Hilbre Island: Scoters, Pipits and Sandpipers

Today I was doing one of my annual high tide stay overs on the magnificent Hilbre Island. Hilbre is a place which I’ve always loved, from my very first visit I’ve just wanted to go back and see more and more of the island stunning array of birdlife and witness more and more of its magical wonders: weather its finding your first Velvet Scoter, having your lunch while a bull Grey Seal is drifting past watching you with curiosity, lying amongst the grass listing to the sounds of passing Sandwich Terns on a summers day, sitting literally next to a flock of Purple Sandpipers or just standing on top of the north end and letting the howling winds race through your hair making you feel more alive than ever before. Hilbre Island is simply extraordinary.

The day started off at 6:30am after being woken up to the sound of Guns and Roses, Sweet Child of Mine blasting out from my phone,  which sprang me into life like someone shouting Hen Harrier at Parkgate. After doing some last minute checks (food, water, scope etc.) and getting the correct bus at the right time I was soon at West Kirby with just the mile long walk left to the jewel which is Hilbre Island.

Today I had set myself a number of targets I wished to achieved: close up shot of a Purple Sandpiper and Brent Goose, some shots of Rock Pipit for a mate, a lifer and some dead birds to add to my ever increasing Bone Collection. A hobby which you can guess mum isn’t too pleased about.

Shag and Cormorant
Remains of Cormorant (top) and Shag (bottom)

My walk from West Kirby round to Little Eye and Middle Eye produced a low flying Peregrine and 2 very noisy Pink-footed Geese heading south, the same direction as a flock of Pink-footed Geese did yesterday. As I approached the Middle Eye there was already signs of spring as the resident Meadow Pipits (the most abundant bird on archipelago) were filling the air with their melodies, with the sounds of moaning Grey Seals and screaming waders in the back ground.

As I eventually got to Hilbre my attention was drawn away from the avian world and to that of the geological one. Ever since taking A-Level Geology last September I’ve become obsessed with it! Believe it or not birding and geology are surprisingly similar as in both you have to look into deep detail to be able to separate subjects, scan for hours on end until you find the one you want, travel vast distances for the one you want and that some only appear in certain places. Not surprising really to know that I’m top of my geology class! In fact I’ll be back on Hilbre on Wednesday for a geology trip!

After pulling myself away from the geology of Hilbre I walked over to the north end of the island to set up camp for a long day of seawatching. With a 10m tide along with a calm sea and mist I was hoping that something good would appear. After setting up my scope it didn’t take long for the first sea duck of the day to appear; not one, not two but 7 Common Scoter where close in along the north and west side of the island. This is actually the first time I’ve ever had a close up views of Common Scoter as despite seeing tens of thousands of them over the years they’ve all been little black dots on horizon, so as you can imagine I was rather excited!

Common Scoter with Great crested Grebe_edited-1
Common Scoter and Great crested Grebe

Whilst scanning the Irish Sea it wasn’t just Common Scoter which were showing: Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Diver, Eider, Great crested Grebe and my first ever VELVET SCOTER. This new lifer (221) was an eye catching drake which flew west amongst a small flock of 20 or so Common Scoter heading towards East Hoyle Bank where yesterday a drake Surf Scoter had been spotted by local birder Jane Turner. Sadly the Velvet Scoter was too far to photograph which is a bummer.

After 3hrs of seawatching with my totals being 450c Common Scoter, 8 Red-breasted Merganser, 1 Velvet Scoter, 3 Teal, 1 Eider, 1 Red-throated Diver and 4 Great crested Grebe, I took a well deserved break and went in search of Hilbre Islands most famous winter visitor, the Purple Sandpipers. Those who know the Wirral will know that New Brighton is the “best” place to see Purple Sandpiper as they roost on the pontoon at the Marine Lake during high tide; but there you don’t really get a sense of how tough and stunning these Starling sized birds really are, at New Brighton you take them for granted as there just their right in front of you on a vial man-made structure. On Hilbre Island you’re leaning over a cliff looking down on them as they roost, you have the spray of the waves in your face and the wild wind making yours eyes water and racing through your hair. Don’t know about you but I prefer the sound of Hilbre.

After a short walk round the island encountering Redwing, Brent Geese, Grey Wagtail, Knot, more Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Skylark, Ringed Plover and a few Robins I eventually found myself some Purple Sandpipers. A flock of 6 birds where roosting on the cliffs on the east side of the Island, Purple Sandpipers being rather obliging birds they allowed me to get within the photographic range for the images I had in mind. I spent about 1hr and took around 150 images of these truly wonderful winter waders. Afterwards I decided to tick off another one of my targets for the day with a few shots of Rock Pipit.

Purple Sandpiper close up_edited-1
Purple Sandpiper
The Purple Sandpiper_edited-1
Purple Sandpiper

A young Irish birder called Cian Cardiff is currently in the process of writing a book about all the various bird species he’s had on his patch ever since he took it up several years ago. Apart from talking about the “standard” birds he gets on his patch in Wicklow he’ll be writing a lot about the multiple sub species of Dunlin, Redwing, Cormorant, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and of course Rock Pipit on his patch. It was Cian who first got me into looking into sub species I’m out in the field which started off with separating sinensis and carbo Cormorants.

Finding a Rock Pipit on Hilbre Island isn’t a problem, there everywhere, it’s just getting close to them. I spent 20mins chasing after one and I decided that in the end instead of me going after it I’ll wait for it to come to me……..20mins later waiting hunched down in a small gap between to slabs of rock one finally came and popped up right in front of me, I just went trigger happy and as you can see I was pretty happy with the results!

Rock Pipit on Hilbre_edited-1
Rock Pipit

With shots of Purple Sandpiper and Rock Pipit, a lifer and coming across the bodies of a Shag and Cormorant I now had just one target left on my list, Brent Goose. There’s over 100 pale-bellied Brent Geese wintering around Hilbre Island but unlike their fellow winter visitor the Purple Sandpiper the Brent Geese fly all the way from Arctic Canada and aren’t as approachable. As it was now high tide I walked over to the South End where there was thankfully still some Brent Geese within photographic distance and you can see the result for yourself.

Brent, catcher and Purple_edited-1
Brent Geese, Oystercatchers and Purple Sandpiper

With the tide on its way out I headed back round to the North End where I bumped into Manchester birder Ian Boot where after having a good old natter about birds, photography, insects, butterflies, rare plants and moths I started to pack up after a brief sea watch and when the tide went out low enough I got a lift back to the mainland curtesy of Phil Woollen.Me on Hilbre

Whilst on Hilbre good friend and young Manchester birder Joel Tragen alerted me to the fact that he had finally set up a Twitter account – link – so if you can please give him a follow.

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