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.

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