2nd April 2006

Wardens - Neston Reed Bed.
Wardens - Gronant Little Tern Colony.

March Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.



Migration - Ringed Plover, Little Gull and White Wagtail

April is the peak month for spring migration, with birds leaving to breed in the far north, many arriving here from further south whilst others are just passing through. Migration is a fascinating subject and I'm just awestruck when, for example, I see a flock of Sanderling in May, just in from Africa, knowing just how many thousands of miles they still have to fly to reach their breeding grounds in the high Arctic. I've already described the migration routes of a good number of species, mainly waders - see the Site Index - but this time I thought I'd concentrate on three of the more uncommon or less well known species: Ringed Plover, Little Gull and White Wagtail.

Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

Three populations of Ringed Plover are seen in, or passing through, the UK. The nominate race hiaticula are split in to two, those that that both breed and (mainly) over winter in this country, and those that breed in Iceland, Greenland and southern Scandinavia and spend the winter in West Africa. This is a classic leapfrog migration, i.e. those breeding furthest north leapfrog 'over' those breeding in the south of the range to spend the winter the furthest south. The other race, tundrae, spend the winter as far as South Africa and breed in northern Scandinavia and east across northern Russia.
On the Dee Estuary the five year average is around 200 overwintering birds, and as indicated above most of these will be British breeding birds. Indeed, the Ringed Plover is one of the few wader species that breed around the estuary with pairs regular at Gronant, Point of Ayr and elsewhere; so some of these birds may well stay here all year. In April and May most of our wintering birds will have dispersed to their breeding areas and are replaced by passage birds from further south. We rarely get flocks of more than 100 or so of these migrants here, contrast that with the 4,300 on the Ribble in May 2003! The return passage in August and September is normally larger with flocks of up to 1,000 birds along the north Wirral coast, Point of Ayr and Gronant. We only see birds of the tundrae race at times of passage, these are slightly smaller and darker than hiaticula. The majority of tundrae migrate further east so we only get small numbers here with flocks of more than 20 rare. Like Sanderling they can sometimes move north very late in the spring, on June 7th 2005 we had 24 at Gronant. 

Little Gull (Larus minutus)

Officially designated as a scarce coastal migrant in the Cheshire and Wirral bird report, the Little Gull is only rarely seen here outside the spring migration. This gull, the smallest in the world, winters mainly in the western Mediterranean but some do overwinter in the Irish Sea, albeit in small numbers. They are seen occasionally in winter from Point of Ayr, Hilbre and the north Wirral coast, usually no more than 10 at a time, but 100 or more are regular off Rossall Point, Lancs, and an RSPB survey found 200 feeding on Shell Flat off Blackpool in Nov 2003. By mid-March the spring migration is under way and we begin to see birds out in Liverpool Bay heading towards Crosby and Seaforth.

Little Gull at Crosby, © Chris Galvin, www.chrisgalvinphoto.com

They are regularly monitored off Hilbre at this time when daily counts can reach 100 or so, but 637 counted on March 20th 2006 was the highest number for at least 25 years. Even at this time they are rare inside the estuary and 23 feeding over West Kirby Marine Lake on April 16th 2001 was the largest flock ever recorded there. At Crosby they are regularly observed over the Marine Park, sometimes in their hundreds, feeding on the Chironomid larvae hatch. From here they fly overland across to the North Sea and onwards to the Baltic Sea, on their way they sometimes stop off at inland freshwater sites such as Prescot Reservoir and Pennington Flash.
Evidence from ringing indicates that the Little Gulls which pass through here breed inland in Finland and further east in to Russia. Only a handful of birds are observed on return passage in August and September with most birds flying further east through the North Sea.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)   

White Wagtail on the Isle of Man, April 19th 2005
 © Chris of www.iombirding.co.uk .

The White Wagtail and Pied Wagtail (M. a. yarrelli) are different races of the same species with the White breeding in most of Europe outside the UK, and the Pied breeding almost exclusively in this country.  As can be seen from the photograph the White Wagtail is a much greyer bird than the Pied, especially males in summer plumage. There is some overlap of wintering birds but White Wagtails tend to move further south into north Africa where they are often found around oasis in the Sahara desert.
The White Wagtails we see in this country in spring are on the way to Iceland to breed, an amazing feat for such a small bird! They are one of the first of the migrants to reach here in March, in 2003 they arrived very early on the 6th but this year (2006) the first one wasn't seen until the 19th. Numbers peak in April, mostly just a steady trickle but every now and again larger numbers are seen with Hoylake shore being a particularly favoured spot. Max numbers at Hoylake over the past three years are 175 on April 27th 2003, 200 on April 14th 2004 and 100 on April 22nd 2005. Hilbre Island is also an excellent site for this species with birds seen almost daily through the main migration period.

1. BTO Migration Atlas, 2002.
2. Birds of the Western Palearctic, DVD edition.
3. Lancashire Bird Reports 2003 and 2004.
4. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports 1981 to 2004.
5. Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens Reports 2000 and 2001.
6. Dee Estuary WeBS Report 2004/2005.

Richard Smith

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Voluntary Wardening Scheme at
Neston Reed Bed

One door closes, another opens! As our Point of Ayr scheme finishes another exciting volunteer opportunity has arisen at Neston reedbed. We’re looking for volunteers to patrol the reedbed during weekday evenings and at weekends to help protect the site and prevent disturbance to nesting bearded tits.

Own transport is essential. For further details please call the RSPB warden on 0151 336 7681 or email Geoffrey.Robinson@RSPB.org.uk .

Geoff Robinson (RSPB)

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Little Terns at Gronant - Appeal for Voluntary Wardens
Gronant is a great place to be in the summer, it is home to between 70 and 100 pairs of Little Terns - the only colony in Wales and one of the biggest in Great Britain. There are also always lots of Sandwich Terns about, Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and Common Scoters out to sea, a good selection of waders, some of which breed here, and the usual marshland warblers.

The Little Tern colony wouldn't exist without the wardening scheme which protects them from both human disturbance and predators - mainly crows, kestrels and foxes. So once again we are appealing for people to have a go at wardening. The Denbighshire Countryside Service are organising the voluntary wardens again this year so if you want to volunteer email Garry Davies at garry.davies@denbighshire.gov.uk. Garry can also be contacted by phone - 01745 356197 or 07884490345. Wardens are present every day from late May to early August so if you want to know what is involved just come down and have a chat, or contact me, Richard Smith, by   for more details; 2006 will be my seventh year of voluntary wardening and I've enjoyed every minute! For directions see http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/gronant.htm.

 Little Terns at Gronant, July 2005, © Jim Armstrong

Richard Smith

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March Bird News
High spring tides dominated the birdwatching this month with the sea covering the marsh at Parkgate, Burton and elsewhere on a total of five days, including on the 30th when we had the highest tide for over 20 years. With birds starting to disperse to their breeding grounds through the month the earlier tides produced the most birds. Highlights at Parkgate included seven Short-eared Owls, four Spotted Redshank, approx 12 Water Rail and approx 12 Jack Snipe.

The later tides did produce a few surprises though, with a Spotted Crake seen on two days and eight Water Pipits in the field behind the Old Baths car park. Many rodents were washed in by the sea including six harvest mice which are very rare in Cheshire. The above photo is a great action shot of a kestrel which has just plucked what looks like a water vole out of the water at Parkgate on the 28th (Neil McLaren ©). But Parkgate wasn't the only place to see good birds; on the 30th Denhall Lane at Burton was flooded and Steve Round saw at least 20 Water Rails there, including some swimming up and down the lane!

Steve Round ©, a flooded Denhall Lane at high tide, Burton, March 30th 2006.

Cold north and east winds persisted for the first three weeks of the month which meant that the spring migration was held up. Most of the first sightings were late compared with the last three or four years, in 2003 we had White Wagtail, Wheatear and Sand Martin in the first nine days of March! The table below shows the first records for some of our commoner spring migrants.

Species 2006 Location 2005 2004
White Wagtail 19th March Flint 17th March 14th March
Wheatear 23rd March Caldy 16th March 17th March
Swallow 25th March Red Rocks 25th March 18th March
Sand Martin 26th March Shotton 17th March 18th March
House Martin   29th March Leasowe   2nd April 28th March
Willow Warbler 31st March Leasowe 25th March 31st March
Swift     17th April 20th April
Whitethroat     18th April 15th April
Cuckoo     1st May 3rd May

The cold weather had the advantage of holding up the departure of our over-wintering waders with well over 10,000 - mainly Knot and Dunlin - at both Hoylake and West Kirby. But it wasn't just a cold wind, we had a heavy fall of snow on the 12th which resulted in a fall of Redwings with over 1,000 past Hoylake Shore and lots more scattered around the region the following day.

Out to sea we had an excellent passage of Little Gulls past Hilbre with 637 on the 20th a probable all time record. Two Slavonian Grebes off  Hilbre was a good record on the 21st and there were still 78 Brent Geese there on the 25th. Three Gannets off the Point of Ayr on the 28th was the first report of the year, with two Sandwich Terns there two days later.

Good views of raptors during the month included single Marsh Harriers recorded on four dates, eight Common Buzzard soaring over Leahurst (near Neston) and a full male Hen Harrier at Parkgate, this is in addition to numerous sightings of Merlins and Peregrines during the spring tides.

What to expect in April

The main spring migration takes place through April with birds pouring in to the country. Out to sea we can expect many Gannets, Little Gulls, Sandwich Terns and Common Terns, whilst on land all the spring migrants will be arriving in force. Some mornings we can wake up to a good fall of migrants when the fields and shore are full of Wheatears and every bush seems to have a singing Blackcap or Whitethroat in it. Hilbre is always good for Wheatears, but if you don't fancy a trek over there try the horse paddocks just west of Leasowe Lighthouse which seems to be particularly attractive to them. Both places are also good for the odd Yellow Wagtail and Ring Ouzel. 

Rarer migrants will include an Osprey or two, a few Marsh Harriers and a perhaps a pair or more of Avocets. Sooner or later the Avocets will stay to breed, as they have at Marshside in Southport and the Weaver bend near Frodsham Marsh - may be this year? Other waders will include the usual passage of Whimbrel with Point of Ayr, Heswall and Hilbre favoured sites, and Black-tailed Godwits tend to congregate at Inner Marsh Farm before many head for Iceland to breed, although a sizable number of non-breeders will stay here all summer.

North Wales Bird Forum

Local birders Marc Hughes and Adrian Foster have set up a North Wales Bird Forum where you can discuss ID problems, best birding sites, your tick list and anything else to do with North Wales birding.

Web News

I don't normally discuss such matters in this newsletter as website hits but March saw a landmark passed, on March 21st I had 1001 visits to the website, the first time the 1000 mark has been passed. The average number of visits per day for March was 834 - not bad for a small amateur site - and just in case you are thinking this is making me rich - I don't make a single penny from the website!   Richard Smith.

Many thanks go to  Steve Renshaw, Katie Barrett, Bill Owen, Tanny Robinson, David Haigh, Andy Gregory, Dave Harrington, Stephen Hargreaves, Damian Waters, Steve Round, Allan Conlin, Glyn Roberts, Janet Smith, Mike Hart, Dave Wild, Ken McNiffe, Iain Douglas, Gordon Baker, Karen Leeming, Paul Green, Rhys Findlay-Robinson, Colin Wells, Matilde Baker-Schommer, Steve Ainsworth, Leon Castell, Bernard Machin,  Eric Robinson, David Esther, John Richardson, Colin Schofield, Rosemary Hannay, Clive Ashton, Neil Mclaren, Colin Jones, John Billington, Charles Farnell, Michael Clarkson, Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jeremy Bradshaw, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Fred Heywood, Jane Turner, Sean Fortune, John and Andrew Morris, Mark Turner, Laura Bimson, Nick Bullen, Mike Baron, John Kirkland, Graham Thompson, Steve Edwards, Allan Patterson, Tanny Robinson, John Ferguson, Anthony Britner, Keith Duckers, Mal Smerdon, Chris Jones, Rob Bithell, Steve Wrigley, Peter Button, G. Keating, 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.
1st April, 14:11hrs 10.0m. BST.
27th April, 11:39hrs 10.0m. BST.
28th April, 12:24hrs 10.0m. BST.
29th April, 13.06hrs 9.9m. BST.

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 April, 6am – 8am,  Go Woodpecker Wild!
Join the Rangers on a walk to search out woodpeckers. The birds will be “drumming” on trees and displaying to prospective mates.
Booking essential: (0151) 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 15th April, 10:30am, High Tide at Point of Ayr.
The spit and saltmarsh at the Point of Ayr are extremely important habitats for birds. They come alive at high tide with waders coming in to roost and ducks drift in on the tide to feed on the marsh. Join the RSPB Warden to look for spring migrants on their return from Africa (HW 13.15, 9.2m).
No need to book. Meet at the end of Station Rd,Talacre. For further information contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 22nd April, 6:30pm, Evening Special at Inner Marsh Farm.
Join the Warden for a relaxing evening stroll around the reserve in search of spring migrants. Finish the evening with light refreshments, booking essential. Costs are £5.00 for members and £6.00 for non-members. Booking and further information contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 23rd April, 9am – 10.30am, Nestbox Frenzy 2: Boxwatch.
Find out if anyone has moved into the nestboxes put up and mapped in February on this return trip to Stapledon Woods.
Booking essential: (0151) 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 6th May, 5:30am, Ness Gardens early morning Breakfast Birdwatch.
Join the local RSPB Wardens for an early morning walk around Ness Gardens. Costs inclusive of cooked breakfast are £7.50 (Friends of Ness Gardens) or £12.00. Booking essential. Further details and tickets from Ness Gardens on 0151 353 0123.

Sunday 7th May, 6am – 8am, Wirral Way Warblers.
Join the Rangers on this popular walk to see the return of the warblers from their African winter. Up to 6 species have been seen on previous walks!
Booking essential: (0151) 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 13th May, 6:30am, Breakfast Birdwatch.
Join the Warden for an early morning birdwatch at Inner Marsh Farm, Dee Estuary RSPB Reserve. The trees and bushes will be alive with bird song while lapwings display overhead. Costs inclusive of continental breakfast are £6.00 members and £7.00 non-members. Booking essential. Further details from the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 14th May, 9am – 11am, The Big Bird List.
Plenty of summer migrants will have arrived to breed so this is a great time to update the Wirral Country Park Big Bird List. Spot as many as possible on a walk around the varied habitats of west Wirral.
Booking essential: (0151) 648 4371/3884.

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2006', 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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