Category: Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Winter wildlife and recent sightings

Evening everyone, the reserve continues to be in the midst of cold snaps and milder, wetter weather but sightings of wildlife have remained excellent over the past week. So without further ado…

A festive bittern. Photo credit: Andy Hay

With the wetter weather, bittern sightings have become a little less frequent in recent days. Sightings have reduced due to deeper water levels on the reserve meaning there are more places within the reedbed for bitterns to fish; they do not have to prowl across the reedbed edge as much as they have been. Lower and Causeway hide remain the best place to sight bitterns and this pool has lots to offer in terms of other wildlife such as otters, waders and wildfowl. The island opposite Causeway Hide is currently a good spot to see the elegant greenshank and there is often a little grebe fishing in this area too.

Photo credit: Mike Malpass

Lower hide has been the prime location to spot fishing otters. The pool has also been excellent for:

Currently the Grisedale and Tim Jackson hides are a prime area for wildfowl. Look and listen for wigeon here too and if you have a keen eye, you should be able to spot some snipe hunkered down in the grass and reed cuttings in front of the hides.  

Foraging water rail are continuing to show well in a variety of locations including Causeway, Grisedale and Lilian’s hides. I would also recommend checking out the dyke that runs parallel to the path towards Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides and the Skytower as places to spot these often elusive birds. Great white egret continue to be sighted fairly frequently in different locations including the coastal pools.

Water rail. Photo credit: Mike Malpass

Our marsh harriers are currently very active and have been sighted daily (including today) across the reserve. The Skytower is a favourite place of mine to spot them. The juveniles are often seen flying and sparring together and the male can normally be seen around the Grisedale Pool area. I watched him from Grisedale Hide on Wednesday 12 December as he flushed the wildfowl from the pool, he looked to be scoping them out to find a potential dinner and it was interesting to see the juveniles watching him. Perhaps it won’t be too long until I see them purposefully flushing the birds too!

Allen and Eric Morecambe pools have been fantastic for waders, wildfowl and raptors for the past week. Wednesday 12 saw a marsh harrier and peregrine stir up trouble on the Eric Morecambe Pool and there have also been frequent sightings of merlin here too. There are excellent numbers of wigeon across the saltmarsh, there have been no recent sightings of the drake American wigeon, it could still be there but perhaps it has moved into a new area… Other wildfowl to look out for include:

Waders to spot include:

Of course, our kingfisher remains present here too. A top tip for visitors – visit the coastal pools in the morning as the lighting is much more productive to sighting and identifying birds.

Our other rarity, the great grey shrike has also not been sighted recently but again we are unsure on whether the bird has moved on or remains in the area.

One final note is that starling murmurations have yet to start. There are over 80,000 starlings roosting in the local area (not on the reserve) but they are just going to roost at this moment in time. We will of course send word out when the starlings begin murmurating. Until next time folks!

Naomi. 

Important notice

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

Bold bitterns and dapper dabblers

Despite a mix of weather, from cold snaps to milder, wetter conditions here at Leighton Moss and Morecambe Bay. wildlife sightings of some of our specialties remain excellent. The chilly snaps often freeze the edges of the reedbed, so we can expect (and hope) for great sightings from otters, water rails and bitterns.

Firstly, after a few days of absence, the great grey shrike reappeared in its favoured spot close to the Lower Hide on Tuesday 4 December. Perhaps my current favourite bird, the aptly-nicknamed ‘butcher bird’ is a rare visitor and arguably, worth the cold and rain to see! Just keep in mind that this bird does like to move and can be absent for long periods of time, it is a lucky dip (not to be confused with a birder’s dip!) when spotting this particular species.

The bitterns continue to show brilliantly, for the past week we have had daily sightings. These are predominantly from the Causeway (some lucky visitors had four sightings in a day!) and Lower hides but there have also been irregular sightings of bittern from Lilian’s Hide. It is a delight to watch the bitterns foraging the edges of the reedbed and also to see them in flight, their wing shape is unmistakable.

Bittern in flight. Photo credit: John Bridges

Visitors have also been treated to great sights of foraging water rail from Causeway, Grisedale and Lilian’s hide. With another forecast cold snap, perhaps we shall see slightly bolder behaviour from this otherwise often elusive species. A great white egret has also been present on the reserve, often seen from Lower, Lilian’s and Grisedale hides. 

The marsh harriers have continued to provide excellent sightings, coasting over the reedbed with all the confidence a bird of prey of their calibre should exude. Marsh harriers often stir up trouble at the Causeway Pool (the panicked waterfowl are still a great spectacle when alighting the water) but sightings have been equally good from Lilian’s and Grisedale hides. Look out for a pristine male, two juveniles and two females.

Male Marsh Harrier. Photo credit: Alan Saunders.

Speaking of harriers, on Thursday 29 November we had a hen harrier (ringtail) hunting around the reserve. Interestingly, this raptor remained on the reserve for a couple of days before moving on, often we are only lucky enough to get brief visits of hen harriers at Leighton Moss.

There are good numbers of wildfowl on the reserve, most notably, a pochard was reported from Lower Hide on Tuesday 27 November and this pool is home to small numbers of goldeneye and tufted ducks that can be sighted daily. The drakes are in their best plumage right now, with lovely sights of pintail, wigeon, teal, shoveler and gadwall

The Allen and Eric Morecambe pools are also worth visiting with a variety of waders such as redshank, greenshank, lapwings, black tailed godwits,and ‘sawbills’ on show; goosanders and red-breasted mergansers. The kingfisher is also showing very well, often with a dazzling flash of teal and orange skimming the pool surface before sitting on their regular posts.

Our smaller feathered friends are showing equally well, the bird feeder to the entrance of the centre is a prime place to watch bullfinches and marsh tits as well as nuthatches, chaffinches and great, blue and coal tits.

Non-avian activity includes regular sightings of our resident otters down at the Causeway Pool and our largest mammal, the red deer can be sighted from the Grisedale Hide and the Skytower. 

We are always at the whim of the weather, so if you plan on visiting Leighton Moss do wrap up warm as it can get chilly in the hides. Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who attended our Christmas Market on Sunday 2 December and supported our local businesses. Despite the weather, the event was hailed a success with visitors and vendors alike enjoying themselves.

Until next time! Naomi.
Visitor Experience Intern.

A curious case of the shrike and the bittern

Over the past week here at Leighton Moss we have had a wide array of species for visitors to enjoy. Most notably we have had an influx of wildfowl as our water levels return back to their normal depth. Also, while the majority of our waders remain at the coastal pools, small numbers are returning to the main site, alighting and departing various pools throughout the course of a day.

Starting with key arrivals to the reserve, the most prominent is the arrival of a great grey shrike (pictured below). First recorded on Sunday 4 November at Lilian’s Pool, the bird was also sighted from Causeway Hide on Monday 5 November. More information about this bird can be found at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/great-grey-shrike. 

Photo by Nichols of the Yard (Flickr Creative Commons).

– There was also a ringtail hen harrier photographed on Monday 5 November, another passage raptor some visitors have been lucky to sight.

– A water pipit was sighted on Tuesday 6 November at the Tim Jackson Hide.

– The most recent recorded sighting of bramblings on the reserve was on Thursday 1 November along the path to the coastal hides.

Another noteworthy sighting is that a bittern has been spotted creeping along the reedbed at the Allen and Eric Morecambe pools on Tuesday 6 November. We speculate that the Hercules military plane that flew low overhead flushed the bird, it has also been suggested that this was a continental bittern and hence not as used to the area. We can expect to have more bitterns arriving in the upcoming weeks to spend winter here so this is something to look forward to. 

Moving onto wildfowl, several species remain conspicuous throughout the main site and coastal pools. Hundreds of teals, mallards and gadwalls along with smaller numbers of shovelers can be sighted at different pools across the site (particularly Lilian’s and Grisedale). There have been 80 pintails sighted on Lilian’s Pool and we can expect numbers to increase as more birds arrive in the upcoming weeks. Wigeon numbers have increased at the main site and on the coastal pools. The flotilla of goldeneyes at Causeway Pool remains and tufted ducks have frequently been sighted at the Lilian’s and Causeway pools, with larger numbers of females accompanied by a drake or two. Visitors can continue to enjoy the antics of the cormorants, little grebes and the more reserved characters of the great crested grebes at Causeway.

Coastal bird activity continues to be excellent at the Eric Morecambe and Allen pools. The kingfisher continues to be a steadfast presence here and has granted visitors some exceptional fishing spectacles over the past week. Small numbers of goosander, red-breasted mergansers and larger numbers of shelduck are present. There are plenty of redshank and black tailed godwits and a smaller number of greenshank (<10). This provides a backdrop for visitors to sight the occasional knot, spotted redshank and dunlin which remain present here. Also look out for little egrets, lapwings, oystercatchers and curlews. Great white egret numbers have fluctuated, with 3 being sighted on November 5, Lilian’s was visited by a great white egret on Tuesday 6 November. Tim Jackson is excellent for snipe, with the occasional jack snipe sighting. In addition. it is worth looking closely at the reed banks at Lilian’s and Grisedale for water rail

Spotted redshank by Mike Malpass.

Grisedale and Causeway grit trays are excellent for bearded tit activity; they remain to prefer Grisedale grit trays in the early morning at the moment

The 5 marsh harriers remain on site along with the merlin. We have several tawny owls roosting on the main reserve. Furthermore barn owl, buzzard and kestrel sightings on the main site highlight the variety of birds of prey Leighton Moss sustains.

Our smaller feathered friends are also fantastic at the moment, the reserve is alive with the calls of Cetti’s warblers, robins, fieldfares and redwings. The tit and finch families are here in strong numbers, with the bullfinches providing lots of appearances in front of our visitor centre. Siskins, nuthatches, treecreepers and goldcrests are showing very well across our woodland habitat. In particular on the path towards Lilian’s and the feeders next to The Hideout. Make sure to listen out for charms of goldfinches in our sensory garden, they are particularly fond of the roof of the visitor centre! Also look out for grey wagtails, who are actually more colourful than their name suggests… 

Finally, while the rut is winding down, visitors can still enjoy the odd clash of red deer  stags and roe deer remain to be sighted on the path to lower hide. The otters are showing spectacularly well, being sighted at Causeway, Lilian’s and Grisedale pools! As always, it is a lottery on where the otters are sighted. We have a variety of small mammals to sight including weasels and stoats too.

Future events to look forward to include Tots Trek on Wednesday 14 November and Nature Tots on Thursday 22 November for our younger visitors. Both events are packed full of enjoyable activities suited to the age range of the children that attend. I often help with the event and it is so enjoyable watching the children interacting amongst one another and enjoying being outdoors and actually seeing how the children who regularly attend develop. There is also our Christmas Market to look forward to on Sunday 2 December which is shaping up nicely. A variety of local businesses and producers are set to attend which will make for an intimate, festive atmosphere for all to enjoy. The reserve will be open as normal, so do have a look at what is on offer, there really are some exceptional products in our local area… I hope to see many of you there! 

Naomi

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.