This Saturday the RSPB is supporting Online Hen Harrier Day , a packed programme of talks, mini films, competitions and artistic creations all celebrating the iconic, moorland-dwelling, sky-dancing hen harrier. The event will take place on 8 August and, like so many others, will be a fully online experience for 2020! It will be hosted by Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin, and you can find it and subscribe at: www.youtube.com/HenHarrierDayUK Credit Pete Morris The interest this year’s Hen Harrier Day has attracted from those eager to contribute has been utterly heartwarming. From household names to young, passionate conservationists in the making, from street artists to choirs, so many have given their time to helping put this day together. As well as being a celebration of hen harriers, the day also aims to highlight the continuing illegal persecution of these birds. Since 2004 numbers have tumbled by 24% and we all know the reason why this downward dive is so steep. There should be 300 pairs in England alone, yet each year only a handful of nests are recorded. Scientific research published in 2019 showed that 72% of the satellite-tagged hen harriers in their study were killed or very likely to have been killed on British grouse moors, and that hen harriers were 10 times more likely to die or disappear over areas of grouse moor relative to other land uses. Mark Thomas, Guy Shorrock and Ian Thomson will be speaking about their experience working in RSPB Investigations, helping to protect hen harriers and other birds of prey by gathering evidence of raptor persecution and pushing for urgent changes to secure their future. So, tune in on Saturday and help us raise our voices for hen harriers. Twitter users, keep an eye on @RSPBbirders and @HHDayUK for more. “I am delighted to be hosting Hen Harrier Day Online and look forward to enthusing audiences new and old about these iconic birds,” says Chris Packham. “I have been involved in Hen Harrier Days since the first one in the Derwent Valley in 2014, and I am delighted to see the event flourishing despite the tragedy of Covid-19. I am looking forward to a great day helping raise awareness of this wonderful bird and its terrible persecution on driven grouse moors. I will be talking to inspiring young people, great experts and many others who want to see urgent change in our uplands so that hen harriers can continue to be part of these landscapes.” Martin Harper, Conservation Director at the RSPB, said: “Nature is in crisis and the time is now to build a sustainable and nature-rich future for the benefit of us all. The problems in our uplands – from peatbog burning and flooding to raptor persecution – must be addressed urgently. Hen Harrier Day is crucial in helping bring these issues to the fore.” Dr Ruth Tingay, co-director of Wild Justice said: “Having an online event for Hen Harrier Day 2020 is testament to the determination of conservationists to see an end to the illegal killing of hen harriers and other raptors on the UK’s grouse moors. Not even a global pandemic will put us off. Wild Justice is thrilled to be supporting this event.” Alan Cranston, Chair of Hen Harrier Action, said: “The hen harrier is a symbol for our wider concerns about nature in the uplands and that is a theme that has resonated with many poets, writers and artists who will be taking part. “The moorlands of Britain are places we all should be able to enjoy, whether as visitors or locals. By hosting the event online, we hope that even more people will be able to join us this year in celebrating the UK’s hen harriers and the landscapes they bring to life.” Watch live at: www.youtube.com/HenHarrierDayUK And get involved on social media at: @HHDayUK
This winter has been amazing for Marsh harriers (copyright Robert Metcalfe), it seems the numbers just keep increasing. We now have 11 of them! This is over double last years number of over wintering individuals which settled at 5. This of course, means there is a great chance of seeing these amazing birds during your visit, usually seem flying around one of our pools whether that be on our main site or at our salt marsh hides.
Our winter wildfowl are also thriving here at Leighton Moss. Especially at our Lillian’s hide. There’s usually a great selection of species to be seen such as pintail, teal, wigeon and shoveler. These species can be found in the UK throughout the year, but their population drastically increases during the winter as they migrate in from further north.
The bittern is no exception. In winter we have a higher number of these rare birds, with approximately 600 wintering individuals compared to the 80 breeding males in breeding season. This means winter is one of the best times of year to catch a glimpse of them. Especially as we have had recent sightings of them from Lower and Lillian’s hide.
Mumurations are still ongoing. Though over the past few days there has not been a stable routine, with resting in different spots around the reserve. For up to date information on the starlings, and their most probable nesting place on the evening of your visit, ask a member of our team when you arrive, or call our visitor centre on the day of your visit.
Did you participate in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch? If so, this is just a little reminder that any online results need to be submitted by 16 February, or 11 February if you are sending your results by post. Thank you to everyone that took part, it would not have been possible without all our wonderful RSPB supporters. Once all the collected data is compiled, we’ll be able to see how our favourite garden birds have been faring compared to years previous and which birds have been visiting your gardens the most this year.
Participating in the Big Garden Birdwatch is only one way you can show support. Being members of the RSPB allows us to protect species and the areas they live in, and 90% of our net income goes back into conservation over all our 200 nature reserves around the UK.
Our Marsh harriers are just one example of a conservation success story that would not have happened without all of you. There was only 1 female nesting in the UK in 1971, but through conservation work, numbers have risen drastically with 400 pairs now breeding here in the UK. If you would like to join us, you can either come into your visitor centre and talk with our team or join online.
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!
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
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…
The water has been sticking around since the last blog. It’s definitely wellie weather right now here at Leighton Moss, and if you come prepared you have the chance to see some great seasonal wildlife spectacles.
The bearded tits have been continuing to show very well on the grit trays along the Causeway and the path to Grisedale Hide in recent days. If you don’t have wellies, still do feel free to come and visit our café where we are screening live footage from a camera focused on the grit trays – so you may be able to watch these amazing birds while enjoying a hot drink and a slice of your favourite cake!
One of the big species to spot right now is the red deer. With the rut getting underway they are easier to see because the stags are forming harems and challenging one another for supremacy. The males can be heard bellowing all around the reserve, especially in the mornings and again in the late afternoon. With their magnificent antlers on display, they can provide great photographic opportunities. The best place to catch sight of these impressive beasts is from the Grisedale Hide (maybe after sighting the bearded tits?). Red deer pic by Mike Malpass.
Some of the other sightings around include otters, which are another firm favourite with visitors. These aquatic mammals have been spotted a couple times in the last week from the Causeway Hide. At least three marsh harriers have been seen hunting over the reedbeds in recent weeks. Usually this species migrates to Africa during September and October. However, a growing number of marsh harriers are remaining in the UK all year round due to milder winters rather than leaving and returning for breeding in April.
Other birds of prey being seen regularly include merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk and kestrel – mainly from the Eric Morecambe and Allen hides. Visitors have also been enjoying great views of little and great white egrets, multiple species of waders and kingfishers.
Wildfowl numbers continue to creep up with shoveler, gadwall, teal and wigeon flocks growing almost daily. Tufted ducks have increased too and have attracted one or two pochard and a pair of juvenile scaup. A rather unseasonal garganey has been present now for several days and tends to favour Lillian’s and Grisedale pools.
Are you thinking about buying some binoculars or a spotting scope? Well on October 26 and 27 we are hosting a binocular and telescope open weekend. This will give you the chance to try out the optics you have been eyeing outdoors, so you know which are the right products for you. We will have our friendly, impartial team on hand to help you decide on the perfect equipment for your needs and budget.
So, even though we’re a bit flooded, there is still a lot to around to see. We hope to see you down here soon, but please bring wellies for the next few weeks. We will give an update when the water levels decrease on this blog, the RSPB Leighton Moss Facebook group and Twitter @LeightonMoss.
See you soon!
Charlotte (Visitor Experience Intern)
Our project team have fitted more than 10 young hen harriers with satellite tags this summer in Scotland. We have worked hard this summer to tag birds from the Scottish Borders up to the Scottish Highlands, with the generous support and assistance from of a variety of partners, volunteers, landowners, their managers and staff, and licenced taggers from the raptor conservation community. One of this year’s Scottish youngsters (image courtesy of Steve Downing) Hen harriers are one of our rarest and most persecuted birds of prey. The satellite tags allow us to follow the lives of the young birds as they strike out on their own. The last British Isles hen harrier population survey in 2016 put their numbers at just 575 territorial pairs, an overall significant decline of 24 percent since 2004. Estimates suggest there should be over 1,500 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland alone, yet only 460 pairs were recorded in 2016. Before tagging could take place, we monitored hen harrier nests across the country to understand more about how their breeding success varies year to year and why nests sometimes fail. The information gathered from birds tagged in previous years has revealed important information about how they spend their first few years of their lives. Two of the birds tagged in Scotland last summer headed over to Ireland for the winter before returning this spring, and one of the chicks tagged this year is the offspring of a female tagged in a previous year by the project, providing an opportunity to follow the species through two generations. Tagging also reveals some worrying turns of events, with some birds either suddenly or inexplicably disappearing or being illegally killed – almost always on or close to grouse moors. Earlier this year RSPB Scotland appealed for information on the disappearances in areas managed for grouse shooting of two birds tagged by the project – Marci, tagged in 2018 at Mar Lodge and last recorded in the Cairngorms National Park near Strathdon, and Skylar, tagged in 2017 in Argyll who disappeared close to Elvanfoot. In May this year, Rannoch, tagged in 2017, was found dead in an illegally set spring trap on a Perthshire grouse moor. Dr Cathleen Thomas, Senior Project Manager for Hen Harrier LIFE, said: “It’s a real privilege to work with and follow the journeys of these incredible birds of prey and the sight of one of them skydancing never fails to take my breath away. “However, very few people get to experience such a spectacle as the British Isles are missing 80 percent of the breeding hen harriers they could support. These birds face enough natural challenges in their first few years of life trying to avoid predators and learn how to hunt without the added pressure of illegal killing, shooting and trapping by humans. “With Scotland being the stronghold for the British hen harrier population, tagging these young birds here and understanding what is happening to them is crucial for our efforts to create a more secure long-term future for the species.” An independent enquiry commissioned by the Scottish Government is currently undertaking a review of the environmental impact of grouse moor management and possible options for regulation. RSPB Scotland is calling for licencing of the industry to be introduced to bring an end to the continued illegal killing of birds of prey, including hen harriers as well as golden eagles, red kites and others, which is threatening some of the country’s most iconic species.
Saturday afternoon walk and it was scorching, hadn’t taken a hat and was starting to curl up and go crispy so got my umbrella out and looked a prat but didn’t care. Lots of butterflies about, Small Heath, Small Skippers, Peacocks and antler moths and h…
Went along to a wildlife wander held by the Friends of Bowland. The walk started and finished at Dalehead Chapel and took in a visit to Bottom Laithe, a damp meadow with several interesting plant and insect species.
RSPB Bowland’s Project Officer, James Bray, talks us through Bowland’s 2019 breeding season, the excitement of 5 rare hen harrier nests, and conditions for the volunteer team as they brave the hills! For decades the Forest of Bowland was the most important site for breeding Hen Harriers in England. So much so, they were formally adopted as the logo of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). In some years it was the only place in England that Hen Harriers bred, so their recent temporary loss as a breeding species* was particularly keenly felt by those with an interest in bird of prey conservation. 2018 was the best breeding season for Hen Harriers since the population crashed in 2012. We waited with baited breath for how 2019 would pan out, particularly as we know that a high percentage of young Hen Harriers disappear on driven grouse shooting estates across the country each winter ( see here ). My team of staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities staff and tenants, put everything into monitoring and protecting the birds when they’re here, but hen harriers travel widely and we can’t control what happens when they leave. Many of the chicks that fledged and left Bowland in 2018 did not survive the winter. It is therefore tremendously exciting to announce that we now have chicks in five nests , and some those chicks have already taken their first flights . Photo credit: Young hen harrier chicks in nest – Mick Demain. As we have done in every year since the RSPB started working in Bowland at the start of the 1980s, our team of volunteers and staff have been monitoring and protecting the birds on the estate since the start of Spring, in partnership with the landowner United Utilities and their farming and sporting tenants. In 2018 we had to deal with baking hot conditions (some members of the team took to lying in streams to cool down), whereas this year the weather has been a bit different. Warm calm spells have been rudely interrupted by spells of rain and cold wind, but our staff and volunteers have coped very well with the conditions. Left: Keeping out of the rain and wind – Paul Thomas. Right: The United Utilities estate is also important for a range of other red-listed species such as Ring Ouzel, Cuckoo and Curlew – Mick Demain. The harriers don’t appear to have been affected unduly by the weather either. We have been lucky that whilst there has been heavy rain, the downpours have been relatively short-lived, allowing the males plenty of time to hunt and feed their mates and chicks. It is amazing how quickly the season passes. It does not seem long ago that the beautiful grey males were skydancing over the hills in successful attempts to attract mates. Now, some of the chicks are taking their first flights. For people who have spent every day of the last few months watching over the harriers, this is such a special moment. We still have plenty of work to do to get through to the end of the season as well as to work to ensure that this year is the continuation of a recovery back to the population levels of the 2000s (over a dozen pairs nesting each year) and the population level that the Forest of Bowland Special Protection Area is designated for. Photo credit: One of the nesting females – Jack Ashton Booth I would like to say a huge thank you to the RSPB’s team of staff and volunteers who have put in a huge amount of work to monitor and protect the harriers so far, as well as to United Utilities staff, and their tenants for their amazing support for Hen Harriers and the RSPB’s work to protect them. A final word – we would implore people who are visiting Bowland to look for its amazing wildlife to stay on the paths and tracks during the breeding season to avoid disturbing nesting birds. All of Bowland’s wonderful wildlife can be seen without stepping off a track. * Harriers failed to breed in 2012, for the first time since they recolonised Bowland in the 1950s and didn’t return until 2015 when only a single chick was successfully reared from 7 nesting attempts. Hen Harriers then remained absent as a breeding species for a further two years until 2018.
Chair of the Raptor Persecution Priority Development Group Supt Nick Lyall talks us through his #myfirsthenharrier moment. In early October 2018, as many of you will know, I took on the role of chair of the England and Wales Raptor Persecution Priority…