Lancashire’s variety of estuaries, coastal dunes, wetlands, farmland, woodlands and moorland make it one of the richest ornithological regions in Britain at all times of the year. More than 360 different bird species have been seen in the ‘county’, out of a British total of 572.
More than 150 species have bred in the Trust’s area in the past 100 years, about 140 of them annually.
They include several national rarities, including Black-necked Grebe in Greater Manchester, Bittern at Leighton Moss and perhaps on the Wigan Flashes, Black-Tailed Godwit and Ruff on the Ribble Marshes and Hen Harrier on the moors of the Forest of Bowland. A pair of Spoonbills nested on the Ribble Marshes in 1999, the first to do so in Britain since the 17th century.
A lack of cliffs limits the variety of breeding seabirds but large numbers of gulls and terns nest on the coast and inland. Tarnbrook Fell holds the UK’s largest inland colony of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the Ribble Marshes one of the largest coastal colonies of Black-headed Gulls. Large Common Tern colonies are found at Seaforth and Banks Marsh and other sites with important numbers of breeding gulls include Leighton Moss and Belmont and Stocks Reservoirs.
A few species have become extinct in Lancashire over the past century, most recently Nightjar and Turtle Dove, and concern is mounting over a handful of others, including Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow Wagtail, Wood Warbler, Willow Tit and Twite. Rather more species, however, have colonised in recent years, including Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier at Leighton Moss, Avocet at several sites and Kittiwake in the Liverpool Docks. Others have greatly increased in numbers, notably Buzzard, Peregrine and Nuthatch.
As in the rest of the country, numbers of many farmland birds like Skylark have fallen dramatically in the last quarter century but Lancashire continues to hold very healthy populations of Lapwing and Corn Bunting. Nationally important populations of upland species such as Red Grouse, Redshank and Curlew also still thrive.
Lancashire’s mild maritime climate attracts large numbers of Arctic and northern European-breeding birds during the winter months, mostly to the coastal estuaries and lowland farmland. The county holds more than 1% of the European population of 24 species, most notably Whooper Swan and Pink-footed Goose on saltmarshes and arable land, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit and Knot on inter-tidal flats, and Wigeon, Pintail and Teal on estuarine marshes.
Huge flocks of waders and wildfowl may be encountered anywhere on the coastline from Liverpool to Morecambe Bay but the largest concentrations occur in the Mersey Estuary, the Formby-Southport beaches, the Ribble and north Fylde saltmarshes, the Wyre and Lune Estuaries and around Morecambe – and inland at Martin Mere.
As waterfowl begin to move north in early spring they are replaced by birds that have spent the winter in Africa. Many of these end up breeding in northern Britain but others are heading further north, especially to Iceland, stopping in Lancashire for just a few days to ‘refuel’. Many species are involved but Lancashire is particularly important for just a few.
Amongst the earliest of these, from late March, are White Wagtails and Greenland Wheatears, for which the Lancashire coast provides a crucial stopover site.
In mid-April up to 1000 Little Gulls arrive on the lagoons at Seaforth/Crosby on their way to nest in Finland – by far the largest spring assembly anywhere in Britain. At the end of April into early May, Icelandic-breeding Whimbrels feed on the farmland of the central plain, roosting mainly at Barnacre Reservoir and Brockholes Quarry – with 2000 or so birds involved Lancashire is by far the most important area for this species in Britain.
Many seabirds too are caught up in the rush northwards, most notably several thousand Arctic Terns which move through Morecambe Bay from late April and are mostly seen from Heysham.
No one species stands out amongst the hundreds of thousands of autumn migrants, amongst which a handful of vagrant rarities turns up each year, but the right weather conditions can produce spectacular daytime movements of songbirds from northern Britain, Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia, such as Redwings, Fieldfares, Meadow Pipits and Chaffinches.