Travel on the Talyllyn Railway and see not only beautiful countryside, but also some of Wales’ most stunning natural history. Steaming through a range of wildlife habitats, look out to spot plants, birds and animals that thrive in different environments alongside the track which change through the seasons.
Or if you’re feeling up for a walk, there are even more habitats to explore close by: the seashore at Tywyn, Broadwater lagoon, the Talyllyn Lake and local hills.
with grateful thanks to Sue Wolfe of Welsh Wildlife Breaks for the page content.
As you leave Wharf Station, you’ll travel through Tywyn on your way to your first glimpse of open countryside – but even before that, Tywyn with its houses and back gardens is brimming with wildlife. One of the first birds you might spot are Jackdaws, the Welsh Jac-y-Do, calling “Jac, Jac”. A small crow with greyish plumage on their necks, black heads and piercing blue eyes, you may see them sitting in pairs together on roofs and by chimney pots earlier in the spring, or later the young are garrulous and raucous.
Another bird of roof tops and towns is the black and white Pied Wagtail, Siglen Fraith, which you could spot in Tywyn or on any of the stations – commonly known in English as “the car park bird”!
Look out too for wildflowers along the banks and cutting. In the early spring there are beautiful clumps of primroses, Briallu, followed by the delicate white greater stitchwort, Serenllys mawr, frothy cow parsley, Gorthfail llyfn and red campion, Blodyn neidr. Along waste ground, and around Pendre, you might see a riot of red poppies, Pabi coch, in the summer.
Past Pendre you leave the town behind and come into open fields and pastures. There are big skies here, and looking out, you’re likely to see a Red Kite, Barcud, soaring elegantly above with its forked tail, or a Buzzard, Boncath, stockier than the red kite and noisier, with its mewing call.
Watch out for tractors on the fields, they’re likely to be followed by a flock of Herring Gulls, Gwylan y penwaig, or you might see an opportunist Carrion Crow, Bran dyddyn. Adult herring gulls have pale grey wings, but youngsters from the previous year have a mottled brown and white plumage. Passing by farm buildings, if you keep a sharp eye in the summer, you may see Swallows, Gwennol, flying out and chattering, or House Martins, Gwennol y Bondo. You can tell the difference between them even at a distance by looking for the tell-tale white patch at the base of the house martin’s shorter tail, and the long forked tail of the swallow.
Later in the year, you might see flocks of Starlings, Drydwy, coming together to feed on the fields, squabbling all the while.
It’s not just birds that bring this landscape alive, but wildflowers too. In the spring, the fields seem edged with lace when the May blossom is out on the hawthorn bushes, Draenen wen, and tall foxgloves, Bysedd y cŵn, follow in the hedgerows and banks.
As you approach Rhyd yr Onen Station, the landscape begins to change and the hills draw much closer. There are areas of trees and woodland around the station, with their accompanying spectacular bluebells, Clychau’r gog. The Welsh name means “cuckoo bells” as they flower when the cuckoo arrives. You’ll see Wales national flower too in early spring, cheerful small naturalised daffodils, Cennin Pedr.
Listen out and you might hear or see a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Cnocell Fraith Fwyaf, near the top of a tree, or hear the beautiful repeating call of a Song Thrush, Fronfraith. More difficult to spot are the flocks of diminutive black, white and pink Long-tailed Tits, Titw Gynffon-hir, which feed in groups, often high in the canopy. Look out for Chaffinches, Ji-binc, in the bushes and trees – listen hard, the Welsh name is very descriptive of the call they make. The male is very handsome with his pink breast and blue head, the female paler brown.
As you steam away from from Rhyd yr Onen towards Bryn Glas and Dolgoch, along the side of the hill, keep looking out for the larger birds of prey that have a real stronghold in the valley, as well as the unmistakeable guttural “kronk” of Ravens, with their characteristic wedge-shaped tail. You might spot a rabbit, Cwningen, on the fields, or even a brown hare, Ysgyfarnog, running quickly away at the sound of the train or a glimpse of a Buzzard. The River Fathew runs through the valley below you, and you may see a Grey Heron, Creyr glas, take off – they breed further up the valley at the Talyllyn Lake.
In the summer, the hills can sometimes seem ablaze with yellow as the gorse, Eithinen ffrengig, comes into full flower with its warm coconut scent, and then later the “snap” sound as its seed pods burst open in full sun. Birds such as the shy Dunnock, Llwyd y gwrych, or the Stonechat, Clochdar cerrig, often perch at the very top of gorse branches, singing to advertise their territory.
Soon you’ll leave the open fields and come into cool green woodland and over the magnificent Dolgoch viaduct, close to the station. The woods are fern-filled, and honeysuckle, Gwyddfid, entwines itself in the branches. The viaduct crosses the ravine at the bottom of which runs the Nant Dolgoch. Dolgoch ravine is a very special place, with its waterfalls and fast-flowing stream, an ideal habitat for the Dipper, Bronwen y Dwr, a large plump bird with its smart white bib, bobbing up and down beneath the rushing water for larvae. Otter, Dwrgi, have been seen in the waters here too. Listen when you stop at the station – you could hear the sound of a Cuckoo, Cog, during May and June, according to the old traditional rhyme:
The Cuckoo arrives in April
She sings her song in May.
Again in June she sings her tune,
July she flies away.
Less melodious, if you hear a blood-curdling screech, it’s likely to be the dazzling blue and pink-plumaged Jay, Sgrech y coed, a member of the crow family.
As you approach Abergynolwyn station, the tree cover increases and you’ll begin to see more woodland birds. In the spring and summer, listen out for Chiffchaff, Siff-saff. Harbingers of spring, this warbler’s song is unmistakable, although they’re difficult to spot in the canopy, a small, yellow-tinged brown bird. You might also hear the Great Tit, Titw Mawr, calling “Tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher”.
If you sit and have a cup of tea and a cake, you’re likely to meet one of the Abergynolwyn Robins, Robin goch. They’ll come close for crumbs, and it has been difficult in the past to keep one of them, Robbie, out of the café!
But the most famous of the Abergynolwyn birds is the Blue Tit, Titw Tomos Las. They have regularly nested in a signal post at the station, but one also made the national press by photobombing the station webcam.
The last section of the line travels through some lovely deciduous woodland. In the spring in the damp areas, there’s carpets of the small greeny-yellow golden saxifrage, Tormaen melyn, as well as the delicately veined wood sorrel, Suran y Coed, nestling in the moss and leaves.
If you alight at Nant Gwernol station in the spring and cross over the bridge, you might notice a strong smell of garlic ….. This area boasts large clumps of the pretty white-flowered wild garlic, known as Ramsons in English and Craf y Geifr in Welsh.
The woodland here is managed by the Woodland Trust, who were supported in its purchase by the Talyllyn Railway and the local community. The valley is a special habitat, and if you look carefully, you might spot a Treecreeper, Cropiedydd, creeping up a tree and feeding in the moss and crevices.
The woodland also hosts some summer visitors that fly to Wales from Africa each year to breed. Look out for a flickering orange tail – it will be a Redstart, Tingoch. The male has a smart black face in the summer, while the female is a more uniform brown – but both have that characteristic tail. The other bird from Africa is the Pied Flycatcher, Gwybedog brith – the male is a small black and white bird, and the female brown and white. They readily adapt to nest boxes on trees and have a very noticeable feeding pattern. They will sit on the same tree branch for quite long periods, flying out to catch flying insects and returning to the same branch.
Finally, to end our nature journey, there’s one bird not mentioned so far. Diminutive in stature, but with an extremely loud song and alarm call is the Wren, Dryw, the king of the birds (trad.):
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
With such a loud call, the wren quite easy to spot, despite his size, hopping about in the briars and undergrowth – although maybe not from a moving train!