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May 2023 Newsletter


Dee Estuary Little Terns

Little Tern flock just off the beach at Gronant Carole Killikelly

With the first Little Terns having already arrived back from their wintering grounds this spring it's time to review the 2022 season, and what a good one it was. The graph below tells the story.

Taking account that 2021 was one of our best ever seasons, to see a 43% increase in the number of pairs breeding and a 32% increase in the number of young fledged the following year is just incredible. Both are record highs for the Dee Estuary Little Terns with 250 pairs in 2022 beating the 2021 record of 175 and 278 young fledged in 2022 beating the 2010 high of 216. The high number of pairs in 2022 was presumably a result of good winter survival together with a great run of good breeding seasons producing plenty of Little Terns, 2020 excepted.

The numbers on the graph above are the total for both the Dee Estuary colonies, which are at Gronant and Point of Ayr (POA). But the POA colony only really became established in 2020 when storms in early June wiped out 70% of the nests at Gronant which resulted in 21 pairs relocating and building nests at POA. Although still much smaller than Gronant the POA colony made a very important contribution in 2022 with 39 pairs producing 69 fledglings, as shown in the table below which compares breeding success from 2019 to 2022.



Little Tern fledglings at Gronant, July 2022 Robin Sandham

I was wardening at Gronant in 2001 and remember well the huge disappointment, near despair, when we realised that not a single chick had survived the breeding season. A result of a pair of determined Kestrels and problems with the electric fence which meant foxes had got into the pens on a couple of nights. Thankfully, that year was the exception rather than the rule and Gronant, over the years, is probably the most productive colony in the United Kingdom. The graph above demonstrates this nicely, showing the fledglings per pair (i.e. the productivity of the colony) since 1975. Despite the poor 2020 season the five year average currently stands at 1.1, well above the magic number of 0.74 which Cook & Robinson (see Ref 2) calculated is the number of fledglings per pair which is required to sustain numbers of Little Terns in a colony. Less than 0.74 and numbers will drop, above 0.74 and numbers will increase. Remarkably, in the 47 years the colony (including POA since 2019) has been wardened the five year average of fledglings per pair has dropped below 0.74 only three times. No wonder numbers are increasing!

The number of chicks successfully fledged can vary greatly from year to year, of course, with the weather, high tides, disturbance and predation all having a part to play. 2022 was very successful because of good weather throughout the season, very few nests were lost to high tides and the wardening team, including volunteers (see below), did a great job of keeping disturbance and predation at low levels.

The good weather meant that the Dee Estuary wasn't the only site to have a bumper season. I've seen reports of a very good breeding season come from across the British Isles including Chesil Beach in Dorset, Hodbarrow in Cumbria, Long Nanny in Northumberland and Sands of Forvie on the east coast of Scotland. Across the Irish Sea, at the Kilcoole colony near Wicklow, they had at least 255 active nests and 431 chicks by early July. But it was at Winterton NNR, on the east coast of Norfolk, that had the biggest colony in 2022 with at least 300 active nests producing a minimum of 585 fledglings (counted on July 14th) with a possible total of a massive 700 for the season! All this bodes well for the future of Little Terns.

You can keep in touch with what is going on at Gronant via Twitter: https://twitter.com/GronantTerns  @GronantTerns.

Voluntary Wardens Wanted

I quote from the "Becoming a Little Tern Volunteer Warden" document published by Denbighshire County Council a few years ago:

We rely on our volunteers, and without you the colony would not be as successful as it has been in recent years. Because of the work of our on-site wardens, the Little Tern colony at Gronant became the largest colony in the UK. This is in itself a testament to the hard work that has been done inrecent years and it has become a privilege to be involved in such a wonderful project.

You have a choice of volunteering either at Gronant or POA, or both. Wardening starts around mid-May and will go on until late July. The hours can be pretty flexible but you would have to discuss that with the relevant wardening team. I used to do one day a week and was at Gronant for four to six hours on my allocated day. Feel free just to turn up at either colony and have a chat to the wardens on duty to see what is involved. Downloading this PDF file is a good place to start - Becoming a Little Tern Warden.pdf.

Here are some details about Gronant:
Contact the North Wales Little Tern Group by emailing nwlittletern@gmail.com. I quote from their website (https://northwaleslittleterns.weebly.com/howyoucanhelp.html ):
"The way you can help the birds whenever you are free, please consider heading down to the Gronant dunes and the wardens will always have something for you to help with. Volunteers play a crucial role in supporting the staff wardens as it is a large site with lots happening. If you can volunteer at Gronant Dunes this season, please let us know by emailing nwlittletern@gmail.com."

For Point of Ayr contact the RSPB, see:
or you could call in to the visitor centre at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands and tell the wardens there that you want to volunteer at POA.

The 2022 Boards at Gronant - sightings, guidance for visitors and an identification board.


1. Charlotte Andrews, Josh Case & Natalie Lewis, 2022 Little Tern Report, Denbighshire Countryside Services.

2. Cook, A.S.C.P. and Robinson, R.A., 2010. How Representative is the Current Monitoring of Breeding Seabirds in the UK? BTO Research Report No. 573. BTO, Thetford, Norfolk, UK.

Richard Smith.

Little Terns at Gronant in June 2022 Ian Sheppard

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Colour Ring Report


Knot Orange Flag 24C, a Long-billed Dowitcher in front, at Burton Mere Wetlands April 1st 2023 Carole Killikelly

Orange Flag 24C/Green ring
Ringed at Hoylake on 25/11/2022.
Recorded at Thurstaston on 17/01/2023 and Burton Mere Wetlands on 01/04/2023.

Knot are unusual at Burton Mere Wetlands but occasionally a flock roosts there, usually in Spring and such was the case on April 1st when Oflag 24C was spotted, the first colour-ringed Knot recorded at this site.

Orange Flag TUA/Pale blue ring
Ringed at Ynyslas (Cardigan Bay) on 15/09/2022.
Recorded at Thurstaston in January 2023.
In April it was seen at Formby on the 7th and the next day, 8th, at Oakenholt (RSPB).

This is the first colour-ringed Knot recorded at Oakenholt.

Knot Orange Flag 25U, Thurstaston, April 25th 2023 Steve Hinde

Orange flag 25U/Green ring
Ringed at Formby on 21/04/2023.
Recorded at Thurstaston on 25/04/2023.

Six Orange flagged Knots were recorded at Thurstaston on April 25th, all had been ringed at Formby four days earlier. These were part of a large flock of 4,000 which visited us for a few days at the end of April to feed up here before their long journey across the Atlantic to breed in northern Canada.

Black-tailed Godwits

Black-tailed Godwit G-Orange flag AA, April 13th 2023 Alex Jones

Green ring - Orange Flag (AA)
Ringed on Maltraeth Estuary (Anglesey) on 29/1/2022.
Recorded at Burton Mere Wetlands on 13/04/2023.

Amazingly, this is the first Black-tailed Godwit ever to be colour ringed on the west coast of mainland Britain! Hundreds have been colour ringed in this country, of course, but all on the east and south coasts, and also in Ireland. This is a new scheme and we hope many more will be fitted with these Orange flags over the coming years.

Black-tailed Godwit L-L at Caldy, April 24th 2023 Richard Smith

L - L (L/L-L)
This Black-tailed Godwit originally had three Lime green rings but has lost the one which was on the left tarsus.
Ringed in southern Iceland on 17/06/2003 as a chick, it will be 20 years old this June!
Over it's 20 years it has been recorded 285 times. First seen on the Dee Estuary in September 2005 it has returned every year since with most records on Thurstaston Shore (feeding) and Caldy Wildfowl Collection (roosting). In March 2022 it was recorded on the Ribble Estuary, then it was not seen for a year and we thought we wouldn't see it again, but then it turned up on Frodsham Marsh in March 2023, and at Caldy from 18/04/2023 to 24/04/2023.

Black-tailed Godwit m-R/YRL at Caldy, July 2020 Richard Smith

Ringed in north-west Spain (Pontevedra) on 23/12/2019.
Recorded at Woolston Eyes (Cheshire) in late June in 2020 it then turned up at Caldy Wildfowl Collection the following month and stayed until mid-August 2020, after which it was at Connnah's Quay. October 2020 saw it back in north-west Spain.
The next record was in January 2022 at Marshside (Southport), it was then seen at both Oakenholt RSPB and Caldy the following August, and again at Oakenholt on 08/04/2023.


Shelduck Red T Yellow F at Meols, April 14th 2023 Richard Smith

Red T - Yellow F.
Ringed at Lower Derwent Valley NNR (Yorkshire) in November 2020.
Recorded at Meols in March 2021 and on 14/04/2023.


Twite OG - Om (left) at Flint, March 24th 2023 Jeff Cohen

OG - Om
On 23/03/2023 Jeff Cohen managed to photograph three colour-ringed Twite, but we've only managed to get information on the one on the left in the above photo.
Ringed at Connah's Quay Nature Reserve in January 2022.
Recorded at Flint Castle on 23/03/2023.

Colour Rings were recorded by Richard Smith, Stephen Hinde, Alan Hitchmough, Tony Ormond, Richard Speechley, Alex Jones, Jeff Cohen, Peter Haslem and Carole Killikelly.

Richard Smith

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April Bird News

Black-winged Stilt at Burton Mere Wetlands, April 27th Leon Castell

A great month and with so much going on I can only give you brief highlights. I'll start with the rarities:

The Long-billed Dowitcher which turned up at Burton Mere Wetlands in March (and probably the same one seen a couple of times last winter) was recorded on several dates through April.

A Savi's Warbler was first heard, then seen at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 10th and the following four days. This is only the third record for the Dee Estuary area with one at Red Rocks in May 1993 and one on Moreton Common in May 1994.

A Green-winged Teal was spotted in the channel at Heswall Shore on the 14th, 23rd and 29th.

A Gull-billed Tern was at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 19th and 20th, although somewhat elusive at times. The last one we had was on Thurstaston Shore in July 2019 which gave good views for several days.

A Black Guillemot was seen well off Meols on the 19th for a short while, with more distant views on the 22nd and 23rd.

Blue-headed Wagtails are the continental race of Yellow Wagtails and rare on the west coast of Great Britain, less than annual in our area. So to get four records this month was exceptional. One was at Gronant on the 23rd with another there on the 30th. The other two were both seen on the 25th with one at Leasowe Lighthouse and the other at Burton Mere Wetlands.

Burton Mere Wetlands' good streak continued with the arrival of a Black-winged Stilt on the 27th. Good views were had from Marsh Covert Hide for an all too short time before it flew over the main scrape and not relocated.

Gull-billed Tern at Burton Mere Wetlands, April 19th John Hewitt

Blue-headed Wagtail at Leasowe, April 25th Benjamin Twist

The table below shows the first arrivals of a selection of spring migrants, in April we had an early Swift but otherwise the arrival dates were fairly typical.

Species 2023 Location 2022 2021
Sand Martin 15th March
Gronant 11th March 5th March
Wheatear 17th March
Burton/Little Eye 9th March
28th Feb
White Wagtail
17th March Leasowe 12th March
16th March
Swallow 24th March Leasowe 15th March 18th March
Willow Warbler
25th March
Burton 29th March
23rd March
House Martin
1st April Burton Mere Wetlands 23rd March 27th March
Swift 5th April
GreenField Dock 28th April 16th April
Whitethroat 10th April Decca Pools 10th April 10th April
Cuckoo 24th April Leasowe 21st April 24th April

Osprey over Leasowe Lighthouse, April 19th Allan Conlin

There were a lot of birds arriving, passing through and leaving. Pink-footed Geese were seen heading north on several mornings but on the 17th 8,000 were counted from Hilbre - a wonderful sight. 10 Ospreys were recorded flying over this month, making a good total of 16 so far this spring.

Out to sea 68 Little Gulls on the 1st was the peak of their passage, some fresh winds on the 12th brought in 70 Manx Shearwaters and 180 Gannets recorded from Hilbre, also the first Little Tern of the year was seen on the same date.

Pied Flycatcher at Leasowe, April 25th Sean O'Hara

A total of four Pied Flycatchers was a good total, they are quite scarce here on the coast. Good numbers of migrants including at least 100 Willow Warblers on Hilbre on the 18th and over 100 Wheatears in North Wirral on the 22nd. The first Hobbies arrived on the 29th, with one at Lower Heswall and another over Saughall.

Grasshopper Warbler, Burton Marsh, April 26th Steve Round

Cuckoo at Leasowe, April 24th Steve Williams

I always make a point of looking out for two species in particular in April, Whimbrels and White Wagtails. Whimbrels are seen here in April and early May when most of our other waders have already left, filling the estuary with their whistling calls. The area between West Kirby and Heswall is always a good place to see them and the one below was skulking around on the rocks just south of the Dee Sailing Club causeway. They are traveling up from West Africa and nearly all the ones which stage here will be on their way to Iceland to breed, peak numbers in April was 107 during high tide at Heswall on the 25th.

White Wagtails are the continental race of Pied Wagtails. These are moving up from Spain and France where they have spent the winter, they pass through the UK on their way to Iceland to breed. I caught the peak of their migration this year on Hoylake shore with 25 on the 16th. I looked at those birds in amazement, how can such a delicate looking bird possibly cross the Atlantic all the way to Iceland?? But they obviously do and very successfully!

Whimbrel at Thurstaston, April 22nd Richard Smith

White Wagtail on Hoylake Shore, April 6th Richard Smith

Many thanks go to Steve Williams, Steve Hinde, Alan Hitchmough, Richard Speechley, Allan Conlin, Richard Whitby, Bruce Atherton, David Leeming, Matt Thomas, Steve Round, Chris Wilding, David Thompson, Tim Kinch, Chris Williams, Leon Castell, Richard Du Feu, Jason King, Les Hall, Sean O'Hara, Tony Ormond, Jane Turner, Jeremy Bradshaw, Elliot Monteith, Jeff Cohen, Mark Woodhead, John Hewitt, Dave Harrington, John Crook, David Small, Jennifer Harwood, Janine Johnson, Peter Haslem, Alex Jones, Carole Killikelly, Bill Wonderley, Cliff Baker, Roy Lowry, Paul Ralston, Steve Hasell, Peter Stevenson, Steve Liston, Eddie Williams, Mark Gibson, David Thompson, Fran Prideon, Anthony Ramsden, Ian Smith, Stephen Martin, Ken Lewis, Glyn Thursfield, Paul Mason, Paul Greenslde, Benjamin Twist, Elaine White, Pyrce Roberts, Neil Newman, the Dee Estuary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during April. All sightings are gratefully received.

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What to expect in May

The spring migration will still be in full swing in May. See my 'Three Magical Days in Spring' article', written in 2012 it includes a description of the birds counted on Hilbre on May 2nd that year - the highlights being 200+ Wheatears and 800 Willow Warblers, an incredible fall.

Other than the possibility of large numbers of Wheatears and Willow Warblers the passage of both Spotted Flycatchers and Whinchats peak in May, on May 9th 2021 we had 20 Whinchats in the Leasowe Lighthouse area.

Many waders will have already left but there will be plenty more coming through including Whimbrels on their way from West Africa to Iceland, and we had record numbers of these at Heswall last year - 211 on the 5th. Both Dunlin and many Ringed Plovers will be using the same route as the Whimbrels, although the flocks will be passing through quickly. Look closely at the Dunlin flocks and you could find something much rarer. Curlew Sandpipers are far less common in spring than autumn but we usually see one or two, and in full breeding plumage. Dotterels have been recorded in May and all the Broad-billed Sandpiper records for Cheshire and Wirral have been this month, last one at Hoylake in 2011.

One or two Ospreys will still be flying over on their way north, and we will see a few Hobbies. It's worth looking out to sea if we get strong west winds which could well bring in large numbers of Gannets and Manx Shearwaters flying along the Liverpool Bay coast.

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Forthcoming Events

May Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool)

Also see Tides page

6th May, 12.19hrs (BST), 9.2m.
7th May, 12.56hrs (BST), 9.2m.
19th May, 11.41hrs (BST), 9.3m.
20th May, 12.21hrs (BST), 9.2m.

Forthcoming Events

Also see events at https://events.rspb.org.uk/deeestuary