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1st December 2001
High tide at Parkgate.
The Dee from a Canadian Perspective.

Website of the Year!
Latest Bird Counts.
November Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Newsletter Index.



Seasonal Sights and Sounds on the Dee Estuary
High tide at Parkgate

      Dave Jowitt


Every nature lover likes a good estuary, and as Wirral is bounded by two of them we all have a great number of memories: five hundred knot weaving wing-tip to wing-tip against the unlikely backdrop of Liverpool's two cathedrals, or a close encounter with a stranded seal pup on Middle Eye (Little Hilbre). Or maybe the carpet of purple sea aster at Parkgate in August, the haunting call of the curlew, or a peregrine falcon chasing the redshanks at Point of Ayr. Fortunately the list is endless, but surely the spectacle that beats them all is the one that occurs for one or two days only each winter. 

High tide birdwatch
Birdwatchers gathering for a high tide birdwatch at Parkgate

At first sight, Gayton Sands RSPB reserve has little to offer to the casual visitor or even, for most of the year, the ardent birdwatcher. During the summer months the marsh is home to a select few breeding birds - skylarks shape their nests amongst the scurvy grass and golden samphire, alongside redshank, mallard and shelduck, all secretly raising their families hidden well from view. In the winter distant flocks of waders and ducks can be seen with the aid of a pair of binoculars; skylarks, pipits and various finches gather together in huge flocks to feed on the seeds and vegetation, and teal dabble in the gullies below Heswall Golf Club. For most of the year the reserve is purely for the birds, a place where they can live undisturbed and largely unseen. 

But this is a fragile peace, easily shattered not by man, but by nature. A 10 metre tide with a good wind behind can cause chaos to the inhabitants, a feast for the predators and a thrill for the birdwatcher. The prospect of such a tide attracts visitors to Parkgate from far and wide every winter and provides one of the most spectacular bird extravaganzas in the country. 

The start is often gentle. The usual distant activity as flocks of shelduck, teal, pintail and mallard take to the air as the encroaching tide covers their usual roosting spot. They are joined by large wader flocks of oystercatcher, dunlin, redshank, knot and individual curlews as they too are displaced from their roost sites further down the estuary. The real fun starts when the water breaks over the edge of the marsh, trickling through the small gullies and between the tussocks, carrying the ducks closer on the rising water. The small land-based birds - meadow pipits, skylarks, linnets and starlings - take flight, and a myriad of small mammals retreat to higher ground.

With all this food on the move, the predators arrive en masse. Black headed gulls hover above to pick off the smaller mammals; after a few minutes there is constant traffic overhead as the gulls carry their catch on to drier ground. Herons stand stock still as the water creeps round their legs, using their long, pointed bills to stab at the occasional fish, mammal or even bird which dares to come within reach; at one high tide one was even seen to take a water rail into its beak, whole! Kestrels and marsh harriers take their share, and on a good day peregrines, merlins and sparrowhawks all put fear into the passerine flocks. Ground predators are sometimes visible too - foxes, stoats and weasels retreat with the smaller animals but take their share of the bounty. The most spectacular hunter though is the short-eared owl. Some high tides attract up to half a dozen of these day hunting owls as they quarter the marsh, getting closer and closer as the tide makes its way towards the sea wall, their flight almost butterfly-like yet graceful. 

As the available dry land diminishes, the mass of furry creatures provides a further delight - a water vole sits on the wall restoring order to its disheveled coat, wood mice float up on driftwood and the crowded car park at Parkgate Old Baths offers protective custody to both common and pygmy shrews.

water rail Even water rails sometimes lurk under the parked cars. As the water reaches the sea wall, the traffic over the marsh becomes chaotic as the gulls jostle for the best hunting positions and spectators peer over the walls at the living flotsam. 

As the tide reaches its height any last remnants of vegetation are covered, then the excitement is over. The birds rest up on the fields and the mammals find temporary shelter among the walls and buildings. 

After all that, a superb way to finish off the day is to travel up to West Kirby or Red Rocks to watch the enormous wader flocks wheeling around over the receding tide, searching out the best feeding grounds on the newly exposed mudflats. These birds - knot, redshank and dunlin from the Arctic wastes - are welcome winter visitors to the Dee. This estuary, part of a string of estuaries flowing out into Liverpool Bay from the Dee to the Kent, and beyond to the Solway Firth, has an important part to play in the North Atlantic Flyway. These estuaries are the meeting point for thousands of waders from the Siberian and Greenland high Arctic which spend the winter building up their food reserves from the rich tidal mudflats before returning north to breed in the brief northern summer. 

Not only is it our international duty to protect this habitat but the birds must also be allowed to feed and roost in peace, free from marauding dogs, windsurfers and even well-intentioned walkers and birdwatchers who just get that little bit too close, forcing the birds to waste precious energy and leaving them too exhausted to complete the journey home. It would be sad indeed if future generations could not share the thrills, the wildlife and the beauty of this wonderful wilderness.

This article was first published in the Wirral Journal and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Dave Jowitt. Dave is a keen member of the Wirral RSPB group and runs their web site -

The new year, 2002,  promises some excellent high tide birdwatching at Parkgate - dates and times for the next six birdwatches are  as follows:
Thursday 28th February, 10:30am. HW 12:01pm, 10.1m.
Friday 1st March, 11:30am, HW 12:44pm, 10.3m.
Saturday 2nd March, 11:45am, HW 13:26pm, 10.2m.
Friday 29th March, 10:00am, HW 11:38pm, 10.3m. 
Saturday 30th March, 10:45am, HW 12:22pm, 10.4m.
Sunday 31st March, 12:30pm, HW 14:04pm, 10.2m.

Meet at the Old Baths car park close to the Boathouse Inn, experts will be at hand if you need help identifying all those birds. Dates for the rest of the year will be published in future newsletters.



The Dee from a Canadian Perspective


Tina McDonald and her husband came to the Dee Estuary in September for a bit of birding away from their more usual haunts in Canada. Tina runs a wonderful website from Canada called - Where do you want go birding today?, full of links and information about birding sites from around the world. Tina has written a visit report - Dee Day - on her web site which is well worth a read as it gives a real sense of the excitement from seeing species we take for granted as seen through the eyes of a foreign visitor. Tina added eleven lifers to her list.


Web Site of the Year!


Readers of the 2002 Birdwatcher's Yearbook will know by now that this Web site was voted Web site of the year 2001 by the newsgroup uk.rec.birdwatching. Particularly pleasing as the votes were cast by fellow birdwatchers for which the site was designed. 


Bird Counts


Count from Hilbre Island on 17th November, kindly provided by John Gittins and John Eliot of the Hilbre Bird Observatory:
22 Great Crested Grebe, 70 Cormorant, 6 Wigeon, 23 Pintail, 1 Scaup, 7 Common Scoter, 3 Red-breasted Merganser, 10,000 Oystercatcher, 1 Peregrine Falcon, 100 Ringed Plover, 10 Grey Plover, 6,000 Knot, 18 Purple Sandpiper, 1,000 Dunlin, 22 Bar-tailed Godwit, 100 Turnstone, 1 Rock Pipit and 1 Stonechat.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service). 4th November. 
40 Cormorant, 2 Grey Heron, 6,910 Shelduck, 60 Wigeon, 387 Teal, 62 Mallard, 1,170 Pintail, 9 Red-breasted Merganser, 700 Oystercatcher, 3 Golden Plover, 26 Lapwing, 60 Knot, 4 Dunlin, 10 Black-tailed Godwit, 550 Curlew (low count due to disturbance), 3,200 Redshank.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Flint and Connah's Quay (Kindly provided by the Deeside Naturalist's Society). 4th November. 
10 Great-crested Grebe, 128 Cormorant, 5 Gadwall, 1,030 Teal,
2,200 Oystercatcher, 1 Grey Plover, 740 Lapwing, 3,900 Black-tailed Godwit, 3 Spotted Redshank, 500 Redshank, 6 Greenshank, 1 Curlew Sandpiper, 1 Red-breasted Merganser

North Wirral Shore Low Tide WeBS count, carried out between 22nd and 26th November, kindly provided by Carl Clee.
3,916 Oystercatcher, 1,056 Grey Plover, 8,947 Dunlin, 19,900 Knot, 382 Sanderling, 7,944 Bar tailed Godwit, 196 Curlew, 1,466 Redshank, 82 Ringed Plover and 88 Turnstone.
Note that the numbers for North Wirral shore are the sum of several sites counted. No allowance was taken for birds moving between sites during these counts (this is normal practice for low tide counts). Consequently it is possible that some species may be either over or under estimated, except the Bar-tailed Godwits which were all counted in one area at the same time.

November Bird News


There was something of an invasion of the day hunting Short-eared Owl during November. Eight at Point of Ayr, three on Burton Marsh, four regularly seen flying past the Rangers' window at Leasowe lighthouse - an amazing sight - and no doubt plenty more hiding in the reeds at Parkgate. A Barn Owl has been flying in fields just inland from Burton Marsh, in addition a second bird was seen at nearby Parkgate. Short-eared Owl
Valerie McFarland

November was excellent for waders. 3,900 Black-tailed Godwits at Connah's Quay early in the month was not only a record WeBS (wetland bird survey) count for the Dee, but may even be the biggest single roosting flock ever seen in this country! Towards the end of the month some of these birds moved over to the English side with 1,200 off Thurstaston. The other Godwits of the estuary, Bar-tailed, were also present in large numbers with 7,944 counted at low tide off Leasowe - the highest count for several years. There were plenty of  Knot and Dunlin about, the highest counts being 19,900 (north Wirral) of the former and 29,000 (Hoylake) of the latter. It's also been a good year for Grey Plover, counts included 1,500 at Hoylake, 605 on West Kirby Shore and 292 off Parkgate. Eight Jack Snipe at Gronant was an excellent count for this under recorded species. 

The Great White Egret was last seen on the 5th after spending almost 3 months here, it disappeared when we had a bitingly cold northerly gale, so it has probably flown south to warmer climes. Plenty of Little Egrets about, a record 21 were seen coming into roost at Burton, although there was the strong suspicion they were circling round and being counted twice! But at least 15 were counted feeding on the marsh.  
Great White Egret

Brent Geese increased from three at the beginning of the month to eighteen at the end, this time last year we only had eight - yet we ended up with a record forty by January. Scaup are quite scarce ducks these days on the estuary so it was pleasing to have 188 off Hilbre, may be they are coming back into the estuary, or more likely these were part of the over-wintering flock off Abergele along the welsh coast. If you want to see diving ducks close to go along to West Kirby Marine Lake where there has been up to 20 Red-breasted Mergansers and 7 Goldeneye most days during the month. 

Rarities included a female Red-crested Pochard in Greenfield Valley and a Green-winged Teal at Inner Marsh Farm. Two interesting gulls were a Ring-billed Gull on Hoylake beach which then came to food in a sea front garden, followed by a Mediterranean Gull seen on Chris Butterworth's house roof when he came back home after spending an hour birdwatching on West Kirby beach! There was a Wheatear on West Kirby beach on the 17th, only a few days short of the latest ever Wheatear seen in Wirral. 

The Greenfield Valley bird survey continues, the total is now 92 birds. Click here for a complete list.

What to expect in December: Christmas can be a magical time on the estuary. Take an early morning walk in clear frosty weather before anyone else is about - after the cold night the birds will be too busy feeding to worry about you. Flocks of Knot right up to the beach, Teal all along the gutters, Shelduck bathing in the streams running over the beach, Redshank and Oystercatcher not moving until you are almost on top of them, Godwits and Curlew in a line at the water's edge - I could go on and on! 

29 Brent Geese were on the estuary last December, mostly light-bellied but a count of 8 Dark-bellied was a very good number for this race. As they build up the more they tend to move around but best seen at Hilbre at low tide and Little Eye at high tide, with the occasional foray over to the Point of Ayr.


A drake Smew has visited Inner Marsh Farm during the past four winters, with a female joining it during the past two years. As the Pink-footed Geese in south Lancashire disperse in mid-winter some end up on the Dee - you may be lucky to see flocks of several hundred flying over any part of the estuary or maybe feeding in the surrounding fields. 

Many thanks go to Mick Hayhurst, Paul Vautrinot, Mike Hart, Colin Wells, Adam King, John Elliot, Lyn Greenstreet, Iain Douglas,  John Gittins, Brian Grey,  Jeff Clarke, Chris Butterworth, Bill Owens,  Julian Weldrick,  David Esther, Dave Harrington, Martyn Jaimeson, Carl Clee, Ken Mullins, Colin Jones, John Kirkland, Jane Turner, Brian Roberts, Gareth Stamp and the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens for their sightings during November. I rely on the goodwill of people like this, unlike some commercial sites I cannot offer financial inducements!


Forthcoming Events


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.

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. 

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from 'Birdwatchers Diary 2002', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371 or by from myself.