Publisher: Privately published
Publication Year: 2018
Page Count: 248
ISBN Number: 9781527212503
Price: £ 33.50
Rare and Scarce Birds of Cheshire & Wirral
This book was reviewed by Andy Stoddart on behalf of British Birds. The original review can be read on the BB website: https://britishbirds.co.uk/article/rare-scarce-birds-cheshire-wirral/
Having grown up on the Wirral peninsula and begun my birding career there I was excited to lay my hands on this new book. It begins with four fascinating short chapters. The first provides an overview of the Wirral’s long history of seabird records, most notably of course its sometimes exceptional numbers (and also exceptional views) of Leach’s Petrels Oceanodroma leucorhoa. The other three chapters focus on some of the more dramatic status changes which have taken place in the county in recent years – the invasion of Great White Egrets Ardea alba and Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis (the latter now a breeder here), the increased prominence of scoter Melanitta flocks (including Surf Scoters M. perspicillata) and the remarkable 2016 influx of Yellow-browed Warblers Phylloscopus inornatus. It is salutary to think that by the time I left Wirral in the mid-1980s I had never seen any of these latter species in the area.
The next segment of the book comprises a useful and very clear map of the area and a site guide to the more notable birding locations, from the sandstone ramparts of Hilbre Island in the north-west via the internationally important Dee and Mersey estuaries to the freshwater wetlands of Sandbach Flashes in the south-east. The meat of the book is of course the 161 individual species accounts. These follow a standard format beginning with an overview of the species’ home range and status in Britain. Then come the details of the Cheshire & Wirral occurrences, with, for the rarer species, all records listed. The texts are solid and accurate – the only error I noted was that Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans has four subspecies, not two as stated here.
Some of the systematic list was a real trip down memory lane. I was pleased to be reminded of two famous bird characters – the extraordinary wintering Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus at West Kirby from 1974 to 1979 and the Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides which returned to New Brighton each winter from 1955 to 1985. It was also nice to reminisce about the great seabird autumn of 1978 and my first Leach’s Petrel, Sabine’s Gull Xema sabini and Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus, the latter identified thanks to the ‘Witherby Handbook’ in the school library. An equally happy read was the account of the 1979 Asian Desert Warbler Sylvia nana at Meols, my first ‘top drawer’ rarity and the subject of an anxious after-school dash following a tip-off from the late ‘Prof’ Craggs.
Since those days the keen birders of Cheshire & Wirral have gone on to find an enviable list of rare birds. The best passerine I found on Hilbre (my first much-loved local patch) was a Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla but in more recent years the members of the Observatory there have gone on to claim much greater prizes including Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Paddyfield Warbler Acrocephalus agricola and even Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola! The roll call of star finds across the rest of the county (including American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus, Little Swift Apus affinis, Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus and White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys) serves as a reminder that persistence and alertness always pay off. Inevitably, the list of rarities includes many Nearctic species but the simultaneous presence of an Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis and a Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva in the same garden (at Meols in October 1971) would be impressive anywhere on the east coast. An engaging feature of the book is the inclusion of ‘finder’s accounts’, all of which capture well the subtle mix of shock, panic and joy which can accompany the discovery of a rare bird.
The text is relieved by a generous helping of photographs, some of which (for example the Leach’s Petrel against a rearing wave) are simply superb. Others are a little more ‘retro’ but are no less pleasing for that. There are some great habitat shots too, that of a storm-lashed New Brighton being particularly dramatic. Also on show is the terrific artwork of Ray Scally, known to many for illustrating the late Martin Garner’s ‘Challenge’ series. I particularly liked the diminutive and jizzy Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochioloides and the sun-drenched Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola.
This book is a superb summary of the rare bird highlights of what is demonstrably a great birding area. For anyone who lives or who has lived in the county this will be an essential purchase but it deserves a wider audience too. Looking back to my formative years on Wirral (birding by bicycle and with no telescope) I wonder what I missed!
Book reviewed by Andy Stoddart