Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st September 2007
Rare Shearwaters off the Dee Estuary.
August Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Rare Shearwaters off the Dee Estuary

Richard Smith

Six species of shearwater are on the British List; the most numerous by far is the Manx Shearwater (see the June 2007 Newsletter). All six species have been recorded within sight of the Dee Estuary and/or the north Wirral Coast and I describe the occurrence of the five rarer shearwaters below. I also include a possible sighting of a Yelkouan Shearwater; a species which is not yet on the British List. The data for the sightings mainly comes from Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports and other historical publications for the same area - see References at the end. I have also used Clwyd Bird Reports for records from Point of Ayr and Gronant but the number of printed reports I have for this area is very limited. Due to lack of Clwyd Bird Reports in particular, and the possibility that some Cheshire and Wirral records may have been overlooked it is likely that the list of records described below is incomplete, for which I apologise.

Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea
Five accepted records, one record rejected by BBRC, one record not submitted to BBRC.

There are two subspecies of this large shearwater, the Mediterranean subspecies C. d. diomedea, and the Atlantic subspecies C. d. borealis; there is no indication from the reports which subspecies have been observed here. They breed mainly on remote islands, the Mediterranean subspecies throughout the Mediterranean and the Atlantic subspecies on islands around the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands. Both subspecies seem to be doing well with a total population estimated to be around 350,000. Most birds overwinter off South Africa, many non-breeders spend the summer in the North Atlantic although mostly to the south of the British Isles.

One which flew past Meols and Hilbre (assumed to be the same bird) on Aug 30th 1980 was the first accepted record for Cheshire and Wirral. Singles were also recorded on Sep 14th 1986 (Hilbre), Jul 15th 1991 (Red Rocks), Sep 4th 1992 (Hilbre) and Jun 21st 1999 (Gronant). One reported from Hilbre on April 13th 1975 was rejected by BBRC and one the following year on May 16th was not submitted.

Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis
Two records, both accepted.

This large shearwater breeds in the South Atlantic on the islands of Tristan da Cunha and nearby Gough Island. The number of breeding pairs is at least six million. The birds spend the northern summer in the North Atlantic with many following a circular route, flying up the eastern seaboard of America, moving past Greenland and eastwards towards Europe before returning south. This species moves further north than Cory’s Shearwater and stays further offshore than the Sooty Shearwater. Rarely seen from the coast which is why, despite large numbers in the North Atlantic in the summer, very few have been recorded in Liverpool Bay. Adults return to breed during August so birds observed off European coasts in September and October are likely to be non-breeders.

One observed off Hilbre on Oct 31st 1971 was the first Cheshire and Wirral record. The only other record was also one seen from Hilbre, on Sep 12th 1980. The lateness of these dates suggests that these were both non-breeding birds. We are somewhat overdue for another one!
Right - Great Shearwater, © Bryan Thomas

Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus
Forty records involving sixty five birds between 1964 and 2006, several additional records not submitted.

A large shearwater which breeds in the southern oceans on the Falkland Islands and islands off southern Chile, Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand has the really large colonies with a total of c5 million pairs and these spend the northern summer in the north Pacific Ocean. It is probable that all the Falkland birds (up to 20,000 pairs) and some of the Chilean birds (total of several hundred thousand pairs) spend their 'winter' (our summer) in the North Atlantic where they mainly follow a clockwise course moving north along the western side of the Atlantic from March to May, moving eastwards in June and July and travel southwards past the British Isles in September and October. 

Sooty Shearwater,
© Steve Fletcher.

They move closer in to the coast than the other large shearwaters such as Cory’s and Great and are therefore our second commonest shearwater after the Manx. Even so, they are scarce in the Irish Sea with typically only one or two a year being seen off the Dee Estuary/ north Wirral coast. The histogram above shows the sighting dates for Sooty Shearwaters from 1964 to 2006. There is only one spring record which was on May 28th 2006 off Leasowe Gunsite. It is probable that the bulk of the sightings are of adult birds on their way south with the stragglers in late October and November being non-breeding birds.

Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus
Eight records between 1964 and 2006, all accepted.

The Balearic Shearwater was long regarded as a sub-species of Manx Shearwater. In 1990 it was ‘split’ and became a sub-species of the Mediterranean Shearwater. In 2002 it was split again, given the exalted status of species and became the Balearic Shearwater. As it name suggests the Balearic Shearwater nests on the Balearic Islands where it is under severe threat from development and the presence of cats and rats. The number of breeding pairs is believed to be in the region of 1,500 to 2,500 and decreasing. Many of these birds spend the winter in the Mediterranean but a proportion exit the ‘Med’ in late summer and head north towards the British Isles.

Left, Balearic Shearwater, © Tom Brereton.

Reports are as follows: One on Sep 7th 1974 off Meols; one Aug 24th 1989 off Red Rocks; three July 31st 1993 off Red Rocks; one Sep 8th 1997 off Dove Point, Meols; one Aug 22nd 1998 off Hilbre; one at Point of Ayr on Sep 30th 1999; singles on Oct 4th and 6th 2003 off Hoylake. Although none were sighted here in 2006 there was a big influx in to the Irish Sea with 14 past Anglesey on Aug 20th and 46 off New Quay on Sep 18th. There was some discussion about these unusually high numbers with some blaming global warming for a shortage of food which meant birds had to travel further north than usual, others reckoned that most of the birds appeared to be juveniles and thus it would seem this species may well have had a good breeding season.

Yelkouan Shearwater Puffinus yelkouan
One possible record.

Like the Balearic Shearwater this species breeds in the Mediterranean but is more widespread across the central and eastern ‘Med’, the number of breeding pairs is difficult to estimate but is at least 15,000 and may be as high as 50,000. The Yelkouan Shearwater was given species status when it was split from the Balearic Shearwater in 2002. It is undoubtedly overlooked in this country as it is difficult to distinguish from the Manx Shearwater.

One possible record, I quote from the 2000 Hilbre Bird Observatory Report: “A single bird moved west during a heavy passage of Manx Shearwaters on 6th June. The bird showed characteristics which the observer felt more closely fit eastern birds (Levantine) rather than Balearic”. Levantine is an alternative name to Yelkouan.

Macaronesian Shearwater Puffinus baroli (formerly known as Little Shearwater, also now known as North Atlantic Little Shearwater).
Two inland Cheshire records accepted by BBRC. Four records rejected. One record initially accepted then withdrawn. One bird accepted for Lancashire which was also seen from Wirral, but not submitted to Cheshire & Wirral.

The status of the Macaronesian Shearwater as a species seems to be somewhat confused and disputed, as does its relationship with its close relative the Audubon’s Shearwater. However, it is accepted as a separate species by the BOU. There are two sub-species, P. b. baroli which breeds in Madeira and the Canary Islands and P. b. boydi which breed in the Cape Verde Islands. There is very little in the literature about population size but there appears to be a total of a few thousand pairs. This species tends to spend most of the time in tropical and sub-tropical waters; there have been a total of only 57 records for the United Kingdom between 1958 and 2005.

Rather bizarrely for a bird which spends most of it’s time out on the ocean the only accepted records for Cheshire and Wirral are both inland. One was found moribund on May 10th 1958 at Stockport and a sick individual was present at Rostherne Mere from Jun 29th to Jul 3rd 1977 when it was picked up and later died.

Four records have been rejected with dates as follows: one on Oct 20th 1971 off Meols; one on Sep 1st 1976; one on Sep 21st 1985; one on Sep 6th 2000, the latter three all Hilbre records. These birds were seen by experienced and reliable observers so it is difficult to believe that these were not Macaronesian Shearwater except for the possibility that they were some other small shearwater, such as Audubon’s; so that may be is where the problem lies. Another Hilbre record was of one on Sep 2nd 1984 which was accepted by BBRC but subsequently withdrawn by the observer after reading an article on Shearwaters in British Birds; another example of how difficult it is to precisely identify this species.

What was undoubtedly a Macaronesian Shearwater was seen flying over the River Mersey several times between Sep 1st and 5th 1992. Apparently it was well seen from New Brighton on the 4th but was never submitted to BBRC as a Cheshire and Wirral bird. The following day it was well observed from the Liverpool side and subsequently accepted by BBRC for Lancashire.

1. British Ornithologist's Union Species list,
2. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports 1964 to 2005.
3. Lancashire Bird Report 1992.
4. Clwyd Bird Reports, 1989, 1991 & 1992, 1993 to 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004.
5. Hedley Bell, The Birds of Cheshire, 1962 (and 1967 supplement).
6. Allan Conlin and Steve Williams, Rare Birds in Cheshire & Wirral, CAW Birding, 2004.
7. Sightings communicated directly to me.
8. Wikipedia (The online Encyclopedia -, a surprisingly rich source of information for birds.
9. Cramp & Simmons, Birds of the Western Palearctic, 1977, (and updated version on CD/DVD).
10. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, (the website gives the status, including population details, for each species).
11.BirdLife International Website,

Richard Smith.

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August Bird News

August was another good month for skuas with plenty of 'Arctics' around but the star bird must be the Pomarine Skua first seen on the 13th and still present at the end of the month. It spent most of the time on the edge of the sand banks along North Wirral so views were usually a bit distant. What was probably a second bird was off Point of Ayr on 29th.

Somewhat distant views of the Pomarine Skua on Hoylake Shore, Jane Turner  ©.

It was also a good month for seeing Manx Shearwaters with large numbers going past, particularly 15th to 17th. I was lucky enough to be seawatching on all three days and couldn't believe the numbers I was seeing, particularly on the 17th. Max count that day was 680 past Hoylake, but that was only a partial count over 45 minutes. I'm certain if there had been a count over the whole high tide period we would easily have broken the current max daily count for Wirral/Hilbre which is 720 on Jun 23rd 2000, and we would probably be approaching the 2,000 mark in total. But we did get a record count of Storm Petrels on the 16th with 42 recorded off Hilbre. This species has certainly increased off our coasts in recent years, probably just due to the vagaries of the weather.  Other seabirds included the usual terns with max count of Sandwich Terns 1,200 on West Kirby Shore and Common Terns with 450 at Point of Ayr. The final count of successfully fledged Little Terns at Gronant this year was 100, a good deal higher than most of us were expecting given the horrible weather.

Little Tern at Gronant, Aug 17th, Richard Steel  ©.

Little Egrets seemed to be everywhere this month including Hilbre and along North Wirral. They reached 204 coming in to roost at Burton on the 12th, a record high number for the estuary. I don't have figures for this year but in 2006 ten pairs bred at Burton producing 40 fledged young, a very good success rate. The two Spoonbill present for much of July were observed several times up until the 18th, they were often difficult to see way out on Burton Marsh.

There have been large numbers of Shelduck on the estuary all summer which probably means they are moulting here now as well as on the nearby Mersey. Max count which I know of was 8,000 off Heswall on the 18th, easily the highest ever August count for that site. Black-tailed Godwits numbers remained high with max count at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB of 2,300 on the 8th and on Oakenholt Marsh RSPB there were 3,000 on the 28th. The five colour ringed birds which people reported in July were all adults and were ringed as follows: GY-OW was ringed on the Wash in 2004; OO-WR was ringed in Iceland in 2005; OL-LGflag was ringed on the Tagus Estuary in Portugal in 2006; YG-WG was ringed in western France in 2001; LL-OL was ringed in Iceland in 2000. Ringing data of these and other birds indicates that many Black-tailed Godwits appear to use Inner Marsh Farm RSPB and the Dee Estuary as their first port of call after returning from Iceland, but many then move on south and east within a few days.

Steve Round ©, Green Sandpiper at Inner Marsh Farm Jul 30th.

Many people are often surprised that there are such good numbers of waders around in August, max numbers were: 2610 Curlew and 4910 Redshank at Heswall; 10,000 Oystercatcher on West Kirby Shore; 500 Turnstone on Hilbre; 1,300 Dunlin, 750 Ringed Plover and 230 Sanderling on Hoylake Shore. There have also been a few passage waders around with 25 Greenshank at Parkgate and 22 at Connah's Quay; 5 Little Stint on West Kirby Shore; 2 Curlew Sandpiper at Red Rocks; plus one or two Green Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank.

Marsh Harriers have been seen all month, at least two birds were involved and probably more. One or two Hobbys have also been observed busily hunting hirundines.

What to expect in September

There's always plenty going on in September with returning waders and wildfowl, scarce passage waders, gale blown seabirds and southerly migration. But the bird most birders look forward to seeing more than any other is the Leach's Petrel. Normally we only see them here during prolonged north-west gales when they get blown in  through the North Channel of the Irish Sea and many end up in the mouth of the River Mersey, from there they make their way along the North Wirral coast, then past Hilbre and Point of Ayr. Last year was unusual, to say the least! We didn't see a single Leach's Petrel in September due to light winds so we all thought it was going to be a bad year for this species, then, totally unexpectedly, after prolonged south-west winds in December we had hundreds blown in to the Irish Sea from their wintering grounds, including c100 past here (see Leach's Petrel Wreck and Species Spotlight - Leach's Petrel).
If we do get those NW gales we can also expect to see all four species of skua and Sabine's Gull, as well as hundreds of Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwakes, Gannets and maybe some rarer Shearwaters as described in the above article.
Large numbers of waders, particularly Redshank, Oystercatcher and Curlew, will be returning to the estuary together with some scarcer and rare passage waders such as Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper and Little Stint.
On the marshes there should be Marsh Harriers still passing through and we will get our first Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls back for the coming winter. September is also a good month to spot a Spotted Crake at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB.

Many thanks go to Colin Schofield, Bryan Joy, James Armstrong, Richard Steel, John Ferguson, Paul Vautrinot, Lynne Greenstreet, Dave Edwards, Steve Oakes, David Esther, Steve Edwards, Andrew Wallbank, Stuart Taylor, Brian Dyke, David and Karen Leeming, Ian Emmitt, Tanny Robinson, David Haigh, David Harrington, Phil Woollen, Allan Conlin, Glyn Roberts, Dave Wild, Leon Castell, Steve Round, James Smith, Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Charles Farnell, Paul Shenton, Gilbert Bolton, Geoff Robinson, John Tubb, Iain Douglas, Tom Morton, Andrew Duncalf, Jason Stannage, Damian Waters, Stephen Ainsworth, Mark O'Sullivan, Colin Jones, John Kirkland, Mark Turner, Paul Roberts, Pete Button, David Hinde and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during August.  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events

September Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
27th September, 12.20hrs (BST), 9.8m.
28th September, 12.59hrs (BST), 9.9m.
29th September, 13.40hrs (BST), 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.

Parkgate High Tides.
Note that there are no official RSPB High Tide Birdwatches at Parkgate this autumn. Nevertheless there are some high spring tides forecast although, as always, the actual height is very dependent on the weather. A strong SW to NW wind with low atmospheric pressure should be good for a big tide which covers the marsh. The highest predicted tides in September and October are as follows:
27th September, 12.20hrs (BST), 9.8m.
28th September, 12.59hrs (BST), 9.9m.
29th September, 13.40hrs (BST), 9.9m.
26th October, 11.52hrs (BST), 9.8m.
27th October, 12.35hrs (BST), 10.0m.
28th October, 12.18hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
I would advise arriving at Parkgate at least an hour before high tide. If the weather on the day doesn't appear to be good for a big tide then I would highly recommend the car park at Riverbank Road, Heswall, where excellent views over the marsh can be had and where the tide covers the marsh well before it is appears at Parkgate. If a really big tide is expected then Neston and Burton can also be very good to see both the tide and birds.

Saturday 1st September, 11am.
High Tide at Point of Ayr RSPB Dee Estuary Nature Reserve.
The spit and saltmarsh at the Point of Ayr are extremely important habitats for birds. They come alive at high tide with waders coming in to roost and ducks drift in on the tide to feed on the marsh. Join the RSPB Warden to watch the action as it unfolds (HW 14:23, 9.4m). No need to book. Meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre at 11.30 am. For further information contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 8th September at 6 pm.
Evening Walk to Burton Point. RSPB Dee Estuary Nature Reserve.
Join the RSPB Wardens on a walk around this new part of the reserve, which is not open to visitors at present. There is a chance of seeing Hobby, Barn Owl and Little Egret and then learn about how we manage the reserve over tea and biscuits. Booking essential. Costs are £3.50 for members and £4.50 for non-members. For details and to book phone the RSPB on 0151 336 7681. Please book early to avoid disappointment, as places are limited.

Sunday 30th September, 10.30am to noon.
A Stroll around Heswall Dales.
Join the Ranger for a gentle walk around Heswall Dales Local Nature Reserve looking for signs of autumn and enjoy some spectacular views over the Dee Estuary from this heathland site. Suitable clothing and footwear are essential.. No need to book. Meet at Dale Farm entrance, Oldfield Road (off Telegraph Road and Quarry Road), Heswall (SJ 258825). Sorry no dogs. For info ring 0151 677 7594.

Saturday 13th October, 11.00am
High tide Birdwatch at Flint Castle, Flight of the Godwits.
Join the wardens from the local RSPB reserve to watch the birds of the estuary as they fly to their roosting areas. Pintail and Black tailed Godwits will be the main attractions but there should be plenty of other birds to see too. (HW 13.20 pm. 9.2 m). Meet at Flint Castle car park next to the lifeboat station at 11 am.

Saturday 27th October 2007, 10:00am - 3:00pm.
Open Day at the Connah's Quay Reserve. Non-members will be met at the entrance by a member and escorted in to the reserve.
This members only reserve will be open to everyone for the day and visitors will be able to make use of the four hides and chat to the members about the reserve. Tea and coffee available (HW 12:42hrs, 10.0m.).
The West hide over looks the adjacent RSPB reserve at Oakenholt Marsh. At hide tide the birdwatching from here is spectacular as the wader flocks gather to roost on the marsh. Cambrian Photography will have a display in the Field Studies Centre.

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2007', 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.

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