Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st February 2007
WeBS Report 2004/05.
Review of Hilbre Bird Report 2005.
Cheshire & Wirral Bird Report 2005.
Review of Birding North West.
January Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Tony Broome

WeBS Report 2004/05

The Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS) Report for 2004/05 has just been published and can be obtained from the BTO (see This report gives data from all the main sites from across the country for waterbirds and, as you would expect, the Dee Estuary features significantly in the report. It enables us to judge how important the Dee Estuary is for different species relative to the rest of the country and allows us to look at trends both locally and nationally.

It has to be said that the winter of 2004/05 was not a particularly good one for the Dee Estuary with overall numbers down on 03/04. The total number of birds present for 2004/05 was calculated as 115,259, compared to 171,906 the previous winter and the five year average of 148,986. In 2004/05 the Dee Estuary had the eighth highest total in the country, and the seventh highest five year average. Ten species were found to be present in Internationally important numbers, namely: Shelduck, Teal, Pintail, Oystercatcher, Knot, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Redshank.

Was there any particular reason for numbers to be low in 2004/05? As there are so many species and many variables to take in to account it is never possible to pin it down to any particular problem but no doubt mild and windy weather depresses numbers as does high spring tides covering the main high tide wader roosts on WeBS count days at West Kirby and Hoylake, both of which we had on 04/05. The WeBS counts take place once a month and the dates are specified before hand. If, say, during the four crucial winter months there are two high spring tides covering the main wader roosts at West Kirby and Hoylake, a third count is low because of disturbance at Hoylake - perhaps a couple of peregrines clearing the beach or horse riders deciding it would be fun to gallop through the birds, and if the remaining count is ruined by thick fog or heavy rain - then we will get low peak counts for several species which won't necessarily accurately reflect numbers present for the majority of the winter. Of course low counts may also be due to real changes in populations and that is why the WeBS report always publishes five year averages which are a much better way to observe trends as they tend to even out the more random variables such as weather and disturbance.

To give you a flavour of the report I have given a brief account of 12 species:

Bewick's Swan
Bewick's Swans in Britain occur in the Ouse Washes and nowhere else, apart from a few small flocks. An over simplification, perhaps, but the max count on the Ouse Washes in 04/05 was a remarkable 7,491, the next highest being only 262 on the nearby Nene Washes. Over the past ten years or so numbers in the Ouse Washes have steadily increased whilst those elsewhere have decreased. So in terms of those 'few small flocks' the 101 we had on the Dee Estuary in 04/05 was of national importance and was the ninth largest count in the country. Incidentally Whooper Swans have been steadily increasing in the country over the past ten years and from counts I've seen we seem to have had more overwintering here on the estuary over these past two winters; indeed we had a record 33 Whooper Swans on Shotwick fields in Jan 2007 along with the Bewick's. We also get Mute Swans and the occasional wandering feral Black Swans in these same fields, there can't be many places in the world where you can see a flock of four species of swan!

The Dee Estuary remains the second most important site in the country for this species with the highest ever count of 13,334 in Oct 2004; over Sep and Oct the Dee Estuary had the highest counts in the country. The moulting flock on the Mersey Estuary reached 13,420 counted in July, undoubtedly many of these birds fly the short distance over Wirral to the Dee when their moult is over. There are two other trends apparent on the Dee Estuary, firstly that numbers fall off rapidly through the winter such that there were only 655 present in Feb 2005. Secondly the 3,000 or so which are counted on the Dee Estuary during Jul and Aug indicate that this number are now moulting on the estuary, although it is possible that this represents pre- and/or post-moult gatherings.
See Species Spotlight - Shelduck.

Taking the five year average the Dee Estuary remains the most important site in the country for this species, with 5,374. However, as numbers dropped by 2,005 from the previous winter the Solway Firth had the highest numbers in 2004/05, but by just 40 birds! The North West of England/South West of Scotland is a stronghold for this species with a combined total in Oct 2004 for the Dee, Morecambe Bay and Solway of 12,284.

Little Egret
The max Little Egret count on the Dee Estuary for 2004/05 was 50 coming in to roost in Feb 2005 (numbers have more than trebled since then). The stronghold for this species is along the south coasts of England and Wales so not unsurprisingly the Dee Estuary had only the 27th highest number. But we are rapidly moving up this table with the highest count in 2006 being 169; only eight sites in the country had three figure numbers in 04/05. What I find intriguing about the northward expansion of the Little Egret is that it has appeared to have stopped dead at the Dee Estuary on the west coast, and on the Wash on the east coast. For example, on the Ribble Estuary just to the north of us the max WeBS count was only four in 04/05, although the 2005 Lancashire Bird Report does indicate the species is increasing in that county the max count is still only in single figures.
See Species Spotlight - Little Egret.

Oystercatchers at Hoylake (Jan 2007) © Richard Smith

The Dee Estuary has always been an important site for Oystercatchers and it remains the third most important in the country with a five year average of 24,682. In the early 1990s we used to get 35,000 or so but (alleged) rampant over fishing of the cockle beds saw a decline to a minimum of 12,506 by 99/00. Much improved control over the cockling fishery recently has led to a recovery of numbers since then. It is hoped that by 2008 a new Cockle Regulation Order will be in place which will give the Environment Agency more powers to further control the cockling.
See Species Spotlight - Oystercatcher.

In my introduction to this article I explained how tide height, weather and disturbances can have a big effect on birds counted at high tide on WeBS count days. One of the species most effected by these factors is undoubtedly the Knot. If I give the max counts for the past five winters (00/01 to 04/05) you will see just how much numbers can fluctuate: 5,672, 52,792, 26,769, 38,070 and 10,243; the five year average is 26,709 making the Dee Estuary the seventh most important site in the country for Knot. There is much evidence that when the tides are high enough to cover the main roost sites on the Dee Estuary the Knot fly across the Mersey channel to roost on the Alt Estuary/Formby beach area instead.
See Species Spotlight - Knot.

Part of the large feeding flock of Knot off the North Wirral coast  (Dec 2006) © Richard Smith

Like Knot (and probably for the same reasons) numbers were well down in 04/05 with a max count of 16,878, compared to the max count of 41,679 in 03/04 and a five year average of 31,185. The low count means that the Dee Estuary was only the seventh most important site in the country for this species in 04/05, but the fourth most important taking the five year average. The Mersey Estuary remains the most important site with a five year average of 49,548.
See Species Spotlight - Dunlin.

Black-tailed Godwit
To quote the WeBS report "The increase in the Icelandic race of the Black-tailed Godwit islandica shows no sign of abating". Numbers in the country increased by another 10% from 03/04 to 04/05, and by five fold since the mid-1980's. We have certainly seen a huge increase in numbers on the Dee Estuary with peak counts increasing by about ten-fold over the same time period. In Sept we had the highest number of passage birds, 6,452, which was also a record number for the estuary. Over-wintering numbers increased to 5,362, making the Dee the second most important site in the country, just below the Wash's max count of 5,492.
See Species spotlight - Black-tailed Godwit.

Numbers dropped by just over 1,000 to 3,668 in 04/05 but the Dee remains the third most important site in the country. Much higher numbers were present on passage with 6,993 in Aug, the third highest passage count for the country.

Passage numbers remain very high on the Dee Estuary with the Aug count of 10,208 the highest in the country. The majority of these birds were counted at their Heswall roost. Numbers of over-wintering birds remained steady at 5,812 (Jan count) with a five year average of 6,373 which makes the Dee the second most important site behind Morecambe Bay.
See Species Spotlight - Redshank.

Little Tern
The Little Tern colony at Gronant had a good breeding season in 2004 with 167 fledged young and no doubt this contributed to the Dee Estuary having the highest count in the country in the 2004/05 report with 300 in July 2004. See Species Spotlight - Little Tern.

Sandwich Tern
The Dee Estuary is an important post-breeding stopover and nursery for Sandwich terns. 759 counted in July 2004 may well be an underestimate as many birds tend to be out in Liverpool Bay at high tide, the max count from Hilbre of 1,200 is probably a more realistic figure. The count in 2004 was the fifth highest in the country. The nearest breeding colony is at Cemlyn Bay in Anglesey and here there was a count of 2,700 in May; it is very likely that many of the birds seen on the Dee Estuary later in the summer bred in Cemlyn Bay.
See Species Spotlight - Sandwich Tern.

Sandwich Terns flying past Gronant in a fresh breeze © Jim Armstrong

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Hilbre Bird Report 2005 - Review

Richard Smith

The 2005 edition of the Hilbre Observatory and ringing Station Report has now been published. It is available at the very reasonable price of £3.50 which includes p&p, make cheques out to 'Hilbre Bird Observatory' and send to:
129 Ennisdale Drive, Newton, West Kirby, Wirral CH48 9UG.

As usual the main body of the report contains the systematic list describing a total of 156 species. Illustrating the report are 15 colour and 16 black and white photographs plus six histograms. The cover, left, includes an excellent colour drawing of the Dartford Warbler by Ray Scally. The species in 2005 included yet another record number of Brent Geese, another Yellow Browed Warbler for the island plus the first records of American Wigeon and Dartford Warbler. Fascinating articles detailing the discovery of the latter three species are featured in the report.

Regular articles include full details of the Observatory's ringing activities with a total of 712 birds ringed. One of the pale-bellied Brent Geese was found to have been ringed in Iceland. The Breeding Birds article is always fascinating, I find it amazing just how many birds breed on the islands.

There are details of mammals, amphibia, cephalopoda, asteroidea, molluscs and invertebrates. A new highest ever count of Grey Seals was recorded plus the islands first ever Brimstone butterfly.

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Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report 2005

We’re delighted to say that the annual report for 2005 is now available. There’s an eye-catching colour front cover depicting a stunning portrait of a Kingfisher. The 168 pages of text includes 12 distribution maps, 11 graphs and 14 beautiful illustrations from two different artists. An updated colour map of the county forms the centre spread of the report. There are seven pages of colour photographs which best capture some of the highlights of the year. But there is no doubt that 2005 will be remembered as ‘the Waxwing year’ when large numbers invaded the country breaking records wherever they went, including here in Cheshire and Wirral. Phil Oddy’s comprehensive article on this remarkable event makes for fascinating reading. But Waxwings were not the only species of particular interest in 2005. There are articles on our first ever Chimney Swift and the second record of a Black Kite in the county, plus accounts of a Long-billed Dowitcher at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB, Whiskered Terns on Ashton’s Flash, Cetti’s Warblers in Neston Reed Bed RSPB and Pallas’s Warbler at Crossley. The increase in Little Egret numbers over the past few years, particularly on the Dee estuary marshes, is nothing short of phenomenal. In 2005 they bred next to the estuary for the first time, Colin Wells’ article tells all about this landmark event.

All the ‘regulars’ are there: ‘Weather and Bird Review of the Year’; the full ‘Systematic List of Birds Recorded in Cheshire and Wirral during 2005’, including ‘Category E Species’; ‘Early and Late Dates for Migrants’; ‘BBRC and County Rarities Decisions’; ‘Ringing Report’; ‘Chairman’s Review’; ‘Database Statistics for 2005’ and finally advice on the ‘Submission of Records’.

 Waxwing at Chester and Cetti's Warbler in Neston Reed Bed. ©  Steve Round

Last, but not least, we have again included 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. This will be particularly useful to those not familiar with new Systematic List order now adopted for the first time.

Cost of the report has been kept at £6.70 + £1.30 p&p and copies are available from:
Peter Mathews, Hordern Farm Pottery, Buxton New Road, Macclesfield, Cheshire, SK11 0AN
Tel: 01625 614501.

We would welcome comments and suggestions regarding the report – what do you particularly like and what could be improved upon? What articles or additional features would you like to see included? Would you like to see more colour photographs, cost-permitting? Do give us your views and help us to make sure the report improves year on year.

Sheila Blamire, Technical Editor
Woodruff Cottage, Clamhunger Lane, Mere, Cheshire, WA16 6QG
Tel: 01565 830168  Email:

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Birding North West  - Review

Richard Smith

The Birding North West magazine starts it's fourth year this month and is surely a 'must have' for the area's birders. The area covered by this monthly magazine includes Cheshire & Wirral, North Wales, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cumbria and Isle of Man; when you consider some of the superb birding sites in this area it is no wonder that the editors are able to pack it full of fascinating news, articles, photographs and comments every month. Each month there are articles about rarities by the people who actually found each particular species along with site guides, identification guides, a monthly round up, national bird news and general news and comments from readers.

The best way I can summarise the magazine is to give a list of some of the articles from 2006, so here goes:

January - Point of Ayr Site Guide.
February - Identification and Status of Adult Kumlien's Gull.
March - Pomarine Skuas in the Solway Firth.
April - Alpine Swift at the Fox and hounds, Barnston.
May - Woodchat Shrikes in Conwy and Cumbria.
June - Spring 2006 on Bardsey.
July - Stilt Sandpiper at Conwy RSPB Reserve.
August - Great White Pelican in Lancashire.
September - Local patching at its best: The Great Orme.
October - Site guide: Wigan Flashes.
November - RSPB Makes Investment in Dee Wildlife.
December - Leach's Petrels Wreck - December 2006. 

The above is just a small sample of the articles published in 2006 with typically three or four published each month along with the regular bird news etc.

The annual subscription is £24 for 12 issues, cheques should be made payable to 'CAW Birding' and sent to:
5 Westbourne Road, West Kirby, Wirral CH48 4DG. Please make sure you include your postal details.

See also

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January Bird News

I think it is fair to say that the near hurricane winds on the 18th were the strongest for a very long time around the Dee Estuary area. It brought down an awful lot of trees including one which cut my telephone line and meant I couldn't fully update this website for a week. Between 1140hrs and 1420hrs the average wind speed was above 48 knots, in other words storm Force 10, and for 45 mins around 1330hrs it blew Force 11, just below a full blown hurricane! It was only an 8.8m tide on the 18th but it nearly covered the marsh at Parkgate, as did the strong westerly blowing two days later on the 20th. (Weather data from

Perhaps as we have been having strong winds all winter the gale didn't seem to have a large impact on the birds although a Common Tern at Hilbre on the 19th was no doubt blown in by the gale and is the first January record for Wirral. Also off Hilbre on the 19th were 34 Great Crested Grebe, 6 Red-throated diver, 16 Guillemot and 2 Razorbill. Virtually absent for most of the winter Short-eared Owls suddenly appeared a couple of days after the gale with three over Parkgate Marsh RSPB and another one at Thurstaston.

A spell of still sunny weather from 22nd to 24th was an opportunity for Pink-footed Geese to move across the country from Norfolk to South Lancs. Many passed overhead through the Dee Estuary with 850 on the 22nd, 350 on 23rd and a remarkable 4,500 - 5,000 on 24th. The first flocks appeared around 11am each day, just enough time for the birds to have left the Wash at first light and travelling at 30 - 40mph over a distance of about 120 miles. These numbers are small compared to the total population in this country of about 270,000, nevertheless it was a fantastic sight seeing these birds especially knowing that they had crossed right across the country to get here.

Brent Geese off Hilbre Island, Dec 16th 2006, © Richard Smith

The highest number of Brent Geese on the estuary occurred on the 1st with 105 on Hilbre and three on Oakenholt Marsh RSPB, not quite beating last winter's record of 110. We've had record numbers of over-wintering Whooper Swans on Shotwick fields with a max of 33, but only 20 or so Bewick's Swans. The drake Green-winged Teal was seen yet again at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB; 1,400 Wigeon and 10 Gadwall were good numbers for Oakenholt Marsh RSPB on 12th. 

With mild and windy weather for most of the month wader numbers have been low although we did get 11,000 Knot, 5,000 Dunlin and 100 Sanderling on Hoylake Shore on the 23rd and the peak Knot count at Thurstaston was a respectable 16,000. The Curlew Sandpiper is still overwintering at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB and up to 10 Spotted Redshanks have been on Oakenholt Marsh RSPB.

An Arctic Skua off New Brighton on the 4th was a good record for January. A Great Northern Diver was seen flying off Hoylake Shore on the 26th. Snow Buntings have been few and far between this winter but six were at Point of Ayr on 14th; 20 Twite was a good number for Burton Marsh RSPB on 28th, these are usually only soon on the Welsh side of the estuary, 20 were at Point of Ayr on the 19th.

What to expect in February

The first of the really high spring tides of the year take place this month, on the 19th, 20th and 21st. If the weather is anything like what we have been having for most of the winter, i.e. strong south west winds, the tides could be massive. These February tides usually produce the most birds as many of the over-wintering birds will still be here - so expect Water Rails, Short-eared Owls, Hen Harriers and Jack Snipe, as well as all the usual waders and wildfowl. However, I just get the feeling that we are well overdue for a period of cold still weather which, unfortunately, means no west wind to blow the tide in. But if that is the case there is no need to worry - get down to Heswall Riverbank Road where the marsh gets covered at a much lower tide height than Parkgate and, as the car park is raised up above the marsh, views of the birds can be superb. If the tide does decide to come in higher than expected it is only a 10 minute drive back up to Parkgate.

If we do get a spell of cold weather then that will be good news for waders as numbers will stay high throughout the month, the last two winters have produced very high numbers of Dunlin and Knot at the main high tide roosts at West Kirby and Hoylake. Both Brent Geese and Purple Sandpipers often peak in February, best seen at Hilbre.

Sea-watching can be surprisingly good - if we get calm weather after a spell of strong westerlies then expect to see good numbers of Common Scoters, Great-crested Grebes and Red-throated Divers and perhaps some of their rarer brethren such as Velvet Scoters, Slavonian Grebes and Black-throated Diver.

Many thanks go to David Haigh, James smith, Andrew Wallbank, Keith Duckers, Vic Tyler Jones, John Little, Chris Davies, Trevor Taylor, David Esther, Jason Stannage, Keith Hopwood, Geoff Robinson, Mal Smerdon, Phil Woollen, John Chaplin, Damian Waters, David Goodwin, Jeremy Bradshaw, Robert Williams, Paul Mason, John Roberts, Stuart Taylor, Paul Rutter, Gilbert Bolton, Steve Edwards, Allan Conlin, Kenneth Davies, Mike Hart, Dave Wild, Colin Schofield, Steve Round, Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Steve Wrigley, Jane Turner, Charles Farnell, Richard Steel, Laura Bimson,  Jean Morgan, Karen Leeming, Paul Shenton, Ian Emmitt, Paul Murphy, Chris Wilding, Dave Edwards, Eric Osbaldeston, Martin Kelly, Graham Shortt, John Fisher, David Ritchie, Derek Pover, 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

February Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
19th February, 12.27hrs 10.1m. GMT.
20th February, 13.08hrs 10.2m. GMT.
21st February, 13.49hrs 10.0m. 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 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.

Sunday 18th February 1.30pm - 3.30pm. Nestbox Builder.
With spring around the corner the birds will be thinking of making their nests so why not lend a helping hand? Pop down to Wirral Country Park and make a birdbox for your garden birds. There is a small charge for this event to cover costs and places are limited so book early! This event is suitable for all the family to enjoy. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Monday 19th February 11:00am, Parkgate Birdwatch.
High tide at Parkgate is the best time to discover the hidden treasures of the Dee Estuary RSPB 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 reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boat House pub (HW 12:27, 10.1m). No need to book.

Tuesday 20th 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 13:08, 10.2m).

Wednesday 21st February 12am, Parkgate Birdwatch.
High tide at Parkgate is the best time to discover the hidden treasures of the Dee Estuary RSPB 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 Dee Estuary Reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boat House pub (HW 1349, 10.0m). For details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681. No need to book.

Sunday 4th March  6.30am - 9.30am. Mad March Hares.
Join the Rangers on a guided walk to search for Brown Hares in the fields surrounding the Wirral Way. If we're lucky we may get to see 'boxing' between males and females. Please bring warm waterproof clothing, stout footwear and binoculars if you have them. This event is suitable for the whole family to enjoy. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 11th March 5pm, Parkgate Raptor Watch.
Watch the elegant hen harriers come in to roost on the RSPB reserve at Parkgate. Other birds we hope to see include 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 Boathouse pub.

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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