Both the National and local (Dee Estuary) Wetland Bird survey (WeBS) reports for the period July 2013 to June 2014 have recently been published. As always this gives us an opportunity to look at trends and numbers and it enables us to evaluate how 'our' birds are doing in comparison to the national picture. It has to be said that the winter of 2013/14 wasn't good for bird numbers on the Dee Estuary with wildfowl counts particularly low, even Canada Geese were down! It's not all doom and gloom, however, as Pink-footed Geese numbers are still very high with max of 3,320, and although Teal and Wigeon numbers were down compared to 2012/13 they were both still bang on the five year average. Wader counts were a bit mixed, for example over-wintering Ringed Plovers were very low but passage numbers were the highest for over 40 years.
The reasons for low counts for many species, which in many cases is reflected nationally, is no doubt complex but a major cause will have been the mild weather and I quote the national report "The 2013/14 winter proved to be very mild, with no prolonged spells of cold weather. Virtually all months were warmer than average, while storms in January-February 2014 delivered gales with inland and coastal flooding". Mild weather, of course, means that many birds short-stop on the continent with no reason to make the journey across the North Sea.
Below I go into a bit more detail for
three species, all of which did well in 2013/14. It is noteable that
these all breed in Iceland and/or the UK so short-stopping on the
continent isn't an issue.
There was a record WeBS count of 1,633 in November 2013. Numbers have increased steadily from the 1980s when they were around the 150 to 200 mark, to 1,457 in 2007/08 since when they had decreased to 1,186 by 2012/13 before the recent record count. The Dee Estuary is the second most important site for this species in the UK, both for 2013/14 and for the five year average which is now of International Importance. Nearby Ribble Estuary is the most important UK site due to three very high counts for 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14 including 3,297 in December 2012. Just across the Mersey channel on the Alt Estuary and Formby shore there was a count of 1,489 in October 2013, making it the third most important site that year. All these birds will be part of the same Liverpool Bay over-wintering population, sometimes these birds can form huge roosts and a massive 3,884 were counted flying out of the Dee Estuary at first light on January 20th 2015 after spending the night off Parkgate - it is believed this is the highest ever single count of this species in the UK. For more details of Cormorants on the Dee Estuary see Species Spotlight - Cormorant.
The max count was 28,715 in November 2013 with another high count, of 28,296, in January 2014 which are the highest Dee estuary WeBS counts since 34,610 were counted in December 1992. Numbers plummeted through the 1990s due to unregulated industrial scale cockling. In 2008 the Cockling Regulating Order came into force and it has made a huge difference to the sustainability of the fishery, the amount of cockles available for the birds, the amount of damage to the mud flats and the amount of disturbance - all of which have improved. Presumably the current increase in numbers is because of it.
This increase on the Dee estuary is not reflected nationally where there has been a slow but steady drop over the past 20 years, but with a big fall in 2013/14. The north-west of England is a very important area for this species with Morecambe Bay the most important site (five year average of 53,979), the Dee estuary second (five year average 25,775) and the Solway estuary the third most important (five year average 23,942). There was a massive count of 82,288 Oystercatchers in Morecambe Bay in September 2010 which I'm pretty sure is the highest ever UK count. These birds obviously move around with peak counts on Morecambe Bay and on the Solway nearly always in autumn whereas those on the Dee estuary are in winter.
There was a record Dee estuary WeBS count of 6,484 in November 2013, the previous highest being 6,274 in November 2010. In the mid-1980s numbers were around the 500 mark since when they climbed steadily to just over 5,000 10 years ago since when max numbers have fluctuated somewhat reaching as low as 3,713 in September 2006.
Nationally numbers show a similar pattern with a steady increase from 1980 to 2004/05 since when they plateaued out. But 2012/13 saw a big increase with similar numbers in 2013/14. In 2013/14 the Dee estuary was the second most important site with the Wash the most important with a count of 7,540. However, it is the Thames estuary which holds the record for the highest ever count with 12,740 in January 2013. The Ribble estuary is also very important for this species with sometimes thousands on the Marshside RSPB reserve near Southport, max WeBS count for 2013/14 there was 5,213 in January 2014. Colour ringing shows there is much movement between the Dee estuary and Marshside, and indeed with other sites such as the Mersey estuary and Leighton Moss RSPB on Morecambe Bay.
The recent national increase in 2012/13 and 2013/14 could well be due to birds of this Icelandic race short-stopping in this country during mild winters, rather than flying further south to France, Spain and Portugal. This makes a nice change from the many species which short-stop on the continent rather than flying here across the North Sea!
1. On-line WeBS Report 2013/14 - http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/webs2. Colin Wells and Neil Friswell, Dee Estuary and North Wirral Foreshore WeBS Annual Report 2013/2014.
The Godwits started to return from Iceland mid-month and we had logged 10 colour-ringed birds by the end of July, a record for us. Five of these were new to us and we are still waiting feedback for many of these. Below are the details for the two photographed above plus one ringed on the Wash.Y8-WR ringed as adult in north-west Iceland on July 10th 2012.
We have just received notification that there is a proposal to extend Liverpool Bay SPA (Special Protection Area), both in terms of the area covered and the species cited.
This is very good news and it is part of the pressure being put on the Statutory bodies (in England this is Natural England, in Wales it is Natural Resources Wales) to effectively protect birds whilst out to sea - whether they be birds such as terns foraging from nesting colonies or birds spending the winter off shore. I quote from the Natural England document Establishing marine Special Protection Areas "Further work is required to complete a marine UK-wide network of SPAs at sea in order to meet the needs of our breeding and wintering seabirds and our wintering waterbirds".
The map of the area covered by the current SPA and it's proposed extension is shown in the reference below. The extension includes the tidal River Mersey which goes past Liverpool and Birkenhead, an important foraging area for the Common Terns nesting at Seaforth and in the docks. Also now recognised is that the SPA is a vital foraging ground for the Little Tern colony at Gronant and that it also supports the third highest aggregation of Little Gulls in the UK (whilst on migration). In addition Red-breasted Mergansers and Cormorants are now named features of the SPA. Both the Liverpool Bay Common Terns and Cormorants have featured recently in the newsletters in this website, so click on their names to read more about their current status.
Reference : Proposals for an extension
of Liverpool Bay SPA (PDF file):
The main attraction of a visit to the Dee Estuary in winter must be the probability of seeing a Hen Harrier flying low over the marshes, a particular thrill if it's an adult male in stunning grey plumage. I know many people travel a long way to see these fantastic birds and we usually get between three and six regularly coming into the roost at Parkgate through the winter.
We don't actually know where the Dee estuary Hen Harriers breed although Wales and the Isle of Man seem likely locations. One thing that does seem certain is that they don't breed in England where they are very close to being completely wiped out by the Grouse Shooting industry, this year alone five breeding males have disappeared in 'mysterious circumstances'.
Hen Harriers have the highest level of legal protection available across the UK and the EU so shooting, trapping and destruction of nests are all highly illegal. In order to celebrate the species and highlight their widespread illegal persecution there is going to be a Hen Harrier Day on Sunday August 9th 2015. The nearest event to the Dee estuary is at Goytsclough Quarry in Derbyshire - see http://henharrierday.org/index.html for details.
One of the speakers at this event is
Mark Avery. A name you might know as he was a very effective
Conservation Director for the RSPB for nearly 13 years. He has just
brought out a book all about the Red Grouse Shooting industry, the harm
it is doing to the ecology of our uplands and in particular the illegal
killing of raptors. It is called 'Inglorious:
Conflict in the Uplands', well worth a read if you want to
find out more about this scandal.
Some more details about Hen Harriers and a nice video can be seen on the RSPB website -
LATEST UPDATE (August 5th 2015): Some good news - Natural England have announced that there were a total of 12 Hen Harrier nests in England this year, six of which were successful. There has been an attempt by the shooting industry to smear the conservationists' endeavours to conserve the Hen Harrier - both Natural England and RSPB have robustly defended their efforts.
Read all about it here: http://www.birdguides.com/webzine/article.asp?a=5158 .
Richard SmithTop of Page
Sandwich Tern numbers steadily built up during the month and there were over 1,000 off Hilbre by the 30th. Dee estuary is one of the most important post-breeding staging sites in the country for this species. It is good to report the continuing recovery of the Shotton Common Tern colony and they produced over 600 chicks this year (494 in 2014) - see 'Liverpool Bay Common Terns'.
The Gronant Little Terns also are having a good season and it looks like they will produce over 100 fledglings, the highest since 2010, but not as many as the wardens had hoped thanks to the attentions of the Kestrels. After my article on Arctic Terns last month it is good to report the presence of several of them off Wirral, with at least three at New Brighton and over six at Red Rocks - and just in case certain people still don't believe that Arctic Terns exist off North Wirral in the summer then I can assure them they were observed at very close quarters and with Common Terns present for comparison, and by very experienced birders.
But the tern of the month was
undoubtedly the Gull-billed Tern at Burton Mere Wetlands on
the 3rd, this is the seventh record for this southern-europe breeding
species in Cheshire and Wirral, the last record being at the same site
in May 2002.
2nd August, 13.16hrs (BST), 9.6m.
3rd August, 14.01hrs (BST), 9.6m.
30th August, 12.13hrs (BST), 9.7m.
31st August, 12.57hrs (BST), 9.9m.
Organised by the Wirral
Ranger Service , Flintshire
Countryside Service and the
RSPB (Dee Estuary):
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 2015 Events Diary.