I just spent Sunday to Friday last week volunteering at the RSPB reserve of Blacktoft Sands in Yorkshire under their residential volunteering programme – accommodation was provided so I just had to get myself there and buy my own food – rather like a holiday, but one in which I was working every day. 

As to be expected on any reserve the work involved was quite varied with some general maintenance, some visitor engagement and some practical conservation. This included;

  • Opening up the reserve in the morning
  • Cleaning the hides, benches and toilets
  • Doing a daily bird count from the hides
  • Setting up reception
  • Manning reception to welcome visitors
  • Counting the livestock (sheep and ponies) and moving/maintaining the electric fences
  • Reedbed management
  • low-tide roosting bird count
  • Chopping logs for the fire
  • Sharpening tools in the workshop

So all sorts of things really, mostly just helping the rangers with whatever needed doing for the day; I particularly enjoyed the reedbed management which involved going far out into the massive reedbed where the rangers strimmed the reeds in strips and I pitch-forked the cuttings into piles. This cutting maintains a varied reedbed sward so that there are reeds at different stages of growth and the open areas allow birds to feed.

Konik Ponies used to graze the marsh and the reedbed

Somewhat unfortunately we had to spend about a day and a half trying to unblock one of the pipes that led from the loos to the septic tank – ironically the plastic end of the pipe un-blocker had come off and jammed in the pipe! In the end after much deliberation and trying to poke it out with flexible poles we got a digger in to uncover the pipes so we could remove it – which was far from a savoury job once all of the goop came slopping out.

The wildlife I saw while on the reserve was really fantastic, the reserve has a few shallow lagoons and is well positioned to attract waders and duck from off the Humber estuary when the tide comes in. As a result each day I was seeing good numbers of Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, Redshank, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Snipe and Shelduck. Particular highlights among these commoner species were lovely birds like a lone Avocet that flew in one day, or the flock of 18 Spotted Redshank that fed energetically in a tight group with bums and legs in the air as they probed the pools for food. I even got to see 2 separate Water Rail quite well (there was clearly a good population of them as their squealing calls could be heard most days from within the reeds) and had great views of female Marsh Harriers as they regularly patrolled the reserve.

A strip of cut reed by a ditch to create diverse habitats

Aside from the waterfowl there were other great birds too, one of the best being the sizable population of Tree Sparrows that frequented the car park and had a near-continuous presence on the feeders. These are a red-listed bird that are nearly extinct in Sussex but still have a reasonable population in Yorkshire. I also spotted my first Redwing and Fieldfare of the year and managed to pick out the high-pitched calls of Pink-footed Geese as skeins of them traced overhead each morning and evening. Perhaps best of all though were the reserves star-birds, a true reedbed specialist and stunningly gorgeous species – the Bearded Tits.

Blacktoft has one of the largest populations of this small, tit-like creature in the UK with around 250-300 breeding each year. These are one of my fave birds, not just because they have incredible plumage but also due to their unusual and fascinating biology (being a unique species in the UK avifauna). In October, young from this years breeding season begin to ‘irrupt’ which is a fancy word for leaving home to find a reedbed of their own; they will fly up from the reeds in a large group, calling all the while, high into the sky then fly off in all directions. They build up to this with practice flights above the reeds and get quite excited – their ‘pinging’ calls were heard on the reserve every day from dawn till dusk.

I also saw quite a few mammal species; Roe Deer were on the surrounding fields most evenings and on my first day I came across a Weasel on the edge of one the reserve paths, funnily enough I saw its close cousin the Stoat the very next day. I also had two close encounters with one of my favourite animals on the grazing marsh – a Brown Hare which we flushed from the grass while checking on the ponies; they really are such gorgeous things. Easily the rarest mammal I saw though was a Water Vole which swam along the ditch right in front of the reception hide carrying a blade of grass – only my second ever sighting of this rare aquatic rodent.

On the last day I got a treat when I spotted a harrier flying over the reeds in the distance, despite not getting clear views due to the light I thought I saw a white rump on the otherwise all-dark raptor. Later my suspicions were confirmed when a visiting birder confirmed he had seen a female Hen Harrier from one of the hides at the same time I saw my funny harrier – quite a fantastic sighting as only my second of this species and also the first of the winter for the reserve, which annually gets 3 or 4 roosting in the colder months.

Overall it was a great and quite interesting experience, the wildlife was fantastic and I loved how quiet and secluded the reserve was – a welcome break from the ever-busy south-east. The rangers and other volunteers there were very friendly and knowledgeable, clearly all passionate about the reserve and conserving wildlife in general, it was a joy working with them. I would really recommend residential volunteering as a brilliant experience, a cheap holiday, meet like-minded people, educational and inspiring and guaranteed good wildlife.