Despite the traditional bank holiday weekend blip, we’ve enjoyed some unseasonably dry weather so far this spring. That’s not such good news for managing a wet grassland site like Burton Mere Wetlands for breeding waders, but it’s presented many lovely, bright mornings perfect for getting out for some early morning birdwatching.

Whilst Burton Mere Wetlands is very much the focal point of this reserve, you’re no doubt aware that the site doesn’t open until 9am. This is for good reason; allowing the reserve team to carry out bird surveys and a variety of essential maintenance tasks early, without impacting on visitors during the day, not to mention keeping the place safe and clean during the current pandemic.

However, we’re very fortunate that there is so much more of the Dee Estuary reserve to explore, especially if you’re an early riser and want to start birding at dawn. The Welsh side of the estuary is served by the Wales Coast Path, from our northernmost tip at Point of Ayr, with various places of interest upstream to Flint and Oakenholt Marsh.

On the English side, the inimitable Parkgate looks to be home to a marsh harrier nest this year whilst a growing flock of spoonbills (five at the time of writing) are present, if not always easy to locate within the labyrinth of gutters and flashes.

 Information board (Dan Trotman)

Arguably the best spot for early birding is Burton Marsh, just a stone’s throw from Burton Mere Wetlands and blessed with a variety of habitats along a relatively short, surfaced path between the inner saltmarsh and our Burton Marsh Farm.

The farm fields and fencelines are an ideal spot for regular wheatears and whinchats on passage, whilst the small reedbed and carr attract a range of warblers as they return through spring. Just a couple of weeks ago, one lucky individual photographed a subalpine warbler there, a rare European vagrant, just a fifth Cheshire record and the first for fifteen years!

 Male wheatear (Ron Thomas)

Last week, a ‘channel’ wagtail showed well amongst the sheep and other yellow wagtails, and a handful of cattle egrets have been feeding near sheep close on Burton Marsh. If you’re there for first light you might be lucky enough to catch one of the local barn owls returning from their dawn hunt.

It may not have the glamour or instant gratification of Burton Mere Wetlands, but that route, officially named the Burton Marsh Greenway, has some gems to be found with a little patience at any time of year.

Even if you don’t leave your car, it’s a much better view parked at the marsh edge than sitting outside the gate at Burton Mere Wetlands. After an increase in vehicles waiting outside the closed gate, we’re asking visitors to please avoid arriving here before 9am to avoid the risk of blocking access for the reserve team, or our neighbouring farmers with their sizeable machinery and cattle wagon. Even one or two vehicles parked here can be enough to create problems.

If you find yourself in the area early, a short detour to Burton Marsh – look for Station Road to the west of Burton village – could get you a few birds for your list that you wouldn’t typically see if you visited just Burton Mere Wetlands. Then it’s just a five minute drive round to the main site after 9am to enjoy the rich, landscaped wetlands, ancient woodland and farmland, with loos, fresh brews and the friendly team to get you up to date with the latest sightings – and we’d love to hear what you’ve seen elsewhere on the estuary!

 A lush Burton Mere Wetlands in early summer (Paul Jubb)

For regular updates of which facilities are open at Burton Mere Wetlands and their times, please see our Facebook or Twitter pages. Most of the reserve is now open, with hides hopefully opening from Monday 17 May if Step 3 of the Government roadmap out of lockdown goes ahead as planned.

Fingers crossed for an exciting end to spring, and we look forward to welcoming you here soon.