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Where to spot wildlife on the Dee estuary

Mudbanks on the Dee
The fertile estuary mud at Flint looking towards Connah's Quay

By Richard Smith, from Dee Estuary Conservation Group
Advice about the best places to see wildlife on the Dee estuary

At first glance the Dee estuary might seem like an empty and barren wilderness. In fact, this is far from the case, estuarine mud is twice as fertile as the richest farmland and huge numbers of invertebrates thrive in it.

Dee estuary
An aerial view of the impressive Dee estuary over Deeside

This, in turn, attracts other wildlife further up the food chain, especially birds, making the Dee Estuary the most important wetland site in Wales.

The presence of 110,000 waders and 20,000 wildfowl in winter make for a wonderful spectacle, but the Dee is far more than a place for winter birdwatching, spring and autumn sees both migrating land and sea birds and summer brings in large numbers of terns and gulls.

The estuary is also home to over 500 Grey seals which haul up on West Hoyle Bank near Hilbre Island at low tide. These do not breed here, in autumn they return to their breeding rookeries around Pembrokeshire and the Hebridean Islands of Scotland.

Common seals also turn up from time to time, as do the occasional porpoise and dolphin. There are good vantage points to see this wildlife all round the estuary; the following is a description of some of the best:

Point of Ayr/Talacre - Grid Ref SJ122854

Oystercatchers on the Dee
Oystercatchers are among the birds to be seen along the Dee

The RSPB maintain a hide here next to the high tide wader roost. In winter expect to see Knot, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Oystercatchers.

The area in front of the hide is also good for duck with hundreds of Shelduck, Pintail and Wigeon present at high tide feeding in the marsh.

The sand dunes near the lighthouse is an excellent spot for seeing sea birds; in late summer hundreds of terns and gannets abound and a gale in September should result in a passage of skuas and petrels.

Look out for a grey head bobbing about in the water, this will be a Grey seal, there are usually one or two offshore. A visit to the sand dunes in spring is a delight with wildflowers everywhere and skylarks overhead singing their hearts out. Many spring migrants pass through including Wood Warblers and Ring Ouzels.

Greenfield Dock - Grid Ref SJ200780

This little harbour overlooks the River Dee channel and many birds concentrate here at low tide. Great Crested Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers gather in the channel in March before moving inland to breed, and in summer hundreds of Common Terns from the nearby colony at Shotton use the sea here as a feeding area.

Flint Castle - Grid Ref SJ247735

Thousands of Pintail and Wigeon congregate on the sand banks near the castle in early winter along with many Knot and Black-tailed Godwits. Ravens breed in the castle which offers an excellent view point to look over the estuary.

Burton Marsh - Grid Ref SJ301748

The best place on the estuary to see Short-eared Owls. Ideal conditions are a dull overcast afternoon with little wind when up to ten or more may show themselves. Two or three Hen Harriers are often in the same area along with flocks of Bewick's Swans and Pink-footed Geese. Look out also for huge flocks of Lapwings suddenly rising up from the marsh when disturbed by a hunting Peregrine.

Parkgate - Grid Ref SJ275788

A spring high tide with a west wind behind it can cover the marsh resulting in some spectacular birdwatching. All the wildfowl and waders which are usually far out on the edge of the marsh are gradually brought nearer by the incoming tide, Short-eared Owls are flushed from their roosts, and just before the last bit of marsh is covered Water Rails suddenly emerge, desperately trying to escape the attention of the Grey Herons who will eat them whole, given the chance.

Thurstaston Shore - Grid Ref SJ240830

Thousands of birds feed on Dawpool Bank at low tide from August until March. Up to 10,000 Shelduck in autumn is a fantastic sight; it is also one of the top locations in the country for Oystercatchers, Curlew and Redshank.

Mid-winter brings in thousands of Knot and Dunlin, many feeding close to the beach completely unafraid of people walking only a few metres away.

Peregrines often hunt over these mud-banks, the sight of one of these magnificent birds of prey slicing through a flock of 10,000 Knot is a breathtaking and dramatic experience.

Hilbre Island - Grid Ref SJ185880

A visit to Hilbre is an experience not to be missed, but the island can only be accessed at low tide. Details of safe crossing times can be read on the Friends of Hilbre website

The Wirral Ranger service provide guided walks to the islands, for details ring 0151 648 4371 or see the Dee Estuary Newsletter

little terns

The relatively calm and shallow waters of the Dee Estuary acts as a nursery for Common, Little and Sandwich Terns, so a walk to Hilbre at low tide in late summer is a very pleasant experience with hundreds of these terns resting on the sand banks and fishing out to sea.

This is also a good time to see the Grey Seals sunning themselves on West Hoyle Bank, and there are always a few close in to the north end of the island hunting fish.

In winter Purple Sandpipers feed among the rocks, sometimes difficult to spot among all the Turnstones. Much easier to see is the flock of Brent Geese, they have increased in recent years and there are usually over 80 here between November and February.

At high tide many of the waders of the estuary use the islands and nearby West Kirby Shore as roosts on which to rest. The many thousands of Oystercatchers, Curlew, Dunlin and Knot create a wonderful spectacle.

For latest news of the birds found in and around the estuary try the Dee Estuary Birding website

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