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October 2020 Newsletter


The Status of Rock Pipits (Anthus petrosus)
at Hilbre and in the Dee Estuary

First ever Scandinavian Rock Pipit (anthus petrosus littoralis), recovered on Hilbre in 2016
© Hilbre Bird Observatory


David Norman, in the 2008 CAWOS atlas Birds in Cheshire and Wirral, pointed out the lack of verified information about Rock Pipits in Wirral and raised a number of interesting questions for Wirral bird watchers and ringers to answer. He pointed out that very little information regarding the race of birds found on Wirral was available. There are known differences in diet between races of rock pipits which he outlined and he noted that although the bulk of the records are from the winter, the autumn and spring migration periods there were some records indicating that birds had been present in the summer.
This note gives some more background and documents the ringing of rock pipits undertaken by the Hilbre Bird Observatory in the past 20 years. This ringing data provides concrete evidence, albeit in relatively small quantities, that supports the idea that British race rock pipits (Anthus petrosus petrosus) sometimes spend the winter around Hilbre and breed on the island and that Scandinavian race rock pipits (Anthus petrosus littoralis) visit Hilbre but probably spend the winter in the Dee salt marshes.


Coward and Oldham, in their book Birds of Cheshire published in 1900, say that most of the Wirral coast is unsuitable for breeding Rock Pipits but they are to be found breeding on Hilbre. They mention a visit they made in May 1894 when they saw several pairs of breeding rock pipits themselves. They mention Brockholes who had seen Rock Pipit eggs from Hilbre and Mr A O Walker had found three nests there in 1858. This was a time before ornithologists accepted there were races of birds and Rock Pipit and Water Pipit had not been split. They only write about breeding birds and made no comment about migration or wintering.
Eric Hardy, in his book Birds of the Liverpool Area published in 1941, mentions that Rock Pipits are birds of passage at Hilbre but noted that he found a pair breeding on the island in May 1940.
J D Craggs, in his book Hilbre, The Cheshire Island published in 1982, notes that Rock Pipits have been seen on Hilbre in every month except June and July and highlights the Autumn passage as a regular phenomenon. He notes that there are records of Rock Pipits breeding but classifies them as old and not well documented.
So there are eye witness accounts from the mid-19th century up to 1940 of breeding Rock Pipits on Hilbre and accounts of Spring and Autumn passage from the 1930s to the 1980s. Norman mentions a breeding record in 2007 and notes another possible breeding record from 2005.

Rock Pipit in snow, Hilbre February 2018 © Steve Williams

The 21st Century

There have been 73 ringing encounters with rock pipits on Hilbre in the period 2002 to 2016 that involved 28 different birds. One bird was identified as breeding on the island in 2015 and 2016, 2637605 a male. Two birds were identified as breeding on the island in 2016, 2637605 for a second year and 2637609 a new female. Four young were ringed on the island at dates when they could be identified as the outcome of breeding success. Two birds were found to have spent the winters around the island but had not been recaptured during the breeding season. Thus the 28 ringed birds represent: two wintering birds; two birds that had been part of the breeding population; four young, the results of breeding; and the other 20 birds were classified as passage birds. One of the passage birds had a colour ring, yellow TXC, which was attached to the bird in the summer of 2016 on the island of Giske, an island off the west coast of Norway.

Analysis of 21st Century Data

Two Rock Pipits, 2637605 and 2637609, were re-trapped during the breeding seasons of 2015 and 2016 on Hilbre. It was possible to identify the first as a male from his cloacal protuberance and the second as a female because she was developing her brood patch. More important than this though was that both birds could be identified as the British race because they were both dark and did not have a trace of a pink flush, reduced streaking or white features that would be expected with Scandinavian birds. So we were able to reason that the birds breeding on Hilbre were the British race, this was the first evidence identifying petrosus as the race of rock pipits breeding on Hilbre. This was not a surprise but the corollary to this, because one of the breeding birds spent the winter of 2015 on the island, was that we could also assert that British race birds spend the winter on Hilbre as 2637605 had done just this.
In October 2016 TXC, the Norwegian bird, was recaptured twice before it disappeared. We were lucky enough to catch one of the juvenile birds that had been ringed on Hilbre in 2016 while we had TXC in the hand. TXC had been ringed as a juvenile in 2016 in Norway. We were able to compare both birds and to confirm what was expected that the birds could not be identified to race from plumage features at that time of year. However the Norwegian rings identified the bird as a Scandinavian race bird (littoralis). The consequence of this was that we had the first piece of ringing evidence that Scandinavian birds pass through Hilbre in the autumn.
When we look at the 29 new birds that have been captured on Hilbre we see that two birds spent the whole winter on the island, two birds bred on the island and four of the other birds were young produced on the island. This leaves 21 birds that we have classified as passage birds. TXC, the Scandinavian bird was placed in this category as it only spent a week on the island in the autumn of 2016.
The area of the Hilbre island group is about 4.4 hectares, a small area when considering the available breeding locations for rock pipits. The island group is the only rocky area that is not covered by the tide in the Dee estuary. This being the case it is the only area suitable for rock pipit to breed. The consequence of these issues is that Hilbre clearly has supported and does support breeding rock pipits of the British race but the area where they can breed is small and limits the number of birds able to use the island to breed.
In the winter the available feeding areas are larger as British race Rock Pipits can use the intertidal areas that are uncovered at low tide and the Scandinavian birds that we know come to the island prefer to feed in the salt marsh environment of the Dee, a much larger area. The fact that TXC only stayed round the island for a week before moving is a small piece of evidence confirming that Scandinavian birds pass through Hilbre rather than remain round the island for much time. The Rock Pipits that have been trapped on Hilbre since 2002 have been passage birds and most of them have been first year birds so it would seem reasonable to suggest that a high proportion are Scandinavian birds that are about to winter in the Dee salt marshes rather than British race birds that would be expected to stay around Hilbre to take advantage of the considerably smaller intertidal areas to feed.
Moving forward in time to March 2020, the day before the COVID19 lockdown started, a Rock Pipit was caught on Hilbre. This bird was paler looking than a British race bird would be expected to look, it had a pale supercilium, it had a greyish tinge to its head and tail (the central tail feathers were still growing indicating that it was near the end of its prebreeding moult), it had very little streaking on its belly and flanks and it had a very faint pinky/buff tinge on some of its breast feathers. It had a relatively short wing length, 85mm, so there was a relatively high chance of it being female. All of these features lead to the bird being classified as a Scandinavian race bird, littoralis. This was the first bird ever caught on Hilbre that could be attributed to the Scandinavian race on plumage features and the first Scandinavian race bird ringed in the spring.


Rock Pipits breeding and wintering around Hilbre since 2002 have provided evidence for the following: 1. The British race (petrosus) breeds on Hilbre from time to time; 2. The British race also spends some winters in the vicinity of Hilbre; 3. The Scandinavian race (littoralis) is a passage bird in autumn but does not spend much time on Hilbre during its journey to suitable feeding sites. It would appear that the speculation regarding Scandinavian race rock pipits wintering in the Dee salt marshes is probably true. The Scandinavian bird caught and ringed in March 2020 suggests a return passage of Scandinavian birds and may have been a wintering bird from the Dee salt marshes.

Post Script

In the Cheshire Atlas David Norman noted the feeding preferences of both races of rock pipits. We are able to add the following observation of feeding behaviour from our current investigation.
During the summer of 2015 a Rock Pipit was seen to kill and eat a common sea slater (Ligia oceanica) an inhabitant of the rocky cliffs of the island and known to the Hilbre regulars as jaspers. This insect is the largest of the UK’s wood lice, about 3cm in length. The rock pipit flipped it onto its back, killed it then eat the flesh from its underparts leaving the shell untouched.

Rock Pipit eating a 'jasper' on West Kirby Marine Lake wall, January 2020 © Peter Sutton
Given the time of year and habitat this is likely to be British race petrosus


T.A.Coward and Charles Oldham, The Birds of Cheshire,  published by Sherratt and Hughes, Manchester, 1900

J.D.Craggs, Hilbre, The Cheshire Island, Liverpool University Press, 1982, ISBN 0-85323-314-4

Eric Hardy, Birds of the Liverpool Area, Merseyside Naturalists’ Association Handbook, published by T.Buncle & CO. printers of Arbroath.

J.P.Guest, D.Elphick, J.S.A.Hunter, D.Norman, The Breeding Bird Atlas of Cheshire and Wirral, Bath Press, Avon ISBN 0 9517301 0 X.

David Norman, Birds in Cheshire and Wirral, Liverpool University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84631-152-9.

John Elliott, Hilbre Bird Observatory (June 2020).

NOTE: This article was first published in the Cheshire and Wirral Ornithological Society Bird News No. 114 (July 2020).

P.S. At least two pairs of Rock Pipits bred successfully on Hilbre in 2020, there may have been a third pair as three males were heard singing a few times.

Scandinavian Rock Pipit left and British Rock Pipit right, Hilbre Bird Observatory, October 2016 © Colin Jones

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Colour Ring Report

Another good month with 40 colour-ringed birds seen from 11 species, plus a satellited tagged Hen Harrier.  Below is a summary of the more interesting records.

Hen Harrier

Satellite tagged Hen Harrier at Parkgate, September 23rd © Frank Burns

Not a colour-ringed bird but this satellite tagged Hen Harrier definitely deserves a place in this report. Jarvis (named after Hen Harrier enthusiast Jarvis Cocker) was tagged by the RSPB during the 2020 breeding season in Snowdonia. It was tracked arriving on the Dee estuary on the September 22nd, was photographed on the 23rd but was observed leaving again the following day and was then recorded just east of Betws-Y-Coed - not far from where it was hatched. Jarvis's movements suggest that maybe we see quite a large turnover of Hen Harriers on the Dee estuary which range over a large area.


Oystercatcher W(02A)-B at Meols, September 2020 © Richard Smith

W(02A) - B.

Ringed at Sliddery on the Isle of Arran on 9/3/2018.
Recorded at Meols on 7/9/20 and 16/9/20.
Recorded at Thurstaston on 23/9/20.

Oystercatcher YB(3L) at Hoylake, September 2020 © Richard Smith

Yellow over B(3L).

Ringed at Dawlish Warren, Exe Estuary, on 4/2/2018.
Since being ringed it has been recorded many times at the ringing site over each winter. In the winter of 2019/20 it was last seen at Dawlish Warren on 14/2/20.
Recorded at Hoylake on 4/9/20 but was back again at Dawlish Warren by 10/9/20. I wonder what route it took - directly overland south along the Welsh borders or the much longer journey around the coast?
This bird was cannon-netted when a total of 190 Oystercatchers were caught in the first catch at Dawlish Warren since 2004, by the newly re-formed Devon & Cornwall Wader Ringing Group. It is part of a study into understanding recent declines in wintering Oystercatchers in the Exe Estuary SPA. YB(3L) was obviously on passage at Hoylake and we don't know where it bred, but the group have had sightings of their ringed Oystercatchers from various breeding sites including Derbyshire, Bedfordshire, Co. Durham, Highland Scotland, Islay, Dundalk Bay (Ireland) and Norway.
If you want to know more about the Exe Oystercatcher project then have a look at their 2019 Annual Report - http://www.dcwrg.org.uk/images/downloads/Annual Report 2019.pdf where there is an article titled "What are we learning about Exe Oystercatchers" by R Burrel and J Morten, and another titled "Ring Reading at Dawlish Warren" by L Collins.

Oystercatcher G(T876) at Meols, September 2020 © Richard Smith

T876 on green ring
Ringed at Sola in SW Norway on 8/5/2020 as a breeding adult, and recorded there in mid-July.
Recorded at Seaforth on 5/9/20 and at Meols on 7/9/20.

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover N/RW-RR on Hilbre, September 2020 © Steve Williams


Ringed in th north east corner of the Waddensea on the German coast on 11/6/16.
It has returned to breed at the ringing site every summer since. Remarkably, it has been caught another two times; on 5/6/19 when a missing ring was re-fitted and on 4/6/20 when a GPS tag was fitted. You can just make out the wire below it's rump in the photo above.
Recorded at Ballycotton, Cork, Ireland on 10/9/19 and at Hilbre on 1/9/20.


Shelduck L(VN) at Thurstaston, September 2020 © Steve Hinde

Another eight Lime ringed Shelduck were recorded at Thurstaston during September. These birds spend the winter at Martin Mere (where they are ringed) eating the grain put out for the wild Swans. None of the birds we have recorded have been seen elsewhere but it seems likely they breed in this country, perhaps locally, before moulting in late summer either on the Mersey or Dee estuaries. They are then seen off Thurstaston in September and October before returning to Martin Mere.

XD on Black ring.
Ringed at Lower Derwent Valley NNR, just east of York, on 23/3/2011 - a breeding bird.
Recorded at Thurstaston on 20/9/20.

Common Gull

Common Gull 2XXK at Hoylake, September 2020 © Richard Smith

2XXK on an orange ring.
Ringed in Westhill Industrial Estate, Aberdeen, on 5/7/14.
It has been seen at Wallasey in the autumns of 2014, 2015 and 2018.
Recorded at Hoylake on 1/9/20.

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull TMEN at West Kirby, September 2020 © Steve Hinde

TMEN on White ring.
Ringed in central Poland on 12/4/13.
First recorded at West Kirby on 6/9/2013 it has been seen there every winter since, often perched on the pontoons on West Kirby Marine Lake. Over that time it has also been recorded at Hoylake (twice), Thurstaston and Greenfield Dock, but never away from the Dee Estuary.
Recorded at West Kirby on 12/8/20 and 2/9/20.

VK13 on White ring.
Ringed at Frederikshavn on the north-east tip of Denmark on 9/6/11,
Recorded at Leasowe on 16/9/11.
There have been no other records.


Despite being the most important site in the country for this species we see very few colour-ringed birds, so it was good to record two over the past few weeks.

Ringed in Dundrum Inner Bay, Northern Ireland, on 14/12/19.
Recorded on Heswall Shore on 13/8/20.

Ringed at Ynyslas, Cardigan Bay, on 28/12/19.
Recorded at Hoylake on 26/9/20.

Colour-rings were recorded by Richard Smith, Steve Hinde, Steve Williams, Colin Jones, Richard Ashford, Tony Ormond, Sue Haslem, Richard Du Feu, Tim Kinch, Richard Speechley, John Hemmings and Rob Lewis, Frank Burns photographed the satellited tagged Hen Harrier.

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September Bird News

One day of strong north-westerlies early in the month teased us into thinking we would have some great sea-watching in September but it was not to be. However, we did see a few Leach's Petrels with five on the fifth and two on the ninth, but that was it. At least one Sabine's Gull was spotted on the 5th. A Pomarine Skua was spotted from Hilbre on the 13th but other than that it was a poor month for skuas.

Curlew Sandpiper at Hoylake, September 3rd © Charles Farnell

It was certainly a good month for Curlew Sandpipers with one of the best passages in recent years with numbers peaking in the first week, including 10 at Burton Mere Wetlands and 16 at Hoylake on the 3rd. 10 at Heswall on the 13th was also a good count. Note the weekly totals shown in the graph are the sum of daily records so any birds staying more than one day will have been counted more than once. See 'Curlew Sandpiper Influx 2016' for details of Curlew Sandpipers numbers on the Dee Estuary this century.

A lovely comparison of Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin at Hoylake, September 4th © Mark Woodhead

Generally numbers of waders were lower than in August but this very approachable Golden Plover (below) was a stunning sight at Hoylake mid-month. A Lesser Yellowlegs at Thurstaston on the 20th was reported as a 'possible' but having read the description it has to be a 'probable' but unfortunately it wasn't relocated and no photo was taken. A Pectoral Sandpiper was at Burton Mere Wetlands at the end of the month, with at least one Spotted Crake still present.

Golden Plover at Hoylake, September 14th © Peter Sutton

Lots of 'white herons' around with seven Spoonbills still at Parkgate but it was Egrets which really impressed. Eight Cattle Egret arrived at Burton Mere Wetlands on the 11th, breaking the previous record of six in 2016 and 2017, then a week later there were 10! There were lots of Great Egret sightings but it wasn't until the end of the month when 39 were counted coming in to the roost that we realised just how many there were - previous max count was 35 in August 2019.

Spoonbills flying  at Parkgate, August 17th © Roy Wilson

Flocks of Pink-footed Geese were flying into the estuary all month and the evening flights were spectacular by the last week with several thousands present - expect even more in October.

Pink-footed Geese over Burton Marsh, September 16th © Les Hall

There was plenty of movement of passerines including Wheatears and Whinchats, and the number of Grey Wagtails flying over suggest they had a good breeding season.

Wheatear at Burton Point, September 1st © Mark Woodhead

Many thanks go to Mark Gibson, Mark Woodhead, Tim Kinch, Matt Thomas, David Haigh, Carole Killikelly, Steve Hinde, Alan Hitchmough, Derek Bates, Allan Conlin, Steve Williams, Richard Whitby, David Thompson, David Small, Les Hall, Richard Speechley, Richard Beckett, Roy Wilson, Jeff Cohen, John Hemmings, Elliot Montieth, Chris Wilding, Roy Lowry, David Leeming, Karen Leeming, Ron Armstrong, John Watson, Mal Sergeant, Bruce Atherton, Roger Evans, Charles Farnell, Angie Mounsie, Peter Sutton, Mike Kay, Frank Burns, Kim Nelson, Andrew Smith, Bill Wonderley,  Stephen Lane, Chris Doran, John Missin, j Dodd, Dave Edwards, David Bradshaw, Rod Bell, Linda Platt, Hugh Stewart, Sean O'Hara, Paul Mason, Phil Marlin, Alan Oates, Tony Hession, David Bedford, Gary Powell, Steve Hart, Richard Ashford, Tony Ormond, David Lea, the Dee Estuary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during September. All sightings are gratefully received.

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What to expect in October

North-west gales, specially early in the month, should bring in Leach's Petrels and a selection of skuas, with the possibility of Sabine's Gulls and Grey Phalaropes. But even flat calm conditions can be good for sea-watching as we often see huge flocks of Common Scoters off shore on their way south to winter off Africa, plus a build up of a few hundred Great Crested Grebes off north Wirral although numbers seem to have declined in the past couple of years.

There will be a big influx of Pink-footed Geese with large skeins overhead heading for the marshes, some of these will be on their way to Norfolk but increasing numbers now spend the winter here - last winter's max was an amazing 22100 (in March). October often sees a big influx of both Teal and Pintail with many recorded at both Burton Mere Wetlands and off Oakenholt Marsh. Shelduck numbers will peak in October, the several thousand off Thurstaston make for a spectacular sight. On the marshes Neston Reedbed will be worth checking out in the hour or two before dusk to see the Marsh Harriers fly in to roost, counts could be as high as 20 or more. Great Egrets, Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls will also be in evidence.

More than anything October is known for migration with many birds seen on 'Vis Mis' (visible migration). To see Vis Mis you need to be on site on the coast at dawn preferably during a period of light to moderate south-east winds and over-cast skies. On a good day you will see flock after flock of Chaffinches, Starlings, Redwings, Fieldfares, Siskins and many other species (Brambling, Greenfinch, Wood Pigeons, various tit species etc) passing overhead heading generally in a southward direction - see Visible Migration.

The waders which have roosted further east, on the Waddensee and the Wash, will arrive en-masse at the end of the month to spend the winter here - these will be mainly Dunlin, Knot, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit.

A bird we really shouldn't be seeing, because it should be in south-east Asia, is the Yellow-browed Warbler - but a few do turn up every year - read The Yellow-browed Warbler Influx 2016 to find out about this mysterious species. But October is a month we can expect to see rarities and over the past few years these have included Chough, Pallid Harrier, Pectoral Sandpiper, Melodious Warbler, Rosy Starling, Richard's Pipit and Sooty Shearwater.

There are some big high tides due from 16th to the 19th, with a stiff westerly behind them these may well cover the marshes bringing many of the large numbers of birds described above close to the shore with spectacular views.

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Forthcoming Events

October Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool)

Also see Tides page

16th October, 11.24hrs (BST), 9.8m.  
17th October, 12.06hrs (BST), 10.0m.
18th October, 12.48hrs (BST), 10.1m.
19th October, 13.30hrs (BST), 9.9m. 

Forthcoming Events

Due to Covid 19 restrictions no birdwatching events are planned for this month.