Posted on behalf of Katie Ellis

Recent sightings

January has greeted us with frosty mornings, gorgeous sunsets and plenty of rain! Other than the weather, the start to 2021 has been very different to any other new year, with the need to stay at home once again. We’ve been fortunate enough to keep the reserve open during this lockdown as somewhere for people who live locally to take their permitted daily exercise and the reserve team have still been busy at work; here we share some of the highlights of the month, from habitat management, surveys, essential infrastructure maintenance and keeping the reserve clean and safe to visit.

 View from the East Bank Viewpoint after flooding (M.Beckett)i

There are signs that spring is on the way when out checking the reserve. Great spotted woodpeckers can be heard drumming, marsh harriers are scoping out their nesting ground over the reedbed and the warden team have been hard at work ensuring our breeding waders will have the perfect habitat to encourage maximum pairs, nests and fledging chicks.  We’re also eagerly awaiting the arrival of our first avocet, that should be appearing in a couple of weeks, normally mid-February.

A sound so familiar to us all around the Dee Estuary is the “wink-wink” call of the pink-footed geese travelling over during the winter and the best time of year for them is nearly here. Preparing to head back to their Arctic breeding grounds, there are currently over 15,000 on the estuary and we expect counts for February and March to reach new highs. A brilliant find for the season has been two Bewick’s swans, which were seen flying to roost on Burton Mere Wetlands’ main scrape on 6 January having been first found on nearby Shotwick Fields earlier that day. Numbers of these swans have declined on the estuary, and the west coast in general, due to an easterly shift in their wintering range

After further surveys completed by Site Manager, Graham there are up to five on the estuary recently seen amongst 28 whooper swans, which is promising after none here last winter. There was also a brief visit from four tundra bean geese on 14 January, seen on  Burton Mere Wetlands’ wet grassland, following suit after last year’s slightly longer visit from two of them. A single Russian white-fronted goose was also seen off Burton Point and three barnacle geese seen flying with 1500 pink-footed geese on 11 January.

 Bewick's swans on neighbouring Shotwick Fields (G.Jones)

Storm Christoph mid-month brought flooding onto the reserve and took our name “wetlands” to a whole new level! Water consumed the drainage ditches and filled the reserve’s normally meticulously controlled scrape to bring flooding at a level we’d never seen before. Winter ducks were drawn into the wet grassland on the reserve, finding shallower areas to feed whilst the estuary was flooded. Two of our key over-wintering ducks had counts of 7000 teals and 1200 wigeons on the reserve’s wet grassland. Gadwall, shoveler, tufted duck and pintail were amongst them in smaller numbers, drawn in with the newly-formed lake that was formerly the scrape!

 Unprecedented water levels following heavy rain on 20 January

Trying their best to navigate the flooding and icy conditions we saw up to 1300 black tailed godwits, redshank, snipe, lapwing, golden plover, snipe, ruff and curlew on the reserve. The wintering little stint has remained, seen amongst flocks of dunlin. Up to two woodcocks have continued to be seen in their favourite spot in the wet woodland at the end of the fen.

Over in the reedbed, bearded tits are heard and very occasionally seen – but reassuring to know they remain here after two successful breeding seasons and a steadily-growing population – as are the vocal Cetti’s warblers.

There’s been plenty of raptors to see with marsh harriers being the highlight. The pair that bred in our reedbed last year are back, showing interest in their former nest site. Sparrowhawks are still wise to easy hunting on the bird feeders, quick glimpses of a merlin dashing by and kestrels hovering over their favourite patch close to the visitor centre. Peregrines have been hunting the waders on the scrape, hoping for a catch during the difficult times.

Hen harriers have remained out on the saltmarsh more, with only one reported sighting of a ringtail at Burton Mere Wetlands this month. Out on the estuary a bittern has been continuing to roost in Neston Reedbed.

 Marsh harriers over reedbed (P.Jubb)

During the shortest days of the season as we have been ending the working day, it was always worth a look out to The Mere where our egrets come to roost in winter. On 4 January a cattle egret was seen amongst the little egrets and 10 great white egrets were counted. On several days we’ve also seen a great white egret fishing for lunch on Reception Pool which seems to be a popular spot when the reserve has fewer visitors .

Winter visiting fieldfares and redwings have been regular sightings over on Burton Point, sometimes in double figures, along with occasional glimpses of green woodpeckers. Bullfinches have continued to be busy, with brilliant views of them around the old fishery pools and the visitor centre feeders early in the month. Also, earlier in the month we were treated to views of a water pipit, an occasional winter sighting, seen on the neighbouring farmland from the path past Bunker hide.

With the Big Garden Birdwatch finally arriving to end the month on a high, we’ve been getting ready watching our feeders attract coal tit, blue tit, great tit, nuthatch, treecreeper and siskin, along with the highlight of an over-wintering blackcap.

Wardens wanderings

Within Government guidelines, our brilliant warden team have been working hard to complete essential jobs getting the reserve spring ready.

The colossal predator fence project is getting closer to completion by contractors, and should be a significant aid to attract more breeding birds to the original Inner Marsh Farm part of the reserve, just in time for our avocets to get nest building!

The brushcutters have been working full throttle with the warden team cutting back encroaching reeds on the wet grassland to maintain a suitable home for  breeding waders. As it’s unfeasible to remove it, they have been burning the stacked reed to ensure the nutrients from them breaking down don’t encourage the growth of invasive plants and ruin all their hard work. Some of our volunteers have also had training with the brushcutters to double the efforts!

 Wet grassland management (L.Boone)

Our warden Becky has been upgrading our little owl box on Burton Point – after being unused last year following its first success in 2019 – and has created a home any little owl would be jealous of!

During the flooding some of our paths around the reedbed were made inaccessible and in places ankle deep with water! Last season the wardens created drainage channels to prevent flooding on the paths and gave these an extra clear out to help clear the flood water quicker.

An annual spring preparation job for the warden team is to rope off the bluebell area on Burton Point, leaving a trail to reach the viewpoints, preventing visitors from unknowingly stepping on emerging flowers over the coming months before they bloom in late April.

 Roped trails on Burton Point to protect bluebells (L.Boone)

We know the majority of you are unable to visit at present, and are understandably missing the reserve’s wonderful wildlife, landscapes, vistas and the friendly faces of the team. Hopefully this blog has helped lift your spirits, being reminded of the special wildlife that calls this area its home, and that our hard work continues thanks to your ongoing support, to ensure our precious nature suffers little from the impact of the Covid pandemic. Check back here for February’s round-up in a few weeks, along with other interesting blogs in between.

  • Thank you for the update Katie. The reserve is sadly a little too far away for me to visit at the moment, but your report provides some compensation. Plus some frustration at some of the species that I am missing! The management work going on is great news and the birds are obviously still being drawn in. It all sounds very positive for when I can return - hopefully in the not too distant future.