(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
Sunday, September 18, 1988
A trip to North Wales this time to twitch a long staying vagrant from North America. It’s the second, or maybe third attempt to see the Forster’s Tern, a seabird which has been knocking around this area for some years now. This time, I’m going to a little village called Gronant, near Prestatyn, where the bird has apparently been sitting out on the beach with Sandwich Terns, at a place where the freshwater stream crosses the sand. Look for the orange arrows:
It’s a pleasant enough place, although once more confusion is caused by the unfortunate decision to put up road signs in two languages, despite the fact that the total number of Welsh speakers around here is probably absolutely zero. The whole area, therefore, is just one constant traffic jam, as people stop and try to wade through the novel length traffic signs, in a vain attempt to find out what the hell is happening – and where. Added to this is the fact that there are only half the signs that there ought to be, because all the ones they’ve got are twice the length than they need to be.
First of all, of course, is the traditional stop at you-know-where for the Lady Amherst’s Pheasant.
None of these mythical birds is about, but it makes a nice break in the journey, with superb views over the Mersey, to the distant metropolis, topped off by its two completely distinctive cathedrals, and the bulk of the Liver Building, visible easily even at this distance. Now that is a good tick – Liver Bird.
On we press to Gronant, and its caravan and chalet village, right next to the beach, but sheltered by the comforting solidity of the sea wall. I park the car, and we set off across the almost limitless expanse of sand.
We can already see a group of a dozen or so birdwatchers, all obviously looking at different things – not a good sign. There are a good many of the much commoner Sandwich Terns…..
…but we are not to be disappointed though, because the Forster’s Tern is still there. It’s just that a couple of minutes before we arrived, the bird took off for a little fly round and nobody has yet managed to find where it landed. We soon relocate it though, sitting with a group of Sandwich Terns, about fifty yards away.
It’s obviously a lot smaller with a different shade of grey on its back. It has red legs and the fabulous highwayman’s mask arrangement of patches on its face. It’s everything I’d hoped for – a really foreign looking and exotic bird. The only problem is that we are almost directly behind it and we can get only rather imperfect views of its main features, so we decide to make our way round, and try to look at it from the side. This manoeuvre of course, is enough to flush every tern on the North Wales coast, including the Forster’s Tern, which immediately sets off on a twelve thousand mile trans-global migratory flight.
To be honest, though, that is the very last we see of the bird that day, despite the fact that we return several times during the afternoon and wander around for a good while, looking at all the terns on the beach. We do see Bar-tailed Godwit, and Arctic Skua, and a couple of Little Terns.
The most interesting thing we come across is the advice offered to us by a couple of Liverpool birdwatchers, who give us dire warnings about how dangerous this place is, since the tide comes in very quickly, and it’s very easy to get cut off. They tell us that every few weeks somebody drowns out here fishing, and indeed, it is less than a month after this that we hear of two night anglers who have perished out on the lone and level sands, within just yards of where we see the Forster’s Tern.
Next stop is the Point of Ayr, a most unusual place for a beach. It has a coal mine.
Quite literally on the seashore, or within a hundred yards of it, there is a colliery, which I cannot imagine how they keep dry. Perhaps they have specially adapted mineworkers with gills, who can dig underwater, a sort of “Scargill from Atlantis”.
On the Point itself, there is a deserted and ruined lighthouse, which is crying out for someone to restore and then convert either into a sea watching hide, or better still, a bird observatory.
On the way back to the car, we find a wonderfully promising area, which is full of little hawthorn bushes, all carefully designed to attract small migrants and rare warblers from every corner of the globe. We find just one bird and we are eventually forced to concede that it is merely a Garden Warbler.
On the long way back, another visit to Halkyn. This place is fast becoming a sort of drug. I am trying to give it up, but I just keep getting dragged back. This time, we meet one of the locals, an individual whose talents for unprovoked rudeness are probably exceeded only by his apparent brainpower. I park in a long and completely deserted street, only for him to rush out of his traditional cottage and tell me that I’m causing an obstruction and I have got to move. Apparently he’s expecting a cruise missile convoy at any moment. I enjoy screeching off ostentatiously down to the end of the street, parking the car four hundred yards away, before walking back to ask him if he reckons he’s got enough room now. He says he has. Some of these country people are really nice and pleasant to talk to, but so many, quite simply, are not. Still, I have the last laugh, because I can get into my car and drive off back to the big city. I won’t have to spend the rest of my life in a place like this with absolutely nothing better to do than to be gratuitously rude to tourists.
Twenty five years or so later, things have changed comparatively little on the beach at Gronant. A most interesting Second World War pillbox which we all contrived to miss at the time is apparently a lot more visible now, and has been featured on the Internet on at least one specialist pillbox spotters’ website.
The lighthouse is still there but a local artist has equipped it with a sculpture of a lighthouse keeper imaginatively called “The Lighthouse Keeper”.
You can still get cut off if you are not careful.
Even if you are a glass sculpture, and at no special risk….