With Christmas just a few days away, I thought I would update you on all the latest sightings that you will hopefully get the chance to come and see over the festive period.
We have a great variety of little birds at our feeding station in the garden and through the woodland. From the more well-known robins and blue tits, to more unusual nuthatches and marsh tits, keep your eyes peeled for the sight and sound of these favourites during your visit. It won't be long until we'll be asking for your help to count them in your own gardens for Big Garden Birdwatch 2015!
Winter is one of the best times of year to see some of our most secretive wildlife here at Leighton Moss. Recently sightings of our most elusive residents - the bitterns have been almost daily from Public hide, with some sightings at Lilian's and Lower hides too. We have more bitterns here through the colder months as additional birds come over from Europe. Keep a particular eye on 'Al's Alley' - a strip cut through the reeds to the right of Public hide by one of our wardens Alasdair. Another of our shyest residents are water rails. They have also been nipping out in 'Al's Alley', as well as views of them round the edges close by at Lilian's hide.
Bittern on the ice by Keith Scovell
Water rails are good skaters too by Keith Scovell
Up to four otters have been out playing a lot at both Lilian's and Public hides. The large dog (male) otter has also been seen fishing down at Lower hide. The work our wardens have been carrying out in recent years means that fish stocks are really good. Plus we've installed a replacement sluice on the Causeway which means we can manage the water level at Public and Lower hides separately to the water level at Lilian's, Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides, creating the ideal conditions for the different wildlife.
If you head down the Causeway, keep an ear out for Cetti's warblers. They have been heard singing their explosive song in that part of the reserve, which is a fantastic sound to hear. They suddenly just strike up, like someone putting money in a jukebox and have a raspy sound. Also keep an eye out for bearded tits which have been seen coming onto the Causeway path itself to pick up grit.
Around the reedbed, we have three marsh harriers - two adult females and a youngster. Up until four years ago, we only ever had marsh harriers here in the breeding season when we usually have four to five females and a couple of males. However, for the past few years, we have had up to four marsh harriers through the winter too. These reedbed birds of prey are a stunning sight as they glide over the reeds looking for prey.
There are large numbers of ducks on the reserve, both on the pools at Leighton Moss and also on the saltmarsh. See if you can spot the difference between them - mallards, pintails, shovelers, teal, wigeons, pochards, tufted ducks, goldeneyes, gadwalls, shelducks, goosanders and red-breasted mergansers.
Huge flocks of waders are also gathered on the saltmarsh. As I drive to work each morning past that part of the reserve, I often see large numbers of lapwings in the sky - wheeling round and twirling in the way often associated with starlings. They really are a sight to behold. Look out for them as well as redshanks, black-tailed godwits and oystercatchers at the Allen and Eric Morecambe hides. One of our regular visitors was also treated to close up views of this lovely little wren whilst they were there, along with seeing one of our most colourful residents - a kingfisher.
Wren by Richard Cousens
I have had a few enquiries as to when we open over Christmas, so here's a reminder:
Christmas Eve 9.30 am-3 pm
Christmas Day CLOSED
Boxing Day 10 am-4.30 pm
New Year’s Eve 9.30 am-3 pm
New Year’s Day 10 am-4.30 pm
All other days are normal visitor centre opening hours for December and January (9.30 am-4.30 pm). Please note that both the visitor centre and the nature reserve are closed on Christmas Day.The reserve is open from dawn until dusk every day but Christmas Day when it is closed.
If you are bringing children with you on your visit, why not take part in Bertie Bittern's Christmas Wish self-led trail, to discover what Bertie has wished for. The Holt (our education room) will also be open most days with interactive boards and Christmas colouring and quizzes.
We look forward to seeing you!
We are lucky enough to have both goosanders and red-breasted mergansers here at Leighton Moss at the moment. They are attractive diving ducks, both of whom are members of the sawbill family. The sawbill family of ducks rightly deserve their title as their beaks are long and serrated making the perfect weapon when catching fish.
Now some confusion can arise when trying to tell the difference between these two species. Male goosanders have a vivid green/black head, white bodies with black tail flicks and a black upper body. The females on the other hand have a chestnut-coloured head, white breast and a grey body. Both males and females have a red beak, which curls over slightly at the end. Male and female goosanders have different calls, with the male producing low-pitched croaking sounds in contrast to the harsh “karr” and cackle of the female.
Goosanders mainly prefer freshwater and are resident across all of northern England and Scotland and over-winter in many areas of southern England, particularly in parts of Devon. In Europe these birds can flock in their thousands, creating a fabulous spectacle.
Female and Male goosander by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Red breasted mergansers are a similar size and shape to goosanders and also have the easily noticable beak. This is why difficulties often arise when trying to tell them apart. Though they have many similarities, once you know the differences you'll be away.
Though the colouring on the head is the same on mergansers as it is on goosanders (green/black on the males and chestnut on the females), red-breasted mergansers have tufted feathers on their head. This 'Mohican' is one of the best ways of distinguishing the two birds.
The female merganser is very similar to the female goosander, both are dove grey. Despite this, it is still possible to tell the two apart. Female goosanders head colour abruptly finishes half way down its neck, whereas the mergansers head colour fades out gradually. The males are simpler to tell apart. A white neck band and an red/orange breast are the tell tale signs that you are looking at a red-breasted merganser, the illustrations below show this perfectly. The curl on the end of the beak of a merganser is less prominent than in the in goosander, and is another identification tip when identifying these similar species.
Red-breasted mergansers live in both fresh and saltwater and can be found around the UK coastline in winter, with some breeding in Scotland and also some resident there.
Female and male red-breasted mergansers by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
So why don’t you come down to Leighton Moss and see if you can spot these birds. Allen and Eric Morecambe hides are the best places to see both species together, but look out for them on Public pool too.
Thanks to Intern Anya for this update.
My chosen subject for this week's 50th anniversary blog is a bit like marmite-people either love them or hate them. I personally love to watch them here as they sit on a post at Lower hide with their wings stretched out , or emerge from under the water wrestling with an eel. I'm talking of course about cormorants.
Cormorants at dawn over Lilian's hide by Paul Liley
This large, black, waterbird can be seen in most water bodies, both fresh and salt water, as they love to eat fish. They are phenomenal swimmers, and chase their prey underwater. They use their huge webbed feet to propel themselves along and can dive to depths of around 35 metres. They have even been known to swallow pebbles to help them to dive more easily. They are also one of the few birds able to move their eyes, which assists with hunting their prey. It is their incredible fishing ability that has led to them being disliked by some, who believe that their numbers should be controlled. Much research has gone into the effect of cormorants on fishing and findings show that the proportion of fish removed from a river or lake by cormorants varies a lot, but even on sites with high levels of predation, they did not experience low catches or declining fish stocks. A range of factors can affect fish catches and these are mainly related to water quality and temperature, not predation. The epic ability of the cormorant to catch fish is actually utilised by some cultures in Japan and Chine whereby fisherman train the cormorants to catch fish for them!
You will often spot cormorants in the day sat out on posts in the water or on rocks by the coastline, with their wings outstretched. It is still open to debate as to why they do this. One theory is to help their wings dry out. Cormorants have special feathers which allow the water to penetrate, enabling them to swim better underwater. A more recent theory is that sitting in this way aids their digestion.
Cormorant with its wings outstretched by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
If you come down to Leighton Moss of an evening and sit in Grisedale hide, you will be treated to a large group of cormorants (or a 'gulp' of cormorants as it is known) coming into roost at night in a large willow tree. It is a sight to behold, particularly in the moonlight or when they leave at dawn. In terms of Leighton Moss' 50 year history as an RSPB nature reserve, this is actually a new phenomenon. From looking back through the records, in the early days of the reserve, cormorants were only very occasional visitors to Leighton Moss, although they were of course regularly on the salt marshes and around Morecambe Bay. The roost here has only built up in the last couple of years with a peak count of 75! This is likely to be because of the work to improve the pools for fish.
Cormorant roost in the moonlight by Brian Salisbury