Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) is a species which has been rather under the radar for me. It was when I saw Eddie Williams' photo of a colour-ringed bird (above) that I realised how little I knew despite writing the Little Ringed Plover species account for the Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report for several years! Consequently I've been doing some reading and compiling some counts over the past few weeks and the result is this article.
Nobody knows how many Little Ringed Plovers there are. Unlike most waders, which concentrate at certain key sites either on migration or in the winter, they migrate overland on a broad front then spend the winter scattered right across inland Africa south of the Sahara making them virtually impossible to count. Counts are made in some locations of breeding pairs and totals extrapolated from that - so the number of individuals in the European/African population is usually quoted as being between 200,000 and 300,000, obviously with a large margin of error.
During the 20th century this species increased it's range westwards into the UK first breeding in this country in 1938. The westwards movement has continued and they bred in Ireland for the first time in 2008. They prefer to breed on the unvegetated margins of fresh water and they take advantage of gravel pits and sand quarries. There are several of the latter in Cheshire and they first bred here in 1961 after several years of trying through the 1950s. By 1971 they had increased to at least 20 pairs, since then numbers have fluctuated but the average is probably still around 20 pairs. A national survey in 2007 put the total number of pairs breeding in the UK at 1,239, almost double that estimated in the previous survey in 1984 - the highest concentration is in north-west England.
The first ever record for the Dee Estuary was at Shotton Pools in 1958. For a species which is almost wholly non-maritime they have been seen surprisingly frequently at Hilbre, first recorded there in 1964 and the following two years - perhaps the same bird was involved. There have been a further eight records from Hilbre since, nearly always singles. The first record from Inner Marsh Farm RSPB (now Burton Mere Wetlands) wasn't until 1991 but since then IMF/BMW has had the vast majority of records. For example, in 2015, a year which had the highest number of annual records for the past 15 years, 94% came from there. 2018 has been no different with birds ever present at BMW since June 22nd, including a max count of six.
Photo right - Juvenile Little Ringed Plover at Gilroy Scrape, West Kirby (Richard Smith).
Little Ringed Plovers probably do occasionally breed around the Dee Estuary on sites such as Meols Brick Pit, Shotton and the old Point of Ayr Colliery site, but they are mostly recorded on migration. Just ones and twos are usually seen with the occasional family group, so it is a scarce bird here.
The graph below shows the pattern of migration with the spring peak in the second half of April and the return peaking in July. Two interesting points about this graph, one is the number of records in June when you might expect little or no movement, and the peak in July which is a month earlier than the peak in most of Europe. Birds in June may well include failed breeders and looking at the Cheshire and Wirral and the Lancashire Bird Reports there is quite a high failure rate. In addition many one year old birds don't breed so there may well be be non-breeding birds present. But breeding can finish as early as the second half of June as demonstrated in 2014 when an adult with two well grown young were noted at BMW, having bred elsewhere. The July peak probably means that Burton Mere Wetlands is a staging post for local breeding birds; as well as 20 or so pairs in Cheshire there are usually at least 30 pairs just to the north in Lancashire so it's certainly possible that some pause at Burton Mere Wetlands before flying south to Africa.
The graph below shows how varied the totals are from year to year, given the small annual numbers involved that really isn't surprising.
Although relatively few have been ringed, over many years the recoveries tell an interesting story.
The only colour-ringed bird recorded on the Dee Estuary was seen on April 29th 2018 in a wet horse paddock by Leasowe Lighthouse. An interesting record as it was ringed in Angus/Montrose Basin, the most northerly breeding site in the UK, and it was recorded back at it's nesting site on May 7th 2018. Here they breed on shingle along river beds, the natural breeding habitat for this species before they discovered man made gravel beds etc.
Nationally, some birds seem to fly due east or south-east from the UK after breeding and there have been a total of seven ring recoveries in Belgium and Germany, it is possible these birds then fly to the east side of Africa or maybe even the middle-east, as some European birds do, but there have been no recoveries of UK birds from there.
There have been several recoveries from the Camargue in southern France suggesting that this site is an important staging post. Some birds fly due south as there have been seven recoveries from Portugal and Spain, and three across the Mediterranean in Morocco, Melilla and Tunisia. In their wintering range there have been just three recoveries of UK ringed birds, all in West Africa south of the Sahara, in Burkina, Mali and Togo.
The information gleaned from ringing recoveries (including colour-ringed birds) is fascinating but it is somewhat limited, for example we know virtually nothing about exact migration routes, speed of migration or what birds do when they reach the wintering areas. The recent development of light-weight geolocators is changing all that. Some work has already been done with Little Ringed Plovers which breed in southern Sweden and I finish this article by quoting from Ref 8 and I also reproduce Figure 1 from that paper:
Our results from using geolocators to track migration in a local population of Little Ringed Plovers revealed an enormous spread of wintering sites, ranging from West Africa to India. The migration strategy mainly consisted of relatively short flights with multiple stopovers unlike many other shore-birds that, instead, make one or a few long flights. Four out of six birds divided the autumn migration into two phases, with a rather long period of residency at a site in the Middle East. Therefore, the timing of arrival to the final wintering site differed quite a lot between individuals.
This makes a great companion book to 'Rare and Scarce Birds of Cheshire & Wirral' reviewed in the November 2017 Newsletter. It covers a large area, five vice counties, and a huge amount of work has gone into writing this fascinating book. There are many different sections but the highlights for me are the article by Ken Croft 'The Birding Year in North Wales', a very detailed Systematic List of Records and no less than 19 finder's articles ranging from the Cretzschmar's Bunting' in 2015 to a 'Summer Tanager' all the way back in 1957. Both those species were seen on Bardsey Island and, remarkably, that small island contributes 47% of all records in the book, as nicely illustrated in a pie chart on page 26.
I finish with a short extract from Ken 'mega-magnet' Croft's article:
August: A month when our thoughts turn to waders and a good place to visit would be the Dee Estuary, you never know what might be lurking out there in the vastness? Birds are drawn in and filtered along the coast especially on the spring tides. Here are some of the August birds found on the Dee: Pacific Golden Plover, Baird's Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher and Wilson's Phalarope. It is also the start of the autumn migration of passerines and maybe it is a time to think of a visit to Bardsey? A few rare warblers may be skulking out there on the island: Aquatic, Savi's, Booted, Bonelli's, Greenish as well as Melodious, Icterine and Barred Warbler have all been found on Bardsey in August as well as Britain's first record of Yellow Warbler in 1964. Finally, if we are going to see Cory's Shearwater, and we don't see many in North Wales, this is the best month to look for one. Point Lynas, Bardsey or The Range all likely vantages in optimal weather conditions.This book is obtainable at https://www.nhbs.com/, at Conwy RSPB or directly from the author, Robin Sandham - firstname.lastname@example.org.
- yellow letters on black ring (left tarsus).
Ringed on Calf of Man, Isle of Man, on June 24th 2014, as a chick.
Recorded on Hoylake shore on July 16th 2018.
The only other record for this bird was in July 2016, also on Hoylake shore, so we don't know where it is breeding.
Richard Smith. Colour-rings were also recorded by Tim Kinch, Steve Hinde and Henry Cook.Top of Page
The exciting news of the month was the announcement by the RSPB that a pair of Marsh Harriers bred and successfully reared three chicks in Neston Reed Bed, a first for the Dee Estuary.
Mediterranean Gulls were much in evidence and Heswall shore had five adults on the 10th with several recorded along north Wirral, West Kirby and Gronant. Numbers of Sandwich Terns increased in numbers through the month, the highest count being 746 at Hilbre on the 31st. A flat calm sea on the 30th resulted in a sighting of a Storm Petrel off Hilbre, and on the same day 6,500 Herring Gulls were on West Hoyle Bank.
The month started with 490 Black-tailed Godwits at Caldy, these were mainly non-breeding birds spending the summer here, but numbers quickly increased with adults arriving from Iceland so that by the month-end we had a remarkable 2,840, a record high July count for the estuary. They say they had a poor breeding season but that remains to be seen, the early arrival of the first juvenile on the 29th bodes well. Little Ringed Plovers have been ever present at Burton Mere Wetlands and we had an adult Curlew Sandpiper there at the end of the month. A Spotted Crake was an excellent record at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 25th.
10 Goosanders, perhaps a single brood, were an unexpected sight at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 8th, with one at Hilbre a few days later. Summer records of Goosanders on the estuary and off north Wirral are actually fairly regular with birds dispersing away from their breeding grounds. Eiders were present all winter off Hilbre and now at least one has been there most of the summer with a good count of 14 on the 25th.
The Little Tern breeding season at
Gronant has effectively been split
into two. There were 80 fledged from the nests which survived storm
Hector, and there are now 190 newly hatched chicks from those pairs
which re-laid after their nests were washed away. We don't know how
many of these will fledge, and there has been quite a lot of predation
from Kestrels, Peregrines, etc. but it is still looking like it's going
to be a good season. The 'third wave' arrived in July giving a total of
620 Little Terns, this increase in numbers occurs every year and is
thought to be mainly adult birds from other colonies, either failed or
early breeders, but an influx of non-breeding immature birds is also
Perhaps the strangest sight of the month was the over-night roosting of up to 230 Swallows on the rocks at Niffy Bay, Hilbre, then suddenly erupting at first light. There are no records of them roosting there before, they normally roost in reed beds and indeed 1,000 did so in Neston Reed Bed during July.
Also see Tides page.
12th August, 12.36hrs (BST),
13th August, 13.23hrs (BST), 9.8m.
14th August, 14.08hrs (BST), 9.7m.
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.