1st September 2005

Conservation and Wildfowling.
August Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

© Tony Broome


I publish the article below with some trepidation knowing what many birdwatchers think of wildfowling! But as the Dee Wildfowlers call themselves a ‘Wetland Management Club’, and their umbrella organisation, BASC, has the word ‘Conservation’ in their name, I thought it would be interesting to ask them what they do in this regard here on the Dee Estuary. The result is Hwfa Jones’ article below. I'm not trying promote or defend wildfowling by publishing this article, and I do have a lot of reservations about the activity, but as you will see there are always two side to an argument and whatever you think of wildfowling I'm sure you will find the article of interest.
Don't forget this is NOT an RSPB website so don't complain about this article to them! Also, I should point out that no shooting is allowed on any RSPB Reserve on the Dee Estuary.

Richard Smith

Conservation - The Dee Wildfowlers and Wetland Management Club.
A personal view from a new member

A long time ago when in Antarctica, I skiied out from the base into the polar night. Four miles away I knew there was one of the most amazing sights to be seen. The Emperor Penguin rookery at Mobster Creek; 76 degrees south 26 west.
I skiied for what seemed a very long time then came to the edge of the shelf ice and slid down to the frozen sea ice. There on the ice were about 10,000 Emperors huddled together in temperatures as low as -50 Celsius. It was so cold that my camera barely worked though it had been kept in a box surrounded by battery powered light bulbs for the whole journey. An absolutely astounding sight. For me every bit as wonderous as Wilson1 had described nearly a century previously.
Thirty years later I found another wild place nearer to home. Again in the dark, I walked out with a wildfowler guide across the Dee marshes to kneel by Powalla Flash as the Wigeon flew in from their long migration south. I heard them but it was more than a dozen visits before I could clearly see what others were pointing out to me. Another astounding sight, flocks of perhaps hundreds at a time whistling across the wilderness and as remote to most people as the Antarctic.

Four years ago I joined the Dee Wildfowlers and Wetland Management Club to learn more.

The routes (there are no footpaths) across the marshes are learnt by many frequent visits. Until recently it was knowledge passed through generations of families, father to son2. It is just possible to walk almost anywhere by these routes but to stray too far from them is to end up seriously wet and muddy; perhaps even worse! I was amazed to learn that the whole area has local place-names; none of which3 appear on any OS maps but are used all the time by the wildfowlers. Perhaps as many as 50 of the flashes have been named over the centuries. Some names such as the ‘Sandhills’ seem incongruous as they are long overgrown with vegetation and were named when they were banks of bare sand at the estuary edge. There are places that commemorate people (Smith’s Post, Smiths Flash, Gills Road) and activities from the past (The Coalboard Bridges, The Bombing Target), boundaries long abandoned (The Railings Fence) and descriptive names (The Pintail Pools, The Figure of Eight Flash). All these place names are now recorded4. Every new member has a copy.

Aerial photograph of Powella Flashes © Dee Wildfowlers

About one third of the land used by the wildfowlers is maintained as non shooting reserve, possibly the first ever set up on the Dee5. In addition other areas are strictly controlled. The habitat is carefully observed and managed: for example:- Burton Marsh has perhaps as many as twenty small dams built over the years to maintain water in the flashes. Just knowing where to establish an effective dam is somewhat of a mysterious art. It is extremely difficult to understand on this flat land just which gutter drains what or even which way they ebb and flow (see Powalla flood air photograph). The presence of flashes makes the area an attractive habitat for migrant wildfowl and is probably a historical contributory factor in maintaining such large numbers of birds over the winters. Just how long flashes have been encouraged on the marsh is unknown, the information has been lost in antiquity.
One concern is the proliferation of long grasses now that grazing is controlled. The Club does some mowing around some areas but now that there are less sheep on the land many areas are overgrown6. The long grasses provide cover for foxes which are proliferating and flashes surrounded by long grasses are probably not so much frequented by wildfowl for that reason. The dens I saw last year on the marsh were littered with the bones of wildfowl and this year (first time I’ve ever seen this) the fox footprints are all over the outer mudflats.

The club also does an annual cleanup in the spring to remove rubbish that has washed in or has been deliberately tipped. Last year we removed over two tons of rubbish and we now have to pay for it to be dumped. In addition every member carries a bag and looks out for litter when wardening – this amounts to perhaps another thousand ‘mini’ cleanups during the year. We recently received a welcome grant towards this7.

right: annual cleanup
© Dee Wildfowlers

The Club does much to ‘police’ the marshes and much of it’s conservation activity is to do with wardening. We have also taken time to educate and encourage people to contribute rather than to engage in wanton destruction and poaching over this wonderful habitat. Just what could happen without such policing in an age of ATV’s and track bikes is easily imagined8!
The history of wildfowling on the Dee is largely unrecorded. The first decoy was established in 17329 At the same time the communities of the Dee were described in one account as having a reputation for murder, smuggling and wrecking ‘second only to the infamous wreckers of Cornwall’. Later a recorded wildfowler of note was was William Kemp (Billy the Duck) who came from Boston Lincolnshire in 1821. Many others followed and thousands are forgotten. However the descendents of these people still regard the marsh as ‘their marsh’. Few families on Deeside do not have a wildfowler for an ancestor. There is an oral history which is in use to-day and links them to their past. They have local names for places and plants10. Whenever there has been a threat to its continuance11 they have pulled together to defend the area and will do so in the future12. It’s a strange duality but wildfowlers can be passionate, concerned and dedicated about conservation and birds and have been so for longer than most. They are I guess very much a part of their habitat. What I owe them for guiding me across the marshes and showing me their marsh can never be repaid13. The sights I have seen out there I will never forget.

References, comments and footnotes.

1.  The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (The Chapter called “The Winter Journey”).
2.  For some strange reason there are few recorded lady wildfowlers.
3.  Some of the larger channels are marked with names not generally used by wildfowlers, the exceptions being The Powalla. and Taylor’s Gutter.
4.  The maps are mapped in detail by The Dee Wildfowlers and Wetland Management Club
using GPS. Aerial photographs are regularly taken to record habitat change and to find large items washed in – Two small boats were discovered this way last year.
5.  It is known that there are some poachers who still frequent the marsh. Not on The Dee Wildfowlers and Wetland Management Club areas; which are tightly wardened. Many wildfowlers have heard shots in the night from areas no longer used by the Club.) Within living memory deesiders shot duck on the foreshore at Parkgate and other areas – within yards of the sea wall. Prior to the formation of the Club the communities of Deeside shot off the whole marsh and I have spoken to an older gentlemen who told me that as a child he owed his very existence to his father catching sparrows and hunting on the marsh – times were hard!.).
6.  I recently took some Australian visitors (sheep farmers) to look at the marsh – their first comment was that it was under grazed for wildlife!
7.  From 'Keep Wales Tidy'.
8.  The marsh has been under threat at other times in the past - for example, in the 1950s To enforce the Protection of Birds Act at times and in places where the police could not be expected to be available the Club successfully nominated members for service as special constables in Cheshire and Flintshire.
9.  At Saltney.
10. Typical of this is the Spear Leaved Orache or Fat hen – known locally as ‘Red Leg’.
11. Cheshire Dee Crossing Report of some time ago.
12. Politicians are looking to build 200,000 new homes in the North and increase our production of non carbon producing fuels – What better than a new tidal hydro electric power barrier across the Dee supporting 500 wind generators and the reclamation of the marsh behind it for housing. The wind generators are already appearing on the horizon!
13. If any readers of Richard’s newsletter would like to see the Neston marshes at night I would be pleased to take them out there by one of the drier routes.

Hwfa Jones July 2005

Top of page

August Bird News

Little Egrets have been in the news with yet another record number - 87 coming in to roost at Burton on the 20th. The previous record was 70 in December 2004. You can be forgiven, however, in thinking sometimes there aren't any Little Egrets in the estuary as they are so hard to see, feeding as they do down in the salt marsh creeks.       
Every so often you will see one fly up to move to a new feeding place, but the best views are either when they are flying to or from the roosting site in Burton, or when disturbed by a raptor. On the last day of the month I was on Heswall shore thinking there were five Little Egrets in the marsh, then suddenly there were 21 just across Heswall gutter, I suspect a Peregrine came over and flushed them, but I didn't see it. My previous highest number at Heswall had been three!

Steve Round © Little Egret at Parkgate, 2005.

Early August is the time of year when we get large post breeding flocks of gulls on the estuary, and they are often seen overland after ants. But the flock of 9,000+ mainly Black-headed Gulls over West Kirby on August 2nd must have been one of the biggest ever seen over that part of Wirral. Also at West Kirby were five Common Buzzards soaring over nearby fields, another sign of their increase. Red Kites are another bird of prey increasing in numbers across the country and we were lucky enough to have two this month: one over Gronant on the 10th and another over West Kirby on the 20th. Other raptors included a female Marsh Harrier, an early Hen Harrier and the usual sighting of one or two Peregrines.

500 Manx Shearwaters past Hilbre on the evening of Aug 25th was a great sight, other Hilbre birds included a female Eider, one Great Skua and the usual Common and Sandwich terns. Two Roseate Terns sitting on a buoy were a lovely sight just off Meols near the end of the month.

An unusually easy to see Spotted Crake (relatively easy to see!) spent most of the month at Inner Marsh Farm. A Spoonbill has been seen with the Little Egrets there early morning but disappears in to the marsh during the day. A Wood Sandpiper has also been at IMF. The maximum count of Greenshank at Parkgate reached 31, on the low side compared with the previous few years. Three Kingfishers were spotted on Arrowe Brook, they were known to breed here last year and probably have again this summer.  

What to expect in September

215 Leach's Petrel, 195 Manx Shearwater, 355 Gannet, 5 Pomarine Skua, 54 Arctic Skua, 35 Great Skua and 4+ Sabine's Gull - these are the max daily counts we saw last September during some very strong NW winds. Usually we only get these numbers about once every four or five years, but there is no rule to say we can't get them in consecutive years - so lets hope! Ideal conditions are prolonged NW winds over several days around the middle of the month, about force 5 to 7. Get down anywhere along the north Wirral Shore, Hilbre Island or Point of Ayr to see all these birds, usually best on a high tide. Often the day after an overnight gale is best.

One thing we are overdue for is a good passage of Curlew Sandpipers (see article). For this we need both a good breeding season and an east wind to the north of us, that should bring in a good number of juvenile birds on their way to Africa. Difficult to predict where these will turn up but both Hoylake and Heswall shore have been good in the past. A good Curlew Sandpiper year is usually also a good year for Little Stints although they tend to prefer freshwater - such as Inner Marsh Farm, having said that we always seem to get one or two among Dunlin flocks at Hoylake.

Oystercatchers waiting for the tide to recede on Hoylake Shore, Aug 22nd, 2005,  © Richard Smith.

Shelduck should be back in good numbers, last year we had over 12,000, a record for September, and we often get good numbers of Teal at Inner Marsh Farm. Also expect large numbers of Redshank, Oystercatchers, Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit. This is often a good month for rare waders, over the past two years we have had American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper and Dotterel. We might  reach the milestone of 100 Little Egrets coming in to roost at Burton, that would be quite a sight. Looking back at the 2000 Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report it said "up to six Little Egrets were present on the Dee Marshes", and we thought that an amazingly high number!

Many thanks go to David Esther, Sabena Blackbird, Simon O'Connell, Shaun Williams, Nigel Troup, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Chris Tynan, Colin Schofield, Alan Patterson, Dave Hughes, John Roberts, James Armstrong, Clive Ashton, Bill Potts, Charles Farnell, Steve Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Stephen Ainsworth, Steve Renshaw, Phil Wood, Chris Wilding, Dave Harrington, John Boswell, Peter Poole, Mathew Gardiner, Jane Turner, Allan Conlin, Mike Hart, Dave Wilde, Mark O'Sullivan,  Jean Morgan, Richard Hurst, Phil Woollen, Steve Roberts, Colin Wells, Steve Round, John Rowlands, Iain Douglas, Heather White, Ian Hughes, David Banbury, Eric Sherry, Bob Howarth, Lynne Greenstreet, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens  and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during August.  All sightings are gratefully received.

Top of page

Forthcoming Events
September Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
19th September, 12:56hrs 10.0m. Times BST.
20th September, 13:36hrs 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.

Liverbird Cruises - 1st September, 15th September, see last month's article.

Sunday 11th September, 10:30am, Grebes at Greenfield.
Join the RSPB Warden for a leisurely walk along the sea wall at Greenfield to see great -crested grebes as they fish in the low water channels. Finches and whinchats busily feed on the thistles and willowherbs while wheatears hop along the sea wall in front of us (LW 10:53, 2.8m). No need to book Meet at Greenfield Dock car park, off Dock Rd, Greenfield. For details tel. 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 17th September, 10:00am– 12:00noon, Wader Watch at King’s Gap, Hoylake.
Join the Ranger and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens to see large numbers of waders at close quarters as they gather to roost with the rising tide. Beginners welcome. Please bring warm waterproof clothing and binoculars if you have them. High tide 11.32am.
No need to book. Meet at King's Gap, Hoylake. For further information phone 0151 678 5488.

Monday 19th September, 11.45am, Rails of the River Bank, Heswall.
A fantastic place to see birds of the estuary. Huge flocks of ducks and waders swirl around in the sky while there’s always the chance of seeing a water rail as it’s flushed out of the saltmarsh by the rising tide. Meet at Riverbank Road car park which overlooks the Gayton Sands RSPB Nature Reserve at Lower Heswall. (HW 12:56, 10.0m) No need to book. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 24th September, 6:00pm, Egrets and Wine at Inner Marsh Farm.
Help count little egrets flighting in to roost at the RSPB Inner Marsh Farm reserve. Up to 65 were counted last October – a record number! After this taxing work, finish the evening with cheese and wine. Tickets are £5.00 for members and £6.00 for non-members. For booking and further information phone the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 25th September, 10:00am – 12:00noon, Birds along the Brook.
A birdwatch by the Arrowe brook, where wagtails and herons can often be seen. The adjacent woodlands are home to nuthatches, treecreepers and three species of woodpecker. Join the Ranger on this special event suitable for all the family to enjoy. Meet at the Arrowe Brook car park off Arrowe Brook Road near Champion Spark Plugs. Please bring binoculars if you have them. Sorry, no dogs. Tel: 0151 648 4371/3884 for more details.

Saturday 15th October, 7:00am, Migration Watch and breakfast at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB Reserve.
Passerine migration should be in full swing so why not join the Warden to witness the mass movement of finches, pipits, redwings and fieldfares as they move south as winter approaches. Please wear suitable warm clothing. Costs inclusive of continental breakfast are £5.50 members and £6.50 non-members. Booking essential. For further information phone the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2005', 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.

Top of page

Birding North West is a new monthly magazine for birders in the North West Region. Our aim is to bring you the news of rare and scarce birds in our region while it is still news. We consider that up-to-date news, photographs of regional birds, articles on the occurrence of birds in the North West and other articles relating to our region is what our readership want.