Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – A Welsh Day Trip

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – well I hope I spelled them right (now I’m also worrying that I’ve spelled “spelled” wrong – should it have been spelt?) – or in English, red kites and the Elan Valley for a fantastic day out. We headed over to the Elan Valley first as several friends had recommended it as being well worth a visit. We somewhat underestimated how much was there and only had time to drive around about half of it, but the half we did see was amazing. The Elan & Claerwen valleys have been dammed in 6 places and the result is beautiful reservoirs set in even more beautiful countryside.

Our visit was on a bit of a dreary day weather-wise, but it had the advantage of giving everything a beautiful misty (bordering on foggy) atmosphere.

There was snow on some of the highest peaks, but nothing to hamper our exploration. In places the road was lined by avenues of tall trees, but elsewhere the views were pretty breath taking.

None of the dams were actually flowing on our visit, but hopefully next time we go back they might be. We found a well-kept (and surprisingly empty) bird hide, from which we could just about make out some ducks in the distance – too far away to get decent photos, but just close enough to identify them as a male (bottom) and female (top) goldeneye.

After the dams, we headed back through the small town of Rhayader to go to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Gigrin Farm. We’d pre-booked spaces in their photographic hide and had to be there by 2pm for the feeding. Gigrin Farm have been feeding red kites since the early 1990s. Having started with just a few pairs, they now regularly have over 300 red kites coming to the feeding station. So we were expecting a lot of kites, but have honestly never seen anything quite like it.

As we approached the hides, we spotted a huge white bird in the distance across the field.  Turned out it was a leucistic red kite; leucistic birds are not the same as albinos as they still have pigment in their eyes. Apparently up to 1% of the Welsh red kites are actually white or partially white.

As 2pm drew closer we could see more birds amassing in the surrounding trees. They clearly all knew what time the food was due.

2pm on the dot and a tractor appeared to dish out the meat for the birds. Within seconds the sky was full of swirling kites – literally hundreds of them. Chris took a video just with his phone which gives some idea of the sheer number of birds filling the sky.

Red kite phone video

I then tried to film them as they swooped down to pick up the meat. They are so fast it looks as if the film has been speeded up, which it hasn’t.

Red kites at Gigrin

Initially we thought this was great and we were going to get loads of amazing photos as they were all so close. Then we discovered the problem – there were so many and they moved so fast, it was impossible to focus on just one and get a nice sharp photo. We can now understand why small birds flock together in large numbers to confuse predators; this massive flock of kites had the same effect confusing us photographers. So although we took over 750 photos between us, I don’t think a single one is as crisp and clear as we would have liked. In our defence we weren’t helped by the dull overcast weather and it may have been better on a sunny day.

Having said all of that, it was still an absolutely stunning spectacle. Once we stopped worrying about the photos and just stood back and watched, it was just incredible. We have seen red kites before of course, but never so close up. I hadn’t realised how huge they are; their wingspan is pushing 2 metres!

The numbers swooping down at any one time were incredible.

This next photo looks like it is a composite shot of 4 birds, but is actually 4 in a row, all swooping down and off again one after another.

When viewed in the sky they almost formed an abstract pattern silhouetted against the sky, wings pointing in every conceivable direction.

Their aerial acrobatics were phenomenal, twisting and turning as they dived. They’d scoop up a piece of meat in their talons, then bend over to transfer the prize to their mouths to eat.

Here are a few more photos of them for no other reason other than they are really photogenic birds.

The white kite that we’d seen as we arrived put in several appearances, easy to spot amongst the more usual coloured ones. He/she appeared to have a number tag on his wing, so may be part of some study.

Red kites of course weren’t the only birds of prey making the most of the meaty picnic. We saw several buzzards watching from the trees. Perhaps because they are slightly smaller than the red kites, they are content to wait their turn.

We didn’t see any come down while we were there (although to be honest there may have been some amongst the melee of red kites), but we did see this one glide beautifully into the tree, displaying its gorgeous fan shaped tail.

And of course there were large members of the crow family making the most of the opportunity too. Initially we thought they were all carrion crows, but I think there were a few rooks lurking in there too – distinguishable by their paler beaks and pointier looking heads.

Final treat of the day – a heron flew lazily (in comparison to the kites at least) across the field and landed in a tree.

Hopefully we can go back to see the kites again in the summer when the light should be better and we can perhaps get crisper photos. But in the meantime we’ve got the memories of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles we’ve ever seen.

 

 

30 Days Wild – Day 28 – Cruising down the Severn

It’s Day 28 of 30 Days Wild and I tried something totally different today. We have a friend staying, so decided to do one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for the 10 years we’ve been living here. My friend and I took a waterbus from Upton on Severn down to Tewkesbury (and back obviously). The trip is just over an hour each way, with a couple of hours to explore Tewkesbury in the middle.

As usual with any of our trips I set out with certain expectations, some but not all of which came to fruition, but then we saw other things that were total surprises. My friend and I sat at the back of the boat so we could look out for the wildlife. This was when I realised that being too lazy to check your camera bag was not a good thing. I must have still been in insect mode this morning when I packed, so took a macro lens instead of something for far away birds. So apologies for the following set of blurry photos – I could blame the camera, but really it is the numpty who forgot to change the lens.

We’d joked that it would be great to see a kingfisher, but didn’t really expect one. So when my friend said she’d spotted one I thought she was joking! But it was real! So here’s a blurry wrong lens photo from a great distance (since I was so slow to react thinking she was having a laugh).

I could have gone home happy after that, but of course we were on a boat! Fortunately the wildlife kept on coming. Next up was a couple of herons.

Also great to see another member of the heron family – a Little Egret.

The river banks were lined with lots of willows drooping into the water decorously. Really nice to see lots of Yellow Water Lilies in flower along the edges where it was relatively slow flowing.

We also saw some Common Reed Mace when we got to the dock at Tewkesbury. Not sure I’d ever seen them close up like this.

We saw several birds of prey, a kestrel, sparrowhawk and a buzzard; the only one of which I managed to get even a rubbish photo of was the buzzard.

Shock bird of the day was a cuckoo! I’ve heard them before but never seen one, today we saw but didn’t hear it! If only I’d had the right lens on.

The day was completed with lunch in a really old pub in Tewkesbury – nice pie and a ploughmans.

It was a really relaxing way to spend the day, pootling down the River Severn (and up a bit of the River Avon), bit of bird watching and a pub lunch. Shame that most of today’s photos are blurry due to the lens issue, but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment at the time. We weren’t the only ones to enjoy it – my friend’s dog seems to have found her river legs. She was the star of the boat, everyone loved her and why wouldn’t they?

 

 

Out and About – Grimley Brick and Gravel Pits

The weekend brought some gloriously sunny weather – forget spring, it felt like we had skipped ahead to summer. So we ventured forth, if not very far, to Grimley which is just north of Worcester. Grimley has several old flooded gravel extraction pits, which now form important wildfowl sites for the county. There are 2 main areas – each situated conveniently next to a pub!

The first pit we went to was off Wagon Wheel Lane. The Worcester Birding twitter feed had been full of news that an American wigeon had been spotted amongst our British wigeons. Having never seen a wigeon of any nationality, we hoped to see some. Having said that, it would probably have helped if we’d googled what a wigeon looked like before we set off! All we really knew was that they were ducks, so we snapped photos of anything vaguely duck like.  Fortunately when we got back and studied the photos, it turned out we had seen some of the British ones, although no sign of the elusive American. As with so many birds the male (top) is flashier looking than the relatively plain female (below).

Of course while chasing anything duck like, we inevitably got pics of a few other species. This lucky female Northern Shoveller was accompanied by at least 5 males.

Tufted ducks were bobbing about everywhere. I love the clean lines of the black and white plumage and the bright golden eye of the males.

Another species that was new to us was the Common Teal. We didn’t manage to get very close and from a distance we thought initially these were just mallards, until we spotted the creamy yellow rump. From our distant viewpoint it hadn’t been possible to make out the beautiful red and green plumage on the head, but thanks to the power of the zoom on the computer we could appreciate it back home.

Possibly the stars of the show for us on this trip were the exotic looking Great Crested Grebes – birds that we’d only ever seen on Springwatch before.  We got a fairly close up view of this one, although as with most birds it hid behind twigs to avoid decent photos.

There was a pair though doing what looked like a courtship display on the far side of the lake. They bobbed up and down facing each other. If they’d been a bit closer I’d have tried videoing it, but they were just too far away for that.

Love seemed to be in the air for a pair of swans too. One was already on the lake when another one landed further away. The first one spotted it and hurtled across the water – I thought at first it was an aggressive or territorial thing, but then they started entwining their necks around each other, so I guess they had other things in mind!

After a short pit stop at the Camp House Inn, we headed to the other set of pits nearby. First sight was this heron – I’d never studied one before and hadn’t realised just how large they were. We tried creeping closer to get a better shot, but as we were going across an open field, he spotted us straight away and flew off when he considered we were too close for comfort.

These lakes were clearly popular with a group of cormorants that were perched on fence posts in the middle and in trees. I still find it hard to get my head round seeing what I think of as sea birds this far in land!

As we headed back to the car we spotted some smaller birds. The first is definitely a reed bunting (which proves we are learning something as we didn’t know this before we went to Upton Warren a few weeks ago).

The second is either a chiffchaff or a willow warbler – you can apparently only differentiate them confidently by their song. We weren’t paying attention to the song, but having listened to both of them on the RSPB website, the chiffchaff song seems the more familiar, so this is maybe what we heard. Either way it was a very cute, tiny little bird that bobbed up and down wagging its tail a bit like a wagtail does.

As always while Chris concentrated on the birds, I kept getting side tracked by the insects. There were quite a few large bumblebees buzzing around and the pussy willow was provided much needed sustenance to several, like this Red Tailed Bumblebee.

While trying to get a decent photo of a buff tailed bumblebee, I spotted (no pun intended) this pair of 24 spot ladybirds. They were very small and the grass they were on was waving around in the breeze, hence the less than perfect photo. They were slightly less shiny than other ladybirds and look as if they have a fine covering of downy hairs, which would make them the 24 spot ones  – a new one for me.

When I was looking at the red ladybirds above, I hadn’t noticed at the time that there was a pile of creamy coloured ones right next to them. Again they are not perfectly in focus, as I obviously wasn’t focussing on them as I didn’t know they were there! These ones turned out to be 16 spot ladybirds – another new species.

And finally, because I can never resist a comedy photo – here is the very rare 4 winged duck and a rather splendid pair of owls on top of the Wagon Wheel Inn’s thatched roof.