Sometime ago I wrote a blog post (Round the Back Part 1) about a visit I made in my youth to Frodsham Score and Mount Manisty with Halton RSPB members group. At the end of article I mentioned that I would love to make a return visit and last Sunday (10.04.16) my wish came true.
We arrived (that is Sparky my partner and me) at Stanlow oil refinery in a cold easterly breeze to join a group of 7 other http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/webs volunteers for the monthly wader and wildfowl count on and off the vast southern Mersey marshes. After the compulsory security check we were ferried by minibus to the terminal and then ferried (literally) across the Manchester Ship Canal to the ‘no man’s land’ that is the salt marsh border edge of the River Mersey. There were high metal security fences, locked gates and derelict buildings which once housed a police station and the works of a time gone by … and not a little unlike what I imagined a cold war Russian Gulag prison camp would look like.
We were split into groups and Sparky and myself were joined by Brian Tollitt and our chaperone for the duration Dermot Smith. After negotiating the wader infested shiny River Gowy as it squeezed under the ship canal to broaden out into a proud beast of a gutter complete with dozens of noisy Redshank we edged our way single file along the bramble covered banks to reach a path sandwiched between the canal and the short-cropped damp salt marsh to our left. I know it may sound a bit childish but I had a fizz of excitement deep down in my heart for the realisation that I was walking out to the forbidden land of Frodsham Score. As we walked along I was conscious of keeping Sparky (a non birder) company but taking in the atmosphere all around me which was hugely distracting.
A male Wheatear popped up on the edge of the marsh, we startled a Fox as it crossed the path ahead and Badger prints pressed into the soft ground were an indication of other wildlife here.
Shortly after, it or another Fox appeared out on the marsh nonchalantly passing a few Shelduck in a tidal pool and further out two Whooper Swans looked regal against a backdrop of Hale lighthouse and the pale green shimmering heat hazed bridge that crosses the river from Widnes to Runcorn.
All around were signs of industry from the huge works of Ineos Chlor to the east, Stanlow disappearing slowly behind and the majestic Liverpool skyline to the north-west. We were walking along the edge of Ince Marsh, ignoring the ammonia wafting in from the pig farm and the smell of burning plastic that hung in the air and for just one moment I was lost in the green wilderness.
Despite these minor distractions we eventually stopped for lunch and Sparky brought out a small bottle of white wine to aid the creative juices which as it happened came in handy with the numerous bleached white sheep skulls illuminating the tide line kerb edge on the marsh hike and my creation (see top photograph).
It beggars belief how many sheep succumb to the highest tides at night but it’s a frightening place for the uninitiated, never mind sheep that only think the grass is greener on the edge bordering the river. A small covey of partial summer plumaged Golden Plover were hunkered down in a small channel to avoid the freshening cold wind while we scoffed our dinner. We had a little time to kill whilst the farmer tended to herding his flock to areas of safety close to the ship canal before we continued our walk out to the raised banks in the distance.
We left Brian behind to count and photograph the birds which were coming closer in with the tide. There was an amusing sight tinged with a little bizzareness when a scene from a spaghetti western reared its ugly head. A desiccated cow complete with its weathered hide and one horned skull looked up at us from the outside of the wildfowlers retreat bringing a smirk to my face.
Perhaps the most testing time of the day was negotiating the gathered sheep on the banks of the revetment wall. We gingerly inched our way giving the sheep a wide berth but this meant having to venture out onto the gelatinous salt marsh mud with the partially submerged arched sheep vertebrae and hideous skulls poking out. It was reminiscent of a scene from the film the Lord of the Rings where Gollom leads Frodo and Sam through the dead marshes.
We did eventually find an area of terra firma from where we climbed up the embankment to watch the swelling river. Although it was an impressive mega tide it wasn’t particularly brilliant for bird numbers and most of the good stuff had decamped over on my usual WeBS count pitch looking over No.3 and 6 tanks further to the south-east on Frodsham Marsh proper.
The avian highlights of the day involved an impressive flock of 75 Raven disturbed from the edge of the score followed by a roving gaggle of 34 Pink-footed and 6 Barnacle circling the Mersey basin looking for a suitable dry area to settle during the tide. Dermot went off to count some Oystercatchers a little further away and I continued my count while Sparky watched the mini tsunami pour force across the marsh twisting, doubling back and seeping forth into all the channels before eventually the whole of the marsh was covered.
The blue skies and brisk weather all highlighted what a wonderful area on the banks of the River Mersey we share with all those birds and wildlife. When Dermot got back to us to us he said he’d had a brief view of a Seal but it didn’t reappear. As the tide resided we gathered for the walk back and to join up with Brian at the shooters hut. Just then the ship canal cruise boat Royal Iris sailed by heading to Eastham Lock from Salford Quays.
There were more Wheatears encountered with a White Wagtail a first for the summer. A couple of Little Ringed Plover and a Common Sandpiper were also new in.
As we approached the River Gowy gutter small flocks of Redshank were waiting the tide out on the banks with a gathering of brick-red Black-tailed Godwit bunched closely. Another Fox was spotted before we met the other counters who had emerged from the west of the marshes. As we gathered at the wire fences and disused building to gain access to the ferry terminus, it was time for me to reflect on a brilliant day spent out on the banks of the south Mersey marshes and the 8 mile walk didn’t even register on the legs. A final crossing of the ship canal by the ferry man brought us back to the mainland and after a combined count up of the sightings we ended a really great day out on the edge of the river.
If you are interested in getting involved and feel you can contribute some of your time to a worthwhile project with future counts on the River Mersey check this facebook page out for more information: Mersey Estuary WeBS
Written by WSM (images 1-4 & 6-7 & 9-22 & 24).
Images 5 & 8 & 23 by Shaun Hickey.
Thanks to Dermot Smith and Brian Tollitt for their time and company on the day. A big thanks to Shaun Hickey a fellow Mersey marshophile for kick starting part 1.