The ‘whoosh’ of wings and circling in the sky – is the spectacle of the week from the Sky Tower. Black-tailed godwits can be heard ‘chattering’ as you ascend the Tower, but then it really is incredible when they all they all ‘get the jitters’ and lift up and wheel around.
We’ve been managing the water levels to help improve reed condition and that’s been creating shallow, muddy areas on Lillians pool – and a great bird spectacle. There have been over 700 black- tailed godwits (761 on Sat 22nd ). Among them have been up to 3 ruff too. There have been over 300 teal (312 on 23rd) with shoveler and gadwall among them (over 60 gadwall across the Leighton pools).
Black tailed godwits, 'skyfalling' - the Lillians spectacle (Copyright David Mower)
Another spectacle is the hirundines, with large numbers of sand martins and swallows (with fewer house martins) feeding over the Causeway and Lower pools in the evening. Summer is ‘packing up’ so to speak. Just a couple of weeks ago, there were large numbers of swifts but the numbers have dropped away with just a couple this evening (27th) over the Causeway Pool. Most of the marsh harriers have disappeared too, though a young bird has been seen regularly, ‘floating’ between the main reedbed, Barrow Scout reedbed and the saltmarsh pools.
Not many swifts left - the summer is closing (Copyright Chris Gomersall, RSPB images)
With the ‘bird frenzy’, you may think we’re ignoring all the small things that make the complex web of life at Leighton. However, if you want to see nature on a tinier scale, why not pop along to our Nature Up-Close event tomorrow (28th). Click here for to find out more – http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-401544
At the other end of the scale the super-sized great white egrets are still spotted regularly round the reserve (3 today, 27th), along with their smaller cousins; there have been up to 50 little egrets seen this week.
Great white egret - backwards and forwards between the pools (Copyright Mike Malpass)
The Leighton speciality – our otters - might be seen so regularly as to be considered mundane – but they never fail to delight. Tails up in the air (full of weed) and fish too big to munch in the water, they’ve been a consistent crowd pleaser, particularly down at Lower Pool. They are regularly seen catching whopper eels - Leighton is a great place for eels. If you want to discover more about these slippery creatures then try our Exciting Eels Family Trail. Click here for more details - http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/seenature/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-401545
These eels escaped being munched by an otter - but after being weighed and released - they need to watch out!
Scarcer passage waders such as ruff (4 on 23rd) and little stint (seen on several days this week) are signs of the shifting season and joined up to 890 lapwing, 425 redshank and 100 dunlin on the saltmarsh pools (23rd). There have been a handful of spotted redshank too, with greenshank floating back and forth between there and Leighton. 16 were on the island in front of the Causeway hide on 26th. It might be the shock of peregrine and merlin which have been hanging around the saltmarsh pools. For an osprey over the saltmarsh yesterday, it was chasing gulls that pushed it close in for great views.
Finally, let’s sign off with a flash of blue. Kingfisher have given their usual lightning bolt glimpses from most of the hides this week.
A lightning flash of blue - or maybe you'll see a Kingfisher sit around if you're very lucky! (Copyright David Mower)
Thanks to Joe Wiseman for capturing of the essence of the site for this sightings blog
Although we are only part way into August, and the summer is very much still in full swing (it has been glorious sunshine today), believe it or not, for many birds, the autumn migration has already begun.
We have seen a great variety of wading birds turning up over the past week or so, both on Lilian's pool, and down on the Allen and Eric Morecambe pools. Over 250 black-tailed godwits have been seen (some of these will have been here all summer as non-breeders, but others have turned up from their breeding grounds in places like Iceland). We've got up to four ruffs, a curlew sandpiper, a green sandpiper, knot and up to three spotted redshanks too. Over 250 redshanks, large flocks of lapwings, over 60 dunlins and plenty of oystercatchers are being spotted on a daily basis. These long-legged, long billed birds can sometimes be tough to identify, especially if they are between their summer and winter plumages, so if you struggle with figuring out your sandpipers from your stints, why not come along to one of our What's that Wader events - details here.
Ruff by Richard Cousens
Spotted redshanks by Martin Kuchczynski. The one on the left is in its grey winter plumage, and the one on the right is moving into its grey winter plumage from its lovely black summer plumage.
Spotted redshank by Alan Foster - the lovely marble effect on its feathers is because it is between its summer and winter plumages.
With the lower water levels on part of the reserve, not only are the wading birds enjoying feeding in the mud, but usually shy birds such as water rails have been popping out regularly along the edges of Lilian's pool, and we have had several reports of a bittern, both from Causeway hide (formerly Public hide) and Lilian's hide. We've still got two great white egrets around too. They are flying between the reedbed and the saltmarsh, so keep your eyes peeled for them wherever you go. A young marsh harrier is still hunting over the reedbed. Most of this year's adults and young have moved off south, but who knows, this one may decide to stay the winter here.
Don't forget to add your wildlife sightings to our recent sightings book whilst you are here, and remember, you can also record what you've seen on Bird Track too!
It's not just birds that call Leighton Moss home. Along the path edges, the fluffy white flowers of meadowsweet add a lovely scent to the air, along with purple loosestrife and water forget-me-nots. Our biggest residents, the red deer have been seen at Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides. They come out both in the day and in the evenings - join us on one of our Monday evening walks for a chance to see Britain's largest land mammal. We've also been seeing some of our smallest mammals too - water shrews and bank voles have been dashing across the paths, whilst some lucky visitors have had views of cute stoats!
Stoat in action by Craig Linford
Our only flying mammals have been out hunting insects of an evening. We have a roost of over 400 soprano pipistrelle bats on the reserve, but also get common pipistrelles and had six Daubenton's bats feeding over Causeway pool one morning this week! To learn more about these incredible creatures, book a place on our upcoming bat night. Click here for details.
Have you ever spotted an otter? Our visitors have been seeing them regularly from Lower hide over the past few days. If you notice the ducks and other water birds suddenly shooting across the pool in one direction, it can often be a sign of otters coming along under the water. Look out for their tails flicking up and their backs arching above the surface like mini Loch Ness monsters!
Some of our smallest, and often overlooked creatures are moths. Over the last 51 years as an RSPB nature reserve, almost 600 different kinds of moth have been recorded here! They're not just the ugly cousins of butterflies you know - come along to our Meet the Moths at the Moss event on Saturday to fine out more about them.
We've got another fantastic guest blog this week, from former Warden and still active volunteer David Mower. This time, its all about ducks and their plumage.....
For most of the year, male ducks have bold colourful plumage, helpful to attract females in spring. In contrast, the females are duller and brown, vital camouflage for the spring when they sit on the nest, which is usually on the ground.
However, if you visit our hides at Leighton Moss in late summer, you will notice that all the ducks are brown and appear as females, so where have all the males gone?
Most birds undertake a complete feather moult annually, usually in late summer. So that they do not become flightless, most species moult the wing feathers in a sequence starting in the middle of the wing and moulting progressively outwards and inwards. Look carefully at birds in flight at this time of year and you will notice that many will have gaps in the middle of the wings where they are moulting. This is often easily seen in flocks of flying lapwings, gulls and birds of prey.
Ducks, geese and swans however, moult all the flight feathers simultaneously, and so become flightless at this time of year. Temporarily unable to fly, the brightly coloured males would be conspicuous and vulnerable to predators, so they moult a brown camouflage plumage similar to that of the females for the short flightless period. This is known as an 'eclipse' plumage. Look at the imageof an eclipse plumaged mallard. At first sight it looks like a female, but have a closer inspection and you will notice that it has the yellow bill, characteristic of a male mallard. If you have a glance round all the mallards assembled at Leighton Moss at the moment, you will spot many eclipse males with tell-tale yellow bills.
Male mallard in eclipse plumage by David Mower
Ducks begin the eclipse moult in June. At this time you will notice male ducks in their bright spring plumage begin to look tatty, with blotches of brown plumage as the eclipse plumage develops progressively. The birds will moult back from the eclipse plumage to the bright male colours in September. At this time you will see many brown ducks with patches of colourful plumage as the males return to their distinctive winter plumage.
Male mallard in full plumage by David Mower
Male and female mallards in a row by David Mower
For most of the year, the bold plumage of the male ducks makes identification fairly easy. The brown females are more of a challenge, though it is often (though not always) safe to assume that they are of the same species as the males nearby. Eclipse ducks are more of an identification challenge, but with practice and experience it can be done.
Ducks all have distinctive shapes which are helpful in identification. Diving ducks are more compact and sit lower in the water than those that feed on the surface. Pochards have a smooth profile formed by the bill and forehead, compared to tufted ducks which have a square head shape due to a strong right angle from the bill to the forehead.
Surface feeding ducks sit higher in the water and look barge-like compared to diving ducks. Mallard is the largest of the common species, teal the smallest, being half the size and with a slim bill shape. Pintails appear slim with a slender bill, pointed tail and long thin neck. Wigeons have a square head, upright forehead and short blue grey bill. Shoveler have a pointed tail and conspicuous front-heavy bill. Surface feeding ducks all have a brightly coloured rectangle of feathers at the back of the wing known as a 'speculum'. This is often obscured by the body feathers but, if visible, can be a good identification aid. In mallard, the speculum is blue bordered with black and white, in gadwall it is mainly white, in shoveler it is green and in teal and wigeon it is green and black.
If you would like to know more about identifying birds, why not book a place on one of our upcoming Birding for Beginners walks - details here, or come along to a What's that Wader event - details here.