1st December 2005

Wader Roosts.
Barn Owls.

November Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Chris Butterworth


Wader Roosts

Most birdwatchers who regularly visit the Dee Estuary can identify our commoner waders, but even   experienced observers will have difficulty when confronted by a tightly packed roost several hundred metres away, especially if they are all facing away and the birds have their bills tucked under their wings!  Then there's counting them, which is at least another order of magnitude more difficult. I know just how difficult it can be as I do counts whilst wardening at West Kirby and Point of Ayr, at Heswall as part of the Wetland Bird Survey and at Hoylake just out my own interest. Hoylake during the winter is the most important  winter wader roost in the Dee Estuary/north Wirral coast area, hence my interest. Counts enable us to see how effective wardening is, to spot trends, both short and long term, and also to highlight those areas and species in most need of protection.

I'm often asked by passers by 'how do you count them'? I try not to say 'count the legs and divide by two' as that joke is now getting a bit old, one of John Gittins' I believe! The technique is to count in multiples of, say, 10, 100, or even 1,000 if it is a very large flock, having first counted that number accurately so you know what that number of birds looks like in relation to the rest of the flock. Sounds easy? Maybe if you are counting a well spread out flock of Curlew, but try counting a dense flock of 20,000 Knot from 200 metres away, taking in to account that the flock also includes 10,000 Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwits, Sanderling and Grey Plover!

Hoylake high tide wader roost, Nov 5th, © Richard Smith.

Trying to split up the different species whilst counting is certainly a problem, but perhaps not as big a problem as you might think. Look at the above photo; in the front are Dunlin, about 10 birds deep. Then Knot, at least 30 birds deep, with Grey Plover on the far side. This isn't just a chance arrangement, the pattern remains basically the same at every high tide with each species choosing a separate part of the beach. However, because of their different geography and nearby food sources each roost site is different both in terms of what species are present and where they locate themselves within each roost. So Hoylake is very different to Little Eye, which is different to Heswall, which is different to Point of Ayr. But the location of each species within each roost site remains more or less the same from tide to tide. They also look different: for example, at Hoylake Knot are always very densely packed together, Dunlin will be on the landward side of the Knot, much less densely packed, Curlew will be strung along the tideline standing in the sea usually to one side of the main flock, Grey Plover will be in the water on the seaward side of the Knot etc.

Hoylake high tide roost, typical location of waders on the beach off King's Gap.

Above is a diagram representing the roost at Hoylake, they were spread out like this on Nov 5th when I took the above photograph, and it is very typical of what you can expect whenever you go down to Hoylake at high tide. Note that dogs, Peregrines and a very high tide can unsettle this  arrangement! All of you being birdwatchers will know how important it is not to disturb roosting waders but unfortunately the wader roost at Hoylake does suffer a lot of disturbance, mainly from dogs running through the flock. Having said that I am always amazed just how tolerant of disturbance the waders at Hoylake are but there is a limit to how much they can take. If you are interested in protecting the wader roost either at West Kirby or Hoylake please contact the coastal ranger on 0151 678 5488, see also the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens page.

Acknowledgement: The idea for the above diagram came from a similar diagram of the Crossens Roost on page 151 of Waders by W.G. Hale, part of the New Naturalist series.

Richard Smith.

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Barn Owls
Wirral Barn Owl Trust’s Recorder, Mike Maher, does an extremely important job for the trust, recording all Barn Owl sightings for the Wirral peninsula on a computer database. Clusters of sightings may indicate breeding sites or potential breeding sites. Sightings also greatly help the trust to select suitable sites for nest boxes and to consider the need for habitat protection or enhancement.

Barn Owl,
Steve Round ©

As well as greatly assisting us in the work that we do, the sightings data is also forwarded to the Cheshire and Wirral Ornithological Society, the County Recorder and to rECOrd, the local biological records centre for the Cheshire region. Our data is not made available for commercial use by ecological services companies. Breeding data is very sensitive and kept confidential.

Mike tells us that sighting reports have slowed down lately; this is understandable as the days shorten but we would urge everyone to keep sending in sightings, even in well-known spots. There is an easy-to-complete report form on our website which you can use to send the information straight to us. If anyone is uncertain where they might see Barn Owls please get in touch and we can suggest areas for watching.

Perhaps you have seen a Barn Owl and haven’t yet got round to sending us the details? If so, no problem - just send any details you have to us when you can. Any information you have will be welcomed.


Most sightings are of a ‘large white bird’ seen in car headlights at night.

Heart-shaped facial disc, underside and legs are white; top of wings, head and back are gold/grey.

Mainly nocturnal and secretive, but sometimes seen in daylight.

Hunts low (1-2 metres above ground) and slow over open country, especially rough grassland.

Listen for distinctive, eerie screeching call of adults (not hooting) and ‘snoring’ sound made by chicks.

Black pellets (thumb-sized) contain undigested fur and bones of voles, mice etc. usually found in barns or beside hollow trees.

Occupied roosts will have long smears of white, liquid droppings.

Ed. This article was reproduced from the Wirral Barn Owl News, Nov 2005 edition, with kind permission of the editor, Steve Harris. Thanks to the trust Barn Owls in Wirral are doing very well with 31 pairs in 2005 compared with only one pair in 1999 - an amazing achievement. Similar efforts are also being made by the Welsh Raptor Study Group (North East Wales branch), please send any sightings from the Welsh side of the estuary to myself, Richard Smith, and I'll pass them on to the appropriate person -   .

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November Bird News
One advantage of covering a large site like the Dee Estuary is that there is always something interesting going on somewhere, and this November was certainly interesting!

The immature Long-billed Dowitcher which had been at Inner Marsh Farm since 12th October stayed for the first week of November but hasn't been since since. A Black Redstart was at Red Rocks on the 2nd and stayed until the 7th. A nice bonus for the month were two Richard's Pipits which arrived on the marsh on West Kirby shore on the 21st and stayed until the end of the month. This rarity is a native of central Asia but a few do turn up in this country every year, typically in the autumn. Less rare were two Snow Buntings seen at Red Rocks and West Kirby  around the mid-month.

Brent Geese were the big story of the month. Last winter they peaked at a record number of 63 in January, whilst the highest ever November count, also last winter, was 51. Both these records were broken on the 6th with 64 pale-bellied birds. The numbers kept on rising during the month with the maximum of 86 reached on the 23rd, these included two dark-bellied. As always the best place to see the geese was on Hilbre at low tide. The graph below shows just how remarkable the rise in numbers has been over the past six winters. The pale-bellied race which breed in Greenland and eastern Canada, and winter mainly in Ireland are increasing in numbers so no doubt this is why we are seeing more over here. One of the Hilbre geese was colour ringed in Ireland.

Pale-bellied Brent Geese with roosting Knot off the north end of Hilbre, Nov 7th
© Richard Smith

Some of our Black-tailed Godwits are individually colour ringed which means we can track each one. I saw at least eight this month off Thurstaston and have had a report back from the ringing team in Iceland. To give you an example of the sort of information gathered on these birds one was ringed as a male on spring passage in Iceland on Apr 27th 2000. The following winter it was recorded on the Stour Estuary several times. It wasn't seen again until 2004 when it was on the Ouse Washes in April, the autumn passage saw it on the Wash and it was last reported in April this year at the famous Cley reserve in north Norfolk. 

Photo left was kindly sent to me by Tómas Gunnarsson, one of the ringers in Iceland. It shows a Black-tailed Godwit chick ringed this summer in Iceland. 

Hen Harrier numbers reached five, including one full adult male and a sub-adult male. I had a great view of the full ad male from 10 metres away as it flew past Denhall Quay. All but the full male bird are roosting in reed birds of the Old Baths car park at Parkgate, but sometimes it is virtually dark before they come in (see also 'The Magic of Parkgate'). 

Apart from good numbers of waders, especially off Thurstaston at low tide - a spectacular sight -, one other thing of note was a late passage of Gannets with six off Hilbre being on the 15th the last ones through. Last year the last ones were seen in early October.

What to expect in December

They keep on predicting a colder than normal winter, and the second half of November was certainly cold enough. If the weather on the continent is severe than we should get cold weather movements coming our way, particularly waders and wildfowl.

In a normal year we would expect Brent Geese to continue to increase and peak in late January, but in a normal year we don't expect 86 by the end of November. Anyway, the way things are going we could have 100 by Christmas! Other wildfowl should include at least one Smew at Inner Marsh Farm, a regular here. Bewick's Swans normally increase to at least 60 and flocks of Pink-footed Geese are often seen moving through, usually heading north towards south Lancashire. Numbers of Wigeon, Teal and Pintail should all remain high, perhaps higher than normal if cold weather drives them west.

Knot and Dunlin numbers should remain high, expect up to 30,000 of each, best seen at Hoylake or Point of Ayr at high tide, and Thurstaston or Leasowe at low tide. So far it has been a good winter for Sanderling and it will be interesting to see if they stick around if the weather gets colder. Bar-tailed Godwits numbers have not yet picked up but we would expect at least 5,000 of Leasowe this month, also similar numbers of Black-tailed Godwits inside the estuary off Thurstaston, Heswall and Flint.

It would be good to see more than the five Hen Harriers we have had over the past two winters coming in to roost at Parkgate. Short-eared Owls seem to be more spread out this year so expect to see them just about anywhere in our area.

It was a superb winter for Waxwings in 2004/2005 and we cannot really expect the same again, but they usually start coming in during December so look out for them in those berry trees, they usually seem to go for supermarket car parks!

Many thanks go to  Ray Eades, John Boswell, Steve Renshaw, John Kirkland, Sean Fortune, Mark Turner, Colin Davies, Steve Astley, Bernard Machin, Sheila Blamire, Alan Jupp, Frank Huband, David Esther, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Colin Schofield, John Campbell, Clive Ashton, Paul Rutter, David Haigh, Colin Jones, Charles Farnell, Steve Williams, Phil Woolen, Chris Butterworth, Nick Moss, Andrew Wallbank, Stephen Ainsworth, Sabena Blackbird, Jeff Stevens, Dave Harrington,  Jane Turner, Allan Conlin, Mike Hart, Dave Wilde, Andrew Jennings, Tanny Robinson, Mark O'Sullivan, Bob Pilgrem, Steve Round, Eric Sherry, Iain Douglas,  Paul Vautrinot, Graham Thompson, Damian Waters, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens  and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during November.  All sightings are gratefully received.

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Forthcoming Events
NEW - Wirral's Parks and Countryside Events and Activities Newsletter (Winter Edition) is now out. This is now a glossy publication full of great photographs including one on the front cover of a mass of Oystercatchers in flight. You can pick up a free copy from the Visitor Centre, Thurstaston Country Park.

December Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
3rd December, 12:05hrs 9.3m. Times GMT.
4th December, 12:49hrs 9.2m.

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.

Saturday 3rd December, 9:30am, Flint High Tide Birdwatch.
Join the RSPB Warden for great views across the RSPB reserve at Oakenholt. Marvel at the spectacular aerial display of the masses of waders that are disturbed from their roosting site on the saltmarsh by the rising tide. Expect to see black-tailed godwit, knot, dunlin and twite. Please bring Wellingtons (HW 12:05, 9.3m). No need to book. Meet at Flint Lifeboat Station car park. For further
information, contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Saturday 3rd December, 10:00am - 3pm, Connah's Quay Reserve Open Day..
Another chance to have a look at this great little reserve which is run by the Dee Naturalists' Society. (HW 12:05, 9.3m). Well worth combining a visit here with the high tide birdwatch at Flint above. The main hide overlooks the RSPB reserve at Oakenholt where thousands of waders roost at high tide. Tea and biscuits are laid on in the visitor centre where there are also toilets.

Saturday 17th December, 9:00am, Banks Road Birdwatch, Heswall.
One of the best places on the estuary to get close-up views of a variety of waders including black-tailed godwit, knot, redshank and curlew as they amass along the banks of the Heswall Gutter (HW 12:05, 8.9 m). Meet at Banks Road car park, Lower Heswall, near Sheldrake’s Restaurant. For more details, tel. 0151 648 4371/3884.

Sunday 18th December, 2:30pm, Parkgate Raptor Watch.
Watch the elegant hen harriers come in to roost on the RSPB reserve at Gayton Sands. Other birds we hope to see include merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk, short-eared owl and barn owl. Meet at the Old Baths car park, Parkgate, close to the Boathouse pub. For further details contact the RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 1st January, 9am - 12 noon, The Big Bird List.
Stride into 2006 with a birdwatch to kick-start Wirral Country Park's Big Bird List that will be displayed in the Visitor Centre (Thurstaston). The list will be updated throughout the year and the number of species seen worked out at the end of the year. This event is suitable for children aged over 11 years old. Sorry no dogs. Booking essential, tel. 0151 648 4371.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2005', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Hard copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371.

Birdwatchers Diary 2006 will be published on this website when available.

All material in this newsletter, and indeed the whole web site, has been written by myself, Richard Smith, unless specified.

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