A Bird count with a difference!

Though we are based on the Dee Estuary, we do have a “small” land holding on the Mersey Estuary. I say small, it is still 1000 hectares, but small relative to our holding on the Dee.

 Map of the estuary.

The Mersey Estuary is hugely important for water birds: Internationally important numbers of black-tailed godwit, dunlin, teal, turnstone, redshank, shelduck and pintail use the estuary to feed throughout the year, but winter is when large numbers of birds use the Estuary.

It is important to understand how the birds are using the Estuary (both to feed and roost), so that we can provide adequate protection from disturbance and development. This is mainly done through the BTO’s Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) – this is a national survey that reached its 70th birthday this year! This survey is split into 2 methodologies: High Tide and Low Tide counts.

The high tide counts are done monthly throughout the year by BTO volunteers. They count numbers of birds at known roost sites across the estuary which gives a total number of birds using the Estuary. This way we know which areas of coastline to protect from disturbance at high tide and make sure any development is sympathetic to the birds’ needs.

The Low tide counts help us to understand where the birds are feeding; are they using cockle/mussel beds or along certain sand banks. The BTO Low tide WeBS is only done every 5 years – because it often requires a huge effort to cover all of the low water areas on large estuaries. We count our sectors annually though as it is relatively easy to cover this, and gives us a better understanding of feeding behavior. (That being said, this year we are also contributing to the BTO data). This week brought the first count of the winter.

As the title of the blog suggests, this count is a bit different to your normal bird count. The birds are the same, and so is the marsh. Getting to the marsh however is a bit tricky!

Our only access is through ESSAR Stanlow Oil refinery, and it is not simple! We need out passports (or other photo ID) to get our passes, then go to another gate and get another pass, where we need to leave our own vehicle and get a bus to a ferry, which then takes us over the Manchester Ship Canal. If this wasn’t enough, the Ferryman, then has to take us up to some 15ft, barbed wire gates, let us through ad lock the gates behind us. Beyond the gates is an ex-industrial wasteland overgrown with thick bramble and scrub (probably a migrant hotspot!) and lots of boarded up, half fallen down buildings… It really is like something from a zombie apocalypse film… I just pray that we never get locked in there on a dark evening! I don’t have any photos, as we’re not allowed to take any for security reasons. Once we’ve fought our way through the vegetation, we are greeted with a brilliant view over the saltmarsh and mudflats of the Mersey, over towards Liverpool.

 Our count points and route out.

As you can see from the map, one of us counts pretty much from where we are let in, but the other has a long walk out over slippery, gully scattered saltmarsh to the far end (we take it in turns!). It usually take a little over an hour to walk out there.

 Counting from Manistay (A. Grubb). You can see Liverpool in the background

Once you get there, it’s a case of scanning across the mudflats and sand banks with the telescope, counting each species and making a note. Quite often, there is very little down that bottom end, but luckily this week there was quite a lot (worth the long walk!). Over 800 redshank strung out across the mud and over 1000 gulls roosting on the sand banks. The October count is always a bit low, as birds are still coming over from the summering grounds, but as the winter progresses, we should start to see big numbers building (often get counts of over 40,000 Dunlin from Stanlow!).

 The snipe "filled" saltmarsh (A. Grubb)

After the count, we’ve got to walk back. It is a slightly different route across the saltmarsh, to see what is hiding in it; usually a few snipe -  I’ve been promised that its good for jack snipe, but I’ve never seen one there!

I did see a few at Burton Mere today though. Can you see it in the photo? I flushed most of them in the tractor, but managed to get a quick pic of this one before he flew away. It’s camouflage is brilliant!