The RSPB Dee Estuary nature reserve is vast and complex, covering over 6000 hectares of varying wetland habitats making it the fifth largest RSPB reserve and the largest protected coastal wetland in the UK. Since 2011, Burton Mere Wetlands has become the much-loved heart of it all, but this series of blogs aims to lift the lid on some of the wilder, lesser known locations we manage.
After Burton Mere Wetlands, Parkgate is probably the best known and most visited part of the wider reserve and probably needs little introduction. Despite having no RSPB facilities other than an information board in the Old Baths public car park at the north end of The Parade, it was the first part of the estuary we secured in 1979, resulting in last year's 40th anniversary celebrations.
Back then, the area was actually called Gayton Sands, after the village of Gayton nestled between Parkgate and Heswall, and the fact the landscape was much more sandy and muddy than today's extensive saltmarsh. As a result, shelduck, oystercatcher and knot were amongst the reserve's listed highlights. These days, you're only likely to glimpse these birds on the highest of spring tides.
In fact, Parkgate's origins are as an early 18th Century port, serving Chester as the natural silting of the River Dee restricted shipping upstream, and has notable historic links to Lord Horatio Nelson and classical composer George Frideric Handel. Mere decades later as silting worsened, the river was ultimately canalised to Chester on the Welsh side of the estuary and Parkgate instead thrived as a fishing community and seaside resort. Clues to its beach days still exist, my favourite being the Donkey Stand - adjacent to which we created the large new lagoon in 2011, affectionately known as the Donkey Stand Flash - where the traditional donkey rides set out from for visiting Victorian families.
Digging the Donkey Stand Flash (Colin Wells)
Parkgate remains a popular destination regardless of its rich nature but, with golden sands having been replaced by the ever-growing saltmarsh, is now also a vital winter home to thousands of wildfowl, wading birds and a wonderful range of birds of prey. For decades, Parkgate has hosted a handful of hen harriers each winter; currently one of the most threatened raptors in the UK due to illegal persecution in their upland breeding grounds, we're incredibly fortunate to be able to showcase these graceful hunters at our Raptorwatch events as they fly in to their overnight roost on the marsh close to the Old Baths car park, and emphasises the importance of our protecting the habitat from historic risks of disturbance and development.
As well as hen harriers and several other types of bird of prey, the Old Baths is renowned as a good place to watch both barn owl and short-eared owl hunting the marsh, the latter also a winter visitor but giving show-stopping performances here for the past couple of years.
Barn owl at Parkgate (Paul Jubb)
Large birds like grey herons and their strikingly white egret cousins can typically be seen during any casual stroll along the promenade, but many of the ducks and waders are difficult to see unless you visit on the highest tides of the winter months, when they can be forced close, out of cover and into frenzied action to flee the rising water. This excitement happens just a few times a year, typically in the weeks around the autumn and spring equinoxes, when we deliver Tidewatch events to commentate on activity and give visitors the best chance of seeing the stars of the show.
Parkgate at spring high tide, March 2020 (Paul Jubb)
One bird which has risen to the fore here in just the past few years is the pink-footed goose; after historic local decline and a period of absence, their Arctic breeding success and population growth combined with the estuary's improving habitats have seen their winter numbers on the Dee rise from a few hundred to well beyond 10,000 and almost double that in recent weeks as they are joined by birds from further south beginning their northward migration. Thousands return to the outer saltmarsh off Parkgate each evening from October to March, leaving at dawn to feed on farmland across the local area, their distinctive musical 'wink-wink' calls filling your ears often before you get eyes on them.
Pink-footed geese massing on Parkgate marsh (Paul Jubb)
That's not to say Parkgate is only worth a visit in the winter months; many birds are resident, albeit in lower numbers, including marsh harriers, little and great egrets, plus house martins and swallows feed over the pools and the soundscape of territorial skylarks and meadow pipits is a worthy backdrop to the sumptuous sunsets over the mouth of the estuary that the Wirral peninsula is famed for.
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