November, 2017

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's
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Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

  • St Aidan's Sightings - 16th November

    You may have heard or seen on our social media pages - we had quite a surprise visitor over the weekend! Rob Hunton (Swillington Ings Bird Group) spotted a Dartford warbler on the hillside on Saturday morning. I had to have stroll up and catch a glimpse - I spent hours over summer scanning every gorse bush in Dunwich Heath but without any luck!

    - Why are they so exciting? Well, Dartford warblers' numbers crashed to about 10 pairs in the 60s, and since then it has recovered in the UK to about 3200 pairs. These birds however very rarely come up north - they are resident on the very south coast and the east (Norfolk & Suffolk). Only 6 have ever been sighted in Yorkshire - and 2 at St Aidan's. The last one in 2005 stayed for quite a while I hear!

    They are striking in appearance, red and grey colours with a bright red ring around the eye and tell-tale crest. It will perch on top of a gorse stem to sing, but is often seen as a small flying shape bobbing between bushes.

    Dartford warbler, St Aidan's (Rob Hunton)

    A little bigger (but not much!) we've had water pipits around Lemonroyd lake - (a winter visitor, mainly to southern and eastern England)

    Bigger than that - Andrew our assistant warden spotted a jack snipe from the digger yesterday! These are smaller than common snipe and It will fly low and rapidly drop down again, unlike snipe which zig-zags and then flies off high.

    Jack snipe, J Lethbridge (

    Veering off the size order and on to the waders, we've seen golden plover in the last few days reach up to about 20, lapwings and dunlin on Astley Lake along with redshank, and snipe on the ridge and furrow (but the waders can be anywhere!)

    In terms of birds of prey, we've had daily kestrels hovering over the centre, joined by a sparrowhawk on Monday too! Maybe it's heard the news we'll be getting feeders in January... Marsh harriers a plenty around the Ridge and Furrow, and a peregrine exploring Astley Lake on the far side of the park.

    Sparrowhawk - Mick Noble - Swillington Ings Bird Group (


    Jumping straight up to the biggest, we've had 9 whooper swans flying over and a great white egret has been spotted over the weekend on the Ridge and Furrow - but these have been known to swap and chance between Fairburn & St Aidan's!

    Great white egret, Dave Hunter - Swillington Ings Bird Group (


    For more in depth info pop in to the visitor centre on your next visit :)

  • What have we been up to at St. Aidan's?

    It has been a busy summer and it looks set be an even busier winter for the warden team at St Aidan’s nature park. With just under 1000 acres of habitat and 12 kilometres of paths to maintain the work never stops!

    So what has happened this summer?

    With a big reserve like St Aidan’s comes a lot of habitat management and maintenance of paths and utilities. This means a lot of tools and equipment which need a space to live. Although our visitor centre is the perfect size for the public and visitor team, there is no spare space for the wardens clobber. To solve this space problem two workshops were installed near the car park. The spacious shipping containers were hoisted in to place and have since been hooked up to mains electric and water to create a lovely area for the warden’s tools to live and a nice space for volunteers to relax and take a break.

    Straight off the back of a lorry! Watch your toes...

    Over the summer we employed an external fencing contractor to fence off some of the hay meadows on the hillside. By creating these contained fields it gives us the opportunity to bring cattle on to the reserve. Cattle grazing helps to keep the grass level lows to allow other wildflowers and more vulnerable plants to grow. The more wildflowers, the better chance of seeing lovely invertebrates such as bees, butterflies and dragonflies! Cows rip the grass with their tongues too which creates lots of different heights.

    Herding the cows to the hillside for grazing!

    Our amazing volunteers and wardens have also been busy putting in the first phase of new benches round the site. We started with 10 new benches across the site. These have replaced some old/ vandalised benches as well as erecting some in new spots around the site.

    At the end of the summer, with the help of Swillington Ings farm, we cut and baled up hay from the hay meadows on the reserve. By cutting the fields it stops the grass becoming rank and starts a clean slate for the following year. The hay is also a great use for feeding local livestock.


    So what is going on this winter?

    A big project for the reserve this winter is installing a new predator fence that will surround the ridge and furrow area. A predator fence helps protect the nesting birds from predation from ground predators such as foxes. Installing a predator fence around an important breeding bird habitat is a method that has been used by many other nature reserves with high chick success rates.

    Whilst also installing the predator fence, we have taken the opportunity to do some work on the Bowers Bimble path. The path will be raised to allow the Ridge and Furrow to be flooded more regularly. The flooding, along with the established channels, will generate a mosaic of wet and dry grassland that creates a perfect breeding habitat for important breeding birds. With the combination of a predator fence and a better condition of habitat we hope next summer there will be a rise in the numbers of chicks fledging – fingers crossed!

    The first step in the project was to drain the ditch surrounding the ridge and furrow with an extremely powerful pump. With thanks to our fellow northern RSPB site Old Moor for lending the pump, we managed to get the water drained in a couple of days.

    Once empty, any plant debris and spoil was scraped from the ditch with a digger and transported to Bowers Bimble by dumper to help with heightening the path. The spoil formed has been piled on to the current path with plans to have it flattened and leveled later in the winter.

    Warden John measuring levels of the Bowers Bimble path


    So what should you keep an eye out for?


    The installation of the predator fence has begun, so over the next few weeks you will begin to see the fence placed in the ditch. Once complete and predator proof the water will be allowed to flow back into the ditch. By having both the fence and water as a barrier it deters the main predators to wader chicks; foxes. Foxes struggle to swim and jump at the same time therefore deterring them from the nesting sites.


    We do love foxes! They have plenty of other prey on site. Image: Ben Andrew (


    In the process of moving spoil and clearing the ditch, new scrapes and wetter patches have been formed around the edge of the Ridge and Furrow. These areas will be perpendicular to the paths - so great habitat for feeding waders and hopefully will allow you to get clearer views from both the Reedbed Ramble and Bowers Bimble.


    Thanks to our warden team, John and Andy for their hard work as well as their lovely reserve assistants who have given them a helping hand with all these projects.

    If you want to help the warden team with their work they have two days each week where you can lend a helping hand by volunteering with the RSPB. Two teams of volunteers meet on both Wednesdays and Thursdays.

    If you are interested all you have to do is send an enquiry to Danielle Meyer by phoning her on 01977 628190 or emailing

  • Fairburn Sightings - 10th Nov

    A quick guide to what’s about at Fairburn Ings this week! A very diverse bunch but well worth exploring the coal tips and flashes. What better on a sunny and crisp autumn day?


    The Flashes

    Whooper swans started the week on a high of 8 individuals which have lessened a little down to 5 on New Flash. They’ve been joined by my favourite – 12 curlews. The RSPB’s Curlew Recovery Programme is a great read for those interested!

    Curlew - Andy Hay (

    Marsh harriers have been doing their daily rounds – we’re now up to one adult male and 2 juveniles at present. You might get some good views up on the Coal Tips trail too!

    We’re still getting daily reports of about 12 pintail on the moat. The drakes look lovely, with their rich chocolate heads and extravagant tail.

    Male and female pintail, Ben Hall (

    And last but definitely not least – yesterday a well trained eye spotted a great white egret from the Coal Tips.


    Image: Joe Seymour


    Pink footed geese reached a high of 600 birds on the 4th and 6th, forming huge skeins in the sky.

    Thrushes coming through: fieldfare and redwing in numbers up to 500

    and an unlikely wonder, 1200 wood pigeons spied flying southerly on the 8th: their migration in full swing!


    Coal Tips

    Bearded tits are a little trickier than September but they’re still being sighted! 3 there on the 5th. Seeing as 'good things come in 3s', we’ve had up to 3 peregrines daily. Look on the pylons for your best chance!

    Also, you may have heard... starling murmerations are forming up on the Coal Tips. They’re a spectacular sight – worth walking up late afternoon for seeing them (around 3pm.) We’re estimating 15,000-20,000 birds so far!


    Murmeration at Fairburn Ings - James Hardisty


    Big Hole

    Remember the blog on the rafts the wardens have been putting in? We’ve had a snipe roosting on the one in Big Hole this week! He’s been spotted daily. They’re masters of camouflage so be patient!


    Discovery trail, feeders and kingfisher screen

    A tearaway ring necked parakeet made an appearance early in the week. This species has colonised southern England and are pretty common in London and certain parts of other cities. We had one on our feeding station on Monday – trust us – if you see it you won’t miss it!

    Parakeet on the feeders at Fairburn - Darren Starkey

    Even if you only reach the kingfisher screen this week, it’s worth waiting around and keeping your eyes peeled. One lucky visitor saw kingfisher, little grebe and buzzards all at the same time this morning. The kingfishers are still easy to see (every day for over a fortnight!)


    Keep an eye out too for upcoming dusk walks at Fairburn Ings, tickets will be available at the end of November! The best way to see starling murmerations, hopefully owls, and learn a little about what happens as the night draws in.