Species Spotlight - Northern Pintail (Anas Acuta)
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.
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:
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 http://www.bto.org
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
A westerly gale
on the 24th brought in a load of auks past Hoylake Shore - 475 Guillemot,
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
a record high count for Cheshire and Wirral. Also on the 29th 118 Great
Crested Grebes off Meols was an excellent
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.
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.
Spring Tides (Liverpool),
Forthcoming Events (organised by the
Wirral Ranger Service,
Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):
Parkgate High Tides.
Saturday 13th October, 11.00am
Sunday 21st.October, 3:00pm.
Parkgate Raptor Watch RSPB Dee Estuary Reserve.
Saturday 27th October 2007, 10:00am - 3:00pm.
Sunday 18th November, 2.00pm.
Parkgate Raptor Watch RSPB Dee Estuary Reserve.
Sunday 25th November, 9.30am Start, Wader Watch at Kings Gap,
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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