Seabirds at Traeth Lafan
The great crested grebe, an elegant creature once hunted almost to extinction for its distinctive plummage, is just one of the spectacular birds inhabiting this wilderness on the eastern edge of the Menai Strait, says Julie Brominicks
Between Anglesey and mainland Wales, sea water is funnelled and sucked by tides twice a day, east to west and west to east.
As a result, the Menai Strait is constantly churned and oxygenated, creating a nutrient-rich soup. The mud too is calorific and at Traeth Lafan sands, 2,600 hectares (around ten square miles) of mud and sand are exposed at low tide. It’s a haven for waders and other water birds.
In winter, tens of thousands of these gather here, including red-breasted mergansers, goldeneyes, redshanks, curlews, widgeons, mallards, teals, dunlins, knots, lesser spotted grebes, great northern divers, oystercatcher and great crested grebes.
The latter were hunted almost to extinction by Victorians for their ornate head plumage and ‘grebe fur’ – their dense waterproof chest feathers were used as a fur substitute. Their numbers have increased steadily since then and now the birds are plentiful. In the 1960s and 1970s when their populations were still recovering, Traeth Lafan was the most important over-wintering spot in Britain for great crested grebes.
Happily, in recent years, conservation efforts have provided the birds with a range of shallow-watered estuarine and wetland habitats to choose from, and over-wintering great crested grebes can now be seen in estuaries around Britain.
Traeth Lafan, comprising several nature reserves – Glan y Môr Elias, Morfa Madryn, Morfa Aber and the Spinnies – is one of the best places to see them. Begin in Llanfairfechan at high tide and travel west as the tide recedes. Great crested grebes gather in hundreds on mud flats and creeks, marshy fields and shallow lagoons fed by freshwater streams from Snowdonia’s mountains.
Traeth Lafan provides them with food, peaceful isolation and security. Like other water birds, grebes renew their flight feathers every winter with a simultaneous wing-moult. Flightless for three or four weeks, they group together for protection. In summer they are seen on rivers and lakes, courting, diving, proudly carrying their stripey-faced young and displaying their elaborate head-crests.
In winter they become more pale and secretive, and lose their chestnut and black head frills – less punk, more vulnerable grebe.
Mud, glorious mud: the Wales Coast Path runs along Traeth Lafan reserve, a paradise for water birds
Great crested grebes are drawn here by the shallow estuarine waters and wetland habitats