5 winter birds to spot in Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 October 2016
As colder months move in, new visitors come to our shores and take up residence. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy tells us what to look out for this season.
Between them the Dee and Mersey estuaries hold around 15% of north western Europe’s overwintering population of pintails, making them a significant feeding ground for this wonderful and charismatic duck. While the female may to the untrained eye look no more than a slightly darker mallard, watch out for the striking drake (male duck), whose long and tapering tail is hard to miss, even in silhouette. His fancy white collar and breast piece, his chocolate-brown head and a splash of yellow at his rump make him a very fine thing to behold during the cold British winter.
As smartly dressed as a waiter at The Ritz, the oystercatcher is a staple and easy starting point for our list of coastal birds. A long, ruler-straight orange beak, a large and stocky body, its lower parts white as snow and upper parts black as coal, make it simplicity in bird form. Wandering along the shoreline on their stout pink legs, these birds are full of personality and worth more than a moment’s consideration.
Often to be found among the open wet grasslands of our northern counties, the curlew’s numbers have been steadily declining for several decades due largely to the loss of suitable breeding habitats. Significant numbers can, however, still be seen on our winter coastline. Our largest European wader, this chunky creature stands head and shoulders above the crowd, its mottled brown appearance setting it clearly apart from other species. If its height wasn’t a major giveaway, the length and curve of its dramatic and elegant bill would be.
One of my personal favourites , you will often find the turnstone living up to its name, poking its diminutive beak under pebbles and rocks as it hunts for hidden prey. Its’ plumage has no easy pattern, its feathers resemble a Jackson Pollock painting with splashes of brown and black. Their breeding plumage has somewhat more order, but again looks like a painter’s brush has danced across their heads and necks. A small black beak, pale belly and dark top are a good hint that you’re looking at the right specimen. Petite and quick footed, these fantastic birds will often spend a great deal of time skittering across your vision so just be patient and follow them until they stop for a well-deserved rest.
Looking somewhat like the love child of a mallard and a domestic goose, the shelduck is another easily recognisable face in the crowd. Upright and larger than your average duck, their glossy green heads, red bills and feet, brown breastband and white breasts and lower necks make them easy to spot even without binoculars. The fact that the males and females differ only minutely also makes them easy targets for beginners.
Birding (or twitching for the more devoted individuals) may call up visions of early mornings sitting in chilly wooden hides, camera lenses extending beyond the two-foot mark and an encyclopaedic knowledge of anything with feathers, but with a little help anyone can get out spotting and enjoying our fascinating local bird life.
For many beginners, the first challenge (and often the most frustrating) can be simply finding their intended mark. A well-practised ornithologist may be able to decipher the faint tweeting in the hedgerows, or instantly recognise the tiniest squiggle on the horizon, but for the rest of us a relatively still target, in an open space, is what we hope for.
Woodland, although full of fascinating birds, rarely provides this opportunity. Moorlands, with their many rarities, are often too vast for the beginner’s eye; with birds sitting far away in the distance or darting swiftly by. But luckily there is a place where those new to bird watching can slowly steady their binoculars and fix their sights on that seemingly elusive thing – an identifiable bird. In Britain, the answer lies on our coastline, where great flocks of birds gather to feed, and particularly in our internationally valuable estuaries.
Estuaries, with their mudflats, salt marshes and reedbeds provide are perfect for mud-loving invertebrates and molluscs, a high-calorie supper for waders, ducks and gulls. In the summer they support great numbers of breeding individuals, but in the winter, as the UK’s bird populations soar with passage birds (birds on their way from their breeding grounds in the north to their feeding grounds further south) and winter residents (those escaping the harsh winters of the continent for Britain’s milder climate), our estuaries become packed with all manner of exciting and colourful creatures.
In Cheshire, two large estuaries take centre stage when it comes to winter bird spotting; the Dee and the Mersey estuaries. Almost appearing like a twinned pair on the map, both have their own character and history but there is one thing they definitely have in common – their international importance to wildlife. Both are designated as Special Protection Areas for the variety and numbers of birds they provide food and homes for. Together their winter populations of waterfowl regularly reach an astonishing 230,000. And not all visitors are easy to confuse, some are strikingly simple to spot in the crowd.
In the UK, we hold a quarter of all of north western Europe’s estuaries. With our milder winters, we have become an essential refuge during the harshest months of the year, making the global ecological value of these places immeasurable. But as well as the importance of these wetland wonders to our feathered friends they are invaluable to us. Here is a place we can share with our winter visitors. Whether we glimpse them in passing on a chilly winter wander or stand and study them, estuaries are the meeting of two worlds which are entirely dependent on one another. So amateur, enthusiast or expert, go out and see what you can spot this autumn and winter. Enjoy the colour, the vibrancy and the clamour of our treasured guests, and remember that soon they’ll be on their way again, while others return from their travels beyond our waters.
Where to go?
There are many great reserves on the Dee estuary, with Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Red Rocks reserve or the RSPB’s Burton Mere offering a great day out. Hoylake and Hilbre Island provide their own treasures, but be careful of the tide times. Thurstaston Country Park is another place to visit. Just remember winter birds are often very low on energy resources so try to disturb them as little as possible, as this can lead to high mortality.