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March 2021 Newsletter


Highlights March 2020 to February 2021

Short-eared Owl at Parkgate, March 2020 David Bradshaw

March 2021 marks the 23rd Anniversary of 'Dee Estuary Birding' and I do my usual review of the previous 12 months. Certainly a strange and bizarre 12 months. Hilbre, Burton Mere Wetlands and the Connah's Quay Reserve were all closed for several weeks, as was the whole of Wales to English birders and vice versa. However, most of us managed to do a bit of local birding during our daily exercise and there were certainly plenty of birds to see.

Spring Migration

Spring migration was relatively quiet after the excitement of the previous year. There were plenty of Whinchats passing through North Wirral with a total of 32 records, and good numbers of Redstarts and Ring Ouzels. Up to 62 White Wagtails were on Holylake shore during their migration to Iceland. A nice record was of a Pied Flycatcher in Ashton Park, West Kirby, but the most unexpected sighting was of 10 Water Pipits at Heswall in April.


The northward passage of Avocets reached 112 at Burton Mere Wetlands in March although they had a below average breeding season there due to the the spring drought. Whimbrels were flying north in good numbers in May and the max count of 142 at Heswall was one of the highest ever for the Dee estuary.

More unexpected were four Curlew Sandpipers at Hoylake in May when they are a rare sight. It was also a very good autumn for this species, in the first half of September we had peak counts of 10 at Burton Mere Wetlands, 16 at  Hoylake and 10 at Heswall.

Black-tailed Godwits at Caldy, July 2020 Richard Smith

For many waders the autumn begins in late June when they start returning to the estuary after breeding. I always look forward to seeing the Black-tailed Godwits looking spectacular in full breeding plumage and the first ones were seen right at the end of June at Caldy. They quickly built up in numbers to reach an incredible 6,230 by August 21st, over 5% of the total Icelandic population.

After hearing about record numbers of Knot on the Wash in October our expectations were that good numbers would come over here and they reached a maximum of around 40,000 in November, well above the five year average 16,000. I certainly had some great moments with them this winter searching for colour rings and flags, including several spectacular high tide roosts at Hoylake. Most of the Knot were feeding out on the estuary off Thurstaston, Caldy and West Kirby and this is the same area where there have been large numbers of Oysyercatchers - the sand banks have been covered with them and the racket they make is amazing. Not sure of total numbers for the estuary but it must have been be well over 30,000 this last winter.

Hilbre had 17 Purple Sandpipers roosting in January, the highest number for several years.

Out to Sea

It was relatively quiet out in Liverpool Bay through the year without any major influxes or passages, but still plenty to see. At least 60 Red-throated Divers were on a flat calm sea on March 20th and April saw a good passage of Arctic Terns including 40 past Hoylake. It was a good spring and summer for Gannets with several days when hundreds flew past including 618 counted from Hoylake in late July. Strong winds in early September unfortunately didn't persist so only a few Leach's Petrels came through, but three Pomarine Skuas in October was a nice bonus.

Through the winter there were several reports of a Long-tailed Duck, plus a few Velvet Scoters and Eiders. There were no huge flocks of Common Scoters which we sometimes see but a count of 306 Great Crested Grebes was the biggest number for a couple of years. Right at the end of February a Slavonian Grebe was off Hilbre.

The Marshes and Burton Mere Wetlands

March saw at least 20,000 Pink-footed Geese on the estuary, a record high. Three pairs of Great Egrets and three pairs of Bearded Tits bred at Burton Mere Wetlands. Also two pairs of Marsh Harriers bred, with a third at Parkgate showing signs of a breeding attempt but they seemed to lose interest. There were plenty of Marsh Harriers spotted through the winter but numbers didn't seem to be as high as the previous two winters. At least two grey males Hen Harriers spent the winter here with a few ring-tails. As reported elsewhere in this newsletter one of the grey males was ringed in Texel in the Netherlands. A Bittern was seen regularly flying in to roost at Neston reed-bed through the winter. Egrets continue to increase with 13 Cattle Egrets at Burton in October and 39 Great Egrets in November.

Pink-footed Geese over Thurstaston Shore, February 2021 Richard Smith

Scarce and Rare

Four Common Cranes flew over in mid-April and May brought us a Blue-headed Wagtail, a Turtle Dove and a Hoopoe. The good weather in spring and early summer seemed to prove particularly attractive to Quails with at least three recorded calling away in the fields. A Purple Heron was probably the rarity of the year, it was seen at Burton and Parkgate in August. A family of Spotted Crakes were at Burton Mere Wetlands in August with the last sighting in early October. One that got away was a probable Lesser Yellowlegs at Thurstaston in September, unfortunately the view of it was too short to be 100% certain and it could not be relocated. A Grey Phalarope was an unexpected arrival near Flint in January. Eight Snow buntings were at Hoylake for at least two months through the winter, the best showing of these birds for many years. 12 Crossbills showed really well by Ness Gardens for several days in February, loads of photos were taken of these photogenic birds.

Crossbill at Ness, February 2021 Andy Coxon

Richard Smith.

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Colour Ring Report

Hen Harrier

Hen Harrier 'CD' at Gronant, February 12th 2021 Andy Davis

CD - black on white ring left leg.
Ringed on the island of Texel, Netherlands, on June 25th 2019.
Recorded at Gronant on February 12th 2021.

This record undoubtedly takes pride of place in this month's Colour Ring Report. My first thought was that this was a surprising movement as I, along with many others, have always assumed that all our over-wintering Hen Harriers originate in this country perhaps breeding in Wales and the Isle of Man. But a look at the BTO Ringing Report reveals that more Hen Harriers come from the Netherlands to the UK than from any other foreign country, and by a large margin. In total 11 Hen Harriers ringed in the Netherlands have been recovered in the UK, compared with just two from Belgium and singles from four other countries.


A new Photographic Guide to Colour-ringed Red Knot has been published which should prove very useful to all colour ring enthusiasts - Click Here to download it (PDF File). Also for those wondering what the Dutch ringing codes for waders such as N8RYYN and Y4RNRR actually mean here is a guide to download - Click here (PDF file).

Regular readers of this newsletter will know that our Knots are being intensively studied by means of their colour rings and flags. Over several years, but mainly over the past four years, we have amassed an amazing 3,800 records on the Dee Estuary alone, with many more records coming from the Sefton coast and elsewhere from the northern tip of Norway to the Canary Islands. Some birds we literally have dozens of records for, including one described below, but others get spotted maybe a couple of times then just disappear for several years before unexpectedly turning up just when we've assumed they are deceased! This last winter we seem to have seen several that fall into that category and I describe five below:

Yellow flag 76K (photo top left).
Ringed at SW Iceland in May 2017.
Recorded at West Kirby on December 30th 2020.
It is thought that nearly all the Liverpool Bay population of Knots (i.e. those that arrive here in July/August and stay all winter and leave in April/May) pass through south-west Iceland in May on their way to breed in Canada. But it seems this one is likely to have spent it's winters elsewhere.

Yellow flag NPU (photo top right).
Ringed on the northern tip of Norway way back in May 2013.
This bird undergoes post breeding moult on the Dutch Waddensea having been recorded there in late summer/autumn in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
There were no other records until it was seen at Meols in February 2021.

Orange flag MP over pale blue (photo middle left).
Ringed in September 2017 near the Alt Estuary.
This bird is special for me as it was the first 'O' flagged bird I ever saw, indeed the first 'O' flagged bird anybody had seen apart from when it was ringed. It was at Caldy Wildfowl Collection the day after it was ringed, the first ringed Knot I'd ever seen there and I was completely unaware of the catch which had been carried out the day before. I remember emailing Jim Wilson 'I've seen this knot with a strange Orange flag' little realising it would be the first of hundreds!
It was recorded at Caldy up until early November before it was seen at Thurstaston where it spent the winter. That April (2018) it returned briefly to Caldy then, being an immature bird, it spent the summer in Morecambe Bay.
It had not been recorded since early September 2018 so I was really pleased when I saw it in front of me just by the causeway at Thurstaston in November 2020.

Orange flag ELP over green (photo middle right).
Ringed in March 2018 near the Alt Estuary.
Recorded at West Kirby in late January and early February 2021.
Knowing how intensively the knot flocks are being watched on the Dee Estuary, Sefton Coast and the Dutch Waddensea it always surprises me when we spot a 'new' one from the original catches in September 2017 and March 2018. This winter we saw five never recorded before, where have they been?

Orange flag CLM over green (photo bottom left).
Ringed in March 2018 near the Alt Estuary.
Recorded on the northern tip of Norway in May 2019.
Recorded at Hoylake in December 2020 and at Meols in February 2021.
Nearly all those Knot with an Orange flag are part of the Liverpool Bay population which migrate through Iceland in May. The other population which visit us in winter which moult in the Waddensea have two migration routes north with some also flying via Iceland whilst others fly via northern Norway. CLM must be part of the latter population migrating via Norway. Interestingly we've only ever recorded two Orange flagged birds here on the Dee estuary which have been observed using this Norwegian route, both seen this winter.

Orange flag 0Y over pale blue (photo bottom right).
Ringed in September 2017 near the Alt Estuary.
Of all the Orange flagged Knot we've observed here on the Dee Estuary this one has been recorded the most times, 40 in total. It visited Caldy Wildfowl Collection shortly after it was ringed in autumn 2017, and was also recorded there in 2018 and 2020. In May 2018 it was in SW Iceland. It's also been recorded at Thurstason, Leighton Moss, Formby, Crosby, Ainsdale, Southport, Heysham and Marshside RSPB.

Grey Plovers

Grey Plover VN at Hoylake, February 2021  Charles Farnell

There have been 11 records of eight Orange flagged Grey Plovers over the last three months, These were recorded at Hoylake, Thurstaston and West Kirby. They were all ringed at the site close to the Alt Estuary with many caught in the same catch as the Knots discussed above.


Dunlin S7J at Hoylake in February 2021 Charles Farnell

S7J - black on white ring.
Ringed near Gdansk, Poland, in July 2017.
Recorded at Hoylake on February 16th 2021.
No other records. This is the 16th Dunlin we have recorded on the Dee Estuary which have been ringed in Poland.

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull 5HP on New Brighton Dips, February 2021 Sean O'Hara

5HP - black on white ring.
Ringed in Copenhagen in March 2015.
A real regular at New Brighton being recorded 25 times there including twice in February 2021. The only other records were back in Denmark in July 2019 and at Seaforth in August 2020.

Common Gull

Common Gull 2XXK at New Brighton in February 2021 John Jay

2XXK black on orange ring.
Ringed in Aberdeen in June 2013.
Back in Aberdeen in July 2014.
Wallasey in the autumns of 2014, 2015 and 2018.
Hoylake in September 2020.
New Brighton on February 14th 2021.

Colour-rings were recorded by Richard Smith, Steve Hinde, Andy Davis, John Jay, Charles Farnell, Steve Williams, Ken McNiffe and Sean O'Hara.

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February Bird News

Crossbill at Ness, February 24th Les Hall

12 Crossbills arrived on the 17th at Ness Gardens giving great views and remained until the end of the month. Crossbills aren't all that rare but most records are of just brief views before they move on so it's great to see this number for so long. And the same applies to the eight Snow Buntings which arrived at the end of 2020 along north Wirral and are still here as I write this.

Velvet Scoter off East Hoylake Bank, February  25th Sean O'Hara

There were a good selection of sea ducks off Hilbre and north Wirral including at least two Eiders, three Velvet Scoters, a Long-tailed Duck, a Scaup as well as the usual hundreds of Common Scoters. There were also a good number of Great Crested Grebes out there with 306+ counted on the 3rd and a much rarer Slavonian Grebe was spotted from Hilbre on the 28th.

Male Hen Harrier over Heswall Marsh, February 14th Frank Burns

There were several reports of grey male Hen Harriers with sightings coming from both Gronant and the more usual sites along the marshes off Heswall, Parkgate and Neston.

We had a very early Wheatear at Meols on the 28th, although not as early as 2019 when we had the first one on the 27th.

There was a notable Stonechat passage through the region including eight in the horse paddocks by Leasowe Lighthouse  on the 22nd.  A Firecrest was a nice find at Heswall on the 11th. Yellowhammers are getting increasingly scarce on Wirral so six seen at Thornton Hough was an excellent find.

Stonechat at Parkgate, February 26th Roy Wilson

Many thanks go to Steve Williams, Tim Kinch, Matt Thomas, David Haigh, Steve Hinde, Alan Hitchmough, Derek Bates, Allan Conlin, Richard Whitby, David Thompson, David Small, Les Hall, Richard Beckett, Bruce Atherton, Peter Sutton, Frank Burns, Dave Edwards, Mark Gibson, Paul Mason, Mark Peers, Jeremy Bradshaw, Roy Wilson, Richard Smyth, Carole Killikelly, Bill Wonderley,  Chris Revell, Elliot Montieth, Graham Parry, Linda Platt, Charles Farnell, Sean O'Hara, Steve Edwards, Jackie Edwards, Andy Coxon, Simon Dowell, Richard de Knegt, Dan Bentley, Stephen Wende, Andy Davis, John Jay, Ken Mcniffe, Steve Dewsnap, Chris wilding, Ian Goldstraw, John Hewitt, Alan Challoner, David Parker, Glenn Hardwick, Peter Murphy, Chris Maltby, Benjamin Twist, Mervyn Davies, Michael Davenport, Peter Humphrey, Kev Cameron, Kelvin Brittan, Stephen Lane, Karl Parry, John Ferguson, Mike Buckley, Laura Middlebrook, Stephen Wheeldon, Douglas Wilson, Chris Kearney,  Dave Mansell, David Taylor, David Leeming, Karen Leeming, the Dee Estuary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during February. All sightings are gratefully received.

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What to expect in March

March sees the return of spring and the return of the spring migrants. Below is the table for 2020 (and the previous two years) showing the first sightings for a selection of species. If you see an early migrant please email and, if it's a first, I'll put it in the 2021 table.

Species 2020 Location 2019 2018
White Wagtail 1st March Leasowe 28th Feb
14th March
Sand Martin 16th March
Leasowe 16th Feb 15th March
Wheatear 16th March Leasowe 27th Feb
9th March
Swallow 23rd March Leasowe 21st March 29th March
Willow Warbler 26th March Hoylake and

24th March 27th March
House Martin  5th April
Leasowe 31st March 6th April
Whitethroat  8th April
Heswall 14th April 7th April
Swift  21st April
West Kirby and
23rd April 22nd April
Cuckoo  23rd April
Arrowe Park 18th April 23rd April

As I write this at the end of February we've already seen our first Wheatear and Sand Martins won't be far behind having already been spotted on the Mersey Estuary. Other migrants will include Avocets and should reach over 100 at Burton Mere Wetlands. Out to sea look out for Little Gulls, they fly north-eastwards past our coast before flying overland to the North Sea on their way to the Baltic to breed. Common Scoters may well be in their thousands out in Liverpool Bay as they also are on the way to the Baltic. We should also see our first Osprey or two of the spring fly north.

There are some big high tides due in March and if they cover the marshes there should be plenty to see including thousands of Pink-footed Geese and the usual Marsh and Hen Harriers. Normally Short-eared Owls would be a certainty but they have been absent this winter, but it may well be that we see one or two on passage.

There will be signs of breeding and look out at Burton Mere Wetlands for Mediterranean Gulls, Bearded Tits, Marsh Harriers, Great Egrets, perhaps Cattle Egrets and even Spoonbills. Look out for display flights of Marsh Harriers which can be spectacular.

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Forthcoming Events

March Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool)

Also see Tides page

1st March, 12.31hrs (GMT), 9.8m.
2nd March, 13.11hrs (GMT), 9.8m.
29th March, 12.27hrs (BST), 9.9m.
30th March, 13.07hrs (BST), 10.0m.
31st March, 13.48hrs (BST), 10.0m.

Forthcoming Events

Due to Covid 19 restrictions no birdwatching events are planned for this month.