Fairburn Ings – 20 Jun 2019

After an absence of over four years, I decided that a trip to the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings reserve in West Yorkshire was long overdue.

I left home in beautiful sunshine, but arrived at Fairburn about an hour later during a shower of fine drizzle. Not to be daunted, I got out my camera and headed onto the reserve, hoping that the weather would soon improve. The BBC Weather app on my phone assured me that it would, or should, at least!

Passing along the tree-lined path on my way to my first port of call – Pickup Hide, I was completely immersed in a ‘tapestry’ of rich and varied birdsong surrounding me on all sides. During the Winter months, when the trees are bare, it is easy to spot any birds on their branches. Now, however, with the trees in full Summer foliage, which of course offers ample protection from potential predators, the birds are far more numerous but nearly impossible to spot! My first proper sighting of the day was a Robin, with a beakful of insects, which was perched on a branch a few feet in front of me. Seeing this bird made me wonder just how often a Robin has been the first bird I have seen on arrival at a nature reserve; it certainly must be a high proportion of all my birding trips.

Moving on to the hide, I settled-down to scan the lake before me and the nearby trees and undergrowth for birds. A fabulous Sand Martin nesting-wall has been constructed just to the right of the hide, and as I watched, numerous martins would zoom past overhead, hawking for insects, and occasionally darting into the holes in the wall to feed ever-hungry chicks in their nests. I knew from experience that trying to photograph these blindingly-fast fliers is terribly frustrating, but I just couldn’t help myself! Time and again I tried my best to fire the shutter of my camera as a bird approached its nest hole, only to later find that at least 90% of the resulting images showed only the bare stone wall and no bird! (The remaining 10% mostly comprised blurry bits of birds at the edge of the frame, and the very rare ‘just-about-acceptable’ image of a Sand Martin flying towards or away from its nest-hole).

Not a great photograph, I know, but these Sand Martins are really fast fliers!

Next I wanted to visit the Coal Tips Trail, which hadn’t yet been developed and opened-up to visitors on my previous visits to Fairburn. Over the intervening years I have been keeping up to date by periodically reading Fairburn’s blog, however, and was well-aware that many excellent sightings take place at this newest part of the reserve. As I turned the corner of the Riverbank Trail to begin climbing up the hill towards the Coal Tips Trail, I paused for a little while at the Kingfisher screen. Several years ago, in the early days of my ‘serious’ birding, and before I’d ever even seen a Kingfisher in the wild, I had stood at this screen on numerous occasions, hoping that that would be the day when I eventually got lucky and saw my first ‘Kingy’. Having seen and photographed them elsewhere on numerous occasions since then, I didn’t dwell long there today – and no, I didn’t see one there today either!

This squirrel froze when it saw me approach. I wish the birds would do the same!!

At the top of the lane the path diverges: left to continue along the Riverbank Trail and right to the Coal Tips Trail. As I climbed the hill towards the panoramic viewpoint above the long-abandoned coal tips, I scoured the ‘Big Hole’ lake and the surrounding landscape for birds. Once again I could hear a good many, but saw very few – no surprises there then! A Mute Swan and some assorted waterfowl including Tufted Duck and mallard were swimming on the lake whilst a flock of around ten Carrion Crows flew circles overhead or foraged-around on the lake-shore. An unexpected bird made quite a noise as it flew overhead – a lone Avocet – the first one I’d ever seen at Fairburn.

On reaching the ‘summit’ I was afforded a view over the whole of the Coal Tips area which comprises three large lakes with reeds and low bushes along the margins. Unfortunately, although the drizzle had been replaced by warm sunshine by this point, I was now high-enough and exposed-enough for it to be quite breezy. A large number of birds were present some distance from my position – mostly ducks and gulls, but I could hear various small birds, including Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler, that were ‘hunkered-down’ against the breeze and hence, out of sight. I watched the water for a while before deciding that it was too breezy to walk the full circumference of the trail today, and that I would have more success photographing birds if I returned back down the hill to the lower part of the reserve, where it was calmer.

A lovely shot of a Long Tailed Tit.

As I came down the hill, I was once more sheltered from the breeze and soon was treated to an excellent close-up viewing of a flock of six or seven Long Tailed Tits in the trees by the path. I love these tiny birds which are relatively tame and tend not to be too bothered about humans nearby waving long camera-lenses about. It has always struck me as curious that it is larger birds such as Magpies, crows and raptors that are generally much-more wary of humans and take flight long before smaller ones, on being approached. Corvids, at least, are well-known for their high degree of intelligence, so perhaps the answer to the conundrum lies there somewhere…

As I was passing near to the Pickup Hide once more, I heard what I took to be a very brief ‘waffle’ which alerted me to the possibility that a Green Woodpecker was somewhere amongst the dense vegetation nearby. I stood still for a few hopeful moments, scanning the nearest trees, but heard no more from the Woodpecker, and eventually carried-on along the path. And so the Green Woodpecker remains near the top of my list of most desirable birds to photograph. Helen and I had a brief sighting of one last year at Middleton Lakes RSPB, but neither of us had time to snatch a photograph before the elusive bird was gone. One day…

Back in the Pickup Hide, I spent a few more minutes watching the Sand Martins darting in and out of their nest holes. In the far distance I could see the heronry, over near Spoonbill Flash, which is spread over a couple of very large trees that host multiple nests between them. No herons there today that I could see, but I could make out about a dozen Cormorants and at least three Little Egrets all perched near to, or on nests in the trees.

As I watched the bird feeders positioned just a few feet to the right of the Pick-Up Hide, which were mainly being visited by Tree Sparrows and Great Tits, I suddenly noticed a Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding on fat balls on one of the feeders tucked partially out of sight to my extreme right. Great Spotted Woodpeckers make daily visits to the feeders located at the bottom of our garden at home, but this one was very close to my position, and so although the bird was semi-obscured by nearby foliage, I enjoyed taking some photographs of this always-exciting and exotic-looking bird. Not the much-more elusive Green Woodpecker that I had hoped to photograph a few minutes previously, but a good bird to see nonetheless.

Feeling somewhat in need of refreshment after a couple of hours of walking around the reserve, I made my way back to the car park, pleased with my visit to Fairburn. In its entirity it is a huge reserve, spread over quite a large area, and could easily take a couple of full days to explore properly. I’ll be back here again, hopefully in much less than four years’ time!


About Alan Gordon

I am a retired teacher and former RAF Musician. I live near Sheffield and enjoy taking photographs of wild birds throughout the UK.
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