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WDAA Wildlife and conservation
January to April 2014

Now that spring has officially arrived the storms that battered the country for the best part of
January and February seem in the distant past with warmer mild weather reaching most of the
country. Initially this report was intended to cover January to March but with such bad
weather it was difficult to get out in decent conditions, especially for photography, so
information was a bit limited at times.  Nevertheless some notable sightings have been made
and the milder conditions have seen the arrival of several summer visitors already,
particularly through April. The heavy rains at the start of the year resulted in the River
Weaver being in flood for many weeks producing difficult conditions for both anglers and
wildlife. Match weights were down and much of the regular birdlife was forced off the
bottom flash due to the high water levels and increased flow through. Strong winds resulted
in many trees being brought down and our venues were no exception, Rookery Pool, New
Pool and the Bottom Flash all needed attention to remove fallen trees from walkways or those
that were leaning precariously against a firmly rooted one. It is worth mentioning that
Winsford Anglers have a really dedicated water management team who are volunteers that
give up their spare time at weekends and evenings to ensure the environment around our
venues is maintained to a high standard whilst keeping it as unspoilt as possible, ensuring
there is little disturbance to wildlife and nature.


Early January saw the first Brambling of the year arriving around Whitegate with a small
 flock of 10-12 birds seen feeding in the beech trees at the back of New Pool on the 6th.
Numbers slowly increased and relatively large numbers were regularly seen through February
and March in Church Wood opposite Whitegate Church and New Pool, probably 30-40 were
mixed in with the other small birds such as chaffinches. This is a popular area for walkers so
the birds tend to spend a lot of time at the top of the beech trees where they can be difficult to
spot and easily missed, but a little patience will see them moving around or flying between
trees in search of food. Quieter periods with less disturbance will find the Brambling lower
down feeding on the woodland floor and around the edges of the wood, particularly along the
tree-line with the open field. Although very similar in size and shape to a Chaffinch they can
be distinguished in flight by the pale rump which is fairly apparent. Most of these will have
left now until next winter however a few may remain for a little longer.


February also saw some of the early flowering plants start to show in Church Wood with
several groups of snowdrops on display near to the footpath off Vale Royal Drive. This leads
through the wood with the left fork leading down to New Pool car park. The hedges along
this path and those around the boundaries of the pool are a good place for Bullfinch.

As previously mentioned, the Bottom Flash was in flood for weeks covering the mudflats that
are exposed at normal water levels which are a favoured spot for various species of bird. This
resulted in regular visitors being forced into other places such as the land around the Yacht
Club to find sanctuary. Lapwing are usually seen on the flats in small numbers during spring
and summer but this winter saw numbers increase dramatically between the end of January
and mid February. Initially a group of 32 birds were noticed which increased to
approximately 150 recorded in the air at one time around the top farm. Considering these
birds have been in decline over recent years this is a very encouraging sign that they are
becoming established locally especially with so much of our countryside being taken over by
developers for housing.


Not all birds were forced off the water, the wildfowl appeared to cope reasonably well despite
the floods. Pochard that visit each winter were present again and could be seen over by the
park homes generally staying together in a small raft with occasional diving for food. One of
them seems to favour the Rilshaw Meadow side and can be found relatively close to the bank
in the evening as it waits to come into the reedbed, something that I’ve noticed for the last 2
years. The end of February saw a return of the Goldeneye to the Ways Green and Dockyard
areas for several weeks. These birds could be confused with Tufted Ducks being similar in
markings, black with large white patches on the sides, however the male Goldeneye has a
distinctive white patch on the face and thin black bars on the white sides when at rest on
water. Also they make a call similar to ‘Donald Duck’ while throwing their head backwards.


The Teal moved back into the far corner of our fishing limit and can be seen quite regularly,
often in pairs either on the mudflats or in the open water between these and the adjacent
farmland. Several pairs use this area and probably nest here although I haven’t noticed any
young ones in the past. Teal can be recognised by their smaller size and high pitched call
similar to a single note whistle, the male is brightly coloured having a reddish brown head
with green side patches, speckled chest, greyish back and yellow under the tail feathers.

The long staying Shelduck pair can still be found along the spit and usually raise a family
each year. As mentioned in previous reports, the Oystercatchers are regular visitors and are
currently using the Bottom Flash.


Mandarin are becoming more common in our local area and may be found on upper reaches
of the Weaver, Top Flash, Rookery Pool and Tommy’s Hole. These are more of an
ornamental duck with the males in particular being brightly coloured with distinctive orange
wing feathers. Normally these are rather secretive birds and favour shaded areas tucked away
from disturbance, however I was fortunate enough to watch about dozen at very close
quarters whilst hiding under camo netting at ground level. The original plan was to
photograph Teal, however they had other ideas and the Mandarin turned up instead moving
within a few metres and even started to mate giving some good photograph opportunities.
Last year they nested at Tommy’s Hole and on the Weaver which are encouraging signs.


Whilst on the subject of wildfowl there was another special sighting this period and is just as
good as the Bittern sighted last autumn. An area that I tend visit regularly is around Marton
which has a habit of throwing up interesting species every now and again. This time it was a
Smew which is a member of the sawbill family, unfortunately not the brightly coloured male
but a female ‘Redhead’ mixed in with a group of tufted ducks. These too are very scarce in
Cheshire and only a few birds may visit each year. Similar to the Bittern these birds are found
mostly in the south of the country however it was only a brief stay of one or two days but still
a bit special. Despite spending the majority of it’s time a little too far out for decent photos a
couple of half-hearted attempts are included as records.

As anglers we inevitably sit facing the water for much of the time and observe things from
this perspective, water birds, dragonflies, aquatic life etc. but plenty goes on around us in
particular on the surrounding farmland. This is often a good area to look and open fields of
grass or ploughed land may at first seem apparently lifeless but there are plenty of species
that prefer this habitat. Lapwings, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits all use these places to nest on
the ground while other birds can be seen moving through on passage to their own nesting
grounds. Two recent examples of this were Stonechat and Wheatear both of which are
generally associated with hilly or moorland areas but a few stop off around Winsford each
year. A male Stonechat was seen near to Whitegate Station on the 20th February and a female
was reported along the Weaver Parkway on the 18th. As their name suggests these birds
make a ‘Chat’ call and usually make themselves visible by sitting on top of a fence post or
bush, they are only small about Robin size so may be heard before being seen.


Wheatear, another of the Chat species has visited us for the last 3 years and can usually be
found in a similar area. These are summer visitors and tend to arrive near Winsford in early
April, the first 3 were noticed this year on the 10th, a male and 2 females. Markings on the
male are a light blueish-grey back and buff coloured chest, black wings, a broad black eye
stripe edged with white, females are more of a pale brown. A characteristic marking is the
white rump which can be seen in flight from which the bird gets it’s name. These spend much
of their time on the ground and stand upright as if on guard in between brief runs to change
position. In fact they appear to be quite curious and may approach closer when noticing
movement. Numbers of these visitors increase slightly over a couple of weeks and recently
on 21st April a total of 8 birds were recorded. It is possible that Wheatear may nest here as
they were seen chasing each other and checking out rabbit holes which are suitable nest sites,
although unlikely it will be worth maintaining an awareness of their actions.


Spring is the time associated with the countryside waking up from it’s winter rest and things
coming back to life, plants begin to flower and insects emerge which in turn attracts bird life
and sees our regular summer visitors starting to return. The first to be seen or heard is often
the Chiffchaff which gets it’s name from it’s ‘chiff-chaff’ song. This year was no exception
being heard on the 15th and seen on the 16th of March. Very common now, it can be found
around most of our waters where there are trees for it to sing from, any of our pools should
hold these and along the Weaver Parkway is another popular area. The first Blackcap of this
year was heard and seen on the 30th March, slightly earlier than expected probably due to the
spell of warmer weather we experienced. Two more arrivals were noted on the 3rd April, a
single Willow Warbler and a group of 25 -30 Sand Martins.


The Willow Warbler is very similar to the Chiffchaff and can be very difficult to distinguish
through markings alone, the main feature is the leg colour, Chiffchaff  have dark legs while
the Willow Warbler has lighter pink-red legs. The key feature is in their song as Willow
Warbler are much more melodic, rather than the 2 syllable repetition of the Chiffchaff .


Sand Martins tend to be the first of the hirundine species to return and will be seen around
open water, typically places such as the Bottom Flash or Sandiway Big Lake where they can
feed on the airborne insects over the water surface. Last year a group nested in the salt piles
opposite National Pool but success was limited so it will be interesting to see if they try again
this time. The first swallows were noticed on the 5th April over the farm at the far end of the
Bottom Flash, 2 birds flying together and the first House Martins were noted on the 10th
April, again over the Bottom Flash. As spring progresses these three species become more
widespread around Winsford but they do seem to favour this area where they can be seen
mixed together in large groups chasing food. Sand Martin have a brown colouration while the
House Martin appear black and white when flying with a white rump patch above the tail.


The nesting season is well underway now and young birds have been appearing from as early
as March when a Great Crested Grebe was seen feeding a juvenile. Rooks have recolonized
their sites, Coots on Newbridge Pool have developed young and several families of duckling
are already out.


Butterflies have also been active in the recent spells of sun and several species have been
noted, these being Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, several species of whites, Orange-
Tip, Brimstone and Speckled Wood. The Peacock butterfly is named after the large eye style
pattern on it’s wings, very similar to a peacock feather, while the Brimstone looks very
yellow in flight. Often taken for granted, butterflies are an important indicator of how well an
ecosystem is doing. Again much of the habitat we manage is very suitable and should be
preserved to maintain this suitability through respect for the plant life that attracts them.


A sight that most of us are familiar with are the fields of bright yellow Oilseed Rape which
can be really spectacular in full bloom, an example is adjacent to Rookery Pool footpath
across Vale Royal golf course. From the right angle they can appear to stretch for miles into
the distance, some photos are attached for a sense of perspective. Although this is primarily a
crop, it does attract wildlife such as insects and birds. Bluebells feature well on our waters
and two good examples are in the woods at Newbridge and Rookery Pool where currently
(end of April) large beds of them are covering the woodland floor with a shade of blue.


While on the subject of plants I should mention developments at New Pool and the proposed
conservation project including a wild flower meadow and small pond. Two recent working
parties have constructed a fence and gate across from the car-park to stop any cattle moving
into the project area. Further developments will be taking place over the next few months
with addition of seed, fruit trees and digging of the pond. This will then be maintained as a
wild area to attract wildlife and for the local schools to use as an educational aid, whilst still
allowing the public right of way through the field. A large number of Golden Elder have
already been planted around the car-park to shield the lock-up container as they grow, several
clumps have also been added to the field. This will be our first major conservation project but
it is hoped to extend this to other venues in the near future particularly when we take on new

The last week in April proved to be quite productive with several summer visitors noted. The
first Sedge Warbler was heard and seen on the 25th April and Reed Warblers were back at
Newbridge Pool on the 26th. Both of these birds can be recognised by their erratic song which
is very similar, however the Sedge Warbler is little more varied with a few whistle notes and
clicking sounds mixed in. Also on the 26th a group of the first damselflies of this year were
noted on some gorse bushes, these being Large Red Damselflies which seemed very
approachable. The forementioned Sand Martins were over National Pool on the 27th flying
between here and the water treatment plant in search of the numerous airborne insects,
hopefully checking out potential nest sites in the salt piles.

A short walk around the Ocean Pool on the 27th April found a pair of treecreepers busily
feeding their young chicks inside an old tree stump and the first Whitethroat of the year was
heard, later in the day several others were also seen. A curlew was heard calling from the
farmland opposite the shallow end of the pool. Tuesday the 29th brought the first Yellow
Wagtail and another new species for the area, a Grasshopper Warbler ‘reeling’ near to
Whitegate station. Their song sounds similar to a grasshopper rubbing it’s legs or the sound
of an anglers reel, hence the term ‘reeling’.


Moving towards summer sees the benefit of longer days with more time to get out and about.
Now that things are speeding up in the natural world and becoming more active it is worth
spending a while exploring the local area because you never know what you will find. Over
the next few weeks further visitors will be moving in such as Swifts, Lesser Whitethroat more
Warblers plus Damselfies are starting to emerge and following them dragonflies. One thing to
listen out for although they are much rarer now is the Cuckoo which should be heard from
May. A few birds still return each year and may be heard around the Ocean and Whitegate
Station at Marton. Plenty of young rabbits are showing and badger cubs will be making their
first appearances this month, there are a few setts around our waters so hopefully I can get
some images for the next write-up.
That will do for now but remember to respect the environment when angling or just looking,
the future is in our hands so please look after it.

Enjoy your angling, tight lines and good spotting.