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.

Northamptonshire – raising hope for nature in our rural places

Come the early days of February, we will have lived in our cottage in a quiet Northamptonshire village for a year. So much has happened and so much has changed over the 12 months that I could write about but I want to get back to the basics of my blog; my love of nature and my concern for the natural environment.

As I have written previously, we knew very little of Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. I’d only ever passed through the county, racing through by train or car, usually on the West Coast Mainline or along the M1 or A14. It came as a surprise to us when we started looking at the county, having first focused on Warwickshire, just how lovely rural Northamptonshire is. 

Our part of the county, particularly, is rolling, steeply in places, with a patchwork of large arable fields for growing grains and smaller pastures primarily for sheep and beef cattle. The fields are bounded by both mixed hedgerows and dry stone walls and the area is criss-crossed by a network of country lanes and relatively quiet more major roads. The west of the county is very lightly wooded for a rural area, with West Northamptonshire having only 5.6% woodland cover, less than some cities, but what it is missing in trees it makes up for with water. 

We have a good selection of open water around us with Ravensthorpe, Hollowell, Stanford reservoirs close by and the much larger Pitsford Water a ten minute drive away. There is also the River Nene, which passes through Northampton a few miles to the south of us and makes its way through the county and onto Cambridgeshire, briefly into Lincolnshire, before it meets the North Sea at The Wash. As it meanders through Northamptonshire there are groups of lakes, many being former gravel pits, that have increased the water habitats through a large area of the county.

This wold-like landscape, with its mixed farming and its range of water habitats has had a particular positive effect on me. It holds a range of wildlife, birds, mammals and insect life, that was so often missing from my former home in South Cheshire. It is altogether a richer place in nature terms and in being so has rekindled some hope that rural England doesn’t have to be so nature-depleted, that it can mix farming with wildlife and that man’s impact on the land doesn’t all have to be bad.

I won’t pretend that everything is as it should be in rural Northamptonshire; that would be very far from the truth. Only in the last month have I seen flood water inundating rivers with soil from autumn-ploughed fields, turning them to the colour of fudge. Chalara die-back is taking many of the ash trees which are so widespread around the edges of the county’s fields. I also expect, like so many other places, that the wildlife I am seeing now is in a very much diminished state compared to earlier decades. However, what wildlife I have seen over the last 11 months has been in a positive contrast to where I used to live.

In that time, we have recorded 53 bird species seen in or from the garden and a further five heard. We have also had 11 species of mammal, including six species of bat over the garden, as well as 11 different types of butterfly. I could only dream of such richness in my old garden (although I do still miss the badgers that suddenly started sneaking in under holly hedge in the last few months before I left).

Almost from the moment we moved in to our cottage, the wildlife was evident. From the owls calling during the first night, to a kestrel landing on the telegraph post next to the house the following snowy morning, it was immediately clear that this might be a better place for wildlife.

That owl on the first night wasn’t the last. We hear tawnies almost every night and in the spring we heard little owls nearby and as well as a barn owl once or twice in late winter. During our first drive around the area after we moved in we saw a barn owl in broad daylight sitting on a post and also saw one in an old barn at Hanging Houghton, a place we have come to love for a walk when we have a spare hour or so. This was also the first place we heard skylarks this year and we saw upwards of a dozen at a time on some of our spring and summer walks there. I love to just stand or sit, eyes closed, listening to the skylarks; a perfect way to meditate for a while.

Working from home for so much of the year, wildlife has been a release, during the working day as well as after it. Red kites and buzzards frequently fly over the house and I hear them from my desk. I also often hear green woodpeckers from the same spot yaffling away in the nearby gardens alongside their great spotted cousins hammering on the trees down in the shallow valley beneath us. There’s usually a few birds flitting about in the trees and bushes behind the drystone wall opposite my home office but the best view I had this year was a fleeting one, of a spotted flycatcher perching on the telegraph wire just outside my open window.

Some of the flora has also been notable, particularly in the hedgerows. During the spring there was a procession of blossom over the months with apple and cherry coming first followed by the blackthorn and hawthorn, then the elder and finally the bramble. With such a display of flowers we expected, or rather hoped, for a great glut of berries and we weren’t disappointed. Several autumnal walks resulted in good harvests of sloes, blackberries and elderberries and our hedgerow gin has just been decanted and kicked off a few festive evenings.

My cycles around the local countryside were accompanied in the spring and summer by yellowhammers and whitethroats, as well as more skylarks. In some spots it seemed as though they were in every hedge and tree; a continuous calling as I pedalled along the country lanes. As summer started to fade and the crops were harvested, I got frequent views of groups of red kites feeding on the creatures exposed in the stubble left behind by the combine.

It’s not just our walks that have revealed the richness of nature in the area; there are quite a few nature reserves too and our favourite to date has probably been at Titchmarch. In the eastern half of the county, it is one of those series of lakes on the Nene and our first spring time walk there was lovely with a wide range of warblers calling from the reeds and undergrowth. We also saw a cuckoo for the only time this year, standing in clear view in a stand of poplar calling out over the water.

We have visited a few of the reservoirs and particularly like Pitsford and Ravensthorpe, which are so close by. A walk around the nature reserve half of the former is always very quiet despite the number of bird hides provided. I particularly loved watching the common terns which nest there, a species I never saw in Cheshire. The autumn and winter have revealed a place for thousands of waterfowl of a wide variety. Ravensthorpe on the other hand, whilst also good for ducks and swans, gave us views of hundreds of hirundines hawking over the water as they arrived for the breeding season and we’ve also seen a small starling murmuration over the reed beds and grey wagtails on the dam.

Returning to home, we also have a grey wagtail visiting our often waterlogged patio at the moment and our bird feeders have more visitors than I can remember seeing at any other. We often have a dozen or more goldfinches supported by a cast of greenfinches, chaffinches and a range of tits.  

Good numbers of my favourite bird, swifts, appeared around the village in the summer. The Chairman of the parish council not only has his own swift boxes on his house, he’s installed some in the village church tower along with speakers playing recordings of swifts. Often on a spring lunchtime walk around the village I would stare upwards expecting to see them flying above only to (again) realise that it was just the recording. However, one late spring day they were actually chasing around above my head and I stood watching as they raced between the steep roofs of the ironstone houses, my heart lifted by the sight of them. Over the course of the next few weeks we regularly saw them around the village and could lie in the back garden watching them wheel and dart above us.

Perhaps, however, the birds that has most made an impact on us in our new house have been the starlings. They were calling in their slightly crazy way from tree tops and TV aerials around the house when we first arrived in but then they moved in too. We have had three pairs nesting in the eves of the house and we regularly hear them in the morning before we get out of bed and during the rest of the day. When they had chicks, we heard them grow; their calls starting as quiet ‘cheeps’ but developing into raucous screeching to wake us every morning for two weeks running before they fledged. They then had creches in the back garden, the fat balls on the feeders being rapidly devoured each time we put them out. Now we are at the quiet time for them but some are wintering in our roof and we still hear them as they chatter and slide down the sloping section of the eaves.

Despite all the above, the view that pleased me most was a very recent one. As we headed down the hill for our usual walk at Hanging Houghton, we saw four roe deer feeding quietly in one of the fields. We stopped the car and watched them for a moment and they looked back at us. I never saw free-roaming deer in Cheshire in the 40 years I lived there, but these roe add to the muntjac we have seen on several occasions at various places in the county. I love seeing deer, they remind me of wllder places, particularly of my trips to Sweden where they are so often seen in forest glades at dawn or dusk, and seeing them in my new home county really lifted my spirits on an otherwise gloomy day.

I’m sure we have only just touched the surface of Northamptonshire’s wildlife and I can’t wait for the new year to start and to see what else we can find out about nature in this quiet and so little known county. If we find even more, this place will make that hope for a better future for nature in our rural places even stronger.