2nd May 2004
Common Terns.

Little Terns at Gronant.
Rare Birds in Cheshire & Wirral.
Latest Bird Counts.
April Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Species Spotlight - Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

  Growing up in the 1960's - Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Common Terns. Common Terns?! Like any other schoolchild I looked forward to the summer holidays. We always went to the island of Colonsay in the Hebrides, and one of the things I remember most about those wonderful holidays was seeing the Common Terns which bred all round the coast. They seemed exotic to me with their graceful flight and wild cries, birds of the wild rocky coast and beautiful golden beaches.

It wasn't until many years later that I realised we had our own Common Terns here on the Dee Estuary, both breeding and on passage. But in the 1960's the colony was small and breeding success poor. 60/70 pairs in 1966 was an unusually successful season for the colony which was then on Burton Marshes(1). 1970 marked a turnaround in their fortunes with the Merseyside Ringing Group providing nesting platforms in lagoons at Shotton Steelworks (steelworks now owned by Corus)(2). This provided a safe nesting area free from disturbance and tidal inundation, and also much reduced predation. As a result the birds moved from Burton to Shotton during the next ten years or so, and by the late 1980's 200 pairs were producing over 300 chicks. The graph below shows how the colony has continued to increase, and in fact it is now the second largest in the country(3), a remarkable achievement.

Common tern graph

Seven out of the last eight years saw a new record set for the number of pairs at Shotton. Fledgling success has increased similarly, although 2002 was a relatively poor year as bad weather hit the colony just at its most vulnerable,  when the chicks were just a few days old - but they still managed 620 (I don't have data for 2003).  To see the breeding colony you will need a permit from the personnel department at Corus, ring 01244 812345. It is a spectacular sight! A good spot to see feeding birds from the colony is off Greenfield Dock at low tide when the birds are concentrated within the river channel.

Juvenile and Adult Common Tern,
Steve Round

Like most migrating birds these Common Terns seem to be arriving each year earlier and earlier, presumably relating to global warming. Leon Castell, who works at Corus, kindly sent me the arrival dates of the first terns of the spring at Shotton since 1998:

Year     Date first seen     No. of birds
1998       April 26th              3
1999       April 23rd              6
2000       April 18th              1
2001       April 13th              1
2002       April  4th               1
2003       April  2nd              3
2004       April  2nd              1

Passage birds are seen off Point of Ayr, Hilbre and the North Wirral Coast, going northwards in April and May and returning from mid-July to about mid-September. Hilbre usually gets the largest numbers with the highest counts normally between 400 and 2,000, the largest count here in recent years was 2,200 on August 12th 1995. A post breeding assembly of adults and juveniles is seen on the sand banks around Hilbre around mid-July, often several hundred strong(4). Birds coming through a few weeks later will be from further north, and there is strong evidence (ringing and visual) that many travel overland from Northumberland directly to Liverpool Bay(5), these come not only from this country but Scandinavia. Interestingly the Scandinavian birds winter off South Africa, further south than the majority of British breeding birds which only go as far as West Africa.

Going back to the 1960's, a browse though the old Cheshire Bird Reports reveal that we used to get huge numbers of Common Terns in late summer both out in Liverpool Bay and in the River Mersey - tens of thousands. Many of these were regularly seen feeding on dead fish in the then heavily polluted Bromborough Dock, the pollution killed the fish - there was no comment on what this was doing to the terns! We don't get anything like this mass of terns now on the Mersey, a few hundred at most, many of which will have come from the Common Tern colony at Seaforth (north-west Liverpool) where 150 to 200 pairs breed.

1.T. Hedley Bell, A Supplement to The Birds of Cheshire, 1967.
2. J.P.Guest et al, The Breeding Bird Atlas of Cheshire and Wirral, CAWOS, 1992.
3.UK Nature Conservation Report No. 27, Seabird numbers and breeding success in Britain and Ireland.
4. Hilbre Bird Reports 1990 to 2002.
5. Chris Wernham et al, The Migration Atlas, BTO, 2002.

Data for the Common Tern graph was obtained from the Clwyd Bird Reports (1999 to 2001) and John Birch of the Merseyside ringing Group, with many thanks.

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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  John.Harrison@rspb.org.uk. 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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Rare Birds  in Cheshire & Wirral

 New booklet by Allan Conlin and Steve Williams - a Review.

This is a comprehensive guide to the rare birds of Cheshire and Wirral and includes descriptions of eighty two species. Records go all the way back to the nineteenth century, and right up to the present day. The superb photograph by Pete Wheeler on the front cover of the Stilt Sandpiper seen at Frodsham Marsh in 1984 is a good example of the excellent collection of forty photographs accompanying the text, most in colour.

I can highly recommend this booklet, it will bring back happy memories of famous past twitches, bring an excited anticipation of what is to come and puts our rarity sightings in to a true historical perspective.

The two authors, Allan and Steve, are well known local birders with much experience of hunting out rarities. I'll let them speak for themselves for the rest of this review by quoting from the Introduction:-

"Finding or simply seeing a rare bird within ones own County recording area is one of the most exciting aspects to local patch birding. Whilst these boundaries, in which species are recorded, are essentially artificial, it is none-the-less important to make a record of these more interesting species both for general interest and for historical and scientific value."

"Cheshire and Wirral has one of the broadest spectrums of habitat within the UK. Mid and East Cheshire is noted for the numerous fresh water pools and flashes which appropriately have a high number of wader, heron and tern records. To the east where Cheshire borders Derbyshire there is an area of upland moors and dales. To the West lies Wirral, which, having 40 miles of coastline, not surprisingly has a high percentage of rarity occurrences."

"We, the authors, hope you find the information contained within this booklet interesting, informative and hopefully inspirational. The booklet contains as many BBRC accepted records as we could find up to and including 2002, however additional records, particularly for 2003, have been included where we, the authors, feel that inclusion would offer more to the reader and bring completeness to that particular record or records."

The booklet can be obtained by sending a cheque for 6.00 (inc p&p) to 'CAW Birding' at: 2 Westbourne Road, West Kirby, Wirral, Merseyside, CH48 4DG. For more information about this book please ring Allan Conlin on 07791274837.

Many thanks to the authors, Allan Conlin and Steve Williams, for allowing me to quote a large portion of their introduction to Rare Birds in Cheshire & Wirral. 

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Bird Counts
  Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society, 25th April. 1 Little Grebe, 31 Cormorant, 2 Mute Swan, 13 Canada Goose, 35 Shelduck, 3 Gadwall, 42 Mallard, 8 Tufted duck, 2 Moorhen, 10 Coot, 87 Oystercatcher, 2 Lapwing, 23 Dunlin, 524 Black-tailed Godwit, 3 Whimbrel and 64 Redshank.

Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 25th April.
26 Cormorant, 3 Grey Heron, 16 Shelduck,4 Mallard, 340 Oystercatcher, 4,480 Dunlin, 1 Bar-tailed Godwit, 44 Whimbrel, 233 Curlew, 665 Redshank, 4 Turnstone.

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April Bird News
  An eventful month. We had an Osprey, Hoopoe and White Stork, and that was just one day! The Osprey in question was seen flying over the north west of Wirral heading north, as did another three days later, on the 10th. The Hoopoe was initially seen on the 4th by some people out catching moths in the sand dunes by Meols. It then disappeared until the 7th when it was seen in a small field next to the dunes where some excellent views were obtained. It then decided to move half a mile away across the railway and was last seen on the afternoon of the 10th.

The White Stork was briefly at Inner Marsh Farm on the 7th, then it reappeared again the next day and stayed the night. It went off in the morning towards the middle of Cheshire where it remained until at least the end of the month.

The migration continued well during the month, both the first Common Whitethroat and Swift were earlier than the past few years (see 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 15th April Inner Marsh F. 17th April 19th April
Swift 20th April Inner Marsh F. 24th April 23rd April 
Cuckoo     4th May 21st April

It used to be said that the first Swifts weren't seen here until the 8th of May, but that is certainly not the case now as the ones in late April were not just one or two pathfinders but in good numbers - over 20 at Inner Marsh Farm and 30+ over the Hoylake Langfields were typical records. Chiffchaffs were particularly plentiful all month and by the end of the month Common Whitethroats seemed to be everywhere. There were some good movements of Wheatear during the month, 29 in one field near Leasowe Lighthouse on the 23rd was the highlight. Other birds on passage included 2,500 Meadow Pipits at Hilbre on the 12th and at least 200 White Wagtails on Hoylake beach on the 14th. Ring Ouzels trickled through, the first was on the 3rd, rather unexpectedly in a tree opposite a birder's garden in West Kirby, and in total six were observed.

The first Common Tern was back at the Shotton colony on the 2nd but it wasn't until the 26th when 30 turned up that they looked like they were thinking of breeding - shrieking and displaying over the pools. Always later to arrive, 30 Little Terns were first seen off Hilbre on the 23rd, and on the 26th at Gronant. A single Black Tern was something more unexpected, one was at both Inner Marsh Farm and the Connah's Quay reserve, it stayed from the 12th to the 14th. 350 Sandwich Terns at Gronant was a good number for April. We saw a good passage of Little Gulls past Hilbre, the highest count being 125 on the 11th. This lovely small gull gathered at nearby Seaforth in their hundreds before departing overland on their way north east to the Baltic.

Brent Geese remained on Hilbre until the 8th when 16 were present. A peculiar looking duck caused some puzzlement at Inner Marsh Farm. This bird looks a bit like a drake Eider, but always consorts with Shelduck. It only turns up at this time of year, one theory has it that it is an Eider/ Shelduck hybrid but that seems unlikely. So it remains a puzzle.

There has been quite a good passage of Whimbrel, the highest count being of 44 at Heswall. A few hundred Black-tailed Godwit are still around the estuary, mainly at Connah's Quay and Inner Marsh Farm, looking striking in their summer plumage. As were the 10 Spotted Redshanks at Inner Marsh Farm at the end of the month. A couple of Avocets touched down during the month but unfortunately didn't stay. Other birds of note was a Wood Sandpiper over West Kirby, a Serin at Red Rocks and an early male Redstart on Hilbre Island.

What to expect in May.

Usually a very good month for rarities. The highlights for the past few years include Temminck's Stint, Gull-billed Tern, Red-backed Shrike, Montague's Harrier, Woodchat Shrike and White-throated Sparrow. Many of these will be what is called 'migration over-shoots', or put another way - birds which have lost their way during migration. The main spring migration is still underway in early May so look out for Ring Ouzels, Greenland Wheatear, Wood Warblers, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and Yellow Wagtails - among many others!

Wader numbers will have dropped right off on the estuary but we can still get quite large flocks of long-distant migrants passing through on their way to the far north - Knot, Dunlin and Sanderling. Most years there is also a sizable summering flock of non-breeding Black-tailed Godwits, best seen at Inner Marsh Farm.

Our two tern colonies, Common Terns at Shotton and Little Terns at Gronant, will have started breeding by the end of the month. Sea watching is often very good in May with good numbers of Gannets, Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake and Common Scoter, and we may also catch a glimpse of the rare Roseate Tern among the many Common and Sandwich Terns.

Many thanks go to John Kirkland, Simon Roberts, Mark Feltham, Mike Hart, Leon Castell, Mark Turner, Mark Norton, David Burt, Steve Roberts, James Walsh, Lynne 'Dawpool', David small, Nigel Jarrett, Steve Wrigley,  Nigel Troup, Bruce Atherton, Colin Jones, Steve Ainsworth, Carl Traill,  Dave and Emma Kenyon, Bernard Machin, Matt Thomas, Mark Smith, Clive Ashton, Alan Patterson, John Eliot, Steve Round, Tanny Robinson, David Esther,  Brian Grey, John Harrison, Allan Conlin, Mike Hart, David Harrington, Colin Wells, Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, Shaun Williams, Keith Duckers, Mal Smerden,  Jean Morgan, Dave Steer, Colin Schofield, Chris Tynan, Jeremy Bradshaw, Jane Turner, John Roberts, Kevin Smith, Chris Wilding,  Karen Leeming Neil Friswell, Kamille Wallace, Michael Cocking, Chris Leighton,  Gary Keating, Tracy Bennett, Jim Middleton and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during April. All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events
  May Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
5th May, 12:24hrs 9.8m. (all times BST)
6th May, 13:08hrs 9.8m. 

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 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.

Sunday 16th May, 9:00am - 11:00am, How to be a Birdwatcher.
Birdwatching is a fascinating hobby, but with so many plumages to recognise and songs to learn it can be a bit daunting. Join the Rangers on a relaxed walk around the many habitats of Wirral Country Park and pick up tips on how to be a birdwatcher. Please bring waterproofs and binoculars if you have them. Booking essential, 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 6th June, 8:00am - 10:00am. Warblers of the Common.
Look, listen and search for warblers and other migrant species that come to these lowland heathlands during our summer months.
Booking essential. Tel: 0151 648 4371.

Friday 11th June, 9:00pm to Midnight! A Night on the Tiles.
Owls, mice, bats and moths are on the menu for this evening excursion around Wirral Country Park. Tawny, little and barn owls are all possible. The bat detectors and moth traps will be out so join the Rangers to see what turns up! Warm clothing and a torch are a must. Places are limited, so book early on 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 12th June, 1:30pm, Orchid Spectacular at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB Nature Reserve.
The reserve's wetland fields become carpeted with marsh orchids in the spring. Join the Warden on a walk around this special part of the reserve not normally open to visitors. Learn about how we manage the reserve, over afternoon tea. Booking essential. Tickets: 3.00 members and 4.00 non-members. For details and to book, tel RSPB, 0151 336 7681. Please book early due to popular demand.

Sunday 13th June, 1:30pm, Orchid Spectacular at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB Nature Reserve.
A second opportunity to join the Warden on a walk around a special part of the reserve not normally open to visitors. Event followed by afternoon tea. Booking essential. Tickets: 3.00 members and 4.00 non-members. To book and further details call RSPB on 0151 336 7681. Please book early.

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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