Mid Wales Midwinter

Aberystwyth is dark under a deep depression and saturated from the incessant rain. On the seafront, the high-roofed Old College squares up to the sea, foaming waves beat the high sea wall that protects this alarming Gothic pile. Safe on the landward side, we look in vain for a wintering black redstart that often sits high on a gargoyle and repeats its wheezy, crackled call noticed hardly by a soul.

The fragile Victorian pier beyond, juts gingerly into the boiling sea but the dirty brown waves rush harmlessly around the pencil legs of black-painted iron. Inside, garish slot machines flash and bass heavy music thumps off faux, wooden walls. Some must hope that one day the sea will finally hit the jackpot; no-one inside ever appears to. The old pier does however, provide a haven for a large starling roost that swirls about before pitching in each winter night; the noisy chatter of the birds that line the rusted beams under the dilapidated buildings often drowned by waves and wind.

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The seafront at Aberystwyth; the Old College of the University and Victorian pier beyond.

On the high sea walls of chiselled stone, plump purple sandpipers shelter, sitting squat on narrow ledges, safe from the rush and crash of waves that burst against the barricade below; always avoiding the spots where spume and spray fly skywards. At low tide, they work the dipped rocks and shallow pools that dress the hard-edged headlands for winkles, mussels and the rest, pottering unobtrusively in their purplish plumage.

Purple sandpipers roost high on the stone walls that protect the town of Aberystwyth.

Along the narrow, high-hedged road north from Aber, the village of Borth lies low adjacent the stony beach and so weathers every wind and tide. The residents are perhaps more confident now that they shelter behind new coastal defences; piled lines of huge stones on the gently shelving beach that dissipate the charging waves.

Inland from the houses that line the long road, the enormous raised mire of Cors Fochno sits like a dirty brown upturned dinner plate, huge and impenetrable; a rare allowance of lowland wilderness full of Sphagnum and sundew Drosera species, elegant cotton-grasses Eriophorum, aromatic bog myrtle Myrica gale, heathers and rare Lepidoptera. The ombrotrophic or rain-fed dome is grown of peat from the complex of Sphagnum species and, at its centre, pulls the water metres above the surrounding water table. Such hydrologically complex and rare diversity is however, at casual glance from afar, just a dull and distant patchwork and in summer itching with midges and clegs. The curators of this exceptional quaternary art must have a hard time selling such an uninviting bog.

The coast road runs on and the houses eventually give way to the sand dunes and summer caravans of Ynsylas. Here, the Dyfi estuary flows to the sea between orchid-rich dunes and the low coastal hills of Merioneth, neat-lined with tiny, white-painted houses. The tide runs out quickly over the wide, shallow sands and pools, where upon a few large gulls sit and plot their next murder, and then expose arcs of gravel and larger stone adorned with dark seaweeds. At the furthest edge, a small flock of wigeon feeds and quickly flies; grey plovers work the shallows and are joined by handfuls of redshank and low flying dunlin. Lone oystercatchers work the beds for mussels.

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The Dyfi Estuary at Ynyslas.

A small flock of fearless turnstones bulldoze the wrack in the search for amphipods and other invertebrate prey. They walk on quickly, incessantly like hunched clockwork toys and where there is gravel they flip flat, rounded stones hunting and deftly picking prey, then to the next; and hence the name.  One is ringed and, later from the photographs, we determine that the bird was caught in Iceland on its way to or from its Arctic breeding grounds. The flock may well stay the winter hereabouts.

Foraging turnstones amongst the Fucus seaweed species.

Nearby, we walk an isolated, stony beach below a section of cliffs, all shaky shale and mudstones where a roost of choughs gathers in the afternoon dusk.  We strain to read the combinations of colour-rings that give the birds a history. Pairs perch high on the cliff top and descend to grass ledges, staying close together with little noise or show. When the days lengthen then, according my old friend Tony Cross (a writer of a winning ringing blog and my expert guide to all this mid-Wales midwinter wildlife), they play.

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The wild coast near Aberystwyth at dusk.

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Choughs, many in pairs, roost on the cliffs near Aberystwyth.   We counted 16 and recorded many individuals from their unique colour ring combinations.

In the early night before the moon is up, the weather is foul and we walk the green hill ridges round about searching for woodcock, snipe and jack snipe as well as golden plover and fieldfares. All but the fieldfares, which roost on the ground, are nocturnal, feeding on earthworms brought up out of the saturated ground. We clamber over stock fences and stodge through waterlogged pastures. The wind and rain drowns our noisy approach; sadly the technique never works on a still night. We use a torch and look for a bright eye that reflects from afar in the beam. The fun is the stalking to within striking distance, at which point a long-handled landing net is lowered quickly over the bird. I have a go but the first few fly as they hear the squelch of a too hurriedly lifted foot. Eventually I start to close on my quarry, moving forward slowly, hunched and concentrated like Inspector Clouseau. Each bird stares with an unflinching eye and stays, bright lit on the ground. More often than not I fail to drop the net fast enough, merde!, and the birds flush.  It takes a cool hand and, irritatingly, Tony makes it look easy. Captured birds are carefully disentangled, placed into cotton bags and then processed back at the car.

Birds are ringed, weighed and measured and each is aged; adults retain a small number of secondary feathers that are older and duller than those that have recently been replaced in a post-breeding moult. Young birds of the year have not yet moulted and so have uniform and heavily worn plumage. For each species, the patterns of plumage and moult vary and the distinguishing features subtle and hard to discern with an unpracticed eye. For example, woodcock wing feathers vary in shape according to age. There is good reason for all this nocturnal work – the number of ‘roding’ woodcock is declining rapidly in Britain and golden plover and snipe populations are not in good shape either. Ringed birds provide important data on movements and survival or, more often than not, failure to survive. Whatever its scientific value, ‘Lamping’ as it is called should be the next Olympic sport.

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The russet colour of the hills on the edge of the Elenydd Mountains.

The next morning, we run round the hills near Llanwrthwl where, even in the deep gloom of an approaching rainstorm there is colour, but no great grey shrike sitting atop a thorn bush, just a wary goosander on the River Wye that quickly ducks and dives and disappears into the fiercest standing waves as we approach. Any bird species that eats too many fish is always unwanted on a prized fishing river and these ‘sawbills’ are experts. At Llandrindod Wells, the round Victorian pleasure lake is full of much less wary goosanders, elegant apricot pink males and grey females with handsome rust-coloured heads. Along with the resident mute swans, Canada geese and mallards, these are readily bribed with bread, but the wind is wild and the light poor, so we run for home.

Male and female goosanders on Llandrindod Wells lake.


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