December, 2013

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's
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Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

  • The last sightings blog of the year!!!

    It’s been a great year for sightings at Fairburn Ings, so as well as what’s been seen over the past few days, I though we should revisit some of the year’s wildlife highlights.

    Although I only got here in September, it’s a pretty difficult task to try and pick out my favourite wildlife moments – I've seen so many incredible things whilst I’ve been here, it’s hard to choose! One of the best experiences though was arriving in a fairly warm September to be greeted by such a dazzling array of butterflies and dragonflies, which filled the air around the reserve with their jewel bright colours.

    There were a lot of speckled wood butterflies around – these beautiful smoky brown and cream butterflies are best seen in dappled sunlight within a woodland, where, as their name suggests, they are often found. The stand-out dragonflies for me were the migrant hawkers and ruddy darters – dragonflies are incredible creatures, capable of performing amazing acrobatic feats with their four wings, which are all controlled independently!


    Speckled wood and ruddy darter

    Continuing with the invertebrate theme, I got to grips with my fears and photographed a lot of really beautiful spiders – all I had to do was get a bit closer to appreciate their delicate beauty!

    European garden spider

    We had some fantastic moths in our trap during the autumn, including the appropriately named autumnal rustic, angle shades and frosted orange, to name but a few. Always underappreciated, but every bit as beautiful and remarkable as butterflies (dare I say more so), moths are one of my favourite creatures.


    Autumnal Rustic and Angle Shades

    There was some truly fantastic fungus around in the autumn, not least the larger than life fly agaric. This iconic fungus of legend and storybooks was a sight to behold, with its ruby red fruit encrusted with cream coloured scales.

    Fly Agaric fungi

    It’s been a great year in the mammal stakes too, with an otter sighted near Bob Dickens hide. These wonderful creatures have made a fantastic comeback along with the increasing health of our rivers in the UK, so it was great to have one spotted on the reserve. Despite a 2012 full of floods and devastation, we also discovered evidence of harvest mice this autumn. Their tiny grass-woven nests are wonderful to behold, and it’s incredible that these tiny mammals were able to hold on and survive to breed again after a washout seven floods on the reserve last year.

    Harvest mouse nests

    Although I wasn’t around to hear it at the time, the spring of 2013 held the delight of two booming male bitterns on the reserve. Although it’s not thought that they bred at Fairburn this year, these birds, along with those at nearby St. Aidan’s who are thought to have nested, make up a significant proportion of the Bittern population in the UK! It’s great to think that the Aire Valley may one day be a stronghold for one of the UK’s once most vulnerable breeding birds.

    I was lucky enough to be here when two fantastic birds made October begin with a bang – the great white egret and red-necked phalarope drew great crowds to the reserve, and no wonder. The great egret doesn’t breed in the UK, but individuals turn up at random all over the UK year-round. It was a stunning bird, bigger than a heron, with pure white plumage that made it a sight to behold in the air. Relatively few people ever get to see red-necked phalaropes either, as these tiny little waders are extremely rare, only breeding in the far northern and north-western isles of Scotland.

    Back to the present, and we’ve had a couple of rather special sightings over the past few days. There was a merlin spotted on Friday – these tiny falcons are quite similar in shape and colour to sparrowhawks, although much smaller, as our smallest UK bird of prey. They are present in low numbers all over the country, although in winter the population increases as Icelandic birds migrate over to enjoy our warmer climate.

    Merlin artwork by Mike Langman (

    Another unusual visitor was a juvenile Iceland gull yesterday. These birds breed in the Arctic, so are occasional winter visitors to the UK, where they will usually be seen on their own. These birds have very pale plumage and white wing tips, and are sometimes referred to as the ‘white-winged’ gull.

    That wraps it up for this year, so a happy new year to you all from all the staff and volunteers at Fairburn Ings! We look forward to seeing you in the new year, which we hope will be just as brilliant as this one for the wildlife on the reserve.

  • No rest for Fairburn's wildlife

    We might have been taking it easy over this festive period, but our wildlife certainly hasn’t. The sightings book has been as full as ever over the past few days, so here’s the festive sightings blog.

    Last Sunday there was a weasel spotted on the boardwalk near the visitor centre!   These tiny little carnivores are on average only about the length of a 15cm ruler, but despite their small size they are very fierce hunters, capable of killing prey 5-10 times their own weight. They don’t dig their own burrows, instead nest in the abandoned burrows of other species, like moles and rats.

    Also on Sunday, we had an unusual sighting of a pair of reed buntings in the wildlife garden. These little birds are sparrow-sized, and are typically found in farmland and wetland vegetation. In the winter, however, they frequent people’s gardens in search of seeds, which means they were probably fuelling up in the chilly weather. The males are quite distinctive, as they have a rather dramatic coal-black head, with a white collar and drooping moustache.


    Reed bunting image by MIke Richards (


    We’re still seeing lots of lovely tits and finches on our feeders and our Christmas tree full of treats outside the visitor centre. At this time of year, it’s extra important to give those garden birds a good supply of food to sustain them in the cold weather. Another essential that lots of us often forget is to supply some fresh, unfrozen water. This is hard to come by for wildlife in the winter months, but all kinds of wildlife need it, so this is a simple and easy way to make your garden that much more nature-friendly.


    Goldfinches image by John Bridges (


    We’re still getting plenty of reports of wintering wildfowl seen across the reserve, so if you fancy spotting bold and striking goldeneyes, beautiful and elegant pintails, or sleek and stunning goosanders, Fairburn is the place to be this winter!  Our shiny new information panels have recently gone up in the hides too to give give you some extra help with wildlife identification - we're getting some great feedback, so come and see them for yourselves!


    Pintail image by Ben Hall (

  • Recent sightings: a survey to remember!

    It’s been a lovely few days on the reserve – despite the chilly weather, there’s been plenty of fresh winter sunshine and lots of fantastic sightings! On Sunday I was lucky enough to be able to tag along on the Wetland Bird Survey, which is a monthly count of wetland birds including waders and waterfowl run by the British Trust for Ornithology. The survey aims to monitor population sizes of non-breeding birds to identify trends in their numbers and distribution, and to identify important sites for waterbirds.

    The patch we surveyed covered part of the flashes. I was responsible for counting the more easily identifiable birds like mute swans, cormorants and coots, whereas Richard, my experienced tutor for the morning, recorded numbers of gulls, ducks, and everything in between. I was excited to see my first pair of pintails from Lin Dike hide – although I’ve seen pictures, and we’ve been getting lots of visitor sightings of these birds in the past few weeks, I still hadn’t managed to spot one until Sunday. The males especially are really beautiful birds, with bold white stripes down the sides of their chestnut brown heads, and a delicate tapering tail. We also got a glimpse of a sparrowhawk over Spoonbill flash, soaring overhead in search of prey.


    Male pintail image by Ben Hall (


    Also of note were the groups of shoveler ducks, goldeneyes and shelducks. Shovelers are very distinctive birds, with huge spatula-like beaks for which they’re named. You can always tell a shoveler, even from far away, because they sit low in the water, heads weighed down by their giant bills! Seen closer up, they are actually very beautiful – males have dark glossy green heads and white bodies with chestnut brown flanks – just lovely!   I sometimes mistake shelducks for shovelers from a distance as they have very similar colours – a lovely chestnut brown band intersecting a white breast, and a dark head. Shelducks are comparatively larger than mallards, but smaller than geese – you can find them mainly in coastal areas.


    Shoveler image by Andy Hay (


    Shelduck image by Chris Gomersall (


    One thing we didn’t manage to see was a smew, although a visitor in Lin Dike Hide reported a female earlier that morning.   I’ve personally never seen a smew either, although they are apparently one of our most attractive and distinctive diving ducks. If the sighting was accurate, then this will be the first smew seen for this winter – they come over in small numbers from Scandinavia and Russia, and also sometimes move over from Holland and Denmark to escape the freezing weather. The male is a striking bright, snowy white, with bold black eye patches and head crest. The females are slightly less flashy, although no less lovely, with ruddy red heads, white throat patches and smoky grey backs. Apparently it’s best to keep an eye out for them on main bay, where there’s lots of shelter around the edges - I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled!

    Smew artwork by Mike Langman (