As many of you may know, we are celebrating 50 golden years of giving nature a home this year. We first became an RSPB nature reserve back in 1964 and have gone from strength to strength ever since. We are doing lots of things to mark this special occasion, one of which is a weekly blog, looking into one particular aspect of the site's 50 year history (apologies for this blog being a day late, I had some technical issues yesterday. It does mean though that you will be treated to two blogs this week).
This week has seen some truly glorious weather. On Tuesday, I went with Alasdair (one of our Assistant Wardens) and Kevin (our Membership Manager) to do a butterfly survey on Warton Crag. Through the spring and summer, this is something that the wardening team do every week to monitor how our butterfly populations are getting on. There are several places around the reserve where they carry out this work, and on Tuesday we headed to Warton Crag. It is a while since I have been up there in the sun and the visit served to make me remember just why I should do it more often - it is a truly spectacular place, so this week, I have chosen to focus on this special site for my 50th anniversary blog.
If you have never been to or even heard of Warton Crag, it lies approximately two miles away from the visitor centre at Leighton Moss. If you look into the Old English language, it gives you a clue as to the look of Warton Crag. The name 'Warton' is derived from the Old English 'weard' meaning 'watch' or 'look-out' and 'tun' meaning 'farmstead'. The word 'crag' is from the Celtic 'crug' meaning 'hill' or 'mound'. Warton Crag is most definitely a mound that you could watch or look out from. It is a limestone hill, standing at 163 metres high, making it the highest point in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The limestone rock has been eroded to form natural cliffs, scars and outcrops. Part of it was once quarried leaving a dramatic cliff face that now provides a nest site for ravens, jackdaws and peregrines. There are also patches of woodland up there, which at this time of year are alive with the song of willow warblers and blackcaps. Because of the unique limestone habitat and the species it supports, Warton Crag has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is owned and managed by four organisations - us (the RSPB), the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Lancaster City Council and Lancashire County Council. You can see which bits belong to who by clicking on the 'nature reserves' title here.
The four organisations work together to make sure that the Crag is the best home for nature it can be. We bought the RSPB bit back in 1987, and it is around the size of 30 football pitches. It was purchased primarily to manage if for some incredibly important butterflies. The limestone grassland supports a variety of plants such as rockrose, violets, and blue moor grass. These plants are particularly required by the rare butterflies on the Crag, as their caterpillars rely on them as a food source. There are several unusual butterflies on Warton Crag, such as the pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary and the northern brown argus, with the rarest being the high brown fritillary.
High brown fritillary by David Mower
Pearl-bordered fritillary by David Mower
Northern brown argus by David Mower
In order for butterflies to thrive, the Crag has to be actively managed to prevent the trees taking over too much. This is partly done by grazing cattle up there, but they don't eat much of the really woody stuff, so our wardening team go in to cut back the scrub (mainly blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble) in the Autumn. If it was allowed to grow up too much, it would shade out the flowers that the butterflies rely on. Not all of the trees are removed, but some are in order to open up strips (known as rides) across the site where the light can get in and the flowers can flourish. It's tough work - check out the blogs from Alasdair about the work they do up there by clicking here and here.
Not a bad place to work by Alasdair Grubb
Whilst we were up there on Tuesday, as well as some butterflies, we also came across a slow worm warming itself in the sunshine. Warton Crag is a great place to spot these on sunny days. Now their name and appearance are a little mis-leading though. They are called a worm, they look like a snake, but they are actually a lizard. So if they are a lizard, where are their legs? Well they don't have any which is why they are often mistaken for snakes, but they have a number of features in common with lizards which snakes do not possess. The most important one is that they have eyelids that allow them to blink (which snakes do not have). They often also have visible ears (as do many lizards) which snakes don't. Finally, they shed their skin in patches like other lizards as opposed to all in one go like snakes do. Pretty interesting isn't it.
Slow worm by Kevin Kelly
If you have never visited Warton Crag, I would highly recommend it, particularly at this time of year. There is a car park at the foot of the quarry from which you can watch the peregrines and ravens, then take a walk up to the top looking and listening for the important butterflies, plants, birds and reptiles that make it such a special place.
The chicks are cheeping, the rabbits are roaming – it can only be Easter weekend!
To mark the festivities we celebrated with an egg-cellent (ahem) Birdsong for Beginners event. The fabulous Andy Chapman and three enthusiastic volunteers were onsite early to tell people all about the sounds and songs of spring.
It was an early start for most and our visitors weren’t disappointed!
Sedge warblers put on a wonderful show. Their raspy calls could be heard out across the reedbed from the causeway. One particular songbird clung to the top of a willow tree to sing out his peculiar flutey song before diving back down again into the reeds.
Sedge warbler by David Mower
It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a reed and sedge warbler. However, it’s worth taking the time to stop and listen. A reed warbler sticks to the same pattern of notes and will tend to stay hidden below the reed heads. Whilst a sedge warbler may start off with a similar song, it quickly rises into high-pitched trills and a spectacular leap into the air which is part of its mating display.
This is the perfect time for warblers. Blackcaps and chiffchaffs can be seen all across the site.
A reed bunting made its small, discrete call and even showed its black cap and white moustache before swooping away.
Reed bunting by Brian Salisbury
The event was a big success - everyone was able to tune in their ears before enjoying a bacon bap from our cafe.
Other recent sightings include the pair of garganeys which have hunkered down at Grisedale hide. A grasshopper warbler can be seen (and heard!) on the path before Allen and Eric Morecambe hides. Its unmistakable trill sounds just like a grasshopper. Listen out carefully – this one is singing quietly, warming up for the season.
If you missed our Birdsong for Beginners event you can always catch our second session on Sunday 25 May. Limited places only, so book fast!
The sun is absolutely cracking the flags here today, and the wildlife is certainly taking advantage of this glorious weather.
Otters have been regularly spotted at Public hide. Look out for the tell-tale signs of all the water birds dashing across the pool in the same direction, it often means that an otter is slinking below the surface.
The black-headed gulls are certainly one of the sounds of Spring at Leighton Moss. Head to Lilian's hide to hear them squarking, watch them squabbling and see them mating.
Black-headed gulls mating by Stephen Smith
Marsh harrier numbers are now up to two males and four females. Spot them around the reedbed perching, hunting and doing aerial courtship routines.
Down at Grisedale hide, the pair of garganey are still here. They are being fairly lazy, spending most of the day snoozing, but occasionally waking up to dabble about and stretch their wings.
Male garganey giving his wings a good old stretch (Richard Cousens)
On the path just before Grisedale hide, a Cetti's warbler can be heard belting out its impressive song. Many of our favourite summer visitors are here now including sedge warblers, reed warblers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and willow warblers. They can be heard all around the reserve. If you head down to the Allen and Eric Morecambe hides, you might also hear a grasshopper warbler along the path. If you would like to learn more about the wonderful songs of these and many more reedbed and woodland birds, then why not come along to our International Dawn Chorus Day event. Details here.
Avocet numbers have now reached 78 down at the Allen and Eric Morecambe hides. They have started scraping (where they use their legs to scratch out a hollow to lay thier eggs in). Hopefully they might break some records in our 50th anniversary year.
With the sun shining, it has brought out beautiful butterflies. Brimstones, orange tips, peacocks, speckled woods, green-veined whites and small tortoiseshells are being spotted not only around Leighton Moss, but also on Warton Crag nature reserve too.
With another three days of bank holiday to go, why not come and see us. We've got the Baby Birds Trail for families, a Binoculars and Telescopes Open Weekend and a variety of scrummy cakes in the Cafe!