Two more days in north Wales – 5 & 6th Oct

Since my end of April visit to Llangollen (see here) I have wanted to pay more attention to this part of the world. And the presence this week of Booted Warbler, a lifer at the Great Orme’s head, Llandudno afforded an opportunity to do so. My latest venture into part-time “living-wage” employment is proving erratic to say the least and I have had a certain amount of gardening time of late. But whilst finding some motivation for that necessity is welcome, the familiar urge to hit the road had been growing again in recent days. So although 205 miles is way beyond my usual birding range, on Wednesday I just upped and went anyway.

Never mind the M6 and A55, I took the more leisurely route through the scenic beauty of the Vales of Llangollen and Conwy, and along the winding, single carriageway A5 in between. It was a clear sunny day that had been another reason for doing this and the north Wales upland landscape did not disappoint. Managing the journey with just one short break and no cat naps, I arrived on site some time after 4:30 pm to find several birders observing the Booted Warbler.

The massive limestone headland of the Great Orme is a rather wild and empty landscape (above right). Earlier in my day Clackers, who had been here on Tuesday with Ewan (see here), described how the Booted Warbler was showing down to two metres. I suspect many of these images (here) on RBA were posted after that. The autumn drift migrant had not only chosen to be this obliging but was doing so right next to a car park. Now in strong wind the bird appeared quite hyperactive, moving around constantly between the various clumps of gorse.

A common and widespread breeder in central and eastern Eurasia, Booted Warbler tends to frequent low bushes and weedy fields. The normal wintering grounds are central and southern Asia. This is a small and strikingly plain warbler, the upper parts resembling the colour of milky tea and the underparts off-white.


Booted Warbler

My own best picture (above) shows the rather domed head shape, short primary projection and short square ended tail. Other diagnostic features are a strong facial pattern, with beady eye and pale lateral crown stripe. The pale orange bill is longer and sturdier than a Chiffchaff’s with a dark tip, and appears slightly angled upwards. I watched the bird for around 90 minutes in the cold wind and fading light, then went to find my B&B.

On Thursday I returned at 7:30am to find the Booted Warbler frequenting a grassy area where the close encounters had occurred two days previously. Conditions were now much less windy and the bird was not so mobile, spending more time feeding on the ground. After a break for breakfast I came back again and stayed for a coupe of hours in company with several other birders, some of whom were Welsh speaking which was interesting to hear.

For much of the time this warbler remained foraging in one area of long grass and its diagnostic head pattern was very noticeable. It seemed settled in this location and all present were being considerate, standing in line a safe distance back and skirting the viewing area widely when coming and going. But eventually two later arriving people with cameras just had to try to get closer, put the bird up then chased after it. More new arrivals then joined in the pursuit. I decided the likelihood of a closer photo opportunity was fading fast and so left. It was in any case almost midday and time to go sight seeing and indulge some early life memories.


Llandudno: Grand Hotel and pier

This north Wales coast holds many such associations because until I was aged 12 family holidays were taken in Colwyn Bay where my grandparents were caretakers of a place of worship. So that was where I headed next today. I had re-visited once previously in 1993 to find that, other than the gargantuan trench of the A55 having been ploughed through the town, things had changed very little and the old seaside resort had acquired a faded air. This time much more “progress” was in evidence.

The streets around where my grandparents lived are now a conservation area. So the early 20th century red brick houses that I recall so well, with turrets at the corners of the biggest ones, are all being refurbished in their original style. But elsewhere the space of my childhood memories had been filled with various public leisure facilities. The formerly charming Eirias Park for instance now holds an events centre and 15,000 seat stadium. I didn’t look to see what the seafront structure pictured below right is, but it is just so ugly and in your face.

A little to the west the long derelict pier (pictured below) has yet to be either demolished or rebuilt. I left here thinking that too much has changed not necessarily for the better for me to want to re-visit again. I considered that Llandudno still has the genteel and affluent ambience of it’s Victorian heyday. But Colwyn Bay has the air of a town that was allowed to outdate too much before being partially redeveloped in a hurry.


Colwyn Bay seafront looking west

A historic site that I wanted to see again was Conwy Castle on the other side of Llandudno. This has long been considered one of Wales’ most picturesque, but upon my arrival conditions had become overcast and the road bridge below the medieval ruin was a construction site. The yellow stone grandeur of my recollection, that is also portrayed in classic paintings and illustrations of the site, has assumed a duller, dirtier appearance with the passage of time. In short I was disappointed. Conwy is nonetheless an evocative place that I would like to experience again if time on a future excursion here allows.

And so my agenda in north Wales was complete. A birding lifer, an overnight stop, some history and lots of nostalgia. I just have a special feeling for the area, arising out of an age of childhood innocence, that has never left me in adult life. And it was so good to have enjoyed those sentiments again, courtesy of that little off course waif the Booted Warbler.


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