Random notes on the travels of a Welshman who has been allowed out to play after finishing his chores. OK so I don't travel with my Aunt, but I am usually under the adult supervision of my long suffering wife.
I’ve left Aunty at home and flown to Malaysia for a few days work. It’s hot and humid here in Kuala Lumpur and being British I’m not used to this. Too hot to do anything, and it’s made me a little lazy, but that could also be the jet lag speaking as well. So after checking my presentations for the week I escaped for a while. Not that there’s much option besides the huge air conditioned shopping centre next door. But I have found a small, slightly dilapidated park opposite the hotel that has seen better days and now looks unloved. But I managed a quick nature fix just the same.
The heron is tiny, not much larger than a pigeon – see if you can find it. I’ve no idea what the names of the dragon flies are, but it was a challenge to get them with the iPhone. Good job the park was abandoned or I might have been arrested for skulking in the bushes! Mad dogs and Welshmen!
There used to be a miniature railway here but this now looks like the remains of a disaster movie, and the children’s playground has been under repair for many years by all appearances. It’s a shame really, as this is the only greenery around here.
The original intention was for Aunty and I to climb up to the top of Tryfan, but the ‘Best laid plans of mice and a Welshman’ do not always come to pass. Aunty had expressed a desire to walk up Tryfan. I have to admit this was a surprise, as she prefers flatter walks, but who am I to deny her the experience. I’ve been up Tryfan a couple of times and although it’s not very high from the starting point at Llyn Ogwen, it is still a challenging scramble to the summit. But once on the top the views are great.
As we walked up the steep slope from Llyn Ogwen across the boggy areas the cloud started to descend over Tryfan and Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. I hoped this would lift, but as we topped the first ridge onto Llyn Bochlwyd, the cloud thickened and the peaks disappeared into grey, unwelcoming nothingness, indistinguishable from the sky. I’m old enough now to ask it is worth climbing up there and see nothing. And the answer is usually no. Aunty didn’t fancy it either, so we decided on another plan, and walked around the base of Glyder Fawr and then down to Llyn Idwal. Today was not a day for summits, but more for moody lakes and a surprising amount of wild flowers. The area was covered in Bog Asphodel, the yellow flowers lighting up an otherwise drab landscape.
Tryfan is part of the Glyderau mountain range which lies to the northeast of the Snowdon massif, separated from that mountain by the Llanberis Pass and the Nant Peris Valley. Going from west to east, the Glyderau range consists of Elidir Fawr (924 m (3,031 ft)), Y Garn (947 m (3,107 ft)), Glyder Fawr (1,001 m (3,284 ft)), Glyder Fach (994 m (3,261 ft)) and Tryfan (918 m (3,012 ft)).
The Glyderau range was formed about five hundred million years ago, when two land masses collided, causing the Snowdonia massif to rise up. Since then, wind, water and frost and the advance and retreat of glaciers during the ice ages have gradually worn down the mountains to their present proportions. The underlying rock is a mixture of volcanic and sedimentary material. The ice sheet of the most recent ice age retreated about ten thousand years ago leaving Cwm Idwal as an example of a cirque. The ice scarred the surrounding cliffs, hollowed out the bed of Llyn Idwal and dumped rocks and other material that formed moraines at its foot. Massive boulders and shattered rocks crashed down from above to form the boulder fields and screes visible today.
Even though this is tough country the wildlife abounds, and can be found in surprising places at times. As we were puffing our way up the path towards Llyn Bochlwyd I noticed a small white flower on the side of the path. This was new to me, the delicacy of the white flower and yellow spot on each petal enthralled me for a while. The Starry Saxifrage flowers from June to August and is found on higher ground in North Wales, Cumbria and Scotland.
In the wetter areas Cotton Grass grows in profusion, and from a distance looks like hundreds of white flags swaying gently in the breeze. Up close the delicate nature of the cotton seeds is amazing.
On the slopes above Llyn Idwal insect life was also busy, but because the temperature was low the activity was all in slow motion. So much so that this Garden Bumblebee posed for its photograph for long enough for me to get a reasonable photo.
The National Trust took over the management of the Glyderau and the Carneddau in 1951 in lieu of death duties on the Penrhyn Estate. The total area is about 7,000 hectares, half of which is common land with registered grazing rights for 45,000 sheep and 741 ponies. There are eight tenanted farms on the estate and the National Trust is responsible for the maintenance of footpaths and drystone walls, some of which date back many hundreds of years. The time and skill required to build these walls, sometimes straight up the steep slopes amazes me.
Will we try again, probably, especially if the sun is shining. Then I can tell you all about Adam and Eve on Tryfan. Now there’s a lead in to a squeal.
Ramsey and Skomer Islands were our main wish list items on our week in West Wales, but we had a third island in our sights. Well not quite in our sights, we couldn’t see it from land as it’s a long way out. Aunty has never fancied an 8 mile trip in a small boat to a “rock in the middle of nowhere”. I think that captures her enthusiasm neatly. So it was down to the Two Pauls to become intrepid sailors for the day. But why go there? Well not only is it the most westernmost point in Wales, but it has a huge colony of Gannets. And who can resist a huge colony of screaming, smelly Gannets?
We were booked on the morning trip, but the night before the booking agent phoned us to say that the trip would be delayed as fog was forecast, and would we mind changing our plans. And the forecast was right. We woke up to thick fog which quickly cleared by mid-morning. The morning was spent mooching around a local nature reserve until after after lunch when we made the short trip to St Justinian’s to catch the boat. This also gave the opportunity to have a mooch around the lifeboat station and see the immaculately kept life boat.
The course to Grassholm took us through the Ramsey Sound and South West into the open sea. We quickly lost sight of the cliffs of St Justinian’s and 20 minutes later saw a white speck on the horizon.
As we neared Grassholm we started seeing more birds, Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots and small rafts or Puffins. Then suddenly we were there under the white slopes of Grassholm. White because the rocks are covered in guano. I was expecting a rather pungent aroma to greet us, but nothing bothered my olfactory nerves. Probably best now that I think about it. A group of gannets has many collective nouns, including a “company”, “gannetry”, and a “plunging” of gannets. Reflecting on the images of Grassholm I think a Company of Gannets is about right.
Grassholm has been owned since 1947 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is one of its oldest reserves. It reaches 42 metres (138 feet). It is the third most important site for gannets in the world, after two sites in Scotland; St Kilda and Bass Rock. During the summer is is home and breeding site for 39,000 pairs of the birds, and supports around 10 percent of the world population. Impressive for a small rock 8 miles from the mainland. Even though the sea was calm the small boat still rocked backwards and forwards making photography a real challenge. Many of my shots included tails or blue sky only.
As we sailed around the rock hundreds of Gannets were flying over head, either returning to their nest and leaving to go fishing. Dotted among the serried ranks of Gannet nests were Razorbill and Guillemots, who nest among the noisy confusion as the larger gannets provide protection from predation by Black-backed Gulls.
As you look at the Gannets arranged all over the rock it seems that there must be some organisation as the nests look to be arranged in lines. In fact each nest is just far enough away from it’s neighbour that it can’t be reached while the parents are sitting on the eggs to prevent conflict. But it does seem to give a sense of town planning – but I must avoid anthropomorphising.
The turbulent sea around Grassholm also provides good feeding ground for porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. No dolphins this time, but we did see a Porpoise. The cetaceans are smaller and shyer than Dolphins. The seas today were unusually calm, even Aunty would have enjoyed the trip.
The trip then got even better. A little further out we came across two Minke Whales. they circled the boat for 10 minutes inspecting us closely. Even the guide and boatman were excited.
Grassholm has been identified with Gwales, an island featured in the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwales is the site of a fabulous castle where the severed head of Bran the Blessed is kept miraculously alive for eighty years while his companions feast in blissful forgetfulness. Maybe more on this in another post.
One of the reasons for visit the west Wales coast with Paul was to get to Skomer Island and see the Puffins. Aunty and I went there a couple of years ago, and despite Aunty not being a mad keen bird watcher, the experience has stayed with her in a positive way. But this visit was for Paul, not me. The Island is owned and managed by the South & West Wales Wildlife Trust – successful so it is now a very popular trip for birders and non-birders. In fact it seems to be even more popular now than just a few years ago. I knew we had to be there early to get on the boat across the 2 mile trip. What I didn’t factor in was how early we needed to be. It’s not possible to book in advance, mainly because the tides and weather conditions can make it very difficult if not impossible to land on the island.
We arrived at around 6.30am, which meant getting up at 5am to take into account the 1 hour drive, to find a sizeable queue of people ahead of us. There is a limit of 250 people allowed on the island at any one time and so everyone now gets there early. If you are planing to go this is important to factor into your plans – especially as the booking office doesn’t open until 9am. But the wait was not too onerous, as we quickly built up a humorous conversation with those around us, and time flew past. the gods were smiling on us as the organiser spot on an extra boat that we jumped at the opportunity to get on the island first. So let us not waste any more time but lets get to the wildlife.
Old maps sometimes refer to Skomer as Skalmey. This is of Viking origin, coming from two words “skalm” meaning a short sword, or cleft or cut, and “ey” meaning island. Skalmey or Cleft Island, probably referring to the fact that the island appears almost cut in two. There is evidence of occupation going back 2000 years, and almost certainly longer but there has been very little archeological excavation much is unknown. If you would like to read more then it is possible to download a history of the island produced by the Wildlife Trust.
Skomer is an internationally import nesting site for the mysterious Manx Shearwater. There are an estimated 120,000 breeding pairs on Skomer and a further 45,000 pairs on Skokholm, making the two islands the largest known concentration of this species in the world. This amounts to about 2/3 of the worlds breeding population. We didn’t get an photos of the Shearwaters as they only return to their nests after dark, spending the day out at sea hunting for food. The island though is littered with their bodies as they targeted by the Greater Black-backed Gull. The scientific name of the Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus often causes surprise. In the Middle Ages the plump young Shearwaters, when taken for food, where known as ‘puffins’ or ‘puffings’ from their plump and fatty nature. In 1676 the bird was first described from specimens collected on the Calf of Man and named the ‘Manx Puffin’
Skomer is also home to a unique species of bank vole (Myodes glareolus skomerens), unsurprisingly called the Skomer Vole. The lack of land-based predators on the island means that the bracken habitat is an ideal place for the vole, with the population reaching around 20,000 during the summer months. The voles provide the main source of food for Short-eared Owls during the breeding season. As we walked around the island we saw the old hunting, but unfortunately they were too far away for a decent photo.
The sea cliffs provide nesting sites for Guillements and Razorbills, whilst Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls nest inland. Both of these gulls predate not only the Manx Shearwater as they return to their burrows, but also lay ambush to the Puffins as they return with fish and sand eels for their young. We saw this a number of times. As they come into land the Puffins seem to drop and dive into their burrows to avoid the larger gulls.
During the summer the island is home to around 20,000 Puffins, with a further 6,000 on the smaller neighbouring Skokholm Island. The act numer is uncertain, and the polish numbers vary considerably, but however many there are they are numerous. However the recent winter storms in 2014 had a significant impact on the number of returning pairs, but they now seem to the increasing again.
They return to their nesting sites in April, gradually building up in numbers as the egg laying season approaches. They nest under- ground in burrows, not only battling with each other for these, but also with Manx Shearwaters since both species use the same sort of burrows for nesting. Puffins prefer nest sites close to the clifftop since the parent birds can come in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving the predatory gulls the minimum chance to attack them. The Wildlife Trust has published a great pamphlet that you can download here.
The razorbill (Alca torda) is a colonial seabird that only comes to land in order to breed. This agile bird chooses one partner for life; females lay one egg per year. Razorbills nest along coastal cliffs in enclosed or slightly exposed crevices. The parents spend equal amounts of time incubating. Once the chick has hatched, the parents take turns foraging for their young and sometimes fly long distances before finding prey. The oldest known Razorbill was at least 41 years old It was banded as a nestling on Bardsey Island in the United Kingdom in 1968, and was resighted while breeding in 2009.
The weather that Caulkhead and I had in Pembrokeshire was perfect for walking, and perfect for a nature ramble. Though being us we still managed to clock up 9 miles on one of the days. We had the idea of going down to Bosherston Ponds as there was a promise of otters. But this wasn’t to be. In fact despite the blurb about Bosherston that the National trust publish, the warden admitted she hadn’t seen any for a few years now. This was one of the reason that Aunty and I visited a few years ago, but it’s still a great place none the less. So we left the ponds and headed off to Stackpole Quay and then along the coast back towards the car. The following is just a few select landscapes, flora and fauna shots that took my fancy on the day.
Aunty has gone away with the girls for the weekend, the sun was shining and the outdoors was calling. So with Grandad as company it was down to Newport Wetlands for a mooch around. The sun was shining brightly when we left home in the allies, but as we got over Caerphilly mountain we hit the fog. It was even heavier by the time we arrived at Goldcliff, so we moved on quickly for a cup of coffee at the RSPB cafe at Newport Wetlands. By this time the sun was beginning to come out. Not many birds around, but we were tease by the reed warblers cackling away, hidden but never showing themselves. Their call reminds we a little of polystyrene rubbing together. Not many birds, but the insects showed up well. And then it was back home to watch the rugby.
A couple of weekends ago we stayed in West Wales for a long weekend. Now the Cambrian Coast is a good spot for walking, sitting on beaches and chilling, but it is also a great place to go and try and see some Dolphins and seals. Now Aunty has a weak spot for dolphins and seals, getting excited whenever we see any. As we were staying near New Quay this was the natural place to start. According to the young lady from the Dolphin Watch they had been spotted each day from the harbour wall. We arrived late afternoon, to a grey sky and an equally grey sea? The one redeeming factor was it wasn’t raining. Yet! But this is Wales, and you have to be prepared.
We came back the next day to a different climate. the sun was shining, all be it behind the clouds most of the time, so we decided to follow the coastal path south towards Birds Rock. We had been told the chances of seeing the Dolphins from the cliff tops were very good. As I mentioned in other posts, one of our ambitions is to walk the coastal path from end to end, but at the rate we are going it will take us another 25 years, 2 months and 3 days to complete it. So after a refreshing walk we arrived at the observatory and settled down to wait for the show to begin. It seems nobody had informed the Dolphins that we were waiting. No show. But we had some cracking views of the guillemots on their nests. The geology of the cliffs has created a series of shelves a couple hundred feet high giving the sense of a high rise block of flats.
On our return we stopped briefly to look at to sea, and would you believe it there was a dolphin. Then as we approached New Quay there was a crowd on the harbour wall watching another one. OK they were both a long way away, but we had seen Dolphins on this trip and so could tick them off. Then it started raining again!
The next day was completely different. It was to be a beach day and a visit to Mwnt. Another Welsh 100 and the next blog post. But this one is about Dolphins. As we were sitting on the headland, what did we see but 5 dolphins, providing a great show. There was a mother and baby, swimming slowing North, possibly to put in a show at New Quay later.
Then Aunty spotted another three playing around also heading north. What a great 30 minutes, and certainly made the coffee stop worth while. Fantastic.
This one wasn’t planned. We were driving aimlessly around Pembroke under the Preselli Hills, when we sudden.y noticed a huge Caws outlined in treeson the hillside. For those no in the know, Caws is Welsh for cheese. Cheese we weren’t looking for, but cheese we found. Wales has a long tradition of cheese making, and there are hundreds of small artisan cheese makers scattered around the countryside. This discovery was very welcome and a little unusual.
Pant Mawr Cheese is made in a small farm right on the edge of the village of Rosebush. A small collection of cottages and houses that seems to have been bypassed by the past 30 years. The first thing you notice as you park in the tiny farm yard is the tin roofed outbuilding that acts as the shop.
There is no shortage of humour around as well. Must get one of those blue signs for our house.
But what about the cheese I hear you cry. It was very good. They make 7 different cheeses, and I tasted them all. The Caws Cerwyn and Caws Preseli are soft young cheeses, full of taste. The Drewi Sant is another soft cheese sprayed with mead. Not sure that this worked. But I did like the Mature Cerwyn. There are also 2 goats cheese, Heb Enw (No Name). One unsmoked and the other smoked. After careful consideration I left with Caws Cerwyn and the Mature Cerwyn. So if you fancy some great tasting young Welsh Cheese then you can order on-line as well: Pant Mawr Cheese
On our way back home from a weekend away in Pembrokeshire we decided to take a slight detour and drive to the Welsh Kite Centre at Llanddeusant in the Brecon Beacons. Opened in 2002 it is partnership between local concern with support from the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Welsh Red Kite Trust and various other notable wildlife organisations and individuals. After driving along the narrow road that are so common in Wales we arrived at a small car park tucked behind a row of small cottages, and Wales down the road to a small gate where we handed over our £4 each. Hidden behind the hedge was a long hide which already had a few people keening waiting for the spectacle to start. Being early, as we usually are we were able to get our preferred perches.
30 minutes before the three o’clock feeding time a few kites were already circling overhead. But then with 5 minutes to go the sky was full with about 30 or more kites waiting.
Then as soon as the man came out with the bucket of food the excitement began.
Everyone was entranced by the show. The beauty of the birds themselves along with the seemingly effortless acrobatic skill in the air kept us all watching. It would have been easy to try and catch everything through the camera lens, but I would have missed so much more that was happening all around as the kites glided around the field waiting for something that caught their eye before swooping down to grag the food off the floor. Must go back again.
The wales their forecast promised us a fair weekend. Cloudy but with sunny periods. What it didn’t forecast was the heavy showers, strong winds and a dropping temperature. But did we let that stop us? Absolutely no!
We’re staying at the caravan park just on hedge of Pembrey County Park. Just to the west of Llanelli, the park is on the site of an explosives factory with a history going back to 1882, before reopening during the First World War and again during the Second World War. Now it is sparsely forested with pines, hosting woodland walks all backed by miles of sandy beach.
Along the beach there are clear views across the bay towards The Gower. It looks cold in the photo, and I have to admit it was the warmest of autumn mornings with the wind whipping up the waves. Aunty was well trussed up in coat, hat and gloves.
The light at this time of year though never as bright as the summer, is much cleaner.
But the rain stayed away, except for a couple of very short light showers, and the light did get a little better. A Meadow Pipit posed obligingly for a couple of photos on a fence post.
Later on the sun did shine when we were in Laugharne, giving a couple of opportunities for some more bird photos. Jackdaws can provide a great deal of entertainment, They are always busy doing something. But what fascinates me the different textures of their feathers. The “grey hood” feathers appear to be very course, in comparison with the delicate feathers on the legs.
Later on we came across a Pied Wagtail perching and posing on an old seat.
Another of my favourite birds is the Black Headed Gull. Though at this time of the years there is little evidence of the black head associated with it’s breeding plumage in the spring and summer.
Later on we popped into Burry Port to have a look at the harbour. Aunty allowed me a few moments to watch the small group of Red Shank, but not too long mind.
But the highlight came right at then end as the sun was setting. It broke through the heavy cloud cover with a brilliant yellow colour casting the boats and small lighthouse into deep contrast.