RSPB Mersehead Recent Sightings 25th July – 31st July 2020

In a very changeable week we faced all kinds of weather, with sunshine, rain and breezy episodes.  So, one thing that has been experienced by returning visitors is the elements.  On Monday, the reserve had to be closed with the access road getting flooded (up to 65cm at its deepest).  The run-off that followed from surrounding hills saw to the reserve remaining closed on Tuesday morning but the day did improve, enabling repairs to be made to way-markers on the Coastal Trail.  Despite cooler winds, it was pleasant to walk along the shore, under fluffy clouds, with the breeze creating snake-like movements of loose, shifting sands over the flats.

High water levels on access road and on the wetlands. Photo credit: Calum Murray

Cumulus or cauliflower clouds over the Solway. Photo credit: Calum Murray

Sunshine brought out many macro-invertebrates, especially bees and butterflies.  A stroll along the trails is a great way to discover these on the brambles and grassy verges, with plenty of meadow browns and red admirals around, as well as the odd peacock butterfly.  Later in the week, many green-veined white butterflies also frequented the verges.  These are the second brood this year (the first having emerged back in late April or May).  Flower borders at the car park and visitor centre have been visited by many small tortoiseshell butterflies too.

Green-veined white, small tortoiseshells, red admiral and meadow brown butterflies. Photo credit: Calum Murray

If you take time to observe the insects that land on flowerheads, its easy to see just how diverse and wonderful the pollinators can be.  Hoverflies and beetles are often overlooked and yet are extremely varied and just as important as our bees, butterflies and moths.  Some of the more striking specimens include the colourful hoverfly, Helophilus pendulus also known as the sun fly (as it often is seen basking in sunshine). Syrphids (hoverflies) are popular with gardeners, as many of their larvae often prey on aphids, though larvae of this particular species are aquatic (found in ditches and muddy waters, rather than on garden plants).  One of the beetles found here in abundance is the common red soldier beetle.  They’re often seen on flowers of hogweeds and other umbellifers, so worth looking for as you pass them by on the trails.  One of my favourites, these small but obvious, slender, red-orange beetles have black tips to their wing cases, as though their rears were dipped in black paint.

Helophilus pendulus, the sun fly (a hoverfly) and common red soldier beetle feeding. Photo credit: Calum Murray

After hearing a territorial yellowhammer sing for weeks, I managed to see one sitting high in a hawthorn, close to the holiday cottages.  Other farmland birds can be seen if not heard as much, as they now concentrate on raising young and preparing for times ahead.  Hedgerows are good places to look for activity, as farmland birds perch between stints of foraging in nearby fields.  One tree sparrow has visited the feeding table at our visitor centre, as we’ve returned to feeding these birds in the garden.  Unfortunately, the visitor centre (including toilets) remains closed but you still have a chance of seeing these birds along the trails, so have a good look along and in hedges, as you wander around.

Yellowhammer and tree sparrow. Photo credit: Calum Murray

Our viewing hides on the Wetland Trail also remain closed but there are a few corners of the reserve where you can still see the wetland wildlife.  The saltmarsh (merse), mentioned last week, is scattered with channels and the meandering Southwick Water.  From the reserve access road and Rainbow Lane, you may have a chance of seeing mallards or one of two grey herons that stalk the channels.

Grey heron in flight and mallard paddling. Photo credit: Calum Murray

Walking back to my car during the flood, I spotted a kestrel quartering over the grass-clad merse.  These dainty falcons have incredible eyesight, seeking out small rodents or birds and even insects.  At 30 metres, they can spot moving beetles no more than 2mm long!  This is achieved by the falcon’s ability to hover overhead, to pinpoint the smallest of movements.  They are also able to see light in the ultra-violet spectrum, enabling them to locate urine trails of small rodents (which glow in UV radiation).  If you are lucky, you may see a kestrel stoop down to catch short-tailed field voles in the grass.

Swallows have been busy feasting over the fields too, darting for flies as they emerge from grasses.  Look for them beyond the car park hedgerow or over fields and merse, as you approach the coast.  While walking along the sandy shore, I noticed several appearing as though they were surfing on the wind, lapping over the dunes.

Swallow catching flies over the field. Photo credit: Calum Murray

With more visitors now coming to the reserve, it’s worth noting that many facilities are not yet open.  As already mentioned, the visitor centre, toilets and viewing hides are still closed, as is the Sulwath Garden and children's play area.  This is to ensure social distancing measures are followed but we are hoping to open the toilets in due course.  For updated information about the re-opening of RSPB reserves and facilities, please go to Reserve Reboot.

We hope you all continue to stay safe and well and look forward to seeing you back at Mersehead soon.

Calum Murray, Assistant Warden