North Wales Bird Race report 2019 - Henry Cook First bird Cetti's Warbler, last bird Common Snipe. In between were 20 hours, 270 miles driven, 14 miles walked and a wonderful myriad of wonderful Welsh birds! This was the annual bird race which we've attempted in North Wales for more years than I care to remember. This year the team consisted of bird race stalwarts Marc Hughes, Chris Jones and myself. A brief team meeting was held a couple of days before and the route set with a strict timescale to adhere to, or else! We were joined at the last minute by Alex Jones and despite him having had only 30 minutes sleep the night before (too excited to sleep, honest) he was a welcome addition to the team. Usually held in mid-May for the peak richness of species. All the summer migrants are back and singing, wader passage is going strong and if lucky a few lingering winterers will still be around. The majority have to see or hear each bird, so for our team of four, that meant three needed to register it. That could be a full-frontal view of a Pied Flycatcher or the faintest 'tseeep' of an invisible Meadow Pipit. 144 was the total to beat around North Wales, set back in 2008. Annual attempts since have ranged from 128-142 but not quite getting over the mark.
Our route, starting on Anglesey and finishing at Llyn Brenig via Burton Mere. Having assembled near Conwy at 1.30am, we powered-on over to Cors Ddyga, Anglesey. Although pitch-black, this site is really active at night. Good race birds such as Barn Owl, Water Rail and Cetti's Warbler were picked up on call. Driving off the island, we headed on down to the Gwydyr Forest via a stop for Ring Ouzel which was singing from a huge boulder slope. Still pitch black we rocked-up at the forest edge where Nightjar was 'churring' away and gave fantastic views in the torch beam flying over, one of the highlights of the day and it wasn't even light yet! The chorus got going soon after with Redstart, Tree Pipit and Cuckoo calling here. It was gloomy, but it felt productive conditions for birding. Now light, we dropped down off the tops, stopping at Ty Hyll where most woodland birds wound their way onto the list including Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher. A stop along the road past Coed Siabod revealed a lucky Spotted Flycatcher with the more expected Dipper and Grey Wagtail along the falls. Back down the Nant Ffrancon with a successful stop for Twite and Lesser Redpoll then on to Anglesey once more. A last minute change in the itinerary led us back to Cors Ddyga where immediately upon arriving a Purple Heron was spotted by Marc sat up in a tree. This was a fantastic find for a bird race and we were torn between enjoying it or carrying on our mission. Removing ourselves, we added lots of good species here including Bittern, Marsh Harrier and a couple of late ducks with Wigeon and Teal on the pools. On the walk back to the car Anglesey birder, Martin Jones, texted to say that three Great White Egrets had joined the Purple Heron sat up in a dead tree. Looking back at the tree, indeed there were all these exotic herons. It was reminiscent of a scene out of the Camargue, but here in North Wales.
Purple Heron at Cors Ddyga found on the race (Chris Jones).
Great White Egrets were in the same tree as the Purple Heron (Marc Hughes). Visiting the main Anglesey sites in quick succession, we stopped at Valley Lakes where Barnacle Goose was seen quickly but an outstanding Otter flaunting itself in front of us was not able to go on the list. The Alaw Estuary was quiet with only Red-breasted Merganser, Dunlin and Ringed Plover to show for the long walk. I wasn't feeling positive about our progress at that stage, but on the drive up to Cemlyn Chris revealed we were just shy of 100 species, at 9am in the morning. We were doing pretty well but didn't focus on the total too much at this stage. The regular terns all showed at Cemlyn and we lucked in on a few waders including Turnstone, Knot and Sanderling, any of which can be missed on May races. Manx Shearwaters moved past offshore in small numbers. Over at Holyhead the smart Black Guillemots showed up right in front of us, tick and run. Quickly on to South Stack next, where the remaining expected seabirds were added including Gannet offshore and Puffin on the sea.
Otter at Llyn Trafwyll. On any other day this would be a highlight! (Marc Hughes) Finishing up on the island, a search for a pair of Hooded Crows at The Range instead turned up a nice surprise. On arrival Ken Croft was high-fiving a couple of clients he was guiding. There must have been something really good to make Ken do that! The others in the team got on to the bird but it winged-it behind a house before I could make out that it was a Short-eared Owl. Nevermind, it still went on the list as enough of us had seen it. We left the island with half the day gone, on 120 species. We had 10 or so hours to find another 25 species for the record. We hardly dared mention the thought of reaching that heady height.
Black Guillemot at Holyhead Fishquay (Marc Hughes). Back on the mainland, Eider was added at Aber Ogwen then we motored eastwards to Llanfairfechan. Intense scoping of the Scoter flock out towards Puffin Island produced a single Velvet Scoter, expertly picked out by Marc, but none of the recent Surf Scoters, likely due to the gloom which obscured the visibility somewhat at this point of the day. Shortly after I spotted a diver, it was a Great Northern, not expected at all and the kind of bird that can make a difference to the total, and morale. Chris looked at the list and let us know we were still missing Greenfinch and Bullfinch, oh dear! A quick dash around Conwy RSPB netted us these two in quick succession. 129 species by 2.30pm. Our original plan had been to go down the Conwy valley to see Hawfinch, Red Kite and Yellowhammer but a car-crash along the valley made our decision for us. So it was onwards to Bodelwyddan Castle where we didn't record a single new bird, the only wipe-out of the race. Not good at all but it was the quiet part of the day. The River Clwyd was much kinder to us and four new species here consisted of Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Egyptian Goose and a Peregrine scoped miles away on the Rhyl sky-tower by Chris. We decided to give Gronant a quick look for Little Tern. On the walk a Lesser Whitethroat was heard, the last warbler we still required. It was a lengthy wander to the beach for just one more species but we saw a pair of the dainty 'sea-swallows' over the colony and power-walked back to the car.
Little Terns - this image not taken on the race as they were very distant (Henry Cook). The following stop was make or break for the day, and our attempt on the record; the border pool of Burton Mere RSPB. Scanning from the cycle track we had an amazing run of fortune, seeing Spoonbill, Cattle Egret, summer-plumaged Curlew Sandpipers, Mediterranean Gull but only two of us saw Ruff; one that went begging. A Yellow Wagtail put us on 144 at 7.45pm. One more bird was all we needed. We dashed up to World's End, where fittingly a posse of Black Grouse set a new Welsh day record. The lekking males were still deciding who was best and practicing their jousting moves, just a normal day for them. We couldn't believe it. The record was ours! With an hour of light left and options running out we drove down to Llangollen for Mandarin and up to Llyn Brenig for Osprey. A text from local patcher, John Roberts, alerted us to a good spot for Snipe and now dark we indeed heard one chipping away across the moor. Done, we should have been exhausted but adrenaline was coursing through the veins. We hadn't just beaten the record, we'd smashed it with 150 species recorded by 10pm.
Black Grouse - the species that set a new Welsh record (Henry Cook). The particular successes that took us well past the old record were 7 species of heron (unthinkable, even just a few years ago), 4 species of owl and a good diversity of waders. However, there's always an embarrassing omission or two and we missed a howler in the form of Jay. Sparrowhawk, Hen Harrier plus Red Kite were also missed and in total we tried for a further 15 species. Theoretically, that day and that route could have produced 165 species, demonstrating how amazing North Wales is for birding in the merry month of May. To those thinking of giving it a go, DO IT, it's a great laugh and a celebration of Spring and our wonderful wildlife!
Team of 2019 having just ticked Osprey at Llyn Brenig in near darkness - from left to right: March Hughes, Chris Jones, Alex Jones and Henry Cook.