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/

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