Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st October 2006
Species Spotlight - The Gannet.
September Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Species Spotlight - The Gannet

 © Steve Round

Richard Smith

You might think that the Gannet is an odd choice for an estuary website but this species is common out in Liverpool Bay from April to October, many coming within sight of the coast. The Gannet is our largest seabird and is a magnificent sight flying strongly over the sea and diving at great speed in to the sea after fish. I remember a low tide trip to Hilbre a couple of years ago in July. It was a dull overcast day but dead calm. I had noticed a lot of birds flying off the north end of Hilbre as I was walking over but had assumed the usual selection of gulls. But as I got nearer I realised there were 50 Gannets circling a spot barely 100 yards off Hilbre, many diving in after fish. Accompanying them were 4 Arctic Skuas and a large collection of terns and gulls. An amazing sight, they were there for about 20 minutes before slowly drifting off towards Formby Point.  

The best sites to see Gannets are Gronant, Point of Ayr, Hilbre, Red Rocks and Hoylake. The numbers seen and their distance from the shore vary greatly day by day but I reckon that a strong west to south-west is best to bring them in, although I've also seen good numbers in flat calm conditions. Here I should warn people who only have binoculars that most of the time Gannets are a long way out, and even with a good pair of 'bins' can be little more than dots. So for Gannet watching, as for any sea-watching, telescopes are really essential - but then there is the rare day when birds do come really close giving thrilling views!

The graph above shows quite nicely a strong spring passage, followed by good numbers of feeding birds during the summer and then a smaller autumn passage. However, I have to admit it is slightly misleading as the April average is somewhat skewed by a very high count of 650 on April 30th 2003 (highest ever spring count for Hilbre). Also, going further back to the 1990's and 80's it is noticeable that for a lot of years the summer months had the highest numbers. The reality is that numbers in any month are unpredictable, birds being brought within sight of land by movements of fish and the vagaries of the weather.

Above is a map taken from a DTI report, with arrows added by myself. The report can be downloaded from:

The map shows the relative density of gannets as measured in 2 x 2 km squares, the darker colour being the highest density. It shows the average of three aerial surveys which took place between 9th May and 21st August 2005. It is not clear from the report (at least to me) exactly how many Gannets the map represents except to say that it must be several hundred in the area shown. But what is of interest is that there is a very noticeable concentration off the Dee Estuary (bottom right of map). Of course, from the land we only see the southern edge of this concentration.
The arrows show the general movement of birds as observed from the land, with birds coming in from Formby Point, cutting the corner towards Meols then heading west past Red Rocks, Hilbre and North Wales.

This passage would appear to be part of a regular clockwise movement taking in the whole of Liverpool Bay and includes other seabirds including Manx Shearwaters. It should be noted, however, that feeding concentrations of Gannets can be found just about anywhere - when Steve Williams saw the 650 Gannets in 2003 he said they were 'just milling around' between Hilbre and Point of Ayr! 

Gannets are undoubtedly strong fliers but even they can get in to trouble in gale force winds. In the September gales of 2004 birds were seen right down the Mersey as far as Frodsham and inland over Risley Moss and Houghton Green Pool in Cheshire. One was picked up from the pavement outside ASDA in Wallasey and another outside Meols railway station! After those gales 42 were found dead along the north Wirral shore, a surprisingly high number for such strong fliers but there was no obvious cause of death other than exhaustion.

The birds we see through the summer, many in large foraging parties, have to come a long way from their breeding colonies to reach here, as shown in the map below. The nearest colony is Scare Rocks just SE of the Mull of Galloway in SW Scotland, a trip of 120 miles or so.

Steve Round ©, Gannet in a storm off Leasowe, 21st Sept 2004

Gannet Colonies near the Dee Estuary

Ailsa Craig
Shortest sea-route distance from the Dee Estuary: c170 miles.
Breeding pairs: c 40,000.

Scare Rocks
Shortest sea-route distance from the Dee Estuary: c120 miles.
Breeding pairs: c 5,000.

Shortest sea-route distance from the Dee Estuary: c200 miles.
Breeding pairs: c 40,000.

There are a couple of small colonies on the east coast of Eire totalling c1,500 pairs.

But a feeding trip of 120 miles and back for a Gannet is fairly routine, they have been reported as travelling out as much as 400 miles, although 200 miles is probably their normal limit. It is likely we also get birds from the huge colony at Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde, about 170 miles away as the Gannet flies. The colony at Grassholm is as big as Ailsa Craig, but interestingly, as very few birds are seen to pass Anglesey during the summer it has been concluded by some that Grassholm birds do not get as far as Liverpool Bay.

In winter birds disperse both southwards towards Africa and out across the continental shelf. Winter sightings from our area are rare, with the first birds normally not appearing until March. However there was a single off Hoylake on Feb 7th 2004 and in 2005 there was an unusual record of six passing between West Kirby and Hilbre on Nov 15th.

Sources of Information for this Article:
1. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports 1980 to 2005.
2. BTO Migration Atlas.
3. Aerial Surveys of Waterbirds in Strategic Windfarm Areas: 2004/05 Final Report, DTI, 2006.
4. Birds of the Western Palearctic, DVD edition.
5. Report on Gwynt-Y-Mor Windfarm Environmental Statement, 2005.
6. Hilbre Bird Observatory Reports 2001 to 2004.
7. Chris Meads, State of the Nations' Birds, 2004, website edition - .
8. RSPB website, .
9. Contributors to the latest sightings page on .

Outline map on to which I have put the Gannet colonies kindly provided by .

Richard Smith.

Top of page

September Bird News

Sea-watching was good early in the month with the highlight being over 200 Manx Shearwaters, 1 Sooty Shearwater, 5 Arctic Skua, 1 Great Skua and 300 Kittiwake on the 3rd off Hoylake. Unfortunately the wind was more SW than NW so no Leach's Petrels, and we had mainly southerly winds for the rest of the month. Mind you, a Sabine's Gull past Hilbre on 9th was a pretty good record considering the contrary winds. Sea watching on the 13th brought another surprise with 40-50 Black Terns, some still in full breeding plumage, past Meols, part of an influx in to the country.

At Burton up to 3 Hobbies spent about a week busily catching dragonflies, see photo below.

Steve Round ©, Hobby eating a dragonfly on the wing, Inner Marsh Farm, Sept 23rd.

The first Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls were on Burton Marsh, including a full male Hen Harrier, although it was only seen briefly. Marsh Harriers were seen on five dates including two on 13th. The record has been broken yet again for Little Egrets with a max of 169 coming in to roost. Six were in the gutter off Hilbre, 63 at Parkgate Marsh RSPB and 29 at Heswall - all record highs for those locations! 

Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers trickled through with max six of the former (at Inner Marsh Farm) and five of the latter (at Heswall). Eight Greenshank on 24th at Hoylake was unusual there. There were the usual massive numbers of birds at Heswall with max counts of 7,820 Redshank, 6,100 Shelduck and 3,430. One Pectoral Sandpiper at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB was only seen briefly on 22nd, a Wood Sandpiper was there the next day.

Other rarities include a Wryneck at Gronant, one Turtle Dove near Leasowe Lighthouse (this species now very uncommon in our area), a Honey Buzzard also near Leasowe Lighthouse and a Spotted Crake very briefly at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB. Even more unusual was a White Pelican and Hawaiian Goose at Warren Farm, Talacre. The former subsequently flying over Gronant and is on Anglesey as I write this. The Hawaiian Goose (or Ne-Ne) is obviously an escape although it is very unusual to see one flying free outside of Hawaii. The wild population is about 500 birds but this is a big improvement on just 30 birds in the 1950s. The White Pelican is a probable escape but this one appears to be the same bird that flew all the way across Germany, then to Texel (Holland), across to Norfolk before arriving in Lancashire. Rumour has it that the German and Dutch rarity panels are going to call it a wild bird. The nearest breeding colony is the Danube Delta.

What to expect in October

If we get an early morning with a light SE wind, overcast and, ideally, a bit of mist then expect visible migration. By 'visible migration' I mean the movement of large numbers of land birds, such as finches and thrushes, overhead during daylight (and hence visible); often birds are concentrated along the coast where numbers can be spectacular. Visible migration can involve just a few birds overhead heading south but sometimes there can be a massive movement. For example on Oct 20th 2004 over 10,000 Chaffinches flew south over Heswall Fields NT in just two and a half hours. The migration isn't always just on the coast, on Oct 10th 2004 a remarkable 36,000 Fieldfare and 18,000 Redwing flew over Whitley Reed in Cheshire in three hours! It is difficult to predict the best places to see this migration but Red Rocks, Hilbre, Thurstaston and Point of Ayr are favoured.

A strong NW wind lasting a couple of days or more, and it would be unusual if we didn't get a gale or two, could still bring in a few good seabirds including Leach's Petrels. However I fear that we have had contrary winds for so long that anything of interest will have been blown a long way in to the Atlantic. Of course, those same contrary winds might well bring some good rarities from further south.

October is a time of much movement, and not just of land birds. Wildfowl will be on the move so expect the first Brent Geese of the winter, and flocks of Pink-footed Geese might well over fly the area. Pintail numbers will build up strongly during the month, a great spot to see these is off Flint Point as the tide comes in, I had 6,000 there last year. The Dee Estuary remains the most important site in the country for this species. The estuary is also very important for Shelduck, the largest October flock in the country will be off Thurstaston and Heswall; expect at least 8,000.

By the end of the month good numbers of waders should be present with several thousand Knot and Dunlin, and hundreds of Grey Plover and Sanderling. Low tide off Thurstaston or Leasowe are good places to see these flocks, or at their high tide roosts at West Kirby and Hoylake.

Many thanks go to John Boswell, David Esther, Phil Woollen, Martin Kelly, David Small, Graeme Lowe, Clive Ashton, Damian Waters, Greg Harker, Tanny Robinson, Neil McLaren, Paul Mason, Phil Woollen, John Roberts, Gilbert Bolton, Katie Barrett, Dave Harrington, Dave and Karen Leeming, Allan Conlin, Eric Robinson, Mike Hart, Mark Gibson, Dave Wild, Steve Round, Colin Wells, Graham Thompson, Steve Ainsworth, Tony Peet, Steve Williams, Leon Castell, Chris Butterworth, Chris Smith, Jane Turner, John Kirkland, Charles Farnell, Keith Woods, Geoff Robinson, Jon Wainright, Paul Shenton, Steve Edwards, Ian Dyer, Iain Douglas, Helen Warburton, Sam Dyer, Laura Bimson, John Whittle, Kevin Smith, Steve Wrigley,  the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during September.  All sightings are gratefully received.

Top of page

Forthcoming Events

October Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
8th October, 12.45hrs 10.1m. BST.
9th October, 13.26hrs 10.0m. BST.
NOTE There are 10.5m tides predicted for the nights of 7th and 8th of October, expect flooding if there are strong winds from SW, W or NW!!

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 7th October, 10am–3pm, Deeside Naturalist Society Connah’s Quay Reserve – Open Day.
Another chance to join members of the DNS at this excellent site. The DNS’s 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. Access is off the A548 sign posted E’ON Power Station. High tide is 12.03hrs, 9.9m. For further info please contact the DNS on  01244 537440 or

Saturday 14th October, 7:00am, Migration Watch and breakfast at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB Reserve.
Passerine migration should be in full swing so why not join the Warden to witness the mass movement of finches, pipits, redwings and fieldfares as they move south as winter approaches. Costs inclusive of continental breakfast are £6.00 members and £7.00 non-members. Booking essential. For further information phone the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 15th October, 9am – 11am, Wirral Country Park 'Autumnwatch'.
Say goodbye to our summer visitors and greet our winter residents on this walk to mark the changing of the seasons. Late swallows and early redwings could be seen.
Booking essential: (0151) 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 21st October, 10am, Flight of the Godwits, Flint.
The mudflats and saltmarsh off Flint are internationally important for feeding and roosting black-tailed godwits. Expect to see large numbers of other waders (HW 11:45, 9.1m) Please bring wellingtons. Meet at the Flint lifeboat station car park.
No need to book. For further details, call 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 22nd October, 5pm, Parkgate Raptor Watch.
Watch the elegant hen harriers come in to roost on the RSPB reserve at Parkgate. Other birds we hope to see include merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, over looking the Dee Estuary RSPB Nature Reserve at Parkgate, close to the Boathouse pub. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 28th October, 10am – 4pm, RSPB Feed the Birds Day at Ness Gardens.
Join the RSPB staff to find out how you can help your garden birds survive through the
winter. See the birds at the feeding station and learn about the different foods on which each species feeds. Meet at Ness Gardens Tearoom to which there is free admission. There is a charge to visit the gardens.
For more information contact the
RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 5th November, 9am, Rails of the River Bank, Heswall.
A fantastic place to see birds of the estuary. Huge flocks of ducks and waders swirl around in the sky while there’s always the chance of seeing a water rail as it’s flushed out of the saltmarsh by the rising tide. Joint event with Wirral Borough Council Ranger Service. Meet
at Riverbank Road car park which overlooks the Dee Estuary RSPB Reserve at Lower Heswall. (HW 10.38, 9.8m). No need to book. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2006', 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.

Top of page

Birding North West is a monthly magazine for birders in the North West Region. Our aim is to bring you the news of rare and scarce birds in our region while it is still news. We consider that up-to-date news, photographs of regional birds, articles on the occurrence of birds in the North West and other articles relating to our region is what our readership want.

The blank (UK) Birding Webring is a collection of quality birding web sites that are based in the United Kingdom.

Visit the webring homepage for more information, or click here to add your site to the ring.

A complete list of all the sites in the webring is available by clicking here.

previous site in ring : random site in ring : next site in ring