The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 718/Further Notes from Lleyn, West Carnarvonshire, Aplin

Further Notes from Lleyn, West Carnarvonshire  (1901) 
by Oliver Vernon Aplin


By O.V. Aplin, F.L.S.

When staying in Wales last May (1900) I paid a short visit to Lleyn, while the gorse blossom was in its glory, the high turf banks still studded with primroses, and the plantations in their tenderest green, and often blue underfoot with bluebells. But during my stay Lleyn was wind-swept even more than it usually is, strong N. and N.N.E. winds only giving way (with about twelve hours interval) to half a gale from S.W.Some luxuriant hanging woods near the foot of Rhiw, at the north-west corner of Hell's Mouth, skirted by about the longest and steepest hill-road I ever saw in this country, was so wind-tossed that I gave up the attempt to listen for Warblers, though the strong song of the Chaffinch rang out from time to time. This state of the weather naturally interfered with my pursuits to some extent. But as it did not prevent me from hearing almost all the small birds I had previously noticed,[1] I do not think it would have hindered me from observing those woodland species of which I was especially in search had they been present. The plantations at Nanhoran were indeed, from their position, fairly well sheltered. But though Wood-Wrens, Willow-Wrens, Chiffchaffs, Whitethroats, Chaffinches, &c., were almost constantly in song about the edges of the belts of wood, I could not find the birds I was looking for. The Green Woodpecker was noticed again—on four occasions—and I think may be considered fairly common; but I have not yet identified the Pied Woodpecker, which I have seen in the Merionethshire woods. I again failed to see or hear (in the western part of Lleyn) the Redstart, Blackcap, Garden-Warbler, Tree Sparrow, Ray's Wagtail, Nuthatch, and Lesser Whitethroat. With regard to the last-named bird, I think Mr. T.A. Coward's nest may have belonged to a pair which had accidentally wandered to the district (vide 'Zoologist,' 1893, p. 395), for I could not find the bird even in Merionethshire (where the Blackcap and Garden-Warbler were fairly common); and a good resident observer told me that it was not found there. Ray's Wagtail, too, is almost unknown in parts, at all events, of Merionethshire. I visited Carn Fadryn again in a vain search for the Twite. But so furious a gale had arisen by the time I reached the mountain, that I had great difficulty in keeping on my legs when at the top; so I do not think I proved anything either way. But the Twite seems very local in North Wales. I did not meet with it in the mountains between Dolgelly and the coast, which I walked over. The only small bird I added to my list of Lleyn birds is the Reed-Warbler. One of these birds was singing, every time I visited the spot, in some tall reeds of the previous year's growth in the marsh at Abersoch. Only once (on the one calm evening I enjoyed) did he show himself. Being cut off from the spot he constantly haunted by a broad deep drain, I could only make out a river Warbler, plain brown above and paler beneath. But the leisurely song was quite characteristic, and I think unmistakable. The bird's habits, too, contrasted strongly with those of the restless Sedge-Warblers around. For even on a morning when the reeds were rudely wind-shaken, and the Reed-Warbler sang, concealed from view, from one and the same place for half an hour, the Sedge-Warblers were always on the move, showing themselves continually, and every now and then, as is their wont, dancing up into the air to sing on the wing.

The only other bird I added to my list is the Common Sandpiper. One was running on the shore, left bare by the tide, on the east side of Pen Cilan on the 18th; and before breakfast the next morning there were several at the mouth of the Afon Soch and a little way up the stream. They were very lively. One was singing (the bright spring notes and trills really amount to a song) very gaily, and even mounting up into the air to sing. I watched a pair of Nightjars (birds which I had not previously met with myself in Lleyn) one evening among the big sand-hills at Abersoch, uttering their "gwik," clapping their wings, and occasionally "turring." Another bird new to me there was the Common Tern, one of which was fishing in Abersoch Bay on the 23rd. This year I saw three pairs of Lesser Terns in the bay. Dr. Dobie told me he heard a Grasshopper-Warbler near Llanbedrog on the night of the 18th. I saw a Grey Wagtail about the stream which runs through Aberdaron, which is, I suppose, as far west in Carnarvonshire as the bird would be met with in summer. It is only the second time I have met with it in Lleyn. Stonechats were common; but I saw no Whinchats this year. Corn-Crakes were not quite so common as in the previous year. The Blackbird is certainly remarkably abundant in Lleyn, far more so than the Song-Thrush. I saw Mistle-Thrushes several times, and heard one singing as late as the 22nd. Robins are tiresomely abundant in a place where you think it your duty to put the glass on almost every small bird you see. Possibly they do not migrate in autumn from this mild land, and so do not suffer any losses on passage; and of course there is no hard weather to cut them off in the winter. I saw Goldfinches again, and Spotted Flycatchers several times. Unfortunately when I revisited the spot where I had found the Cirl-Bunting the year before the rain was coming down heavily, and though I lingered about for half an hour, I saw and heard nothing of it. One evening as I was walking along Penrhyn Du, brilliantly lighted up with cushions of gorse, blooming as it never blooms in bleak Oxfordshire, I saw a beautiful adult male Merlin flying along the slope just above the sea, and not far below me. As this cliff is many miles from where I saw one the previous year, the Merlin may be not very uncommon. I was glad to see Choughs (four pairs) in their old haunts. Two pairs walking about on a steep grassy slope, varied by gorse and heather, made up a picture to delight the eye of a naturalist. In the bright sunshine the glossy purple-black of their plumage and their red beaks showed up well against the green background. They were feeding and occasionally preening their feathers. Choughs are very affectionate birds. The individuals of the respective pairs kept close together, and I saw one pair fondling one another with their bills. Every now and then one would call "k'chare"—a short note. When feeding they pecked quickly at something among the grass, apparently picking up insects; or they poked their bills into the ground or tufts of herbage. Several times while I watched them, one flew up and perched on a low wall separating the cliff from the fields, called "k'chare," and looked about it; then rejoined its mate. Presently they all rose, flipped over the wall, and settled again to feed in a sheep pasture. I do not know what was the state of these birds' domestic arrangements, but they evidently had not got young; and their leisurely behaviour was very different from that of the busy pushful Jackdaws, which in a constant stream came up over a sheer cliff-edge and made their way to the fields, while a persistent succession of returning birds dropped into space and, wheeling round, made for the cliff-face. The numbers of Jackdaws breeding along this coast is astonishing, both here and in other parts of North Wales. Anyone watching the ways of the gentle Choughs must, I think, have the sad conviction forced upon them that these birds are not of the fittest to survive. Some Pigeons haunting the cliffs near the end of Pen Cilan, in company with Stock-Doves, were merely domestic Pigeons gone wild; they had no white on their backs. Trwyn Cilan is a magnificent headland, rising to a height of upwards of three hundred feet. At one spot is a grand perpendicular cliff-face, formed by a landslip, of nearly horizontal strata. It is somewhat irregular of outline, and slopes up from the east until it attains its height, and then merges into the long grassy gorse-dotted slope of the headland which has not slipped. At the foot of the cliff the mass of fallen rock and earth, which fell long ago, forms a steep green gorsy slope. The cliff-face is much weather-stained, grey-green in places with long hanging lichen, or brilliantly green with ivy, and brightened with a few patches of pink thrift and white sea-campion. Facing about south-east this cliff and undercliff afford a warm and sheltered spot for birds. A few Herring-Gulls and many Jackdaws were breeding; some Wheatears flitted about, and Rock-Pipits were pretty common. At the top the seaward slopes here, as elsewhere along this coast, were in some places coloured a pale grey-blue, so thickly did the beautiful little Scilla verna stud the turf. I found several plants bearing white flowers, and one with the blossoms white faintly tinged with pink. In more broken ground this delicate squill, thickly mingled with dwarf examples of dark blue Scilla nutans, produced a breadth of blended colour which would have called forth the admiration of the planter of the most formal bulb-beds. Herring-Gulls breed here and there all along the range of cliffs from Pistyll Cim to Hell's Mouth, as well as on the islands off the coast. We found three eggs in a nest on St. Tudwal's, and a bend in the cliffs near Trwyn Cilan enabled me to drive a bird off her nest, also containing three eggs, which she was loth to leave on account, probably, of the Jackdaws; but with these exceptions I only saw two eggs in any nest in the third week in May. On the west side of Pen Cilan rows of Shags sat on some long ledges, overhung with rock, in the lower part of the cliff. Cormorants, the adults easily distinguished a long way off by the white thigh patch, also resort to the cliffs; but the Shag is much the commoner species. In the caves of St. Tudwal's Island two Shags were sitting on their nests. One was not very high up. She was very savage, and, partly at us and partly at a Razorbill just below her, made savage demonstrations, opening her beak and showing her yellow mouth, and wagging her head violently, making the while a low angry croaking cry. She showed not the least sign of fear, and did not leave her nest, although we were not far from her. But the nest was quite safe, as it could only have been reached with the aid of a long ladder. Another was rather high up, and quite at the mouth of the cave. When at the top of the island we could see down into this large nest, made of seaweed, dead herbage, and a few large dead plant-stems as thick as one's finger. The single egg it contained lay quite at the edge of the nest. The bird had to be gently pelted, and actually hit by a small stone before she would leave the shelf. We saw there a grand old Cormorant, and some others, besides more Shags. Kittiwakes breed in some numbers at Cilan, but had not, I believe, begun to lay. Quite a flock of them sat on the sea a little way off shore, and every now and then a chorus of their curious cries broke out. I saw only one Lesser Black-backed Gull there. This species does not seem to be at all common in Lleyn in summer. An Oystercatcher's nest on Mercrosse had three eggs on May 15th. A few breed on the islands, and they are fairly common round the coast. There must be something very attractive about the shelving rocks on the east side of St. Tudwal's to the Purple Sandpiper. I have already recorded two occurrences of this bird there in May, and I can now add another. On the 19th, as we backed our boat into one of the caves, we came within a couple of yards of a Purple Sandpiper on a shelf of rock. It was not in adult plumage, and had light-coloured feather edges. The entrance to this cave is narrow, and the bird could not make up its mind to pass us; so it remained where it was, shuffling its feet and shifting about uneasily. At last, when we came further in, it flew to a ledge on the other side of the cave, and then, as we landed on a shelf, slipped by us and darted out, being joined outside by another, which we had not noticed before. It had a pretty little twittering cry.

Puffins, on account of the constant bad weather, were very late in coming to the land in 1900. On May 17th I could see them, with a glass, sitting as thick as flies on parts of St. Tudwal's Island, but they had only that day returned to the island, having been away for five days because of the bad weather. Two days later, when I landed on the islands, the Puffins were in numbers on the land, and as I walked over the warrens many came out of their burrows, where they were very busy. One came out in such a hurry that it went head over heels down the slope. Grating cries of arrr and orrr came from below, probably from mating or quarrelling birds, and occasionally I heard a cry from birds sitting on the sea. I got my hand to the end of a lot of burrows, and caught several birds—once two in the same hole—but found no eggs, and only once some nest materials. Birds could be heard hard at work scratching in the burrows. Bearing in mind the statement that a Puffin underground will take hold of the hand introduced into the burrow, and suffer itself to be drawn out rather than let go, I gave several birds an opportunity of doing this; but, although I persistently fumbled my fingers about their beaks, I could not induce one to take hold. An experienced man, however, told me that the birds are much more savage, and "bite" better when they have young, or are sitting hard (but I have pulled out more than one sitting bird without getting bitten); otherwise I should have thought that possibly they did not bite much in the dark. For at all times, when they have been pulled out into the open, they bite, or try to bite, savagely, and scratch too, inflicting surprisingly severe wounds in the latter way. The Rabbits here (which are numerous and tame) are not at all afraid of the Puffins. As I sat at lunch close to a crowd of Puffins outside the burrows, I saw several young and old Rabbits come out and sit about among them. A dead Puffin, fresh and bleeding and half-eaten, had probably fallen a victim to an immature Great Black-backed Gull which was flying about, and a young Rabbit had doubtless shared the same fate. The Peregrine is now only an occasional visitor, but I have seen two eggs (from a clutch of four) which were taken in the cliff in 1885. When I was writing the article on the Puffin in 'British Birds, their Nests and Eggs,' and treating of the attitude of this species when on the land, my personal experience of the Puffin at its breeding stations had been gained in situations where it was difficult to get close to the birds. And, while I was convinced that the Puffin could and did stand on its feet (as distinguished from the foot and tarsus), I retained an impression that I had seen the Puffin resting on its foot and tarsus. Also I could hardly avoid being influenced by the very positive and definite statements in support of the latter attitude (when the bird was standing still, at all events) to be found in the standard works on ornithology,[2] and by the numerous figures of the bird which I had seen.[3] I was therefore obliged, in the work mentioned above, to confine myself to a qualified statement on the subject. Last year, on looking over my notes, I found that I had written down no exact statement bearing on the matter; but, feeling more and more dissatisfied with the generally expressed view of the Puffin's attitude on land, I paid especial attention to the point during my visit to Lleyn. In addition to several less prolonged observations, I sat to eat my lunch and smoke a pipe within from ten to fifteen yards of a lot of Puffins sitting on a slope covered partly with very short turf and sea-pink, and riddled with burrows. There is of course no doubt that when standing still in its ordinary attitude the Puffin stands on its foot (commonly speaking) alone, and not on its foot and tarsus. In point of fact, the tarsus is frequently not far short of upright, i.e. the back of the tarsus forms a very large angle, although not quite a right angle, with the ground the Puffin stands on, if that ground is level. But the angle of the tarsus with the ground varies considerably, as also does the angle of the line of the bird's body and the ground; but, roughly speaking, the tarsus is far more nearly upright than horizontal. It is possible that if Puffins are seen which seem to be, for the moment, resting on the tarsus, they are birds which have paused in the act of raising themselves from a recumbent position. In no other way can I account for the impression that I had acquired. I noticed many Puffins among the crowd which were sitting about their burrows lying down on their breasts like Ducks, and basking in the warm sunshine. But the Puffin undoubtedly walks and stands on its feet alone, and not on its feet and tarsi like a Guillemot. St. Tudwal's Islands have long been celebrated locally for their Puffins. The Rev. William Bingley, who in the summer of 1798 sailed round the coast from Carnarvon to Pwllheli, and, after vainly attempting to land on Bardsey Island, sighted these islands, records that a considerable sum of money was annually made of them as Puffin-warrens. The same author remarks on the variety of Sea-fowl inhabiting the cliffs of Lleyn, and adds that in one part he could observe some hundreds of Martins flitting along the black cliffs and caverns in pursuit of flies and other insects for their young. These were possibly Sand-Martins, which are now remarkably common in some places.

Like Bingley, I was prevented by stormy weather from getting to Bardsey Island; but on May 16th, with the aid of four strong rowers, I got out to Ynys Gwylan fawr and Ynys Gwylan fâch. These "Gull Islands" are formed of the same hard rock as the point off which they lie. On the east the sides are formed of broken step-like jagged rock, up which you climb or walk, if you find the right place. The larger island carries fair grass on the top, with a quantity of sea-pink and scurvy-grass (Cochlearia). In the middle is a rocky peak. There were a good many Puffin-holes, and a good many birds, with some Guillemots and Razorbills, sat on the sea; but there were none ashore, being unusually late on account of the stormy weather. Many Herring-Gulls were breeding, and I found a number of nests placed on shelves and in hollows among the rocks, usually, but not always, where there was a little peaty soil, turf, and thrift. Other nests were in the turf at the edge of the rocks. The nests were made of dead grass, scurvy-grass, thrift, &c. The amount of the material depended on the situation of the nest. When in the turf or thrift only a small quantity was present, and the nest consisted merely of a depression with a slight lining; but in rocky places the cup was substantially built. When the nests were in sloping places the lower side was well banked up with material, a large clump of sea-pink being used sometimes for this purpose. One nest on the bare rock was formed entirely of dead stalks of scurvy-grass. I found no more than two eggs in any nest. One egg found in a nest on the top of the island near the edge of the flat part seemed from its size to belong to the Great Black-backed Gull (though it was somewhat small for this); but, though one of these grand birds hung in the wind with a crowd of Herring-Gulls, I could not ascertain if the egg belonged to it. There were many Oystercatchers about, and some Rock-Pipits, and one Shag left the rocks. A Cormorant came round the boat as we left the islands. The wind was so violent that it was not easy to stand upright on the top of the island, and it was impossible to examine the west side of the islands from the boat; so I could not tell exactly what birds there were, and I probably overlooked some. I picked up the bleached skull of a Weasel on this island. The top of the outer island is covered almost entirely with scurvy-grass, with a lot of sea-pink round the edges. Many Herring-Gulls were breeding on it. One pair of Great Blackbacked Gulls hung in the wind over their nest, uttering a low deep "cag-cag-cag." The nest was quite by itself, away from those of the Herring-Gulls, in the middle of the highest part of the flat top, among the scurvy-grass. It was a cup-shaped hollow, shallow, but well shaped, and had a fair amount of materials, consisting of dead herbage. Two beautifully-marked eggs had been laid. A stray Curlew went away with its rippling whistle. The weather was so bad, and the men seemed so anxious to get away, that I could not examine the island properly. As it was, we had hard work to get back to Aberdaron, and got very wet before we landed opposite the little Norman church, which has sheltered so many weatherbound pilgrims, with its sunny yard lying on a steep green slope facing the south. The old church is so near the shore that in wild storms the sea heats against the churchyard-wall, and the spray flies right over the double-isled church, and on to the houses beyond. The Manx Shearwater breeds within the confines of Lleyn; on Bardsey Island, for instance, whence two birds were afterwards sent to me by a man who had mistaken my instructions. But I had the pleasure of liberating them in Abersoch harbour, and of seeing them go safely out to sea with their easy ghostly flight. Moreover, I found two birds on another island, in their burrows with their eggs. The burrows were in a steep grassy slope immediately over a much steeper rock falling to the sea; so that the birds on emerging could easily take wing. The holes were about five feet deep, and turned, shortly after entering the ground, sharply to the left, and ran parallel to the shore. At the end of each burrow was a mass of short dead grass mixed with bits of Shearwater down, forming a nest; but whether this material was collected by the Shearwaters or by Rabbits before the former took possession, I cannot say. The birds bit hard and savagely, and also scratched; and, armed as they are with a hard and sharp curved end to their bills, and very sharp claws, I should think they were quite capable of making it unpleasant for a Rabbit. I put a bird down on the glassy slope, and found that it rose fairly well. As it went away, low over a quiet sea, the narrow wings flapped with slight and easy strokes, which were continuous as far as I could see the bird. It was quite a different style of flight from that pursued by the Shearwater when seeking for food, viz. a few flaps and then a glide on outstretched wings. I took the opportunity of noting down the following description of the soft parts:—Tarsus and part of toes pink; the back of it from the heel down to the upper joint of the toes, the whole of the outer toe and two spots on the inner and middle toes (upper surface), the edges of the web, and nearly all the under surface of the web and toes, blackish. Claws dark horn or blackish. Inside of mouth pale flesh-colour. Lower mandible, save edge and tip, light bluish horn, the rest and the upper mandible dark horn. Iris dark brown.

  1. Cf. 'Zoologist,' 1900, p. 489.
  2. Yarrell's 'British Birds,' and Seebohm's 'British Birds.'
  3. Although photography has made known the real attitude of the Puffin on land, very little notice has been taken of the erroneous way in which it has been represented. The Puffin is wrongly represented in Yarrell; Wood's 'Natural History'; Morris's 'British Birds'; Bewick; Mudie (Feathered Tribes); Gould's Birds of Europe'; Booth's 'Rough Notes'; and 'British Birds, their Nests and Eggs' (1898). It is correctly delineated in Lord Lilford's plate, and in Willughby's 'Ornithology' the Puffin is figured with the tarsi off the ground.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1922, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 99 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.