RY-RWflag ringed as a chick in Iceland
(Left) July 16th 2011© Pete Potts
and seen again
on August 25th 2011 at West Kirby (Right) © Matt Thomas
Also seen at Talacre (Sep 2011), Mersey
Estuary (Mar 2012) and Burton in May and July 2012
By Matt Thomas
A few years ago I was supervising a young student on their work
experience at Wirral Country Park when she mentioned she was interested
in seeing the wading birds that the Dee is famous for. I decided as a
reward for her hard work over the two week placement I would take her
to the beach on her final day to watch the birds feeding as the tide
All the usual suspects were present on the shore. We saw Knot, Dunlin,
Curlew, Redshank, Pintail, Shelduck, Oystercatcher, Black-tailed Godwit
and Richard, the author of this website!
Richard was looking at a thousand or so Blackwits feeding on the
mudflats and we joined him to scan the flock. He mentioned that one of
the Godwits was colour ringed and soon enough we located it. I had
never seen or heard of colour ringing at this point but my interest was
piqued and I listened as Richard told me that it had been ringed in
Iceland as part of Operation Godwit.
Black-tailed Godwits at Thurstaston ©
Later that day he
emailed me the life history of the bird we had seen.
It contained the date and location of its ringing and details of all
subsequent sightings. From that moment I was hooked on colour ringing
and wanted to contribute to the projects any way I could. The journey
started that day has taken me to some amazing places where I met some
inspiring people and saw some fantastic wildlife.
The Black-tailed Godwits found on the Dee belong to the subspecies
They breed in Iceland and winter in the British Isles,
France, south to Portugal and possibly Morocco. They are ringed in
Iceland, Portugal, England, Ireland and France by local ringing groups
and researchers from the University of East Anglia and institutions in
Iceland in a project called Operation Godwit.
In contrast to many wader populations Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit
numbers are rising and by studying these birds we might be able to get
a clearer understanding of what conditions shorebird populations need
to flourish and this knowledge can then be used to inform the
conservation strategies used for other species.
Marking birds with unique colour ring combinations is allowing
researchers to track individual birds around Europe. This has lead to
the calculation of mortality rates, yielded new information on
wintering areas, site faithfulness, range expansion and migration
After several years of contributing sightings I was lucky enough to be
invited along on an expedition to Portugal in February of this year to
take part in the capture and ringing of some Blackwits. Naturally I
enthusiastically accepted the invite and was soon headed south!
on the Tagus Estuary, Feb 2012 © Matt
Not one we normally see on the Dee Estuary!!
A fantastic week was
spent bathed in sunshine on the shores of the
Tagus estuary. We were based in the small town of Alcochete on the
opposite side of the river to Lisbon.
The mudflats looked almost identical to those I was used to surveying
on the Dee, with a similar list of species plus some that seemed quite
exotic to one used to scanning Thurstaston Shore. As I searched for
colour ringed Blackwits the odd Lesser Flamingo would sway serenely
past. Tall and elegant Black-winged Stilts shared pools with Avocets
while over my head White Storks circled on rising thermals.
For several days we observed feeding flocks looking for a suitable
catch site. The location was chosen, and the cannon nets set with
extreme care so that the catch could be carried out with minimal risk
to the safety of the birds. Only when birds were in a safe catching
zone was the net fired. We caught 9 birds with our first attempt, a
pleasing result. Two further catches took place after I had to return
home, ringing just over 20 birds during the whole expedition.
I ringed this bird in Portugal in Feb 2012 © Matt
I had watched, heard,
counted, studied and photographed these birds for
the past few years and now, at last, I held one in my hands. It was a
very special experience. I was able to help measure and weigh the
birds, record this information and apply the metal ring to their legs.
I watched the colour rings being slipped on the tibias of each bird we
caught, careful to note the combination of colours so I could look out
for them on the Dee. Best of all was the knowledge that I had helped
the ringing effort and soon we will be receiving more data on the
movements of this subspecies and our understanding of its ecology will
So, what has all this colour ringing told us? It has revealed much in a
relatively short period. Most obvious is the faithfulness to both
breeding and wintering areas. Birds will breed within yards of their
nests from the previous year, and some birds will be found in the same
creek of the same estuary winter after winter.
The next point is interesting from a Dee perspective. In Iceland birds
are expanding their breeding range into areas that were previously
thought unsuitable; however, these habitats are certainly less than
ideal and have poorer nest sites and foraging. Thus birds occupying
this new part of the breeding range produce young that fledge later
than the birds nesting in premier habitat, and possibly have lower
fitness. In effect these are “second class” Blackwits.
So where is the Dee connection? It seems that these inferior birds are
the ones we see most frequently on the Dee! Birds in premier habitat
often pass through the Dee early, on their way further south to more
productive estuaries, often in France or Portugal. Indeed, birds ringed
in Portugal are seldom, if ever seen on our local patch.
We receive the “second class” Blackwits because, as a final stimulus to
fledge and become independent, adult Blackwits leave the nesting sites
earlier than the chicks to fuel up for migration. The majority of
adults will have left by the time the “second class” juveniles are
ready to migrate and these youngsters are not able to follow the adults
to Portugal and the best wintering areas. When the birds eventually set
off they often stop at the first good place they find, and unaware that
there is better habitat elsewhere and stay where they are. Data is
still coming in and these findings may change, but it seems plausible.
This could only have been deduced from the use of colour marking of
Despite these findings these Black-tailed Godwits are still my
favourite birds on our estuary and I consider them in a class of their
Once we had finished with the Blackwits we turned our attention to
Sanderling. The International Wader Study Group
undertaking a worldwide study of this species. The Sanderling Project
is investigating population trends, timing of migration, the routes
taken and non breeding distribution. We were to colour ring as many as
possible so that observers around the world have the chance to report
resightings and so increase the data set required to calculate
Sanderling caught and ringed on the
Tagus in Feb 2012 © Matt
Equal care was taken
with the setting and firing of the cannon nets and
we caught more than 50 birds over 2 catches. Again biometric
measurements were taken before the colour rings were applied to the
birds’ legs. The birds were then released to continue their migration.
The project is in its early stages so I have little in the way of
results to share here, but with time and resightings of colour ringed
birds our knowledge of this species and its ecology will grow, leading
to better conservation of this charming little shorebird.
Two of the birds I helped to ring have already been resighted in the
UK, one in Devon and one on the Hebredian island of Tiree. It is
entirely possible that several of the birds I ringed will pass through
the Dee so please; if you find a flock of Sanderling feeding on the
shore take a closer look and see if any are ringed.
All sightings are vital and greatly appreciated.
Richard collates and sends off the sightings of colour ringed birds so
please report the date, time, location and ring colour combination of
your bird to him at
Next month: Part 2: Tangled up in Knots
By Matt Thomas.
Black-tailed Godwit on the Dee Estuary © Matt Thomas
RSPB Liverbird Watching and Nature Discovery Cruises
Ferries have again
teamed up with the RSPB and National Museums Liverpool to provide three
birdwatching cruises out to Formby Point and back from Seacombe,
Woodside and Pier Head at Liverpool. This year the dates are Wednesday
15th August, Saturday 8th September and Saturday 13th October. The
September trip in particular is likely to be very popular so book early.
For more details and to book see the Mersey
or ring 0151 330 1444.
Also see the RSPB Liverpool Website - http://www.rspbliverpool.org.uk/ferrypageevent.htm
July Bird News
A family of
Swallows being fed by the horse paddocks at Leasowe, July
8th © Jeremy Bradshaw.
After writing the Mediterranean
last month it was good to see a total of 25 records during July,
although that was still half that for the bumper year of 2010, and
we've seen no ringed birds so far. There were huge numbers of
Black-headed Gulls over the Welsh side of the estuary on the 24th, the
observer thought there could have been as many as 50,000 feeding on
insects overhead. Sandwich Terns were also much in evidence with the
highest count of 1,000 off Hilbre on the 27th and 830 at West
on the 23rd, 120 Common Terns were also present on the
watching has been good, apart from the
hundreds of terns mentioned above there were good numbers of Gannets
with at least 200 counted on a couple of occasions off north Wirral and
there were 300 to 500 Manx Shearwaters off Hoylake on
There were quite a few Arctic Skuas with at least 10
off Red Rocks
on the 30th the largest number.
Juvenile Avocets at Burton Mere Wetlands,
June30th © Steve
Passage waders included six Common Sandpipers at Connah's Quay
just one or two Green Sandpipers were seen. Greenshank numbers started
to increase by the month-end with seven at Parkgate
at Connah's Quay
max count of Spotted Redshanks was four at both Burton Mere Wetlands
and Parkgate Marsh.
included 15 on Hilbre
on the 10th and Black-tailed Godwits had increased to 500 at Burton Mere
towards the end of the month.
included a Great White Egret recorded on three dates, a Long-eared Owl
along Denhall Lane on the 5th, a Pectoral Sandpiper at Burton Mere
on the 9th and a Hoopoe at Leasowe
on the 26th. A
single Osprey came over West
on the 24th and single Marsh Harriers were recorded on
four dates. An adult Little Gull was a good find at Parkgate
on the 7th.
Black-tailed Godwits in full breeding plumage at Burton Mere Wetlands
July 3rd © Paul
Many thanks go to Jeremy
Bradshaw, Steve Round, Malcolm Segeant, Richard Beckett, Paul Brady,
Steve Hinde, Dave Wilson, Kenny Dummigan, Barry Barnacal,
Harker, Mike Davenport, Steve Liston, Steve Williams, Maurice Pons,
Farnell, Mike Hart, Andy Thomas, David Jones, Steve Hasell, Ashley
Cohen, Paul Vautrinot, Colin Schofield, Ray
Eades, Ken Mullins, David Huntingford, Bruce
Atherton, David Farrell, William Boyce,
Butterworth, Jane Turner, Peter Haslem, Dave
Greep, Paul Mason, Steve Seal, Tim Baldock, Paul Earley, Neil
Gooding, Andy Roberts, Adam Fazakerly, Stave Hand, Glen Morriss, Chris
smith, Julian Welddrick, Robin Mclean, John Fergus, Les Hall, Paul
and the Hilbre Bird
for their sightings during July. All
are gratefully received.
What to expect in August
The raucous cries of
Sandwich Terns will seem
to be everywhere from New Brighton in the east to Gronant in the west
and total numbers may well reach 3,000 early in the month. Common Terns
numbers will also increase through the month with perhaps several
hundred at Hoylake and West Kirby at high tide. Rarer Black Terns may
also be seen as well as one or two Roseate Terns.
terns come the skuas and Arctic Skuas should be seen most days with
hopefully one or two Pomarine and Great. Any fresh to strong west winds
could bring in hundreds of Manx Shearwaters and Gannets and, if the
wind is strong enough, some Storm Petrels with the same conditions
bringing in one or two Leach's Petrels by the end of the month.
recent years this month has been good for rare waders with Long-billed
Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs and White-rumped Sandpiper all seen.
Greenshanks will be coming through and expect to see up to 40 or so
both at Connah's Quay Nature Reserve and Parkgate, perhaps with one or
two Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints. Our more common waders will
also be migrating south and some years we can get hundreds of Ringed
Plover and thousands of Dunlin at Gronant, Point of Ayr, West Kirby and
Hoylake. I find it fascinating watching the Black-tailed Godwits with
their various plumages - juvenile, full summer, moulting and
non-breeding. Gilroy Nature Park can be a very good place to see these
birds along with Burton Mere Wetlands and Connah's Quay. Colour-ringing
has shown that many of these 'blackwits' are on their way south to
France, Portugal and Spain.
Sandwich Terns and a Common
Tern on the beach at Hoylake, July 22nd © Steve Seal
Spring Tides (Liverpool)
19th August, 13.00hrs (BST), 9.4m.
20th August, 13.37hrs (BST), 9.5m.
21st August, 14.16hrs (BST), 9.4m.
Organised by the Wirral
Ranger Service , Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the
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.
Also see 2012 Events Diary.
August, 10am start, Tern-tastic at Point
Price: £2 for RSPB members, £5 non-members - to book
353 8478 or 0151 336 7681.
The mouth of the River Dee is a vital feeding ground for terns and
other seabirds before they head off on their long journeys south and
The Point of Ayr, Flintshire is one of the best places to see them.
On this walk we should see near on 1000 terns (sandwich mainly but
little, common, arctic terns all occur) roosting close in as the tide
covers up their feeding areas and forces them closer to shore.
Don't forget to bring your binoculars, telescopes and cameras.
Meet at the Smuggler's Inn car park at the end of Station Road, Talacre
(Point of Ayr).
Saturday 18th August, start at 10.30am, High tide birdwatch at
will discover why Wirral’s foreshore is an internationally protected
site when you join the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens, Coastal Rangers
and the RSPB on this summer birdwatch at Hoylake. The beach should be
full of terns and returning waders, out to sea there will be a good
chance of seeing Gannets and Arctic Skuas. Meet at new Lifeboat
station Hoylake. Organised as part of Wirral’s Year of Coast and
High tide at 12.23pm, 9.2m. No need to book. Ring 0151 648 4371 for
Saturday 18th August, 8pm to late, Bats at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB.
Cheshire Bat Group have kindly agreed to lead a guided walk around
Burton Mere Wetlands to showcase the amazing winged mammals of the
The Daubenton’s bats can be spectacular feeding over the meres so book
your place early to avoid disappointment.
Cost: £2.00 to RSPB Members and £5.00 to non-members - Please
phone 0151 353 8478 to book.
Saturday 1st September, 6pm - 8pm, An Evening with Egrets
at Burton Mere
Price: £2 RSPB members, £5 non-members.
Dee Estuary is home to the largest number of little egrets in the
entire North of England and believe it or not they all roost in one
small group of trees near to Burton Mere Wetlands.
So come along
for a short talk on the trials and tribulations of little egrets in the
UK before a gentle stroll down to the Marsh Covert Hide to watch as
hundreds of egrets come "home" to roost.
This truly is one of the best wildlife spectacles at this time of year
in the north.
Places are limited so book in advance to avoid disappointment.
Cost includes a cuppa and biscuits.
Saturday 8th September, Hilbre Low Tide
Birdwatch, 8:00am start to 1:30pm latest.
Join the Rangers, the RSPB and staff from the Hilbre Bird Observatory
on this low tide birdwatching event on Hilbre Island.
essential. Phone (0151) 648 4371.
Saturday 29th September, The Big Seawatch, Hilbre.
the Rangers, staff from the RSPB, Hilbre Bird Observatory and the Sea
Watch Foundation for a day on Hilbre looking for seabirds, waders and
cetaceans that inhabit our wonderful coast. We will be
Hilbre during high tide, giving us the best chance to see them with
experts on hand! There is a small charge of £1.50 for this
which includes tea/coffee.
Please ring (0151) 648 4371.