1st February 2005

Low Tide Birdwatching.
Cheshire & Wirral Bird Report 2003.
Cheshire & Wirral Bird Atlas.

Latest Bird Counts.

January Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Low Tide Birdwatching

“Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood” – so went the old Swan & Flanders hippo song. Of course mud is a key ingredient of the estuary as far as the birds are concerned, and you will see plenty of it if you go birdwatching at low tide!

(photo right, by Valerie McFarland)

Some birders wouldn’t consider a visit to the estuary other than at high tide, on the look out, as they inevitably are, for rarities. But for myself being ‘a bad birdwatcher’ (as per Simon Barnes’s marvellous book) I find being about at low tide very enjoyable and immensely rewarding. Rewarding not in the sense of being able to tick a few birds off my year list, but for the sheer dramatic spectacle of seeing thousands of birds hunting, fleeing, feeding, roosting, calling and flying. Some of you might be surprised at my putting down roosting as a low tide activity, but many birds, particularly the larger ones such as Oystercatchers and Godwits, spend a lot of time roosting both at low and high tide - the living must be good!

Below is a description of the best areas for low tide birdwatching and what you might expect to see there. But first a Warning:
Apart from a few relatively safe areas as described below, such as the route to Hilbre Island, do not be tempted to venture away from the beach and shore paths. As well as the danger to yourself of getting trapped in thick mud with an incoming tide, you will also be unnecessarily disturbing birds.

Also I should add that my definition of ‘low tide’ is fairly flexible, but loosely take it as being from three hours after high tide to three hours before high tide, i.e. the low half of the tidal cycle.

Maps and directions are given with the site guides.

Leasowe Shore
This includes all the mudflats from Leasowe Lighthouse down to Wallasey shore at the junction of Harrison Drive and Kings Parade. These mudflats are not only one of the best places to see feeding waders in the Dee Estuary/ North Wirral area but one of the best places in the whole country. Mockbegger Wharf, as this area is known as, is relatively low lying so the sea never goes out very far, but it does get covered early by the rising tide.

Redshank at Leasowe, just a very small portion of the massive wader flock here
Richard Smith

Good places to park are either at the car park at the junction of Pasture Road and Leasowe Road (on the A551) or in North Wirral Coastal Park at the end of Green Lane (by the Gunsite). There is an embankment the whole of the length of the shore here giving great views of the birds. It is also safe to go down on to the shore (but beware embankment can be slippery) where there is firm sand for about 50 metres out. This is much used by dog walkers but don’t be tempted to go out any further as it turns in to thick mud.

Typical winter counts* here are 2,000 Grey Plover, 250 Sanderling, 15,000 Dunlin, 350 Curlew, 2,500 Redshank, 7,000 Oystercatcher, 20,000 Knot and 6,000 Bar-tailed Godwits, a large roost of gulls is also usually present. Peak numbers, especially of Knot and Dunlin can be considerably higher. About four hours before high tide is the prime time to see these thousands of waders, and as the tide comes in many birds move up towards Leasowe Lighthouse then beyond to Meols and Hoylake.

* counts based on Low tide Wetland Bird Survey 2001/02 as well as my own observations and those sent to me personally.

Hilbre Island
Very much a place where birders spend the high tide, but, strange though it may seem, I actually prefer low tide. May be I've just been unlucky, but I seem to recall being stuck on Hilbre for five hours over high tide, often freezing cold and wet, with very little in the way of birds to see! That isn't to say that Hilbre can't be a fabulous place at high tide, just that you have to get the weather and time of year just right.

Brent Geese and Oystercatchers at Hilbre, a typical low water scene
Richard Smith ©

At low tide there is always plenty to see - especially at my favourite times of year, late summer and mid-winter. I always look forward to the return of the Sandwich Terns in early July. They are the first of our terns to finish breeding and one of their favourite spots before heading south are the sand banks around Hilbre Island. Here several hundred roost each low tide, the juveniles constantly calling out to be fed, and with the returning calls of the adults the noise they make is unbelievable! By early August Common and Little Terns join the throng, and with the comparatively warm weather it is extremely pleasant just to sit on the grass and watch these wonderful birds. This time of year is also excellent for watching numerous sea birds such as Gannets, Skuas and Common Scoters whatever the state of the tide.

Mid-winter is far from warm, but we do have Brent Geese, Purple Sandpipers and loads of other waders around to make up for it! The rocks around the islands are a favourite feeding area for hundreds of Oystercatchers and Turnstones, and the Brent Geese feed on the seaweed on the rocks at low tide - invariably moving off to Little Eye or elsewhere as the tide comes in.

As you walk over to Hilbre it is worthwhile stopping at the south end of Little Eye and having a quick look through your telescope. The mudflats you see will just be teeming with waders and Shelduck, as described in the section below on Thurstaston and Caldy.

A bonus for coming out to Hilbre at low tide is the Grey Seal haul out on West Hoyle Bank, here 300 to 500 can be seen throughout the year.

For description of how to get to Hilbre see Planning your trip, and for tide times see Tides.

Thurstaston and Caldy

Huge concentrations of Shelduck, Oystercatchers and Redshank make this area a fabulous site. Given the right time of year it is doubtful if you will see more anywhere in the country, and that's not to mention large numbers of Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Knot and Dunlin as well! Heswall gutter (channel) winds its way close to the shore here and acts as a magnet for the birds, the area within half a mile of the beach is very muddy and contains the crustaceans and worms the birds love to feed on. I've stood on Caldy steps in mid-winter and have been awe-struck when a Peregrine flies over the mudflats as the thousands of birds all take to the air at once, like a flying carpet of birds.

Shelduck cover the mudflats this densely over about
four square miles off Thurstaston - Richard Smith ©

There are three particularly good vantage points, all with good car parking.
1. Caldy Steps at the end of Croft Drive in Caldy. Always thousands of Oystercatchers here and in cold weather thousands of Knot (if Caldy Steps car park is full there is another car park next to the Wirral Way also off Croft Drive).
2. Parking area next to Dee Sailing Club. Go to the end of Station Road (Thurstaston), turn right past the caravan park and continue until just before the sailing club where you can park on the cliff top. Here there is a track going down to the beach and a causeway over the sand and mud used by fishing boat and yacht crews. At low tide it is safe to walk out to the end of this causeway and you really get a sense of being out in the middle of the birds - wonderful!
3. Thurstaston Visitor Centre. Again go along Station Road but turn left in to the main car park just before the bridge. From here it is a short walk to the top of the cliff giving a great vista over the shore. In late September and October over 8,000 Shelduck will be assembled, and winter brings hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits and thousands of Knot. In cold weather many birds feed close to the beach giving excellent opportunities for photography. Look towards Heswall to the south and there will be good numbers of Teal, Mallard and Lapwing near the marsh, and sometimes Golden Plover and Pintail. Don't try and scramble down the cliff, there are steps down at the end of Station Road.

Connah’s Quay and Flint
The Deeside Naturalists' Society reserve at Connah's Quay is members only, but they do have open days from time to time (see their website for details). The main hide to the north gives a good vantage point over the mud where many Teal, Mallard, Knot, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit feed at low tide. Autumn is the best time to see Black-tailed Godwits and over 4,000 can sometimes be observed busy feeding, either off here or Flint.

There is good car parking at Flint by the castle. Walk northwards along the shore path and you get to Flint point. From October to February this is a great place to see duck at low tide loafing around on the far side of the channel - thousands of Pintail and Wigeon as well as good numbers of Shelduck, Mallard and Teal. Plenty of waders use this area too.

Greenfield Dock
This is not where the 'fun' ship is but further south, there are a couple of roads to it south of the Sunday Market, one opposite Greenfield Valley. Here you can park your car and look over the River Dee channel, the 'dock' is just a small harbour filled with small boats and dries out completely at low tide. As the channel here remains quite deep even at low tide the sea going birds of the estuary tend to concentrate off here. Late summer can bring in hundreds of terns - many from the huge Common Tern colony at nearby Shotton. September and October are good months to see Great Crested Grebes, well over a hundred can congregate here and if you pick a calm day they will be a lot easier to see. It is also a good place for Red-breasted Mergansers, during March and April there are usually 20 - 30. At high tide all these birds tend to disperse across the estuary, so low tide is definitely best.

You can park in the village before crossing the busy main road and on to the railway bridge. The view from the top of the bridge reveals an extensive area of mud much used at low tide by Knot, both species of godwits, Dunlin, Shelduck and espe
cially Oystercatchers.

Point of Ayr and Gronant
Although both these locations are best in the high half of the tide cycle nevertheless there can be large concentrations of gulls, terns and cormorants on the sand banks at low tide from late June until September.

Richard Smith.

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Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report 2003
The annual report for 2003 is now available and it’s a stunner! There’s an eye-catching colour front cover, 168 pages text, plus four extra pages of colour photographs making seven pages in all (input from nine photographers!) and the double page map of the county.
All the ‘regulars’ are there: weather and bird review of the year, the full systematic list, early and late dates for migrants, BBRC and county rarities decisions, ringing report, advice on submission of records, Chairman’s review and database statistics for 2003.
Articles cover a diverse range of subjects: ‘BTO Breeding Bird Survey’, ‘The Regular Occurrence of Wintering Firecrests in North Cheshire and Wirral’, ‘Decline of House Sparrows in Cheshire Gardens’, ‘White-throated Sparrow - a new county species’, ‘Firecrests Breeding’ and ‘Bearded Tits Breeding’ - both firsts for Cheshire and Wirral!
The report is also packed with distribution maps and numerous illustrations from four artists. New to the report is a species index at the back to help you quickly look up your favourite species, instead of having to wade through pages trying to find it.

Cost of the report is £6.70 + £1.30 p&p and copies are available from:
David Cogger, 113 Nantwich Road, Middlewich, Cheshire, CW10 9HD
Tel: 01606 832517 E-mail: memsec@cawos.org

Sheila Blamire

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Cheshire and Wirral Bird Atlas Project

This survey is already producing some very exciting results which will prove to be really important for bird conservation in our area. Every record is linked with the habitat information for the bird, and detailed analysis will need much more time than this early snapshot. More results will be given soon in a newsletter for all participants in the Atlas project. So, there is already fantastic progress, a great tribute to the thousands of hours contributed so far by hundreds of fieldworkers. On behalf of the birds, thank you all!    
David Norman - Atlas Coordinator (extracted from  a much longer article published in CAWOS Bird News 65).

With most of the returns for the breeding season now in the database it is clear that nearly 400 of the 670 tetrads have already been surveyed, with a promise of another 50 to be done in 2005.The project has caused considerable interest, with many of those taking part saying how much
taking part in a survey such as this has enhanced their birdwatching.

However, we still have between 150 and 200 tetrads to be covered. Many fieldworkers have expressed a desire to survey their own tetrads again to get maximum coverage, which is excellent, but we do need to cover those additional tetrads either in 2005 or 2006. I would like those already participating to think seriously about taking on an extra tetrad and those who have not joined yet to consider taking part. Some of the tetrads which need coverage may be some distance from your home or your regular birdwatching 'patch'; however, please think about adopting one of these - it may be in an unfamiliar part of the county but it may also offer new challenges and different birds!

For those of you new to this project, details were published in the September 2003 edition of the Dee Estuary Newsletter. A tetrad is an area 2km square (thus occupying 4 squares on the OS map) and the grid reference given is that for the bottom left-hand square of the tetrad. Tetrads are grouped in 10km squares and an Area Coordinator is responsible for each 10km square, so you will have someone to call upon if you need help.

If you would like to volunteer to take on a tetrad please contact me (David Cogger) for the latest list, or you can check out the Atlas website. I will send you a map of the tetrad you choose and all the necessary paperwork (instructions, record cards, etc). You can also download these from the Atlas website.
David Cogger, 113 Nantwich Road, Middlewich, Cheshire, CW10 9HD
Tel: 01606 832517 E-mail: memsec@cawos.org

Ed: Note that the tetrad allocation shown on the Atlas Website may be out of date so check with David Cogger for an update. The tetrads in Wirral which still need to be covered (as of 30th Jan) are - Puddington, Burton East, Shotwick Lodge, Saughall, Prenton, Birkenhead, Bromborough south and Bromborough north. Elsewhere in Cheshire I've picked out a few interesting sounding tetrads which need surveying - Chester City Centre, (part of) Delamere Forest, Runcorn and the Bridge, Jodrell Bank, Paradise Farm, Mersey & St Helens Canal and Windsurfing Centre (Manley). 

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Bird Counts
Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 16th January.
1 Great Crested Grebe, 1 Cormorant, 53 Brent Goose, 387 Shelduck, 954 Teal, 74 Mallard, 3 Pintail, 3 Red-breasted Merganser, 10,840 Oystercatcher, 15 Grey Plover, 679 Lapwing, 9,200 Knot, 4,600 Dunlin, 24 Snipe, 5 Black-tailed Godwit, 12 Bar-tailed Godwit, 1,470 Curlew and 3,900 Redshank. Also 346 Black-headed Gull, 73 Common  Gull, 3 Lesser black-backed Gull, 57 Herring Gull, 3 Great Black-backed Gull, 1 Merlin (f) and 2 Peregrine.

Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society)
16th January. 2 Little Grebe, 4 Great Crested Grebe, 30 Cormorant, 2 Little Egret, 7 Grey Heron, 18 Mute Swan, 14 Canada Goose, 92 Shelduck, 58 Wigeon, 5 Gadwall, 361 Teal, 110 Mallard, 4 Shoveler, 2 Moorhen, 19 Coot, 93 Oystercatcher, 900 Lapwing, 350 Knot, 684 Black-tailed Godwit, 36 Curlew, 1 Spotted Redshank, 146 Redshank, 3 Greenshank and 1 Kingfisher.

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January Bird News
I had three great birdwatching experiences in January. Firstly the waxwings in Greasby - I had 93 feeding on berries on the grass verge just a couple of feet from where I was sitting in the car! By far the highest number I'd ever seen and amazingly close. Second was after a cold walk to Little Hilbre following a neap high tide out. No one else was about and I sat watching 62 Brent Geese, 500 Curlew and 3,000 Oystercatchers just a few yards away on the rocks between the islands, all completely undisturbed. The third experience was again whilst sitting in the car. This time on the way to the Point of Ayr when I spotted 580 Black-tailed Godwits and 100 Redshank feeding in the field next to the road to the Gas plant, just the other side of the hedge from where I was parked. The 'Blackwits' in particular seemed not at all bothered by my staring at them from 10 feet away!  What made all three experiences particularly memorable was that the birds in each case were behaving completely naturally, oblivious of my presence, and secondly I was the only one to see it.

Getting back to Waxwings - the 93 at Greasby is a Wirral record. But records have been broken across the country including over 300 at both Chester and Ruthin, a Cheshire and Welsh record respectively. Before I finish going on about record numbers, 63 pale-bellied Brent Geese on Little Eye mid-month was the highest ever recorded on the estuary.

An adult Glaucous Gull was seen at both Hilbre Island and West Kirby. Although numbers of duck on the Marine Lake at West Kirby have been generally low this winter we did get 12 Goldeneye and 14 Red-breasted Mergansers on a couple of occasions. The drake Smew and Green-winged Teal stayed at Inner Marsh Farm all month and 25 Scaup off Leasowe was a nice surprise. Over 60 Bewick's Swan and 10 Whooper Swans were spotted frequenting the marsh near the new Dee Bridge, well out of the way from any disturbance.

12 Twite were unexpected visitors to Wallasey after a gale, presumably blown there from their normal haunt at Flint Castle where 100 were seen. 28 Red-throated Diver and 1 Black-throated Diver observed from Hilbre Island had been blown in by the same gale.

Thanks to Paul Miller of the BTO I have the results of the gull survey undertaken on the Dee Estuary last winter, part of the BTO Winter Gull Roost Survey (WinGS). I'll just summarise here by listing the largest count for each species and their location:
Black-headed Gull, 5,350 at Greenfield.
Common Gull, 3,200 at Greenfield.
Lesser Black-backed Gull, 400 on Oakenholt Marsh.
Herring Gull, 3,730 on the sand banks around
Hilbre Island.
Great Black-backed Gull, 250 on Oakenholt Marsh.

What to expect in February

There are three big high tides predicted for the 10th, 11th and 12th. I say 'predicted' as I'm sure most of us realise how much the weather can influence the actual tide height. Lets just say we are well overdue for a good High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate. But if there is high atmospheric pressure and no significant westerly wind - get down to Riverbank road car park at Heswall where you will get much closer views of the raptors and thousands of waders and duck. Hen Harriers, Short-eared Owls, Peregrines and Merlins should all put in an appearance at both Parkgate and Heswall.

There will still be plenty of waders in the estuary, specially if it is a cold month. The usual Knot, Dunlin and Oystercatchers in their thousands and Redshank numbers start to increase again prior to their departure for their breeding grounds. Purple Sandpipers usually build up to 20 - 30 birds on Hilbre Island, and last year Brent Geese didn't peak until well in to February, so may be more records broken!

On mild days it will be good to get in to the local woods to hear the bird song and remind ourselves that spring is just around the corner. Woodpeckers will be drumming, I actually heard one at the end of December! For those of us working on the new Bird Atlas (see above) it will be a nice way of identifying species for the winter survey - a technique usually employed in the spring.

Many thanks go to  Joseph Wynn, Lockhart Horsburgh, Vi James, John Sharp, Dave Burn, Gill Plevin, Eric Robinson, Iain Douglas, Laura Bimson, Colin Jones, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Kenneth Davies, Ray Roberts, Bernard Machin, Steve Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jamieson, Stefan Cherrug, David Small, Joe Dear, Alex Park, John Ferguson, Jane Turner, Phil Woollen,  Allan Conlin, Steve Ainsworth, Mike Hart, David Esther, Steve Renshaw, Allan Hewitt, Richard Hurst,  Jean Morgan, Steve Edwards, Dave Burn, Colin Davies, 'Chris and Philx', Kevin smith, Robert Hughes, Thomas Giles, Stephen Menzie, Tanny Robinson, John Parker, John Paynter, Ian Hughes, Steve Round, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens  and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during January  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events
February Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
10th February, 12:18hrs 10.1m. Times GMT.
11th February, 13:01hrs 10.1m. 
12th February, 13:42hrs 10.0m. 

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.

Thursday 10th February 11:00am Parkgate Birdwatch.
High tide at Parkgate is the best time to discover the hidden treasures of RSPB Gayton Sands reserve. If the tide reaches the wall, small mammals such as voles, shrews and possibly water rails are flushed out. Meet at the Old Baths car park overlooking the Gayton Sands Nature Reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boathouse pub (HW 12:18, 10.1m). For details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Friday 11th February 11:30am Parkgate Birdwatch.
Another chance to learn about the birdlife of this important saltmarsh reserve. If the tide is high enough flocks of waders will be joined by raptors such as peregrines, hen harriers and short-eared owls. (HW 13:01, 10.1m) For details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 12th February 12:00noon Parkgate Birdwatch .
Third and final chance this month!
(HW 13:42, 10.0m). For details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Monday 14th February – Sunday 20th February, National Nest Box Week.
Various events are taking place throughout the week at Wirral Parks, co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology. For more details phone 0151 648 4371/3884.

Tuesday 15th February, 1:30pm – 3:00pm, Birds are Fun.
Come to Royden Park and discover interesting facts about our local birds. Where do they nest? What do they feed on? Learn about how the resident birds survive the winter. No need to book. Meet at the Ranger’s Office by the Coach House, Royden Park. Children under 8 years old must be accompanied by an adult. For more information phone 0151 677 7594.

Thursday 17th February, 10:00am–12:00noon, Wake Up to Birds.
Join in a birdwatch activity for beginners. A fun way of discovering the local birds of Royden Park. No need to book. Meet at the Ranger’s Office by the Walled Garden, Royden Park. Children under 8 years old must be accompanied by an adult. Please bring binoculars if you have them. For more information phone 0151 677 7594.

Sunday 20th February, 4:00pm, Parkgate Raptor Watch .
Watch the elegant hen harriers come in to roost onto the RSPB reserve at Gayton Sands. Other birds we hope to see include merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to The Boathouse pub. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 26th February, 11:00am-1:00pm, Wader Watch at King’s Gap, Hoylake.
Join the Ranger and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens to see large numbers of waders at close quarters, as they gather to roost with the rising tide. Beginners welcome. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and binoculars if you have them.
No need to book, meet at King's Gap, Hoylake. For further information phone
0151 678 5488.

Friday 11th March, 10:30am, Parkgate Birdwatch.
High tide at Parkgate is the best time to discover the hidden treasures of RSPB Gayton Sands reserve. If the tide reaches the wall, small mammals such as voles, shrews and possibly water rails are flushed out. Meet at the Old Baths car park overlooking the Gayton Sands Nature Reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boathouse pub (HW 11:58, 10.2m). For details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 12th March, 11:00am, Parkgate Birdwatch.
Another chance to learn about the birdlife of this important saltmarsh reserve. If the tide is high enough, flocks of waders will be joined by raptors such as peregrines, hen harriers and short-eared owls.
(HW 12:37, 10.2m)

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2005', 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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