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1st September 2002
The Godwits.

Latest Bird Counts.
August Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Newsletter Index.


             Bar-tailed Godwit sp
       Bar-tailed Godwit, summer plumage 

Species Spotlight - The Godwits


The Dee Estuary is one of the most important locations in the country for Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) and Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica), both of which occur in internationally important numbers. The two species of Godwit are very alike in appearance but inhabit almost exclusively different parts of the estuary. The Black-tailed Godwits prefer the muddier inner estuary, from Caldy on the English side round to Flint on the Welsh, whereas the Bar-tailed feed on the  sandier areas in the outer estuary, in particular the north Wirral coast

Black-tailed Godwits
Summer plumage Black-tailed Godwits at Inner Marsh Farm (Eric Bird)

The Black-tailed Godwit has increased significantly over the past forty years on the Dee. In the early 1960's it was unusual to see more than 100 but since then they have increased steadily to a new record high of 4,012 (Wetland Bird Survey - WeBS) in November 2001. Indeed the WeBS count of 3,900 at Connah's Quay that month may well be the biggest single roosting flock ever seen in this country. It is typical of this species to form large tight flocks both when feeding and at the roost, but it is when flying that they are quite unmistakable with their distinctive white wing bar and rump, black tail bar, and with their legs and bill sticking stiffly out straight either end they are reminiscent of a kebab on a skewer, as a well known local ranger is fond of saying! The birds which come to the Dee are of the Islandica race which breed in Iceland. 

Unlike the Bar-tailed Godwits, the Black-tailed are present here all year round with a large non-breeding flock  frequenting Inner Marsh Farm RSPB reserve, the largest over-summering flock in the country. The highest June count was 900 in 1998, but even higher numbers are present on spring passage when the birds make a spectacular sight in their summer plumage. Post-breeding numbers build up to a maximum in November when they tend to favour the area off Connah's Quay and Flint before dispersing to the English side of the estuary between Caldy and Heswall later in the winter. There are also good numbers on the nearby Mersey Estuary and almost certainly there is much interchange between the two.  

Bar-tailed Godwits breed in the Arctic in northern Europe and Asia, and typical of species which breed in this area numbers can vary widely from year to year. This is partly due to variations in breeding success because of the lemming cycle (when lemming numbers are low there is more predation of birds and nests) but also due to weather in their wintering range - cold weather on the Waddenzee and Wash means more birds move over to the western side of Great Britain. Large numbers also winter in west Africa.
Don Baccus

The graph below show counts made at high tide roosts for the last twenty years. In the 1970's counts of Bar-tailed Godwit were much higher - the average was over 6,000 and the maximum a whopping 11,149. Numbers have plummeted since then, a big contribution to this must be disturbance at their traditional high tide roosts at Hoylake and West Kirby. But recent low tide WeBS counts of feeding birds are much higher - for example during the past winter (2001/2002) counts were just under 8,000, as compared to a maximum of 1,098 at high tide. WeBS counts (both at high and low tide) on the Alt Estuary just a few miles across Liverpool Bay strongly suggest that they roost there at high tide, only staying on the North Wirral shore during smaller high tides when much larger areas of sand bank are left uncovered and are consequently less disturbed.

Maximum high tide WeBS counts 1981 to 2001

As shown in the second graph below peak numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits occur in mid winter with virtually no birds present in the months April to July. It must be emphasised that these high tide counts of 'Bar-wits' can vary greatly dependent on the height of the tide, rather than the number of birds present on the feeding grounds at other times. For example the high tide WeBS count on January 13th 2002 for the whole of the Dee Estuary/ North Wirral was only seven, yet three days later on a smaller high tide 4,700 were counted at Hoylake. Unfortunately WeBS counts are normally held on the higher tides so that they end up on the Alt Estuary's figures and not the Dee's!

Typical twelve month distributions - April to March (High tide WeBS counts)

WeBS data were supplied by the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), a joint scheme of the British Trust for Ornithology, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the last on behalf of the Countryside Council for Wales, Department of the Environment Northern Island, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage).

The following References were used during the compilation of this article:
1. The Wetland Bird Survey reports 1995/96 to 1999/00.

2. Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Reports 1999/00 to 2001/02.
3. Cheshire Bird Reports 1996 to 2000.
4. The Birds of Cheshire by T. Hedley Bell 1962, and supplement 1967.

Many thanks also for reports of sightings sent directly to me and particular thanks to Carl Clee, Brian Grey, Colin Wells, Neil Friswell, Jane Turner and Chris Butterworth.

Please note that copies of the Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report 2001/2002 are now available from the local RSPB, ring 0151 336 7681 for details. The report may also be picked up from Inner Marsh Farm.



Bird Counts


Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service). 11th August. 
1 Great Crested Grebe, 71 Cormorant, 9 Grey Heron, 235 Shelduck, 69 Mallard, 1,290  Oystercatcher, 24 Ringed Plover, 8 Lapwing, 2 Knot, 1,770 Dunlin, 5 Black-tailed Godwit, 4 Whimbrel, 2,109 Curlew, 4,550 Redshank, 2 Greenshank, 3 Common Sandpiper, 3,940 Black-headed Gull, 1,180 Common Gull, 290 Lesser Black-backed Gull, 7 Great Black-backed Gull and 129 Herring Gull.

Wetland Bird Survey Count (highlights) for Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Brian Grey), 11th August.
3 Little Grebe, 55 Cormorant, 7 Grey Heron, 3 Little Egret, 3,560 Oystercatcher,  18 Ringed Plover, 253 Lapwing,  46 Dunlin,  325 Black-tailed Godwit, 1 Whimbrel, 6 Spotted Redshank, 1,280 Redshank, 13 Greenshank and 1 Common Sandpiper

Hilbre Island, count on 3rd August kindly provided by Steve Williams of the Hilbre Bird Observatory.
.4 Gannet, 1 Grey Heron, 200 Sanderling, 2,000 Dunlin, 1 Curlew Sandpiper (sum. plum.), 250 Curlew, 4 Whimbrel, 120 Turnstone, 50 Redshank, 3 Arctic Skua, 1 Kittiwake, 350 Common Tern, 250 Sandwich Tern, 80 Little Tern, 3 Whitethroat, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Willow Warbler, 1 Tree Pipit and 1 Yellow Wagtail.

Wetland Bird Survey Count from West Kirby, Little Eye and Red Rocks on 11th August, kindly provided by Karen Leeming of the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens.
3,275 Oystercatcher, 26 Great Black-backed Gull, 80 Linnet, 695 Common Gull, 2,000 black-headed Gull, 2 Little Gull, 1 Mediterranean Gull (2nd Sum.), 12 Little Tern (110 before high tide), 25 Sandwich Tern, 3 Arctic Tern and 975 Dunlin. 


August Bird News


The five Avocet (4 juveniles) which visited Inner Marsh Farm at the end of last month stayed just one more day before moving off. But it has been very much a Green Sandpiper year at Inner Marsh Farm with several being present most days and the maximum being a very good eleven. The rarer Wood Sandpiper has also been seen with up to two at the 'farm' and much more unusually a single at Hilbre Island and one, may be two, heard over West Kirby. Eight hundred Black-tailed Godwits was an excellent count at Connah's Quay and between 500 and 750 have been present at Inner Marsh Farm most of the month. 

As usual Greenshanks have been frequenting the Boathouse Flash at Parkgate with 55 the highest count so far. Not many Curlew Sandpipers around yet but I was lucky enough to see a 'red' adult at Hilbre, hopefully good numbers of juveniles will pass through in September. We have got yet another record number of Little Egrets with 26 at the Inner Marsh Farm roost. These were counted early in the month since when they seem to have dispersed but last year we didn't get our maximum until October. Spotted Crakes are getting almost boringly regular at Inner Marsh Farm! This is now the seventh year in a row they have been here. One bird was present for all of the second half of the month with a second seen on the 26th. They were a bit earlier than normal, in previous years being present mostly in September and October.

With most of the month virtually windless sea watching hasn't been great, until the last three days when the wind returned along with a good passage of Skuas - 12 Arctic Skuas both at Point of Ayr and Hilbre along with a few Great and Long-tailed Skuas. But the highlight was a single Sooty Shearwater off Hilbre. We usually get just one or two sightings of this species each year off the estuary late summer/ early autumn. Sooty Shearwaters come a long way to get here breeding in our winter on Antarctic Islands, from there they wander the oceans of the world getting to both the north of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

What to expect in September
Gales! Well, let's hope so. Two days or more of north-westerly gales should result in a good passage of Leach's Petrel as well as plenty of other sea birds including some rare American gulls, such as Sabine's. Last year was particularly good for both Leach's and Sabine's but as we normally only get a good passage every three or four years maybe it is too much to expect another one so soon, but who knows! The north Wirral coast, Hilbre Island and Point of Ayr are the places to see this passage. (See Leach's Petrel species spotlight for more info.).

September can be excellent for Skuas with all four species to be expected - Arctic, Great, Long-tailed and Pomarine. Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints will pass through, usually more numerous in the first half of the month. Both species may be seen just about anywhere in the estuary - some years favouring Point of Ayr and Hoylake, other years Heswall, Burton and Connah's Quay. Last year we had a record count of 108 Greenshank at Parkgate Boathouse Flash, expect to see good numbers there all month.

The more common waders, Oystercatcher, Curlew and Redshank, usually peak in September. All three species breed in Britain in large numbers but this Autumn peak is caused by incoming birds from further north - from the Faeroe Islands and Iceland in the case of Oystercatchers, Curlew from Scandinavia and Redshank from Iceland.

Duck numbers will also increase rapidly during the month after their summer moult. This particularly applies to Shelduck since they started using what is now the country's biggest moulting ground, the Mersey Estuary, a few years ago. They now only have to fly a few miles across south Wirral to the Dee once moulting has finished, expect to see at least 7,000 most of which will be off Thurstaston - an amazing sight. One other species that is certainly worth looking out for is the Great Crested Grebe of which over 100 gather off Greenfield Dock - best seen at low tide - walk south from the dock. 

As you can see below September marks the return of the really big high tides, and with a gale behind them this could make for some spectacular birding.

Many thanks go to Colin Wells, Karen Leeming, Brian Grey, Peta Sams,  Alan Chapman,  Mike Hart,  Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, Frank Gleeson, John Campbell, Warwick Roberts, David Esther, Tom Hubbard, Peter Poole, Colin Schofield, Mark Feltham, Roy Palmer  and Jane Turner for their sightings during July. All sightings are gratefully received.

Forthcoming Events


September Highest Spring Tides
8th September, 13.01hrs 9.9m. (all times BST)
9th September, 13.43hrs 10.0m. 
10th September, 14.25hrs 9.9m. 

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.

Saturday 7th September 9:00am Greenshanks & Goldfinches.
A guided walk along the Wirral coast to view early season migrants with special focus on the congregation of Greenshanks that pass through the boathouse flash, Parkgate and the impressive flocks of Goldfinches that seek out the thistle seed harvest in forgotten corners.
To book you place tel. Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371/3884. 

Saturday 7th September 10:30am - 12:30pm
Birdwatch at King's Gap, Hoylake.
Take the opportunity to see large numbers of waders, with the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens, as they gather to roost at close quarters. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and binoculars if you have them. No need to book. Meet at Kings Gap, North Parade, Hoylake. For further information tel. 0151 678 5488. 
Wednesday 11th September 7:30pm Birds By Jizz - Evening Talk.
A humorous approach to bird identification by local expert, Jeff Clarke. This event is kindly sponsored by BHP Billiton. Please book in advance tel. 01352 719177. Meet: BHP Billiton Visitor Centre, Point of Ayr.
Saturday 14th September 10:30am Go Gaga for Grebes at Greenfield
There is no better time to visit Greenfield than September when over a hundred Great-Crested Grebes can be seen fishing the low water channels. Seaduck may include Red-Breasted Merganser and Scaup. No need to book (LW 11:57, 2.6m). Meet at Greenfield Dock car park, off Dock Rd, Greenfield. Further information contact RSPB tel. 0151 336 7681. 

Sunday 22nd September 10:00am Heswall High Tide Birdwatch.
Enjoy superb close views of many estuary birds including Black-tailed Godwit, Knot and Redshank, There is a strong possibility of scarcer species such as Curlew Sandpiper and Greenshank. Join the experts for some of the regions best birding. (HW 12:45, 9.2m). 
No need to book. Meet: Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrakes Restaurant. Details tel. 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 5th October 7:00am Migration Watch at Banks Road, Heswall.
October is often the peak time for visible migration. You can turn up at any time during the period of the watch but the peak of movement normally occurs about one hour after sunrise. Follow the signs from the Banks Road car park to the watchpoint on the beach. 

Saturday 5th October 8:30am Heswall High Tide Birdwatch.
Wader action of the highest calibre makes this venue ideal for beginner and expert alike. Thousands of shorebirds of many species gather at the edge of the advancing tide in a spectacular of sound and movement. (HW 11:10, 9.4m) No need to book. Meet at Banks Road car park Lower Heswall, nr. Sheldrakes Restaurant. Details tel. 0151 648 4371/3884. 

Saturday 5th October 9:00am High Tide at Flint Foreshore. 
Join the local RSPB warden for a walk along the marsh at Flint to experience superb coastal bird watching. Expect to see large
loafing flocks of Pintail and Black-tailed Godwits. Warm waterproof clothing and wellingtons are essential. (HW 11:10, 9.4m). No need to book. Meet at Flint Lifeboat Station car park. Further information from RSPB, tel. 0151 336 7681.

Monday 7th October 10:30am High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Encounter some of Britains most exciting birds in the relaxed company of experts who will guide you through the drama and spectacle of the high tide. Sweeping flocks of waders part at the approach of the Peregrine. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. (HW 12:37, 10.2m) Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884

Tuesday 8th October 11:30am High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Encounter some of Britains most exciting birds in the relaxed company of friendly experts. If the weather is right the tide should reach the wall, flushing out special birds such as Water Rail and Short-eared Owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. (HW 13:19, 10.2m) Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from 'Birdwatchers Diary 2002', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371 or by from myself.