The signs of spring are all around us here at Leighton Moss. The whole site is alive with birdsong! In the past few days we've heard the first reed warblers and sedge warblers back for the breeding season, so their raspy sounds have been added to the symphony in the reedbed. Cetti's warblers are regularly heard along the Causeway and the two-tone call of chiffchaffs can be heard around the reserve too.
Our resident woodland birds are also tuning up, with wrens blasting out their noisy song (they are remarkably loud for such a tiny bird!) A whole host of tits and finches can be heard and of course the melodic notes of blackbirds, robins and dunnocks.
A bittern has been heard making a few half-hearted grunts on the Causeway, but he hasn't yet tuned up to what you would call a full boom. During the breeding season, male bitterns make an incredible booming sound to attract a mate and warn off other males. It is an unusual noise that sounds like the note you produce when you blow over the top of an empty glass bottle. If you'd like to learn more about birdsong, why not book a place on one of our Birdsong for Beginners walks or upcoming International Dawn Chorus Day?
As well as the stunning sounds throughout the reserve, there are of course spectacular sights too. There are four female and two male marsh harriers around the reedbed and they can be seen displaying and carrying nesting material. Huge thanks go to our dedicated monitoring volunteers who are out every day recording the harrier's movements, working out who has paired with who and where they are nesting.
Male marsh harrier with nesting material by Carl Lane
On Saturday, whilst watching the marsh harriers, one lucky visitor spotted this red kite from Grisedale hide too! The yellow wing tags let us know it was tagged in Yorkshire in 2005! You can identify a red kite in flight by that distinctive fork in their tail which gives them their name.
Red kite by Carl Lane
Red kite by Carl Lane. The yellow wing tags can be seen clearly on this one.
Yesterday we were super duper excited when reports came back to the visitor centre that a male redstart was on the reserve. He was on the fenceposts between the reedbed and the field, best viewed from the pond dipping area. He was a bit of a distance away, but several people managed to see him as he hopped on and off the fence searching for insects. These colourful little birds are migrants from Africa and there have been several of them arriving on sites around Morecambe Bay over the last few days.
Male redstart by Derek Huskisson
Otter sightings continue to be really good from Public and Lower hides. Up to six have been spotted at once. Look out for them rolling around in the water catching eels.
Down at the saltmarsh, the avocets are getting their breeding activity underway. They have been spotted scraping (where they use their legs to scrape out a hollow on the islands to lay their eggs in). There are around 80 adults, so fingers crossed for a fantastic breeding season. Head to Allen and Eric Morecambe hides to see these stunning birds in action.
The sun is shining and the birds are singing - spring is most definitely here. It is a time of year when everything around us is changing in nature - wildflowers are emerging to add a splash of colour to the countryside, leaves are returning on the tress, and birds are starting to nest. In order to breed, birds often need a fancy outfit, a bit like us getting dressed up for a night out. You may have never given much thought to how birds acquire their summer plumage, but it is not as straight forward as you might think. To explain more about it, we've got a special guest blog from our former Warden and still active volunteer David Mower.......
A birds plumage is vital for survival, insulating its body from the elements and giving the power of flight. Because the feathers wear over the months, birds moult annually. Small birds take two to three weeks to complete their moult, while large birds take several weeks to change all of their feathers. Most species moult in late summer, after the demands of the breeding season and before migration or the onset of winter.
However, some birds also undergo a second partial moult in spring to acquire a bolder summer plumage. For example, you can see in the photographs the black-tailed godwit which has a grey and white winter plumage moults to a lovely brick-coloured breast and neck and a russet spangled back in spring. Similarly the black-headed gull changes its head from white in winter to a brown hood in summer.
Black-tailed godwit in winter plumage by David Mower
Black-tailed godwit in summer plumage by David Mower
The other way in which some birds acquire summer plumage is less well known. Here, birds moult only once, in late summer, and the change to summer colours is achieved by feather abrasion (basically wearing). This is illustrated in the three pictures of house sparrows, photographed in December, April and June. The sparrow moults his familiar black bib in August/September, but each black feather that grows in its place has a pale buff fringe. As only the edge of each feather is exposed to view, the black bib is concealed under the buff fringes. As winter progresses, gradually the buff fringes wear away, exposing the black bib beneath, and the bird assumes his distinctive summer plumage without moulting. Look carefully at the photographs. You can see that in December the bird’s dark bib is obscured by the buff fringes. In the April bird the black bib is clearly visible, but some of the worn pale fringes remain. By June all the pale fringes have worn away and the bib is now solid black.
House sparrow in December by David Mower
House sparrow in April by David Mower
House sparrow in June by David Mower
Other birds which change to summer plumage through feather abrasion include reed buntings, stonechats and starlings. Several finch species develop brighter plumage in spring through the same process too.
By contrast, as summer progresses, many birds, particularly those with large areas of uniform colour become paler as the feathers wear. You can see this well in the two pictures of song thrush. The bird photographed in December shows the characteristic warm brown back and wings in contrast to the bird photographed in June where the worn plumage is almost as cold and grey as a typical mistle thrush.
Song thrush in December by David Mower
Song thrush in June by David Mower
So there you go - it's fascinating to know that birds can change outfit in several ways, at different times of year. Next time you're out enjoying nature, take a moment to really look at a birds plumage and marvel at the effort gone into it.
If you'd like to learn more about identifying birds, why not book a place on one of our upcoming Birdsong for Beginners events (details here), or if you fancy getting up super early, there is still place on our popular Dawn Chorus Day (click here).
Leighton Moss was a hive of activity on Thursday - the sun came out just in time for our pond dipping event. Family's were invited to discover 'What lives beneath? on two pond dipping sessions - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Children and big kids alike were fascinated by the weird and wonderful creatures they dipped, from cadis fly lavae and great diving beetles to leeches and water lice, there was so much to see!
Everyone learned to identify some key pond creatures with help from Angela, our expert in all things pondlife, and the familieswere able to gaze into a undiscovered world with the help of some rather whizzy hand-held microscopes. Seeing tiny creatures like bloodworms close up really captures the imagination, and we overheard many comments like "it looks like something out of a film" and "wow, it can see its heart!" It wasn't just the kids that had all the fun, the adults were just as amazed as the children, gazing at the creatures of the deep. We were also kept entertained by a sparrowhawk that seemed to be trying to join in the fun, making regular appearances around the pond dipping area. If you fancy joining in the fun then there is still space on next week's event on Thursday 9 April. Choose from either 11 am-12.30 pm or 1.30-3 pm. All the details are here.
A couple of keen pond dippers (David Mower)
Expert Angela helps with identifying the creatures (David Mower)