March is a pivotal month. Straddling the equinox, it can go either way in terms of weather – lion or lamb – gateway to spring or late winter hangover. In terms of birds, it can also be a crossover time, with the build-up of wintering species overlapping with returning seabirds and the first southern migrants arriving towards the end of the month.
Offshore, March can be the best time to look for Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, which gather in areas like Caernarfon Bay and Traeth Lafan, exploiting rich fishing grounds, alongside other underwater predators like Great Crested Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers, before heading north to breed. Common Scoter can also be seen at this time off the coasts of NE Wales, Anglesey, or the Llŷn. True sea-ducks, scoter, cope with our often challenging offshore conditions, and in the areas where they can access their shellfish prey, they often form huge rafts several thousand strong.
maybe there’s something about birds coming from so far away that touches something migrant in us…
A wide variety of waders can also be seen, often in large numbers, throughout March – gathering at estuaries, rocky shorelines, beaches and saltmarshes across the region. In North Wales, we are an important staging post for many northern species, which aim to feed up here and get into good condition ahead of their annual journey up to breeding sites in the Hebrides, Shetlands, Iceland or around the ArcticHebrides.
Depending on the weather, by March many of our breeding seabirds will be back around the coastline, some even starting to renew pair-bonds and check out traditional nest sites on cliffs and islands. Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars may have ranged widely during the winter in search of food and reasonable sea conditions, and by now may be joined by others like Gannets and Puffins which go even further for the winter, and then by the real globetrotters such as Manx Shearwaters, which come winging back all the way from their wintering grounds off South America to feed around the Irish Sea, and eventually to nest in burrows on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey).
One the earliest markers of spring on the coast is the stirring ‘kerrick!’ cry of Sandwich Terns, the first of whom may arrive back from West Africa in mid-March. The only colony of this species in Wales is at NWWT’s Cemlyn reserve on Anglesey, which currently holds around 20% of the UK population (up to 2,500 pairs), but they can be seen all round the N Wales coastline before they settle down to breed.
The Welsh name for terns is ‘mor-wenoliaid’ (sea-swallows), which aptly evokes their dashing, pointy-winged, fork-tailed appearance, as well as their migratory life-cycle. The first ‘land-swallows’ will also be returning over the seas by the end of March, often just preceded by the very earliest African migrants – usually Sand Martins and Wheatears.
deeply reassuring feeling that, whatever else is going on in the world, nature is starting again, afresh.
I think there’s a particular excitement to seeing and hearing these first returning travellers back in the spring. Part of it’s the thrill of a new season opening up at last – and the deeply reassuring feeling that, whatever else is going on in the world, nature is starting again, afresh. Despite it all – these creatures have made it. They’re back!
But maybe there’s more. Watching a handful of swallows beating in over the waves off a headland, for a moment you can sometimes actually feel something of their miraculous, death-defying journeys. Just as when you watch runners approaching the end of a race, and for a moment sense in your own body something of their exertion – you feel both their weariness and their joy.
And maybe there’s something about birds coming from so far away that touches something migrant in us…
Over savannah, and rainforest, along rivers and coastlines, through countries and cities and past fences and borders and walls… and across the sea.
We’ve all come from Africa.