Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st January 2007
RSPB Makes Investment in Dee Wildlife.
The Leach's Petrel Wreck.
December Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

RSPB Makes Investment in Dee Wildlife

by Colin E. Wells

On 1st September 2006, the RSPB purchased 194 hectares of saltmarsh and adjacent farmland at Burton Marsh Farm, which will in addition allow access to manage around 1,000 hectares of grazable saltmarsh on the English side of the estuary. This strategic purchase now connects the existing land holdings of Gayton Sands and Inner Marsh Farm together. The saltmarsh and adjacent Burton Marsh Farm are now protected for posterity.

Before Inner Marsh Farm Reserve was created, the inner Dee marshes off Denhall Lane and the Decca Station (Decca Pools) were already well known birding hot spots. The grazed saltmarsh attracts huge flocks of wintering lapwing and lesser numbers of Golden Plover. When it floods during the autumn tides, good numbers of migrant waders can be seen, especially Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank, Ruff etc. Large numbers of wildfowl occur with Bewick's Swan, Wigeon and Teal being the main species.

Over the years, the flooded marsh has attracted a number of rarities which includes: Glossy Ibis, American Wigeon, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson's Phalaropes (3) one of which I can vividly remember watching from the bedroom window when I lived at Marsh Cottage!

The inner saltmarsh with its rush and reedbeds hold significant numbers of breeding Water Rail, Grasshopper and Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting, whilst further out Redshank and Skylark breed in substantial numbers.

Steve Round , Short-eared Owl, Burton Marsh, March 2006.

In recent years, Denhall Lane has become one of the best places to watch Barn Owl and Short-eared Owl on the estuary, with birds just gliding by the attendant crowds.

This August/September, Hobbies became a feature and they delighted the local birders as they hunted dragonflies over the marsh.

Steve Round , Hobby at Burton, September 2006.

It is not just birds that will benefit from the purchase. Brown Hares occur and Noctule Bats feed over the marsh, whilst Harvest Mice have recently been recorded.

The RSPB will continue to manage the grazing of the saltmarsh with the help of a local farmer. Agreements have been negotiated with neighbouring landowners of the saltmarsh, so Burton Marsh as before, will be grazed as one unit. Stock numbers will be maintained at levels that will benefit the breeding birds as well as the Dee's internationally important concentrations of wintering wildfowl and waders.

The best place to view the new reserve extension, is from the bottom of Denhall Lane, park on the front and take a walk along the public footpath towards Little Neston.

This very high spring tide completely covered Burton Marsh and Denhall Lane, Water Rails were seen swimming across the lane, March 2006, Steve Round .

The Dee is a wonderful place for both people and wildlife and the RSPB has recognised its importance by investing in Burton Marsh Farm. This move will ensure stunning wildlife such as Redshanks, Lapwings and wildfowl have a safe place to live - and people can continue to witness the spectacle of thousands of birds feeding and roosting along the shore of the estuary.

Colin E Wells - December 2006

RSPB Site Manager Dee and Mersey Estuaries

This Article has also been published in Birding North West magazine Vol 3 No 11.

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The Leach's Petrel Wreck

Richard Smith

On December 8th 1886 a Leach's Petrel was picked up near Northgate Station, Chester, another one was found in Ellesmere Port on December 16th 1907. Very interesting, you might say, but what has that got to do with the present day? Well, after trawling through Coward, Hardy, Hedley Bell and the Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports these are the only December records for Cheshire and Wirral I could find prior to December 2006. This puts in to perspective just how remarkable the events of last month have been, which I will now relay.

The story begins on Nov 17th when the wind started to increase from the south-west, blowing between Force 6 and 8 until about 0700hrs on Nov 21st. The only Leach's Petrel recorded in the country during this period was one inland over Westwood Pool, Worcs, on the 19th. At 0700hrs on Nov 21st the wind swung from the SW quadrant to NW and within a few hours seven flew past Hilbre Island. Again these were the only ones recorded in the country on that day. It would seem that after four days of strong SW winds the birds had been blown up in to the Irish Sea through the St George's Channel from their wintering grounds way to the south. It was not until the wind swung round to NW that they were then blown in towards Hilbre Island. During the next 10 days the wind was relatively moderate, but on Dec 2nd an intense low pressure system steamed in from the south west, passing up the Irish Sea early on the 3rd, bringing with it Force 9 winds, a severe gale. Leach's Petrels were seen from virtually first light on the 3rd from south-west facing coasts in England and Wales. Ten went past Criccieth (near Porthmadog) by late morning and 12 went past Treaddur Bay on Anglesey in just one hour around mid-day. Further south ones and twos were being observed along the south coasts of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and South Wales. A lot of birds were being blown in to the Severn Estuary and one reached right up the river beyond Slimbridge by mid-afternoon. Further north birds were being blown in to Morecambe Bay and two got as far as the north coast of the Solway Firth. Winds must have been fierce out in the Atlantic for several days for so many birds to appear so soon after gale force winds reached here.

 On Dec 3rd birds were blown on to south-west facing coasts as shown on the map. It wasn't until Dec 8th and 9th that birds were blown in towards Wirral and the Dee Estuary by north-west winds.

Leach's Petrel off north Wirral -  Steve Round

Although the wind moderated slightly to 'only' Force 6 to 8 over the next four days Leach's Petrels continued to be seen in the same south-west facing coasts as the 3rd, but in increasing numbers. Peak counts included over 45 off Jenny Brown's Point in Morecambe Bay (4th), 36 past Sharpness in the Severn Estuary (4th), over 50 past Chesil Cove, Dorset (5th), 100 at Black Rock Sands near Porthmadog (5th) with 136 at nearby Borth-y-Gest on 7th and 132 past Porthcawl, South Wales (7th). Birds reached as far north as Loch Fyne in Scotland and as far east as Canvey Island in Essex, with many also turning up over various inland reservoirs. By the end of Dec 7th we birders who do our birdwatching from North Wirral, Hilbre Island and Point of Ayr, traditionally the best sites in the country to see Leach's Petrels, were beginning to despair of seeing anything of this remarkable influx. But at 4am on the 8th the wind swung round to the north-west. The wind had eased down to force 5 but it was enough to bring the birds in with about five observed passing along the North Wirral coast and 20 past Hilbre during the day. Elsewhere there were 155 past Hartland Point, north Devon, as birds which had been trapped by the south-westerlies in the Severn Estuary streamed out of the Bristol Channel. Luckily for us the wind increased back up to Force 6 overnight and we were rewarded with good numbers the next day (9th). At least 70-80 flew west along the North Wirral coast and 190 were seen from Crosby Beach, thus restoring Merseyside's reputation as the prime spot in the country for Leach's Petrels! (190 was the single highest count reported during the whole influx but it is possible that numbers at some locations were underestimated as trying to perform accurate counts over several hours in gale force winds is near on impossible!).

On Dec 10th the wind went round to the south-west again and remained strong (Force 6 to 8) for the next six days, but despite this numbers of Leach's Petrels observed dropped right off with the only double figure count being 15 off Workington on the 11th. Most records were of one or two in the northern half of the Irish Sea although the most northerly record was one off the Outer Hebrides on the 11th. The last record of this remarkable influx was a single bird off Heysham Harbour on the 15th.

It has been estimated that 2,000 birds were involved in total, making it bigger than the "wreck" of December 1989 but not yet on the same scale as the "wreck" of late Oct/early Nov, 1952, which apparently involved more than 7,000 birds. The 1989 "wreck" involved relatively small numbers of birds but the one in 1952 is still remembered here when hundreds of birds were washed up dead along the Wirral coast. Elsewhere in the country winter Leach's Petrels do turn up from time to time after south-west gales but numbers are usually very small, four blown in to the coast near Porthmadog area in February 2002 is a typical example (larger numbers were seen further south). Much larger numbers may be seen off North Wirral, Hilbre Island and Point of Ayr from late August to early October when birds are on passage from their breeding grounds. Numbers vary greatly from year to year with some years producing less than ten birds in total whereas in other years a hundred or more can be seen in a day, but always during strong north-west winds which blow the birds in off the Atlantic and through the North Channel in to the Irish Sea. What was so unusual about both the small influx in November and the much larger one in December was that birds were blown in by a south-west gale from their wintering grounds to the south.

Although called a "wreck" the number of dead birds involved in December's influx wasn't large compared with some previous "wrecks". Undoubtedly some birds were under weight and many were reported as being in moult, but the wind was probably not blowing strong enough for long enough to cause wholesale deaths. Judging by the number of birds seen making their way south on the 8th and 9th hopefully many will have made their way safely back to their more usual wintering areas.

Sources of information for this article:
1. Sightings from
2. Sightings sent to me directly from various birders.
3. Cheshire Bird Reports 1964 to 2005.
4. Two very informative emails forwarded to me, originally from Brian Unwin.
5. BTO Migration Atlas.
6. T.A. Coward, The Fauna of Cheshire, 1910.
7. T. Hedley Bell, The Birds of Cheshire, 1962 (and 1967 supplement).
8. E. Hardy, The Birds of the Liverpool Area, 1941.
9. Hilbre Island Weather Station, which was used for all weather details in the article.

Richard Smith.

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December Bird News

The Leach's Petrels which were blown here by the strong winds this month (as described in the above article) were not the only unusual winter visitors. As far as I can ascertain the Manx Shearwater which went past Hoylake on the 9th is the first ever December record for Wirral. Two Great Skuas seen on the same day also off Hoylake are very rare in December, I think there have only been two previous records. Great Skuas inside the estuary at any time of year is very unusual so to get one off Parkgate chasing gulls on 11th December was extraordinary! A juvenile Great Northern Diver arrived on West Kirby Marine Lake on 15th at the same time as an influx of this species in to the country. I believe this is only the second record for this site, it stayed until Christmas Day after giving great views to many visiting birders.

Great Northern Diver on West Kirby Marine Lake, Dec 2006, Damian Waters.

Yet another unusual bird was the juvenile Curlew Sandpiper which appears to be spending the winter at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB, most birds of this species will be south of the Sahara by now. After the storms the weather went much colder and wader numbers built up; 14,000 Dunlin and 17,000 Knot at West Kirby on Christmas Day was an excellent count, similar numbers were seen at Hoylake with a max of 630 Sanderling there on 23rd. We also had good numbers of duck on West Kirby Marine Lake on Christmas Day with 22 Goldeneye and 11 Red-breasted Merganser. 101 Turnstones on the stones on the edge of the Marine Lake on 4th was a very good count for this species at this site.

Redshank, Oystercatcher and Knot feeding on Meols Shore,
Dec 1st 2006, Richard Smith.

Short-eared Owls have been very scarce this winter, presumably due to a shortage of voles, so I felt privileged to see my first for the winter at Parkgate on the 7th. Brent Geese reached a maximum of 94, a bit below last December, but still a very high number for the estuary. A few Snow Buntings have been about; three were at Point of Ayr on 9th, one on Hilbre on 16th with perhaps the same bird on West Kirby Shore the next day. 40 Twite were reported at Flint Castle. A Little Auk was off Hilbre Island on the 4th.

What to expect in January

The Brent Geese usually peak in numbers by the end of January, the record high number is 109 recorded late Jan 2006 on Hilbre. Perhaps surprisingly, this month can be good for sea-watching with Common Scoter, Little Gulls, Red-throated Divers and Great Crested Grebes all possible in relatively large numbers.

Flocks of Pink-footed Geese often pass north through the estuary, perhaps birds moving between Norfolk and Lancashire - always a welcome sight. A Smew or two could turn up at Inner Marsh Farm where both Whooper and Bewick's Swans should be seen in the nearby fields. A few Spotted Redshank often appear in January, best seen at Inner Marsh Farm but they sometimes appear on the Boathouse Flash, Parkgate RSPB. At Parkgate views of Hen Harriers coming in to roost should be excellent just before dusk. January can often be good for Water Rails with an influx from the continent as well as our own breeding birds. There are a couple of quite tides due on the 22nd and 23rd which might well cover the marsh next to the beach at Heswall and flush them, the end of Target Road (just north of the sewage works) is usually the best spot to see them.

If we are going to get any Waxwings this year then this is the month we will see them. A few Snow Buntings should be about - best seen Point of Ayr, Hilbre or along the north Wirral coast. One or two Water Pipits will be at Neston Old Quay RSPB, please send any descriptions in to CAWOS  even if you are not 100% certain the birds you see are not the Scandinavian race of Rock Pipit which many people have difficulty telling apart - including myself! The marsh next to Flint Castle is a good spot to see the flock of over-wintering Twite, perhaps as many as 100.

Many thanks go to Andrew Wallbank, Vic Tyler Jones, Kevin Smith, Colin Davies, Paul Davidson, Mike Gough, David Esther, Andy  Thomas, Geoff Robinson, Rob Bithell, Phil Woollen, Duncan Crockett, Damian Waters, Jeremy Bradshaw, Paul Mason, Stuart Taylor, Gilbert Bolton, Rob Crockett, Dave Harrington, Ron Plummer, Allan Conlin, Neil McLaren, Mike Hart, Dave Wild, Stephen Menzie, Colin Schofield, Jon Wainright, Steve Round, Steve Williams, Steve Roberts, Chris Butterworth, Steve Wrigley, Jane Turner, John Kirkland, Charles Farnell, Iain Douglas, Richard Steel, Laura Bimson, Nigel Grice, David Ritchie, Alan Warburton, Jean Morgan, Greg Harker, Elisabeth Rees, Colin Jones, Dave Kenyon, Bob Pilgrem, Keith Hopwood, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during December.  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events

January Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
22nd January, 13.27hrs 9.7m. GMT.
23rd January, 14.10hrs 9.6m. GMT.

Forthcoming Events (organised by the Wirral Ranger Service, Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):
All these events and walks have bird interest, even those not advertised specifically for birdwatching. No need to book for these events unless specified - please check below.

Sunday 14th January, 9.30am - 11.30am. Nature Watch: Winter Wildlife.
The first in a year long series of guided walks around the countryside of west Wirral to search out its wildlife. On this occasion we will be looking for wading birds and winter visitors such as Redwings and Bramblings. Stout footwear and waterproofs are essential and please bring binoculars if you have them. Sorry no dogs. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 14th January 3:00pm. Parkgate Raptor Watch.
Come along and watch birds of prey with the experts. See the graceful hen harriers coming in to roost on the RSPB reserve. Other birds of prey we hope to see are merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, which overlooks the Dee Estuary RSPB Reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boat House pub. No need to book.

Sunday 11th February 3:00pm. Parkgate Raptor Watch.
Come along and watch birds of prey with the experts. See the graceful hen harriers coming in to roost on the RSPB reserve. Other birds of prey we hope to see are merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, which overlooks the Dee Estuary RSPB Reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boat House pub. No need to book.

Sunday 18th February 10:00am - 3:00pm.
Open Day at the Connah's Quay Reserve. Non-members will be met at the entrance by a member and escorted in to the reserve.
This members only reserve will be open to everyone for the day and visitors will be able to make use of the four hides and chat to the members about the reserve. Tea and coffee available (HW 11:46hrs, 9.8m.).
The West hide over looks the adjacent RSPB reserve at Oakenholt Marsh. At hide tide the birdwatching from here is spectacular as the wader flocks gather to roost on the marsh. Cambrian Photography will have a display in the Field Studies Centre.

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2007', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Hard copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371.

All material in this newsletter, and indeed the whole web site, has been written by myself, Richard Smith, unless specified.

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