Tuesday, 29 March 2016


The wide promenade in Aberystwyth stretches along its coast, the sandstone paving of the prom drops down to the grey pebbly beach below. At one end the tall cliff of Constitution Hill with its old electric railway heading straight up to the view point and café at the top, awaits those who do not wish to tackle the zig zagging path up through the grass and gorse. A row of traditional Victorian sea front houses follow the contour of the bay as it curves away from Consti (as we always call it). Their clean fascia’s gleam in the brilliant sunshine. A pale blue sea rolls gently onto the pebble beach. The tide is retreating revealing almost black, exposed rocks with small shimmering pools and shiny, wet sea weed. Half way and the pier juts out into the bay, its structure dappled with the evidence of the thousands of starlings that roost there during the winter months and put on a spectacular display at dusk. Here the Victorian houses give way to the old college, the warm brown façade ornately carved. Next there is the old castle, its crumbling turrets and few archways sit on bright green grass, are all that remain on the hill. At its tip a statue honouring those who gave their lives in the war. From here looking right you can look back along the curve of the bay, towards Consti. To the left the promenade, pebbly beach and houses continue to the harbour, its stone wall guiding fishing vessels, yachts and other pleasure vessels into safety. The Welsh coast continues as far as the eye can see, cliffs rising and dipping to hidden coves and beaches.  It is a glorious day. The warm sun only tempered by a cool, stiff breeze that creates little white caps on the waves beyond the shelter of the bay. 

The promenade in Aberystwyth

It is an old haunt for me. Walking along the promenade I reminisce about the three years I spent at University here. The memories flood back. Eating fish and chips on the bench with Lee watching the starlings or just the sea. Laughing with friends as we walk between pubs during a football club social or the famous lab coat pub crawl of the Biology Society. Standing at the window of the student halls watching waves crash up the beach, and over it, leaving pebble dash over the road. Eating ice cream from the little ‘Don Gelato’ at the pier. Sitting up at the castle of hours, gazing out at the sea, hoping and wishing for bottlenose dolphins. It is an odd feeling walking up this promenade again, thinking of all these memories while pushing my daughter in a pushchair ahead of me. 

The town remains glorious. I had a brilliant three years during University, and every time I return there are always new memories made. This time it is the bird life of the sea front that I will remember. As we get out of the car near Consti a Red Kite drifts overhead. On the exposed rock around the pier flocks of Turnstone and Ringed Plover wait for the rest of the rock to become exposed so they can start feeding. On the turrets and carved façade of the Old College there is a male Black Redstart in stunning breeding plumage.  A flock of Purple Sandpipers sweep in from along the coast and perch on a ledge in the wall. Out on the water flocks of Herring Gull sit, bobbing up and down on the waves, cleaning and preening themselves having followed a fishing vessel in. Rock Pipits call from lampposts and strut over the grass of the Castle, as oblivious to the tourists taking pictures as they are to it.   

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The final stop on this trip is up Consti. This time, with baby in tow, we take the train. Slowly the whole of Aberystwyth and the surrounding countryside is revealed before us. At the top we can see further down the coast, and now can see up the coast to Clarach Bay and Aberdyfi. On a really clear day you can see Bardsey Island. Today the horizon is hazy but the view no less stunning. Up here Skylarks are singing, Jackdaws chase each other, and on the steeply sloping cliff a Stonechat perches upright on a branch of gorse. 

With lunch beckoning it is time to head back down in the train and head for the caravan with more memories made in Aberystwyth. 

The view from Consti

Monday, 21 March 2016

A Snipe's Tale 2: The Return of Jack

There have been two tales of snipe for Wild Barley. The first the story of a Common Snipe ringed at our site in Cranwich and recovered in northern Spain and the second the story of both Common and Jack Snipe caught and ringed in North Wiltshire. They may also may a cameo appearance in the stories from The Gambia, but as you can tell we do not usually catch Snipe in Norfolk. And we are not alone. In 2014 only one Snipe was ringed in the whole of Norfolk, and no Jack Snipe! You have to go right back to 2009 to find the last Jack Snipe ringed in Norfolk. So when scouting out a new site at a local farm and the distinct call of not only Snipe but Jack Snipe comes from tufts of grass and reed surrounding pools it immediately piques the interest of whether we could catch them. The experience of ringing with others know becomes invaluable. Those opportunities to learn and watch from other ringers to have caught Snipe before, both in The Gambia and North Wiltshire, provide invaluable knowledge and ideas. 

Just before dusk, with the sun heading for the horizon following a cool, very early spring day, nets were set around one of the farms pools. The idea was to catch any birds coming into the edges of the pools to roost. Dusk meant the nets would not be so visible to birds that have such good eyesight. 

Sunset over the site

There was no guarantee it would work. There never is. But luck, or knowledge, was on our side and the return to the nets revealed not one, but three Jack Snipe! 

These three, along with the rest of the wintering Jack Snipe population in the UK will soon be hearing off to Scandinavia and Russia to breed. But at least now a very small (OK a teeny tiny) proportion of the Norfolk wintering population have rings on and so there is always a chance they will be recovered and that might reveal where exactly there are going to breed. Just to have them in the hand provides a unique opportunity to study aspects of their moult and biology and ultimately to contribute to the knowledge of this species. 

It is a privilege to hold any bird in the hand, but to hold those that are rarely caught is extra special. So it is a huge congratulations to Lee for catching three of these wonderful birds. 

The beautiful Jack Snipe