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!