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.