February, 2014

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

  • Thank you Fairburn Ings!

    I’m starting today’s sightings blog on a little bit of a sad note, as it’s my last day here at Fairburn. So I’d just like to say a massive thank you to everyone who reads the blog, as well as to the entire Fairburn team for making my stay here so brilliant – I’ve loved every moment.

    I was lucky enough this morning to see our new live nest box camera feed switched on in the visitor centre, and we were treated to a close-up glimpse of two tree sparrows in the midst of their nest building! Despite a tough few decades, which have seen massive declines in the UK population of these charismatic little birds, thankfully they now appear to be making a slow but sure comeback.


    Tree sparrow image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)


    Spring is most definitely in the air, not just because of these busy nest builders, but also because the reserve is alive with birdsong. I can hear the great tits twittering noisily in the sunshine, and the territorial drumming of the greater spotted woodpeckers reverberates through the air. Secretive water rails have been emitting their pig-like squeals around the boardwalks and reedbeds recently, not to mention the promising amount of booming that’s been heard from our male bitterns. Fingers crossed that this will be their first successful breeding year at Fairburn!

    There was a barn owl seen over by Hickson’s flash on Wednesday – these beautiful owls have got to be one of the nation’s favourite and most recognisable birds, and no wonder! Their distinctive heart-shaped faces, large eyes and delicately speckled pale plumage make them perfectly adapted for quartering fields for prey at dusk, gliding as silently as ghosts over the grass.


    Barn owl image by John Bridges (rspb-images.com)


    The ever-present but always lovely Kingfishers have been making plentiful appearances over the past week, and our ranger Jane has just seen three on one branch down at Charlie’s hide! The kingfishers have definitely been one of my favourite things about Fairburn – no matter how many times you see these beautiful birds, it’s always an exciting experience you immediately want to share.


    Kingfisher image by John Bridges (rspb-images.com)


    We’ve just had a stoat spotted at Bob Dicken's Hide as well, carrying a freshly killed rabbit! Although for the more squeamish amongst us such a sight can be a little startling, it’s quite a privilege to be able to get a glimpse into the rarely seen world of predator and prey. These amazing little mammals are fierce predators, and can be distinguished from weasels by their larger size and black-tipped tail.

    If you’re planning a visit to Fairburn, don’t forget to come in and say hello, and pop your wildlife sightings in the book. The place is already teeming with life, and it’s set to be a very exciting year for this amazing reserve. I’m already looking forward to coming back for a visit in a few months time to see how the place has changed – bye for now!

  • Siskins, Skylarks and Spring!

    We had loads of great sightings last week over half term, along with some much-needed sunshine!  The feeders around the visitor centre are seeing plenty of action as ever, with relatively rarely-seen birds such as lesser redpolls, willow tits and siskins dropping by for a spot of lunch, along with our ever-present tits, finches and tree sparrows. 

    Lesser redpolls are easiest to see in winter after the trees have lost their leaves.  These are tiny little finches which tend to stick together in small flocks over winter, and they can often be seen in gardens on feeders.  You'd be forgiven for thinking they were a bit boring-looking if you saw one at a distance, as they appear rather dull and brown.  See them a little closer however, and you can't fail to be charmed; their soft, streaky plumage is a subtle blend of browns from dark chocolate through to rich russet, and a surprising splash of colour from their crimson red crowns make the lesser redpoll a very attractive little bird. 

    One bird which I managed to get a proper look at for the first time at the weekend is the siskin - and it was well worth the wait!  The handsome male I saw on the feeders was eye catching to say the least, his plumage a stunning sunshine-yellow streaked with bold black and greenish-yellow patches, topped off with an inky black cap.  These are agile little finches, slightly smaller than green finches, and are known for their acrobatic habit of dangling upside-down from tree branches to get at the seeds. 

    Siskin artwork by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

    A bird which seems to be thriving on the reserve at the moment is the skylark, with several seen over on the grassland near big hole this week.  Like the lesser redpoll, these birds can appear to be a little dull and boring at first sight,  but nothing could be further from the truth!  These streaky brown birds, which are slightly smaller than starlings, are renowned for their dramatic vertical display flights, as well as having one of the most distinctive and charming songs of any songbird. 

    Skylark image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Their lively and bubbling trill of a song is recognised by many as a true sign of spring, as skylarks are one of the earliest songbirds to breed in the year.   Sadly, these beautiful harbingers of spring have suffered dramatic declines in recent years, thought to be due to changes in farming practice throughout the open countryside habitat where they breed.  The RSPB are working to understand the causes of these declines through projects including  our nature-friendly Hope Farm, so that we can work to reverse them.

    Let us know what you've seen whilst you're out and about on the reserve by recording your sightings in the visitor centre sightings book!

  • Booming Brilliant!

    We've started monitoring for booming Bitterns this week ahead of the coming breeding season, and lo and behold, we've had some fantastic sightings!  These highly secretive and shy birds are notoriously difficult to spot, but visitors have been getting great views of one from the roadside on Phalarope pool - we've even got a great photo to share which was taken by one of our wonderful visitors just yesterday!


    Bittern image by Paul Green

    If you've never had the experience of hearing their amazingly loud (and slightly eerie) 'booms', it sounds a lot like someone blowing over an empty bottle - the booming males are what we're listening for at the moment, as this means they are trying to attract mates.  Booming has been heard a number of times over the past few days, as the sound is able to carry an incredible distance through the air - if you hear or see any bitterns whilst you're out on the reserve, please let us know!  These rare birds have never been known to breed on the reserve before, so it would be an incredible event if we have even one breeding pair this year, and at the moment, the signs are looking good! 

    Bitterns aren't the only great sighting we've had over on the flashes either - a Peregrine falcon was spotted yesterday, perched on a nearby pylon.  These large and powerful falcons are renowned for their speed, reaching an incredible 200mph or more in their characteristic hunting dives.  Although they are naturally a cliff nesting species, they have been making use of tall buildings in many towns and cities in recent decades, where there are plenty of feral pigeons to predate. 


    Peregrine falcon image by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)


    Their beautiful smoky blue-gray plumage, white and speckled underparts and bold black 'moustache' marks make them very distinctive.  In flight they can be distinguished by their relatively long, broad and pointed wings, and if you're lucky enough to see one chasing prey, you'll be able to appreciate just how amazingly swift and agile they are in the air.

    Another unusual sighting comes in the form of a water pipit - if you, like me, wouldn't know a water pipit if you saw one, you'd be forgiven as they aren't a resident species in the UK.  They are winter visitors, mainly to Southern and Eastern England, from the mountains of central and southern Europe where they breed.  The water pipit is a fairly indistinct little bird, with muddy greyish-brown upperparts and a pale, streaky underside.  They also have a distinctive pale stripe over their eyes, delicate thin beaks, and dark legs.  Despite their nondescript and unassuming looks, it's quite a priveledge to see one, as we get just under 200 over-wintering birds per year in the UK. 


    Water pipit artwork by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

    We seem to have had an influx of smews in the past week, with as many as four being seen at a time!  They have been spotted over on the flashes, as well as at the other end of the reserve from Village Bay viewpoint and Charlie's hide.  Keep an eye out on the water close to the edges of the islands, as these handsome diving ducks like to be near cover. 

    Remember to come and write your wildlife sightings in the book after a walk round the reserve - now that spring's on it's way, we're bound to be seeing a lot more wildlife action!