Birds of the Bay

Words by Beth Pipe, The Cumbrian Rambler
Photos by Steve Pipe

With autumn fast approaching there are murmurings of murmurations – the starlings at Leighton Moss are definitely he stars of the show with their magnificent dusk displays, but they’re not the only amazing birds to keep your eyes peeled for.  During the autumn and winter, with the leaves off the trees, it’s often easier to spot birds, and you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy it.  Whether you’re packing your binoculars and heading for Leighton Moss, or simply enjoying the birds on your bird table, here are some of the autumn highlights to look out for.

Starlings

Let’s start with the starling – although we generally see them at a distance in huge flocks, up close they are incredibly pretty birds with feathers which almost shimmer in the sunshine.  They’re not hard to spot anywhere in the UK (apart from the tops of the Scottish hills) but we are especially blessed with them around the bay.  So, when’s the best time to catch a murmuration?  Well, ideally, you’ll need a nice quiet, calm evening, around an hour or so before sunset – although bear in mind that animals are not always completely predictable.  Check in with Leighton Moss as they’ll know where the best place might be to see them, as this can vary from evening to evening.  Remember to wrap up warm and take a flask of hot tea to keep you going.

Starling-murmuration

It generally starts small with just a few flocks flying together but it gradually builds with additional flocks seamlessly joining in the aerial display until there are several thousand of them swooping and diving together.  It’s thought that they do this for a number of reasons – to keep warm, to ward of predators, to communicate – but, whatever the reason; it is truly magnificent to watch.

Waxwings

Waxwings aren’t common across the whole of the UK but we’re lucky enough to see them around the bay.  They don’t breed here, they just pop over from Scandanavia for their winter hols, but they absolutely love berries so can often be easy to spot in your garden.  If you want to encourage them plant hawthorn, or elder (they love elder berries!); rowan, and raspberries are also favourites.

They’re not big birds but are quite brightly coloured and fairly easy to recognise by the tuft of feathers on the top of their head.  Plus I always think they look a little like they are frowning.  Some years they will descend in large numbers and can strip a rowan tree in no time at all.

Curlew

Is there anything more evocative than the sound of a curlew call a echoing along the sea shore?  They are largest European wading bird but are under threat at the moment in many areas due to changes in their nesting environment and increased predation.  They thrive in open moorlands, or rough pastures and the UK is home to one quarter of the world’s curlew population, but they have been in decline for several decades.  You can still see, and hear, them around the bay, and there is more information here about what we can all do to help and protect them.

Curlew2

Bittern

OK, I’ll be honest, these are *really* tricky to spot, but there’s a good chance you can hear them if you’re wandering around Leighton Moss.  Their distinctive booming sound doesn’t sound like a bird call at all but it’s what the males do in the early spring to attract a mate – although sometimes they get a bit confused and ‘boom’ in reply to passing train hoots.  They are well camouflaged and incredibly hard to see, even when you’re looking straight at them – they look a bit like a brown stripy heron and these stripy markings mean they blend in beautifully with their preferred habitat of tall reeds.  If you’re patient they are well worth the effort though, but you may need to wait it out in your thermals.

bittern2

Oystercatchers

From one of the trickiest to spot to one of the easiest well, at high tide anyway.  At low tide oystercatchers generally disappear out into the bay but, as the tide rises, they gather along the shoreline.  They’re also pretty easy to see if you peer out of the train windows as you chug along the Levens or Kent viaducts.  Distinctively black and white with a bright red beak they patrol the shoreline digging for cockles and mussels, although you can also find them on soggy fields inland where they’ll dig for worms.

Greylag Geese

They’re not rare, but they are wonderful to watch throughout the autumn as they come and go around the bay in their distinctive V formations.  If you wonder along the prom at Arnside or Grange-over-Sands on most autumn evenings you’ll spot squadrons of them flying overhead to their roosting grounds.  It’ quite a sight if you’re near them as they gather for takeoff and hard to believe that the chaos of noise, water and flapping quickly turns into one of nature most efficient migration patterns.

Greylag-geese

Marsh Harrier

We are incredibly lucky that Morecambe Bay is one of the very few places in the UK where Marsh Harriers are resident.  They are another of the star attractions at Leighton Moss, but they can also be seen around Meathop and Foulshaw Moss.  Although the population has struggled in the past, and still faces challenges from persecution it is, for now, more stable.  Marsh Harriers feed on small birds and mammals and can often be seen swooping in amongst starling murmurations looking for dinner.

Marsh-Harrier-2

If you love the wildlife of the bay, don’t miss a wonderful evening at The Platform with President of RSPB and “Tweet of the Day” regular, Miranda Krestovnikoff on the 11th October. You can even have your chance to win a pair of tickets with our Facebook competition!