Mob rule at Tophill Low

peregrine and tern by Andy Marshall
peregrine and tern by Andy Marshall

Valentine’s day saw the return of many breeding birds to Yorkshire Water’s Tophill Low Nature Reserve. The brashest of them all being the oystercatcher.

These raucous wading birds spend the winter on estuaries and coastal mudflats before pairing off and returning to inland breeding sites – which is anywhere the ground is soft enough to get their large red bill into in search of earthworms. Be that the low marshes of the Hull Valley, or on the wet flushes on top of the North Yorkshire Moors. One reason they survive so well in all environments is their dedication as parents. They usually only raise two chicks, and only the wet, cold weather of 2012 stopped them achieving it last year. Many wetland birds suffer predation at Tophill Low; marsh harriers, sparrowhawks, foxes, buzzards, grass snakes, pike and otters are just some of the hazards for eggs and chicks. But none gets chance to come near as the sharp eyed – and sharp billed oystercatcher hurtles in to bravely attack any potential predator.

On the reserve’s South Marsh the common terns, black headed gulls, avocets and oystercatchers all join forces to harass and evict any potential predator in a behaviour known as ‘mobbing.’ Whilst powerful, predators cannot risk an injury no matter how trivial – a damaged eye could be the difference between life and death in the wild, so mobbing often does the trick.

It’s a great way of finding a predator too – a walk in the woods and you may come across dozens of small birds chirruping and agitated around an ivy creeper – chances are there’s a tawny owl in there. Wheeling carrion crows? – likely a buzzard or harrier, ducks congregated around a reed bed – could be a bittern in there, geese all looking in one direction – likely a fox in that thicket. Learning this language is one of the best ways to enhance a day’s wildlife watching – sometimes giving rise to incredible moments like this common tern having a close shave with a Peregrine Falcon taken by regular Andy Marshall.

Tophill Low Nature Reserve is located 4 miles from the A164 at Watton. Open daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission £2.80 adults, £1.20 Concessions (65 and over, 16 and under), under 5’s free. Sorry no dogs. Visit or follow us on @tophillllow