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Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

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.

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

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.

The Estuary at Malltraeth at Sunset

The estuary at Malltraeth at sunset - land, water, wind and sky

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.

Malltraeth Cob with the flock of Lapwings

Malltraeth Cob with Lapwings

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.

Flock of Lapwings

Flock of Lapwings directly overhead

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.

Teal

Windswept Teal

It was freezing cold but I was enjoying being out in the fresh air and seeing new birds – and so many of them.  I may not have the talents of Tunnicliffe, but it was satisfying to be following in his footsteps, literally and figuratively.  I have no idea what half the birds were, but that didn’t matter.  I think I understand birdwatching by the sea now.
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St Cwyfan's Church - the Church in the Sea

St Cwyfan's Church - the Church in the Sea

I went back to Newborough Forest again at dawn this morning, and although I spotted the red squirrels again they weren’t any more obliging for pictures.  This afternoon I decided to try to find another Anglesey mammal, the grey seal.  Like the red squirrel, it’s one that I’m unlikely to see in landlocked Bedfordshire*.

A few miles up the coast from Newborough is Aberffraw, rightly famous for its wide, pristine sandy beach and extensive dune system (and for being the site of the palace of the dark age princes of Gwynedd).  North of the beach the landscape changes to a rocky shore dimpled with small bays.  It is a pleasant walk from Aberffraw along the coast to Porth Cwyfan, the ‘Church in the Sea’ beloved of artists.  On a windswept day like today it is a wild and lonely walk – in an hour and a half I saw only one other person, a chap collecting driftwood.

Carreg-y-trai off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Carreg-y-trai off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Halfway between Aberffraw and Porth Cwyfan is a small rocky islet called Carreg-y-trai (roughly translates as ‘low-tide rock’).  It is here that I come when I want to see seals.  There are usually one or two in the area, and on calm days they often haul out to bask undisturbed on the rock. Unfortunately today the sea was still rough and there were no seals in evidence.  For a seal it must have been like swimming in a washing machine.  Instead, the tiny islet was home to a ‘flock’ of cormorants – 23 in total – plus a solitary greater black-backed gull.

Cormorants off Aberffraw in Anglesey

Cormorants off Aberffraw

The coast here is a fine spot for birdwatching.  Oystercatchers, curlews andredshanks worked the shoreline, with a lone razorbill bobbing on the waves.  In the past I’ve watched ravens and choughs flying over the low cliffs, with flocks of lapwings in the field behind. 

It’s a shame the seals didn’t make an appearance, but watching the birds made up for it.  And to answer my question ‘where do seals go when the sea is rough?’, I guess they go wherever they want – it’s a big sea and they’re good swimmers, so they can head out where it’s calmer or find an even more secluded spot somewhere to lie up.

.

*but not impossible.  A seal took a wrong turning up the River Ouse a few years ago and ended up in Bedford town centre, to much local excitement.

Scarlett on the Beach

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All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient, rocky, druid shore
                                                              William Blake

Newborough Forest in Anglesey at daybreakI’m on holiday on Anglesey at the moment.  We arrived at the same time as the tail end of Hurricane Irene from across the atlantic, which means that the island is being lashed by rain and strong winds, adding a touch of grandeur and romantic drama to the rocky coast.

We won’t be doing any sunbathing, but then there are plenty of other things to keep a (very) amateur naturalist occupied here.  Looking back through this site I’m suprised to see that it was three years ago that I went looking for the red squirrels in Newborough Forest on the south west of Anglesey.  Time has flown by.

On that occasion I didn’t see any squirrels, despite walking for miles and miles (it’s a big forest).  Today I went back to Newborough to try again.  This time, I was (by my standards) more prepared.  I read in Simon King’s Wildguide that the best time to see squirrels is at daybreak, so I set the alarm for 6.00am.  By 6.20 I was walking quietly through the woods, the bracing sea air and the smell of the pine trees as invigourating as any breakfast.

There is a network of paths through the forest, and I stalked along as stealthily as I could in the gloomy half-light, scanning the swaying treetops for any signs of movement.  After 45 minutes and no sign of a red whisker anywhere I was ready to concede defeat again and headed back to the car park, where – sod’s law – two red squirrels were scampering around the trees.  There are squirrel feeders near the car park.  I suppose I frightened them off when I arrived but they returned as I was wandering about deep in the woods.

These were the first red squirrels I’ve seen, and delightful things they were too, from the tufts on their ears to their bushy tails.  The situation wasn’t great for photography, what with it being half-dark and the squirrels too far away.  To give you an idea, there’s a squirrel in this picture (I’ll give you a clue – it’s three-quarters of the way up the big tree):

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - Far Away

 

Can you see it?  Perhaps if I zoom in a little:

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - a little closer

How about now?

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - closer

Here it is, enlarged as much as the photo will take:

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest in Anglesey - expanded

OK – it won’t win wildlife photo of the year, but if you’d seen this picture first you’d have been disappointed.  At least now I’ve built some suspense and you’ll understand the circumstances it was taken under.  And I hope you’ll agree it’s definitely a red squirrel.  I’ll try to get a better picture if I can get out of bed early again, but at the moment this is my own little record of my first sighting of a red squirrel.

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The Grim Tithe

Newborough Forest, Anglesey

Newborough Forest, Anglesey

As I write this it’s blowing a gale outside, with squalls of cold rain gusting about.  I was supposed to be harvesting the last of my potatoes today, but I’ve retreated in the face of the weather and the hope that tomorrow will be better.

It is odd to think that two weeks ago I was sitting on a beach basking in the sunshine, and even more remarkable when that beach was in North Wales.  It was a very pleasant holiday – lots of fishing, walking and generally taking things easy.

The elusive red squirrels, alas, eluded me.  I spent a couple of days walking around Newborough forest, and though there was plenty of sign in the form of gnawed pine cones, the squirrels themselves were nowhere to be seen.  Still, it gives me an excuse to go back there.

Back home, there’s sad news for me.  A badger was killed this week on the main road, about a quarter of a mile from my house.  This is not one of ‘my’ badgers, or at least it isn’t from the sett that I watch – that’s on the other side of the village.  It is however in the area where I take my regular tracking walks, and may even be the badger that I’ve tracked in the field behind my house.

Road accidents account for a large proportion of badger deaths; they are possibly the biggest cause of death.  Every year there is a grim toll of casualties.  Unfortunately, badgers seem to have little road sense.  I’ve twice had badgers run across the road in front of my car, and both times they’ve dashed across without even seeming to look.

Since I moved here five years ago I’ve seen three dead badgers by the side of the roads in this area.  The accidents all seem to occur at this time of year.  I think that as the nights get longer, the badger’s routines come into conflict with those of humans.  During the summer, it gets light before anyone is up and about, so the badgers are safely home before the morning traffic starts.  Now the mornings are getting darker their paths are more likely to cross ours, with tragic results.

I took a walk down the road to have a look.  I get particularly annoyed when I walk along road verges, as they always seem to be littered with crisp packets, fast food wrappers and plastic bottles thrown away by the ignorant and vulgar motorists.  I can’t understand what makes people drive through the countryside tossing out crap from their car windows.  If I could only catch them in the act I’d learn them a lesson, believe me.

A sad end

A sad end

The dead badger was on the verge.  It is a sad end for such a creature, but then I can’t really blame anyone.  I drive a car and I drive down this road, so it could well have been me.  There was a badger path a little way off, so it seems like the badger was returning home after foraging when the accident happened.

I walked home along the route I use on my regular tracking walks, hoping to see fresh badger tracks that would prove that it wasn’t the badger I have been tracking lying there.  Unfortunately the wind and the rain had polished the sandy ground smooth, so there were no tracks at all to be seen.  I’ll have a look tomorrow, weather permitting, and see if any animals have been down there overnight.

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