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Hugh’s News

Hugh’s News – March 2019

While I have been away on holiday, I missed the unseasonable warm weather that the UK experienced.  I say “unseasonal” but in fact I can remember 2 or 3 short periods of hot weather in February or March over recent years.  Are they connected with global warming – who knows?  Certainly it is a big contrast to the long, cold spring of 2018.  A consequence of this recent heatwave and associated favourable winds was the early appearance of several migrants on Wirral.

The first Avocet was back at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB on 14th February, with at least 50 birds by 27th of the month.  They are now showing signs of starting to nest as I write this article in the first week of March.  At Fort Perch, New Brighton, a Sand Martin on February 16th was the earliest ever for Cheshire and Wirral.  The first Wheatear of spring on 27th February at Hoylake Langfields was 11 days earlier than last year.  A day later, a White Wagtail in the horse paddocks at Leasowe was 15 days earlier than last year.

If you have missed these first summer visitors, do not worry as there will be many more arriving over the next month or two.  Join us on the next couple of Field Meetings at Leasowe and Blacktoft Sands RSPB for a good chance of seeing them.

Of course, a sudden deterioration in the weather to cold or wet conditions could hold migration and breeding back, but birds are pretty resilient and will generally cope with this change as long as it does not last too long.

There are still plenty of winter visitors on the Dee though.  There is another Raptor Watch this Sunday 10th March from 1pm until dusk at Parkgate Old Baths Car Park. And High Tide Birdwatches on Thursday 21st March, Friday 22nd March and Saturday 23rd March from 10.30am-2.30pm, also at Parkgate.  The RSPB will be on hand to help point out the birds.

As for my holiday, you will have to wait until 2020 for my talk about it.  But I have provided a small clue below!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – January 2019

A happy New Year to you all, I hope you enjoyed the festive season and are already well into your 2019 Bird List!

January High Tides

As you know, we were forced to cancel December’s field trip to the Dee due to the inclement weather.  However, there are some good opportunities coming up to make a visit to see the spectacular birds currently on the marshes.  There are a number of predicted high tides over the next week which, with the right weather conditions (low pressure in the Irish Sea and westerly winds), may bring the water up to the wall at Parkgate.  Even if the water does not totally flood the marshes, there should still be some good views of Marsh and Hen harriers, Peregrine, Merlin, Short-eared Owls, and possibly Bittern.  Noisy skeins of Pink-footed Geese should also be seen flying overhead.

The best dates, tide heights and times should be [but check the weather forecasts too]:

Tuesday 22nd January, 9.9m at 11:48.

Wednesday 23rd January, 10.0m at 12:36.

Thursday 24th January, 9.9m at 13:23.

It is recommended that you are there an hour or so before the high tide time, to get a good spot and experience the developing drama.  The RSPB will be at Parkgate Old Baths on Wednesday 23rd January to help point out the wildlife as it shows itself. I hope to be there too!

But don’t worry if you don’t make it, there will be more spring tides in February and March, including a possible 10.2m tide on 21st February at 12:20!

Not coinciding with a high tide specifically, but there will also be a Raptorwatch at Parkgate Old Baths organised by the RSPB, between 1pm and dusk on Sunday 10th February, where many of the same species may be seen.

You can just turn up to any of these events.

Bearded Tits

Well, after 3 visits and over 3 hours in total staring into the reed bed from the screen, I finally saw the famed Bearded Tits at Burton Mere Wetlands!  Hurrah!  There were 4 birds in total, a little way off at the far end of a channel in the reeds that they seem to favour, but eventually they perched in good view as they fed on the seed heads. They were too distant to get a photograph unfortunately, but I have finally “ticked them”!  I know some other members have seen them already too, and not all had to spend quite so long looking!  But my patience was rewarded in the end, they are such exquisite and charming birds.

If you haven’t managed to see them yet, there is another chance of getting views on our forthcoming coach trip to Blacktoft Sands on 14th April!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – December 2018

As we pass slowly into winter, it is perhaps a good time to reflect a little on the summer just passed.  I am still waiting for the Breeding Birds Survey results to see how birds faired across the country as a whole.  There were many contradictory stories of the effect of the long, cold spring on species like Swallows and Swifts, but what a great summer is was when it eventually arrived!  So the data will be very interesting – I will write about this further when the data are released.

The breeding figures from the RSPB Dee Estuary team for key species are encouraging though.  Lapwing fledged 115 chicks, Redshank at least 45, and Avocets 67.  Excellent numbers!  A pair of Marsh Harriers raised 3 young at Neston Reed Bed, a first for the estuary.  After coming back from the brink of extinction as a British breeding bird, with only one pair nesting in 1971, their population has grown rapidly.

I wonder what the next new species to breed on Wirral will be?  Bearded Tits, still present but elusive at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB, would be a good bet.  Actually Bearded Tits did breed in 2003 and 2004, also at Neston Reed Bed, but not before or since.  How about Bittern, with 2 birds being seen regularly on the salt marsh over this last month?  Or maybe Red Kite, as I have mentioned before with their increasingly frequent sightings from the expanding Welsh population. I would be happy with any one of these species breeding on Wirral.

As you are possibly aware already, the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch will be held from 26th – 27th January 2019.  To maximise your own garden counts, I suggest that you should start feeding your garden foods now, if you have not done so already.  With the falling temperatures, birds will become increasingly reliant on garden feeders.  By getting them used to your avian restaurant now, numbers will hopefully build up over the next few weeks and you will have a more productive time. It also helps enormously if the weather is cold on the day of your count, as birds will be even more desperate to refuel!

If I don’t see you at the Field Meeting on Saturday 15th December, I hope you all have a great Christmas, and I will see you again in the New Year.  Thank you for your continued support of the Club and its programme.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – August 2018

Marsh Harrier Breeding Success

We’ve got another first breeding record for the Dee Estuary – Marsh Harriers!  A pair bred successfully at Neston Reedbed and fledged 3 chicks.  A juvenile bird with a very gingery cap (adult females have a cream coloured cap) which is being seen regularly at Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB is most probably one of the brood.

Our own Bill Wonderley played a small part in this story as a volunteer warden for the RSPB, keeping an eye on the reedbed one evening a week, and helping to ensure breeding and roosting birds were left undisturbed.  Little did he know the outcome would be this rewarding!

Sadly the Cattle Egrets did not repeat last year’s breeding at BMW, but there is still a bird present in the area, so fingers crossed for more good news next year.  There are also several Great White Egrets on the Dee still, so surely it is only a question of time before this species breeds too!

Hen Harrier Day

This Sunday 14th August there will be a Hen Harrier Day event at Parkgate.  The gathering is not aimed at spotting Hen Harriers on the Dee salt-marsh – most birds will remain on their moorland breeding grounds for a few more weeks yet.  But rather this is one of several similar events being held around the UK spreading the word on the sad plight of Hen Harriers, other raptors and even mountain hares that are being persecuted on upland grouse moors.  This will mark the fifth year for Hen Harrier Day, with the number of events and attendees growing each year.  The weekend dates are chosen to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season on the “Inglorious Twelth”.

Speakers will include well known naturalist and TV personality Iolo Williams, and leading conservation campaigner Mark Avery (ex. RSPB Conservation Director). The day starts at 12 noon at the Old Baths and is scheduled to finish at 3pm.  If you plan to go, parking may be at a premium so I recommend turning up early and going for a stroll first.  You could even spoil yourself with an ice-cream!

Hope to see you there in support of a great cause.

If you were at the AGM in May, you know that I did not show my photos due to a technical glitch!  So I am attaching some of them here now – mainly because I do not have any photos of Marsh or Hen Harriers!  So you will have to put up with Little Grebe, Song Thrush, Merlin and a juvenile Mute Swan.

I hope you enjoy the rest of the long, hot summer! See you in September for the new and exciting Club programme.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – July 2018

Those of you present at the last Indoor meeting will know that I didn’t have any announcements to make!  As many of you are possibly aware, birding can sometimes become a little quiet at this time of year, as we move between the breeding season and the peak autumn migration period.  The ongoing high temperatures we are enduring do not help either, as many birds seek shade to avoid the worst of the heat.  Already adult birds are starting to moult their feathers and become (even more) skulking as they hide from potential predators!

There are still young birds to be seen though, such as this cute juvenile Pied Flycatcher we saw at Elan Valley; and a young Great-spotted Woodpecker (with the red cap) that was being fed by mum at a peanut feeder at Burton Mere Wetlands. The young bird soon learned to feed itself!  Goldfinches have been coming to my own garden for a few days now.

Small numbers of waders are starting to return to the Dee from their summering quarters, either to stay for the winter or as a staging post before carrying on further into southern Europe and Africa.  These early birds are often failed breeders but may still show some or all of their breeding plumage, like the Turnstone with some remnant chestnut feathers I saw on Hilbre.  You can of course be in the right place at the right time.  A Green Sandpiper dropped into BMW Reception Pool and gave great views.  A Song Thrush sang heartily from the conifers where we parked at Cynwyd on Tuesday.  This species seems to me to be very elusive while breeding but starts singing again for a while when the young have fledged, as if to celebrate raising another brood successfully!

While it can be difficult to find birds just now, there is a still lot of other wildlife to seek out.  Orchids including a single Pyramidal Orchid have been showing at BMW. Butterflies are around in good numbers too together with dragonflies and damselflies.

A couple of events for your diaries:

Firstly, the annual Exhibition of Wildlife Art is on again at Gordales from 27th to 29th July.  Free admission, and open Friday and Saturday from 9.30am until 6pm; Sunday 10.30am until 5pm.  Well worth popping in if you are passing by.

There will be a Hen Harrier Day event at the Old Baths, Parkgate on Sunday 12th August from 12 noon until 2pm.  Speakers will include Iolo Williams and Jeff Clarke. This event is to publicise the ongoing plight of Hen Harriers specifically and other wildlife in general that are suffering badly from illegal persecution.  It should be entertaining and informative.

Finally, you may have heard that Mersey Ferries and the RSPB are hosting a ‘Liverbird’ Bird Watching & Nature Discovery Cruise on the River Mersey and out into Liverpool Bay, on Sunday 19th August.  Sadly this cruise is sold out already!  If we hear of additional dates, we will let you know a.s.a.p.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – May 2018

So finally we had some warm and sunny weather over the bank holiday weekend! Even if it did not last for long, it put a smile on everyone’s face for a few days at least. This winter seems to have been never-ending, and the cold and wet weather has certainly had an effect on our local birds.  Migrants that come to the Wirral to breed over the summer have been really slow returning from their wintering grounds in southern Europe or Africa.

While I have seen House Martins and Swallows now, I have still to spot a Swift – although some have been reported locally.  All these species rely on insects for food, so bad weather severely limits their ability to find prey items.  All is not lost however, provided we have a settled period soon.  Many other species, primarily the resident birds, are well into the breeding season though.  Blackbirds and Robins have been active in my garden, and Goldfinches have been feasting on sunflower hearts in good numbers.  At Burton Mere Wetlands RSPB reserve, young Lapwings, Canada Geese and a single Tawny Owl have all been spotted.

Wirral was graced with a rarity recently, with an Iberian Chiffchaff present at Thurstaston for a few days.  As the name indicates, this species breeds in Spain and Portugal, but clearly over-shot its normal range.  It is very difficult to tell the difference visually from the more familiar Chiffchaff, but luckily it has a distinctive call.  You will have to come to the AGM to hear it!

Unfortunately the canal trip planned for Thursday this week had to be cancelled at the last minute because of a problem with the boat.  Obviously disappointing news but there is always next year!

I am looking forward to next week’s field meeting to Moelydd – a new location for me.  By then all the summer migrants will surely have returned and we will see some good birds!  Hope to see you there.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – March 2018

I had heard that a flock of 5 Scaup had taken up temporary residence on West Kirby Marine Lake, so on Monday morning I popped along to see if they were still there. Now these are birds that are normally seen off the coast on Wirral in the winter, about a mile away, bobbing up and down in the waves and so difficult to see well. They breed in Iceland, Scandinavia and into northern Russia.  Occasionally, especially after stormy weather, one or two birds may take refuge on a lake or reservoir.  Some of you may remember we saw a male bird on a field meeting to Colemere in January 2017, but while the views were good they were still a little distant.

On the Marine Lake however, and in stark contrast to the Jack Snipe at Burton Mere Wetlands on Sunday, the Scaup were right by the railings at the North end busily diving to feed.  There were 3 males and 2 females.  The close views allowed a great opportunity to study the beautiful plumages of both sexes, and the diagnostic elongated head shape with no hind crest that helps distinguish them from the closely related Tufted Duck.

There were also a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers further out towards the middle of the lake, and the usual mix of waders roosting on the rocks as the tide came in. These were mostly Redshank, with smaller numbers of Turnstone and Dunlin, and a single Knot.

By now, my fingers were getting cold so I returned to the car!  I do not know how long these birds will stay before returning to the sea, but I recommend having a look for them if you can.

The cold weather has also brought in more Redwing and Fieldfare, and many of you have told me that you have had them in your gardens, along with wintering Blackcap. Sadly, the extreme low temperatures and snow will undoubtedly cause fatalities to many birds, despite our efforts to feed them and provide fresh water. Small birds are especially susceptible to the cold because they have a greater surface area to volume ratio and so lose heat more quickly.  Some species combat this by huddling together on branches or in holes. 63 Wrens were once found roosting together in one box!  Provided this winter is an exception rather than the new norm, the populations should hopefully recover over the next year or two.

As I write, the weather is getting a little milder so Spring is maybe not so far away, and birds can start their breeding season in earnest.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – January 2018

I have to confess that I have not done a lot of birding since the start of the year! I seem to be turning into a bit of a fair-weather wuss, which meant I missed a famed Wirral birding event.  The beginning of January saw some strong winds coinciding with high tides and the water came right in to the wall at Parkgate and elsewhere on the river.

The result, so I heard, was a birding extravaganza, with great views of harriers, short-eared owls and other raptors. Water Rails were flushed off the marsh and small rodents such as voles and mice swam for their lives!  An occasion like this is arguably one of the most sensational natural world sights in the UK.  Did any members make it to Parkgate or elsewhere for the high tide?  If so, let us know how you faired.

With the weather remaining inclement, it should have increased the numbers of birds and different species seen on the Big Garden Birdwatch. I hope many of you joined in and enjoyed the annual bird watch from the comfort of your armchair.  Now that is my idea of birding!

Canal Trip

I am planning another day trip with the Wirral Community Narrowboat Trust on Thursday 10th May. The boat will take us from the Cheshire Cat at Christleton, at around 9.15am, along the Shropshire Union Canal to Wharton’s Lock and Beeston, where we stop for lunch, before returning to Christleton about 4:30pm.

The boat has a toilet, and free tea/coffee is provided, so you only need to bring your lunch and binoculars! The cost will be around £13 – £14.  Priority will be given to members who have not been on a trip before or not for some time; then it is first come – first served!

Please email me to book or for more details.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – December 2017

The snow and sleet that many of us experienced over the last week or two was confirmation, if it were needed, that winter has truly arrived. With the harsher conditions, birds are visiting the feeders in larger numbers, and they may become reliant on these food supplies.  It is great to feed the birds in your garden, but be careful about suddenly stopping as this may put them at risk of starvation, if alternatives are not readily available.

Blackcaps, almost certainly from the continent, have been reported in gardens already, with our own breeding birds departing for southern Europe. Short-eared Owls and both Hen and Marsh Harriers are still being spotted regularly from locations such as the Harp Inn, Parkgate or Denhall Lane.  Blackbirds and other thrushes hunt out berries and fallen apples.

A reminder that the 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch is coming soon, from 27-29 January (or as near as possible to these dates). Here are a few tips to help you:

1. Be prepared – fill your feeders and refresh the drinking water.

2. Start early – the early bird really does catch the worm!

3. Get comfy with pen and paper, drink, snack at hand.

4. Use the RSPB website to report your findings; or use the form in Nature’s Home.

5. Share the experience, and get your friends interested.

This will be final Hugh’s News of the year so, on behalf of the Committee, I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I thought I had to end with a seasonal Robin photo – sorry it was not in the snow!!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – November 2017

On a recent short holiday in North Norfolk, it occurred to me how the distributions of several familiar birds have changed over just the last couple of decades. Species that one had to travel away from Wirral to see, to more southerly or easterly counties, are now regularly seen on the Dee Marshes.

When I moved to Wirral 27 years ago, a Little Egret was still a national rarity, certainly away from the south coast, and I remember visiting Parkgate to “twitch” one. Now they are so familiar we almost take them for granted!  They have been joined in the last few years by both Cattle and Great White Egrets, the former breeding for the first time this summer.  Avocets and Cetti’s Warblers are now regular breeders.

There has been a regular Hen Harrier roost at Parkgate for some time, but we are now also graced by Marsh Harriers year-round.

Sadly there are some negative trends too. I saw several Grey Partridge around Holkham Gap, a species that is increasingly rare on Wirral.

But there are still more potential settlers. Red Kites have colonised Norfolk, and Bearded Tit and Bittern are regular species there.  All three of these species have been seen periodically on Wirral, so how long before these birds are resident?

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – September 2017

“It’s an ill wind” as the saying goes. Well the strong winds and heavy rain last week brought some good birds to our shores – if you were prepared to brave the blowy conditions!  There were many sightings of Leach’s Petrel and Grey Phalarope from various points along the North Wirral coast from New Brighton to Hoylake and Hilbre.

There was a supporting cast of the occasional Sabines Gull, Manx Shearwater, Black Tern and Little Gull. There was also a Red-necked Phalarope at Frodsham!  I did not manage any photos of these rarer species, but numbers of our more familiar waders are building up now for the winter and I did see a group of Turnstones bathing on the rocks at West Kirby Marine Lake.  The first ring-tail Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owls have been seen on the salt marsh. Hopefully there will be enough voles to keep these magnificent birds here over the winter.

As we pass into autumn, most birds have finished breeding now although you may find the odd juveniles from the late brood like this Moorhen preening itself in the sunshine at Burton Mere Wetlands. On calmer days, family groups of Buzzards can often be seen circling in the thermals, “meewing” to each other. Of note, I saw a young Wood Pigeon in my garden with what appears to be a mite or growth on its face.  Can anyone identify it? No prizes, but I would be interested in any suggestions.

Wirral Community Narrowboat Trust is very proud and honoured to have been awarded the Queen’s Award For Voluntary Service in June 2017. This Award is considered to be the MBE of volunteering.  The Award was announced on 2nd June 2017, and two representatives of the Trust were invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of the achievement.  Our Club has been a regular supporter of the Trust through our Canal Trips, and I have passed on our congratulations to the Trust.  I am already thinking about planning another trip next May!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – July 2017

I hope you are enjoying the summer! The weather has been typically variable but I think not too bad overall. I always say to myself “It could have been worse”!

On the birding scene, July is often thought of as a quiet month. The breeding season has largely finished so bird song and displays diminish, and many birds undergo a moult that can make then more indistinct and elusive. So now is a good time to look at other areas of the natural world such as butterflies and dragonflies.

I am including a few photos from a recent guided walk I attended at Whixall Moss. The weather was not ideal, being a bit cool and windy, but we still saw some nice subjects: Comma butterfly, a Heart and Dart moth and lots of 5 Spot Burnets.

At BMW, the single Cattle Egret chick is still around the nest testing its wings and should fledge any day now. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls has 2 fledged young. For both species, it is the first breeding record for the reserve.

OK, I have talked about the summer. So I don’t want to be too pessimistic but the first signs of autumn migration are already present – and the longest day was only a couple of weeks ago! But there have been sightings of waders such as Common Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Ruff at Burton Mere Wetlands this last week, the first birds returning south from their breeding grounds.

These initial migrants are usually failed or non-breeders, with the peak period still to come. They are often still in (partial) breeding plumage though, so can look bright and quite different to their winter garb that we are more familiar with. This may cause some confusion initially, but it demonstrates for example why the full name for the familiar winter species here on Wirral is Red Knot.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – April 2017

After the mild winter, spring migration seemed to start early. However, the lack of a settled spell of weather has meant that birds have only been coming through in dribs and drabs.

Wheatears have been fairly numerous, but birds such as Ring Ouzel, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart and Whinchat have been harder to find. I did find single Willow Warbler and Whitethroat, and heard a lone Reed Warbler at Leasowe on Friday.

Several White Wagtails were in a ploughed field beside Banks Road. There is still time for more passage birds however, given some favourable conditions. I also saw my first Swift of the year by Shotton Fields, one of my favourite birds of every summer.

At Burton Mere Wetlands meanwhile, the first Lapwing brood has already fledged (which is early), and the Avocets have started laying. The reed beds and woods are starting to fill with warblers, even though the wind can make hearing or seeing them difficult. The Little Egrets are active in Marsh Covert, and the Bluebells are also at their best now.

Finally, a reminder to start collecting your photos to show at the AGM on 25th May. If you do not want to present them yourself, I would be happy to do it on your behalf. Just load them on a memory stick and bring it along.

This has become a successful and integral part of the evening so please help contribute. See you there!

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – March 2017

I have just returned from a holiday in Costa Rica, and I know one or two members have also been there recently.

I am pretty sure they would agree with me that it is a beautiful country with magnificent scenery and wonderful wildlife.

What was particularly encouraging was how much the local people value their rich environment and the steps they take to maintain and preserve the national parks in particular.

I hope to give a talk on the country in the next programme but here are a few ‘tasters’.

Meantime, here on Wirral there are clear signs that spring has arrived. The first Avocets were at BMW in mid February.

This last week there have been reports of Wheatear, Sand Martin, House Martin and Ring Ouzel locally.

We will be looking out for more migrants during our next field meeting at Leasowe.

Hugh Stewart

Hugh’s News – February 2017

It promised to be a nice Winter’s day so I travelled to Red Rocks in search of the Snow Bunting that had been reported over the previous day or two. I didn’t have to look for long as the bird was close to the slipway and feeding on the beach and amongst the rocks.

Photographers had scattered some seed for it, and it was very obliging for the few people gathered to watch it. It was probably so full it could not fly far even if it wanted to!

After admiring the beauty of the plumage and taking a few photos I moved on West Kirby Marine Lake. The air was still and the water was so calm, that there were beautiful reflections in the mirror-like surface. Although the air temperature was only around 5 degrees, with a bright sun and no wind-chill it felt more like a Spring day. A little flock of assorted waders was sitting on the rocks, basking in the warm sunlight.

Further out on the lake were several Red-breasted Mergansers, both male and female, and a couple of drake Goldeneye. They were all diving frequently to feed and they kept reappearing in a different place, making taking photographs difficult! Black-headed Gulls loafed on the pontoon as they often do here. I could not locate the female Goosander that had been reported here though.

Having completed a full circuit of the lake, I then moved on to Thurstaston Country Park and sat down in the visitors centre to scan the feeding station. It was not as busy as it might have been on a colder day, but several male House Sparrows looked smart in their breeding plumage.

Two Collared Doves were showing signs of displaying and paring off. A pair of stunning Bullfinches turned up, but were always very wary and quickly flew back into the trees. Even a drake Mallard on the pond look magnificent. If you saw this bird in an exotic Asian country you would drool over it, but I think we often take them too much for granted!

The following day the weather changed back to the normal grey, windy conditions, so it was nice to have been out on such a pleasant day. Spring is not quite here yet and there is still time for a sting in the tail, but it was a taste of things to come.

Last night I went to the evening with Iolo Williams at Neston Cricket Club in Parkgate. It was nice to see several Club members there too. Iolo regaled us with a brilliant talk on Raptors that was entertaining, informative, and hilarious in equal measures. I don’t think anyone went away disappointed. No pressure for my talk to the Club in June then!

Hugh Stewart