Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st June 2007
Species Spotlight - Manx Shearwater.
Gronant Little Tern Colony.
May Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Species Spotlight - Manx Shearwater, the 'Manxie'

Manx Shearwater, ©
Steve Round

A glimpse of a Manxie speeding past our coast is always an exciting moment. With it's characteristic up and down side to side flight, one second in a wave trough, the next sweeping upwards in a large glide followed by rapid beats of the wings. They are usually a fair distance out and can be difficult to spot at first, especially during a gale. But once you get your eye in during a strong west wind it can be surprising just how many are steadily making their way through Liverpool Bay.

One of my favourite books is ‘The Island’ by Ronald Lockley; here he describes his life on the lonely island of Skokholm, Pembrokeshire, in the 1930s. At a time when little was known about the breeding habits of sea birds RL spent 10 years studying the birds of Skokholm, in particular the Manx Shearwater. He expands on the subject of Manx Shearwaters in the monograph 'Shearwaters', long recognised as a classic in scientific nature writing. Even after all these years and many other studies since the fact that his name is mentioned ten times in the Manx Shearwater account in the Birds of the Western Palearctic and four times in the BTO Migration Atlas shows how important his work was. It was he who discovered the remarkably long breeding season of this species with an incubation period of c51 days and the fledging period of c70 days. He also discovered that the adult birds could be away from the nest several days at a time and that many travel long distances away from the breeding colonies in their search for food. This, of course, has a large bearing on trying to determine the origins of birds we see off the Dee Estuary out in Liverpool Bay.

Manx Shearwater off north Wirral during gales in 2004, © Steve Round

Currently Skokholm has at least 46,000 pairs nesting each summer, and the nearby island of Skomer a remarkable 100,000. The combined total of breeding pairs on these islands makes them easily the most important site in the world for this species with c45% of the world's population. It is likely that many of the birds we see here are from these two islands; Liverpool Bay is only an easy 12 hour flight away for this fast flying species. The island of Rhum in Scotland also has large numbers of Manx Shearwaters breeding with c36% of the world's population and, although further than South Wales, Liverpool Bay is easily within foraging range. RL found from ringing recoveries that they could fly as much as 600 miles from the nesting site during a feeding trip.

Map above © Richard Smith (map based on one originally drawn by Jane Turner).

Bardsey Island off the Lleyn Peninsula, North Wales, has a total of about 7,000 pairs, much less than the Pembrokshire and Scottish islands but still a good number of birds, and being much closer to the Dee Estuary, we can be pretty sure that many of our birds are also from this colony. Despite their name it is unlikely that any we see are from the Isle of Man as only 30-40 pairs currently nest here.
Manxies prefer relatively deep water so their appearances in sight of the coast are very irregular, usually coinciding with strong on-shore winds. In 2006 there were only two days when we had more than 100 birds in a day, unusually this included 140 off Hilbre on April 25th. Normally we get very few April records, which is surprising as by this time the large majority will have returned to their breeding colonies, but RL found that at this time of year many headed south whilst feeding. In June, however, they seem more inclined to head north in to the Irish Sea and a strong west or south-westerly wind almost guarantees sightings of Manx Shearwaters in Liverpool Bay; although during calmer weather there may be many days when no birds are seen. They appear to follow a clock-wise path around Liverpool Bay cutting the corner between Formby Point and Hoylake, which is why Hoylake, Red Rocks, Hilbre, Point of Ayr and  Gronant are always better for Manx Shearwater sightings than Leasowe and New Brighton, where only a full blown gale will bring them within sight (see map, left). In any conditions the highest numbers are usually recorded off the Point of Ayr and nearby Gronant.

The histogram above (based on Hilbre and north Wirral records) demonstrates that a peak is reached in June followed by a smaller peak in late summer/autumn. The peak in June coincides with the period of egg incubation and it is typical during this period for each parent to be away from the nest for about five days, each taking turns at sitting on the egg. Five days would be ample time for a few circuits around the Irish Sea. This is followed by a sudden drop off in numbers when the adults are feeding the chick; they return to the nest more often at this time and therefore do not range so widely. By the end of August migration will have begun and there is probably also some post-breeding dispersal prior to their southward movement. If there is a strong north-west wind in September many Manx Shearwaters get blown in to Liverpool Bay within sight of land and it is probable that a lot of these are Scottish breeders blown in through the North Channel in to the Irish Sea. During September and October the majority of birds will make their way rapidly to the South Atlantic off the east coast of South America where they spend the southern summer; very few are seen in the Irish Sea after mid-October. However, a few do spend the winter north of the equator and this explains the presence of one observed off Hoylake during strong south-west gales on Dec 9th 2006, the latest ever sighting for Cheshire and Wirral.
On the rare occasions we do get large numbers of Manx Shearwaters within viewing distance of the coast it is a spectacular sight. It is well worth searching through these large flocks of Manxies as they may well contain a rarer shearwater or two. The max numbers for Hilbre/North Wirral over the past thirty years are shown in the histogram below and, not unexpectedly, shows a lot of variation from year to year. The 720 counted on June 23rd 2000 off Hoylake is the highest ever count recorded for Wirral.

During most years the largest numbers in our area are observed off Point of Ayr and  Gronant. Unfortunately my records for here are incomplete which is why these counts haven't been included in the above histograms. The table below shows some notable counts from Gronant and Point of Ayr between 1989 and 2001.

Year 1989 1992 1993 1994 1995 1999 2000 2001
Date 28/6 12/7 31/7 22/6 4/7 20/6 17/5 9/9
Count 250 859 360 610 760 1,400 1,350 300

1. R. M. Lockley, The Island, 1969. (Out of print but available second hand from at the time of writing).
2. R. M. Lockley, Shearwaters, J.M. Dent, 1942. (I recently obtained a copy from eBay!)
3. BTO Migration Atlas, 2002.
4. Cramp & Simmons, Birds of the Western Palearctic, 1977, (and updated version on CD).
5. Seabird 2000 Website, Manx Shearwater, JNCC,
6. Cheshire & Wirral Bird Reports, 1977 to 2005.
7. Clwyd Bird Reports, 1989, 1992, 1993 to 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
8. Data sent to me directly, including 2006 records from Hilbre Bird Observatory.

Richard Smith.

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Voluntary Wardens wanted for Gronant Little Tern Colony

Richard Smith

Gronant is a wonderful place to spend a few hours in the summer with the constant activity of the Little Tern colony, some great sea-watching, skylarks and meadow pipits singing over head and wildflowers covering the sand dunes. 2007 will be the 32nd year that there has been wardening here, and as can be seen from the graph below the Little Terns continue to increase in numbers despite the best attentions of the foxes, crows and kestrels; great credit must go to all those wardens doing a great job over those 32 years.

Wardening will be starting in May and usually ends early August. If you want to help out as a voluntary warden, or just want to come along to see what it is all about, contact Adrian Hibbert at Denbighshire Countryside Services, email:, tel no. 01745 356197.

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May Bird News

Rarities this month included an overflying Great White Egret at Burton Marsh, may be it's still out there somewhere, and an unconfirmed report of a summer plumage Red-breasted Flycatcher at Leasowe Lighthouse. A Dipper was at Arrowe Park, a rare bird on Wirral although it breeds in streams on the Welsh side of the estuary. The Wheatear migration seems to have been very prolonged this spring with good numbers still coming through all month with 40 Wheatear at Leasowe Lighthouse early morning on the 19th being the peak count. Whimbrel have been passing through in good numbers including 20 at Hilbre on the 12th and 33 at Heswall  the following day.

There has been plenty of activity at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB with at least one pair of Avocet successfully hatching chicks. Two Mediterranean Gulls were seen and the max count of Black-tailed Godwits was 282, quite a bit lower than the previous two years. Other waders included single Little Ringed Plover and Curlew Sandpiper. An Osprey passed over here on the 14th, Ospreys were also seen at West Kirby and Deeside. Wildfowl included a pair of Garganey and a Green-winged Teal.
At least three Hobby were seen, at Burton, West Kirby and Leasowe Lighthouse. A Ring Ouzel at the Lighthouse on the 21st was late for this species.
Sea watching has been quiet with just a few Gannets, Arctic Skuas, Manx Shearwaters and Scoters in sight, but there were at least 120 Little Terns back at Gronant by the end of the month.

Mediterranean Gulls at Inner Marsh Farm, © Ian McKinnon.

What to expect in June

Early in the month we can still get some late migrants hurrying through, in particular Sanderling, the tundra race of Ringed Plover and Dunlin, all on their way to the high Arctic. But already by the end of the month birds will be returning from breeding; expect to see a few hundred Curlew and Redshank off Heswall. We may also see Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers, all early breeders, plus a handful of early Spotted Redshanks and Greenshanks, the former in their glorious summer plumage. As well as late and early passage birds we get a good number of non-breeding waders on the estuary with several hundred Black-tailed Godwits at Inner Marsh Farm, may be with a few immature Knot. Over a thousand Oystercatchers spend the summer on the estuary and these usually roost at Point of Ayr, but look out also for the few breeding pairs we get around the estuary. The pair or two we get at Gronant within the Little Tern Colony are particularly effective at chasing away crows!

Spotted Redshank in summer plumage at Inner Marsh Farm, © Steve Round

If we get some fresh west or south-west winds these can blow in good numbers of sea-birds. Storm Petrels are fairly regular off our coast but usually only one or two a year are seen, partly as they are so difficult to see flying so low over the water; but the last three summers has been exceptional for this species with good numbers observed including a remarkable 30 in the Mersey mouth in June 2006 during strong winds. Also expect to see plenty of terns, Gannets and, hopefully, Manx Shearwaters and Arctic Skuas. By the end of the month we should have a good idea how successful a season our tern colonies are having and there will certainly be plenty of activity at both Shotton (Common Terns) and Gronant (Little Terns).

Many thanks go to Colin Davies, Paul Vautrinot, Karen Leeming, Mark Turner, Andrew Wallbank, David Esther, Ray Wilson, David Haigh, Geoff Harrop, Neil McLaren, Yvonne Taylor, Dorothy Jebb, Tanny Robinson, Iain Douglas, Pete Button, Phil Woollen, Damian Waters, Jason Stannage, Stuart Taylor, Steve Oakes, David Small, Ian McKinnon, David Harrington, Dave Edwards, Allan Conlin, Dave Wild, Colin Schofield, Steve Round, Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Sheil Blamire, Charles Farnell, Jonathon Potter, Richard Steel, Richard Graham, Paul Shenton, Mark Kendall, Paul Rowlands, Kristian Rowe, Mark O'Sullivan, Keith Duckers, Paul Roberts, Mike Jones, John Fisher, Chris Davies, Andrew Wingham, Gilbert Bolton, Paul Mason, Andy Astbury, Philip Gabriel, Philip Barnes, Barbara Greenwood  and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during May.  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events

June Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
14th June, 11.10hrs 9.2m. BST.
15th June, 12.03hrs 9.2m. BST.
16th June, 12.54hrs 9.2m. 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.

Wednesday 6th June, Evening Sunset Walk to Hilbre.
Cross the sands to discover the Islands' wildlife and history. A 4-mile walk of four hours, ideal for first time visitors. Please bring warm waterproof clothing (Wellington boots are recommended). Sorry no dogs. There is a £1 charge for this event. Booking essential - ring 0151 648 4371.

Thursday 7th June. Night Owl Watch, 8.30pm - 11pm.
Join the Rangers and the Wirral Barn Owl Trust for a short illustrated talk followed by a walk in Royden Park to search for these nocturnal birds. This event is suitable for all the family. Sorry no dogs. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 16th June. Walking the Wirral Way, 2pm - 3.45pm.
Join the Friends of Wirral country Park on this walk along the Wirral Way, past the Visitor Centre at Thurstaston to Heswall Fields and the Dee Sailing Club. This event is suitable for all the family to enjoy. Suitable clothing and footwear are essential. Sorry no dogs. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Thursday 28th June. Night Owl Watch, 8.30pm - 11pm.
Join the Rangers and the Wirral Barn Owl Trust for a short illustrated talk followed by a walk in Royden Park to search for these nocturnal birds. This event is suitable for all the family. Sorry no dogs. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 30th June. The History and Habitats of Royden Park, 1pm - 3pm.
Join the Ranger for a walk around Royden Park and discover more about its history and the wealth of wildlife found in its diverse habitats. This event is suitable for all the family. No need to book. Meet at the Ranger's Office by the Walled Garden (SJ 245857). For info ring 0151 677 7594.

Sunday 1st July. Greenfinch or Goldfinch? 10am - 12noon.
A morning of bird spotting for beginners and an opportunity to discover what birds can be seen in Central Park, Wallasey. Please bring binoculars if you have them. Booking essential, ring 0151 691 1450.

Wednesday 4th July, Evening Sunset Walk to Hilbre.
Cross the sands to discover the Islands' wildlife and history. A 4-mile walk of four hours, ideal for first time visitors. Please bring warm waterproof clothing (Wellington boots are recommended). Sorry no dogs. There is a £1 charge for this event. Booking essential - ring 0151 648 4371.

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2007', 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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