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1st December 2003
Species Spotlight - Dunlin.

Point of Ayr Voluntary Wardens.
Latest Bird Counts.
November Bird News.
Forthcoming Events.
Latest Newsletter.

Newsletter Index.

Species Spotlight - The Dunlin


The Dunlin (Calidris alpina) is one of the most numerous waders on the Dee Estuary during  winter with typical numbers between twenty and thirty thousand, only eclipsed numerically by an occasional high peak count of Knot and Oystercatcher. At low tide they can be seen anywhere where there is a mudflat busily scurrying around, only pausing to sleep for a brief period at high tide. They often move around the estuary in small flocks of 50 to 200 birds or so, but sometimes gather in huge flocks ten thousand strong spectacularly flashing light and dark in the sun. They are best seen on the high tide roosts at Hoylake, West Kirby and Point of Ayr, or busily feeding off Leasowe, Caldy or Thurstaston.

Dunlin at West Kirby
Steve Round - Dunlin at West Kirby 9/10/03.

Counts in the last few years have been high with the 41,656 present in November 2000 the highest since February 1976. Figure 1 below shows how numbers have changed over the years from the start of the Birds of Estuary Enquiry in 1969 to the present time with what is now called the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). Note that the data quoted is of high tide counts (i.e. birds at high tide roosts) unless specifically stated.

Figure 1 - Dunlin on the Dee Estuary.
Five year moving average of peak counts - 69/70 to 02/03.

Figure 1 shows Dunlin numbers were high during the 1970's, dropped to about half during the 1980's before making a slow recovery until the present time. Up until the last few years the figures follow the national trend, except that the decrease during the 1980's was steeper on the Dee. There was a significant decrease between 97/98 and 00/01nationally, whereas numbers have gone up here.

The reasons for the decrease nationally during the early 1980's may well be linked to a series of mild winters, consequently birds tended to stay further east on the continent, especially the Wadden Sea. Locally the period between the mid 1970's and mid 1980's was one of a high amount of disturbance, particularly on the major roosts of Little Eye and West Kirby. The need to reduce disturbance at West Kirby was the reason for the formation of the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens in 1986. Better protection of roost sites through the wardening scheme and the purchase/ management of large tracts of the estuary by the RSPB, in particular the wader roosts at Oakenholt and Point of Ayr, is very likely to have been a major contributory factor in the rise in numbers since 1985. Another big factor is the establishment of the high tide wader roost at Hoylake, more often than not the largest roost on the estuary for both Dunlin and Knot. The rise in the level of the sand banks here over the years means that there is a significant area for the birds to roost on all but the highest spring tides. Mixed flocks of up to 50,000 or more waders - Dunlin, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Grey Plover etc. - seen close to Hoylake promenade at Kings Gap, must be one of the most spectacular birding experiences in the country.

Three races of Dunlin appear on the estuary. The race which spends the winter here is C.a alpina, they breed in northern Scandanavia and northern Russia. Two other races pass through in spring and late summer/autumn, the majority are C.a schinzii, breeding mainly in Iceland and Greenland and spending the winter in West Africa. Much smaller in number are the birds of the race C.a artica which breed in north-eastern Greenland and also winter in West Africa. Birds of other races can occur but in such small numbers that they can be considered as vagrants. The above sketch by Tony Broome indicates some of the size differences among the different races - although it should be remembered that as there is a quite a wide range of size within each race, and also overlap between races, race identification is somewhat problematical!

The dark blue line in figure 2 below shows the current distribution of Dunlin across the year. The peak in November are birds of the C.a alpina race, these are present mainly from November to February. The secondary peak during August is of passage birds on their way to West Africa (C.a schinzii and C.a artica). Small numbers of C.a schinzii and C.a artica are also seen on return passage in April and May.

Figure 2
Distribution of Dunlin on the Dee Estuary, April to March (WeBS Data).

The distribution in the 90's was little changed from that seen currently, albeit with smaller peaks, but the line for the 1980's demonstrates just how low numbers had dropped during that decade. However, it is the 1970's distribution which is so very different from anything seen since. Although the winter peak is only slightly higher than the past few years, these high numbers were maintained throughout the winter, and even in October, currently a very poor month, large counts were made. But it is the spring and autumn passage which has changed the most. During spring (April/May) we had about four times as many birds and in the return passage (August) at least five times as many. So what has happened to these passage Dunlin? Have the populations of C.a schinzii and C.a artica crashed, or are they for some reason now avoiding the west coast of England on migration - perhaps passing further east, or is there another explanation? I have to confess I don't have the answers to these questions, but from limited data I can at least make what I hope are some interesting observations.

Interestingly Dunlin are not the only passage wader whose numbers have crashed on the Dee Estuary since the 1970's. The average (not peak!) number of Knot passing through in August during the 1970's was 22,102. The average for the past three Augusts (1999 to 2002) comes to a grand total of 18. The average number of Sanderling in May during the 1970's was 6,333 - with similar numbers in July. The average for the past three years in May is 19. The equivalent counts for the 1990's were also very low (unfortunately no counts were made in the 1980's in spring and autumn). Does this indicate some fundamental change in migration patterns, perhaps influenced by change in the weather? This does not appear to be the case - take Sanderling for example, there were 4,370 on the Ribble Estuary and 3,760 on the Alt Estuary in May 00/01, not untypical counts for sites only a few miles away from the Dee. The Ribble also had 50,729 Dunlin passing through in May 00/01, a far higher count than the winter peak that year. So there appears to be nothing wrong with the populations of passage waders, but for some reason they have forsaken the Dee. Possibly excess disturbance at the high tide roosts or lack of suitable food at these crucial times of spring and autumn passage may be to blame. Of course counts at high tide roosts do not tell the whole story, a trip to the estuary at low tide in May can often reveal several flocks of Dunlin 10,000 strong - but they are here one day and gone the next and never seem to stay over high tide. Presumably they end up on the Ribble Estuary.

This article wouldn't be complete without mentioning the nearby Mersey Estuary which in recent years has held the highest numbers of wintering Dunlin in the country. They typically have peak counts of around 50,000 compared with the Dee's 30,000.   The pattern of counts over the years has been very similar to the Dee, except that in the 1970's the Dee usually had higher numbers. It could well be that the Mersey has become more attractive to them because of improved water quality and undisturbed roosting sites. Interestingly if the numbers of Dunlin on the Mersey and the Dee which currently overwinter are added together, the total comes to about 80,000, the same as was present in the 1970's. So locally at least, the C.a alpina race of Dunlin seem to be doing very well. Note that like the Dee the Mersey has only low numbers of passage Dunlin.

WeBS data were supplied by the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), a joint scheme of the British Trust for Ornithology, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the last on behalf of the Countryside Council for Wales, Department of the Environment Northern Island, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage). WeBS data should not be used without prior permission of the WeBS Secretariat.

References and Acknowledgments - see separate page.


Voluntary Wardens at Point of Ayr


John Harrison (Assistant RSPB Warden - Dee Estuary).

We are looking for people to become Voluntary Wardens to protect the nationally important wader roost site at the Point of Ayr RSPB Reserve.

The wader roost at the Point of Ayr is one of the most important sites on the internationally important Dee Estuary and holds nationally important numbers of shelduck, pintail, oystercatcher, black-tailed godwit and curlew.

Despite clear signs asking otherwise, the high tide roost is regularly disturbed by people. This constant disturbance forces them to use up more energy every time they are disturbed. If disturbance continues at high levels, birds could start to die as they use up more energy than they can glean from food out on the Estuary mudflats.

Therefore, we need help to warden the site over high tide periods (2-4 hours), by chatting to visitors about the reserve and asking them to keep off the spit over high tide to give the birds a chance to rest.

Also, as I'm sure you all know, the site is a fantastic place to go birdwatching for both it's waders and waterfowl and also, as a prominent landmark, it is an important site for migrating songbirds and seabirds. Hopefully, wardening at the Reserve will be not only beneficially for the birds but also an opportunity to do some birdwatching at the same time.

If you are free willing and able to help us out with the scheme, or would like more information please contact me, John Harrison, on: 0151 336 7681.


Bird Counts


Count from Connah's Quay and Flint - (Kindly provided by Deeside Naturalists' Society), 16th November. 73 Cormorant, 1 Little Egret, 2 Heron, 2 Mute Swan, 15 Canada Goose, 170 Shelduck, 2,600 Wigeon, 1,240 Teal, 120 Mallard, 2 Pintail, 1 Shoveler, 2 Tufted duck, 1 Moorhen, 43 Coot, 75 Oystercatcher, 12 Ringed Plover, 1,420 Lapwing, 33 Knot, 165 Black-tailed Godwit, 45 Curlew, 1 Spotted Redshank, 395 Redshank.

Count from Heswall Shore - (Kindly provided by the Wirral Ranger Service), 16th November. 45 Cormorant, 4 Grey Heron, 4,910 Shelduck, 539 Teal, 43 Mallard, 9,340 Oystercatcher, 1 Ringed Plover, 265 Golden Plover, 280 Lapwing, 17,600  Knot, 8,700 Dunlin, 2 snipe, 2,660 Black-tailed Godwit, 2,150 Curlew, 500 Redshank, 50 Black-headed Gull, 80 Common Gull.

Peak counts of waders at the West Kirby high tide roost, November 2003 (date in brackets), counted by the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens.
700 Oystercatcher (9th), 50 Ringed Plover (28th), 400 Grey Plover (10th), 2,000 Knot (12th), 51 Sanderling (12th), 8,500 Dunlin (12th), 150 Bar-tailed Godwit (10th), 400 Curlew (9th), 200 Redshank (8th).

November Bird News


Record numbers of Black-tailed Godwits have been seen this month - I don't have the exact figure but understand it is well over 4,000. Over two thousand of these have been seen on the English side of the estuary - they spent the  spring high tides at the edge of the marsh off Heswall, and feeding on Thurstaston shore at low tide. The rest can be seen anywhere between Connah's Quay and Point of Ayr. 17,000 Knot was an excellent count for Heswall Shore during a neap high tide mid-month.
The Parkgate high tide birdwatches towards the end of the month were a bit of a disappointment - not enough wind. A bit frustrating as the weather the week before and the week after would have been ideal! We saw a distant Short-eared Owl or two, but the best time to see these was late afternoon when they hunted over the marsh. This one (right) sitting on a post on Burton Marsh was photographed by Nigel Troup . Four Hen Harriers, all ring-tails, have been coming to roost at Parkgate. These birds have also been seen during the day hunting between Burton Marsh and Heswall.

Nigel Troup

There have been a few Snow Buntings around - nine seen briefly at Hoylake was the highest number, and five were also at Gronant. Three of the rarer Lapland Bunting was a good record for Gronant, along with two Shorelark.

A single Green-winged Teal and red-head Smew (briefly) were at Inner Marsh Farm, and 1,000 Wigeon was a gsood count at the same location. Bewick's Swans are starting to build up on Shotwick fields/ Burton Marsh with 54 the highest count so far, along with 5 Whooper Swans. Four Scaup continue to frequent West Kirby Marine Lake, this is a female with three immatures. Good numbers of Brent Geese have been around Hilbre, I believe the 21 (20 pale-bellied) recorded at the end of the month is a record for November. A large influx of Wood Pigeons was noted during the month, particularly noticeable on the marsh off Parkgate where, presumably, they feed on seeds. Highest count was 3,000. Although many people believe that there is a mass immigration of this species from the continent during autumn, the BTO Migration Atlas makes it quite clear that there is virtually no evidence for this - or indeed of any long distant movement of British bred birds. So the Wood Pigeons seen on the marsh in the winter are probably birds which have bred within a few miles of the estuary.

A checklist of the Birds of The Wirral Peninsula has recently been published, this can be obtained from the author, Steve Williams at 2 Westbourne Road, West Kirby, Wirral CH48 4DG at 2.00 post free, copies are also on sale at the Thurstaston Visitor Centre.

What to expect in December.
Christmas can be a magical time on the estuary. If we get one of those lovely frosty and still cold spells get down to the shore at dawn, not too early at this time of year, and be prepared for a wonderful spectacle of waders and wildfowl. The cold always seems to bring thousands of Knot to the estuary, and all the birds are so busily feeding that they are far less nervous of humans than normal. In addition a prolonged cold spell might well result in considerable cold weather movements - look out for flocks of Skylark, Redwing, Fieldfare and Lapwings moving overhead. More than 10,000 Lapwing are present on the estuary and nearby fields in some winters.

We usually get a Smew or two at Inner Marsh Farm by the end of the month. At least one Green-winged Teal is also usually seen and last year we had an American Wigeon. Bewick's Swans should reach about 70 or so in number on Burton Marsh, often with a few Whoopers. If we follow the pattern of the last three years Brent Geese should reach 20 or more, mostly of the pale-bellied race. Hilbre Island is the best place to see them at low tide, but high tide often pushes them down to Little Eye or Heswall Shore, or across to the Point of Ayr.

Purple Sandpipers are also a Hilbre speciality. Numbers have been a bit down in the last couple of years, but we should see at least 20, with up to another 10 along the North Wirral Shore - usually showing best along the breakwater at Wallasey. Last year a party of three Snow buntings took up residence on a small patch of beach at Wallasey for a couple of months. But usually they are more common over at the Point of Ayr and Gronant.

Many thanks go to Steve Round, Frank Huband, Stephen Ainsworth, Tanny Robnson, Colin Schofield, Audrey Scally, Pat Bennet, Dave and Emma Kenyon, Yvonne and Stuart Morgan, Bid Strachan, Chris Smith, Dave Ridgen, Mark Smith, Nigel Troup, Peter Button, Chris Tynan, Dave Wilde, Karen Leeming, John Eliot, David Esther,  John Campbell, Brian Grey, John Harrison, Allan Conlin, Clive Ashton, Mike Hart, David Harrington, Phil Woolen, Stephen Williams,  Chris Butterworth,  Martyn Jaimeson, Jean Morgan, Ian Dyer, the Dee Estuary Voluntary Wardens and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during November. All sightings are gratefully received.

Forthcoming Events


December Highest Spring Tides, also see Tides page.
23rd December, 10:49hrs 9.6m. (all times GMT)
24th December, 11:38hrs 9.7m. 

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

Sunday 14th December, 10:00am, Low Tide Birdwatch at Flint
The estuary at Flint is the winter home of a staggering number of waders. At low tide, busily feeding on the mudflats, we get a chance to see what brings them here. It is also the best time to see the thousands of ducks such as Pintail, Wigeon and Teal that loaf on the banks of the main river channel at low tide. (LW 08:31, 2.5m) No need to book, meet at Flint Castle Industrial Estate by Giles & Partners (Unit 26a). For more information and directions contact RSPB on 0151 336 7681.

Sunday 28th December, 12.30pm - 3pm,
An Introduction to the WeBS Count at Heswall Shore.
Join the Rangers as they take part in the Wetland Bird survey at Banks Road, Lower Heswall. Learn the techniques used to count the thousands of birds on the estuary and find out how this has helped to protect the dynamic estuarine environment. Stout footwear and warm waterproof clothing are recommended. Please bring binoculars if you have them. No need to book. Meet at Banks Road Car Park, Lower Heswall (by Sheldrake's). For further information ring 0151 648 4371. A look at November's count, above, will show just what a fabulous place Heswall is for birds.

Saturday 3rd January, 11am - 4pm. New Years Resolution Walk.
Blow the cobwebs away, walk off the Christmas excesses and start that New Years resolution with a 6 mile walk over the hills of west Wirral including Caldy Hill and Thurstaston Hill, starting and finishing at Wirral Country Park Visitor Centre. Stout footwear and suitable clothing are essential. Please bring a packed lunch. Sorry no dogs. Booking essential, c 0151648 4371/3884

Sunday 4th January, 9am - 12 noon. New Years Bird Race.
Ease into the New Year with a gentle guided walk from the Wirral Country Park Visitor Centre at Thurstaston. Stroll across the farmland, around the ponds, through the woods and hedgerows and along the foreshore of west Wirral to search for 40 species of bird that can be found here, finishing with tea and biscuits in the bird hide. Stout footwear and suitable clothing are essential. Please bring binoculars if you have them. Booking essential, ring 0151 648 4371.

Sunday 11th January, 10am start. Walking the Wirral Way.
Walk the entire 12-mile length of the Wirral Way from Hooton to West Kirby and help raise money for the Wirral and Ellesmere Port Barn Owl Trust. This event will be led by Wirral Country Park Rangers and members of the local Barn Owl group and will include a look at the management, history and natural history of the park. All monies raised through sponsorship will be used to pay for the essential conservation work needed to reverse the decline in numbers of this species once common throughout Britain's countryside. Sponsor forms are available from the Wirral Country Park Visitor Centre, Thurstaston. Ring 0151648 4371 for details. Note there are good car parking facilities and train connections at both Hooton and West Kirby.

Note: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2003', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Hard copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371. 2004 diary should be published during December.

All material in this newsletter, and indeed the whole web site, has been written by myself, Richard Smith, unless specified.