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1st March 2003
5 Years on the Web!
Bird Highlights.
Photos and Links.
Latest Bird Counts.
February Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Newsletter Index.

Reflections on Five Year of Internet Birdwatching


Running a popular website is a bit like being a pop star - adoring fans, loads of money and pictures in the papers.......if only. Mind you, I do get the occasional e-mail praising the website (which at a pinch could be described as fan mail) and I have had my picture in the paper. So I suppose two out of three ain't bad, shame about the money!

When I started the website five years ago I was completely unknown in local birdwatching circles. All my life I've had a love of the estuary and its birds but it was very much as a casual birdwatcher. Or perhaps more accurately a lazy birdwatcher - it wasn't that I couldn't tell the difference between Knot and Dunlin, I just didn't bother, being content  to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. 

Richard Smith - that's me!

So why did I start the website? It seemed a natural way of combining two of my interests - computers and birds. Five years ago the World Wide Web was really taking off and free web space readily available. As I had some knowledge of computer languages at work, all self taught mind you, it was easy to dabble in HTML code and write a simple website. I called it 'A Birdwatching Guide to the Dee Estuary', loosely based on the range of American Birding Guides by James Lane.

Over the ensuing five years the website has proved a huge motivation for me in terms of the estuary, the birds and, perhaps more surprisingly, socially. In addition I like to think my writing has improved and I've developed publicity skills I never thought I had. It has been a voyage of discovery.

To be able to write the guide I had to get to know what I was writing about. The Welsh side of the estuary in particular was almost unknown to me and I had a wonderful time exploring not just the coast but the woods and streams in the hills behind. Greenfield Valley in particular was a delight, but the biggest thrill was getting to know Gronant. So near to a huge caravan site yet walking a few yards into the sand dunes is like walking into another world - full of wild flowers and terns in the summer, wild and bleak in the winter. With an area the size of the Dee Estuary it is no surprise that I'm still discovering new places, often little corners hidden away only known to local birdwatchers.

Now confession time - I'm not a twitcher and I'm not an expert on bird identification, unfortunately a lot of people make the assumption I'm both! Competitive birding just doesn't appeal to me, which basically is what twitching is, and I'm still a comparative novice when it comes to identifying birds. That isn't to say that my bird ID skills haven't come on in leaps and bounds over the past five years. Its given me a great thrill being able to identify local rarities but I'm not one for chasing them round the country. Where I have built up an expertise is in monitoring numbers and trends of the more common species on the estuary. I find following the movements of these waders and wildfowl fascinating. Where do 50,000 Knot come from, here one day and gone the next? Why are Mallard numbers dropping? Are Oystercatcher numbers really falling or are we missing one of their high tide roosts? Why have Black-tailed Godwits numbers doubled in the past three years?

Initially the website was just a site guide but it quickly grew with the introduction of a monthly newsletter, followed shortly after by a latest sightings page. The result of all this was that I needed interesting topics to write about and bird sightings from all round the estuary. Basically this meant going out and chatting to people, getting to know the local birders, Rangers and Wardens, and also publicising the website. Both myself and the website slowly became recognised as a reliable source of birdwatching information. I now have news of bird sightings given to me every day from numerous sources - e-mails, text messages, phone calls and by post. Other sources of information have included the Wetland Bird Survey, with data going back 30 years or more, and  the local Cheshire, Clwyd and Hilbre bird reports - packed full of bird info.

I've become involved in various birdwatching activities on the estuary - as sources of information in themselves, but also to give something back to the estuary and the birds. In other words I've become involved in the conservation side of the estuary, something everyone of us should try to do. I've become a voluntary warden at West Kirby in the winter and at Gronant in the summer, I'm a Wetland Bird Survey counter and help compile the Cheshire Bird Report. I also contribute articles to the Wirral Wildlife newsletter and Cheshire Bird News, but I always take the opportunity to publicise the website!

If I had space I would have liked to thank everyone individually who has helped me with the website, but it would have been a very long list! But thanks anyway to all those that have sent me their bird sightings and counts. Special thanks also to those talented few who have let me use their bird sketches and photographs, particularly useful as I can't draw and am not much good at bird photography! Other people have helped by very generously donating articles for the newsletter. Remarkably these have included two complete and comprehensive bird reports, something I wouldn't have believed possible 5 years ago. So thanks to everyone, keep those sightings rolling in!



Bird Highlights March 2002 to February 2003


2002 brought some superb high tide birdwatching at Parkgate. On all ten days the tide came either right over, or nearly over, the marsh. Highlights include 7 Short-eared Owls, 1 Hen Harrier, Peregrines, Merlins, 30 Brambling, 78 Snipe, 15 Jack Snipe, 1 Spotted Crake, 3,000 Teal and 6,500 Wigeon.

The spring migration was particularly notable for a good passage of Ring Ouzels. Altogether 14 sightings compared with just 3 in 2001. Other good numbers were 30 Yellow and 100 White Wagtails at Shotwick and thirty Wheatear at both Hoylake and Leasowe.

The RSPB at Burton, with facilities limited by planning restrictions, were hard pressed to cope with large numbers of birders due to one good bird after another over the past 12 months. The more unusual of them included a Marsh Sandpiper, Gull-billed Tern and Long-billed Dowitcher.

A pair of Avocets turned up in spring, part of a mini colonisation of the North-West. They moved on, but one returned after breeding and brought four youngsters with it. Between one and four Spoonbills were present in the Burton and Parkgate area the whole summer.

Out to sea the summer was particularly notable for the number of Gannets seen off the mouth of the estuary with several in sight most days, especially when the wind was in the west. It was also a good summer for Arctic Skuas, no doubt chasing the Gannets and other sea birds. There was a record number of Common Terns at Shotton, 555 pairs, but unfortunately poor weather just after the chicks hatched meant the total fledged was down on last year. The Little Terns at Gronant had a much better year than last, with 60-65 chicks fledged. A Stone Curlew turning up in the middle of the tern breeding season was an unexpected visitor to Gronant.

The autumn was notable for yet another record number of Black-tailed Godwit with 4,200 in October, most of them at Connah's Quay. September was virtually windless so no Leach's Petrel passage but a very strong gale at the end of October blew a few in to the north Wirral coast, along with a Sabine's Gull and hundreds of Kittiwakes.

A ringtail Hen Harrier spent the winter on the marsh at the head of the estuary, roosting off Parkgate, it was joined for a short time by a male bird. This is the first Hen Harrier to over winter here since 1998/99. The Marsh Harrier which also joined the Hen Harrier for a short time in December and January was much more unexpected, they normally winter in southern Europe and Africa.


Photos and Links


I have taken the opportunity to update both the photographs and links pages.  All the bird photographs have been replaced with new ones, and just over half the ones of the estuary itself. I am most grateful to all those that have let me use their photographs.

The links page has been updated with the simple expedient of getting rid of most of them! So now I only include two sets of links, local web sites and those which specialise in providing general birding links.


Bird Counts


Wetland Bird Survey Count for Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society), 16th February.
3 Little Grebe, 8 Great Crested Grebe, 77 Cormorant, 2 Mute Swan, 45 Shelduck, 245 Wigeon, 19 Gadwall, 286 Teal, 124 Mallard, 3 Goldeneye, 45 Coot, 47 Oystercatcher, 253 Lapwing, 220 Dunlin, 2,500 Black-tailed Godwit, 45 Curlew, 7 Spotted Redshank, 375 Redshank, 3 Greenshank.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 16th February.
61 Shelduck, 115 Teal, 12 Mallard, 4,500 Oystercatcher, 45 Golden Plover, 350 Lapwing, 370 Knot, 500 Dunlin, 700 Black-tailed Godwit, 640 Curlew, 850 Redshank. Low count due to poor visibility.


February Bird News


A good month for geese with a maximum of 26 Brent Geese on Hilbre, 145 Pink-footed Geese and 16 White-fronted Geese. The latter two species stayed on Burton Marsh for most of the month. It was particularly pleasing to see the 'White-fronts' which are quite rare in this part of the country. Also at Burton have been a good numbers of Swans with up to 120 Bewick's reported with about 30 Mute Swans.
smew The drake Smew, Long-tailed Duck and drake Green-winged Teal which have been about all winter were still here for most of the month. The former two commuting between Inner Marsh Farm and Shotwick boating lake.

A count of 3,200 Black-tailed Godwits on the estuary was a very good number for February. 2,500 were at Connah's Quay and the rest off Heswall. Purple Sandpipers reached 25 on Hilbre, better than last winter but still a bit short from the more normal 35 to 45 recorded in previous winters.

Due to the high pressure and southerly winds which kept the tide low the high tide birdwatches at Parkgate were a bit disappointing. But we did get a great view of the ringtail Hen Harrier which put up 3 Short-eared Owls. Out to sea, off Hilbre, the highlights have been 21 Red-throated Divers, 2 Shags and 22 Great Crested Grebe. Common Scoters in the Irish Sea are just that, very common! But it is unusual to see them close to the coast, so the eleven I saw flying within 50 foot of Red Rocks were somewhat unexpected. Another duck we don't see much of these days is the Scaup, so it was good to have 20 off Moreton in the middle of the month.

What to expect in March.
The return of the first summer migrants makes March one of the most exciting months of the year. The table below shows the first sightings of some of our more commoner species over the three previous years. As you can see there is quite a variation in dates from year to year, although the general trend over the past five years has been for increasingly earlier dates. Please let me know by  if you see an early migrant and I'll put straight into my latest sightings page, many thanks!

Species 2002 Location 2001 2000
Blackcap* 8th March Irby 12th March 31st March
ChiffChaff* 15th March Neston 11th March 13th March
Wheatear 16th March Hilbre 22nd March 12th March
White Wagtail 16th March Hilbre 24th March 17th March
Sand Martin 18th March Inner Marsh F. 15th March 16th March
Swallow 27th March Hilbre 28th March 2nd April
Willow Warbler 29th March Hoylake 8th March 27th March
House Martin  13th April West Kirby 16th April  23rd March
Whitethroat  19th April   Inner Marsh F.  27th April 25th April
Cuckoo 21st April   Hoylake 7th May  25th April
Swift 23rd April   Meols 21st April  27th 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 2002.


To observe this migration we need a light south-easterly wind and overcast skies. The first two to three hours after dawn is best. Prime spots are the north Wirral coast, Hilbre Island and Point of Ayr.

On the estuary many species will notably decline in number during March. But it is a complex picture as we will start to see passage waders coming through. These are birds which spend winter in southern Europe and Africa on their way north to breed. An increase in Redshank numbers is almost certainly due to Icelandic birds gathering before moving north. There will also be much movement of Oystercatchers with British breeders moving to their their breeding grounds whilst those breeding in Iceland and the Faeroe Islands delaying their departure. Yet another Icelandic breeder, the Purple Sandpiper, will remain in good numbers on Hilbre right up to mid-April before moving off. 

The channel of the River Dee at low tide off Greenfield Dock is a good place to see Red-breasted Mergansers and Great Crested Grebes, before they move inland to breed. Three big high tides over 10 metres this month which should give some spectacular birdwatching (see below for events), lets hope the weather is right for the tide to cover the marsh.

Many thanks go to Alan Jupp, Bernard Machin, Roy Palmer, Colin Jones, Ian Emmitt, Dave and Emma Kenyon,  John Kirkland, David Hinde, Keith Lester, Keith Hiller, Phil Woolen, Mark Feltham, Dorothy Jebb, Matt Thomas, Paul Rowlands, Gary Shingler, Chris Knox, Jean Morgan,  John Campbell,  Colin Schofield, Nigel Troup,  Brian Grey,  Mike Hart,  Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson,  David Esther and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens for their sightings during February. All sightings are gratefully received.

Forthcoming Events


February Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
19th March, 11:56hrs 10.1m. (all times GMT)
20th March, 12.37hrs 10.2m. 
21st March, 13.18hrs 10.1m. 

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 2nd March 08:30am. Banks Road Birdwatch, Heswall.
Witness the fantastic array of waders and wildfowl as they gather along the banks of the Heswall Gutter. Highlights include Black-tailed Godwits and Peregrines. (HW11:03, 9.2m) Meet at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrake's Restaurant. For further information tel. 0151 648 4371/3884

Wednesday 19th March 10:15am. Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
Coastal birdwatching at its best! Peregrines and Merlins patrol the saltmarsh, darting through huge flocks of ducks and waders making a real wildlife spectacular. Secretive birds such as Water Rails and Short-eared Owls are flushed out of their saltmarsh hiding places by the advancing tide. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. (HW 11:56, 10.1m) For further details call 0151 336 7681.

Thursday 20th March 11:00am. Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
Coastal birdwatching at its best! Peregrines and Merlins patrol the saltmarsh, darting through huge flocks of ducks and waders making a real wildlife spectacular. Secretive birds such as Water Rails flee from the rising waters and have even been seen taking refuge under parked cars! (HW 12:37, 10.2m) Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. For further details call 0151 336 7681.

Friday 21st March 11:30am.  Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch
The best coastal birdwatching has to offer! Peregrine Falcons and Merlins patrol the saltmarsh, darting through huge flocks of ducks and waders making a real wildlife spectacular. Secretive birds such as Water Rails and Short-eared Owls are flushed out of their saltmarsh hiding places by the advancing tide. (HW 13:18, 10.1m) Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. For further details call 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 23rd March 12:30pm start. An Introduction to the WeBS Count.
Join the Rangers as they take part in the Wetland Bird Survey at Banks Road, Heswall.. Learn the techniques used to count the thousands of birds on the Estuary, and find out how this has helped to protect the dynamic estuarine environment. Stout footwear and waterproofs are recommended No need to book, meet at Banks Road, Heswall. For further information phone Wirral Country Park: 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 29th March 7:00am start. Migration Watch at Red Rocks.
Join the Ranger in the search for early summer and passage migrants including Wheatear, Ring Ouzel, Meadow Pipits and even the odd Osprey! Please wear suitable warm clothing and footwear, and bring binoculars if you have them. No need to book. Meet at the end of Stanley Road, off The King's Gap, Hoylake. For further information phone 0151 678 5488.

Sunday 30th March 8:00am - 10:00am. In Search of Woodpeckers.
A Guided Walk around Stapledon Woods to search for Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers and the elusive Lesser Spotted Woodpecker before they disappear behind the developing woodland canopy. Please wear suitable warm clothing and bring binoculars if you have them. Booking essential. Tel 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 5th April 11:30am. High Tide Birdwatch at Point of Ayr.
It's an exciting time of the year with many birds undertaking long-distance migrations from Africa to the high Arctic. Catch up with them on their travels and learn about the amazing journeys they are making. Sightings should include Knot, Grey Plover, Whimbrel and there's a good chance of seeing divers offshore. (HW 13:57, 9.1m) No need to book, meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre. Further information contact RSPB, tel. 0151 336 7681. 

Saturday 12th April 1:30pm. The Grebes of Greenfield.
Join the RSPB warden in searching out Grebes and Mergansers in the low water channels. On a relaxing walk through the coastal fields, we'll encounter Finches and Wheatears. (LW 14:50, 2.7m) No need to book, meet at Greenfield Dock car park, off Dock Rd, Greenfield. For more details phone 0151 336 7681.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2003', 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.