Situated just 2 miles off the shore of the Llŷn Peninsula in NW Wales, you can find yourself on the small and enchanting Island of Bardsey; this 860 million old lump of rock isn’t just one of the oldest sites in the UK, but also one of the most bird rich and beautiful. Surely, the saying “small but mighty” was made for Bardsey, for as being just 2KM at its longest it holds internationally important breeding numbers of sea birds as well as one of the biggest lists in the UK for a single site: over 21,000 nesting Manx Shearwater and a bird list of 339 species recorded, that’s a bigger list than Shropshire, Ceredigion and Northamptonshire! And it’s not just quantity which Bardsey has its quality: Yellow-breasted Bunting, Summer Tanager, River Warbler, American Bittern, Fea’s Petrel, Killdeer, Crested Lark, Lanceolated Warbler, Collared Flycatcher and Cretzschmar’s Bunting are just some of the bonkers birds that Bardsey has held host to over the years.
For the past 3 years now Next Generation Birders (NGB), has been making annual trips to the Island each autumn and this year was no different. Having only joined the group earlier in the year to get a discount off BirdGuides membership (one of the many benefits of joining the group). Having missed Birdfair for the past 3 years now I did what I could to attend it this year, but sadly and once again I was unable to attend. As the NGB trip to Bardsey overlapped with Birdfair and I’d now be in North Wales anyway I thought why not go to Bardsey instead? It’ll be overloaded with birds, best mate George Dunbar (fellow NGB going on the trip) and it’ll be a great opportunity to go out and make new friends. So after gathering the funds to pay for the trip it wasn’t long till it came to the 21st of August and at Porth Meudwy Me, George Dunbar and Will Langdon (the NGB’s attending) were picked up by Colin Evans, our knight in shining armour, and taken over for our week long trip to the Island.
Now, unlike in my other posts which have been about when I’ve been away for long periods, I won’t be doing a day to day thing, but talking about the epic highlights which made Bardsey the best week of my life.
Ringing throws up surprise after surprise, on our first day Steve Stainfield (Warden) showed off his ringing skills by catching a LONG-EARED OWL, which when we saw the bird fly into the net the faces of George, Will and myself were as if we’d seen a ghost. The owl was then taken into processing (aged as a juvenile due down on the head), at the ringing hut where all 3 of us were still in shock at the fact that there, just a foot away from us, was a Long-eared Owl… In the hand! From this, we could all tell that this was the beginning of what would be a phenomenal week.
Throughout the week, on two days in particular, plenty of quality birds were caught in the Obs Garden using both Mist Nets and the good old Heligoland Trap, “The Great Fall” when over 40 Willow Warblers, 2 Pied Fly and 1 Spotted Fly were caught and ringed along with on “Hippo Day” one of the many Icterine Warblers on the island was trapped and ringed. Unlike Will and George I myself wasn’t a ringer, but Steve was kind enough to teach the Ringers Grip and then permitted me to release the birds that the others had ringed and processed. Some of the birds I was fortunate enough to release included: Icterine Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Willow Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Robin and Dunlin!
With Bardsey being host to such large numbers and variety of sea birds, it was stupid not to go out and ring some of them. On one of the nights when the weather was right us NGB’s and others staying on the Island were taken out for an evening of ringing both Manx Shearwater and European Storm Petrel. Heaven on Earth. While walking up the hill, we were just surrounded by the eruptive calls of Manxies soaring over head as they made their way to their underground bunkers, we were lucky enough to even have one land just beside the path!
Continuing our way up, we eventually reached a spot where we’d wait for Ben Porter aka Bardsey Ben, to bring us up some Stormies which he’d catch with a mist net lower down on the East end. After about 15mins of standing around with the entertainment being George, Will and Steve getting ripped to shreds by Manxies, Mr Porter finally came up with 2 bags containing some very special cargo. Steve approached and pulled something out of the bag, there it was, my 250th UK Lifer right before my eyes and it was beautiful, European Storm Petrel. This little gem is a bird like many I’ve dreamt of seeing whist sea watching, but being in Cheshire where they’re pretty much MEGA (more people have seen Little Shearwater and Leach’s Petrel!), I unfortunately hadn’t been blessed with one after years of sea watching. The image below with a Storm Petrel in my hand goes to show how in love and captivated I was having this master of seas in my hand, when Steve asked “Elliot, would you like to go with Ben and release them?” it was a case of saying yes without even giving time to finish. I was having the time of my life! Whilst all this was taken there was rivalry taking place between Will and George over how could ring the most birds…Will won with manxies, George won with Stormies!
A few days afterwards we were taken out by Steve and his son Conor, aka the Manxie Whisperer, out for a day of ringing Manx Shearwater chicks, which by the sounds of it from Steve and Seffan was going to be such fun…Whilst walking up the hill behind the Obs to go and check some of the burrows we were first taken to a Woodpigeon nest to ring the chicks. When we arrived at the nest only one chick was present and well it was a face which only another could love, I’m very confident in saying that it’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.
Moving on from this rather traumatic ordeal we eventually headed up to some Manxie burrows which on the way up we flushed one of 4 Wrynecks seen during our stay! When it came to extracting the chicks it seemed fairly simple, stick your arm into a burrow, grab the chick then pull it out. It was anything but that simple; Steve had warmed us that they were feisty little buggers but well were in for a shock when it came to actually handling them. Hand on heart the most viscous birds I’ve held met and no one came back unscarred, sharp claws and beak made very short work of our pretty incompetent skin which George in particular found out.
But believe it or not there were actually a few positives which came from experience: I ringed my first Manx Shearwater chick, George and Will had fun extracting a few chicks from the burrows whilst I had to crawl 5m into a bone and spider cave, drop 2 foot and retrieve 2 Manxie chicks which my god, the cutest things on the planet and I spent at least 10 minutes in the cave just stoking a Manxie chick and yes I was having an awhhhh moment.
Bardsey and Seawatching, put those two words together and you’ve got yourself one of the finest sea watching sites in the UK: Fea’s Petrel, Macaronesian Shearwater, Albatross sp and even Great White Egret have been picked up on Sea Watches. The majority of the time that I had free was spent sea watching from either the North Hide (my personal favourite) and from the Obs Garden; sea watching from the Obs Garden means that Steve has a garden list of well over 250, slightly embarrassing to Me, George and Will who’s entire UK Life List were no where near to Steve’s epic Garden List.
Every day (apart from “Hippo Day”), George and myself would spend the day walking up to the North Hide and settle down for a spot of sea watching, in what has to be my favourite hide of all time. It’s the first time I’ve ever been into a hide and I’ve been able to feel the environment and the hide at once: it was made of slabs of grey rock with patches of lichen, a rusty steel frame to hold in the wooden shutters, which the themselves were rotten and covered in a fine layer of springtails and to top it all off you could feel the spray of the waves coming in off the sea and hitting you whilst in the hide, perfect.
With George taking part in the Young Birders Competition at Mig Fest this year, he was using this time on Bardsey as last minute preparation before the competition got under in 2 weeks’ time. As George is at a land locked site, and rarely visiting the coast, a week on Bardsey was an ideal opportunity to gen up on his Sea Watching skills before Mig Fest where his bird identification skills would be put to test. Believe it or not, when it actually came to Sea Watching, George was better than me when it came to picking up stuff, but still needed a hand identifying a few things. Great Skua, Balearic Shearwater, Arctic Skua, Black Tern and Sooty Shearwater were his best finds from the trip and were very impressive! As you can imagine he was rather pleased with his multitude of finds. I on other hand had to settle with Arctic Tern, Pomarine Skua, Common Scoter, Balearic Shearwater & Arctic Skua being my personal best from Sea Watching. Sea Watching was by far my favourite part of the trip; sitting in the hide with George by my side with our feet resting on the frame whist lying back watching the Manxies fly, it was heaven on earth.
On the 24th of August, following on from the “Great Fall” of the 23rd which saw the Island come alive with over c800 Willow Warblers and c80 Spotted Flycatchers, we witnessed yet another fall, but this time instead of quantity and not quality, it was both quantity and quality. Having a lie in after last night’s Stormies ringing, George and I just were just having breakfast as you do when Icky Steve busted into Obs letting us know that Assistant Warden Steffan and Steve (Warden) had just found an Icterine Warbler up at Nant in the plantation. Will had just walked at this point and after the mad dash to get our shoes on all three of us ran down to Nant so that George and Will could nab themselves a lifer.
When we got there Steve, Ben Porter & Steve Hinde, “Icky Steve” had already arrived and well to our disappointment the Iccy had decided to play hide and seek. Will, George and I managed to catch very brief views of the bird before I headed deep into the plantation and out of sight, Ben thought he had it again and began to explain where it was but then Steve erupted a rather surprising “SHUT UP BEN”, which made us all jump, what was it ? Well just below where we’d just had our last views of the Icterine Warbler Steve had only just gone and found the Islands first ORTOLAN BUNTING of the autumn. My mouth literally dropped, Ortolan Bunting, it’s a bird I’ve always dreamt of seeing since I was a child, I honestly thought that I’d never get to see one, I actually let loose a tear because it was such a special moment: I was with the person I care about most in the world, on a beautiful Island surrounded by like-minded people watching a bird I thought I’d never get to see which was showing better than I could have ever imagined and to add to it, I got some shots which I was over the moon with and on Twitter have had 146 favourites which I’m pretty pleased with.
After the excitement of Nant we headed back to the Obs to finish off our abandoned breakfast which was when we got word of another possible Icterine Warbler in the Obs Garden? All three of us headed off and well after getting some brief views of a hippolais sp, it was me, George, Will and Steve at one end of the garden with Steffan on the opposite end. The 4 of us saw the hippolais sp head into a bush heading north, but then Ben said he had a possible Melodious Warbler going in the opposite direction to the hippolais sp. A little more observation by everyone revealed that infact there the Island had its own fall of hippolais warblers: 3 Melodious and 2 Icterine Warblers were the end of the days totals, it was truly spectacular seeing so many hippolais in just one site. This unprecedented fall was giving us a rare opportunity to compare both Icterine and Melodious Warbler in field in the UK, as at one point there was a Icterine and Melodious in the same bush just a foot or so away from each other. It was after about 2hrs of going round the Obs Garden and totalling up the hippolais’ that we headed back down to Obs with later in the day one of the Icterine Warblers being caught in the one of the mist nets that had been set up in the garden for nearly seven hours. The following day all the birds appeared to have moved on overnight, apart from one of the Melodious Warblers with a new Icterine Warbler down in the lowlands which found with his wife Emma; “Hippo Day” was certainly the most surprising day of the trip.
Best of the rest:
With what I’ve talked about above there were plenty of other highlights from trip: continuing on from “Hippo Day” 3 Wrynecks were found on the Island the following day with Will showing off by finding one in the lowlands, then all three NGB’s had one in the Obs Garden, and ending off with me having one just by the school house. Whilst Sea Watching with George and Will off the North End on the last night, we all had our breath taken away by a pod of 10 Risso’s Dolphin. On the morning that we were leaving, Will and I watched Gannet VS Great Skua whilst having our breakfast. On the day of the “Great Fall”, we somehow managed to catch not just 1 but 2 Convolvulus Hawk Moths in the Heligoland Trap (insane!!!) as well coming across Wryneck droppings which we were able to collect and picking up a few Manx Shearwater Skulls.
So that’s why the 2016 NGB Trip to Bardsey was the best week of my life and even though next year’s trip to the Island clashes with Birdfair, I can safely say that I’ll be back again next year. Thank you Ben Porter, Steve Hinde, Mark, Steffan, Steve, Emma & Conner Stansfield for such a brilliant week full of birds, laughs and so many priceless and unforgettable moments.