7th and 8th July 2018
On the way to the Elenydd mountains to check a merlin’s nest on the edge of a forest of Sitka spruce that has sadly failed, we stop at a small village hall to try to catch breeding swifts. There are perhaps 10-15 pairs and they come and go flying in small screaming squadrons low over the rooftops before turning to make the run in. A high mist net fools them as they fly up to the eaves to their nests on ledges behind the ill-fitting, wooden barge boards; Tony Cross catches and rings three; we offer a small prayer for a return since these flying machines are hardly ever-trapped. Here too, a pair of pied wagtails has a brood of large young ready to burst out of a nest.
Across the valley, ravens call and buzzards and kites wheel and then a pair of hobbies ‘kew kew kews’ from a copse of Scot’s pines. 30 years ago, there were no hobbies here and the handful of red kites were counted and cared for by a small army of watchers.
The nightjars are having an extraordinarily, good year in the hot summer of 2018. Tony is finding more nests in Clocaenog Forest than ever; that evening we hunt one amongst the sharp Sitka and biting midges that throng the still air, as the male is radio-tagged and minding a single, large young. Here the female will arrive after dusk to feed the young and this is a chance to catch and tag her and so find her second brood. Lesser redpolls and mistle thrushes also have nests nearby and hordes of honking, Canada geese bellow from Llyn Brenig below. We watch in vain for a passing osprey as there is a nest across the water.
The nest day we travel south to the south east of Machynlleth where there is an outpost of heather moorland around Lynn Bugeilyn. On the steep slopes, a male ring ousel pipes quietly. A family of kestrels ‘yicker’ and dives repeatedly at an intruder, perhaps a fox, hidden from view in a near vertical gully. We watch the loops and stoops of up to three kestrels, then a male hen harrier joins in with a deeper alarm call and it too stoops incessantly; the commotion carries on for minutes. A buzzard sails high over the escarpment and a merlin ‘yickers’ and harries it for a while. So there is a nest of harriers and another of merlin somewhere to be found in the vast moorlands hereabouts.
On approach a female goshawk and accompanying young fly off strongly chased by the kestrels and crows. Just down the valley, an old lead mine held one of the last inland chough nest sites. Tony thinks that the goshawks have probably seen these off; on one occasion he watched a goshawk chase an adult chough only to give up when a crow that had followed the action was suddenly the chosen one. Perhaps the increasingly widespread goshawk population is clearing crows, choughs and merlins, in fact any medium-sized bird maybe at risk. Getting the evidence to support such a hypothesis is difficult of course but checking prey remains at plucking posts around goshawk nests would be revealing.
After a while, we watch the male hen harrier carrying food fly right across the moor; he whistles repeatedly and then the female suddenly appears from the rank heather and the food pass is very quick. We walk over and Tony’s mark takes him to the nest whilst mine sadly leads nowhere. Here, in the middle of the empty moor there are three downy young, two large females and one smaller male and each is carefully ringed, weighed and measured. It is too hot to search for the merlins in the conifer forest nearby; all energies have been expended walking the tall heather under a hot sun on the trail of hen harriers and goshawks.