July, 2018

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's
Do you love Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's? Share your thoughts with the community. Or if you're thinking about visiting and would like to find out more, ask away!

Aire Valley - Fairburn Ings and St Aidan's

  • We Bioblitzed it!

    This week Fairburn Ings was delighted to take part in Chris Packham's UK Bioblitz 2018. We were one of 50 wildlife sites chosen to undertake a wildlife audit, the results of which will be used to create a benchmark to measure the rise and fall of many different species in future years. Visitors to the reserve joined RSPB staff and volunteers to identify and count bugs, birds, plants and pondlife.

    I spotted a Packham


    I had a wander round the site to see what was happening. There was pond-dipping, although water levels are rather low after such a long, dry spell.

    These three found plenty to keep them interested at the pond-dipping platform.


    There was birdwatching.

    Is there a collective noun for birdwatchers?


    Then I found the Bugs & Plants field and got busy with the butterflies. Here's a selection of my favourites:

    Green-veined White – Pieris napi - distinguished from the other white butterflies by the dark green lines along the underside wing veins. Like the Small White, this has a dark spot on its forewing. Widespread, and prefers damp places. This is a medium-sized butterfly – 4-6cm. The caterpillars like a variety of foodplants, including Mustard and Nasturtiums, both plants that you could grow in a your garden or even a window box.

    Green-veined White on purple-loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)


    Peacock – Aglais io – Resident, widespread. Large – 6-7cm. This nomadic butterfly can be found pretty much everywhere. Its vivid eyespots are designed to discourage predators. The caterpillars love to munch on Common Nettles, and there are quite a few of those at Fairburn.

    Peacock butterfly has its eye on you

    Meadow Brown – Maniola jurtina – Resident, widespread. This medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of around 5cm is mostly brown with an orangey patch on its upper forewing, and a black eyespot. It likes sunny, grassy places, but will fly on dull days when most other butterflies take a break. Although this is one of our most abundant butterflies, liking many habitats, it has declined due to intensive agriculture. The caterpillars can be found on many different grasses.

    Meadow Brown on a bramble flower

    Gatekeeper – Pyronia tithonus – Resident, widespread. Slightly smaller than the Meadow Brown with a wingspan of 4cm, and also differs in having two white pupils in the black eyespot on its forewing, and much more orange on its upper wings. The Meadow Brown only has one pupil. Also, this butterfly has small white spots on its hindwing underside – useful to know as you will quite often see these two with closed wings. The Gatekeeper, also known as the Hedge Brown, likes long grass, hedgerows and woodland.

    Gatekeeper on ragwort. Beware of ragwort – it is poisonous to horses and cows, and can irritate human skin.

    Gatekeeper showing its double pupil – compare with the Meadow Brown's single one.

    Brimstone – Gonepteryx rhamni – Resident, widespread. This is one of our larger butterflies with a wingspan of over 6cm. Males are bright yellow on top, while the females are paler, and the undersides of their wings are greenish. They like woodland, hedgerows and roadsides – and Fairburn Ings.


    Small Copper – Lycaena phlaeas- Resident, widespread. Beautiful stained glass-like forewings. The Small Copper, as the name suggests, is a small butterfly with a wingspan of 3 - 4cm. It likes dry grassland and brownfield sites, as well as moorland and heaths. The males are rather territorial and will chase off passing insects while waiting for females to happen by. The caterpillars mostly eat Common & Sheep's Sorrel.

    Small Copper

    Speckled Wood – Parage aegeria – Resident, widespread. The Speckled Wood is a medium-sized butterfly of around 5cm wingspan, found in parks, gardens and woodland. They love honeydew from aphids in the treetops so only really feed from flowers when aphids aren't available. These butterflies having been doing quite well in recent years, spreading north and east.

    Speckled Wood checking out a thistle

    The butterflies didn't quite have the sky to themselves, and they need to be watchful for dragonflies, which are rather partial to a butterfly as a snack.

    Ruddy Darter female (Sympetrum sanguineum)

    Ruddy Darter male (Sympetrum sanguineum)

    Common Darter male (Sympetrum striolatum)


    Want to support Chris's #WeWantWildlife campaign with a donation? Visit https://justgiving.com/crowdfunding/chris-packham-bioblitz

    Although this Bioblitz was just one day at Fairburn, you can still take part in watching nature on your doorstep by joining the Big Butterfly Count between 20th July and 12th August. Take a break from your busy day and spend 15 minutes in a sunny spot to see what butterflies are fluttering by. Record your sightings on the website, or you can download a free app to your smartphone.

    Or book to take the children on a Fairburn Wild Challenge: Summer Bug Hunt on Fridays in August, or a Wild Challenge Wednesday: Bug Hunting at St Aidan's.

  • The waders are coming, the waders are coming..........

    It may only be July but autumn migration is underway, waders are starting to move and the timing couldn’t be better with water levels dropping around the reserve. The top visitor would have to be the scarce wood sandpiper which has been present since the 10th July on spoonbill flash. The wood sandpiper is an elegant small wader with spangled upperparts, white supercilium (stripe above the eye) and either greenish or yellowish legs. Its breeding grounds range across northern Europe from Denmark moving eastwards across Russia. They migrate south towards Africa and south Asia through to Australia, and the odd few stray off the migration route and end up in the UK every year; Lin Dike hide was the place to be to view this little beauty.

    Wood Sandpiper - Joe Seymour

    Coal Tips

    Not many reports of Bittern sightings of late so we wait with baited breath for the first appearance of her offspring, watch this space!                          

    The pair of black-necked grebes have been seen regularly with 3 juveniles on the west lagoon, and also up to 4 adults on the south-east lagoon. An adult male bearded tit was seen near the west lagoon, 2 juveniles have also been noted in the same area.

    Other sightings have been of a juvenile cuckoo on the 6th July, also up to 5 common terns and a single juvenile over the lagoons. A pair of yellowhammers were seen at big hole, and a common gull was also seen on the 14th July.

    A notable overflight on the evening of 9th July was an osprey heading west; hopefully we may be entertained by a visiting juvenile soon whilst they fine tune their fishing skills before migrating south.

    Osprey - Keith Boyer

    Main Bay / Village bay

    A single ringed plover has been noted, and a single little ringed plover with 2 juveniles on main bay islands. A single snipe appeared on the far bank on the 8th July, as well as sightings of kingfisher, 2 egyptian geese and a grey wagtail. A yellowhammer can be heard singing on the hillside, sometimes it can be found by using a scope if you are feeling lucky.

    Sightings at the village bay end of the reserve have been off the year’s first garganey, a female was seen in the cut area on the 13th July. A cetti’s warbler was heard from charlies hide and a juvenile mediterranean gull was seen flying west on the 13th July.

    Flashes / Lin Dike

    The juvenile spoonbills edge nearer to fledging, wing flapping has been noted which is no mean feat in that overcrowded nest! The viewpoint is still proving very popular giving excellent views of the teaspoons in the nest. The adults are feeding around the reserve and good close views can be had if you’re lucky, particularly at pick up hide which seems to be a favourite.

    Spoonbill - Pete M

    A nice influx of black-tailed godwits occurred on the 13th July with 30 birds seen on hicksons flash. The variety of waders continues to increase with sightings of common sandpiper, 2 ruff, dunlin, snipe, 3 redshank, green sandpiper and a wood sandpiper. 3 yellow wagtails were in front of lin dike hide on 10th July and a great white egret was on the moat on the 9th July. Other sightings have been of teal, whooper swan, juvenile water rail and a peregrine hunting over hicksons flash. A redstart was seen on the 13th July, on the fence line to the north-west of the phalarope pool.

    Ruff - Keith Boyer


    A notable butterfly discovered on the reserve was an essex skipper, the first ever recorded on the reserve. The essex skipper is very similar to the small skipper, the best means of separating the species are the black tips to the underside of the antennae on the essex.

    Essex Skipper - Darren Starkey

    Other butterflies noted were small white, green-veined white, speckled wood, large white, meadow brown, gatekeeper, small skipper, comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, purple hairstreak, red admiral, ringlet, brown argus, small copper and peacock.

    Meadow Brown - Pete M

    Dragonflies noted have been brown hawker, black-tailed skimmer, ruddy darter, common darter and emperor.

    Damselflies reported have been blue-tailed damselfly , azure damselfly, common blue and banded demoiselle.


    An interesting sighting on the 6th July was of a grass snake, it was seen in a puddle near the duck feeding platform. It pays to keep your eyes open.

  • Perhaps we should not be too quick to judge the cuckoo - & St Aidan’s Sightings

    That fiendish bird sneaks an egg into a much smaller bird’s nest and what hatches is a blind, naked murderer who immediately pushes overboard any “siblings”. A chick that runs its “parents” ragged and grows rapidly to monstrous proportions that could swallow a “parent” whole. It has such a mesmerising gape that even passing birds can’t help giving it food destined for their own. The long held belief that most birds are monogamous for life or a season is true; just turns out in the egg laying world it is also rife with egg dumpers, adulterers, bigamists and even divorces.

    Left: reed warbler, often a victim of the cuckoo. Right: house sparrows in author’s garden.


    The house sparrow is possibly the greatest practitioner of most of thse behaviours despite being a bird that pairs-up for life. The male even guards his female but she still finds opportunities to egg dump into other sparrow’s nests and mate with other males. Meantime, the male is a bigamist cavorting with multiple females. Up to 20% of their young are not full siblings. Basically, they are shameless property owners because being a pair ensures they retain their nest site.

    Same species egg dumping females include wren, tree sparrow, several geese and ducks such as goldeneye, smaller/younger un-paired starlings, barn owl, moorhen who will also share nests and swift who eject an existing egg which suggests a count would give the game away. Other species egg dumpers include black grouse who drop eggs onto red grouse; oystercatcher and eider ducks put their eggs into gull nests.

    A willow warbler sings to hold a territory, teach his young the tune and attract additional females.

    The willow warbler is a polygynous bird; the male mates with multiple females but the female only has one partner. However, she tends to more choosy and is usually responsible for raising the young. One studied in Scotland had five mates over two consecutive years. Other examples are sedge warbler, starling, swallow, wren, pied flycatcher, dipper, pheasant, bittern, merlin, osprey, hen/marsh harriers and long-eared, tawny and barn owls.

    Female adultery can produce nests where 10-70% of the occupants do not possess any genes from the supposed parents. Some male birds guard against this such as magpie, ducks, finches and swallows who, if they catch their partner cheating become less interested in their young. Female swallows are more attracted to males with tails longer than their mate. Female birds that arrive late and are left with the dregs (such as a stubby-tailed swallow) are more likely to divorce and blue tits with an unattractive male are more likely to be promiscuous. Both sexes of great tit play are adulterous. The female dunnock fools two males into thinking they are the father of at least some of the eggs and both help her raise the young.

    A promiscuous sedge warbler?


    And then there’s the male guillemot who watches for a nesting pair about to mate and literally runs at full pelt to push the ‘husband’ off his ‘wife’. The stunned bird takes several minutes to recover from being thrown off the cliff and returns, possibly none the wiser.

    The cuckoo was probably originally an “egg dumper” and just got cleverer, even going to the extreme of mimicking another bird’s plumage; the european cuckoo resembles a sparrowhawk which may help scatter its target birds from their nests.

    All these strategies increase genetic diversity, survival rates and produce stronger, fitter, longer-living young. But it does reveal that things not may be as they seem; is continued mating reinforcing a pair’s bond or is a shabby, smaller, one-eyed bird with a wonky head nearby, looking all forlorn? 

    Recent Sightings: 

    On the inner reedbed path; a strolling kestrel, which happened frequently last summer.

    Recent Sightings:

    Around the visitor centre area: In the dragline compound the kestrels are coming along in leaps and bounds; their previously spacious accommodation is now cramped and they have begun to fledge. Little owl are becoming more frequent and has included two juveniles. Also seen green woodpecker, blackcap, whitethroat and linnet. Around Bowers lake the young sand martins are emerging from their small dark tunnels into what must seem a huge wide world.

    Left: a little owl soaking up the sun. Right: What looks like an incredibly huge baby sand martin in comparison.


    Along the hillside/pastures and opposite ditch: reed bunting, sedge warbler, meadow pipit, skylark, jay, long-tailed tit, stonechat, red kite, buzzard, peregrine, sparrowhawk, hobby and marsh harrier.

    On the ridge and furrow and the adjacent Main lake: little egret, lapwing with young, curlew, redshank, black-tailed godwit, ruff, oystercatcher, common sandpiper, pochard with young, eclipse ducks such as teal, goldeneye, wigeon cormorant, jackdaw, starling, yellow wagtail, goldfinch and bittern from reeds near the cattle gate. Additionally loads of canada and greylag geese with young who take to the main lake en masse.

     Around the reedbeds: bittern making feeding flights for three nests, reed/sedge warbler, lesser whitethroat, tree sparrow, linnet, wren plus families of great-crested grebe, pochard, gadwall, tufted duck, mute swan, occasionally black-necked grebe and fishing common terns

    Left: How do great-crested grebes get the young off their back? Without warning, they rear up and shake to fling them into the air. Right: Female pochard keeping her young close.








    Getting all your tufted ducks in a row.

    Astley lake and adjacent reservoir: black tern remains with two the other week, common tern with young, ringed plover, oystercatcher, curlew, swift, shelduck with young.

    Lemonroyd lake: house martin and bullfinch

    In summer, black terns eat insects and larvae. Skims water’s surface or twists/turns to catch in mid-air, even if it does mean contorting its head upside down (as per small not very good pic at right).









    Acrobatic common tern searches bill pointed down, rises to hover and plunges in headfirst. A fish held crossways in the bill is for a partner or youngster.


    Around Lowther lake and surrounding trees: willow warbler, chiffchaff, garden warbler, cetti’s warbler, blackcap, whitethroat, lesser whitethroat and cuckoo.

     Around the site: Loads of insects including -

    Dragon/Damsel flies: black/long-tailed skimmer, brown hawker, four-spotted/brown-bodied chaser and emperor, blue, azure, large red, red-eyed and banded demoiselle 

    Left: blue damsels depositing eggs with interfering interloper. Right: banded demoiselle eating lunch - a very small fly - with dessert ready near its right extended foot.  


    Butterflies/Moths: comma, green-veined white, small tortoiseshell, common blue, meadow brown, small/large skipper, six-spot burnet which contains cyanide. Best not lick one.

    Left: six-spot burnet. Right: Meadow brown.


    Recent more frequent visitors: spoonbill, juvenile starlings flocking in during evening to murmurate over reedbeds before sunset that usually appear nightly until August.

    Left: Overhead spoonbill (taken at Lin Dyke, Fairburn). Right: Starlings rushing in during evening.


    And finally:


    Fight! Look at the size of that coot’s feet! Are they inflatable?


    Yours, K Sp-8