Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Wild weather and recent sightings

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

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.

Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Marsh harrier moments and recent sightings

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

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 (

Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

and recent sightings

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

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

Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Dynamic water levels & recent sightings

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

While we’ve been enjoying this rather lovely weather, the lack of precipitation has certainly had an effect on the reserve. In fact, the total rainfall figure of just 18mm set a new record low for the reserve in June. And after three consecutive weeks with no rain at all, it’s really showing. We have lost 25cm of water from the main reedbed through evaporation alone and Myer's Dyke (which runs into Lilian’s Pool) has, according to former warden John Wilson, never been drier.

Myer's Dyke (Jon Carter)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; dynamic water level changes are often key to the overall health of a wetland habitat. One of the things that we have been doing here at Leighton Moss in recent years is deliberately drawing down water levels in summer to promote new growth. This, coupled with targeted reed cutting, creates a mosaic of areas that benefit a wide range of wildlife.

We birders too can benefit from a reduction of water on the meres as the increased muddy edges and shallower pools can encourage normally elusive red bed dwellers such as bitterns and water rails to come out into the open. And as late July sees a notable rise in the numbers of migrating waders on the move we can hope that this prime feeding habitat attracts a good selection. Already, in recent days we have seen an influx of black-tailed godwits and little egrets onto the Grisedale Pool while snipe numbers have increased across the reserve. Up to six greenshanks are being seen regularly on the island in front of the Causeway Hide and both common and green sandpipers have been spotted at various locations on the reserve. The Eric Morecambe and Allen Pools are practically bone dry at the moment but that should change with the predicted high tides over the next couple of days or so.

Greenshank (Mike Malpass)

The rather baffling lack of sightings of marsh harrier fledglings is somewhat frustrating – there appears to be plenty of food going into the nests and the adult birds can be seen and heard flying around calling, trying to entice the youngsters to stretch their wings but so far the chicks seem immune to the charms of exploration.

The wardening team have been busy, as always, with various jobs around the site. One of the most exciting for me is the creation of a new bearded tit viewing area along the Causeway. Anyone familiar with the grit trays will be aware of the limited space that is available when watching out for these enigmatic reedbed residents. In an effort to make viewing more comfortable, and safer too given the occasional farm vehicle that passes by, we are building a platform which will take visitors off the road. By starting the work now, we can ensure that it will be ready in plenty of time for autumn when the ‘beardies’ start to visit the trays. And with new grit trays in other areas of the reserve we hope to improve our visitors’ chances of seeing these wonderful birds.

New bearded tit viewing area under construction (Jon Carter) 

As well as all the dazzling dragonflies around at the moment the reserve is also a great home for moths. The problem is, of course, that we rarely get chance to observe these nocturnal insects. Like many nature reserves, we run a moth trap at Leighton Moss which allows us to gather an amazing amount of information about which species both reside and visit here. Over 600 types of moth have been recorded on the reserve and our band of dedicated moth enthusiasts are discovering new ones each year.

Elephant hawk moth (Jon Carter)

This month we offer two opportunities for visitors to learn more about moths – our Meet The Moths at the Moss event is a short introductory drop-in session that takes place on Sunday 22 July while our more detailed Moths - Beginners Workshop on Saturday 28 July will appeal to those really wanting to know more about these fascinating insects and wish to get to grips with moth identification.  

To see all the events and activities taking place at Leighton Moss visitor our events page.     

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager


Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Recent summer sightings

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

As the unprecedented heatwave continues, the wildlife at Leighton Moss finds itself having to adjust to the changing conditions. Water levels are dropping rapidly, both on the saltmarsh pools and on the main reserve. This of course, presents nature with challenges. For many songbirds drinking water is becoming a little more difficult to find and so we are regularly checking the fresh water around the feeders to ensure a constant supply. This is something we would definitely recommend everyone does in their garden during this dry spell - a lack of water can spell disaster for recently fledged young birds.

Starlings bathing and drinking (copyright Jodie Randall

The warm sunny days have been fantastic for observing dragonflies and damselflies. Impressive brown hawkers, common hawkers and broad-bodied chasers are among the most visible of the larger dragonflies while dainty blue-tailed damselflies dazzle the senses with their sheer brilliance. As bird activity inevitably slows down in the heat of the day, these dynamic insects are providing visitors with amazing views as they fly acrobatically from one spot to another.

Blue-tailed damselfly (Mike Malpass)

Mammals have been performing well with otters the stars of the show, as usual. Red deer too are delighting visitors, chiefly at Grisedale and at the end of the Causeway while a young fox has been seen regularly from Tim Jackson Hide.   

For many species of birds the breeding season is well and truly at an end. Our avocets have all but departed having had a highly successful season; in excess of of 20 youngsters were raised at the Allen and Eric Morecambe Pools. The bitterns have gone back to being extremely elusive now that the female has stopped conducting frequent feeding flights. We cam assume that the young bitterns have now left the nest and are fully independent. Recent sightings have come from all parts of the reserve further suggesting that they are now out and about and all doing their own thing. As water levels drop, we may see hunting bitterns emerging from the reed beds to forage at the water's edge.

As I write this, the marsh harriers have yet to fledge any broods from the three nests on the reserve. We have been expecting to see some signs but they do seem to be holding tight for now. I'm sure all will be revealed imminently! Ospreys have continued to show superbly, mainly from Causeway and Lower hides while hobbies dash through from time to time for the lucky few who happen to be in the right place at the right time. 

Green sandpiper (Martin Kuchczynski)

Summer sees the start of wader migration as the first returning birds start to head south from their northern breeding grounds. We have already seen the first snipe back in the last week or so and a few interesting bits and pieces have been trickling through. Greenshank, curlew sandpiper, green sandpiper and little ringed plover have all been spotted in recent days while a few bar-tailed godwits can still be found among the black-tailed godwits at the Allen Pools. With the increasing amount of mud on the edges of the pools on the main reserve, we should see more waders dropping in. We'll be keeping our eyes peeled for such goodies as wood sandpiper, or perhaps something a little rarer. With areas of fresh water at a premium, Leighton Moss will hopefully act like a magnet for migrating wading birds.

If you're a keen nature photographer, you may be interested in the Digital Darkroom photographic workshop taking place on July 14. Join experienced and published wildlife photographer Mike Malpass for a workshop on how to give your photographs that extra professional touch. You will look at how to process your images on your computer using lighting, cropping, sharpening and composition techniques. Booking and payment in advance essential - please call our visitor centre on 01524 701601 to secure your place! 

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager

Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Bitterns on show & other recent sightings

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

The prolonged dry and warm spell is certainly proving popular with visitors to Leighton Moss and many people are getting great views of some of our seasonal specialities.

The female bittern has been putting on a good, if somewhat sporadic, show. She regularly flies from the reed bed out to Barrow Scout giving people in Lilian’s Hide, on the Skytower or in Grisedale Hide fabulous views. We can assume that the bittern chicks have now left the nest and are at large in the reeds - the mother bird is heading off to catch food in a preferred area and returning to feed her growing youngsters. This behaviour will likely stop once the young start to hunt for themselves and so we’ll be back to scanning the reed edges for foraging bitterns. It really has been fantastic hearing the many delighted visitors telling us of their bittern encounters!

Bittern in flight by Dave Dimmock

The marsh harriers too continue to delight and can be seen all over the reserve. Also busy feeding young, the harriers are almost constantly active searching for ducklings, coot chicks, small mammals and amphibians to take back for their growing chicks. Ospreys have been absolutely fabulous, with up to four birds coming to fish, primarily at Causeway and Lower pools. Earlier this week one of our regular visitors Hazel was lucky enough to get some shots of an osprey being mobbed by five avocets! Not something you see every day…

Osprey being mobbed by avocets by Hazel Rothwell

In other raptor news; red kites have been reported here and there, while hobby too is making frustratingly infrequent visits. Hopefully as post-breeding swallow and martin numbers grow, along with an increase in dragonflies, we’ll see more of this dashing crowd-pleasing falcon.

Talking of dragonflies, this fine weather is perfect for observing these stunning insects. Broad-bodied chasers, brown hawkers and black-tailed skimmers can all be seen hawking for their prey, along with countless dazzling damselflies in the path-side vegetation.

Broad-bodied chaser by Andy Hay (

The avocets have had a pretty decent breeding season and both adults and youngsters are a treat to see at the Allen and Eric Morecambe Pools (when they’re not bothering ospreys over the main reserve at least!). Lapwing numbers are increasing on the saltmarsh pools too as post-breeding birds head for the coast. Both bar-tailed and black-tailed godwits are also on show here and we can expect to see yet more waders arriving in the coming days and weeks. A curlew sandpiper was reported from the Eric Morecambe Pool a couple of days ago and a spoonbill dropped in briefly midweek.

Meanwhile, the glut of songbird fledglings continues apace. One cannot walk along the trails at the moment without seeing what seems like hundreds of great, blue and marsh tits along with treecreepers, nuthatches, chaffinches, robins, wrens and warblers. Often considered elusive and difficult to see, the young Cetti’s warbler pictured here defied reputation by showing beautifully for the aforementioned Hazel, who took this shot near the dipping pond.

Young Cetti's warbler by Hazel Rothwell

Non-avian activity also includes very regular sightings of our ever entertaining otters. Lilian’s Hide and the Skytower have been exceptionally good places to spot them recently while amazingly close views have also been had from the Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides. Red deer too have been showing exceedingly well; early mornings and evenings are generally recommended if you wish to catch sight of these large native animals.

Plant lovers have also got plenty to divert their attention from the birds, mammals and insects with many woodland and wetland species now in full bloom. And with the forecast predicting yet more good weather we can hope for yet more exciting sights around the reserve. Please do add your sightings to the book if you visit or let our team in reception know what you’ve spotted!

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager

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Brief update on recent sightings

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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 Grisedale hide and on towards Barrow Scout, one of our satellite sites situated close to the Morecambe and Allen pools. Grisedale and the Skytower have been affording lucky visitors with excellent vistas of these classic ‘food flights’.

Hundreds of young birds on the reserve continue to soar closer to adulthood. The clamour of fledglings can be heard from most paths, with young warblers and tits especially noticeable. Causeway hide remains an ideal setting for watching waterfowl younglings, with two pochard broods still showing well (one totaling 10, the other with 8) and numerous gadwall and mallard adolescents also present here as well as at Grisedale and Tim Jackson pools. Young coots and pied wagtails remain in attendance. The great black-backed gull brooding on the central island at Causeway can be seen fending off unwanted carrion crow intrusion now and then.

Great crested grebe chick by Richard Cousens

In addition, a second great-crested grebe pair has established a nest on the north-western bank opposite Causeway hide, and we look forward to the arrival of a new brood in the near future. The first pair of parents can be seen dwelling with their youngsters close to Lower hide. A pair of little grebes give themselves away after their sporadic dives close to the hide. Mute swans with cygnets, greylag and Canada geese with goslings are still conspicuous at Tim Jackson and Grisedale pools. The grunts and whistles of water rail, and the pinging of bearded tits, can occasionally be heard along the Causeway bridleway, though picking them out from their concealment proves rare.

As can be expected at this time of year, much remains unchanged. Chiff-chaff, willow, sedge, reed and Cetti’s warblers, with reed buntings among them, are still very audible, particularly on the boardwalk. Foulshaw Moss ospreys have not wavered in their enthusiasm for fishing at Causeway pool. Otters have been more frequently sited at Grisedale of late, exercising their curiosity and making their way across the reserve along main dyke.  Our three male marsh harriers remain the most active and evident of our specialist species on the reserve at the moment, with spectacular close-up sightings from Causeway and Grisedale. Despite appearing sparse in comparison with previous years, swifts continue to be a delightful presence above the reserve. Large numbers of froglets and toadlets continue to hurl themselves across the paths on suicidal journeys, and their numbers have been added to by newts

Little egret in flight by Martin Kuchczynski

Its also been nice to see the return of little egrets after a short term of absence. Up to 4 have been seen at one time from Grisedale hide, and, alongside the odd great white egret, they can be spotted strafing above the reserve.

Down at the coast, after the heatwave and mass evaporation which had left very little water down at the salt marshes, the recent rainfall has restored water levels and aided the dispersal of avocets. At least 20 have fledged, some being sighted along Morecambe bay. Black-headed gulls have been doing extremely well and are in good number – at least 800 pairs with a number of chicks. There are still over 100 black-tailed godwits, with bar-tailed godwits varying in much smaller numbers against the large flocks of their relatives. On the 16th a knot was spotted in amongst them. The WeBs counts on the 15th recorded 6 turnstone and 9 goosander from Jenny Brown’s point. Still to be sighted at the coast in varying numbers are oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew, redshank and shelduck.


Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

Nature’s nursery and recent sightings

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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 campionforget-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.

Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

To intervene or not to intervene – that is the question?

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

With the incredibly exciting news that we have bitterns breeding again for the first time in a decade, our Site Manager Jarrod Sneyd recalls his lifelong passion for this iconic species here at Leighton Moss, and how we've made the recovery happen

I did not think much about intervening in anything when I was a boy of 8 yrs old. I was just a bit obsessed by all things birds.

My parents ‘landed’ with their little caravan at Fell End Caravan Park, near Beetham, just a handful of minutes as the crow flies to Leighton Moss. My grandparents stayed in a posh hotel at Cartmel and we would come together as a family. As my gran was a life-fellow of the RSPB, and I had become a Young Ornithologist (now Wildlife Explorers), Leighton Moss would be an essential part of the holiday’s itinerary. My grandad and parents would just have to tag along (or sleep in the car as my granddad would often do!)

I remember the little reception hut (like a garden shed) that was located near the start of the path that now runs to our new boardwalk. There was a charismatic chap there with a flash of blonde hair and an energetic personality (which I realised later was John Wilson, the Senior Warden). He handed us our permits and we wandered along the narrow path, completely enclosed by reeds, to the Y.O.C hide (now Lilian's hide). This was not simply a journey through reeds to a hide overlooking water and hopefully lots of birds though, it was full of anticipation, full of mystery..the obsession...the bird of the bog...the elusive, the secretive, the mythical...THE BITTERN!

I spent two hours in that hide with my gran, watching every reed to see if it would move. Despite seeing bitterns in bird books I couldn’t imagine how one would look for real. Then someone pointed one out...oh my goodness – where is it? I still couldn’t see it. I kept looking and looking but only had binoculars, and then a sympathetic ‘expert’ let me peer through his telescope. I couldn’t believe it – it was ‘star-pointing’ - stood with its bill straight up in the air, perfectly camouflaged, just in the reeds not far from the edge of the water – and it didn’t move an inch as I watched. I was so excited and have never forgotten this experience.

Ever since then, I have had a connection with Leighton Moss and bitterns – and the place and bird have had a well-known association for many years. It was the place to see bitterns in northern England and for a period, one of the best places in the country to spot them.

And so it was, with the loss of the reedbeds on which they depend, bitterns sadly declined nationally (at their lowest ebb in the 1990s when the population dropped to 11 males), Leighton remained a stronghold.

It continued to be a stronghold through all the years that I made return visits to Leighton Moss after my first bittern initiation. Then in 1990 I came to live on site for 12 months as a residential volunteer. It was still the place to be for bitterns and I remember doing a bittern boom count in the early hours of the day. My shift was one of many, meaning that as a team we counted the ‘boom sequences’ over a full 24 hour period (when a bittern booms, it does several in one go and that set up of booms is called a 'boom sequence'). Below is an example of a bittern boom count.

The peak booming is just before it comes light and when I did the count it was similar to this one. Imagine that at 4.30am on a May morning - the place was alive with the sound of bitterns booming, so much so that it would be almost impossible to have time to write down the boom sequences. In this case there were 27 booms in a 15 minute period – that’s a bird booming every 30 seconds!

It was in 1990 that we also caught 'Phil the bittern'. Glen Tyler, researcher extraordinare (in the image below), banged on the door of the volunteers accommodation one day. He had spent many months figuring out how to catch a bittern and finally, there he was, with a bittern! He needed help to weigh, ring and radio-tag the bird, so in a panic I rushed out to help. The radio-tag meant we could follow it around (we did for many months), working out its favourite places. My relationship with bitterns became even more intimate!

   Glen Tyler, bittern researcher, with 'Phil'the bittern'

After that year, as I headed off on my career in conservation (Symonds Yat, Highnam Woods, the Farne Islands…) I didn't imagine that I too would become a bittern researcher. Then in 1997 I came back to Leighton Moss to do just that.I located bittern territories and found a nest.

Below is one of the less than technical maps I produced, showing that even then there were three booming bitterns at Leighton Moss and it remained a stronghold, with only 11 left in the country. I became so obsessed that I stayed put for another seven years. I transitioned into the role of Assistant Warden and my personal journey with Leighton and bitterns was almost complete.


And so, back to the question, to intervene or not intervene? Well, after being a stronghold for so long, bitterns sadly declined at Leighton Moss, to the point that from 2003 onwards, there was just a single bird booming and even then, for many years, it just did a half-hearted boom at the beginning of the season and then just gave up. But thanks to conservation efforts, bitterns were actually starting to do well nationally (166 boomers last year), so what was the problem at Leighton? The reedbed was getting old and drier with the year on year build-up of reed litter. The water bodies were becoming shallower with a build-up of silt and there were issues around water quality.

So, why decide to make some big interventions? Why for just one booming bird? That one bird is the reason that Leighton Moss is a European Designated Special Protection Area ,so we have an obligation to make sure it is in good condition for bitterns and to hopefully keep them breeding. Reedbed is also an extremely scarce habitat in north west England (and indeed throughout the UK). Having bitterns is a great indication that you’ve got a good, healthy reedbed, that’s also home to many other reedbed specialists and a variety of more generalist wildlife too. Some might have argued to just let Leighton do its own thing, let nature take its course. It would have become drier and scrubbed over, becoming wet woodland. In a natural landscape without sea walls, embanked rivers and lots of artificial drainage, reedbeds would come and go – aging here, appearing there. But we live in man-made landscapes, reedbeds can’t come and go, so we need to cherish the jewels that remain!  

Maintaining Leighton Moss as a high quality reedbed for bitterns called for radical action! We decided to go on a journey of removing silt from the pools and ditches to take the reedbed back in time. It was getting old and as bitterns like young reedbed, in the earlier stages of development, we needed to dig it out in places. This technique had worked well at Minsmere in Suffolk and had transformed an ailing bittern population (down to just one booming male) to around 10 males there.

  The Kori excavator used to clear the silt from the pools and ditches and dig ‘holes’ in the reedbed

Unfortunately, Leighton was an altogether different ball game! Different ground conditions, different reed condition. Though the silt removal from the pools worked well to improve the water quality and restore fish populations, the areas we excavated to revitalise the reedbed just ended up as gloopy mud. Also, though there were some small signs of reedbed spread, it was also clear that a growing red deer population was impacting on any potential recovery as they were also causing considerable damage elsewhere in the reedbed.

And so, we put in an additional water control structure at Leighton Moss so that we could drain down half the reedbed, the idea being that the muddy, gloopy areas would dry out, the surface of the reedbed would be aerated and stabilise, and suitable conditions for plant colonisation would be created in the excavated areas. We also started to manage deer. Leighton Moss being the only place in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB where there was no form of deer management meant it had become a focal point for the red deer of the area, disproportionately increasing the impact of their damage to the reedbed.

   The new water control system that was installed

It has been a long-winded story – a blog with many branches! But look below and see the recovery of the excavated areas. All the vegetation starting to take hold in the bottom images. Then imagine what it’s like, after all those years of trying new things, trying controversial things (but knowing that if you don’t do anything, bittern demise is near certain), when a bittern starts to boom properly again and for the first time in a decade we have a female bittern nesting (and near the excavated areas and in part of the reedbed we dried out for several years!!!!!) 

As a little boy of 8, marveling at this mythical bird, I was able to see one on my first visit. That’s not been the case as I hit my 40s – whilst we have alwas had regu;ar bitterns through the winter, sightings in recent summer months have been few and far between. This summer, there have been many sightings from the Causeway hide as the female flies backwards and forwards on feeding flights – taking food to her chicks. It has been a long road to recovery, but we are making the first steps. We need to keep intervening, we need to keep Leighton Moss dynamic. It wouldn’t be the special place it is without doing it, for bitterns and for all wildlife here. For me the answer to the original question, is without doubt, ‘To intervene’.  

- Jarrod   

   Two ‘excavated areas before (top) and after (bottom) all this new reedbed management










Source Leighton Moss (RSPB)

A wild week of birds and beasts at Leighton Moss

Posted on - In Leighton Moss (RSPB)

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).