2014 started with some major highs! High winds, high rainfall and some of the highest tides of the year all combining together to create some of the highest levels of flooding seen here at Mersehead in many a year. But despite all this, the team pulled on their wellies and got to work sorting fences, ditches, signage and tracks to get the reserve back in operation as quickly as possible.
There was however some damage that was not so easily repaired. The loss of the sand dunes was a very concerning development and one that transformed the visual appearance of the reserve. One of the biggest worries from this was the natterjack toads that hibernate in the dunes. As this is part of the UK’s most northern colony of this rare amphibian we were extremely concerned that they may have perished but by springtime the males were calling to attract mates and shortly after, fertilised spawn started to appear in the specially created pools. Overall numbers do seem to be down but with additional work carried out to improve the habitat for the toads it is hoped numbers will soon increase.
Natterjack toad - Photo credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Other good news is that the sand dunes are naturally reforming quicker than expected.
One of the biggest jobs that has been undertaken this year is the extension of the anti-predator fence to provide areas for ground nesting birds, mainly lapwing, to safely breed without risk of predation from foxes and badgers. Early on in the year an existing trial area of 7 hectares was expanded to 33 hectares.
In early March the first lapwing was seen displaying over this area and by May eight lapwing chicks were frequently seen from the visitor centre darting from cover to cover. In all, 15 chicks from eight pairs of lapwing were recorded. That equates to a productivity rate of 1.9 in comparison to target rates of 1.1 so a great success.
Lapwing chick - Photo credit: Arjan Haverkamp
In March the summer migrants began returning with the first wheatear recorded on the 11th, followed by chiffchaff on the 24th and sand martins on the 25th. For many people, listening to the distinctive sound of chiffchaff is one of the most uplifting sounds when first heard each year, heralding the return of spring.
These early migrants were soon followed by others. The first swallows were seen on the 13th of April closely followed by house martins on the 16th. By the end of April the familiar sight of rows of swallows and martins sitting on power cables or individuals whizzing through the air in pursuit of insects was a common occurrence.
House martins - Photo cedit: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)
By May many more migrants had arrived and were adding their songs to the dawn chorus. We had whitethroat, sedge warbler, willow warbler, chiffchaff, grasshopper warbler, reed warbler and blackcap all seen and heard as well as the unmistakable sound of a cuckoo frequently calling from the nearby woods letting us know summer had well and truly arrived.
Summer is of course the best time of year for seeing wildflowers and insects such as bees, dragonflies and butterflies. Our residential volunteers regularly undertake butterfly surveys around the reserve and this year's surveys produced records of orange tip, small copper, peacock, small tortoiseshell, common blue, wall brown, red admiral and many more.
Common blue - Photo credit: Robert Conn
Summer is also the time for seeing fledgling birds exploring their new world. One of the best places to see these is from the visitor centre with young tree sparrow, yellowhammer, greenfinch, house sparrow and dunnock all coming to the feeders.
Following on from a very wet start to the year we then experienced a very dry summer. The driest September on record delayed the usual arrival of wildfowl to the reserve with the exception of the Svalbard barnacle geese, the first of which arrived on the 21st and soon settled back in.
As well as the arrival of thousands of barnacle geese, September also saw the departure of many other birds such as willow warbler, wheatear and spotted flycatcher.
Early October rain revitalised the wetlands and the wildfowl soon flooded in. During the monthly Wetland bird survey which took place on the 13th of October there were 1090 teal, 150 wigeon, 86 mallard, 48 pintail and 24 shoveler recorded on the reserve. October also seen a regular roost of up to 1000 pink-footed geese on the wetland and an unusually high count of 112 Canada geese. Waders also took advantage of these conditions with green sandpiper, ruff, black-tailed godwit and greenshank all being seen from the hides.
The 16th of October saw the last of the swallows depart, marking the end of summer, closely followed by further autumn arrivals which have included redwing and fieldfare along with a male and ringtail hen harrier which have been seen regularly around the reserve.
One of the highlights of November was the starling murmuration. Most evenings thousands of starlings could be seen swirling in flocks of up to 8000 and more over the reed beds.
Starling murmuration - Photo credit: Gavin Chambers
Winter passerines have also been arriving with a single snow bunting (10th Nov), Lapland bunting (27th Nov) and an increase in other buntings and finches, with 60 twite, 36 yellowhammer, 69 reed bunting and 40 tree sparrow being the maximum counts. A leucistic tree sparrow has been an interesting addition to the visitor centre feeders.
Wildfowl numbers have built up nicely with maximum counts of 1215 teal, 274 pintail, 112 shoveler and 12 Gadwall. A green-winged teal has been seen occasionally among the teal, with a scaup, pochard and up to 5 goldeneye also being present on the wetland. Barnacle goose numbers have been fairly consistent with 4885 being the largest count since the end of October.
Winter has seen the arrival of a little egret to the reserve, normally spotted hanging out around the merse. Other recent sightings include good numbers of waders with 2 sanderling, 3 greenshank and 10 grey plover seen on the beach. 9 black-tailed godwits were on the wetland and there has been in excess of 500 lapwing spread across the reserve.
All in all, it’s been a pretty good year and we're looking forward to seeing what 2015 brings.
It may be a bit on the breezy side today but that ain’t keeping the birds away!
Large flocks of over 200 lapwing continue to be seen from the hides along with over 300 teal, 200+ pintail, 80+ wigeon, 70+ shoveler, occasional flocks of up to 40 curlew, and adding to the variety, a few mallard, tufted duck, goldeneye, little grebe, various gulls including a great black-backed, buzzard, hen harrier (male and ringtail) and redshank .
On the approach to the Meida hide there have been further reports of male and female bullfinch, goldcrest and great spotted woodpecker.
From the visitor centre there have been wigeon, teal and mallard on the water, large numbers of barnacle geese either grazing in the fields or in flight. On and around the feeders there have been yellowhammer, tree sparrow, house sparrow, chaffinch, blackbird, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, dunnock, pheasant and robin.
Yellowhammers at the feeding station - Photo credit: Robert Conn
Other sightings from around the reserve include a merlin seen from the beach flying over the fields, a few reports of mistle thrush in various spots and a water rail.
The weather has undoubtedly taken on a more wintery feel and after a reasonably dry and mild autumn the chillier weather is bringing more birds to the feeders at the visitor centre. over 20 tree sparrows and 10 yellowhammers are frequently seen from the comfort of the visitor centre along with dunnock, blackbird, great tit, coal tit, blue tit, chaffinch, greenfinch, robin, pied wagtail plus sightings of a sparrowhawk, wigeon and 80+ teal on the water, redshank around the muddy edges and large numbers of barnacle geese in the fields.
Blue tit - Photo credit: Robert Conn
From the hides there has been sightings of barnacle, Canada and greylag geese, lapwing, shoveler, teal, pintail, redshank, water rail, green-winged teal, peregrine and male and ringtail hen harrier.
In the strip of woodland as you approach the Meida hide there has been chiffchaff, bullfinch and woodpecker.
Flocks of greenfinch are often seen around the sand dunes and in the stubble fields there have been flocks of linnet and twite, occasionally joined by a Lapland bunting. There have also been reports of merlin, snipe and buzzard.
Other sightings include badger, fox, roe deer and brown hare.