Posted on behalf of Katie Ellis.

Recent sightings

It’s feeling very wintry now the temperatures have dropped to single figures and the days are at their shortest, but the cooler conditions have brought us some brilliant wildlife and dramatic sunsets. The feeders close to the visitor centre are buzzing with small woodland birds as they fill up each day to make it through the cold nights. A clever sparrowhawk is making the most of easy hunting, regularly darting past the feeders and through the oaks during the day in hope of an easy catch. Goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, coal tits, nuthatches, siskins, blue tits, great tits and great spotted woodpeckers have all been regular visitors to the feeders and neighbouring wooded areas. With the trees bare, treecreepers are also a pleasure to see, zipping up the trees around the car park.

 Treecreeper (Paul Jubb)

Green woodpeckers are a daily sighting, often reported by the railway bridge, close to the visitor centre and on neighbouring fields on the east side. Wintering fieldfares are also a regular sight, with the occasional one or two seen on trees, but no larger flocks this season so far.  Kingfishers are still providing brief glimpses to visitors who are patient and often simply lucky enough to see them speeding along the meres or in the reedbed channels. Stonechats are along the banks of Reception Pool with a pair moving along the rushes, which is seeming to be typical behaviour for them every year.

 Fieldfare (John Hewitt)

The scrape is re-populating with the reserve a lot quieter now contractor work has reduced, with waders and wildfowl back in good number, especially in the mornings. On both the scrape and bridge pool most days there are flocks of lapwings, black-tailed godwits, curlews, golden plovers, spotted redshanks and a there was a sighting of a single bar-tailed godwit on Tuesday 8 December. Amongst the larger flocks of waders there are also redshanks, dunlins, ruffs and snipe. Looking close amongst flocks of dunlins there’s often a little stint, which was first found on Thursday 3 December. Often tricky to identify and it’s smaller size in flocks of waders is often it’s giveaway, it’s a late visitor who would normally have migrated to Africa by now and looks like it might be staying here for at least some of the winter.

 Little stint (Colin Schofield)

Wintering wildfowl numbers have also increased on the main scrape, wet grassland and Bridge Pool with good counts of teals, shovelers and over 1000 wigeons. Shelducks, tufted ducks and gadwalls are also almost daily sightings, along with the occasional pintail.  A red-breasted merganser was found on Monday 14 December, more commonly found out on the tidal estuary, it’s a scarce sighting at Burton Mere Wetlands with only one or two records each year.

With food sources dwindling on inland fields as the winter creeps in, pink-footed geese are spending more of their time on the reserve. Looking beyond the scrape to the wet grassland, there have been thousands of them gathered grazing at times. A single snow goose was amongst a flock of pink-footed geese flying over on the morning of Friday 18 December. We’re unsure if it would be one that has joined the pink-footed geese on migration, or is a feral bird, but we're keeping an eye out for it being seen again.

 Red-breasted merganser (John Hewitt)

Sparrowhawks have been stealing the show recently, but marsh harriers have also been frequently sighted, drifting over the scrape daily, with up to three seen together. Hen harriers have been generally quieter on the reserve than in November, with only the occasional visit from a ringtail recently, but a brilliant treat of a grey adult male hen harrier in front of the visitor centre on Friday 18  December more than made up for the quieter times! Merlins, another of our winter raptors, are often reported seen perched on fence posts and dashing through the oaks. Peregrines are also disrupting the newly found peace on the scrape, speeding through on the hunt with the hope of catching a wader!

Cattle egrets continued to show well in good numbers, into the high teens on occasions earlier in the month, but with the recent departure of the visiting highland cattle and even our neighbours' herd spending more time indoors, they have likely moved inland and away from the reserve.

We’re seeing unexpected extra benefits to the new boardwalk with water rails popping up from the vegetation and scuttling close to visitors. A single woodcock has also been a great recent find, with several visitors getting glimpses in the usual wet woodland at the end of the fen. Seen on several occasions throughout the last couple of weeks, it’s worth a closer look when visiting to see if you spot this highly-camouflaged wader.

 Woodcock (Paul Jubb)

Out on the estuary, the south end of Parkgate promenade is currently a brilliant spot to see at least one overwintering bittern flying into roost at Neston Reedbed at dusk; recent reports suggest there are two now, as we had last winter. Hen harriers are also seen regularly, with at least two males and two ringtails out there.

Over on the Welsh side of the estuary, Point of Ayr is a busy spot for winter flocks to roost safely at high tides; our volunteer wardens who prevent disturbance at high tide recently reported highlights of 19 grey plovers, 500+ dunlins and six sanderlings on the beach, whilst on the saltmarsh good numbers of curlews and redshanks and a regular merlin, and from the hide pink-footed geese, pintail and shelduck.

Star species 

An Arctic visitor turned up unexpectedly at Burton Mere Wetlands on Friday 4 December. With it’s dominant size over the other waders, ducks and gulls on the scrape, this Glaucous gull was hard to miss! It’s bigger than a herring gull and only slightly smaller than a great black-backed gull, but much paler as the photo shows. It was a first-year bird, a little smaller than an adult and creamy in colour, a very rare sighting for the Dee Estuary. Only a handful of them winter in the UK and are typically scavenging birds that will clear up after large predatory mammals such as polar bears in their Arctic homes.

 Glaucous gull with lapwings (Graham Jones)

Wardens wanderings

Another busy few weeks for our wardens, with a little less mud but a lot of cutting! With the new hide complete, focus has been more on improving and maintaining the extensive trails around Burton Mere Wetlands. Anti-slip mesh has been replaced and new kickboards have been installed on the boardwalks, to ensure safe access for all. Contractors have temporarily repaired paths where machinery access to the Inner Marsh Farm project had worn them and will be fully repaired once the predator fence is completed early next year.  

Our warden Becky has been working on the water levels on the scrape, with the aim of increasing them to suit our wintering ducks around the reserve. It’s already proving a success with the great numbers of wigeon, teal and shoveler out there, along with lots of great waders still.

The big task for the last week or so has been cutting back years of rank grass growth around the east side of the reserve; this is a new project, to hopefully encourage further wildflower and orchid growth in this area. Every year we get a single broad-leafed helleborine orchid along the path along with numerous bee orchids, so hopefully next summer we’ll be seeing their hard work come to fruition.

 Volunteer work party busy mowing rank grass to encourage floral diverstiy (Liz Boone)

Get involved

With December bringing the end of the second English lockdown, two of our hides are open again, but the visitor centre and our shop is closed for now. Before you enter the hides check the notices for maximum capacity and wear a face covering when inside unless you're exempt, in order to help everybody enjoy the reserve safely. Our opening hours are a little different to a normal winter, with the car park and trails still open from 9am, but the staffed visitor welcome and takeaway catering open from 10am and the whole reserve closing at 4pm.

We're all facing a very different Christmas and New Year to normal, and the reserve is closed for a couple of extra days than just Christmas Day, but there will be further details in another blog very soon - in the meantime, our website is already up to date with our festive closures if you want to plan ahead.