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June 2019 Newsletter

Gronant Little Terns.
Waders Heading Off.
May Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.


   Gronant Little Terns

                                                  Little Tern at Gronant 2018 © Henry Cook

As I write this at the end of May the 2019 breeding season is already well underway at Gronant with the first Little Tern eggs already laid. Gronant really is a great place to visit this time of year and as well as the 150 or so pairs of Little Terns there will also be breeding Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers in the sand dunes as well as Grasshopper, Reed and Sedge Warblers in the nearby reed bed with many other species to be seen in the sand dunes and on the beach.  There's always a chance of a rarity and in 2018 they had an American Golden Plover, Cetti's Warbler, Bee-eater and Great Egret. Out at sea there will be Gannets, Common Scoters and, given a brisk westerly, Manx Shearwaters.

Little Terns at Gronant © Roy Lowry

Wanted - Voluntary Wardens

The Little Tern Colony, the only one in Wales and one of the most productive in the British Isles, wouldn't exist without the wardening scheme which has been in place since 1975. I was a warden at Gronant for around 15 years and it's a great experience. If you want to have a go either contact the North Wales Little Tern Group (, Denbighshire Countryside Services or just turn up at Gronant and introduce yourself.

  Little Tern chick and egg at Gronant (2018) - photographed under licence

Review of 2018 Season

If you'd been at Gronant on June 14th when Storm Hector struck you'd be justified in thinking that most of the colony had been destroyed and that it would be a disastrous breeding season. It was certainly unlucky that this unseasonable storm coincided with the highest tide of the month causing a significant storm surge. 89 nests were washed away but thanks to the wardens many were saved by physically moving the nests up the beach.

Amazingly the season turned out to be yet another record breaking one with 171 pairs, up from the previous year's high of 161 pairs. About 80 nests survived the storm with the rest successfully re-laying which resulted in 192 fledged young, the third highest ever recorded at Gronant. Quite a lot of the newly hatched chicks were predated at night by foxes, badgers and weasels so if we can reduce this there is potential for a much higher number of fledglings and we hope that in 2019 we can beat the record of 216 set in 2010.

Little Tern Colour-ringing

Thanks partly to funding by the LIFE+ Little Tern Species Recovery Project over the past five years there has been a big effort to colour ring birds in order to gain data on their movements and survival. In 2018 51 adults and 109 chicks were colour-ringed at Gronant. Other sites also ringed birds and that told us that after Storm Hector struck many of the Isle of Man colony at the Point of Ayre upped sticks and moved to Gronant, which at least partly explains how again there was an increase in breeding birds here.

Just 110 miles west of Gronant is a similarly sized Little Tern Colony at Kilcoole, south of Dublin, and there appears to be much interchange between the two sites with 26 birds ringed at Kilcoole recorded at Gronant in 2018. It may well be that Kilcoole, Isle of Man, Gronant and other Irish Sea colonies act as one meta-population with birds moving between the colonies not only from season to season but within the breeding season. In fact Gronant is not only a sizable breeding colony it also appears to be a major migration staging post as we always get an increase in numbers around the third week in July as the breeding season comes to an end and in 2018 we had a peak of 620 adults on July 18th due to an influx from other sites. This just shows how important the sea off Gronant is as a feeding area for this species.

The table below is taken from the Little Tern Report 2018.

Little Tern with ring AAD. A good example of how birds move around the different Irish Sea colonies - it was ringed as a chick at Kilcoole, Ireland, in 2004, when it was given a metal ring. It moved to the Isle of Man, where colour ring AAD was put on it in 2014, and then bred at Gronant in 2018.

LATEST from Gronant May 2019

Extract from North Wales Little Tern Blog ( by Henry Cook:
The update from today's (29/05) clutch count was that there are now 148 nests and 393 eggs. We are nearly at the peak and it is only eight days since the first nest was found. The average clutch size is also looking healthy at 2.67, the second highest on record! With this many nests to care for if you feel like spending a few hours down at the colony please come down and help keep watch over this ever-growing population. Now's a great time to see them with constant bird activity around the beach.

References and Further Reading

1. Henry Cook, Marie Dipple, Frances MacCormack & Sasha Taylor, Gronant Little Tern Report 2018, Denbighshire County Council Countryside Service.

2. North Wales Little Tern Group -,

3. Gronant Site Guide: 

4. Kilcoole Little Tern Conservation Project -

Richard Smith

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 Waders Heading Off

Red Knots in full breeding plumage, these ones were photographed by Matt Thomas in northern Norway,
one of two major staging posts, the other being Iceland.

If you hear waders calling loudly out on the beach in spring, you may be about to witness some depart on their migration towards their breeding grounds. Loud calling is a part of pre-migratory restlessness. Sometimes a group of waders will fly up calling but then return to the beach. If the birds are really departing some birds take off, others may join the group and the noisy group then adopts a distinctive departure flight. With rapidly beating wings they head upward and away usually in a direct line. If you can get onto the group through a telescope they will maintain a roughly constant heading until lost to view. The flocks are often small, around ten birds but can be up to hundreds, and as they get underway the bunch often spreads into a line. Once lost from view it is time to get out your compass and using the telescope as a pointer, record the bearing they took and for good measure also the time, cloud cover, and wind direction and speed. A look at a map will then show where the flock was heading. If you use a compass app on a smartphone, make sure it is working correctly beforehand!
During late April 2019 we saw Black-tailed Godwits head off from RSPB Marshside and Red Knot head off from Southport beach, both on north-westerly bearings of 335° and 322° respectively that would take them to Iceland (see map below for bearings the Knot took, North is the top of each map). For the Godwits that will be journey’s end, but for the Knot Iceland is a staging post before their onward migration at the end of May to Greenland and over the Greenland ice cap to the high arctic islands of Canada. They spend their time in Iceland fattening up on molluscs at low tide, and in recent years have taken to raiding germinating barley from coastal fields, mostly at high tide. They also complete their moult into breeding plumage. That the Knot were indeed departing to Iceland is supported by a recent report of a Knot colour-ringed at Altcar Training Camp being read in the Southwest of Iceland on April 29th.

Earlier in the spring, in March and early April we also witness departures from the Sefton coast, but in a very different direction. At that time Bar-tailed Godwits are leaving and being very noisy about it. They sometimes circle over the beach before heading off, sometimes accompanied by other species such as Grey Plover, but when they go it is to the east, heading high inland. This shows that they are crossing England to North Sea sites such as the Wash and the Dutch and German Wadden Sea before returning to breeding grounds. We see Knot depart at that time too and on the same bearing. These are thus most likely to be Knot that undertake their post-breeding moult on North Sea shores, then fly west to spend winter on the Irish Sea coasts.   

What conditions are best to observe waders depart? There is currently no well-founded answer to this question. Knot leaving Vlieland in the Netherlands in early May were logged between 1964 and 1967 (Swennen 1992). Swennen found that the Knot departed only in the evenings, but we have seen wader departures from the Sefton coast from mid-morning onwards. He also found that Knot always left after roosting and suggested this allowed digestion of their last meal so that they were carrying least excess weight on departure. We too have seen this, but birds will also fly up from where waders are feeding to join departing groups. Because waders are making a long flight, the weather they encounter en route and at their destination may be very different from those at departure. Perhaps for this reason, local weather may have little influence on departure, and Swennen recorded birds flying off into wind so strong that their progress was slow. But there is little published information on wader departures - what is needed is more observations on more wader species to test current ideas.

Not all waders leave us in spring. For the larger species such as Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover, birds born the previous year stay behind, still in their dull non-breeding plumage. Liverpool Bay is an important summering site for these ‘gap-year’ birds including the Dee estuary, and following a successful breeding year a flock of several thousand grey Knot can be seen throughout June and July. These are then joined by returning adults from the end of July onwards, their arrival being obvious as they are still in breeding plumage.

Swennen, C 1992 Observations on the departure of Knots from the Dutch Wadden Sea in spring. Wader Study Group Bulletin 64 Supplement, 87-90.

Peter Knight and Rose Maciewicz

Editor: Peter and Rose's map above shows the direction Knot take when leaving Southport, taking them directly to south-west Iceland which colour-ringing has shown to be a major staging post for this Irish Sea population. The slightly different heading of 335° taken by Black-tailed Godwits would take them straight to Álftafjörður, an extensive area of mud-flats in south-east Iceland well known as a staging post for this species prior to the dispersal around the island to breed. Totally remarkable that the birds can take such an accurate heading from over 950 miles away to their destination, and that Pete and Rose managed to accurately measure it. You will note that the route of both takes them over the Hebrides and if they meet head winds at that point they often touch down here until a change of wind direction. This happened in April 2017, the photo shows a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits on Tiree on April 25th that year (photo by John Bowler).  This year, 2019, a colour-ringed Red Knot (with flag H7) was recorded on South Uist on May 7th (previously photographed by me at Caldy, below). Richard Smith.

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May Bird News

                               Spoonbill at Burton Mere Wetlands, May 27th © Carole Killikelly

The focus in April was very much on the Leasowe Lighthouse area with a great showing of Yellow Wagtails and their relatives, Ring Ouzels and Redstarts, but May has definitely been all about Burton Mere Wetlands. For starters there has been the breeding activity of no less than FIVE heron species and I let Graham Jones (RSPB Dee Estuary site Manager) take up the story:

Burton Mere Wetlands is well-known for its grey heron and little egret breeding colonies, but this year, those two more regular types of heron have also been joined by a pair of cattle egrets, a pair of spoonbills and a pair of great white egrets too. These rare birds are all showing positive signs of breeding, having been seen carrying nesting material into the heron colony lately. If they are successful, it will only be the second time that cattle egrets have bred at the site and a first for both spoonbills and great white egrets.

It is absolutely staggering to see five different heron species making their home here. The grey herons nest here each year, but little egrets only colonised the UK in the late 1980s and have only been breeding here since 2005. For them to now be joined by the much rarer cattle egrets, great white egrets and spoonbills is even more astonishing. They’re usually more at home breeding in the Mediterranean, so we’ve been dubbed the ‘Costa del Dee’ by some of our visitors. If the birds all breed it will be extraordinary and cause for additional celebration in our anniversary year. (Extract from the BMW Blog Post for 23/05/2019).

                                     Bearded Tit at Burton Mere Wetlands, May 23rd © Linda Platt

On top of that the Bearded Tits, a first for the reserve just a few months ago, have successfully bred and some visitors have been lucky enough to see the young, and the adults have already started a new nest for a second brood. A remarkable nine pairs of Mediterranean Gulls are nesting, it was only in 2017 that they first bred successfully here after several years of trying, and that was just one pair. Last year's wader breeding bonanza seems to be being repeated with big numbers of Lapwing, Redshank and Avocet nests, and plenty of chicks already hatched. A White-winged black Tern was recorded on the 24th and 25th, the Dee estuary's 11th record, the last one also being at BMW in June 2016. Other highlights were three drake Garganeys, two Curlew Sandpipers including one in breeding plumage plus several other passage waders such as Wood Sandpiper and Little Stint and at least one Black Tern present for several days.

                           Curlew Sandpiper with Dunlin at Burton Mere Wetlands, May 17th © Les Hall
Elsewhere, Whimbrels came through in good numbers at Heswall with seven counts of over 50, max 87 on the 7th. 2,750 Ringed Plovers at Hilbre on the 27th is, we think, the highest count of this species on the Dee estuary since the 1970s and exceptionally high for May as most years numbers peak in August (see Species Spotlight - Ringed Plover). These will be birds which have wintered in Africa on their way to the far north to breed.

Nearly all Ring Ouzels pass through here in late March and April (see Ring Ouzels in Spring) so it was a surprise when a female turned up on the 17th and stayed several days. Seems likely this was a failed local breeder.

There were five records of Hobbies but only two Ospreys plus several sightings of both Hen and Marsh Harriers. A species which always migrates through in May is the Spotted Flycatcher and we had 17 records this year, nearly all in the Leasowe Lighthouse area, another late migrant is the Whinchat and these peaked on the 10th with 13, also by Leasowe Lighthouse. Rarities included a Hooded Crow, Glossy Ibis, Glaucous Gull and Siberian Chiffchaff, a Hoopoe flew over Ness Gardens on the 16th but report didn't get out until nearly two weeks later.

See also 'latest from Gronant' in the above Little Tern article - good news!

                                     Little Tern at Gronant, May 26th © Carole Killikelly

Many thanks go to Mark Gibson, Eddie Williams, Carole Killikelly, Geoff Robinson, David Haigh, Mark Woodhead, Steve Hinde, Matt Thomas, Chris Butterworth, Bruce Atherton, David Leeming, Alan Hitchmough, Paul Mason, Steve Williams, Derek Bates, Allan Conlin, Karen Leeming, Roy Lowry, Colin Schofield, Dave Edwards, Richard Whitby, Linda Platt, Steve Hart, Julie Rogers, Charles Farnell, David Roe, Graham Connolly, Les Hall, Chris Wilding, David Small, John Johnson, Nicholas Montieth, Steve Hasell, Katie Barrett, John Harland, Ian Goldstraw, George Knight, Karol Boyd, Alison MacKinnon, Anthony Molloy, Graham Thompson, Neil Simpson, Paul Ainscough, the Lighthouse and Wirral Birding Blog, the Dee Estuary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during May. All sightings are gratefully received.

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What to expect in June

It will be quiet on the estuary but it will be busy with breeding birds at Gronant, Burton Mere Wetlands and Shotton where the Common Terns breed. Waders can still be coming through in early June on their way north, particularly Sanderlings and Whimbrels. We can get the odd Whimbrel turning up throughout the month and these are presumably non-breeders. There will be other non-breeding waders around including a few hundred Oystercatchers and the occasional flock of Knot as mentioned in the article "Waders Heading Off" above. For some waders it will already be autumn with both Common and Green Sandpipers finishing their breeding season early.

For the sake of the Little Terns lets hope we don't get any gales this month but any fresh westerly wind should bring in Gannets and Manx Shearwaters along the Liverpool Bay coast, and we often see hundreds of Common Terns along north Wirral from their colony at Seaforth perhaps accompanied by one or two skuas. The end of June should see a build up of gulls on the estuary, look out for Mediterranean Gulls in full summer plumage, with several pairs breeding at Burton this year it will be interesting to see if that results in more sightings out on the estuary and north Wirral, particularly juveniles. Among the gulls we will see Sandwich Terns starting to build up, another species which has an early breeding season.
A nice collection of gulls and terns at West Kirby in 2018 © Richard Smith
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Forthcoming Events

June Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool)

Also see Tides page

4th June, 11.51hrs (BST), 9.2m.  
5th June, 12.32hrs (BST), 9.2m. 
6th June, 13.14hrs (BST), 9.2m. 

Forthcoming Events

Organised by the Wirral Ranger Service , Flintshire Countryside Service and the RSPB (Dee Estuary): 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. 

As soon as I'm told about any bird related events in June or July I shall put them up here.