As another year draws to a close, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on the ups and downs of life at RSPB St Aidan’s. A lot has happened over the last 12 months, but I’ll try to capture some highlights and lowlights over the following paragraphs.
We found ourselves back in lockdown at the beginning of the year, and those local visitors coming down to give their year list a good start were unfortunately unable to get a coffee or snack from the visitor centre, as it remained closed for the first three months. I felt very lucky to still be able to come to work and carry out my job with some degree of normality. Working outside every day and being able to engage in person with colleagues and volunteers was a great privilege when so many others were unable to get outside and see their friends and family.
January brought a significant flood, and the majority of our wet grassland became one big lake. As these weather events become more common, it continues to highlight the importance of flood-management schemes like St. Aidan’s. The water filling up the wetland is an important defence mechanism, preventing houses and businesses further downstream from flooding. Fortunately this year’s flood wasn’t too serious and the clean up operation on site was minimal.
Those long, dark winter months soon gave way to glimpses of spring, with snowdrops pushing through and early song thrushes and great tits starting to sing - and throughout February and March we carried out our annual willow tit surveys. Willow tits are one of our priority species in the Aire Valley, so we carry out tape-response surveys to locate and monitor their territories. They have seen a devastating decline in numbers in the UK over recent years, dropping by 94% since 1970. Between St. Aidan’s and Fairburn Ings we have held good numbers against the nationwide decline, but this year our St Aidan’s surveys only recorded one response across the whole site. Willow tits are clinging on at Fairburn, but it’s a very worrying picture here at St. Aidan’s.
The following months saw us turn more of our attention to surveying, and most days found us out across the reserve - with lots of early morning starts - building up a picture of exactly which birds were breeding where.
On the reedbeds it has been our best year ever for bitterns. We had four booming males, one of which seemed to be roaming around different areas of reed across the site. Our further monitoring identified four nest sites. When they are feeding chicks, bitterns hunt for small fish and amphibians away from their nest sites, which makes them a bit easier to survey, as we see them flying in and out of the same spot regularly. We can tell whether the nest has been successful by monitoring the number of days or weeks they continue these hunting forays.
Photo: Rosie Dutton
It was also a record year here for black-necked grebes, with a grand total of 17 pairs. The entire breeding population of the UK is usually between 40 and 50 pairs, meaning that we have something like 30-40% of the British breeding population. Not bad for an old coal mine on the outskirts of Leeds! If you’ve been here during spring and summer you will hopefully have been lucky enough to see these beautiful birds swimming within a few metres of the paths. They are often conspicuous and easy to see early in the season, but keeping a track on their nesting and breeding activities is a different matter altogether!
Other breeding success stories of 2021 include our best year ever for Cetti’s warbler - this skulking bird is hardly ever seen, but gives away its presence with a loud, explosive song which can be heard all year round amongst the wetland fringes. They only bred here for the first time in 2018 and their numbers have been steadily growing ever since. We recorded three territories in that first year and it has grown to a whopping 29 this year! We were also excited to see that pintail bred again on the wet grassland - one of only 50 or so pairs that breed annually in the UK - and snipe were confirmed breeding here for the first time, as one of the local birders saw an adult with chicks.
As well as being an excellent year for a lot of breeding species, we managed to attract a few rare visitors. In May we had a Franklin’s gull which stayed for several days. This American species, a close relative of the black-headed gull, is a rare vagrant to Europe and looked splendid in its breeding plumage. We also had a brief visit by a Caspian tern, with its huge carrot-like beak, in July - this being the second record of this species in the space of a few years. But of course our (and possibly the UK’s) rarity of the year was the mega rare long-toed stint, which brought in crowds of thousands from across the country in October.
Photos: Stephen Cribbin - Franklin's gull (left) and long-toed stint (right)
The most exciting non-avian sighting of the year was undoubtedly a water vole, spotted and photographed by a local birder in the summer. This small rodent was once commonplace across the British countryside, but has almost disappeared from many areas. They were present in the area historically, but this is the first sighting here for many years, and certainly since St. Aidan’s was created.
Photo: stock image of water vole, Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Moving into autumn, we started our winter work programme in earnest. Outside of the bird breeding season, a significant amount of our time is spent clearing willow and birch scrub from around the wetland. Trees are obviously incredibly valuable for many reasons, but in order to maintain ideal habitats for many of our wetland species, we need to keep a lot of areas tree-free! This is particularly important in the reedbeds, as too much scrub will out-compete the reeds and start to dry it out. This would be disastrous for bitterns, and all the other species that rely on a healthy, wet reedbed.
We had an exciting new bit of machinery on site this autumn - the RSPB’s own spoil spreader, which is designed to refresh ditches and wet features on wet grasslands. This helps to keep the habitat in tip top condition for breeding waders like lapwing and redshank, providing lots of shallow water and muddy edges for adults and chicks to feed.
Photo: Andrew Tiffany
We also had a digger on site to do a bit of habitat improvement on the spit of land on the main lake near Caroline Bridge. Now this might look like a muddy mess, but it’s actually a carefully crafted series of pools and channels which will flood over the winter and provide nice exposed mud throughout the year. It has already provided a good ‘loafing’ location for a series of gulls, waders and wildfowl.
Photo: John Ingham
The end of the year has, however, brought great sadness. We tragically lost our dear colleague Martin Wright very suddenly in November after he was diagnosed with cancer. Martin worked in the visitor centre for four years, and volunteered at RSPB Old Moor before that. He loved St. Aidan’s and was really proud to represent the RSPB. His passion for nature, and his desire to inspire others, was clear to all who met him. His untimely passing has left a massive hole in the RSPB Aire Valley family and we all miss him greatly.
Photo: Gavin Orr
So on behalf of the whole team I’d like to wish you all a very merry Christmas. I hope you’re able to spend time with your loved ones, and cherish the natural world wherever you are.
Warden, RSPB St Aidan's
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