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Early Morning in North Wales

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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 17:31   #1
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Early Morning in North Wales

I had only a limited amount of time available to me today, what with feeling I ought to get back to my Wife to ensure our daughter got out of bed before lunch and presented her Mothers Day Card (teenagers tend not to surface before lunch at weekends!) and a desire to watch England play Ireland in the Six Nations rugby. Nevertheless the was one bird I had a real desire to see, It had eluded me before on 3 separate occasions, being thwarted by either the state of the tide , the visibility or the sea conditions and that was the Black Scoter at Llanfairfechan. Black Scoter is the American form of the more familiar Common Scoter, differing by the presence of a bright yellow swollen bulge at the base of the bill. All the omens looked good, the met office predicted calm sea`s, the weather forecast was sunny and the tide would be high when I arrived so it was a very early start (2:30 with the change to BST) and into the car for the long drive over the peak district to North Wales. The sky was clear with the stars bright overhead when I left, but by the time I reached Chester and the A55 the sun was rising and the sky a clear blue.

Pulling off the main road and driving down towards the sea, my first stop was the fast flowing rocky stream running down towards the beach as this can be the haunt of Dippers, as soon as I left the car I could hear the clear repetitive song of Chiff-Chaff in the trees bordering the stream, on the rocks in the water there was no sign of any Dipper but instead a lovely pair of Grey Wagtail, long tailed and a beautiful delicate lemon beneath the birds were active on the rocks before flying off downstream with a "Tsee-it" call.

I pulled into the promenade car park and looked over the sea wall, the tide was rising and the sea was flat calm as far as the eyes could sea. To my left was Anglesey and out ahead of me was Puffin Island. I set up my scope and started to scan out to sea. The first bird I clapped eyes on was a lone Scoter sp asleep, it was a male, all black with its head tucked under its wings and its tail raise at 45 degrees like a giant Ruddy Duck, without seeing its head and bill there was no chance of identifying it so I continued to search through the birds before me. There were scattered small rafts of Common Scoter further out, each of up to a dozen birds all very active chasing each other across the water and flying in circles round the bay. A single drake Red-breasted Merganser was also showing well enough to make out its "shaggy" crest feathers. There were good numbers of Red-throated divers in one`s and two`s all still in winter plumage, showing alot of white on the neck and face, on the closer birds the eye could be made out isolated in the white on the face and they all had the characteristic "snooty" look with there bills tilted upwards! It was now time to return my attention to the roosting Scoter and I was fortunate that it had woken up! I knew that I had my bird, even at 400-500 yards range I could make out a bright yellow "blob" at the base of the bill shining brightly in the sunshine, investigating it more fully in the scope just revealed the extent of the yellow that appeared to extend most of the length of the bill. In every other way it appeared the same as a "normal" Common Scoter and I`m sure I would have overlooked it had I not been alerted to its presence. I spent quite some time watching it, happy that I had finally tracked down my "quarry". I watched it as it drifted in the bay diving occasionally with a leap forward and its wings shut tight, just like a Common Scoter. I was disturbed by a commotion and noisy piping of the Oystercatchers on the beach in front of me, something had flushed all the Gulls and Waders on the beach so I scanned quickly along and caught sight of a small grey raptor flying low across the sand, my first thought was Merlin, but I was soon proved wrong as it swooped up to perch on the concrete sea wall not 100 yards to my left and revealed itself as a fantastic male Sparrowhawk, which allowed me to get excellent views of its slate-grey back and wings, orange barred underparts and "beady" eyes as it sat and soaked up the spring sun. All to soon it was time to leave and I made a short drive inland to the beauty spot of Aber falls.

It really is a scenic drive up this picturesque valley; with its birch covered slopes and rocky fast flowing stream all in the shadows of the Snowdonia Mountains. It was on the slopes above the falls that I hoped to connect with Chough. Parking up and heading up the steep logging track towards the summit, it was obvious that spring had fully arrived, all the birds were in full song taking advantage off the sunshine to stake a claim to a territory and to attract a mate. There were countless Chiff-Chaffs including one particularly co-operative individual, which perched in the top of a Birch Tree singing its heart out and affording me excellent views. I could hear a noisy Great-spotted Woodpecker drumming and I was able to pick it out drumming against the branches of a thick tree, looking smart in its bold pied plumage with prominent red undertail coverts. Never the less one bird I could not make out or hear on the scree covered hilltops or sheep grazed grassy slopes was my target bird Chough! I spent some time scanning from the top of the track to no avail before being distracted by a delightful pair of Lesser Redpoll, perched in the bare branches of a Silver Birch, the male bird having acquired a bright red wash to his breast feathers. I was more heartened as I began to descend as I could hear the odd clear ringing "kyew" call of Chough from across the valley. Eventually I caught sight of 2 birds which flew in to feed on the close cropped grass of the sheep fields on the opposite side of the valley, there feeding action was characteristic, using their long curved bills to probe the turf, their silhouette was longer necked and longer legged than other crows and of course the curved red bill made them instantly recognisable. A Rook flying in to land close by obviously startled them and they took to flight, showing their broad wings, short tails and deeply fingered primaries before I lost them to view. After that stroke of good fortune the descent to the car was a doddle!

I thought I had finished birding for the day as I drove back down from the car park towards the main road, but it just goes to show you should never hang your "bins" up because in a roadside field I spotted a Raven taking off, they really are massive birds, easily the size of a buzzard with a chunky head, long wings and long angular ended tail. I watched as the bird circled higher over the trees, a perfect end to a fantastic morning!

Just time to drive back home and meet the family for lunch!
Jason Blackwell

Last edited by Jasonbirder : Sunday 30th March 2003 at 20:37.
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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 17:55   #2
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You lucky So & So. I have tried for a couple of years or so after that Black Scoter. Still I have yet to see it. Also I have tried at Aber falls for Chough but failed on that front as well.

The stream that enters the sea, to the left of Llanfairfechan car park, has actually turned up a Dipper for me once. Possibly the most surprising site to see one.

I must admit the walk up to Aber falls in the Spring is lovely and I once had a surprise Nightingale there. The last time I went to Aber Falls, last year, a Ring Ouzel had been reported on the day I had arrived there but I couldn't find that bird either. Suffice to say, it is a lovely place but not a lucky one for me.

Excellent, and concise, report again Jason. Unfortunately I promised Ros that I would stay at home this weekend and help her sought out the greenhouse and the shed as well as the garden so I have no trip reports for this weekend.
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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 18:26   #3
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But Next Weekend John, will be One big jolly.
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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 18:47   #4
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One thing I forgot to mention & not such good news for me, I was turning round at Lanfairfechan & obviously thinking about more important things (IE Birds!) and reversed my car straight into a lamp post, damaging my boot & bumper quite badly....just goes to show i didn`t have it all my own way!
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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 19:05   #5
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What a cool trip you had, Jason. I've never seen a Scoter at all -- American versions or otherwise.

I also really enjoy the descriptions of the countryside you were seeing. I long to visit Britain again someday, so I read these things with a sigh.

Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.
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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 19:26   #6
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In late November last year I had to attend a rlatives funeral in Llandudno, after the funeral I planned to stay overnight in a Hotel and get a bit of birding in on the next morning, either v9isiting the Great Orme or Llanfairfechan, I decided on the latter. I had set up my scope and had started to scan the sea when I was approached by another birder "have you seen the Black Scoter?" says he, "Black Scoter?" says I, I didn't even know there was one here!!! Sure enough there was the Black Scoter, and thats how I got a lifer at a funeral.
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Old Sunday 30th March 2003, 19:40   #7
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A great report and I feel I got the Chough and the Scoter too!
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