Sightings of our mother bittern have been increasing lately, a tantalising prospect for all visitors. These regular flight paths now seem to cross from her nest (located close to the main dyke behind Lillian’s pool) past the front of Grisedale hide and on towards Barrow Scout, one of our satellite sites situated close to the Morecambe and Allen pools. Grisedale and the Skytower have been affording lucky visitors with excellent vistas of these classic ‘food flights’.
Hundreds of young birds on the reserve continue to soar closer to adulthood. The clamour of fledglings can be heard from most paths, with young warblers and tits especially noticeable. Causeway hide remains an ideal setting for watching waterfowl younglings, with two pochard broods still showing well (one totaling 10, the other with 8) and numerous gadwall and mallard adolescents also present here as well as at Grisedale and Tim Jackson pools. Young coots and pied wagtails remain in attendance. The great black-backed gull brooding on the central island at Causeway can be seen fending off unwanted carrion crow intrusion now and then.
Great crested grebe chick by Richard Cousens
In addition, a second great-crested grebe pair has established a nest on the north-western bank opposite Causeway hide, and we look forward to the arrival of a new brood in the near future. The first pair of parents can be seen dwelling with their youngsters close to Lower hide. A pair of little grebes give themselves away after their sporadic dives close to the hide. Mute swans with cygnets, greylag and Canada geese with goslings are still conspicuous at Tim Jackson and Grisedale pools. The grunts and whistles of water rail, and the pinging of bearded tits, can occasionally be heard along the Causeway bridleway, though picking them out from their concealment proves rare.
As can be expected at this time of year, much remains unchanged. Chiff-chaff, willow, sedge, reed and Cetti’s warblers, with reed buntings among them, are still very audible, particularly on the boardwalk. Foulshaw Moss ospreys have not wavered in their enthusiasm for fishing at Causeway pool. Otters have been more frequently sited at Grisedale of late, exercising their curiosity and making their way across the reserve along main dyke. Our three male marsh harriers remain the most active and evident of our specialist species on the reserve at the moment, with spectacular close-up sightings from Causeway and Grisedale. Despite appearing sparse in comparison with previous years, swifts continue to be a delightful presence above the reserve. Large numbers of froglets and toadlets continue to hurl themselves across the paths on suicidal journeys, and their numbers have been added to by newts.
Little egret in flight by Martin Kuchczynski
Its also been nice to see the return of little egrets after a short term of absence. Up to 4 have been seen at one time from Grisedale hide, and, alongside the odd great white egret, they can be spotted strafing above the reserve.
Down at the coast, after the heatwave and mass evaporation which had left very little water down at the salt marshes, the recent rainfall has restored water levels and aided the dispersal of avocets. At least 20 have fledged, some being sighted along Morecambe bay. Black-headed gulls have been doing extremely well and are in good number – at least 800 pairs with a number of chicks. There are still over 100 black-tailed godwits, with bar-tailed godwits varying in much smaller numbers against the large flocks of their relatives. On the 16th a knot was spotted in amongst them. The WeBs counts on the 15th recorded 6 turnstone and 9 goosander from Jenny Brown’s point. Still to be sighted at the coast in varying numbers are oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew, redshank and shelduck.
As we move deeper into Summer, there’s no better time to witness the charming evidence of Leighton Moss as a grand nursery for nature. It’s pleasing to see this wealth of new life so visible across the reserve, undefeated by early Spring’s disastrous weather. Without falling prey to sentimentality, there’s something to cherish in the sight of these intrepid younglings embarking upon the lives ahead of them.
Mute swan cygnets and greylag goslings are growing up fast, but still paddle after their parents across the pools and along the dykes. Tim Jackson and Grisedale pools are brimming with mallard and gadwall ducklings - on the path between them, a family of treecreepers might be spotted. Despite their diffidence during this season, a family of bearded tits have shown themselves at times skirting the fringes of the Causeway reedbed. On a post close in front of Causeway hide, a pied wagtail has been feeding two voracious young. Fledglings of all varieties abound, and often announce themselves from within the reeds and foliage flanking the paths.
Keeping in line - Mute swan with cygnets by Brian Salisbury
A particular delight is the family of pochards at the Causeway - the hide can offer intimate views of a mother conducting a mini fleet of 9 ducklings. The pochard is currently a red status species and struggling across the UK, so it is uplifting to see this troop doing so well.
The story is the same at the saltmarshes - 22 avocet chicks at last count, growing larger by the day, some still struggling to master their clownish oversized legs. Of the many around, one particular shelduck couple was spotted with 11 young, and of course the black-headed gull colony attend to hundreds of chicks. It is worth mentioning that great white egrets are a possibility here; that a dunlin was spotted amongst the black-tailed godwits earlier in the week, and an occasional Mediterranean gull has been reported.
There is one main exception to this conspicuous display of new life, a scarcity only apprehended as a fleeting apparition by especially fortunate visitors – a mother bittern! We were glad to confirm this week that many years of expert management work had paid off, with these exceptional birds breeding once again at Leighton Moss, almost a decade in the making (be sure to read all about this story in this press release and site manager Jarrod’s blog). The evidence had amassed over the past few weeks, with an increase in sightings from our survey teams in the reeds and from hawk-eyed visitors scanning the reedbed from the Skytower and the Causeway. This established several common flight paths between feeding sites and her nest, which we now know is situated on the south side of the reserve near to the main dyke. Stay alert and who knows - you could be rewarded with a glance at Leighton Moss' most precious resident.
Bittern in flight by John Bridges
Much of the birdlife here has settled into a pleasantly predictable rhythm for the time being. Ospreys conduct their daily fishing ventures at the Causeway, but it can certainly be a lottery to see them. The scaup remains in residence there. Male marsh harriers, bearing the full burden of the hunt to support their brooding mates and recent chicks, are still a regular appearance over the reedbed, effortlessly stylish as ever. Reed, sedge, willow and Cetti’s warblers continue to sing over either side of the reserve - the best places to view them, as well as reed buntings, is the boardwalk, which affords lovely views of their perches on the grey willows (when they are obliging).
As for our non-avian friends: earlier this week there was a mass exodus of froglets and toadlets onto the Causeway. It’s pleasing to think how these tiny beings have struggled through their gradual transformation to terrestrial form, finally amassing themselves to crawl out of the water as a new generation. Despite the perils of their journey (unsuspecting visitors, the unavoidable approach of our reserve range rover etc.) many will make it to the Promised Land and prosper to begin the process anew – so watch your feet!
Foxes with cubs and red deer with fawns are increasingly being seen from Tim Jackson and Grisedales hides and the path connecting the bridleway to Lower hide, navigating through the trees and the reeds at the south side of the reserve. Keep an eye out for otters, which might unexpectedly appear at the pools on either side of the reserve to fish, play and explore.
Red campion by Steven Williams
Beyond birdlife and mammals there is a wider sense of the kaleidoscopic interplay of species across Leighton Moss. The carnivorous bladderwort has emerged at Lillian’s, trapping and feasting on small water-borne prey (keep your fingers inside the hide just in case). Dog rose and elders are blooming, and the thick green reedbed gives off flashes of wildflowers now – on the left before the Causeway hide, a discrete but noble host of common spotted orchids are almost lost beneath the clustered towering foliage; tufted vetch spills blue and violet at edges of the path, and elsewhere red campion, forget-me-not and woody nightshade can be discovered. The air vibrates with the masses of common blue, blue tailed and azure damselflies, and all over speckled wood butterflies calmly and briefly alight and depart.
With the incredibly exciting news that we have bitterns breeding again for the first time in a decade, our Site Manager Jarrod Sneyd recalls his lifelong passion for this iconic species here at Leighton Moss, and how we've made the recovery happen:
I did not think much about intervening in anything when I was a boy of 8 yrs old. I was just a bit obsessed by all things birds.
My parents ‘landed’ with their little caravan at Fell End Caravan Park, near Beetham, just a handful of minutes as the crow flies to Leighton Moss. My grandparents stayed in a posh hotel at Cartmel and we would come together as a family. As my gran was a life-fellow of the RSPB, and I had become a Young Ornithologist (now Wildlife Explorers), Leighton Moss would be an essential part of the holiday’s itinerary. My grandad and parents would just have to tag along (or sleep in the car as my granddad would often do!)
I remember the little reception hut (like a garden shed) that was located near the start of the path that now runs to our new boardwalk. There was a charismatic chap there with a flash of blonde hair and an energetic personality (which I realised later was John Wilson, the Senior Warden). He handed us our permits and we wandered along the narrow path, completely enclosed by reeds, to the Y.O.C hide (now Lilian's hide). This was not simply a journey through reeds to a hide overlooking water and hopefully lots of birds though, it was full of anticipation, full of mystery..the obsession...the bird of the bog...the elusive, the secretive, the mythical...THE BITTERN!
I spent two hours in that hide with my gran, watching every reed to see if it would move. Despite seeing bitterns in bird books I couldn’t imagine how one would look for real. Then someone pointed one out...oh my goodness – where is it? I still couldn’t see it. I kept looking and looking but only had binoculars, and then a sympathetic ‘expert’ let me peer through his telescope. I couldn’t believe it – it was ‘star-pointing’ - stood with its bill straight up in the air, perfectly camouflaged, just in the reeds not far from the edge of the water – and it didn’t move an inch as I watched. I was so excited and have never forgotten this experience.
Ever since then, I have had a connection with Leighton Moss and bitterns – and the place and bird have had a well-known association for many years. It was the place to see bitterns in northern England and for a period, one of the best places in the country to spot them.
And so it was, with the loss of the reedbeds on which they depend, bitterns sadly declined nationally (at their lowest ebb in the 1990s when the population dropped to 11 males), Leighton remained a stronghold.
It continued to be a stronghold through all the years that I made return visits to Leighton Moss after my first bittern initiation. Then in 1990 I came to live on site for 12 months as a residential volunteer. It was still the place to be for bitterns and I remember doing a bittern boom count in the early hours of the day. My shift was one of many, meaning that as a team we counted the ‘boom sequences’ over a full 24 hour period (when a bittern booms, it does several in one go and that set up of booms is called a 'boom sequence'). Below is an example of a bittern boom count.
The peak booming is just before it comes light and when I did the count it was similar to this one. Imagine that at 4.30am on a May morning - the place was alive with the sound of bitterns booming, so much so that it would be almost impossible to have time to write down the boom sequences. In this case there were 27 booms in a 15 minute period – that’s a bird booming every 30 seconds!
It was in 1990 that we also caught 'Phil the bittern'. Glen Tyler, researcher extraordinare (in the image below), banged on the door of the volunteers accommodation one day. He had spent many months figuring out how to catch a bittern and finally, there he was, with a bittern! He needed help to weigh, ring and radio-tag the bird, so in a panic I rushed out to help. The radio-tag meant we could follow it around (we did for many months), working out its favourite places. My relationship with bitterns became even more intimate!
Glen Tyler, bittern researcher, with 'Phil'the bittern'
After that year, as I headed off on my career in conservation (Symonds Yat, Highnam Woods, the Farne Islands…) I didn't imagine that I too would become a bittern researcher. Then in 1997 I came back to Leighton Moss to do just that.I located bittern territories and found a nest.
Below is one of the less than technical maps I produced, showing that even then there were three booming bitterns at Leighton Moss and it remained a stronghold, with only 11 left in the country. I became so obsessed that I stayed put for another seven years. I transitioned into the role of Assistant Warden and my personal journey with Leighton and bitterns was almost complete.
And so, back to the question, to intervene or not intervene? Well, after being a stronghold for so long, bitterns sadly declined at Leighton Moss, to the point that from 2003 onwards, there was just a single bird booming and even then, for many years, it just did a half-hearted boom at the beginning of the season and then just gave up. But thanks to conservation efforts, bitterns were actually starting to do well nationally (166 boomers last year), so what was the problem at Leighton? The reedbed was getting old and drier with the year on year build-up of reed litter. The water bodies were becoming shallower with a build-up of silt and there were issues around water quality.
So, why decide to make some big interventions? Why for just one booming bird? That one bird is the reason that Leighton Moss is a European Designated Special Protection Area ,so we have an obligation to make sure it is in good condition for bitterns and to hopefully keep them breeding. Reedbed is also an extremely scarce habitat in north west England (and indeed throughout the UK). Having bitterns is a great indication that you’ve got a good, healthy reedbed, that’s also home to many other reedbed specialists and a variety of more generalist wildlife too. Some might have argued to just let Leighton do its own thing, let nature take its course. It would have become drier and scrubbed over, becoming wet woodland. In a natural landscape without sea walls, embanked rivers and lots of artificial drainage, reedbeds would come and go – aging here, appearing there. But we live in man-made landscapes, reedbeds can’t come and go, so we need to cherish the jewels that remain!
Maintaining Leighton Moss as a high quality reedbed for bitterns called for radical action! We decided to go on a journey of removing silt from the pools and ditches to take the reedbed back in time. It was getting old and as bitterns like young reedbed, in the earlier stages of development, we needed to dig it out in places. This technique had worked well at Minsmere in Suffolk and had transformed an ailing bittern population (down to just one booming male) to around 10 males there.
The Kori excavator used to clear the silt from the pools and ditches and dig ‘holes’ in the reedbed
Unfortunately, Leighton was an altogether different ball game! Different ground conditions, different reed condition. Though the silt removal from the pools worked well to improve the water quality and restore fish populations, the areas we excavated to revitalise the reedbed just ended up as gloopy mud. Also, though there were some small signs of reedbed spread, it was also clear that a growing red deer population was impacting on any potential recovery as they were also causing considerable damage elsewhere in the reedbed.
And so, we put in an additional water control structure at Leighton Moss so that we could drain down half the reedbed, the idea being that the muddy, gloopy areas would dry out, the surface of the reedbed would be aerated and stabilise, and suitable conditions for plant colonisation would be created in the excavated areas. We also started to manage deer. Leighton Moss being the only place in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB where there was no form of deer management meant it had become a focal point for the red deer of the area, disproportionately increasing the impact of their damage to the reedbed.
The new water control system that was installed
It has been a long-winded story – a blog with many branches! But look below and see the recovery of the excavated areas. All the vegetation starting to take hold in the bottom images. Then imagine what it’s like, after all those years of trying new things, trying controversial things (but knowing that if you don’t do anything, bittern demise is near certain), when a bittern starts to boom properly again and for the first time in a decade we have a female bittern nesting (and near the excavated areas and in part of the reedbed we dried out for several years!!!!!)
As a little boy of 8, marveling at this mythical bird, I was able to see one on my first visit. That’s not been the case as I hit my 40s – whilst we have alwas had regu;ar bitterns through the winter, sightings in recent summer months have been few and far between. This summer, there have been many sightings from the Causeway hide as the female flies backwards and forwards on feeding flights – taking food to her chicks. It has been a long road to recovery, but we are making the first steps. We need to keep intervening, we need to keep Leighton Moss dynamic. It wouldn’t be the special place it is without doing it, for bitterns and for all wildlife here. For me the answer to the original question, is without doubt, ‘To intervene’.
Two ‘excavated areas before (top) and after (bottom) all this new reedbed management