With the nights starting to draw in and the leaves beginning to turn on the trees, autumn is certainly on its way and here at Leighton Moss that means one of its most secretive residents is coming out of hiding – the bearded tits or "bearded reedlings". These colourful little birds are one of my favourite species here I always look forward to seeing them out and about around the reserve...
Autumn is the best time of year to come and see the secretive reedbed residents, as they venture out onto special grit trays. We put the grit trays out for them to stock up on grit which helps them digest seeds, their main food source during the cold winter months. It’s one of the reasons they are able to stay here all year round. Like most other small birds, bearded tits feed on insects during the summer, particularly because the protein provides young birds with enough energy to grow quickly. But as the weather gets colder, insects are less abundant and the bearded tits then switch to eating seeds – a clever adaptation which means that they don’t have to migrate south. Sounds simple enough, but seeds are not as easy for the bearded tits to digest and so they also have to eat grit which then helps to grind the seeds up.
Bearded tits feeding on the grit trays by Keith Kellet
Bearded tits were first seen on the reserve on 4 November 1965, however it wasn’t until 1973 that the first young reedling was spotted and breeding was confirmed for the first time. Numbers of this rare bird have been monitored by a team of dedicated staff and volunteers at Leighton Moss every year since. Over time, the reserve population has increased but will fluctuate year on year as the bearded tits can be very sensitive to extreme weather conditions, like flooding or very hard winters.
Bearded tit at Leighton Moss by Richard Cousens
This year, after a very wet winter where the reserve was completely flooded, it was feared that the bearded reedling population may have been effected. But through “ringing” studies, where young birds have colour coded leg rings fitted, we have found that the bearded tits have beaten the odds and had another good year. We have caught or sighted nine adult males and ten adult females so far this summer, as well as fitted colour rings to 22 nestlings and nine other juvenile birds. This shows that there have been plenty of successful breeding attempts despite the challenging weather conditions last winter.
Bearded tit nestling by Alasdair Grubb
So if you have never seen one of these amazing birds, now’s the time to come and give it a go! I usually find I have most success if I pick a dry, still morning, as they are usually more active at this time of day. Visit the grit trays on the causeway between 9am and 12pm for the best chance to spot one but be prepared to exercise some patience!
If you do visit the reserve this week there is plenty of other wildlife to look out for as well. Otters have been spotted from the causeway hide and also down on the salt marsh from Eric Morecambe hide. Marsh harrier sightings have been frequent across the whole of the reserve as well as buzzard over the woodland near lower hide. Wildfowl such as teal, gadwall and shoveler are starting to build on the pools in front of the causeway hide and lower hides. The salt marsh is also fantastic at this time of year with lots of waders passing through on migration. Current highlights include; redshanks, greenshanks, spotted redshanks and good number of lapwings. Good numbers of small birds on the coast line has also meant an increase in peregrine and sparrowhawk sightings from Allen and Eric Morecambe hides.
Leighton Moss is home to the largest reedbed in North West England. Now a rare sight, reedbed is a dynamic habitat that requires constant management in order to give the best home to the wildlife that relies on it. Assistant warden Nick Godden explains some of the recent work he has been doing with colleagues in order to make Leighton Moss the best place for rare wildlife like marsh harriers, bearded tits and bitterns...
This blog was intended to document the mammoth task of planting 6500 reed plugs in an area of the reedbed that has been bare for many years. However, the weather had other ideas. Heavy rainfall on the 20 and 22 August saw water levels across Leighton Moss rise sharply. To make matters worse, that weekend saw a series of spring tides and this meant the only exit route for the reserve’s water was closed. This is the reason why there hasn’t been as many birds in front of some of the hides recently, although views are already improving as we continue to drop the water level. The end result is that the area that we want to plant our reed plugs in is now about 40cm underwater – hardly ideal!
So instead of showing the reed planting I will talk a bit about the areas that we are going to plant into. We call these the Bed Lowered Areas as approximately 10 years ago the ground was lowered by around 30cm in a number of narrow strips. You may have seen them in the distance from the top of the Skytower. Here is an aerial photo of the area taken in 2014 with Lilian’s Hide visible in the top left of the picture.
Aerial photo of the Bed Lowered Areas July 2014. Copyright RSPB
The aim of the bed lowering was to create areas of deeper reedbed that would be more attractive to breeding bitterns. Unfortunately the reed didn’t grow back as expected so the areas remained bare for years. It turned out that the remaining soil was wet and sloppy and had no oxygen, making it totally unsuitable for reed to grow in. A drastic solution was needed, and that was to dry part of the site far more than had been done before.
The drawing down of water levels on the southern half of Leighton Moss will be well known to many people and was explained in detail in a previous blog: Who's pulled the plug out?. Drawdown was repeated this summer where possible to encourage the reed to spread. The reed is now spreading via underground rhizomes and overground runners as it goes in search of water. New shoots are sent up every few inches along a straight line and the process of colonising these bare areas is now well underway.
The response in vegetation growth has been rapid. To document this we take regular photos from a number of fixed points around the reedbed. And the photos below make it clear that the plan is working! Reed isn’t always the first plant to colonise these bare areas en masse, this is particularly evident in the second set of photos where rushes are coming in first. The reed then takes advantage of the more consolidated and oxygen rich ground to spread into.
Fixed point photographs showing the spread of reed and other wetland plant species in the bed lowered areas following drawdown of the water. From left to right: August 2014 and August 2106. All photos copyright RSPB.
These photos were taken from near Grisedale Hide and show an even more dramatic spread of reed and rush following the drawdown. From left to right: August 2014, August 2015 and August 2016. All photos copyright RSPB.
We’re really pleased with how the vegetation is responding to us changing the way we manage our water levels of the last three years. The pictures above show very clearly that wetland plants, but most importantly reed, are starting to spread into previously inhospitable areas and thriving. It is still helpful to plant some reed in the barest areas to speed up the process and to introduce some reed that will grow a bit more vigorously. Please keep your fingers crossed for good weather so that we can get out there soon and start planting!
As soon as the team can get out and plant the reeds we will be updating you with another blog of how they have been getting on, so watch this space!
What's your favourite season? In this week's guest blog, our Visitor Operations Manager Kevin Kelly explains why he loves this time of year.....
Autumn is an incredible time for bird migration. The numbers involved are far greater than spring, due to this year's young joining in on the arduous journey. That is not the only incredible part though. There is also the sheer wonderment that these juvenile birds, are almost pre-programmed to navigate to their winter home.
Later this week I will also be partly migrating. I will be heading north to a gem of an island on the same latitude as parts of Norway. The island of Fair Isle, out on its own in the sea between mainland Shetland to the North and Orkney to the South. It is for the very reason above that I will be making that journey - bird migration.
Late September and through October is an exciting time of year in the calendar for someone interested in birds. Waves of southbound geese begin their movement, accompanied by thousands of winter thrushes. An almost daily conveyer belt of birds pass over Fair Isle, with many making landfall to refuel and rest before ambling south.
One of my highlights of this autumn spectacle is the change in sounds. The distinctive calls of pink-footed geese as they fly in formation, giving way to the high pitched “Tseeep” of redwings as they make their way to our gardens, parks and nature reserves for the coming winter months. A harsh “chatter” of fieldfare contrasting with the gentle “tssit” of the tiny goldcrests. Nature's musical in full swing.
Fast forward a few weeks and I will be heading south to the Isles of Scilly to witness more migration in action and witness the contrasts and similarities in species involved. This time of year often brings species caught up in the wrong winds, either sent over the Atlantic by strong westerly winds, or pushed across from the east from places like Siberia to the UK. Bushes and trees can be alive with hundreds of goldcrests, chiffchaffs and small numbers of rarer warblers such as the diminutive yellow-browed warbler with its distinct “Tseeweep” call.
Spot the yellow browed warbler by Kevin Kelly
Autumn has been good so far at Leighton Moss, with the best mix being found on the saltmarsh at the Eric Morecambe and Allen hides. The pools have been awash with wading birds. Up to five avocets have been joined by 90 plus little egrets, 26 greenshanks and four spotted redshanks. Other sightings have included little stints, and over one thousand black-tailed godwits too. In the reedbed, otter sightings have been great at the Causeway hide as well as regular calling bearded tits, getting ready to start visiting our grit trays later this month. A single marsh harrier has been keeping an eye on the daily increasing numbers of wintering ducks, with pintails, shovelers and teals starting to grow in numbers. The next few weeks should see a wave of migrants passing through with many stopping here for the winter, the change in sounds will soon become evident as autumn builds through the coming months to its musical crescendo.
If you would like to learn more about the sights and sounds of autumn, why not join us for a Birdwatching for Beginners walk? Details here.