|Little Egrets are
such a common sight on the Dee Estuary these days that it is easy to forget
how rare they were just a few years ago. The first ever Little Egret record
in the Dee Estuary/ North Wirral shore area was at
Leasowe in 1988. At that time this species
was still a rare spring migrant even in the south of England, but the
following year saw an influx of 50 into the country. From then on numbers
just kept on increasing so that by 2001 2,700 were counted - the vast
majority occurring in southern England and South Wales.
Meanwhile on the Dee Estuary we only had one or two birds each year up until 1998. But even so a change was occurring. Instead of a rare sighting or two in May due to migration overshoot, we started to get birds in late summer and autumn staying for several weeks at a time. By 1998 up to four birds were present all year, spending most of the time on the marsh off Burton and Parkgate. Numbers stayed relatively low into 2000, just creeping up to six in December.
But the autumn of 2001 saw a dramatic surge in numbers when 18 were counted in October, followed by counts of 21 and 20 the following two months. 2001 also saw birds ranging much more widely with the Welsh side being particularly favoured with up to eight at Connah's Quay and six at Point of Ayr. They were seen for the first time at West Kirby - and also at Flint, Bagillt, Hilbre Island, Little Eye and Heswall.
The peak count is in October, a month later than further south presumably due to the time the birds take to get this far north. This is a post breeding dispersal from both northern France and the increasing breeding population in the south of this country. Numbers then drop slowly through the winter and spring, reaching a low point in June, before rapidly increasing again in late summer.
The Dee Estuary has become something of a stronghold for Little Egrets outside their main areas in the south. The salt water marsh off Burton, Neston and Parkgate seem particularly attractive to them. Sometimes a quick scan with the 'bins' reveals no Little Egrets at all as they remain so well hidden in the channels running through the marsh. If you wait a bit you begin to see one or two flitting from one feeding place to another, and a low flying Harrier or Peregrine might well flush several at a time. But the best times to see them is late evening or early morning as they fly to and from their roost at Burton .
So what does the future hold for the Little Egret on the Dee Estuary? Two questions spring to mind - will numbers carry on increasing, and will they ever breed here? To answer the first question - numbers in the country continue to increase, especially at the edge of their range such as the Dee Estuary. It may well be that the increase will slow here, as seems to be the case already, but that the range of the Little Egret will continue to move northwards. The only thing which might reverse the expansion is if we get a series of hard winters, perhaps an unlikely event giving the current pattern of warm winters. As for the second question, breeding has already taken place very close to the Dee Estuary, at Frodsham Marsh in 2001, the only breeding record in the North-west. So it must just be a matter of time before breeding occurs again, and next time may be on the shores of the Dee Estuary.
References and further reading:
Acknowledgments: Many thanks to the RSPB on the Dee Estuary for allowing me to use their Little Egret data from both Inner Marsh Farm and Gayton Sands. Many thanks also to the many birders and birdwatchers for sending me their counts of Little Egrets over the past few years.
Little Terns at Gronant
|I thought I must be a
jinx. First I joined the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens
who protect the wader roost at West Kirby.
This was in the winter of 99/00, the previous winter had seen record numbers
of waders. I join and numbers immediately plummet, they've still not got
back to where they were. In the summer of 2000 I join the Wardens protecting
the Little Tern colony at Gronant after an
excellent breeding season in 1999. Guess what? Numbers of young successfully
fledged plummeted, even getting down to just a single fledgling in 2001.
You've no idea how depressing that can be after three months of hard work.
The RSPB, who organise the Little Tern wardening scheme, are looking for volunteers for this summer. We start in May and continue through to early August. This will be my fifth season, and I've enjoyed every minute. If you wish to join, or just want more information, contact the Dee Estuary RSPB Warden, John Harrison, by phoning 0151 336 7681 or email John.Harrison@rspb.org.uk. You may also wish to look at last year's appeal for wardens which gives a more detailed description of wardening at Gronant.
Connah's Quay and
Flint - (Kindly provided by
Naturalists' Society 21st
March. 4 Little Grebe, 1 Great Crested Grebe, 104 Cormorant, 1 Little Egret,
2 Grey Heron, 9 Mute Swan, 14 Canada Goose, 60 Shelduck, 17 Wigeon, 9
Gadwall, 80 Teal, 50 Mallard, 5 Shoveler, 2 Tufted duck, 2 Moorhen, 25 Coot,
800 Oystercatcher, 400 Knot, 16 Dunlin, 2,500 Black-tailed Godwit, 12
Curlew, 220 Redshank and 3 Greenshank.
Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the
Wirral Ranger Service), 21st March.
March Bird News
did say watch the weather for the weekend of 20th and 21st March! As it was
the tide of the 19th was by far the highest, two foot above the marsh at
Parkgate Old Baths, with that on the 20th
just making it to the wall. Birds were good without being spectacular - 5
Short-eared Owls, 2 Hen Harriers, 26 Little Egrets and a Water Rail being
the highlights. But Friday's very high tide was somewhat unexpected. It was
only meant to be 9.2m high, the west north west wind was strong but not gale
force, and the atmospheric pressure wasn't particularly low (min.
995.1mbar). In contrast Saturday's tide was predicted to be 9.7m, the wind
was gale force from WSW and the atmospheric pressure was lower. Yet instead
of being 50cm higher than Friday, it was 60cm lower! I don't pretend to know
why, but I took a look at
West Cheshire College's weather website which was very interesting. On
Friday the drop in pressure was much steeper than on Saturday, and reached
it's minimum an hour before high tide instead of two hours later. Meanwhile
the wind direction swung from SW to WNW over the two hour period before high
tide on Friday, but the next day it was steady at WSW. So my non-expert
conclusion is that the sharp drop in pressure and SW wind produced a surge
up the Irish Sea on Friday morning before high tide, than crucially swung
round to WNW to push it in to the estuary. Anyway, back to the birds!
Given the cold weather the spring
migration not unexpectedly got off to a fairly slow start compared to last
year. See the table below.
There was a report of a House Martin on 14th March over New Brighton, just outside the area covered by this web site. Also a non-birder claimed a Swallow on 10th March, which given the very early date and adverse weather has to go down as just a 'possible'.
Chiffchaffs don't appear in the table above as some overwinter. But there was definitely an influx mid month with plenty singing in the local hedges and woods. Wheatears came through in good numbers initially, with 10 at Point of Ayr and six on Burton Marsh appearing within two days of the first bird. Since then the migration has rather tailed off, but there were signs right at the end of the month that things were picking up again with the wind swinging round to the south.
Also out to sea were our first Gannets and Sandwich Terns of the year, on the 10th and 21st respectively. A bird normally associated with the sea but blown in by the gale on the 20th was a dark phase Arctic Skua over Inner Marsh Farm.
As expected wader numbers dropped noticeably during the month, although 2,500 Black-tailed Godwits at Connah's Quay at the end of the month was an excellent count. Quite a few Knot were still around early on with 12,000 Knot at Thurstaston. There has been a small passage of Spotted Redshank with eight at Inner Marsh Farm being the highest number. A pair of Garganey on Burton Marsh on the 27th were quite early, normally we see this uncommon species in May. A Green-winged Teal has also been seen at Burton, as well as Inner Marsh Farm. There were no big movements of Pink-footed Geese but various small parties have been around with 187 at Point of Ayr the largest. 30 Brent Geese were still at Hilbre early in the month but had dwindled to 17 by the end.
An unexpected visitor to Hilbre Island was a Ring-necked Parakeet. At first we thought that this was the first record for the island, but it turned out it was the third, last seen 26 years ago. The other two records would, almost certainly, be escaped caged birds. This latest one may well be from the well established feral population found mostly in southern England.
It has been a very good winter for both Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers. 11 of the former were counted in a single sweep of the 'scope at Burton on the 7th. Probably at least 20 have over wintered between Burton and Parkgate. Five Hen Harriers were counted coming in to roost at Parkgate on the 7th, with one or two regularly seen patrolling the marsh on most days. A Red Kite was drifting over the shore at Heswall on the 11th. Still a rare bird on the estuary but with the Welsh population booming and various release schemes elsewhere we can expect to see more in the future. Another raptor of note was an early Osprey over Inner Marsh Farm on the 28th.
What to expect in April.
Out to sea there should be a good passage of Gannets and Little Gulls, and the first Little Terns will arrive off Gronant. Rarer passage birds will include one or two Ring Ouzels, Ospreys and Marsh Harriers. The waders which have over-wintered here will have all but disappeared, but passage waders will be coming through, mostly Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. Many of these birds will have spent the winter in South or West Africa and will be on their way to the far north to breed. Spotted Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits will be in full summer plumage, looking fabulous on the lagoons at Inner Marsh Farm. Avocets have spread in to the north-west in the past couple of years, so we should see at least a couple passing through, and one of these days they may even breed here. Another passage wader of note is the Whimbrel, best seen towards the end of the month at Hilbre when ten or more may be present.
Many thanks go to Nigel Troup, Ken Davies, Bruce Atherton, Colin Jones, Steve Ainsworth, Carl Traill, John Campbell, Cathy McGrath, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Bernard Machin, Matt Thomas, Mark Smith, Bernard Machin, Alan Jupp, Clive Ashton, Alan Patterson, John Eliot, Steve Round, Tanny Robinson, Dave Wilde, David Esther, John Campbell, Brian Grey, John Harrison, Allan Conlin, Mike Hart, David Harrington, Colin Wells, Phil Woollen, Stephen Williams, Chris Butterworth, Martyn Jaimeson, 'Harry', Shaun williams, Keith Duckers, Paul Vautrinot, Mal Smerden, Chris Griffin, Jean Morgan, Sue Tranter, Dave Steer, Colin Schofield, Peter Button, Chris Tynan, Jeremy Bradshaw, John Bird, Mike Ward, Bryan Joy, Syd Cartwright, Rob Palmer, Jane Turner, Wendy Hassall, William Roberts, Kevin Smith, Chris Wilding, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during March. All sightings are gratefully received.
April Highest Spring Tides,
6th April, 12:51hrs 9.8m. (all times BST)
7th April, 13:29hrs 9.9m.
Forthcoming Events (organised by the
Wirral Ranger Service,
Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):
Wednesday 7th April, 12:00noon,
Parkgate High Tide Birdwatch.
Sunday 18th April, 9:30am, Flight of the Godwits,
Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2004', 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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