Birkenhead Docks: The Urban Misconception

The following post is one which I recently wrote for the BTO Young Birders Blog about the story of how fell in love with my patch, Birkenhead Docks, and how along with the help of a local we managed to give the Docks a new lease of birding life.

In the heart of one of Wirral & Cheshire’s most urbanised districts lays an oasis amongst a concrete jungle, where the misconception that nature can’t thrive in an urban environment is no more.

As youngsters we were taken to and from nature reserves witnessing the very best of Mother Nature, believing that it was only there, at nature reserves, that we could continue to witness the greatest wildlife. We were brought up believing that the only places where we could still observe the finest of our British wildlife through these dark times was to visit sites which have some form of protection: Ramsar sites, SSSIs, SPAs and so on. But amongst the ruins of the once almighty Birkenhead Docks, the misconception of nature is revealed to all.

Herring Gull VS Common Tern copy
Common Tern VS Herring Gull

Opened in 1860 Birkenhead Docks had one of the mightiest dock complexes in the UK, but as the docks reached their peak they collapsed into a big black hole of decline. Unwanted and unloved, the dock’s condition deteriorated to the point that during the 1960’s the docks were deemed toxic, a biological hazard, a site never to be reclaimed by nature. But in 1985 the government backed a 25 year plan to clean up the entire Mersey River system. After waiting for over a century, nature was given the chance it had been waiting so long for. Birkenhead Docks was transformed from a toxic wasteland into an oasis teeming with such a diverse array of bird life that it could easily take on any nature reserve.

To date over 125 species have been recorded in and around the dock complex ranging from the expected to the unexpected: Great Crested Grebe, Great Northern Diver, Black Tern, Great Skua, Shag, Kingfisher, Merlin, Rock Pipit, Grey Phalarope, Brambling, Scaup, Common Sandpiper, Leach’s Storm Petrel, Mediterranean Gull and Common Scoter. The dock has quite possibly the most formidable bird list of any urban site.

From what the docks once were, the transformation they’ve undergone is simply astonishing. From a toxic wasteland to a site which holds Wirral & Cheshire’s largest Tern colony – 15 pairs of Common Tern, and Wirral’s largest inland wintering flock of Great Crested Grebe, which can include as many as 60 individuals. Birkenhead Docks also contains a wide variety of water birds which need very clean water with an endless supply of food; Kingfisher, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Little Grebe, Grey Wagtail, Common Tern and Great crested Grebe are all here because the docks provide such habitat.

Grey Phalarope flight copy
Grey Phalarope

From all of this information you’re right in thinking that Birkenhead Docks must be a well watched site regularly visited by local birders, but that’s far from the truth. The docks did have their heyday, when birders and twitchers from across the county would visit. They came mainly to see the “white-winged gulls” which would arrive annually along with Yellow legged Gulls to bathe in the dock’s life-giving waters after gorging themselves at a local rubbish dump, which has since been turned into a nature reserve. But all that was 20-30 years ago, since then the docks have only been watched by just one birder, Sam Johnson, but in the early 2000’s Sam left the docks. Even when Sam watched over the docks for 30 years there would rarely be another birder visiting to see what was about.

I’d been doing WeBS at New Ferry and Port Sunlight River Park for a year when in October 2015, I was asked by Mersey WeBS Coordinator Dermot Smith to take up a new WeBS patch at Birkenhead Docks, a decision I’ll always be grateful for as it opened my eyes to the true meaning of urban nature.

After finishing off my first WeBS Count at the docks on a cool October afternoon, where the evening sky was awash with blacks, oranges and purples partnered with the sounds of the wintering Kingfisher, police cars, Black-headed Gulls and chavs filling the air, whilst watching the Great crested Grebes, I just fell totally in love with the docks; it was a life-changing moment. From that moment onwards I took the decision to take up the ruins of Birkenhead Docks as my patch and get more people to see what I saw in the docks that evening and to make it once again a hot spot for birders. The first step in doing so was to set up the Birkenhead Docks Birding Blog, the primary aim of which is to blow away the misconception of urban nature and to get local birders, photographers and twitchers visiting the docks once again and, if possible, for one of them to find a rarity! But for this to happen there had to be something which would grab the attention of the local birding community.

Juv GND 1_edited-1.jpg
Great Northern Diver

On the bone chilling morning of November 28th at 12:43 whilst out doing one of my regular 4hr circuits round the docks scanning the waters round the “Tern” raft I saw a supposed Cormorant which had an extremely white throat. I missed the bird dive as I could barely stay still due to the howling winds, but the words Great Northern Diver popped into my head. Could it be? A Great Northern Diver on my patch? A Great Northern Diver in Birkenhead Docks? A county rarity! The bird then resurfaced right in front of me and my god there it was, one of the most beautiful encounters of my life, an adult Great Northern Diver in partial summer plumage with a crab between its daggers, what a beast! After getting word out it didn’t take long for local birders, twitchers and photographers to start pouring into the docks to witness this northern wonder. This was the bird I’d been waiting for to give the docks their reputation as a birding hotspot back. But better was yet to come.

Allan Conlin Scaup.JPG
Scaup (Allan Conlin)

Finding a bird which would get birders re-visiting the docks was one part, the next was getting visiting birders to find a rarity and on the 19th of January it happened. That afternoon I received a text from good mate and Wirral birding legend Allan Conlin saying that he had visited earlier that day and without optics had seen a Scaup species. I was over the moon that not only another birder, but a birder who I look up to had visited my patch and found what later turned out to be the site’s first ever “Greater” Scaup. This was more than I could have ever have dreamed of, a Scaup in Birkenhead Docks! Sounds like the stuff of legend. Then to finally hammer home Birkenhead Docks as a birding hot spot, on the 24th of January whilst paying the Scaup another visit with local birder and photographer Michael Davenport, I found yet another Great Northern Diver! I couldn’t believe it, the dock’s 3rd county rarity this winter! Birding doesn’t get more adrenaline-filled than this.

It was done, with the help of Allan Conlin, we’d manage to wipe the misconception away and get more and more members of the birding community to see the secrets of Birkenhead Docks and the beauty of urban birding.

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