It's been all go at the Moss this weekend, when we had the pleasure of a visit from our Board and Council members. It was a great opportunity for us to showcase all that Leighton Moss has to offer and they all seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves. We certainly had great fun showing them all round.
As always, on the day, and over the past few days in general, the special wildlife here, really made the visit a memorable one.
We've been getting regular sightings of an osprey over the last few days, including just this morning, down at the Public and Lower hide end of the reserve. The deeper pools there are perfect for them to catch their favourite food - fish.
Speaking of fish, eel season is well under way. Our Warden David monitors their numbers on a daily basis as they come into the reserve through our eel trap. Eels are a really important part of the whole ecosystem here at Leighton Moss. They are a favourite food for species such as bitterns, herons and otters. They have an amazing life cycle whereby the adults spawn out in the Sargasso Sea, off the coast of America, and their young are brought across the Atlantic on the gulf stream. When they reach Morecambe Bay, they are about 40 mm in size and are see-through, giving them the name 'glass eels'. They swim up the main dyke that comes into Leighton Moss. We have a large sluice gate there, which helps us to control the water levels so we can manage the reedbed. This sluice is a barrier to the eels getting into the reserve, so we have eel ramps up the side of it, that they can shimmy up. They then drop down into our eel traps (which are simple holding jars) so we can count how many there are. We then empty them out onto the other side of the sluice, and they swim up into the reserve. Provided they aren't eaten, the eels will live here for 10 years, during which time they grow greatly in size, reaching around a metre in length. They then make the journey back across the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn and die, and the whole cycle begins again. Fascinating! We have had some days so far, with up to 5000 elvers (young eels) in our eel trap.
Elvers by Ruth Watts
Elsewhere on the reserve, the marsh harriers are very active, with the males bringing food into the nests for the females. On Sunday, one group from the Board and Council visit were treated to the male bringing in a rabbit and handing it over to the female in mid-air (known as a food pass). We have 2 males and 6 females on the reserve, so the males are being kept very busy with 3 wives each.
Otter sightings have been on the up. One came out on Sunday morning at Lilian's hide, to the delight of one of the Board and Council groups (and to the relief of our Regional Reserves Manager who had been promising otter sightings). Otters usually start to become more active as we move into the summer, so head down to Lower hide on a nice evening with a picnic tea, and watch and wait.
The red deer are also becoming more active, being seen daily at Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides. They come out round the edges of the pools to graze and snooze. As Britian's largest land mammal they are difficult to miss when they are out, but as soon as they step into the reeds, they instantly disappear.
Bearded tits are pretty difficult to spot at this time of year, as they are nesting right in the heart of the reedbed. However, you can catch up with all the latest goings on at the nests, by watching our live webcam. The parents are regularly going in and out so you only have to wait a few moments to catch a glimpse of them. You can catch them either on our website, on our cafe screen, or in the screen in Lilian's hide. The bearded tit nestboxes (or wigwams as they are known) are made every year by our warden David. The long pole they are mounted on, allows us to raise the nestbox up if we have a wet summer, to avoid the nests being flooded.
Cetti's warblers are very vocal around the site, with particularly good views just before Grisedale hide. They may look like just another little brown bird, but they have a tremendous voice that strikes up as though someone has popped ten pence in a jukebox.
Cetti's Warbler by Liz Cutting (www.lizcuttingphotos.com)
A cuckoo has been spotted a few times over the past couple of days, not actually on the reserve, but just off it, in the fields next to the path to Lower hide. These lovely migrants who say thier own name, are a huge concern at the moment, as their numbers are declining rapidly. The RSPB and the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) are working on a lot of research to find out where the problems lie.
Down on the saltmarsh, the avocets are a delight to see, with their fluffy chicks. They are nesting on the islands right in front of Allen hide, so be sure to get down their to check them out. A kingfisher has also been showing up there, using the fence posts as a fishing perch.
The sun has been shining (well in between the odd shower, but it's certainly a start). Apologies for the lack of recent sightings updates in the past week, we've been having some technical difficulties, that are hopefully resolved now.
Down at the Eric Morecmabe and Allen hides, a little gull has been regularly spotted for the past few days. The black-headed gulls don't seem to like it very much, but it isn't taking them too seriously. The avocet numbers are totalling 73 now and there are chicks hatching out all the time. Get yourself down to Allen hide for close up views of these beautiful birds and their fluffy young. As the emblem of the RSPB, they represent a great success story. They were extinct as a breeding bird in the UK by the 1840s, due to loss of their wetland habitat. However, during World War Two, when the East Anglian coastline was purposefully flooded for defences, a very small number of them returned. The RSPB immediately sprung into action to protect the area, first at our Havergate Island reserve and then our Minsmere reserve, both in Suffolk. Since then, their populations have grown phenomenonally and can now be seen on many sites around the UK. Leighton Moss is a great place to see them in spring. For winter avocets, you can't beat our reserves at Blacktoft Sands on the Humber or Arne in Dorset.
On the path to Eric Morecmabe and Allen hides, the warblers have been putting on a full concert, with sedge warblers, reed warblers, whitethroats and lesser whitethroats all being heard, as well as a Cetti's warbler and a grasshopper warbler. You will also catch these lovely summer visitors on Leighton Moss itself, with a Cetti's warbler being seen and heard reliably on the path just before Grisedale hide.
The marsh harriers continue to wow us. The females are now settled on their nests, so the males are bringing them their meals. Look out for their spectacular food passes - where the males give food to the females in mid-air, before she then carries it back down to the nest.
Marsh harrier food pass (male above, female below) by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
The red deer are frequently out at Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides, as well as the bottom of the causeway and the path to Lower hide. As Britain's largest land mammal, they are truly spectacular to see. The hinds (female red deer) are heavily pregnant at the moment as they will begin to give birth next month. Their spotty, bambi-like calves are fantastic to see gabolling round the reserve in July and August.
As you walk along the paths on the reserve, you will notice that some of our stunning wildflowers are emerging, adding splashes of colour as you stroll along. The lesser celandines and wood anemones in the woodland are particularly lovely at this time of year. The lady’s smock is also putting on a great show all over the reserve. Look at the petals closely and you may see the tiny orange eggs of the orange tip butterfly.
Yes – brilliant news! Our first avocet chicks of the year hatched out this morning! Three little beauties with one more following shortly after the photo was taken.
Image copyright Alasdair Grubb
But why were we out there disturbing the birds in the first place? They are, after all, a “Schedule 1” bird (which means you need a licence to disturb them during breeding). Well, it is part of an ongoing study into predation of breeding waders on our saltmarsh: lapwing, oystercatcher, ringed plover, redshank and avocet. Historically, we’ve had problems with predation of both eggs and chicks from primarily foxes and crows. In order to quantify the effect of both species ,we monitor their numbers closely and, if predation occurs, try to ascertain “who done it”. The easiest way to do this is to place data loggers in the nests:
Image copyright Alasdair Grubb
These loggers monitor the temperature in the nest; it’s warm when the bird is incubating, and cools down when either the eggs hatch or it is predated). By looking at the time of predation event, we can identify the culprit; if it occurs at night it was a fox, if it is day time, it is most likely to be a crow – simple! As mentioned in a previous blog, we’ve erected an anti-predator fence to keep foxes out, so hopefully, this will not be an issue for the avocets. Further out on the saltmarsh though, where lapwing, redshank and oystercatcher breed, they are still vulnerable to foxes.
The islands on Allen pool are also packed with black headed gull nests and one oystercatcher nest. (Image copyright Alasdair Grubb).
Whilst watching the birds return to their nests, we had cracking views of a female kingfisher (presumably her partner is incubating her nest somewhere) and had great views of a little gull (coming in to summer plumage). A Cetti’s warbler was deafening us just outside the hide, both whitethroat and lesser whitethroat were visible on the path and we could hear the grasshopper warbler reeling from the car park.
In other non-bird related sightings, I went for a walk up Warton Crag in my shorts yesterday. Saw lots of butterflies (first green hairstreak of the season) and even a large red damselfly. I stupidly wore my shorts, which attracted the first tick of the season! (I thought about including a photo of this, but you’ll be glad to hear I’ve thought better of it). The flowers were lovely too; primrose, cowslip, strawberry and this early purple orchid (to name but a few)
Image copyright Alasdair Grubb.
Sometimes, just sometimes, wildlife it seems can be predicted!
At the end of the last blog post I included some wildlife highlights to look out for in the coming week. And for once the wildlife obliged!
Firstly a stoat was spotted bounding down the path to lower hide, scurrying around with their slinky bodies in search of a meal. Slightly larger than their close relative the weasel they are best identified by the black tip to the tail of the stoat, which is lacking on the weasel. Other predictions mentioned came from our feathered friends, the arrival of two garganeys at Grisedale hide was a welcome sight. The drake is a stunning duck with beautiful colouration and a very prominent white stripe above the eye, (click on the name to find out more). They make a fantastic journey like a lot of our spring migrants, arriving from Africa to breed in the UK. Another returning migrant that was somewhat predictable for this time of year was garden warlebrs, a rather plain looking warbler with a beautiful flutey song. Their song is incredibly similar to their cousin blackcaps which we have also had around in increased numbers. One was seen down the path to lower but also outside Grisedale hide in the trees by the ditch.
Another predicted bird (admittedly I was about 3/4 months late with this one) was a green winged teal. This American vagrant has been spotted on and off mainly from the Tim Jackson and Grisedale hides, they can be incredibly elusive as they drift in and out of the channels of water. They are remarkably similar to our usual Eurasian teal, except that the standard horizontal white stripe on the side is actually vertical on the green winged teal at the breast side.
The sunshine brought a mini outburst of butterflies with brimstones, peacocks and small tortoiseshell all visible throughout the reserve. Bumble bees zip around the emerging flowers, and the foliage is staring to look a little greener and more like it should in spring.
The sights and sounds of spring at Leighton Moss are starting to get into full swing, the sound of reed warblers and sedge warblers seems to explode from every suitable spot. And along the trails of wooded areas the sound of chiffchaffs and willow warblers brightens any day! Other migrants reported have been wood warblers by the feeding station and one previously down the path to lower hide a few days ago.
Our marsh harriers have been very active, nest building and even the remarkable spectacle of a food pass witnessed on a few occasions. This is a real treat to witness, the male bird will call and fly above the nest site, the female responds by flying up from the nest and spinning upside down to catch the food the male drops down to her! Another superb bird of prey that frequently visits has been ospreys, they regularly use the pools at Public and Lilian's to catch fish before carrying it off high and dodging the attacking gulls on route.
Tim Jackson hide has been a very good location for red deer, if you scan the reed edges they are usually lazing around at the back, and often wander out into clear view.
Down on the salt-marsh a lot of sightings have replicated what was on the previous post, with avocets still doing well in fantastic numbers. Joining these iconic birds has been a curlew sandpiper, mainly viewed from Eric Morecambe hide consorting with redshanks. A couple of almost full summer plumaged spotted redshanks have been around too, check out their colour by clicking on their name.
So what are this weeks predictions to come and look out for?
Well depending on what the wind decides to do will determine how quickly or how many birds are able to migrate.
There should be an increase in swifts sightings with bigger numbers certainly due around now. A lot of the flowers along the trails should start to reveal their colours a lot more too.
And for some rather ambitious predictions not out of the realms of possibility and to look out for in your local area too, are migrants such as wrynecks and more into the next couple of weeks red backed shrikes.
The latter two predictions are less likely around the reserve but you never know!! But make sure you are outside in your local area at this fantastic time of year, and of course come and enjoy the wildlife here at Leighton Moss!
Well with April fast approaching it's end our wildlife is just getting started! This has to be my favourite time of year, with the sound of bird song, the croak of frogs and the rustling in the reeds all adding to the wonder of spring.
One of the undoubted highlights of this season is the emergence of new life, a lot of our birds begin nest building and a lot of species have eggs or indeed chicks. One of these species with chicks is a specialist of RSPB Leighton Moss, bearded tits. These fascinating birds are unique reed-bed stars and you can follow how one of our nests is getting on via our live camera from the main Leighton Moss page. This camera link is available to view from home or alternatively live footage is also being streamed directly to the screens in our cafe. This particular nest has three chicks at present, so you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the adults popping in and out with food. A couple of lucky visitors were fortunate enough to capture some photos of some water rail chicks down the causeway! What a treat!
In keeping with the flow of new arrivals, a fantastic selection of migrant birds have arrived recently, and the air is filled with the sound of chiffchaffs, willow warblers, reed and sedge warblers and even a reeling grasshopper warbler has been vocal in the reeds on the path to Grisedale and Tim Jackson hides. There are no prizes for guessing how this long distance migrant gets it's name, with a very dry rattling sound likened to a.. yes you've guessed it a grasshopper. Whizzing over the water catching flies, a good selection of hirundines search for food and feed on the wing. With swallows, sand and house martins and even the odd swift being reported frequently.
On the other end of the size spectrum our marsh harriers total seven birds with two males being kept busy looking after the females and their nests. And they will certainly get a lot busier over the coming month's with hopefully plenty of young to feed. Raptors have been well represented recently and visitors have enjoyed almost daily visits from ospreys. These fantastic pale birds often hover at a great height before plummeting into the water to capture fish. Over on the salt marsh a Merlin has been reported on a few occasions, these diminutive falcons will swoop around in search of smaller prey, showing off their speed and precision. Staying with the salt marsh and sightings here have been superb too. The avocets numbers have tipped over the seventy mark with many on nests on the islands. Other waders around this area have included over 1,400 black tailed godwits.Many are in breeding plumage, a beautiful brick red colour, and they will gather in large flocks before the majority will depart north (Iceland mainly). Some non-breeding birds and first summer individuals may remain and spend their summer enjoying the sights and sounds of Morecambe bay. Two greenshanks have also lingered down this area and a common sandpiper has been bobbing around in front of the Eric Morecambe hide. Listen out for cetti's warblers in this area too and the sound of whitethroats and their cousins lesser whitethroats as they sing from the bramble and scrub.
Back on the main reserve early mornings have produced some good otter sightings, mainly from the public hide although one decided to disturb the ducks on the water at Lilian's hide just the other day. The back path down to lower hide has been good for red deer with a group of 8 strolling around in the thickets.
This area at the bottom of the causeway is also the best area for listening out for bitterns, we have had a male continuing to boom from this area. Just to let everyone know we also had a ring ouzel reported near the estates pheasant pens, this is in fact a blackbird with extensive white breast colouring!
So there we have it! My top tips for things to look out for over the next week or so are: Bumble bees, they should start to beeee seen more regularly (get it?? bee, brilliant) as it hopefully gets warmer. Look out also for stoats along the paths and trails as they search for a tasty meal. And on the avian front keep an eye out for garganey on the pools and around the edges, garden warblers along the path to lower hide and maybe even an optimistic hobby or wood warbler, although the latter are in decline and are testament to why we need to help our migrating birds. If you are not a member why not pop in and see me on the reserve and I can tell you a little more about how you can help make a difference!