Morecambe Bay's Birds

Image: Knot (Calidris canuta) taking off from high tide roost. Copyright 2020Vision/Andy Rouse

Morecambe Bay has a huge “ tidal range” or difference between the position of the highest spring tide and the lowest neap tide.  This leaves a vast area of intertidal mudflats and rocky skeers which are covered and uncovered twice-daily by the tides.  This intertidal area is fringed in many places by either saltmarsh,  sand dunes, shingle beaches, man-made structures such as promenades and sea defence groynes or occasionally (such as at Heysham Head) small cliffs.

The intertidal areas are used as a feeding area for thousands of wading birds whilst thousands of wildfowl utilise the abundant food available in the relatively shallow waters.

Many of these birds specialise in a certain type of animal or plant living within this intertidal area.  Brent Geese, for example, are only regularly found around Roa Island, Rampside and Walney as they feed on Eel grass.  Others birds feed on creatures which can be found all over the Bay.  Mussels and cockles are two of these and it is not surprising that Morecambe Bay is the best site in Britain for the chief mussel and cockle eater, the rather oddly-named Oystercatcher.

Image: Oyster-catchers on shoreline. Copyright 2020Vision/Peter Cairns

As the tide covers the feeding areas, the birds gather into larger and larger flocks in preparation for their twice-daily rest at a high tide roost on a suitably undisturbed location such as a saltmarsh or sea defence groyne .  Before they settle down, they can indulge in murmurations which are equally as spectacular as the more well-known Starling gatherings.  These murmurations are often a mixture of several species, usually dominated by enormous numbers of Knot. 

Good sites to observe this spectacle are:

  • between the west side of Sunderland Point and Heysham Power Stations,
  • Potts Corner giving suitable vehicle access.

Many of the birds present in Morecambe Bay disappear to the Arctic regions for an extremely rapid  breeding season in the short Arctic summer. The Sanderling  breeds in upland areas of Greenland which transform from an icy wasteland for only a matter of a few weeks in midsummer.  Therefore they head north in late May and early June and are arriving back here from early July!  This means that the oft quoted “Morecambe Bay is an important wintering area for wildfowl and waders” is not really the whole picture as many of these birds are only absent for a short period, usually May to July.

Image: Sanderling (Calidris alba) on shoreline. Copyright 2020Vision/Peter Cairns

This can lead to conflict at time of high leisure pursuit demand, such as the school holiday period in August.  It is very important that August, for example, is seen as a significant month for birds in Morecambe Bay and not a time when disturbance ‘does not matter’ as it is well before the winter period.   Resolving these issues, so that leisure interests and wildlife can mutually coexist is exactly what Morecambe Bay Partnership is working to achieve through our 700 Days and Headlands to Headspace projects.

With thanks to Pete Marsh for writing this piece.

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