Sightings of our mother bittern have been increasing lately, a tantalising prospect for all visitors. These regular flight paths now seem to cross from her nest (located close to the main dyke behind Lillian’s pool) past the front of Griseda…
As we move deeper into Summer, there’s no better time to witness the charming evidence of Leighton Moss as a grand nursery for nature. It’s pleasing to see this wealth of new life so visible across the reserve, undefeated by early Spring’s disastrous weather. Without falling prey to sentimentality, there’s something to cherish in the sight of these intrepid younglings embarking upon the lives ahead of them.
Mute swan cygnets and greylag goslings are growing up fast, but still paddle after their parents across the pools and along the dykes. Tim Jackson and Grisedale pools are brimming with mallard and gadwall ducklings – on the path between them, a family of treecreepers might be spotted. Despite their diffidence during this season, a family of bearded tits have shown themselves at times skirting the fringes of the Causeway reedbed. On a post close in front of Causeway hide, a pied wagtail has been feeding two voracious young. Fledglings of all varieties abound, and often announce themselves from within the reeds and foliage flanking the paths.
Keeping in line – Mute swan with cygnets by Brian Salisbury
A particular delight is the family of pochards at the Causeway – the hide can offer intimate views of a mother conducting a mini fleet of 9 ducklings. The pochard is currently a red status species and struggling across the UK, so it is uplifting to see this troop doing so well.
The story is the same at the saltmarshes – 22 avocet chicks at last count, growing larger by the day, some still struggling to master their clownish oversized legs. Of the many around, one particular shelduck couple was spotted with 11 young, and of course the black-headed gull colony attend to hundreds of chicks. It is worth mentioning that great white egrets are a possibility here; that a dunlin was spotted amongst the black-tailed godwits earlier in the week, and an occasional Mediterranean gull has been reported.
There is one main exception to this conspicuous display of new life, a scarcity only apprehended as a fleeting apparition by especially fortunate visitors – a mother bittern! We were glad to confirm this week that many years of expert management work had paid off, with these exceptional birds breeding once again at Leighton Moss, almost a decade in the making (be sure to read all about this story in this press release and site manager Jarrod’s blog). The evidence had amassed over the past few weeks, with an increase in sightings from our survey teams in the reeds and from hawk-eyed visitors scanning the reedbed from the Skytower and the Causeway. This established several common flight paths between feeding sites and her nest, which we now know is situated on the south side of the reserve near to the main dyke. Stay alert and who knows – you could be rewarded with a glance at Leighton Moss’ most precious resident.
Bittern in flight by John Bridges
Much of the birdlife here has settled into a pleasantly predictable rhythm for the time being. Ospreys conduct their daily fishing ventures at the Causeway, but it can certainly be a lottery to see them. The scaup remains in residence there. Male marsh harriers, bearing the full burden of the hunt to support their brooding mates and recent chicks, are still a regular appearance over the reedbed, effortlessly stylish as ever. Reed, sedge, willow and Cetti’s warblers continue to sing over either side of the reserve – the best places to view them, as well as reed buntings, is the boardwalk, which affords lovely views of their perches on the grey willows (when they are obliging).
As for our non-avian friends: earlier this week there was a mass exodus of froglets and toadlets onto the Causeway. It’s pleasing to think how these tiny beings have struggled through their gradual transformation to terrestrial form, finally amassing themselves to crawl out of the water as a new generation. Despite the perils of their journey (unsuspecting visitors, the unavoidable approach of our reserve range rover etc.) many will make it to the Promised Land and prosper to begin the process anew – so watch your feet!
Foxes with cubs and red deer with fawns are increasingly being seen from Tim Jackson and Grisedales hides and the path connecting the bridleway to Lower hide, navigating through the trees and the reeds at the south side of the reserve. Keep an eye out for otters, which might unexpectedly appear at the pools on either side of the reserve to fish, play and explore.
Red campion by Steven Williams
Beyond birdlife and mammals there is a wider sense of the kaleidoscopic interplay of species across Leighton Moss. The carnivorous bladderwort has emerged at Lillian’s, trapping and feasting on small water-borne prey (keep your fingers inside the hide just in case). Dog rose and elders are blooming, and the thick green reedbed gives off flashes of wildflowers now – on the left before the Causeway hide, a discrete but noble host of common spotted orchids are almost lost beneath the clustered towering foliage; tufted vetch spills blue and violet at edges of the path, and elsewhere red campion, forget-me-not and woody nightshade can be discovered. The air vibrates with the masses of common blue, blue tailed and azure damselflies, and all over speckled wood butterflies calmly and briefly alight and depart.
This week I had the pleasure of helping to lead three excellent events at Leighton Moss, bringing visitors closer to the various forms of wildlife that thrive on the reserve.
I started the week by joining Paul Hurst (Leighton Moss’ Warden intern) and bird expert Andy Chapman for ‘Birdsong for Beginners’, which helped visitors to place identities behind the many songs heard during the glory of Sunday’s early hours. It is certainly a marvellous time of day to experience the springtime melodies of Leighton Moss, with plenty of chances to distinguish their delightful idiosyncrasies: the stark declaration of Cetti’s warblers, the sweet descending cadences of willow warblers, the reiterations of song thrushes, the electric chirp and whirr of goldfinches, and the vaguer notes of reed buntings, to name a few. Andy and Paul’s experienced ears were invaluable in isolating the more measured pace of reed warblers from the frantic improvisation of sedge warblers.
Sedge warbler by David Mower
The event reminded me that this lively acoustic landscape represents a place populated not just by many species but by many individuals, reciprocating and corresponding and competing with one another, together forming a vibrant community. At the end of the event the group was treated to the appearance of two acrobatic black terns above the Causeway, and the arrival of an osprey on a morning fishing expedition. The next trail led by Andy will be on Sunday 17 June, and details about the event can be found here.
Following this on Wednesday was ‘Butterflies in the Barn’, which proved very popular with over 100 people attending. We transformed the Leighton Moss barn – located in our meadow which is in the process of rewilding for wildflowers – into a hub of knowledge about the incredible lives of moths and butterflies. Visitors could discover fascinating facts in a tantalising quiz, and children could make their own butterfly feeders for fluttery guests to their own gardens. Of particular interest were the variety of moths on show, taken from our moth trap. Without harming the moths, the trap gives us a greater sense of the overall health and biodiversity of the site, with almost 600 different species having been recorded. It also allows visitors at events like this to get near to a number of stunning creatures which might not be encountered otherwise – from the mammoth-sized poplar hawk-moth to the minute Chinese character, and the camouflaged buff-tip to the striking cinnabar. Since many are nocturnal, and thus largely unseen, they can take on an almost mythical quality, a lot of people went away having enjoyed a memorable and rewarding experience. Want to marvel at the patterns of the angle shades, or the delicate beauty of the white ermine? Then don’t miss a chance to ‘Meet the Moths at the Moss‘ again on Sunday 17th June.
Poplar hawk-moth by David Mower
Finally, on Thursday was ‘What Lives Beneath’, which similarly turned out to be two very successful sessions of pond dipping. Ponds support some remarkable beings, who can trace a continuity back hundreds of millions of years. Watching mayfly larvae, for example, gave a picture of a finely attuned adaptability that was like looking into the deep past. Tadpoles, also in abundance, were in varying stages of metamorphosis: each one gave a snapshot of a body redesigning itself, easily overlooked but accomplishing one of the great dynamic feats of the natural world. The highlight was watching the moment a caddisfly hatched. At the larval stage these insects are expert architects, who assemble their own case by weaving together twigs silt and stones with their finely-spun silk saliva. After living through dormancy and submersion for over a year, this adult will briefly mate and perish, contributing to a new generation. Our Learning and Visitor Assistant Jayne had never seen a caddisfly emergence in her many years of pond dipping, and it was pleasure to see such a spectacle of nature take place. A deeper and more general satisfaction came from taking a moment to appreciate the simple little lives of sticklebacks, water boatmen, leeches, water beetles and pond skaters.
Finally, a quick resume of this week’s special birds: The black tern mentioned was seen on several days, with two birds on 26th and 27th and a single bird on 28th from Causeway and Lower hides. A 1st year little gull was also around on 28th at Causeway pool. Garganey continues to be seen on and off with a male at Grisedale on 27th, and a Spoonbill also made an appearance there on 31st. The scaup was around most of the week while ospreys visit on a daily basis, with a bird originally hatched at Bassenthwaite and now nesting at Foulshaw Moss making a regular habitat of ‘stealing’ tench from Causeway pool. Bearded tits have been more visible this week, with family activity around Causeway and Lower hide. Seeing bittern during the breeding season has been like finding gold dust, but this year there have been lots of sightings at Causeway pool, occasionally in the open areas along the edge of the Causeway track and from Lilian’s and Grisedale too. Great white egret may not be as frequently recorded as they were, but are still popping up at regular intervals, with one down on the saltmarsh pools on 27th. The Eric Morecambe and Allen pools continue to delight with avocets and their chicks. 32 adult birds were recorded on 27th with up to 20 chicks spread across the two pools. Black-tailed godwit still hanging around (about 110), a handful of bar-tailed godwits (up to 18 on 27th) and knot (3 on 29th).
Following on from where my previous post ended, we are glad to announce that yesterday David Mower recruited his 1000th RSPB membership at Leighton Moss! As a token of appreciation, David awarded the couple with a lovely framed copy of his photograph o…
This was the best of May – the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out school.
Sedge warbler by David Mower
These final lines from the Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Sedge-Warblers’ seemed to me a fit way to open my first blog. Partly, this is because the songs of sedge warblers – and their partners in bamboozling vocality, reed warblers – have been some of the best parts of my May. I was familiar with neither species before arriving at Leighton Moss 3 weeks ago. Now most days, after completing a reserve ramble, my ears ring with their wild cacophony. Passing and pausing along the trails that lead into the heart of the reserve, one becomes audience to unrelenting songs that emanate from the reeds. Constantly shifting and altering into new tones and phrases in fast succession, seemingly stretching “as long as any lark’s”, they leave the listener baffled and compelled. The energy these birds devote to their enduring performances is consistently amazing. They are surely some of the prime vocalists here at Leighton Moss.
It is at this time of year that our natural spaces are richest with song, and with the considerable diversity of birdlife at Leighton Moss visitors are sure to be struck by melodious outpourings. Strolling around the reserve recently, I often have the impression of touring an amphitheatre midway through an operatic performance. Joining their reed-based relatives, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, Cetti’s and willow warblers continue daily to add to the evocative symphony.
Cetti’s warbler by Mike Malpass
The wave of pleasant weather that has graced us recently has provided ample clarity to enjoy the reserve’s varied spaces, enhanced by the strength of the light. Visitors on hot afternoons can cherish everything from the warm golden hues of the reedbeds, to the dignified rafters of birch, oak and ash at the reserve’s entrance, their shades splintered with sunlight, and the sumptuous moss-laden, lichen-thick corners of aged willows and sallows flanking the main trails.
This week I was given a day tour around the reserve by David Mower, Warden at Leighton Moss for 27 years. It was an incredibly valuable opportunity, and for the majority of the day I remained an attentive listener whilst David provided a thorough account of the history of the reserve, the different approaches to reedbed management and the achievements made since the 1960s, the varying fates of wildlife on the reserve, his hopes for the reserve, and a reiteration of the considerable importance of the work done to preserve and promote Leighton Moss and places like it. There is a gentleness and humility to David, who freely spends most of his week in our Visitor Centre introducing people to the reserve and attempting to recruit more support to aid the work done at Leighton Moss in particular, and the RSPB more general.
Joe Fraser-Turner, Residential Volunteer Intern