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Morfa Madryn Reserve (North Wales)

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Nature reserve situated on the North Wales coast

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      23.10.2010 14:30
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      One of the most beautiful and varied coastal walks in North Wales.

      Between the Isle of Anglesey and the mainland, at low tide lies a vast area of treacherous sand known as Traeth Lafan. Before bridges linking Anglesey to the rest of Wales were built, the only way across was to walk; many people lost their lives trying to do so. Thankfully, today there's no need to walk across the Menai Straits, and Traeth Lafan, is left undisturbed for the huge numbers of waders and seabirds that live in this seemingly empty landscape: the area is so rich, that moves are afoot to have it designated as a Marine Nature Reserve. At any time of the year, this part of the coast is a beautiful place to visit. One of the best ways to see the sights is to follow the walk I describe below. The walk starts in the seaside town of Llanfairfechan, easily reached within a minute of leaving the A55 at Junction 15. The town has good facilities for visitors. There is a large, free car park on the seafront. Toilets and disabled toilets are nearby as is a children's play area. There are two cafes here. The first, at the car park's edge, makes superb coffees. Unfortunately, its opening times are erratic and the main street café is more reliable. Many people choose to remain in the town, it's easy to see why. The view is spectacular. To the left is Anglesey with the pretty town of Beaumaris easily visible. Further out is Puffin Island. This massive lump of rock rises 190 feet above the straits and is home to colonies of breeding seabirds in summer. To the far right is the huge limestone outcrop of the Great Orme. Llanfairfechan's beach is clean and sandy; a great place to make sandcastles. For me, the attractions of the town, with its pretty promenade and grand old Victorian seafront houses, hold my attention for just a while. There is far more to see and do in the walk to Morfa Madryn. From the car park, a concrete path follows the shore in the direction of Anglesey. This is suitable for wheelchairs for a while. Here, the visitor has a grand view of the waters of Traeth Lafan, which, on a rising tide, will be filled with seabirds, drawn close by the rushing waters. This area is a birdwatchers' Mecca: great and red-throated divers, common scoters, Slavonian grebes, red-breasted mergansers, and black guillemot can all be seen in the winter whilst terns, gannets, fulmars, puffins, and guillemots fill the air with colour and sound during the breeding season. Grey seals live on Puffin Island and can often be seen here, porpoises or even bottle-nosed dolphins might be spotted, too. After about half a mile, the path reaches a small wood and becomes rougher as it enters an area of saltmarsh. This location is quite special; the emerald green saltmarsh, contrasting with the cobalt blue sea, is all around and, in the winter, full of birds. On a sunny day, the flocks of teal, wigeon, and shelduck give a glorious display, with their multicoloured plumages glowing in the sun. When they take off, there are so many birds that the air seems filled with noise, activity and colour. At the saltmarsh's edge is a shingle spit. At high tide, this is used by wading birds to roost whilst their feeding grounds are flooded. Here can be found one of nature's most spectacular battles. The waders roost peacefully, hardly moving, except to flex their wings, or swap the leg they're standing on. Suddenly, however, the peace is shattered as a marauding peregrine falcon stoops at enormous speed towards the birds. Havoc ensues, as all birds take to the air. Somehow, the falcon chooses one target amongst many, and follows its prey's swoops and turns, faster than the human eye can follow. I always find myself rooting for the wader as the fastest animal on the planet hunts down its victim. Most of the time the bird gets away, but occasionally the wader is caught, quickly dispatched, and carried off to the falcon's cliff top home above the town: this is nature in the raw. At the top of the saltmarsh is the Local Nature Reserve of Morfa Madryn. The reserve, despite its wonderful wildlife attractions is rarely busy, and the visitor may have most of this large area to his or herself. This is a wonderful place to visit at any time, but really excels during high tide. The reserve has several hides, each looking over a different habitat. The first, near the entrance, overlooks Traeth Lafan and the shingle spit. Here, sheltered from the often cruel winds that blow down the straits, the visitor can sit in comfort and watch the antics of the waders and wildfowl, and trying to spot the seabirds on the open sea. Staying here for any length of time gives a privileged glimpse into the workings of the seas and tides, and how wildlife has adapted to live with the twice daily changes. As the tide recedes, the birds become more restless, finally flying off: flocks of knot, curlew, dunlin, oystercatcher, and grey plover, rising in formation, before dispersing over the vast sands. Soon, where thousands were visible, is an apparently empty desert. But, if one looks carefully, the birds are there, spread out eating frantically before the tides can cover their feeding grounds once more. The other two hides look over a pair of saltwater lagoons. These bunded pools are sheltered from the winds, and provide secure feeding and roosting grounds for yet another range of birds. Here, the birdwatcher can often get close views of special birds such as the little egret, it's 'Persil white' plumage amazingly clean despite the bird feeding in mud. The electric blue plumage of the kingfisher can be seen, too, and not just as it flashes past. The fence posts close to the hides provide feeding perches for the birds. They concentrate on looking for small fishes, oblivious to people concentrating on watching them! Lapwings breed here; their cute, fluffy chicks can be seen following their doting parents during spring and summer. If any intruder dares to approach the chicks, the lapwings attack - driving off even large animals like the sheep that roam the reserve. Other birds include the elegant pintail duck, ringed plover, snipe and grey wagtails. There is always something to see here, no matter what the season, weather, or tide and the comfortable hides mean that a pleasant hour or so can be whiled away watching some of the wonders of nature, whilst remaining dry and warm. This is a linear walk, so once finished at the reserve, the walker must retrace the two mile route back to Llanfairfechan. Since the area's inhabitants react to the ever changing tides, however, it is likely that a different range of sights will greet the walker on the return journey. This is not a long walk, but is one that is full of interest. The gorgeous scenery and pleasant walks both to and around the reserve, are enhanced by the huge variety of wildlife that may be encountered. The walk is fascinating for birdwatchers, but hopefully, I've shown that this is a walk that can be enjoyed by all. North Wales has some wonderful coastal spots and this is one of the best.

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