merlin, which was really gutting as we'd have to mop up in the Gwydyr for crepuscular and nocturnal species if we wanted to break the record.

Approaching Capel Curig, the heavens opened. This was our worst nightmare! It would mean species like Nightjar and Woodcock might be reluctant to venture out and I can't see owls calling in heavy raing. Luckily, it was just a passing shower and it was relatively nice weather when we got up to the Gwydyr. It wasn't long before we heard our first churring. Nightjar 140. We were set for a decent next couple of birds, so we tried for drumming Sniper, but there was complete silence! There was possibly a very distant roding Woodcock, but we just couldn't clinch it. We decided we'd call it a night and we might get lucky on the drive back to Conwy. As luck would have it, Mike opened his window and heard the characteristic hissing of juvenile Tawny Owls. 141!

Despite being tantalisingly close to the record, but there were no likely species we could now try for, so getting back to the other car at Conwy RSPB at 11:30, we called it a day with 141 species which is the 2nd highest 24hr Welsh May Bird Race ever. I'll take that!

There are always some species that you should really have got on a bird race and this year was no exception. Try as we might, we couldn't get Sparrowhawk or Spotted Flycatcher, despite lots of trying and Marc and I seeing a Sparrowhawk fly over the A55 but no one else saw it, so we couldn't count it!

Thanks to Marc for driving and the rest of the team for the gen and making it so brilliant!

Species List: 141
Arctic Tern
Barnacle Goose
Black Grouse
Black Guillemot
Black-headed Gull
Black-tailed Godwit
Blue Tit
Brent Goose
Canada Goose
Carrion Crow
Cetti's Warbler
Coal Tit
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Common Sandpiper
Common Scoter
Common Tern
Feral Pigeon
Garden Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Crested Grebe
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Grey Heron
Grey Wagtail
Herring Gull
House Martin
House Sparrow
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Whitethroat
Little Egret
Little Grebe
Little Owl
Little Tern
Long-tailed Tit
Manx Shearwater
Marsh Tit
Meadow Pipit
Mediterranean Gull
Mistle Thrush
Mute Swan
Pied Flycatcher
Pied Wagtail
Red Grouse
Red Kite
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-legged Partridge
Red-throated Diver
Reed Bunting
Reed Warbler
Ring Ouzel
Ringed Plover
Rock Pipit
Ruddy Duck
Sand Martin
Sandwich Tern
Sedge Warbler
Song Thrush
Stock Dove
Tawny Owl
Tree Pipit
Tufted Duck
Velvet Scoter
Water Rail
Willow Warbler
Wood Warbler
Yellow Wagtail

-Zac Hinchliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch (or making references to Star Wars), he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

Friday, 16 May 2014

PatchChat: Joseph Nichols on Costessey House Private Esate, Norfolk

For as long as I've been watching birds, I've been a patch birder. Up in Scotland, patching is a force to be reckoned with. Those in southern Scotland are prone to twitching across the border, but for the large part the further north you go twitching tendencies, apart from on a county level, gradually peter out. Hence in Aberdeenshire, where I was brought up, patching is the birding culture.

This taught me, in terms of my individual pleasure in birding, that patching is unrivalled in its emotional and physical rewards: it puts the responsibility to eke out good species entirely into my hands and allows me to think creatively and to feel motivated to make individual contributions to the local birding scene and to conservation. Yet paradoxically, patching has also routinized and limited my birding by encouraging me to work the same old circuit incessantly and become immersed in its birds, instead of constantly going for rares elsewhere. The beauty of the beast lies in the sudden metamorphosis when those fruitless hours of patching deprivation turn into unbridled euphoria, as a mixture of your creative ideas and dogged persistence rewards you with a self-found local, regional or national scarce.

Up at the Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire, my patching haunt for over 10 years before I moved to Edinburgh last year, chancing upon decent birds was not entirely unprecedented: male Montagu’s Harrier, Pectoral Sandpiper and Green-winged Teal, for example. This was made possible simply because I had been working a top nationwide site renowned for its ability to produce Grade A rares. Expectations and standards were high and so fantastic birds on site, more so those that were twitched, retrospectively have lost some novelty. That may seem overly pessimistic, but I genuinely think that one of the best kinds of patch gold – that is patch gold you will savour for as long as you’re birding – comes from the patches that you least expect decent species to crop up in; an inland, unwatched site with limited habitat, somewhere that truly tests your birding and patching abilities. Small goals and low standards broaden the scope for surprise and great pleasure.

My Norfolk patch, which I have been working since October 2011, fits the bill completely. When I’m in the region, I live on and patch Costessey House Private Estate, which is situated between the villages of Old Costessey and Drayton on the western outskirts of Norwich. It comprises of a mix of deciduous woodland and marshland habitat, interspersed with sparse reed-beds and scrub. Much of the marshland is located along the Fishermen’s Trail and Costessey Marsh, making these the main areas of interest, while the River Wensum runs throughout the patch.

One of the most rewarding things about it from a patching perspective is that it’s entirely private land, so I have its beauty, its tranquillity, and its birds to myself. Because my mother’s cottage is actually on site, I’m the only birder who can feasibly access the area with the permission of the landowners. Thus, I’m left with the responsibility to record everything there, which is a challenge I embrace whole-heartedly and one which has been very gratifying thus far.

Another winning factor for me about Costessey House Private Estate is the relatively of rarity there. The complete privacy of the patch has allowed me to independently establish what is locally common or scarce on site and has helped me to discover its breeding birds, its every nook and cranny for the first time, and by doing so I have given it a birding ‘identity’. Frankly, I’ve found this process more rewarding than any previous long term birding I’ve done, something which has let me form a unique bond with the area and its birds. Its limitations are made clear by the fact that the vast majority of ducks, geese and waders are uncommon. Ironically I have had more wader species than either of the other two families: Jack Snipe, Woodcock, Golden Plover, Greenshank and Green Sandpiper are the highlights of 8 wader species recorded on site. Wildfowl have been much harder to come by: with just Egyptian, Canada, Greylag and Pinkfoot recorded goose-wise and Mallard, Gadwall and Teal duck-wise. Only Mallard, Greylag and Egyptian Goose are regular. The rest are notable and have been much enjoyed for their patch rarity. That lack of expectation for some of the broadly common species one would simply take for granted at a stereotypically decent coastal site, has become a novelty thanks to the patch: it gives Teal and Pinkfoots the tribute they deserve. This owes a lot to the fact that apart from the River Wensum, the patch is just agricultural land apart from when it floods, hence water faring species steer clear most of the time. Herein lies the challenge that I relish: a site deprived of many typical water birds, in which my aim is to patiently dig out locally uncommon species and simultaneously get to know its commoner species.

The patch is accessible through Mill Lane, which runs all the way to Costessey Marsh. The cottages, where the patch starts, are based around a barn and some paddocks which hold up to 3 Little Owls during the summer and are viewable from the comfort of the living room. Owls are definitely one of the patch’s consistent strong points, with all 3 of the regular species available. Barn Owl is easy over Costessey Marsh and near to the cottage at Mill Meadow. Both species occasionally appear on the front lawn.

Little Owl in the front garden

Costessey Marsh is the largest and most productive area of habitat on site, consisting of low lying boggy marshland, and a line of deciduous woodland and reeds at the back. Breeding species here include 6 pairs of Reed Bunting and several pairs of Sedge Warbler in the summer. A pair of Hobby hawk over here very regularly until September, providing a dose of real quality to summer patching. Flooded conditions regularly produces Little Egret and Snipe on the marsh, with up to 50 of the latter noted here in April 2013, and has also heralded Water Rail and a Peregrine. Most notably however, the marsh was lucky enough to hold a Bittern and to have 6 Cranes flying over in February 2013. These two species, well off the radar, really got the adrenaline pumping and have gone down as the best birds that the patch has ever produced; very much testimony to the range of species that this small bit of land can offer and to that unique, unadulterated gratification and satisfaction that patching can give you.

6 Cranes in Feb 2013

Bittern in Feb 2013

Costessey Marsh in the summer (+ pair of hunting Barn Owl)
Fishermen’s Trail can also be productive; a small path running alongside the River Wensum opposite a patch of reeds and scrub which have occasionally held Cetti’s, Grasshopper and Reed Warblers and Lesser Whitethroat. It is far more reliable for breeding Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail and Otter. Mill Field is more conditions dependent, but is susceptible to flooding and can produce very good numbers of Larus when this happens. This has included a major patch highlight in the form of an adult Yellow-legged Gull in July 2012. The varied cover throughout the patch has held 10 warbler species – 6 of which breed on site – and passerines such as Spotted Flycatcher, Brambling and Common Crossbill. There is no reason why species such as Cuckoo and Redstart cannot crop up in these areas in the future.

Fishermen’s Trail

a marvellous michahellis on Mill Field

I've managed exactly 100 species in just over two years of sporadically working this random, untouched patch of private land, accessible simply through walking out the front door. Yet there’s still species such as Redshank and Shelduck that elude me, but will bring much satisfaction when I finally connect. Costessey H.P.E. is by absolutely no means a Strathbeg or a Rutland Water. It is not even a reserve nor a birding site, yet it still covers all my desired birding bases: the challenges of patching, the adrenaline of the find, immersion in the elements, getting to know the specific movements of the breeding species, record collation, that sense of release from the strains of everyday life, and realising the foundation that birds have within me. It is also a home, quite literally. For that reason, Costessey House Private Estate has transcended the objectivity of this hobby for me; it has helped me realise that patching is inherent within me. And I’m especially glad to say that for many of us involved in Next Generation Birders patching has become a mode of life and a source of great birding inspiration and joy; long may that continue, I hope, among the future generations of young birders. 

For more information and accounts from Costessey House Private Estate, see here.

-Joseph Nichols
Joseph is a 19 year old Scottish birder and avid patcher currently studying History at the University of Edinburgh. He lives in the capital city and often works his nearby patch at Cramond, where he hopes a Semipalmated Sandpiper will await him at the estuary mouth one autumn day. When not at uni he can usually be found trying to eke out local scarce at his other patch in Costessey, Norfolk. Joseph is also a passionate musician, playing drums and harmonica in a blues-funk band.1

This week in birding: 10th - 16th May

Spring singers, streamer-tails and spotted specialities 

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-Jonnie Fisk

Thursday, 15 May 2014

What young birders can get up to after NGB: Matt Williams in Borneo

If you've ever been to a different country, or even a different site from your local patch, for birdwatching, you’ll know the feeling I experienced when I arrived in Indonesia.

You’re immediately immersed in potential new sounds and sights, confused and thrown off balance, but also more alert than normal.

Almost one year ago I came to Indonesia to work for a rainforest research and conservation organisation, and from the moment I landed in Jakarta I had that feeling. Ubiquitous tree sparrows were the first surprise. In the towns and cities this bird which is becoming increasingly scarce in the UK is more common than our own magpies or blackbirds.

Tree Sparrow
And today, ten months later, I find myself writing this to the backdrop of singing gibbons and the curt, electric buzz of Van Hasselt’s sunbirds. I work as the Communications Manager for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, a research and conservation organisation based in the heart of the Sabangau rainforest in Indonesian Borneo.

The Sabangau rainforest is brimming with wildlife and is renowned for being home to the world’s largest populations of orangutans and southern Bornean gibbons. But it’s also a haven for birds. And even in our base camp on the edge of the forest, you can find a wealth of bird life.

Blue-eared Kingfisher

Borneo is one of the world’s largest islands, found in Southeast Asia, and its birds are a subset of the wider Oriental region. Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, identified the Wallace line, created by a deep sea trench, which kept many species from crossing to Borneo from nearby Sulawesi or New Guinea, and vice versa. This make’s Borneo’s birds very distinct in evolutionary terms from species to the Southeast of the island.

Rufous-backed Kingfisher

But during the last 50 million years Borneo has at many times been connected by land to other parts of Sundaland – the islands of Sumatra and Java to the West and South. And during the last million years repeated periods of global ice ages allowed Borneo to be connected by land, and species to cross over and (re)colonise the island.

For example, scarlet-headed flowerpecker and savanna nightjar are just two species that made their way to Borneo during colder periods with lower sea levels.

Savannah Nightjar
I often join our field staff, who spend much of their time following primates through the forest and collecting data. These ‘follow days’ start at 4am by the light of a headtorch and end 12 hours later when the primates head to bed.

And whether I’m in camp or deeper in the jungle, I’m always on the lookout for birds, as I have been since the age of five, when I first started clutching binoculars.

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker

I’ve had many of my highlights in camp, from the blue-eared and stork-billed kingfishers that flit in and out to fish in the swamp, to the greater coucals – brown and black members of the cuckoo family, the size of a pheasant. It has a very plaintive persistent hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo call that is almost a constant backdrop around camp.

One of my favourites are the nightjars. Savannah nightjars hawk over the sedge on the river’s edge while in the forest Bonaparte’s nightjar is a speciality in our forest and when it’s dark at night or early morning you can hear it’s alien-like call.

Regular visitors to camp are also another member of the cuckoo family – the chestnut-bellie malkohas, with their stunning iridescent green-black plumage, their white tail highlights, bluish bill and red eye ring.

Chestnut-bellied Malkoha
But perhaps the best place to birdwatch from is the tower. It’s a 30 minute walk from camp, and it’s best to get there as the sun rises at 5am, after trudging with a head torch through the knee-deep mud.

You can hear a recording from me sitting up the tower first thing in the morning here, with a backdrop of gibbons and cicadas.

The tower is a great place to watch birds in the early morning. The edible-nest swiftlets, whose saliva-based nests are farmed and collected for food in the local village, are the first to arrive. Soon woodpeckers begin to appear, including the great slaty, the world’s largest species.

Black and red Broadbill

And there’s always a chance a crested-serpent eagle will fly past, as has happened on a couple of my visits.

Blue-crowned hanging parrots, a bright green bird with a flash of blue, occasionally fly past and sunbirds or flowerpeckers buzz from tree to tree. And the black-winged flycatcher shrike, as you might imagine a pied flycatcher crossed with a great grey shrike might look, is a beautiful little bird I often see.

Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher
Blue-throated bee-eaters and dollarbirds are often seen perching together on bare branches. The bee-eaters hawk for insects in a loop that brings them back to their original perch.

But the biggest spectacle is perhaps the hornbills. The Asian black hornbill has an unmistakable wretching sound that can be heard several hundred metres away. These birds are frugivorous, but specialise in different fruits so as each species can live alongside the other but avoid competition.
Olive-backed Sunbird

One morning, three of us stood at the top of the tower watching two adult wrinkled hornbills feeding with one juvenile. With our eyes glued to our bins we failed to notice what was happening to our right. A Storm’s stork, which obviously used the tower as a perch as well, had almost landed up there with us. It only pulled up at the last second, veering away when it realised its usually peaceful perch was otherwise occupied. This is one of the rarest birds I've ever seen, it’s classified as Endangered and there are only 500 of them left in the world.

The year I've spent has taught me, as it did scientists two decades ago, that peat-swamp forests might look like they’re fairly poor quality forest, but they’re actually invaluable for wildlife. And while the orangutans and gibbons might be the star attraction for most people, birds are no exception. And it’s a reminder to focus on songs and calls. In such a dense habitat birdwatching and finding new species can take a long time and be incredibly tricky. Familiarity with songs and calls can make all the difference.

Hasselt's Sunbird
I've still got a few birds I would love to see before I leave in June. Crestless fireback and any pitta species in particular. But even if I don’t get these I’ll feel thoroughly satisfied with the year I've spent in Borneo.

-Matt Williams
Matt is a conservationist and wildlife photographer. He began his conservation career early, joining the rspb at the age of five. He currently works for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project in Indonesian Borneo, as their Communications Manager. He's also part of The Urban Birder team and a Committee Member of A Focus on Nature. 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory NGB Week

Barsdey island and its Bird Observatory have long been associated with getting young birders into the British Observatory scene, into conservation and ornithological organisations. 

Names such as Prof. Mike Harris (author to the Poyser monograph ‘The Puffins’) now works as a senior Ornithologist for the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology; Jeff Baker (author of the ringers' non-passerines guide to identification, and of ‘warblers of Europe, Asia and North Africa’, and also former licensing officer and now head of Marketing at BTO); and Dave Suddaby, who's career started as assistant warden at Bardsey Bird Observatory in 1981 and was followed by further seasons at Fair Isle Bird Observatory before settling in Shetland and working for conservation organisations and latterly with the RSPB as North Isles Officer. Dave left the RSPB in 2002 and moved to County Mayo to work for BirdWatch Ireland restoring habitats for birds such as Corncrakes and Red-necked Phalaropes and has found time to lead a number of tours for Naturetrek. 

These three, and many others all began as young Assistant Wardens on Bardsey. This year, BBFO in association with NGB, are running a week long course (Saturday 27th September - Friday 4th October) to get NGB members interested in working at Bird Observatories. 
The week will consist of workshop-like events where members can join the obs staff on walks round the island to count the migrants, seawatching from the observatory, watch (and potentially join in) with ringing at one of the four sites. Moth traps are operated and are checked each morning, and there will be several talks during the week about birding and wildlife. We plan to have a bird-race during the week - obs v NGB!!

There may still be some shearwater chicks still in burrows and we may be able to see some of these. 
The Cost will be £112.50 (£10 per night, £35 for the boat and £12.50 for car parking)

As this is in association with a Bird Observatories Council recognised Obs, under 21's are able to apply for the BTO Young Bird Observatory Volunteer Fund for this trip.

There will be three obs staff on hand during the week and NGB's own Bardsey resident and Observatory Volunteer, Ben Porter to help out. Ben will now give you some idea of what to expect...

Well…where to begin! I have always been interested in birds- I can remember keeping a list of the birds which visited my bird feeder in front of my kitchen window when I was about eight. After my 11th birthday, having been in secondary school for about a month, my parents took up the post of being the farming tenants on Bardsey Island, North Wales. We had visited the island many times before our move, staying as guests in the various houses, as well as at the obs. This move to Ynys Enlli just ensured that my interest in birds was never going to go away!

Since then I have been birding Bardsey Island every year- all year- alongside the staff of Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory, as well as taking images of a large percentage of them! Steve Stansfield has helped me hugely, and is currently my ringing trainer, fuelling me towards a C-permit. Anyway, onto the island, and (more importantly), its birds!
Bardsey Island (or Ynys Enlli in Welsh) is situated about 2km off the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales. The island is roughly 1.5kmx3km, with a perimeter of about 7km. Bardsey is at a strategic interception point for migrants crossing the Irish Sea and Cardigan Bay, as well as birds flying southward ready to cross these bodies of water in the Autumn. The result is that ‘falls’ of common migrants, and visible migration over the island, can be fantastic. It is not uncommon to have numbers of over 600 Willow Warblers on the island during the migration period; last May, for example, a total of 310 Sedge Warblers, 200 Whitethroats and 100 Blackcaps were grounded on the island on the 17th of May.
An aerial view of Cafn, where the boats come in and out, with Bardsey Mountain in the background

The view of the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, from the top of Bardsey Mountain
Ok, so enough of the common stuff…what of the rarities and scarcities? In a familiar fashion to the rest of the UK’s Bird Observatories, Bardsey has amassed a respectable list of rarities since BBFO’s founding in 1953. Some of the slightly rarer encounters on the island have included the first Summer Tanager (1957) and Yellow Warbler (1964) to be recorded in Britain. The list of American vagrants stands tall: American Bittern, Sora, Kildeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Grey-cheeked Thrush, American Robin, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-eyed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-throated Sparrows and Blackpoll Warbler have all been recorded.
This White-throated Sparrow was found at Nant, shortly before a Greenish Warbler was heard singing in the same area
Hoopoes are fairly scarce on Bardsey, turning up once every few years
From the opposite direction, Bardsey has played host to Black-winged Stilt, Lanceolated Warbler, River Warbler, Booted Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Eyebrowed Thrush, Thrush Nightingale, Red-flanked Bluetail, Isabelline Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear, Collared Flycatcher, Blyth’s Pipit, Pine Bunting, Rock Bunting and Yellow-breasted Bunting.
A few Bardsey specialities have emerged in recent years (well, certainly in the context of Wales, at any rate…): Subalpine Warblers have been recorded more than annually since 2007, amounting to a total of 12 birds seen in the last seven years; a pair even tried breeding in the obs garden in 2010, when a singing male of the eastern race was accompanied by a female, and both were seen carrying nesting material! Similarly, Melodious Warblers have been recorded annually since 2006, with over 17 records including a total of six birds in Autumn 2010 alone. Paddyfield Warbler has now been seen three times on the island since 2008, accounting for 75% of Welsh records!
Western Subalpine Warblers have been seen as many times as Eastern on here!
Melodious Warblers have been recorded over 110 times since 1953
So, I guess you probably want to know a bit more about actually birding the island; what habitats are there? What are the best places for birding? What has turned up where? Where is visible migration at its most overpowering? I will try my best to explain and outline some of the more precise details of birding Bardsey…
It has been suggested, particularly by Richard Else, that the island’s hot spots for migrants and rarities are contained within a ‘golden triangle’. The points of this triangle are made up largely by the only significant areas of dense vegetation on Bardsey.
The golden triangle concept…comprising Nant, The Withies and The Observatory garden at each corner
The observatory
Cristin, which comprises the buildings and garden of Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory, is the first ‘point’ of this triangle: the garden consists of a single large Sycamore, surrounded by a scattering of mature damson bushes. The garden is the main hub of the island’s ringing activities, and is the only site on the island with Heligoland traps. The BBFO garden alone has a rather impressive list of over 250 species, including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eyebrowed Thrush, Bonelli’s Warbler and Sardinian Warbler.
An aerial view of The Observatory (foreground), with the two Heligoland traps, and surrounding garden

A ground-level panoramic shot of the obs and garden
The Withies
The second point of the golden triangle is The Withies: this is made up of three willow beds, which are situated in the lowland area of the island. These three withy beds (Ty Pellaf Withy, Cristin Withy and Plas Withy) are excellent for luring species that prefer damper habitats, such as Sedge Warblers and Grasshopper Warblers, and are also a good place for large numbers of warblers moving through the island in spring and autumn. Apart from being the best place on the island to find Golden Orioles during spring migration, the withies have hosted Paddyfield Warbler, regular Icterine Warblers, Subalpine Warblers and Rustic Bunting in the last few years.
A shot of two of the withy beds, with Bardsey Lighthouse in the background
The final point of this triangle is ‘Nant’: this is a much larger area than the previous two locations, and is largely made up of an old, mature pine Plantation, flanked on the northern side by a newer plantation of native broad-leaved species. Aside these areas of cover, there are a handful of small withy beds, and an agglomeration of small walled gardens. Due to the shelter that these vegetated areas provide, it is often the favoured haunt for a large number of migrants, and usually turns up the largest percentage of scarce visitors during the year. Recent finds in this area have included Western Bonelli’s Warbler (2012), Paddyfield Warbler (2013), two Pallas’s Warblers (2010), six Red-breasted Flycatchers and a White-throated Sparrow (2010).

Aerial views of Nant, showing the old and new Plantations, as well as some of the smaller gardens

Aside these key areas, there is a multitude of habitats and under-watched sites that can be equally good…
The gardens
There are 11 small walled gardens around the island, all of which bear plenty of cover to conceal passing migrants. My own garden is the most southerly on the island, Ty Pellaf, and is perhaps the best site on the island to find Yellow-browed Warblers in the Autumn. Pallas’s Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Common Rosefinch and Hawfinch have all paid a visit to the wind-battered Apple Trees that line the edges of my own garden in the last few years.
I found this Pallas’s Warbler warbler as I was popping into the garden to pick an apple of one of the trees…it was later trapped in our Poly tunnel
The Mountain
Bardsey Mountain rises a little over 160 metres above sea level; the western side of this small lump is covered in heath and gorse, and is largely underwatched. The mountainside has been the predominate site for almost all Wrynecks in recent Autumns, and has been an excellent place to find Subalpine Warblers in recent years. The East Side of the mountain is made up of precipitous grassy slopes, combined with rocky outcrops and scree slopes. The lower reaches of this steep side is home to the island’s breeding populations of Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins, Peregrine Falcons and several Choughs.
Wrynecks occur annually on Bardsey, between late August and mid-October, and favour the mountainside between Cristin and Nant
Short-eared Owls are also best found during the day, hiding amongst the swathes of bracken on the mountainside

An aerial view of Bardsey Mountain, with the steep east side in the foreground, and the South End visible beyond the ridge
The Narrows
This is a relatively small area of land, the narrowest point on the island, connecting the South End with the rest of Bardsey. The low height and scattered rocky beaches mean that this is virtually the only place that waders and wildfowl will turn up. Solfach, on the western side of The Narrows, is often awash with large piles of rotting sea kelp, which in turn attract reasonable numbers of migrant waders. During the winter, the kelp also provides nourishment for the 45-odd wintering Choughs.
A panaromic taken from Solfach (on The Narrows), looking back to Bardsey Mountain

The South End
The South End is a low and exposed belt of land, home to the Bardsey Lighthouse. On calm drizzly nights during spring and autumn, the rotating beams can attract hundreds of unwary migrants, many of which are then brimming out of every bush the following day. However, the recent switch from the rotating prisms to a flashing LED light means that the chances of any attractions are virtually non-existent: gone are the days when you could trudge around the lighthouse compound, kicking up 30 or so Grasshopper Warblers, and then counting some of the 200 Willow Warbler that made landfall in the surrounding gorse. However, all is not lost for this area of land: it is one of the best places to witness autumn ‘vis-mig’. It is best here as birds funnel down to the tip to cross the Irish Sea. Hundreds of Meadow Pipits, hirundines and finches can be seen flying southward on calm days in the autumn, and the occasional Richard’s Pipit may also tag along. The seas of thrift, rough grassland and squill have attracted Dotterels, Short-toed Lark and Quail in recent years, as well as hosting the island’s only Kildeer.
The view of the south end from the southerly tip, looking back along the island
In recent years, seawatching has really taken off as the predominate form of birding on windy days in the Autumn. The large increase in seawatching efforts is at least partly to do with the discovery that this activity can take place from the benches immediately in front of Cristin. From this seawatching deck, there is an excellent view of about 180 degrees of the Irish Sea, as well as part of the Bardsey Sound. The sea is about 0.8 km away from the front of the obs, but the more elevated position means that observations include a much further fetch of the sea. Anything from Long-tailed Skuas and Sabine’s Gulls, to the rarer Great Shearwater (2012) and Fea’s Petrel (2013) have been picked up from this amazing site, and the kettle is never too far away. For the more intrepid, and for those who appreciate being at slightly closer quarters to the passing seabirds, there are two hides situated on the wind-swept corners of the island: one is above the sea cliffs at the southern tip of the South End, whilst another is at a lower elevation, at the most north-westerly point of the island. From the latter of these hides, you can get good views of Sooty Shearwaters, Balearic Shearwaters, Leach’s Storm Petrels, four types of Skuas and much more. This sort of passage is often most prominent after a very strong westerly or north-westerly gale, which encourages southward-bound pelagic species to conglomerate on the eastern side of the Irish Sea.
Considering the large breeding population of Manx Shearwaters on the island, daytime passage is often quite meagre: it is rare to have many more than 10, 000 passing by, and that is on a very good day

Seascapes with Kittiwakes

Breeding birds
As many will no doubt be aware, the island is home to some 16, 000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters, which frequent the extinct Rabbit burrows as their nesting sites. There are nine pairs of Choughs breeding most years, and two pairs of Peregrines coexist within close proximity on the eastern slopes of the mountain. The diversity of habitats encourages a good number of common species to breed, such as Meadow Pipits, Stonechats, Linnets, Sedge Warblers, Wrens and Oystercatchers. Breeding species such as Lapwing, Corncrake, Corn Bunting and Jackdaw are all extinct on the island now, although newcomers have included Ringed Plovers, Willow Warblers, Little Owls and a pair of Long-eared Owls in the late 1990s.
There are about nine pairs of Choughs nesting on the island, with an over-wintering flock reaching 50 at times

Two pairs of Peregrines nest on the eastern slopes

Some practical info for those that are tempted enough to stay for a week or so this coming autumn (**warning**may contain hyperboles…):
-There are no bridges to the island, so you come by boat
-The weather is rough for much of the year, so there is no guarantee that you can get over
-There are no food shops, so bring food
-There are no pubs, so bring drink
-There is no phone reception, except for on the mountain
-The loos are outside, so bring warm PJs
-The Manxies are loud, so bring ear muffs
-The island is a working farm, so leave gates as you find them, or you’ll be shot

**interested in this opportunity? Email for more information, or ask about it on our Facebook group**

-Ben Porter
Living on a small rock off the welsh coast (Bardsey Island) throughout the year, Ben doesn’t really have much choice to be anything but a patch birder! He is c urrently in his last year of A levels. He enjoys all aspects of Birding, and is a keen wildlife photographer, lepidopterist, and trainee bird ringer.