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1st August 2001
Protection on the Estuary.

Little Terns at Gronant.
Latest Bird Counts.
July Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.


         Terns Sketch

Protection on The Estuary
or What the hell is a triple S I anyway!

    In the 1970's my father was a founder member of the Dee Estuary Conservation Group. In those days there were real threats to the estuary with various schemes including barrages, bridges, reclamation, reservoirs and road crossings(1). None of these came to fruition - partly because of the shear cost of such schemes but also because more and more people realised just how important the estuary was for wildlife and recreation. Now there is a large amount of legislation at local, national, European and international level to give the estuary and its natural resources protection. On top of that large areas of the estuary and the surrounding shore are maintained as nature reserves. 

shelduck Sketch

So what is it about the Dee Estuary that is so special? Well, just concentrating on the birds - it regularly has twelve species in internationally important numbers and another six species in nationally important numbers(2). To give that some perspective, the much bigger Wash has thirteen species in internationally important numbers, and the nearby, albeit smaller, Mersey Estuary has  seven species. In the peak mid-winter period the estuary typically holds a total of 110,000 waders and 20,000 Wildfowl. The Dee Estuary is one of the top ten wetland sites in Europe for the numbers of waterfowl that visit it each year(3).

Legislation to protect the estuary and its surrounding shores includes the following:

The whole of the Dee Estuary and North Wirral Foreshore are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI, usually spoken as triple S I). In addition many sites adjoining and near the estuary are also SSSIs, about ten in total. These include Gronant and Talacre sand dunes, Inner Marsh Farm, Red Rocks Marsh and Meols Meadows.

The Dee Estuary is a Ramsar site. Giving it recognition as a 'Wetland of International Importance'. The Red Rocks Marsh is also currently being considered for Ramsar site status.

The Dee Estuary is a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the terms of the EC Wild Birds Directive.

The Dee Estuary is a Natura 2000 site. One of a network of European sites designated under the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.

The Dee Estuary and North Wirral Foreshore are a Sensitive Marine Area.

Many small sites around the estuary are designated as either Sites of Biological Importance (SBI's) or Sites of Local Importance for Earth Science. 

The Dee Estuary and North Wirral coast are currently being considered for designation as a European Special Area of Conservation - 'giving it the highest level of protection'. 

Reserves on the Estuary and Surrounding Shore:

The RSPB either own or have management agreements for about half the estuary(4).
Their reserves are as follows:
Gayton Sands. 2,040 ha, owned by the RSPB.
Inner Marsh Farm. 39 ha, owned by the RSPB.
Oakenholt, 113 ha, owned by the RSPB.
Sites on the Welsh side of the Estuary include Bagillt Bank, Mostyn and Point of Ayr marsh & mudflats, 3,225 ha, managed by the RSPB on behalf of the Environment Agency, Mostyn Docks and BHP.

Other reserves include the following(5):

Reds Rock Marsh and Sand dunes. 11 ha, part of this site is managed by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust.

Thurstaston Hill and Royden Park Local Nature Reserve. 101 ha, part owned by National Trust, rest by Wirral Borough Council.

Hilbre Island Local Nature Reserve. Owned by Wirral Borough Council.

Heswall Dales Local Nature Reserve. Owned by Wirral Borough Council.

Shotton Reserve. Owned by Corus and maintained by the Merseyside Ringing Group. 

Connah's Quay Reserve. Owned by Powergen and managed by the Deeside Naturalists' Society.

Garth Wood. Owned by the Woodland Trust.

Gronant Sand Dunes Local Nature Reserve. Owned by Denbighshire County Council.

There are several Country Parks which are in effect maintained as nature reserves, these include North Wirral Coastal Park, Caldy Hill, Wirral Country Park including the Wirral Way, Wepre Park and Greenfield Valley

References for the above article are as follows:
1. A.J. Prater, Estuary Birds of Britain and Ireland, T&AD Poyser, 1981.

2. N. Friswell and CE. Wells, Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report, RSPB, 2000.
3. Dr Alan Jemmett, The Dee Estuary Strategy, 1996.
4. C.E. Wells, e-mail communication, July 2001..
5. Wirral Rangers Web Site. Detailed descriptions of SSSIs, Nature Reserves and Country Parks on Wirral are given on this excellent web site.     


Little Terns at Gronant, the Story so far......

By Gareth Stamp (RSPB Assistant Warden, Dee Estuary)


Despite what some might think its not all doom and gloom at Gronant's Little Tern colony. In fact it's a story of success. Gronant's little tern colony has grown from a mere 15 pairs back in 1975 to an impressive 85 pairs to date. It has endured several years of hardship to reach its stronghold of today.
Little Tern

The RSPB has been involved with the management of the little tern colony since 1975. The graph below illustrates the rise of the Gronant little tern colony to it current status.

Little Tern Graph

The breeding graph demonstrates the erratic breeding success of the little terns at Gronant, typical of this species. Little terns are long-lived birds and their population is capable of withstanding poor breeding years. The population at Gronant can be maintained by a good fledging success in every three or four years. During the last decade, Gronant has had the reputation for being one of the most productive colonies in Britain, and you can see why. In excess of 100 young were raised in each of the following years - 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1999. 

During the last two years, Gronant has been less fortunate in its breeding success. Unfortunately, this year was very disappointing with only one young fledging from 85 pairs - on par with 1986 and 1990. 

Gronant encounters similar problems to other colonies - predation by foxes, crows, kestrels; human disturbance; tidal inundation and weather. We are unfortunately at the mercy of the weather at Gronant. Human disturbance is kept to a minimum by fencing the beach off from the public and wardening the site. We are also able to manage nests, successfully, to avoid losing them to tides. However, natural predation is less predictable. At Gronant a combination of 24 hour wardening, electric fencing and chick shelters have been used since 1991 to help deter foxes and crows. I am certain these factors have strongly contributed to the very high breeding success since 1991.

Although, the last two years have not been the best, each season is reviewed by RSPB with the intentions of making improvements for the following season. One thing is for certain, the Gronant little tern colony is thriving and at a record 85 pairs.


Bird Counts


Count from Hilbre, provided by John Gittins of the Hilbre Bird Observatory.
22nd July.
22 Gannet, 7 Manx Shearwater, 2 Grey Heron, 2 Ringed Plover, 14 Guillemot, 83 Common Scoter, 500 Black-headed Gull, 63 Common Tern, 42 Sandwich Tern, 165 Little Tern. 7 Arctic Skua, 150 Dunlin, 8 Whimbrel, 45 Redshank and 6,000 Knot.

Peak counts of birds on West Kirby Shore/Red Rocks during July , kindly provided by Chris Butterworth.
1 Shag, 57 Gannet, 7 Grey Heron, 1 juvenile Water Rail, 3,500 Oystercatcher, 5 Lapwing, 60 Knot (10 summer plumage), 2 Sanderling, 650 Dunlin, 14 Bar-tailed Godwit, 3 Whimbrel, 380 Curlew, 1 Common Sandpiper, 1 Arctic Skua, 1 Mediterranean Gull, 1,900 Black-headed Gull, 109 Common Gull, 159 Herring Gull, 421 Sandwich Tern, 82 Common Tern, 7 Arctic Tern, 91 Little Tern, 120 Swift, 2 Wheatear (juvenile) and 2 Crossbill. 

Inner Marsh Farm  Count for 21st July.
2 Water Rail, 3 Wigeon, 9 Tufted duck (incl. 8 young), 4 Gadwall, 2 Ruddy Duck, 2 Little Ringed Plover, 2 Oystercatcher, 2 Snipe, 4 Raven, 3 Common Tern, 2 Peregrine Falcon, 5 Greenshank. 
Please note that the count from Inner Marsh Farm is an informal estimate of species and numbers present, either carried out by myself or other birdwatchers visiting the hide. It is not meant to be a complete count and is not in anyway part of the Wetland Bird Survey or other count which might be carried out by the RSPB.

July Bird News


The bird of the month must be the Great White Egret first seen by Colin Wells, the RSPB warden, at Inner Marsh Farm. It only stayed two hours but about thirty people managed to see it. Another rarity at Inner Marsh Farm was a Spoonbill, it apparently spent several weeks there whilst the reserve was closed because of foot and mouth, but only stayed two days after the reserve reopened again. 

The two tern colonies on the estuary certainly had very different fortunes. See the above article on the Little Terns to see how they got on. The Common Terns at Shotton had yet another record breaking season with 545 nesting pairs. The Merseyside ringing group had ringed 660 Common Tern chicks by mid July and were hoping it would be 700 by the end of the season. 

Many Terns and Gulls come to the estuary after breeding. These large concentrations are mostly at the mouth of the estuary at Gronant, Point of Ayr, Hilbre, West Kirby and Hoylake
Arctic Tern
Nigel Blake

Peak numbers of terns were 1,200 Sandwich Tern (Point of Ayr), 130 Common Tern (Hilbre), 400 Little Tern (Gronant - including breeding birds), 7 Arctic Tern (West Kirby), 2 Roseate Tern (Point of Ayr) and 1 Black Tern (Gronant). Large roosts of gulls included 1,900 Black-headed Gulls at West Kirby and 500 Herring Gulls at Hilbre.

Waders are returning in good numbers with both Redshank and Curlew building up rapidly at Heswall, and Oystercatchers at West Kirby. The best place to see Greenshank was Parkgate Boathouse Flash with a peak count of 29, expect more in August. Whimbrel are passing through with 15 being the highest single count at Hilbre. Rarities include up to 4 Little Ringed Plover at Inner Marsh Farm - there were two juveniles so they possibly have bred at the reserve. Small numbers of Common Sandpipers were seen in several places and 2 Green Sandpipers at Connah's Quay Reserve, with singles at Inner Marsh Farm and Point of Ayr. Connah's Quay had a visit from the over summering flock of Black-tailed Godwit, 600  with many in summer plumage - normally we don't see such numbers until well into October. As with June we were still seeing over summering Knot during July with 6,000 off Hilbre Island. Four adult Curlew Sandpiper were at the Point of Ayr, the juveniles should follow in late August.

Sea watching from Hilbre and Point of Ayr revealed both Arctic (7)  and Great Skuas (2), and also Gannets (25), Manx Shearwaters (110) and Common Scoters (83) - maximum daily count in brackets. 

The Greenfield Valley bird survey continues, the total is now 86 birds. Click here for a complete list.

What to expect in August: Often the most exciting month of the year with large numbers of passage waders, including a good number of rarities, terns and skuas galore, the possibility of a Marsh Harrier or two and the return of the Little Egrets.

At the mouth of the estuary - Hoylake and Point of Ayr - look out for flocks of hundreds of Sanderling and Ringed Plover passing through. Further into the estuary at Heswall thousands of Redshank returning from Iceland are a magnificent sight on a rising tide - one of the biggest roosts in the country. Last year we had a record number of 97 Greenshank at Boathouse Flash, Parkgate - numbers were already building up during July. The water levels at Inner Marsh Farm are ideal for attracting migrant waders at the moment, almost anything can turn up. Over on the Welsh side of the estuary both the Connah's Quay reserve and Point of Ayr attract their fair share of rare waders. 

By the last week in August we should be getting the first of this year's juvenile Curlew Sandpipers passing through. These delightful birds, looking like a large and elegant Dunlin, follow the coast westwards from their Siberian breeding grounds unlike their parents which take a more direct overland route to their southern wintering grounds. Given a good breeding season and an east wind we might get as many as one hundred on the estuary. They prefer muddy areas to feed - look for them by the Lifeboat Station at Hoylake (they feed in the muddy tracks), Heswall shore, Parkgate Boathouse Flash, Inner Marsh Farm and Point of Ayr.   

Many thanks go to John Gittins, Chris Butterworth, Bill Owens, Ted Abraham, Gareth Stamp, Dave Wilde, Dave Harrington, Brian Grey, Colin Jones, John Kirkland, Jane Turner, Phil Lovell and Brian Roberts for their sightings during July. I rely on the goodwill of people like this, unlike some commercial sites I cannot offer financial inducements!


Forthcoming Events


August Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool) 
20th August, 13.04hrs 9.9m. (all times BST)

21st August, 13.49hrs, 9.9m.
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 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. 

Saturday 18th August. 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.

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. 

Saturday 25th August. Marsh Matters 10am - 12 noon.
Join the Rangers for a walk into the creeks and marshes of the Dee Estuary. Close fitting wellies and warm waterproof clothing are essential. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 1st September. 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 15th September. 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.

Sunday 16th September 8:30am (HW 11:11, 9.3m) 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. 

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.