Sunday 5 April 2015

Awayday in Cardiff 3rd April 2015

Little Bunting
Andy sent me a text on Thursday asking if I would like to accompany him on Good Friday to see the Little Bunting at Forest Farm Reserve on the outskirts of Cardiff. I had already been twice to see the bunting and had been quite taken with it, so accepted his invitation with alacrity.

We arranged to meet at the Travel Lodge by the A40 at Burford at 6.30am. What a difference a day makes. On Thursday the weather had been a sunny delight that lifted the spirits.Today, in complete contrast, it was wet, misty and grey.  That I guess is why weathermen or women will never be out of a job in Britain as the weather is just so changeable. As I descended the hill into Burford, a buff white shape, blurred by the gloom, floated across the road. A Barn Owl was still out hunting. Always a pleasure to see, this cheered me no end.

I met up with Andy and we duly headed west into steadily increasing rain.The forecast predicted this would pass by eight and things would improve from then on so we were not too downcast. Anyway the Little Bunting was viewable from a hide, so we would be sheltered and the rain would not affect us.

The Motorway in the rain was a miasma of red brake lights, flying spray and limited visibility. Over the Severn Bridge and we were into Wales. The rain if anything got worse as we headed for Cardiff but thankfully eased as we turned off the Motorway to wend our way through grey streets and down into the valley by the River Taff where the reserve was located.

It was deserted when we got there. Not a sign of life. Parking, we then walked the few yards to the hide and looking through the viewing slat immediately saw the Little Bunting. Unfortunately it was so close to the hide, only feet away, that it saw us and flew briefly to the little coppiced hedge adjacent to the hide and then departed completely.

Well at least Andy had his lifer but obviously he would like to see more of it than just a brief thirty seconds worth. I sprinkled some seed along the muddy margins of the flooded depression in front of the hide that the bunting favoured and we sat and waited. We waited and we waited but there was no sign of the Little Bunting returning. The rain did however return with a vengeance and drips of water fell in steady trickles across the viewing slat. A pair of Robins came and went, a female Reed Bunting tried the seed, a Pied Wagtail waded around in the puddles and a Carrion Crow's claws scratched noisily above us as it wandered around on the corrugated iron roof of the hide.

Female Reed Bunting
It was dark, dank and fairly miserable in the cold hide so I shut my eyes and dozed off, waking periodically to fiddle with my camera before slumping down again into my seat but there was no sign of the bunting anywhere. It eventually stopped raining and started to brighten outside. Andy kept checking and after a very long time, possibly well over an hour he relocated the bunting at the base of some bushes on the far side of the water filled depression. 

It did not remain there long before flying to the seed that I had spread out enticingly below the coppiced hedge close to the hide. Three other birders chose that very moment to join us and maybe due to their arrival the bunting flew off again but fortunately quickly returned. We were then treated to thirty minutes of grandstand views as it fed at point blank range below the hide. Cameras went into overdrive. Staccato bursts of camera clicks filled the empty spaces of the hide as we all recorded the moment.

Since I last saw the Little Bunting it had adopted much more of its breeding plumage, especially around its face which was now a rich chestnut  and the markings all over its body seemed that much stronger in colour and tone. It was now an even prettier bird than before.

Then, without warning it flew off again and we decided that we had seen more than enough to be happy with. So where next we wondered?  We got chatting to a local birder who had just arrived and he kindly gave us directions as to where to find a Bonaparte's Gull and also an Iceland Gull nearby, and then enquired whether we were going to look at the long staying Lesser Scaup. Andy became very interested on hearing this as he had never seen one! I knew about the scaup, having seen it on my last visit to Cardiff but did not think he needed to see one so had neglected to mention it. Tiredness was probably a contributory factor to my befuddled thinking. Still no harm was done and we made our way across Cardiff to Cardiff Bay Wetlands to look for it.

Cardiff  Bay Wetlands is a token gesture to compensate birders for the Cardiff Bay Barrage which has made a permanent lagoon out of what was a tidal area thus displacing thousands of wading birds from the formerly exposed tidal mudflats on which they fed. The wetlands has an air of neglect and with the usual human detritus of discarded drink cans, bottles and other junk lapping at its shores it strikes a depressing contrast with the conspicuous homage to Mammon that is provided by the huge expensive hotels, high tech buildings and yacht marina that surround it on three sides. 

Cardiff Bay Wetlands. This is the view from the the boardwalk, looking East
The Boardwalk looking out into Cardiff Bay
A boardwalk leads out from the shore and you can walk to the end to view back along the edge of the reeds. A flock of Tufted Ducks hangs about here, at the far end of the reed beds and usually contains the drake Lesser Scaup but some care is needed as there is also a hybrid occasionally present that looks very much like the real thing and can only be told apart by the larger amount of black on its bill tip. At first there was no sign of either but after a few minutes Andy located the 'proper' Lesser Scaup as it swam out from behind some reeds and so in the space of a morning had his second lifer. 

Drake Lesser Scaup
c Andy
Andy celebrating - now two lifers to the good
Not much else was in evidence. An escaped female Southern Pochard swam up to us. (Many thanks to Dave Appleton for identifying it - see comments below). Distressingly she had some fishing line dangling from her bill but it did not, for now anyway, seem to affect her welfare. Cetti's Warblers randomly belted out their song from the reeds and we saw just one, as usual diving rapidly into cover at our approach. A Mute Swan bristling with aggression and breeding hormones propelled itself in great thrusts of its black feet across the water and bullied a pair of Canada Geese around the murky waters below the boardwalk.
Escaped  female Southern Pochard
 note the fishing line dangling from the base of her bill
By far the most difficult task we set ourselves today was to try and find the Bonaparte's Gull which has been residing in and around Cardiff Bay for quite some time. We had been told the best place to try and locate it, if it was around, was by the barrage itself, so after a brief visit to Morrisons for some refreshments we drove the short distance there. It turned out to be virtually impossible to bird the place as basically it is a succession of marinas running from the barrage all the way back to the main road, the marinas containing eye wateringly expensive yachts and motor cruisers with similarly exclusive developments of housing and apartments lining the shore as far as one could see. 

Cardiff Bay
Any gulls that were present were far out in the middle of the bay and we really had no chance whatsoever of finding the Bonaparte's Gull in this monument to human extravagance, although Andy did manage to scope the first winter Iceland Gull which was having a wash with other large gulls just off the boardwalk at Cardiff Wetlands from whence we had just driven! All a bit frustrating.

Recognising a lost cause when I saw it I suggested to Andy we give the Bonaparte's Gull a miss and go back to the Cardiff Wetlands boardwalk to try and get a closer view of the Iceland Gull. I was armed with a loaf of sliced bread purchased from Morrisons so this might entice the Iceland Gull closer and you never know the Bonaparte's might just turn up for the free bread too. Back we went and repeated our walk out to the end of the boardwalk. Andy renewed his acquaintance with the Lesser Scaup, double checking it was the 'real' one, whilst I threw bread slices onto the water. The bread attracted some gulls but they were only Lesser Black backed Gulls and the inevitable Mallards. 

The aggressive Mute Swan was still huffing its belligerent way around the water but suddenly had his bluff called as he received a severe mugging from the Canada Goose gander and fled. Its always satisfying to see a bully get his come uppance. A pair of Great Crested Grebes were nesting in some reeds very close to the boardwalk and I watched them for some time. The female remained on the nest and on one occasion stood to reveal she was incubating three eggs on the flimsy nest platform. The male meanwhile was assiduously gathering rotting vegetative material to bring to the nest to increase its bulk. He did this by repeatedly diving under water and then bringing up the material in his bill and taking it to the female who arranged it on the nest. Once, he returned with a ridiculously long, thin reed stick but still managed with some persistence and difficulty to get it through the reeds to the nest.

There was however, no sign of the Iceland Gull so presumably it had returned to its favourite location which was a railway bridge over the River Taff. The local birder in the hide at Forest Farm had told us where this was so, as a finale, we resolved to give it a try and headed for Taffs Mead Embankment, a road running beside the river. This was only a ten minute drive from the Cardiff Wetlands and following the directions on my phone app. we soon came to the area, dominated by industrial and mega store warehouses on the far bank and the looming presence of  the Millenium Stadium just beyond the gull's favoured bridge. 

The favoured railway bridge with the Millenium Stadium behind it
It was not the most salubrious of areas but after purchasing two huge loaves of sliced bread from a local shop I rejoined Andy who had already located the Iceland Gull, sat safe and secure on its favourite bridge. 

Just below us a walkway descended down to the riverside and to a landing stage for the river taxi and this provided a perfect location to get right beside the river. Now matters could go either of two ways. The plan was to throw the bread slices on the water and see if this would entice the Iceland Gull down from the bridge. I threw the first few bread slices out onto the green opaque waters of the river. The result was instantaneous, spectacular and better than we could have hoped. The Iceland Gull launched itself from the bridge along with a horde of Herring Gulls and Lesser Black backed Gulls that were nesting on the flat roofs of the warehouses opposite. All the gulls arrived simultaneously, at great speed and landed in an unseemly scrum of feathers, thrashing wings, jabbing beaks and scrabbling legs to grab at the bread. 

The Iceland Gull although marginally less robust than the other gulls still managed to get its fair share of bread. 

I repeated the process with similar chaotic results until all the bread was finished. The Iceland Gull had by now stuffed itself silly with bread and disappeared downriver towards the sea. This was our cue to go, and with a full day of excellent birding and many images on our cameras to savour back at home we returned to the car and left for England.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ewan, is there any reason to think the duck is a Red-crested Pochard hybrid as opposed to a (pure) female Southern Pochard, or is that latter just not on your radar (which would be very understandable)? I'm no expert on Southern Pochards but believe them to look like this (and I know there was supposed to be one in the area last autumn).