Thanks so much to Geoff Tompkinson for letting me know that there are choughs nesting near Tonfanau. When I wrote my usual post on the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in 2020 I asked if anyone had information on the local choughs.
What, you may ask, is a chough (to rhyme with “rough”? They are an endangered species in the same family as crows, and share the same black plumage, but are easily distinguished by their crimson beaks and red legs, and need cliff-top farmland for nesting and feeding sites. There are only a few hundred pairs still remaining in Wales, and their nesting grounds at Bird Rock (Craig yr Aderyn) are protected.
The great news from Geoff is that there is a pair presently nesting in a hole in the cliffs north of the mouth of the Dysynni at Tonfanau, and that they were also there last year when they successfully raised young. With any luck, they will bring another brood into the world and return in future years.
Last week I had already walked along Tonfanau beach, but was nowhere near ready to go home on such an unexpectedly sunny day. The BBC weather website, which I checked just before I left the house, was promising storms so I had cancelled my plans to go hillfort hunting. Although my walk started out with most of the surrounding hilltops sitting under large clouds, they eventually cleared and the sunshine was glorious. So instead of going back to my car, parked by the Tonfanau footbridge, I turned along the footpath that wends its way along the southern banks of the broadwater and the river Dysynni, and I am so glad I did. By the footbridge there were a couple of families with kayaks, all having a good, peaceful time, and a little further on there was a lady with two small boys swimming between the shore and a sandbank. One of her sons announced with great satisfaction that that the water was “as hot as a bath.” But the further I walked, the emptier it became, and eventually it was just me and the birds. And what a lot of birds there were!
My walk last Tuesday, the only sunny day last week, took me back to Tonfanau. Tonfanau railway station was added to the Cambrian Line to service the Tonfanau Army Camp, which opened in 1938 and was finally closed in 1973 after a 6 month stint as a refugee camp, before being demolished sometime in the 1980s or 90s. The camp extended both sides of the railway line, reaching the beach to the west and spreading part way up a slight slope to the east. I have posted about the camp here. When Tonfanau was at its height as an anti-aircraft training facility, with emplacements of enormous guns along the field at the top of the beach, it would have been anything but a peaceful place to go for a stroll. Today, however, it is probably the most quiet stretch of seaside in the Aberdovey and Tywyn areas.
The reason for the lack of human presence, other than fishermen some way out at sea in waders, is certainly because the beach is uncompromisingly uncomfortable to walk, sit or lie on. Apart from a few isolated islands of sand or gravel, it is a pebble beach running down a shallow slope into a rocky foreshore. Footwear is required. This, together with the complete absence of gift shops, public toilets and ice-cream stalls, makes it undesirable for most families, and there is rarely any more than a handful of people there even at the height of the tourist season. This makes it a very good retreat for sea birds, which line the water’s edge at a very safe distance from anyone who might be walking along the stony beach or investigating the rock pools. Oystercatchers, terns and various types of seagull are all in evidence at this time of year.
The views along the beach are splendid. After the recent heavy rain the Dysynni charges at high speed through a surprisingly narrow mouth into the sea, fascinating to watch, and you can see it and hear its roar on the video at the end of the post. This understated but impressive meeting of the Dysynni with the sea is marked as AberDysynni (mouth of the Dysynni) on the Ordnance Survey map. The sea itself makes a lovely sound on the rocky foreshore and gravel, drawing the gravel back as it retreats, and colliding with the rocks as it advances. Above the sound of the sea and wind are the musical voices of sea birds. As you walk along it, the beach curves around a long corner promising more of the same untroubled vistas over an empty beach, rolling white horses and, in the distance, the Llyn peninsula. Behind the beach, looking east, are views of the major summits of Tonfanau and Foel Llanfendigaid, as well as the smooth green slopes of the hills between them.
I started out walking along the top of the small “cliff” that runs along the top of the beach. It is only a couple of feet wide, drops only about eight foot or so above the beach below and stops where the publicly accessible land meets the fence of a farmer’s field after about 10 minutes of walking. It offers a terrific view down onto the beach, there are always some interesting wild flowers, and it is well worth doing if you are sure of your footing.
I then executed a controlled skid down a bit of the “cliff” that had collapsed into a sloping mound of earth, a quick way down onto the beach, and headed for the rocks. The lush green seaweed is glossy and lustrous, a great contrast to the darkness of the rocks in the bright sun. The overall effect was delightful. Water trickles through the multiple channels formed by the rocks, crossing the glistening gravel in a way that is quite unlike the sea flowing through channels in the sand at Aberdovey.
Someone has been having fun making pebble patterns in the sand and fields. Like most abstract compositions, it gives a curious sensation of something clearly created in the present taking on the character of something completely timeless.
Yellow Horned-Poppy (Glaucium flavum)
Small-spotted catshark eggcase (Scyliorhinus canicula), one of the smallest of all the mermaid’s purses. There were two of them, one right at the top of the beach and the other in the field behind the beach. They are so lightweight when empty that they travel on the wind. For details on the subject of eggcases and the Shark Trust, see my earlier post. The photos of the two eggcases have been uploaded to the Shark Trust Great Eggcase Hunt page.
I walked out onto a spur of sand to watch the oystercatchers, getting as near as I dared. Unlike the video that I posted the other day, when what they were mainly concerned with was preening, today they were actually hunting for food and treating shells to merciless beak treatment. Trying to get a little closer I scared them into flight, and they congregated a little distance off on a few rocks, looking very striking.
Oystercatchers at work
I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder, so the following video is not quite as steady as it might have been, but don’t miss out on the oystercatchers. They are sublime. The fast-moving water coming out of the Dysynni and churning into the sea is also truly impressive. The Dysynni originates in Tal y Llyn lake, makes an abrupt turn northwest at Abergynolwyn and then resumes a parallel course to the Tal y Llyn valley in the neighbouring valley. It passes the Ynysymaengwyn estate, finding its way through extensive reed beds, and emerges into the Broadwater, making its way around the low sandbanks before being funneled into the narrow channel into the sea.
After walking up Tonfanau to see the Iron Age hillfort I went along the road to Tonfanau station, crossed the tracks and passed part of the old military camp to go down to the pebble beach. It is an excellent place for watching the oyster catchers, and I was lucky to find some pottering around at the water’s edge, amongst the small rocks. Oystercatchers are lovely to look at. Their bright orange beak and pink legs make them stand out from any background, whilst their black and white plumage is particularly distinctive when the birds are in flight. They make a piercing peeping sound, which can be heard here on the British Birdsongs website. Oystercatchers feed on molluscs that the find on rocky shorelines, which they open by stabbing the sharp beak through linking muscles, and then hitting on stones and rocks to break them up, sometimes audibly. The video below shows a pair of them on the beach at Tonfanau. Duration: 1 minute, 33 seconds.
Due to the difficulty of walking on pebbles and the discomfort of lying on them, together with the rocky approach to the sea that challenges bare feet, there are rarely many other people there. Whilst Aberdovey was simply packed, there were only a handful of people along that stretch of the sea, two of them fishing in waders, quite a long way out. Walking back to the Tonfanau bridge over the Dysynni as it opens out into the sea, the path is flanked either side with verges full of wild flowers at the moment.
I caught sight of this broken egg shell when I was checking my back lawn for stones and large twigs prior to mowing. Quite what it was doing in the middle of my lawn I have no idea, but it is beautiful, with a remarkable set of muted colours. I had never seen one before. It took me a while of following hyperlinks (most of which were about eating gulls’ eggs) before I found an explanation of how the colours are formed, on the All About Birds website in an article by Pat Leonard entitled The Beauty and Biology of Egg Colour:
An egg’s story begins in a female bird’s single ovary. When an ovum is released into the oviduct and fertilized, it is just a protein-packed yolk. The albumen—the gelatinous egg white—is added next. The blobby mass then gets plumped up with water and encased in soft, stretchy membrane layers. The first globs of the calcium carbonate shell are then deposited on the exterior, with the mineral squirting from special cells lining the shell gland (uterus). Pigmentation, if any, comes next, with an overall protein coating added before the egg is laid. It takes about 24 hours to build a single egg.
In his book, The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, University of Sheffield zoologist Tim Birkhead compares the pigmentation process to an array of “paint guns.” Each gun is genetically programmed to fire at a certain time so that the signature background color and spotting of a species’ eggs is produced.
“Examination of birds’ oviducts at the time the color is placed on the egg suggests that the color is produced and released over a very short time frame,” Birkhead says, “usually in the last few hours before the egg is laid, and that makes it very hard to study.”
Despite the variety of egg colors and patterns, the palette is surprisingly small. Egg pigments are versatile substances made of complex molecules synthesized in a bird’s shell gland. Only two pigments are at work. Protoporphyrin produces reddish-brown colors. Biliverdin produces shades of blue and green. More of one pigment, less of the other, and the egg gets a different background color, spots of a different color, or a combination of both.
The speckling is thought to be camouflage, to disguise the egg and hide it from potential predators, and is common to nearly all foreshore birds.
There is loads more truly fascinating information in the article. Did you know, for example, that an egg loses 18 percent of its mass, on average, between laying and hatching, mostly from water loss through shell pores. Or that up to 10 percent of the calcium used for shell formation can come from the female’s bones. The article is well written and is well worth reading, so if you have a moment do go and have a look.
Yesterday’s walk along the beach was extraordinary. I had intended to park by the cemetery, but by accident parked opposite the row of houses at the foot of the road from the Trefeddian Hotel, crossed the golf course and emerged from the dunes at the Second World War pillbox. The sun was hazy and incredibly pale, but at the same time reflected off the wet sand, creating some beautiful colour and light combinations. I walked for far longer than intended, and it nearly became a case of walking into Tywyn and getting a bus or taxi back to my car! Instead I retraced my steps, and because of the light it was like doing an entirely different walk. It was lovely to see a pair of oyster catchers, obstinately refusing to do anything other than stand, preening in the sun! They are in the video at the end of this post.
I was so lucky this afternoon to see two wonderful oystercatchers on the foreshore. I was on the members’ terrace of the Literary Institute (I promise that I am a member and wasn’t trespassing!) and heard a high-pitched peeping noise coming from below. And there they were. Squinting into the sun, I suddenly saw two absolutely perfect little waders rushing around on their spindly pink legs picking up mussels from amongst the seaweed and bashing them with their long, strong orange beaks against the stones. You can hear the peeping and bashing noises on the video below. The camcorder did a remarkably good job, given that I was shooting straight into the sun. Oystercatchers also target cockles, limpets, small crabs and shrimps, all of which are available in the area. Although oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) are common on coasts, and I have seen them at the mouth of the Dysynni, I have never seen one at Aberdovey before. I was utterly charmed. Wonderful to watch and to listen to them. When they took off, startled by some people walking along the foreshore, the lovely white streaks against the black of their wings were clearly visible.