Author: Joe F

Winter wildlife and recent sightings

Gradually the water levels are reducing to normal levels on the reserve, and with that we are seeing the growth of bird numbers on the pools, particularly wildfowl. And though the hundreds of black-tailed godwits (sometimes exceeding 2000) that were on Lilian’s for several weeks have relocated to the coastal pools at present, they and other waders may return as this reduction takes place. This week we have seen the chief splendour of clear autumn days, when the sun’s shallow arc lends each day a mystical sense of being frozen as morning, or as afternoon, of time suspended. With the invitation to tranquil awareness which autumn extends, what greater context is there in which to enjoy nature at Leighton Moss?

Such weather has gifted to visitors excellent sights of bearded tits, and though activity has been unpredictable, when they have shown they have been delightful. ‘Beardies’, as they are affectionately known, have been visiting both of the main grit trays on site – three at the base of the causeway in front of a newly-built viewing area, and two besides the path towards Grisedale – leaving visitors with a slight gamble as to where to head to first. It seems that the Grisedale grit trays have been better for sightings earlier in the day, and between 9-11am on dry, still and preferably sunny days remains the ideal time for them (though one must bear in mind the recent changes of the clock). Be sure to read Naomi’s blog to find out more about bearded tits, why they are so important, and what the RSPB is doing to give them a home.

After a period of marvellous bellowing, antler-clashing, strutting and general majesty, it appears the red deer rutting activity has ceased now, and we may presume that an alpha has finally succeeded in laying claim to a harem of hinds. Nevertheless it is worth visiting Leighton Moss early in the morning or late in the afternoon through to evening to watch red deer at Grisedale and Tim Jackson, and a troupe of incredibly tame roe deer on the path towards Lower hide. Otters remain a spotlight species on the reserve. As always, it is a lottery when and where they might appear next, as individuals are active in the daytime as well as nocturnally, and have been seen at the far side of Lilian’s as well as to the left of Grisedale hide. However, in general the most reliable spots for sightings are from the Causeway and Lower hides.

Winter bittern, by Mike Malpass

With the approach of winter we’re encountering interesting activity from migratory birds arriving from the continent to spend the season with us.

–       We’ve received several bittern sightings these past couple of weeks. Notably, on Saturday 22 one bird was reported at Grisedale, and another was spotted from the Causeway. In addition to resident birds the UK is visited by continental bitterns who winter with us because of the warmer climate and favourable habitat, and with frosts and frozen water on our reserve there’s an increased likelihood bitterns will become increasingly visible as they venture out of the reedbed in search of exposed water for fishing.

–       Some smaller gatherings of several hundred starlings have been seen in the evenings above Leighton Moss, and it has been established that a few thousand are now roosting at Silverdale Moss. The amassing of large murmurations above the reserve is somewhat unpredictable – sometimes this peaks in late autumn, sometimes in the new year, though starlings were still throroughly active into March. As soon as large numbers start murmurating over the reserve visitors will be sure to know.

–       As mentioned in my previous blog, a vast influx of fieldfares and especially redwings have made their way to Leighton Moss and the surrounding area. Movements are best seen in the evenings – make sure to listen out for the high-pitched ‘seep seep’ of redwings as they move over in the dark.

–       Skeins of pink-footed geese and whooper swans have been flying over, with a couple of the latter having dropped in from time to time. Hundreds of greylag geese and dozens of Canada geese have also spent some time on Lilian’s and Causeway pools, as well as the open water on the saltmarshes.

–       Bramblings have been spotted moving among flocks of chaffinches from the Hideout, Grisedale and the coastal hides recently, and common redpoll have mingled with huge ‘charms’ of goldfinches and siskins, particularly above the feeding station.

–       All eyes should be paying attention to hawthorns and other berry-laden trees on the reserve in anticipation of waxwings. These gorgeous birds arrive on the east coast and move further inland searching for food, with a handful sometimes reaching Leighton Moss, appearing as one of the reserve’s most popular winter treasures.

Waxwing, by Mario Chin

For those enraptured by raptors, up to 5 marsh harriers have been reported on site recently, with some visitors going through the idiosyncrasies of individuals’ plumages (male, female, and juvenile-plumaged birds have been spotted) to establish the fact for themselves. Though marsh harriers are typically a migratory species, moving down to the south of England and to Africa, in recent times some have remained at Leighton Moss over winter. They are generally seen soaring close above the reedbed towards the back of the reserve, south of the main dyke, and so Grisedale, Lilian’s and the Skytower are worthy watch points. Last week a merlin, the UK’s smallest falcon and a dashing character, was active on and moved between the coast and the main reserve, and there have been a few sightings since. There has also been a noticeable amount of kestrel and buzzard activity recently which has pleased visitors.

Teal, shoveler, gadwall and mallard continue to increase in number and are conspicuous across the site and the coast. There have been flotillas of goldeneye seen from Lilian’s and Lower, as well as out from Arnside; and groups of pintail have moved into the coastal pools and areas on the main reserve such as Lilian’s. The female garganey up at Grisedale is still with us, a rare and peculiarly long residency given that garganey should have moved off to Africa at this time in the season, and it is unlikely that they should be anywhere in the UK in October or November. Could this be another bird we begin to see overwintering with us? We shall see. Visitors have also enjoyed watching the great-crested and little grebes at the Causeway.

Coastal bird activity has been excellent at Allen and Morecambe pools. The 25th October was illustrative of the variety of birds seen there recently. Three great white egrets landed briefly before taking wing towards Leighton Moss, and at least one was seen at Grisedale later on. This is still an excellent place for seeing varying numbers of little egrets also, and though numbers of both species seen at the roost at Island Mere are shrinking, they are still active in area and predominantly favour the coast, On this day dunlin (12), knot (4) and spotted redshank (2) were also recorded, three slightly rarer species enticingly set against the reliable beauty of huge hundred-plus flocks of redshank and lapwing, and smaller numbers of greenshank. The duck species mentioned on the main reserve can also be found here, with the additions of wigeon, shelduck, goosander and red-breasted merganser. Asides from the merlin mentioned, the highlight on the coast has been the kingfisher. Visitors have been in incredibly close proximity to the one or two individuals who have spent their time perched atop the wooden posts immediately before the hide, zipping to and fro and spearing the odd fish.

Kingfisher at Eric Morecambe hide, by Martin Kuchczynski

In summary of the other bird activity on the reserve: Cetti’s warblers and water rails are persistently vocal across the site, and can most reliably be heard, and on the rare occasion glimpsed, anywhere in the willows and reeds besides the Skytower, the boardwalk and the length of the Causeway. Views of nuthatches and treecreepers, marsh tits and goldcrests have been particularly excellent in the woodland at the back of sensory garden stretching down towards Lilian’s and the path towards Grisedale, with the ‘swan tree’ being a hotspot. Snipe, flying and foraging in small squads or solo, have been splendid across the site, and evenings are still ripe with the possibility of appearances from tawny owls and barn owls. On October 22 a tree sparrow was ringed on site, an uncommon species at Leighton Moss and corresponding with a report of a group of birds in the Arnside area, and yesterday an adult Mediterranean gull was seen on Lilian’s.

Some of our regular, first-rate events are coming up this November. On Tuesday 6 and Thursday 22 November it’s Nature Tots, our bimonthly event bringing the joys and stories of the natural world to toddlers and their carers. If the weather is anything like that which we’ve received this week a terrific time will be had by all, singing strolling and spending time surrounded by nature. Birding for Beginners takes place again on the 25th. In the last session attendees were familiarised with everything from coal tits and marsh tits, nuthatches and treecreepers, to marsh harriers and some terrifically obliging bearded tits! If you’re just starting out birding and could benefit from friendly, expert guidance, or if you’d simply like to join an informative guided walk and ask all those questions your bursting to ask, don’t miss out on joining Andy Chapman for this excellent event, and finishing off with a sausage butty in the cafe. And on Saturday 24 highly-experienced and widely-published wildlife photographer Mike Malpass is conducting Digital Darkroom, introducing amateur photographers to numerous editing methods and techniques to give their snaps a professional finish. Be sure to check the event pages for details, and don’t delay in saving your place!

Naomi’s blog: Bearded tits

In this week’s blog, Visitor Experience Intern Naomi Wadsworth gives an overview of the lives of these special residents of Leighton Moss, and the conservation work being done to support them:

This blog is not a recent sightings blog, but will focus on one popular species of bird which is showing remarkably well at the moment – the beautiful bearded tit. John Wilson and David Mower graciously provided a lot of the information found in this blog, and I am very grateful for their input. We have had plenty of bearded tit sightings here at Leighton Moss, with the lion’s share being along the causeway on the newly-installed viewing platform. Thank you to our intrepid Estate Worker Richard Smith for providing such an excellent place to view these lovely birds.

Furthermore, a new exciting development is that bearded tits are now regularly using the grit trays we installed close to the Grisedale Hide. Adults often bring the juveniles to where they grit, so to see them at a new grit site gives me high hopes for the future and perhaps hints at birds arriving from a different area.

As always, the best time to see these birds is in the morning (as a guideline we suggest 9-11am). They have been sighted in the afternoon, but this is very infrequent. Bearded tits prefer dry, calm weather for gritting. Heavy rain or high wind conditions reduces the chance of sighting these birds.

Male bearded tit, by David Mower

Identification

For those who are unfamiliar with this species, the male of the species is often the most referred to. I have had the pleasure of attending a ringing session with one of our qualified members of staff, and it is truly a privilege to see this bird up close. Typical identifying features of the handsome male are his lovely lavender-blue head and chest topped off with a broad, black moustache running from his eyes down his cheeks. So really, the males do not have a beard at all! Males also have bright ginger-brown upper parts and distinctive black and white markings on the wings and tail which make for a very photogenic appearance.

Females share a similar plumage to the male, but their head is the same colour as their upper parts and they lack the distinctive moustache. The juveniles are also stunning birds, with a bright ginger plumage and extensive black markings down their back and wings. The most reliable way to know the sex of a juvenile is to look at their beak colour – only males have yellow beaks. In saying this, juveniles moult into their adult plumage in their first year, so there is a relatively short window to sight a juvenile.

Female bearded tit, by Martin Kuchzynski

A brief history

Historically, many of the UK’s reed beds were drained for intensive agricultural and developmental purposes. In a previous life, Leighton Moss was known as the Golden Valley, full of fields of wheat (no Theresa May however!) Unfortunately, bearded tits are reed bed specialists and the population declined as a result of habitat loss amongst other factors such as unfavourable weather and even egg collecting. The winter of 1947 saw bearded tits in the UK come dangerously close to extinction, with just 10 pairs left in Norfolk, East Anglia.

The UK population was supplemented by an increasing Dutch population of bearded tits, with birds recovered in the UK originating in Holland. Bearded tits were first seen at Leighton Moss in 1965, but they did not breed here until 1973. Quite ironically, the first bearded tits to breed here chose a small patch of National Rail reed bed, instead of the neighbouring 75 hectares at Leighton Moss! Since then there has been a continued presence of the species with a peak of 65 pairs in 2000. This then plummeted to just seven pairs in 2001, due to bad weather. This year we have roughly 25 pairs, with 29 newly-ringed birds so far. The ongoing ringing study being undertaken by John Wilson has provided an incredible insight into this species and a thorough, reliable way of monitoring the population. If you have any photos of ringed bearded tits at Leighton Moss, do continue to send them to us at leighton.moss@rspb.org.uk and email John directly at john.wilson@rspb.org.uk.

Ringed bearded tits on grit trays, by Richard Cousens

Breeding

John’s study has provided evidence which demonstrates bearded tits are one of two species known to pair up as juveniles. Adults rarely survive to be older than 5 years old and they will remain monogamous if they are a successful breeding pair. A pair can have up to three broods per year, with a varying clutch size. Water levels can also affect the success of a pair, so to help them our ex-warden David Mower pioneered the nest boxes we use now (photo below). I have made one with guidance from David, and it is a very physically demanding task. I now have a much better appreciation of the dedication and effort it takes to make them. These boxes can be raised, which helps increase the chance of survival as this prevents the nests from being flooded. It is also a way of circumnavigating reed bed management clashes of other reed bed dwellers: bitterns like young reed bed with plenty of water movement whereas bearded tits prefer dense reed bed. I should mention birds also nest naturally at Leighton Moss.

Bearded tits do disperse to new areas. When this happens it is described as an irruption. Autumn is a good time to watch the birds go into an excited state, circling the reed bed and being carried away with the wind (if the weather is preferable) to new sites. Nevertheless, they may return to the initial site.

Ex-Warden David Mower placing a bearded tit ‘wigwam’ in the reedbed, by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Interesting Choices

In spring and summer, bearded tits prey on insects, but when these become scarce they are forced to switch their diets to reed seed, which has led to a rather intriguing behavioural adaptation. During autumn, they can be seen ‘gritting’, in which they line their gizzards with tiny stones which enables them to break down the nutritious reed seeds. The birds can spend up to 15 minutes at a time gritting (Wilson, 2013). In one study, a bearded tit was found to have an estimated 650 stones lining its gizzard (ibid, 2013). Whilst hardy birds, bearded tits are vulnerable to water levels in the reed bed. Their dietary choice of reed bed seeds can lead to complications as they prefer to feed on seeds on the bottom of the reed bed, which can be covered by water, ice or snow. Whilst some birds will then feed on seed higher in the plant, many will unfortunately starve to death.

The future?

Leighton Moss remains a stronghold for bearded tits and the birds are gradually spreading to our satellite sites in the surrounding area. This is a great indicator that more habitats are suitable for this precious species and bodes well for future birds. I cannot say how future weather patterns will affect our resident UK population. There are also lots of other RSPB reserves where one may see this species and I am confident in saying that the work of the RSPB in particular has played a vital part in ensuring a brighter future for this attractive bird.

Wilson, J. (2013) The gritting behaviour of Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus. Lancashire. British Trust for Ornithology. Ringing & Migration. Vol 28. pp 1–4

Autumnal awe and recent sightings

We are deep into autumn at here at Leighton Moss and Morecambe Bay, and so far October has proven as always to be a delightful time for observing wildlife on the reserve. Of course, we are always at the whim of the weather. Episodes of heavy rain might discourage appearances from some species, as well as raise the water levels such that waders and waterfowl are displaced from places on site, moving elsewhere for a brief time. Nevertheless, there has been a wealth of excellent wildlife at Leighton Moss and Morecambe Bay recently, and there is always some form of wonderful wildlife to enjoy on the reserve. Check out our facebook page for photo uploads from our many admiring visitors: https://www.facebook.com/groups/leightonmoss/

Many will already know October as ‘beardie season’, but for those of you who don’t here’s a quick introduction: bearded tits or ‘reedlings’ are colourful, charismatic little birds specially adapted to living in reedbeds like Leighton Moss. They don’t migrate, and so when the insects they feast on the rest of the year become scarce in autumn and winter, bearded tits switch their diet to reed seed. They can’t digest this well naturally, and must swallow grit – known as ‘gritting’ – to help them grind it down into a digestible mulch. Leighton Moss’ wardens have placed grit trays besides the reserve paths for them, which also present opportune locations from which to view them. They are ideally spotted on dry, still autumn mornings between 9-11, with a bit of sun, but can be spotted at any time – listen out for the characteristic metallic ‘pinging’ sound, perhaps as they dolphin above the reedbed. Our estate worker Richard did an excellent job in creating an accessible bearded tit viewing area on the Causeway, but it is also worth watching the trays close to Grisedale hide, as we have had several reports now of bearded tits – some unringed – visiting them also. Leighton moss’ bearded tits seem to have done fairly well this year, with 26 new birds ringed so far, dozens of birds visiting the grit trays for the few weeks. There’s no better time than now to enjoy these wonderful birds across the site.

Male bearded tit, by Mike Malpass

Early mornings and late afternoons through to evening in autumn are also ideal times for visitors to witness red deer, Britain’s largest land mammal. Though they are present throughout the year, it is during this period when the stately forms of red deer stags emerge from the reedbed to engage in the annual ‘rut’, or breeding season. In competition for the attentions of females, called hinds, stags let out thunderous bellows to advertise their fitness and supremacy. When stags encounter, they size one another up by strutting and posturing in parallel, and if two equally-matched individuals refuse to back down, antlers lock and combat commences. Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides are the ideal locations to witness this remarkable behaviour, with up to five red deer stags and multiple hinds reported at one time.

Otters have proved to be a real highlight on the reserve in the last few weeks, appearing daily and in the day time across the site. It goes without saying that seeing them is a lottery. The best location to wait for them remains at Causeway hide, though they also find themselves on Grisedale and Lilian’s pools. These charming creatures have offered exceptional sights of their great fishing activity up close, when they ferry a doomed eel or pike to a platform and make a noisy meal of them – visitors have reported being so close they could hear the crunch of bones!

Male marsh harrier, by Mike Malpass

Three marsh harriers – an adult male, adult female, and a juvenile or sub adult female – continue to grace Leighton Moss. As many will know, six juveniles fledged from two successful nests this year, a real triumph. Marsh harriers generally migrate to Africa for the winter, but in recent years some birds have remained to winter with us, and so there’s still every chance to appreciate these impressive raptors, with Causeway, Lilian’s and Grisedale hides proving key watch points.

Birds of prey in general have been showing remarkably well on the reserve. A ringtail harrier (likely a hen harrier, though possibly a pallid harrier) passed over Grisedale on the morning of October 9, on the back of a report of another bird flying over Slyne village towards Leighton Moss a few days earlier. Hen harriers move down from upland to lowland areas in the winter, such as coastal marshes, where there are generous food sources. Sparrowhawks, kestrels and buzzards have frequently been seen above areas of the reserve as well as the neighbouring woodland. A peregrine was seen passing over red deer at Grisedale on the 10th, and in the past couple of days a merlin has been seen from Eric Morecambe hide perched far out on wooden posts on the saltmarsh.

Black-tailed godwits, by Mike Malpass

Hundreds of black-tailed godwits, some days exceeding 2000, remain a compelling spectacle lodged on the islands in front of and opposite Lilian’s Hide. They are very dynamic: at times, when the water levels have risen, they have departed and are more reliably seen on the coastal pools, other areas on coast (such as Jenny Brown’s point, where 20 knot were in amongst them on the afternoon of October 10) or Grisedale and Tim Jackson pools. Sometimes, whether spooked by a larger bird or by sudden impulse, they take to the air in their own rendition of a murmuration, spiralling in tornado motion above Lilian’s pool, hundreds of wings starting like a great engine, before suddenly alighting like a storm of arrows. They are a great privilege and a pleasure to watch.

The coastal hides have proved a very popular spot as well of late. Redshank flocks exceeding 100 individuals are more or less are permanent fixture, with a knot or two sometimes amongst them – smaller flocks occasionally relocate to Grisedale or Tim Jackson pools. Others waders than black-tailed godwits in the past couple of weeks have included over 30 lapwings, up to ten greenshanks, and a couple of spotted redshank. As for waterfowl, over 230 wigeon, 178 greylag geese, 8 goosanders and 6 pintails have been confirmed here. Further off the coast, larger flocks of eider and shelduck, and smaller of red-breasted merganser, have be seen. A lone kingfisher is regularly perched on the posts outside the coastal hides or passes through from time to time – one visitor recorded a kingfisher spending 30 minutes close in front of Allen hide frozen on a post, gazing into the pool.

Kingfisher, by Mike Malpass

A word about egrets: Island Mere, visible from Lower hide, has been the site of a huge egret roost through summer and autumn. Numbers peaked in mid-September when up to 176 little egrets and 6 great white egrets were seen flying in to roost! Though numbers have slowly decreased, impressive numbers of both species still move to and from roost at Island Mere before dawn and after dusk, and are active across the AONB area in the day time. Sometimes still seen on Leighton Moss (particularly Tim Jackson and Grisedale pools), both little egrets (up to 20) and great white egrets (2) have tended to favour the coastal pools of late. There was a notable sightings of 3 spoonbill flying over the visitor centre on October 15, so it is worth keeping an eye out for them on the estuary and associated habitats.

A handful of bittern sightings have been reported in the last few weeks. Though it remains a very rare sight, it is worth remembering that these bashful birds are present on site throughout the year, and in the winter we welcome additional birds from the continent, who are sometimes more visible from the edges of the reedbed.

Finally a brief roundup: Causeway stone island remains a fine spot for lapwing and greenshank in small numbers, and snipe have been dropping in to forage on the reed-water interfaces at Grisedale, Tim Jackson and Lilian’s in particular. Little grebes and great-crested grebes appear in small numbers at Causeway, and varying numbers of other ducks – very handsome, freshly-plumaged gadwall, teal, shoveler and mallard mostly, sometimes a seldom-seen pochard – are spread across the site. Water rails and Cetti’s warblers remain very vocal, predominantly along the Causeway and near the boardwalk. Hazelnut-greedy jays have been noticeably active recently; flocks of siskins have been seen above the reserve and visiting the feeders at the Hideout; and a pleasing number of goldcrests sightings have reported.

Any day now we shall see fieldfares and redwings dining in the orchard, and it won’t be long until starlings arrive for their grand performance.

LVA Alex Bateson bids farewell

Alex Bateson, one of RSPB Leighton Moss’ Learning and Visitor Assistants (LVAs), reflects on her time inspiring children and adults alike to learn and care about nature:

As my 6 month stint as a Learning and Visitor Assistant (LVA) draws to an end I thought I’d write a blog about my fantastic experience with the RSPB at Leighton Moss.

Engaging young people with nature has always been a key belief and passion of mine and has formed the focus of my career for the past 12 years. The current culture of spending more time indoors has led to younger generations becoming increasingly removed from nature. In my previous roles with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and The Bushcraft Co, I witnessed the incredible positive difference which outdoor wildlife based activities provide in terms of stress release, behaviour and attitudes. So, with my motivation to make a difference to the future generations of people and wildlife, I relished the opportunity to work for the RSPB in the role of Learning and Visitor Assistant.

Alex Bateson, Learning and Visitor Assistant (LVA)

I began in March when the busy season had already begun. Spring and Summer continued to be so, with school bookings almost every day during term time and fun family events filling the holidays. There has never been a dull minute here, and as soon as I started I instantly loved everyone’s enthusiasm to inspire people of all ages about wildlife.

As an LVA I‘ve had the opportunity to lead school visits, each one including several curriculum based activities. It is not hard to enthuse about everything from Minibeast hunts, Habitat trails, Pond dipping, to the secondary school Eco-sampling session, when all us staff and volunteers enjoy it so much ourselves. Receiving thank you letters from schools about how much they learnt and enjoyed during their visits is extremely rewarding, and allows you to see the difference you make.Their letters highlight what experiences they remember from their school trip, feelings they had, information they absorbed and messages they took home. Here below are a handful of quotes from thank you letters we received this summer, which convey the rewards of working in this field.

  • I want to say thank you for an amazing day. I had so much fun, when I’m older I want to be as adventurous as you at the RSPB!
  • This was the best school trip ever. All the staff were friendly and helped us learn and have fun at the same time.
  • My favourite thing was being a nature detective. I learnt minibeasts can actually be quite interesting when you take a look. It amazed me that a centipede has 2 sets of jaws!
  • I loved it when we went up the sky tower even though I am scared of heights. I like it because you could see so much of the reserve.

Frog attending one of Alex’s Habitat trails

It was also an absolute privilege to deliver family events during school holidays. Birds in the Barn and Butterflies in the Barn involved fun interactive activities such as orienteering and family quizzes, What Lives Beneath gave people a chance to see what lurks under our ponds, and Nature Up Close opened everyone’s eyes (including staff and volunteers) through the use of microscopes.

Engaging toddlers and their families through Nature Tots and Tots Trek was another extremely fulfilling area to get involved in. It is so refreshing to see tots jump from mole hill to mole hill, burrow for minibeasts and collect materials to make bird nests, and reminds me why I entered this line of work.

The factor which has made my time here a complete pleasure, is working with such wonderful RSPB volunteers. They have been supportive, enthusiastic and now, 5 months later, consider them extremely good friends. Working alongside volunteers to engage children, young people and families with nature makes this one of the most fulfilling posts you can imagine. As such I encourage anyone contemplating becoming involved in the learning sector to jump at the opportunity, whether as staff, intern or volunteer.

As for what the future holds for me, I have been invited back to work next year in the same role and obviously leapt at the chance. So in March I will be back for the busy season when schools begin, once more, to migrate to Leighton Moss.

If you have considered entering into this line of work, either as a job or as a volunteer, or if you are thinking of arranging a school trip to Leighton Moss, jump right in and contact our Learning Officer, Carol Bamber at carol.bamber@rspb.org.uk or 01514 703015.

Fresh arrivals and recent sightings

I have the great pleasure of handing this week’s blog over to Naomi Wadsworth, a new Visitor Experience Intern at Leighton Moss. Here she is in her own words, introducing herself and updating you on recent sightings:

Hello bloggers! My name is Naomi and I suppose you could say I’m the new kid on the reserve. I am overjoyed to be spending the next 6 months supporting the RSPB Leighton Moss team as your new Visitor Experience Intern, where I will be following in the footsteps of a long line of fantastic interns. I look forward to meeting many of you!

Naomi Wadsworth, new Visitor Experience Intern at Leighton Moss

This summer I graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Sustainable Development with Sociology. Growing up in the Lake District and then the Trossachs fostered a deep appreciation and love for our landscapes and wildlife. As I learned more about the threats nature faces, I resolved to pursue a degree which would aid me in my desire to protect that which I love.

During my time at university I joined the Sustainable Development Association and assisted with the organisation and facilitation of successful events such as sustainability question time and a sustainability conference. I also worked as a student tutor for two years, helping students in younger years in my degree, improve their understanding and course grades. I was also part of a student group who started our own vegetable garden on campus, where different seasonal produce continues to be grown and shared.

Last summer I had the privilege of volunteering at RSPB Loch Garten on Operation Osprey. I fell in love with the magnificent raptors and whilst I never saw EJ, Loch Garten’s star osprey (who has recently turned 21), I was moved by her story and the conservation efforts of the RSPB to bring ospreys back from extinction. Loch Garten offered lots of amazing wildlife encounters with the crested tits, Scottish crossbills, a white-tailed eagle and red squirrels! I also thoroughly enjoyed working in the visitor centre with such a dedicated team. I discovered bringing both adults and children closer to nature and igniting new interests was so personally satisfying that I realised that it was what I wanted to pursue as a career. This led me to apply for an internship with the RSPB and here I am. Admittedly, I have much to learn when it comes to our wildlife, but what better place to learn than that of a leading reserve with a fantastic, knowledgeable team? Already I have been present for some wonderful spectacles and first sightings: the female marsh harrier swept across the reedbed on my first evening at the reserve, and a friendly pair of marsh tits and I were subject to the down-draft of hundreds of black-tailed godwits’ wings as they flew to roost.

During my internship I will be keeping you updated on news, events and activities. Whilst here I hope to advance the great work undertaken at this leading reserve and encourage further charitable support. My personal aim (besides developing my skill set) is to reconnect people with nature and empower them because together we can give nature a home. You’ll most likely find me in the centre where I’ll offer you a warm welcome, or on the reserve assisting with other activities such as guided walks and school visits. I may even organise new activities for you to enjoy – perhaps something sustainability related? My first large project involves organizing the Leighton Moss Christmas market so watch this space! One final key role I have is keeping you updated on sightings and oh my! What a week of action we have had here so hold onto your tail feathers, if the weather forecast is right it’s about to get bumpy!

Stepping into autumn’s cooler embrace we can expect to welcome a multitude of various wader and wildfowl species arriving at Leighton Moss throughout the upcoming weeks. The water levels on the main site have more than recovered after one of the hottest summers on record, and for the previous few weeks the main action has been sighted at Lilian’s and Causeway pools.

At Lilian’s pool is a flock of black-tailed godwits, with the number of birds present altering daily. There are a few individuals who remain in their summer plumage, to the delight of the various raptors who frequent the area. This colony number may very well increase as these Icelandic birds migrate to the UK for the upcoming winter. Amongst this substantial group of waders are a modest number of redshanks (our sightings book suggest 127 so far) with smaller numbers of spotted redshanks, greenshanks and the occasional ruff, knot and dunlin also present. A family of water rails continues to frequent Lilian’s, with a juvenile being sighted almost daily scampering in front of the hide, and many others are present on site, so with a little time and patience you may sight these secretive birds, particularly around Causeway. Garganey, gadwall and shoveler ducks continue to be sighted at Lilian’s, and one female marsh harrier remains at the main site, sighted flying around the main reserve and stirring up trouble at the Allen pool.

Pintail, by Ben Hall

At Causeway, new arrivals and frequent visitors have been treating visitors daily. Kingfisher sightings have been reported with increasing occurrence. The great white egret population has grown to as many as 6 (depending on the day) but have been sighted in the wider AONB. A fantastic territory battle took place last week between a grey heron and great white egret, with the grey heron chasing the great white egret for several minutes. This was an exciting aerial display to witness, as the large bodies of these birds belies their grace and aerial skill, with both birds occasionally skimming the water. Other species include cormorants, teals, pochards and other wildfowl arriving for the winter are also causing a splash. Causeway in particular has been an excellent place to spot numbers of pintails and wigeons.

Over the past week there have been some very exciting unexpected arrivals at Leighton Moss too. For the first time this year, a drake common scoter was found at Causeway. This all-black diving seaduck is an interesting anomaly, but not unheard of, and a consequence of the recent strong westerly winds. Whilst common scoters do breed in-land, they are an infrequent visitor to the reserve. There was also a common tern spotted at Causeway (pictured below) whose aerial skills delighted our visitors. This photogenic bird put on an excellent show, and like the common scoter is not a frequent visitor. Most recently, a guillemot was recorded at Allen pool on 13 September, another blink and you’ll miss it moment unfortunately. There is the potential for more unexpected rare visitors however, as the tail winds of hurricane Florence may very well send some more migrant and sea birds off course.

Common tern, by Mark Wilson

Our resident mammals are also treating visitors to wonderful sightings. With rutting season approaching, increasing numbers of red deer hinds and stags are being sighted from Grisedale hide. I have enjoyed watching these magnificent creatures patrol their land at dusk, with the evening lighting adding to their aesthetic appeal. Otters continue to be spotted from the causeway hide at various times of day, with some remarkable hunting trips being viewed. Stoats have also made brief appearances along the causeway footpath. Such a wonderful variety of wildlife highlights to great and ongoing work undertaken at RSPB Leighton Moss and is a testament to the dedication of the reserve team.

Autumn’s arrival and recent sightings

Autumn has arrived at Leighton Moss, and promises a period of cool transformation following one of the hottest summers on record. In the coming months the intrigue and enticement of migration movements through Morecambe Bay and the main sight itself will be realised in the dramatic increase in wintering waterfowl and wader numbers. There has been an unbroken continuity to much of the wildlife activity on the reserve, outlined in my previous blog, which nevertheless includes some exceptional natural spectacles. Substantial flocks of waders (black-tailed godwits, redshanks, or lapwings) still engage in their cycles of alighting, dwelling, and departing – occasionally prompted by a peregrine – and confront visitors with nature’s magnitude. Bird roosts are still a treasure to watch, notably 90 little egrets and now 3 great white egrets at Island Mere, and the evening cormorants in the willow tree at Grisedale (whose dead branches jutting skyward provide perfect parapets for over 30 of them). The cyclone of swallows and sand martins at Lilian’s and Causeway, particularly at the close of day, are still entrancing. Visitors can continue to expect a modest gathering of greenshank on the island, and great crested and little grebes in the mere, at Causeway. Generally, Grisedale and Tim Jackson have been quieter of late, but are still an excellent place to anticipate red deer, and green sandpipers have briefly sojourned here in the past couple of weeks.

Roosting cormorants, by Richard Cousens

There have been noteworthy developments in bird activity witnessed on the reserve in the past couple of weeks. Our beloved marsh harriers appear to have dispersed from the site after a very successful breeding season (with two successful broods totaling 6 fledged juveniles), yet, for the time being, an adult pair remain at Causeway. There are now 3 ruff on Lilian’s pool, with 2 spotted redshank seen here at times but also at Grisedale and Tim Jackson, all these birds being in adult winter plumage. There have been good views of a water rail chick at Lilian’s too, dabbling and scampering around on the left hand side of the island close to the hide, with parents close by – other water rails can, with patience, be glimpsed outside Causeway and Lower. Up to 5 garganey now reside at Lilian’s, a couple drakes in eclipse among other female and juvenile birds; very occasionally a spontaneous, unanticipated outburst from Cetti’s warbler happens around the Causeway. Kingfisher sightings have been reported from Lower hide and from the coastal hides, and another solo bird, a lone common tern, has afforded great views of itself circling in front of Lower hide and perching on the wooden posts out in the water, perhaps beside a grey heron, black-headed gull or cormorant. So if you spot a common tern from Lower hide, be assured it’s not a plastic one!

Juvenile water rail, by Mike Malpass

On the 27th August, there were four ospreys seen together on the saltmarsh, with one actually venturing into the Eric Morecambe pool. Visitors caught sight of one attempting to deal with a huge seabass that it had landed. One or two ospreys have continued to visit Causeway, and though we can expect a declining frequency in their visits (with the young at Foulshaw Moss having fledged and preparations being made for southward migration) visitors still have every chance of spotting these marvellous raptors, perhaps with a little fortitude. Similarly, otters have made some remarkable appearances at Causeway of late. On the first day of the month, three individuals were spotted moving in the mere between Lower and Causeway hides. The previous Thursday one voracious individual spent an hour or so hunting in front of Causeway hide, and twice, having deftly obtained an eel, proceeded to devour it on the wooden island in full view of a captive audience, prompting a frenzy of elation.

Finally, a handsome anomaly was discovered at Lilian’s hide a couple of days ago, and seen again at Causeway the following day – a leucistic greenshank! Leucism is a pigmentation condition in birds which entails an apparent bleaching of plumage. This results in the striking and somewhat ghostly appearance exhibited by birds such as this individual.

Shot of a leucistic greenshank (centre), taken by Matthew Smith 

Since it can never be emphasised enough, I will say that this stunning variety in birds, not to say anything of the other wildlife on the reserve, reiterates the splendid job done by the RSPB Leighton Moss staff and volunteers, to conserve a special place which is vital and thoroughly appealing to wildlife, 

Wild weather and recent sightings

Rain and wind have continued to assist the recovery of water onto areas of Leighton Moss and the larger reserve this past week. Myers’ Dyke is running once again, and the Morecambe pool, which had endured a considerably dearth of water up to the 13th, was finally somewhat rejuvenated by a high tide and gale that evening. This weather, however, and this general time of year – sandwiched between the breeding season and migratory activity – means visitors should expect a marked inconstancy to the presence of birds. Nevertheless this amplifies what is always true and charming about nature here at Leighton Moss and everywhere: it is unpredictable, and retains a capacity to surprise and astonish us.

Redshank flock, by David Griffin

This is especially true of birds for the bay. Hundreds of redshank and lapwing are usually present on the pools, and a little over 400 black-tailed godwits are often at Barrow Scout (with these species found regularly in smaller numbers on central islands of Leighton Moss meres), but are liable to spontaneous departures and returns – as J. A Baker reflects, to the mind of the wader “there is only the impulse, like the tide drawn out by the moon”. Smaller waders are similarly in permanent flux, thought visitors have every chance of seeing ringed plover, greenshank, knot, green sandpiper, a lone male ruff and dozens of dunlin. It is also worth anticipating visits from a juvenile peregrine which has taken to scanning this area of late, occasionally flushing up the flocks of lapwings.

This week’s highlights on the reserve include: 3 garganey may be spotted from Lilian’s hide dozing on the central island – being in eclipse plumage, they pose a challenge to birders attempting to single them out from  the hundreds of mallard and gadwall in a similar state of moult. These have been rejoined by a small unit of tufted ducks. Little grebes have been abundant, with up to 30 birds, many being juveniles, distributed across Causeway and Lillian’s pools, indicating a very fruitful breeding season. Hobby activity continues to excite our visitors, and up to two birds at varying times may be found hunting or contentedly perching on dead branches at Grisedale, Lilian’s and Causeway hides. Very recently a handful of people have caught sight of the cobalt flash of a kingfisher at Causeway hide. Well over 100 coot and 30 mute swans remain here. In the evenings, 2 great white egrets (whose massive frames might be noted perching in trees at Causeway through the day) and close to 80 little egrets amass onto Island Mere to roost; similarly, over 30 cormorants gather to rest at Grisedale, which remains a prime location for troops of snipe. Vigilance could reward the astute visitor with an otter sighting from Causeway or Lower hides. Though they refuse to be seen most of the time, there are large flocks of warblers moving about the reedbed feeding themselves in preparation for their looming departure. For raptor enthusiasts, Warton Crag is as always an excellent visit, with regular views of the nesting peregrines as well as a high chance of buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks.

Great white egret, by Mike Malpass

Turbulent weather gives a vast murmurous voice and undulating form to the reeds of Leighton Moss, which is not merely ample compensation for a quiet day in terms of birds but a reminder of how unique this habitat is. These winds exaggerate the movements of sand martins and swallows to the gestures of a tornado: surging across the waters of the meres, rocketing up, spiralling down. Evenings see these hirundines in a mania of motion before calming to roost, and it is easy to be convinced these birds are filled with the delight of flight.

It was a great weekend for events: Going Batty took place on Saturday, with local bat expert Gail Armstrong giving a comprehensive introduction to these charismatic creatures, looking at global curiosities as well as our precious local species. Despite rain undermining hopes for bat detection Gail gave a thoroughly enjoyable and informative talk, and as always the rescue bats she brought with her were fascinating to all present. There are still a handful of places on the Going Batty events taking place this Saturday 18 and next Sunday 26 August, so if your mad about bats book now!

A very successful Ringing and Singing event took place on Sunday. Despite uncertain weather a fine walk was concluded with over 60 birds ringed, giving attendees the rare chance of getting close to reed warblers, willow warblers, chiffchaffs and a swallow. The next event will take place on Saturday 22 September, and due to its popularity booking as soon as possible is also highly recommended.

Marsh harrier moments and recent sightings

The wild variation in weather has written itself onto the landscape here at Leighton Moss: from the abundant heat which has scorched the leaves of the sallows and coloured the wooded slopes of the valley with russet-red hues, to recent rainfall which has been a welcome influence in the drier regions but has buffeted the reeds. As Jon mentioned in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, a positive consequence of this heatwave, combined with the rain’s recent input, has been the opening up of areas ripe for foraging. The bared muddy edges of Grisedale pool, for instance, have been providing sustenance for a small troop of 5 needling snipe; 15 pied wagtails, mostly juveniles racing around; varying numbers of lapwings (reliably seen on this southern part of the reserve and the coastal pools), and young black-headed gulls, who use amusing tap dancing motions to coax worms to the surface. At Tim Jackson hide, carrion crows have even taken to picking up exposed freshwater mussels, lifting them to a height and then dropping them, in clever attempts at smashing them open to access the flesh inside.

Marsh harriers remain a reliable delight in the area behind Grisedale and Lillian’s pools, offering excellent views of the juveniles practising and gradually improving the skills required to survive on their own. In an attempt to teach them the accuracy and agility they need to hunt, Grisedale’s adult male has been gauging the coordination of his offspring by attempting food passes with them, flying high with a rat and releasing it, with one of the youngsters attempting to catch it. They have also been learning to land on branches, a task which might appear simple but for the unsteady juveniles has proven difficult. I have seen one spend a good ten minutes or so coming round to alight in a tree, only for a combination of wind, midday thermals and an immature sense of balance forcing the bird to fly off, circle back and retry over and over again. Such scenes serve to emphasise how deft and accomplished an adult marsh harrier’s flight is.

Juvenile marsh harrier, by Mike Malpass

At Lillian’s and Causeway pools the vast numbers of eclipse plumage mallard (over 350) gadwall and coot (over 90) remain, with 25 mute swans and smaller numbers of shoveler, pochard, great crested and little grebes in amongst. Up to 16 greenshank are now set up on the Causeway’s central island, on which the juvenile great black-backed gull is stalking about. On early mornings the causeway becomes a corridor of shrieking from numerous water rails immersed within the reeds on either side of the path. The elusive shapes of otters still haunt the banks of the meres, and the Foulshaw Moss ospreys still grace the Silverdale skies, visiting both the main reserve’s pools and the coastal areas. Hobby sightings continue to be recorded at the reserve, and their coverage of the site extends from the Causeway to Tim Jackson hide. Those hopeful to spot one should scan the dead trees and branches opposite the hides, which make ideal parapets for these splendid raptors.

Waders on the coast are both gaining in number and fluctuating from week to week, anticipating the arrival of failed and early breeders before the greater migratory parties pass through. Around 100-300 redshank and similar numbers of black-tailed godwits have been recorded at times, with smaller groups of both species regularly visible from Eric Morecambe and Allen hides. Visitors here have a chance of catching glimpses of ruff, knot, dunlin, green and common sandpipers, little-ringed plover and greenshank, usually as individuals but sometimes in pairs or even small groups.

Green sandpipier, by Martin Kuchczynski

As always, walking along the woodland path connecting the Skytower to the reedbed path through to Grisedale and Tim Jackson hides, one is likely to encounter a host of friendly woodland characters: many juvenile robins, blue tits, great tits, dunnocks, marsh tits and nuthatches. They are often very obliging to photographers and families who happen to be in possession of some sunflower seeds.

One will also notice, lining the paths in the wetter woodland areas of Leighton Moss, the ruby clusters of woody nightshade berries; the regal aroma of the ‘Queen-of-the-meadow’, meadowsweet; and discrete white droplets of the enchanter’s nightshade flowers. A splendid array of butterflies are still around in the hotter, sunnier hours – peacocks, speckled woods, commas, holly blue and green-veined white to name a few, who are often found chasing each other in pockets of sunlight.

The recent exodus of swifts out of Silverdale intimates the approaching climax of summer. For another month, however, we can expect to enjoy watching swallows swirling low over the pools and reeds.

Swallow, by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

and recent sightings

We were grateful at Leighton Moss to have been visited by several spates of rainfall over the past week, on the back of the driest June the reserve has ever seen. Whilst areas of the reserve have had to cope with mass evaporation – a huge reduction of water at Grisedale, Tim Jackson and Eric Morecambe pools in particular – these cool, damp episodes have promised rejuvenation, and have even prompted the return of the valiant froglet and toadlet multitudes onto the paths. Perhaps viewed as an impediment by some head-raised birders, they themselves reward a moment of consideration. They have reminded me of George Orwell’s observation that the common toad has “about the most beautiful eye of any living creature”, like a “golden-coloured semi-precious stone”. Veering between stoical pauses and frantic leaping, these charismatic little beings have certainly captivated the many children visiting the reserve, affording them intimate moments with the natural world around them. 

(Froglet posing at a school visit, Joe Fraser-Turner)

This week there have been some exciting developments for our marsh harriers. There had been some concern over the belated departure of the juveniles from their nests, but Monday marked the moment of the first bird seen fledging from the nest behind Lillian’s. This was after much inducement from the parents, beating wings above the nest with impatient insistence. Since then three juveniles have been seen departing from Lillian’s nest, and at least one from the nest behind Grisedale has also spread their wings. As such, that general region of the reserve – best viewed from the Skytower and Grisedale hides – is ideal for marvelling at these feisty young raptors embarking upon life out of the nest.

Despite the disabling heat, there remains a diverse array of wildlife present on the reserve. Large fleets of waterfowl can be seen from Causeway and Lower hides, with smaller congregations across the remainder of the reserve: several hundreds of mallard, gadwall in significant numbers, and assortments of tufted duck, shoveler, teal, and wigeon, with a 9-strong pochard troop visible at moments. Great numbers coots have also amassed, and great-crested and little grebes, both individuals and small families, bob peacefully in the middle of the pools. Hyperactive antics of young pied wagtails threading across the air in front of the hides remain a source of great amusement – it’s worth noting that last week there was the unexpected appearance of a yellow wagtail among them for a couple of days at Causeway pool.

There is also a nascent growing presence of waders of late, as we anticipate the passage of migration parties as the summer matures. Up to 8 greenshank are now regularly ambling on the Causeway’s central island. Green and common sandpipers are making brief appearances at the main reserve and at the coastal pools, where redshank and lapwing are a sure sight. Black-tailed godwits continue to rotate between coast and the reedbed in varying numbers; up the Skytower last week a few other birders and I were gifted with the sight of an hundred-strong squadron of them circling over Grisedale and Lillian’s with startlingly swift coordinated manoeuvres. All of us were briefly entranced. 

Moving through July, Leighton Moss has been welcoming greater numbers of dragonflies which manically zip across the reserve like miniature helicopters through skyscraper reeds. As such, an ID board in the visitor centre with photos of several species has been put up to help visitors mark out their brown hawker from their four-spotted chaser.  Their abundance has even enticed a sub-adult hobby to the reserve, which has been seen hunting and feasting on them at the Causeway and Grisedale.

(Phonescoped photo of a hobby Joe Fraser-Turner)

Early morning strolls of the reserve have offered me some rare opportunities to catch sight of the more sought-after wildlife on the reserve: bearded tits leaping out of and plunging back into the reeds; Foulshaw Moss ospreys strafing over the Causeway; and red deer pausing to inspect before scampering off through the scrub and reeds. In the early hours of last Wednesday, I even had the pleasure of watching our Visitor Operations Manager Kevin Kelly ringing birds. I was captivated by this gentle, methodical process of ringing, recording details of the bird – age, gender, wing length, weight, notable physical characteristics (such as subcutaneous fat, indicating preparation for migration, and moulting) – and releasing. There are still some spaces on our Singing and Ringing event next month, and I highly recommend it to anyone who would love a close encounter with some of the lovely birds that make their home at Leighton Moss.

(Sedge warbler being ringed, Joe Fraser-Turner)

Finally, we had a very successful Meet the Moths event on Saturday, with a great number of visitors appreciating the impressive variation of over 160 species of moths caught here at Leighton Moss and the local area. It was especially heartening to see so many children intrigued by the many colours, shapes and sizes on show,  Irene Mower, local moth expert and part of the moth team leading the event, was especially glad to have caught a Four-Spotted Footman, a nationally scarce migratory moth which has only been recorded once before at Leighton Moss in 2006. It just goes to show that whatever your age and level of experience, there is always more to discover in the natural world surrounding us. Again, there are only a handful of places left on next weekend’s Moths Beginners Workshop, so those who have been enticed should book ASAP.

(Four-spotted footman, Irene Mower)


Joe Fraser-Turner, Visitor Experience Intern