Tag: Nature

Return to the Moss – a volunteer’s story

 In this week’s blog we invited volunteer Jennie to share her experiences of how the current Coronavirus pandemic affected her visits to Leighton Moss both before lockdown and again after the reserve re-opened… 

Return to the Moss By Jennie Chapman, RSPB volunteer

A bright and chilly mid-March morning. I dug out my blue polo shirt and navy fleece from the bottom of a drawer, found my name badge in the jacket pocket and pinned it in place opposite the RSPB logo. I had returned from a period of working abroad and was thrilled to be getting back to my volunteer role, welcoming visitors to Leighton Moss. It was fantastic to be back at my ‘home reserve’, and I was looking forward to sharing my passion for the place and for the brilliant birdlife that thrives there; but, beneath the excitement, there was an unease that was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. A new and highly contagious disease – a type of ‘coronavirus’, scientists explained – had spilled over Chinese borders and was ravaging northern Italy and Iran; Spain, where I had been living, had just gone into hard lockdown; and the first UK fatalities were being recorded. Nervous jokes about substituting handshakes for elbow bumps were proffered in exchange for rueful chuckles that were a little too forced. Touch points were assailed with frequent applications of disinfectant. Visitors covered their hands with their coat sleeves to open doors. In the visitor centre loos, conspicuously diligent efforts were applied to the formerly mundane business of handwashing, now elevated to a matter of national import. My first day back was quite unlike any I had experienced previously, but I had returned to the Moss and I couldn’t be happier.

A week later, the country went into lockdown, and Leighton Moss and its 200+ sister reserves across the UK were closed indefinitely. 

Adjusting to the ‘New Normal’

Sixteen long weeks later, and a few weeks after the reserve began the gradual process of reopening to the public, I was among a small number of volunteers to return to duties. The RSPB takes the business of keeping its volunteers safe and happy extremely seriously, and has been scrupulous in ensuring that none is put at risk – meaning that only those volunteers who do not fall into a vulnerable category have returned to visitor-facing roles. I consider myself tremendously lucky to be fit and healthy, and to be able to use that privilege to support Leighton Moss and the RSPB. 

There have certainly been some changes to adapt to. In order to reduce the risk to both staff/volunteers and visitors, the whole welcome operation has been shifted outside. Where we once had at our disposal a hi-tech interactive graphic display to bring our descriptions of habitats and species to life – press this button to hear the boom of the bittern, or that one for the ping of the bearded tit – now we improvised with old-school posters on display boards (my one attempt to mimic bittern vocalisations resulted only in profound embarrassment for all concerned, and a concession that this sort of thing was probably best left to the professionals, i.e. the bitterns themselves). This bit made me laugh! Portable card readers were sourced to replace the tills that we could no longer use, and the distribution of maps was suspended. Our initial offer was limited to selected paths and trails and nothing more; toilet facilities with an enhanced cleaning regime followed. The reopening of two of our wildlife-watching hides and the Skytower viewing platform, fortified with an antiviral armoury of one-way systems, limits on user numbers, social distancing measures, ‘test and trace’ contact slips and hand sanitation points, felt nothing less than momentous. Tentatively and incrementally, we proceeded with caution into a world transformed.   

Nature’s New Cheerleaders

In this strangest and, for many people, saddest of summers, it has been uplifting to welcome visitors whose paths might not have crossed ours otherwise. Families who would normally be in Spain, Greece or the Algarve are holidaying in the UK and finding themselves pleasantly surprised at what it has to offer. But our first-time visitors aren’t only holidaymakers. People who live locally but have never visited before, many of whom cite the frenetic pace of normal life by way of explanation, are coming too. I’m always intrigued as to what brings people onto the reserve, and among those new visitors I’ve spoken to on the topic, a fair proportion have described a heightened appreciation for nature and wildlife, instigated by the deprivations of the lockdown. Formerly expansive and complex social worlds have been replaced by the small, safe, self-contained realm of the home. In this shrunken sphere, our balconies, yards and gardens, and the bees, birds and butterflies that visit them, became lifesavers – as did our daily local exercise, prescribed by government edict and undertaken with all the assiduity of a sacred duty. Pubs, cafés, and restaurants; shops and cinemas; gyms and leisure centres; kids’ playgrounds; even others people’s houses: all were now off-limits – but canal towpaths, coastal promenades, city parks and rural woodlands remained, and here we watched spring unfold with a mindful intensity that, owing to our full and hectic lives, many of us hadn’t really had the opportunity to exercise before. We slowed down and literally smelt the flowers. The colours of spring dazzled and popped like never before, its rhythms heard more clearly without the competing noise of road and air traffic. Without other distractions, many of us had the space to really observe, appreciate and find solace in nature in a way we hadn’t previously. Now, as we tiptoe toward something vaguely resembling normality, those who found joy in nature during the long days of lockdown are keen to keep that spark of inspiration alive, and are finding in our reserves a place to kindle that flame. If any positives are to be found amid the indisputable horrors of the pandemic, then this must surely be among them.

It is not only adults who have been bitten by the nature bug this year. From my conversations with families who visit, it seems that many children have spent more time outdoors than normal, and many have become enthusiastic proponents for nature as a result. A pair of eight-year-old twins described in detail the pond and bug hotel they had forged in their garden, and the wildlife that came to visit. A girl of around the same age had had such fun learning to identify the birds on the feeders in her garden that she’d asked for – and received – a field guide for her birthday, which she had proudly brought with her to Leighton Moss. “We were dead surprised,” her dad mused. “She wasn’t really into wildlife at all before this. But all her clubs and dancing classes haven’t been running, so we’ve just had time to be in the garden, together, watching the birds.” It seems the lockdown has cultivated quite a cadre of young enthusiasts in that activity: “you have to be extremely still and extremely quiet,”  one young boy explained with emphatic solemnity, “and you should wear clothes that make you look like a tree.” Duly noted. A little girl of around five told me conspiratorially that “grandma has a new friend.” Has she? That’s nice for her! What’s her friend’s name? “We’re not sure” she conceded. “It’s a robin.” It seemed Grandma’s friend had established territory in her garden, and grandmother and granddaughter had spent happy locked-down afternoons watching him patrol the perimeters of his kingdom. She was excited about the prospect of seeing his friends at the reserve. I very much hope she saw at least one of them.

The Reassuring and Restorative Rhythms of Nature

Changes and challenges there have been, and no doubt more will arise as we inch towards a liveable existence in the shadow of a pandemic. Speaking for myself as an RSPB volunteer, there have inevitably been adjustments and adaptations – but ultimately, the fundamentals of the welcome role remain constant. We are there to inform, enthuse and inspire our visitors about the wonderful sanctuary for wildlife that is our reserve, and to bring them with us in fulfilling the RSPB’s mission to give nature a home. I can’t pretend that a brew and a slice of quite exceptional cake in our café, maybe followed by a browse through the gift shop, doesn’t enhance the Leighton Moss experience for many. But even as our world was turned upside down, nature persisted: nests were built, chicks were raised, blossoms and buds bloomed, migratory species made their perilous journeys across oceans and over continents. The rhythms of nature reassured and restored us, and that is worth more than all the cake in the world. Just.  


Thanks to Jennie for writing such a heartfelt and insightful post – if you have been inspired by her story and would like to know more about volunteering with us, please drop us a line to: Leighton.moss@rspb.org.uk  

The salmon run; an epic upstream journey

Salmon are one of the most well known creatures in our rivers, and every year they provide one of natures greatest spectacles; the salmon run. This amazing annual journey takes salmon from the ocean to the rivers they were born in. The journey begins w…

Primrose Lodge Blue and Greenway update

Ribble Rivers Trust are proud to announce that the first phase of the Primrose Lodge Blue and Greenway Project (PLBGP) is now complete! The first phase of this ambitious plan involved coppicing trees then desilting the redundant mill lodge, as well as …

More Hints of Spring & Recent Sightings

After the promising and much-heralded blip back in February which lulled us into believing that spring was well under way, things have returned defiantly to winter once more! Of course, it may be colder and wetter than it was a couple of weeks ago but on the face of it, it’s more like a normal early-mid March. Though unlike last year’s ‘Beast from the East’ we’re currently on the receiving end of what might be termed the ‘Pest from the West’! The days however are getting longer and a little milder (honest); these are the real cues that signal changes in nature.

Marsh harrier by Mike Malpass

Our marsh harriers (photo by Mike Malpass) have been busy sky-dancing, when conditions allow, and some observed behaviour suggests early pairing may have taken place. One couple in particular spend a great deal of time together and look to be prospecting nest sites in the reed bed. The best places from which to view the harriers at the minute are the Skytower and Lilian’s or Grisedale hides.  

Other indications of a looming spring include the continued, if sporadic, arrival of sand martins. Ones and twos have been seen primarily over Causeway Pool. These diminutive long-distance migrants are amongst the first of our summer visitors to arrive and here at Leighton Moss we can see gatherings of several hundred feeding over the meres by April. There is always the fear that some of these early pioneers may succumb to poor weather and a lack of flying insects to feed on, but if they get it right and survive it allows them to take the pick of the prime nesting sites before the later birds arrive.  

Avocets (photo by David Mower) too continue to gather at the Allen and Eric Morecambe pools having spent the winter further south. The current high water levels are encouraging for these island nesters, assuming they can find a good spot before the black-headed gulls establish their territories. Numbers of these elegant waders often fluctuate quite a bit before the breeding colony gets settled.

So far, we haven’t been able to confirm any bittern booming – despite concerted efforts to listen during optimum conditions. Last year we had a male ‘tuning up’ in the second week of March but it’s still early days and we can hope to hear this distinctive sound as soon as the weather calms down a little! Whether any of our wintering birds departed during the warm spell back in February remains to be seen.

The forecast for the coming week doesn’t exactly inspire us to feel optimistic about more spring arrivals but as soon as we get a little shift to the south in the winds we can expect things to change significantly. Wheatear, osprey, little ringed plover, garganey, chiffchaff and a host of other early migrants will take advantage of a change in wind direction and positively pour in from the continent and beyond.

Meanwhile, visitors can enjoy superb views of many species of wildfowl and waders, along with regular otters and a wealth of woodland birds.   

If you are planning to visit us soon, do check out our programme of events and see if there are any guided walks or activities that you may wish to join us on! 

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager


Boom time at the Moss

Immediately following the much-talked-about ‘Beast from the East’, things calmed down quite a bit and it seemed that spring was keen to forge ahead. Birdsong on the reserve has certainly ramped up a few notches; chaffinches, reed buntings, nuthatches, marsh tits and the like are all in fine voice, declaring territories and proclaiming their suitability as ideal mates for the breeding season.

Bittern by Mike Malpass

Most excitingly, we have had bitterns booming from two different areas of the reserve. One or two of these secretive herons have been seen regularly throughout the winter, mainly from the Causeway and Lower hides but thanks to their cryptic lifestyle it’s an impossible task trying to figure out just how many we have out there. It’s only in spring when on calm, clear evenings and some of the bitterns prepare to migrate that we can hazard a guess as to the wintering population. When conditions are just right, the bitterns will rise from the dense reed beds at dusk and fly over the reserve calling. This sound is nothing like the famous boom but is more like a gull call. On some evenings, we can witness multiple bitterns circling and ‘gull-calling’ in the fading light – quite magical!   

The potentially thrilling part of hearing this year’s booming birds is the possibility that some bitterns may remain to breed at Leighton Moss. A great deal of work has gone into improving the reed bed for bitterns and it would be a fantastic reward for the ecologists and wardens involved in that extensive management to see young bitterns fledging on site again. We’ll keep listening for the evocative booms and keeping our fingers crossed!

In other news, the marsh harriers have been showing exceptionally well, with up to six birds present at the time of writing. Two dazzling males have been sky dancing and food-carrying in their attempts to impress the females.

Avocet by David Mower

Out on the saltmarsh, avocet numbers have been building up again, though with the forecast cold conditions due over the next few days we may well see them disappearing for a short spell once more before they settle down to breed. A new anti-predator fence was installed at the Allen Pools this week to prevent foxes from raiding the avocet nests later in the season.

Our first sand martins of the year appeared briefly on Wednesday (14) with another present at Causeway for much of the following day. Despite the un-spring-like conditions we should see a few more of these dainty long-distance migrants in the coming days, along with the first chiffchaffs and wheatears if we’re lucky. A subtle and favourable change in wind direction should see an increase in the number of birds arriving and we can hope to add little ringed plover and osprey before the end of March.

Meanwhile, the starling murmuration, while still occurring, is starting to peter out a little. We still have a few thousand birds coming onto the reserve to roost but their display seems less extensive now and their numbers have certainly dwindled. How much longer will they be with us?  

New islands at Causeway Pool by Jon Carter

Visitors to the reserve may have noticed that we have put a few more small islands out on the Causeway Pool. This is primarily to attract nesting birds, though they’re pretty useful for roosting on too. We’ll be keeping a close eye on them to see which birds find them useful!

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager 

Nice weather for ducks?

In this blog Andy, our residential volunteer reserve warden, reflects on the rainfall over the past few months, wildlife on the reserve and the work of the warden team during the winter season. As we shall see, Andy really has come to appreciate gettin…

Backsbottom Farm 2017-11-15 11:33:00

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris © Shiny New Books  Author: Macfarlane R & Morris J, Illustrated, Nature, Reviewer: Peter Reason, Words Reviewed by Peter ReasonWhen our postman handed me the pa…

Where there is water there is wading

With work to the Eric Morecambe Pool now complete and water flooding the exposed mud, waders are starting to make the most of the newly restored habitat. Large flocks of redshank and lapwing are a rather nice spectacle of late. Amongst them, one may se…