High tides and volant voles

An unplanned visit to the flooded Dee Marshes is rewarded with a wildlife spectacle.

Catching up on Twitter in a Wirral Starbucks the morning after Storm Eleanor, I read the following:

@RSPB_BurtonMere Burton Marsh completely flooded! Lunchtime’s high tide could be spectacular! Get down to Parkgate!

An immediate change of plan. Twenty minutes later, I pull into the marsh-side car park at Parkgate. There are dozens of birders already there, all of them far better equipped (and insulated) than me. So I head over to a quiet corner and take shelter behind a convenient wall.

The Dee Marshes only flood a few times a year. The signs of the previous high tide are unmistakeable: flattened marsh grass; plastic jetsam; rank, salty mud. A second flood seems unlikely: an hour before high tide, there’s only the customary distant glint of water way across the marshes near the Welsh bank.

I’m soon joined by a couple of birders. We trade bird tales as the waters slowly encroach into the marsh. It’s bitterly cold. I’m ill-prepared for such conditions, but it’s worth it. There are far more birds flying about than usual: gulls, geese, ducks, waders, starlings, herons, egrets. I’m told I just missed a male hen harrier. I’m immediately compensated with a brief sighting of a short-eared owl scudding low across the rising water channels.

The birds become more agitated as the tide reaches the scrape. A water rail comes tearing across the marsh like a roadrunner and vanishes beneath the wall at our feet. He’s followed by dozens of terrified voles, many of which are swept up by gulls and gobbled down whole, mid-air. Others are dropped during gullish squabbles. One jettisoned vole flies so close that all three of us duck. It splats into the soft marsh and promptly disappears: a lucky escape. I take another look for the hiding water rail. He spots me, and makes a bolt for it across a shallow pool, disappearing round the corner of the wall.

I’m shivering uncontrollably now. My heated car-seat beckons, but I manage to hold out for another half-hour or so, until I can no longer feel my fingers.

What a spectacular start to the new year!

Lapwings over the Dee Marshes.
The rising tide reaches the scrape
The rising tide reaches the scrape.
Water rail
Water rail.
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole
Two black-headed gulls squabble over a vole.
Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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How a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history.
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