Author: Jon C

More Hints of Spring & Recent Sightings

After the promising and much-heralded blip back in February which lulled us into believing that spring was well under way, things have returned defiantly to winter once more! Of course, it may be colder and wetter than it was a couple of weeks ago but on the face of it, it’s more like a normal early-mid March. Though unlike last year’s ‘Beast from the East’ we’re currently on the receiving end of what might be termed the ‘Pest from the West’! The days however are getting longer and a little milder (honest); these are the real cues that signal changes in nature.

Marsh harrier by Mike Malpass

Our marsh harriers (photo by Mike Malpass) have been busy sky-dancing, when conditions allow, and some observed behaviour suggests early pairing may have taken place. One couple in particular spend a great deal of time together and look to be prospecting nest sites in the reed bed. The best places from which to view the harriers at the minute are the Skytower and Lilian’s or Grisedale hides.  

Other indications of a looming spring include the continued, if sporadic, arrival of sand martins. Ones and twos have been seen primarily over Causeway Pool. These diminutive long-distance migrants are amongst the first of our summer visitors to arrive and here at Leighton Moss we can see gatherings of several hundred feeding over the meres by April. There is always the fear that some of these early pioneers may succumb to poor weather and a lack of flying insects to feed on, but if they get it right and survive it allows them to take the pick of the prime nesting sites before the later birds arrive.  

Avocets (photo by David Mower) too continue to gather at the Allen and Eric Morecambe pools having spent the winter further south. The current high water levels are encouraging for these island nesters, assuming they can find a good spot before the black-headed gulls establish their territories. Numbers of these elegant waders often fluctuate quite a bit before the breeding colony gets settled.

So far, we haven’t been able to confirm any bittern booming – despite concerted efforts to listen during optimum conditions. Last year we had a male ‘tuning up’ in the second week of March but it’s still early days and we can hope to hear this distinctive sound as soon as the weather calms down a little! Whether any of our wintering birds departed during the warm spell back in February remains to be seen.

The forecast for the coming week doesn’t exactly inspire us to feel optimistic about more spring arrivals but as soon as we get a little shift to the south in the winds we can expect things to change significantly. Wheatear, osprey, little ringed plover, garganey, chiffchaff and a host of other early migrants will take advantage of a change in wind direction and positively pour in from the continent and beyond.

Meanwhile, visitors can enjoy superb views of many species of wildfowl and waders, along with regular otters and a wealth of woodland birds.   

If you are planning to visit us soon, do check out our programme of events and see if there are any guided walks or activities that you may wish to join us on! 

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager

             

Avocets return and other recent sightings

With a not-so subtle change in the weather in recent days, it certainly is starting to feel like spring here at Leighton Moss. Many of the resident woodland birds such as song thrushes, blackbirds, nuthatches and marsh tits are in fine voice and can be heard all around the site. Cetti’s warblers are tuning up nicely in the scrubby areas of the reedbed and our overwintering marsh harriers have even started to display. Look for their stunning skydancing high over the reeds.

Avocet at Leighton MossPic: Avocet by Alan Coe

Avocets have arrived on the Eric Morecambe and Allen Pools in the last week, pretty much as we’d predicted. With the very high tides however, the coastal pools are holding quite a bit of water and so these waders are best looked for on the outer edges of the pools and on the islands, often roosting with black-tailed godwits. As we drop the water levels, more suitable shallower feeding areas will become available – perfect as more avocets arrive to nest in this lovely corner of Morecambe Bay

Despite the rather encouraging conditions of late, our team have yet to hear any bitterns. At this time of year the males will often make a low grunting sound as they tune-up in advance of proper booming, for which they are rightly famous. They were quite late getting going last year, thanks to the much-discussed ‘Beast from the East’ but we expect some vocal activity soon given the calm, mild weather. 

Starlings at Leighton MossThe starlings are still murmurating. thought the numbers have gone down a little. That said, there are still somewhere in the region of 40,000 coming into roost most evenings, providing an impressive spectacle for the assembled crowds of onlookers. In the past few days the birds have been concentrating over the north western section of the main reserve, giving amazing views for visitors on the Sky Tower and particularly on the Causeway. If you are planning a visit to see the starling murmuration before it comes to an end for another season, please check with the staff and volunteers at the visitor centre for the latest information.    

Another lovely feature on the reserve at the moment is the seasonal display of scarlet elf cups. This widespread but uncommon woodland fungus can be looked for along the path to Grisedale and Jackson hides. It chooses damp areas of the woodland floor where it grows in and around decaying branches, twigs and leaves.

If you’re planning a visit to Leighton Moss soon, don’t forget to check our events and activities page. It’s also a good idea to join our Facebook group for regular sightings updates and you can also follow us on Twitter. And please, do share your sightings with us by writing them in the book at the visitor centre or by posting them on our social media platforms.    

Ice, Fire and Recent Sightings

This coming weekend (January 26-28) will see up to half a million people taking part in one of the world’s biggest ‘citizen science’ initiatives: the Big Garden Birdwatch. 2019 marks the 40th year since this nationwide bird-count was launched and the data gathered has helped paint a picture of the well-being of some of our most familiar bird species. 

Here at Leighton Moss we’ve been gearing up for the Big Garden Birdwatch, giving advice on feeding garden birds as well as hosting activities to help encourage more people to take part. If you haven’t yet registered, please do so – your sightings, however insignificant as they may sometimes seem, really do provide our scientists with invaluable information. Find out more about the Big Garden Birdwatch here and see how you can join in the fun.

Back on the reserve, winter continues to provide a few challenges for our wildlife. The drop in temperature over recent days saw notable freezing on many of the pools and as a consequence, a change in the behaviour of some of our birds. The shallower meres were suddenly bereft of wildlfowl while the deeper, more open areas positively teemed with ducks, coots and other aquatic species. The otters didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered and could be seen scampering across the ice in between bouts of active fishing. Water rails and bitterns are often more inclined to show themselves during these conditions though it has to be said, neither species has been terribly elusive so far this winter with many visitors getting brilliant views, and as the Leighton Moss Facebook group page will testify, great photos too! 

 Something else our visitors can’t have failed to notice just lately are the palls of smoke often seen rising from the depths of the reserve. Our wardening team have been out in all conditions, improving the state of the reed bed, creating large open areas that will benefit many of our specialist residents. This often involves setting fire to large mounds of cut reed, which can seem quite alarming when viewed from the footpaths!  Expanding on the work that helped encourage bitterns to nest here again in 2018, this clearing and burning creates ideal breeding and feeding habitat for these enigmatic birds.

This work will also help many of our other reed dwellers such as bearded tit by creating more diverse foraging and nesting sites within the expansive reed beds.   

Recent sightings include the often frustrating great grey shrike near Lower Hide. This scarce visitor from the far north does a fantastic job of being erratic in its appearances, often going unseen for days at a time. With patience and luck however, it will give itself up, albeit often briefly. Great white egrets continue to impress and up to 4 birds have been present recently, ranging anywhere from the Eric Morecambe Pools to Lower Hide. The coastal pools have been excellent for large gatherings of lapwing and black-tailed godwits along with wigeon, teal and pintail

Marsh harriers have been exceedingly active of late, with 6 birds still doing the rounds. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago a single wintering marsh harrier would have been exceptional, but as our winters become increasingly milder and the breeding numbers of these once rare birds of prey increase we can expect to host multiple birds all year round. 

If you want to know what’s being spotted at Leighton Moss on a daily basis, don’t forget to check the Facebook group, Twitter feed or the Lancaster & District Birdwatching Society website.    

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager

 

              

Important notice

To allow for essential maintenance the café will be closed for the following periods:
Monday 17 December – close at 3.30pm
Tuesday 18 December – close at 2pm
Wednesday 19 December – closed until 12noon*
*hot and cold drinks & cakes wi…

Dynamic water levels & recent sightings

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

 

Recent summer sightings

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

Bitterns on show & other recent sightings

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

Tern Up for the Books & recent sightings

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.  

A few other bits and pieces to tempt visiting and local birders have included a hawfinch, cuckoo and a hobby. And of course at this time of year, who knows what might drop in next! 

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         

New arrivals and recent sightings

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