12th September 1998

This month something a bit different, a feature on Hilbre Island - hope you like it. All the usual news is also included - latest counts, rarity news and forthcoming events. Either in October or November I will be doing a feature on Heswall shore, so look out for that.

Hilbre Island
The Birds
Hilbre Bird Observatory
Map of Hilbre Island
When to go and what to see
Map of all the Islands and recommended route

Rest of Newsletter
Latest Bird Counts
Rarity News
Forthcoming Events



The mouth of the Dee Estuary is very different from the inner reaches. Clean golden sands instead of mud and marsh, banks pounded by surf instead of calm water, but one thing above all that sets it apart are the Islands of Hilbre - Little Eye, Little Hilbre (or Middle Eye) and of course the main island of Hilbre itself. Seen from the top of Caldy Hill at high tide the three islands appear like ships steaming through the surf, catching the eye whenever they are in sight. A visit to these islands is a true wilderness experience and they are justly renowned for their birds.

The Birds

August and September are the prime months for a visit to Hilbre with numbers of waders building up well for the winter, and both land and sea migration well under way.

The birds of Hilbre fall roughly into four main categories:
Firstly, Hilbre specialities such as Purple Sandpipers. Although not rare, these birds are not particularly common and the seaweed covered rocks around Hilbre provide an ideal habitat.
Secondly the more common estuary birds - most importantly at high tide when vast flocks of Knot, Dunlin and Oystercatchers roost on the rocks which remain above the water.
Thirdly are the land migrants. During spring and autumn large falls of birds can be seen, particularly with the right weather conditions.
Lastly the sea-birds - terns, divers, auks, gannets, skuas and petrels to name but a few.

Highlights of the past twelve months
September 1997: Several days of north-west gales brought 140 Leach's Petrel on the 8th and 252 on the 9th. During these gales both Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas where seen several times together with Sabine Gulls, Iceland Gull and a Storm Petrel.
October 1997:Three Pomarine Skuas on 10th and the Island saw it's first Pallas' Warbler on the 31st, this was the county's third record..
November 1997:The two days of 31st Oct and 1st Nov. were quite eventful with a Hen Harrier, Little Owl and 6 Whooper Swans.
A flock of Snow Buntings were present from 11th Nov. into the new year with a maximum of 35 in December. Great Skua seen on 30th. Nov.
March 1998: Notable sightings were 46 Little Gulls and a Lapland Bunting.
April 1998: April started well with the visit of Hilbre's second ever Red Kite on the 1st and an Osprey on the 12th. The spring migration was marked with the 2nd ever Woodlark, a Tree Pipit and Grasshopper Warblers among the usual numerous Willow Warblers. 5 Purple Sandpipers were still present on the 21st and another Lapland Bunting was seen on the 27th.
June 1998:127 Gannets on 14th June, good number considering the light breeze. Yellow-legged Gull on 20th. An early juvenile Wheatear seen on 27th and two Shags on same day.
July 1998: Tern numbers started to pick up with 6 Arctic Terns on the 4th. A strong north-westerly wind on the 11th brought in 45 Gannets, 12 Manx Shearwaters and 2 Storm Petrels. Storm Petrels were a feature this month with more being seen on the 13th, 14th and 18th.

Latest Sightings - thanks to Steve Williams of the Hilbre Bird Observatory for providing the info.
8th August - Little egret, only second record.
9th/10th August - Woodchat Shrike caught on Hilbre by John Gittins. This is the second record on the Island, the first also observed by John Gittins in 1958!
22nd August - Good day for Sea Watching - Manx shearwater 35, Balearic Shearwater 1 (first record), Gannet 50, Fulmar 3, Artic Skua 12, Long-Tailed Skua 1(very early record) and good numbers of terns including 80 Little Terns.
30th August - Tern numbers increased with about 125 Little Terns. 9 Artic Skuas. Two early Purple Sandpipers.
31st August - Good numbers of hirundines passing through, 600 House Martins and 250 Swallows in the morning alone. Spotted Redshank and Greenshank seen during the previous few days.

The Observatory

All these birds are studied by the Hilbre Bird Observatory established in 1957 by John Gittins of West Kirby. Although not manned continually the Observatory has amassed a huge amount of data and a report is issued annually. This includes seal and mammal counts and lists of butterflies and moths as well as the birds. A ringing station is maintained and approximately 27,000 birds of 87 species have been ringed since 1957. Sea watches are carried out from the hide on top of the old Lifeboat Station on the north end of the island. The hide is often manned from dawn to dusk and as the best observations are made in gale force winds it takes much dedication and stamina! Below are two examples of life as a sea-watcher which illustrates this, with the occasional great excitement. The first is from John Craggs book "Hilbre - The Cheshire Island", during an exceptional Leach's Petrel passage:-

"On the 27th September the sea-watching hide was manned for 12 1/2 hours. For the first 10 hours, petrels averaged about 60 an hour, but one of the observers' resolve began to weaken when the hourly count hit only 42 after a slight but steady decrease over the previous four hours. However, with the observatory record standing at 663 birds in 8 hours, he was persuaded to stay. The next hour the count hit 83, and the next 214. The reluctant observer realised that he would have to resign himself to remaining in the hide until it was completely dark. The count for the last hour was 130 birds and the total for the day was 959."

The second is from a Hilbre Bird Observatory report, extract written by A.M.Stoddart.

"The first of these (rarities) occurred on 2nd September. At 1530, after an hour's birdless seawatching in subsiding westerlies, low cloud and drizzle suddenly descended displacing a small group of seabirds into the estuary mouth. Five Gannets and fifteen Kittiwakes appeared from the north, followed by an Artic Skua, itself followed by a Bonxie. At the tail-end of this movement came the diminutive, short-winged form of the Little Shearwater, banking shallowly and hesitantly, in between bouts of weak, rapid flapping as it neared, to pass close inside HE 5, the diagnostic white eye-surround clearly visible."

For more details of the Hilbre Bird Observatory see their web site

Hilbre MapHilbre Island
Scale: Map is approximately 800 metres top to bottom.
The north end of the Island is favourite for sea-watching and the hide is situated on top of the old life-boat station, disused since 1939. Sea-weed covered rocks are good for Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones, as well as attracting Oystercatchers and Curlew. At high tide any available rock above the water will be covered with roosting waders.

When to go and what to see

The Waders

Good numbers of wading birds are present from August to April with the largest numbers between October and February. Many of these birds can be seen at low tide with Purple Sandpipers (November to March) and Turnstones particularly favouring the seaweed covered rocks surrounding the islands. Both the nearby sand bank at West Kirby and the rocks on the islands are used as high tide roosts when spectacular numbers may be present. During a high spring tide the birds will be driven off the sand bank and many large flocks fly over, either on their way to the Point of Ayr or further up the river to more secure roosts.

Migrating Land Birds

Spring migration peaks between the last week in April to about 10th May. In favourable conditions - south-east to south west winds with cloud cover - large falls of birds can be seen. Insectivorous birds, including warblers, migrate at night and tend to arrive on the island at dawn. They usually leave by 9am so unfortunately most people visiting Hilbre during the day miss all the excitement.

Autumn migration tends to be more drawn out lasting from early August to well into September. East to north-east winds are favoured, particularly for young Willow Warblers in August. Rarities turn up from time to time including Woodchat Shrike, Hoopoe, Woodlark, Blue-headed Wagtail, Nightingale and Icterine Warbler.


Hide on HilbreBirdwatchers sea-watching next to the old Lifeboat Station on the north end of Hilbre. The structure on top of the station is the sea-watching hide made of sandstone blocks, a lot cosier in a force 8 gale than wood! Note that the hide is normally only for use of members of the Hilbre Bird Observatory.

No doubt that the best time of year for sea watching is August and September, but unusual and rare visitors may be seen at any time. August brings the terns - Little, Common and Sandwich in particular. On a good day hundreds can be seen passing through. September is the time for gales, which in their turn bring Leach's Petrels. Several days of north to north-west gales can blow hundreds into Liverpool Bay. They get funnelled into the mouth of the Mersey whence they fly along the north coast of Wirral and out past the north end of Hilbre. Good conditions for Petrels are usually also good for other birds such as Skuas and some of the rarer Shearwaters. Other sea birds to be seen are Gannets, Divers, sea duck of various sorts, Grebes, Auks, Kittiwakes and a good selection of gulls.

Hilbre MapMap showing the relative positions of the Islands
Scale: Map is approximately 3 kilometres/2 miles top to bottom.
Little Hilbre is the best spot to see the Grey seals on West Hoyle Bank at low tide where there may be over 400 in August.

Stop at Little Eye on the way over and look through your binoculars south across the mud banks. In the Autumn and Winter you should see thousands upon thousands of feeding waders.

The dotted line shows the recommended route to Hilbre Island.

For further details about Hilbre Island, including how to get there, see the
English Shore page . If planning a trip it is strongly recommended you read the section on when to go in relation to the time of both low and high tide.

Dee Estuary

Latest Bird Counts and Sightings:

Inner Burton Marsh, birds seen 5th September 1998.
26 Ruff, 51 Greenshank, 170 Blacktailed Godwit, 5 Wigeon, 2 Sparrowhawk, 3 Green Sandpiper, 2 Water Rail, 3 Knot, 100+ Teal, 100+ Mallard, 3 Shoveller. Additional sightings - see rarity news below.

Mersey Estuary.
A remarkable 17,000 Shelduck were reported to be undergoing their annual moult on the Mersey Estuary during August. Presumably this will include many of the birds soon to be seen on the Dee.

Rarity News:
Inner Burton Marsh. At least two Spotted Crakes seen in the past four weeks, Red Kite on 31st August. 4 Curlew Sandpiper, 1 Wood Sandpiper and 6 Little Stint present on 5th September.
Burton Marsh. 2 Little Egrets 31st August.
The 3 Spoonbills which Summered at Inner Burton Marsh turned up at Connah's Quay marsh during the past month and where seen back at Burton on 8th September.

9 Little Stints and one Curlew Sandpiper seen by Jane Turner on Hoylake Shore - 6th September.

For latest sightings on Hilbre Island see above.

If anybody wants to E-mail any sightings of birds or sea-mammals to me I will be most grateful (see bottom of Home page for address).

Next Spring High Tides (Times BST):
6th October, 1206hrs 9.9m.
7th October, 1249hrs 10.0m.

Forthcoming Events:

6th October (10:00am) and 7th October (11:00am). High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate, experts on hand at Old Baths.

Following organised by the RSPB.

4th October. Tideline Encounter at Flint Castle. 9:00am.
Special birds in a superb setting. Meet at Flint Lifeboat Station car park (next to Flint Castle). Ring RSPB on 01352 780 527 for information.

Following organised by the Wirral Ranger Service.

20th September. Beginners Birdwatch at Leasowe Bay. 10am - 12 noon.
Come and see the birds as they roost on the islands of Leasowe Bay. Can be superb for sea-watching during a north-west gale. Meet at Leasowe Lighthouse. No need to book. Ring 0151 678 5488 for information.

20th September. Walk to Thurstaston. 11am - 3pm approx.
A leisurely ramble through the countryside of west Wirral. Bring packed lunch. Booking essential ring 0151 678 4200.

27th September. Marsh Matters 10am to 12 noon.
A walk into the creeks and marshes of the Dee Estuary. Bring Wellies and Waterproofs. Meet at Banks Road car park, Heswall (by Sheldrakes). This time of year should be excellent for birds. Ring 0151 648 4371/3884 to book place.

3rd October. Guided walk to Hilbre. Afternoon.
Cross the sands to discover the Islands' wildlife and history. 4 miles and 4 hours, ideal for first time visitors. Warm clothing and snack recommended! Ring 0151 648 4371/3884 to book place.

14th October. Walk to Parkgate. 11am to 4pm .
A leisurely walk to Parkgate, following the coastal marshes of the Dee Estuary. Bring packed lunch It will be muddy in places. Ring 0151 678 4200 to book place.

18th October. Walking the Wirral Way. 10am - 1pm.
Thurstaston to Caldy Hill, returning via Thurstaston Hill. Approx. 7 kilometres. To book ring 0151 648 4371/3884.

The following organised by the Flintshire Countryside Service.

20th September. Dee Estuary Walk. 10am.
A day's walk through Flintshire's countryside from sand dunes to woodland, finishing at Greenfield valley. Meet at end of Station Road, Talacre. To book ring 01352 714172.

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