Skua Newsletter Skua

Map of the Estuary
Tide Table
English Shore
Welsh Shore
North Wirral Shore
Latest Sightings
Bird Counts

Nearby Sites

Birdwatching Walks
When to go



1st October 2002
Brent Geese.
Voluntary Wardens.
John Gittins Plaque.

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



Species Spotlight

Brent Geese in the mouth of the Dee 2000/2001

by Chris Butterworth
Flocks of Brent Geese feeding on the tideline sitting in rafts just offshore, or flighting into roost are one of the many great birdwatching sights, and sounds, of a British winter. These tiny, dark geese, scarcely bigger than a Mallard, are a common sight for anyone who goes to the east or south coast between October and March, but almost need to be "twitched" in the west, as the only regular sites are around Hilbre, the Inland Sea, Anglesey and Freckleton, Lancs. The winter of 2000/2001 saw a dramatic rise in the numbers of Brent Geese recorded from the mouth of the Dee. Normally numbers hover around 5 - 10 birds, but this winter's flock peaked, and remained at 39, a 520% rise on the average figures. In anyone's book this is phenomenal, but what was the cause of it? No scientific analysis can be produced from just one winter's figures but we can speculate on the possible reason why.

The majority of birds in Britain are Dark-bellied Brents, which are found wintering mainly between the Humber estuary and the Gower peninsula in South Wales (but not in most of the West Country and the Severn Estuary.) The only regular haunt of Pale-bellied birds in England is Lindisfarne, in the North-east, which holds between 50% and 100% of the Spitzbergen/Franz Joseph Land population. Traditionally, the only birds to winter on the coasts of the Irish Sea were pale-bellied eastern Canadian/ Greenland breeders and were concentrated in a few sites on the east coast of Ireland, mainly Strangford Lough and North Bull, Dublin, and it is from this population that our birds have probably come.

Tom Shevlin

Pale-bellied and dark bellied Brent geese feeding together (photo not taken on the Dee). 

There have always been records of small numbers of birds in the area around the mouth of the Dee, but nothing on the scale of the winter of 2000/2001. In the Hilbre book (ed. Craggs, J.D. 1982) around 300 birds (in total) are recorded as occurring in the 20 years between 1957 and 1977, the vast majority being dark-bellied, with about 10% pale-bellied amongst them. There has been a total reversal in taxonomic flock composition since then, with pale-bellied birds now dominating and 1-5 dark-bellied occurring spasmodically throughout the winter. (The same change in flock composition appears to have occurred at Lindisfarne in the early years of the. 20th. C. but information about this seems to be mainly anecdotal or apocryphal.)

Brent Geese breed in a continuous band around the Arctic in 3 separate populations, Dark-bellied Brent, Branta b. bernicla mainly on the Tamyr Peninsula, West-Central Siberia, Black Brent, B. b. nigricans from the Tamyr to the Perry River region of Canada and Pale-bellied Brent, B. b. hrota through to Spitzbergen and Franz Joseph Land. Like all High Arctic species of bird they move south for the winter, and it is possible in most winters to see all three taxa in Britain. At present all three are regarded as Brent Goose, B. bernicla, in Britain, but the Dutch, and some British birdwatchers, regard them as being three separate species. The B.O.U. is looking into the problem, but reports of limited hybridisation and a paucity of distributional field work on the breeding grounds in Siberia is hampering a final decision.

Brent Geese were, at one time, thought to feed exclusively on the rhizomes of a species of Eel-grass, Zostera marina and when these were exhausted they moved onto the more delicate green marine algae such as Ulva spp. and Enteromorpha spp., with limited grazing occurring on saltmarshes. In the 1930's "wasting disease" decimated the population of Z. marina which was blamed for the subsequent collapse in goose numbers. Later evidence suggests that Brent Geese feed on another species of Eel-grass Z. noltii, which was not affected, and that hunting pressure, both on their breeding and wintering grounds, was the primary factor in the decline. Since the low point in the 1940's and 1950's numbers have dramatically increased. This is partly through protection of their breeding and wintering areas, and partly through the birds change in foraging behaviour, feeding more on saltmarsh and learning to exploit winter cereal crops.

The number of birds, wintering in Britain and Ireland has risen from 16,500 in 1955/57 to 203,000 in 1983, the year of the Winter Atlas (ed. Lack, P. 1986), the last time the entire Eire population was surveyed in conjunction with the U.K. At present numbers are declining, with a maximum of 102,923 recorded in the winter of 1998/1999.

Dark-bellied Brents appear to be the worst affected, probably due to a succession of poor breeding seasons that may be linked to the results of over-exploitative oil exploration and extraction in western Siberia. Both populations of Pale-bellied Brent seem to be holding steady or even increasing. Surprisingly, the Siberian population of Black Brent has become annual in single figures in Britain during the last decade or two, and flocks of up to 10 birds are now regularly recorded each winter from either Denmark or Holland even though this population is considered to be decreasing.

Although the events of 2000/2001 may have been seen as a "one off" numbers recorded in the first part of the winter of 2001/2002 seem to indicate that the increase may be real as up to 27 birds were present compared to 8 during the same period last winter (ed. up to 41 birds were present during February 2002).

Further reading:- 
Hilbre -The Cheshire Island, Craggs, J.D. ( ed. ), L.U.P., Liverpool, 1982.
Atlas of Wintering Birds, Lack. P. ( ed. ), Poyser, Calton, 1986.
Wildfowl, Madge, S., Burn, H., Christopher Helm, Bromley, 1988.
Wetland + Estuary Bird Survey Reports, 1982-83 to date.
Report on Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland, British Birds, 1971 to date 
European News, British Birds, 1977 to date.
Estuary birds - before the counting began, Tubbs, C.R., in British Wildlife 7 : 4: 226 - 235.
Changing perceptions of the Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Vickery, J., Sutherland, W.J. in British Wildlife 7: 6 : 341347.

This article was first published in the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens Report 2001 (this is a comprehensive, and very readable, report on the wildlife of West Kirby Shore which includes Red Rocks, West Kirby Marine Lake, Little Eye as well as the shore itself). For information about joining the wardens or obtaining the report ring the Coastal Ranger on 0151 678 5488.


Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens



Why not join us?

As little as three hours a month on the beach at West Kirby would be a great help, more would be even better. You don't have to be an expert birdwatcher - our most important task is to prevent disturbance to the birds. Mainly this means just chatting to people, explaining how the shore is a major roost for the birds and why they shouldn't be disturbed. You will be in a team of three people and will get as much training as you want. There is some great birdwatching to be had and you will meet some very knowledgeable birders who will be only too pleased to pass on some of their expertise.

If you are interested either me or ring the Coastal Ranger on 0151-678 5488.

There is lot more information about the DEVW on the wardens page on this web site. 



John Gittins Plaque



On 1st September a plaque was unveiled in memory of John Gittins who died last December. For those wishing to see the plaque it is located on the east wall of the Wirral Borough Council sailing school building at the north end of West Kirby Marine lake, overlooking the road. The main plaque has the inscription "Renowned 'Birdman' and humorist, John Charles Gittins 1928-2001, Donated by  his friends everywhere". 

Below it is a smaller plaque with the inscription "Well known and popular person in West Kirby and Hoylake. Founder member and director of Hilbre Bird Observatory and ornithological expert. Friend of students and children making learning fun. Expedition leader in Greenland, Iceland and Foula for Brathay. Liverpool University prize winner and part time coastguard. Life member of Liverpool Ornithologists and Wirral Bird Club."

That about says it all! The one thing I would add is that he was also a Dee Estuary Voluntary Warden at West Kirby for many years where he, of course, made many friends. We still remember him with great affection.



Bird Counts


Wetland Bird Survey Count for Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Brian Grey), 8th September.
4 Little Grebe, 81Cormorant, 12 Little Egret, 264 Canada Goose, 208 Shelduck, 320 Teal, 3300 Oystercatcher, 190 Lapwing, 250 Dunlin, 2000 Black-tailed Godwit, 14 Spotted Redshank, 1830 Redshank, 11 Greenshank, 1 Turnstone, 1 Curlew Sandpiper.

Hilbre Island, count on 14th September kindly provided by Steve Williams of the Hilbre Bird Observatory.
35 Willow Warblers
, 2 Chiffchaffs, 30 Wheatears, 2 Whinchat, 2 Redstart, 2 Garden Warbler, 1 Blackcap, 1 Sedge Warbler, 20 Whitethroat, 1 Pied Flycatcher, 1 Grasshopper Warbler, 500 Meadow Pipits, 20 White Wagtails, 12 Grey Wagtails, 100 Swallows.


September Bird News


I said we needed gales - and what did we get? The most windless September most of us can remember! So no Leach's Petrel and only a few Skuas. However, the gentle east and south winds meant that it was a very good month for visible migration of land birds. Although we didn't get any particularly large 'falls' there were good numbers all month, highlights include - 17 Yellow Wagtails (Hoylake), 500 Meadow Pipit, 30 Wheatear, 2 Redstart, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, 21 Grey Wagtail (all Hilbre), 30 Wheatear (Leasowe) and 15 Chiffchaff (Caldy Hill). A Barred Warbler was an unexpected but welcome visitor to the Point of Ayr sand dunes. 

The run of good birds at Inner Marsh Farm continued with the appearance of a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper for a couple of days mid-month. This vagrant is in fact the 'commonest' of the American waders with a few usually turning up every year in the north-west England/ North Wales region. By far the most obvious wader in the mouth of the estuary was the Oystercatcher with a maximum count of 8,000 at West Kirby. Further in to the estuary Black-tailed Godwits have already built up to  a very impressive 3,000 off Flint. Fifty five Greenshank made a splendid sight at Parkgate and 14 Spotted Redshank was a good number for Connah's Quay. Curlew Sandpipers trickled through all month with three or four at Heswall and Inner Marsh Farm. Low tide off Leasowe is always worth a visit and I was lucky enough to see a passage of 360 Sanderling along with many Grey Plover still in summer plumage.

Duck numbers increased during the month - the most numerous being Shelduck off Thurstaston (best seen at low tide) with a maximum of 7,560. Pintail reached 4,800 off Flint by the end of the month and 2,500 Teal were counted both off Flint and at Inner Marsh Farm

There have been a few Ospreys passing through on their way to Africa, one just off Hilbre caught a fish then went on to a sand bank to eat it - in full view of two lucky birders! The high tide birdwatchers at Heswall had a very good view of a Marsh Harrier hunting over the marsh, Peregrines are seen here daily usually sitting on one of the posts out on the marsh.

What to expect in October

Sea watching can be excellent given some strong westerly winds. It's not too late to see a few Leach's Petrel and many Skuas of all four species should be passing by out to sea. On a good day we can get hundreds of Guillemots and Common Scoter and the last two years have brought Velvet Scoters. Last year we also had an excellent selection of rare gulls.

In contrast to sea-watching the best conditions to see migrating land birds is a light SE wind with low cloud and cool temperature. October is the peak time for this migration but you really need to get out by dawn as the majority of birds are seen in the first two hours after sunrise. A quick look at the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens Report 2001 reveals these peak daily (or hourly) counts over West Kirby Shore last October - 264 Skylark, 100 per hour Meadow Pipit, 2,500 per hour Fieldfare, 500 Redwing, 50 Siskin, 94 Linnet and 34 Reed Bunting. This is just a small selection, birds tend to hug the coastline so this is where to go.  

We are a bit in between as far as waders are concerned - between the September peak of Icelandic and local breeders (such as Redshank and Curlew) and the mid winter peak of arctic breeders such as Knot and Dunlin. But the autumn passage of Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint often continues well into October and both Greenshank and Spotted Redshank should still be about.

Duck numbers will increase dramatically, especially Shelduck best seen off the top of the cliff at Thurstaston at low tide or two hours before high tide at Heswall. The Dee Estuary is one of the top three locations in the country for this species - expect up to 12,000. Pintail often peak in October and one of the best places to see these is at low tide off Flint point with up to 6,000 birds - the Dee is the most important site in the country for Pintail.

October sees the return of the Parkgate high tide birdwatches and with some very high tides forecast we should have some great birdwatching with Short-eared Owls and Water Rails, along with the usual thousands of waders and duck. But we definitely need a change in the weather from September!

Many thanks go to  Karen Leeming, John Harrison,  Brian Grey, Jean Morgan, 'Alan K',  Mike Hart,  Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson,  David Esther, Keith Lester, Marilyn Kavanagh, Mark Feltham, Ian Dyer, Peter Button, Nigel Troup, Mark Smith and Janet Meakin for their sightings during September. All sightings are gratefully received.

Forthcoming Events


October Highest Spring Tides
6th October, 11.53hrs 9.9m. (all times BST)
7th October, 12.37hrs 10.2m. 
8th October, 13.19hrs 10.2m. 
9th October, 14.01hrs 10.0m. 

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 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.

Sunday 13th October 7:00am.
Migration Watch at Denhall Lane, Burton marsh.
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. 

Saturday 19th October 10:00am to 3:00pm.
Open Day at the Deeside Naturalists Society Reserve at Connah's Quay.
A rare chance for non-members to visit this great little reserve which overlooks the river Dee entering the estuary, and also the Oakenholt RSPB reserve. Large numbers of waders and wildfowl including one of the largest gathering of Black-tailed Godwit in the country. For more information me (Richard Smith).

Sunday 27th October 12noon - 2:00pm. 
Beginners Birdwatch at Leasowe Bay.
The new islands in Leasowe Bay provide a haven for roosting birds at high tide, and what is more, they can easily be seen from the promenade. Meet the Ranger at the sea front car park, via Green Lane, Wallasey (off the A554 North Wallasey Approach Road.) (HW 14:00, 8.2m) No need to book. Further details tel. 0151 678 5488.

Sunday 3rd November 8:00am, High Tide at Flint Foreshore. 
Experience the delights of coastal bird watching at its best. Expect to see large rafts of duck and loafing waders. (HW 09:43, 9.5m). This early morning walk (wellingtons essential) should produce views of Twite and Linnet. Learn to recognize these two similar species. No need to book, just turn up. Meet at Flint Lifeboat Station car park. Further information from RSPB tel. 0151 336 7681.

Tuesday 5th November 9:30am. High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Encounter some of Britain's most exciting birds in the relaxed company of experts who will guide you through the drama and spectacle of the high tide. 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 11:13, 10.1m) Further details call 0151 648 4371/3884.

Wednesday 6th November 10:00am, High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Birdwatching at its best. Thousands of waders and wildfowl combine to make a true spectacle. If the weather is right the tide should reach the wall flushing special birds such as Water Rail and unexpected mammals such as Water Shrew. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. (HW 11:56, 10.1m) 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 (Richard Smith).