Trains and Boats and Birds

Commence the walk from the free public car park near Morrisons; thence proceed to the modern swing bridge at the dock entrance – not surprisingly a renowned haunt of steam railway photographers – to gain the signed Riverside Walk.   From there walk west past the curiously named ‘Bull Nose’ and the Rabble steam railway centre.  Thereafter the path gradually becomes less obvious but perseverance will lead you past a go-kart/motor cycle circuit and onto the confluence of Savick Brook nowadays known as the Millennium Link.   A raised embankment gives an interrupted view of the channel and marshes but do not venture out onto the exposed mud.  At the confluence it is recommended you walk inland to view the adjacent Ashton Marsh before retracing your steps to the Marina with further opportunities to view the Ribble, ideally at a different state of the tide

The walk takes in the Preston Dock Marina and a tidal section of the River Ribbble – where good bird watching may be enjoyed as far as the Millennium Link – the farthest point of the walk. At times the footpath runs parallel to the splendid Ribble Steam Railway; allowing good views of this operational railway and hence trains and boats and birds.

In October 1846, a railway branch line was constructed from the North Union Preston station to serve the Victoria Quay on the River Ribble, via a steep gradient of 1 in 29.  The line was extended to serve the new Preston Docks in 1882 and fortuitously the line continues to be used for commercial freight and is operated for public enjoyment by the Ribble Steam Railway’s dedicated team of enthusiasts.   Preston Dock owes its origins to the River Ribble and the real advances that were made by the time of the   Preston Guild (1882) in the social, economic and physical fabric of the town.  Preston has long been at the hub of the road and rail network, and is also the administrative centre of Lancashire County Council.  Preston Docks was opened for commercial trading during 1892 providing about 500 jobs by 1911 and helping to consolidate Preston’s key position in the transport sector. Furthermore the Albert Edward Dock was the largest single inland dock basin in the world.

During the construction of Preston Dock, a major archaeological legacy came from deep beneath the surface of the river bed yielding evidence of the wildlife and artefacts that existed pre-history.  A ‘head count’ of severed skulls comprised of 30 human skulls, over 100 skulls of red deer; several now extinct wild ox; two pilot whale skulls, a Bronze spear head and two dug-out canoes.  This collection has been immortalised in The Harris Museum at Preston. Research findings indicate that this material has probably accumulated since the time of the Bronze Age and the exact reason for its deposition at this point has yet to be ascertained.

Witnessing the activity of a busy commercial port with an assortment of vessels moored around the basin certainly engendered a very interesting day out. I well remember the dock in the 1950/60s and the fleet of ancient dredgers and the neat little steam tug boat ‘Lucas,’ that facilitated the import of bananas on splendid white vessels and the very first roll on roll off car ferries Empire Nordic, Empire Doric, Empire Cedric and others in the same fleet that were later superseded by the Bardic and Ionic Ferry. There was also a flourishing trade in timber and coal. Sadly, the land locked Port of Preston closed in 1981 when it became uneconomic to constantly dredge the Ribble between the docks and the estuary at Lytham. Many Prestonians will remember the former Isle of Man ferry, TSS ‘Manxman.’ This grand old vessel managed to circumnavigate the river when it entered the dock in 1981 to become a floating nightclub.  Sadly, in 1991 the owners decided to relocate the vessel and she was towed up the heavily silted channel to the open sea to Liverpool. Nowadays the Ribble is the domain of pleasure craft, although exceptionally, during 2010/11, a huge shallow draughter coaster the ‘MV River Carrier,’ was used to convey several giant transformers which were towed from Ellesmere Port to a riverside quay at Penwortham.  This will probably turn out to be the last large commercial vessel to visit Preston.  The dock has now been transformed into the Riversway Docklands and marina.  The marina itself provides moorings and dedicated facilities for large ocean going yachts and canal barges. The latter can now navigate the nearby Millennium link which successfully links the nation’s canal network.

There is a signed public footpath – Riverside Walk – which allows good views across the river and provides opportunities for bird watching, though the dock basin itself is always worth a look.  Bird watching on the river is both seasonal and tide dependent.  Understanding the specific requirements of individual species and the timing of seasonal occurrences is crucial when bird watching, especially for anyone wanting to take their bird watching to a more advance level and keeping a record of all that you see is one of the hallmarks of being a good birder. Habitat is crucial and the dock basin, a tidal river with associated salt marsh and exposed mud are exploited by gulls, terns waders and wildfowl. Numbers vary throughout the year and with the height and movements of the tide.

In winter cormorants and the occasional shag visit the dock basin and the former may also be seen flying along the channel, perching on the markers of the Ribble navigation or standing on the mud with their wings hanging out to dry. Great crested grebes occur from time to time both in the dock basin and on the river.  On approaching the quay check the wintering gull flocks. The regular black headed gull flocks should be scrutinised for Mediterranean gulls.  Most of the gulls will take bread allowing a close inspection.  Scrutinise the larger gulls perched on the pontoons, most will be lesser black-backed greater black-backed, herring and common gull but check for anything different including rarer species that visit the dock occasionally. For example a single ring billed gull which is a scarce visitor from North America made the Trans Atlantic crossing and successfully docked at Preston a few years ago and during the winter of 2010/11 a first winter immature Iceland Gull from the Arctic equally found the dock basin to be a safe haven. This special winter visitor was content to forage for food on or just below the surface of the water and was also supplied with copious amounts of bread by visiting bird watchers from near and afar.  Despite the name, Iceland Gulls breed in Canada and Iceland and although rare in Lancashire, especially Preston, are relatively common winter visitors to the North West coast of Scotland.

The man made islands have been positioned in the dock to provide a secure nesting site for terns which may be seen flying over the basin and river channel from April into the summer.   Common and possibly Arctic terns can be seen flying over the dock basin and river channel but these two are hard to distinguish apart and are thus colloquially known as comic terns. Black terns and little gulls on passage during spring and autumn are also possible.   Along the Riverside Walk section of the route do not forget to check any trees, bushes, rough ground for any unsuspecting rarity that might just be lurking.  Also check the old tide lines for wintering meadow pipits, linnets and rock pipits and at passage periods for rock and meadow pipit, pied and white wagtails.  During March look out for a ground hopping relatively common little migrant with bags of character and a conspicuous white rump which identifies it as a wheatear en route from Africa to upland breeding sites. The name is misleading and wheat is an aberration of white and a reference to the bird’s conspicuous white rump which is diagnostic and prominent in flight

As you progress along the river side footpath dense low stands of bramble are ideal for whitethroats, listen out for their scalding sounds and song especially during late April.

Linnets are still fairly common and the resident kestrel may be seen hovering over rough ground looking for small mammals. The remains of a large wooden pier are often  frequented by cormorants strategically perched whilst assessing the fishing potential or resting between feeding.  At low tide with much sand still exposed there is usually a good selection of waders visible including oystercatcher, dunlin, curlew, redshank and in autumn small numbers of less common passage migrants such as greenshank, spotted redshank and even rarer species. During spring and autumn common sandpipers draw attention by their distinctive call and characteristic flight as they fly low over the surface of the water and perch with characteristic posture. When the tide starts to flow wildfowl and waders are pushed onto even smaller areas of mud and salt marsh adjoining the river channel. The attention then shifts to the channel where there are usually numbers of Canada geese, mallard, shelduck, teal, wigeon,  goosander, a few goldeneye and great crested grebe

A good vantage point is at the confluence of the millennium link and the adjacent Ashton Marsh, where the habitat of rough ground and willow scrub predictably harbours returning willow warblers from late April as well as numerous rabbits. The river, canal and coastal creeks are possible haunts of the kingfisher, which are sometimes seen outside the breeding season using posts as fishing perches. Black tail godwits haunt the edge of the river, marshes and adjacent fields. Grey herons are commonly seen on the river and the  Millennium Link and within two kilometres of the confluence build huge nests and raise their bizarre looking youngsters at a tree top heronry.  By late April and May flocks of migrating whimbrel are instantly identifiable by their repetitive and are appropriately known by country people as ‘May Birds’ a reference to the spring migration of this northern wader.  Besides typical coastal waders there are often numbers of shelduck, mallard, teal, lapwing and passage golden plover on the marsh, high tide time is usually easy to detect as calm descends on the assembled roosting flocks. This can of course, be quickly shattered by the sudden appearance of a merlin or a local peregrine which nests on the spire of  St. Walburge’s Church, Preston. Peregrines provoke instant panic in the massed ranks of smaller waders, creating a magnificent spectacle as the flocks weave and turn at great speed as the falcon attempts to out fly or stoop on its intended prey.