We, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, are two British birders that some of you may have heard of. Back in 2008 we set off on a birding adventure, The Biggest Twitch. Birding in 27 countries, we set a new world record for the number of species recorded in a single calendar year – an amazing 4,341!
Since then we have been running birdwatching trips from our home in North Wales, traveling all over the UK, Europe and beyond, sharing our passion for birds with like-minded people.
We are very lucky to be based in Llandudno, North Wales, some 240 miles north west of London, as the area is a perfect location for birding. Our “backyard” consists of a large limestone headland rising above the town and is a real migrant hotspot.
The headland is called “The Great Orme” (a name from Viking times) and the area is steeped in history along with good birds. We can walk out of our front door onto the Orme to enjoy great birding. At migration time there is always that buzz of excitement – what will have arrived overnight or might fly over at any moment? We do very well for scarce migrants and each year we record Dotterel, Richard’s Pipit and Lapland Bunting (aka Longspur), all very good birds in the UK.
Of course when these rare birds turn up it is a real red letter day, but we also enjoy the wonderful resident and breeding birds who call The Great Orme home. Red-billed Chough breed on the high limestone cliffs and their lovely calls are a regular sound on a walk around this dramatic headland. Ravens also breed here and we are lucky enough to be able to see one nest from our kitchen window; this makes washing-up so much more interesting! These same cliffs are home to Fulmars, which visit the headland throughout the year. The other breeding seabirds tend to be seen in spring and summer. The majority of birds return in early April and stay through to July. The rock faces below the lighthouse provide temporary homes to Common Guillemots (aka Murres), Razorbills, Great Cormorants, Shags and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Look carefully and you might be lucky enough to spot a Black Guillemot bobbing about close to the rocks, a recent colonist to the Orme. Scanning offshore you should see Manx Shearwaters and Northern Gannets passing.
Up on top of the headland is a flat expanse of limestone pavement, great for wildflowers and an endemic species of cotoneaster. Here many of the migrant birds are found in the scattered bushes and along the stone walls. Northern Wheatears are a regular sight here and one of the earliest returning migrants each Spring with the first birds arriving in March. These “early birds” are joined by small numbers of Ring Ouzels and a few Black Redstarts. As the season progresses more and more migrants arrive and on a good day hundreds of birds can be on the peninsula. Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Meadow Pipits and Northern Wheatears are the most numerous species but all sorts of others can and do occur. Woodchat Shrike, Western Sub-alpine Warbler and Wryneck are amongst recent sightings. Few species breed up here as it is so open but Stonechats do add a splash of colour as they feed their young, and Linnets may perch in areas of gorse.
In Autumn, the return migration is always eagerly anticipated and again it is a case of expect the unexpected! In September and October we look out for Lapland Buntings from Scandinavia and Richard’s Pipits from Siberia. Both these exciting rarities are almost annual visitors to the Orme, which is probably the best mainland site for both of these species in all of Wales. Visible migration is also impressive with thousands of finches, larks and buntings passing west over the headland and of course amongst these, we hope for a few of those unexpected birds! Recent Autumns have produced little gems like Pallas’s Warblers, Yellow-browed Warblers and Firecrests. If the winds blow hard from the North-West then our attention turns to seawatching and big numbers of birds can be blown close inshore. Amongst the Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes and auks there may well be skuas, aka jaegers, shearwaters and with luck Leach’s Storm-Petrels. It’s always a thrill to be out in wild weather when there’s a big passage of birds.
Our “backyard” really does produce some great birding and stunning scenery. There’s little we enjoy more than taking an early morning hike around the Orme to see what the season has brought us. The wind can be bracing at times, but the views along the North Wales coastline and to the mountains of Snowdonia are breath-taking and uplifting in equal measure, a just reward for that early start!
We look forward to writing more about our birding adventures on the Leica Bird Blog as we travel around the UK, Europe and further afield in search of great birds.