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July 2024 Newsletter


Grey Plumage Red Knots in June at Leasowe!

You would be forgiven to think that until recently it was still winter with the cold, windy and rainy weather we had, and the presence of several thousand Red Knot, mainly in grey plumage, feeding off the shore at Leasowe.
Ö..but hold on a minute, this is June!  What is going on?

Red Knot with Oystercatchers feeding on the cockle beds off Leasowe Gunsite. Photo taken on 12th June 2024 by Richard Smith.

Red Knot (Calidris canutus islandica) are a very common winter sight along the Wirral shoreline at many sites (Thurstaston, West Kirby, Hilbre, Hoylake, Meols, Leasowe) where they are present in internationally important numbers. They also form part of the wader murmuration you may see on the incoming tide or when the waders are under attack by birds of prey such as Peregrines.

Wader mumuration at Meols. The sky is filled with about 5000 Red Knot. Photo taken on the 12th December 2023 by Richard Smith.

In winter Red Knot have a grey plumage but as the adults head into late March/early April their breast feathers start to moult into a lovely orange-red breeding plumage, hence the name Red Knot. However, Knot born in the previous year (at this time called 2CYs as they are in their 2nd calendar year) retain their grey plumage. Before the adults turn red, 2CYs can be identified by their patterned juvenile wing coverts which wear and fade to buff due to being poor quality feathers quickly grown in the Arctic. By May, adults and the 2CY Knot can be easily told apart as adults have some amount of red plumage while the 2CYs are still grey.

2CY Red Knot feeding at Leasowe, one colour marked with a coded orange flag over a green ring.
Photo taken on the 14th June 2024 by Richard Smith.

OK so we know the grey birds we are seeing at Leasowe are 2CYs but why are they here in June? Hardly any 2CY Knot go north to the Canadian Arctic via Iceland to breed. This is also the case for a small proportion of 3CYs (Knot in their 3rd calendar year) as well. These Knot stay at a few summering sites in the UK, principally the Wash and Liverpool Bay, and a few sites in the Dutch and German Wadden Sea. Survival of the Knot at these sites is vital to the long-term survival of the species, as the 2CYs are the future breeding population.

So, the Knot at Leasowe are mainly young birds, but why are they at Leasowe? Part of the reason is that 2023 was a very good breeding year so there are many 2CYs about in 2024. OK, but 2019 was also an excellent breeding year for Knot and during the early summer of 2020 there werenít any on the Wirral coast. In the summer of 2020, the Ribble estuary had over 20,000 Knot summering there. That year survey reports for cockle and mussel beds undertaken by the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority show there were large numbers of cockles in the Ribble estuary but none at Leasowe. In 2024 there are good numbers of cockles at Leasowe as well as the Ribble.

Ok we are seeing these Knot in June because as 2CYs they did not go north to breed and have a good supply of food, but if you visit Leasowe at high tide you wonít see any. Why? The Knot are feeding there for about three hours either side of low tide but come the high tide they have been flying off to roost at Seaforth Nature Reserve in Liverpool Docks. We know this as some of these Knot carry colour marks which can be read in the field and we have observed the movement between feeding around low tide at Leasowe and roosting around high tide at Seaforth.

You can learn a lot about Knot behaviour using colour marking. It is a valuable tool to understand survival, behaviour and migratory pathways. This year coded orange flags were put on 668 young Knot at sites in mid-Wales (Dyfi estuary), north Wales (Bangor, Llanfairfechen), in Liverpool Bay (Hoylake, Ainsdale) and in Scotland (near Inverness). As of 23rd June, 201 of these orange-flagged Knot have been seen at Leasowe and at Seaforth since mid-May. Interestingly only one is from the 120 colour marked in Scotland. Furthermore, young Knot colour marked on the Wash and in the Netherlands this past year have not so far been observed this summer in Liverpool Bay. Where else have orange-flagged 2CYs been observed? Some of them, including a greater percentage marked in Scotland, have been observed summering in the Dutch and German Wadden Sea along with Wash and Dutch colour marked birds.

Approximately 4000 Red Knot roosting at Seaforth Nature Reserve on 20th June 2024.
Note the wires across the lower part of the image are the electric fence that prevents fox predation of the breeding birds.
Photo by Peter Knight.

Itís nice to see these waders on the Wirral in summer. How long will they be here? It is likely that many of the Knot will stay here for a while. Some of them have already started to replace their worn juvenile primary wing feathers as well as their body feathers and so in the next few months we donít expect them to fly great distances. However, the only other time that we have colour-marked lots of 2CY Knot, in May 2021, we found that after spending the summer on the Ribble, most left Liverpool Bay in late autumn. So, it will be important to discover whether this current Knot flock also disperse in the autumn. We hope that when the adults start arriving back from the breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic in late July, still in their red breeding plumage, some will join these 2CYs and there will continue to be an impressive sight of waders at Leasowe.

Rose Maciewicz and Peter Knight

Early May at Leasowe and the adult Red Knots were still there, with two 2CY Knot and an Oystercatcher © Richard Smith

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Colour Ring Report

Great White Egret

Great White Egret Red (AFL) at Heswall June 2024 © Steve Hinde

Red - AFL
Ringed at Westhay Moor Reserve (Avalon Marshes, Somerset) on April 16th 2024. Smallest chick in a brood of three.
She was still on the nest on June 10th but her two siblings had already fledged.
Recorded at Connah's Quay Reserve on 16/06/2024 and Thurstaston Shore on 19/06 and 20/06/2024.

This is only the second colour ringed Great White Egret in our database. Her sex was determined by DNA when she was ringed. We believe that the red ring was put on the tibia (as you would expect in order for the ring to be easily visible) but has slid down to the tarsus at some stage.


Coot White (RDN) at Burton Mere Wetlands, June 2024 © Colin Schofield

White (RDN)
Ringed at Martin Mere on 06/12/2023.
Recorded at Burton Mere Wetlands on 06/06/2024.

This is the first colour ringed Coot recorded in our database. Most of us probably don't associate Coots with long migrations but some travel hundreds of miles including beteen continental Europe and the UK, a couple of years ago one was recorded flying between London and St Petersburg and back!


Curlew Red - White (XX) at Heswall, June 2024 © Steve Hinde

R - W(XX)
Ringed at Erde, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, on 22/05/2024 as a breeding male. It was last recorded at the ringing site on 07/06/2024.
Recorded at Heswall on 18/06/2024.

Natalie Busch tells us that the area where this bird was ringed is a Special Protection Area and has 50 - 60 pairs of breeding Curlews, but, like in the UK, they are struggling to maintain numbers with low chick survival.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit Green - Orange flag(AK) at Burton Mere Wetlands, May 30th 2024 © Steve Round

G -Oflag(AK)
Ringed at Bangor Harbour on 28/01/2024.
Recorded at Hellifield Flash, North Yorkshire, on 11/03/2024
and at Burton Mere Wetlands on 30/05/2024.

This is another of the 20 Black-tailed Godwits which were ringed at Bangor in January. I know at least 12 turned up in north-west England this spring, a great return on sightings. 'AK' was the brightest looking Blackwit at Burton at the end of May and obviously an adult in full breeding plumage. Most are already in Iceland by early May so it seems to be leaving it very late leaving the UK if it is to breed this year.

Colour Rings were recorded by Richard Smith, Stephen Hinde, Colin Schofield, Tony Ormond and Steve Round.

Richard Smith

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June Bird News

Little Stint on Meols Shore, June 9th © Allan Conlin

Two Little Stints on Meols Shore on the 9th had increased to three by the 11th. Little Stints in the second week of June are somewhat of a mega rarity and looking all the way back to 1967 in the Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports I can find only one other record during that week for the Dee Estuary with a single on June 12th 1988. Migrating Little Stints are always much rarer than the return passage, most are seen in late May but six at Inner Marsh Farm on June 1st 1997 was a good record.

 Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits at Burton Mere Wetlands, May 27th © Carole Killikelly

In June it is sometimes difficult to tell whether waders are still on spring migration, spending the summer here (either because they are young birds or taking a year off as adults) or early returning birds. In the above photo the Bar-tailed Godwits are all 2CY birds and definitely not breeding, some of the Black-tailed Godwits appear to be in breeding plumage, but most breeding Blackwits will have been in Iceland since early May so it seems these are most likely non-breeding 3CY birds spending the summer in this country. By June 29th the first Black-tailed Godwits were starting to arrive back from Iceland looking stunning in full breeding plumage.

Another species spending the summer with us are a few Whimbrels, and there were seven at Heswall on the 20th with five seen two days later. However, ten Spotted Redshanks at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 23rd will have been early returning birds, this species is one that always has an early breeding season - they are returning after breeding before some species, like Sanderlings, even start laying eggs!

Sanderlings - Left at Hoylake photographed end of May in 2015 and Right, at Gronant on June 16th 2024
Left © Charles Farnell, © Ian Sheppard

You wouldn't think the two Sanderlings above are the same species! The one on the left, is a typical summer plumaged bird photographed a few years ago, whereas the one at Gronant, photographed this June, is a bit of a puzzle. It's presence here in mid-June suggests it may be a non-breeding bird, possibly 2CY. Or maybe a female which has only very recently moulted into s/pl.

Dunlin in full s/pl and a 2CY Knot at Leasowe on June 24th © Richard Smith

We don't see many s/pl Dunlins in the third week of June but this one was feeding with the over-summering Knots at Leasowe. It didn't look quite right for a typical Icelandic/NW European (schinzii) Dunlin so I asked our Dunlin expert, Jane Turmer, what she thought of it: "The flanks are almost without streaking which is very unusual in schinzii but common in centralis, the tone of the mantle feathers is quite chestnut, again more centralis, but the centres of the feathers are heavily marked and the belly patch is small, both more schinzii. So most likely an intergrade". Note: schinzii mostly breed in Iceland (but inlcude UK breeders) whereas centralis breeds in northern central Siberia - so a big gap between the breeding ranges of these two races. For more details see Dunlin - Rings, Races and Genes.

Many thanks go to Steve Williams, Steve Hinde, Alan Hitchmough, Richard Whitby, Bruce Atherton, David Leeming, Steve Round, Jane Turner, Mark Gibson, Derek Bates, Allan Conlin, Colin Schofield, Tony Ormond, John Crook, David Hart, Zak Ashton, Peter Dolley, Ian Sheppard, Bruce Hogan, David Bradshaw, Ben Lee, John Kane, Phil Brown, the Dee Estuary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during June. All sightings are gratefully received.

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What to expect in July

As the breeding season comes to an end birds will start piling into the estuary - and this should include some great rarities. Last year we had a Night Heron, Spotted Crake and Red-backed Shrike and in the recent past rarities have included Long-billed Dowitcher, Hoopoe and Melodious Warbler.

The species I most look forward to seeing are the Sandwich Terns filling the estuary with their raucous cries. Numbers will build through the month and should reach over 1,000 by the month-end. West Kirby on a rising tide is a good spot to see them, as is Hilbre, Gronant and Point of Ayr. With the terns will be hundreds of Black-headed Gulls, and look out for Mediterranean Gulls among them still in full breeding plumage early in the month. Numbers of these seem to increase every year - Heswall usually has the highest numbers.

Waders will arrive here in several waves over the coming weeks depending where they bred, and where they spend the winter. In July Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits return and will reach several thousands. Common Sandpipers usually pass through in ones and twos but the banks of the River Dee, between Garden City and the Flint Bridge, seem to be particularly attractive to them, the highest total was 35 along this stretch on July 10th 2021.

Given a prolonged and strong westerly wind Storm Petrels are a good possibilty, New Brighton and west along north Wirral to Hilbre are good places to see these, and there will be Manx Shearwaters out there which will be a lot easier to spot than the Petrels.

Mediterranean Gull at West Kirby, early July 2021 © Richard Smith

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Forthcoming Events

July Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool)

Also see Tides page

23rd July, 13.24hrs (BST), 9.3m.
24th July, 14.09hrs (BST), 9.3m.

Forthcoming Events

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