Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st November 2007
Site Guide - Red Rocks.
October Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Site Guide - Red Rocks Marsh Nature Reserve

Editor: this article was originally written by Jane Turner for the Bird Forum website in 2004 and she has kindly agreed to let me reproduce it here. I have left it virtually untouched from the original so when Jane writes 'this year' or 'this autumn' she is referring to 2004, not 2007! September and, in particular, October 2007 have been spectacular at Red Rocks even by the standards of this superb site (with many records supplied by Jane) - see the October bird news below. Thanks Jane.
Click here for directions.

Jane Turner.

I've been birding here for just short of 30 years, here is some insider knowledge....

The reserve is a small phragmites marsh, brackish dune slack, bordered by the rather exclusive Royal Liverpool Golf Club and the Dee Estuary. It was established as an SSSI to protect a dwindling population of Natterjack Toads Bufo calamita*. There are a number of Alders, Hawthorns and Apple trees, which together with a small stand of Poplar in the NW corner of the golf course and the gardens of the Stanley Rd Houses, provide a small amount of cover for migrant birds.

Looking towards Stanley Road from the boardwalk, reeds on the left, the Blyth's Reed Warbler
 was just beyond the tree in the centre of the photo,
© Richard Smith.

With 270 accepted species of bird, it has the biggest list of anywhere in Cheshire & Wirral. It is primarily a site for visible passage, being located at the NW corner of a peninsula. Regardless of season nearly all birds observed are moving south. The major paradox of the site is that the conditions that are most likely to produce a good bird are also most likely to mean it will be a fleeting visit. I know a lot of people who have never seen a good bird at Red Rocks. That is because they turn up mid afternoon after the news hits the local bird lines. Unless it's raining, foggy or the bird is an Acrocephalus warbler or perhaps a pipit, it is long gone. It’s a great place to find your own birds though. Here is a summary of what you can see and when to go.

Winter. There is a healthy population of Water Rails in the marsh, averaging 20-30. The Spartina on the western margin and the area around the Natterjack scrapes holds Snow Buntings about 2 years in 5. More rarely Shorelarks and Lapland Buntings appear, though they seldom stay for long. There is a regular flock of 50-100 Linnet, which commute between the Golf Course and the foreshore and these are worth checking for Twite. Jack Snipe used to be a regular visitor, but since I am no longer crashing about in the reed bed ringing, I don’t see them any more. Reed buntings, Stonechats and Wrens are the most conspicuous inhabitants of the reed bed.
When to visit: in very cold weather its easier to see the Water Rails and there is a good chance of seeing some spectacular weather movements (primarily Lapwing and Skylark). Sea-watching from the rocks themselves should produce Scoter, Divers, Auks and Grebes, though it needs to be a big tide (9m+). Perhaps the best reason to visit in winter is the huge numbers of shorebirds. 10-50,000 Knot, 3-40,000 Dunlin and good numbers of all the other common waders. As the feeding grounds on the East Hoyle sand bank flood, huge flocks of birds will fly over the point at Red Rocks and attempt to roost on the shore at West Kirby or Hilbre. It’s an exhilarating sight and sound. Of course the local Peregrines know this and often try and pick out their lunch.

Early Spring. The first sign that spring is coming will be a movement of Meadow Pipits. 3-500 a day are not unusual. It usually a race between White Wagtail and Wheatear for the first “proper” spring migrant. The golf course and the garden of the last house on the north side of Stanley Rd are the best places to see an early Wheatear, while the Wagtails are invariably on the beach. It not unusual to get counts of more than 50 White Wagtails and the record is more than 200. All common migrants can be seen and the site is particularly good for Tree Pipit. The Ivy-filled hollow just south of the Poplar stand is a top spot for Ring Ouzel, though you will have to be early.
When to go: You have to be there early. Birds present at dawn move off within the first hour or two, and birds which have made landfall elsewhere on the Wirral coast will move through within three hours of dawn. On very rare occasions there can be huge falls (eg 600 Willow warblers, 250 Wheatear) and these are associated with a clear night, southerly winds and rain just before dawn.

Late Spring. The Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers will be on territory. About 12 pairs of the former and 4 of the latter. On the golf-course there are Lesser Whitethroats, Whitethroats and more often than not Grasshopper Warbler. Although the bulk of passage is over, its now that Red Rocks comes into its own. With the right weather conditions, expect the unexpected: 5 Serins, Great-Reed warbler, Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Savi’s Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Red-throated pipit, 7 Tawny Pipits, 5 Melodious Warblers, Gull-billed Tern, Collared Pratincole etc. This year there were two Red-backed Shrikes and a suspiciously icterops-like Whitethoat. However the Black Lark went over too high for me to see it!
When to go: The weather conditions for a “goody” are very predictable. The wind needs to be in the SE, or better still ESE for at least three days. It needs to be hot and muggy, with clear skies but poor visibility. You want birds to be up and moving, but to not be able to see Wales when they reach the point of the Wirral. Then you have a chance of the birds landing or at least circling long enough to identify them! I remember pointing out a stratospheric male Black Redstart that was circling high over the point to a group of visitors and it took me 25 minutes to lay bins on a circling Bee-eater that was calling very loudly.

Summer. The breeding warblers provide the most interest, though towards the end of summer an impressive tern roost can build up. The Little and Sandwich Terns at Gronant, and the Common terns at Shotton all bring their fledged young out to the mouth of the Dee to feed them. This year’s highlight was an adult summer White-winged Tern, with previous birds including Gull-billed tern, Caspian tern and Ring-billed Gull.
When to go: pick a tide in the 8.6 to 9.3m range to maximise the chances of a close but undisturbed tern roost in the vicinity of Bird Rock. If there has been a period of strong westerlies there can be good movements of Manx Shearwater.

Beyond the reeds is Hilbre Island, the sand bank in between can hold thousands
of waders at high tide in the winter,
© Richard Smith.

Autumn. Whereas the bulk of migrants move through in late August and early September, like in spring it is the later passage that can produce rarities. In general there are far fewer birds on autumn passage than in spring, presumably something to do with the local geography. Once again almost anything can turn up. Great-spotted and Black-billed Cuckoo, Greenish Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler is almost regular (3-5 this year) Richard’s pipit (7) Red-throated Pipit (3) and Red-rumped Swallow. The best birds ever to grace the site were both unfortunately not specifically identified. An Eastern or Western Wood Pewee and a Summer or Scarlet Tanager! This autumn was quiet, though there was a Richard’s pipit and a Great Grey Shrike which confounded me by staying nearly 24 hours! Despite the rarities, the most impressive aspect of autumn birding at Red Rocks is the overhead passage at dawn. Counts of 1000+ finches are not unusual and occasionally there are enormous thrush movements. I remember dutifully completing a coordinated migration watch, clocking up 11,250 redwings and 8000 Fieldfares knowing full well that there was a Song Sparrow at Seaforth! A feature of Red Rocks is an extraordinary passage of tits. Counts of 300+ Blue and 200+ Coal tit have been made, with birds collecting on the point houses and making exploratory flights out to sea. These flocks are always worth checking out for Phylloscopus warblers. Sea-watching in autumn is good, though to be honest the point is terribly exposed in conditions conducive to big numbers of Skuas and petrels, and I’d recommend either Hilbre where the birds are closer or a warm car at Leasowe! I’d dearly love to have been sea-watching the day a Gyr Falcon came in off the sea.
When to go: You need East in the winds. SE seems to be the best for producing rarities, E-NE for big numbers of finches and thrushes. Overhead passage starts just before dawn and continues for about two hours. Clear skies with bad visibility are again best for numbers though it may be hard to locate flocks against the bright sky. This year I heard but failed to see a Red-throated Pipit. If there has been a large arrival of drift migrants on the east coast, between St Abbs and Flamborough, it seems to take 2 to 3 days for them to filter through the county. If the weather is good but there is ground fog on the east coast, sometimes the drift birds arrive first hand.

So that is it. Don’t expect to twitch a bird at Red Rocks, unless it’s in the reed bed. The Great-spotted Cuckoo would have been a fly though had it not hit a net and the Dartford Warbler only spent about 45 seconds on the deck.

Vagrants: Sooty Shearwater, Cory's Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, White Stork, Little Egret, Bittern, Spoonbill, Montagu’s Harrier, Gyr Falcon, Kentish Plover, Spotted Crake, Corn Crake, Dotterel, Collared Praticole, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Grey Phalarope, Ring-billed Gull, Roseate Tern, Caspian Tern, Gull-billed tern White-winged Tern, Nightjar, Alpine Swift, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-billed Cuckoo, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Wryneck, Wood Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Richard’s Pipit, Tawny Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, Bluethroat, Savi’s Warbler, Aquatic Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Barred Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Great-Grey Shrike, Chough, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Hawfinch.

Birds Include: Red-throated Diver (W), Great Crested Grebe (W) Fulmar (Su), Manx Shearwater (Su), Manx Shearwater (Su), European Storm-petrel (rare PM), Leach’s Storm-petrel (PM), Northern Gannet (su) Great Cormorant, Brent Goose (w) Common Shelduck, Long-tailed Duck (scarce W) Velvet Scoter (scarce W) Eurasian Marsh Harrier (rare PM) Hen Harrier (rare PM) Osprey (scarce PM) Common Kestrel, Merlin (W,PM) Eurasian Hobby (rare PM), Peregrine Falcon, Water Rail (w) Common Moorhen, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover (PM,W), Grey Plover (PM,W) Red Knot (PM,W) Sanderling (PM,W), Little Stint (scarce PM), Curlew Sandpiper (PM) Dunlin (PM,W), Jack Snipe (scare W) Common Snipe (w) Black-tailed Godwit (Scarce PM,W) Bar-tailed Godwit (PM,W), Whimbrel (PM) Eurasian Curlew (PM,W), Spotted Redshank (scarce PM), Common Redshank (PM,W) Common Greenshank (PM) Pomarine Skua (rare PM) Arctic Skua (PM) Long-tailed Skua (rare PM) Great Skua (PM,W) Mediterranean Gull (scarce) Little Gull (scarce) Sabine’s Gull (scarce PM), Common Tern (s), Arctic Tern (PM), Little Tern (s), Black Tern (scarce PM), Guillemot, Short-eared Owl (Scarce PM,W) Skylark, Black Redstart (scarce PM, W) Common Redstart (PM), Whinchat (PM) Stonechat, Northern Wheatear (PM), Ring Ouzel (PM) Grasshopper Warbler (Su), Sedge Warbler (Su), Reed Warbler (Su) Lesser Whitethroat (PM) Common Whitethroat (Su) Garden Warbler (PM) Blackcap (PM) Wood Warbler (Scarce PM) Common Chiffchaff (PM) Willow Warbler (PM), Goldcrest (PM) Firecrest (scarce PM) Spotted Flycatcher (PM) Pied Flycatcher (PM), Lesser Redpoll (PM).

PM - passage migrant, W - winter visitor, Su - summer visitor.

Jane Turner.

* since Jane wrote this the Natterjack Toads have made something of a recovery thanks to habitat management and protection by the Wirral Rangers and Cheshire Wildlife Trust.

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October Bird News

A very good September was followed by an even better October - a superb month! The hoped for easterly winds certainly brought in some rather interesting birds.

The star bird was the Radde's Warbler pictured below (photo by  Neil McLaren), which stayed for one day on the 16th along Lingham Lane, south of Leasowe Lighthouse. This species breeds across northern Asia and usually migrates to Burma and Indochina for the winter, so it was a long way from home. This is the first record for Cheshire and Wirral, and indeed for the whole of North Wales and North-west England, apart from one bird on Bardsey Island last year. Most sightings in this country have been either in north Norfolk or the Scilly Islands. 
The Radde's Warbler was preceded by another mega rarity, this time at Red Rocks, a Blyth's Reed Warbler which was present from the 6th to 10th in the reed bed, although very elusive. This is another bird breeding far to the east of us, the nearest being Finland but mostly across Asia, they usually winter in India and south-east Asia. This is the second record for Cheshire and Wirral, the first being one at Woolston Eyes in 2000. Also present in the reed bed at the same time were two or more Reed Warblers and several Chiffchaffs, including an 'Eastern' Chiffchaff - tristis x abietinus. This was first identified as a Siberian Chiffchaff (tristis) which is rarer here than the Blyth's Reed Warbler! A Yellow-browed Warbler flew out of the reeds towards Stanley Road on 10th. The next goodies to emerge from the reed bed were three Bearded Tits, these flew off heading towards Wales on 12th, I believe this is the first record for Red Rocks. Yet another rarity turned up on the 18th, a Common Rosefinch, seen with Tree Sparrows in one of the gardens at the end of Stanley Road. Assuming the record of one at Caldy earlier on this year  is excepted then this is the second record for Cheshire and Wirral. Over this same time period there were some great views of a Short-eared owl flying over the marsh and sand dunes, and offshore there was a Great Skua on the 7th.

We've not finished with Red Rocks yet! Jane Turner looked out of her window overlooking Hoylake Shore on the morning of the 15th to see the sky full of finches. Knowing how good Red Rocks would be in these conditions she hot-footed down there. Between 08:15 and 11:00am she counted 7,360 Chaffinches, 524 Siskin, 87 Brambling, 1 Snow Bunting, 1 Firecrest and numerous other birds, all heading south. Given that she missed the peak passage of chaffinches she estimated well over 10,000 must have gone over that morning. There has only ever been one other count equivalent to this in Cheshire and Wirral when over 10,000 flew over Heswall Fields on Oct 20th 2004. Looking back over the old reports I reckon 524 Siskins is the highest ever count for Cheshire and Wirral, although "several hundred" were reported over wintering in Delamere Forest in 1990 and over the past few winters up to 400 have been counted in Macclesfield Forest. It was a truly spectacular visible migration for those lucky enough to see it. There were several more days of good migration at Red Rocks, although nothing like the 15th; on the 19th a Ring Ouzel was on the golf course and 3 Raven flew over. A Black Redstart was in the garden of Red Rocks Nursing Home on 25th with 24 Gannets off shore a good count for late September, a Firecrest was present over the next couple of days. A female Long-tailed Duck was off Red Rocks on the high tide of the 28th. Phew.......

The Firecrests at Red Rocks weren't the only ones, on the 7th singles were in a garden in Hoylake, in the sand dunes in West Kirby and along Park Lane in Meols. Two were in Grange Cemetery in West Kirby two days later. Away from Red Rocks the visible migration wasn't nearly as good but 1,743 Jackdaws and 5 Ravens flying along Heswall ridge on the 24th was something very much out of the ordinary. Also unusual were 100 Song Thrushes flying south over Thurstaston on the 20th.

A Red-breasted Flycatcher was yet another good rarity, this was trapped and ringed on Hilbre on the 8th. Not quite as rare but still good to see was a Great Grey Shrike on Hoylake Langfields  present from 21st to 23rd. The best of the rest were four Lapland Buntings at Point of Ayr on 3rd, one Great White Egret at Inner Marsh Farm on 4th, a Hoopoe in Meols on 6th, a Yellow-browed Warbler on the Hoylake Langfields on 10th with another by Leasowe Lighthouse on 16th, one Grey Phalarope flew west past Hilbre on 17th, a Velvet Scoter was off West Kirby on 25th, two Slavonian Grebes off Hilbre on 26th with another one off West Kirby the following day and lastly an Eagle Owl in Pensby on 31st. Wow....

Then there's the usual birds - a few Ospreys and Marsh Harriers moving south, and Hen Harriers coming in for the winter. 7 Spotted Redshank, 20 Greenshank, 3,000 Black-tailed Godwit and a Snow Bunting have been at Connah's Quay.  A Long-tailed Duck (fem) and 150 Razorbill were off Hilbre on 25th. 192 Great Crested Grebes were off North Wirral on 14th.

Left, Redshank at New Brighton, Oct 3rd © Steve Round, Right, Green Woodpecker in Arrowe Park  © Richard Steel

What to expect in November

Numbers of Brent Geese will increase rapidly, last year we had 40 by the 6th increasing to 70 by the end of the month. These will be mainly of the light-bellied race which mostly winter in Ireland, best seen on Hilbre at low tide or around Little Eye at high tide; sometimes the birds fly across to Point of Ayr or down to Heswall Marsh at high tide. Other wildfowl should be present in good numbers, including Pintail, Wigeon and Teal but Shelduck counts are likely to be much smaller than they were in October. Both Bewick's and Whooper Swans will be seen in increasing numbers on both Shotwick Fields and Burton Marsh, they often use Inner Marsh Farm as a roost. Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers will be on West Kirby Marine Lake and out on the estuary, particularly if we get some cold still weather. 

We often get large numbers of Knot, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwits in November, see them at Hoylake, West Kirby and Point of Ayr at high tide, or feeding off Leasowe and Thurstaston at low tide. The much rarer Purple Sandpiper will be on view on Hilbre, max count in Nov last year was 22, up to 10 or so often roost in the rocks with turnstones just below Wallasey Life-guard Station.

On the marshes both Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls will be present. Last winter was poor for the latter, probably due to the lack of small rodents, hopefully these have now recovered in numbers.

Knot at Wallasey, Oct 26th, © Damian Waters, A colour ringed Turnstone near Leasowe Lighthouse Oct 5th, © Richard Steel

Many thanks go to Richard Steel, Neil McLaren, David Cookson, Phil Hilton, Paul Vautrinot, tom Morton, Adrian Foster, Jeff Stephens, David Esther, Mike Ward, Stuart Taylor, Tanny Robinson, Mike Hart, Chris Wilding, David Haigh, Derek Rice, David Harrington, Iain Douglas, Allan Conlin, John Ferguson, Dave Wild, Leon Castell, Steve Round,  Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Charles Farnell, Paul Shenton, Gilbert Bolton, Damian Waters, Stephen Ainsworth, Mark Turner, Colin Wells, Steve Wrigley, Kevin Smith, Ian Dyer, Malcolm Smerdon, Mike Gavin, Nigel Young, Nick Moss, David Small, Allan Patterson, Peter Newman, Chris Batey, Steve Ramsay, Mike Cocking, John Rowlands, Bill Potts, Norman Hallas, Dave Edwards, Paul Roberts, Paul Mason, Steve Hassell, Maureen Thomas, Paul Rutter, Jon Greep, James Astley, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during October.  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events

November Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
25th November, 11.16hrs (GMT), 9.7m.
26th November, 12.02hrs (GMT), 9.7m.

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 which contains events and activities from October 2007 to March 2008 can now be downloaded - click here (this is a 3mb PDF file).

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 18th November, 10.30am – 11.30am & 2pm – 3pm. Fantastic Feeders.
As the days shorten and the temperatures drop our garden birds need all the help they can get if they are to
survive the winter months. Come along to Wirral Country Park (Thurstaston) and make a high energy feeder for your garden. All children must be accompanied by an adult.
Booking essential 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 25th November, 9.30am start, high tide at 11am. 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).
For further enquiries 0151 678 5488.

Sunday 9th December, 10.30am – 3pm, Winter Woodland Walk in Royden Park and Thurstaston Hill.
Join the Ranger on this delightful walk across Wirral’s countryside through woodlands and over fields. This
event is suitable for all the family to enjoy. Suitable clothing and footwear are essential and a packed lunch is
recommended. No need to book. Meet at the Rangers Office, Next to the Walled Garden, Royden Park (SJ
254857).For further enquiries 0151 677 7594.

Sunday 9th December, 10.30am – 12noon, A Stroll around Heswall Dales.
Join the Ranger for a gentle walk around Heswall Dales Local Nature Reserve looking for signs of winter and
enjoy some spectacular views from this heathland site. Suitable clothing and footwear are essential. No need to
book. Meet at Dale Farm entrance, Oldfield Road (off Telegraph Road and Quarry Road) Heswall (SJ 258825).
Sorry no dogs. For further enquiries 0151 677 7594

Tuesday 11th December, 9am – 12noon, Birdwatch at Heswall Shore.
Join the Wirral Country Park Rangers at a prime wader watchpoint on the internationally important Dee Estuary.
As the tide races in to cover the mudflats, which are rich in invertebrates, the birds are pushed closer together
as they feed. Learn more about bird migration and get some spectacular views of Knot and Dunlin. Warm
waterproof clothing and suitable footwear are essential. Please bring binoculars if you have them. Sorry no
dogs. No need to book. Meet at Banks Road Car Park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrake’s Restaurant (SJ
255814). For further enquiries 0151 648 4371/3884.

Saturday 15th December, 11am start, High Tide at Point of Ayr RSPB Dee Estuary Nature Reserve.
The spit and saltmarsh at the Point of Ayr are extremely important habitats for birds. They come alive at high tide with waders coming in to roost and ducks drift in on the tide to feed on the marsh. Join the RSPB Warden to watch the action as it unfolds (HW 14:15, 8.5m). No need to book. Meet at the end of Station Rd. Talacre at 11.30 am. For further information contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 16th December, 2:00pm start, 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. 

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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