Rhiw Natural History

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Birds found in Rhiw

By

Peter Hall

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Diversity” is one of those words much used these days by environmental bodies, government ministers and TV programs educating us to things that are really common sense to every old countryman. Basically the theory is the more diversity there is in the habitat the greater the number of species living there. Rhiw and its immediate area are fortunate in that they are possessed of many types of habitat, Coastal cliffs, beaches and scrub. Mountain with exposed rock and heather, mature mixed woodland, farmland both improved and not, marsh in the hollows and all these are mixed so as to form a patchwork. Each part of the patchwork is joined by sinuous hedges and winding field banks, so as to provide those so necessary interconnections required by wildlife on the move, in a world dominated by man and the motorcar. The vast majority of Llyn is still of great interest to wildlife, though some parts have changed greatly over the past 40 years, the change has not been as marked as in other parts of the UK. Bird life still exists in profusion and its diversity is wide because of all the above reasons, also being situated toward the tip of the Llyn Peninsular many species occur on passage to and from their feeding, breeding and wintering grounds. This adds to the interest, as in many months of the year you don’t know what you will stumble upon next, some species are only recorded on very rare occasions and it is these which add that touch of spice to bird watching. Not to say that the more common species are not of great interest, as their ever evolving habits and apparent inexplicable ability to thrive and fail without obvious cause, lead you to examine in ever greater depth their habits and habitats. 

The boundaries shown in many field-guides to birds abilities and needs are not as clear cut In real life, birds simply by their ability to fly cross many of bounds laid out to them by man. So sea birds can occur upon land and birds of the woodland be found on the beach, a wader perched on a tree branch or a water bird nesting in a high street. So to try to divide the birds of Rhiw into species occurring here or there is folly, expect the unexpected and don’t be surprised if when you tell your sightings to others they are greeted by raised eyebrows. Be certain of what you see, be meticulous in your identification of the species in question and be prepared to rewrite the accepted norm.

Stand on top of Mynydd Rhiw and look around at the surrounding countryside, the patchwork of fields and farmyards that make up most of the land in view are home to many birds which you will readily recognise from your garden. The Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock, Song and Mistle thrush and Wren, are birds, which along side many other common species fit into any habitat so long as it provided them with food, shelter and water. The Llyn Peninsula holds one of the highest breeding populations of Song thrush in the British Isles, as Song Thrush eat land mollusc’s the are very vulnerable to pesticide poisoning, clearly Llyn doesn’t suffer from the levels of pesticide use found particularly in England.  So these common species will also be found on the sea cliffs or in the heather of the mountain, down along the gorsy banks and along the lane sides. Amongst the fields in the summer months Curlew nest in those boggy patches which grazing stock shun and tractors cannot venture onto, they shepherd and feed their tiny young with the aid of their long curved probing beak. Lapwings also share this habitat but have declined in recent years so as to be less common than was once the case, back when poor country people supplemented their diets with Plovers eggs. Green finch, Linnet, Whitethroat, Chaffinch, Willow warbler all nest and feed in the gorse bushes that flank the insect rich sheep pastures, early morning in Spring will find each delivering its wonderful song from their favourite song posts, two Chats also live amongst the gorse and scrub, the Stonechat male with chestnut breast and white collar, and the Whinchat often associated with Heather and the high moor.

Farm buildings have for centuries been the summer nesting place of the Swallow, having returned from their African wintering grounds to raise their young. The farm house may well have House Martin nests under their eaves, and nesting under the slates in the roof cavity Swift, the Swift is a wonder of nature, once fully fledged from the nest it wont land again until the following breeding season. All three of these species are masters of flight and are to be found here both early and late in the season as they pass through on migration in both spring and autumn. The finch flocks stay all year round though the resident birds may be joined by birds from further a-field as winter tightens its grip, Rhiw’s warm maritime climate providing some respite from conditions further east. House Sparrows and Pied Wagtails nest also in the Farmyard buildings and may well be seen in good numbers as the year moves out of Summer, the breeding flocks having been joined by their offspring. Taking to the woodland you will encounter many different species Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green woodpecker whose load Yaffle rings out over wood and field, these are specialist woodland birds though they can all be encountered outside of the woodland.

Over the years I found Nuthatch on a farm midden wall, Tree-creeper on the side of a house, Great Spotted Woodpecker on the ground in the field, the Green Woodpecker however spends much time away from the wood as his favourite feed is to raid an ants nest. The Rock dove the ancient ancestor of the racing pigeon no longer can be counted as a species this far south as its blood lines have been polluted by other pigeon types, and now only described as Feral Pigeon. Woodpigeon, Turtle Dove, stock dove and the relatively newly arrived Collard dove are all to be found in the woods, though no longer does the Turtle Dove breed here. On the woodland floor breeds the Woodcock, a master of disguise amongst the leaf litter, their eyes are placed out on each side of their head giving all round vision without giving away their presence by moving their heads. Often they will only take to the wing when your next footfall would have been upon them, giving you such a shock and drawing your eyes away from the marvellously concealed nest. When the young have hatched the Woodcock can escape with its family clutched under its wings. The spring woodlands are graced by the visiting Cuckoo, with its voice well known to all, often she will lay her egg in the nest of Wren and Dunnock leaving them to rear a youngster far larger than themselves.  The corvids Jay, Jackdaw, Magpie, Crow and Rook all make use of the woods and the fields which surround them, all the members of the Tit family are also to be found there in the woods, though the Willow Tit would appear to be absent from the woods of Rhiw.  Willow warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Wood Warbler are summer visitors to the woodland all are to be found in the woods of Rhiw where their song mingles with that of the residents.

Spotted flycatcher is a bird of the woodland edge and can be picked out taking its distinctive figure-of-eight flights from small branches and fence posts to catch flying insects before often returning to the perch it left. Amongst mixed woodland where pines and fir trees have been planted the diminutive Goldcrest can be found, its song being just about the highest note you can hear, a note which is often lost to those with less than perfect hearing. Starling are hole nesters and nest widely in woodland but have also become a familiar nester in mans buildings taking advantage of just about every nook and cranny available to them. The Starling population has declined across much of Britain though Llyn is still a stronghold for them, probably because of the purity of the environment. In the scrubby hedges and damp blackthorn thickets the fantastic scratchy-sweet song’s of the Lesser and Common Whitethroat will be heard on spring and summer days, often the birds can be hard to spot but the Common Whitethroat will sit out in a prominent place to sing though this could be the other side of the thicket to you. Sedge Warbler also enjoys this same habitat, and will leap several feet above the bush and sink back down on parachute wings pouring out its song all the while. The Grasshopper Warbler sounds something like a grasshopper as it reels out its song, a rapid click like note for many seconds, turning its head all the while, this makes locating the bird very difficult as it sounds to come from everywhere at once. Long-tailed tit nest in the dense thickets of Blackthorn and Gorse, their nest made over many days consists of a ball of Moss and grass lined with feathers, downy seeds like those of the Dandelion, and cobwebs. This tiny ball will become the nursery for up to a dozen tiny pink youngsters, the nest expanding as they grow. From marsh sedge and reeds the song of the Reed bunting emerges, his marvellous breeding plumage making him stand out as he perches atop his chosen song post, while below in the bog itself Moorhens feed and squabble and raise their broods amongst the sedge stands. In the larger areas of marsh and bog Snipe also rear their young, and if disturbed take to the wing calling their harsh note and raising almost vertically before swerving this way and that, a ploy to through off possible avian predators.

Predators, of which there are several different species, are spread widely over Llyn each has its favoured prey species that it is marvellously adapted to catch and kill. Llyn sports at least three species of Owl, I say at least as my experience is that Owl being nocturnal in general are difficult to find and it is just possible that one species has slipped through the net. The most charismatic of all Owls in my opinion is the Barn Owl, its honey coloured plumage and graceful moth-like flight are magnificent to see as they silently drift around the field edges looking for prey. Also out in the field is the Little Owl, its Latin name Athene Noctua, the wise one is very fitting when you catch a close look at its face, its eyebrow marks giving it a look of superiority. The Little owl is as most Owls a hole nester and will nest in buildings, field walls, amongst the roots of trees and in disused Rabbit holes, chiefly an insect eater it fills a niche left open by our native Owls. Tawny Owl is the common Owl of the woods and its call Twit- Twoo is actually the call of two owls the Female Tawny Owls “Twit” and the males answering “twoo”. Now the other Owl that could and should be here is the Long-eared Owl, a native species living in woods and plantations and forming roosts of several birds in Winter, all we need now is for someone to find them. 

Sparrowhawk are to be found nesting in woodland but they hunt in all the available habitats. Their prime prey are birds which fall in size between the tiny Goldcrest and woodpigeon, as the female is considerably larger than the male they take birds from opposite ends of the prey range with some overlap in the middle. This is to ensure that at times of low food supply the male and female are not in competition with each other for food and can still occupy the same territory. Familiar to many is the Kestrel who is the master of the hover, hanging over suitable feeding territory, awaiting the emergence of unwary prey. Also a hover expert is the Buzzard hanging on the wind over crags and rising ground, gently adjusting its position with subtle movements of its wings and tail. Rapidly scouring low over the moor and heath the diminutive Merlin, the Grey blue male, and brown in the case of the female, pursues Meadow pipits and other small birds of the rough grass and heather. Huge by raptor standards, rapid and menacing the Peregrine spreads fear into all birds, capable of appearing from nowhere at speeds in excess of 150 mph and able to bring down a goose the Peregrine is at the peak of avian capability. Able to cover ground at such speeds this bird is one minute pursuing a pigeon over the mountain and next chasing along the sea cliffs or diving out over the sea closing down on a jinking wader as it tries; often unsuccessfully to make its escape. The Peregrine is at home along the cliffs making its nest on precipitous ledges and playing havoc amongst the nesting colony’s of seabirds, for roar power and grace no bird bares comparison.

Along the Coast, breeding in caves and under overhangs the Chough is the bird of the Celtic coast, if ever there were an emblem for this coastline this is it. Looking much like any other crow except for its splendid red beak and legs, it also has a distinctive call and dramatic display flight. The Chough is as wild as the coast it inhabits, usually you will encounter small parties as they probe for insects in short grazed grass close to the cliff tops or in poor weather, further inland. In the depths of winter large accumulations of Chough occur in the heart of Snowdonia, possibly these gatherings serve to pair up unattached birds, and mix the gene pool between birds from different localities. Easily distinguished from the Chough by its greater size, huge beak and wedge shaped tail the Raven is another bird of wild rocky mountains and coast, their deep croaking voice and acrobatic flight are part of the Llyn experience. Another far smaller bird of the coast is the Rock Pipit which lives amongst the rocks above the tide line, and ventures down onto exposed sand and seaweed looking for insects to eat, similar in size to its cousin the lighter coloured Meadow pipit their worlds overlap but seldom are rock pipits found far inland. In the sandy cliffs of glacial deposits the Sand martin will make its nest in summer though they are far fewer these day and many of the large colonies no longer exist. The nest of the Sand Martin is a tiny chamber at the end of a tunnel measuring up to a meter in length and is excavated after the birds’ arrival from its wintering grounds in Africa. Skylark often sing along the cliff tops and over the mountain, they can be hard to spot, often sounding much closer than they really are. Their song is one of the distinctive sounds of the spring and summer, though they can be heard enjoying their wonderful voice at any time of the year. 

The other major habitat not yet looked at in depth is the coast, wild birds of the sea and shore eek out a living in some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the British Isles. Along the cliffs on suitable ledges breed the Cormorant and Shag the Shag best distinguished from the Cormorant by its crest and bottle-green sheen, both recognised as great fishers they can dive to great depths in pursuit of their prey. The Herring gull also nests on the cliffs to be near to its victims for the Herring gull is along with most other large gulls, a Pirate. Guillemot’s and Razorbills run the gauntlet of these pirates every time they leave their nests to fly out to sea or return to land with their catches of sand eels, any unguarded nest with eggs or young is also at risk from the Gulls. Puffin once bred here but along with the Manx Shearwater only visit the waters to feed or when just passing to their colonies on the islands offshore. Fulmar petrel nest on the cliffs and glide upon the up draught on outstretched wings, the other representative of the Petrel family is the Storm petrel which nests upon Bardsey island and on rare occasions come close inshore in search of food. Mallard duck will nest near any small or large body of water and will also nest well away from water altogether, having bred they lead their broods to feed upon water and will even venture onto the sea when the young are older. During winter Shelduck, Widgeon and Eider duck, can join them in some years as they shelter around the coast from the winter storms as do Red-breasted Merganser.

Oystercatcher nest around the Peninsular and fly in raucous groups from bay to bay, Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper feed in weed covered areas in winter, early arriving Turnstones can sometimes still carry their wonderful chestnut breeding plumage. On winter migration Common Gull often linger in the wet fields eating worms brought to the surface by the water, Hen harrier frequent the areas of wet rush gliding low in search of food. As winter pushes towards the south it drives before it large flocks of Fieldfare and Redwing, these flocks gradually work their way south and west consuming the berries which way-down the bushes of Britain. Much of their movement takes place over night from late September onwards; on still moonlit nights if you should stand outside for a period of time and listen, you will here the contact calls of the migrating birds as they pass overhead. Other northern finches also join the Chaffinch and Greenfinch flocks that move down from the north, the Brambling, Siskin and Lesser Redpoll come to join the feast, the latter two species often feeding together on Larch, Birch and Alder seeds. Summertime brings passage birds along the coast, Sandwich, common and Arctic terns drift along the coast feeding as they go, Kittiwake, Great Black-backed Gull and Black-headed Gull also slip through on passage, in the wader department Grey Plover, Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper and Redshank join the great migration to their breeding grounds. Also to be found during spring and autumn are rare vagrant birds blown off course by storms over Europe or the Atlantic, so that birds that should be going to their breeding grounds in North America or Central Europe find themselves wrecked upon the west coast of the British Isles. These include such species as the European Golden Oriole, Hoopoe and the American Yellowlegs, the tiny Firecrest and the magnificent Scandinavian Bluethroat. Add to these species that are rapidly expanding their ranges such as Hobby which nest far further north now than they have for over 100 years. The Red Kite is now expanding its range with prospecting birds pushing the boundaries back; these birds are probing east over the border into England and North into the mountains of Gwynedd.

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With much thanks to Peter for this brilliant article. 

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