Last week, we flew from Iceland to Wales. For such a seemingly short distance, the weather and wildlife are in remarkable contrast. I suppose this might always be the case when traveling from north to south rather than laterally. It has, as always, been a pleasure to be reacquainted with the wildlife of my youth, though many changes are apparent, with some new arrivals and quite a few departures.
One morning, I met my brother Roger at Malltraeth Marsh on the island of Anglesey. This reserve is a success story, much in the way that the North Campus Open Space in Goleta has enhanced habitat for birds. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds purchased the marsh some years ago and has been quietly buying up surrounding land and improving the habitat. I say “quietly” because, unlike many of their reserves, there is no large parking area, no coffee shop, no entry fee, not even any hides (blinds). Consequently, Roger and I found we had the place almost to ourselves.
There was one species there I really hoped to see, the rare Savi’s warbler. This bird occurs in very small numbers in the south of England most years but is almost unknown farther north. An individual had shown up in a reed bed in the marsh in late spring and had set up territory, giving his incessant dry grasshopper-like trill throughout the day; this performance is known as “reeling.” We were very fortunate to find the bird almost immediately. We heard the song quite clearly, although views of the bird were always distant.
A climate cycle is afoot in the U.K. When I lived in Wales in the late ’70s, I would not have dared dream a southern species such as the Savi’s warbler would turn up at Malltraeth. Neither would I have predicted another southern bird, the Cetti’s warbler, would now be a common resident. The same goes for both snowy and great egrets, both of which we saw on our morning on the reserve. The former species is now commonly seen in North Wales, whereas in my day it was an extremely rare vagrant.
It is exciting, of course, to watch these new birds colonize Wales, but these positive feelings are more than offset by the gloom that the disappearing wildlife brings. Many woodland and farmland birds are in steep decline or have disappeared altogether from Wales. Much of this is attributed to farming practices, especially the indiscriminate use of pesticides and herbicides. It is well-documented that insect numbers have plummeted and continue to drop, and it follows that the creatures that feed upon them are suffering the same fate. On a recent walk, my friend, Richard, and I were excited to come across a spotted flycatcher. This was formerly an abundant bird but in recent years has all but disappeared from Wales. Similarly, birds I used to see and hear quite commonly, such as the yellowhammer and the skylark, were notable by their absence.
Some resident species are more adaptable to human interference and have increased in recent years. One of these birds is the jackdaw, a handsome bird in the crow family that was omnipresent on our walks in both town and country, their explosive “chaw” calls keeping us company, almost masking the fact that much of the air is alarmingly silent.