Dee Estuary Newsletter

1st December 2007
The origins and movement of Pale-bellied Brent Geese at Hilbre.
Clwyd Bird Report 2004/06.
November Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

The origins and movements of Pale-bellied Brent Geese at Hilbre

Two species of Brent Geese occurs regularly in the UK, Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Branta bernicla, which breeds in Western Siberia and winters in very large numbers around the North Sea (in the UK particularly along the East coast) and Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Branta hrota, which breeds in Greenland and Arctic Canada and Svalbard (which is an archipelago lying in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe, about midway between Norway and the North Pole).  The latter species winters in Northern Ireland in very large numbers and in Western Britain in much smaller numbers.

Historically Dark-bellied Brent Goose was the much more frequent winter visitor to Hilbre occurring in small numbers each year.  Indeed, there were only a total of circa 30 Pale-bellied Brent Geese recorded at Hilbre during the whole period 1957-1977. However, since the mid 1990s Pale-bellied Brents have increased dramatically around Hilbre (and the mouth of the Dee Estuary) to over 100 birds in the last two winters.  The line graph below displays this dramatic increase by showing maximum winter counts between 1995/96 and 2006/07.  This winter (2007/08) numbers have already reached 96 and traditionally numbers peak in the early part of the year (January and February) so perhaps we are in for yet another record winter? Both Dark and Pale-bellied Brents flock together on Hilbre although family parties of each tend to stick fairly close together within the larger flock so it is always interesting to note these family groups.

© Peter Williams

At Hilbre Bird Observatory we are always on the lookout for birds of any species with colour rings (indeed we colour ring waders and some passerines, particularly Wheatears and Linnets, ourselves). On 10th November 2005 a Pale-bellied Brent Goose with yellow colour rings and lettering was seen with the Hilbre flock.  A couple of quick emails later and we found that the bird had been colour-ringed by the Irish Brent Goose Research Group, but in Iceland on passage in May 2005.  There then followed a series of sightings of this bird at Hilbre and elsewhere which enlightened us as to the origins and movements of Pale-bellied Brents that occur on Hilbre.  Here follows the history of ‘XXYY’ as she (ringed as a female) is affectionately known.

Richard Smith

XXYY was ringed at Álftanes/Skógtjörn, Hafnarfjörður, in Iceland on 10th May 2005 and was last seen in Iceland on 28th May 2005. The first sighting of her after she was ringed was returning to Northern Ireland at Greyabbey, Strangford Lough on 14 October 2005.  She remained here until 22 October 2005 at least. She then arrived at Hilbre on 10th November 2005 and remained only until 22nd November. This was interesting in itself as we had long believed that birds that arrived at Hilbre during the autumn simply stayed to winter being joined by others throughout the winter. However, XXYY showed that at least some birds use Hilbre as a staging post before moving further south.

That winter (2005/06) she arrived at Langstone Harbour in Hampshire on 8th December 2005 and stayed in the area for the rest of the winter. This was interesting in itself as the majority of Brent Geese that winter in Hampshire are Dark-bellied birds, in fact Pale-bellied Brent is quite rare. Indeed further interest is provided by the fact that this might possibly not be the first time she had been present in Hampshire. Three pale-bellied birds (two adults and a first winter) appeared there in winter/early spring 2005. They moved off in spring and XXYY may have been the first winter bird as when she was caught for the first time on Iceland in May 2005 she was aged as a first summer bird. Perhaps she returned to Hampshire, without her parents, the following winter?

She was last seen in Hampshire on 14th April 2006 and arrived back in Iceland at Hafnarfjörður, Álftanes/Skógtjörn on 28thApril 2006. She was retrapped there on 15th May 2006 and was last seen there on 24th May 2006. After this presumably she headed further north west to Greenland or Arctic Canada to summer, but there were no reports. The first sighting following this was back at Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, on 30th October 2006, she remained there until 17th November 2006 and was subsequently seen back at Hilbre on 29th November 2006. This time she stayed to winter at Hilbre until the 16th January 2007 at least.  She then relocated briefly to Beddmanarch Bay, Anglesey, on 4th February 2007.

It was not until April 2007 that she was sighted again, back on Iceland during passage stopover, she remained into May and was, for the first time, seen with an ‘associate’; presumably a potential mate?  She was last seen in Iceland on 25th May 2005. Fantastic news during the summer of 2007 when for the first time she was spotted on breeding grounds at Bathurst Island, part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Bathurst Island is one of the Queen Elizabeth Islands in Nunavut Territory, Canada. The area of the island is estimated at 16,042 km², making it the 54th largest island in the world and Canada's 13th largest island. It is uninhabited. She was seen here between 22nd and 28th July at least. She arrived back at Stangford Lough on 17th October 2007, was last seen there on 29th October before being found again at Hilbre on 15th November 2007. She was still present at the time of writing on 1st December 2007.

One of a series of slides produced for a presentation.
This one shows the migration from Canada to Northern Ireland
in October 2007, photograph 
© Richard Smith

So we now know for certain that at least some of Hilbre’s wintering Pale-bellied Brent Geese summer and breed in Arctic Canada, but also that they stop in Iceland during Spring passage and that they stop regularly at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland on their return passage.

It is incredible to think that these birds fly more than 4,000 km in about six weeks from their Arctic breeding grounds to winter in the UK and then make a similar journey only stopping off in Iceland en route during their northwards spring migration.

Hopefully, we can enjoy XXYY staying for the rest of this winter before being ‘tracked’ back to her breeding grounds where we hope she is successful during summer 2008 and returns to Hilbre with her family next winter.

Steve Williams – December 2007
Hilbre Bird Observatory


Many many thanks to Graham Mcelwaine of the Irish Brent Goose Research Group for all of the information on movements and sightings of XXYY. Email:

A few Pale-bellied Brent Geese have also been fitted with radio transmitters and their movements can be followed at


Craggs Ed, 1982, Hilbre: The Cheshire Island, Liverpool University Press.

HiBO, 1957-2006, Hilbre Bird Observatory Reports 1957-2006, HiBO

Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Hilbre Island
© Peter Williams

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Clwyd Bird Report 2004-2006

The latest Clwyd Bird Report is due out this month, covering three years 2004, 2005 and 2006. This should make for a fascinating and informative read. More details, including a review, will be in the January Newsletter. Please read the Clwyd Bird Recording Group Website for instructions on how to obtain the report.

November Bird News

Four days of strong north-west winds early in the month brought in some good birds, but like me I'm sure most birders were thinking 'if only we had this in September'! Skuas included a juvenile Pomarine off Hilbre on 8th, one Arctic and a Great off Point of Ayr on 9th followed by two Arctics off Leasowe the next day, a Great off West Kirby on 10th and a Pomarine (Hilbre) and two Arctics (Point of Ayr) on 11th. Leach's Petrels were seen on the 8th, 10th and 11th with max count of seven off Hilbre on the 11th. Two Storm Petrels were more unexpected, going past Hilbre on the 11th these were the latest recorded since 1977 when there was also a gale mid November. Other good birds during this period included a Grey Phalarope, one Long-tailed Duck, three Eider and 250 Common Scoter. The 12th was a great contrast weather wise, no wind and flat calm, and produced a Little Auk off Wallasey which then moved down to New Brighton before drifting out to sea with the tide. This may well have been one of the many thousands of storm driven Little Auks seen off Northumbria in record numbers during the gales, this one had probably been blown across the country.

Little Auk off New Brighton on 12th Nov © Phil Woollen

Wader numbers have been good without being spectacular. 12,300 Knot were counted at both Heswall (16th) and Hoylake (26th). Three thousand Black-tailed Godwits frequented Connah's Quay and Flint, the highest count on the English side of the estuary was 800 on Heswall Shore on 23rd. There have been good numbers of Oystercatchers roosting on West Kirby Shore at high tide since late summer, the max this month was 7,000 on 8th. The reason for the high numbers may be because their more usual roost, Little Eye, is getting too crowded - there were 250 Cormorants on the island on 28th! There have been at least 2,000 Bar-tailed Godwits off Wallasey/Leasowe and 500 Sanderling on Hoylake Shore on 25th was a good count for November. 362 Turnstone roosting around the wall of West Kirby Marine Lake on 23rd was a very high count for that site. Scarcer waders included two Green Sandpipers at Inner Marsh Farm on 1st with a Little Stint there on 4th, 4 Greenshank on the Connah's Quay Reserve on 25th and 9 Spotted Redshank on Oakenholt Marsh on 26th.

Knots on Wallasey Shore on 23rd Nov © Richard Steel

YO-OO (yellow over orange and orange over orange, photo by Richard Smith) was one of 15 colour ringed Black-tailed Godwits noted on Heswall Shore this month. This one was ringed in Iceland in July 2003 and since then has been seen on the Wrye Estuary in 2004, here on the Dee Estuary in 2006, it returned to Iceland this last summer (2007) before coming back to the Dee Estuary again.

96 Brent Geese counted on the high tide by Little Eye on 28th is a record high count for November on the estuary. Single Long-tailed Ducks were seen on 7th (Hoylake), 9th and 25th (Hilbre). Other wildfowl highlights included 5,000 Pintail and 1,500 Wigeon in the river channel off Oakenholt on 26th and 30 Whooper and 17 Bewick's Swans on the Shotwick fields on 29th. A red-head Smew was briefly on the Decca Pools, Burton Marsh, on 18th.

There was a very late passage of swallows with singles noted on 4th (Hilbre), 12th (one at Red Rocks and one at Heswall), 15th (Red Rocks) and 18th (Clatterbridge). A single Hen Harrier (ringtail) has returned to the marshes but seems to be somewhat elusive, a female Marsh Harrier has also been reported a few times, last seen on 18th. Up to four Short-eared Owls have been quartering Burton Marsh, three were at Point of Ayr on 25th. A Spoonbill flew past Heswall Shore on Nov 17th.

What to expect in December

A Fieldfare looking as though it is posing for a Christmas card, photographed at Heswall by Charles Farnell

It will be interesting to see just how high the numbers of Brent Geese reach after the high count last month, we would certainly expect over 100 by Christmas. Pink-footed Geese should also be about, with a resident flock of at least 100 birds usually on Burton Marsh; some years we can get large movements of 'pink-feet' overhead flying between their strongholds in Norfolk and south Lancashire - a truly spectacular sight. Whooper Swans have been increasing in numbers here over the past few years, we could see over 50 on Shotwick Fields along with the Bewick's and Mute - and maybe the occasional feral Black Swan. We may get the odd Smew or two, usually either on Inner Marsh Farm or Shotwick Boating Lake, or perhaps Decca Pools. Other wildfowl will include Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers with the best place to see these being West Kirby Marine Lake early in the morning, on a good day we can get as many as 20 each.

There are often large numbers of gulls around on the sand banks mid-winter, look out for the rare ones in amongst them - probably the most likely species being Ring-billed or Glaucous. Snow Bunting is another relatively rare bird which should turn up somewhere along our coastline, probably the beach at Point of Ayr being the most likely location. By the end of the month we should know if this winter is going to be good for Waxwings, as you may remember two winters ago was a record breaking one right across the country.

If we get some cold, frosty and windless days then numbers of waders should build up. Point of Ayr, West Kirby and Hoylake being the best places to see these at their high tide roosts or Thurstaston and Leasowe Shore at low tide. Hundreds of Knot and Black-tailed Godwit often come within a few yards of the beach at Thurstaston, particularly in cold weather. Look out for any coloured rings, I can report these for you (I have direct contacts with the people who do the ringing) but if you would rather report these yourself I would be most grateful if you could let me know the details of any feedback you get. A few Spotted Redshanks should be seen, either at Inner Marsh Farm or Connah's Quay, and maybe one or two overwintering Greenshank which seem to very late moving on this year.

Hopefully a few Hen Harriers will return this month, so far this winter it has been a poor one for this species but in the past three winters we have had three to five regularly coming in to their roost off Parkgate Old Baths. After a very poor winter last year Short-eared Owls seem to be more plentiful this winter, the most reliable place to see these is on Burton Marsh. I would chose an overcast and windless late afternoon to look for them.

Many thanks go to Andrew Wallbank, Richard Steel, David Thompson, Neil McLaren, Rob Bithell, Paul Vautrinot, Peter Button, David Esther, Mike Tomlin, Mike Ward, John Fisher, Tanny Robinson, Julie Rogers, Mike Hart, Chris Wilding, David Haigh, David Harrington, Iain Douglas, Allan Conlin, Dave Wild, Steve Round,  Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Charles Farnell, Paul Shenton, Gilbert Bolton, Damian Waters, Stephen Ainsworth, David Small, Mike Cocking, James Astley, Mark Gibson, Bryan Joy, Pauline Bett, Colin Schofield, John Tubb, Mark O'Sullivan, Phil Liston, Phil Woollen, Geoff Robinson, Richard Garnett, John Boswell, Martin Kelly, Jean Morgan, Olwena Evans, Jason Stannage, Tom Cookson, Steven Liston, Bernard Machin, Rich Smith, 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

December Highest Spring Tides (Liverpool), also see Tides page.
24th December, 11.04hrs (GMT), 9.5m.
25th December, 11.54hrs (GMT), 9.6m.
26th December, 12.40hrs (GMT), 9.5m.

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 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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