Spring hits the Ribble Estuary

What a fantastically exciting time of year we are now at.   If I am able, on my arrival to work, I take the opportunity to wander out onto the sand dunes at the tip of Fairhaven Lake to a patch of land I have recently christened "Migration Hotspot".  For the last few weeks this small patch of land has not failed to deliver with regular sightings of stonechat and wheatear.  A much more learned colleague of mine has informed me that this little patch of land along the coast is a vital haven for these migrating birds.  

 Birds such as this stonechat pictured here undertake a short distance migration, often arriving mid March onwards from Spain.  They frequently stop off along the coast to feed tending to hug the coast as they travel.  They stay a short while to re-fuel and then continue onto their breeding grounds.   "Migration Hotspot" now has another patch within it named "Stonechat Corner".  Indeed another colleague and I walked over to "my" "Stonechat Corner" one lunchtime , whilst I held my breath after my bold claims of always seeing one there, luckily for me I was not let down, not only did we see them, we could hear them.  The sound of this bird is like no other, it really does sound as if two stones are being knocked and rubbed together, fabulous when they are in full flow.  They are the most terrific posers for photographs too.

Stonechat are the earliest arrivals, next came the wheatear.  After seeing photos and hearing tales of wheatear arrival I was very keen to spot them on the Fylde coast.  I set out one morning convinced that that morning would be the day, I left down hearted as I had failed in my mission.  Renewed again the following day, I once again set off.  Beginning to once again feel beaten and ready to call it a day, a sudden movement caught my eye.  There trotting down the dune was a wheatear, in fact two.  Since then there has been a relatively steady stream. A small area of saltmarsh appears to be providing ample food, six wheatear, consisting of four males and two females bobbing around one morning have led me to name it "Wheatear Patch".  

Wheatear migration is a staggering feat of endurance, spending the winter in Central Africa, they begin to arrive on our coast in March and April.  They re-fuel here, spending a day feeding up after their mammoth flight moving onto breeding grounds on the moors and uplands, returning to Central Africa once again in August.

The area these birds are stopping off for re-fuelling after their long treacherous journey is a very popular pathway for walkers, runners and dog walkers.  I am pleased to say that I very often see very responsible dog walkers in this area, who walk with their dog on a lead or have exceptionally well trained dogs who do not randomly run into the saltmarsh to chase any movement they may see.  This is great news for our migrating birds and our ground nesting birds alike.  Unwarranted disturbances can see birds expending energy unnecessarily, which is something they don't need after a long flight or if they are incubating eggs, such as the meadow pipits may be.

Many of our spring breeders are arriving daily, a small influx of goldcrests in the bushes alongside the lake was noted the other week, I've recently heard chiffchaff calling their own name and blackcap have also been observed. I'm waiting for the melodious sounds of willow warbler and whitethroat next. 

The other sight I saw see last week was a memorising flight of sand martins, swallows and house martins streaming over the dunes.  How lucky I felt to witness this arrival is difficult to express. 

Whilst it's true that one swallow may not make a summer, I'm hoping that the many I saw that day, signify the beginning.  Now, we just need to say goodbye to these frosty mornings and cold winds.


 Male stonechat and male wheatear by Jo

Arrivals, Departures, Residents and somewhere in-between at Marshside  

Up to four garganey have been staying over at Marshside having made the journey back from Africa. This scarce duck breeds in low numbers in the UK, with only up to 100 pairs nesting on a good year. They normally move on else where from Marshside to breed, but as they are secretive there is always a suspicion that a pair has stayed. They are about the same size as a teal, and the drakes have the most amazing eye stripe, pictured below at sandgrounders' pool. 

Garganey - Wes

Avocet have been building in number almost daily and have now just passed into treble figures. These iconic are also returning from wintering grounds in Africa. Over fifty pairs nested at Marshside last year breaking previous records. Hopefully this year will be even stronger.  

Avocet at Marshside - Wes

We have our first lapwing nests of the year! This key species has seen large declines in living memory, and is one of the key species we manage for on the wet grasslands. Their nests are trixy to find as they are well camouflaged and the parents deploy rather clever diversion tactics to keep would be predators away. To help us understand how well they are doing and fine tune our management throughout the year we have small study plots. Within these plots we keep a careful and keen eye on each nests as the progress to ascertain a productivity figure (how many chicks fledge per pair).      

Lapwing nest at Marshside  - Under licence - Alex Pigott

Black tailed godwits  are present in two distinct forms in the UK. The birds present at Marshside are limosa icelandic. This race of birds winters in the UK and migrates to Iceland to breed in the summer months. Young or out of condition birds save the energy required for the journey and can be seen at Marshide throughout the year - often starting to support their rusty breeding plumage. 

A scarcer race is also present on the Ribble, namely limosa limosa. This race is the the focus of a lot of amazing work, see this link. The breeding population is is very low, but the Ribble is lucky enough to hold up to two pairs on a regular basis. The difference between the races is superficially subtle, the limosa having a rounder head and slight plumage variation. 

Their Latin name is vey apt - limosa - , meaning mud     

Black tailed godwit (limosa icelandic) at Marshside - Wes

Redshank are another of our 'key species' at Marshside, both on the fresh and salt water sides of marine drive. These birds are present all year round, but at this time of year their plumage brightens and they separate from their flocking behaviour into pairs. These 'wardens of the marsh' let their presence and that of predators known very clearly with their distinctive alarm call. Breeding pairs of this species have declined significantly, and much of our management on the Ribble is aimed at getting the feeding and nesting conditions just right for them.    

Redshank at Marshside - Wes



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