On Thursday I visited RSPB St Aidans which is located south east of Leeds and only couple of miles west of another RSPB reserve, Fairburn Ings. St Aidans is a former opencast coal mine which operated right up until 2002 and there is still a Dragline Excavator next to the visitor centre which was imported from the US in 1946, weighing in at whopping 1,220 tons and is nicknamed Oddball.
In March of 1988 part of the banks of the River Aire failed and the 3 opencast mines at the site were flooded. RAF Chinook Helicopters were brought in to ferry sandbags into the breach to try and stem the flow of water without success. Opencast mining obviously had to be stopped and work costing £20 million to drain the site and re-route the river was undertaken
St Aidans is made up of woodland, grassland, reedbeds, lakes, reservoirs and the River Aire along the reserve's southern border. There are four trails as well as other footpaths and bridleways that you can follow and they are Bowers Bimble, Lowther Loop, Hillside Hike and Reedbed Ramble. The Bowers Bimble trail starts from the car park and takes you round Bowers Lake and is 1.1 miles in length. Lowther Loop trail takes you in to the south eastern corner of the reserve round Lowther & Oxbow Lakes and along the banks of the River Aire, this trail is 1.7 miles long and again starts from the car park.
The Hillside Hike takes you up the hill at the northern end of the reserve through woodland and grassland, this is a good spot for seeing Short Eared Owls in winter and is 2 miles in length. The longest trail is the Reedbed Ramble, which is 3 miles in length and starts from the visitor centre. The trail heads along the bottom of the hillside until you reach the reedbeds and then goes round in a big loop around the edge of the reedbeds returning to the path back to the visitor centre.
The reason for my visit was due to the number of Black Necked Grebes at the site with a reported 18 breeding pairs present in the extensive reedbeds. It was a very hot day when I arrived with temperatures reaching 27ºC which is fifteen degrees above the average of 12ºC at this time of year. I set off from the car park walking past the enclosure housing the Dragline Excavator, which is currently home to nesting Little Owls & Kestrels, and down the hill to the start of the Reedbed Ramble Trail. From here the path takes you along the bottom of the hillside towards the reedbeds with the bushes and tall grass to the right being an excellent place to see warblers and other small birds.
As I was walking along to my right I saw a Sedge Warbler and several Reed Buntings moving from bush to bush. Over to the left swimming along the wide channel was a single Great Crested Grebe following me as I walked along and diving for food as it went. As I approached the start of the reedbeds a Meadow Pipit flew across the path and over the water channel to my left and in the sky above I could hear Skylarks singing away.
I started my walk round the reedbeds along the northern border of the Eastern Reedbed. In the fields to the right there were a few Greylag and Canada Geese, whilst over to the left in the water at the edge of the reeds were Coots, Tufted Ducks and a Great Crested Grebe. At the north west corner of the reedbeds I made a slight detour and had a look at Fleakingley Reservoir which had several Coots, Tufted Ducks and Greylag Geese present with one pair of Greylags even having a few youngsters in tow.
I returned to the trail and took a path that went between the Eastern & Western Reedbeds as halfway along was the recommended spot for seeing Black Necked Grebes. There had also been sightings of Bearded Tits in the reeds close to the path and on past visits I had seen Linnets amongst the Gorse bushes at the edge of the path. I walked along the path and moving from bush to bush there were a couple of Reed Buntings and overhead there were a lot of Black Headed Gulls.
I was now half way along this path and right in the centre of the reedbeds and I was able to see Little Grebes, Great Crested Grebes, Mute Swans, Coots and Tufted Ducks. Perched on a log at the edge of the reeds was a Black Headed Gull which then had a quick look at its reflection in the water before moving closer and having a drink. I moved a little further along and in between a couple of Coots, at quite a distance away, I spotted a Black Necked Grebe.
I continued on to the end of the path where it rejoined the Reedbed Ramble Trail and from here I looked out over the Main Lake. On the islands in the middle of the Main Lake were hundreds of Black Headed Gulls making a cacophony of noise. In the water near the islands there were a trio of Shelducks and a minute or so later they took off and flew over the reedbeds and landed in the reeds at the far side. From here there is another path that separates the Main Lake from Lemonroyd Lake, however with all the recent rain the path was flooded and now inaccessible.
I followed the trail round the southern side of the Western Reedbed and on the left of the path in Lemonroyd Lake were several Gadwalls and in the bushes there was another Reed Bunting. Further along the path to the right I saw Greylag Geese, Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes and a trio of Pochards at the edge of the reeds. At the far end of the Western Reedbed I had reached the end of Lemonroyd Lake, but over to the right, just a few feet from the path I heard a Bittern booming amongst the reeds.
Over to the left close to some reeds a pair of Great Crested Grebes were performing their courtship display and after a brief look at Astley Lake I headed back along the path which separates the Eastern & Western Reedbeds. As I made my way along the path a Grey Heron flew over the reeds and dropped down out of sight. Once I had reached the centre of the reedbeds again I stopped and waited to see if the Black Necked Grebe would make an appearance again and hopefully closer this time.
After twenty minutes or so I decided to move on, but I had not walked more than thirty yards, when ahead of me I spotted a grebe at the edge of the reeds near the path. Once I got a bit closer I was able to see that it was indeed a Black Necked Grebe and it didn't seem at all bothered by my presence as I took several photos. I spent the next ten minutes watching the Black Necked Grebe as it dived for food before I continued along the path.
Once I reached the edge of the reedbeds I turned northwards up the right hand side of the Eastern Reedbeds and started to make my way back towards the visitor centre. As I reached the north eastern corner of the reedbeds I saw a Skylark rising up into the air as it sang and in the field to the right there were more Black Headed Gulls, Canada Geese, Greylag Geese and a pair of Crows. As I turned along the path along the bottom of the hill I saw more Reed Buntings in the bushes and a little further along I saw a Meadow Pipit sat on top of a fence post.
As I reached the point where the path turns up the hill to the visitor centre I spotted a lone Lapwing at the edge of the water over to the right. I made my way up the hill and after purchasing an ice cream and drink to cool off in the hot weather I sat down by the visitor centre looking out over the reserve. Whilst I was sat there I saw four Sand Martins flying over Bowers Lake which is just below the visitor centre and above the visitor centre there was a single Buzzard high in the sky. Before I left I had a quick look at the compound housing the Dragline Excavator to see if I could see the Little Owls but I was unsuccessful.
I have attached a few photos and a full sightings list from my visit to RSPB St Aidans.