I certainly chose the right year to write a couple of articles about skuas and September was particularly good, which is why I've included another update on Arctic and Great Skuas as well as writing about Pomarines and Long-tails.
Both these species breed in the Arctic right across
the northern hemisphere and spend the winter out to sea, consequently we really have
very little idea how many there are but if you said around 400,000
mature individuals for each species you probably wouldn't be too far
out. Long-tailed Skuas breed in Scandinavia and it is thought they have
attempted to breed in the UK, in contrast the Pomarine Skua breeding
range starts further north and east in Arctic Russia. They both feed on Lemmings
during the breeding season but have evolved different strategies to
cope with the Lemming cycle. Pomarine Skuas will move quite long
distances from one year to the next to find areas where lemmings
are plentiful. In contrast Long-tailed Skuas often don't bother to
breed when lemmings are in short supply, a strategy that has been
likened to "skimming the cream" off the lemming's population cycles.
As you can see from the graphs Pomarine Skuas tend
to migrate south later than Long-tailed Skuas. It may well be that the
birds we see in Liverpool Bay have travelled overland from the North
Sea as both species have been tracked flying over the country both in
the spring and autumn. Pomarine Skuas winter out in the Atlantic,
mostly north of the equator, whilst Long-tailed Skuas fly much further
south and recent tracking research shows that most seem to winter in
the Benguela Current off the west coast of southern Africa. Most birds
of both species tend to fly back north west of Ireland and Scotland,
spectacular large mixed flocks are recorded off the Hebrides. In
Liverpool Bay spring and summer records of Long-tailed Skuas are
virtually unheard of whereas Pomarine Skuas are occasionally seen in
spring and we can sometimes get a non-breeding bird or two loitering
off-shore in the summer.
Both species are not quite annual off our coasts,
over the past ten years no Pomarines were recorded in 2010 or 2018 and
Long-tails were missing in 2015 and 2016. Long-tailed Skuas have always
been the rarest skua but in recent years numbers of Pomarine Skuas
seems to have dropped off. Conlin
found that the total number of records from 1975 to 1994 was 301
whereas it was only 90 between 1995 and 2015. This is partly explained
by exceptional numbers in 1978 (44 records) and 1988 (49 records) when
there were prolonged north-westerly gales along the north-wirral coast.
Pomarine Skuas are occasionally seen in the Dee
estuary itself and are not unknown inland. On November 21st 2015 one
was seen flying over Burton Marsh where it was mobbed by a Marsh
Harrier and on October 22nd 2017 birders at the Connah's Quay Nature
Reserve were somewhat surprised to see two flying past the hide.
So far 2019 has been good for both species with a
total of 14 Pomarine Skua records and five Long-tailed Skua records up
to the end of September.
Note: As usual with skuas it has been difficult to know which records to include and which to leave out. There are ID issues, double counting issues and the problem of many observers not bothering to submit records to the rarity committees. In many cases I have had to use my own judgement which records to include but as the vast majority were from two main sources, Hilbre Bird Observatory and the North Wirral 'regulars', it wasn't that difficult. There will be some duplication of birds recorded as they move along the coast so totals may be slightly over-estimated. The records also include those from the Welsh coast, mainly Point of Ayr.
Several days of strong westerlies early in the month, including a day of gales, meant September 2019 was excellent for skuas. This included a record high number of Arctic Skuas with 101 counted on the 4th from Hilbre (previous record being 72 on 12 September 1987) and the total of daily max's was 129 for the first half of September and XX for the second. There were 25 Great Skua (up to 12th) records in September. Here are a couple of updated graphs from last month's article to put these in perspective:
Arctic Skuas breed right across the northern hemisphere in the Arctic and further south in areas such as the Baltic. Scotland is it's most southerly breeding area and in our era of global warming it is no great surprise to see that it is in trouble here and is red-listed due to both declines in breeding area and breeding pairs. The precise reasons for the decline appear to be the shortage of sand eels and therefore the species which catch them, which the skuas steal from, and also predation of Arctic Skuas by Great Skuas. Currently the RSPB give a very precise figure of 2,136 breeding pairs, down from 3,350 pairs in the late 1980s.
Arctic Skuas migrate close to the coast harassing
terns and gulls as
they go. They winter all the way down to South Africa and South America
although winter records in Liverpool Bay are not unknown, including
off north Wirral recorded in early December in both 1999 and
British breeding birds are on territory by late April so the May peak which we see during the spring passage must be of birds breeding further north, perhaps Iceland or northern Scandinavia. We do sometimes see them in June, for example there were nine June records both in 2011 and 2012 and these are presumably non-breeding immature birds; there are plenty of those as they don't breed until four years old. By late July the return migration is well underway. According to the graph numbers peak in the first half of September, but that doesn't tell the whole story. I suspect the main passage is actually in August but some very high counts during gales in September skew the data somewhat. So in 2010 a count of 70 was made from Hoylake on September 14th and on the same date in 2012 there were 68, so just one day's count each year formed the bulk of records for that month. It should be remembered that in gale conditions that these counts are just estimates, off our shores birds are usually moving east to west but there is no way of knowing whether some are circling back further out before flying past again. Going back to the argument the main passage being in August, 2018 was an interesting year with 85 recorded in the second half of August, the highest count for that period in the past 10 years, whereas in the first half of September none were seen at all, the lowest count in ten years.
Sightings of Arctic Skuas from our shores are usually of ones and twos and somewhat distant as they chase gulls and terns out in Liverpool Bay, but sometimes we get more interesting views. Except for the odd wind blown bird during gales I think it safe to say we never get birds further into the estuary south of a line between West Kirby and Mostyn so on 27th July 2011 Steve Hinde was astonished to see six Arctic Skuas sat on a sand bank, in calm weather, just off Heswall. Later that same year, on September 8th during a breezy morning, I was sea-watching by Leasowe Lighthouse hoping for a Leach's Petrel when I saw an Arctic Skua fly over the horizon towards me, then another, and another. It was a flock of 17! Now there are lots of daily totals far greater than 17 but they usually pass through in singles or small groups, flocks of 17 or more off North Wirral are virtually unheard of so I was indeed lucky to see them.
A word about the
Arctic Skua bar charts: as I was compiling the records it soon became
apparent that the same birds were being seen and counted along the
various north Wirral sites, and in particular most birds off Hilbre and
Hoylake were being double counted. Typical daily totals during a gale
would be, say, 35 at Hilbre and 32 at Hoylake, with smaller numbers at
Leasowe and New Brighton. To avoid this double counting I took the
decision to just use whatever the maximum count was on any particular
day (35 in the above example), and in the majority of cases this would
be either the count at Hoylake or Hilbre. This will probably have
slightly underestimated the numbers but the alternative would have been
to add up all the counts leading to a large over estimate.
Great Skuas are much rarer
than Arctics both
globally and locally. 60% of all Great Skuas breed in Scotland and the
total world population is only 16,000 pairs. With some colonies
decreasing and others increasing it is difficult to assess it's status
but the population appears to be stable, perhaps with a small decrease
due to food shortages. Most spend the winter north of the equator and
November and December records here are more numerous than for the
Arctic Skua, although there has only been one January record and none
for February or
March over the past 10 years.
Away from their breeding grounds they tend to stay
out of sight of land usually only being seen from the coast during
gales. One or two are often seen on bird-watching boat trips in the
summer out into Liverpool Bay which come to 'chum', hence Richard
Steel's excellent photos.
Adults will be on their breeding territories by the
end of April so the sightings we get in May through to July will be
non-breeding immature birds, most don't start breeding until at least
seven years old. The adult birds leave the breeding areas at the end of
August, and we see a distinct passage in September. The weather pays a
large part in how many we see and maximum numbers always occur during
on shore gales.
But each year is different. In 2011, for example, we
only had 21 records in September but gales in early October brought
double figure counts on the 6th and 7th resulting in the highest
October count for the past ten years of 40. 2012 was perhaps more
typical with an excellent 62 September records due to several gales
through the month, yet there was only a total of five records for all
the other months put together. Sometimes the best views are had the day
after a gale when they can be seen eating wrecked birds on the sand
banks and, as Jane Turner put it, they can get so fat they can barely
fly. September 2013 was interesting as a single bird hung around the
mouth of the Dee estuary for several days including some really close
views at Little Eye, and one day if flew down to Heswall
then came within a few feet of me standing on the beach at Thurstaston
on its way back towards Hilbre. In 2015 very few were seen until
November when a group of up to nine hung around Hoylake and Hilbre for
several days. On 14th November that year there was a High Tide
Birdwatch at Hoylake
with 8,000 gulls and many waders on the beach, these all rose up in one
big spectacular mass as one of the Great Skuas flew right over them!
- the second half of August was
particularly good with 85 records, equaling the count for 2018 and
three times the average for the past 10 years.
Great Skua - Six records so far this year with one in April and five in the second half of August.
1. Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports from 1994 to 2017, Cheshire and Wirral Ornithological Society - http://www.cawos.org/ .
2. Arctic and Great Skua records from Cheshire and Wirral Ornithological Society database.
3. Arctic and Great Skua records in the Dee Estuary
latest sightings page (and all who contributed records) - www.deeestuary.co.uk/lsight.htm.
4. BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11, 2013.
5. BTO Migration Atlas, Poyser, 2002.
6. Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWPi - interactive edition).
Scanning through the mixed flock of gulls, waders
and terns at
on August 1st Steve Hinde spotted a red ring on a Sandwich Tern with
the letters KNB. Although it was ringed fairly close to the Hoylake -
at Ynyslas NNR, Borth in mid-Wales on September 19th 2016 - it turned
out that the previous record of this bird was close to Cape Town in
Africa on October 21st 2018. This is a massive 6,165 miles away as the
crow flies (longer for a Sandwich Tern flying around the coast!). The
previous furthest distance of a bird seen by us was 2,300 miles to
Alert in northern Canada - we've seen three knots and a turnstone
which were ringed there.
This Sandwich Tern had also been spotted at Rhos Point, Colwyn Bay, on July 24th 2018, by North Wales regulars Marc Hughes, Rob Sandham and Henry Cook, three months before being seen at Cape Town.
Most Sandwich Terns are ringed as chicks at breeding colonies, so it is interesting that Ynyslas is different as it is an important staging post for this species (like the Dee Estuary). Tony Cross, the ringer, said "The colour-ringing is part of a project aiming to study the origins and destinations of Sandwich Terns using this important (RAMSAR designated) migration stop-over site on the West Wales coast. So far about 150 have been individually colour-ringed with many sighting reported around Britain and Ireland as well as movements recorded to or from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Namibia and South Africa."
Orange flag (2N) over P - ringed at Altcar on September 22nd 2017.
Regular readers of this Colour Ring Report may remember that in the October 2018 Newsletter I reported the presence of this knot in the Azores, first recorded on the islands on September 9th and last seen on October 15th 2018. Knot are rare on the Azores and those of the Islandica race virtually unknown and this was the first one seen there with a BTO ring. This bird didn't seem to be doing particularly well and seemed to have difficulty finding food so most of us didn't think it would survive.
But Knot are robust birds and well used to traveling long distances over the sea and, much to our amazement, it was spotted among the knot flock at Formby Point on August 13th - presumably having found it's way back to northern Canada and back. As Jim Wilson put it "Nice that 2N is back. There must be very few ringing records in any species showing what finally happens to vagrants."
In the winter of 2017/18 we saw Oflag 2N at
Thurstaston and West Kirby six times in total, it would be great to see
it again this coming winter.
Through August there were large numbers of
Black-tailed Godwits at the Caldy Wildfowl Collection site and we
logged 25 colour ringed birds - 14 of these were ringed in Iceland, two
in north-east Scotland, three on the Humber estuary, two in south-east
England, one in France and three in Portugal. It was noticeable that in
the latter half of July and the first week in August that there was
quite a turnover of birds as they arrived from Iceland and moved on.
But for the rest of August we were seeing the same birds day after day
presumably as they stayed put whilst in heavy moult.
RY-RN (see photo) was ringed in June 2016 at
Selfoss, southern Iceland, by Boddi who is our contact for all ringed
Icelandic ringed Black-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Ringed
Plovers. The bird arrived at Caldy in July this year having only been
seen just once since being ringed, at Llanelli in south Wales in May
Colour-ringed birds were recorded by Richard Smith, Steve Hinde, Colin
Dave Winnard, Allan Conlin, Richard Whitby and Ken McNiffe on
the Dee estuary. Peter Knight and Rose Maciewicz spotted Knot 2N at
Judging by the number of reports and photographs I received it seems Burton Point was very much the site of the month. A family of Little Owls were giving great views and there were also Yellow Wagtails, Wheatears and Whinchats along with sightings of Marsh Harriers, Short-eared Owls, Hen Harriers and Great Egrets over the adjacent marsh.
Talking of Great Egrets we had record numbers
counted coming into the roost at Burton with minimum count of 35 on the
2nd and 33 on the 3rd, almost double the 2018 max of 18. Spoonbills
were also in good numbers with up to nine at Parkgate for most of the
month. Also at Parkgate were plenty of Greenshanks on passage with a
max of 25, with 15 at Burton Mere Wetlands.
There were plenty of waders around including the
first Curlew Sandpipers of the return passage which arrived on the 28th
at Hoylake. These were all juveniles and there have been plenty of
other juvenile waders indicating a good breeding season. There were
ridiculous numbers of Black-tailed Godwits at the Caldy Wildfowl
Collection with a max 6,140 on the 23rd. This is 10% of the Icelandic
race and there can't be many sites in the country with these sort of
numbers in August, and this is just one small field. As I said to the
owners, we know from the colour rings that many of these godwits have
visited some of the most famous bird reserves in the country such as
Leighton Moss, Titchwell, Cley, Snettisham and Minsmere, but I bet they
don't have as many as you have!
It is also a very good month for waders and the species to look out for
in particular is Curlew Sandpiper. We get juveniles coming through,
they are usually seen first in good numbers at Hoylake then other
similar coastal sites in the first half of September, then there is
often a second wave a week or two later when good numbers are often
seen at Burton Mere Wetlands. We know Knots have had an outstanding
breeding season in Canada so lets hope Curlew Sandpipers have in
Siberia. We should also see juvenile Ruff and Little Stints coming
On the marshes the first returning Pink-footed Geese will arrive, and some years we can get good numbers of both Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers. Also the first Brent Geese will arrive around Hilbre.
Top of Page
Also see Tides page.
1st October, 13.38hrs (BST), 9.9m.
2nd October, 14.18hrs (BST), 9.6m.
27th October, 10.09hrs (GMT), 9.7m.
28th October, 10.51hrs (GMT), 9.9m.
29th October, 11.33hrs (GMT), 10.0m.
30th October, 12.13hrs (GMT), 9.8m.
Organised by the Wirral Ranger Service , Flintshire Countryside Service and the RSPB (Dee Estuary): 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.
Wednesday 2nd October, RSPB Point of Ayr Tidewatch
1pm-3.30pm (approx. finish)
Price: £5 per person (£4 RSPB members) plus Eventbrite booking fee
By October we'll have welcomed many of our winter visitors back to the mudflats and saltmarsh that make the Dee Estuary such an important home for wetlands birds, and witnessing a high tide at the Point of Ayr is a spectacle not to be missed.
Thousands of godwits, redshanks, oystercatchers and curlews gather in spectacular fashion on the saltmarsh and shingle here at high tide, which is what we hope to show you if you join us on this gentle walk from Talacre to our hide. There'll also be a variety of ducks - pintail, shelduck, teal and mallard - pushed close on the incoming tide, and there's always the chance that something unexpected will show its face! Peregrine and merlin are the two raptors most likely to take advantage of this high tide buffet, so there's a chance of seeing these hunting at close range.
Park in one of the public car parks signposted from Station Road and meet outside 'The Point' bar at the end of Station Road. Car parks are Pay & Display so don't forget some coins. Appropriate clothing and footwear are essential. The path is fully accessible, but an A-frame motorcycle gate at the beginning of the walk may make it difficult for larger wheelchairs. Feel free to pack some snacks or lunch for in the hide, and a hot flask is recommended at this time of year! Public toilets and places to purchase refreshments will be available in Talacre before and afterwards.
Telephone 0151 353 2720 for further information.
Advanced booking and payment is essential via Eventbrite:
Sunday 13th October RSPB Raptorwatch at Parkgate.
Join us for a chance to see up to seven different birds of prey including peregrine and merlin, plus two types of owl that all make their home on the RSPB Dee Estuary nature reserve. With its panoramic views of the saltmarsh, Parkgate is one of the best places to watch for the birds hunting. Stick around until dusk for a chance to see the graceful and endangered hen harriers flying into roost for the night on the marsh close to the Old Baths car park, plus a ghostly barn owl emerging to hunt. No booking required, come along any time between 1pm and sunset. Dress appropriately for the weather and don't forget your binoculars! Public toilets and various pubs and cafes are situated close by along Parkgate promenade.
Telephone 0151 353 2720 for further information.
Sunday 29th October RSPB High Tide Birdwatch at Parkgate.
In celebration of the RSPB Dee Estuary reserve's 40th anniversary, join us at Parkgate Old Baths for the awe-inspiring spectacle of a high tide flooding the vast saltmarsh, potentially reaching the old sea wall. The marsh at Parkgate is one of the best wetland habitats in the northwest, and when flooded by an incoming tide, the wildlife which lives here is pushed closer, with chance of seeing the great range of ducks, geese, wading birds and egrets in big numbers as they are driven upstream by the rising tide. A range of birds of prey take advantage of mice and voles flushed from the grasses; hen and marsh harriers, peregrines and merlins all spend the winter months on the estuary and this is one of the best places to watch them, plus short-eared owls if we're really lucky. So why not venture out to try witness all the drama. Low pressure and a westerly wind will help push the tide and wildlife in close. There is free public parking at the Old Baths car park (CH64 6RN) at the north end of The Parade, and the Wirral Country Park car park on Station Road (CH64 6QJ). There are public toilets at Mostyn Square in the middle of The Parade, and a number of pubs and cafes. High tide is at 11.33am.
Telephone 0151 353 2720 for further information.