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1st October 2003
A String in The Tale......

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

Newsletter Index.


A String in The Tale........


Mark Feltham

It's early autumn at Inner Marsh Farm. You fight your way to the hide against the strong westerly that's been blowing for days, looking for some shelter from the elements. You open the door to the hide and find it already occupied by: (1) a dishevelled looking, camouflage clad, middle-aged bloke, (2) a keen-looking young lad in his early teens and (3) an elderly lady wearing a Puffin sweater, corduroy trousers and walking boots. You notice a variety of optics in use by the assembled trio; (a) a pair of RSPB Compact 8 x 23 bins, (b) a second-hand Kowa TS 611 scope and (c) a Leica APO 77. Various other items are also visible including (i) a rather battered all-weather notebook, (ii) the new Collins Guide and (iii) the Reader's Digest Pocket Book of British Birds. In a whispered voice you ask politely, "Anything about?" and get, in no particular order, the following three answers; (A) "Quite a few different ducks" (B) "First winter Med. Gull on the border pool" and (C) "Not a lot".

Your task, should you choose to accept it, is simple - first, match the optics and other items to their respective owners and then identify who said what. Easy... Hands up who matched 'dishevelled camo-man' with (c), (i) and (C); 'elderly lady' with (a), (iii) and (A) and 'keen lad' with (b), (ii) and (B)? Well done. You're absolutely wrong of course. No matter, you've just proved a point and that is, that whether we like it or not we all, to some extent, make subjective judgements about others of our tribe based on simple (often misleading) clues. The way we dress, the bins we carry, what we say, even the above example, rightly or wrongly, all lead to judgements being made about a person's 'birding credentials' or lack thereof. I can almost hear the voices.... "Surely any self-respecting birder wouldn't even be at IMF off the back of westerlies at that time of year. They'd be somewhere between Hilbre and New Brighton looking for Leach's Petrels, Sabine's Gulls and assorted skuas. Or, they'd be checking their pagers for the latest storm blown rarity. Or, they'd be on the Scillies or Shetland?" Like I said.... judgements, judgements, judgements.... so what?

Well, I guess that depends on where you are in the pecking order. Oh yes, believe me, there IS a pecking order and if you're a relative beginner, you're constantly reminded of it. It's challenging enough trying to find the picture of the bird you're looking at in your bird book without some hairy bloke next to you banging on to his mate about primary projection, lesser coverts and tertials. Besides, your book doesn't even HAVE a picture of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in it... and how can they tell anyway, it must be a mile away ... and, which one exactly is it among the "330 Dunlin, 27 Sanderling, 4 Little Stints, 751 Redshank, 16 Ruff and a Curlew Sandpiper" scrawled authoritatively in the logbook?

Now, in a perfect world, the hairy bloke and his mate notice your puzzled expression, inferior binoculars and Observer's Book of Birds and 'Hairy' let's you have a look through his scope at the Broad-billed Sandpiper, tells you where you can pick up some DECENT second-hand optics and a cheap copy of the Concise Edition of the BWP and lets his mate explain why the 'BB Sand.' is different from the Dunlin feeding nearby - best still, in terms you understand and without a single mention of 'jizz'! Hairy then helpfully explains the bird's likely origin and why it's rare in these parts, whilst his mate (i) tells you about other good birding spots, (ii) gives you directions for a Grey Phalarope down the road and (iii) directs you to Richard Smith's excellent web site for future reference. Anybody recognise this scenario? Lucky you!

How about this one? "Hello", you say innocently. Hairy raises his head from his scope and looks at you stony faced. 'Trevor' meanwhile hasn't budged, he's still looking at the Broad-billed Sandpiper. As his eyes pause briefly over your leather cased 10 x 50s, Hairy grunts something and begins looking through his scope again. That's it - end of conversation. Pecking order reinforced. You want to say something back but decide not to; after all, these guys have probably forgotten more than you know. If only you'd had a Manfrotto tripod slung over your shoulder and a pair of Swarovski EL's around your neck. Perhaps then you would have been treated differently?

Maybe I'm being overly cynical. The above scenarios are, after all, rather extreme. Well, the first one certainly is. The second, I'm not so sure about! As a certain well-known Hairy once put it, "Birdwatchers are tense, competitive, selfish, shifty, dishonest, distrusting, boorish, pedantic, unsentimental, arrogant and - above all - envious" and I reckon you can add uncommunicative and downright elitist to the list too. Put that lot together and if you're a relative novice trying to hone your birding skills you're in for a very hard time. Well, I reckon that's a great shame. So to make up for being a bit of a grunting Hairy myself at times, I've decided to have the birding equivalent of a full body wax, to wit a personal tale of double standards to prick the consciences of experienced birders everywhere...

I was sitting on a rock one day (as you do) when a Black-tailed Godwit flew past. How odd the train of thought such a simple thing can trigger. It reminded me of the time I'd heard a chap talking to his friend about just such a bird. The conversation went something like this (it works best if you can imagine it in a West Country accent). "There's one Dave, on the mud at the back of the pool", he said. "What's that?" his friend replied. "Black-tailed Goblet", the chap announced. Goblet? Did he REALLY say Goblet?! At first I thought that maybe he had a cold. No such luck and a real shame too because I reckon I could probably have coped if he'd just said it the once. Unfortunately for me though there must have been about 30 'Goblets' hidden among the various waders present and he seemed determined to point out every one! Maybe you had to be there, but it DID seem funny at the time...

So too was the occasion when some students I was with were asked to identify a stuffed Starling (I can't for the life of me remember why). Answers included, Redshank, Kingfisher and Osprey - I kid you not. Now you have to be thinking 'phone-in-competitions on TV' to get the full impact of that one! You know the type of thing: "Is London, (a) a city (b) a country or (c) a planet?" because as mind-numbingly simple as the answer always appears to be, you just know that somebody will get it wrong - and still phone in!!! And then, of course, there was the one about the Missile Thrush Turdus polaris (!) and I'll tell you now, that this was not, as it might appear, simply the happy result of a game of Chinese whispers. Need I go on? The point is that people get things wrong and human nature being what it is, it's hard not to take a certain amount of cruel pleasure from their misfortune and feel just the teeny-weeniest bit superior as a result. But as I sat there on my rock, smiling happily to myself, I heard the gentle tap, tap tapping of skeletons in a closet somewhere, trying to get out. The mistakes OTHERS make? How easily we forget...

Many years ago I had the privilege to be studying Dippers in Scotland. It was part of my PhD on nestling birds and the deal was that my friend (let's call him Trevor) would help me with my fieldwork and I'd help him with his work on Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts. Well, we'd just finished ringing some Dipper nestlings under a bridge and it was getting dumpsy. The colours had faded from the landscape and the night sky was upon us. Time to head off. The problem was we'd driven down a track to get to the Dipper nest site and had not left ourselves enough room to turn the car around and so had, instead, to do a 180 in an adjacent field. An adjacent, muddy, field. It was whilst we were pushing the (now stuck) car out of the field that a small owl flitted by, giving the odd squeak as it did so, before disappearing behind the silhouette of a nearby wood. We both said "Little Owl" and thought nothing more of it. That was until the next day when we happened to mention it to the Prof. who was supervising us. He told us that you just didn't get Little Owls that far north; in fact, and this was the killer... Tengmalm's Owl was more likely! I guess, in retrospect, he was being sarcastic. My friend and I, however, took this particular piece of information at face value and neither knowing at the time what a Tengmalm's Owl was, nor its extreme rarity in Britain, easily convinced ourselves with a quick trip to the university library that a Tengmalm's Owl was indeed what we had seen.

So, did we keep this to ourselves? And miss the perfect opportunity for some serious street cred? Of course we didn't! I'd like to be able to say that we showed a little restraint, a little caution, that we at least used the word 'possible' in the context of the aforementioned owl. But I'm afraid I'd be lying. No, we simply told a friend who told a friend who told a friend about the owl, until when we arrived at the site the next evening, a sizeable crowd had gathered, scopes at the ready. Fortunately, as it turned out, we knew none of the assorted assemblage of dedicated twitchers, some of whom had travelled considerable distances for the chance of this sought after little gem. So, without further ado, and relishing the prospect of a little fame, we made our way anonymously through the crowd and took up position. For what seemed like an hour, nothing much happened. Then as it began to get dark the owl flew past, silhouetted against the night sky, intermittently squeaking as it had the evening before. BUT, nobody said a thing. We looked at each other, questioningly. Had everyone missed it? Sensing that something was amiss, we too said nothing. By now it was getting really quite dark and many people if not disgruntled, were, shall we say, far from gruntled! The one-liner uttered by the huge Scot next to me summed up the mood nicely. "Oh well," he growled "No owl. Still the roding Woodcock was nice". OOPS!!! Let's just say there was enough egg on our faces to keep us in sandwiches for a month, and leave it at that!

And the moral of the story? It's that we all had to start somewhere, and painful as it may sometimes be, we shouldn't forget our birding pasts. Perhaps that way we'll all be that little bit more tolerant of each other and especially of people who have yet to enjoy some of those finer birding moments that we've taken for granted for so long. So next time you're putting the finishing touches to the notes on that Caspian Tern that just flew east, spare a thought for the chap with the brand new bins
who's just been wowed by his first close-up views of Chiffchaff. And please, for goodness' sake, explain to him, as tactfully and as sympathetically as you can (!), why it's really not a good idea for him to tell the world about the 'Greenish Warbler' he's just found - and if you're feeling really brave ... well, I'll leave that to you.

This article was first published in the CAWOS Bird News (October 2002) and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Mark Feltham. Mark is the new editor of the Cheshire Bird Report.


Bird Counts


Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society), 14th September. 3 Little Grebe 3, 87 Cormorant, 8 Heron, 2 Mute Swan,  440 Canada Goose, 137 Shelduck, 10 Wigeon, 3 Gadwall, 360 Teal, 100 Mallard, 1 Tufted Duck, 2 Moorhen, 35 Coot, 2,800 Oystercatcher, 109 Lapwing, 9 Knot, 3,000 Black-tailed Godwit, 43 Curlew, 4 Spotted Redshank, 580 Redshank and 1 Greenshank.

Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 14th September. 298 Cormorant, 1 Little Egret, 6 Grey Heron, 7,840 Shelduck, 18 Teal, 19 Mallard, 1,630 Oystercatcher, 56 Lapwing, 140 Knot, 350 Dunlin, 170 Black-tailed Godwit, 2,290 Curlew, 7,100 Redshank, 5 Greenshank, 1 Turnstone, 3,900 Gull spp.   

September Bird News


No gales in September but we got an occasional fresh north-west wind which brought in one or two Leach's Petrel on three separate days. Sea-watching also resulted in the sighting of 2 Pomarine Skuas off Hilbre, and 25 Red-throated Divers and 880 Common Scoters off the Point of Ayr.

A count of 3,000 Black-tailed Godwit at Connah's Quay/Flint was an excellent number for September, yet more evidence of the increase in numbers of this species here on the Dee. West Kirby Shore held up to 8,500 Oystercatchers at high tide. At Heswall we had large numbers of birds, particularly Redshank with 7,100, and 7,840 Shelduck. Duck numbers generally increased during the month with a high count of 2,000 Teal at Inner Marsh Farm being the highlight, although not as high as last year's 3,500.

More uncommon waders included a Wood Sandpiper and seven Spotted Redshank at Inner Marsh Farm, 2 Pectoral Sandpiper on the Point of Ayr, 27 Greenshank at Parkgate and 11 Curlew Sandpiper at West Kirby. But the pick of the bunch was an American Golden Plover on the embankment at Meols, which I believe is only the third record for Wirral and Cheshire - the last one was on the river Mersey in 1991. At least one first winter Mediterranean Gull was hanging around Hoylake and West Kirby during the second half of the month.

A Honey Buzzard was seen over Lingham Lane in Moreton, a Red Kite drifted across the head of the estuary from Burton to Shotton and an Osprey stayed briefly at Inner Marsh Farm. A few Harriers have been around, two Marsh Harriers at Neston reed beds and a single Hen Harrier, also a Short-eared Owl was seen coming in to roost at Parkgate.

What to expect in October.
Although we didn't get any gales in September, like last year we might get one or two in October bringing in a few Leach's Petrels, Sabine Gulls and a good selection of Skuas. See them off the North Wirral coast, Hilbre or Point of Ayr. We could also do with a westerly gale towards the end of the month for the high tide birdwatches at Parkgate to bring the tide right over the marsh. As well as the usual fabulous spectacle of waders and duck expect to see Short-eared Owls and Water Rails.

In contrast a day of gentle east winds during an overcast and slightly misty morning will be optimum conditions for seeing the migration of land birds, including the influx of hundreds of Fieldfares and Redwings passing overhead.

Numbers of duck and many wader species will increase sharply during the month. In a good year we will get around 5,000 each of Teal, Wigeon and Pintail - best seen either at high tide off Parkgate or low tide from Flint. Shelduck will peak this month with over 10,000, most of which can be seen at low tide off Thurstaston, at this time of year the highest concentration of this species in the country. The first Bewick's Swans should appear either at Inner Marsh Farm or Burton Marsh, and maybe a few early Brent Geese on Hilbre Island. shelduck

Many thanks go to Dave Wilde, Karen Leeming, Alan Jupp, Keith Lester, Mark Turner, David Esther,  John Campbell, Brian Grey, John Harrison, Allan Conlin, Clyde Barrow, Mike Hart, Allan Patterson, David Harrington, Steve Wrigley, Phil Woolen, Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, Paul Rowlands, Robert Askwith, Jean Morgan, David Small, Roy Palmer, Brian Joy, Alan Neville, Mark Feltham, Fred Heywood, Kevin Hayes, Ian Dyer, John Ferguson, Steve Madely, Simon Roberts,  the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during Septembert. All sightings are gratefully received.

Forthcoming Events


October Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
26th October, 11:28hrs 10.0m. (all times BST)
27th October, 12:09hrs 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 4th October, 7:00am start, Migration Watch at Denhall Lane.
Passerine migration will be in full swing so why not join the Rangers to witness the mass movement of finches, pipits and thrushes as they move south as winter approaches. Please wear suitable warm clothing and bring binoculars if you have them. No need to book, meet at Denhall Lane, Burton. For further information phone 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 11th October, 10:15am, Banks Road Birdwatch at Heswall.
Wader watching of the highest calibre offers fantastic birdwatching for beginner and expert alike. Expect a good selection of waders which may include Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper with the possibility of a Mediterranean Gull. (HW 12:47, 9.3m). Meet at Banks Road car park, near Sheldrake's Restaurant, Lower Heswall. For further information tel. 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 12th October, All Day on Hilbre.
One for the early rising dedicated birder! Join the Rangers on a guided walk to seek dawn migrants, then stay over high tide for some seawatching. A guided walk of 9 hours including a hot meal in the Bunkhouse. Please note there is a 3 charge for this event. Warm waterproof clothing and stout footwear are essential. Places are strictly limited so book early! Tel: 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 12th October, 11:00am - 1:00pm, Beginners Birdwatch around Leasowe Bay.
Can't tell an RBMerg from a Mipit? Then this is the event for you! Join the Ranger for a relaxed guided walk around Leasowe Bay to find some of the birdlife that feed on the rich mud of the shore. Please wear suitable warm clothing and bring binoculars if you have them. No need to book, meet at Green Lane Car Park, Wallasey (Off the A554 Wallasey Approach Road). For further information 
phone 0151 678 5488.

Sunday 12th October, 11:00am, Return of the Godwits on Flint shore.
Come and see our winter visitors fresh back after their 1,000km journeys from Iceland. Raptors are often in evidence and a Peregrine Falcon harrying a flock of 3,000 Black-tailed Godwits is a sight not to be missed. Also expect to see large flocks of waders including Oystercatcher, Knot and Dunlin. Wellingtons are essential. (HW 13:15, 9.2m) No need to book. Meet at Flint Lifeboat Station car park. For further information, contact RSPB on 0151 336 7681. 

Saturday 25th October, 10:00am, High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Experience some of the best birdwatching in Britain in the relaxed company of the local experts who will guide you through the action as it unfolds. Short-eared Owls cruise the marsh while a Peregrine, like a bullet, fires through the flocks, stirring the birds into a frenzy. (HW 11:46, 9.8m) 
Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. For further details call 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 26th October, 7:30am start, Migration Watch at Dawpool Nature Reserve.
Join the Rangers and the BTO for a migration watch on Dawpool Nature Reserve. Large flocks of finches and thrushes maybe on the move overhead on their southern migration. While the BTO catch and ring migrants stopping for a rest on the Reserve!
No need to book, meet at Dee Sailing Club Car Park. Further information phone 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 26th October, 10:45am, High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Experience some of the best birdwatching in Britain in the relaxed company of the local experts. Watch as thousands of ducks and waders are driven passed by the surge of the advancing tide. Peregrines and Merlins patrol the marsh while herons descend to gorge themselves on small mammals and birds fleeing from the rising tide. (HW 11:28, 10.0m) Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. For further details call 0151 336 7681.

Monday 27th October, 11:30am, High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
Experience the excitement of one of the best bird spectacles in Britain. The local experts will be on hand to guide you through the drama. A special opportunity to see normally secretive birds such as Water Rail and Jack Snipe as they are flushed from the marsh. (HW 12:09, 10.0m) Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse Inn. For further details call 0151 336 7681.

Tuesday 4th November, 7:30pm, It's a Warden's Life- Evening Talk.
Come and discover the work of the local RSPB warden on the estuary. Find out why this work is so important if we are to preserve the estuary's premier status for birds and wildlife. Meet at BHP Billiton Visitors Centre, Point of Ayr. For details phone 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 8th November, 8:30am, High Tide at Point of Ayr. 
Birdwatching at its best at the Point of Air. Bird numbers reach their peak for many species as thousand of birds flock to the safety of the Point at high tide. Watch from the comfort of the RSPB hide as ducks and waders are pushed in closer by the tide. Expect to see Grey Plovers, Red-breasted Mergansers and Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits. (HW 10:26, 9.1m) No need to book, meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre, Point of Air. For further information contact RSPB, 
tel. 0151 336 7681. 

Sunday 9th November, 8:45am, Banks Road Birdwatch at Heswall
Wader watching doesn't get much better than this as thousands of birds are herded up the Heswall Gutter in front of us by the incoming tide. Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlins, Redshanks, and Curlews will all be present in spectacular numbers. (HW 11:17, 9.2m) Meet at Banks Road car park, near Sheldrake's Restaurant, Lower Heswall. For further information tel. 0151 648 4371/3884

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2003', 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.