After a warm, wet and occasionally sunny summer on the Dee Estuary, autumn seems to be just around the corner. This is an exciting time on the reserve with numbers of wildfowl and waders starting to swell, including scarce, short-staying migrants such as the single pectoral sandpiper which has been staying at Burton Mere Wetlands for the past week.
Another autumnal clue at this time of year is farmers busy cutting and harvesting crops, including here on the reserve. At the rear of the wet grassland we have a barley crop, sown in spring - unlike the more popular autumn or winter-sown crops - to create the perfect short, open conditions for nesting lapwings in April and May. This has now been harvested with the remaining stubble being ideal for returning geese over the coming weeks.
Elsewhere around the reserve the availability of food is vast. These bountiful berries, making branches sag, are great place to see feeding blackcaps especially around the railway lines on the Inner Marsh Farm trail. Here there is a glut of blackberries and elderberries. The various sections of hedgerow that we have around the reserve are turning red with the ripening of haws, on the hawthorns, and rowan berries on the rowan trees. These are a great location to spot thrushes such as blackbirds feeding up for the coming autumn and winter.
Hawthorn (top) and rowan (bottom) – Image by John Langley
For those with a keen eye, this time of year is ideal to search for ‘robin’s pincushions’ which are caused by a gall wasp, a tiny wasp that lays its eggs on various types of rose. As these develop they form a robin’s pincushions which the grubs remain inside, feeding on the rose, until the spring when they emerge. These are now turning a bright red and become more obvious, a good place to scan for these is around the hedges in the car park.
Robin’s pincushion – Image by John Langley
The wardening team are cracking on with the habitat management work around the reserve with lots of cutting happening. We are opening creeks and pools on the inner part of Burton Marsh, around Denhall Lane and the Decca Pools, to improve the visibility of birds for visitors as well as preventing rush from encroaching on the grazing marsh.
People that have visited the reserve over the last few days will have noticed that the islands on the main scrape have been cut. Again, this not only maintains the desired habitat but also improves the visitor experience by making the wildlife more visible, especially small waders such as dunlin that seem to disappear behind vegetation just as you point them out to people! We have left clumps of yellow flowers called fleabane. These flowers are a great late nectar source for insects, and will be cut once they have been pollinated and seeded. We cut the islands on the scrape to help maintain the habitat for breeding avocet, lapwing and gulls that prefer nesting in areas of relatively short vegetation. By cutting at this time of year we are also managing the habitat to be attractive to grazing wildfowl especially returning wigeon that act like little lawn mowers over the winter.
Fleabane – Image by John Langley
Other sightings around the reserve include increasing numbers of finches as they start to congregate after breeding. Large charms of goldfinch can be seen feeding on thistle heads. Greenshanks and green sandpipers are regularly seen on the pools at Burton Mere Wetlands, as well as the return of one cattle egret now the herd of cattle are grazing the wet grasslands. On those rare sunny days, the second cycle wall butterflies can be seen around Burton Point as well as small coppers. Over the past couple of weeks, a ‘ringtail’ hen harrier has been showing at Burton Mere as well as over Burton Marsh - a definite sign of autumn as they retreat from their upland breeding areas to the relative safety of this heavily protected coastal wetland.
Finally, this weekend sees the third annual Wirral Wader Festival take place, a partnership event celebrating the internationally important coastline and wading bird spectacle of the peninsula. Events are taking place at West Kirby and Hoylake, with full details to be found here: http://wirralwaderfestival.blogspot.co.uk/p/2017-wader-festival.html - including a talk on Friday evening from renowned TV personality, Iolo Williams, with a small number of tickets still available.