It’s been quite a year here at Leighton Moss. Most of our staff, volunteers and visitors would unanimously agree that the highlight has been the return of breeding bitterns after almost a decade. Not only was this a significant success in conserv…
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While we’ve been enjoying this rather lovely weather, the lack of precipitation has certainly had an effect on the reserve. In fact, the total rainfall figure of just 18mm set a new record low for the reserve in June. And after three consecutive weeks with no rain at all, it’s really showing. We have lost 25cm of water from the main reedbed through evaporation alone and Myer’s Dyke (which runs into Lilian’s Pool) has, according to former warden John Wilson, never been drier.
Myer’s Dyke (Jon Carter)
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; dynamic water level changes are often key to the overall health of a wetland habitat. One of the things that we have been doing here at Leighton Moss in recent years is deliberately drawing down water levels in summer to promote new growth. This, coupled with targeted reed cutting, creates a mosaic of areas that benefit a wide range of wildlife.
We birders too can benefit from a reduction of water on the meres as the increased muddy edges and shallower pools can encourage normally elusive red bed dwellers such as bitterns and water rails to come out into the open. And as late July sees a notable rise in the numbers of migrating waders on the move we can hope that this prime feeding habitat attracts a good selection. Already, in recent days we have seen an influx of black-tailed godwits and little egrets onto the Grisedale Pool while snipe numbers have increased across the reserve. Up to six greenshanks are being seen regularly on the island in front of the Causeway Hide and both common and green sandpipers have been spotted at various locations on the reserve. The Eric Morecambe and Allen Pools are practically bone dry at the moment but that should change with the predicted high tides over the next couple of days or so.
Greenshank (Mike Malpass)
The rather baffling lack of sightings of marsh harrier fledglings is somewhat frustrating – there appears to be plenty of food going into the nests and the adult birds can be seen and heard flying around calling, trying to entice the youngsters to stretch their wings but so far the chicks seem immune to the charms of exploration.
The wardening team have been busy, as always, with various jobs around the site. One of the most exciting for me is the creation of a new bearded tit viewing area along the Causeway. Anyone familiar with the grit trays will be aware of the limited space that is available when watching out for these enigmatic reedbed residents. In an effort to make viewing more comfortable, and safer too given the occasional farm vehicle that passes by, we are building a platform which will take visitors off the road. By starting the work now, we can ensure that it will be ready in plenty of time for autumn when the ‘beardies’ start to visit the trays. And with new grit trays in other areas of the reserve we hope to improve our visitors’ chances of seeing these wonderful birds.
New bearded tit viewing area under construction (Jon Carter)
As well as all the dazzling dragonflies around at the moment the reserve is also a great home for moths. The problem is, of course, that we rarely get chance to observe these nocturnal insects. Like many nature reserves, we run a moth trap at Leighton Moss which allows us to gather an amazing amount of information about which species both reside and visit here. Over 600 types of moth have been recorded on the reserve and our band of dedicated moth enthusiasts are discovering new ones each year.
Elephant hawk moth (Jon Carter)
This month we offer two opportunities for visitors to learn more about moths – our Meet The Moths at the Moss event is a short introductory drop-in session that takes place on Sunday 22 July while our more detailed Moths – Beginners Workshop on Saturday 28 July will appeal to those really wanting to know more about these fascinating insects and wish to get to grips with moth identification.
To see all the events and activities taking place at Leighton Moss visitor our events page.
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
As the unprecedented heatwave continues, the wildlife at Leighton Moss finds itself having to adjust to the changing conditions. Water levels are dropping rapidly, both on the saltmarsh pools and on the main reserve. This of course, presents nature with challenges. For many songbirds drinking water is becoming a little more difficult to find and so we are regularly checking the fresh water around the feeders to ensure a constant supply. This is something we would definitely recommend everyone does in their garden during this dry spell – a lack of water can spell disaster for recently fledged young birds.
Starlings bathing and drinking (copyright Jodie Randall rspb-images.com)
The warm sunny days have been fantastic for observing dragonflies and damselflies. Impressive brown hawkers, common hawkers and broad-bodied chasers are among the most visible of the larger dragonflies while dainty blue-tailed damselflies dazzle the senses with their sheer brilliance. As bird activity inevitably slows down in the heat of the day, these dynamic insects are providing visitors with amazing views as they fly acrobatically from one spot to another.
Blue-tailed damselfly (Mike Malpass)
Mammals have been performing well with otters the stars of the show, as usual. Red deer too are delighting visitors, chiefly at Grisedale and at the end of the Causeway while a young fox has been seen regularly from Tim Jackson Hide.
For many species of birds the breeding season is well and truly at an end. Our avocets have all but departed having had a highly successful season; in excess of of 20 youngsters were raised at the Allen and Eric Morecambe Pools. The bitterns have gone back to being extremely elusive now that the female has stopped conducting frequent feeding flights. We cam assume that the young bitterns have now left the nest and are fully independent. Recent sightings have come from all parts of the reserve further suggesting that they are now out and about and all doing their own thing. As water levels drop, we may see hunting bitterns emerging from the reed beds to forage at the water’s edge.
As I write this, the marsh harriers have yet to fledge any broods from the three nests on the reserve. We have been expecting to see some signs but they do seem to be holding tight for now. I’m sure all will be revealed imminently! Ospreys have continued to show superbly, mainly from Causeway and Lower hides while hobbies dash through from time to time for the lucky few who happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Green sandpiper (Martin Kuchczynski)
Summer sees the start of wader migration as the first returning birds start to head south from their northern breeding grounds. We have already seen the first snipe back in the last week or so and a few interesting bits and pieces have been trickling through. Greenshank, curlew sandpiper, green sandpiper and little ringed plover have all been spotted in recent days while a few bar-tailed godwits can still be found among the black-tailed godwits at the Allen Pools. With the increasing amount of mud on the edges of the pools on the main reserve, we should see more waders dropping in. We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for such goodies as wood sandpiper, or perhaps something a little rarer. With areas of fresh water at a premium, Leighton Moss will hopefully act like a magnet for migrating wading birds.
If you’re a keen nature photographer, you may be interested in the Digital Darkroom photographic workshop taking place on July 14. Join experienced and published wildlife photographer Mike Malpass for a workshop on how to give your photographs that extra professional touch. You will look at how to process your images on your computer using lighting, cropping, sharpening and composition techniques. Booking and payment in advance essential – please call our visitor centre on 01524 701601 to secure your place!
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
The prolonged dry and warm spell is certainly proving popular with visitors to Leighton Moss and many people are getting great views of some of our seasonal specialities.
The female bittern has been putting on a good, if somewhat sporadic, show. She regularly flies from the reed bed out to Barrow Scout giving people in Lilian’s Hide, on the Skytower or in Grisedale Hide fabulous views. We can assume that the bittern chicks have now left the nest and are at large in the reeds – the mother bird is heading off to catch food in a preferred area and returning to feed her growing youngsters. This behaviour will likely stop once the young start to hunt for themselves and so we’ll be back to scanning the reed edges for foraging bitterns. It really has been fantastic hearing the many delighted visitors telling us of their bittern encounters!
Bittern in flight by Dave Dimmock
The marsh harriers too continue to delight and can be seen all over the reserve. Also busy feeding young, the harriers are almost constantly active searching for ducklings, coot chicks, small mammals and amphibians to take back for their growing chicks. Ospreys have been absolutely fabulous, with up to four birds coming to fish, primarily at Causeway and Lower pools. Earlier this week one of our regular visitors Hazel was lucky enough to get some shots of an osprey being mobbed by five avocets! Not something you see every day…
Osprey being mobbed by avocets by Hazel Rothwell
In other raptor news; red kites have been reported here and there, while hobby too is making frustratingly infrequent visits. Hopefully as post-breeding swallow and martin numbers grow, along with an increase in dragonflies, we’ll see more of this dashing crowd-pleasing falcon.
Talking of dragonflies, this fine weather is perfect for observing these stunning insects. Broad-bodied chasers, brown hawkers and black-tailed skimmers can all be seen hawking for their prey, along with countless dazzling damselflies in the path-side vegetation.
Broad-bodied chaser by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
The avocets have had a pretty decent breeding season and both adults and youngsters are a treat to see at the Allen and Eric Morecambe Pools (when they’re not bothering ospreys over the main reserve at least!). Lapwing numbers are increasing on the saltmarsh pools too as post-breeding birds head for the coast. Both bar-tailed and black-tailed godwits are also on show here and we can expect to see yet more waders arriving in the coming days and weeks. A curlew sandpiper was reported from the Eric Morecambe Pool a couple of days ago and a spoonbill dropped in briefly midweek.
Meanwhile, the glut of songbird fledglings continues apace. One cannot walk along the trails at the moment without seeing what seems like hundreds of great, blue and marsh tits along with treecreepers, nuthatches, chaffinches, robins, wrens and warblers. Often considered elusive and difficult to see, the young Cetti’s warbler pictured here defied reputation by showing beautifully for the aforementioned Hazel, who took this shot near the dipping pond.
Young Cetti’s warbler by Hazel Rothwell
Non-avian activity also includes very regular sightings of our ever entertaining otters. Lilian’s Hide and the Skytower have been exceptionally good places to spot them recently while amazingly close views have also been had from the Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides. Red deer too have been showing exceedingly well; early mornings and evenings are generally recommended if you wish to catch sight of these large native animals.
Plant lovers have also got plenty to divert their attention from the birds, mammals and insects with many woodland and wetland species now in full bloom. And with the forecast predicting yet more good weather we can hope for yet more exciting sights around the reserve. Please do add your sightings to the book if you visit or let our team in reception know what you’ve spotted!
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
A few more seasonal arrivals were noted this week with the pick of the bunch being a fine breeding plumage spotted redshank at the Eric Morecambe Complex. No doubt bound for northern Scandinavian nesting grounds these dapper waders are always a treat to see in their striking summer finery. Also on the saltmarsh pools, our first avocet chicks have hatched. With an impressive number of active nests this year we hope to see more of these delightful little nestlings in the coming weeks.
Avocet with chicks (copyright by Chris Gomersall)
The errant adult spoonbill returned to the Eric Morecambe Pools too, providing many visitors with a welcome year-tick. Mediterranean gulls have also been spotted amongst the mass of black-headeds at the Allen Pools.
Meanwhile on the main reserve, the drake scaup has continued to hang around in front of Causeway Hide for much of the week. A rare day-trip saw it spend much of Thursday on Lilian’s Pool before it returned to its favourite spot on Friday. The great-crested grebes and their brood of humbug chicks have been a joy to watch, again in full view of multiple admirers at Causeway Hide.
Somewhat surprisingly, our male bittern has ceased to boom. The lack of vocals has however given way to an increase in the number of sightings with one bittern showing particularly well at Lower Hide and it, or another, in flight from Grisedale Hide. Otter activity has been at a peak with plenty of reports from all around the reserve. Similarly ospreys have showed well most days, fishing over Causeway and Lower pools.
Island with, erm, terns
A few people have commented on the terns sat on the islands in front of Lilian’s Hide. One or two unsuspecting birdwatchers have asked what species they are, to which we have to answer “fake”! These decoys have been put on the islands in the hope that they may attract real terns to nest. So pleased be warned, if you see a tern at Leighton Moss and it isn’t flying, make sure you give it a thorough check. If it’s a real bird, please let us know 🙂
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
We had a few more somewhat tardy migrants show up this week; garden warbler, redstart and common whitethroat plus the number of sedge and reed warblers increased notably. Similarly more sand martins, swallows and swifts were noted but still not really in the numbers we’d expect by now. The weather forecast for the next couple of days at least looks promising so hopefully we’ll see that influx that we’re all waiting for!
Common whitethroat by Mike Malpass
Adding to that air of spring was the appearance of our first coot chicks, mallard ducklings and great crested grebes in recent days. The grebes in particularly have been entertaining the crowds, nesting right in from of the Causeway Hide and allowing birders and photographers to get great views. This hide, along with Lower Hide have continued to be the most reliable locations for sightings of otters and ospreys too.
Great crested grebe (rspb-images.com)
Let me introduce you to another arrival to the reserve (our very own spring migrant); Joe Fraser-Turner is our new residential volunteer who is joining the Visitor Experience team here at Leighton Moss. In fact let Joe introduce himself…
“Hello all! My name is Joe, and I have the immense privilege of spending the next 4 months supporting the RSPB at Leighton Moss as your new Visitor Experience Intern. I have already received an exceedingly warm welcome from the team here, and I look forward to meeting many of you in the coming weeks.
Joe Fraser-Turner – Visitor Experience Intern
Here’s a little about myself – I have lived most of my life in the Yorkshire Dales, and since childhood I have been profoundly influenced by the wildlife I have encountered in the woodlands, meadows, moors and riverbanks surrounding my home. At school I took to the humanities and ended up studying English Literature at Oxford, where I discovered a particular passion for birds. Since then they have come to occupy a large part of my attention and my imagination – my dissertation discussed in large part birds in the poetry of Edward Thomas, the mysterious ways we respond to and interact with them – and so I share with all of you who come to Leighton Moss the curiosity and adoration that birds inspire. After graduating, I soon became aware of a conviction to become a full-time advocate for nature. This led me to apply for my current position, and I am grateful to have received this wonderful opportunity.
During my time with the Leighton Moss visitor team, I hope to contribute to the splendid work performed at this marvellous place, whilst learning all I can from those around me. I will be keeping you informed, in person as well as through blog posts and social media updates, about new sightings, upcoming events and all activity taking place here at the reserve. You might spot me accompanying school visits and family events, helping to inspire young minds to cherish the natural world, or perhaps assisting guided walks to educate and captivate. The popularity and success of Leighton Moss is a testament to the crucial work performed by the remarkable staff here, and this is made possible by the kindness of members and visitors – as such, I hope to hone my skills in communicating the ethos of the RSPB, in order to encourage greater charitable support and membership, and succeed in my role as an ambassador. And of course, I will be eager to offer you all a pleasant welcome at the visitor centre, share sightings and conversations along a path or in a hide, and help you in any way I can.
See you soon, Joe”
In other news, visitors will be pleased to hear that the access track to the Eric Morecambe and Allen pools has been beautifully refurbished by our dedicated and hard-working wardening team. I know that this rather rustic approach to the parking area has been a point of discussion for many visitors so I hope that this resurfacing will encourage a few more people to go and enjoy the hides overlooking the salt marsh pools.
The lovely smooth(ish) approach track to the Eric Morecambe and Allen Pools car park
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
There can few sights more uplifting than the first glimpse of the year of that distinctive scythe-like master of the air, the swift. We all rejoice when the swallows return of course, but there’s something really powerful about those dark, dashing alien birds who are almost as detached from our world as it’s possible for a bird to be. During the last week ones and twos have appeared on the reserve, usually just ahead of a menacing grey cloud and an attendant downpour. But now multiple swifts can be seen daily, particularly in the late afternoon when they swoop over the reed beds and meres alongside sand martins, swallows and house martins. For me they are the true symbol of summer and hearing their screams as they pursue one another over our urban landscapes is a thrill I will never tire of.
Swift by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
The slow spring has been the subject of many conversations in recent weeks and as the weather shows little sign of improvement who knows how nature will respond?
So far migratory birds, or more precisely the lack of them, seem to be the obvious indication that all is not as it might be. Numbers of many common summer visitors appear to be lower than we’d expect at the end of April. Perhaps many have headed straight to the breeding areas rather than make landfall en route, while others are still biding their time and will arrive as soon as conditions improve.
Despite these setbacks, the reed beds are still reverberating with the sound of reed and sedge warblers and those master-blaster Cetti’s warblers are doing a fine job of revealing their whereabouts with their explosive song. Although more often heard than seen, a little patience will often reward the watcher with great views of these skulking scarcities.
Cetti’s warbler by Mike Malpass
While on the subject of noisy birds, it would be rude to move on without mention of our fine booming bittern. His voice has become otherworldly in the last week or two and his boom is now positively spectacular and can be heard across the entire reserve when he’s in full flow. We saw some great photos of a bittern in flight this week, taken from Grisedale Hide late one afternoon.
Rather unexpected was the arrival a drake scaup this week. Not a common sight at Leighton Moss, this handsome duck dropped in at Causeway Pool where it dived alongside tufted ducks giving visitors a great opportunity to compare the two monochromatic wildfowl side by side.
Ospreys can be expected daily at the moment with birds fishing primarily at Causeway and Lower, with occasional trips to Lillian’s Pool. Otters too have been seen regularly, again at the northern end of the reserve.
Out on the Eric Morecambe and Allen Pools several avocet pairs are now nesting while large numbers of black-tailed godwit can still be seen. They were joined by a flock of bar-tailed godwit in the week, quite unusual here. Many of the 500 or so knot there are now moulting into their smart breeding plumage too so a visit to these hides is well worthwhile at the moment.
Black-tailed godwits by Paul Brady
And we have some good news for those visitors with limited mobility. As you may know, we have a Tramper that is free to use (pre-booking advised) but we have always had to restrict the routes available for safety reasons.
One of the new passing places along the Causeway
Previously, Tramper users could not take the vehicle down the Causeway due to reserve wardens and farm traffic occasionally traveling along this public route. We have now added a number of passing places to the Causeway allowing access to the hide and along the length of the track. We hope that this will add to the experience for a greater number of people and we welcome feedback on this or any issue regarding access.
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
Now that the weather is a little more settled, for a few days at least, we’re hoping to see an influx of delayed migrants here at Leighton Moss. As I write this an increase in recent sightings of sedge and reed warblers is already evident and several birds are belting it out from the reedbeds around the reserve. Meanwhile the sound of blackcaps, willow warblers, chiffchaffs and Cetti’s warblers is an almost constant feature as one wanders along the trails.
Our foghorn-in-residence, the very vocal male bittern continues to boom away from his patch of reeds to the south of the Causeway. Although most easily heard between dusk and dawn, the song of this particular bird is often heard at random times of the day allowing many visitors the chance to hear this evocative sound.
There was some excitement last week following the surprise discovery a rare race of yellow wagtail near the Allen Pools. On Saturday, Christine and Max Maughan came into the visitor centre asking us to verify a couple of distant record shots of a bird they could only identify from their field guide a black-headed wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg). A quick look at the back of their camera looked promising but we’d have to see the bird for ourselves!
Black headed wagtail by David Morris
Within a few short minutes a small group of birders and RSPB staff was assembled and the bird was soon relocated feeding alongside meadow pipits and pied wagtails in the field where Christine and Max had seen it earlier. Even through binoculars the wagtail was easy to spot as the bright zesty yellow of its breast dazzled from a considerable distance. Slowly the bird moved closer and through ‘scopes we obtained superb views and quickly confirmed its identity. I was even able to dash off a couple of ‘phone-scope’ pics just in case it decided to fly before ‘proper’ photos were taken.
As it happens the bird stayed around for another couple of days and many birders made the trip to see this rare Balkan / Central Asian vagrant variant of yellow wagtail. Thankfully, others were able to get decent shots so you don’t have to suffer my dodgy efforts.
In other news, the slow trickle arrival of common migrants continues with scattered reports of lesser whitethroat, redstart and pied flycatcher coming in while swallows and martins are still notable chiefly by their relative absence.
Ospreys have been good value in the last few weeks with daily sightings at Leighton Moss. They generally tend to prefer fishing at Causeway or Lower pools but do make the occasional trip to Lilian’s Pool, so when you’re visiting keep your eyes peeled skyward!
Welsh osprey at large in Lancashire. Pic by Paul Ellis
We assume that most of the osprey sightings here refer to Foulshaw Moss birds out on fishing forays but visiting birder Paul Ellis photographed this bird at Leighton Moss last Sunday (15). Close inspection reveals that this osprey was ringed as a chick in the nest at Glaslyn, Wales in 2014 and is clearly not a Foulshaw bird. Interestingly, the only other verified sighting of this bird was also at Leighton Moss, in July 2017 so he seems to like this area. How soon before ospreys nest in Lancashire?
A fine drake garganey has been gracing Lilian’s Pool for the last few days, though as is typical of this secretive species it can play hard to get at times. A little patience and bit of luck should ensure a sighting from either Lilian’s Hide or the Skytower. Checking the vegetated water edges at Grisedale and Jackson may also pay off as more of these handsome dabblers are likely to arrive in the coming days.
As always, you can keep up to date with news by following our Twitter feed @leighton_moss
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager
Another mixed week weather-wise has meant that we’re not really seeing the best that spring can bring. Given the imminent forecast, that looks to change in the next few days. We’re still seeing (and hearing) newly arrived migrants but in rather low numbers. More willow warblers and blackcaps have now joined the many chiffchaffs around the reserve and we have continued to see the occasional swallow in amongst the relatively few sand martins but it definitely still feels like early days. On the periphery of the reserve, single redstarts and sedge warblers have been noted.
Spoonbill by Charlotte Cassidy
Despite the lack of expected migrants we did have a surprise flying visit from a dapper adult spoonbill last weekend. This one-day-wonder was quite mobile and spent time on Grisedale Pool and at the Eric Morecambe Pools, commuting between the two areas. This cracking photo was taken by Charlotte Cassidy, who had earlier joined us on a Wildlife Explorers’ dawn chorus walk.
Ospreys continue to stop by daily. In fact one dropped in and caught a fish right in front of Lilian’s Hide this week while a wedding ceremony was taking place in the hide; the happy couple and their guests were treated to this fabulous sight as the vows were being taken! (Yes, you can tie the knot at Leighton Moss).
Marsh harriers too are wowing the crowds with regular courtship displays and nest building. At least seven of these large, impressive raptors are currently on site. Peregrines frequently drift over from Warton Crag and a fortunate few have spotted red kites over the reserve.
Red kite (copyright Chris Gomersall rspb-images.com
Duck numbers are still dwindling but it’s nice to see that we still have a few goldeneye out on the Causeway and Lower pools. Pintail, wigeon, gadwall, tufted duck and pochard can be seen on various meres but we still haven’t had any reports of that personal favourite, garganey (early next week?).
Up to three great white egrets are still parading around in their breeding finery while multiple little egrets add to the continental feel. It still amazes me to think how scarce both of these now familiar white herons were not all that long ago. Our booming bittern is maintaining his position as dominant male on the site and can be heard on and off at all times of day. If you’re really keen to hear this extraordinary sound (and who wouldn’t be?) an evening vigil is almost certainly guaranteed to deliver the goods.
Up to 3,000 black-tailed godwits, many decked-out in their fiery copper breeding plumage, can be seen at the Eric Morecambe Pools where birders can also view good numbers of knots and in excess of thirty avocets. The black-headed gull colony is really getting fired up there too.
Black-tailed godwit (copyright David Mower)
Otters, as always, are a treat to see and we’ve had reports of up to three cavorting in the Lower and Causeway pools in the past few days.
If the weather forecast is right, we can hope for some notable changes here in the next week or so. I know that I’ll be grabbing my binocs and heading out at every available opportunity! And talking of binoculars, we’ll be hosting a Binocular and Telescope Open Weekend this Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 April. So if you’re thinking of buying some new optics, why not come and give them a try in the field before you decide? Our team of friendly staff and volunteers will be on hand to offer impartial advice and expertise.
Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager