Terrible Weather Does Not Stop Wonderful Birds Best of North Wales Tour

Common Crossbill, one of 116 species enjoyed on our five day Best of North Wales Tour.

Our tours are planned, and hopefully fully booked, well in advance so it is always pot luck with the weather and these days it is increasingly uncertain. Our latest five-day Best of North Wales Tour based in the Conwy Valley ran from Monday 6th December to Friday 10th December 2021 and coincided with some really awful weather. Huge thanks to Noreen, Sherry, Simon, Andrew, Sue and Jon for their great company and good humour throughout the trip despite the truly awful weather at times. But despite the storm and rain and hail we still enjoyed 116 species of birds in some beautiful scenery, a lot of laughs and delicious food throughout the tour. We are very lucky here in North Wales with so many different habitats, and so many birds, within easy reach of our base and we enjoyed a wonderful range of both during the five days.

On Monday we all met at the Princes Arms Hotel in the Conwy Valley and enjoyed a lovely lunch and the stunning views across the valley in sunshine! A handsome drake Goldeneye was on the River Conwy right below the hotel, first time we have seen this species here and a great start to the trip. We also watched a Red Kite, Common Buzzards and Long-tailed Tits at the hotel before taking a short drive to RSPB Conwy. Sadly the sunshine did not last and it was cold and windy with a particularly nasty sleet shower but luckily everyone had great outdoor gear to cope with the conditions. Lots of birds on the reserve but no doubting the highlight: a juvenile Goshawk! This muscular, barrel-chested raptor sent the ducks and waders on the lagoons into panic before soaring over the wood just east of the reserve allowing time to watch this super bird of prey in the telescope. Along the estuary track Ruth spotted a Rock Pipit, Alan raised his binoculars and saw a Meadow Pipit - awkward moment - then a Rock Pipit walked out into view right next to the Meadow Pipit! The “two bird theory” really can be true sometimes! We enjoyed over sixty species of birds on our first afternoon, a very impressive start! We all tucked into a delicious dinner back at the hotel, well-earned after braving the December weather.

On the Tuesday the weather was simply horrendous as a storm battered the UK and it was very much a day on which we would normally just stay at home. But the tour must go on so we donned our warm clothes and waterproofs and headed out fortified with a hearty breakfast. We headed for the Great Orme where we knew the east side of the headland would be sheltered and luckily we were right. Wonderful views of Northern Fulmars were enjoyed at close range on the cliffs while offshore Red-throated Divers played hide-and-seek in the waves along with lots of European Shags.

We then popped back to RSPB Conwy to enjoy a much-needed hot drink and this proved a good move as the high tide and strong winds had brought a lot of birds onto the lagoons to seek shelter, so lots of waders, ducks and gulls to enjoy in the gale force winds! A first winter drake Greater Scaup was a nice bonus bird right in front of the Tal-y-Fan hide.

We then headed west along the coast a little way to Llanfairfechan where a gorgeous drake Goosander showed off on the small boating lake and we managed to see flocks of Common Scoter riding the huge waves offshore. A bit further west again we braved the conditions to walk the fifty metres of so to the shore at Abergwyngregin and were rewarded with wonderful views of Northern Pintail so close as they fed on the flooded saltmarsh. Then great excitement as a fantastic Short-eared Owl appeared right in front of us being mobbed by Carrion Crows! What a thrilling sighting and lots of ooh's and aah's ensued as the owl flew out over the bay and finally shook off the mobbing corvids. As we watched, the Short-eared Owl slowly made its way back towards the shore and eventually passed right by us again, a superb encounter with a stunning bird. That gave us an appetite and we enjoyed a really lovely lunch at nearby Aber Falls Distillery complete with a “wee dram” of Aber Falls whisky for some in the group!

After our late lunch we continued west a little way to Aber Ogwen where the hide provided shelter from the wind and rain. We enjoyed some wonderful birds here including a beautiful flock of fifteen ghostly Greenshank that provided frame-filling views for us all. Goldeneye were diving just offshore and it was lovely to see two smart drakes amongst them, we also had good looks at Goosanders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Great Crested Grebes, Little Grebes and a single Slavonian Grebe – a scarce bird in North Wales. A really wonderful selection of birds and we had managed to stay mostly dry and warm despite the terrible weather, a very impressive 71 species of birds enjoyed.

On Wednesday we decided to change our plans as the weather forecast was again awful, so instead of Anglesey we headed east to the Dee Estuary where the weather was awful! First stop was at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands where loos and hot drinks are always welcome. From the reception hide we could stay dry and warm and watch lots of birds including a mass of Black-tailed Godwits and amongst them we picked out three smart-looking Spotted Redshanks. Then Ruth spotted a Ruff, a great bird for December, and we all had good looks at the lovely wader. A Marsh Harrier swept back and forth over the reedbeds and a second bird was seen on the ground feeding. A Raven and the first Marsh Harrier tried to muscle in on the food but the feeding Harrier was not sharing. A Great Egrets posed for us just outside the window of the reception hide where it was joined by a Little Egret – lovely to compare the two species side-by-side. As we were in the car park about to leave, Andrew spotted a Treecreeper at head height, what a lovely mouse of a bird – the birding never stops!

At nearby Burton Marsh it was blowing a real gale and heavy showers rattled across the Dee Estuary. We found some shelter behind a stone wall and scanned the huge saltmarsh and were rewarded with two Ruddy Shelduck and four Egyptian Geese feeding with a big flock of Canada Geese. Further out we watched Whooper Swans fly over the marsh and lots of Northern Lapwings. Jon spotted three Pintail flying over and luckily they dropped down and landed on a flooded area not far away and super looks were enjoyed.

A lovely lunch was enjoyed at nearby Ness Gardens, hot food and drinks much appreciated after the cold of Burton Marsh. Then a short drive to Parkgate Marsh where we saw Pink-footed Geese flying over the area and at least five Marsh Harriers hunted, two of which coming very close indeed! A Kestrel battled the wind and somehow managed to hover even in the gale. Common Snipe and Skylarks were flushed out of the reeds by the harriers along with huge flocks of Teal, Lapwings and Starlings. But it was the appearance of a beautiful male Hen Harrier that stole the day, what a fantastic bird. This was no quick glimpse either, the “grey-ghost” put on a fantastic display back and forth over the marsh pretty close to us, allowing us all plenty of time to really enjoy this very special bird. As we headed for home we watched hundreds of Pink-footed Geese flying out onto the marsh, a wonderful sight on which to end a bird-filled day. Seventy species of birds enjoyed in very challenging weather; it just shows that the birds are still out there whatever the weather.

With better weather forecast we started the day outside the hotel at 7.30am and were rewarded with two Woodcock flying right over – moving from the valley floor to the woods behind to roost. Another super Princes Arms breakfast was enjoyed while watching birds on the feeders outside the window then it was off to Anglesey for the day.

First stop on Anglesey was a flooded field near Valley, where it was sunny, we were shocked! Here we had super close views of Black-tailed Godwits along with Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Eurasian Teal – a great start. At nearby Beddmanarch Bay we set up the telescopes and scanned the mudflats and channel and enjoyed a lot of birds in the morning sun. Pale-bellied Brent Geese fed along the tide line here along with Shelduck and Wigeon. Simon picked out a Bar-tailed Godwit, great to see so soon after watching the Black-tailed Godwits. Flocks of Knot and Dunlin swirled over the mud and both Grey and Ringed Plover were watched feeding. In the channel a Slavonian Grebe showed well along with Great Crested Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers and Shags. At nearby RSPB South Stack it was blowing a gale but luckily we found a pair of Red-billed Chough in a sheltered field on the approach to the reserve and enjoyed wonderful views, also a lovely Fieldfare here. At the reserve we watched at least fourteen Chough, some riding the wind like a crazy funfair ride, simply amazing to watch their antics. A Hooded Crow gave good views as did a Peregrine Falcon on a rocky cliff top, always a thrill to see this ultimate raptor. The scenery was as dramatic as the weather and we soon headed for more sheltered spots.

Great Northern Diver Mull 1

We enjoyed wonderful views of a Great Northern Diver in Holyhead Harbour - Birdwatching Trips library photo.

At Holyhead Harbour we had a real run of wonderful luck: first a Common Guillemot showed off just a few feet away, quickly followed by super views of at least six Black Guillemots, and then a fantastic Great Northern Diver popped up incredibly close! Wonderful to have such brilliant views of a Great Northern Diver, we could see every feather detail. Add to this great looks at Shags, Great Crested Grebes, Ruddy Turnstone and Raven and it was simply brilliant. Then a quick stop at Trearddur Bay where we were again very lucky, immediately seeing our target bird: four Purple Sandpipers nice and close allowing frame-filling views of these winter visitors. As we drove towards Valley and Catch 22 Brasserie for our lunch the rain came back after a dry morning. Lunch was brilliant and rounded off with some festive mince pies, we certainly don’t go hungry on our tours! With heavy rain all afternoon, the birding was tough but we did enjoy Chiffchaff and Goldcrest, Skylarks, the first Stonechat for the trip, and some big flocks of Starling heading to roost but the weather prevented a good view of the Starling roost sadly. An impressive 77 species of birds enjoyed.

Siskin on feeder Garten

Lovely views of colourful Siskins on our last morning of the tour - Birdwatching Trips library photo.

Our last morning, Friday 10th December, of our five day tour and the morning started well with another sighting of a Woodcock from a hotel window by Sue and Sherry! The feeder also attracted a lovely Nuthatch to liven up breakfast before we headed off into the uplands. We took a scenic route towards Clocaenog Forest stopping to admire the superb views across to Snowdonia. Reaching Llyn Brenig we made a quick loo stop and checked the bird feeders where a Brambling put in a very brief appearance. Then north to search a clear fell area for a Great Grey Shrike that had been seen recently in the area. We stopped and scanned in the bitter cold, jumped back in the minibus, drove a bit, stopped and scanned but no luck. Then just as we were deciding to head back to the visitor centre to warm up Ruth shouted “shrike!” The bird soon dropped down out of sight but luckily Noreen had managed to get on it straight away. We all scanned the area frantically trying to relocate this elusive bird and it was Ruth who again spotted it. The Great Grey Shrike was on a snag some distance left of where we had first seen it, how did it get over there? Luckily everyone got a quick look at least before the Great Grey Shrike again dropped out of sight. Time for hot drinks and to thaw out at the visitor centre after getting so cold scanning for the shrike. As we walked towards the centre a male Common Crossbill showed off in a bare tree above us – wow! Luckily the centre was out of the wind and in the sunshine, and we could stand outside on the terrace with our hot chocolates while we watched the bird feeder. A Brambling again put in a brief appearance and it was lovely to watch Siskins and Coal Tits in the winter sun. On the way back to the hotel we stopped to watch a magnificent Red Kite in the sunshine, always a real wow bird.

At the hotel we tucked into our lunch before saying goodbye to our lovely guests. But the birdwatching wasn’t quite over: Jon spotted a Jay from the window, amazingly the first for the trip, followed swiftly by a lovely Great Spotted Woodpecker also visiting the bird feeders. We thought that was that and began to say our goodbyes again when Ruth shouted “Kingfisher!” Amazingly from the hotel window she had spotted a Kingfisher on a tree by the river. Even more amazingly this gorgeous bird stayed there for ages allowing everyone a great views, what a way to end five days of wonderful birds. A huge thank you to Andrew, Noreen, Simon, Sherry, Sue and Jon, and all at the Princes Arms Hotel, Trefriw for making this such a fantastic tour.

Some lovely comments from guests on this tour just in...

Andrew - "A great few days and a good group. Thank you for such determined guiding. Highlights for me, the Ruddy Shelduck, a UK first, the Short Eared Owl, Hen Harrier, Great Northern Diver and Chough aerobatics. Look forward to Finland and Norway. Good to have these treats in the diary."

Noreen - "I just wanted to thank you again for an absolutely brill week. I really enjoyed it. It did me the world of good. Roll on Scotland if you don’t suggest anything before that."

Simon "Thanks for your email and a huge thanks for hosting such an excellent bird trip. As well as being incredible birders you are both excellent company and I enjoyed every minute of the trip. It was such a nice group and I agree with you that the fortitude on display was pretty impressive...Thank you once again for a wonderful and memorable trip. It was executed with expert precision but always in a very relaxed and good-humoured manner. And I’m pretty sure that the others enjoyed it as much as I did."

We would love to put together a custom Birdwatching Trips tour perfect for you please just drop us a line and we can do the rest…


We look forward to enjoying great birds and wildlife with you soon.

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