The South Mersey Marshes (Mount Manisty) by Shaun Hickey.

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South Mersey Mersey Marshes – Mount Manisty

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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 BTO Wetland Bird Survey. We have three areas to cover which include; Mount Manisty, the Point and Ince/Frodsham Marshes.

When a BTO WeBs counter is issued an area on the Mersey Marshes to count birds then it would be advisable to have a pair of decent wellies, because you will return across a marsh that has just been covered with the tide and is very, very wet. During the summer months the area of the marsh is waist high in vegetation so that can add to difficult walking conditions. Today I have been issued the task of counting the wildfowl and waders at this Mount Manisty.

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The other sites within the vicinity is Stanlow Point. This area is a sandstone outcrop on Stanlow Island and is part of the sandstone ridge that extends south-east to Whitchurch.

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The counters day begins 3-4 hours before high tide and we all meet at the oil refinery to be checked in with site security. From here we head to another part of the site to receive a visitor pass and another security check. We park our vehicles and get ready for the day ahead.

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An oil refinery mini bus takes us to the small ferry where we cross the Manchester Ship Canal and onto the Mersey Marshes. This part of the refinery is very much in use with oil tankers bringing crude oil in and other tankers taking the finished products out and beyond to the outside world. Once across the ship canal we pass through a locked gate and onto Stanlow Island. A small walk takes us passed some disused building and down to the area where the River Gowy enters the Mersey Estuary after syphoning under the Manchester Ship Canal we have just passed over.

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We usually approach the river where the Gowy enters a deep tidal channel and it is from this point we get to see what birds are feeding on the exposed mud. The usual species are Eurasian Teal with Common Redshank, Common Shelduck and Mallard. The Eurasian Teal can be in their 1000’s during the winter months and to see them take to air in one huge flock is truly magical. After an initial briefing we head off in our various directions to cover the estuary. For me it’s a six mile round trip to Mount Manisty and Manisty Bay and to give you some perpesptive for people who are not familiar with this area, then the site is alongside the Manchester Ship Canal at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire and directly opposite from Liverpool Airport across the mile wide river.

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We head around Stanlow Point where we are greeted with a huge expanse of exposed mudflats at low tide. Out on the mudflats the birds are well spread out feeding away, there are Dunlin, Red Knot, Grey Plover, Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Curlew and Common Redshank being the main species. Overhead a few hundred Northern Lapwing are fluttering about looking for a safe area to settle. There’s quite a few Canada Goose along the marsh edges with a few more wallowing in the mud out on the estuary. Good numbers of gulls are present with Great Black-backed Gull standing out from the crowd. I say my farewells to Ian Coote and Ruth who are staying at the ‘Point’ and I head off across the saltmarsh with Mount Manisty far off in the distance.

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A couple of Grey Wagtail are a good start to the day on the high tide mark right behind the ‘Point’. The first area that I pass is a rather large flash of water tucked away in the corner of Manisty Bay against the ship canal bank. I often look at this place and think maybe it was once used as a type of duck decoy pond? There’s a Great Egret patrolling the far bank with a dozen Little Egret keeping guard and always on the lookout. A small group of Common Redshank see me and take flight and circle around before heading over the high banks towards the ship canal. As I walk around the right hand side of the flash I flush 2 Water Rail from the long grass plus a few Common Snipe. There are more egrets scattered over the marsh towards the rivers edge with a total of 22 being noted.

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I hug the canal bank to my left approaching the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum on the opposite side of the canal. There’s a metal gantry perched on steel sheet piles that keep the ship canal separate from the marsh from here I gain access on top of the gantry to see what’s on the canal and have a good look over Manisty Bay. There are reasonable numbers of Black-headed Gull here with a solitary Great Crested Grebe alongside a fishing Great Cormorant and more Mallard boosting their numbers.

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Back down on the marsh the walk continues. Most of the waders and ducks are out on the river, or in the long vegetation out of sight from me. I can hear Eurasian Curlew and Common Redshank with the odd whistle of Wigeon.

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A Fox is keeping its eyes on me occasionally standing on its hind legs to gain a bit of height over the long grass.

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A female Marsh Harrier is patrolling the edge of the marsh disturbing everything it approaches. I in turn push Chaffinch, Linnet and European Goldfinch flocks all along the canal bank always keeping a good distance away. The numbers of Wren that I’m flushing out is unreal, and really I should have kept a count, but an estimate of 70 is a conservative one.

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Along the lower bank of the ship canal is a row of timber posts that must have been used to carry a pipe line in years gone by. These posts provide great plucking stumps for the local raptors. I always like to have a look for pellets and slowly rip them apart to see what’s been on the menu (I guess Chris Packham would love it here)

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I approach a large gully on my right hand side it’s roughly 3m-4m deep. I’ve attached two images, one at low tide and another at high tide.

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This gulley was once a main channel to Ellesmere Port docks before the ship canal was built and cut it off. Along the route of the gully is an old wooden tripod that was once a lamp post when the waterway was used for shipping. These posts are also another great plucking post for raptors.

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The hollowed out timbers are a raptor catchment base with pellets, lots of seeds and shells from the crops of the dead birds.

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A quick glance over my shoulder and a large Common Buzzard is having a tussle with another raptor that I first take to be a Marsh Harrier, which I spotted a short while earlier. Not entirely convincing myself about its idenity.  I untangle my binocular strap that had wrapped around my camera strap and then both birds disappeared behind the canal bank out of sight, I continue onwards…

… and westbound, the ‘mount’ is very much in touching distance now and I approach the it to my left with a huge reed bed that I have to navigate first. A large mixed flock of finches were feeding on the floor, mostly Chaffinch, Linnet and European Goldfinch with a few Greenfinch, 4 Common Bullfinch with both Blue and Great Tit in good numbers too. Reed Bunting were everywhere and two more Water Rail are flushed with one calling as it flew into the reeds. At that momont I receive a text from Ian Coote who was at the ‘Point’, he stated he had seen a large hawk with the possibility it was a Northern Goshawk which had flown over him and his fellow counter earlier and had put up all of the egrets, but more importantly it was now heading towards me! This got me thinking about the buzzard/harrier tussle I had seen earlier…was it/wasn’t it? The last bird you would expect to see hunting the marsh would be a Goshawk.

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Mount Manisty is man made mound of rubble and spoil from the evcavation of the Manchester Ship Canal 125 years ago this year. Archive photographs show the ‘Mount Manisty’ without a single tree on it. Today, the ‘Mount’ is completely covered in trees and bracken. I have battled my way to the top over many counts and years, but not today. On top of the ‘Mount’ is a trig point that was built by the Ordnance Survey when they mapped the UK in the 1930’s. There’s also another trig point at Stanlow Point.

As I walk along the bottom of the ‘Mount’ this is the first time I can see the water’s edge up close. A flock of Red Knot and Grey Plover are feeding with Common Redshank and good numbers of Eurasian Teal which are dotted about. Right around the corner is a small beach where Rivacre Brook syphons under the canal before discharging into the River Mersey. It’s strange to think that the small brook at the end of the road where I live ends its course at this point. There are some old workings which have been left next to the syphon head and they look like some kind of sluice gate?

A wintering Common Sandpiper is bob-bobbing about with a few more Grey Wagtail along the waterline. More Common Shelduck are out on the river with good numbers of Eurasian Curlew being spotted on the river’s edge towards Eastham Locks.

With high tide an hour or so away I start to head back as I don’t want to be cut off by the tide and then have to wait for it to to recede, or battle my way through trees and bracken instead.

More Eurasian Teal and Common Redshank are noted being pushed up river by the ever approaching tide. This end of the ‘Mount’ is quite square in shape and as I turn the first corner there are two Carrion Crow mobbing a bird at ground level. At first I though it was a Sparrowhawk, but when it takes flight right towards me less than 30m away it gains a bit more height and is most definitely the Goshawk which I and Ian et al had seen earlier. A dark heavily streaked individual bird and presumably a juvenile. It flew right through the trees and disappeared in a flash. I was very happy with that one as I’ve only ever seen them at a distance before and definately a Mersey Marsh tick!

Back around the reed bed I just beat the tide and I head to one of my vantage points on the elevated canal bank. From this spot I can see where the large gully enters the Mersey Estuary. The tide has now filled the gully and covered the edge of the marsh. Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal , Eurasian Curlew, Common Shelduck and lots of Common Redshank are counted. A large group of Great Cormorant are watching the tide come and go as they stretch their wings out. I had forgotten about the looming clouds that are approaching from the south and the rain begins to fall. I wrap up and head back towards the ‘Point’ with my hood up and head down. A few Stonechat and Common Snipe are added to today’s list and a few more Common Buzzard as well.

A Sparrowhawk was keeping the finch flocks on edge alongside the canal bank and another raptor is patrolling the marsh, this time a fine Peregrine. I take cover against the canal bank to watch the hunt between predator and prey unfold like I’ve done many times before. I’m always amazed at the speed of birds of prey and the area they cover in such a short time. It veers to my right over the canal bank out of sight. It then turns up on my left 100m away heading towards the river. Eurasian Teal, Common Redshank and Eurasian Curlew all fill the air, but it completely ignores them heading straight towards a flock of Wood Pigeon. They typically panic, but the falcon hurtles straight through them heading out over the estuary towards the Dunlin flocks that are flying over the river. The Peregrine makes a stab right into them but with the poor visibility I loose sight of the bird and don’t see it again. More Common Snipe are flushed on my way back across the recently flooded marsh with me almost standing on one.

By the time I arrive at the ‘Point’ the rain has settled in for the duration, the sight of 35,000 Dunlin landing on the recently exposed sand banks spread out as far as you can see, they are joined by Grey Plover, Red Knot, Common Redshank, Oystercatcher, gulls and geese. A superb spectacle to witness and such a privileged to have all this wonderful wildlife on our doorstep. I eventually meet up with Ian and we trudge back towards the ferry chatting and enthusing about the Goshawk and how well Liverpool FC are doing in the Priemership and how poor Chelsea (Ina’s team) are.

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WeBs is co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology and they are always looking for extra counters to join us at this amazing place. If you would like to experience just some of the Mersey magic come and join us. There’s a Comments box at bottom of page. Please let us know if you are interested or simply spare a comment on how you liked this article.

A huge thank you to my friend Ady McCabe for his amazing aerial photos of the Mount Manisty area from on high.

Written and illustrated by Shaun Hickey.

The South Mersey Marshes (Part 1) by Shaun Hickey

Additional articles covering this area are here:

Round the Back pt 1 by WSM

Round the Back pt 2 by WSM

OTD – 09.10.01, There’s a Killer Whale in the Mersey!

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On this day-09.10.01.

I was munching my tea (dinner if you’re posh) while watching the hum-drum news from BBC NW tonight’s regional TV news programme. At the end of the broadcast there was the usual ……. and finally snippet… “A Killer Whale washed up on the River Mersey below Liverpool Airport at Oglet shore on the morning tide”. This was an opportunity not to be missed. I jumped onto my bike and peddled the 5 miles across Runcorn Bridge, along Ditton Road via Halebank and Hale Village through to the outskirts of Speke, Liverpool and then down Dungeon Lane to the shore at Oglet Bay.

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…The area where the whale became stranded was a hot bed for abandoned stolen vehicles which would invariably end up on the muddy edges of the river or in it! It was also a regular black spot for fly tipping (not the most salubrious locations to whip out your expensive optical gear). I can confidently say these words knowing the area well enough and knowing a few rangers who plied their trade here in previous years. Those rangers deserved a medal balancing the needs and different attitudes from the many Mersey Way participants. A fine balancing act between the affluent area of Hale Village and the less affluent district of south Liverpool.

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A small gang of kids were gathered loitering without any intent at the bottom of the lane by the shore and because there wasn’t anybody else there I asked them if they had seen any people looking for a whale? ….not really expecting them to give me the answer I wanted. One of them a proper Speke ‘lid’ (scouse for lad) said “No mate, but there’s a f#ck!^g helicopter crashed on the mud over there”. Erm, quite, and following their eagerly pointing fingers I could see a large shape stretched out on the distant mudflats. The helicopter propeller was one of the pectoral fins of a 5.9 m long Killer Whale! I thanked the kids for their help and started to tell them what the whale was and how rare it is to see in the river, never mind the North West of England and the Irish Sea (I could almost hear my own voice slowed to a steady drone from the look on their faces). Their interest lasted a little shorter than my words and they were off on their bikes looking for something else, less boring instead. I set my telescope up and got reasonable views of the carcass and its lone sad figure stretched there on the murky grey brown mud of the River Mersey a few hundred feet away. I wish I had owned a decent camera in those days to capture the moment of this once majestic creature isolated against the backdrop of Stanlow Oil Refinery and Ince marshes across the river. I stayed for a couple of hours taking in the spectacle but during that period I don’t recall seeing anyone else on the shoreline. I saw the Orca carcass again from Runcorn Hill and later from No.4 tank, Frodsham Marsh the following day. I guess it would have been a hazard to smaller boats if it became re-floated on a higher tide and carried out to the Mersey mouth. I did hear it was blown to smithereens by dynamite soon after the autopsy and that it attracted thousands of gulls to feed on the bits that were left.

There isn’t much more I can add to this whale’s tale but the ZSL London Zoo did an autopsy and established it was an old male who probably died soon after the stranding but was already very poorly due to starvation. It had worn canines and one tooth abscess which would have been a very painful ailment, reducing its feeding considerably prior to entering Liverpool Bay.

I remember a story going around at the time this animal had been seen swimming off Wallasey the previous day?

It took me a couple more years before I finally caught up seeing a live specimen which was across one ocean and in another but the memory of that Mersey Orca was a haunting one and perhaps not the best last resting place for such a magnificent beast.

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The species is facing an uncertain future particularly in British waters and being at the top of the food chain this naturally brings its own issues, not least as they absorb (through the food chain) PCB’s which accumulate in their body tissue and are considered (particularly in British Columbia) toxic waste whenever they are found dead on the tide line.

An article regarding PCB’s can be found on this link:

The link to ZSL’s full story here: and credit for Orca the images.

Written by WSM.

29.09.96 & 29.09.18 Birdlog.

On this day 29.09.96 I recorded the third highest ever count of Little Stint in Cheshire when a flock which was (under) estimated to be 250-300 birds. The actual number was probably much higher with birds departing without alighting and not included in the totals. I only countered those that settled but as you can imagine it was always going to be difficult to extract the exact number. The previous high counts were: 22.09.60. with c350 at Shotton and on the same day 311 at Frodsham (Source: The Birds of Cheshire, T.H Bell, p131).

Other birds present included: Lesser Flamingo, Ruddy Shelduck with a Cape Shelduck (type), Merlin and the long staying Black Swan all seen on the River Mersey or Frodsham Score.

Apart from the high stint numbers there was a flock of 2500 Dunlin, 15 Curlew Sandpiper (including a leucistic bird), 5 Knot, 200 Grey Plover, a single Bar-tailed Godwit and 15 Ruff.

Observer: WSM. Image 1 by Brian Rimmer.

29.09.18. Birdlog.

It was with great anticipation that I made my way out from Brook Furlong Lane via Moorditch Lane to look over the now flooded No.6 tank. The usual group of 7 Ruff were still present with a smart flock of 104 mostly juvenile Black-tailed Godwit. A skulking Green Sandpiper was coaxed out of its hiding place when I peered over the edge to look at some Common Teal. 7 Common Snipe were bold enough to feed out in the open in the bright sunshine while 89 Lapwing were crouched together on the margins of the water. Gulls were coming and going with higher than normal numbers of Common loafing Black-headed Gulls for company. The ducks that were present included: 2 Shoveler, 45 Common Teal and a few Mallard.

Continuing my walk along the track between No.6 & No.3 soon featured a juvenile Marsh Harrier that flew overhead and disappeared over the bank.

A look across Frodsham Score was rewarding with the wintering flocks of Canada Goose encouraging the migrating Pink-footed Goose skeins to drop in and feed up. A couple of presumed feral Barnacle Goose were concealing themselves in the Canada flocks. Small flocks of Dunlin and Curlew could be seen in the distance but a little disappointing to see their numbers so low during the high tide. A Great White Egret was shimmering in the heat haze while 7 Little Egret were fairly noticeable. Sitting out on the edge of the salt marsh a Peregrine was bird watching.

No.4 tank had a singing Cetti’s Warbler while the last Chiffchaff and Whitethroat were still hanging around.

Walking back along the track and it was good to find a pair of Whooper Swan settled in a flooded part of No.3 tank.

Butterflies were enjoying the late warmth with Painted Lady, Red Admiral and some smaller White’s being seen.

Observer and images: WSM.

Remembering Gilly 13.04.10 (we don’t forget our friends)

“this world is too abrasive for sensitive people” 

Martin Gilbert copy

This post is to remember and celebrate the life and times of Martin Gilbert who died 8 years ago today written by just a few of his many friends.

Martin Gilbert Remembered

I can’t really remember when I first came across Martin (‘Gilly’) Gilbert? I would guess it was at the local North Cheshire RSPB members group led by our field officers Doug Percival and Don Weedon. Then a group of young birding talents like Roy Taylor Jnr, Peter Brash, Paul Derbyshire and Martin Garner were chomping at the bit to taste the delights of a prosperous birding scene, a collective group of imaginations ignited by grips, ticks and birding flicks.

Martin Gilbert was brought up in the industrial area of Weston Point, Runcorn in north-west Cheshire during his late teens/early twenties. The ‘calling’ of the natural world and the birders playground at Frodsham Marsh beckoning him down the road from which there really was no turning back! It was here that he would spend most of his time birding the ‘bend’ and the various deposit tanks when most were toiling away at work. I should know we were birding there together.

Martin was obviously different from the normal ‘geeky’ anorak that the layman associate with youths who go birdwatching. He had an anarchic and impish approach to normal life not just being laid back but borderline comatose. Later he developed a unique approach to life going the whole hog and experimenting his look with black painted finger nails and a shabby decor which aped his Robert Smith and ‘The Cure’ fascination. Later developing his musical tastes to Captain Beefheart and sharing it with friends. The hippy values he treasured were a generation ago and a place and time which would have embraced him equally but the legacy of that culture lay ahead.

Leaving home at a relatively early age and being unemployed made him grow up faster than he would have liked. He tried different hobbies before he finally found an outlet suited to his real interests and passion. I remember only to well hanging out at his flat talking about birding with his unopened Giro cheques littering the floor If he needed money he would simply cash one in. Then groping around for an excuse to leave while attempting to understand his thoughts on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism . The pressure of life eventually forced him to seek work and then surprisingly managed to secure employment (albeit briefly) with the developing rangers services locally. The interview was quite an informal affair as Martin attended it with strands of dried grass braided into his hair, the after effects off spending that morning investigating a newly found Willow Warbler nest. Soon after It became apparent to both parties that the job was stifling his freedom and offered him few stimulants so he simply decided that he wouldn’t turn up for it any more and left.

When three Black-winged Stilts arrived one spring day at the marsh two of them settled to breed and Martin was approached by John Armitage (RSPB Northern England officer) to warden the breeding site. He jumped at the chance and with a tent/stove and telescope supplied, he quickly settled and established a focal point for the continuous flow of visiting birders. He adored the adulation and generosity given to him by the public and birders during the period that the Stilts stayed. This for him was character building and was tantamount to the work and hours he and friends put in looking after these birds that would shape the relationship and fondness people have for ‘Frodders’. Unfortunately the Stilts with a combination of heavy rain and inexperienced by the birds resulted in a nest failure. It was during this time that Martin excelled and made many long-lasting friendships with birders from near and far.

The 1980’s twitching scene was gathering pace and the call of far-flung places and bizarre sounding bird names was too much for this Runcorn lad. He embraced the twitching scene and the camaraderie and comradeship that it provided and he flourished with enthusiasm. Martin formed a close bond with a band of Runcorn birders notably Paul Derbyshire, John Gunnery, Peter Brash, Barry Starmer and Richard Stratford They went for everything they could afford to go for and quite a few they couldn’t. I remember one occasion when we met up with him in a Winter Suffolk landscape twitching a Nutcracker there. It was bitterly cold with a heavy ground frost and he stood in the waiting throng wearing a thin jacket, open fronted shirt, inadequate trousers and a pair of open toed sandles. It wasn’t because he couldn’t afford decent shoes it was likely he couldn’t be bothered changing them before they left to twitch the bird. Someone in the crown light up a fag and he managed to borrow their cigarette lighter so that he could ignite the soles of his desert wellie’s to warm his feet up!

23.06.14. Runcorn Hill 'cave'

This was something that he was to adhere to throughout his life, with casual work involving Mussel picking on Shetland and within sight of the dole office he was ‘signing on’ in. Martin literally took to the Hermit life utilising a variety of cave dwellings (one of which is pictured above) when I last spoke with him it was from a phone box at the Penzance Cricket Pavilion where he was doing some gardening work to pay his way and living in the pavilion scoreboard shed using a car battery for heating and eating. A spell waiting the tables close to Cape May in USA didn’t last long but made up for it by birding there.

We all have dreams of finding or being there at the discovery of a mega rarity. Martin took centre stage on 12th May 1987 when he discovered a pair of Slender-billed Gulls at the observer saturated Cley Marshes. A British tick for virtually every birder in the country. We all chuckled when luminaries of the day were name dropping his name but Martin took it all in his stride and milked every last ounce out of it. A great find and a cracking piece he wrote for ‘Twitching’ magazine (reproduced at the bottom of the post).

It’s always easy when looking back through rose-coloured spectacles on events and people we have had experiences with. But in Martins case the spectacles certainly didn’t blur the vision of his mates, he was an infuriating and frustratingly bloody minded non conformist and a wind up merchant par excellence! However, he was generous of mind and an inspiration often ploughing a lone furrow but enjoying the company of his friends.  I could write a whole lot of similar stories and each would eclipse the other but Martin lead a life on his terms and was an intelligent lad (attending Portree University again for a short period) the confines of a routine life were beyond his capabilities but he was an original free spirit.

Martin died in tragic circumstances at the foot of his beloved Aber Falls on Tuesday 13th April 2010 at the young age of 45 and was living at the time in the beautiful setting of Abergwyngregyn in North Wales. He had an inquisitive mind and local to his last address he found plenty to occupy his interest there. Discovering a Slow Worm in a local valley would have had him whooping loudly through the village and disturbing the ‘locals pensioners’. I hadn’t seen him for a few years and often wondered where he had got to. If I had known that he was an hour away then we could have met up and swapped birding tales, who knows?

Bill Morton

“Self Proclaimed Guru of Frodsham Marsh”

Martin Gilbert, Barry Starmer and Richard Stratford (1) img002

Although no words could really describe the enigma of the ‘Gilbert’, French pronunciation of course and insisted on by himself. I presume one of the ‘wind-ups’ you refer to (above) is regarding the Red-eyed Vireo we  “found” in your name in Abergwyngregyn. It never ceased to amaze us how fast your investigation trail led back to our smoking gun? I have many more stories I could add and some of yours I could embellish further. The truth is it saddens me too much. “The self-proclaimed guru of Frodsham Marsh”, I think that was one of the Git’s statement was it not? He was my far the best birdwatcher I have ever met without binoculars. I remember he had a pair of binoculars that hindered rather than helped. He eventually threw them into  Holyhead harbour, Anglesey in front of some scuba divers and asked them to retrieve them for him and when he eventually got them back he continued to use them. Some would see this as mad, Martin saw it as non attachment. I remember the last thing he said to me: “this world is too abrasive for sensitive people”.

Barry Starmer.

The Man’s an Exclamation Mark!

Martin Gilbert

I was first introduced to Martin ‘Gilly’ Gilbert at a local RSPB meeting in April’85. I found him a bit unruly, quite scruffy but rather good fun. After a few excursions into various local birding areas we hatched a plan to travel to Shetland to see the ‘Albert Ross’ the Albatross and a Snowy Owls, all sounded great but there was one major hurdle! I was a 16 years old boy, who had just left school and my parents didn’t think hitching the 700 miles to Aberdeen and back was the best career plan ever!  I managed to persuade them on the basis that I would be with this older, more mature chap who would no doubt go to any length to protect my well-being, they agreed and a date was set.  My father offered to take us both up to the motorway services near Preston to get an early start and we arranged to meet near Runcorn railway station at 0700 hrs. to start our journey north.

The 0700 hrs rendezvous quickly came and went and that’s when my alarm bells started to ring – No Gilly!  A quick phone call to his landlady’s landline (no mobiles then of course) and a sleepy Martin came to the phone.  “5 minutes and I’ll be ready” he said.  Five minutes I thought! It had taken me at least 3 hours of packing and unpacking my enormous rucksack before I was happy. A rather awkward 15 minutes past as my father ran a series of questions past me and insisted on pointing out that this was not the best start to our plans and my hitching career.  Eventually ‘Gilly’ appeared, carrying only a satchel containing a Book of Poetry, a Blanket, a Post Office Account Book and his Bins – and that was it!  Oh, and wearing wellies… in June!  And I could barely lift my bag up to get it on my back.  This was perhaps the first lesson I learnt from my mate Martin, – to travel light.

The hitch north went very well and we made it up to the ferry terminal in record time, the trip almost came to a grinding halt when the ticket officer refused our request for two half-fares for the ferry (I was 16 and Gilly 19!) Not only were we unaccompanied by an adult, we needed to be under 14 to qualify for the fare reduction, bugger!! We decided to spend an extra night in the Aberdeen and try our Plan B tomorrow. This would be going for an adult and child rate, a saving to our considerable funds (about £20 each and a week extra on Shetland).  We ended up spending the night in a beach shelter with a group of drunks, the cider flowed and all was well – until a fight nearly broke out over the alleged ownership of one of the benches. We scarpered and made it onto the ferry for the 14 hour crossing to Lerwick.

Shetland did not disappoint with the owl and albatross falling on our lists on the first full day, followed by several new birds including White-billed Diver, Red-necked Phalarope and Storm Petrels. Martin had a fit of ticking frenzy as it was his first trip north of the border The extended views of an Otter sunbathing on Fetlar are still as vivid today as they were in 1985.  We had 18 days on Shetland for about £90, including the ferry – Bargain!  This was largely made possible by the lovely people of Shetland frequently feeding and accommodating us after hearing our tales of woe and poverty-stricken adventure – one family in North Roe even wheeled a neighbour’s spare bed down the street for us and we spent a night in the front room, along with several abandoned lambs that needed regular feeding.  Another night was spent in a house of an aircraft mechanic, who fed us on locally caught trout, loads of beer and a lift down to Lerwick the next day, we missed out on the offer of a free flight around Unst later in the week as we had to leave.

We eventually headed south across Yell and down towards Sumburgh Head but never quite made it as a Ring-necked Duck was found up on Unst and Gilly wanted to twitch it.  I had seen one before so wasn’t that interested, I suggested we split up for a few days. There was one little problem and that was we had only one return ticket for the ferry with both our names on it. I had carried it throughout as Gilly didn’t want the responsibility, at least initially! When I refused to hand it over things got quite heated and all manner of threats were issued both ways, such is the way with adolescent, ego saturated youth! We parted company on the dockside in Aberdeen a few days later and I made the long hitch south alone! I had 50p in my pocket, no map and no pen or paper to write hitching signs on – the first rule of twitching are there are no rules to twitching – be prepared for the unexpected. This was the first of many, many disputes that we would have over the next 25 years and yet we remained good friends until Martin’s untimely departure in 2010.

Most birders who met him have their own ‘Gilly ‘stories and there a few that fail to bring a smile to people’s faces, like the time he spontaneously hitched to Scilly after a mate (Bill Morton) lent him a £10 (a lot of my dole money then and I’m still waiting for it back! Bill), he stayed on Scilly for two weeks on 50p after getting a half-fare on the boat (in 1987 a half fare was £9.50), he survived by sleeping rough, eating blackberries and supplementing his diet by mine-sweeping uneaten food on discarded plates in the Porthcressa with the odd bit of shoplifting (tut tut you might say – these were the Thatcher years you know!), he saw all the rarities that I saw and probably a few more – all for 50p.  Another lesson learnt – just get to where the birds are and worry about the finer detail later.  In more recent times I returned to my North Wales home in March’09 from a winter trip to Thailand to discover he had been living in my local bird hide for a week, he didn’t know I was away and had lost my phone number.   The temperature fell to below -9 that week!

Martin is still very much missed by his friends and will be an inspiration to many for some time to come, I still occasionally sacrifice a portion of a pint / shot of whisky in his honour – known as ‘Gilly’s bit’ . From an occasion when making some bold statement he poured his share of a beer on the floor, stating “it was mine to do with as I please, as it belonged to him”.  Another lesson, although I draw the line by setting fire to my last fiver to prove the unimportance of money!   I for one expect whatever it is he’s doing in his next life (he was a practising Buddhist), he will be winding someone up or making them laugh or probably both.

Paul Derbyshire.

“Martin you’re a Kultz!”


Two fond memories spring to mind of birding with Martin Gilbert. On one occasion we were heading on a long twitch to the West Country Devon/Cornwall and I arranged to pick Martin up at around midnight. I arrived at Weston Road, Runcorn near his flat to find he’d been waiting on the roadside for the previous four hours he was so excited he didn’t want to miss his lift. Such child-like enthusiasm is in all of us it was just liberating to hear Martin express it more than most. In 1986 we spent a much longer time together over a three-week period at the migration hot spot of Point Pelee, Canada with Bill and Ian Igglesden. For all four of us it was our first foreign birding and a trip of our dreams. Camping outside of Leamington, Ontario and sleeping in tiny two-men pup tents amidst plush trailers and Winnebago’s in freezing conditions. Spending each morning walking and hitch-hiking into the provisional park for the Spring migration. We were temporally adopted by the ex-pat Brits in the town and they offered us an endless supply of lifts and evening dinners. One lift we were eager to take was those offered by Tom Hince and Alan Wormington at the prime of Pelee birding and a good source of local rarities. Martin nearly put an end to all that when he spilled a carton of chocolate milk on Alan’s prized MG midget car seat and left it in the warmth of a Canadian summer! It soon turned sour and the smell crept into every crevasse of the car upholstery. When Alan found out what Martin had done he just called him a ‘Klutz’ and after that incident we did borrow that name for him occasionally! That trip was one of the most memorable and significant travel journeys in my life and Martin’s company and endless enthusiasm was very much a part of it. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death three years ago leaving fond memories.

Martin Garner.

Gilly in Cape May and Scilly:


Jonathan wrote: “Wonderful stuff, I was almost in tears. I love the Cape May one where the proprietor of a restaurant found him living in staff quarters for free so he gave him a job washing up. Gilly asked if he could eat first from the buffet as,all staff were allowed. The boss agreed. Gilly piled his plate up to the maximum possible, took ages to eat everything, got up, washed his plate and then said “I quit” and walked out.”

Jonathan wrote: “I remember finding him on St Mary’s in 97 ‘looking’ for the Yellowthroat by lying in the middle of the road looking straight up at the sky. He was sleeping rough in Cearreg Du Gardens and his mission was to find the plug on St Mary’s and pull it out to ensure the island would sink. I rented a flat for a second week for myself, ‘Pod’, Lee Amery, Laurence and unofficially Gilly who we invited to stay and looked after him for the week, buying him food and Guinness in the evenings between us and going stargazing up by the hospital after pub hours when drunk as skunks. Looking back it’s still one of my favourite weeks on Scilly,

Jonathan Williams.

Anyone for Cricket?

Just read the lovely tributes to a lovely person-very well done.

Gill, Paul and I will never forget those few weeks Martin wardened the Stilts. The remarkable patience he showed trying to ‘waterproof’ his overcoat with candle fat and his indifference when it didn’t work. Also the impromptu game of cricket on the track along No 5. Happy days with a remarkable character.

Steve Barber.


A Personal Poem

Maybe Martin became a marten, a vole or a three-toed sloth,
                   Maybe he’s in the ethea and gets out quite a lot
                   Could it be he’s really me and I ate him for my tea?
                   I’m so surprised he died you see and that Aber was his exit,
                   Forever that name will mean his name, but words can ne’er reveal,
                   How a likely lad like Martin Gilbert came with so much zeal.
                  I’d of willingly let him tend my light born whist I was away,
                  and by a stream or a babbling brook they’d play till dark of day,
                  What’s good comes from a good place. You came from a good place.
                  If your out there omnipotent and scrambling this you old sly dog,
                  Be warmed to hear we have no fear of joining you through the fog,
                  Though many of year will pass before one of us raises a glass.

Gareth Walker (college friend).

I’d say ‘Really?’ and he’d say ‘Nah’

I’ve just heard this sad news, I haven’t seen Martin for a good 13 years, I always thought that our paths would cross randomly again like they did when I was on holiday in Cornwall in 2002.

I met Martin in Chester around 1998, he was always a teller of tall tales and happily admitted so too. He used to spin a yarn and just when he had my full attention, I’d say ‘Really?’ and he’d say ‘Nah’

I had some wonderful days with Martin mooching around Chester, people watching, a spot of naked river swimming, we even broke into the zoo a couple of times too.

I also spent many an evening with Martin sitting around camp fires in Hawarden woods, he was the perfect companion for such adventures.

We lost touch for a few years and then in August 2002 i bumped into him in a park in Penzance, we spent the day together and he showed me around Penzance, introduced me to a traveler’s site and I met some amazing people.

I always thought our paths would cross again and we would simply pick up where we left off, it makes me very sad to know that will never happen, but I feel blessed to have known such an amazing character.

Mark Wilkinson.

The First Twitchable Slender-billed Gulls Since 1971 by Martin Gilbert

Page from Nancy Gulls cafe in Cley from the day

Wilsons Phalarope at Cley provided the inspiration to hitch from Cheshire to North Norfolk for a week of intensive birding. my lift into Cley was with Norwich birder Barrie Cooper, and it was with him that I entered Teal Hide on the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust reserve of Cley marshes at about 4.30 pm. on 12th May 1987. a brief scan located this elegant wader which warranted a thorough grilling.

I then decided to systematically search Pat’s pool, casually focusing my ‘scope’ on the first two white blurs I came across. It took about 15 seconds before I realized that I was looking at two quite unfamiliar gulls. a process of elimination ensued but nothing plausible fitted the bill: the name Slender-billed Gull skulked patiently in my mind. Excitement began to grip me and it became an effort to concentrate. An adult Black-headed Gull joined the two preening birds and excellent comparisons were made. The birds were obviously adults due to the pure white tail and pearly grey wing coverts which were a shade lighter than the accompanying Black-headed Gull. They had long, sleek almost tern-like blood-red bills, unblemished white heads, with small beady, apparently dark eyes giving them bland expressions. Their white underparts were suffused with a most apparent light pink.

After about five minutes, I turned towards  Barrie and put him on the birds., tentatively suggesting Slender-billed Gull but still finding it very hard to believe, particularly as two individuals were involved. Barrie was very confident , but I still didn’t have the conviction to alert everyone. I informed the elderly couple seated to the right of me, and after a quick glance they continued to search for Curlew Sandpipers. At this point I began to ‘buzz’ with pleasure and made the decision to race around the two nearby hides with the news. Only two people were present , however, and they were not particularly interested so I returned to the Teal Hide to the comforting ‘click’ of Barrie’s camera. Suggesting to Barrie that Nancy’s must be informed but not wanting to leave., I tossed a £1 coin (the occasion warranted no less) and cruelly lost. Still wishing to remain. I looked pleadingly at the elderly couple on my right: they cracked and left immediately to take the news to Bernard Bishop, the warden.

Whilst waiting for the crowds to arrive and willing the birds to stay, Barrie and I settled down to enjoy these elegant, long-necked  southern wanderers they fed ankle-deep in water, pecking delicately from the surface. The difference in size between the two birds was astounding, the smaller one being about the size of a Black-headed Gull whilst the other was 15% larger.

Typically, before anyone came the birds took flight revealing their long pale wings and noticeable contrast between sharp red bill and clean white head. The first people now began to arrive and carefully quiz me. After a brief search from Avocet Hide, where a single person had a second’s view  of one bird in flight, we raced to the cars and just in time to the two birds fly towards us and land immediately in front of the hide. As the crowd swelled and admiring comments were flung around I was filled with relief. Fortunately this superb pair of adult summer-plumaged Slender-billed Gulls remained in the area for the next three days giving many people such pleasure.

Martin Gilbert

Reproduced here by kind permission of the Birding World team.

Niagara Falls,Ontario, Canada, April 1986 by Martin Garner

Martin (right) with Ian Igglesden and Bill Morton at Niagara Falls on the way to Point Pelee, 1986.

Thanks to Steve Barber, Paul Derbyshire, Martin Garner, WSM for use of their images.

If you’ve got a story and photographs of Martin and you would like to share it with Martin’s birding buddies please forward and I’ll try to fit them in this post.

Bill Morton

R.H. Allen – Celebrating a Pioneer

R.H. Allen (2)

Ron H Allen 1902-1978

It is forty years since the death of R.H. Allen on 28th January 1978, it was RHA that pioneered ‘birding’ in North Cheshire at a time when the only people enjoying countryside pursuits were carrying guns. In Ron’s day that phrase ‘birding’ never existed outside of a line mentioned by William Shakespeare. Ron was one of the first of the modern post war bird watchers and it was solely down to his diligent counting and observations from Weston and Frodsham Marshes that made others aware of the potential of these sites. He also set the foundations for modern birding in North West Cheshire that still exists to the present day. I wanted to mark Ron’s involvement at Frodsham and perhaps enlighten people to the man and his legacy. The above photograph shows Ron seated at the front of the table on the left hand side and behind him his George Rutter. George lived locally at Weston and watched over the marshes there. George was a lock keeper at Marsh Lock and it was George that alerted Ron to a pair of nesting Common Scoter on Weston Marsh.

The following is an extract from the 1977 Cheshire Bird Report written by local birding folk hero Eric Hardy of Liverpool.

Although one held pre-war field-meetings and published surveys and several records of interesting species by the Mersey at Stanlow and Frodsham Marshes’ original sludge beds, it was Ron Allen’s 30 years of systematic post-war duck counts and his annual surveys of estuarine waders which gave these habitats international as well as national significance. His death at the age of 76 in January 1978, will be regretted by all who were greeted by his smiling face, tanned by Mersey sunshine and Stanlow petroleum fumes, as he appeared on the marsh by his clothes-prop of a telescope stand.

Born at Waterloo, he came to live overlooking the marshes at Runcorn’s Weston Point just after the last war and found a new outlet for his ornithological interest. As a regional organiser for the original duck counts and Shelduck moult-migration survey in 1974, I organised counts at all the possible waters to select priorities. Ron’s beat along the Weaver produced the most exciting results, meriting the concentration he subsequently devoted to the area. (“Bird Ecology at Frodsham Marshes”, R.H.A Allen in Merseyside Naturalists Association Bird report 1952 – 3, pp 34-37).

He took up the Shelduck moult-migration survey collecting a team of equally enthusiastic co-operators for 22 annual summer eventing watching noting departures from Mersey and Dee, until he mapped the annual emigration across the Peak. In 1954, when M.N.A. formed the first bird reserve in the Mersey estuary, by the Weaver at Weston Marsh, in response to the policy of wildfowl conservationists to form at least one refuge from shooting in every British estuary, Ron became its honorary warden. Later when N.M.A. formed the tidal Stanlow bird reserve, Cheshire’s largest nature sanctuary, as its contribution to Conservation Year, he became its honorary warden. Ever ready to share his observations, he was pleased to conduct visiting societies to view the wild, unpinioned winter, waterfowl, and waders.

From 1957-71, Ron conducted an annual Northwest Shelduck Census of adults and young from North Wales to the Solway. The labours of his hard-working duck-counting team covered every high tide as well as the national monthly count-counting team covered every high tide as well as the national monthly count, produced the largest estuarine counts of Teal and Pintail in Britain and Ireland, and nationally high counts of Shelduck, Wigeon and Dunlin. I have masses of his field-notes and tabulated counts since he started the surveys, adding to those from Jack Hughes, who farmed lonely Stanlow Point before the war and to Squire Bankes of Weston Hill’s punt-shooting records before the Ship Canal was cut. His Shelduck notes appeared in M.N.A’s Reports 1950-1971 and a joint paper with G. Rutter (joint warden at Weston Marsh) in British Birds, 49 pp 221, & 50 pp 262-274.

Retirement from his management duties in the Cheshire cinema industry gave him more time for a field-work, as well as his other interest being vicar’s warden at Weston Church. He lately belonged to several more bird and conservation societies. I had many private outings as well as society meetings with Ron all his ornithological years he was a kindly, modest man who never spoke a word in malice, never faked a record and bore no jealousy. His mind was as friendly as the Cheshire countryside he loved to visit. Ornithology needs men of his inspiring character. He was president of M.N.A. 1955-80.

Graham Thomason is kindly continuing the organisation of the Mersey Duck and Wader counts.

Eric Hardy.

23.04.16. Common Shelducks (displaying) and Black-tailed Godwits, No.6 tank, Frodsham Marsh. .Bill Morton.

Ron’s close friend Don Weedon remembers the man

“What about Ron Allen”.

19.09.15. Don Weedon, No.4 tank, Frodsham Marsh. Bill Morton.

Whenever I was down on the marshes it usually involved me messing about really and I wasn’t into birding then. I remember seeing a Buzzard down there (it would have been a rare bird at the time) but thinking back it must have been a Short-eared Owl. Me and my mate would go fishing we’d even go off fishing to the River Gowy near Chester on our single geared bikes catching gudgeon fish which we’d take home and put in a fish tank. It was after many visits to the marsh that I first met Ron Allen who was the voluntary warden on Weston Marsh which was managed in those days by the Merseyside Naturalists Association. He was a well spoken man and his day job was an accountant for Cheshire cinema’s. I always referred to him in a formal way ‘Mr Allen’ more for my respect for the man himself.

R.H. Allen (4)Mr Allen lived in Weston Village and his wife was prominent in the local community, she was the lady chair for Runcorn Golf Club. Although Ron never owed a car he would often catch the bus to Frodsham Bridge where he would walk out to the marsh from there. He was credited in finding a pair of Common Scoter breeding on Weston Marsh which would raise an eyebrow these days and once put me onto a Baird’s Sandpiper on the Weaver Bend or Weston Marsh, I can’t remember where because there was so many ‘yanks’ in those days. He then asked me to do counts for what then was called ‘The Mersey Estuary Enquiry” or duck counts as we called them in those days. I did that for many years. The best bird I remember seeing on those counts was a Glaucous Gull. I never had a car myself and it wasn’t until I was 33 that I managed to own one. It would have been Graham Thomason who gave me a lift to Stanlow to get the ferry across the Manchester Ship Canal to the south Mersey salt marshes.

Eric Hardy had a typical scouse sense of humour despite him being a military man and a Captain in WW2 in charge of messenger pigeons. Like Mr Allen, Eric never had a car and he would rely on public transport to ferry him about. I used to go with my brother-in law Peter Mayers who could drive and we both used to be members of MNA and both worked at the Old Quay yard and did maintenance at Frodsham Pumps on the Manchester Ship Canal. Peter knew Bill Owen the stoker on the pumps who worked 24 hours on 24 hours off. Bill in turn knew Mr Hardy then and he introduced us both to him.

I had a dark complexion with black hair and whenever the summer sun shined I tanned very quickly. On one occasion on the Mersey Marshes we could see Eric ahead of us and as we approached him he said in a loud military voice “I knew it was you Don but this lot thought you were an illegal immigrant”, this confused his group (and obviously comments like that were of a time and a place).

Ron Allen used to bird watch on the marshes with Boyd and Coward (both heavy weights of the national bird watching scene). He was a regular contributor to various journals and his Shelduck moult migration from the River Mersey to Heligoland was featured in British Birds magazine and the MNA reports. When the North Cheshire RSPB group was formed in the 1970’s Ron was picked to be their first field officer and I became deputy field replacing him when he fell into ill-health with Altziemers Disease. Despite his illness I would take him out every other Tuesday mornings we’d go to Marbury Country Park or Frodsham Marshes for a walk and a chat. I remember in the latter stages of his life on one of our walks he spotted a female Mallard which was quacking and said “look Don one of my favourites”. He eventually ended up in hospital and after a visit by Stan Edwards of the North Cheshire RSPB group he didn’t recognise him and sadly Ron passed away soon after.

Don Weedon.

Images of Ron (1 & 4) courtesy of Andy Ankers.

Image of Don (3) and Shelducks by WSM.

Below a link to accounts of the Shelduck moult migration.

British Birds R.H. Allen and G. Rutter


Yellow-browed Warbler – New to Frodsham Marsh

I met Paul Kurs on the motorway bridge that crosses the M56 on Brook Furlong Land just off Marsh Lane accessed from Main Street in Frodsham at 7.30 am. It was a partially cloudy morning with the wind veering south with just a hint of south-east in it.

We both set off along the lane heading north towards the River Weaver. There were a few skeins of Canada’s and Pink-footed Goose doing their usual vacating the marsh and heading to an unknown location inland.

Shortly after we had started our attention was drawn to a large flock of mostly Long-tailed Tit by their distinctive ‘thrup’ calls. The flock contained a few Blue and Great Tit along with 2 Goldcrest, this type of passerine combo is usual around early autumn. A few Chiffchaff were periodically contact calling from our left and right side and showing themselves now and again. A smaller warbler flew across the path ahead of us and disappeared into a large Elder. We immediately suspected that it could be a Yellow-browed Warbler but needed a second view to confirm our initial suspicion. The bird fortunately emerged to give a full on view before vanishing into a bramble patch. I left Paul and walked ahead but he was lagging behind and managed a third view as it had a swipe at a Chiffchaff, showing its distinctive white wing bar during the skirmish. After that the warbler flew up the bank of No.5 tank and disappeared from view.

We continued our walk onwards to the River Weaver where Tufted Duck, Gadwall and Stonechat were the only other highlights.

A walk further along the lane to Marsh Farm resulted in seeing c150 Goldfinch along with a c30 Meadow Pipit and some more Stonechat.

On our return along Brook Furlong we saw the tit flock again but there was no sign of the YbW.

We managed 60 species for our visit which was a great count in just a few hours of birding and obviously the small piece of Siberia stole the show!

Written by Shaun Hickey.

Illustration: WSM.

28.08.83 Birdlog. A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

On this Day: 28.08.83 Birdlog

John and Pete Shield’s car pulled up outside my house with an audible screech of its tyres. This was soon followed by a sharp ‘rat a tat tat’ on the front door with the customary shout of “wanna go to the marsh?” I definitely don’t need asking twice and in I jumped! We sped down to the marsh, parked up alongside a variety of early eighties Ford Fiestas and Vauxhall Astra’s at the junction of No.1 & 5 tanks. Whoever it was out of the three of us who decided to walk to the river and onto the Weaver Bend made a costly manoeuvre. After an hour or so’s birding on the ‘bend’ and without much to boast about we headed back to where we had parked the car. On the way we bumped into a Wirral birder who casually mentioned that someone had just found a Pectoral Sandpiper on No.5 tank. We were a bit pissed off that we hadn’t watched over that tank first and hurriedly increased our steps pronto. At the top of the bank on No.5 tank was amassed a huddle of middle-aged men with oily Barber jackets hunched over their tripod mounted telescopes, each one gawping into the distance at a collection of mist shrouded objects which was traipsing the far mud. The sludge tanks on Frodsham Marsh are the main reason why shore birds and occasionally birders choose to settle here during the height of the tide on the Mersey estuary. The incoming sea forces waders to seek shelter and the sludge tanks on the marshes act has a safe refuge. The settling tank are fed by a series of pipes that pump sediment silt from the nearby Manchester Ship Canal and this particular sludge tank was actively used to contain that silt. Over a period of time the sludge would settle long enough to support the hatching of mosquito larvae and other mud dwelling invertebrates and is therefore attractive for the waders to feed and rest up during the highest tides.

It would have been a fairly routine twitch to see a Pectoral Sandpiper on Frodsham Marsh in the summer of 1983. Nearctic shorebirds were very much on the radar for this Cheshire wader hotspot. When we arrived there was the usual smiles and banter from the various birders who had either seen the bird or were busily engaged in conversation, or both. This can be irritating to those that had arrived late particularly when we asked if the ‘Pec’ was still here and got a cursory nod or flick of the head in the general direction of where the bird was. I found a spot and lay on my back with the bank as my support.

The usual dilemma – bins first or scope? I thought and I extracted my trusty German-made Hertel & Reuss 25-60×60 Televari telescope from its leather case (it was voted the most popular telescope in 1982 in a survey conducted by BB). But it did have its disadvantages and one was when it was damp you would need the arm of Hercules to pull the draw tubes from the suction craving housing without popping your arm out of its shoulder socket! After some cursing and coaxing I lifted the pin prick sized eye piece to my pupil and placed the broad end of the object lens on my crossed leg and knee cap (I didn’t possess a tripod then). In this position it would take a while to locate one particular moving wader in amidst the scrum of other birds that were energetically and manically weaving amongst each other. I eventually locked onto the ‘Pec’, but I wasn’t presented with the usual demarcated patterned chest band with an accentuated bodied sandpiper that has become the staple diet I had come to expect here. It took a few views of this bird as it weaved itself through the mass of Dunlin before my eyebrows were force into alert mode! The morning mist was beginning to fade away but the sunlight was directly behind the birds which were ahead and most were silhouetted shapes. I remember thinking when I saw the wader for the first time it wasn’t a ‘normal’ bird? The subject was a small shorebird picking nervously from the surface of the ground. It’s finely balanced body was supported by two legs as if handcrafted by the gods themselves. It had an air of elegance as it tiptoed the mocha brown coloured slime that left beads of ooze dripping as it gently repositioned each foot from the ground before placing the next step ahead. The petite demeanour and messy chest and chevron streaked flanks just didn’t add up? I asked some birders who were standing nearby what their opinion was? They simply shrugged their shoulders and reiterated that they had been told it was a worn summer plumaged female Pectoral Sandpiper and were happy to believe that. I was getting more curious and asked friends what they thought, but no reply was forthcoming. I felt bold enough to say to them that “if I had found this bird I would have said it was a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper”! I wasn’t alone in my thoughts as Mark Gibson also had his suspicions. The rest of the afternoon many people came and went and they didn’t appear to be any words of descent against the “Pec”.

It’s funny how things pan out but it was obvious some people did have other thoughts and one in particular stuck his neck out further than I did. Later that evening Tim Cleeves who was the warden at Hilbre Island in the early 1980’s and had already amassed an enviable reputation for his identification skills made his thoughts public. Soon after his visit to see the “Pec” it all fell into place and its true identity became apparent. That evening word spread like wild-fire and the reidentifed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was available for all to see the following day. The species are still rare to see in the UK. This particular bird was just one of a run of top-notch rarities that spanned the next two decades on that glorious glutinous gooey sludge tank.

If you were actively birding in the 1980’s then you wouldn’t expect to have the technologic advances of the present day at hand. Information was generally relayed via telephone landline or a very basic jungle grapevine. If you didn’t have a telephone at home (which I didn’t) then your chances of keeping abreast of rarity news was basically slim to zero. I was reasonably fortunate by having a network of friends who I either contacted via the local phone box on a Friday night to hear about birds I had dipped on or rarities that were still available.

Regarding the identity of the Sharp-tail there had been a British Birds journal article published (which is linked below) three years previously, but for many including myself who hadn’t subscribed to that publication we were none the wiser. I’m certain that the birds identity was suspected by many birders present but at a time when the nuances of identification were just emerging from the dark ages it’s easy in retrospect to be critical.  The majority of senior birders that were present were probably no wiser than the kids who were picking up the birding baton and stumbling along the path ahead. We as younger birders (at the time) perhaps had an obligation of respect to the old geners but it’s always worth having a touch of cynicism. Always keep an open mind and never be afraid to ask a few questions. There are no daft questions just daft people giving the wrong answers (sometimes).

It has been 34 years since this bird appeared on No.5 tank and I can remember that occasion like it was yesterday. Ironically 7 years ago on a trip to New Zealand I was watching a flock of Sharp-tail’s when I found two Pectoral Sandpipers in their midst but neither were adult females moulting out of breeding plumage!

The identity of the original finder isn’t know but I’m glad they put the news out initially and they deserve some credit for doing so.

Bill Morton.

Identification of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers