January, 2018

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

  • My darling starlings

    Did you take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch? My Birdwatch was from the comfort of my kitchen where I while away many an hour watching the visitors to the feeding station in my tiny urban back yard.

    I installed my feeders about a year ago – a pole with a small tray, and 3 hanging feeders, and a bowl of water. There are 3 more feeders hanging from the edge of my shed. I put out fatballs, suet blocks, sunflower hearts, mixed seed and peanuts. For a while I hoped to tempt the local goldfinches with nyger seeds but they seem to prefer my neighbour’s feeder on the other side of the street. I’ve had a couple pop down to have a look but they didn’t stay long enough to eat anything. Last spring I had a couple of blue tits visiting, and sometimes house sparrows drop by for sunflower hearts.

    Pretty collared doves are occasional visitors.

    And sometimes I see a robin.

    But for the most part my feeders are starling magnets. They were the first to visit. Just one to begin with, whistling for its mate. Then a few friends arrived. Before long, there were gangs of half a dozen or more regularly crowding in, chirping and squeaking, squawking and chattering.

    As the season progressed and the first brood of the year fledged, the youngsters started accompanying their parents. At first they would be begging to be fed, then as they learned the messy techniques of scattering suet and seeds, they began feeding themselves.

    Feed me, mum!

    I watched their colouring change from dull brown feathers, to paler heads, then developing speckles as their body colour began to darken.

    Teenage starling

    By the end of the summer, the plumage is almost as dark and iridescent as the adults. A starling in the sunlight is certainly a beautiful creature to behold.

    Throughout the year, the starling’s plumage changes. At breeding time the adults have bright yellow beaks, while in the autumn and winter it darkens to black. The base of the breeding male’s beak is pale blue, but you have to look carefully to notice. Their legs are much redder when they are breeding too.

    I find their behaviour endlessly entertaining. Sometimes they will queue up for their turn on a feeder, a bird or two on the lookout for predators, while the others feed. But then a new bird will arrive, impatient and hungry, and will barge in, pushing an incumbent out of the way. They will rise up and squabble in mid-air, before one submits and allows the other in to feast.

    Starling numbers have, sadly, been declining over recent decades. Research by the British Trust for Ornithology has shown starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Read more about that at https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/starling/population-trends-conservation/#35q6z7007h5wZPdV.99 I remember watching, as a child, a small murmuration in Leeds city centre back in the late 60s/early 70s, as the birds gathered to roost on Merrion Street. The buildings there are all too well kept now to allow much space for birds – although there are usually a few starlings foraging for crumbs under shoppers’ feet along Briggate.

    I was lucky enough to see the Fairburn starlings' murmuration in November. They are remarkable birds, and I for one would miss them if they weren't around.

  • 'Desperate Times, Desperate Measures' & St. Aidan's Sightings

    January is a long and desperate month for us; cold, mostly dark and goes on forever. For birds and other wildlife, it is February, which is just around the corner. Food is scarce and hard to find, the nights are still long, the temperatures low (in the main) and bird’s hormones are kicking in to start their breeding cycle. You may have noticed signs of the hormonal changes; the dawn chorus is getting busier with the early starters singing their songs to attract a partner, such as the great tit with their no-effort-made-on-lyrics “teacher, teacher”.

    It’s a difficult balancing act surviving the end of winter and it needs strategies, which are wide and various. Migration to warmer locations with more supplies is an option but that is costly in energy and requires some luck; landing where you expected the resources that suit you and avoiding predation. We benefit from those who arrive from the ‘grimmer further up north’ where food is trapped below snow and ice and lose some of our own to more southerly locations. For instance, a percentage of our goldfinches prefer to over-winter in France. 

    Not so much a charm; more a mud bath of goldfinches (taken September 17).

    Those who stay have to keep themselves clean and preened to ensure the oil they spread from their glands, keeps feathers waterproof and insulated. They fluff and puff up their feathers to trap air, which creates their version of wearing layers and hunker to protect their less feathery faces and legs. Birds do shiver and this also produces heat from their circulation and the muscle movement.

    Puffed up female stonechat.

    Daytime may be spent in a flock to take advantage of group dynamics for detecting food and many eyes to watch for predators that are just as hungry. Smaller birds may band together in multi-species groups such as tits and goldcrest, which must eat for 90-100% of their day. On site currently there is a small flock of starlings hanging around with the lapwings.

    How can anyone not like a totally charming long-tail tit?

    Others stash food, such as coal tit, jay and nuthatch and then have to find it again. Desperate blackbirds may fish for minnows. Thrushes claim and defend berried trees and shrubs from others but may be defeated by marauding flocks of fieldfare and redwing. Some defend territories and war with intruders, such as robin, woodpecker and nuthatch.

    A rather devilish looking robin near the warren feeders and challenging the resident robin.

    Night-time may be a communal roost for shared warmth for such as the long-tailed tit and wren. At night a bird’s temperature deliberately drops by as much as ten degrees (called nocturnal hypothermia) to reduce metabolism and yet despite this still loses up to 10-15% of body weight because fat accumulated during the day is immediately converted into heat energy.

    The RSPB’s Big Garden Watch due 27th to 29th January to count the birds you see is also a great opportunity to feed your local birds during these lean times. For the “top 10 bird birding feeding tips this winter” see:


    And, if you can spare a little grated mild cheese, it will surely make a wren or dunnock’s day.


    Recent Sightings:

    Along the treeline opposite the main lake lots of the smaller birds continue to forage: goldfinch, treecreeper, bullfinch, reed bunting, dunnock, wren, robin, green and great-spotted woodpeckers. Plus the tits; marsh, willow, great, blue and long-tailed. And joining them recently a flock of about 20 siskin, who have unusual hierarchical flock behaviour: Subordinates forage and then regurgitate to feed the designated dominant males and females. Who knows you may see a case of ‘allofeeding.’ Similar birds are also seen around Lowther lake.

    Bowers lake has been busier of late, especially on days when the other water bodies have remained iced, with pochard, tufted duck, great-crested grebe, 50 plus curlew around the edge and a great white egret that comes and goes.

    With distinctive kink in neck, the great white egret; sleeping pochard included for scale.


    There’s plenty of wildfowl about on the lakes Main, Lemonroyd, Astley and the reedbeds; goosander males and redheads, tufted duck, shoveler, wigeon “whistling for Britain”, teal, gadwall, the odd shelduck and up 19 goldeneye. Among the geese around the site are small numbers of white-fronted, tundra bean and pink-footed (courtesy of Swillington Ings Bird Group’s eagle-eyed spotters).

    Male and female goldeneye on Main lake.

    At the dragline, kestrel continues to be seen. Other regular birds of prey on site are red kite, sparrowhawk, buzzard, and marsh harrier. A male hen harrier dropped in on Monday 8th January and lurked for the day, making itself visible early morning and very late afternoon.

    Four whooper swans spent the day on the Main lake last Monday (15th) and roosted at Fairburn so may remain local with a bit of luck.


    The amazing 3-headed whooper on the more amazing sloping lake (or just a rushed shot).

    Along the hillside are meadow pipits and up to four roe deer are being seen more frequently there at dusk.

    Two of the four roe deer on the hillside (taken December 17).

    In and around the reedbeds are dunlin, redshank, lapwing, snipe, water rail, a jack snipe, a water pipit and a lone oystercatcher.

    At far left (behind the moorhen); redshank. Some of the cormorants showing breeding plumage; the white patch on their side near base of the wing and the central ‘goalkeeper’ has a stupendous ‘Richard Gere’ look.

    But the star of the moment is a very the obliging male kingfisher giving close and long views at the crossroads near the causeway that divides the Main and Lemonroyd lakes. He uses the bulrushes, the recently installed posts, the causeway shrubs and the sluice on Lemonroyd very regularly and at various times in the day.

    Male kingfisher looking at his tiny feet? (Females have lower red bill; male’s is all black).

    This area is also a good spot for wagtails, grey and pied, water rail in the reedbed and stonechat along the edges of the path.

    Plus around the site occasional sightings of mistle thrush, flocks of golden plover and fieldfare.

    And finally:


    Breaking news! Coots try to take advantage of benefits of a group dynamic but then realise no-one can decide which side of the causeway is best.

    Yours, K Sp-8 (18/01/19)

    For information: 

    Astronomy event coming 24th Feb, stay tuned on our Facebook & Twitter for when booking begins

    Half term at St Aidan's - Binocular Challenge! See what you can spot: http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/events-dates-and-inspiration/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-450843

    Litter Pick at St Aidan's - 11th Feb http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/events-dates-and-inspiration/events/details.aspx?id=tcm:9-448509

  • Fairburn Ings sightings - Phil - 23/01

    The year has started with some great showings across the Fairburn Ings. Most notably a visit from a pair of white fronted geese at the New flash, who were joined soon after by pair of pink footed geese. They didn't hang around long en route, but it was a nice treat. If you are on the lookout for these visitors, be sure to have some binoculars handy. As getting a closer look at them is essential, due to the difficulty differentiating them from other “grey geese” unless seen well.

    Smew - male and female Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

    With his black “bandit” mask, the male smew has been showing down at the Spoonbill Flash all week, sometimes popping over to Main Bay. If you’re wanting to get a good shot of him feeding, you’ll need to bring your telephoto lens as he is feeding quite far out from the Lin Dike hide. Today saw some sightings of a male smew at St Aidan's too - could he be the same? We're waiting to confirm although no-one has reported the smew at Fairburn today.

    The scaup is now on the lagoons due to the ice, but often spotted on Main Bay. Not to be confused with tufted ducks, these are a pretty rare red listed species.

    Great white egret (admittedly at St Aidan's but the same bird!) Mick Noble, Swillington Ings Bird Group sibg1.wordpress.com

    Whether you’re visiting Fairburn Ings or St Aidan’s you may be luck and get a glimpse of a great white egret, who has been spotted at both sites over the past week. Looking akin to a little egret but a similar size to a grey heron, they can be easily identified. (Best seen from Lin Dike hide)

    While walking round Fairburn Ings make sure that you check out the feeders, with the siskin, redpoll and lesser redpoll all making appearances.

    Lesser redpoll under feeders, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

    Looking forward to the next few weeks, we are keeping an eye on the gulls, as a number were coming in to roost, including Iceland, black headed, herring and lesser black backed gulls.

    Lastly - bittern and bearded tits have been seen on the reedbed this weekend - soon they'll be booming!

    Let’s look forward to seeing what visitors we will see as 2018 continues.