My home patch: The Gap
I thought it might be interesting to share some information on various ‘patches’ here in the beautiful seaside town of Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast, where the majority of my photographs are taken.
This particular patch centres around a small tidal inlet fed the local river Rheidol as it’s flows out into Cardigan Bay. The area is known by many locals as ‘the gap’ and has turned out to be quite a hotspot for my photography. It is also by far my most frequently visited as I only have to venture a few meters from my home!
Empty of water at low tide
A similar vantage point as the tide rises
Usually cluttered with many tethered boats – some in various states of disrepair – the area does not at first glance look like a great wildlife habitat. Looks are deceiving however, and having lived beside this bay for several years now, it has surprised me with just how much bird life there is to be found here.
Meeting the locals!
Whilst some species live and breed here year round, others are seasonal visitors or simply passers by, taking advantage of the food and shelter the bay provides.
Life here is very much dictated by the ebb and flow of the tide. At high water the inlet fills with as much as 6 meters of water, and many waterfowl swim through the entrance between the two seawalls to feed and rest in the sheltered water.
A pair of Mute Swans occupy a territory comprised of both ‘the gap’ and a large stretch of the river Rheidol which they regularly patrol.
The stretch of Rheidol river which runs alongside the gap. The swans can often be seen resting on the silt banks at low tide.
I have been lucky enough to watch this same pair raise many cygnets here successfully over the years, observing the entire life cycle staring from the adults mating in spring, to the arrival of the tiny, fragile cygnets in summer and their rapid growth and development until they gain their independence in the winter.
The mute swans with their sole surviving cygnet in 2016
The swan pair are often accompanied by a Canada goose with whom they share an unusual bond and the trio have been a feature of many blog posts.
Cygnet and canada goose
The mallards are perhaps the most common occupants of the area. By being able to see them on such a regular basis and at different times of year I have been able to witness some interesting aspects of their lives and behaviour.
From the perils of the mating season and raising their tiny ducklings to their annual moult and flamboyant breeding displays, they have proved that mallards are anything but boring!
Mallard duckling flapping it’s tiny wings
Clashing mallard drakes
Goosander are another species of duck, seen fairly regularly, usually fishing among the rapid waters washing over the rocks as the tide retreats. They often breed here although photographing them and their youngsters can be difficult as they are rather shy birds.
Goosander mother (far right) with 5 ducklings
Cormorants rarely enter the gap itself but can be seen almost daily, swimming and fishing in the river mouth, and resting on the wooden jetties with their wings spread in typical cormorant pose.
Cormorant in bright sunshine
When the tide retreats the mudflat is revealed providing a rich source of food for a new cast of characters. Hungry waders soon appear such as turnstones and the occasional plover and sandpiper, probing the mud with their specialised beaks to find their invertebrate prey.
A turnstone flipping over rocks to search for food
The mud provides not only a home for invertebrates, which birds can feed on but also a material with which to build a nest. It is this mud which encourages the return of the House Martins to our little corner of Aberystwyth, at the start of each summer.
They build their mud pellet nests on the eaves of the houses facing out over the water. This habitat also supplies them with a source of tiny flying insects to feed themselves and their young.
House martins collecting mud for their nests from the harbour bottom.
As the tide waxes and wanes it inevitably brings with it rafts of seaweed and flotsam, depositing this on the shoreline once the water has retreated. These mounds of seaweed and vegetation often conceal insect larvae and seeds hidden within which attract yet more life down on this little patch.
Wagtails (pied and occasionally the more colourful grey) frequent the tide line, darting across the ground snatching small insects from the air and from among the debris. Being so light and nimble, they will often forage on the surface of the water itself by walking across any floating debris.
Male pied wagtail
Their drab cousins the rock pipits, behave in much the same way. They can be quite aggressive and territorial, often chasing the wagtails from their preferred feeding spots.
The starlings too use the tideline and surrounding grass as a regular feeding ground, foraging in small flocks. They are also seen bathing regularly in shallow rockpools.
During the summer months the house sparrows will flock down from the nearby gardens to supplement their growing chicks’ diet with insects found among the algae.
Female house sparrow collecting algae
They are also regularly seen hopping in and around the small boats, picking insects from the crevices.
As well as the gardens, many sparrows use the vegetation growing along the banks as a safe spot to nest and rear their young each year.
Leaving the water behind, ‘the gap’ is encircled by large stone walls where you will often find yourself being watched by many beady red eyes. A flock of pigeons frequents the area and although the river banks provide them with all the natural food they need, they know that humans are also a source of food!
Pigeon line up
Being year-round residents here, I have been able to spend of time getting to know the flock and it’s individual birds, gaining their trust by feeding them regularly. The birds have taught me much about their social lives and behaviour over the years, and rewarded me with some of my favourite images and experiences.
Having become very tame, this pair were happy to mate right in front of me out in the open.
The stone wall encircling the bay was also once the home of a wren, who I was able to photograph on a couple of occasions until it disappeared, presumably died or caught by a predator.
Being an urban area next to the coast, herring gulls are very common here in Aberystwyth and take full advantage of all the harbour and surrounding habitat has to offer. The mud flat acts as a battle ground, a buffet and a nursery for their growing chicks.
Gulls fighting over territory
Natural food is abundant, from crabs plucked from the water to earthworms burrowing in the grassy banks, however being gulls they are not above feeding on our leftovers scavenged from our bins.
Another gull which visits the area during winter months is the much smaller, daintier black headed gull.
Juvenile black headed gull (in winter plumage)
Being nestled within an urban area the ‘gap’ is also frequented by another opportunistic family of birds, the corvids.
A pair of carrion crows hold a territory in and around the mud flats. They are often seen defending their patch in head bowing motion whilst uttering their harsh ‘caw caw’ call. This particular pair are rather skittish of people, and can be difficult to approach.
Crow defending it’s territory
In contrast their smaller cousins the jackdaws are much more confident, happy to scour the slipways for tiny insects and other food items as you sit quietly nearby. Spending a lot of time with them has enabled me to gain the trust of the flock and even meet their youngsters up close.
Jackdaw feeding her chick
Mother jackdaw feeding her chick on the slipway
Another member of the crow family, the rook, is only an occasional visitor here, preferring to forage in around the nearby rocky beach. One of our encounters though was particularly memorable, as a Rook came to eat seeds out of my hand.
A gathering of rooks on the railings bordering the harbour
From the tiny wren to the majestic swan, it really is astonishing to discover just how many different species this small area can support.
I have compiled a list of all the bird species (with links to relevant blog posts) that I have seen on the patch to date, which I will update as and when there is a brand new sighting.
Mute swan, mallard, goosander, canada goose, mandarin duck, moorhen, cormorant, herring gull, black headed gull, turnstone, ringed plover, common sandpiper, redshank, sanderling, jackdaw, robin, carrion crow, rook, feral pigeon, collared dove, house sparrow, blackbird, goldfinch, blue tit, wheatear, pied wagtail, grey wagtail, rock pipit, meadow pipit, wren, kingfisher, stonechat, house martin, swift, starling, lapwing
— All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © www.greyfeatherphotography.com
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