North Merseyside Biodiversity Action Plan
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Birds of North Merseyside, 2000-2006

With the exception of Common Scoter all the action plans for birds in the North Merseyside BAP relate to breeding species which remain nationally widespread and relatively common and were defined as priority species because of their rapidly declining populations.

North Merseyside on its own is not of great importance for any of these species in the national context but, taken together with adjoining areas of West Lancashire, the arable mosslands of St. Helens, Knowsley and Sefton do support nationally high densities of some farmland species, notably Grey Partridge, Lapwing and Corn Bunting.

Grey Partridge Steve Young
Sefton supports nationally high densisties of Lapwing and other farmland birds

Even so, Open quoteswhen thinking of Merseyside's birds it is not really breeding species that spring to mind but rather the tens of thousands of wildfowl and waders that winter on our estuariesClose quoteswhen thinking of Merseyside's birds it is not really breeding species that spring to mind but rather the tens of thousands of wildfowl and waders that winter on our estuaries, for which the whole of the undeveloped Merseyside coast is designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Areas.

The list of species for which the Mersey Estuary, Mersey Narrows and Alt and Ribble Estuaries are of international or national importance is a very long one and all three estuaries are amongst the 20 most important wintering bird sites in Britain. Farmland is also of great importance in winter, especially for Pink-footed Geese, and the sea area off the Merseyside coast is about to designated as part of the Liverpool Bay SPA for its internationally important populations of Common Scoter and Red-throated Diver.

All numbers do fluctuate between years and those of some species are on the up with others apparently in decline, overall there has been no reduction in the size of these wintering populations.

All in all, North Merseyside is a very, very important place for birds, so please bear that in mind when reading the somewhat sketchy and rather gloomy assessment on progress on the action plan species over the past 5-10 years.

Gains and Losses

First the good news - four new species have bred in North Merseyside in the past decade.

Buzzards probably first bred in Knowsley Park in the mid-1990s and ten or more pairs now nest annually; this is part of a national increase due largely to a reduction in persecution by gamekeepers.

For similar reasons, Ravens have gained a tentative toehold, first nesting on Liverpool-s Anglican Cathedral in 1999, on gasometers in Southport and St. Helens in 2001 and in the Liverpool Docks in 2002.

Open quotesAvocets first nested on the RSPB's Marshside reserve in 2002 and this is now their most important breeding site in 'Lancashire' with 14 pairs there in 2005Close quotesAvocets first nested on the RSPB's Marshside reserve in 2002 and this is now their most important breeding site in 'Lancashire' with 14 pairs there in 2005.

Our most surprising recent colonist, however, is the Kittiwake, a bird which normally nests on high cliffs (conspicuously lacking in Merseyside), but which has found a substitute on the seawall in the Liverpool Docks, where 60 or more pairs have bred for at least the past three years.

Open quotesUnfortunately, there are an equal number of losses to be set against these gainsClose quotesUnfortunately, there are an equal number of losses to be set against these gains, with one species now definitely extinct in North Merseyside and another three heading that way fast.

Up to five pairs of Turtle Doves nested regularly in North Merseyside after the destruction of their breeding stronghold (along with that of the Nightjar) at Simonswood Moss in the early 1980s, most recently at Churchtown in 1995 and Knowsley Park until the turn of the century - but none has done so since.

Also almost certainly now extinct are Black Redstarts which colonised Liverpool's derelict docklands after the Second World War. They formed a stronghold in the Canning and Albert Docks until their 'regeneration' in the 1980s and were last proven to breed near the Huskisson Dock in 1998.

The demise of the Spotted Flycatcher, another UK Priority Species, has been more dramatic. Open quotesThe local population was estimated at some 20-30 pairs, mostly in St. Helens and Knowsley, during 1997-2000 but there has been no confirmed breeding anywhere in North Merseyside since 2002Close quotesThe local population was estimated at some 20-30 pairs, mostly in St. Helens and Knowsley, during 1997-2000 but there has been no confirmed breeding anywhere in North Merseyside since 2002 and only occasional passage migrants are now seen.

Equally dramatic has been the virtual disappearance of Willow Tits from large areas of the 'county'. During 1997-2000 more than 70 pairs were found to be breeding at around 50 sites throughout North Merseyside, but by 2005 their known distribution had shrunk to just nine sites in St. Helens, one in Knowsley, and one or two possible sites in Liverpool and Sefton.

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were always scarce in our area but several sites, including Croxteth Country Park and Knowsley Park, usually held the odd pair and they were recorded at twelve sites during 1997-2000. Since then, however, only two birds have been seen, neither of them during the breeding season.

The Yellow Wagtail, a bird mostly associated with less intensive farmland, has shown a similar rapid decline and looks set to disappear from North Merseyside. Perhaps as many as 20 pairs bred during 1997-2000 but by 2005 these had been reduced to single pairs in south Liverpool and Rainford.

The Action Plans

Action plans for North Merseyside have been written for five UK Priority Species, Grey Partridge, Skylark, Song Thrush, Reed Bunting and Corn Bunting. A number of other Priority Species including Tree Sparrow, Bullfinch and Yellowhammer also occur in North Merseyside but not in sufficient numbers to warrant an action plan.

A further two action plans were written for species of local concern, Lapwing and urban birds (most importantly House Sparrow), and several other species are covered by the (not yet finalised) NW England Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Action Plan, notably breeding Common Tern and Kittiwake and wintering Common Scoter and Red-throated Diver.

A common thread running through all the bird plans was to establish baseline information on breeding distribution and population size. This was carried out by the Lancashire & Cheshire Fauna Society in 1997-2000 and published in 2001 (Pyefinch & Golborn. The Breeding Bird Atlas of Lancashire and North Merseyside).

This survey will be repeated in 2007-11. Until then, we have to rely on a handful of smaller surveys and some informed guesswork to assess trends for most species.

Grey Partridge

The North Merseyside population was estimated as 300 pairs in 1997-2000, spread fairly thinly throughout most farmland areas. Their local breeding range remains unchanged but it is believed that population size is at best stable and probably continuing to decline. There have been a few very local extinctions, primarily in urban areas and the urban fringe and the species is close to being lost from Liverpool.

Open quotesOverall, though, North Merseyside appears to retain reasonable numbers and the population seems not to have declined as seriously as elsewhere in Britain where numbers fell by 40% between 1994 and 2005Close quotesOverall, though, North Merseyside appears to retain reasonable numbers and the population seems not to have declined as seriously as elsewhere in Britain where numbers fell by 40% between 1994 and 2005.

The most important issue for all our farmland birds is to encourage the uptake of Environmental Stewardship; particularly important for Grey Partridge is the provision of uncultivated field margins. This work used to be undertaken by the Mersey Forest team until 2004 and is now a high priority for the Merseyside Biodiversity Group.

Lapwing

Lapwing population size was not estimated during the 1997-2000 survey but this was remedied in 2002-2003 when breeding densities of up to 7 pairs per square kilometre were found and the North Merseyside population estimated at 1500 pairs.

Together with Lancashire, North Merseyside represents a national stronghold for Lapwings, between them holding approximately 20% of the total English and Welsh population. They breed on both arable farmland and pasture but the highest densities are on the managed grasslands of nature reserves - Marshside RSPB supported 81 pairs in 2005 at a density of almost one pair per hectare.

The breeding range remains stable and no recent extinctions have been reported. Open quotesIt is thought that the North Merseyside population is roughly stable, compared with a national decline of 21% between 1994 and 2005Close quotesIt is thought that the North Merseyside population is roughly stable, compared with a national decline of 21% between 1994 and 2005.

Skylark

The North Merseyside population was estimated at 750 pairs and recent casual reports and limited site monitoring suggest that numbers have continued to fall, even that the decline may be accelerating.

There has been no recent change in the breeding range but a number of very local extinctions have taken place, particularly in urban areas.

Stonechat Steve Young
Good news for Stonechat is that numbers nationally have risen sharply. But it calls into question the value of our local action plan.

Stonechat

At the time the local action plan was written the Sefton Coast breeding population represented about 25% of the region's (Lancashire & North Merseyside) and its national population was in moderate decline.

However, since 1994 the national population has increased by a massive 227%, (probably largely as a result of a series of mild winters in the uplands) and the regional population by perhaps as much as 500%. The justification for retaining our local action plan for the ten or so pairs that continue to nest on the Sefton Coast has, therefore, largely disappeared.

Song Thrush

Song Thrushes nested commonly throughout virtually the whole of North Merseyside during 1997-2000 but the largest concentrations were found in gardens on the fringes of the conurbation. This made it impossible to produce a reliable population estimate.

Casual records received in the past five years suggest that their numbers have increased. This would reflect the national trend - having fallen by 33% between 1975 and 1994 the Song Thrush population has increased by 18% between 1994 and 2005. It would be nice to able to claim this as a success for the BAP process but the truth is that, beyond vital research, little action has been undertaken for Song Thrushes and the reasons for their recent resurgence are not fully understood.

House Sparrow

Open quotesNationally, House Sparrow numbers fell by around 60% over the past 25 yearsClose quotesNationally, House Sparrow numbers fell by around 60% over the past 25 years; the reasons are still not clear but probably relate largely to a combination of a loss of nesting sites due to modern house-building practices and declining food resources, perhaps most importantly of small insects in urban areas during the breeding season.

The breeding population of North Merseyside was surveyed in 2001-2002 and estimated at 11,400 pairs. We have no idea how large the population was previously but there is no doubt that numbers have declined significantly. House Sparrows have almost completely disappeared from large areas of inner-city Liverpool in the past 10-15 but strong populations persist in many urban fringe and suburban areas, notably parts of St. Helens, Crosby, Southport and north Liverpool.

Corn Bunting Steve Young
Numbers of Corn Buntings are still holding their own in Sefton, in contrast to the national decline

Reed Bunting

The North Merseyside population was estimated at 300 pairs in 1997-2000 and casual reports suggest that numbers have probably increased since then, perhaps in line with the national increase of 30% between 1994 and 2005.

Despite their name, Reed Buntings are not confined to large reedbeds but also inhabit quite small habitat patches, including vegetated ditches, but one of the main reasons for their national, and probably local, recovery has been their adaptation to nesting in some arable crops, especially oil-seed rape.

Corn Bunting

In contrast to Reed Buntings, the national decline of Corn Buntings shows no sign of halting - numbers fell by 32% between 1994 and 2005.

We have no hard evidence suggesting any recent change in the North Merseyside population, which was estimated at 300 pairs during 1997-2000, although casual records suggest that numbers have fallen on farmland in south Liverpool and Knowsley.

Open quotesHowever, there seems little doubt that North Merseyside, together with surrounding areas of West Lancashire, remains a national stronghold for the speciesClose quotesHowever, there seems little doubt that North Merseyside, together with surrounding areas of West Lancashire, remains a national stronghold for the species.

Author: Steve White. November 2006.