|Common Tern by Elliot Montieth|
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.
|Grey Phalarope by Elliot Montieth|
To date over 120 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.
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.
|Great Northern Diver by Elliot Montieth|
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.
|Scaup by Allan Conlin|
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.
Elliot Montieth, @Elliot_Montieth
Elliot's Birding Diaries