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1st March 2002
Species Spotlight - Greenland Wheatear.
Bird Highlights 2001/02.

Volunteers for Gronant.
Latest Bird Counts.
February Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.



Species Spotlight - Greenland Wheatear


Steve Williams of the Hilbre Bird Observatory.

March in the Dee Estuary heralds the commencement of the spring and there is perhaps no other bird which epitomises the start of the arrival of migrant birds from Africa to the Dee more so than the Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe).

The Wheatear is one of the most familiar long distance migrants to birders in the UK as it is one of the earliest to pass through in spring. Wheatears are amazingly widespread with some even breeding in Alaska, north-east Canada and Greenland. All of these birds along with European and Asian populations winter in Africa (see map below). 

The first birds arrive in the Dee usually in the second week of March and these birds are often seen at Hilbre, Redrocks or Burton Marsh. These early birds are almost always males, who are racing back to the breeding areas to find the best territory. 

The first ones back are of the nominate race and are probably birds heading north to breed in northern England and Scotland. By May, however, distinctly larger individuals are observed on Hilbre and measuring of captured birds has confirmed that they are of the Greenland race (Oenanthe oenanthe leucorrhoa). 

                                                            Peter Williams

To catch the Wheatears we use small portable traps called 'Potter' traps. The birds are often very inquisitive and investigate the trap for food - setting off a spring balance, which closes a door behind them. They are then extracted from the trap by experienced ringers licensed by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), and they are taken back to the Bird Observatory to be identified, measured, weighed and ringed before release for their onward journey north. 

Since we first started using Potter traps we have caught an increasing number of birds each year with 45 birds being ringed in the year 2000 alone. Of these 45 birds an incredible 31 were identified as being of the Greenland race (see photograph), these birds migrating up the west-coast of Britain and then across the north Atlantic to Greenland. 

Ringing recoveries from Britain and Europe, confirm that Greenland Wheatears migrate south-east in the Autumn to western Europe and furthermore they suggest that after making landfall they then head south-west into west Africa were they winter (see map). 

Wheatear map

The best places to look for Wheatears (including the Greenland form) in the Dee Estuary are  Hilbre itself, the Point of Ayr, Redrocks or the marshes at the south end of the Dee. Wheatears pass through the Dee Estuary during March-May and again during August-October. The histogram below shows the spring passage of Wheatears which occurred at Hilbre in 2000, there are two distinct peaks in April (nominate race) and May (Greenland race). 

Wheatear sketch

Greenland Wheatear

We, at Hilbre Bird Observatory and Ringing Station, look forward to our first recovery of a Hilbre ringed Greenland Wheatear. Steve Williams - Hilbre Bird Observatory c/o 129 Ennisdale Drive, West Kirby, Wirral, Merseyside, UK.



Bird Highlights March 2001 to February 2002


The Web site is four years old this month, as last year I've compiled the birding highlights from the previous twelve months:

It was quite a year, with one thing and another. It started badly with the country wide foot and mouth outbreak. This meant the closure of two of the best bird reserves in the area for several months and also restrictions along much of the Welsh coast which adjoins farmland. Luckily both Hilbre island and the beaches on the Wirral coast remained open so we could still get some great birdwatching in. And great it certainly was as you can see below.

It had been a good Waxwing winter and flocks at Upton, Arrowe Park and Heswall were still here in March. The spring migration got off to good start with some particularly early records including a Willow Warbler (8th March), Grasshopper Warbler (1st April) and Pied flycatcher (2nd April) - all probably earliest ever records for Wirral. It was a particularly good year for Grasshopper Warblers with birds heard at several locations, the best being undoubtedly Gronant where ten were located.

One group of birds which caused more excitement than any other, not for rarities but for sheer numbers, were waders. It started in mid summer with 10,000 Knot off Hilbre in June at the height of their breeding season. These Knot were in non breeding plumage and presumably one year old birds which can over summer anywhere within their normal breeding or wintering range. But to see such a large flock in one place in June was remarkable, and unheard of on the Dee. Late summer brought yet another record of Greenshank to Parkgate Boathouse Flash with 104 birds, it is now one of the best places in the country to see this species. But it was winter when we saw really large numbers - 4,900 Black-tailed Godwit, 29,000 Dunlin, 54,000 Knot, 7,944 Bar-tailed Godwit and 1,600 Grey Plover. These were all single counts, i.e. not for the whole estuary. The Black-tailed Godwit count at Connah's Quay is not only a record for the Dee Estuary but might well turn out to be the highest ever count for a single roosting flock for the whole country, this species has been increasing steadily in recent years. The large numbers of the latter four species is particularly pleasing after four poor years.

Personally the birds which gave me the most pleasure were Leach's Petrel. It was a classic year for this species when for several days in September strong winds brought hundreds close into the Irish Sea coast. That same wind also blew in Sabine's gulls with at least four seen. In fact it was an excellent autumn for vagrant American gulls with an American Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull and Laughing Gull all seen.

Little Egrets continued their remarkable increase with numbers trebling from last year to 21, but it was a rare Great White Egret which attracted the twitchers, it stayed from July to November. There was something of an invasion of Short-eared Owls with several seen at Point of Ayr, Burton and Leasowe. But the biggest number by far has been at Parkgate where up to 12 have been seen on the biggest tides. At least 16 Water Rail have also been seen there along with several species of raptors. August was particularly good for raptors on the estuary with nine species recorded, the highlight being four Marsh Harriers in one day.

Over the past 12 months over ninety people have given me their sightings, many thanks to one and all - they are all welcome. Nearly all go into my latest sightings page but if I haven't put your sighting on the web it is usually for a good reason, I have to have some kind of filtering system for reasons of space apart from anything else. Also thanks to anyone who has contributed in other ways by providing illustrations or articles. I would like to thank one person in particular above all others - Jane Turner. As well as providing regular sightings from Hoylake Shore, both high in quantity and quality, she has also given me numerous sketches and photographs, an article and a whole bird report. So many thanks Jane.



Voluntary Wardening at Gronant


Imagine yourself sitting in sand dunes over looking the sea. It is early morning in June and even the Irish Sea looks blue in the sun. Overhead is the constant sound of Sky Larks and all around a beautiful array of wild flowers. Out to sea an occasional Manx Shearwater or Gannet passes by with the more hurried parties of Guillemots and Scoter in groups of twenty or more. In front of you a pair of Ringed Plover are feeding chicks and a young Oystercatcher is hiding in the long grass. 
The most obvious sight and sound, however, is the colony of 80 pair or so of Little Terns nesting on the shingle ridges between you and the sea. There is constant movement as birds go out fishing to bring back a continuous supply of sand eels for the waiting young.  Little Tern
The screeching of the birds is somehow very restful and you are tempted to nod off. Suddenly the noise takes on a different note as the whole colony takes flight. It's that f-ing Kestrel again looking for a breakfast of Little Tern egg and for the third time in an hour you have to rush out in to the colony shouting and bawling, waving your arms and looking like a complete idiot  - just thankful it is too early for any holidaymakers to be about - yes, this is Gronant!

Gronant really is a great place to be birdwatching in the summer and we need voluntary wardens to help protect the Little Terns from marauding crows and kestrels, and the occasional thoughtless holidaymaker. Just half a day a month between May and August would be a great help, more would be even better. E-mail me or ring the local RSPB on 0151 336 7681 for more information. See the August 2001 newsletter to read about the recent history of this colony.



Bird Counts


Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service). 10th February. 
7 Cormorant, 3 Brent Goose (pale bellied), 1,140 Shelduck, 383 Teal, 72 Mallard, 6 Red-breasted Merganser, 1,900 Oystercatcher, 3 Golden Plover, 38 Lapwing, 270 Dunlin, 114 Knot, 211 Dunlin, 154 Black-tailed Godwit, 900 Curlew, 3 Spotted Redshank, 2,670 Redshank and 2 Peregrine.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Flint and Connah's Quay, kindly provided by Brian Grey of the Deeside Naturalists' Society. 10th February.
4 Little Grebe, 5 Great Crested Grebe, 74 Cormorant, 274 Canada Geese, 124 Shelduck, 52 Wigeon, 225 Teal, 95 Mallard, 2 Goldeneye, 41 Coot, 1,020 Lapwing, 165 Dunlin, 1,500 Black-tailed Godwit, 91 Curlew, 2 Spotted Redshank, 468 Redshank, 1 Greenshank.

Inner Marsh Farm  Count for 1st February.
9 Spotted Redshank, 180 Redshank, 900 Dunlin, 1,600 Black-tailed Godwit, 3 Bar-tailed godwit, 20 Knot, 11 Ruff, 1 Greenshank, 49 Shoveler, 160 Coot, 1 Green-winged Teal and 'lots' of Teal.
Please note that the count from Inner Marsh Farm is an informal estimate of species and numbers present, either carried out by myself or other birdwatchers visiting the hide. It is not meant to be a complete count and is not in anyway part of the Wetland Bird Survey or other count which might be carried out by the RSPB.

February Bird News


The strong and mild westerly winds for most of the month seemed to suppress Dunlin and Knot numbers with only a few small flocks seen, more than likely they flew east in search of a more sheltered location.  However that same wind brought a few Leach's Petrels into the Irish Sea, very unusual for this time of the year. The nearest one to the Dee Estuary being New Brighton.

Other waders have been plentiful, 18,000 Oystercatchers were counted during a low tide count between Heswall and Thurstaston and two flocks of at least 1,500 Black-tailed Godwit were at Inner Marsh Farm and Connah's Quay/Flint. Good numbers of Spotted Redshank have been passing through with the highest count being eleven at Inner Marsh Farm.

The strong winds also brought in a good selection of divers and grebes with 40 Red-throated Diver (Hoylake), 6 Great Northern Diver (Point of Ayr) and 73 Great-crested Grebe (Leasowe). There was an excellent passage of Little Gulls, 75 off Hoylake being the highest count.

Brent Geese numbers increased dramatically during the month with 36 at Hilbre, but 41 reported off Heswall is even better than last year's record. These are nearly all of the pale bellied race, I counted only three dark bellied at Hilbre.

Several very high tides have meant some great birdwatching, particularly at Parkgate. Over three hundred people turned up on the last day of the month for the Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch to see the tide come all the way in (just!) when seven Short-eared Owls, several raptors and the usual hundreds of duck and waders were seen. But ironically the best tide turned out to be at the beginning of the month when there was no official birdwatch and consequently far less people to see the birds. The tide came right up to the wall and almost over it, far higher than predicted due to a strong west wind. We saw 12 Short-eared Owl and at least 16 Water Rail - fabulous!

Just two more bits of news. First the latest Hilbre Bird Observatory Report is about to be published, click on the link for details. Secondly - those wanting to visit the hide overlooking Talacre fields (Warren Farm) where there can be large numbers of waders present at high tide can get the keys at any time from the visitor centre at BHPBilliton during office hours and at the BHPBilliton  security office all other times. The hide is on Station Road (on the way to the Point of Ayr) just next to the railway bridge.

What to expect in March: March is one of the most exciting months of the year with the coming of the first spring migrants. Below is a table showing the earliest sightings of some of the more common species over the past three years:
Species 2001 Location 2000  1999
Willow Warbler 8th March West Kirby 27th March 2nd April
ChiffChaff* 11th March Heswall 13th March 17th March
Blackcap* 12th March West Kirby 31st March Late March
Sand Martin 15th March Hoylake 16th March 27th March
Wheatear 22nd March Burton 12th March 12th March
White Wagtail 24th March Hilbre 17th March mid March
Swallow 28th March Hoylake 2nd April 8th April
House Martin 16th April  Greenfield 23rd March Late April
Whitethroat  27th April Caldy/Gronant 25th April 24th April
Swift 21st April  West Kirby 27th April late  April
* As small numbers of both Chiffchaff and Blackcap over winter in the area this is the date they were first heard singing. Locations above for 2001.

The general trend seems to be for earlier and earlier arrival dates so it will be interesting to see if this continues this year. If anyone sees or hears an early arrival please e-mail me, and I will add it to this year's table.

Down on the estuary numbers of waders and duck will fall rapidly as they disperse to their breeding areas. However one species actually increases in March, these are Redshank gathering prior to flying off to Iceland for the summer. We can expect 5,000 or so, best seen at Heswall and Connah's Quay. Look out for birds changing into summer plumage, in particularly Knot, Grey Plover and Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits.  

As can be seen below there are five very high tides during March, including the highest (in day time) tide of the year. This is on Saturday so expect crowds at Parkgate, and fabulous birdwatching!

Many thanks go to Bernard Machin, Dave Harrington,  Dave Wilde,  Alan Jupp, Wendy Allen,  Dorothy Jebb, David Steer, Cedric Cawthorne, Neil Fletcher, Mike Hart, Steve Bulman, John Cambell, Chris Williams, Mark Feltham, Thomas Giles, Ian Lazarus, Pete Rogers, David Hinde, John Kirkland, Frank Huband,  Brian Grey, Jeff Clarke, Chris Butterworth, Bill Owens,  David Esther, Martyn Jaimeson, Carl Clee, Jane Turner and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens for their sightings during February. I rely on the goodwill of people like this, unlike some commercial sites I cannot offer financial inducements!

Forthcoming Events


March Highest Spring Tides
1st March, 12.44hrs 10.3m. (all times GMT)
2nd March, 13.26hrs 10.2m. 
29th March, 11.38hrs 10.3m. 
30th March, 12.22hrs 10.4m. 
31st March, 13.04hrs 10.3m. 

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.

Friday 1st March 11:00am, Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
A genuine wildlife spectacular in the North-West. Memorable views of clouds of waders gathering at the edge of the tide, whilst rarely observed birds such as Water Rails and Short-eared Owls are flushed from the saltmarsh by the advancing torrent. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. (HW 12:44, 10.3m) Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 2nd March 11:45am, Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
A genuine wildlife spectacular in the North-West. Memorable views of clouds of waders gathering at the edge of the tide, whilst rarely observed birds such as Water Rails and Short-eared Owls are flushed from the Saltmarsh by the advancing torrent. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. (HW 13:26, 10.2m) Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 3rd March 12noon - 1.30pm, Beginners Birdwatch at Kings Gap, Hoylake Promenade.
 An excellent opportunity to see large numbers of waders at close quarters as they gather to roost on the remaining exposed sand as the tide rises. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and binoculars if you have them. No need to book. Meet at Kings Gap, North Parade, Hoylake. For further information tel. 0151 678 5488 

Saturday 16th March  9:30am, Heswall. High Tide Birdwatch.
Witness the fantastic array of waders and wildfowl that gather along the banks of the Heswall Gutter. Highlights include Black-tailed Godwits and possibly the first Wheatear of the year. No need to book. Meet at Banks Road car park, near Sheldrake's Restaurant. For further information tel. 0151 648 4371/3884.

March 22nd to 7th April
National Exhibition of Wildlife Art
The exhibition is open to the public from March 22nd to 7th April at Road Range Gallery,
Mann Island, 
Pier Head, Liverpool.

The exhibition is open seven days a week, Mon to Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat and Sun 11am - 4pm. Admission Free. Free draw every day of a wildlife print donated by one of the exhibiting artists. A percentage of the sales will go to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. This exhibition, now in its eight year is the largest open selling exhibition of original wildlife art in the UK.

Kingfisher painting
Terance James Bond

Friday 29th March 10:00am Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
A genuine wildlife spectacular in the North-West. Clouds of waders gathering at the edge of the tide as rarely observed birds such as Water Rails and Short-eared Owls are flushed from the saltmarsh by the advancing torrent. (HW 11:38, 10.3m) Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 30th March 10:45am Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
A genuine wildlife spectacular in the North-West as the biggest predicted tide of the year cascades over the marsh. (HW 12:22, 10.4m) Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 31st March 12:30pm Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
One of the year's biggest tides should provide memorable views and sounds of the flooding marsh. Waders, raptors, water rails and mammals vie for our attention. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn (HW 14:04, 10.3m). Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 6th April 12:30pm Grebes at Greenfield.
Join the RSPB warden in a search for grebes and mergansers. Enjoy a relaxing walk along the coastal fields with finches and wheatears on offer. No need to book. (LW 14:12, 3.2m) Meet at Greenfield Dock car park, off Dock Rd, Greenfield. Further information contact RSPB tel. 0151 336 7681.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from 'Birdwatchers Diary 2002', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371 or by from myself.