It is that time of the month again – yes, the time for monthly bird walk organised by RSPB Liverpool. To be frank, it couldn’t have come sooner, as we were getting overwhelmed by the busy life. This time, on our birding trip, group leader Chris would take us around Leighton Moss, the charming RSPB reserve that is home to the largest reed bed in North-west England. The site holds all the usual allures of a nature reserve, but for bird watchers, it has something incredibly appealing to offer in the autumn months. Read on to know about it.
Allow us set the background a bit before we get into the day’s events because unlike some of the sites we visited with the local RSPB bird group, Leighton Moss is not an unfamiliar place for us. In fact, it is one of the few places we frequently visited upon our arrival in the UK a few years ago.
Birding at Leighton Moss – The First Few Trips – Bringing Together Two Loves
For our first few visits to Leighton Moss, we travelled by rail from Liverpool. It allowed us to experience two of our favourite things – travel and birding (with train travel thrown in, the excitement was tremendous). We boarded the train from Lime Street Station, changed train at Preston, before alighting at Silverdale. We enjoyed those trips because they allowed us to relish the beauty of the English countryside. Silverdale station reminded us of the small railway station near our home in Kerala, turning us nostalgic.
However, travelling by train meant we had less time for birding and exploring the reserve. Most of the times we had to rush back reluctantly to catch the train before it got too late. Furthermore, we often arrived later than we would’ve liked to, which was a dampener when you want to spend more time watching birds.
But, even in the few hours we spent at Leighton Moss, we saw many lifers such as Goldcrest, Tree Creeper, Nuthatch, Water Rail, and more. We tried to catch a glimpse of the famous Bearded Tits but without success. Every time, we had to return home without seeing them. However, we were never disheartened and hoped to see them when we visited next.
First Glimpse of the Most Famous Resident
Then, in 2019, we took a couple of friends who had recently arrived in the UK to Leighton Moss. Finally, the jinx was broken, and we got our first view of the bearded tits. It is a moment neither of us would forget in life! It was a brief encounter as the birds quickly disappeared between the reeds before we could get a proper look. However, that brief sighting was magical, and we were delighted to have seen them, if only for a few seconds!
The excitement of that sighting stayed with us for a long time, and even though we planned to return soon, the Covid outbreak meant we couldn’t visit any time soon.
Reconnecting with an Old Acquaintance
When we heard that this month’s bird walk was at Leighton Moss, we were determined to join the group. Not only because the bird walk was slowly becoming the most awaited highlight of our months but also because it was a chance to reconnect with an old acquaintance. There is a sense of familiarity with the place even though it has been a long time since our last visit. But that’s the deal with friendships – you can pick up right from where you left off when you meet your old friends. Leighton Moss is a familiar place; we’ve always enjoyed our visits.
Fast forward to the present, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Although cloudy when we left Liverpool and pouring en-route, the sky was clear and blue when we arrived at Leighton Moss. Most of the group was already there, and it was a pleasure to see all the beaming faces. As usual, we exchanged pleasantries, and Chris led us all to the reserve.
We went straight to the hide and delightfully watched the birds on the feeder. The beauties included Collared Dove, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Robin, Nuthatch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, and Dunnock. Prancing about under the feeder was a Mallard, soon joined by a majestic Pheasant. We watched them until Chris said it was time to move, and suddenly a sense of anticipation engulfed us because we knew the next stop would be to see the Bearded Tits.
Bearded Tits – The Star Attraction
As mentioned previously, the Bearded Tits are the star attraction here. The reed beds provide these birds with a perfect habitat, and the reserve authorities have ensured that visitors get a fair chance to see these beauties. They’ve put grit trays by the walkway and have provisioned for visitors to watch them in action.
We walked along the walkway, Chris told us about the habitat as we looked into the reedbed. Soon, he pointed us towards a Marsh Harrier, perched amongst the reeds on a pole, preening away with no worries. While it was difficult to admire the beauty of the bird with the naked eye, a look through the spotting scope reveals its beauty and splendour.
Once he ensured everyone saw the bird, Chris led us forward along the path. As we walked amongst the reed bed, he told us what to listen for – often, you hear the Bearded Tit before you see them. He also demonstrated the bird’s call so we can identify it if we heard it. He also told us how these birds change their eating habits – when insects become scarce, they switch to eating seeds, However, their bills are not strong enough to crack the seeds and so they eat grit and store it in their gizzard to help grind the seeds.
Chris is an excellent guide who does everything possible to help us see the birds. Sometimes, we wonder if he finds the weight of the group’s high expectations too much. If it does, he never shows it. However, we shouldn’t have worried. As soon as we turned and entered the path where the birds are habitually spotted, we saw a group of people gathered where we knew the grit trays were. A sure-shot sign of the presence of the star species!
A Treat to the Eyes and Lens
We rushed to the spot with thumping hearts and almost screamed in joy. There were a few of them on the grit trays. Both males and females. They were hopping from tray to tray and fluttering in and out of the reeds. We couldn’t have asked for a better sighting – unless we wanted to be highly selfish and have the front-row view that allowed us to click pictures more easily. However, we only wanted to see the birds up close, click some decent photos, and soak it in.
As the camera shutters went boom boom boom, the hearts exploded with joy. Even as we were watching the birds, clicking the pics, trying not to get in the way of others while hoping to get a good view, there was this sense of immense happiness as if we were experiencing something magical. How can a bunch of tiny creatures bring so much joy and content to one’s heart? Once again, we experienced Mother Nature’s positive, transformative, healing powers. Words cannot explain what the heart feels.
Journeying on and more birding
After a few minutes, the birds went hiding in the reeds. We left the spot in search of other wildlife. And as usual, Leighton Moss didn’t disappoint. As we reached the hide along the pathway, Chris showed an otter at the far end of the water. Apart from a few in the group, everyone seemed to have caught a glimpse of the swimming animal. However, those who missed the sighting didn’t have time to feel disappointed as someone spotted a cleverly camouflaged Jack Snipe on the small island in the waters.
The excitement spread through everyone as we all spotted the bird one by one. There were several other birds in the lake. Mute Swans, Teals, Ducks, and more. After watching them, we set off again for more birds. As we walked along the path, we crossed a small waterway. A few mute swans were swimming towards us, and suddenly, one of them got agitated.
It framed the wings in typical heart shape and chased the other males away. Chris explained that the dominant male was scaring away all the other male swans so they wouldn’t get close to the females. While the Mute Swans are usually calm and paint a serene picture as they swim by, this behaviour showed us an entirely different aspect of their personality.
It allowed us to observe these lovely birds exhibiting their emotions and behaviour in their natural habitat. It also reminded us that when it matters, even the coolest and calmest person would lose their cool and spring forth to defend what is dear to them.
Birding is not Just About Birds
We continued our walk towards another hide. Chris had told us we were going only about half the way as the hide was closed for renovation. We weren’t disappointed because the walk offers an excellent opportunity for bonding – not only with nature but also among ourselves. As Chris continued to point out various birds and search for the elusive ones, we had ample opportunities to catch up with each other.
We’ve discovered that sometimes, even in a birding group, we can find a few minutes of solitude. Walking among the woods, taking in the sounds and sights of nature, is a therapeutic exercise for the mind and soul, too. It gives ample opportunities to self-reflect and reminiscence. Moreover, it is the best way to admire the beauty and magic of nature.
As the sun’s rays trickled through the foliage, with the stream flowing in a gentle rhythm that puts your heart and mind at ease, the sweet song of a bird fills the us with joy, and we feel mesmerised. Suddenly, we feel content, as if life is perfect. We are complete, and an unbelievable peace settles within. Could there be anything more precious and priceless than this feeling?
We are so at peace with everything that even if the solitude is broken, we don’t feel anxious or irritated. Instead, it feels like being a part of the whole and hence it is easier to be open to one another. It is usually during our walks from one spot to another that we share our stories and experiences with the group. Listening to others is always a great way to know more, and we’ve been fascinated by the stories we get to hear on these walks.
The Human Connection
Interestingly, the stories are not always about birds or nature. It is about people too. These walks give us an opportunity to share personal stories. Hearing about people overcoming various trials and tribulations in life is always a moving experience. It gives an insight into how spending time in the company of like-minded people and nature can help to heal. Birding is a physical activity – however, it benefits the mind and mental health immensely.
It is moments like these that make this birding group special. There is a unique warmth and feeling of belonging here. These stories we hear are subtle reminders that we often don’t know how the other person feels. Although cheerful and energetic outside, people might be fighting their own battles within. It is also noteworthy that not all superheroes wear capes – most look like us and are amongst us. We don’t need to look far for inspiration. If we open our hearts, ears, and eyes, we’ll find several inspiring stories around us.
Lunch and More Birding
Soon, we arrived at another hide, and Chris suggested it was a good time and place to eat lunch. Most of us carried packed lunches and enjoyed our food with magnificent views ahead. It felt as if the lake was invaded by Coots. There were too many of them! A Great White Egret caused some excitement, as did a Buzzard and Marsh Harrier.
Refuelled and rekindled, we set out for the sky tower. Although the climb was an effort for some, the view from the top made it all worthwhile. The reserve sprawled ahead, and the vast expanse of reed beds gave it a unique charm. A Marsh Harrier was flying almost at eye level, showing its beauty. Someone mentioned they saw a herd of deer from the tower the last time they visited.
Alas, there weren’t any deer this time. But a few Siskins and Goldfinches were enough to bring some cheer to the group. We set off again, and Chris showed us a Goldcrest this time. Although a few in the group saw them elsewhere, this one was nearer and easily spottable. Chris looked along the waterways for water rail, but it was nowhere.
A few minutes walk, and we arrived at another hide. There wasn’t anything particularly special, so after spending a few minutes there, we decided to walk back to the car park. From there, we will go to another set of hides on the other side of the reserve to look for waders.
Bearded Tits, Again!
As we walked back, we had to pass another set of grit trays; this time, there were a couple of birds on that. It was almost unbelievable that we saw the Bearded Tits at two different locations. It felt like a dream – of course, it was a dream come true moment!
Soon, we all got into our cars and headed towards Eric Morecambe hide. Although we’ve heard about it numerous times, this is our first time there. So, we set off happily to find the parking spot that Chris showed us on a map. However, we managed to confuse ourselves and take the wrong road before turning back and finding our way to the spot. Car parked, we joined others and walked towards the hide.
The hides here are the best place to see waders. We hoped to see some as we only saw few waders since then. But when we reached the hide, it wasn’t an encouraging sight as the waders were absent, except for a few Black-Tailed Godwits. However, someone spotted a Merlin far away, and we took turns to admire it through Chris’s spotting scope. He also showed us a Greenshank.
We headed to the other hide and saw three or four Egrets, a Grey Heron, a few ducks, and a Curlew before a flock of Red Shanks flew in. A flock of Northern Lapwings soon followed, and we were happy to see them. As there wasn’t much birding activity, most of us got chatting. After a while, we decided to call it a day.
A Memorable Birding Trip
This visit to Leighton Moss was memorable for more reasons than one. The highlight, of course, was the views of Bearded Tits. But, the Goldcrest, Marsh Harrier at almost eye level, and Mute Swan were all memorable. We saw over 50 species that day. The weather was pleasant, and the company was excellent. As Chris showed us one bird after another, especially the ones we badly wanted to see, we felt excited and happy, like children receiving early Christmas presents.
We said our byes and drove back to Liverpool, our hearts brimming with happiness and minds at ease. If this wasn’t an ideal birding trip, we don’t know what would ever be!
PS: Huge thanks to Chris for all the beautiful sightings. Special thanks to all group members for the lovely feedback on our Yarrow Valley birding trip blog. If you haven’t read it yet, you can find it here.