Rob Cockbain: Where there’s Muck, there’s Birds

Where there’s Muck, there’s Birds by Rob Cockbain

I read about Frodsham Sludge Pools in Eric Hardy’s Monday article “Countryside” which used to appear every week in the Liverpool Daily Post. It was decided by me, and my two friends Mike Jones and Graham Henshaw, that a visit was called for!

As we lived in different parts of Liverpool we would set off on our bikes, and we agreed to meet up at the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge. After a long cycle ride we arrived at Marsh Lane, Frodsham and proceeded towards the high banks of the sludge pools, which we could see in the distance.

Graham Henshaw and Mike Jones birding 1953 style. Image by Rob Cockbain.

At this moment I should mention that bird-watching equipment in those days was not up to much: binoculars were either old army-types and very heavy, or opera glasses which were really not much good. Bird identification books were very poor too, especially for carrying in the field: my bible was the three volumes by T.A. Coward – Birds of the British Isles, which you obviously could not carry about. Things were about to improve and in my rucksack was a new edition of Bird Recognition by James Fisher with black and white drawings of a selection of birds that could be seen.

On climbing the banks of what was known as No 3 sludge pool, the one which had been mentioned in the article by Mr Hardy, we peered down onto the mud with eager anticipation to see – nothing, just an odd gull on the water! It was decided to hide the bikes and walk right around the pool. A big mistake. About an hour later over by the ship canal, we had seen only a few swallows, wagtails and pipits!

No 4 Sludge Pool in May 1953, image by Rob Cockbain.

Later, we noticed a party of waders coming in over the canal from the Mersey and landing on an area of mud about 200 yards away from us. We walked towards them and then crept closer to avoid flushing them.  Ringed Plover and Dunlin in summer plumage were obvious to us as we had seen them before, but the juvenile Dunlins caused some confusion. ‘Bird Recognition’ came in handy and we finally worked them out. In the flock were three very unusual birds with a different stance, bigger than the Dunlin, with slightly down-curved bills and with a buffish wash down their breasts. These took more time but eventually one flew a short distance and we noticed a white rump – our first Curlew Sandpipers but according to the book these were rare! Eventually, after much discussion, we were sure we had made the right identification. On that same afternoon we saw our first Ruff: thus it was three happy birders who cycled home that evening.

I have made many visits to the sludge pools since that day, especially in the early years. It is sad to say that although good birds still turn up and new species are occasionally found, the pools are only a shadow of what they used to be: breeding Lapwings were all over the place, Yellow Wagtails were a common breeder, with autumn roost of up to three hundred birds. Vast Swallow roosts were in the reed beds, ten or so pairs of Whinchats and up to twenty pairs of Meadow Pipits were breeding alongside Corn Buntings, Cuckoos and Grey Partridge: all in reasonable numbers.

Why has it changed so much? When driving round the beds in those early days your car windscreens were plastered with insect remains, but not now. Besides pesticides, the grazing land has been improved, with more drainage.  Also the fields have been covered with ammonium nitrate which kills most invertebrates and poisons the water courses. Just a thought!

Let’s hope that when and if the mitigation area for the proposed wind farm comes into being this will help to improve the Sludge Pool area and its wildlife, though I fear it will never go back to the numbers of birds that were once present.

Rob Cockbain.

Rapidly approaching 60 years later and Rob still watches the area spending his time birding Hale, Pickerings Pasture and the shore area across the river from Frodsham Marsh. Birdwatching post war was left to a few intrepid pioneers like Rob, Mike Jones, Graham Henshaw , Graham Thomason and Eric Dimlow et al. What turned up and the potential of these young sludge pools can only be guessed at. I’m sure if they were here today they would be eagerly covered by more than the few birders who plug away week in week out. Eds.

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