RSPB St Aidan's is home to hundreds of species, many of which are rare, but one in particular which is very special indeed.
Certain species of bird are so sensitive and rare that their location isn't disclosed in order to protect them (Schedule 1). However, if you've been interested in birdwatching in Yorkshire for over a fortnight, you've probably heard about our black necked grebes. They are all over social media, birding forums and now TV, so now their biggest threat is actually unintentional disturbance. We're making a song and dance about these superb birds to help protect them.
Credit: Bob Howe
Black necked grebes don't nest in the UK very often. It's estimated that on 40 pairs nest in the whole of the UK - St. Aidan's had 10 last year. To put this into perspective, there are 13,000 pairs of grey herons!
Black necked grebes usually arrive in the UK in April, already paired up or find a mate straight away. They display to one another just like great crested grebes, raising themselves vertically out of the water and 'dancing' - although seen much less than other grebe species.
Courtship - Irene Swift
After mating, they build floating discs of reeds as nests, particularly in colonies of black headed gulls. That's why, if you visit St. Aidan's, we're extremely welcoming of the gull colony. Without the colony, the blacked grebes would have a much less protected place to nest. When a predator arrives, the gulls act as an alarm system, telling the grebes it's time to hide their chicks.
Black headed gull - Alan Coe
They incubate for around three weeks, and once their eggs have hatched the adults split parenting duties. Each adult will take one or two chicks on their back, carries them and teaches them how to feed.
Parents feeding young - Joe Seymour
How are they doing this year?
Wardens completed the first round of breeding bird surveys in May and counted 11 territories belonging to 11 pairs. They are being monitored weekly and are now raising their chicks - exact numbers we cannot be sure as after young have fledged, the birds keep very well hidden.
What can you do to help the grebe families thrive?
We're calling all visitors to help the black necked grebe population at St. Aidan's.
Walkers, photographers, pooch owners, horse riders, whoever you are, please stay on the paths and out of the water. We know no-one would intentionally harm these birds, but they are very sensitive to disturbance. It only takes fear for a pair to abandon their nests & chicks for safety.
For tips on the best place to spot the black necked grebes, please ask in the visitor centre on arrival (open daily 9am to 5pm)
Dogs and owners, we want you to have a fabulous time. We've designated all of Bowers lake and all of the visitor centre hillside as a place to play ball, run around and paddle off lead.
This week RSPB Aire Valley gave a bunch of us volunteers a chance to learn some bird identification tips from volunteer ranger John at Fairburn Ings. The volunteers range from gardeners to meeters & greeters, shop assistants to rangers and bloggers, so we were a mixed group and it was great to meet some of the people doing different roles to keep St Aidan's and Fairburn Ings fabulous.
I got to the reserve with – I hoped – plenty of time to spare, as I travel by bus and had to walk up through the reserve from the main road. I knew there would be plenty of distractions along the way. It was a glorious sunny day, and the path to Lin Dike was buzzing with birdsong. Blackcaps were calling, wrens and tits singing. It's a busy time to be a bird.
Male blackcap. The female wears a chestnut cap. Pic: Paul Chesterfield, rspb-images.com
The blackcap is known as the northern nightingale because of his beautiful fluting song. The birds that visit us to breed in the summer spend the winter in southern Spain or north Africa, while those that you see in your garden in the winter migrate to Germany to breed in the summer.
I rested on a bench overlooking the Coal Tips to eat my lunch, serenaded by skylarks, and was lucky enough to see this one taking a break on a budding hawthorn.
As I stood to continue on to the Visitor Centre, I noticed a movement in the scrub behind me.
The hare necessities
Brown hares have been living in Britain since the Iron Age, when they were introduced from across the North Sea. Unlike burrow dwelling rabbits, hares make a small nest in the grass, known as a form. At breeding time, the females 'box' the males, to either tell them they aren't in the mood, or to test their determination to mate. They can raise three or four litters a year, each of two to four young, called leverets. Changes in farming methods have reduced hare numbers over the past century, but you can still see them out in the fields in winter and early spring before they disappear into the long grass.
The Coal Tips trail rewarded me with a chorus of willow warbling. Along the path overlooking the moat, it seemed that every tree had one of these tiny birds singing its heart out.
Willow warbler. Pic: John Bridges, rspb-images.com
I find the warblers very difficult to tell apart by sight, so sound is vital to make an identification. The willow warbler differs from the very similar chiffchaff by its pink legs, while chiffchaff's legs are dark brown, but it can be hard to see those little legs from a distance. The chiffchaff's song is very simple compared to the willow warbler's descending tune.
Chiffchaff. Pic: John Bridges rspb-images.com
I made it to the training session just in time, forcing myself to forego the delights of the feeders outside the Centre, at least for a couple of hours. John led our group towards the Bob Dickens hide on Main Bay, pausing to watch a newly-arrived cuckoo that was sitting on a fence post at the other side of Big Hole. Most likely it was checking out the local meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers, whose nests it targets to host its own eggs. After being hatched and raised by a foster mother, the young cuckoo has to find its own way home to Africa!
Cuckoo RSPB rspb-images.com
From the Bob Dickens hide, John explained the differences between the graceful common terns and Arctic terns. Both are nicknamed 'sea swallows', although common terns are more likely to be found inland than on the coast. They have a black tip to their red beaks, while their Arctic cousins' beaks are plain red and the Arctic has longer tail streamers. The Arctic tern migrates all the way to the antarctic for the winter – that's a 44,000 mile round trip.
Common tern. Pic: Rob Hunton, Swillington Ings Bird Group
Arctic tern. Pic: Chris Gomersall, rspb-images.com
On the way back to the Visitor Centre we had a peek through the kingfisher screen. Although there were no kingfishers around at the time, this grey heron entertained me with some fish juggling, before graciously posing for a photo.
Grey heron measuring up
I finished my day out with a walk along Cut Lane, at the eastern end of the reserve. The trees there were chock full of singing chaffinches, chiffchaffs and blue tits. How such little creatures make such loud noises constantly amazes and delights me. The highlight of the walk, though, was spotting a treecreeper. These little birds dart up and around tree trunks as they search for insects and spiders. They are a resident species so can be seen all year round in our woodland.
And if you want to forget about your worries and your strife, you can't go far wrong with an International Dawn Chorus Day walk on May 6th – see here for details and to book for St Aidan's, or here for Fairburn Ings.
Fairburn Ings is springing into life. The leaves are beginning to appear, there are new songs to hear around the trails & we've seen quite a lot of frisky activity from the office window!Lin Dike
On the way top the hide, listen out for the newcomers - we've had the arrival of whitethroats, chiff chaffs and blackcaps.
Chiff chaff - Mick Noble (SIBG1@wordpress.com)
A very diverse mix of species this week, from the hide itself were a couple of Egyptian geese & 30 curlew. Very distinctive and a great spot from our ranger duo Dawn & Liberty at the weekend.
Gorgeous Egyptian goose drawing - Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Main Bay & Village Bay (The Riverbank Trail)
We're spoilt for choice when directing people from the visitor centre at the moment. The Riverbank trail has provided views of 6 avocets, a common sandpiper & 9 little gulls. My favourite, the common tern has been seen too - beside sand martins and swallows grabbing a tasty bite mid air. The wardens have cleaned and refilled the sand martin wall with sand this month, hopefully they'll have a good breeding year.
Common terns - Mick Noble (SIBG1.wordpress.com)
From a less acrobatic front, the male scaup is still around on Village Bay, and one black necked grebe has been seen too. (For a pretty certain sighting of the BNG, St. Aidan's is your place.)
On your way up, listen for the first cuckoos seen and heard this spring. They love to perch on the fenceposts around the Coal Tips. Once common, cuckoos are now a red listed species because of their sudden and severe decline.
Cuckoo - John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Another fence fan is the green woodpecker - lots of reports of these bouncing across the fields - keep your eyes out for a flash of a green rump!
Up on top, bitterns are booming extremely loudly. We've heard them all the way from the visitor centre this morning - we reckon there's at least two males here now.
The Heronry on the Moat
The cormorants have had around 80 successful nests, the first to hatch.
Cormorants in nest - Ben Andrews (rspb-images.com)
32 heron nests with 2 chicks and 2 parents each... we're talking 128 herons! It's a great sight to see from the top of the Coal Tips (bring your binoculars or hire some from the visitor centre)
Although spoonbills haven't been seen for a good few days, little egrets & a great white egret have been keeping us excited.