Marsh harrier moments and recent sightings

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

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

Juvenile marsh harrier, by Mike Malpass

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

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

Green sandpipier, by Martin Kuchczynski

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

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

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

Swallow, by Chris Gomersall (