Recent sightings and a regular visitor’s thoughts…

 Many of our visitors are being wowed by the continued presence of the redwings and fieldfares showing brilliantly in and around the orchard and garden here at Leighton Moss. The photographers seem to have moved seamlessly from bearded tits (still present but now much more difficult to see post-grit gathering) to these dazzling northern thrushes. And who can blame them, when they make such fabulous subjects? Also to be seen feasting on the fallen apples are plenty of starlings, resplendent in their stunning winter finery (photographed here by Mike Malpass), along with plenty of blackbirds - many of which will also have travelled here from northern Europe. 

Wildfowl is still very much a feature and Lilian's Pool in particular is absolutely heaving with ducks; gadwall, pintail, wigeon, teal, shoveler, tufted duck and goldeneye. Bitterns have been seen all around the reserve and may crop up just about anywhere while marsh harriers are almost impossible to miss as they hunt for prey over the reedbeds and around the mere fringes.  

With so much fabulous wildlife to enjoy it's a great time of year to visit Leighton Moss and after a few hours exploring the winter wetland landscape there's nowhere better than our café to relax with a delicious hot lunch and warming drink!    

We are pleased to hand over this remainder of this blog post to one of our regular visitors, Bruce Leyland-Jones. Although he's only been visiting the reserve on a regular basis for just over a year, Bruce has become a frequent and popular contributor to our Facebook group. In the relatively short time that he has embraced birding and nature photography, he has been sharing his voyage of discovery and so we invited him to tell his story of how he came to rediscover birdwatching and his love of Leighton Moss... 

A Visitor's Tale

Another morning, up with a crisp and chilly dawn, with clouds of starling swarming overhead, their wings a wild rush of beaten air and with the mournful cry of curlew, echoing in the background.

 I’m warm enough this time out, having donned my secret tights and am soon settled in the Eric Morecambe Hide, quite alone and blissfully happy, gazing at the assorted wildfowl and waders on the misty pool in front of me.

So how did I come to be here?

Long, long ago, back when it truly was all fields around here, I was brought up with a real love of Mother Nature. As a kid, Sundays were often centred around ‘A Ride Out’, or ‘A Trip In The Country’. Just occasionally, these might’ve involved a picnic, but they always, without fail, involved one or more of those I-Spy books and, as time progressed, more ticks were added, with that elusive 50-pointer always just out of reach. One of my favourites was the one on birds and, equipped with the equally much-thumbed Observer’s Book, I slowly worked my way through, blissfully unaware that I was actually ‘twitching’!

Bird-watching was never ‘cool’ and was, allegedly, something old men did. I do remember my first-ever trip to a hide, out on Longton Marsh, with my grandfather and his drinking and shootin’ buddies. The hide itself was a pretty ramshackle affair; breezy and not impervious to the rain, but there was a distinct sense of awe and privilege imposed on my young and impressionable mind, as these serious gents, smelling strongly of old tobacco and brandy, passed around old ex-military binoculars and whispered about the assorted ducks and geese, out on the marsh.

At the time, it didn’t bother me that they were also planning their next shoot, as finding assorted duck and geese, hanging from my Grandpa’s garage, dripping onto his beloved Rover, was commonplace. Besides, I have to admit that, aside from biting the odd lead pellet or three, I found the taste of the meat rather splendid.

 So at school, I followed my heroes of David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell, Joy and George Adamson, Tony Soper and that new lad, Simon King, with the huge afro hair. I thoroughly enjoyed my Scouting, facilitating my experience with the Great Outdoors and Biology was a passion. So, after changing my ambitions from veterinarian to naturalist, I persevered and spent four years in Poly, gaining two allegedly useful, work-related qualifications in the process; a TecHD Applied Biology and an MIBiol. Trudging the peaks of Lyme Park, stalking red deer, was part of that fun, as was grubbing about with mini-beasts in stinky waters and studying bird behaviours.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get any work in the field.

The internships and volunteer opportunities available today weren’t as commonplace back then. I needed working lab experience and no-one would give me that, knowing full-well that I was apparently over-qualified and would soon leave for pastures new. I trained racing greyhounds, ran a petrol station and was warden for a National Scout Camp Site in 400 acres of forest. However, under pressure to find ‘proper’ paying work, I re-trained as a mental health nurse, picking up on service I’d done with Scouts and then spent the next thirty-plus years of my life working in the communities of the Yorkshire Dales and then Cumbria.

That said, working in the field of rehabilitation, I was able to bring my own interests into play and my experiences of the natural world were often used as therapeutic tools. Long before ‘mindfulness’ became the buzz-word it is now, wandering outside, away from other people and learning how to relax with nature was an often cheap and cheerful way to manage ones many issues.

 Time passed and I was given the opportunity of early retirement and, as I’d seen way too many of my colleagues work themselves into the ground, before retiring to a mouldy caravan and a heart attack, I seized the chance with both grasping paws and never looked back.

Of course, with all of this extra time now on my hands and a determination to start to look after me, I began by thoroughly exploring my Cumbrian locale. Playing with photography was fun and my resulting landscapes were fine, but there was something missing….

Then, one night with an old Scouting bud, we reminisced over a rather manky camp we’d had to endure, over in Silverdale. The one highlight of that sodden week was a hike to the old Leighton Moss and we remembered loving the atmosphere of the place, especially early mornings, when mists and bird calls dominated and the rest of the world disappeared.

Next thing, I was visiting the Moss and getting talked into joining up by ex-warden David Mower. I’d previously joined the National Trust, simply to take advantage of the car parking for my walking activities and decided that I could easily visit Leighton Moss enough times to get my monies worth!

Hah!

If only I knew…

 I spent that first day in a complete awe-struck daze… gazing at the multitude of duck from the Grisedale Hide, being seemingly besieged by small woodland birds on my way to and from said hide and finding my old bird awareness slowly seeping back. I’d brought my camera with me, but soon learned of its inadequacies with regards bird photography. I was also dressed in a bright blue coat and, again, previous experiences and knowledge kicked in and I resolved to address that issue as well. Blessed with a generous retirement lump-sum, I soon had a new coat and camera and a new place to visit. I quickly explored the whole reserve, including the now familiar saltmarsh pools. 

So what is it, exactly, that makes the Moss so special for me? After all, living in South Cumbria, I have plenty of more local beauty spots and wildlife havens, each more readily to hand.

The beauty of the Moss, for me, is its complete variety of habitat, all within a relatively small area. Saltmarshes and brackish roosting and feeding pools, extensive reedbeds with associated freshwater pools and a copious amount of natural woodland. The Moss is also very, very well managed and this is evident by the numbers of species thriving, breeding and visiting and, whilst supplied with ample hides and pathways, that wildlife does appear to come first and foremost.

I’ve been visiting now for just over a full year, becoming acutely aware of the passing of seasons, as bird populations and the surrounding vegetation changes in sight, sound, scent, taste and feel. On arrival, on leaving the car, my ears pick up the various bird calls and, taking a deep, deep breath, I smell and taste the air, feeling it on my skin, be it as chill as this morning, or as warm and humid as it once was, back in the summer.

 During this first year, I have learned so much more about the birds and other wildlife. I’ve enjoyed several excellent courses, run by the reserve, such as the Basic Birding, the Bird Song for Beginners, the Dawn Chorus Walks and Bird Ringing sessions and I’ve also benefitted from the many fellow birders I have met, all of whom have been more than happy to tolerate my initial ignorance and then to further my education.

It's never really quiet and birds can always be heard singing, pinging, ticking and generally calling out their presence. My attendance of the Birdsong for Beginners, twice, was a great help, because once I’ve identified a bird by its song, I’m halfway there to finding it to look at and maybe even photograph.

In Spring and Summer, the scent on the air is green, although the distinctive sweet scent of decaying leaves announces Autumn and there’s nearly always a salty tang around the saltmarsh pools. It’s rarely completely still and, even on the most static of frosty mornings, there’ll be one of the infamous robins, eyeing you up as a potential provider of scran. 

My days always begin with a sunrise, although some then have me wandering the reserve, whilst others see me settled as firmly as a tick in the one hide, waiting for the wildlife to come to me. Each hide has its own unique characteristics and there are many I enjoy… suitably attired, with my camera, monocular and a large flask of hot Vimto or Bovril.

 There’s the silent solitude of the Lower Hide, accessed via a windy walk through the woods, with waterfowl, otter and bittern taking advantage of the quieter nature.

There’s the bold and open stroll to the Causeway Hide, often busy, but often well worth sitting a while, as the waterfowl eventually passes by, in their incessant cruising of the pool. Otter and bittern also appear, teasing us with glimpses from across the pool, but, come icy winter, the otters will present themselves, much, much closer, patrolling on the ice.

Then there’s the Grisedale and Tim Jackson Hides, both again reached through paths that take you through wood and alongside reed beds and both with great views of waterfowl and often the red deer. Whilst the other hides will have the marsh harriers showing themselves, I believe that they appear the closest from these hides.

And, just off the main reserve, there are the two saltmarsh hides, Eric Morecambe and Allen, where the constant movement of waders and waterfowl is a real delight, especially when there’s the added spice of a visiting raptor, looking for a meal. The wide, open spaces may necessitate good optics to get the full benefit, but I’ve found other birders more than willing to share their sightings through their rather special long lenses.

Once the Visitor Centre opens, I’m in the habit of returning from my early morning birding, for some breakfast and the wonderfully friendly staff there never disappoint. I’ll review my photos, enjoy a warm drink or two and food and then find that I have the rest of the day to wander. The only difficulty is deciding where to point my feet…

All photos by Bruce Leyland-Jones