The third and final of our new team of blogging volunteers is Gael - she recently started photographing wildlife and hasn't looked back! Here's her experience of a blustery walk around St Aidan's with me before Christmas:'One of my few memories of primary school is a lesson where we were given a selection of pamphlets about birds, and had to choose one and write about the bird. I chose lapwing, and because I finished my work quickly I then got the leftover black-headed gull. If that lesson sowed a seed, it took a very long time to germinate. It was 45 years before I bought my first binoculars, and another few months before I succumbed to the temptation of a camera.
Now, I rarely leave the house without my binoculars. I even chose my handbag for its capacity to carry my indispensable glasses.
When I saw that RSPB Aire Valley was recruiting a blogger & social media volunteer, I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity! To be able to wander around St Aidan's watching wildlife and that big sky, taking photographs, then writing about it and sharing my enjoyment with other nature lovers – a great way to avoid the housework on my day off.
So, here I am, four decades on from primary school, and writing about birds again. And on my visit this week I saw plenty of lapwings and black-headed gulls. Serendipity or synchronicity? Whichever, it was a delight to see them.
Under a threatening sky, I accompanied St Aidan's Abbie Sellers on a walk down through the reserve, along the edge of the beautiful Eastern Reedbed to the Causeway. Stonechats caught our attention almost from the moment we left the Visitor Centre. Pause as you stroll and there's a chance you'll spot one perched at the top of a reed or a post.
Stonechat - Rob Parsons - Swillington Ings Bird Group (sibg1.wordpress.com)
The reedbeds are a rare treasure. They form a habitat that has disappeared in many places due to changes in land use, water abstraction, and drainage for agriculture. Those that remain are a vital home and refuge for many birds, mammals, insects and fish, and are carefully managed at reserves such as St Aidan's. I'm looking forward to hearing booming bitterns in the spring. On this visit, although there were few birds to see, the wind hushing in the reeds and the quality of light from the low winter sun were quite magical.
Crossing the Causeway gave views of Lemonroyd Lake to the west, and Main Lake to the east. Both were busy with mute swans, great crested grebes, coots, moorhens, wigeon, tufted ducks, mallards, and a variety of gulls. No kingfishers for me today – but that just gives me something more to look for next time.
Is that wigeon waving at me?
From the Causeway we took a left onto a muddy path (wellies are recommended!) and headed through the Warren along the south side of the lake. There's a feeding station tucked away here, providing that bit extra in the bleak midwinter for the birds of the trees. Reed buntings flitted in and out under the watchful eye of a robin and a blackbird. This is another species that loves the watery habitat of the lake borders.
Before the rain arrived and sent us scurrying for the shelter of the Visitor Centre, we saw a song thrush and a dunnock pop by for a snack, while a willow tit waited in the wings. It's a popular spot!
I'm not lucky enough to have a woodland garden of my own – although I love watching the starlings and house sparrows that visit the feeder in my urban backyard and will be counting them for the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January. Maybe the local blue tits and robins will call by too, if they can get past the rowdy starlings!'
Other sightings this week include: great white egret, curlew, wigeon, teal, goldeneye, little grebe, kingfishers and plenty more woodland birds.
Sometimes we all get carried away with how rare the birds we see are, to the point where the more common but still amazing sights are overlooked. Our new blogger, Phil - took one of his first trips around Fairburn Ings and shares his experience.
He'll be writing frequent blogs, and teaching his young daughter Poppy all about wildlife and why we should protect it along the way.
'There is honestly nothing better than a Sunday walk around Fairburn Ings. This is a something have been saying to everyone I meet over the past week, having had my first taste of this beautiful reserve. Utilising and transforming an old mining site in such a way is incredibly resourceful and got me thinking how nature can be given a home anywhere.
Fairburn Ings - Big Hole - Year, anyone?
My walk took me around the flashes to the Lin Dike hide. It was quiet as I entered the hide, with an amazing view of the Spoonbill Flash. In the centre of the water had gathered a bevy of swans, who’s reflections stretched out in the water beneath them. Joining the swans were coots, which were peppered across the water and banks of the flash.
Upon leaving Lin Dike hide, I backtracked but this time took the high road on to the Coal Tips trail, where I was treated to a fantastic display from a skein of geese overhead flying around the Coal Tips. Once the geese had finally landed they joined the vast variety of birds up there including swans, coots and moorhens. A real surprise upon the coal tips was a sighting of a red-legged partridge flying from tree to tree, which sadly made it impossible to get a good photograph of it.
But here's what one looks like! Image: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
After descending the Coal Tips I headed back to the visitor centre, stopping at the kingfisher screen. Hoping to catch sight of one diving for its prey, I waited there silently for 30 minutes as I had never seen one. Unfortunately this was not the day I was going to spot one.
I may not have spotted a kingfisher then but whilst swinging by Pick Up Hide, I was lucky enough to get a shot of a pheasant sharing some feed with some blue tits, showing how wildlife co-exists perfectly.
A balancing act!
Having had such an exhilarating walk and seeing so much wildlife I can’t wait to bring my family back in the coming weeks. But in the meantime I’ll be introducing my daughter to wildlife in wherever possible.
Interestingly enough, having missed the kingfisher during my visit, I was amazed that today whilst walking in my local park I saw a kingfisher perched above a flowing stream waiting and ready to hunt. This shows you really do not have control about what you spot, it’s about keeping an eye on nature and ensuring we work hard to keep giving nature a home.'
Fairburn Ings is open 9am-4pm every day other than Christmas Day - we hope to see you here!
George, one of our very first blogging volunteers in the Aire Valley, visited St Aidan's this week. An eager self-proclaimed 'newbie' to bird watching, here's her experience:
Bundled up from head to toe, with a new set of binoculars and enough enthusiasm to warm me on this very icy day, I set out on my first exploration of St Aidan's.
This time of year is a great opportunity to see many species gearing up for the beginning of spring, and sightings from the area this week prove that winter is an exciting time for birding.
Despite the icy temperatures the sky was clear and sun shining, some black-headed gulls relaxing in the background
I was immediately staggered by the size, scale and variety of wildlife on site. As someone with no more in-depth bird knowledge than the visitors on her garden feeder, it didn't take a long time before I was spotting wigeons and shovelers relaxing on the banks from across Main Lake and peering through scrub to get a better look at the winter residents on the trails.
With two of the St Aidan's rangers as my guides we made our way past Bowers Lake and on to the east side of Main Lake. Here, many of the winter residents had moved from the ice to take advantage of the sunshine in the area. A pair of gadwalls were displaying a mirroring courtship dance on Main Lake and were closely followed by a goldeneye pair frequently diving in turns close to the bank. Ducks begin pairing like this in December and the goldeneye in particular show an elaborate display for the females, throwing their head back to show off their white chests. This will continue over winter and into March when they breed.
Goldeneye displaying - Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Main Lake was also host to some rather skittish lapwing who at the sight of a lone crow took flight over the islands. Tufted duck, shelduck and teal were also relaxing and taking a nap in the short period of winter sunshine.
Teal (Mick Noble sibg1.wordpress.com)
Further along, a few minutes rest near the Warren feeder table provided a reward for venturing out in the cold, with a sighting a female greater spotted woodpecker that stopped shortly to have some lunch. Not alone on her venture, she was joined by a group of reed bunting and dunnock, a bird usually spotted underneath a feeder table rather than on top.
Greater Spotted Woodpecker Nigel Blake (rspb-images.com)
Throughout the day exploring i was able to hear some fantastic stories about St Aidan's and the wildlife that inhabits the area. All the staff and visitors were willing to spend some time educating a newbie and giving me a greater knowledge of the RSPB and wildlife as a whole. I hope this small sampling of the experience i had there there will inspire you to lace up your boots and spend an hour in the cold to see some truly amazing sights within the Aire Valley reserves.
Both reserves and visitor centres are open throughout the festive period, every day apart from Christmas day. Other sightings in the book this week include: kingfishers almost daily, marsh harriers, water pipit (Lemonroyd), merlin, at least 4 water rails, redhsnk, dunlin, curlew and a few others! The friendly team in the visitor centre or out on site will point you in the right direction.