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January 2018 Newsletter

Pallid Harrier on the Dee estuary.
Colour Ring Report.
November Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Past Newsletters.


  Marsh Harriers on the Dee estuary 

 A Marsh Harrier dropping into the Neston Reedbed roost Richard Steel

There has been exceptional numbers of Marsh Harriers on the Dee Estuary over the past couple of years, particularly over the winter. This increase appears to have happened quite suddenly, coinciding with the establishment of a winter roost site in Neston Reed Bed. Quite how many birds are involved is difficult to say as roosts are notoriously difficult to count with birds flying up from the roost as other birds fly in - but the general consensus is that it is in double figures. I've been fairly conservative with my estimates in the graphs below but there have been counts from some as high as 26! Analysing the records it seems pretty obvious there was a big increase last winter (2016-17) when no less than 35 times groups of two or more birds were seen in the air together - compared to 18 times the previous winter, 15 times in 2014-15 and NONE at all in 2013-14 and 2012-13. So my conclusion is that a roost was probably first established in 2014-15 although, interestingly, the only birds reported coming in to roost that winter were at Parkgate. The max roost counts I've used in the graphs was 12 for the winter of 2016/17 and 15 for the current winter (Dec 2017), actual numbers may well be considerably higher.

This graph demonstrates that something dramatic has happened since the beginning of this century. The blue line is a classic annual distribution (the sum of six years data) clearly showing peaks during spring and return migration,  but with NO records in winter. By 2016 birds are ever present and actually peak in the second winter period, presumably when the roost got really established. As you can see below it was only in the winter of 2002/03 when we had the first winter records on the Dee estuary.
The monthly max in this graph is the max count of birds seen in the air together, not totals of birds coming in to roost. 

Where have all these birds come from? As you will see below numbers of Marsh Harriers have shown a huge increase in the UK since the low point of 1971, locally they have started breeding at nearby Frodsham Marsh as well as further north in Lancashire where between four to five pairs breed regularly. But a few birds seen which have been wing-tagged in Norfolk hint at a westward movement from their stronghold on the east coast.   

To put all this into perspective here are some UK and Dee Estuary highlights and lowlights over the past 50 years or so (note that number of breeding females are usually used to quantify numbers as males are often 'paired' with two or three females) :

1966 to 1978 - birds recorded in just five of those years on the Dee estuary, all singles.
1971 - just one pair bred in the UK.
1979 - records become annual on the Dee estuary from 1979 onwards.
1981 to 1984 - as few as 10 birds were wintering over this period in the UK.
1987 - first breeding at Leighton Moss (Lancs).
1995 - at the time a record breaking year for the Dee estuary with 20 records, all between April and September.
1995 - a National Survey finds 156 breeding females in UK, apart from Leighton Moss all on east coast.
2002 - first Dee estuary record of three in air together (June).
2002/03 - first winter records on the Dee estuary, one in December and one in January.
2005 - a National Survey finds c400 breeding females in UK.
2007/08 - first winter on Dee estuary when one to two birds stayed the whole winter with multiple records.
2007 to 2011 - some winter roost sites in East Anglia and SE England hold up to 100 birds.
2010 - first breeding at Frodsham Marsh (just off Mersey estuary), one to three pairs have bred every year since.
2012 - first Dee estuary record of six birds present (August), two of which are juveniles tagged in Norfolk.
2014 - a pair showed signs of breeding at Neston Reedbed, but attempt was abandoned.
2015 - Rare Bird Breeding Panel estimates total of 435 breeding females in the UK.
2016/17 - first winter when it became obvious that there was a sizable wintering roost at Neston Reedbed with at least 12 birds present. 

                              Juvenile Marsh Harrier tagged in Norfolk in 2012  Matt Thomas

References and Further Reading:

1. Latest Sightings - Dee Estuary Birding Website (1998 to 2017).

2. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports 1966 to 2014, CAWOS. 

3. D. Norman, Birds in Cheshire and Wirral  (2004 to 2007 Atlas), CAWOS.

4. BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11.

5. British Birds December 2017 (RBBP 2015 Report).

6. Rare Breeding Birds Panel Reports - see

7. Study Tracks Harrier Migration, Hawk and Owl Trust, August 2012.

                                    Marsh Harrier chasing a snipe off Parkgate Roy Lowry

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Colour Ring Report

Clockwise starting top left: Black-headed Gull TMEN (Charles Farnell), Black-headed Gull 2J75 (Les Hall), Black-tailed Godwit GO-LLflag (Richard Smith), Black-tailed Godwit YGR-RNR (Richard Smith).

One of the benefits of colour ringing birds is to show just how site faithful they are, not just in the breeding season but also both during passage and on their wintering grounds. The pontoons on West Kirby Marine Lake seems to be particularly attractive to colour-ringed Black-headed Gulls and we've had four there over the past few weeks which we've recorded in previous years. A few years ago we appeared to have several colour-ringed Mediterranean Gulls visiting us but they seem to have dried up recently, so it was good to have another one in November with an interesting history.
As expected, the Black-tailed Godwits stopped using their inland roost site at Caldy at the end of October and we know many ended up north of us at Marshside (Southport). But it has also been obvious that there was an influx of birds from south-east England, both the Wash and Thames estuary. Of the 22 birds we recorded during October and November (and for which we've received feedback) exactly half had spent late summer and early autumn on the south-east coast.
We continue to see good numbers of colour ringed Knots and I will be going into more detail about those next month.

Black-headed Gulls

TMEN (black on white ring)
Ringed near Lodz, Poland, on 12th April 2013.
Recorded at West Kirby Marine Lake on September 19th 2017.
This bird was first seen on the pontoon at West Kirby Marine Lake on 6th September 2013 and a further 30 times since then. The only other records for this bird was on the sand at West Kirby in July 2014 and at Hoylake in November 2014.

2J75 (white on blue ring)
Ringed at Bowness in Cumbria on January 1st 2015, and recorded there in August and October 2015.
Since then it has only been recorded on pontoon at West Kirby Marine Lake,  a total of 11 times. First record was on 29th January 2016 and latest record was on 21st November 2017.

Mediterranean Gull

AEKL (white on green ring)
Ringed on Pionierinsel island, Elbe estuary, on May 24th 2008, as a nesting adult.
Recorded on Hoylake Shore on 3rd November 2017.
It was back on the Elbe estuary in spring 2009 but the following winter it flew west, being seen at Seaforth (Mersey) in February.  In 2009 it switched breeding sites and was recorded in Zeeland, Netherlands. It was back at Seaforth the following winter and switched breeding sites again, this time just over the border near Antwerp in 2012. In 2013 it was back in Zeeland, Netherlands, but then disappeared before turning up at Hoylake in November 2017.

Black-tailed Godwits

GO-LLflag - ringed in north Iceland on 18th July 2006, as a chick.

Recorded on West Kirby Shore on 11th August 2017 then eight times in the same month roosting at Caldy Wildfowl Collection. It was on the Ribble estuary (Lytham) at the end of August then at Marshside RSPB, Southport, at the end of October 2017.
After ringing this bird wasn't seen until early 2011 when it turned up at Marshside. The large majority of records are during late summer/autumn and again in early spring - all either at Marshside or Leighton Moss. So we do not know where this bird spends the winter. It has been seen once back in Iceland, presumably breeding, in July 2013.

YGR-RNR - ringed on the Swale estuary, Kent, on 12th October 2015, as an adult.
Recorded at Caldy Wildfowl Collection on 9th October 2017, it then flew to Marshside RSPB, Southport, where it was seen at least twice during the rest of October.
Since it was ringed nearly all records are from the Oare Marshes Nature Reserve, Kent, where it spent it's summer/autumn moult both in 2016 and 2017. It was at Marshside on 5th November 2016 but back in Kent the following month.

Richard Smith.
Colour-rings were also recorded by Steve Hinde, Matt Thomas, Peter Haslem, Derek Bates, Mark Turner, Colin Schofield and Charles Farnell.

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November Bird News

                              Siberian Chiffchaff at Leasowe Lighthouse, November 6th Eddie Williams

There was a record influx of Hawfinches into the country at the end of October and into November - and we had our share with  five at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 8th, with more further inland in Cheshire. A Siberian Chiffchaff was a good find by Leasowe Lighthouse and this was recorded on several days early in the month. Two Snow Buntings were in Leasowe Bay and a Black Redstart was spotted on a couple of days in Hoylake. Somewhat more numerous was a roost of 85,000 Starlings in the reed bed at Gronant.

Out to sea was a rare Little Auk which flew past Hilbre on the 18th, whilst early in the month was a total of 20,000 Common Scoter and 18 Red-throated Diver, a flock of up to 12 Eider stayed all month.

                                  One of several Eiders off Hilbre, November 18th Elliot Montieth

Marsh Harriers will feature in next month's newsletter but the roost at Neston Reedbed is now well established with numbers well into double figures. There appears to be two grey male Hen Harriers and at least two ringtails on the marshes and the highest count of Short-eared Owls was seven. 12 Great White Egrets were between Parkgate and Burton on the 5th.

November 23rd was a late date to have 11 Greenshank at Connah's Quay, where there was also nine Spotted Redshanks, a Common Sandpiper and an Avocet. 

                                                            Hilbre Bird Observatory

337 Brent Geese were off West Kirby at high tide on the 20th, one of the highest counts ever - these lovely geese are obviously increasing again after remaining at around the 250 level for several years. At least 5,000 Pink-footed Geese are in the area. More unexpected were nine Greenland White-fronted Geese at Warren Farm, Talacre, for several days.

                               Short-eared Owls at Denhall Quay, November 24th Jeff Cohen

Many thanks go to Graham Connolly, Mark Turner, Mark Woodhead, David Haigh, Charles Lowe, Mal Sergeant, David Winnard, Steve Hinde, George Knight, Jeremy Bradshaw, David Parker, Matt Thomas, Chris Butterworth, Roy Lowry, Elliot Monieth, Paul Shenton, David Leeming, Alan Hitchmough, Steve Williams, Les Hall, Jeff Cohen, Dave Edwards, Richard Beckett, Derek Bates, Peter Haslem, Jane Turner, Eddie Williams, Allan Conlin, Karen Leeming, Geoff Robinson, Julie Rogers, Linda Platt, Colin Schofield, Charles Farnell, Paul Ralston, Alan Irving, Sheila Ryde, Eric Burrows, Paul Mason, Mike Hart, Ryan Williams, Frank Burns, Andrew Ingham, Chris Challoner, Gail Wilson, John Watson, Bryan Joy, David Peate, Martin Kalaher, John Wright, Ian Fleming, Ian Douglas, Carole Killikelly, Jane Sproston, Mike Turton, Chris Wilding, Barry Brett, Ian Galt, Tony Quinn, the Lighthouse and Wirral Birding Blog, the Dee Estuary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during November. All sightings are gratefully received.

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What to expect in December

What I would like is days on end of sunny frosty days with no wind. Just fabulous to be out and about in such weather and so easy to spot the birds in those conditions. But I expect it will be wet and windy as usual!
There are some nice big tides early in the month, if they are blown in by strong west winds we can get spectacular views of thousands of wildfowl and waders over the marshes, plus Short-eared Owls and Hen and Marsh Harriers.
We've already had good numbers of Brent Geese arriving and the trend over the past couple of winters is for some of them to disperse away from Hilbre - so we can expect them on West Kirby Marine Lake feeding on the wall by the prom, and also near the causeway at Thurstaston, seemingly unconcerned by the dog walkers on the beach. Thurstaston is also the best place to see that lovely duck, the Pintail, probably best about two hours either before or after high tide and they often congregate at the stream coming from Tinkers Dell where they gather for a drink of fresh water; we've had increasing numbers over the past three or four winters with up to 2,000. This is also a good spot to see Teal feeding on the mud when the tide is out. 
Other wildfowl to look out for are Pink-footed Geese on the marshes, Red-breasted Mergansers on West Kirby Marine Lake and Scaup off Hilbre and north Wirral.
Connah's Quay Nature Reserve has become one of the most important wintering sites for Twite in the north-west of England and numbers have reached 200 here in the past couple of years. Look out also for Snow Buntings, never very common here but we can get one or two along north Wirral and Hilbre, with may be a small flock of six or so at Point of Ayr and Gronant.

Given some nice still cold days sea watching can be surprisingly good in January with thousands of Scoters and hundreds of Great Crested Grebes, plus Goldeneye, Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Red-throated Divers. 
Waders will be present in their thousands, particularly Knot which should give some spectacular displays at the roost sites at Hoylake, West Kirby and Point of Ayr. The pontoon on New Brighton Marine Lake is a very reliable spot to see Purple Sandpipers, perhaps reaching 20 or more on a windy day when waves force them off the rocks at high tide.
Keep an eye out for Water Pipits around the Neston Old Quay area - over the past couple of winters we have come to realise there are more there than previously thought with up to four regular, plus one or two at Burton Mere Wetlands. 

                                    Lapwings at Burton Mere Wetlands,November 1st Roy Lowry

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Forthcoming Events

December Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool)

Also see Tides page.

4th December, 11.09hrs (GMT), 9.9m. 
5th December, 11.55hrs (GMT), 9.9m.  
6th December, 12.43hrs (GMT), 9.8m. 

Forthcoming Events

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. 

Sunday 3rd December, Wetland Wonders - Waders and Wildfowl at Burton Mere Wetlands.
Price: 8 per person (RSPB members 6.50)

Booking essential, ring: 0151 353 8478.

The UK's wetlands are a vital winter home for thousands of wading birds and wildfowl, and the Dee Estuary is one of the best places in the country to see them. Join an experienced guide for a morning walk around Burton Mere Wetlands to brush up on your ID of the various waders, ducks, geese and swans that spend the winter here.
There's also a great chance of seeing a range of birds of prey including harriers and peregrines, plus impressive flocks of finches and buntings in the sacrificial crop fields, whilst kingfishers have been very active this autumn.
The walk will stick to the reserve's normal trails which are mostly hard-surfaced, but the outer reaches of the reserve have natural paths and a couple of sets of steps to reach the Inner Marsh Farm hide. Warm up back at the Reception Hide with a hot drink and a chance to see what may have been pushed in from the saltmarsh by the rising tide.

Tuesday 12th December, Dusk Chorus at Burton Mere Wetlands.
Price: 8 per person (RSPB members 6.50)

Booking essential, ring: 0151 353 8478.

We're all familiar with the dawn chorus, but have you ever stopped to listen to the sounds of the countryside as the sun goes down? Honking geese, whistling waders and chattering jackdaws soundtrack peaceful sunsets at Burton Mere Wetlands, with one of the country's largest egret colonies returning from the marsh, and a small starling murmuration over the reedbed.
Join us for a late afternoon guided walk as the temperature drops and the birds start to prepare for another long night, returning as the light fades and many birds return to Burton Mere Wetlands to roost. Finish with a hot drink back in Reception Hide and chance of seeing a barn owl emerging to hunt.
Places are limited, so advanced booking and payment are essential.

Sunday 14th January, Big Farmland Bird Walk at Burton Mere Wetlands.
Price: 10 per person (8 RSPB members)

Booking essential, ring: 0151 353 8478.

Join us on this exclusive early morning, behind-the-scenes walk to get closer to the managed farmland parts of the reserve and hopefully find a range of songbirds alongside large flocks of others you might see on your Big Garden Birdwatch.
Large flocks of small farmland birds - particularly linnets and reed buntings - feed on our bird cover crop, along with flocks of gold and greenfinches and other more familiar garden birds. These in turn attract merlins, sparrowhawks and hen harriers to hunt.
The nearby wet pasture and barley stubble offer excellent natural grazing for the geese and swans spending the winter on the estuary and this walk should provide closer views particularly of the swan flock on the neighbouring Shotwick Fields.
Please note this event is weather-dependent. A cold, hard winter will push more birds to the west coast, so we'll keep our fingers crossed!
Wear wellies and warm, waterproof clothing, and bring binoculars if you have them. Price includes a hot drink in the Reception Hide afterwards. Places are limited so advanced booking and payment are essential.