A wild week of birds and beasts at Leighton Moss

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).