Author: Jon C

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

      

Scaup scoop & other recent sightings

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

Delicious flava & Welsh ospreys

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

Spoonbill tops list of recent sightings

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

Preparing for spring and recent sightings

It’s been a busy few days here at Leighton Moss. Not only are the birds performing extremely well but so are the reserve’s human inhabitants (ie staff, volunteers and contractors)!


“Will this do?” Richard punts an island onto Lilian’s Pool

The provision of new islands has continued apace. Following on from the rather rustic platforms our team launched onto the Causeway Pool recently, two new islands were floated out onto Lilian’s Pool last week. Richard Smith, our versatile and endlessly energetic Estate Worker, not only built these platforms but also punted them into place, before turfing and graveling the surfaces.


The rescue team arrive.

Fingers crossed we’ll get some birds nesting on here this year, providing superb views for our visitors from the Lilian’s Hide. It’s worth noting that Richard has constructed these islands from mostly recycled materials, many beach-combed from our saltmarsh tideline. 


Green Futures Building team get started on the sand martin bank

Elsewhere, also providing a potential breeding site for another type of bird altogether, we have installed our first ever sand martin nesting bank. Each year we see huge numbers of sand martins visit the reserve in spring and again in late summer to feed over the meres yet we do not have any suitable nesting areas for these bank-nesting specialists. So, we decided to have an artificial nest bank installed. After a great deal of heavy lifting (and a fair bit of grunting) we finally got all the component parts out onto a spot in front of the Tim Jackson Hide.


Almost finished…

The unit, pre-built and then constructed in situ by Green Future Building has the potential to house 48 sand martin nests – now all we need to do is wait and see if the newly arrived migrants will find it to their liking! Huge thanks to the team from Green Futures who did such an excellent job of getting the job done so swiftly.

Meanwhile, our highly vocal bittern continues to boom well from the depths of the reed bed. He really is in fine voice and we’re all hopeful that he will attract a mate and remain to breed. Multiple bitterns have been seen and heard around the reserve in the last couple of weeks but we expect that some of these will leave and nest elsewhere.


Bittern in flight by David Tipling (rspb-images.com)

Most years we get to witness the sight of birds migrating away from the site in spring; on calm clear evenings, with a suitable light wind, bitterns will circle the reedbed calling. This particular call is nothing like the boom of a courting male but more like the sound of a gull. Sometimes these ‘gull-calling’ bitterns will circle ever higher disappearing into the inky depths of the gloaming while on other occasions they will drop back down into the reeds. Is this behaviour a pre-migratory call-to-arms, or potential breeding females checking out the lay of the land or simply a ‘let’s see who else is here’? Whatever the reason, it gives us and many of our visitors a fabulous opportunity to witness an extraordinary spectacle.

Talking of extraordinary spectacles, the sky dancing marsh harriers continue to dazzle and delight. The tell-tale call of the males as they tumble from on high is a classic sign of early spring here at Leighton Moss and we have at least six birds present at the moment. We’re sure to see more as migrant harriers arrive from the continent in the coming weeks.

Great white egret by Dave Dimmock

Avocet numbers continue to build and are best looked for from the Eric Morecambe Hide where hundreds of black-tailed godwits, many now sporting their dazzling breeding plumage, may also be seen. Snipes have been a popular feature lately, showing brilliantly at Lower, Jackson and Grisedale hides. Great white egrets, no longer the rarity they once were, have remained on site and are can be seen stalking the shallows alongside the relatively dainty little egrets

Other recent sightings include a brief snow bunting at Carnforth Marsh on March 26. Spring migrants overall have been a little slow thanks to the weather conditions but we’ve seen a few of the expected chiffchaffs, wheatears and sand martins plus our first osprey of the year on March 28.

The next few days don’t look too promising as far as migrants from the south are concerned but by the time we get into April proper we could see an arrival of typical summer visitors such as swallows, sedge and willow warblers and hopefully a garganey or two.

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager

Boom time at the Moss

Immediately following the much-talked-about ‘Beast from the East’, things calmed down quite a bit and it seemed that spring was keen to forge ahead. Birdsong on the reserve has certainly ramped up a few notches; chaffinches, reed buntings, nuthatches, marsh tits and the like are all in fine voice, declaring territories and proclaiming their suitability as ideal mates for the breeding season.

Bittern by Mike Malpass

Most excitingly, we have had bitterns booming from two different areas of the reserve. One or two of these secretive herons have been seen regularly throughout the winter, mainly from the Causeway and Lower hides but thanks to their cryptic lifestyle it’s an impossible task trying to figure out just how many we have out there. It’s only in spring when on calm, clear evenings and some of the bitterns prepare to migrate that we can hazard a guess as to the wintering population. When conditions are just right, the bitterns will rise from the dense reed beds at dusk and fly over the reserve calling. This sound is nothing like the famous boom but is more like a gull call. On some evenings, we can witness multiple bitterns circling and ‘gull-calling’ in the fading light – quite magical!   

The potentially thrilling part of hearing this year’s booming birds is the possibility that some bitterns may remain to breed at Leighton Moss. A great deal of work has gone into improving the reed bed for bitterns and it would be a fantastic reward for the ecologists and wardens involved in that extensive management to see young bitterns fledging on site again. We’ll keep listening for the evocative booms and keeping our fingers crossed!

In other news, the marsh harriers have been showing exceptionally well, with up to six birds present at the time of writing. Two dazzling males have been sky dancing and food-carrying in their attempts to impress the females.

Avocet by David Mower

Out on the saltmarsh, avocet numbers have been building up again, though with the forecast cold conditions due over the next few days we may well see them disappearing for a short spell once more before they settle down to breed. A new anti-predator fence was installed at the Allen Pools this week to prevent foxes from raiding the avocet nests later in the season.

Our first sand martins of the year appeared briefly on Wednesday (14) with another present at Causeway for much of the following day. Despite the un-spring-like conditions we should see a few more of these dainty long-distance migrants in the coming days, along with the first chiffchaffs and wheatears if we’re lucky. A subtle and favourable change in wind direction should see an increase in the number of birds arriving and we can hope to add little ringed plover and osprey before the end of March.

Meanwhile, the starling murmuration, while still occurring, is starting to peter out a little. We still have a few thousand birds coming onto the reserve to roost but their display seems less extensive now and their numbers have certainly dwindled. How much longer will they be with us?  

New islands at Causeway Pool by Jon Carter

Visitors to the reserve may have noticed that we have put a few more small islands out on the Causeway Pool. This is primarily to attract nesting birds, though they’re pretty useful for roosting on too. We’ll be keeping a close eye on them to see which birds find them useful!

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager