March 1 may be the meteorological first day of spring, but it’s also Saint David’s Day – the national day of Wales – which has been celebrated since the 12th century. Festivities include the wearing of leeks and daffodils, singing traditional songs and eating cakes, but top amongst the things to celebrate are the wildlife secrets that make Wales so special.
“Wales is one of Europe’s best wildlife-watching secrets [and] can rival anywhere in the world,” says James Byrne, Living Landscapes manager for the Wildlife Trusts Wales. And these wonders might be anything from rare sightings of amazing ospreys, a feeding frenzy of red kites, the world’s largest Manx shearwater colonies or the best places in Britain to see puffins and porpoises.
For such a small place, Byrne says, Wales has an abundance of wildlife on offer. Here are some of the Wildlife Trusts Wales highlights to whet your appetite.
This majestic bird was pushed to the edge of extinction in the UK leaving only a few pairs in deepest, darkest Wales. But now these magnificent birds patrol the skies throughout Wales and beyond. They can be seen performing amazing aerial acrobatics at dedicated feeding centres such as Gigrin Farm in Powys, where wild kites are now seen every day of the year, or at Gilfach Farm.
There are an estimated 316,000 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters on Skomer and Skokholm islands, which is the largest known concentration of this species in the world. Their winter quarters are off the coast of southern Brazil and Argentina, but they make a 14,000 mile annual round trip to spend their summer holidays in Wales.
Red squirrels are found in broadleaved woodland on Anglesey and at sites next to the Menai Strait, but spotting them takes patience. Some of the best places to try to see these enchanting little animals are at Pentraeth and Newborough Forests and Plas Newydd country house and gardens.
Known as the pride of Wales, this dainty alpine plant is, as its name suggests, confined to Snowdon and its neighbours. Unlike most alpines it blooms alone, and often out of reach, in rock crevices. Two of Wales's most iconic National Nature Reserves (NNR) protect the Snowdon lily and other rare alpine plants: Snowdon NNR and Cwm Idwal NNR.
These impressive birds of prey are few and far between, but Wales is home to some of the world’s most celebrated ospreys. Visit them at Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust’s Cors Dyfi Nature Reserve.
Lesser horseshoe bats
Wales is one of the last strongholds in the UK and Europe for these tiny mammals. One of the best places to view them is St Fagans Museum of Welsh Life, where they return every summer to breed.
New Quay, on Cardigan Bay, is one of the best places in Europe to see marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises. You can spot these glorious creatures on a dedicated wildlife-watching boat cruise, or sometimes by just sitting on the quayside. The best place to visit is the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre.
Skomer Island isn’t only famed for its Manx shearwaters, but also for its marine mammals, its bluebells and, of course, for its puffins. Skomer is actually home to the largest colony in southern Britain of these iconic birds, known as the clowns or parrots of the sea owing to their comical and colourful beaks.
In South Wales, the Pembrokeshire Islands, including Ramsey Island and Skomer, are some of the best places in the UK to see Atlantic grey seals. In North Wales, Bardsey Island and the Anglesey coast are also great places to see these magnificent marine mammals.
A symbol of nature’s optimism, owing to their appearance in early spring, daffodils are the emblem of Wales and neatly coincide with St David’s Day on 1 March. One of the best places to see the rare, native Tenby daffodil is at the Wildlife Trust’s Coed y Bwl Nature Reserve in the Vale of Glamorgan. The ancient woodland comes alive in vivid yellow before bluebells arrive to dominate the woodland floor.
Find out more about who Saint David was and how he became the patron saint of Wales. There’s a new way to discover the wonders of Welsh wildlife with Wales’s Wild Year of Adventure, so have a happy St David’s Day and let the celebration of all things Welsh begin!
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Jeremy Coles is a staff writer for BBC Earth. He is @jpcoles on Twitter.