Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st October 2007
Species Spotlight - Pintail.
September Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Species Spotlight - Northern Pintail (Anas Acuta)

Richard Smith

Pintail at Inner Marsh Farm RSPB, Jan 2006, Charles Farnell

The Pintail is surely our most elegant duck. The drake Pintail with it's striking plumage, long neck and tail is instantly identifiable both on the water and in flight. Here on the Dee Estuary we are lucky enough to have large numbers present through autumn and winter; in fact the numbers are so high that the estuary is the most important site in the country for this species and has been since 1987.


Twenty years ago the nearby Mersey Estuary was the most important site and had been since the early 1970s. As can be seen from the graph above numbers on the Dee, and even more so on the Mersey, increased rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s. The reason for this rapid increase is unclear but Prater, writing in 1981, thought it may have been due to a redistribution of the north-west European wintering population, caused to some extent by changes to the Rhine delta area. One thing's for certain, they certainly found the undisturbed marsh on the estuary side of the Manchester Ship Canal very much to their liking, peaking to a remarkable 18,450 on Nov 23rd 1980, which is still the highest single count of Pintail in this country. Although the increase on the Dee Estuary was not so dramatic the two estuaries combined held up to half of the UK wintering population between 1973 and 1992. 

There's little doubt that there was much interchange between the two estuaries with birds often seen flying over Wirral. During the 1970s and 80s the usual pattern was for peak numbers on the Dee to occur in October, followed by a later peak on the Mersey in mid-winter. It is therefore likely that there was a general movement of birds from the Dee to the Mersey through the winter. But there was also daily movements, on high spring tides which covered the marsh birds were often seen to move from the Dee to the Mersey only to fly back later on in the day. This might well be what happened on Nov 23rd 1980 when 18,450 were on the Mersey but only 645 remained on the Dee Estuary. On the following month's count 5,510 were back on the Dee and numbers had dropped to 8,100 on the Mersey. The highest count on the Dee Estuary occurred on Oct 15th 1989, when 11,915 were present, on the same day only 3,200 were on the Mersey.

In more recent times counts have dropped off. But whereas numbers on the Dee have stabilised to between 5,000 to just above 6,000 those on the Mersey have plummeted. So much so that the max count on the Mersey Estuary in 2006 was only 44, the lowest recorded there for well over 40 years. Quite why this has happened is not clear, perhaps the Mersey is now too clean in terms of organic matter and therefore there are less invertebrates for the birds to feed on. The Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust, writing in 1998, concluded that birds had relocated to other sites in the UK, although the reason was unclear. On the Dee the increase in the land managed by the RSPB and consequent reduction in the amount of shooting has probably helped to stop, and to some extent, reverse the decline here. This would also encourage birds to stay on the Dee rather than expend energy moving between the two estuaries.

Pintail tend to use relatively few sites in winter and prefer to stay in large flocks in sheltered coastal habitats, such as estuaries. They occur right across the northern hemisphere with two to three million in North America, a couple of million across Asia, East Africa and Eastern Europe, and finally 60,000 in north-west Europe of which just less than half occur in the UK. In most winters peak numbers on the Dee Estuary occur in early winter indicating that these may well be birds which breed relatively near, in Iceland and Scandinavia, which then move on later in the winter. There is no indication of a return passage. Typically in the country as a whole, but less often on the Dee, a second peak occurs in mid-winter and this is assumed to be due to an influx of continental birds which breed further east, such as northern Russia.

Pintail in the gutter off Thurstaston with the tide starting to come in, Feb 2007, Richard Smith

Despite the high numbers on the Dee Estuary Pintail can often be difficult to see as they spend much of their time out of sight on the edge of Burton and Parkgate Marshes. However, if you go to the right place at the right time you can often get good views:

  1. At low water the majority of Pintail loaf and feed along the main river channels between Oakenholt and  Bagillt. Both the Connah's Quay Reserve and Flint Point are good vantage points to see these birds. With the incoming tide they then float and flight to feed along the marsh edge between Burton and Heswall (depending on disturbance).

  2. Inner Marsh Farm RSPB. High numbers can occur here in September and October, usually on spring tides. Max count at this site was 3,850 on Oct 28th 1995. 1,600 were here on Sep 12th 2006.

  3. Heswall Marsh, Riverbank Road. Flocks of several hundred can sometimes be seen flying on the edge of the marsh at high tide which is a lot closer here than at Parkgate.

  4. Point of Ayr, RSPB hide. Through the winter good views of a hundred or more can be had from the hide at high tide.

  5. Thurstaston Shore. In winter there are usually up to 100 birds in the gutter at low tide, 100 yards or so from the beach.

1. BTO Migration Atlas, 2002.
2. Cramp & Simmons, Birds of the Western Palearctic, 1977, (and updated version on CD).
3. Cheshire & Wirral Bird Reports, 1964 to 2006
4. A.J. Prater, Estuary Birds of Britain and Ireland, T & A D Poyser, 1981.
5. WeBS Reports, 1988-89, 1995-96 to 2004-05.
6. Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report 2005/06, Neil Friswell and Colin Wells.
7. Simon Delany and Derek Scott, Waterbird Population Estimates, 3rd Edition, Wetlands International, 2002.
8. WeBS data kindly send direct to me by BTO.
9. WWT, Research Paper - Long term trends in wintering pintail in GB 1996-95, 1998.

Any WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) data in this article should not be used in any way without permission of the WeBS Office. To access official WeBS data please contact the WeBS Secretariat - BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP 24 2 PU

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September Bird News

What a great month! The Pacific Swift which passed over Red Rocks and West Kirby on the 16th was obviously the star bird. At least two birders saw it as it passed quickly over, luckily one of them had previous experience of this species and has sent a description and sketch into the County Recorder. It is of course a 'Mega' rarity with only three excepted records for the UK up until the end of 2004. It is very like our common Swift but with a white rump.
Although the  month has been relatively quiet wind-wise we have had some really great sea-watching. The month started off well with the sub-adult Pomarine Skua which spent last month off north Wirral seen again on the 1st, also one juv Sabine's Gull, a single Great Skua and 10 Arctic Skuas on the same day. The Pomarine Skua was last seen on the 8th. Single Leach's Petrels went past on the 10th and 14th. On the 17th a Great Skua landed on the sea wall next to Leasowe Lighthouse.

Great Skua off Leasowe Lighthouse, Oct 17th, Richard Steel 

A westerly gale on the 24th brought in a load of auks past Hoylake Shore - 475 Guillemot, 2 Razorbill and 1 Puffin, also 195 Gannet, 255 Common Scoter and a single Leach's Petrel. The next day the wind blew north-west, and, although it didn't blow hard or long enough to bring in really good numbers, 16 Leach's Petrels past Hilbre was still good to see. It was a particularly good day for skuas with Long-tailed, Great and Pomarine all seen along with the usual Arctics. 30 Arctic Tern and 19 Red-throated Divers off Hilbre rounded off a good day. By the 27th the wind was blowing from the north but there were still two Leach's Petrels past Red Rocks along with 300 Common Scoter and two more Great Skuas. A Grey Phalarope was on the sea off Hilbre on the 28th and was still there at the end of the month. On the 29th there were reports of two Grey Phalaropes and two Velvet Scoters off Red Rocks. On the same day there was a remarkable 21 Shag off Hilbre, a record high count for Cheshire and Wirral. Also on the 29th 118 Great Crested Grebes off Meols was an excellent count.
Raptors have also been in the news, on the 6th a kettle of 26 Common Buzzards were seen over the Hoylake Langfields slowly drifting south. This is a record count for this species in Cheshire & Wirral. For those who don't know what a kettle is - it is the name given to a large group of circling raptors. At least two Marsh Harriers have been on the marshes for most of the month, and they were seen to use the same roosting site off Parkgate as the Hen Harriers use in the winter. The first Hen Harrier of the autumn went past Hilbre at the end of the month. There were eight reports of single Hobbies through the month with two on the 22nd by Burton Marsh.
In comparison it was a quiet time for waders. Curlew Sandpipers trickled through, the highest counts were four at Inner Marsh Farm on 16th and the same number at Hilbre on 25th. Two Little Stint were at Inner Marsh Farm on the 16th, with singles reported on a further two days. 4,000 Black-tailed Godwits at the Connah's Quay Reserve on the 1st was a very good count.
Towards the end of the month the wind went round towards the north-east, effectively ending our hopes that the spring tides might cover the marsh at Parkgate. But that same wind did bring in some migrants with the first Redwings over on the 27th, 25 were at Heswall the next day. One Tree Pipit, one Ring Ouzel and six Brambling were seen in the early morning at Red Rocks. At the end of the month four Firecrests were on Hilbre.

What to expect in October

Although September is usually the best month for Leach's Petrel, an October north-west gale can still bring good numbers in, along with all four species of Skuas, Sabine's Gull etc. Sea watching may also bring views of some of the rarer divers and grebes.
A gentle south-east wind with a bit of cloud cover should result in some good visible migration. This is best during early morning and can be spectacular with flocks of thrushes and finches, each several hundred strong, passing continuously down the coast.
There have been unusually high numbers of Shelduck on the estuary all through the summer so it is possible they will disperse away from the estuary earlier than normal, but usually October is the peak month for this species with at least 8,000 off Thurstaston and Heswall, the largest  flock in the country. Large numbers of Pintail will be coming into the estuary this month (see above article). A few Whooper Swans often pass through in October, turning up almost anywhere as they make their way to Martin Mere in Lancashire.
Numbers of Sanderling, Dunlin and Knot will increase, particularly at the end of the month. Some years we can get 1,000 or so Sanderling on Hoylake beach. Several thousand Black-tailed Godwits will be in the estuary, low tide at the Connah's Quay reserve can be an excellent spot to see these, and as the tide comes in they often move towards the mudflats off Flint Castle. The first Hen Harriers will be back on the marsh, we can get up to four coming into roost at Parkgate.

Many thanks go to Colin Schofield, Colin Davies, James Armstrong, Richard Steel, Paul Vautrinot, Steve Oakes, David Esther, Andrew Wallbank, Stuart Taylor, Ian Emmitt, Mike Hart, David Haigh, David Harrington, Phil Woollen, Allan Conlin, Dave Wild, Leon Castell, Steve Round,  Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Charles Farnell, Mark Gibson, Paul Shenton, Mike Baron, Gilbert Bolton, John Tubb, Damian Waters, Stephen Ainsworth, Mark O'Sullivan, John Kirkland, Mark Turner, Nigel Grice, Mark Smith, Pete Button, David Hinde, Katie Barrett, Tim Melling, William Haworth, Jason Stannage, Colin Wells, Clive Ashton, Michael Coe, Keith Hopwood, Steve Wrigley, Trevor Heath, Margery Griffin, Martin Kelly, Kevin Smith, Dave Burt, John Atkinson, rob Chapman, Chris Davies, Andy Thomas, Steven Liston, Ian Dyer, Malcolm Smerdon, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during September.  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events

October Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
26th October, 11.52hrs (BST), 9.8m.
27th October, 12.35hrs (BST), 10.0m.
28th October, 12.18hrs (GMT), 9.9m.

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. The Wirral Parks and Countryside Newsletter can now be downloaded - click here.

Parkgate High Tides.
Note that there are no official RSPB High Tide Birdwatches at Parkgate this autumn. Nevertheless there are some high spring tides forecast although, as always, the actual height is very dependent on the weather. A strong SW to NW wind with low atmospheric pressure should be good for a big tide which covers the marsh. The highest predicted tides in October are as follows:
26th October, 11.52hrs (BST), 9.8m.
27th October, 12.35hrs (BST), 10.0m.
28th October, 12.18hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
I would advise arriving at Parkgate at least an hour before high tide. If the weather on the day doesn't appear to be good for a big tide then I would highly recommend the car park at Riverbank Road, Heswall, where excellent views over the marsh can be had and where the tide covers the marsh well before it is appears at Parkgate. If a really big tide is expected then Neston and Burton can also be very good to see both the tide and birds.

Saturday 13th October, 11.00am
High tide Birdwatch at Flint Castle, Flight of the Godwits.
Join the wardens from the local RSPB reserve to watch the birds of the estuary as they fly to their roosting areas. Pintail and Black tailed Godwits will be the main attractions but there should be plenty of other birds to see too. (HW 13.20 pm. 9.2 m). Meet at Flint Castle car park next to the lifeboat station at 11 am.

Sunday 21st.October, 3:00pm. Parkgate Raptor Watch RSPB Dee Estuary Reserve.
Come along and watch birds of prey with the experts. See the graceful hen harriers coming in to roost on the RSPB reserve. Other birds of prey we hope to see are merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, which overlooks the reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boathouse pub. No need to book.

Saturday 27th October 2007, 10:00am - 3:00pm.
Open Day at the Connah's Quay Reserve. Non-members will be met at the entrance by a member and escorted in to the reserve.
This members only reserve will be open to everyone for the day and visitors will be able to make use of the four hides and chat to the members about the reserve. Tea and coffee available (HW 12:42hrs, 10.0m.).
The 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. Cambrian Photography will have a display in the Field Studies Centre.

Sunday 18th November, 2.00pm. Parkgate Raptor Watch RSPB Dee Estuary Reserve.
Come along and watch birds of prey with the experts. See the graceful hen harriers coming in to roost on the RSPB reserve. Other birds of prey we hope to see are merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, which overlooks the reserve at Parkgate, close to The Boathouse pub. No need to book.

Sunday 25th November, 9.30am Start, Wader Watch at Kings Gap, Hoylake.
Join the Rangers, staff from the RSPB and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens for a high tide wader watch at
Kings Gap. No need to book. Meet at the junction of Kings Gap and Kings Parade, Hoylake (SJ 213892). High tide 1116hrs, 9.7m.
For further enquiries 0151 678 5488

NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2007', 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.

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