Bird spotting in Cheshire during the Christmas holidays
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 December 2014 | UPDATED: 18:12 24 January 2018
The festive season is a great time to enjoy viewing flocks of birds, large and small. Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall grabs a front row seat
Starlings were once a bird table regular, iridescent speckled fronts glistening in the winter sun as they jostled for the best dining position among the sparrows and robins. Like so many of our ‘common or garden’ species like the house sparrow and song thrush, this is no longer the case and a starling is now a very welcome, if infrequent guest.
Despite this alarming overall decline in the population, these once ubiquitous birds still gather in astonishing numbers in just a few special places each winter to offer what has become one of the ornithological wonders of the world – the murmuration. Brought into the limelight by the likes of Autumn Watch and other wildlife television shows, a ticket to a starling murmuration is now hot property from November and throughout the winter.
Beginning with just a handful of trend-setting birds at dusk, starlings begin to join from miles around, gradually swelling in numbers to vast black clouds numbering the thousands, each bird just centimetres apart with all the airborne prowess of a Red Arrows pilot. With millisecond timing and a close eye on the birds in their immediate vicinity, the flocks can wheel and twist with the same liquid motion of shoreline wave. Finally, after perhaps an hour or more of this remarkable synchronised flying, the starlings funnel together into a tight feathered tornado and magically disappear into a suitable roosting spot of trees or reedbeds.
These huge gatherings or ‘murmurations’ naturally do not go unnoticed, and a visit from a sparrowhawk or perhaps even a peregrine, piercing arrow-like through the centre of the show only adds to the anticipation and excitement.
With trees stripped of their leaves and seemingly naked and shivering to the elements of winter, we are given the best opportunity of the year to pick out residents of the woodland that are normally frustratingly elusive among the canopy.
With the daily life-and-death struggle of finding food top of the agenda and the ever-present threat of equally hungry predators, winter sees a huge range of tits, finches and other species join forces to roam our woodlands – and gardens too – in search of a meal.
The smallest diners are undoubtedly the goldcrests – pretty much our smallest bird – but still requiring a keen eye to tell apart from among the blue tits. It’s fair to expect a full compliment of great tits, coal tits, and the impossibly fluffy bundles of white feathers that are long-tailed tits too. With an easier view through the branches, there’s also a chance to pick out the exquisitely camouflaged treecreeper, looking for all the world like a piece of bark, but often spotted as it flies with a high pitched call to the base of a tree before ascending to the summit.
The highlight of any woodland winter flock are surely the woodpeckers, and careful scanning of the upper branches may be rewarded with a view of these black and white climbers. The larger great spotted woodpecker is most likely to be encountered, however winter also offers the rare opportunity of seeing the secretive lesser spotted woodpecker – less than half the size – and similar in stature to the sky blue and orange nuthatch which can often be a good clue to their whereabouts.
Regular garden feeding of a range of foods like sunflower hearts, mixed seeds, mealworms or suet scraped on trees or posts can increase your chances of welcoming these roving feeding frenzies into the backyard.
A tideline treat
Perhaps the most well-known of winter flocks are the geese and wading birds of our estuaries, and here in Cheshire and Wirral we’re blessed with some of the finest in the North West. Forced south from their arctic or northern European breeding grounds, late summer and autumn sees gathering masses of dunlin, godwits, knot and plovers hit the mudflats of the Dee and Mersey estuaries. For these long-legged lovers of what lies beneath the miles of shoreline mud, time and tide is the name of the game.
As soon as the high-tide waters recede, waders and a host of other waterbirds converge on the mudflats, systematically sifting through the mud with their perfectly adapted beaks. Despite the vast numbers – perhaps in the tens of thousands – there are few dinner table disagreements with every species having a slightly shorter or longer beak, allowing them to exploit subtly different niches within the layers of mud.
When the tide inevitably returns a few hours later, the birds are given no option but to take to the air or gather shoulder to shoulder in the few remaining exposed sandbanks or rocky shorelines. At this time and especially when preoccupied by feeding, the risk from aerial predators cannot be underestimated.
Having arrived for a winter sojourn on the coast from their upland nesting areas, peregrines make frequent visits to our estuaries to hunt, using a combination of straight-line speed and ambush to grab a meal. These abundant feeding opportunities have even led to peregrines div ing into unsuspecting groups of purple sandpipers on the pontoons of the New Brighton Marine Lake, just metres from the promenade. Not to be outdone, our smallest falcon, the merlin, also puts in a regular shift on the shoreline and can be easily missed as it flies in imperceptibly low across the water or saltmarsh with the element of surprise key to its strategy.
Sometimes lacking the split-second timing, and some might say the grace of a murmuration, our winter waders can still put on a matinee show to rival the starlings, with flocks of knot capable of painting the sky with an array of swirls and curves – with the added excitement of performing just inches above the water.
Whatever performance you choose this winter, make sure you don’t miss out on one of these fantastic flocks. n
Where to enjoy fantastic flocks this December
Murmurations of varying sizes can occur over any town or city, however Marbury Country Park, near Northwich, provides an excellent opportunity to see these stunning spectacles from dusk each evening at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Marbury Reedbed reserve. It’s thought up to 10,000 birds can congregate here. View from the shoreline hide during early winter.
Notable murmurations have also been reported at Rostherne Mere, Runcorn Bridge and in Crewe and Nantwich.
Woodland feeding flocks
Woodland is a scarce resource in Cheshire – the least wooded area of the country. Both Moore Nature Reserve near Warrington and Marbury Country Park offer a chance of catching the elusive lesser spotted woodpecker amongst other tits, finches, nutchatches and treecreepers.
The foreshore areas of West Kirby, Hoylake, Parkgate and Red Rocks all provide a great opportunity to see large flocks of wading birds. Arrive around an hour before high tide to watch the birds congregate and become forced together as the waters rush in. These large groups are most likely to attract the attention of a peregrine or merlin.
More on some of these locations at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.
Make yours a natural Christmas
Cheshire Wildlife Trust has a range of wildlife-friendly Christmas gifts available now, from contemporary designed china mugs to binoculars and nature adoption packs with species ranging from the otter to a Longhorn cow. All profits go directly to supporting the Trust’s work here in the county. See more on the online shop at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.