Author: Jon C

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.”   



Recent Sightings & Funding Boost for Rare Butterflies

 Our recent ‘star bird’, the pectoral sandpiper present at the Allen Pools, went AWOL earlier this week having delighted hundreds of visitors during its short stay. Wader watchers still had plenty to enjoy as the post-breeding season got underway with an increase in the number of black-tailed godwits and greenshank plus dunlin, knot, common sandpiper and little ringed plovers showed well in front of the hides. The unseasonal whooper swan remains on the Eric Morecambe Pools along with a growing number of little egrets and at least 4 spoonbills. Pic of common sandpiper by Andy Hay (

Elsewhere on the reserve crowd-pleasing bitterns, bearded tits, kingfishers and otters have been seen on and off while ospreys continue to make daily appearances. The active young marsh harriers may be seen just about anywhere around the reedbeds as they get to grips with being masterful aerial predators! After a couple of weeks absence, a hobby has been reported in recent days.

While birds are clearly a huge focus of the work we do here at Leighton Moss, we are also involved in many other conservation projects including some fantastic partnership work that has been going on at Challan Hall Allotment, one of our nearby satellite sites. Thanks to generous funding, work can begin later this year to restore this area for some very rare butterflies.

 Historically the Challan Hall site had a wonderful mixture of open limestone pavement and grassland, as well as woodland, all of which are required by a number of declining butterfly species. However, since the 1940s the area has become increasingly overgrown and the open areas that used to benefit a whole host of wildlife have mostly been lost to predominantly woodland. Since 2001, the RSPB have owned the site and their small team of wardens and volunteers have been maintaining it. This restoration has been able to take place thanks to the generous support of the Lancashire Environmental Fund, Arnside & Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Grants Fund (operated by Arnside & Silverdale AONB and the Arnside/Silverdale Landscape Trust working together), and with assistance from wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation.

The surrounding landscape is home to a number of nationally rare and threatened butterflies such as high brown fritillary and Duke of Burgundy. Initial restoration work over two years has been planned in collaboration with Natural England, who manage nearby Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve. The hope is for the work to provide more wildlife corridors between these existing nature reserves to link populations together, as well as creating new areas to try and help boost the numbers of these rare butterflies. Pic of high brown fritillary by David Mower

Traditional practices using local workers are being restarted in the woodland including coppicing, where trees are cut down in patches over a number of years and then allowed to re-grow. Initially this creates a flush of wild flowers, especially violets for the rare fritillaries to lay their eggs on. A whole range of other wildlife also benefits from having trees at a range of ages, including bats and birds. Some overgrown areas of limestone pavement and grassland will also be opened up, bringing more sunlight into the reserve. 

Jon Carter

Spoonbills and Pectoral Sandpiper Drop In

It’s been an interesting few days here with tons of marsh harrier activity plus a couple of ‘unexpected’ arrivals!  

 The first of these showstoppers were four spoonbills which appeared on the Eric Morecambe Pool on Tuesday. Before long the flock had expanded to five individuals and by weekend it was down to three! I must admit, I do wonder where these birds have spent the past few weeks; have they travelled far or are they part of a potential and as yet unknown breeding colony? Time may tell. With spoonbills nesting on our reserves at Fairburn Ings and Burton Mere Wetlands it’s surely only a matter of time before they start breeding somewhere in our region. Spoonbill pic from archive by Mike Malpass.

 The other ‘newsworthy’ avian arrival involved a pectoral sandpiper which was found on the morning of Sunday 14 at the Allen Pools. These scare waders, originating from Siberia and North America, are the most regular of the scarce Nearctic shorebirds to appear in the UK but they’re still a real treat to see on home turf. This is quite an early record so once again I can’t help pondering where it’s come from – has it spent the summer unpaired and alone on some remote Scottish Isle having arrived in Britain last autumn? Who knows – but it does illustrate nicely why ringing can help unravel so many mysteries of migration and vagrancy. Pic of pectoral sandpiper by Jean Roberts

Talking of ringing, the growing post-breeding black-tailed godwit flock included a bird earlier this week that was ringed in Holland, probably as a chick, while a little egret sporting a pair of red rings identified it as an individual hatched near Hartlepool in May 2018.

Elsewhere on the reserve bitterns keep popping up in random places! They have been seen from just about every hide in recent days and you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Not so the case with dragonflies which can be encountered on all parts of the site, especially on still warm and sunny days. Look our emerging common darters, dashing Emperors and brown hawkers as they hunt for small flying insects.    

With the summer holidays approaching fast you might like to know that we have launched self-led pond-dipping here at Leighton Moss recently – families can hire a pond-dipping kit (net, specimen tray, identification charts and magnifying glass) for just £3.50. Come and explore the amazing wildlife that calls our pond home!

Jon Carter     

Baby Bitterns Take Flight

Absolutely amazing news from the reserve last week, three bittern fledglings were spotted down by Lower Hide. As many of the readers of this blog and regular visitors to the reserve will know a female bittern had built her nest to the right-hand side o…

Summer Has Arrived?

Two weeks into summer, the damp conditions continue but don’t let that put you off! Grab a rain jacket and some walking boots whilst great sightings continue across the reserve. The main story at the moment is the large number of young birds. Visitors can expect to see ducklings, cygnets, coot chicks, lapwing chicks and rooving song bird broods all around the reserve.

 Our female bittern continues to excite visitors with those long feeding flights across the reserve from the nest near lower hide. Whilst the gap between those flights has now increased slightly, it suggests that the size of her young is increasing. So hopefully we will get some amazing views of those young feeding at the reedbed edge sometime soon.

The four marsh harrier nests on site remain a hive of activity, with wonderful views of those spectacular food-passes and some of the females completing feeding flights in recent days. Suggesting those young are also of a larger size. In previous years the months that follow have allowed for some wonderful displays of their young taking practice flights, sunbathing and learning to hunt. Hopefully we won’t be waiting too much longer to see it all again. For those of you that are yet to see marsh harrier young, here’s a picture of what we have to look forward to from the reserve in previous years. 

Ospreys continue to visit the Lower and Causeway pools almost daily, on those feeding flights down from Foulshaw Moss. Kingfisher activity continues to excite visitors in the same areas.  Whilst the young bearded tits down by Lower hide have been providing visitors with some excellent displays. So I would definitely suggest a visit down there at the moment.

 The black-headed gull colony on the main reserve remains a hive of activity, with some excellent examples of nest building on display (especially on those artificial islands visible from skytower and Lillian’s hide). For those of you visiting the reserve in the early morning and evening, Red deer sightings continue to come in from around the reserve. Whilst earlier this week one lucky visitor managed to gain some excellent views of the tawny owlet which regular visitors to the reserve will have heard about nesting just along the path to the Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides. (Pic by David Mower).

Meanwhile down on the Allen pools, the black-headed gull colony is increasing with lots of gull chicks now on display. Whilst we await a second round of avocet chicks, with a handful of nests still to hatch. There are currently around seven avocet chicks and lots of avocet activity down on the saltmarsh pools. Non-breeding waders at the pools include black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits, knot and a few greenshank. Whilst a grasshopper warbler was spotted down along the path to the Allen hide (9 June) and a lesser whitethroat heard singing briefly near the carpark (12 June).

On the events front, tomorrow marks the start of our popular Binoculars and Telescopes Open Weekend (15, 16 June). There’s still a couple of places left on tomorrows (15 June) Singing & Ringing guided walk and for those of looking to improve your photography skills wildlife photographer Mike Malpass and his wife Jane will once again be hosting a Photographic guided walk on July 13. Booking and payment in advance is essential for both events. Please contact the visitors centre on (01524) 701601 to secure your place.

Lucy Ryan – Visitor Experience Intern

June’s Damp Start

Despite the often damp conditions, recent sightings on the reserve have continued to delight many of our visitors. The star of the show, our female bittern continues to thrill as she makes her regular(ish) feeding flights from her nest near Lower Hide. Keen photographers have been posting some amazing shots of this busy bird on our Leighton Moss Facebook group; do take a look. Recently fledged bearded tits, along with adults, have also been putting on a wonderful show from this hide, so it’s well worth the walk down there at the moment.

 Ospreys can be seen most days coming to fish in Lower or Causeway pools while birdwatchers have also been reporting plenty of kingfisher activity in the same area. Young birds are very much on show at the minute and visitors can expect to come across ducklings, cygnets, coot chicks and roving songbird broods all around the reserve. Meanwhile fans of marsh harriers are getting superb looks of both the males and females hunting and engaging in impressive food-passes.    

Unusual reports include the appearance of both a little tern and common tern on the Allen Pools during blustery conditions on June 3 – the former species being a very rare visitor here. In recent days there have been up to four Mediterranean gulls hanging around the black-headed gull colony at the coastal pools too, giving keen-eyed observers something a little different to look for. With lots of gull chicks now on show a visit to these hides is a must. Unfortunately the avocets haven’t had quite so much success, with those fortunate chicks that escaped predation presumably falling foul of the poor weather in recent days. There are currently at least seven avocet chicks hanging in there while a handful of nests have yet to hatch (these are likely to be relays by birds that had earlier lost their eggs or chicks). Non-breeding waders at the pools include good numbers of both black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits, along with knots and the odd greenshank. A pair of dapper spoonbills dropped in for a brief visit midweek but sadly soon moved on.

 Thanks to the awful forecast we had to reschedule our popular Singing & Ringing guided walk this morning; hopefully the weather will be kinder next Saturday! We do have one or two spaces available on this and other Singing & Ringing events in the coming weeks so if you fancy joining us please call the visitor centre on (01524) 701601 to secure your spot – advance booking is essential.

Bearded tit pic copyright David Mower

Cetti’s warbler pic copyright Jon Carter