A Body, a Porpoise and a Ring-necked Duck

A Body, a Porpoise and a Ring-necked Duck by Bill Morton

This is an article I wrote for a regional birding magazine ‘Birding North West’ in 2005. I thought it would be relevant to share it with you considering the recent sighting at Frodsham Marsh.

The story goes something like this…

…Ring-necked Duck is not the great rarity it once was but, this bird had a peculiar build up to it’s finding that is worth recalling.

5.00 pm Good Friday was not a particularly ‘good’ Friday for me. I worked as a countryside ranger based at Wigg Island Community Park in Runcorn, Cheshire.

Finishing off a grant application for some summer events there, and preparing to end the working day. The plan was to make my way to Frodsham Marsh for some relaxing evening birding.

To cut an extremely long story short…The Police arrived in squad cars, followed closely by a Police spotter plane circling overhead. Err…! What was going on? It’s not everyday you have a dead body floating passed your place of work! 7.00 pm leave for home, and no chance of any birding today!

Fast forward to the following Thursday…End of day, site secured, take the works van back to the depot and then down to ‘Frodders’ (Frodsham Marsh) for some  R & R evening birding…No chance!!

I was approaching the Old Quay bridge lay-by (which is adjacent to the River Mersey) on route home. Police cars parked up and a small crowd of ‘rubber neckers’ were assembled looking out to the river. ” What’s afoot?” I asked, half expecting some police wit to reply “It’s on the end of your leg”. A charming policewoman with an arresting smile replied, “ We have had a report of a blood stained dead (human) body out on the mudflats”. ‘Not again’ I thought and then eagerly reached for my binoculars and followed her out stretched finger in the direction of the mudflat. What I saw did not appear to be the mutilated handy work of some crazed psychopath. I mentioned to the lady constable that occasionally we do get the odd dead animal washed up on the tide.

“Oh”, she replied, “we did see a dolphin swim passed a few minutes ago”. ‘Perhaps you should take more water with whatever you’re drinking,’ I thought. I gave her the benefit of my cynicism, and scanned the ebbing tide out towards ‘Runcorn Bridge’. After several minutes the dolphin surfaced from the waves, except it was not a dolphin but a Harbour Porpoise doing what porpoises do best, not a lot. It eventually swam back along the tide line towards the Old Quay bridge where I managed to get some records shots on my digital camera. Then it twigged the corpse on the mudflat was probably the porpoises mate, and this was the reason why the animal remained in the vicinity (it did stay around for 3 days). I could see the headlines now ‘BIRDER SOLVES RIVER MURDER’.

Anyway, this article should have been all about the finding of a Ring-necked Duck such is life and death, these things always come in threes…

… Two days later on 2nd April 2005 at 2.00 pm, I was working at Wigg Island CP and, following reports of  youths riding quad bikes in the park the chase was on! I was passing by the lagoon at the eastern end of the park and stopped to scan a small flock of Tufted Duck and Pochard in the distant Reedbed. One particular bird caught my attention before it turned and disappeared into the reeds. All I managed to observe of this ‘Tufted’ type was a multi-toned bill and grey flanks. I was sure that the bird seen was a Ring-necked Duck.

However, with a pair of crappy bins (first excuse) and a distant  glimpse (second excuse), could I have been positive? At that moment I texted Frank Duff (who was at Frodders) with my suspicions and immediately received a call back, Frank was on his way! The duck did not reappear from the reedbed!! It’s all very well putting news out but, when it’s on ropey views you do begin to have doubts, I was considering an early dart before Frank arrived.

Within 20 minutes the duck emerged from the back of the pool with several Tufted and Pochard, and then swam towards a smaller pool within 100 metres in full view, full sunshine and in full male breeding plumage. Frank arrived shortly after and got his Cheshire tick! He wasn’t alone over 350 birders made the trip to Wigg over the following two weeks and, I hope many more will return in the future to find their own birds here.

The moral of this story is, the more time you put into birding the more rewards you can reap. Dead bodies, cetaceans and occasionally rare birds make up a strange cocktail.

Harbour Porpoise at Wigg Island (with West Bank church, Widnes behind.)

The ‘Lagoon’ where the RND was found.

The duck…

…and Wigg Island’s ‘Biggest Twitch’!

Wigg Island is situated top right of the aerial image.

Wigg Island LNR is administered by the local authority and a ‘Friends of Wigg Island’ group actively support events and funding for projects. This has included inviting Martin Garner to give his first ‘Birding Frontiers’ illustrated talk for Cheshire.

For further information on the group and Wigg Island called Dave Forsyth on 01928 564608 or friendsofwigg@gmail.com

All images except for aerial shot by WSM.