Newborough’s spectacular ravens – as featured on BBC Winterwatch

Blog by Newborough Reserve Manager, Graham Williams

One of the most atmospheric winter wildlife experiences at Newborough is to witness the aerial acrobatics, vocalisations and behaviour of the hundreds of roosting ravens that make Newborough their winter home.

A few weeks ago I was approached by the BBC who were interested in capturing some of that very atmosphere on camera for Winterwatch.

As the largest raven roost on the planet, not only is Newborough one the best locations to film roosting ravens in terms of sheer number of birds but, thanks to the tireless work of eminent naturalist Nigel Brown, we also had scientific data and behavioural observations to better interpret what was actually going on within the roost. Though the wonders of modern technology on the shoot would reveal some unexpected raven facts.

Our first task was to attempt to film feeding behaviour at a sheep carcass from a camera hide in Pant mawr. Though feeding on carrion is a natural instinct for ravens, these wily birds were reluctant to accommodate us! Being the highly intelligent and cautious birds that they are we had to be mindful of their ability to count people going in and out of the bird hide! Despite cameraman Neil Anderson’s best efforts to stay hidden in his hide for the best part of eight hours, and having entered in the dark, the birds were not fooled and not a single bird was seen feeding.

(In the photo: raven chicks on nest, Llanddwyn Island, Newborough, in the summer)

Whilst Neil had been hunkered down in the hide at Pant mawr, and having left Nigel to investigate localities of roosting birds, we spent the afternoon capturing footage of ravens at play on the dunes at Penrhos. Onshore winds here create wind currents on the crest of the dunes that the ravens glide and tumble on, a bit of a playpark for ravens! Pairing displays characterised by aerial tumbling and distinct vocalisations were observed, signalling preparations for the fast approaching breeding season.

With the beach shoot in the bag, we made our way to the main roost site at Cerrig Duon to prepare for the incoming birds at dusk.

Cerrig Duon is on the highest point of the Precambrian rock ridge in the very centre of the site and provides the ravens with the best possible vantage point. Neil, having now abandoned the shoot at the carcass joined us and set up the Selex thermal vision camera in the hope of capturing interaction behaviour of returning birds.

As birds arrived in dribs and drabs in the evening gloom the Selex camera gave us previously unseen views of the ravens in the roost preening and mooching about. It had always been thought that ravens, for reasons of protection and warmth, were roosting communally in tight family groups. What came as a surprise to us all, thanks to the Selex, was that, at least on this mild night, birds were some distance from each other deeper within the forest and apparently quite independent. The birds were also apparently fonder of roosting in the more statuesque Monterey pines rather than the straighter telegraph pole Corsican pine. As the birds were coming in, Gary the sound man, using a parabolic sound device recorded an amazing diversity of vocalisations and calls which were reverberating around the roost.

One of the unexpected highlights of the shoot came from the ravens’ smaller cousins, the jackdaws, which gave us a fine murmuration display above the roost, yelping and yapping as they squabbled and settled in for the night.

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