I retired from teaching in December 2009 after a career that spanned 34 years. However I had a cunning plan…. Catch up on jobs, pick up old hobbies, catch up with friends, have a project, enjoy days out, volunteer and learn something new (photography!). The plan to volunteer led me to Fairburn Ings for a chat and before I knew it I was signed up and in uniform! I love it, and have now been volunteering for 7 years in the Aire Valley. Working with such a young and enthusiastic and positive team keeps me young at heart. Meeting the visitors in the visitor centre has proved really interesting and I have made many new friends as a result. I especially love my days as a ranger when I can lead a guided walk talking about Fairburn and showing off the fascinating nature that can be found during all seasons.
Today my husband Bob and I got here by 6am to start a day of breeding bird surveys. This takes place from April to August when we record evidence of the birds breeding. We had been learning our bird song to aid us, and were amazed that just two weeks on from our last walk so many chicks had fledged and were flitting around the reserve.
Around the bird boxes and the paths near the visitor centre were dozens of baby tree sparrows chirping happily away and chasing after weary parents yelling ‘feed me!’ with fluttering wings and gapes wide open. Further along, we heard the beautiful sound of a dunnock calling to its mate, then nearby perched on top of a hedge was a handsome whitethroat, its eye ring clear to see.
Common whitethroat, Ginny Sibley
In another thicket we saw a male blackcap trilling a lovely warble from the top of a branch, chiffchaffs calling to one another, a green woodpecker mocking us for failing to spot him, blackbirds gathering grubs for their hungry young and a willow warbler whispering the gossip of the bush.
Male blackcap, Ginny Sibley
We continued on our way a journey that lasted three hours of sheer delight. We watched a willow tit preening itself after a long session of feeding young as a song thrush serenaded us on our journey.Song thrush, Ginny Sibley
Willow tit, Ginny SibleyA flash of iridescent blue gave us the delight of watching a kingfisher as he quickly dispatched a stickleback from the dyke, followed by a sudden glimpse of green as the mocking woodpecker flew off to the woods yonder. Clashing with the song thrush, the blackbird tried to outdo him with call. Then joined in a wren and chaffinch making a cacophony of magical sounds.
We walked on, delighting in the sight of baby coots and moorhens and also a large family of jackdaws who succeeded in drowning out the others with their loud ‘jacs.’ Along the way, we also had glimpses of a greater spotted woodpecker as it rested on the side of a tree, a family of bluetits tutting amongst the branches, a quick dart of a pair of bullfinches in a hurry, and a loud call from a family of great tits, babies still in their monotone colours.
Coot chick, Ginny Sibley
We reached Pickup hide and sat for a rest, when to my delight staring at us from the top of the sand martin wall was a fox cub, not afraid, but as fascinated with us as were with him. Although, a moorhen mother was not as enamoured as she cackled, warning her chicks to move to the safety of the water.
Fox cub, Ginny Sibley
Three herons paddled in the water listening for fish and hoping for an early breakfast, such an elegant sight, but we needed to move on.
Herons, Ginny Sibley
Distracted by the emerald blue colour of the common blue damselfly, brimstone accompanied us too as we met a couple of speckled woods flitting along the way.
Common blue damselfly, Ginny Sibley
Ladybirds like this seven spot glistened on the dewy leaves and grasshoppers jumped out of view. Seven-spot ladybird, Ginny Sibley
The meadow’s flowers like the common centaury, the bugloss viper and the southern marsh orchid waved their beautiful colours at us in the breeze as the sun rose higher in the sky and we headed back for a well-earned coffee in the visitor centre. What a morning ! We loved every minute of it.
Common centaury, Ginny Sibley
Viper's-bugloss, Ginny Sibley
We would really recommend volunteering to anyone who loves nature, or at least to experience the Aire Valley in person for these beautiful experiences. If you're interested in either, please drop into Fairburn Ings visitor centre, or St Aidan's down the road.Southern marsh orchid, Ginny Sibley
Evidence of spoonbill breeding at Fairburn Ings – a first for Yorkshire and a first for an RSPB reserve.
This rare bird, usually found in southern and eastern Europe, has hatched chicks for the first time in Northern England, at Fairburn!
Spoonbill on the Moat by Andy Francis
Spoonbills had not nested regularly in the UK since the 1700s, however recent years have seen them slowly expanding their range north and returning to Britain once again. Birds are increasingly seen along the east coast of England, and one breeding colony has been established in East Anglia.
The spoonbills have been seen regularly at Fairburn this spring and summer and the warden team and volunteers have been watching them carefully. They watched lots of nesting behaviour, and then that changed as they appeared to begin sitting on the nest, and then began feeding flights. They’re currently hidden away deep in the vegetation but we hope they’ll be much more visible when they fledge.
It’s incredibly exciting to see successful spoonbill nesting here at Fairburn, and it makes all the hard habitat management work worthwhile.
Because of their rarity, spoonbills are a specially protected bird in the UK, and their breeding presence at Fairburn Ings has been kept a secret – until now. They are of conservation concern due to lack of suitable habitats, water pollution, and drainage of wetlands for farming and tourism.
This new colony in the North of England represents the wider trend for long-legged water birds moving north. As seen on BBC’s Springwatch, the likes of great white egrets, cattle egrets and black-winged stilts have also started establishing colonies in the UK as a result of climate change drying out their traditional nesting habitats in southern Europe.
The team have affectionately named spoonbill chicks “teaspoons” and will keep you updated on their progress and where to see them when they fledge.
Our warden intern Andy is fantastic with birdsong, here he discusses a bit of the science behind the song:
I have no doubt that the meliflous warblings of our finer song birds share mathematical relationships with the palette of tones in our own music. Our appreciation of music probably evolved as a means of empathising with the tones found in speech, psychologists refer to this as “prosidy”. These signal our emotional status and intent, which then drive behaviour; in birds song exerts a strong influence on mate choice. Although we can only speculate on the emotional lives of other species it seems likely that birds also appreciate an accomplished singer.
Chaffinch, Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
Songs differ from other bird vocalisations in their purpose; to mark a territory and to attract a mate. Male birds sing and associated parts of their brains enlarge during the breeding season.
Songs vary from instinctive repetitions to improvised melodies often with mimicry, in some cases even mimicking the sounds of foreign birds! Some of those repetitive songs, such as chaffinch and willow warbler, are the easiest to learn first, even if they don't directly repeat themselves they do have subtler trends in tone and structure that can be learnt.
Wren, Paul Chesterfield (rspb-images.com)
The tiny wren’s enormous voice carries a song of manic speed and complexity and yet each wren sings, without deviation, from the same hymn sheet. This song is always the same and any maverick tendencies appear to have been weeded out by female preference.
In many other species females prefer males who sing a rich variety of songs. A wide repertoir may suggest that a bird has lived a long time and/or held territories in good habitat with plenty of food and where many birds live close enough to share musical influences. Age and ability to hold a good territory imply good breeding. It has been suggested that if a bird can sound like several birds then some males leave an area thinking it is more full with competitors than it is!
Blackbird, Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
Scientists have played bird songs to birds and learned that singing over a neighbour is an act of aggression that causes conflict and polite pause is an aquiescence to a neighbour’s territorial demands. After borders have been established, by threat or conflict, Blackbirds are well-mannered, singing phrases of predictably consistent length and awaiting a reply!
By late summer the motivation for song will have left nearly all of our birds so get out and enjoy the spectacle while you can!
Descriptions in bird books help us descriminate between similar songs or recall what we have heard but should be used alongside free recordings or phone apps. There is also a superb free online training site.