One minute it’s cold and wet, the next it’s sunny and bright. Don’t you just love spring? The good news is that after those bitter easterlies we’ve finally had a bit of weather that has allowed a few migrants through. The past few days have seen more sand martins arriving (more about those later…), a few swallows trickling through, chiffchaffs in song all around the reserve, ospreys performing wonderfully for awestruck visitors and the first of what will presumably be many willow warblers.

Swallow: copyright Chris Gomersall rspb-images.com

Meanwhile, the great white egrets remain on site and are acquiring very flashy breeding garb (the optimists amongst us are hoping for a first nesting attempt this year), bitterns continue to boom and the marsh harriers have been nest building while continuing with their fantastic aerial dances above the reed bed.

Out on the saltmarsh, visitors to the Eric Morecambe and Allen hides have watched the steady increase in the number of avocets and black-tailed godwits. The black-headed gull breeding colony is getting well underway with dozens of the garrulous birds staking claim to a few square centimetres of prime island real estate.

Duck numbers have dwindled a little as birds take the hint and head north though we still have a good selection of species present, even if fewer in number. These include pochard, goldeneye, pintail, shoveler and gadwall. Keen eyed birders will be on the lookout for that scarce annual visitor the garganey, often found at Grisedale Pool at this time of year. These handsome dabblers are always a joy to see and as the only duck that habitually migrates to the UK in summer they have rather special appeal. Their old name of ‘cricket teal’ reputedly reflects their tendency to arrive here at this time of year, ie during the cricket season, but I’m more inclined to believe that this archaic name’s origins are more connected with the sound they make, something akin to a grasshopper or cricket.

Garganey: copyright Richard Cousens

So, back to sand martins! These dainty long-distance travellers can be extremely numerous at Leighton Moss during the spring and again in the late summer. The glut of insect food to be found over the meres is a draw for the hungry birds and on some days we can see many hundreds, if not thousands, sweeping over the water in pursuit of their invertebrate prey. The one thing we have never had here though is breeding sand martins, simply due to the lack of suitable nest sites. They do nest at nearby rivers, such as on the Lune, in good numbers but Leighton Moss lacks the steep earthen banks they require.

Hopefully this is all about to change, with the provision of marvellous new artificial sand martin nesting box. Sited in front of the Tim Jackson hide, this 48-chamber unit was erected last week (as highlighted in our last blogpost), just as the first martins started to be seen locally. Yesterday, we filled the nest holes with sand and are now sitting back waiting for nature to take its course, so to speak.

Filling the sand martin bank with sand by Jon Carter

It’s all very exciting – should the martins discover the bank and decide to nest in it this year it will provide a fabulous spectacle for visitors to the reserve as they watch the darting hirundines whizzing in and out of the nest holes throughout the summer. It will also give our trained ringers the opportunity to monitor the comings and goings of the martins in years to come.

Talking of migration, our Visitor Experience residential volunteer intern Steven has, like much of the Leighton Moss wildfowl, also headed north for the summer. Many of you will have enjoyed reading his blog posts – here he says his farewells and explains the next step in his RSPB career…     

“I would just like to say a big thank you to all the team at Leighton Moss. Following my internship full-time with the RSPB I am moving on up the map for a seasonal role at Loch Garten where I will be welcoming visitors and exciting families about the iconic ospreys that made history. If ospreys were to return anywhere then the forests and lochs at Loch Garten could not have been a better spot to choose. These amazing pine forests are where I will be spending my next six months.

I am following in the footsteps of Alice Hadley who was the Leighton Moss intern before me and went on to work as part the Osprey Team last year, proving that volunteering is a great way to improve your skills, meet new people and driving towards your goals. This is something I would encourage everyone to do.

I am looking forward to a summer spent working and exploring the amazing Caledonian pine forests of the highlands of Scotland. The heather that turns the forest purple during late summer. The moths and wood ants nests, right up to the largest of eagles in the UK are all things I have to look forward to. The Cairngorms National Park is in itself unique with more geological features than anywhere outside the arctic circle, such is the nature of the area that the tallest peaks remain snow clad even as spring progresses.

The team at Leighton Moss have been so supportive and the experience I have gained when I look back at everything I have been involved with is a wonderful achievement. I spent the last of my time at Leighton Moss watching the avocets at the Eric Morecambe and Allan hides. I may be swapping them for red squirrels, ospreys and crested tits but the avocets and all the wild inhabitants of Leighton Moss still feel as much a part of this place as the Scottish denizens do the forest. I’m sure I will be back to swap the landscape of Loch Garten and Abernethy for the wet open reed bed landscape at some point.

The main difference is of course the size but I suppose it’s just a question of scale! I could walk to Silverdale in 30 minutes or see most of Leighton Moss in a day. Abernethy is just shy of the size of Glasgow I’m told. All just a question of scale.

Leighton seems set for a great year ahead where the wildlife never stops. What will you see on your next visit? Don’t forget to visit in every season and don’t go hungry either, although I’m sure the café at Leighton wouldn’t let that happen.

Happy wildlife watching!”

I’m sure you will all join me in wishing all the best in this new exciting adventure and we will look forward to hearing of his tales north of the border!

Jon Carter, Visitor Experience Manager

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