We are very lucky here in Wharfedale, having ready access to several habitats – riverside, oak woodlands and, of course, heather moorland. But it’s sometimes useful for a naturalist to experience an entirely different environment, and that’s what I was doing on Saturday. While stormy skies threatened Ilkley, the WNS were enjoying summer sunshine at Leighton Moss, the RSPB Reserve near Silverdale.
The main reserve is made up of extensive reed-beds, dotted with scrubby willow trees and cleared, in places, to form lagoons and pools. You walk through head-high reeds on paths edged with meadowsweet and an occasional patch of woody nightshade, its yellow-centred purple flowers bright against the green. A soundscape surrounds you: the whispering of breeze through reeds, interrupted by songs and soft contact calls from hidden birds. I recognized the scratchy song of a sedge warbler and the plaintive tseeu of a reed bunting but only had a tantalizing glimpse of the singers – I get better views at Otley Wetlands! However, one bird I couldn’t see locally has, after several years of visiting Leighton Moss, finally nested and is now feeding young. Very secretive, it is recognized by its sudden explosive bursts of song. I only glimpsed it, a brown shape dashing across a narrow waterway, and wouldn’t have known what it was had I not talked to a man with an impressive camera who was waiting patiently all day to get its picture. Cetti’s warbler was first recorded in UK in 1961 and was for many years restricted to south of England. Now it breeds and overwinters here.
After lunch, we moved on to the salt marshes, to a hide named after another keen birdwatcher, Eric Morecambe. Once again, you enter a new world, one of close-cropped grassland, drainage dikes, mud-flats and pools. This is the place to see water and wading birds and hone your identification skills. Among the more familiar redshanks, lapwings and black-tailed godwits were some more exotic characters: dainty little egrets – beside which their UK cousins the grey herons looked like thickset thugs – and avocets. The latter, elegant with black and white plumage and long slim blue legs are now here in numbers, and have chicks. One ball of fluff, surely only days old, paddled about – sweeping the shallows with its tiny upturned bill. It already knew exactly how to be an avocet.