Author: Jon C

Recent Sightings & Connecting Young People to Nature

 While there are still a few bearded tits entertaining the crowds as they visit the trays, I think it’s fair to say that ‘gritting season’ is certainly coming to an end. As we’d expect by the beginning of November fewer bearded tits are being seen gathering grit and they become increasingly, typically elusive once more. As always, if you hope to see these dazzling reedbed dwellers, morning is best (as with almost all birds) and avoid coming on days that are windy or very wet.

Should you have missed this year’s gritting activity, don’t despair as these birds will still be present through the winter and can, with patience and luck, often be encountered in the reeds along the Causeway or on the path to Grisedale . Learn their distinctive call and you’ll be in with a good chance of finding your own ‘beardies’! Keep up to date with sightings by checking our Facebook group. Photo of bearded tit by David Mower.

Thanks to all of the photographers and birdwatchers who have passed on their information regarding colour-ringed bearded tits – this information is invaluable in the study of these rare birds and helps us better understand, and consequently conserve, them. There is still plenty of time to email us your observations. Please send ring combination info to

Just as the bearded tit bonanza draws to a close so too does the red deer rut. Once the stags have asserted their authority and gathered their harem, things rapidly quieten down on the reserve. It takes a lot of effort and energy to bellow and challenge other male deer so once the need to do so is over the dominant animals wind down and concentrate on the serious jobs of mating and relaxing. The deer will still be seen from time to time as they stray from the sanctuary of the reed beds so it’s always worth keeping an eye out.

As winter continues to creep ever near, we also see the arrival of two Leighton Moss specialities; bitterns and marsh harriers. As most readers of this blog will know both these species breed here during the summer. Research has shown that young bitterns usually disperse in their first autumn and these birds are replaced by bitterns arriving from further afield. As a consequence, we can have many more bitterns on the reserve in winter giving visiting birders the opportunity to see them at any point on the site – cold, icy conditions can often be ideal for seeing these cryptic herons as they emerge from the reeds.

Following a successful nesting season our breeding marsh harriers and their young departed in late summer; some of these will have migrated to southern Europe or Africa while others stay here in the UK. Last winter we had five marsh harriers spend the winter months with us and already this year eight have turned up; it would be fascinating to know where these individuals spent the summer months!

 Other highlights in recent days include a couple of spoonbills which touched-down on the Eric Morecambe Pools on Wednesday (and are still present at time of writing), continued sporadic reports of hen harrier, a well-watched red kite, the very unseasonal garganey and the pair of scaup at Lilian’s. Added to this of course is the annual arrival of lots of wildfowl with numbers changing on a daily basis. Cetti’s warblers (photo by Mike Malpass) are becoming increasingly vocal and birds may be heard just about anywhere on the reserve.

As many of you will know, Leighton Moss hosts multiple school, college and university visits throughout the year. Engaging with young people is absolutely essential for the future of nature conservation and we are committed to connecting children and young adults to nature through learning. Here our Learning Officer Carol Bamber summarises the year so far… 

End of a busy season with high praise

It’s been another successful summer at Leighton Moss for school, university and youth group visits. Since April the team have delivered outdoor learning sessions to 70 groups, engaging with over 2,250 participants – that’s a lot of pond dipping, minibeast safaris, Living Things and their Habitats trails and sensory walks, as well as discovering brilliant birds, plus lectures and guided walks to degree-level students.

 Here are some recent quotes from participating group leaders:

‘What a wonderful day we’ve all had! So much learning that could never have happened inside the classroom.’ Reception class teacher

‘This has been an incredible child-led experience. You have ticked so many curriculum objectives in a very hands-on way.’ Year 3 class teacher

‘Thank you so much for the session. It was just right for our first visit.’ Specialist School teacher

‘As always, this was an excellent trip. Lots to see – pupils interested and engaged.’ Year 8 science teacher

‘Brilliant introduction to the RSPB and the wider conservation industry. Related well to the students’ aspirations.’ University lecturer

‘A really good evening and very engaging activities provided for the group.’ Cub Scouts leader

Wow! 99% of respondents on our evaluation forms rated our educational offer as ‘very good’ or ‘outstanding’. It’s a massive team effort, we thoroughly enjoy what we do and we appreciate the urgent need, now more than ever, to connect people of all ages with wildlife and the great outdoors in a fun and interactive way. 

If you are interested in booking an educational visit to Leighton Moss at any time of year, please contact Carol on (01524) 703015 or

Floods recede & sightings surge!

 I’m very happy to report that the water levels have almost returned to normal (whatever that is!) and there is now access to all the hides (except Lower Hide which remains closed to the public) for those visitors who may have forgotten their wellies. Obviously the pools are still holding more water than we’d expect them to at this time of year but that doesn’t seem to be deterring the wildfowl – duck numbers continue to climb with each passing day. Lilian’s Hide is great at the moment with two scaup still present along with pochard, tufted duck and scores of shoveler, teal and gadwall. Little grebes too are easy to see here as are mute swan family flotillas.

Elsewhere, the bearded tits have been entertaining the crowds as they come to gather grit from the trays at Causeway and along the path to Grisedale. With a camera streaming live footage of the trays to the café, visitors can enjoy a spot of lunch or cake and coffee while watching these amazing birds preparing for their winter diet of seeds!

Red deer are another focus of the season and the stags can be heard roaring from deep in the reed beds, particularly in the mornings and again at dusk. Our Facebook group page has been inundated with fabulous photos of impressive males as they display their imposing antlers. Occasionally a couple of the boisterous testosterone-fuelled stags will clash with one another, providing a breath-taking spectacle for those lucky enough to be in the hide.  

 With autumn truly upon us it’s no surprise to see redwings and fieldfares around in recent days. These attractive Nordic thrushes are a real treat to see as they pass over in flocks or descend upon hawthorn hedgerows in search of the plentiful berries. Other highlights this week include a couple of very late swallows and a ring-tailed hen harrier which was photographed jousting with a male marsh harrier at Grisedale on Wednesday morning.   

It really is a magical time of year to visit Leighton Moss, as one of our wonderful Live Interpretation volunteers, Kathleen, knows only too well. Here she shares with us her experience of being on the reserve during the recent floods…   

A walk through the Leighton Moss flood.
Leaving behind tick list, camera and the like, I pulled on my wellies and set off, happy to enjoy the unique experience, using only eyes, ears and nose! As I waded off in the direction of Grisedale Hide, it quickly became clear that normality had been flipped; nature had reclaimed the space and I was the intruder, confined to a narrow path. Progress was very slow through the deep water, and I envied the ease with which the two ducks, whose patch I was entering, swam along the path ahead of me.
Navigating the route needed more thought than usual, and there was more time to observe and to chat to the robin on his usual perch. Was he/she confused by the strange conditions, or didn’t they much affect life in the trees?
I was startled by the call of a water rail from the reeds beside the path – not because this isn’t a regular occurrence, but because it seemed to be much closer than usual.
Emerging out of the trees I was greeted by bright sunlight glinting on the water.  Looking more closely at the path surface beneath I could clearly see pond life which had escaped from its pond-dippable pools – whirligig beetles and pond skaters, amongst other things, busily rushing to and fro. Dragonflies skimmed over the reed tops in the sunshine; nothing had changed for them.
Now I was assailed by the quiet rustle of stems, and an exaggerated, overwhelming wet smell of reedbeds. What a surprise to see a single meadowsweet stem in full flower at the edge of the almost-invisible path!
Looking ahead it was hard not to smile at the sight of one of the benches stranded amongst water – as though it had floated out from its normal position. Adding to the surreal moment were a couple, relaxing on the bench in the sunshine, with lower legs and feet stretched out into the water. The only life visible at the grit trays was a confused dunnock, normally a ground feeder, forced to hop along the wooden fence rail looking for food. Perhaps my hope for bearded tits on the trays was a bit greedy, though…
With a feeling of relief (wading through water certainly flexes a few unused muscles) I reached the hide.
And what a great sight from within:  wigeon, teal, shoveler, mallard, gadwall, a very fine male pintail, tufted ducks. A splendid red deer stag briefly emerged from the edge of the reeds, then quietly vanished from whence he came, followed by a deer hind. A female marsh harrier quartered the reed tops nearby.  She seemed agitated; had the high water level created fewer or more hunting opportunities for her?
After a brief rest it was time to wade back, passing Cetti’s warbler, robins, dunnock, marsh tit, coal tit, great tit, blue it – and not forgetting a stunning nuthatch.
Was the reserve closed by the floods?  Not at all; it simply offered up a truly magical experience.
Kathleen Robertshaw

Wellies Still A Must

 The water has been sticking around since the last blog. It’s definitely wellie weather right now here at Leighton Moss, and if you come prepared you have the chance to see some great seasonal wildlife spectacles.

The bearded tits have been continuing to show very well on the grit trays along the Causeway and the path to Grisedale Hide in recent days. If you don’t have wellies, still do feel free to come and visit our café where we are screening live footage from a camera focused on the grit trays – so you may be able to watch these amazing birds while enjoying a hot drink and a slice of your favourite cake!

One of the big species to spot right now is the red deer. With the rut getting underway they are easier to see because the stags are forming harems and challenging one another for supremacy. The males can be heard bellowing all around the reserve, especially in the mornings and again in the late afternoon. With their magnificent antlers on display, they can provide great photographic opportunities. The best place to catch sight of these impressive beasts is from the Grisedale Hide (maybe after sighting the bearded tits?). Red deer pic by Mike Malpass.

Some of the other sightings around include otters, which are another firm favourite with visitors. These aquatic mammals have been spotted a couple times in the last week from the Causeway Hide. At least three marsh harriers have been seen hunting over the reedbeds in recent weeks. Usually this species migrates to Africa during September and October. However, a growing number of marsh harriers are remaining in the UK all year round due to milder winters rather than leaving and returning for breeding in April.

Other birds of prey being seen regularly include merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk and kestrel – mainly from the Eric Morecambe and Allen hides. Visitors have also been enjoying great views of little and great white egrets, multiple species of waders and kingfishers.

 Wildfowl numbers continue to creep up with shoveler, gadwall, teal and wigeon flocks growing almost daily. Tufted ducks have increased too and have attracted one or two pochard and a pair of juvenile scaup. A rather unseasonal garganey has been present now for several days and tends to favour Lillian’s and Grisedale pools.  

Are you thinking about buying some binoculars or a spotting scope? Well on October 26 and 27 we are hosting a binocular and telescope open weekend. This will give you the chance to try out the optics you have been eyeing outdoors, so you know which are the right products for you. We will have our friendly, impartial  team on hand to help you decide on the perfect equipment for your needs and budget.

So, even though we’re a bit flooded, there is still a lot to around to see. We hope to see you down here soon, but please bring wellies for the next few weeks. We will give an update when the water levels decrease on this blog, the RSPB Leighton Moss Facebook group and Twitter @LeightonMoss.

See you soon! 

Charlotte (Visitor Experience Intern)

Lower Hide Closure and Recent Sightings

Please note that we have decided to close Lower Hide for the foreseeable future.
Regular visitors will know that we have made recent repairs to the hide including a new roof. We had also planned to undertake other works to revitalise the hide. However, recently we have identified potentially significant structural issues. These will require us to seek further advice on the seriousness of these issues. We have therefore made your safety a priority and taken the decision to close Lower Hide while we seek that advice and look to remedy any issues.
We will keep you informed of progress and we apologies for any inconvenience that this may cause.
Of course, there are still six hides and the Skytower to enjoy and all the wildlife you can see from Lower hide should be visible from elsewhere at Leighton Moss. Otters and bitterns have been seen at Causeway lately, and the egret roost is a sight to enjoy from that hide at dusk most days.
 The Eric Morecambe and Allen Pools continue to attract multiple species of waders with recent highlights including little stints, curlew sandpipers and spotted redshanks among the black-tailed godwits, redshanks and greenshanks. An astonishing 7 great white egrets have also been counted at these coastal pools this week along with many little egrets.
Raptors too have been on show here with peregrine, marsh harrier, sparrowhawk and merlin all taking it in turns to spook the assembled shorebirds! Merlin photo copyright Chris Gomersall (
 As we would expect at this time of year, the bearded tits are starting to use the grit trays along the Causeway and path to Grisedale Hide. Changing their summer diet of insects to a winter one of seeds means that the birds need to gather grit in their crop to help them digest the hard seeds and by providing a supply of grit we can help them in this process. This also means that visitors get the chance to observe these otherwise elusive reedbed dwellers at close quarters and better still we are able to monitor the Leighton Moss population thanks to the ongoing colour-ringing scheme. Bearded tit photo by Keith Kellet
If you are fortunate enough to see or photograph any bearded tits with colour rings please pass on the colour ring sequence (both legs is preferable) by emailing or
If you’d like to join one of our special bearded tit guided walks, please click here for details.

Waders Wade In & Other Recent Sightings

Waders are still very much the focus of many visitors’ attentions at the moment and the Allen Pool continues to deliver. Recent sightings have included spotted redshanks, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper, curlew sandpipers, ruff, little stint and greenshanks amongst the expected commoner species. Following some very high tides and some attendant westerly winds the Morecambe Pool has filled up, enticing a regular great white egret and several little egrets. As the water levels drop here, yet more waders should welcome the supply of fresh food and provide birders with great viewing and photography opportunities. (Photo of curlew sandpiper by Richard Cousens)

 As well as the shorebird spectacle, the coastal hides have been great for raptor watching with osprey, marsh harrier, peregrine and merlin making frequent appearances. Kingfishers may also be seen here and a surprisingly prolonged visit by an otter was made on the morning of Thursday 5. (Photo of osprey by Richard Cousens)

 Elsewhere on the reserve, spotted redshank and greenshank have been joining the mass of common redshanks on the stone islands providing quite a challenge for keen-eyed birdwatchers sitting in Causeway Hide. Bitterns too have been spotted from this hide as well as from the Lower Hide. Previous research has shown that young bitterns often disperse from their breeding grounds at this time of year so we may well see a downturn in such regular sightings in the near future. Of course, numbers will go up again as birds from further afield arrive to spend the winter with us.

We have plenty of events going on in the next few weeks, so why not book onto one of our guided walks?             

Birding for Beginners Sunday 22 September

Dusk Discoveries Thursday 26 September

What’s That Wader? Saturday 28 September


Wader Tales & Recent Sightings

What a great time we had on our What’s That Wader event today. It was a glorious morning and the birds performed well for the group.

 Our first stop at the Allen Pools was supposed to be a short one as most of the wader activity has been on the Eric Morecambe Pools in recent days. However, while we were enjoying a lone lingering avocet plus a few lapwings and snipe, a peregrine dashed over the pools causing birds to scatter in all directions and a large flock of redshank dropped down in front of the hide. A scan through revealed a smart juvenile ruff and a dunlin. In the distance we could see an osprey perched up on a post and a kingfisher briefly whizzed by. 

We moved on to the Eric Morecambe Hide and settled in to scrutinise the large numbers of birds out on the pools. Soon, black-tailed godwits, greenshanks and curlew were added to the tally of shorebirds on show. Yet another species of raptor appeared – this time a merlin, which sat obligingly on a fence post making short work of whatever hapless small bird it had caught. Before long a juvenile marsh harrier appeared and drifted across the pools causing the dabbling teal to explode into flight. A lucky few in the hide once again caught sight of not one but two kingfishers zipping by in a flash of electric blue and a pair of buzzards attempted to steal our attention away from the waders. 

All in all, we saw quite a nice selection of birds and hopefully the group gained a little knowledge and built some confidence around this often tricky gang of highly varied birds.

If you’d like to join us on our next What’s That Wader on September 28 please book your place soon as numbers are strictly limited. For details see here.

 Elsewhere on the reserve the numbers of little egret continue to build and we have had up to two great egrets reported. Bitterns have been showing tremendously well lately and visitors have been getting great views from Lower Hide with occasional sightings from the Causeway Hide too. Wildfowl is building slowly but many birds are still moulting and in eclipse plumage, making identification a challenge. A pair of garganey have been present at the Jackson Pool for several days but thanks to their often elusive nature and cryptic plumage, they are being seen rather  sporadically. Patience, luck and familiarity with the species should yield success!

With water levels quite high across the reserve the forecast dry-spell is music to our collective ears. A few more pool edges and loafing areas should entice more birds in front of the hides. One only has to look at the islands at Causeway to see how packed with birds they are – cormorants, mallards and redshanks are jostling shoulder to shoulder for a nice place to roost!

Whatever the weather brings, there’s still lots to see here as Autumn creeps ever closer – September and October can bring all manner of unexpected sightings as many birds are on the move plus of course our bearded tits start to use the grit trays and the red deer rut will get underway in earnest.  

Photos by Mike Malpass



Hello Waders, Goodbye Kevin!

While we may not like to concede the fact that summer is coming to an end, much of nature seems committed to telling us that autumn is just around the corner!  

 Many of our residents and summer visitors have pretty much finished breeding and lots of young birds have now fledged and are fending for themselves. A few exceptions include late broods of coot, moorhen, little grebe and mallard. Despite multiple attempts it seems that great crested grebe nests haven’t been as successful this year and just one recently hatched chick has been seen from Lower Hide. Given that this same nest was plundered by hungry otters last week it’s a surprise that even one young grebe made it! Such are the trials of life in the natural world. Pic of great crested grebe copyright

On a more positive note bitterns continue to be seen at various locations around the reserve and some fabulous photos were posted to our Facebook group of a bird feeding in the open near Lower Hide in recent days. The marsh harriers, having performed so well for many weeks seem to have become somewhat elusive lately. It may be that they are temporarily leaving Leighton Moss to go in search of fresh hunting areas or perhaps some have departed for their wintering grounds already.

The most notable comings and goings right now, as one would expect at this time of year, involves waders. The Eric Morecambe and Allen pools are without question the place to be if you want to witness post-breeding migrants on the move. Heading south from their nesting grounds, adult dunlins, greenshanks, black-tailed godwits and the like are stopping off to take advantage of the smorgasbord to be found in the muddy pools. Amongst the commoner species passing through, bird watchers may get lucky and discover something a little more unusual. A second pectoral sandpiper dropped in briefly last Thursday afternoon while a couple of curlew sandpipers have been pleasing the assembled birders in the hides. If you are intrigued by waders or struggle to get to grips with their identification, why not book onto one of our What’s That Wader events in August and September?

At the coastal pools, spoonbills remain in situ while the number of little egrets continues to climb to levels unimaginable a couple of decades ago.

Talking of migrating… Leighton Moss stalwart Kevin Kelly is heading north to pastures new in early August. A familiar face to many of our regular visitors, Kevin is a top birder and ringer and has been a mainstay here for several years. We will miss his enthusiasm, knowledge, support and friendship enormously at Leighton Moss and I hope that you will join us in wishing him and his family well as they start an exciting new life in the Shetlands. Here are a few words from the man himself…

Heading North

 “As I write this, the sun is shining, and swifts are twisting and stooping against a back drop of blue sky as I glance out of the office window. As I reflect on the incredible journey they have made my mind flits to the northward journey that awaits me. Now I am not comparing myself or my journey to that of a swift of course, as aside from little legs, I think the similarities stop there. However, I have reached that point where it is time to discover new adventures and take my passion and gathered knowledge to pastures new to help wildlife flourish in another part of the UK.

The next chapter in my working life will take me from the stunning, wildlife rich haven that is Leighton Moss, to the breath-taking beauty and incredibly special Shetland. Whilst I will be leaving behind special species such as bearded tits, marsh harriers, bitterns and marsh tits. I will be sharing my life with red-necked phalaropes, puffins, arctic terns and thousands of seabirds.   

The last 7 years at Leighton Moss have been incredible, with memories for life of not only the landscape and the wildlife, but the people I have met through this role, from colleagues to visitors, all have made it very special.

When I started my RSPB life at Leighton Moss, there were no bitterns breeding (an absence of 4 years, 7 years ago). And I am pleased to say I have been here as part of the team, turning back the clock on the habitat to rejuvenate the reed-bed and bring bitterns back as a breeding species for consecutive years. In addition, I have had a host of special wildlife moments. Confirming the breeding of Cetti’s warblers for the first time, when I encountered an adult feeding fledgling (how their population has gone from strength to strength since).

I have enjoyed annual departing bittern in spring, stood in awe, as gull calling bitterns circle and gain height before heading off to their continental breeding grounds.

Another great memory was finding a pied-billed grebe at lower hide (only a second ever county record, and less than 50 records ever in the UK). This American vagrant spent some welcome time onsite with many visitors coming to enjoy the bird.  There are many more memorable moments from what is truly a spectacular place.

My new adventure takes me to the stunning Shetland, with a range of habitats and sites to look after. My new office will be at the breath-taking setting of Sumburgh head lighthouse, at the Southern tip of Shetland. Other sites include, Loch of Spiggie a fantastic site, protected for its important Fen-basin habitat. Heading North, vast swathes of peatland habitat, a home for breeding waders on Yell are protected. With a mosaic of mires special enough to attract and hold breeding waders that include red necked phalaropes on both Unst and Fetlar. The latter being a real strong hold for this unique, diminutive wader. An exciting boat crossing to the island of Mousa may deliver Orca and other cetaceans, before landing on the island to enjoy the incredible spectacle of thousands of storm petrels.

Throw the vast array of spring and autumn migrants as well as the amazing breeding seabirds, and glorious wildflowers, it is easy to see why the temptation was always there to head North. Very North.”