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1st March 2004
Year highlights.

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February Bird News.
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Bird Highlights March 2003 to February 2004

  This time last year, on the fifth anniversary of the website, I made a point of saying that I wasn't a twitcher and wasn't interested in chasing around the country after rare birds. So it was somewhat ironic that just over two months later I was host to the biggest twitch of the year in this area when a White-throated Sparrow turned up in my front garden! But it was certainly an enjoyable experience, the only regret being that it didn't stay at least one more day.

As well as the White Throated Sparrow, the past 12 months have been very good for rarities around the estuary. The spring saw the return of the over wintering Long-billed Dowitcher to Inner Marsh Farm, this stayed into April when it was seen moulting in to summer plumage. Three Slavonian Grebes which spent three days off Hilbre was an excellent spring record, as was a Montague's Harrier flying over in May.

A Red-backed Shrike was on the sand dunes at West Kirby for a day in May, and again briefly the following month at Red Rocks. A Tawny Pipit spent two days at the Point of Ayr during June, an unusual date for this vagrant, but maybe it was blown in by the same east wind that brought the Black Lark to South Stack. Another Tawny Pipit was present at Moreton in September.

A White-winged Black Tern passed through in July in hot weather more like it's native east Mediterranean than the Irish Sea. First seen at Gronant, it then over several days made it's way eastward past Hilbre and along the north Wirral shore - last seen at Seaforth. The autumn was exceptional for American waders across the country, and we had our fair share. These included Wirral's first American Golden Plover, seen running around on the sea defence at Meols. Pectoral Sandpipers were at Point of Ayr, Hoylake and Inner Marsh Farm.

The good summer weather which brought in the White-winged Tern also meant that our local tern colonies did very well. The Little Terns at Gronant smashed the record both for numbers of pairs (110) and number of fledged young (190). The numbers of Common Terns at Shotton continue to increase with a total of 622 pairs this summer. This colony is now not only the largest Common Tern colony in Wales but the second largest in the whole of the UK1.

Wader numbers were good through the winter, with the largest counts being in November and December. Unusually the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts in these two months were undertaken on neap tides, instead of the usual spring tides. When all the data is gathered together it will be very interesting to see what effect this has had on numbers. In theory many more birds, especially on the North Wirral coast, should have stayed in our area during high tide instead of flying over to the River Alt where many tend to go on spring tides. There was certainly a very high count at Heswall in November with the counter complaining 'did I have every bird on the bloody estuary?'. This included 17,600 Knot, 9,340 Oystercatcher, 8,700 Dunlin and 2,660 Black-tailed Godwit. Of course it is Hoylake which traditionally has the really big counts and December saw 30,000 Knot and 20,000 Dunlin. Leasowe shore is always a good place to see waders feeding at low tide, the highest count of Bar-tailed Godwit there this winter was 6,400 - a typical low tide count for this species. Black-tailed Godwits are still increasing on the estuary. There were two very high counts, one in November and one in February. The February count was at least 4,600, easily beating the previous record of 4,231 set in October 2002.

Brent Geese reached their highest ever numbers on the estuary, at least in modern times. The highest count at Hilbre was 54 in February. Shelduck were at high levels in the autumn, with over 10,000. But apart from Brent Geese and Shelduck I've received very few wildfowl counts on the estuary so I assume that numbers have been unremarkable. However,  on January 26th over 2,000 Pink-footed Geese flew through the estuary on their way to South Lancashire. They flew by in many small skeins over a period of two hours, a lovely sight on a glorious sunny day. 880 Common Scoter in September was a good count for the Point of Ayr.

It was an excellent 12 months for raptors. At least five Hen Harriers spent the winter on the marsh between Burton and Heswall , a very welcome increase for this species. A remarkable 45 Kestrels were counted in one sweep of the telescope hovering over the marsh off Heswall and Parkgate in August. Probably at least 55 in total were present presumably attracted by a bumper crop of voles. This may also be the reason why it has been a good year for Short-eared Owls on the marsh, with a count of 13 on Burton Marsh in December most likely a record for this site. The spring and autumn migrations saw the usual handful of Marsh Harriers and Ospreys. A couple of Red Kites drifted over the estuary on separate dates, as did two Honey Buzzards.

September was disappointingly windless, but a gale in October resulted in 27 Leach's Petrel off Hilbre. Also seen in the same gale were 2 Pomarine Skuas, 4 Great Skua, 1 Balearic Shearwater, 2 Sooty Shearwater and 2 Sabine's Gull. Of course the same gale in mid-September might well have blown in ten times this number!

1. Neil Friswell and Colin Wells, Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report, 2002/2003.

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Birding North West
  A new venture by local birders Allan Conlin and Steve Williams. This monthly magazine is full of the latest bird news, bird photographs and interesting articles covering the north west region. See the Birding North West webpage for more information.

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Bird Counts
  Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society), 21st February. 3 Great Crested Grebe, 84 Cormorant, 1 Little Egret, 7 Grey Heron, 11 Mute Swan, 45 Canada Goose, 78 Shelduck, 53 Wigeon, 10 Gadwall, 190 Teal, 84 Mallard, 5 Shoveler, 5 Tufted duck, 1 Moorhen, 36 Coot, 300 Oystercatcher, 1,360 Lapwing, 800 Dunlin, 4,200 Black-tailed Godwit, 9 Curlew, 2 Spotted Redshank, 310 Redshank and 3 Greenshank.

Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 21st February.
17 Cormorant, 304 Shelduck, 13 Mallard, 19 Red-breasted Merganser, 1 Water Rail, 5 Snipe, 3,230 Oystercatcher, 327 Lapwing, 15 Grey Plover, 59 Golden Plover, 160 Knot, 9,980 Dunlin, 409 Black-tailed Godwit, 808 Curlew, 2,800 Redshank, 142 Black-headed Gull, 38 Common Gull, 4 Lesser Black-backed Gull and 88 Herring Gull and 5 Great Black-backed Gull, also 2 Peregrine  and 1 Hen Harrier (ring-tail).

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February Bird News
  Wader numbers did the opposite of what I predicted in the last newsletter, increased during the month instead of decreasing. As so often happens when the temperature drops the birds come in their thousands, and that has certainly been the case this month.

Steve Andrews - Black-tailed Godwits at Inner Marsh Farm

Flocks of Knot at least 10,000 strong where seen at both Thurstaston and Leasowe, 9,000 Dunlin was a good number for Heswall at high tide and 5,700 Bar-tailed Godwit were counted off Leasowe at low tide. But the most remarkable count was of over 4,600 Black-tailed Godwit, most off Connah's Quay and Flint. This species has been steadily increasing on the estuary for about 15 years, an increase that looks set to continue.

I couldn't believe we were so unlucky with the weather at Parkgate again for the high tide birdwatch, exactly the opposite of what was required to bring the tide over the marsh. But at least the week before at the raptor watch an excellent selection of birds were seen. With Iolo Williams putting in a guest appearance several hundred people turned up to see Hen Harriers, Short-eared Owls, Peregrines and Merlins. However they didn't see the Rough-legged Buzzard which was over the marsh two days later. Unfortunately it was only observed by one birdwatcher, but a good sighting of what was presumably the same bird was had at Risley Moss a couple of days later. Nine Short-eared Owls at Burton on the 9th was the highest count this month.  

Brent Geese numbers at Hilbre increased yet again with 54 on the 14th, another record high. Two of these were dark-bellied. Interestingly some people seem to be having difficulty in identifying this race at Hilbre. This seems to be because many are intermediate in plumage - pale grey underneath instead of dark grey. Possibly these are hybrids, certainly the normal dark-bellied birds seen on the east coast, and occasionally on the Dee, are noticeably darker. Other wildfowl of note have been the over-wintering Smew and Green-winged Teal at Inner Marsh Farm, both drakes, and 2 Velvet Scoter off the Point of Ayr.

A Little Auk spent a couple of hours on West Kirby Marine Lake after being blown in by strong westerly gales. West Kirby also had a Black Redstart, and the Snow bunting was last seen on the shore on the 8th.

What to expect in March.
Winter is almost over and the first of the spring migrants should be well on their way. The table below shows the dates when some of our regular migrants were first seen over the past four years. Last year we had some very early arrivals so it will be interesting to see what happens this spring.  Please let me know by    if you see an early migrant, thanks.

Species 2003 2002 2001 2000
White Wagtail 6th March 16th March 24th March 27th March
Sand Martin 8th March 18th March 15th March 16th March
Wheatear 9th March 16th March 22nd March 12th March
Swallow 12th March 27th March 28th March 2nd April
House Martin 15th March  13th April 16th April  23rd March 
Willow Warbler 24th March 29th March 8th March 27th March
Whitethroat 17th April  19th April    27th April 25th April
Swift 24th April 23rd April  21st April  27th April 
Cuckoo 4th May  21st April  7th May  25th April

Out to sea the first Gannets and Sandwich Terns will be passing through, and we often get good numbers of grebes and divers. Last year we had a remarkable three Slavonian Grebes together off Hilbre, plus Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern Divers. Other migrants will include Meadow Pipits, on a good day in their hundreds, plus possibly a Ring Ouzel or two, and even an early Osprey at the end of the month.

Redshank numbers will increase during March, gathering before their flight to Iceland to breed. Spotted Redshank prefer a more fresh water habitat and a few should be seen at Inner Marsh Farm. Rare migrant waders are much more frequent in autumn than spring but one or two Little Stints may well turn up - and last year we even had a Long-billed Dowitcher.

Although there are no very high tides predicted for this month keep an eye on the forecast for the weekend of 20th/22nd March. A strong west wind may well push the tide over the marsh, and this month has often brought some really spectacular birdwatching at Parkgate and Heswall in previous years. One high tide in March 2001 produced over 17 Water Rail, 5 Short-eared Owls and 8 Jack Snipe.

Many thanks go to Colin Jones, D.T. Davies, Clive Penson, Jeff Stephens, Nick Moss, Keith Lester, Colin Davies, T. Morton, Bryan Joy, Steve Ainsworth, Ian Dyer, Dave Haigh, Carl Traill, Margaret Twenlow, John Campbell, Andrew Brewster,  Ken Peacock, Cathy McGrath, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Matt Thomas, Mark Smith, Bernard Machin, Alan Jupp, Clive Ashton, Alan Patterson, John Eliot, Steve Round, Tanny Robinson, Dave Wilde, David Esther,  John Campbell, Brian Grey, John Harrison, Allan Conlin, Mike Hart, David Harrington, Colin Wells, Phil Woollen, Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, Jean Morgan, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during February. All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events
  March Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
20th March, 11:02hrs 9.6m. (all times GMT)
21st March, 11:40hrs 9.7m. 
22nd March, 12:15hrs 9.7m. 

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.

Saturday 6th March, 8:30am, Banks Road Birdwatch at Heswall.
Come and see the spectacle of several thousand-strong flocks of ducks and waders as they amass at the mouth and banks of the Heswall Gutter. Highlights include black-tailed godwits and golden plovers. (HW 11:09, 9.1m) Meet at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrake's Restaurant. For further information tel. 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 7th March, 9:00am, High Tide at Point of Ayr.
The spit and saltmarsh at Point of Ayr are extremely important habitats for birds and they come alive at high tide with waders coming in to roost and ducks drifting in on the tide to feed on the marsh. Join the RSPB warden to watch the action as it unfolds (HW 11:24, 9.4m). No need to book, meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre. Further information contact RSPB, tel. 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 14th March, 4:30pm, Parkgate Raptor Watch.
Come along and watch birds of prey with the experts. See the graceful hen harriers coming into 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 RSPB Gayton Sands Reserve, near The Boathouse pub. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 20th March, 9:30am, Rails of the River Bank, Heswall.
A fantastic place to see birds of the estuary. Huge flocks of ducks and waders swirl around in the sky while there's always the chance of seeing a water rail as it's flushed out of the saltmarsh by the rising tide. Expect to see merlin, peregrine and maybe short-eared owl. Meet at Riverbank Road car park, which overlooks the Gayton Sands RSPB Nature Reserve at Lower Heswall. (HW 11:02, 9.6m) No need to book. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 27th March, 7:00am, Migration Watch at Red Rocks.
Join the ranger in the search for early summer and passage migrants including wheatear, meadow pipits and possibly ring ouzel. Please wear suitable warm clothing 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, telephone 0151 678 5488.

Sunday 28th March, 6:30am - 9:30am, In Search of Woodpeckers.
The territorial drumming of the great spotted woodpeckers and the 'yaffle' of the green woodpecker reach a peak in late March. Join the Rangers on a guided walk around Stapledon Woods to search for these and the elusive lesser spotted woodpecker before they disappear behind the developing woodland canopy. Bring waterproofs and binoculars. Booking essential, 0151 648 4371.

Wednesday 7th April, 12:00noon, Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
The saltmarsh off Parkgate is part of the Gayton Sands RSPB Nature Reserve and it comes alive with birds as they are pushed in towards us by the incoming tide. If the tide hits the wall, small mammals such as voles and shrews are flushed out. Meet at the Old Baths car park, which overlooks the Gayton Sands Nature Reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boathouse pub(HW 13:29, 9.9m). For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 11th April, 10:30am, The Grebes of Greenfield.
Join the RSPB warden to watch grebes and mergansers feeding in the low water channels. We'll take a relaxing walk along the seawall looking out for migrants such as wheatears. (LW 10:39, 1.8m) No need to book, meet at Greenfield Dock car park, off Dock Rd, Greenfield. For details phone 0151 336 7681.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2004', 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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