Amazed by the Nene Washes

I’ve been to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Welney reserve a few times, including late last year and the Ouse Washes on which it sits have been spectacular when I have visited in autumn and winter. However, I’m not sure I have ever really heard of the Nene Washes before but today has changed that as we spent a few late morning/early afternoon hours there.

Both ‘Washes’ are huge winter flood storage areas for their neighbouring rivers with the Nene site extending to 1,522 hectares, bounded by large embankments to keep the water from flooding the surrounding flat and low-lying fenland. The RSPB manages a portion of the site, amounting to around 280 hectares and it was this part of the Washes we visited today.

Walking routes from the car park are limited to heading east or west on the southern embankment overlooking the Washes. It gives great views over the site, from an elevated position, although it was particularly windy today making the use of a telescope and binoculars quite challenging.

We started off heading in the direction of a group of people looking into some fields and found them watching three short-eared owls. Two were hunkered down in a small hawthorn tree beside an old barn while the third was more in the open, perched on some logs in the middle of a neighbouring field. After watching them for a while we headed west and were soon told of a particularly special bird that had been seen to fly over and into a small, waterlogged copse. We quickly made our way down and it wasn’t long until we saw it on the woodland edge – a glossy ibis!!! I thought it might have been the first time I’d ever seen one; checking later, I had seen one before when in Botswana, but this was definitely a first sighting in the UK for me, of what is a comparative rarity.

After watching a the ibis for a little while and wandering a little further west to see what other birdlife was in the flooded fields, we headed back east towards the car. Walking east beyond the car park we had great views of perhaps the most lapwings and golden plovers I’ve ever seen – several thousand of each have been recorded there in the last few days. They were constantly being spooked by birds of prey and lifting in great clouds. Long broken flocks of lapwings headed along the Washes leaving behind the golden plovers which circled, rose and dived, shimmering as they caught the sun on their wings.

Of the raptors, we saw five marsh harriers in one binocular view, causing other flocks of birds to lift, including big groups of wigeon. There were also buzzards, red kites (of which we saw plenty more on the way from Northamptonshire) and a stooping and chasing kestrel.

Our main reason for going was to get a chance of seeing common cranes. It’s now well over two years since I last saw any, on my final trip to Sweden before the pandemic hit. For me, they are some of the most wilderness evoking birds, particularly their calls crying out across the landscape. There are very few in the UK compared to Sweden, where I have seen many thousands coming in to roost at the start of their autumn migration. I also frequently see pairs in the countryside when I visit family out in the Swedish countryside and hear when I sit in the summerhouse garden. Today we had very distant views of them out across the Washes landscape and heard them call momentarily before the strong wind whipped the sounds away. We saw at least 25 in a loose group; the wind was just too much to get a stable enough view to count more.

This really was a fantastic first visit to the Nene Washes and hopefully more visits will come.

Summer Leys in Winter

We’re very lucky to have a lot of wetland nature reserves close to us in Northamptonshire; they’re great locations which for winter wildlife. After visiting our nearest sites of Pitsford Water and Ravensthorpe Reservoir over the last couple of weeks, we went a little further afield to Summer Leys today. The national nature reserve, run by Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust is a large, flooded former gravel pit about 25 minutes from us. It is located alongside the River Nene, south of Wellingborough and is one of a large network of lakes by the river as it passes through the county.

Parking in the Wildlife Trust’s car park, there is a good circular walk around the whole site and it took us around two hours today. We weren’t racing around, instead, we took our time to stop at most of the viewpoints over the water and we had lunch on a bench at the far end. We also stopped in the various hides, which were all on the second half of the walk (taking a clockwise way around).

It was a quite a dark and gloomy day and it didn’t take long to get quite cold when we stopped but not too cold to shorten our stay. The large open lake, with little bays here and there, is the winter home to a large selection of waterbirds. There were good numbers of duck, with mallard, gadwall, wigeon, teal, tufted duck, goldeneye and pochard all present in varying numbers, as well as small flocks of greylag and Canada geese and some mute swans. We had views of limited numbers little and great egrets, and a grey heron or two, plus quite a few cormorants on the low islands in the centre of the lake.

The most spectacular view on our walk was of a large flock of lapwings and smaller flock of golden plovers which settled on one of the small central islands. There were more lapwings at the reserve than I can remember seeing anywhere for a long time; they seemed to be everywhere. Every so often they would lift as they were spooked by something, with the flock on the central island being particularly large. We didn’t get a good view of what was causing them to lift, but they frequently rose in alarm, circling above together or splitting and taking dramatic evasive action. The lapwings were always the first to return to ground while the golden plover stayed in the air, often much higher, waiting for things to calm down again.

The bird feeding station was also very good with loads of tits, finches and reed buntings coming in and out to take the food put out for them. Someone told us they had seen a brambling but we had no luck. However, the good close views of bullfinches made up for it, with more in one place than I have seen for quite some time. Just around the corner, after hearing them several times on the walk, we saw a green woodpecker feeding on the ground in the open grass between the path and the lake.

In all we saw nearly 50 species during our easy walk around the reserve, almost as many as we saw in the much longer walk around Pitsford, which has a lot more variation in its habitats. It won’t be long until many of these species move on as the winter visitors move back north, and then replaced as summer visitors move in. However, there should be time yet to visit more of the wetland sites nearby and slightly further away before the winter is over.

A little piece of English history

As most readers of my blog will realise, I am more one for natural rather than human history. However, over the last few weeks a little piece of both national and immediately local history has come to light which has taken more of my interest than usual.

One morning between Christmas and New Year, I looked over our lawn to see that part of the wall facing the road had come down in the storm during the previous night. Like so many of the older houses in our village, we have a drystone wall boundary although ours looked a lot more rickety than most. Since we moved into the house nearly a year ago, we have carefully taken off some of the ivy that was overgrowing it and made some of the stones on the top a little more secure. Looking at the wall on the Google Streetview image, which was taken in 2015, it was completely overgrown with bramble and ivy, so it appeared to be in better shape than it had been in previous years. However, after several storms and heavy rains over the last few months, it seem it couldn’t stand up any longer, or at least one section of it.

We spent the following week getting quotes for works and eventually appointed the local waller and shepherd, Tim, who actually drives down our village lane each day to tend his sheep. He started the work a week and a half ago and, with a few hours each day, is already showing good progress. He’s not just repairing the missing gap but rebuilding much of the whole 10 metre run, including putting a cock and hen coping on it. The section of the wall done to date already looks much better than the section it replaces, so the whole wall is going to be much stronger and a lot less rickety.

Now onto the history…

While taking some of the stones down, to then rebuild the wall, Tim found pieces of an old clay smoking pipe including parts of the bowl. After an initial view from Tim and some research, the pipe has been dated to a time around 1650 to 1680. This may be interesting enough to some, but then comes the wider historical link to the stones in the wall and the English Civil War.

Naseby is a village around 12 miles to the north of our own, and is on some of my usual cycling routes around the area. It was the setting for the Battle of Naseby in 1645, one of the defining engagements of the war and perhaps the most famous. Even closer to us, around two miles away, is Holdenby House, pronounced locally as Holmby, which was the site of what was to become a major royal palace of both James I and Charles I. After the Civil War it was the prison of Charles I between February and June 1647 before he was seized and taken off to New Market (to be later executed in 1649 in Whitehall). Parliament later sold the palace to Captain Adam Baynes, who demolished the majority of the building, leaving behind one wing, which remains in itself a major country house. The stone resulting from the demolition, potentially used to pay soldiers from the war, was distributed around the area and used in construction of buildings and walls.

All of the above dates point to not only our wall being built in the 17th Century (the house is from circa 1860) but also being made, in part at least, from stone taken from a former royal palace. Looking at some of the stone in the wall, Tim believes that some of the local ironstone and non-local sandstone is very similar in size and shape to other Holdenby stone he has come across in walls he has worked on.

As I said, I’m not one for human history really, but links from my own drystone wall and a major palace and Civil War battle, might just make me look a bit more, at least at the history of our new home and surrounding area. It’s pretty amazing what findings objects such as little as a piece of old smoking pipe can lead to.

First signs of spring

The weather yesterday morning was absolutely lovely for what is approaching the latter end of January. It wasn’t warm, far from it, but the bright sun and the clear skies made the world around me a lot happier and colourful. For the first time this year, in fact for several months, I got my bike out and went for an easy pedal around the area. This part of Northamptonshire really is a pleasant place to cycle, there isn’t much traffic on the small country lanes and there’s plenty of choice in avoiding the busier, more major roads. The countryside is hiller than I was used to in my former cycling area in Cheshire but they add more challenge and interest, once my legs have got back into the swing of things. There is also quite a lot to look at as I pedal my way past, whether it be the great array of country houses and village churches, the scenery in general and, of course, the wildlife, of which there is nearly always something to be seen.

By the time of arrived home, surprisingly less frozen than I was expecting, the skies were starting to cloud up and by the time we went out for a walk in the afternoon, a dark, overcast murk had descended. This was a bit more like it for January, these last two weeks of which month, along with the first two of February, being statistically the coldest of the winter; and it really did feel cold with the sun behind the clouds. We went for a walk along the Brampton Valley Way, the former Northampton to Market Harborough railway line, which is a great place for wandering, running or cycling, with various points of access along its 14 miles. We decided to join at Hanging Houghton and northwards but only went about a mile before turning back. However, during that short walk, despite the gloom and presence of winter-visiting redwings and fieldfares, it did seem like there were some of the first signs of spring in the wildlife. A pair of buzzards were calling to each other within the way-side woods, pairs of red kite circled above the village and a woodpecker could be heard hammering, a little tentatively perhaps, on a nearby tree. These sights and sounds were coupled with us seeing blue tits prospecting our garden bird box earlier in the day, to give the impression that the new season might not be far away. However, I had to remind myself just how long we could have yet to go in winter. Iin two week’s time, it will be a year since we moved into our new house; it was a snowy and icy day and that weather stayed around for the rest of the week and it certainly wasn’t the last time we saw that kind of weather.

Sunday morning at Ravensthorpe Reservoir

Less than a 10 minute drive from our house is Ravensthorpe Reservoir, one of several all in a short distance from our Northamptonshire home. The 100-acre water body is dissected at its northern end by a causeway across which a country road passes, and this linked with the path around the larger southern part of the reservoir form a good circular walk. There is a small car park at the north-eastern end of the causeway but it is also possible to park on the road-side at the other end, as we did today.

We walked clockwise around the water, across the causeway first. You have to be a bit careful of traffic walking along the road and it’s better to walk on the righthand, southern, side no matter which way you are walking, due to the bend of the road. You soon come to the water’s edge and today, in the watery sun, on the calm surface, we saw two great crested grebes already starting courtship, albeit only half-heartedly and briefly. On the opposite side of the road, the much smaller northern portion of the reservoir gave us good views of a group of goldeneye, both males and females, on the surface and diving down into the water.

Turning right at the junction at the northern end of the causeway, we soon came to the car park and the off-road track around the rest of the reservoir. The track is very muddy for much of the rest of the route and we were glad we had put on our wellies – a family coming the other way probably wished they had too. The path down to the dam is all within woodland cover with some limited views of the water; there are just a few points where you can get to the water’s edge. As we approached the dam we came to the raised walkway over the spillway which helps to regulate the reservoirs water levels. It’s quite a picturesque spot with the Victorian engineering clear to be seen.

Passing through a metal gate, the path then travels across the top of the dam, with the waterworks below, eventually coming to the fishing lodge. The dam provides a view across the whole reservoir south of the causeway and is a good place for grey wagtails and as well as the wider range of waterfowl. Today, we had a reasonable number of birds on the walk, including greylag, Canada and pink-footed geese, mallard, gadwall and tufted duck, as well as coot and moorhen. We had 27 species in total, without looking too hard.

The last leg of the walk on the western side of the water provided a range of woodland and farmland birds but the views were the main reason for stopping frequently to look across the water. The sky was slightly hazy in places but the deep blue breaks in the cloud opened up and the sun was even slightly warm at times. It certainly didn’t feel like spring this morning but it did provide the first early sign that it will be coming.

Looking forward to 2022

This post two years ago had no sign of what has occurred since, both in terms of COVID-19 but also my life in general. Now at the start of 2022, there are all sorts of hopes in my head that could make this year one of the brightest after two very hard years for everyone.

Two weeks into the new year, there are already some glimmers of hope that we are approaching a new phase in the pandemic, Omicron may be subsiding in the UK and becoming somewhere near endemic. Later this month, many of the remaining restrictions may be removed and a greater level of normality returned to us. Finally, there may be hope that, while COVID-19 may not disappear, we can move on and live with it like we do so with many other similar viruses. I’m not daft enough to think there aren’t still risks ahead, especially the emergence of further variants, and people will still die from being infected with COVID-19. However, there is very much more hope now than in this equivalent post from a year ago.

My life has changed such a lot since my 2020 post, so much for the better, and I aim to build on that. Now firmly settled into our new home in rural Northamptonshire, I’m keen to keep exploring the area, looking for wildlife, finding new walks and cycle routes and returning to the places we already like to spend time. The county really is lovely and we’ve very happy to have found somewhere that provides so much for us to enjoy.

Even with the restrictions placed on us last year, we still managed to do quite a lot with it and we have even more planned for this year. One thing that is close to the top of my list of things to do is finding some new volunteering opportunities after I left so many behind when I moved away from Cheshire last year. I did visit a bird ringing group late last summer to see if there was a chance I could join and start training. However, I just couldn’t commit the amount of time they required. I’m very sad about this but perhaps this is something I could consider again in a few years’ time. There are other opportunities I’m considering and I really do need to make some efforts to get involved again. At very least, I would like to get a new BTO Breeding Bird Survey site to do and I need to get on and make enquiries before it’s too late.

Away from home, as usual there are a few trips away planned. For what is becoming an annual occurrence, we may head across to Norfolk for a short break at the end of the January or in early February; it’s such a wonderful place for winter wildlife. We have a holiday to Sweden in late April/early May, to see family particularly, who I haven’t seen in over two years, but to also show my girlfriend places I have come to love and are very close to being like another home. There is also hope that I can return to Ramsey Island to stay for the first time since my three months there in 2019; a week in September would be great, spending time in another place that feels like a home. Our trip furthest away from our real home will hopefully be to Zambia in October. This has been postponed twice due to the pandemic and we’re hoping it will be ‘third time lucky’.

Lastly, but very much not least, is our biggest event of the year; we are getting married in the summer. As readers of my blog might expect, nature will be fairly central to the location, the day and the ceremony and I’m in no doubt that our plans will make it a day, and couple of weeks, that will be unforgettable. 

A frosty walk around Pitsford Water Nature Reserve

Today we had a sunny and frosty wander around the nature reserve at Pitsford Water. We’re fortunate that the reservoir is only a 10-minute drive away, so is one of our most common spots for a quick walk as well an occasional longer circuit. Today we decided to do the seven mile round trip of the nature reserve. The reserve covers one half of the reservoir’s 14 miles of shoreline and there is a lovely walk that can be started at either end of the causeway that cuts the water in half.

We parked on the Brixworth side of the water at the junction of the old road towards Walgrave that was severed by the building of the reservoir. Walking down what is now a track towards the water’s edge there were nice frosty views across the surrounding countryside and our first encounters with birdlife with reed buntings and yellowhammers feeding on the seed put out for them close to the gate onto the reserve. The signs here are very clear that a permit is needed to visit the reserve, which is amazingly quiet compared to the country park half of the shoreline. The permits can be obtained for free if you are a member of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust or a day permit can be bought at the fishing lodge on the Holcot side of the causeway.

Starting out on our clockwise walk, we passed through the low, wet meadows on the water’s edge with good views of the water birds immediately with great gatherings of duck, a few flocks of greylag and Canada geese and good numbers of mute swans. The ducks were dominated by wigeon and teal but as we wandered on there were plenty of others including mallard, tufted ducks, pochard, shoveler, pintail, and eventually towards the end of the walk, a few gadwall.

The landscape then changes into shoreline woodland and open rides with intermittent views of the water. It is like this for much of the rest of the walk but views of the wildlife are helped by a number of good hides at irregular intervals. The woodland provided views and sounds of a different variety of birds with plenty of tits and finches flitting about the leafless branches. The trees right by the water also host a number of cormorant colonies and provide perches for herons and great white and little egrets.

About halfway around the walk, there is a spot overlooking the water with a picnic bench. This is a lovely place to stop and usually there is no one else around. In the summer, it’s nice to have lunch there watching and listening to common terns over the water. Today it was quiet but still nice to sit there in the sun, out of the cool breeze.

In the last of the bays, before getting to the causeway, we came across a new species for us, another duck; smew. Two males were hanging out with some wigeon and mallards on the other side of the water but we still had good views as they sat on the water between dives below the surface. The males are rather a flamboyant black and white bird and very easy to spot amongst the others. We had learned that they had been seen in the Holcot Bay area of the reservoir from a great local birdwatching website (Northamptonshire Birding), which is now one of our go-to places for news of wildlife around the area. Usually, things have disappeared by the time I get anywhere near where they might be, but this time, they were in the right place.

To end the walk, a chilly stroll across the causeway was needed, back onto the main road and close to the more public side of the reservoir. It’s amazing how quiet the reserve is and it’s easy to forget how popular the other half is. Usually, we barely meet anyone as we walk there but today there were a few more about, perhaps this is peak season for watching wildlife at Pitsford with the winter wildfowl being a particular draw.

After seven miles of relaxed walking, a few stops in the hides and occasional chats with fellow walkers, we got back to the car, having seen 52 different species of bird as well as our first hare and muntjac of the year. This really is a very special place to have almost on our doorstep and a great way to start the year of wildlife watching.

Looking back on 2021

2021 was a year like no other, well, apart from 2020, maybe. Except, personally, it was quite momentous. Despite all the impacts of COVID, on home, on my health and on work, many good things eventually came out of 2021.

The year started with planning and preparing for, and then actually, moving house. At the beginning of February, after over 40 years of living in Cheshire, albeit with four years studying in Birmingham, I moved to Northamptonshire. The previous 12 months had largely been spent in Kew, West London, being locked down with my girlfriend and then between lockdowns splitting time between Kew and Cheshire. However, February was the big change we both needed as we settled into our new home in a rural village north of Northampton.

It wasn’t long before COVID returned, personally, to spoil things. We both got it but I developed additional glandular fever symptoms which were pretty awful and took many weeks to fully recover from. However, I can count myself lucky compared to many. Once over the worst of it, and when the pretty rubbish spring weather allowed, we started to explore our new home.

I had a vey strange feeling when we first moved into our house; one of being on a very small island of familiarity (our house and the nearby villages lanes around it) in a great ocean of the unknown. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling living somewhere of which I knew so little. However, over the following months of 2021, through driving, cycling and walking around the area, that island has been expanded greatly, its shores pushed further and further out, until I’m now surrounded by known, if not all very familiar, places.

Much of our exploring has been through walks in the countryside and visits to nature reserves, all of which have provided an insight into Northamptonshire’s landscape and wildlife – which have been an unexpected collective joy so far.

We were lucky to have a week long trip to South Uist spanning late June and early July when the Machair was at its best – a truly amazing spectacle in an often harsh but always stunning place. A day trip to Mingulay not only produced great views of wildlife, particularly the seabird cliffs, it also resulted in our engagement – quite a special place to ‘pop the question’.

We also had a weekend in North Norfolk in July watching wildlife and enjoying the warm weather on the coast and I had a long-awaited return to Ramsey Island. This was only for the day and it seemed quite odd being back after leaving over two years previously at the end of my three-months long term volunteering stint. Although I did have a Manx shearwater in my hotel bedroom overnight (after rescuing it from the kerbside outside a pub) to make it even more odd!

Our travels of 2021 were completed by a week in Skye in October, walking and more wildlife watching, with some very nice food along the way, and a few nights with friends on the south Devon coast at New Year. The latter was not so much for wildlife but the scenery was lovely despite the rain and strangely warm temperatures.

I would normally do a list of numbers for my review of the year but it would be very much depleted compared to non-COVID years. However, there are some worth noting:

  • 53 bird species seen from the house so far and five heard
  • 154 bird species seen in 2021 plus two heard – better than last year but less than many when I have travelled abroad
  • 21 species of mammal seen – probably the best UK only year to date – and included 11 species at the house
  • 12 species of butterfly seen including 11 at the house – probably the best year I’ve had0 days volunteering – well, it could be one if I count a morning with a local bird ringing group. Unfortunately, its probably just not feasible for me to start ringing training at present.

I thought I’d finish the post with a photo taken on our favourite walk in the area – this time in high summer (and very unlike the weather tonight which to forecast to get down to -5oC)

Finally, a fine day for a walk

Yesterday, after seemingly spending almost the whole Christmas period under a veil of dark and damp cloud, the final day of the holiday turned out to be clear and sunny. We went out on what is now our favourite walk in the area close to home – a circular around Cottesbrooke and Haselbech Hill.

I’ve found a great blog for wanders in the county – Northamptonshire Walks – with guides for hundreds of routes all over the county and beyond. Before we moved here early last year, I spotted an area that might be nice for a walk and by chance this blog already has a route around it – Walk 132.

We started in Cottesbrooke itself, a lovely old village with ironstone houses and cottages, heading out towards Brixworth but then some way after leaving the buildings behind, heading up a farm track into the countryside. The route meets up with one of our regular walks from Hanging Houghton but then continues up to the high ground between Cottesbrooke and Haselbech. Near to the top of hills is a view point with great vistas over the fields around our village and those surrounding it, with a very distant Northampton barely visible in the background. At this point, the land seems almost like the Downs rather than the more wold-like landscape lower down the hills and it has to be my favourite spot in Northamptonshire we’ve found so far. On a day like yesterday too, it really was a special place to be.