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:

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.