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1st July 2001
The Sounds of the Estuary.

Latest Bird Counts.
June Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.


Do you ever listen to the estuary?
The magical sounds of the Dee estuary

      W. Victor Smith


This is really a matter for a sound recorder, because my subject is sound, the sounds of the Dee Estuary, and it is difficult to reduce sound to cold print.

Some years ago Ben Armitage, of happy memory, came to my house to do some repairs to a dinghy. 'I couldn't live next to all these trees' he said. 'Think of the noise when it's blowing a gale'.

He lived just by Hoylake promenade, where the sound of the sea on the long line of the East Hoyle Bank is seldom out of one's ears, and he might have expected to welcome the shelter of the trees. But to Ben, a former Coxswain of the lifeboat like his father, the idea of a gale in the trees may have revived subconscious or inherited memories of wind howling and tearing through the rigging of distressed ships.

Yet the wind can be gentle and caressing and even at times soundless. 

'When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees And they did make no noise' wrote Shakespeare, that acute observer of nature. On a summer morning, when the light breeze had a trifle more strength in it than Shakespeare had in mind, I noted the silky rustle it brought to new growth on the Red Rocks Marsh, making a sound subtly different from the rustle of leaves or of waving corn fields. You could search in vain in many districts for that delicate sound of the reeds, accompanied as it was at the Red Rocks by the sea quietly breaking a mile away.

The cynic would say that more typical of our district is the din of motor-cycles or the clatter of electric trains. That may be, but if you care to listen for them we have a well nigh unique wealth of natural sounds, with all the music of the sea and sand banks and marsh to complement the country sounds inland.

The huge tidal range of our estuary, with its dramatic changes of scene, plays an unending symphony of sound which is absent from a straight steep-to shore. Dependent on the day, the mood of the symphony has many variations between the extremes of gentleness and ferocity.

At the Red Rocks at half flood, when a moderate north-westerly wind is blowing, the sea will be roaring in a subdued way a mile distant along the line of Hilbre Swash. Yet within half an hour its outriders may be at your feet. Then you have the equivalent of musical counterpoint, for the bigger waves in the Hilbre Swash still make a bass background where they first reach the shallow water over the bank, while the small inshore wavelets close at hand merely hiss with a lighter note.

The estuary has its smaller voices, too, and one of the least is exactly that of a mountain stream. That, you would have said, is a sound absent from Wirral.
But shut your eyes on a calm day by the side of the large pool between the two Hilbres as its water, left by the ebbing tide, pours out through the rocks, and you can imagine yourself by a lakeland beck - that is if the grey seals are not wailing across on the West Hoyle, for you would not hear that song of lost souls by an inland stream.
Martyn Jamieson A whole book could be written about the varied calls of the birds of the estuary. As an accompaniment to them the many voices of its waters are superb. The best hour of all is at a winter sunset with an ebb tide when oystercatchers, curlew and redshank, moving with the receding waters, call in flight silhouetted against the coloured sky, while the sea roars on the more distant banks and hisses or sighs as it leaves the shallows inshore.

From many Wirral homes, with all their gadgetry of the twentieth century, we can virtually step straight into this great wilderness of the estuary, alive with its music as the birds, restless as the tides, go about their business. Lord Dunsany, the Irish author, wrote 'We do not even know the price of a sunset'. Doubtless to some the estuary and its sunsets are both useless. I would prefer to say, as Dunsany would certainly have done, 'both are without price'.  

This article was first published in the Wirral Journal, reproduced here by kind permission of Victor Smith's widow, Rosemary.


Bird Counts


Count from Heswall Shore on the 24th June provided with thanks by the Wirral Ranger Service:
Cormorant 1, Grey Heron 5, Shelduck 37, Oystercatcher 117, Lapwing 3, Curlew 840, Redshank 41, Black-headed Gull 990, Lesser Black-backed Gull 16, Herring Gull 147 and Peregrine Falcon. 

June Bird News


I never thought I would say this about the Knot but they were the most unusual birds on the estuary during June. These birds are normally completely absent in June, not returning to the estuary in significant numbers until October. But this year has been different.
It started on the 10th with 14 at Hilbre. This number alone was enough to raise an eyebrow. These then increased to 50 on the 18th, 3,000 on the 20th followed by an unbelievable 10,000+ on the 23rd. Reports of Knot were also received from Hoylake and Point of Ayr.
Valerie McFarland

So what were these birds doing here in June? Most of the birds were in non-breeding plumage which means they are likely to be one year old birds, probably in moult. According to the Birds of the Western Palearctic Handbook these young birds can over-summer anywhere within their winter or breeding ranges. Why this year so many chose to spend June in the Dee Estuary remains a mystery for the moment, maybe bad weather in their normal staging posts, or maybe just chance! The last time we had over summering Knot was 1993, when about 900 spent a couple of weeks at Heswall.

We had a few days of strong north or north-west winds during the month and these meant good sightings of Gannets, Manx Shearwater, Guillemots, Fulmar with a handful of Arctic Skua. A couple of flocks of about 40 Common Scoter were seen flying west towards their gathering point further along the North Wales coast. 

Three or four calling Quail were heard off Neston and Parkgate early on in the month. Other birds of note were a Spoonbill and Greenshank at Parkgate and a Little Egret and Yellow-legged Gull at the Point of Ayr.

The sand dunes at Gronant are looking lovely at the moment with the orchids in full flower. The Little Tern colony got off to a good start at the beginning of the month with over fifty nests. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the wardening team, a lot of nests were taken by foxes. The terns have shown their resilience by relaying and by the end of the month were back up to over fifty nests again. A kestrel has been a problem of late but we hope to keep losses to a minimum by the use of wooden chick shelters. The Common Tern colony at Shotton is doing very well with about 550 pairs having an excellent breeding season.

The Greenfield Valley bird survey continues, the total is now 80 birds. Click here for a complete list.

What to expect in July: It may be still the middle of summer but the autumn migration/passage gets well underway during July. Numbers of Curlew and Redshank build up rapidly, their major roost being at Heswall. Whimbrel should start passing through towards the end of the month, again Heswall is a main roosting area for this species, often missed among the Curlew. 

Greenshank and Spotted Redshank are likely to be at Parkgate and Inner Marsh Farm, and both Green and Wood Sandpipers may be seen. Good numbers of Common Sandpipers pass through but are very much under recorded, look for them wherever a stream enters the estuary.

The last ten days or so of July is an excellent time to see Terns on the estuary. Large roosts of Little, Sandwich and Common Tern build up at both Gronant and Hoylake, and a lot of these birds will be passing Hilbre Island during high tide. If we get some strong north to west winds some excellent sea-watching can be had with several species of Skuas on show, look out also for Storm Petrels.

Many thanks go to John Gittins, Ken Mullins, John Baker, Mike Hart, Gareth Stamp, Mark Feltham, David Small, Martyn Jameison, Cathy McGrath, Bill Owens, Jane Turner, Paul Vautrinot and Brian Roberts for their sightings during June. I rely on the goodwill of people like this, unlike some commercial sites I cannot offer financial inducements!


Forthcoming Events


July Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool) 
22nd July, 13.18hrs 9.6m. (all times BST)
See Tides page for full tide table.

Note that the marsh at Parkgate may be covered when tide height is 9.8m or over, dependent on weather conditions. Low pressure with strong north-west wind will create higher than expected tide, high pressure with southerly wind means lower than expected tide. 

Wirral Peregrines Phoenix Group
A group for teenagers jointly run by the RSPB and Wirral Ranger Service.   For all young people (you don't have to be RSPB members) who want to do something to improve our environment and enjoy wildlife. See events for  2001.

Wirral Bird Club
The Wirral Bird Club welcomes all who are interested in birds, from the beginner to the experienced.  See the complete listing of events for 2001

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.

High tide bird watches at Parkgate and Heswall for the whole of 2001 are shown on the high tide birdwatch page. Always check latest newsletter for any additions or changes.

Saturday 1st July. Gander at Gronant Tern Colony.
Visit the last remaining Little Tern colony in Wales as it reaches a peak of activity with adults busily feeding their hungry youngsters. Meet at Presthaven Sands Caravan Site at the end of Shore Road, Gronant. For info. ring the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Thursday 5th July. Sunset Walk to Hilbre.
An evening stroll across the sands to Hilbre. A 4 mile walk of 3 hours, ideal for first time visitors. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and a snack. No Dogs. there is a 1 charge for this event. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 8th July. Talacre - Back in time. 1pm - 3pm.
Join local expert, Bob Coran and ranger, Gareth Peters, on a time trek through the dunes of Talacre. Booking essential. Meet end of Station road, Talacre. Ring 01244 814931.

Saturday 14th July. Guided Walk to the Hilbre Islands.
Cross the sands to discover the Islands' wildlife and history. A 4-mile walk of 4 hours, ideal for first time visitors. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and a snack. No Dogs. there is a 1 charge for this event. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 21st July. Birds, Bats, Moths and BBQ. 8pm.
Join the RSPB staff at Burton Point Farm for an exciting evening of Birds, Bats and Moths.
Ring the RSPB on 0151 336 7681 to book.

Saturday 28th July. Guided Walk to the Hilbre Islands.
Cross the sands to discover the Islands' wildlife and history. A 4-mile walk of 4 hours, ideal for first time visitors. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and a snack. No Dogs. there is a 1 charge for this event. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 4th August. A Gathering of Terns. 8.30am.
If you have never been to Hilbre Island then there is no better time then August when several species of terns gather around the island. Booking essential. Cost 1 per person. Ring 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 18th August 9:00 (HW 11.25, 9.2m) Banks Road Birdwatch, Heswall
Exceptional close views of thousand of waders and wildfowl. Meet Banks Road Car Park. Tel: Wirral Country Park on 0151 648 4371/3884 Or RSPB 0151 336 7681. 

Sunday 19th August 9:15AM (HW 12.16,9.6m) Banks Road Birdwatch, Heswall
Exceptional close views of thousand of waders and wildfowl. Meet Banks Road Car Park. Tel: Wirral Country Park on 0151 648 4371/3884 Or RSPB 0151 7681. 

Tuesday 21st August 12:00am (HW 13:49, 9.9m) Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch. 
Vast movements of waders and waterfowl attract the attention of many predatory birds, while the flooding tide may reveal the presence of Short eared Owls, Water Rails and various small mammals. Meet: Old Baths car park, north end of Parkgate prom. Further information Tel: Wirral Country Park on 0151 648 4371/3884 Or RSPB 0151 336 7681. 

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from 'Birdwatchers Diary 2001', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371 or by from myself as a 1.8mb zipped file.