Skua Newsletter Skua

Map of the Estuary
Tide Table
English Shore
Welsh Shore
North Wirral Shore
Latest Sightings
Bird Counts

Nearby Sites

Birdwatching Walks
When to go



1st November 2001
Species Spotlight - Shelduck.
WeBS 1999-2000.

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


         Velvet Scoter

Species Spotlight - The Shelduck


shelduck flying
         Valerie McFarland

Stand on top of Thurstaston cliffs at low tide in October and you are likely to see over 8,000 Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) spread out on the mudflats below you, in autumn the highest concentration in the country. Unlike any other duck they feed exclusively on the mud, so what are so many birds finding to eat on all that mud? A tiny shellfish called Hydrobia ulvae, just a few millimetres long. These snails can occur in incredibly high densities up to 35,000 per square metre(1), and they must be present in these high densities off Thurstaston to sustain such large numbers of Shelduck.    

Hydrobia snails
Hydrobia ulvae are the tiny dark snails on top of the cockle. The cockle is no more than 3cm wide, so that gives you an idea just how small the Hydrobia are. Shelduck eat thousands a day.

The Dee Estuary is one of the most important sites for Shelduck in Western Europe, consistently being one of the top three locations in the country ever since the Wetland Bird Survey counts started way back in the 1960s. Shelduck have been increasing on the Dee Estuary since that time, from about 2,000 to last winter's (2000/2001) record number - 11,572 birds(2). During the same period the numbers nationally have shown only a small increase(3)

Shelduck graph

Shelduck always peak in October on the Dee Estuary, unlike nationally where the peak is in mid-winter. It is not certain why this is but the most likely explanation is the attraction of the rich feeding ground off Thurstaston - those Hydrobia again! 

Because Shelduck are flightless for about a month during their moult it is very important for them to find somewhere with soft mud to restrict predators and an almost total lack of disturbance(4). Up until five years ago the majority of Shelduck flew to the Waddensea off northern Germany to moult, not returning in significant numbers until October. 


Since 1996 a very significant change to this behaviour has been noted with up to 17,000 moulting on the Mersey(5). The Mersey Estuary meets all the criterion for a safe haven during moult, extensive mud flats and protection from disturbance all along the southern shore because of the presence of the Manchester Ship Canal.

It must be far more efficient in terms of energy spent for local birds to moult on the Mersey, just 12 kilometres across the Wirral from Thurstaston, then to fly many hundreds of kilometres to the Waddensea. One impact of so close a moulting site is the increase in birds in September which has been particularly apparent over the past three years (including this year, 2001), the birds returning to the Dee much earlier than they did when flying back from the Waddensea. The graph below demonstrates this by showing the distribution of Shelduck over the year on the Dee Estuary both for 2000/2001 and the average for the five year period prior to the establishment of the moult on the Mersey.

It should be noted that it has not  been proven that the Shelduck moulting on the Mersey are the same ones that are later seen on the Dee Estuary, but it is a reasonable assumption to make. 

Shelduck Distribution 

Note that the count for January 2001 was very low due to thick fog so a conservative estimate has been made as to the actual numbers present.

Shelduck numbers tail off steadily after the October peak as they disperse to other estuaries, and then in the spring to their breeding sites. Most of the Shelduck overwintering in this country also breed here (ca.10,000 to 12,000 pairs(6)). One of the places they breed is the coastline of the Dee Estuary, pairs of Shelduck make a delightful sight feeding close to the beach in spring, seemingly much more tolerant of human presence than the big flocks of winter - but far less tolerant of other pairs invading their territory. Look out for the males chasing the invaders away, one of the few times you hear Shelduck vocalising. No doubt breeding success is very variable but probably in the region of 100 to 200 young are produced each year(7).

1. A.J.Prater, Estuary Birds of Britain and Ireland, Poyser, 1981
2. N. Friswell and C.E. Wells, Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report, 2000/2001. 
3. Mark Pollit, The Wetland Bird Survey 1999-2000, BTO/WWT/RSPB/JNCC.
4. I.J. Patterson, The Shelduck, Cambridge, 1982.

5. N. Friswell and C.E. Wells, A Major New Shelduck Moult Site, Cheshire and Wirral Bird Report (CAWOS), 1998.
6. Stanley Cramp (Ed.), The Complete Birds of the Western Paleartic (CD), Oxford University Press, 1998.

7. J.P. Guest, The Breeding Bird Atlas of Cheshire and Wirral, CAWOS, 1992

WeBS data were supplied by the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), a joint scheme of the British Trust for Ornithology, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the last on behalf of the Countryside Council for Wales, Department of the Environment Northern Island, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage).


The Wetland Bird Survey 1999-2000


The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) 1999-2000 report has just been published (available from This contains counts of Wildfowl and Waders from throughout the country, including the Dee Estuary. It enables us to see how well the different species are doing nationally, how they are distributing themselves across the country, and how the birds here on the Dee Estuary are doing compared with other estuaries.

The report gives tables showing peak counts of each species at every location where significant numbers occur, both for 1999/2000 and the previous four years. It has to be said that 1999/2000 wasn't the best of years for peak numbers on the Dee Estuary! Total numbers of waterfowl fell under one hundred thousand for the first time since 1993/94 with 91,859. The graph below shows how this total number has changed over the past seven years.

So why have the numbers fallen steadily since 1996/97? Surprisingly perhaps, the answer is quite simple - a large drop in numbers of two of the most numerous species, Oystercatcher (decreased by 12,391) and Knot (decreased by 49,693).   The decrease in Oystercatchers has been a local phenomenon (no decrease nationally) and most likely due to poor cockle yields. Cockle yields have improved over the last year (2000/2001) on the English side of the estuary with a corresponding increase in Oystercatchers but apparently not yet on the Welsh side (1). Knot have decreased nationally although not as much as on the Dee. One possible cause is the recent run of mild winters which means we have not been getting large cold weather movements from mainland Europe. Even so large numbers of Knot are observed on the Dee from time to time, but mainly at low tide. Most Knot seem to roost at high tide outside the estuary, such as on the Alt (2). They are very variable in number, numbers changing dramatically on a daily basis as they move from estuary to  estuary, so sometimes it is just a matter of luck if a WeBS count day coincides with a large influx. 

Even with the relative low count in 1999/2000 the Dee Estuary is still one of the most important sites in the country for waterfowl, having the tenth highest number. Twelve species were present in Internationally important numbers, even the Wash with three times as many individual birds only has thirteen species in such numbers. 

The second highest count of Shelduck (8,814) was on the Dee, the highest count now being on the nearby Mersey in August during their moult. It was a poor year for Pintail with only the 5th highest count (2,356), for at least the ten previous years the Dee had the highest numbers in the country. Counts of Pintail at low water and at high tide on non-WeBS count days have given much larger numbers of Pintail (ca. 5,000) (3). Numbers of Black-tailed Godwit (2,543) have been increasing for a number of years and we now have the second highest count in the country, the Ribble Estuary just piping us by 53 birds. The Dee has always been a major haunt of Redshank and we had the third highest count with 4,792. Numbers of Redshank on passage were higher with 6,411 in September. 

WeBS data were supplied by the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), a joint scheme of the British Trust for Ornithology, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the last on behalf of the Countryside Council for Wales, Department of the Environment Northern Island, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage).

1. Neil Friswell and Colin E. Wells, Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report, 2000/2001.
2. Mark Pollit, The Wetland Bird Survey 1998-1999, BTO/WWT/RSPB/JNCC.
3. Neil Friswell and Colin E. Wells, Dee Estuary WeBS Annual Report, 1999/2000.


Bird Counts


Count from Hoylake Sea Front on 28th October produced a remarkable 75 species, here is a sample:
3 Red-throated Diver, 1 Great Northern Diver, 1 Long-tailed Duck, 436 Common Scoter, 1 Velvet Scoter, 75 Sanderling, 1 Yellow-legged Gull, 3 Gannet,  85 Cormorant, 1 Brent Goose, 2 Scaup, 1 Merlin, 2 Peregrine Falcon, 35 Razorbill, 3 Puffin, 5,000 Guillemot, 660 Fieldfare, 195 Redwing, 2 Tree Sparrow, 264 Skylark, 8 Grey Wagtail, 6 Lesser Redpoll and 1 Corn Bunting.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service). 7th October. 
64 Cormorant, 2 Grey Heron, 8,470 Shelduck, 74 Teal, 39 Mallard, 5 Pintail, 870 Oystercatcher, 169 Lapwing, 330 Knot, 1 Curlew Sandpiper, 33 Dunlin, 3 Black-tailed Godwit, 2080 Curlew, 1 Spotted Redshank, 5,050 Redshank, 2 Greenshank, 560 Common Gull, 57 Lesser Black-backed Gull, 444 Herring Gull and 21 Great Black-backed Gull.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Flint and Connah's Quay (Kindly provided by the Deeside Naturalist's Society). 7th October. 
8 Little Egret, 590 Teal, 110 Mallard, 1870 Oystercatcher, 2 Grey Plover, 1,550 Dunlin, 2,250 Black tailed Godwit, 3 Spotted Redshank, 1,360 Redshank, 17 Greenshank, 1 Curlew Sandpiper, 2 Peregrine Falcon, 1  Merlin, 1Common Buzzard and 1 Kingfisher.

Max Wildfowl counts from Inner Marsh Farm during October plus a selection of other interesting sightings.
215 Shoveler (record for reserve), 1,750 Teal and 380 Wigeon. Hen Harrier, Goosander, Mediterranean Gull, Spotted Crake, Great White Egret, Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers - last two species present for most of the month. 
Please note that the count from Inner Marsh Farm is an informal estimate of species and numbers present, either carried out by myself or other birdwatchers visiting the hide. It is not meant to be a complete count and is not in anyway part of the Wetland Bird Survey or other count which might be carried out by the RSPB.

October Bird News


A good month for rare American gulls. The best of the bunch must be the American Herring Gull at Hoylake, there have only been thirty five or so records in total for this country. This was closely followed by a Ring-billed Gull, also at Hoylake, but this isn't as rare as the Laughing Gull seen earlier in the month at West Kirby, only the fifth record for Wirral/ Cheshire.

American Herring Gull
The gulls must have been blown in on the strong north-west winds at the end of September/ early October, but most of the month was characterised by warm south winds resulting in a late migration of both Wheatear and Curlew Sandpiper. The last sighting of the former was on the 20th with two on West Kirby beach. Curlew Sandpipers were trickling through all month with a good, and late, record of four at Inner Marsh Farm on the 31st. Also at Inner Marsh Farm on the last day of the month was the Great White Egret sheltering from a north west gale, although it has spent most of the time on Burton Marsh. That same gale brought in a good selection of Skua and Petrels to the Point of Ayr including four Leach's and a Storm Petrel, and also, unexpectedly, two Greenland White-fronted Geese, a rare visitor to these parts.

Although we couldn't quite reach last year's record Shelduck count of 9,620 at Heswall we still managed a very respectable 8,470. Shoveler numbers continue to increase on the estuary and there was a reserve record of 215 at Inner Marsh Farm. Four thousand Pintail loitered off Flint and very good numbers of Wigeon were off Parkgate during the spring high tides, at least 2,000. On the subject of Parkgate we had a fabulous day on the 18th when the tide roared right up to the sea wall with the resulting good views of Water Rail and Short-eared Owls as well as the spectacle of various birds of prey and thousands of waders and duck. It was a shame that far more people turned up on the previous day which wasn't nearly as good!  Other wildfowl observed included 21 Eider at Point of Ayr, a very high number for the Dee where we normally only get the visiting odd one or two. They appeared to be a mixture of adult females and this year's young.   

October 28th was a bright sunny day with a fresh north-west wind after several days of southerlies. This switch round of the wind resulted in a large movement of birds along the North Wirral coast, both on land and off shore. At the end of the day 75 species had been seen from just one sea-front garden at Hoylake (no prizes for guessing whose!). A Velvet Scoter was the bird of the day but see list above for more details. 

Denhall Quay made an excellent vantage spot to see the Great White Egret, up to 15 Little Egrets, 4 Short-eared Owls and a ring-tail Hen Harrier. Someone was lucky enough to see a flock of ten Little Egrets flying to roost, a real thrill considering how rare these birds were only a few years ago. 

The Greenfield Valley bird survey continues, the total is now 90 birds. Click here for a complete list.

What to expect in November: Dunlin and Knot will be pouring into the estuary during November, especially so if we get a cold spell on the continent. We had a record number of Dunlin on the estuary this time last year, over 40,000. The high tide roosts at Point of Ayr, West Kirby and Hoylake are good spots to see both these species.

Bewick's Swans should be seen on Burton Marsh, at least fifty can be expected with a few Whooper mingling in the flock. From virtually no Shoveler in 1988 we now get well over one hundred, peaking in November. Most occur at Inner Marsh Farm.

Water Pipits seem especially attracted to the stream at Neston Old Quay where we might get six or more. This location, and nearby Denhall Quay, are excellent places to observe the bird life on the marsh, including Little Egrets, Short-eared Owls, a Hen Harrier or two, and if it is still around, the Great White Egret. 

Many thanks go to Tony Bell, Iain Douglas, Margaret Twemlow, John Gittins, Brian Grey, Colin Wells, Jeff Clarke, Chris Butterworth, Bill Owens, Mark Feltham, Julian Weldrick, Neil Fletcher, James Lowther, Andy Mabbet, Andy Thomas, T. Morton, Wendy Allen, David Ester, Dave Harrington, Martyn Jaimeson, Carl Clee,  Colin Jones, John Kirkland, Jane Turner, Brian Roberts and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens for their sightings during October. I rely on the goodwill of people like this, unlike some commercial sites I cannot offer financial inducements!


Forthcoming Events


November Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool) 
15th November, 10.59hrs 9.8m. (all times GMT)

16th November, 11.40hrs, 9.8m.
See Tides page for full tide table.

Note that the marsh at Parkgate may be covered when tide height is 9.8m or over, dependent on weather conditions. Low pressure with strong north-west wind will create higher than expected tide, high pressure with southerly wind means lower than expected tide. 

Wirral Peregrines Phoenix Group
A group for teenagers jointly run by the RSPB and Wirral Ranger Service.   For all young people (you don't have to be RSPB members) who want to do something to improve our environment and enjoy wildlife. See events for  2001.

Wirral Bird Club
The Wirral Bird Club welcomes all who are interested in birds, from the beginner to the experienced.  See the complete listing of events for 2001

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.

High tide bird watches at Parkgate and Heswall for the whole of 2001 are shown on the high tide birdwatch page. Always check latest newsletter for any additions or changes.

Saturday 17th November 2pm to 4:30pm (HW 12:19, 9.6m) Egret Watch at Denhall Quay.
Regular readers of this website will know of the rapid increase in Little Egrets on the Dee Estuary since the first one was seen in 1989. This year there have been up to 18, with at least 8 regularly off Denhall Quay. In addition there is a possibility of seeing the Great White Egret, Short-eared Owls and a Hen Harrier. An RSPB warden will be present to point out all these exciting birds, he will also have a telescope for you to get some great close up views.

Saturday 17th November 10am to 3pm (HW 12:19, 9.6m) Open Day at Connah's Quay Reserve.
Your chance to see this excellent reserve normally only open to members of the Deeside Naturalists Society. Should be large numbers of wader and duck roosting at high tide including Wigeon, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Oystercatcher. 

Saturday 17th November 10:45 (HW 12:19, 9.6m) High Tide Birdwatch at Riverbank Rd, Heswall.
An alternative venue with an excellent high vantage point where you can witness the swirling wader and wildfowl flocks as they are pushed along the estuary by the advancing tide. Meet: Riverbank Road car park, Lower Heswall. Further information Tel: Wirral Country Park on 0151 648 4371/3884 Or RSPB 0151 336 7681. 

Sunday 18th November 10:30am (HW 12:37, 9.5m) High Tide at Point of Ayr.
An impressive spectacle of waders and wildfowl, with the potential for winter specialities such as Brent Goose and Short-eared Owl. No need to book. Meet at end of Station road, Talacre. For info. ring RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 2nd December 10:00am (HW 11:58, 9.3m)High tide at Flint Foreshore
Superb coastal birding with potential for Twite and large flocks of Black-tailed Godwit. Meet at Flint Lifeboat Station Car Park. For info. ring RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 15th December 8:45am (HW 11:21, 9.4m) Birdwatch at Banks Road, Heswall
For close up views of waders and wildfowl Banks Road is hard to beat. Close scrutiny of the mobile flocks often betrays the presence of an approaching predator, whether it be a stealthy Sparrowhawk, a dashing Merlin, or a charismatic Peregrine. Meet at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall. Further information Tel: Wirral Country Park on 0151 648 4371/3884 Or RSPB 0151 336 7681.