Back at South Stack: choughs and puffins

A week after walking at South Stack, the cliffs near Holyhead on Anglesey, I’m back again, this time with birdwatching friends armed with bins and a scope.  And we hit pay dirt: a spectacular display ten feet from where we stand of a fledging chough beating up its parents for food, and, through the telescope, my first-ever sight of puffins, pottering about outside a burrow on the cliffs.

Though R and I had seen choughs before, wheeling above cliffs in Pembrokeshire, the chough is a rare British bird and it is even more rare thing to see such a piece of distinctive  behaviour  close up for several minutes. These are crops from photos I managed to snatch on my pocket camera – not wonderful, but they do capture the aggressive performance of the young chough (though not the bombardment of cries that accompanied it):

This is a considerably better photo of a chough taken at South Stack by Jim Almond from his Shropshire Birder website:

There are estimated to be only 450 or so breeding pairs of choughs in the UK – mainly in Wales.  The RSPB site states that:

The female lays 3-5 eggs at 1-3 day intervals in April. The female broods the young almost continuously for the first two weeks with the male supplying all the food. Both adults bring food later. The young are fed on regurgitated food consisting of a variety of insect matter, especially ants.

The young fly at 6-7 weeks of age. They are able to feed themselves three weeks later, but remain with their parents for a further 1-2 weeks. Once the young are independent, they join a flock of other immature birds, sometimes many miles from their birth place. They only leave the flock when ready to breed themselves. There are occasional reports of a helper at the nest of an established pair.

The first six months after fledging are dangerous for the young birds, and many of them perish. The birds reach maturity and breed for the first time when they are between two and four years old. Birds that get this far can expect to live for a further three years.

This red-legged, red-billed member of the crow family earned itself the name ‘Cornish chough’ because of its close association with the county for several hundred years.  But, for various reasons by the mid-20th century the chough had virtually disappeared from the county.  The RSPB site records the end:

The year 1947 saw the last successful nesting attempt in Cornwall. An ageing pair of choughs lived near Newquay between 1960–1967 but one of the pair was found dead in March 1967. Its partner patrolled the cliffs alone until 1973 when it too, the last of the Cornish choughs, was seen no more.

Chough was originally the alternative onomatopoeic name for the jackdaw, based on its call. The similar red-billed species, became known initially as Cornish chough and then just chough.  It’s called chova in Spanish , but Crave a bec rouge in French, while to the Dutch they’re Alpenkraai and for the Germans Alpenkrahe.

There was more excitement as we descended the steps to South Stack lighthouse. There were already birders of several nationalities gathered, staring intently at the cliff face opposite.  We learned that, in amongst the thousands of razorbills and guillemots, there were a very few puffins to be seen.

Through the telescope we were able to get a really good view of two or three puffins poking around outside a burrow halfway down the cliff face.  My camera did not have a long enough lens to capture the scene – these photos of puffins, razorbills and guillemots at South Stack were taken by Dave Cullen:

Funnily enough, although R and I had never seen a puffin before, they are much more common birds than choughs – the RSPB estimates there are over 580,000 breeding pairs around the UK coasts. You don’t need to be an ornithologist to recognise a puffin – its colourful and slightly clown-like appearance is well known.

The puffin’s short wings are used for ‘flying’ underwater in search of fish; large wings would be a disadvantage but small wings make flying in air rather more difficult and the birds must beat their wings rapidly to stay aloft.  Puffins spend the winter far out to sea and return to their nesting sites in April, gradually building up in numbers as the egg laying season approaches. They nest underground in burrows, preferring nest-sites close to the cliff-top since the parent birds can come in quickly and then escape again to sea, giving predatory gulls the minimum chance to attack them.

Both parents bring food to the chicks – the commonest item being sandeels, which the parents catch by diving.  Probably the commonest image of a puffin is of the bird with its beak stuffed with sandeels:

Recently there has been concern that a decline in puffin numbers is attributable to a decline in the sand eel population due to intensive fishing, often to produce feed for salmon farms.  The RSPB is campaigning for the protection of sandeel populations.

Towards the end of July, when the chicks are ready to leave, they are still not fully-grown but can fly reasonably well.  However, they are still vulnerable to attacks by predatory gulls, so they leave at night, working their way down to the cliff-edge and taking off in the darkness. They go by themselves and are out of sight of land by day-break. Thereafter, they are on their own and receive no further parental care.

As the sun set over a glistening sea, we turned and headed for home, stopping for fish and chips in Holyhead before we returned to the A55.

On the last leg of the journey back to Liverpool we called for a pint at the Wheatsheaf Inn, hidden deep in the heart of the Wirral countryside at Raby.  It’s a 16th century thatched inn that has been a watering hole for nearly 400 years and has a reputation for its wide range of well-kept ales. There are nine to choose from, including the award winning Trappers Hat from Brimstage Brewery on the Wirral.


Holyhead before the ferry

This is the view looking across Anglesey from South Stack towards the distant mountains of Snowdonia.  While waiting to pick up R from the ferry after an Irish ancestry expedition, I took a walk along the cliffs in the South Stack RSPB reserve above Holyhead on an afternoon of hot sun and glorious views.

It’s a breathtaking place. The sheer cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds in summer, and there were plenty of birdwatchers about, armed with formidable telescopes and binoculars. High on the cliffs is Ellin’s Tower (below), built in 1868 as a summer-house and restored in the 1980s as an RSPB visitor centre where birdwatchers come to see puffins, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills.

Further along, 400 steps lead down to South Stacks lighthouse, and though its a steep climb back up, it’s worth making the descent for two reasons.  Firstly, because you can look back at the cliffs it provides superb bird watching opportunities: at every turn of the stairs there were men and women with telescopes focussed on the birds nesting  on the cliff ledges opposite.  One was kind enough to let me take a look: I saw razorbills, guillemots and gulls feeding their young, but, disappointingly, no puffins.

The razorbills spend winter out in the Irish Sea and come to the cliffs in May to  lay eggs.  They are smart looking black and white birds with a distinctive white stripe on their beak.   They stay here until mid July rearing their chicks, and then, even though they can’t yet fly, the chicks  jump off the cliffs at dusk and land in the sea. Their parents escort them out to sea where their wings will grow, and where they will be taught how to dive for fish. Guillemots are similar to razorbills, and like the razorbills, they winter are out at sea and then return in spring to nest. They only have one egg, and take it in turns to go out to sea to catch food. Guillemots mainly eat sand eels, and are fantastic at diving.

The second reason for descending the steps to South Stack lighthouse is to see the remarkable folding in the cliff face. These cliffs contain some of the oldest rocks in Wales, dating back nearly 600 million years to the Precambrian period. The extensive folds in the cliff face are evidence of the gigantic earth movements and forces that have shaped Wales. The layering of different materials making up the rocks is clearly visible (below). The sandstone (brown-orange) and mudstone (lighter grey) layers have acted differently as they’ve been folded.

South Stack lighthouse has warned passing ships of the treacherous rocks below since its completion in 1809. It was designed to allow safe passage for ships on the treacherous Dublin-Holyhead-Liverpool sea route. It provides the first beacon along the north coast of Anglesey for east-bound ships.

I walked further along the coast path – passing a radio station, an old look-out and a series of freshwater pools – before looping back to the RSPB’s South Stack cafe for a mug of tea.  Walking in this direction, the views towards the peaks of Snowdonia were stunning.

Afterwards, dropping down into Holyhead to wait for the ferry, I wondered what this place had been like before the ferry crossing to Ireland was established.  I imagined that, before Thomas Telford’s post road and the railway arrived in the 19th century there had been no settlement here.  In fact, there has been a settlement here for millenia.  The Romans built a watchtower at the top of Holyhead Mountain.  But they weren’t the first here.  They built their watchtower inside Mynydd y Twr, a prehistoric hillfort. And there is archaeological evidence that people have been sailing between Holyhead and Ireland for 4,000 years.

Today, the Port of Holyhead is still a busy ferry port handling more than 2 million passengers each year. Stena Line, Europe’s biggest ferry company, operates from the port which remains the principal link for surface transport from central England and Wales to Ireland.