Birding Wigg Island et al
Wigg Island is situated on the southern banks of the River Mersey laying roughly a mile east of Runcorn Bridge and overlooking the upper Mersey estuary. The park was officially opened by popular birding celebrity Bill Oddie in April 2002.
Bill Oddie opening Wigg Island in April 2002. Image by WSM
The How to Get there bit:
By car and through Runcorn follow the A558 along the Daresbury Expressway and turn off at the brown tourist signs for Wigg Island Community Park. At the set of traffic lights turn and follow signs. At this point you get to cross the Manchester Ship Canal via the Old Quay Swing Bridge (be patient at the traffic lights they are on a 3 minute timer). Park in the car park provided or park alongside the Visitor Centre on your left. This area is excellent for gull watching during winter and spring and regularly turns up both Iceland and Glaucous with occasional Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls. Alternatively if you are using public transport there are bus services operating from Runcorn High Street Bus Station and Halton Lea on the Astmoor Line to Mason Street, from where there is a short walk via the Old Quay Bridge to the park.
Public transport Information Services:
Halton traveline 0151 471 7384 (8am-8 pm daily); Arriva North West Bus Service 08705 275 123.
The Lost Lagoon at Wigg Island the best site for ducks.
The History bit:
Old Quay Canal pre-1890. photographer unknown.
In the late 1860’s Charles Wigg, Neil Mathieson and Duncan Mckechnie erected a small alkali works near to the Old Quay Canal in order to obtain copper from its ore and from the waste products of sulphuric acid manufacture. When Mathieson and McKechnie left the partnership, Charles Wigg and his son-in-law, Dr Edward Steele carried on the copper refining business as the Wigg Bros and Steele. The factory was expanded to produce sulphuric acid and fertilizer.
In 1890 the Wigg works became part of the huge United Alkali Company. Four years later the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal enabled ocean-going ships tp discharge their cargoes directly into the factory.
A second factory was built between the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal. This works called the Chemical and Metallurgical Corporation, was acquired by I.C.I in 1933 and was known as the Wigg Works East. During the Second World War Wigg Works East, then called Randles Works was used for the manufacture of Mustard Gas. Some of the best photographs taken of the site at the time were taken by the Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights en route to Liverpool.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight shot of Wigg Works East, c 1940’s. Image by German Luftwaffe.
Since the works became obsolete, the area was more or less a waste ground. The site was used for a number of anti-social activities including motor bike scrambling and flying of model aircrafts. The area would have continued in this vein until the local authority decided to close the area to the public after discovering the underlying capping of clay was becoming exposed. Eventually the place was cordoned off and was out-of-bounds to the general public.
Viewing screens at Wigg Island.
From the late 1990’s with funding assistance from the European Single Regeneration Budget the area was thoughtfully landscaped and eventually opened as a public park and local nature reserve. I was appointed the site ranger based in the park at the early stages and from its official opening in 2002 and, until the deletion of the ranger service there in 2011. Over the years I got to know Wigg better than anyone and was fortunate in finding some of its rare birds and mammals. I got to work with a lot of great people on some rewarding projects and habitat creations which are still accessible today.
In their day Victorians came from far and wide to sample the health properties of the Mersey mud bath.
The Birdy bit:
Wigg Island offers great potential for birding and with a little patience and perseverance will reward the time spent there. I also want to share some of is secrets and hopefully inspire people to take advantage of this great resource and hopefully inspire birders to discover its possibilities for themselves.
Winter: The reedbeds and pools called ‘the Lost Lagoon’ freeze over during frosts but are a welcome refuge during milder times. Although Halton Wildfowlers have the rights to shoot here they normally leave the area alone and so the ducks and geese on both the lagoon and salt marsh are rather tame. Pink-footed Geese are regular and in recent years a Barnacle Goose (of dubious origins) and a hybrid Barnacle x Canada Goose (Banana Goose) have joined up with the ubiquitous Canada Geese there. The ‘Banana Goose’ resembles a (B,c minima) Lesser Canada Goose. The reed beds at the lagoon are quite large and comparable to those at Moore Nature Reserve a couple of miles up river. Unfortunately for Wigg Island observer coverage is patchy at best and it is likely we are overlooking wintering Bittern here?
Many wading birds including Curlews and Golden Plovers gather on the mudflats where they attract the attention of the ever-present Peregrine Falcon. Paying close attention to the salt marsh at this time of year can produce regular sightings of both Common Buzzard and Short-eared Owl during the day and at dusk. In the evenings the chances of a local Barn or Long-eared Owl hunting the marsh are a real possibility.
The lagoons at Fiddlers Ferry are the main watering holes for the winter fowl but occasionally smaller numbers of wildfowl like Common Teal, Wigeon and Common Shelduck can be watched from the viewing screens.
The Alder and Silver Birch trees attract Siskin and Lesser Redpolls and the ‘Tower hide’ area is one of the regular haunts of Willow Tit in North Cheshire.
The short winter days are a good time to watch the whirling flocks of Starlings dropping into the reed beds at dusk.
A mushroom cloud of Starlings gather at dusk to roost in the reedbeds.
Spring: The song of the Skylark fills the air above the salt marsh. The shrubby areas of the park can attract Redstart and Lesser Whitethroat among the early arrivals. The adjacent edges of the Old Quay Canal are a favourite area for close views of ‘reeling’ Grasshopper Warblers. Check out the sheltered sunspots for the recently emerging butterflies. A few years ago I discovered a singing Cetti’s Warbler. I suspect it bred but the accolade for the first Cheshire breeding record went to a pair in an area close to Wigg Island. Passage migrants can turn up anywhere in the park and one year a male Pied Flycatcher spent a few days holding territory.
Buttercups and Orchids.
Summer: Generally a quiet period for birding when attention turns to the abundance of flowering plants like the delicate Southern Marsh, Bee and (hybrid) Spotted Orchids. Also present are Broad-leave and Marsh Helliborine which are there to be discovered. The drone of traffic in the distance is edged with the hum of hoverflies and bumblebees feeding on and over the flowering spear thistles. Swallows and Swifts cruising after flying ants draw the eye skywards, they may in turn have to keep an eye on the sky for the agile Hobby. Dragonflies are watched ambushing the unwary passing insects along the Old Quay Canal spur at the east end of the site.
Watch out for the tiger tail caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth stripping the leaves of the Oxford Ragwort plants. The Wych Elm trees hold locally scarce White-letter Hairstreak Butterflies which generally keep to the upper canopy but they can sometimes been seen at eye level.
White-letter Hairstreak Butterfly out of its comfort zone on a nettle leaf.
Autumn: The first signs begin in July with the over-ripe Blackberries encouraging Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies to sip the juicing fruits. Migration reaches its peak in October when hundreds of Redwing and Fieldfare pass through the park on a south-easterly breeze. A time of discovery when rarities can and often do appear in and around the site. So, check out the mudflats, salt marsh and leafy pathways for passing migrants the rewards are there for the keen-eyed.
A migrant Great Northern Diver crash landed on a rugby pitch in Widnes and was rescued and released on the river at Wigg. A video of this bird is on the red-eyed video section on the main page.
The Rarity bit:
Need further convincing this is a site worthy of your time? With some of the poorest coverage of any area in Cheshire this place is begging for a regular watcher or two. If Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Great White Egret, Ring-necked Duck, Pectoral Sandpiper, regular Glaucous and Iceland Gulls (including a Kumlien’s) is making you think again. Remember the premier stronghold of gulling in the North-West is at Richmond Bank and coincidentally just up the river. So, it’s not surprising we get both Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls from the lay by area (just down the road from the traffic lights).
In the early 1980’s Ron Harrison found an adult Franklin’s Gull at the east end of the site! In the past Peter Brash has found a Pomarine Skua one September day which went on to spent a couple of weeks ‘hacking off’ the local Black-headed Gulls. More recently a Great Skua put the freighters on the timid larids from Pickerings Pasture to the Halfway House. An Osprey was the highlight of one summer which loafed around at Fiddlers Ferry but occasionally fished the river and lagoon at Wigg Island.
Great Skua over the Mersey.
The Other bit:
Still not convinced? How about some mammals, we have regular Badgers, several bat species and very occasionally sea mammals like Harbour Porpoise, Grey Seal and Common Seal (one has been present in the river nearby since last winter. Not to forget the Hooded Seal that arrived on the north banks across the river at Spike Island some years ago (a long way from its native Greenland). There are records of Risso’s and Bottled-nosed Dolphin and Northern Bottled-nosed Whale (illustrated).
One of two Northern Bottle-nosed Whales, Wigg Works West, 1950’s
Harbour Porpoise (deceased) found at West Bank Promenade, Widnes. One of two, the other was alive and well in the river off Wigg Island.
Wilderness on the edge of town.
Plug the Book bit:
Workers’ memories of a major industrial site have been captured in a book and DVD called ‘Wiggsters Reunited’ which contains written accounts and photographs of the former plant staff’s times at Wigg Works.
Wiggsters Reunited book/DVD is available from Dave Forsyth on 01928 564608 priced £5,00 plus p&p. All proceeds will fund activities provided by the Friends Of Wigg Island. The ‘Friends’ previously funded Martin’s ‘Birding Frontiers’ slide show and ‘Gullfest’ on the river in 2011. A good Xmas present for those interested in both social and local (natural) history.
Work continues on the proposed second bridge crossing and presently there are no plans to restrict access. Check out the local authority web site for recent updates.
Good Birding and River Watching.