Lessons with a Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) encourages fledglings to fend for themselves, by catching insects on the river.

That afternoon I’d found myself lying on the shingle bank of the river, with lens & camera resting on a stone just an inch above the water. It was a hot humid day, the morning had been busy and the river was enticing. I’d taken the 700 mm fl setup with me in the hope of spotting a Dipper whilst also cooling off my core temperature. I’d seen the Dipper.. on the wing at high speed – in no mood to pose & ‘dip’ for me. But when, some 30 minutes later, the Grey Wagtail appeared, I was glad that I’d been patient despite the insect harassment & the pebbles jabbing at my ribs. She stood just 4 or 5 metres in front of me, her attention not on feeding, nor upon the strange camo clad human lying in the damp shade..

A grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) standing amongst stones on the river margins.
A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) standing amongst stones on the river margins.

Her attention was focused a little upstream (behind me of course!) where young fledglings were learning to catch insects for themselves. A Minnow rose to take a mayfly from the river surface just to my right, the adult Wagtail flew upstream & I realised that I would need to move & reset if I was to record any of this story.

Grey Wagtails are insect eating birds. In summer they are mainly to be found along fast flowing streams & rivers where food is plentiful. Chicks fledge after only 2 weeks or so. In the UK their conservation status is considered red, so it’s pleasing to see them breeding successfully.

A young Grey Wagtail ponders how to catch a snack for himself.
A young Grey Wagtail ponders how to catch a snack for himself.

Some time later I was re-positioned partially submerged in the rapids by some boulders and the Wagtails were back. I spotted two fledglings, ok for a later brood, though 3 would have been nice. They hadn’t fully mastered the skill of catching dinner, so frustrating when it’s hovering just inches away – as in the picture above.

The adult demonstrated the technique necessary by deftly plucking an invertebrate from the fast shallow flow at the top of a little cascade.

With skill & practice, a Grey Wagtail pecks insects out of the fast flowing shallows.
With skill & practice, a Grey Wagtail pecks insects out of the fast flowing shallows.

The lessons must have been tiring, one youngster decided to take a break; fluffing himself up and looking all cute in the afternoon sunshine.

A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) fledgling stands on riverside rocks watching its parent search for insect food.
A Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) fledgling stands on riverside rocks watching its parent search for insect food.

If you’re out walking the river banks this summer, keep an eye open for these delightful little birds.

Dipper about in the River

White Throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) are a wonderfully characterful bird of the river. They are a smallish but stout bird with a pale chest that contrasts with their otherwise dark plumage.

A Dipper stands alertly in river shallows.
A Dipper stands alertly in river shallows.

They feed on river invertebrates (esp. freshwater shrimps) which they search for under the water or by turning stones in the shallows. They will immediately swallow larvae & small food whilst still submerged – larger prey are brought to the surface for eating (see pic below).

A Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) catches an insect nymph for an afternoon snack.
A Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) catches an insect nymph for an afternoon snack.

Amazingly capable of balancing themselves in strong currents by using their wings in the water; they also have the tendency to bob up & down whilst standing on rocks & even riverside branches – like a dancer limbering up.

They are of amber conservation status in Britain. A quiet observer can spot them (& hear their high pitched call) on various upland welsh rivers. Below is a short video that I was lucky enough to capture whilst maintaining riverside paddocks last week.

Always happy to see these bouncy chaps 🙂

Breeding & fledging will be in full swing currently, so a few stolen moments of preening are probably very much appreciated.

Do keep a look out for these energetic little birds whilst you are walking by the local rivers – they are well worth a few minutes spent watching them.

Crafnant and Geirionydd – twin lake walk

This walk is a very pleasant 5 mile walk with about 1200 feet of climb. Parts of it are along well made stone track, some is rougher going with many roots under foot. We walked it early one summer’s morning during a heatwave.

Early morning light casts reflections in beautiful Llyn Crafnant
Early morning light casts reflections in beautiful Llyn Crafnant

To locate the car parking, travel north to Trefriw from, Betws-y-Coed. As the village road crosses the river with the woollen mill on your left, turn left & steep uphill at the side of the mill. Carefully follow this very narrow lane and its signs for Llyn Crafnant. Just before you reach the lake, there is a forest car park on the right (free at the time of writing). Having parked up, walk a little further up the lane, turning right at the beginning of the lake and following the path on its north-western side. There are beautiful views & many reflections to be seen as you walk along this lakeside path.

Picturesque and Idyllic
Picturesque and Idyllic

Crafnant Pathway
Crafnant Pathway

Be careful to keep to the main lake side path, not straying uphill & away from the lake on any branched tracks. Towards the head of the lake, the well sign-posted path will take you through several gateways & around on to the other bank; follow the small lane for a little way until an obvious footpath strikes off to your right, uphill & into woodland. Take this path (as per the route map below) and follow it over the wooded hillside.

Trail of light and dark
Trail of light and dark

As one descends in to the adjacent valley floor, you will emerge from the woodland at the head of Llyn Geirionydd. Cross a style to stay on the near side of the lake (rather than crossing to the lane on the eastern bank). Whilst this path is a little rough in places, it is easy navigation, just follow the lakeside.

Llyn Geirionydd
Llyn Geirionydd

This is a peaceful place when water-sports are not taking place on the lake and there is plenty of wildlife to look out for. We were serenaded by the morning calls of a Sandpiper and were lucky enough to capture a bit of video footage:

Sandpiper Calling from AnnMarie Jones on Vimeo.

A Sandpiper calling out from a branch overhanging Llyn Geirionydd.

At the north end of the lake, keep straight ahead to view the Taliesin monument. This commemorating the reputed birthplace of Taliesin, chief bard of the 6th century. Whilst here Tamsin heard a crunching sound, which turned out to be a Golden-ringed Dragonfly having some breakfast (see Gallery at end for a photo).

Taliesin Info Plate
Taliesin Info Plate

Do look back from the monument at the view back along the length of the lake.

Monument on the shores of Llyn Geirionydd commemorating the birthplace of Taliesin, chief bard of the 6th century.
Monument on the shores of Llyn Geirionydd commemorating the birthplace of Taliesin, chief bard of the 6th century.

Once done here, continue roughly northwards along the clearly defined & waymarked path until it crosses a stonewall via ladder-style. At this point be sure to take the path ahead & uphill. We will now pass back over the hillside in our return towards the car park. On the way back down, keep an eye out for the old quarry workings.

Looking for Quarries
Looking for Quarries

The cool air emanating from a little mining tunnel was very enticing on such a warm morning and of course Tamsin couldn’t resist exploring.

Indiana Tamsin
Indiana Tamsin

Meanwhile I walked over the top of the spoil, only for us both to discover the same quarried cave. The dripping water, cool shade, coloured rocks and imagination inspiring mouth; made this an interesting bonus to the end of our walk.

Quarry Opening
Quarry Opening

From here it is but a 5 minute walk down a forest track and back to the car. An enjoyable 3 hour walk on a glorious morning.

GPS Route:

Photo Gallery:

In search of Mountain Goats

Mountain Goats have roamed Snowdonia for many years and I always enjoy seeing them from time to time, especially when it involves a walk up the Rhinogs (or more correctly Rhinogydd). The Rhinogs have always had that little extra feeling of wilderness for me, where better to view wild goats. I should really refer to them as feral, since they are descended from the domestic goats of pastoralists some 10,000 or so years ago. So having parked in Coed y Brenin, Tamsin & I headed for the rocky northern slopes of Rhinog Fawr.

Our route up in to the hills took us past the picturesque Pistyll Gwyn, which had a decent flow after a few nights of autumn rains.
This is a lovely walk with great views, so nothing would be lost if we didn’t sight the goats.

Cardigan bay & Lleyn peninsula from the Rhinogydd

It was here that I spotted the first small group of goats. Tamsin was busy sketching a view that she felt would inspire her fantasy writings, and so I was meandering amongst the rocks when I spotted 3 goats a little below Llyn Du. At a distance that was towards the limit of the optics that I was carrying, the normally very skittish creatures remained relaxed whilst I took a few pictures & then retreated.

We continued to enjoy our time on the mountain but it wasn’t until we were practicing our parkour balance descending the wet rocky track at a fair rate of knots, that our second goat sighting occurred. We heard an eerie bleating from several hundred feet above us. Tamsin the trusty spotter wheeled around to see…

Spotter Tamsin

.. two billy goats with generous horns calmly grazing amongst the crags & another goat high above them, bleating (see featured header image).

Billy Goat

I did take some rather shaky video of the goats but given that for part of it I was prone in a midge infested bog at the time the quality is limited, apologies.

Hope you enjoyed, take care of yourself & our precious planet 🙂

The Atlantic Puffin

These charming seabirds can be watched in a few coastal locations around the U.K. with Bempton Cliffs being perhaps the most well known mainland location. There are however some really great island seabird colonies to visit, where Puffins have a significant presence. All of my images for this article were taken on a fantastic trip to Skomer island, located off the SW coast of Wales. (The Farne islands are great for northern England and consider visiting Sumburgh Head on Shetland or the Isle of May, if you are in Scotland).

A Puffin keeps a watchful eye outside its burrow.

These cute seabirds, with their strikingly coloured bill & worried expression, stand about 7 to 10 inches tall & weigh in at just 500 grams. They are evolved for swimming & diving more than for flight, using up to 400 wing beats per minute to achieve a decent top speed of a little over 50 mph. Life span is about 20 years.
An Atlantic Puffin returns from sea with a beak full of sand eels

Whilst much of their year is spent out at sea they must come to land in spring for their breeding season. This is when they sport their bright colours & striking plumage. Puffins nest in burrows. About 10% of the World population breed around the UK, that’s about 500,000 birds. This April about 25,000 Puffins were counted on Skomer. Breeding is a tough business and statistically a pair of Puffins chance of getting just one chick to fledging is about 0.5 to 0.7. One hazard is predation by Gulls & Skuas, not only are the chicks at direct risk but the parents have to run the gauntlet of Gulls attempting to make them drop their precious sand eel cargo.

Sand eels are the primary food for Puffins. The Puffins have reverse facing barbs inside their mouths & on their tongues, this allows the Puffins to typically scoop up about 10 sand eels with each dive. At 3 or 4 years of age Puffins find a mate, they will bond for life. Once the female Puffin has laid her single egg, each adult will take turns incubating the egg for about 40 days, after which it will hatch. Now starts the busy task of feeding the young Puffling who will fledge when large enough, a minimum of 45 days later.
One Sand Eel carrying Puffin passes closely overhead another.

As the Puffin parents busy back & forth with bills full of sand eels, dodging the marauding gulls & avoiding collisions, its a great spectacle to behold (always keeping the welfare of the birds upmost of course).
A Puffin sets off out to sea after more food for its young chicks.

Once the young Pufflings have fledged (mid-summer) the Puffins will start to disperse again, out on the open Oceans until next spring. Puffins are considered to be a vulnerable species Whose numbers are falling. There are various research projects attempting to find out the causes. One possibility is that the supply of sand eels is dwindling due to overfishing by humans another factor may be changing sea temperatures due to global warming. The RSPB currently (2017) has a call out for pictures of feeding Puffins, to help with their research.
A closer view of the Atlantic Puffin’s exquisite markings

We had a great day on Skomer, I would heartily recommend it to all nature lovers. The Puffins (Fratercula artica) are fabulous. You really do need to be very careful to stick to the paths because there are fragile burrows everywhere. The Puffins are so photogenic and it’s a nice challenge to catch the perfect flight shot. Also, long focal lengths are not required which is great if you’re going to walk the few miles around the island on a hot summers day. Here’s a small gallery of a few of the day’s photos including the above (do look at Natures Universe if you’d like to purchase images) :