Ruddy Shelducks with their striking orange plumage and black and white wings are one of our most colourful ducks and always a pleasure to see. They are very much a rarity in these parts but during the past ten years sightings have become much more frequent. The three which spent most of June at Inner Marsh Farm got me thinking about the origin of these birds - just escapes, part of a feral population or genuine wild birds? I'm afraid we can't answer that, at least not without an extensive ringing campaign, but I thought it might at least clarify the situation if I reviewed the current status of this charismatic species both here, elsewhere in north-west Europe and in their stronghold in eastern Europe and Asia.
You have to go back to the summer of 1892 for the last large influx of Ruddy Shelduck in to this country accepted to be all wild birds, thought to be caused by a particularly dry spring in eastern Europe driving the birds westward(1). Apparently there were several flocks of up to 20 birds that year but no record of any reaching the Dee Estuary, the nearest being one shot on the Mersey Estuary(2). Reports of Ruddy Shelduck up to 1985 were sparse, to say the least. Between 1887 and 1984, a period of 98 years, they were recorded in only 16 years in the whole of Cheshire and Wirral(3). From 1985 onwards records have been far more numerous with birds seen in 15 out of 20 years. In 1985 there were three very wary birds at Frodsham, and one or two were seen in the following two years, including singles at Shotton and Thurstaston, and two at Heswall. None were present again until 1993 when there were five records of single birds, most on the Dee Estuary. 1994 was a big year for the species both across the country and locally. At least 12 were recorded at the same time in Cheshire and Wirral and eight at Gronant/ Point of Ayr in late July may well have been in addition to these. Over the next five years birds were reported as being virtually continuously present in our area. One or two were often seen with Common Shelduck at Heswall, and Inner Marsh Farm was also a favoured site. 1999 saw as many as six at the Point of Ayr, and a female was with four juveniles at Inner Marsh Farm on three dates between 7th August and 22nd September. Numbers then decreased with just singles reported during the next three years, until the three at Inner Marsh Farm on 30th May this year (2004).
Despite some evidence that the 1994 influx were genuine wild birds(3) the BOU ruled that this wasn't strong enough to rule out the possibility that they were all from the feral population in North-west Europe. Consequently they have been put in both category B (not recorded as genuine wild birds since 1949) and category D (there is reasonable doubt that they have ever occurred in the natural state) - presumably meaning since 1949. However there is some confusion here as the BOU when defining category C5 state the following - "C5. Vagrant naturalised species. Species from established naturalised populations abroad. e.g. some/all Ruddy Shelducks Tadorna ferruginea occurring in Britain"(4). So take your pick, category B, C or D! However, none of this rules out the possibility that a proportion of records must have been of true wild birds (category A!), as indeed they were deemed to have been prior to 1949. Between 1950 and 1994, and also in 1999, the majority of sightings locally were during late summer - traditionally the period of post-breeding dispersal for this species. Surely some of these must have been wild birds.
I've already mentioned the feral population in North-west Europe where most, may be all, our birds come from. These birds, presumably originating from escapes but perhaps with the addition of some wild birds, were first noticed in the Netherlands in the 1970's. But even in the early 1990's it was thought only 6 - 7 pairs were breeding here and similar numbers were seen in Belgium and Germany(5) . Since then the number of birds breeding in the Netherlands has risen to well over one hundred(6), with again equivalent increases in Germany and Belgium. So we are probably talking about a current population in Western Europe in the region of 500 birds, a number which is seems to be steadily increasing. Although still small in number these birds must account for the large majority of sightings in this country. However, can the influx of about 50 Ruddy Shelduck in to this country in 1994 be accounted for by the much smaller feral population present then? Well, the BOU obviously thought that they could be, but I wonder! Indeed, some experts think that the North-western European population itself cannot be explained just by escapes, and may indicate a true expansion of this species' range, especially in to Germany(7).
Wild Ruddy Shelduck range from a small population in north Africa, across to South-east Europe then to their stronghold in Asia. The total population is in the region of 200,000(8), with the largest numbers being seen in central Asia - Mongolia, NE China and Siberia. The numbers in Asia are thought to have been fairly stable during the past 100 years or so but those in Eastern Europe showed a marked decline in the 20th century. However recent counts have shown increases in Bulgaria and European Russia where conservation measures have been taken(9). The current population in North-west Africa is estimated to be 2-3,000 and those in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions about 20,000(8).
With the nearest significant population 1,400 miles away in Bulgaria, is it feasible that any of 'our' birds are from this wild stock, or are they all feral? This species is known to be nomadic and wide ranging, and there are good historical records of wild birds reaching as far as NW Europe, so it would be very surprising if some were not truly wild. But exactly how many and how frequently they turn up remains a mystery. An extensive ringing campaign might reveal the truth but until then there will always be a question mark over any sighting.
Apart from the references mentioned I have also used data from the Cheshire (and Wirral) Bird Reports (1967 to 2002), Clwyd Bird Reports (various between 1989 and 2002) and also reports sent to me personally, usually by e-mail.
June Bird News
tern colonies have suffered a bit because of the bad weather in June. But,
perhaps surprisingly, it was the weather at the beginning of the month
rather than the gales and rain which caused the death of two thirds of the
Common Tern chicks at Shotton. Very hot
weather came within a day or two of these hatching which is a very
vulnerable time for them. But once again we have a record number of pairs
here, 656, and no doubt many will re-lay so it is still hoped that it will
be a good season.
The Little Terns at Gronant got off to a good start with 79 nests, above average for the last 10 years. The bad weather has caused some chick deaths and loss of a few nests but we are hopeful that the damage has been limited. One thing that is very encouraging is that since the new electric fence was erected at the beginning of last season there hasn't been a single case of fox predation. Remarkable considering that prior to 2003 foxes took more nests than any other predator.
However badly hit our two colonies on the Dee Estuary have been they have fared a lot better than the Common Terns just across the Mersey at Seaforth. Apparently all the nests were lost during the gales when the nesting rafts broke loose.
Although some of these might have been immature birds Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Sanderling were still on their way north during the first half of the month with several small flocks seen at Gronant. By the end of the month we had the first waders back from breeding - these were mainly Curlew and Redshank, almost certainly birds which have bred in this country rather than further north. All month there has been a significant high tide roost of Oystercatchers at the Point of Ayr, no doubt these are over summering immature birds. Also at Point of Ayr and Gronant has been the usual large flock of immature gulls, I estimated about 2,000 at Point of Ayr and 600 at Gronant.
I've already mentioned the three Ruddy Shelduck at Inner Marsh Farm in the above article, one was also at Point of Ayr briefly. Other rarities included 2 Spoonbill at Inner Marsh Farm, 1 Golden Oriole at Point of Ayr, an Osprey over Hilbre and a male American Wigeon and 3 Red Kites, both at Connah's Quay. An Icterine Warbler in Wepre woods was not confirmed.
It wasn't a brilliant month for sea watching but a few days of fresh westerly winds at the end of the month brought good views of Manx Shearwater, Gannets and Common Scoters off Red Rocks, Hilbre and Gronant.
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What to expect in July.
July is one of my favourite months, which comes to a surprise to some birders who think it's a 'dead' month - far from it! The Sandwich Terns are always one of the first species to arrive on the estuary after breeding and by mid-month we should have several hundred around together with plenty of Common and Little Terns. The Sandwich Terns' nearest breeding colonies are at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey and Morecambe Bay and both the adults and fledged young use the sand banks and still waters of the estuary for a bit of R&R before moving off south for the winter. Following the terns will be the usual Arctic Skuas and given a good west wind we could see some Storm Petrels along with Gannets and Manx Shearwaters.
Waders will return in their thousands. The Curlew, Oystercatchers and Redshanks to be seen off Heswall and Point of Ayr are most likely to have bred in this country, those breeding further north in Iceland and Scandinavia arriving in a second wave next month. Dunlin and Sanderling will be passing through from mid-month onwards. In both cases the adults leave the juveniles to fend for themselves on their nesting grounds. This might seem like parental neglect but is actually a sensible strategy as it means the adults are not competing for food with their own young. These young are perfectly capable of making their own way south in a few weeks time. Other less common waders coming through will include Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper. One or two Wood and Curlew Sandpiper might also be seen and a couple of years ago we even had the very rare Marsh Sandpiper.
Little Egrets start increasing again this month, last year the maximum July count was 15 coming in to roost at Burton. We could also get a Spoonbill or two visiting and perhaps Avocets on their way back south.
Many thanks go to Mark Turner, John Kitchen, Phil Woolen, Cath McGrath, Mike Hart, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Bernard Machin, Matt Thomas, Steve Round, Alan Patterson, Christopher Leighton, John Harrison, David Harrington, Stephen Williams, Chris Butterworth, Martyn Jaimeson, Mal Smerden, Jean Morgan, Jane Turner, John Roberts, David Haigh and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during June. All sightings are gratefully received.
Highest Spring Tides,
3rd July, 12:42hrs 9.3m. (all times BST)
4th July, 13:34hrs 9.3m.
Forthcoming Events (organised by the
Wirral Ranger Service,
Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):
Thursday 1st July, 8:00pm - 10:30pm, Night Owl Watch.
16th July to 1st August, National Exhibition of Wildlife Art, Gordale
Garden Centre, Burton.
Saturday 24th July, 8:00pm, Birds, Bats, Moths and BBQ .
Sunday 1st August, 10:00am, Banks Road Birdwatch at
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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