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The Birds on the Ribble Estuary

Posted on - 30th October, 2010 - 11:30am | Author - | Posted in - Observations, Opinion, Photos, Recreation, Things To Do, Wildlife and Conservation
The Ribble estuary in October - A Great White Heron, three Shelducks, and further afield flocks of ducks.

The Ribble estuary in October - A Great White Heron, three Shelducks, and further afield flocks of ducks.

October is the month the Ribble estuary harbours influxes of migratory birds. This article examines Shelducks and Swans who share marshy river estuaries across the country with a smorgasbord of avians. Shelducks depart en masse at the end of October to Heligoland: a small archipelago north of the German coast where they moult.

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I visited on a day of favourable weather early in October. The aim was to journey to the Ribble estuary to photograph and observe the avians mentioned. Prior to my arrival at the coast I’d navigated a few miles of countryside and also the village of North Meols, taking photos as I went; it was late afternoon when I reached the estuary to evaluate the situation.

The entrance had accommodated farmers transporting cows for three days prior. Thus copious quantities of well-camouflaged dung caked the muddy ground. The area isn’t paved but has wooden fencing one should grasp when treading the muddy slope one must ascend to reach the overlooking border.

The reward for being cautious with the slippy mud and bovine excretions is worthwhile: a vast panoramic view encompassing much of the river’s marshy land with Lytham St-Annes in the distance. A constant flurry of activity is undertaken by hundreds of birds present.

Shelducks are peculiar as a species in that appearance-wise they possess both duck and goose features. They are distinctive with green heads and reddish bills. Their diet of crustaceans and snails is similar to several of their relatives. At time of writing the shelduck is departing eastwards from Britain’s coastline. To some extent they can be spotted in the UK all year round. Also, a notable population spend time inland in freshwater locations such as large streams and lakes.

Despite appearing very ‘heavy’ in flight they gain altitude quickly; during  flights inland they are commonly too high to be seen even with zoom lenses or binoculars. Note the semantics: in Britain we term the Tadorna Tadorna species ‘Shelduck’, whereas elsewhere in the world the word denotes a diverse subfamily of ducks, geese and swans named Tadorninae.

Prior to this I very seldom photographed birds. The suggestion to report this under-appreciated topic was from Stephen Halliwell who has also contributed to Blog Preston. From what I gather apart from enthusiasts and those working in nature societies the estuary in itself does not see many visitors on weekdays. In any case as an area it stretches for miles – my time there proved peaceful and serene.

Natural England's sign describing the Ribble estuary.

(Click to enlarge)

The most striking sight appeared after I got back on the road. A big flock of gregarious swans (possibly Whooper Swans) descended on the driveway of the farm opposite with a low-fenced garden and small pond.

The noise generated was cacophonic: I observed the creatures line up in disciplined fashion, waddle through the garden gate, and enthusiastically spread out with some leaping into the pond. The following fifteen minutes saw the atmosphere rapidly cycle between a relative calm and huge commotions of ebullient flapping displays.

Swans arrive after breeding in frigid northerly climes like Iceland and sub-arctic Eurasia. According to the RSPB almost 7,000 of the whooper species reside in the British Isles on October through March. They are herbivorous and several species including the less effusive Mute Swan show up at the Ribble’s coast. The environment is ideal and therefore is home to all sorts of birds all year round; in winter one can observe many wildfowl roost.

It can be an affordable day out – the number 2 bus runs from Preston and stops at New Lane Pace. A walk of roughly half a kilometre up Marsh Road fork near the bus stop takes you to the Nature Reserve. The reserve itself is an office opposite a warehouse and a farm; it was unfortunately closed on the day I was present.

Wear a sturdy pair of walking boots as the slopes leading towards the grassy wetlands are deep with mud, as is much of the track which borders the estuary. It isn’t wise to try traversing the marshes due to unpredictable, silty terrain which can be very dangerous.

Packing food is prudent as it’s a fair walk inland to the village shop. For the sake of good visibility and dealing with the mud it’s best to visit on a sunny day. If feeling adventurous there’s the option to trek the coastline southwest towards Southport. As the signs say: be respectful and keep to the Countryside Code. For further information click here for Natural England’s summary of the reserve.

I find it a pleasant thought that every bird in this country live happily and never pays a penny of rent. Contrary to the ‘anorak’ pejorative appended to those who take interest in birds the avians proved fun to observe despite my beginner’s ignorance. For me days like this act as encouragement to undertake further journeys to rural places. I hope those reading will likewise be encouraged to consider a day walking the Ribble estuary.

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