Late summer is always a brilliant time for wader watching. Whether you're on the coast or an inland reservoir there's always something going on, as post-breeding birds funnel down through the UK in search of suitable feeding and roosting sites as they head southward. Of course as numbers of commoner species such as dunlin, curlew, black-tailed godwit and redshank build up there's always the chance that you'll come across something a little more unusual. Many of us will be happy enough with something along the lines of a ruff, wood sandpiper or little stint (pic by Mike Malpass) gracing our local patch but of course there's always the hope that something out of the ordinary may just turn up. Rarity hunters will spend hours scanning through flocks of waders in search of a subtle oddity and most years our region will host some far-flung scarcity for birdwatchers to enjoy.
Here at Leighton Moss we have been blessed with a number of rare waders over the years including white-rumped sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, marsh sandpiper, Wilson's phalarope and that mega rarity white-tailed lapwing, among others. So, it's well worth taking one's time when sat in the Eric Morecambe and Allen hides in particular, as these brackish pools attract the greatest number of waders. Wader identification can prove notoriously tricky for even the most experienced of birders so if you do spot something that looks odd, try and take a photo and share it with us - you never know what you might discover!
If you'd like to learn more about waders and how to tell them apart why not join our What's That Wader event on August 28. Numbers are strictly limited and pre-booking is essential. For full details click here.
At Leighton Moss we just love to hear from our visitors and we really enjoy finding out what made their time on the reserve special. Here, we hear from Sara who recently paid us a visit all the way from Sussex. She also shares with us some of her fantastic photos!
“It's been around 18 months since I first visited RSPB Leighton Moss; on a drizzly Autumn day when a thick sea mist clung to Morecambe Bay. The coastal birds were barely visible on my train ride in across the saltmarsh.
I haven't been able to travel up from Sussex again since, due to Covid restrictions. So finally being able to see the sprawling mudflats, wandering waders and wide open spaces as my train approached Silverdale, took my breath away before I'd even set foot on the reserve.
Visiting at the end of spring was a sharp contrast to the chilly autumnal reedbed I'd experienced last time I was here. Redwings were replaced by bright red bullfinches, jays that I'd just heard before became far more visible, as youngsters harassed parents for food. The air outside the visitor centre was filled with begging baby bird calls, bees and butterflies.
After a long overdue and emotional reunion with friends in the courtyard, we decided to do the shorter walk up the Skytower and around the family trail before lunch.
If you've never been up the Leighton Moss Skytower, it really is worth the climb, as the views across the reserve and out over Morecambe Bay are simply stunning. You're often higher than the quartering marsh harriers and if you're lucky you can spot flocks of godwits, lapwing and ducks as they fly around in alarm when these large raptors float by. I rarely get to see godwits in summer plumage where I live in Sussex; so even though they were distant, they were lovely to see! Recently, there have been regular reports of osprey too, although we didn't stop long at the top today, as we were keen to ensure everyone could take a turn while social distancing.
It can be tempting to keep your eyes on the sky at all times while birdwatching but as I scanned the reedbed around the bottom of the stairway, a tiny glint of green caught my eye. It was too late in the season to enjoy green hairstreaks in full glory but clinging to a reed was the broken wing of one of these fleeting spring beauties, allowing me and my friends to take a really detailed look at the remnants of a butterfly that's almost always on the move.
There were some other interesting insects to be found round the edges of the path too. We stopped to watch a ichneumon, or parasitic, wasp resting on the reeds. Conical snails and small bright beetles clung to the leaves like jewels and dragonflies darted purposefully across the path, making it impossible to focus my camera on them.
The first hide we visited has some much more obliging models, the squeaks of young reed warblers quickly caught my attention and looking sideways from the right hide window, I was able to get rare views of the just fledged chicks begging for food (see photo below).
The Grisedale hide was even more exciting, marsh harriers flew in close and low, scanning for easy targets, while the chocolate brown youngsters dipped in and out of sight near a nest site on the far bank. A great white egret put in a very brief appearance, as if checking it's plumage in the mirror-like waters, before deciding it was still regal enough not to need to wash.
My stomach rumbles, after skipping breakfast to get an early start on the day, were starting to get distracting though. So we retreated back to the RSPB cafe for hot, locally-sourced pies and homemade cake; which we then ate outside with the marsh tits, treecreepers, Cetti's warblers and some very friendly ducklings for company.
The afternoon walk down the causeway was lined with meadowsweet, forget-me-nots, bright tufted vetch and common spotted orchids. Bearded tits pinged away either side of the trail and if you listened very quietly (and are lucky enough to have the range to hear them) shrews squeaked noisily, staking out territories along the edges of the path. I don't know if it's possible to tell shrews apart by their call but I'd love to think I was listening to the secretive water shrews that call the reserve home.
The lower hide is closed at present so our final stop was the causeway hide where dozens of swifts and mixed hirundines (swallows, house and sand martins) swept low over the water picking off the hordes of insects gathering there. An imposing young great black-backed gull chick dominated the island, as if to highlight how rare it is to have them breed in this part of the country. Coots and black-headed gulls gathered around the water, calling angrily when they came to close to each other and a heron sat sedately watching at the back of the pools. Sadly, the bitterns eluded us today but I think we were just unlucky, as almost everyone we spoke to had seen one moments before!
The final wow moment of the day was a marsh harrier food pass. High over the causeway, dad dropped whatever he'd caught into mum's outstretched talons in an impressive aerial display, which she then carried effortlessly off and out of sight.
Today's trip was as much about catching up with locally based friends after lockdown as it was birding. Nature reserves are a great place to socialise safely while enjoying the wildlife that thrives there. A huge amount of the vital conservation work at sites like this is undertaken by staff and volunteers who are often older and potentially more vulnerable to Covid though, so I'll still be taking personal precautions like wearing face coverings in indoor spaces when restrictions end, to help keep these amazing nature guardians and other visitors safe.
While the wildlife is usually the highlight of my reserve visits, it was great to stop and chat to some of the volunteers my friends knew, who contribute to breeding bittern monitoring, habitat creation and dry stone walling on the reserve. If you're interested in getting more involved in practical conservation, but are not sure where to start, I'd highly recommend asking your local reserve about volunteering opportunities.
If I lived closer to RSPB Leighton Moss, I'd love to watch for breeding bittern’s feeding flights or learn how to dry stone wall with the passionate volunteers who are helping keep this traditional Lancashire craft alive!”
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