Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st August 2006
Point of Ayr Site Guide.
July Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.


Point of Ayr Site Guide

Richard Smith

How to get there
Take the A548 either from Prestatyn (heading east) or Flint (heading north), at the roundabout in Tanlan follow the sign to Talacre Beach. Just after the railway bridge there is a car park on the left, park here for the hide overlooking Warren Farm fields. For Point of Ayr continue right to the end of Station road and just before the seawall turn right into the main car park. There is also a car park on the other side of the sea wall which is closed during spring tides, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a four wheel drive vehicle. See map at

Perched on the north-west corner of the Dee Estuary the Point of Ayr is in many ways a microcosm of the estuary as a whole with sand flats, mud banks, saltmarsh, scrub, sand dunes and fresh water pools all within a relatively small area. It therefore attracts a very good range of estuary birds, but as it is also next to the Irish Sea seawatching can be excellent. As the Point of Ayr is often the first landfall for birds crossing over from the North West coast of England visible migration can be very good, the scrub and wildflower meadows next to the sand dunes are full of warblers, skylarks and pipits in the spring.

Where to go
Firstly let’s get our bearings. Walk to the end of Station Road and up on to the sea wall. To the right is the path to the RSPB hide which you will see about 1km away. All the area between you and the hide, the saltmarsh and sand dunes in front of the hide, and the mudflats beyond are managed by the RSPB. Beyond the hide and gas terminal is a footpath that takes you to the old Point of Ayr colliery lagoons. The saltmarsh is also known as the lagoon although it only gets flooded on spring tides. Half right and beyond the marsh is the ‘spit’; a ridge of sand and shingle which is the main wader roost at high tide.

Oystercatchers on the beach (© Richard Smith)

Straight ahead across the wet sand are low sand dunes, a beach and sand flats. Beyond is open sea with Hilbre Island in the distance. To the left, poking over the sand dunes is Point of Ayr lighthouse. A path going in that direction leads to a raised platform, ideal for sea watching, although a bit exposed during a gale. Further left again you will see an area of wet grassland and reeds, followed by scrub which merges in to a large area of sand dunes; this is an area known as the Warren. Facing back down Station Road and beyond the village of Talacre are Warren Farm fields which include a large flooded area.

The RSPB hide, salt marsh and the spit
PLEASE NOTE, since this article was written the hide here had to be removed due to excessive vandalism but plans are in place to construct a new hide in the near future.

Best to get there at least two hours before high tide to see the waders coming in to roost. To the left of the hide is a stony beach and beyond a raised area of the marsh; both these are used by waders as roosts but the main roost is on the spit just across the channel. The height of the spit means that there is room for the waders to roost even on the biggest spring tides and this can often act as a last refuge for birds driven off the sand banks across the estuary at Hoylake and West Kirby. Unfortunately the spit is accessible from the beach and consequently can suffer from disturbance. To combat this the RSPB have a voluntary wardening scheme and anyone wishing to help should contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681. All the common waders roost here including both species of Godwit. Oystercatchers are the most numerous with 5,000 being a typical count. We also get Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Greenshank and Spotted Redshank at times of passage. Rarities which have turned up over the past few years include Marsh Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden Plover.
When the tide starts to cover the salt marsh wildfowl come in good numbers with Shelduck, Teal, Pintail, Mallard and Teal the most numerous. Brent Geese often fly over from Hilbre Island at high tide and there are usually a few Red-breasted Mergansers on the open water. Eiders and the occasional Long-tailed Duck turn up from time to time.
Peregrines and Merlins are regular here causing much disturbance to the roosting waders. One or two Ospreys and Marsh Harriers are seen each year and Short-eared Owls often quarter the marsh.

Point of Ayr colliery lagoons
If you follow the footpath past the Gas terminal you will see across the waste ground on the left some fresh water pools. These can be full of duck in the winter, although they can be well hidden in the reed beds, and both Snipe and Jack Snipe are often flushed from the nearby damp grassland. The reed beds are well worth checking out for breeding warblers in spring, Ringed Plover sometimes breed in this area.

Shorelark at nearby Gronant ,Steve Round)

The Beach and Sand Flats
From our starting point on the sea wall walk straight across the rather muddy ‘car park’ to the beach on the far side. Whilst crossing over look to your right over the salt marsh which can hold good numbers of Meadow Pipits and Linnets in the winter, Twite are also seen on occasion. The low sand dunes on the edge of the beach are an excellent spot to see large finch flocks in autumn feeding on marram grass seeds, in particular Greenfinches and Goldfinches.
In winter search the beach just below the sand dunes for Snow and Lapland buntings, we used to get 30 or so Snow Buntings a few years ago but only a handful recently. Five years ago we had 20 Shore Larks here.
In summer the sand flats beyond the beach can hold over a thousand terns, Sandwich, Common and Little. Black, Arctic and Roseate Terns turn up from time to time. Ten years ago a Forster’s Tern was reported here. There is also a large gull roost well worth a scan.

Seawatching is good from the raised platform mentioned above, or you can walk further and get a good vantage point from the top of one of the high sand dunes. In really bad weather birders retreat in to the hide although views from here can be distant. To witness the best movements of seabirds, the weather and tide have to be right. The best weather conditions are when the winds blow west to north-west, preferably after gale-force south-westerly winds. The more prolonged the blow, the greater the chance of something more unusual being forced into the estuary. During west to north-westerly blows, seabirds are pushed into the estuary and then struggle out again, often passing close to the Point of Ayr. Seabird passage is usually best two or three hours either side of high tide, but petrels will continue to pass throughout the day.
Just to give you an idea how good it can be here, on 13th September 2001 305 Leach’s Petrels were counted in a three and a half hour period, many flying between the sand dunes. At the same time there were 2 Long-tailed Skuas, 4 Great Skuas, 7 Arctic Skuas and numerous Manx Shearwaters, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Gannets.

In summer expect to see Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Gannet, Fulmar, Little Gull, Kittiwake, Common Scoter, Guillemot, Razorbill and large concentrations of terns.
Autumn brings in Leach’s Petrels in varying numbers plus all four species of Skuas. More rarely seen are Sooty Shearwater, Sabine’s gull and Grey Phalarope. In winter all three divers can be expected along with both Common and the occasional Velvet Scoter.

The Warren (© Richard Smith).

The Warren
This is the area just inside the sand dunes consisting of scrub and grassland, there is a good variety of habitat including both damp and dry areas. A walk through here in spring is a delight with warblers singing from every bush, skylarks overhead and wild flowers everywhere.
During migration this is a particularly good area as birds come in off the sea, fly over the sand dunes and immediately drop down into the bushes beneath. Interesting birds seen here over the past few years include Dusky Warbler, Barred Warbler, Firecrest, Tawny Pipit and Siberian Stonechat.

Warren Farm fields
The key to the hide overlooking the fields is kept in the BHP Gas Terminal visitor centre. In winter these fields, particularly the flooded areas, contain Wigeon, Teal, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank and Lapwing. Both Pink-footed and White-fronted Geese drop in from time to time, the latter only rarely.

1. Gareth Stamp, Sea-watching at the Point of Air, Clwyd Bird Report 2000.
Please note that much of the seawatching section above was taken directly from this article with kind permission of the author.

Other references used in this article are various Clwyd Bird Reports (1989 to 2002), and newsletters and latest sightings published in the Dee Estuary Birding website ( between 1998 and 2006.

Note that not all rare birds mentioned in the text have been submitted to the BBRC.

Richard Smith.

This article first appeared in Birding North West Vol 3, No1.

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July Bird News
Despite numerous birdies and an eagle by a Tiger the only real birds at 'The Open' were a pair of Stonechats in the sand dunes and a Peregrine overhead. The wardens on West Kirby shore next to the golf course did an excellent job of protecting the Natterjack toads from being trampled under foot, the toads had a very good breeding season with the hundreds of tiny toads produced crawling around the marsh and sand dunes.

The Little Terns at Gronant have also had a very good breeding season with well over 100 fledglings produced and quite a few chicks still in the colony as I write. If the total fledged reaches more than 120, a distinct possibility, then it will be the third ever best season there since wardening began in 1975. Over the past four years Gronant must have been the most productive colony in the United Kingdom for this declining species, both in terms of absolute numbers of fledglings produced and also for the number of fledglings per nest. The Common Terns at Shotton had another record breaking season with 1,032 chicks ringed by the Merseyside Ringing Group.

There have been large numbers of both gulls and terns in the estuary with max counts of 4,000 Black-headed gulls, 1,130 Sandwich Terns, 560 Common Terns and 271 Little Terns at West Kirby alone. Among the Black-headed Gull flocks at both Heswall and West Kirby have been up to three Mediterranean Gulls.

Wader numbers have been quite low, perhaps the hot weather has put them off, but the three young Avocet stayed a couple of days at the beginning of the month on Burton Marsh where there was also one adult. Inner Marsh Farm had a Wood Sandpiper for a few days along with both Common and Green Sandpipers and up to four Little ringed Plover. 15 Whimbrel were on Heswall shore on the 21st along with a leucistic Redshank for the ninth year running (leucistic meaning a bird which is unusually pale but not a full albino).

Several Marsh Harriers passed through including three juveniles hunting over Heswall Marsh on the 24th. The following day saw a Red Kite over north Wirral.

Despite the heat haze sea watching has been good with 13 Storm Petrels seen from a boat just off Leasowe on the 12th. There have been plenty of Gannets around with at least 200 in sight from Red Rocks making for a spectacular sight on the last day of the month. A few Arctic Skuas have been observed including three from Red Rocks on the 24th. Little Egret are starting to build in numbers again after the breeding season with at least 42 Little Egrets at Inner Marsh Farm. They bred again this year at a site next to the Dee Estuary. At least two Quail were heard on several days towards the end of the month in a field just south of Neston.

PS - the report of 7114 Sandwich Terns on West Kirby Shore on 19th July was a typo and should have read 794. Apologies for the mistake. Surprised no one queried what would probably have been a world record for a single site!!

What to expect in August

August can be a excellent month with the southward migration picking up, plenty of waders returning from breeding and, given a strong west wind, many of the seabirds more usually associated with September offshore.

Both Marsh Harriers and Ospreys will be on their way south, the former often staying a few days. Some years Kestrel numbers can build up to quite spectacular numbers on Parkgate Marsh - three years ago we counted 45 in one sweep of the telescope. A wandering Red Kite or two is also a distinct possibility. Swallows will be going through in their hundreds and the southern movement of warblers will be well underway, prime spots to see this migration are Hilbre, Red Rocks and Point of Ayr.

Dunlin in summer plumage, Gronant, July 30th 2006, © Jim Armstrong

The Dunlin and Sanderling which pass through this month, many still in summer plumage, will be on their way to Africa to spend the winter. The rarer Curlew Sandpipers should be seen by the last week in August, perhaps earlier. Most of these will be juveniles as the adults usually migrate further east, we are overdue for a good Curlew Sandpiper migration so hopefully we might get a few good flocks with up to as many as 20 or so birds. They can appear just about anywhere on the estuary but prime spots in the past have been Hoylake, Heswall and Point of Ayr. Look out for Little Stints among the Dunlin flocks at Hoylake, they are also regular at Inner Marsh Farm. Black-tailed Godwits will be returning from Iceland in their hundreds, Flint Point is a good place to see them at low tide and Oakenholt Marsh at high tide. Many Godwits will be staying on the estuary for the winter but the Greenshanks are on their way to West Africa, many use the Boathouse Flash at Parkgate as a staging post, they can also be seen at Inner Marsh Farm and Heswall. As I write this at the end of July Boathouse Flash is completely dry after the drought and a series of neap tides, but high tides due mid-month should fill it again just in time for the main influx of Greenshanks.

Hundreds of terns will be in the estuary which they use for a bit of R&R before heading south. Sandwich Tern numbers will begin to drop but Common Terns, which finish breeding later, will increase during the first half of the month. There should also be a lot of Little Terns after their successful season at Gronant, and there is always the possibility of seeing Black and Roseate Terns. Any prolonged strong westerly wind towards the end of the month should result in both Storm and Leach's Petrels being blown towards the shore together with the more usual Gannets, Kittiwakes and skuas.    

Many thanks go to David Small, Bryan Joy, Ian Hughes, Greg Harker, Neil McLaren, Jim Armstrong, Phil Woolen, Gilbert Bolton, David Haigh, Dave Harrington, Damian Waters, Steve Round, Allan Conlin, Mike Hart, Dave Wild, Colin Wells, Steve Ainsworth, Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Charles Farnell, John Kirkland, Dave Don, Neil Atkinson, Steve Liston, Geoff Robinson, Paul Vautrinot, Andrew Wallbank, Tanny Robinson, Steve Renshaw, John Boswell, Frank Huband, Mark O'Sullivan, Margaret Twemlow 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.
11th August, 13.33hrs 9.6m. BST.
12th August, 14.17hrs 9.6m. BST.

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.

Thursday 10th and 24th August, Sunset Walk to Hilbre.
Cross the sands to discover the Island's wildlife and history. A 4 mile walk of 4 hours, ideal for the first time visitor. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and a snack. Wellies are recommended. Sorry no dogs.
There is a £1 charge per person for this event. Booking essential, phone 0151 648 4371.

Saturday 12th August, 11.15am, Banks Road Birdwatch at Heswall.
One of the biggest roosts of redshank in the country occurs 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 14:15, 9.6m). Joint event with RSPB. Meet at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrake’s Restaurant. For further details, phone 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 26th August, 11am, High Tide at Point of Ayr.
The spit and saltmarsh at the Point of Ayr are extremely important habitats for birds. They come alive at high tide with waders and terns coming in to roost and ducks drift in on the tide to feed on the marsh. Join the RSPB Warden to watch the action as it unfolds (HW 13.40, 9.1m) No need to book. Meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre. For further information contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2006', 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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