1st August 2004
'Sands and Shanks' on passage.

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'Sands and Shanks' on passage.


August is one of my favourite months for birdwatching, one reason being the arrival of the passage waders. 'Passage Waders' because these birds on their migration south are literally just passing through and, with the exception of a few stragglers, don't spend the winter here. Of course our most numerous passage wader is the Dunlin. Most of these are Calidris alpina schinzii, the majority breeding in Iceland and Greenland and wintering in West Africa, Calidris alpina alpina overwinter here after breeding in northern Europe and western Siberia. But as I've already covered Dunlin extensively in the December 2003 newsletter I thought I would concentrate instead on some of our more uncommon passage waders - Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Green Sandpiper. These species have several things in common -

They pass through here in small numbers (very rarely more than 100),
We are at the western extreme of their range, 
They like fresh water, in some cases almost excluding the use of saline,
With the exception of the Curlew Sandpiper they breed in northern Europe, Curlew
Sandpipers breed in Arctic Siberia,
They winter in West Africa,
With the exception of Greenshank birders never call them by their proper names -
so we have Curlew Sand, Com Sand, Spot Red and Green Sand!

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)

Greenshank breed in northern Scotland with latest estimates putting breeding pairs at 1,440. Many more than this breed in northern Scandinavia with about 40 - 60,000 pairs, no doubt we get birds from both these areas passing through here. The females leave the breeding grounds first, usually by early July, followed by the males in late July and the juveniles during August.
Greenshanks at Inner Marsh Farm, Steve Andrews).
The map shows the typical migration routes taken by birds which pass through the Dee Estuary. It is thought that most birds spend the winter in West Africa south of the Sahara. Here they take up a range of water habitats including both inland and coastal.
The post breeding movement south is a leisurely affair with birds in no particular hurry. They move in a broad front across Europe although coastal sites are preferred. On the Dee Estuary their main staging posts are at Inner Marsh Farm and Parkgate Boathouse Flash. Apart form the odd one or two we don't get any significant numbers until mid-July, they then increase steadily until reaching a peak of about 40 to 60 at each site in late August or early September. Numbers then slowly dwindle until mid- October when just one or two might stay the winter. Greenshank can also be seen at Heswall, Connah's Quay Reserve and Point of Ayr (both on the shore and in Warren Farm fields).


Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea)

This close relative of the Dunlin breeds in the high Siberian Arctic. We only see a few on the Dee Estuary, the majority tend to migrate in long over land flights further east, spending the winter across the middle of Africa, southern Asia and Australia. This is the only 'Calidris' wader of those described here but I have grouped Curlew Sandpipers with the others as like them they tend to migrate on a broad front and are as likely to use fresh water as brackish or saline, both at staging posts on migration and in their wintering grounds. So here we are as likely to see them on the edge of the fresh water at Inner Marsh Farm as anywhere else on the estuary, although they have a particular liking for mud.

Curlew Sandpiper- Nigel Blake

The map shows the western half of the Curlew Sandpiper breeding area together with some migration routes. Male birds leave the nesting grounds first, by mid-July, followed by the females and lastly  juveniles which leave between early August and early September. We get one or two adults passing through as early as late July, but more normally August. Most of them migrate further east through the Wadden Sea (long arrows going south) or even directly via the Black Sea, the route used by most birds in the spring (large arrow).

It is the end of August and in to September before we see juveniles, numbers varying greatly from year to year, but always more than the adults.  It is thought that they take a less direct route than the adults, following the coast as shown by the small arrows. In particular, if there is a persistent east wind across Scandinavia this can drive the birds further westwards. The other major variable being breeding success, governed largely by the lemming cycle - more lemmings mean Arctic Foxes eat these rather than chicks. The table below shows the maximum number and location during the past eight years. The date the maximum occurred varies from 30th August in 2000 to 5th October in 2001. You will probably agree with me in thinking we are due a good year!

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Heswall Burton IMF P of Ayr Heswall Oakenholt IMF West Kirby
108 10 27 27 33 11 5 11

Common Sandpiper (Actitus hypoleucos)

The Common Sandpiper breeds in Wales, northern England and Scotland with about 18,000 pairs, much larger numbers are found in Scandinavia. Ringing suggests quite strongly that birds passing through western England, including the Dee estuary, are those which have bred in the UK, with Scandinavian birds only being seen in south-east England and on the continent.

Common Sandpiper - Nigel Blake

Despite relatively large numbers passing through the country we see very few here on the estuary, although there is little doubt that they are under recorded. They tend to migrate south in a broad front, never as a flock but in ones and twos. Fresh water is favoured but this can be on the estuary if there is a suitable outflow.
Common Sandpipers will have finished breeding in this country by late June to mid July. Migration rates are very variable with some birds heading straight to Africa and others staying in the UK until September. Numbers on the Dee Estuary peak either late July or early August. Usually no more than 10 or so at a time scattered throughout the edge of the estuary, but last year was a particularly good for this species with 25 counted during a Wetland Bird Survey on July 12th and a remarkable 7 on the rocks at Hilbre Island on the July 17th. Not exactly typical habitat!

Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus)

Spotted Redshanks have a more northerly breeding range than the Common Redshank, also tending to breed further away from coasts. They breed in northern Scandinavia with the bulk in Finland, total population in northern Europe is estimated to be in the region of 100,000 birds. We only see a very small proportion of these on the west coast of Britain with most migrating in long flights on a broad front, ending up in tropical Africa, but a few stay all winter in western Britain.

Steve Round Spotted Redshanks at Inner Marsh Farm, July 2004.

There is a pronounced passage through the Dee estuary both in late summer/autumn and spring. A few birds are present throughout the winter, and indeed for most of the year with just a gap of about a month between mid May and mid June when no birds are present.
In August and September we typically get maximum counts of 20 or so birds across the estuary concentrated at Inner Marsh Farm, Oakenholt Marsh and Parkgate Boathouse Flash - although the latter site seems to have been little used in the last couple of years. Similar numbers are seen in March and April with birds mostly at Inner Marsh Farm. There is often a mid-winter peak in January at IMF of about 10 birds.

Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

Essentially a freshwater species virtually never seen on the estuary itself, also the rarest of the species described in this article. There is a population of a over one million birds breeding around the Baltic and across northern European Russia. Bulk of birds are thought to winter in Africa south of the Sahara, but good numbers are observed around the Mediterranean with a few in Western Europe including the UK.
Green Sandpipers are early breeders and the first ones are already heading south by mid-June. We just get the odd one or two in June and July, they usually peak in August but even then we only see numbers in the region of five to ten. They continue to trickle through until October. Their favoured site is Inner Marsh Farm but they are quite regular at Shotwick Brook where one or two are sometimes also seen in winter. Birds are also seen on the Welsh side wherever there is fresh water - such as the Connah's Quay Reserve, Warren Farm fields at Point of Ayr and Gronant.

I used the following References whilst writing this article,

General background:
1. Birds of the Western Palaearctic, original and concise editions on CD-Rom.
2. Prater A.J., Estuary Birds of Britain and Ireland, 1981, T&AD Poyser.
3. Hale W.G., Waders, New Naturalist series, 1980, Collins.
4. Thompson D. and Byrkjedal I., Shorebirds, 2001, Colin Baxter.

Latest Population estimates:
1. African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement website - http://www.unep-aewa.org/website%20pages/intro.htm.
2. Wetlands International. 2002. Waterbird Population Estimates - Third Edition, Wetlands International Global Series No. 12, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
3. JNCC UK SPA Review, Species Accounts, http://www.jncc.gov.uk/UKSPA/Species/sptoc.htm.

Migration Routes:
1. BTO Migration Atlas, 2002.
2. Birds of the Western Palaearctic, original and concise editions on CD-Rom.

Wader Numbers on the Dee Estuary:
1. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports, CAWOS.
2. Clwyd Bird Reports.
3. Friswell N. and Wells C., Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Reports.
4. Data sent to me directly by e-mail.

Outline map backgrounds kindly supplied by http://www.graphicmaps.com/clipart.htm.

Richard Smith

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Bird Counts
  Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society) 18th July. 5 (incl 2 juv.) Little Grebe, 28 Cormorant, 3 Little Egret, 1 Grey Heron, 2 Mute Swan, 20 Canada Goose, 95 Shelduck, 10 Mallard, 9 (incl 8 juv.) Tufted duck, 2 Moorhen, 16 Coot, 167 Oystercatcher, 240 Lapwing, 3 Dunlin, 300 Black-tailed Godwit, 1 Whimbrel, 1 Curlew, 557 Redshank and 1 Greenshank.

Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 18th July.
13 Great Crested Grebe, 25 Cormorant, 2 Little Egret, 9 Grey Heron, 136 Shelduck, 560 Oystercatcher, 46 Lapwing, 2 Knot, 3,120 Dunlin, 2 Whimbrel, 3,290 Curlew, 2,700 Redshank, 1 Greenshank.

Count from Point of Ayr - (kindly provided by Sam Dyer) 30th July.
8 Cormorant, 34 Mallard, 93 Shelduck, 720 Curlew, 150 Dunlin, 492 Oystercatcher, 2 Black-tailed Godwit, 55 Redshank, 1 Ringed Plover, 1 Snipe, 1 Whimbrel, 1 Greenshank, 480 Black-headed Gull, 36 Great Black-backed Gull, 82 Herring Gull, 22 Lesser Black-backed Gull and 1 Merlin.

Count from Hilbre Island - (kindly provided by Colin Schofield) 30th July.
1 Kittiwake, 1 Fulmar, 3 Gannet, 1 Guillemot, 2 Arctic Skua, c500 Sandwich Tern, c100 Common Tern, 6 Little Tern, c2,000 Dunlin, c50 Sanderling, c500 Oystercatcher, c20 Curlew, 6 Whimbrel, c50 Ringed Plover, c20 Redshank, c30 Turnstone, 1 Peregrine, 1 Kestrel, 2 Wheatear and 1 Whitethroat.

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July Bird News
  When I was wardening at Gronant in mid-June a westerly gale was blowing sand right across the Little Tern colony. The adults were flying low over the colony uttering distressed calls and I thought we had lost all the nests which still had eggs in them, and that most of the youngest chicks would have died, just leaving a handful of older chicks - many of which would probably fall prey to the kestrel. And that was a week before the really bad weather! Yet here we are at the end of July with 97 young fledged and quite a few chicks still to fledge - a minor miracle! Congratulations to both the Little Terns and the wardens for their persistence and fortitude during the appalling weather. 

The Common Terns at Shotton also suffered from the weather, both the very hot period at the beginning of June and the bad weather since meant many chick fatalities. But even so a record number of pairs, 656, are expected to produce between 500 and 600 fledged young. There have been some good numbers of Sandwich Terns about the estuary - peak counts were 600 at Gronant and about 500 at Hilbre. Most of these will probably have bred at Cemlyn Bay on Anglesey where record numbers were counted this spring, 1,300+.

Dunlins have been passing through on their way from Iceland and Greenland to West Africa with several flocks of 1,000+, the biggest being 3,120 at Heswall. Sanderling have also been passing through with max count at Gronant of 200. 25 Greenshank was a very good count at Parkgate on the 17th, these probably being mainly female birds which leave the breeding grounds first.

Some strong winds towards the end of the month brought in a couple of Storm Petrels along with six Arctic Skuas. The 22nd was a good day at Gronant for Common Scoter when 76 were counted, good numbers of Gannets have been about all month. Marsh Harriers have been on their way south with three at Inner Marsh Farm on the 29th.

Join us on this exciting trip into feeding grounds in the Irish Sea on 27th August, 2004. Our pelagic will take us in search of seabirds including skuas, shearwaters and petrels. Our fully insured boat provides hot and cold drinks, W/C and a sheltered cabin area. Our experienced skipper and on board guide will ensure you have an exciting and memorable trip for only 35.00 per person.

To reserve your place contact Allan Conlin by writing to:
SEABIRDER, 21 Orrysdale Road, West Kirby, Wirral, CH48 5EW,
or by phone: 0151 625 9258 or 07791274837.

What to expect in August.

I always think of August as a tern and wader month. Sandwich Terns will still be around in their hundreds for the first half of the month. Best places to see these are at Hilbre Island, Gronant, West Kirby shore and Hoylake shore - probably best at half tide, especially as the tide is coming in. Common Terns will also be in the same places, usually in smaller numbers although their numbers will increase through the month. At low tide they often concentrate off Greenfield Dock in the channel of the River Dee. The breeding season at Gronant should be finished by early August and from then on the Little Terns can often be seen around Hilbre Island or West Kirby Shore at high tide. Then there is also the possibility of seeing one or two Black or Roseate Terns, as well as the usual small numbers of Arctics.

Large numbers of waders will be back on the estuary. Last year we had a Wetland Bird Survey count of 10,493 Redshank in August, well over half at Heswall - most probably the highest count for August at any site in the country, although our September count was even higher! We should also have a good passage of Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling best observed at Hoylake, Point of Ayr and Gronant. Greenshank will be increasing in number throughout the month and the first juvenile Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers will have arrived by the end of the month.

Look out also for a build up of Little Egrets and the return passage of Marsh Harriers, and perhaps an Osprey or two. Grey Heron are not exactly uncommon around the estuary but you rarely see more than one or two together. However, at this time of year they often tend to congregate on Heswall Marsh where you can usually see between 15 and 30 together sitting out high tide. Most of the Swifts will have gone by early August, but that isn't the first sign of winter, that was in late June when the first migrant waders returned!

Many thanks go to Mike Hart, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Bernard Machin, Steve Round,  Alan Patterson, Christopher Leighton, David Harrington, Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, Jean Morgan,  John Roberts, David Haigh, Mark O'Sullivan, Phil Woolen, John Kirkland, Mark Payne, Colin Wells, David Wilde, Tanny Robinson, Allan Conlin, Colin Schofield, Steve Woolfall, Steve Round, Tom Giles, Brian Grey, John Boswell, Karen Leeming, Wendy Hassal, Robert Bithwell, 'Fil', Duncan Crockett, Sam Dyer, Steve Ainsworth,  the Wardens at Gronant and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during July. All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events
  August Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
2nd August, 13:25hrs 9.4m. (all times BST)
3rd August, 14:08hrs 9.4m. 
31st August, 13:05hrs 9.6m.

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.

Sunday 1st August, 10:00am, Banks Road Birdwatch at Heswall.
One of the biggest roosts of redshank in the country builds in the saltmarsh off Banks Road. Amongst the thousands of waders that are herded up in front of us by the tide, there is a good chance of seeing spotted redshank and curlew sandpiper (HW 12:35, 9.3m). Meet at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrake's Restaurant. For further details, phone 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 14th August, 9:00am, What's that wader?
Do you struggle to tell your pipers from your plovers, Calidrids from your Charadrids? Then come along for a simple step-by-step lesson in wader identification. Expect a good selection of waders which should include curlew sandpiper and whimbrel and, importantly, similar species alongside each other for comparison. (HW 11:04, 8.3m) No need to book. Meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre, Point of Ayr. Contact RSPB on 0151 336 7681 for details.

Sunday 15th August, 9:00am - 5:00pm, Big Bird Count at Point of Ayr.
Come along as we try to see as many different species of bird as possible. Find out about the importance of the site and join the Warden on short guided-walks around the reserve. Come along and join in at any time between 9 and 5. Meet at the viewing platform, left along the seawall at Point of Air. For further details, contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Wednesday 18th August, 11:15am, LiverBird Wildlife Discovery Cruise- Family Day.
Join the RSPB on an exciting cruise aboard a Mersey Ferry along the estuary and out into Liverpool Bay. On this family cruise there will be lots going on to keep kids busy, including Liverpool Museum's inter-active mobile Natural History Centre, craft activities, people to show you the birds and a children's entertainer on board. Cruise starts at 11.15 and will return at 14.15. Please contact the RSPB's regional Public Affairs coordinator on 01484 861148 for more details.

Wednesday 1st September, 11:15am, LiverBird Wildlife Discovery Cruise.
Join the RSPB on an exciting cruise aboard a Mersey Ferry along the estuary and out along the Crosby Channel into Liverpool Bay. We should see good numbers of terns, gulls and waders and, depending on the weather, we might see seabirds such as skuas and gannets. There will be a host of birds and wildlife experts on hand to show you the birds and give a commentary through the trip. Cruise starts at 11.15 and will return at 14.15.
Please contact the RSPB on 01484 861148 for more details.

Sunday 12th September, 9:00am - 11:30am, Which Wader?! Where?!
Waders are a fascinating group of birds with amazing migration stories, weird and wonderful plumages and bill shapes and sizes. This can make some species very tricky to separate, so join the Rangers at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, to study these birds as they are pushed towards us by the rising tide. No need to book, meet in the car park by Sheldrakes Restaurant. For more information, phone 0151 648 4371.

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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