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    1st December 1999
    Dee Estuary during the 20th Century

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The Dee Estuary and The 20th Century   
  Here we are at the end of the 20th Century so I thought it would be of interest  to look back and see how the estuary has changed over the past one hundred years, both in terms of  physical changes and the birds. 

Physical Changes
Physical changes to the estuary can be summed up in one sentence. Siltation at the head of the estuary and erosion at it's mouth. 

The silting up of the estuary makes a fascinating human story. From the time of the Normans, who built a weir at Chester  to the building of the "New Cut" (canalisation of the River Dee) in 1737 man's interference has accelerated silting. Chester was lost as a port in the Middle Ages and all the small towns along the Wirral coast became ports in turn until they too silted up during the 19th century. One of these ports was Parkgate, now a look over the sea front reveals miles of marsh only covered by the sea during a few days a year at the highest spring tides. However, many people don't realise that it was only seventy years ago that the marsh reached Parkgate as it spread along the Wirral coast. The map below shows just how rapid the spread of the marsh has been during the 20th century resulting in the inevitable loss of mudflats to the birds of the estuary. This increase in the marsh is a result of both the continuation of natural siltation and  also Spartina cord grass, introduced in order to stabilise the marsh round Summers Steel works at Shotton. Now the marsh has reached beyond Heswall, still remembered as a sandy beach by many locals.     

Increase of the marsh on the Dee Estuary during 20th Century.

Perhaps the most obvious change to the estuary is the steady erosion of the clay cliffs between West Kirby and Heswall, almost crumbling away as you watch. These cliffs, laid down in the last ice age, suffer from both storm damage from waves and water running off the land during heavy rain. They have  receded between five and fifteen feet this century causing the Wirral Rangers constant problems trying to maintain the various footpaths descending to the beach. 

Another natural feature which has receded this century are the sand dunes which are found both along the North Wales coast at the Point of Ayr and the north Wirral coast. A photograph in one of the Dee Estuary Strategy newsletters shows the Point of Ayr lighthouse clearly in the middle of the sand dunes at the beginning of the century, now the sand dunes are over 100 yards away. The north Wirral coast suffered from regular inundations of the sea during the highest tides until a large concrete embankment was built in the latter half of the century.

The Birds
Wildfowl: Unlike most of the other major estuaries of the United kingdom the Dee does not have large numbers of geese, only the odd visiting small flock of  Pink-footed  or Brent Geese being seen. Early on in the century much larger flocks of Pink-footed Geese over wintered here. Unfortunately disturbance due to over shooting and a build up of industry between the two world wars led to the desertion of the Dee by the geese to South West Lancashire.

Unlike geese, duck have been a big success story. This has come about from the establishment of a network of reserves and no-shooting zones, the numbers also reflect the increase of duck in West Europe generally. The table below shows how the numbers of the main species of  duck have changed this century. 
1920/1930 1950s 1960's 1970's 1980's 1990's
Teal No data No data 300 700 4000 5000
Pintail 300 3500 1000 2800 6500 5300
Shelduck No data No data 2000 4300 5600 7800


Waders: Accurate wader counts started in 1969 and the table below shows how the numbers have fluctuated since then. It is a complex picture but surely no coincidence that the species which dropped dramatically in the late '70s and '80's - Knot, Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwit - are those that inhabit the mouth of the estuary where disturbance was particularly bad. Since then disturbance has been much reduced at  the  high tide roost at West Kirby (see next article below) and the Hilbre islands, where sea angling now seems to be far less a popular past time. 

It must be remembered that the counts shown below are taken from high tide roosts. They only tell part of the story as many of  the Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit which feed on the sand and mudflats leave the estuary at high tide to roost on the less disturbed Alt Estuary a few miles away. WeBS counts indicate that this is a pattern of feeding and roosting which has become much more widespread during the past 20 years.

1969/75 1984/89 1993/98
Oystercatcher 14400 29500 24600
Knot 31200 17000 18500
Dunlin 30000 14500 25800
Black-Tailed Godwit 730 500 1800
Bar-Tailed Godwit 5000 <1000 1200
Curlew 3500 3400 4200
Redshank 5700 6900 6300

The numbers of birds shown in the tables above  are based on data from the following sources:
Wildfowl in Great Britain, The Wildfowl Trust, 1963.
Estuary Birds, A.J.Prater, 1981.
Wetland Bird Survey Counts between 1984 and 1999.


Dee Estuary Volunteer Wardens

The primary reason for the existence of the Dee Estuary Volunteer Wardens is to protect the high tide wader roost at West Kirby from disturbance. A very important secondary roll is to count the birds, in particular the nine main species. A remarkable amount of data has been collected since 1986 when the scheme started. At every daylight high tide over 8.7 meters between September and March the number of birds of each species have been counted, making West Kirby shore one of the most well documented in the country. 

Making sense of this mass of data is a mammoth task and thanks must go in particular to Roy Palmer who has produced a series of fascinating graphs. I think one of the most interesting is the bar graph below showing the average daily count for each winter period. This shows a remarkable cyclic pattern with numbers peaking in the winters of 1990/1991 and 1998/1999. It should be noted that the cycle reflects the variation in the numbers of Knot and Dunlin in particular, they are by the far the most numerous species. The reason for this cyclic pattern is not known but goes on against a background of changing numbers both on the estuary as a whole (see above article) and nationally, as well as changes in the amount of disturbance at the roost. The wardens met with some resistance from the general public when they first started but are now much more effective in stopping disturbance, despite a large increase in the numbers of beach users. 

West Kirby - Average Daily Wader Counts 1986/87 to 1998/99

                             All data gathered by Dee Estuary Volunteer Wardens

As you can see, the average count for the winter of 1998/99 was the highest since the scheme started at 11666. Of course the maximum count was much higher and the table below shows the maximum count (and date) of each of the main nine species:
Highest Total Count 45000 15-Feb
Redshank 530 06-Dec
Dunlin 23000 20-Jan
Knot 22000 15-Feb
Oystercatcher 7000 20-Sep
Ringed Plover 125 31-Jan
Grey Plover 2000 22-Nov and 22 Jan
Sanderling 280 08-Nov
Bar-tailed Godwit 1100 19-Jan
Curlew 220 25-Sep
                            All data gathered by Dee Estuary Volunteer Wardens



Bird Counts


Inner Marsh Farm  
11th November: Bewick's Swan 15, Tufted duck 1, Shovelor 76,  Gadwall 2, Pintail 23, Wigeon 100+, Shelduck 11, Teal 1000+, Goldeneye 1, Pochard 1, Ruff 2, Dunlin 14, Black-tailed Godwit 14, Redshank 4, Curlew 20, Water Rail 1, Sparrow Hawk 1, Buzzard 1.

Wetland Bird Survey Count for Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service). 28th November.
Cormorant 4, Grey Heron 4, Shelduck 988, Wigeon 19, Teal 539, Mallard 65, Pintail 4, Oystercatcher 1,100, Golden Plover 66, Lapwing 852, Knot 20, Dunlin 20, Snipe 1, Black-tailed godwit 253, Curlew 617, Redshank 830, Peregrine Falcon 1 and flock of 300 Linnet.

West Kirby shore high tide roost  - counts carried out by Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens.
The highest count this month was on 21st November (up until 24th): Bar-tailed Godwit 622, Knot 4,000, Oystercatcher 14, Curlew 310, Grey Plover 950, Dunlin 8,700, Ringed Plover 27 and Redshank 520. 

November Bird News

The Hoopoe which caused much excitement in Hoylake at the end of last month stuck around for the first week of November before disappearing.

An adult drake Long-tailed Duck spent several days on West Kirby marine lake before it left when the lake was drained for emergency repairs to the walls. The last week of the month saw a Richard's Pipit at Oakenholt Marsh (near Flint) where good numbers of Twite and a couple of Water Pipit were also seen.

A flock of 750 Black-tailed Godwit have taken up residence between Heswall and Thurstaston shore. They make a great sight foraging a few yards from the beach. When feeding on the mud this large flock make a surprising amount of noise, consistently twittering away (for want of a better word). They make a spectacular sight when flying, their white rumps and black tails flashing in the sun, each bird appearing to be stuck on to a skewer as they hold themselves so straight when flying.

30 or so Bewick's Swan are now back at Burton, spending most of the time on a potato field just beyond Inner Marsh Farm. For several days they were joined by a lone Ruddy shelduck.


Forthcoming Events
December Highest Spring Tides
23rd December, 1123hrs 9.9m. (all times GMT)
24th December, 1212hrs 10.0m. 

25th December, 1300hrs 9.9m. 

Young Ornithologists Club at Ness Gardens
A complete listing of events for 1999 can be seen for this group who have a series of monthly outdoor and indoor meetings.

Wirral Peregrines Phoenix Group
A group for teenagers jointly run by the RSPB and Wirral Ranger Service.  See listing of events for 1999.

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 2000

Forthcoming Events (organised by the Wirral Ranger Service, Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):

11th December. High Tide Birdwatch at Heswall. 10:30am-12.30pm
Waders and wildfowl galore at the edge of the tide. Meet at Banks Road car park (near Sheldrake Restaurant), lower Heswall. For further details ring 0151 336 7681 or 0151 648 4371.

15th December. Walk to Parkgate. 10:30am-12.30pm
A leisurely 7 mile walk to the lost port of Parkgate and back. Please bring packed lunch, note it will be muddy in places. Booking essential ring 0151 678 4200.

24th December. High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate. 1015am - 1230pm.
Waders, Wildfowl and Raptors abound and with migration in full swing who knows what may fly by. Meet at Old Baths Car Park, Parkgate. For further information ring 0151 648 4371/3884.

26th December. Christmas Ramble. 10am - 3pm.
Discover the North Coast of Wirral, a land of sand dunes and reed beds. An 8 mile walk from Grove Road Station to west Kirby Station. Please bring packed lunch. Booking essential. For further information ring 0151 648 4371/3884.

8th January. Beginners Birdwatch at West Kirby shore. 11am - 1pm.
Join the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens on West Kirby shore. If you have difficulty telling Knot from Dunlin, or Godwit from Curlew, come along and chat to the experts. There will be telescopes to look through with many thousands of waders on view. Meet at Dee Lane slipway and walk towards Red Rocks nature reserve.