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The four beds at Woolston Deposit Grounds SSSI, are managed as a nature reserve by the Woolston Eyes Conservation Group in agreement with the Manchester Ship Canal Company. Parts of the site are still in use to accommodate dredging from the Manchester Ship Canal.
No.1 bed which is to the east of the motorway (the Thelwall Viaduct) consists primarily of rough grassland, willow and increasingly birch scrub. Previous sand extraction created a number of pools with phragmites and typha margins which attract small numbers of Snipe and wild fowl. Approxiamately half, northern sector, the bed has been used for landfill of non-hazardous soil and stone excavation waste over the last decade and the undisturbed areas of this are now giving rise to rough grassland and early willow scrub.
No.2 bed which lies adjacent to No1 bed but on the west side of the motorway (the Thelwall Viaduct) is currently being used for pumping dredgings from the canal on the eastern side and is consequently attractive to wildfowl. During late summer and early autumn, when water levels are at their lowest, muddy margins can appear which provide loafing areas for wildfowl, gulls and a few waders. The western side is now dried out sandy dredgings with largely Reed Canary Grass, willow scrub and other dense rank vegetation including an increasing area of Giant Hogweed and a central area of mature Willow and Sycamore trees.
No.3 bed lies to the north of a meander of the river and west of No2 bed. It was made into an island by the diversion of the river along its north bank. The north and east sides of the bed is shallowly flooded and contains extensive beds of phragmites and typha with a network of cleared channels and open water. The western and southern half of the bed is covered in dense vegetation, mainly grasses, nettles, thistle, willowherb and willow scrub. Wild flower meadows and winter feed crops have been introduced into this area, to increase the habitat diversity. The site attracts high numbers of wildfowl, gulls and management of the water levels attracts passage waders.
No.4 bed, to the west of No3 bed, also lies between the river and the canal. Dredging deposit is only carried out on the southern tip of the bed with the old deposit beds now dried out and these undisturbed areas have developed a dense cover of willow scrub, nettle and other rank vegetation including large swathes of Giant Hogweed. The north-west loop of the bed has been redeveloped by the WECG (Woolston Eyes Conservation Group) to create a shallow flooded area with islands, channels and phragmites margins for the benefit of wildfowl, gulls and waders.
All the beds are enclosed within steep embankments with rough grassland and scrub. In places taller poplars and willow grow alongside the river whose banks are covered in parts by hawthorn, elder, bramble. These banks and the mature habitats adjoining the flooded aspects inside are bird-rich at most times of year with late summer warbler flocks and early winter thrush flocks being particularly notable. The river and canal both seem to be benefiting from the slow improvement in water quality. In winter substantial flocks of diving duck, including Tufted Ducks, Pochards, Goldeneyes, Goosanders and the odd Scaup, Scoter or Smew can reliably be found on the river where it encircles No.3 bed. The rubbish tips at both ends of the reserve have now closed and been capped, with both being attractive to winter feeding finches and thrushes.
In all, two hundred and thirty two species have been recorded on the Reserve, including thirteen species of raptor, more than thirty species of wader, all five grebes, the three woodpeckers, and five species of owl. Click here for a full species list
Lying next to the Mersey, the flooded beds inevitably attract large numbers of dabbling ducks moving inland from the estuary. The Mersey Valley Pochard flock also spends time here, making this an excellent place to see winter wildfowl. Typically a thousand or more Teal are present, sometimes several times this figure, with several hundred Mallard and Pochard, a hundred or so Shoveller, Gadwall and Tufted Duck, and a few Pintail. Ruddy Duck were also a regular feature. Other species of wildfowl occur less frequently or in smaller numbers, and scarce or rare species such as Ring-necked Duck, Feruginous and Long-tailed Duck, Green Winged Teal, Common Scoter and Smew have been noted. In late autumn and winter skeins of Pink-footed Geese can often be observed making hard weather movements to the east coast.
The water margins of No.3 bed are an excellent nesting habitat for Black-necked, Great Crested and Little Grebes plus Teal, Shoveller, Mallard, Pochard, Gadwall, Tufted and historically Ruddy Ducks. Pintail and Garganey are also suspected of breeding in some years. A similar range of species can also be found breeding on No.2 bed, dependant on water levels. A substantial Black-headed Gull colony dominates the water margins in No.3 bed in spring and early summer.
The Eyes is particularly important, in a county context, for its breeding populations of common warblers. Regular counts of singing males during the breeding season identify significant numbers of Sedge Warblers, Whitethroats, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Reed Warblers, plus small numbers of Grasshopper Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warblers and Cetti’s Warblers. In the damper areas upto 100 Reed Bunting are present in summer.
Large aggregations of aerial feeders may be present from May to September, with many hundreds of Swifts joining the swirling flocks of hirundines feeding over the insect rich lagoons. In most years there is a sizeable Swallow roost. Inevitably, a Hobby is often in attendance and provides some spectacular aerial performances. From October to early winter thousands of Redwing and other thrushes arrive to feed on the berry-rich hawthorns around the banks of the beds.
In winter roosts dwindle as food supplies diminish, although Starling roosts develop in most winters, in the reedbeds of No1 or No3 beds, incorporating a few hundred birds to over 200,000 individuals. The larger roosts give rise to spectacular mumurations as the numbers rise prior to actual roosting and inevitably these attract numerous resident raptors as Tawny, Barn and Long-eared Owl, Peregrine and Sparrowhawk in particular. Finches, notably Linnets, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Chaffinches flock to feed on weed seeds and the winter seed crops cultivated for their benefit, with odd Siskins and Bramblings regularly located amongst them . A sprinkling of Chiffchaff remains in willow scrub during most winters and Firecrests have occasionally wintered alongside the more numerous Goldcrests.
Wader passage is much smaller than the early years of the Reserve due to the increased vegetation on cessation of the pumping regime into the beds. Spring passage is typically light, but can throw anything up. Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel are seen regularly. Little Ringed Plover appear annually and usually attempt to breed. The inland spread of Ringed Plover has resulted in this species also breeding. Autumn passage is much more reliable and although not as prolific as in the past, Snipe, Jack Snipe, Lapwing and Black-tailed Godwit are reliably present, with the occasional Green Sandpiper, Dunlins, Greenshanks, Wood Sandpiper etc. for company.
As far as rare or scarce birds are concerned, Woolston remains an opportunity for the discovery of that ever-elusive rarity. Over three plus decades of observation by a small number of enthusiasts, spread over Woolston
s huge acreage, has produced some good birds, including: Storm and Leachs Petrels, Spoonbill, Bittern, Night and Purple Herons, Ring-necked and Ferruginous Ducks, Quail, Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards, Red Kite, Montague
s Harrier, Temmincks Stint, White-rumped, Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Red-necked and Wilson`s Phalaropes, Great and Arctic Skuas, Laughing, Mediterranean and Ring-billed Gulls, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns, Bee-eater, Nightjar, Golden Oriole, Bluethroat, Great Grey Shrike, Marsh Warbler, Firecrest and Nutcracker.
Over 160,000 birds have been ringed at Woolston since ringing first started here in 1980. Teams now operates on two of the four beds throughout the year, ringing around 5,000 birds per year. During more recent years, Woolston has taken part in an international ringing programme, aimed at studying those migratory species which winter in Africa. During the summer and early autumn large numbers of common warblers are ringed, with full biometrics taken, as part of that research programme. In the latter part of the year the focus is on tape-luring overflying finches and buntings. At any time there is the constant chance of the odd surprise or mega rarity, the latest, among these rarities, being Great Britain’s 6th record of White Crowned Sparrow in 2016.
Ringing is a physically demanding and a time consuming occupation but one which brings many rewards in terms of our knowledge of national and local bird populations. If you are interested in observing, or taking a more active part in the ringing programme, then please contact John Blundell through the website email facility via the ‘Contact’ tab.