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2nd April 2004
Little Egrets.

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Little Egrets

Species Spotlight - Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

  Little Egrets are such a common sight on the Dee Estuary these days that it is easy to forget how rare they were just a few years ago. The first ever Little Egret record in the Dee Estuary/ North Wirral shore area was at Leasowe in 1988. At that time this species was still a rare spring migrant even in the south of England, but the following year saw an influx of 50 into the country. From then on numbers just kept on increasing so that by 2001 2,700 were counted - the vast majority occurring in southern England and South Wales.

Meanwhile on the Dee Estuary we only had one or two birds each year up until 1998. But even so a change was occurring. Instead of a rare sighting or two in May due to migration overshoot, we started to get birds in late summer and autumn staying for several weeks at a time. By 1998 up to four birds were present all year, spending most of the time on the marsh off Burton and Parkgate. Numbers stayed relatively low into 2000, just creeping up to six in December.

Graph shows the yearly maximum numbers of Little Egrets - 1988 to 2003

But the autumn of 2001 saw a dramatic surge in numbers when 18 were counted in October, followed by counts of 21 and 20 the following two months. 2001 also saw birds ranging much more widely with the Welsh side being particularly favoured with up to eight at Connah's Quay and six at Point of Ayr. They were seen for the first time at West Kirby - and also at Flint, Bagillt, Hilbre Island, Little Eye and Heswall

This increase continued in 2002 and 2003, with maximum counts of 30 and 34 respectively, both in October. However, there are signs that this increase is levelling out with counts this last winter (2003/04) being much the same as the previous winter. The distribution of the birds across the year is shown in the graph below.

The peak count is in October, a month later than further south presumably due to the time the birds take to get this far north. This is a post breeding dispersal from both northern France and the increasing breeding population in the south of this country. Numbers then drop slowly through the winter and spring, reaching a low point in June, before rapidly increasing again in late summer.

The Dee Estuary has become something of a stronghold for Little Egrets outside their main areas in the south. The salt water marsh off Burton, Neston and Parkgate seem particularly attractive to them. Sometimes a quick scan with the 'bins' reveals no Little Egrets at all as they remain so well hidden in the channels running through the marsh. If you wait a bit you begin to see one or two flitting from one feeding place to another, and a low flying Harrier or Peregrine might well flush several at a time. But the best times to see them is late evening or early morning as they fly to and from their roost at Burton .

So what does the future hold for the Little Egret on the Dee Estuary? Two questions spring to mind - will numbers carry on increasing, and will they ever breed here? To answer the first question - numbers in the country continue to increase, especially at the edge of their range such as the Dee Estuary. It may well be that the increase will slow here, as seems to be the case already, but that the range of the Little Egret will continue to move northwards. The only thing which might reverse the expansion is if we get a series of hard winters, perhaps an unlikely event giving the current pattern of warm winters. As for the second question, breeding has already taken place very close to the Dee Estuary, at Frodsham Marsh in 2001, the only breeding record in the North-west. So it must just be a matter of time before breeding occurs again, and next time may be on the shores of the Dee Estuary.

References and further reading:
1.Neil Friswell and Colin Wells, Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Reports, 1999/2000 to 2002/2003.
2. Andy Musgrove, Wildfowl and Wetlands 142, Little Egret Fact file, WWT, Winter 2002.
3. Andy Musgrove, WeBS News issue 19, Little Egret in the UK: an update, WeBS, Winter 2004.
4. Andy Musgrove et al, Estuarine Waterbirds at low tide, p250, WeBS, 2004.
5. Bill Morton, Little Egret: The significance of successful breeding at Frodsham Marsh in the context of their country-wide expansion, Cheshire Bird Report 2001.
6. Cheshire Bird Reports 1988 to 2002.
7. Clwyd Bird Reports 1990 to 2001.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to the RSPB on the Dee Estuary for allowing me to use their Little Egret data from both Inner Marsh Farm and Gayton Sands. Many thanks also to the many birders and birdwatchers for sending me their counts of Little Egrets over the past few years.

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Little Terns at Gronant  
  I thought I must be a jinx. First I joined the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens who protect the wader roost at West Kirby. This was in the winter of 99/00, the previous winter had seen record numbers of waders. I join and numbers immediately plummet, they've still not got back to where they were. In the summer of 2000 I join the Wardens protecting the Little Tern colony at Gronant after an excellent breeding season in 1999. Guess what? Numbers of young successfully fledged plummeted, even getting down to just a single fledgling in 2001. You've no idea how depressing that can be after three months of hard work.
But it all came right last summer. It was a record breaking season at Gronant with a total of 110 pairs rearing a remarkable 190 young, the previous highest being 86 and 120 respectively. Everything combined to make it such a successful season - good weather, a good vole and rabbit year so predators could get food elsewhere, a much improved fence to keep foxes out and last, but by no means least, a dedicated, determined and enthusiastic wardening team!

Little Tern, Gronant, 28th June 2003

Steve Round

The RSPB, who organise the Little Tern wardening scheme, are looking for volunteers for this summer. We start in May and continue through to early August. This will be my fifth season, and I've enjoyed every minute. If you wish to join, or just want more information, contact the Dee Estuary RSPB Warden, John Harrison, by phoning 0151 336 7681 or email You may also wish to look at last year's appeal for wardens which gives a more detailed description of wardening at Gronant.

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Bird Counts
  Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society 21st March. 4 Little Grebe, 1 Great Crested Grebe, 104 Cormorant, 1 Little Egret, 2 Grey Heron, 9 Mute Swan, 14 Canada Goose, 60 Shelduck, 17 Wigeon, 9 Gadwall, 80 Teal, 50 Mallard, 5 Shoveler, 2 Tufted duck, 2 Moorhen, 25 Coot, 800 Oystercatcher, 400 Knot, 16 Dunlin, 2,500 Black-tailed Godwit, 12 Curlew, 220 Redshank and 3 Greenshank.

Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 21st March.
12 Cormorant, 330 Shelduck, 56 Teal, 6 Mallard, 15 Pintail, 11 Red-breasted Merganser, 1 Water Rail, 1,100 Oystercatcher, 15 Grey Plover, 1,300 Knot, 2,300 Dunlin, 43 Black-tailed Godwit, 1,700 Curlew, 2,800 Redshank, 30 Turnstone, also 1 Merlin  and 1 Hen Harrier (ring-tail).

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March Bird News
  Well, I did say watch the weather for the weekend of 20th and 21st March! As it was the tide of the 19th was by far the highest, two foot above the marsh at Parkgate Old Baths, with that on the 20th just making it to the wall. Birds were good without being spectacular - 5 Short-eared Owls, 2 Hen Harriers, 26 Little Egrets and a Water Rail being the highlights. But Friday's very high tide was somewhat unexpected. It was only meant to be 9.2m high, the west north west wind was strong but not gale force, and the atmospheric pressure wasn't particularly low (min. 995.1mbar). In contrast Saturday's tide was predicted to be 9.7m, the wind was gale force from WSW and the atmospheric pressure was lower. Yet instead of being 50cm higher than Friday, it was 60cm lower! I don't pretend to know why, but I took a look at West Cheshire College's weather website which was very interesting. On Friday the drop in pressure was much steeper than on Saturday, and reached it's minimum an hour before high tide instead of two hours later. Meanwhile the wind direction swung from SW to WNW over the two hour period before high tide on Friday, but the next day it was steady at WSW. So my non-expert conclusion is that the sharp drop in pressure and SW wind produced a surge up the Irish Sea on Friday morning before high tide, than crucially swung round to WNW to push it in to the estuary. Anyway, back to the birds!

Given the cold weather the spring migration not unexpectedly got off to a fairly slow start compared to last year. See the table below.

Species 2004 Location 2003 2002
White Wagtail 14th March West Kirby 6th March 16th March
Wheatear 17th March Hilbre 9th March 16th March
Sand Martin 18th March Point of Ayr 8th March 18th March
Swallow 18th March West Kirby 12th March 27th March
House Martin  28th March Parkgate  15th March  13th April
Willow Warbler 31st March Hoylake 24th March 29th March
Whitethroat      17th April 19th April
Swift     24th April 23rd April 
Cuckoo     4th May 21st April

There was a report of a House Martin on 14th March over New Brighton, just outside the area covered by this web site. Also a non-birder claimed a Swallow on 10th March, which given the very early date and adverse weather has to go down as just a 'possible'.

Chiffchaffs don't appear in the table above as some overwinter. But there was definitely an influx mid month with plenty singing in the local hedges and woods. Wheatears came through in good numbers initially, with 10 at Point of Ayr and six on Burton Marsh appearing within two days of the first bird. Since then the migration has rather tailed off, but there were signs right at the end of the month that things were picking up again with the wind swinging round to the south.

We had our usual passage of Little Gulls off Hilbre (see Steve William's sketch, right). The highest count was 83 on the 29th. A few of these tern like gulls winter in the Irish Sea but most go further south between here and West Africa. They breed in the Baltic and come past here in early spring. After passing Hilbre the birds gather at Seaforth (north Liverpool) before flying overland to the North Sea (BTO Migration Atlas).

Also out to sea were our first Gannets and Sandwich Terns of the year, on the 10th and 21st respectively. A bird normally associated with the sea but blown in by the gale on the 20th was a dark phase Arctic Skua over Inner Marsh Farm.

March and early April are usually the best times to see Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers before the leaves start to grow in the canopy. At least one bird has been in Stapledon Wood with various glimpses of this elusive bird, and the occasional sound of it's call. But one lucky birder did get a good clear view of this woodpecker drumming. There has been no shortage of the more common Greater Spotted woodpecker with five seen during a two hour walk around Stapledon Wood and Caldy Hill on the 28th, also three Green Woodpeckers was an excellent number for this location.

As expected wader numbers dropped noticeably during the month, although 2,500 Black-tailed Godwits at Connah's Quay at the end of the month was an excellent count. Quite a few Knot were still around early on with 12,000 Knot at Thurstaston. There has been a small passage of Spotted Redshank with eight at Inner Marsh Farm being the highest number. A pair of Garganey on Burton Marsh on the 27th were quite early, normally we see this uncommon species in May. A Green-winged Teal has also been seen at Burton, as well as Inner Marsh Farm. There were no big movements of Pink-footed Geese but various small parties have been around with 187 at Point of Ayr the largest. 30 Brent Geese were still at Hilbre early in the month but had dwindled to 17 by the end.

Brambling at Wirral Country Park 20th March,
Matt Thomas.

 A Serin at Shotton was somewhat elusive but was seen on at least two days. This winter has been a poor one for Brambling but two turned up at the Visitor Centre at Thurstaston - one of these was photographed, see left. Three pair of Stonechats by Leasowe Lighthouse were probably passing through, but they have bred here in the past.

An unexpected visitor to Hilbre Island was a Ring-necked Parakeet. At first we thought that this was the first record for the island, but it turned out it was the third, last seen 26 years ago. The other two records would, almost certainly, be escaped caged birds. This latest one may well be from the well established feral population found mostly in southern England.

It has been a very good winter for both Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers. 11 of the former were counted in a single sweep of the 'scope at Burton on the 7th. Probably at least 20 have over wintered between Burton and Parkgate. Five Hen Harriers were counted coming in to roost at Parkgate on the 7th, with one or two regularly seen patrolling the marsh on most days. A Red Kite was drifting over the shore at Heswall on the 11th. Still a rare bird on the estuary but with the Welsh population booming and various release schemes elsewhere we can expect to see more in the future. Another raptor of note was an early Osprey over Inner Marsh Farm on the 28th.

What to expect in April.

Steve Round
Wheatear at Red Rocks Marsh, March 23rd, 2004.

The trickle of early migrants we saw in March becomes a torrent in April. If you manage to get out early in the morning you might be lucky enough to see a large 'fall' of birds - for example 30 or so Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails are not unknown, as well as hundreds of warblers and Meadow Pipits. The first Grasshopper Warblers, Swifts and Whitethroats will be seen, and maybe the first Cuckoo - quite a rare species around here these days.

Out to sea there should be a good passage of Gannets and Little Gulls, and the first Little Terns will arrive off Gronant. Rarer passage birds will include one or two Ring Ouzels, Ospreys  and Marsh Harriers. The waders which have over-wintered here will have all but disappeared, but passage waders will be coming through, mostly Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. Many of these birds will have spent the winter in South or West Africa and will be on their way to the far north to breed. Spotted Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits will be in full summer plumage, looking fabulous on the lagoons at Inner Marsh Farm. Avocets have spread in to the north-west in the past couple of years, so we should see at least a couple passing through, and one of these days they may even breed here. Another passage wader of note is the Whimbrel, best seen towards the end of the month at Hilbre when ten or more may be present.

Many thanks go to Nigel Troup, Ken Davies, Bruce Atherton, Colin Jones, Steve Ainsworth, Carl Traill,  John Campbell, Cathy McGrath, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Bernard Machin, 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, 'Harry', Shaun williams, Keith Duckers, Paul Vautrinot, Mal Smerden, Chris Griffin,  Jean Morgan, Sue Tranter, Dave Steer, Colin Schofield, Peter Button, Chris Tynan, Jeremy Bradshaw, John Bird, Mike Ward, Bryan Joy, Syd Cartwright, Rob Palmer, Jane Turner, Wendy Hassall, William Roberts, Kevin Smith, Chris Wilding,  the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during March. All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events
  April Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
6th April, 12:51hrs 9.8m. (all times BST)
7th April, 13:29hrs 9.9m. 

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.

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.

Sunday 18th April, 9:30am, Flight of the Godwits, Flint Shore.
The RSPB Oakenholt Marsh reserve is one of the most important roost sites in the country for black-tailed godwits. Come and see these beautiful birds in their full, bright red, breeding plumage before they undertake their return migrations to Iceland. Expect to see large numbers of other waders (HW 11:36, 9.3m). Please bring Wellingtons. No need to book. Meet in Flint at Lifeboat Station Car Park (by Flint Castle). For further details, call 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 24th April, 6:30pm, Evening Special at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB Nature Reserve.
Join the Warden for a relaxing evening stroll around the RSPB reserve at Inner Marsh Farm in search of spring migrants. Finish the evening with cheese and wine. Tickets are 5.00 for members and 6.00 for non-members. Booking and further information, contact RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 1st May, 5:30am, Dawn Chorus at Ness Gardens.
The dawn chorus is one of the most wonderful sounds you will hear, but by the time most people are awake, the chorus has reduced to a fraction of its full self. Come and hear it at its biggest and best at Ness Gardens in the company of the local RSPB Warden. Tickets cost 9.50 (6.50 for 'Friends of Ness Gardens') and include a full breakfast. To book, contact Ness Gardens on 0151 353 0123.

Sunday 2nd May, 5:00am - 7:00am, Dawn Chorus for Commoners.
It's that time of year again to make the effort and experience this magical time of day. Listen to the variety of birdsong over Thurstaston Common and the woodlands of Royden Park. Light refreshments available afterwards. Booking essential Tel, 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 2nd May, 6:30am - 9:30am, Catching the Warbler Wave .
The final week in April and the first few days in May sees the return of the warblers for summer. Join the Rangers on a guided walk to Dawpool Nature Reserve (Thurstaston) to watch them displaying to prospective mates, learn their calls and hear their amazing migration stories. Bring waterproofs and binoculars, if you have them. Booking essential, tel. 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 2nd May, 7:00am, Migrants on the Move.
One of the best places in North-East Wales to see migrating passerines. Join the RSPB Warden at the Point of Ayr to see what lurks in the bushes and learn about the amazing feat of bird migration. Target species include tree pipit, whinchat, grasshopper warbler and the unexpected. No need to book, meet at the end of Station Rd, Talacre.
For details, contact RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 8th May, 6:30am, Breakfast Birdwatch .
Join the RSPB Warden for an early morning birdwatch at Inner Marsh Farm Nature Reserve, Burton. The trees and bushes will be alive with bird song while lapwings display overhead. Costs inclusive of continental breakfast are 5.50 members and 6.50 non-members. Booking essential. Further details and tickets from the RSPB on 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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