By Ray Eades
Since returning to Wirral in the spring of 2010 after an absence of 22 years, I have noticed great changes in the bird life of the Dee estuary. The large flocks of finches which used to winter on the salt marshes have decreased drastically, whilst other, larger species, such as Pink-footed Geese and Little Egrets have become regular.
Along the high water line of the Dee estuary, the Rock Pipit seems to have become scarcer. Thus, in almost daily morning walks before the tide along the Parade at Parkgate; I have yet to see a Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus, a bird which used to be regular here in winter. I attribute this to the change of habitat in the upper salt marshes due to accretion of the estuary. The tide now reaches the historic tide line so infrequently that the upper salt marshes seem to be almost fresh water in habitat, the salt being washed out by rain and fresh water draining from the land.
However, the Rock Pipit is still a regular winter visitor to the true salt marshes of the Dee. Most winter months when I walk out to the vantage point off Neston from which to count the waterfowl for the WeBS count, one or two Rock Pipits are flushed, giving their distinctive, short strident call. The Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report details large numbers on high tides at Parkgate, which I have failed to see so far, but is consistent with the wintering population on the extensive Dee Marshes given by Norman (2008).
In contrast, a species which, for me, has long retained its elusive nature is the Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta. The stream which runs into the Dee estuary by Neston Sewage Works (the remnants of Stanney Brook) has long been a favourite Cheshire haunt of this species. It was first found here “near Parkgate” in 1937 by H.G. Alexander, and confirmed soon after by A.W. Boyd. The next Cheshire record was one “in beautiful summer plumage” seen by Boyd “on the shore of a small mere in South Cheshire” on April 3rd 1939 (Boyd 1946). These records were accepted by Witherby et al (1942).
The identification of this group of pipits has long been problematic. Alexander (1974) devoted seven pages to the story of Water Pipits in Britain. As he pointed out, Saunders in the standard work of 1899 only allowed six records in Britain, none in Cheshire. Nicoll (1906) was the first to suggest the then subspecies was regular on the south coast, and observers between the Wars discovered Water Pipits in the watercress beds of lowland England. Watercress beds provided a constant source of water, often calcareous from aquifers, with a secure supply of invertebrate food over winter. Coward (1950) in the 7th Edition updated by Boyd, both esteemed Cheshire ornithologists, flatly stated “Many of the supposed British Water Pipits were Rock Pipits of the Scandinavian race” and found the calls of pipits difficult. Norman (2008) in his definitive and monumental work gave winter records for Neston Old Quay, Heswall shore and Frodsham Marsh.
In 1960 and 1961 the group of ringers led by Rob Cockbain and Graham Thomason, which became the Merseyside Ringing Group, caught both Rock Pipits and Water Pipits at Neston Reed Bed (which was much smaller in area at that time). In these years the late Eric Hardy led MNA members to Neston Old Quay to see Water Pipits, and reported sightings in the local press and MNA reports (Hardy 1962, 1963).
The late Eric Dimelow had an excellent slide taken at Neston Reed Bed of a Water Pipit and a Rock Pipit in the hand together for comparison which he used to show at meetings of the Merseyside Ringing Group as an aid to identification. The striking pale supercilium and white outer tail feathers made an obvious contrast to the darker colours of the Rock Pipit. However, at that time Rock and Water Pipits were ‘lumped’ together as one species, and BTO bird ringing statistics for the period did not show whether a ringed bird was identified as a Rock or a Water Pipit.
Coward and Boyd (1900) in the first county avifauna did not mention the Water Pipit, but described Rock Pipit nesting on Hilbre, whilst Hardy (1941) gave records for Liverpool sewage works, but no new ones for Wirral. Bell (1962) page 40 listed Water Pipit as a rarity, on a par with Richard’s, Tawny and Red-throated Pipits. Yet, Bell (1967) stated “This subspecies is now regarded as an almost regular winter visitor to the Dee Marshes” and gave details of these records.
Crossing the political boundary into Flintshire, Water Pipits were regular winter birds in the 1970s, as at Shotton Pools in the Reserve within the Steelworks, where several were ringed, and I have handled them there myself. However, the habitat matured to wet scrub, and the species seems to have not been recorded in recent years. Another possibility at this industrial site is that the micro climate might have become colder after the 1980 closure of the blast furnaces when primary steel making finished on site, though data for this is lacking.
Water Pipits were reported in the CBR, and regularly on local Web sites at Neston Old Quay and Neston Sewage Works, but I had never seen one. However, I did come across pipits on the stream, with white outer tail feathers. Unfortunately, these birds invariably possessed the pink legs, warmly streaked plumage and weak calls of Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis and I was beginning to lose faith in ever finding this species. But, on 5th January 2012, in the afternoon with a cold NW wind blowing and good visibility, a larger pipit flew along the stream, out onto the marsh and landed on the edge of the creek, calling with a Rock Pipit type call, and showing white outer tail feathers.
I returned on 6th January 2012, in the afternoon in overcast conditions, and got a brief view of the bird on the marsh at 50m range with my Zeiss 10x 40 bins. It showed white outer tail feathers and flew off at an attempted nearer approach, calling stridently, with the shy behaviour noted by Johnson (1970). On 11th January I got another unsatisfactory view, but noted dark legs, white throat and slight streaks to flanks without seeing the rectrices.
Cold weather, and absence from the Dee
intervened, but on 5th February
2012 I walked along the eastern boundary fence of the Sewage Works,
looking in at the birds feeding actively on the clinker beds.
It was a cold day, temperature 2oC, with bright light. Only
20m away on sprinkler bed No 5, which was not being used, a group of
birds were feeding on the surface and internal side of the retaining
wall and on the clinker surface. They were a Meadow Pipit, a
Pied Wagtail and a third pipit, oblivious to my presence.
This larger pipit was strikingly pale, with a white supercilium, white
throat, darker streaking down its flanks, two obvious pale wing bars
formed by tips to its coverts, and white outer rectrices. Its
call was that of a Rock Pipit to my ears, strident and a single
note. One disconcerting feature was its leg colour, a deep
dark red wine colour, not the blackish which I had expected.
However, on looking in books at home, that colour tone was exactly
shown in Jonsson (1992) page 366. I have no doubt that this
bird was a Water Pipit, and it is my belief that the previous records
were also Water Pipits, though the evidence is weaker.
Similarly, in 2013 on 23rd January in cold weather I again checked the Sewage Works from outside the fence. No 5 bed was again not working, and No 4 sprinkler was moving at a reduced speed. This might have accounted for the presence of a Meadow Pipit, a Pied Wagtail and once again, a Water Pipit feeding on the clinker surface. They allowed the sprinkler arm to pass over their head whilst remaining between the flows of water. The Water Pipit made a fine sight, and the tips of its two outer tail feathers were of the purest white, so much so, that I wondered if they were actually frozen, but close examination showed this colour to be purely the feathering of the pipit.
It is interesting to speculate on the history of this species on the Dee. It is my belief that one or two Water Pipits have wintered here for many years, possibly since the opening of the sewage works in 1904 (Place 1996) and the growth of the early salt marsh. The attraction must surely be the mild microclimate, with a fresh water stream which appears never to freeze, even in the coldest winter, and the availability of food on the sewage beds during severe weather. The birds presumably fly here, in a north-west direction, from some Alpine haunt, and the security of some invertebrate food supply must outweigh the rigours of this migration (Lack 1986).
A further mystery might be the role of the small mollusc Assiminea grayana, which Bourgogne (1994) described as the main food of Scandinavian Rock Pipits in salt marshes in The Netherlands. This mollusc was unknown on the Dee estuary, and indeed the west coast until recently despite the searches by generations of local fieldworkers (Kerney 1999). However, in 2006 Assiminea grayana was reported on the Dee estuary (Willing 2006 et seq.) part of a massive range expansion which has taken this mollusc to Morecambe Bay (Willing 2012). My searches for this small snail have not yet been successful, but our knowledge of the ecology of these pipits is still imperfect.
A recent estimate (Musgrove et al. 2013) gives a GB/UK figure of only 190 Water Pipits, so we are fortunate to have them. Quite possibly, Scandinavian Rock Pipits are also here, together with Grey and Pied Wagtails. Long may they grace us with their presence and challenge our identification skills.
Alexander H.G. 1974 Seventy Years of Birdwatching, Poyser Berkhamstead.
Bell H.T. 1962 The Birds of Cheshire, Sherratt Altrincham.
Bell H.T. A Supplement to the Birds of Cheshire.
Boyd A.W. 1946 Diary of a Country Cheshire Man, Collins London.
Bourgonje A. 1994 Overwinterende Oeverpiepers Anthus spinoletta littoralis in het Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe Limosa 67:117-118.
Brown and Grice 2005 Birds in England, Poyser London.
Coward T.A. 1920 The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, seventh edition 1950, Warne London.
Coward T.A. and Oldham C. 1900 The Birds of Cheshire, Sherratt and Hughes Manchester.
Hardy E. 1941 The Birds of the Liverpool Area, Buncle Arbroath.
Hardy E. 1963 et seq. North Western Bird Report, MNA Liverpool.
Johnson I.G. 1970 The Water Pipit as a winter visitor to the British Isles, Bird Study 17 297- 319.
Jonsson L. 1992 Birds of Europe, Middle East and North Africa, Helm London.
Kerney M. Atlas of the Land and Freshwater Molluscs of Britain and Ireland, Harley Books Colchester.
Lack P. 1986 The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland, Poyser Calton.
Musgrove A. et al. Population Estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom, British Birds 106: p 95.
Nicoll M.J. 1906 Water Pipits in Kent and Sussex, Zoologist p467.
Norman D. 2008 Birds in Cheshire and Wirral – a breeding and wintering atlas, Liverpool University Press on behalf of CAWOS.
Place G.W. 1996 Neston 1840-1940, Burton South Wirral Local History Society Neston.
Willing M.J. Mollusc Reports, British Wildlife 19:60-61,23:285,24:135.
Witherby et al. 1942 Handbook of British Birds Vol 1.
The Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens (see the Wardens Page) have produced a leaflet promoting the Waders of Wirral and also the work of the Wardens without which the High Tide roost at West Kirby would probably be just a distant memory. We are always on the look out for new Wardens so please help if you can. Full details are in the leaflet.
To download the leaflet please click on the links below, it is in two parts (PDF format).
Point of Ayr, on the North Wales coast at Talacre, is a great place to watch a variety of birds as they come in to roost at high tide, but unfortunately the site is extremely vulnerable to human disturbance. The RSPB is looking for extra volunteers to help warden this invaluable roost site, and protect the birds throughout the cold winter months.
Shifts are run most weekends and typically last between 3-4 hours, depending on the height of the tide.
If you would like to help in any way please contact the RSPB on 0151 353 8478 or Mobile 07860169452 . Not only are you helping to save the planet, but it’s also great birdwatching too!
19th September, 11.45hrs (BST), 9.5m.
20th September, 12.24hrs (BST), 9.6m.
21st September, 13.02hrs (BST), 9.5m.
Organised by the Wirral
Ranger Service , Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the
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 2013 Events Diary.