Winter well and truly arrived with the first frosts of the season last week followed by the devastation of Storm Arwen at the weekend which left us with significant tree damage and no electricity for three days!
No doubt the birds took a battering too, but as we reach December the vast majority of our over-wintering wildfowl and waders will be back on the estuary now, with a wide range to be enjoyed on a visit to Burton Mere Wetlands.
Recent rainfall gave our water levels a timely boost, as with the wardens’ intensive autumn cutting finished, sluices were closed but the dry November left it relatively quiet on the wet grassland as birds favoured the saltmarsh, well flooded after big tides mid-month.
Now with deeper water on the scrape and overflowing ditches across the wet grassland, a long list of ducks can be spotted from the visitor centre and Bunker hide, including mallard, gadwall, tufted duck, shoveler, teal, wigeon and shelduck. There are still plenty of waders too, at times pushed to the shallow edges of the water or onto the islands or grassland; mainly lapwings, redshanks and black-tailed godwits, but we’ve had the occasional spotted redshank, ruff, dunlin, green sandpiper, curlews feeding on the islands and snipe most likely seen being flushed by a passing bird of prey.
Gadwalls (and coot) swimming (Paul Jubb)
The growing wildfowl and wader flocks means more sightings of peregrines on the hunt, with marsh harriers a regular presence too. We get regular reports of merlin, but can be trickier to see due to their size and habits. Occasionally, one perches on a fence post which allows a much better look than a fleeting fly-by.
Kestrels have been notably active recently, with the drier conditions probably being better for their favoured mammal prey, and sparrowhawks often whizz past the feeding stations, even the one close to the visitor centre.
Kestrel hovering (Paul Jubb)
As you’d expect with the plummeting temperatures, the feeding stations are a frenzy of activity. Blue tits and goldfinches are the most numerous, plus good numbers of great tits and coal tits, whilst chaffinches wait hopefully underneath for their share. Nuthatch and great-spotted woodpecker visit the visitor centre feeders, and adjacent trees are amongst the best places to spot treecreepers. The Woodland trail and car park have their own highlights, with jays gathering acorns from the leaf litter and mistle thrushes perching high on top of oaks.
A little further out, flocks of siskins roam high in alder trees around The Mere trail, and Cetti's warblers shout from the bramble scrub. It's been a quiet few weeks for kingfisher sightings, but The Mere is still the favoured spot for the mid-winter egret roost, with little egrets, great egrets and still the odd cattle egret around, who fly in from across the estuary from around 4pm at present.
Further out along the Wetland trail, some lucky visitors have glimpsed elusive jack snipe, whilst the exotic ruddy shelducks and Egyptian geese seem to be settling in for winter. Pintails are most likely to be seen from Bridge screen or Border hide. Reed buntings and stonechats pop up on reedmace heads, and single lesser redpolls have been seen occasionally on the fringe of Marsh Covert as well as along the railway embankment. The railway is a good spot for bullfinch at this time of year, whilst linnets, green woodpecker, redwing and fieldfare are best seen from the Headland trail.
Out on Burton Marsh below Burton Point, a growing flock of whooper swans can often be found, whilst keen eyes can sometimes spot short-eared owls and hen harriers that have been showing excellently between Burton Marsh and Parkgate for the past month or so. The pink-footed geese are most prominent on the saltmarsh where they roost overnight, flying inland to feed in the morning and back at dusk.
Flocks of pink-footed geese and redshanks scattered by a ringtail hen harrier in front of the Flintshire Bridge (Paul Jubb)
On Tuesday this week, site manager Graham found a solitary grey plover on the main scrape first thing. Although the Dee Estuary supports internationally important numbers of them in winter, they're a rare visitor to the non-tidal part of the reserve at Burton Mere Wetlands - hence having to settle for this RSPB drawing rather than a photo!
Grey plover in winter plumage (Mike Langman, rspb-images.com)
After winding down their topping of rush on the wet grassland as we reached the end of autumn, the warden team have been giving their brushcutters a good workout with cutting the islands on Bridge Pool, opening the view in front of Bridge screen, and the same at Reedbed screen.
Reed cutting at Reedbed screen (Liz Boone)
Storm Arwen last weekend caused some severe tree damage, with lots of clearing up of limbs and trunks fallen across trails and the access track through Gorse Covert. A mature tree on one of the The Mere's islands lost a large limb which has become a nice new feature in the water. Could be a good kingfisher perch!
Fallen tree limb in The Mere (Dan Trotman)
The RSPB's massive, national Robin Robin campaign kicked off on 24 November, but our enforced storm closure last weekend meant families have not yet had chance to really experience it. It runs all the way until 10 January, with a brilliant interactive family trail to follow at Burton Mere Wetlands that brings the new festive Netflix and Aardman Animation film to life - and of course there's a high chance of your little ones seeing one of our friendly local robins.
Clearly the Covid-19 picture has changed slightly in the past week with the discovery of the Omicron variant, but so far there is no change to visiting Burton Mere Wetlands. As we have since the end of the Government roadmap out of lockdown in July, we ask all visitors to wear a face covering in our indoor spaces (unless exempt) - which all our staff and volunteers do - and this has become more important than ever with the potential threat of the new variant.
Our mail-order shop has been busy lately, with visitors keen to do more to support the RSPB's conservation work by buying Christmas cards, wrapping and a wide range of gifts from us for their loved ones. You can browse from the comfort of your sofa here, but if you order at Burton Mere Wetlands the profits can be used at the reserve for you to see the positive impact.
In mid-November we welcomed our first residential volunteer, Fi, since before the Covid pandemic, and we're looking to recruit another to assist primarily with the warden duties across the Dee Estuary reserve - an unrivalled opportunity for budding conservationist to gain skills and experience to kickstart their career. See here for details.
Finally, our festive opening times have been finalised and can be found in the Opening Times section of our webpage; we're closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but open every other day, with slightly shortened hours on a couple of days.
We look forward to welcoming you soon!
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