Lying right in
the mouth of the Dee Estuary Hilbre Island is in a prime spot for
birdwatching. There is something of interest every month of the year with
the birds falling in to four broad categories Ė estuary birds, sea-birds,
migrating land birds and breeding birds:
The most obvious group of birds
to be seen from Hilbre for most of the year are the waders. Hundreds
feed on the seaweed covered rocks around Hilbre at low tide with peak
numbers during the winter. One to catch the eye is the Oystercatcher
with itís striking black and white plumage and bright red bill. Much
more rare is the Purple Sandpiper, a Hilbre speciality with up to 50
wintering on the island. They can be hard to spot as they are well
camouflaged foraging around the seaweed covered rocks. Waders also use
the three Hilbre Islands as high tide roosts where they can rest,
hopefully in peace, for a couple of hours. Both Little Eye and Middle
Eye hold hundreds of Oystercatchers and Curlew. The roosts at West
Kirby and Hoylake can be seen from the islands, here many thousands of
Dunlin and Knot spend high tide. Other estuary birds include the
Shelduck, a colourful duck which spends low tide feeding on the mud of
the estuary and at high tide many can be seen swimming around Little
Eye. Another Hilbre speciality is the Brent Goose and up to 50
overwinter on the islands. More often than not they can be observed on
the rocks on the north end of the main island at low tide but at high
tide they prefer either Little Eye or they fly further in to the
Brent Geese, Oystercatchers and a
Redshank on the north end of Hilbre.
© Richard Smith
Hilbre is nationally famed as one of the best sites in the country to see
Leachís Storm Petrel. This is a small ocean going bird which during itís
southward migration in Autumn can get blown in to the Irish Sea by
westerly gales and end up off the mouth of the river Mersey where they
battle against the wind to make it back out to sea by flying past Hilbre.
Late summer sees a large post breeding gathering of Sandwich, Common and
Little Terns. These graceful birds fill the air with their strident calls
for several months before making their way south for the winter. Other
regular sea birds are Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Little Gulls, all four
species of Skuas and a good selection of sea ducks, divers and grebes.
Migrating Land Birds
Lying out to sea Hilbre Island acts as a magnet to any land bird flying
along the coast or may be taking a short cut across Liverpool Bay.
Virtually anything can turn up but some of the more regular visitors are
Meadow Pipits, Willow Warblers, Swallows and Wheatears. Many birds which
we donít normally think of as migrants can travel tens or even hundreds of
miles during spring and autumn. Birds such as Robins, Blackbirds,
Chaffinches, Green Finches and even tiny Goldcrests are seen flying in
from the Irish Sea, many of these are trapped and ringed by members of the
Hilbre Bird Observatory before being safely released.
The Hilbre Islands are largely free of ground predators and this means the
population of breeding birds is more dense relative to the mainland.
Typically about ten species breed on the islands with Shelduck, Meadow
Pipits and Linnets being the most common, each with about 10 to 15 nests.
Linnets are on the Red Data list so are of particular importance to
Hilbre. Mallard, Skylark, Pied Wagtail, Wren, Robin and Carrion Crow also
The Hilbre Bird Observatory
was established in 1957 to monitor all these birds. Whenever the
Observatory is manned (typically 210 to 230 days a year) a full list
of both the species seen and numbers is made. Many of the birds which
pass through the islands are caught in the traps set by the
Observatory members. The birds are measured, weighed and ringed before
being released safely. The information gathered by the Observatory is
used to study bird population trends and migration patterns, a Hilbre
Bird Report is produced annually. Over the years a good number of
rarities have been seen (and sometimes caught) by members of the
Observatory. These include Little Shearwater, Surf Scoter, Laughing
Gull, Gull-billed Tern, White-winged Black Tern, Bee-eater, Red-rumped
Swallow, Red-throated Diver, Sub-alpine Warbler, Pallasís Warbler and
Woodchat Shrike. For more details about the Hilbre Bird Observatory
see their website (www.hilbrebirdobs.blogspot.co.uk).
The Dee Estuary Birding Website (www.deeestuary.co.uk)
also covers Hilbre Island with daily bird news and a monthly
A Greenland Wheatear about to be
released after being ringed
by Peter Williams of the Hilbre Bird Observatory.
© Richard Smith
The following were used as sources of information whilst writing this
Hilbre Bird Reports, published by the Hilbre Bird Observatory.
Allan Conlin and Steve Williams, Rare Birds in Cheshire & Wirral, CAW
(Hilbre Bird Observatory website).
Valerie McFarland, Barry Barnacal and John Craggs, Hilbre Ė the island in
a wilderness, 1983.