The Dee Estuary, on the North Wales / North-West England border, is one of the UK’s best spots for wetland and shorebirds. The Estuary is vast, covering more than 6,500 hectares of tidal habitats stretching 14 miles along the Welsh shore from Oakenholt to Talacre, and six miles on the English side from Burton to Gayton. The mixture of extensive wetland habitats with pockets of woodland supports wetland birds such as curlews, kingfishers, avocets, and herons, woodland birds such as jays, collared doves, and goldcrest, and raptors such as hen and marsh harriers and short-eared owls. Given this diversity, the Dee is the third most important estuary in the UK for waterbirds, supporting over 100,000 birds!
There are lots of places along the Estuary (from both the English and Welsh sides) where you can look out for the birdlife of the area – check out this guide for loads of details. Two of the highlights are the RSPB reserves at Burton Mere – made up of woodlands and reedbeds – and Parkgate – an extensive area of saltmarsh. Between these two sites, there is a huge expanse of marshland. Here you can wander a series of trails looking out for wading birds and raptors.
Average rating: 3.5 (good)
Average cost: Burton Mere costs around $8 for non-RSPB members while Parkgate is free. The marshes outside of the reserves are free to access.
Best time to visit: you can visit the Estuary year-round and there’s always some birdlife to see. If you want to see raptors head in autumn or winter to look out for them flying low over the marshes hunting for prey.
How to get there: both RSPB reserves are accessible by car and have car parks. There are also a number of spots along the edge of the marshes where you can park up and head out for a walk. Parkgate is possible to get to via public transport – Neston train station is around 2 miles away and there is a bus direct to the Reserve. Burton Mere is less accessible with the nearest station (also Neston) being 3.4 miles away, and the nearest bus running to Ness Botanic Gardens (1.4 miles away).
Typical activities: bird watching, walking
Number of reports: 4
Last updated: 2023
WILDLIFE IN Dee Estuary
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the top 10 most popular species that can be seen here are:
#1 hen harrier – 25% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Dee Estuary is home to the UK’s most persecuted raptor – the hen harrier. They get their names from their habit of preying on grouse and fowl – which has brought them into conflict with gamekeepers and farmers. Hen harriers nest in upland moorlands, moving to coastal areas in winter. One of the RSPB’s star species of Parkgate, you can see them hunting over the marshes in autumn and winter. They can also be spotted hunting over the pools and wetlands at Burton Mere. Males are a blue-grey colour, pale underneath, with black wingtips. Females are brown above and streaky underneath, with striped tails.
For the best chances of spotting one, head to the Old Baths car park near to the Boathouse pub. There is a hen harrier roost nearby and is the location for the RSPB Raptor Watch. The car park provides a great vantage point to look out over the marsh. High tide provides the perfect conditions for a phenomenal show of raptors. As the incoming tide floods the saltmarsh, the raptors move closer in towards the viewing areas to feed. Make sure to stick around till dusk when the hen harriers start to return to roost. The nearby pub is a great place to warm up after a cold evening bird watching!
#2 short-eared owl – 25% of WildSide Users (1/4) reported sightings
The other major raptor star that can be spotted in the Dee Estuary is the short-eared owl. Unusually for owls, short-ears prefer to be out and about in the daytime so are relatively easy to spot compared to other owls. Early morning or late day are usually good times to look. The Estuary is a fantastic place to spot them hunting from autumn to early spring. Look out for them flying low over the marshes searching for field voles and small birds. Particularly in the saltmarsh around Denhall Quay which has become a prime location for short-eared owls to hunt.
#3 marsh harrier – 74% OF WILDSIDE USERS (3/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The open wetlands of the Dee Estuary are a fantastic place to spot another of the UK’s rarest raptors – the marsh harrier. In 1971, this beautiful raptor was the UK’s rarest breeding bird. Since then, numbers have steadily increased and today there are around 600 breeding pairs. You can see them throughout the Estuary and are one of the star species at Burton Mere. Numbers are highest in autumn and winter. The largest of the harriers, females are brown with golden heads. Males have brown backs, ginger bellies, pale heads, and greyish wings.
#4 kingfisher – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Common (or Eurasian) kingfishers are typically found near slow-moving water, such as the wetland pools at Burton Mere where they are one of the RSPB’s star species. They are easily recognised by their bright blue and orange feathers. Kingfishers are around the size of house sparrows with large heads and dagger-like bills. However, they can be difficult to spot, even with their bright colours. Spend some time in the hides and listen out for their distinctive call (a shrill ‘chreee’ or ‘chee-kee’) which usually provides the best clue to their presence.
#5 Avocet – 50% OF WILDSIDE USERS (2/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Avocets became extinct in the UK in the 1840s thanks to egg collectors and taxidermists. However, in the Second World War, a bomb blew a hole in the sea wall at Havergate Island, just along the coast from the RSPB’s Minsmere Reserve. As the tidal river flooded in, it created the perfect conditions for this beautiful bird. Thanks to this and ongoing conservation efforts, they can now be seen again in England. They have even become the logo for the RSPB following their successful recolonisation of the UK. Spring sees the arrival of nesting avocets in Burton Mere. They stand out from other birds in the area due to their upturned bills, striking black and white colouring, and long blue legs – with Chris Packham calling them the ‘Audrey Hepburn of birds‘.
#6 Curlew – 50% OF WILDSIDE USERS (2/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Eurasian curlew is the largest wading bird found in Europe. They can be easily identified by their long, downcurved bills, mottled brown bodies, and long legs. They also have a unique call (which has been likened to crying!). Unfortunately, they are on the UK’s red list for conservation due to worrying declines in the breeding population throughout much of the UK (and the species is threatened globally too). Look out for curlews dotted around the saltmarshes of the Estuary – or from the hides at Burton Mere.
#7 Eurasian Jay – 25% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Jays are beautifully coloured members of the crow family. They are easily recognised by the brilliant blue feathers on their wings. Unlike crows and magpies, they are shy birds. So look out for a flash of white and blue and a screaming call as they fly between the trees. The best time to see them is autumn when they move about the trees looking for food. During this time they are easy to spot hunting for acorns which they store in their favourite hiding places to provide a source of food for winter. They live in both coniferous and deciduous woodland, especially where there are oak trees. The wooded areas of Burton Mere have a number of large oak trees, making it a good place to spot (or more likely hear) jays!
#8 goldcrest – 25% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The goldcrest is the UK’s smallest bird, being only 6 cm in length and weighing just 6 grams! Being so small, they can be very hard to spot, and always seem to be on the move. Their high-pitched ‘tsee’ call is useful for locating them in the trees. If you are able to spot one, the main identifying feature is the yellow crown on the top of the head. Goldcrest are widespread across the whole of the UK, but woodlands or parks with large mature trees appear to be the best places to see them. If you want to spot one check out the woodland paths and feeders at Burton Mere.
#9 grey heron – 75% OF WILDSIDE USERS (3/4) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Grey herons are large, unmistakeably graceful birds with long slender necks and legs. They are wetland birds and are commonly found in and around the Dee Estuary. They overwinter in the UK so you can spot them year-round. Herons are most often seen stood as still as statues in the shallower edges of lakes or ponds, patiently waiting for their next meal to swim by. In the Dee Estuary, you can see them throughout the wetlands and marshes, or flying overhead.
#10 collared dove – 25% of wildside users (1/4) reported sightings
The Eurasian collared dove is a regular breeder in the Estuary. While often overlooked, these small pigeons are beautiful birds. Collared doves feed on seeds and grains on the ground and are usually seen alone or in pairs. You can distinguish them from regular pigeons, larger wood pigeons, and rarer turtle doves by their buff coloured feathers and black collar around their necks. You can also listen out for their familiar ‘hoo hoooo-hoo’ call.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White