The South Mersey Marshes (WeBS) Bird Count by Shaun Hickey

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The South Mersey Marshes

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A small group of bird watchers are lucky enough to have access to the south Mersey marshes once a month to carry out a WeBS (https://bto.org/our-science/projects/wetland-bird-survey) BTO bird survey.

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This part of the estuary is cut off by the Manchester Ship Canal so public access is near impossible. The only way to cross onto this part of the estuary is by crossing over from Eastham locks where the River Mersey meets the Manchester Ship Canal, a small boat used by a farmer at the Marsh Farm, Frodsham marsh, or a small ferry at the Stanlow oil refinery, this latter is the one that we counters use. Here’s an account by myself about spending a day here walking 10-14 miles with a bit of history and natural history on ‘our’ marshes.

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There are three areas that is covered by our counters and we cover Mount Manisty, the Point and Ince/Frodsham marshes.

If you are heading towards Manisty bay then a pair of decent wellies are needed, because you will return across a marsh that has just been covered with the tide. During the summer months this area of the marsh is waist high in vegetation so that can add to the difficult walking conditions.

Another route that we take is towards Ince/Frodsham marshes. This is the route I will concentrate on in this account.

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The other spot we count the birds is known as Stanlow Point. This area is a sandstone outcrop on Stanlow Island. This area has plenty of history with ruins of an Abbey dating back to 1178, all that remains is a few old sandstone walls, most of the stone work was recycled to build a farm house in the 1800’s. When the refinery was established in the 1950’s the farmhouse was flattened and six terraced houses were built along with other buildings associated with the refinery. The houses were flattened in the late 1980’s, but some of the disused refinery buildings still remain with nature slowly reclaiming them back. More here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanlow_Abbey

The count day begins 3-4 hours before high tide and we meet at the oil refinery factory to check in with their security. From here we head to another part of the site to receive a visitor pass and another security check. We then park our vehicles and get ready for the day ahead. We are then taken by a refinery mini bus to the ferry terminal where we take a short crossing of the canal and onto the banks of the marshes.

The oil refinery is very much in use with oil tankers bringing crude oil in and other tankers taking the finished products out to the world beyond. Once across the Manchester Ship Canal we pass through a locked gate and onto Stanlow island itself. A small walk takes us pass some disused building and down to the area where the River Gowy enters the River Mersey saltmarsh after being syphoned under the ship canal.

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We approach the embers of the River Gowy as it finally enters ‘the big river’ to see what birds are feeding on the exposed mud. Eurasian Teal are the main species here with Common Redshank, Common Shelduck and Mallard. The teal can be in their 1000’s during the winter months and to watch them take to air in one massive flock is truly magical. From here all the counters are designated their allocated count spots and head off in their own directions, and for me it’s a long walk to Frodsham Score that lays 8 miles away. I cross the River Gowy and join the bank of the ship canal to my right. The first area is always good for passerines, mostly Goldfinch, Linnet and Stonechat. During the warmer months this is a great place for migrating Northern Wheatear.

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A quick scan over the salt marsh on my left and Canada Goose, Little Egret, Grey Heron and Common Shelduck are frequently seen. The sounds of Eurasian Curlew fill the air with their bubbling calls, but seeing them in the long vegetation is near impossible. I flush the odd Common Redshank as I trudge along. The canal on my right is very quiet with the odd Mallard where usually Gadwall are here, but not today.

I approach Ince banks on my right as the refinery comes to an end and farmland takes over. This area has a monument (a rail signal post) commemorating the days when the canal was built and 10 men were killed in a rail accident and they are buried at Ince church, all in one grave. DISASTER ON THE MANCHESTER SHIP CANAL. 1891-07-23| Flintshire Observer Mining Journal and General Advertiser for the Counties of Flint Denbigh – Welsh Newspapers. More here: https://newspapers.library.wales/view/3787282/3787284/3/LIVERPOOL

Onward with the bird count and 2 Great Egret show themselves, but disappear immediately into one of the deep gullies that drain the salt marsh on the ebbing tide. I flush a Woodcock from a patch of gorse bushes, it flew straight over the canal into a small wooded area and was lost to sight. As I’m walking along the bank the occasional Common Snipe takes flight. In the distance on the canal there are 50 Eurasian Coot and their numbers are building up. I have no idea why they come to this area during the winter but something attracts them.

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My first bird of prey is a male Common Kestrel hovering over the bank ahead of me and then 2 Common Buzzard are over the pig farm. I pass an old brick building that I’ve been told stored dynamite in a munishion magazine whilst the canal was being built. There are more Canada Goose herds out on the rivers edge with just their heads popping above the vegetation.

A large group of Long-tailed Tit bound around me like I wasn’t there. A quick scan across the marsh and a large flock of European Starling are feeding on the ground until a Merlin comes from nowhere and puts them into a small bait ball. The Merlin flew straight passed me and out of sight. A few Common Shelduck are dotted about and I see my first Eurasian Curlew.

I take a sharp left across the marsh towards the rivers edge. It’s a short walk if you know the route which avoids missing the many gullies that can be a few metres deep and the same width across. Flushing more Common Snipe with Meadow Pipit and the odd Eurasian Skylark. A small number of Canada’s are feeding to my my right a closer look through my binoculars produced 8 Egyptian Goose and 1 Ruddy Shelduck.

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At the rivers edge further towards Frodsham there are Eurasian Wigeon everywhere with Mallard and Great Cormorant which line up alongside Eurasian Oystercatcher. Now to my left I can see huge flocks of Dunlin opposite Stanlow Point and Manisty. On the river there’s a few Great Crested Grebe with more Common Shelduck bobbing up and down on the incoming tide. Small groups of Eurasian Curlew fly up river with more Common Redshank and Eurasian Teal which join them. I retreated back away from the incoming tide towards the ship canal embankment taking a slightly different route where I am fortunate to flush out 2 Jack Snipe and more pipits. Another Merlin again flew straight across in front of me, no more than 10m away.

In the distance ahead towards Helsby I can here the yelping cries of Pink-footed Goose and a quick look through my optics and I can see the first skeins appearing followed by wedge after wedge heading right towards me. They approach the marsh and the formations break up as they look for somewhere to land. The sound of the geese is truly amazing. Most of the geese land on the marsh to my left. I quickly pull out the scope and the clicker counter is in overdrive. I count 2000 ‘pinkies’ now on the marsh between myself and the ship canal path. Another 1000 came over Ince to my right, they didn’t land but went straight over head and up river towards Manisty.  I couldn’t avoid walking towards the grounded birds, so the inevitable happens they take to the air once again this time heading towards Frodsham Score and out over the river. They finally landed again on the rivers edge where I was standing 15 minutes earlier! A very special moment to treasure and I was completely on my own!

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Back on the canal bank I head left over the Holpool Gutter and onto Frodsham Score. I walk up to the ‘Alun Williams’ gun turret that was left behind after WW2, and is still there looking a bit rusty but ready for the next invasion (There’s also another pill box at Ince where the clay pigeon shooters play).

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More Eurasian Curlew and good numbers of Great Black-backed Gull are near the Weaver Sluice Gates. High tide has just passed, so I head back to Stanlow where another male Common Kestrel is hunting over the score. Little Grebe on the canal with a scattering of Pied and 2 Grey Wagtail feeding on both banks. A male Western Marsh Harrier is near Ince Berth and a few more Common Buzzard linger about.

I finally got back to Stanlow Point where I meet the other counters and we talk about what we have seen and usually have a moan about the weather and an update on the football scores. The ferry awaits and takes us over the ship canal and to our the mini-bus and we are soon back at our cars in no time.

We tot up our sightings and the day comes to a close. When I next do my count I’ll try and write another update from Manisty.

Observer and images: Shaun Hickey.

Additional articles covering this area are here: Round the Back pt 1 https://frodshammarshbirdblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/round-the-back/ and here Round the Back pt 2 https://frodshammarshbirdblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/round-the-back-part-2/

24.11.19. Birdlog.

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I started with a watch over Lordship Marsh this morning from Smithy Lane in Helby where the herd of 14 Whooper Swan were feeding in the flood water by the farm.

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I then moved on to Moorditch Lane and the first of many Redwing and Fieldfare were again present in numbers sharing a telegraph line with a couple of Common Kestrel.

Onward next to No.6 tank where Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Northern Pintail, Mallard and Eurasian Teal were all feeding in the shallower waters with 4 Mute Swan.

The local Common Buzzard were hunting the reed beds and flushed a group of 10 Common Snipe, it’s clearly evident that without persecution, raptors like the buzzard can thrive and adapt easily to a variety of different habitats and situations.

Looking over No.3 tank and a flock of c800 Northern Lapwing were with a few Golden Plover which dropped into the fields close to Marsh Farm.

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Across the Manchester Ship Canal and on Frodsham Score saltmarsh the wintering flock of (now) 14 Egyptian Goose were sharing the area with several Little Egret which spread out with the Canada Goose herds. A Cetti’s Warbler was singing in a reed bed along the path and a male Stonechat was playing hide and seek with a Common Kestrel, which eventually lost interest and moved on.

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The stubble field alongside the Holpool Gutter had a few hundred Northern Lapwing and Eurasian Curlew with a Merlin sat on a bale of hay watching over them all.

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Hundreds more winter thrushes were feeding along Lordship Lane attracting the attention of at least 2 Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a Peregrine. Many Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Reed Bunting and Dunnock were all active along the lane, and a Jay flew off the bank of No.4 tank.

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Early afternoon and a look over Lordship Marsh from the junction of No.4 and 6 tanks gave me the opportunity to observe a group of egrets could be seen in the distance, and on closer inspection revealed 3 Western Cattle Egret and 2 Little Egret with c80 Eurasian Curlew. The new Cattle Egret flock brings the total number ever sighted here to 6 records.

Observer and images: Paul Ralston.

23.11.19. Birdlog.

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A few DIY painting jobs indoors kept me away from the marsh until lunch time. On arrival the ducks were keeping to the west side of the open water which is spreading deep into the vegetated areas of the tank. The Eurasian Teal flock numbered c700 birds, but difficult to assess their numbers properly due to birds feeding deep into cover.

A slight increase in the numbers of Northern Pintail to 47 was impressive, but not so impressive compared to the thousands wintering here in the 1970’s & 80’s. Northern Shoveler reached a good count of 147 and much smaller counts of Gadwall and Mallard. A flock of 28 mostly drake Common Pochard outnumbered the Tufted Duck here today.

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Out over on Frodsham Score were c1000 Northern Lapwing dispersed from their feeding grounds with several hundred Golden Plover also seen.

I walked along Moorditch Lane where a Weasel dropped its vole prey when it saw me, but I stood still long enough for it to retrieve its meal. There were hundreds of Fieldfare roaming the hawthorn berry bearing hedgerows with smaller numbers of Eurasian Skylark, Song Thrush and Blackbird following suit.

The track between No.5 & 6 tanks had a couple of Cetti’s Warbler and a roving Long-tailed Tit flock had 3 Goldcrest and a briefly glimpsed Firecrest. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and a calling Chiffchaff made a good selection to the already mentioned passerines.

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Hundreds of Black-headed Gull were joined by Stock Dove (one with crossover deformed bill) Rook, Carrion Crow and Western Jackdaw in the flooded fields of Lordship Marsh.

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The highlight for me was a Western Cattle Egret (the marshes 4th record) with 3 Little Egret. A couple of Water Rail were calling from the reeds on No.4 tank

There were 3 Marsh Harrier hunting the rapidly flooding reed beds while a Short-eared Owl kept close to the banks. The usual Common Buzzard, dusk hunting Common Kestrel and roost seeking Raven flocks were still around as I walked back in the dark.

Observer and images; WSM.

22.11.19. Birdlog.

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It was the last hour of light and a walk around No.6 tank seemed a good idea. The Fieldfare flock continue to strip the berries off the bushes along Moorditch Lane while a patrolling Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a Common Kestrel put in attendances. On No.6 were Northern Shoveler the dominant species with c300 noted. There were smaller numbers of Mallard, Eurasian Teal and at least a dozen Common Pochard.

More Mallard and Northern Shoveler were on the pools on No.3 tank along with the resident Euraisan Coot.

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A charming flock of European Goldfinch and Chaffinch were feeding on the dried flower heads along the lane and a single Marsh Harrier hunted the reed bed.

Looking over Lordship Marsh from the junction of No’s 6 and 4 produced a couple of Little Egret and 12 Whooper Swan again in flooded fields by the motorway.

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A tally of c1000 winter thrushes contained mostly Fieldfare, but also Redwing, European Blackbird and Song Thrush feeding in the bushes and stubble fields alongside hundreds of Eurasian Starling. A flock of c60 Eurasian Curlew and 5 Black-tailed Godwit left Lordship Marsh and made their way towards the estuary for the evening.

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Observer and images: Paul Ralston.

17.11.19. Birdlog.

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Starting at Ince today and its pools which were quiet with just 14 Mallard, 5 Eurasian Teal,  2 Gadwall, 10 Eurasian Coot, 8 Moorhen and 4 Little Grebe. Eurasian Curlew numbered 34 near the pig farm, and an additional 15 were at Ince berth and c 70 alongside the Holpool Gutter.

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Winter thrushes were in abundance along the lane and Manchester Ship Canal where a Great Spotted Woodpecker followed them along the canal path. A mass of Northern Lapwing were high up over the Frodsham Score salt marsh, most only visible with my binoculars and a flock of c300 Golden Plover were noted with them. A flock of Great Black-backed Gull were resting on the marsh and several Little Egret were dotted about the marsh.

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The Ruddy Shelduck was again near the gutter and 6 Egyptian Goose were further out along the marsh.

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The ‘splashing pool’ held 29 Mallard and 15 Northern Shoveler while the ‘phalarope pool ‘ held only 14 resident Eurasian Coot.

Looking over the reed bed on No.6 tank a single Marsh Harrier and 2 Common Buzzard were again active in the area .

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The Whooper Swan herd could be seen in the distance on Lordship Marsh and 2 Little Egret and c400 Black-headed Gull were feeding in the flood water.

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A female Eurasian Sparrowhawk was hunting the thrush flock in the woods near to the Growhow Works and a Common Bullfinch and another Great Spotted Woodpecker were near the incinerator plant.

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A large skein of Pink-footed Goose flew over towards the Mersey estuary and a short while later a smaller number c40 flew back south. Two Flocks of Black-tailed Godwit passed overhead heading inland to wherever they were feeding.

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The Northern Lapwing flock c1000 was seen over the stubble field, but I didn’t see them land in the area.

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A small patch of past their sell by date Puff ball fungi were noted in the nettles and brambles along the verge.

Observer and images: Paul Ralston.

16.11.19. Birdlog.

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An early start saw 3 skeins of Pink-footed Goose passed over the A5117 heading south as I made my way to the marsh The 4 Whooper Swan could be seen on Lordship Marsh close to the M56.

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I parked on the motorway bridge and made my way to No.6 tank where large numbers of Redwing, Fieldfare Blackbird and Song Thrush were feeding in the hawthorn and elderberry  bushes throughout my walk. No. tank had c400 Canada Goose. A male Stonechat was fly catching in the reeds, while on No.5 and a pale phase Common Buzzard sat on the fence.

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One of the scrapes on No.3 held yet more Eurasian Teal and Northern Shoveler which were spooked by another Common Buzzard.

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On the Canal Pools were yet more Eurasian Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mallard Gadwall and many Tufted Duck and joined by c50 Eurasian Coot and a single Great Crested Grebe.

Out on Frodsham Score salt marsh were hundreds of Canada Goose grazing with 6 Eygptian Goose and a female Ruddy Shelduck. The Northern Lapwing were noticeable by their absence and no sign of the recent flocks which winter on the marsh and surrounding fields. A flock of c50 Eurasian Curlew and 6 Black-tailed Godwit were on the stubble field alongside the Holpool Gutter.

Observer: Paul Ralston (images 1-2 & 4 & 9-10).

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With a few commitments tomorrow my WeBS count was made today, so a watch over No.6 tank for the ducks resulted in c743 Eurasian Teal, 143 Northern Shoveler, 18 Common Pochard, 6 Tufted Duck, 12 Mallard and 12 Little Grebe. There were 4 Marsh Harrier quartering the reed beds and the pumping of sludge into the tank encouraged 6 Common Buzzard to try their luck with the undoubted dispersal of voles from their hiding places.

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Three Stonechat were reed topping on the reed beds alongside the tracks of No.5 and 6 tanks. The highlight was when I flushed a Jack Snipe from the edge of the path which gave some brilliant flight views.

The ‘Splashing Pool’ and ‘phalarope pool both had Northern Shoveler and Eurasian Coot, while a flock of 43 Western Jackdaw were finding something to eat from the flooded grasses.

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I continued my watch and positioned on the banks looking north across Frodsham Score and the female Ruddy Shelduck was with her travelling companions the six Eygptian Goose flock.

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A couple of Great Egret were joined by 7 Little Egret and the odd Grey Heron. Out on the edge of the river were hundreds of Eursian Wigeon, c200 Eurasian Curlew, 30 Black-tailed Godwit and several hundred Dunlin. Watching all this action was a female Merlin.

Pumping of silt from a dredger at the pumping station was pumping sludge into No.6 tank.

I continued along to Lordship Marsh where a herd of 12 Whooper Swan could be seen in the flooded fields, while 400 Black-headed, 12 Common and 5 Lesser Black-backed Gull were enjoying the benefits of the recent flooding and 3 Little Egret in the shallows.

Overall it was quite a rewarding days birding with c10 Cetti’s Warbler heard (2 seen), the Eurasian Starling murmurations totaled c8000 birds and a Kingfisher polished off the day as I walked back in the dark.

Observer: WSM (images 3 & 5-8).

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15.11.19. Birdlog.

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The last hour of light of the day and a walk around No.6 tank. There were good numbers of wildfowl on the water with Eurasian Teal, with plenty of Northern Shoveler, Mallard, a few Common Shelduck and Northern Pintail. A Marsh Harrier was sat in the reed bed and a stream of Raven passed overhead on their way to their welsh roost site.

A Great Egret was stalking in the long grass on No.5 tank and a Kestrel was hovering above the egret ready to snatch any rodent disturbed by the egret.

Several small flocks of Black-tailed Godwit made their way to the Mersey estuary followed by a flock of Eurasian Curlew calling overhead. There were Little Egret seen in the distance on Lordship Marsh and a large flock of Chaffinch and Reed Bunting went to roost in the black thorn patch on No.6 tank.

A flock of Redwing, Fieldfare and Blackbird were circling around looking for somewhere to rest for the night and a Common Buzzard made a vain attempt to snatch a Wood Pigeon as the light faded.

Observer and image: Paul Ralston.

12.11.19. Birdlog.

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A walk along Moorditch Lane produced a Little Egret feeding in the flooded stubble field alongside the congested eastbound traffic on the M56. Walking along the track between No.5 & 6 tanks had little of note, but later Dave Fitzgerald found a Firecrest in the vegetated scrub. A couple of Cetti’s Warbler were calling from the reed beds.

The flooded No.6 tank had 12 Little Grebe, 11 Mute Swan, 114 Northern Shoveler and c450 Eurasian Teal.

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The strong winds encouraged some aerial performances from 3 immature and 3 adult female Marsh Harrier and all these were still present at dusk.

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A dead Badger in the centre of the track between No.6 & 3 tanks got me to raise an eyebrow to its demise. This track experiences very little traffic, and the badger is highly unlikely to have met its end due to a strike by a vehicle?

A look across a windy tear jerking Frodsham Score produced 7 Little and 4 Great Egret, c900 Canada Goose, 7 Egyptian Goose and a Peregrine.

The flooded fields on Lordship Marsh have taken a battering with water over the last couple of years, but are excellent for birds with 7 Whooper Swan, c200 Eurasian Curlew, c250 Black-tailed Godwit and another two Little Egret. Four miserly Pink-footed Goose heading out to the Mersey estuary were odd in that their numbers were very low today.

Observer and images: WSM.

 

10.11.19. Birdlog.

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As I walked along the lanes to the marsh from Spring farm this morning the sight of Chaffinch, Reed Bunting, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and 2 Greenfinch were feeding in the hedgerows and fields. A Little Egret was sat in a pasture surrounded by a flock of Eurasian Starling which became the target for a male Sparrowhawk which managed to single one out and was hot on its tail as they disappeared over a hedge.

The Holpool Gutter held a few Eurasian Teal, Mallard a single Little Grebe and several Eurasian Coot and Moorhen while the stubble field held on to the Eurasian Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit flock, but no sign of the Northern Lapwing and Golden Plover flock from yesterday.

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Out on the salt marsh of Frodsham Score were hundreds of Canada Goose grazing on the short grass and 12 Egyptian Goose that have been on tour of various locations around the north-west of late. A small flock of Little Egret added some authenticity to the proceedings were on the bank of the gutter.

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A pair of Stonechat were in the reeds on No.4 tank and Common Buzzard and Kestrel were soaring in the sunshine.

A dredger was in the pumping station berth discharging slurry onto No.6 tank raising the water levels even higher.

Observer and images: Paul Ralston.

09.11.19. Birdlog.

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Another day and another visit with a morning start at Ince.

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A large flock of Black-headed Gull and Eurasian Curlew were feeding in the fields adjacent the pig farm and 2 Little Egret flew overhead. On the lane leading to Ince berth a flock of c40 Chaffinch and c20 Long-tailed Tit were moving along the hedgerow where Reed Bunting were abundant. The pools held c30 Gadwall and similar number of Eurasian Teal, 8 Eurasian Wigeon, several Mallard, Eurasian Coot and Moorhen.

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The field alongside the Holpool Gutter held a mixed flock c700 mostly Northern Lapwing and Golden Plover, but also Black-tailed Godwit and Eurasian Curlew which were spooked by a Common Buzzard. The Black-tailed Godwit flock and Eurasian Curlew soon settled back down but the plovers took a lot longer to settle.

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Out on the Frodsham Score saltmarsh a dozen Little Egret and a single Great Egret were moving around the gullies and a flock of Great Black-backed Gull were resting on the short grass.

Walking alongside No.4 and No.6 tanks and a Western Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard and Kestrel were all active over the reed beds, alongside the many Raven scavenging in the area.

Walking back along Lordship Lane and a flock of c70 Pied Wagtail were feeding in a stubble field opposite the GrowHow Works and a Kingfisher zipped across the track back by the pools.

Observer and images: Paul Ralston.