Happy New Year!
It’s been a hectic Christmas, but I saw in the New Year in my own style. While the rest of the world was sleeping off the excesses of the night before, I was up before dawn on January 1st, sitting in a forest waiting for Red Squirrels.
I was back in Anglesey and the weather was wild and stormy with a big south-westerly wind pushing waves up the beach. Not the sort of weather for building sandcastles, but it gave the landscape a lonely winter grandeur that I like.
I’ve got the hang of the squirrels at Newborough Forest now. The trick is to be there at first light, wait by the feeders at the Llyn Parc Mawr car park, and hopefully they’ll oblige. It wasn’t an arduous wait: I was kept entertained by the range of birds that visited the feeder, including three Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a friendly Robin that perched on the wing mirror of my car and kept me company. A pair squirrels arrived at about 8.30am. The perfect picture still eludes me – the light was still poor and the wildness of the shot was compromised by the squirrel sitting on a picnic table – but I’m getting better.
I had another reason to visit Newborough. I’ve been re-reading Shorelands Summer Diary by Charles Tunnicliffe. Tunnicliffe was an artist and birdwatcher who came to live in the village of Malltraeth in 1947. Malltraeth is only a mile or so from Newborough Forest, separated by a broad estuary and marsh. Tunnicliffe watched and painted the birds he saw there.
Shorelands Summer Diary is an exquisite book. It is a record of the first year that Tunnicliffe spent in his house by the sea. The paintings are beautifully done, with a certain humorous charm (for instance, his sketch of a woodpecker in his garden includes himself in the background watching through binoculars), and it is easy to recognise the locations today. The writing too is charming. Tunnicliffe describes the birds he sees, from Shelducks to Peregrine Falcons, as real characters. He was not just ticking birds off a list, he really saw them as individuals. And he was an excellent birdwatcher. He could recognise a Roseate Tern from a Common Tern at a hundred yards. For more information on Tunnicliffe, and examples of his work, see http://www.thecharlestunnicliffesociety.co.uk/. Should you find yourself on Anglesey, the Oriel Ynys Mon art gallery in Llangefni has a permanent Tunnicliffe exhibition that is well worth a visit.
So having enjoyed the book, I just had to experience the real thing for myself while I was in the area. Malltraeth is an interesting spot. On the landward side of the estuary is the grassy bank of a sea wall – the ‘cob’ – with a pool behind, so it’s really three habitats in one.
Now, I must confess that I’ve never really appreciated birdwatching on estuaries and marshes. We just don’t have them in landlocked Mid-Bedfordshire, and the appeal of standing by a large patch of mud was lost on me. But standing there in grey light of morning, with a gale blowing in my face, I was struck by the elemental combination of land, water, wind and sky. This was no tame hedgerow or copse. But it was when I looked at the birds that I really understood estuary birdwatching for the first time.
There were birds everywhere, of all kinds of species. Lapwings, oystercatchers, redshanks, curlews. A trio of little grebes dived in the river. A heron flapped slowly away, mobbed by two gulls. Further out, on the mudflats, an immense flock of unidentified brown waders stood stoically in the cold wind. It was an embarrassment of riches for someone used only to the birds of field and wood. At that moment, I understood the attraction.
High tide on New Year’s day coincided with sunset. I just had to come back again to see more, and I was not disappointed. When I arrived a huge flock of Lapwings was wheeling and circling around the bay, breaking apart and coming back together, trying to land on a tiny island. I couldn’t count the numbers, but a conservative estimate would be at least 300-400.
The Lapwings were quite a spectacle. I sat and watched them, with a couple of hardy birdwatchers. Even the locals walking their dogs in the chill evening stopped to look at them.
I don’t know why, but I really like this picture of the Lapwings overhead. They were strangely soothing to watch as they floated on the wind.
Out in the bay, Teal and Pintail ducks bobbed on the waves. Beyond, in the distance, were thick dark lines – flock after flock of waders waiting for the tide to ebb.