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Impressive display of waders at WWT Wildfowl and Wetland Centre at Welney

My good friend and fellow birdwatcher Bob Jarman and I paid a visit to some local wetlands and were richly rewarded with impressive flocks of wildfowl and waders, and later on by a breathtakingly dramatic sequence of avian predation.

Wildfowl at Welney. Picture: Martin Walters
Wildfowl at Welney. Picture: Martin Walters

The WWT Wildfowl and Wetland Centre at Welney is a superb nature reserve with unrivalled views, both to the south-east over flooded pools on Lady Fen and north-west across the flat expanse of the Ouse washes. The rich mud and pools here offer ideal feeding sites for birds, especially the thousands of migrants that arrive each autumn and winter.

Black-tailed godwits were here in large numbers, using their long bills to feed in the shallow water on Lady Fen, and flocks of lapwings and golden plovers soared over the adjacent fields.

Among them, an unusual wader caught our eye — a single spotted redshank, slightly bigger than common redshank, with grey winter plumage and a longer bill. Spotted redshanks are scarce winter visitors that breed in Northern Europe and Siberia, and this was one of the special birds of the day.

Spotted redshank. PIcture: Jonathan Heath
Spotted redshank. PIcture: Jonathan Heath

At this time of year the familiar mute swans are joined by flocks of whooper swans, arrived here from Iceland where they breed. Small flocks and family groups of these majestic swans were feeding on the wet grassland and in nearby agricultural fields, though we saw no tundra (Bewick’s) swans, whose numbers have declined here in recent years. They breed in Siberia and with a warming climate are perhaps finding winter feeding grounds further north.

Every so often a heron would flap heavily past, keeping low to avoid the strong wind, and indeed it turned out to be quite a day for the heron family.

Great white egret and little egret. Picture: Jonathan Heath
Great white egret and little egret. Picture: Jonathan Heath

We also saw a total of four great egrets, some alongside the much smaller and commoner little egrets, allowing appreciation of the difference in size, not always apparent when seen at distance. Great egrets are similar in stature to grey herons, though with an even longer neck.

Apart from the size difference, little egrets have a shorter bill, and bright yellow feet, though the latter are often obscured by mud. Beyond the pools on Lady Fen the pastures are grazed by cattle, and on one such field we spotted another group of egrets feeding around a small herd of cows. Smaller than little egrets and with a hunched posture, these were cattle egrets, intent on living up to their name. They are familiar birds to anyone who has been to Africa, where they are common, often seen riding on the back of a hippo or buffalo, as well as on cattle.

Cattle egret. Picture: Jonathan Heath
Cattle egret. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Little egrets have increased dramatically in the country since starting to colonise here some 20 years ago after spreading north along the French coast, and are now common, especially in southern England. Much more recent though has been the arrival of great and cattle egrets, and the exciting news is that both of these newcomers bred in Cambridgeshire for the first time this year!

Towards the end of our visit we witnessed a sudden panic amongst the birds feeding in the muddy pools as flocks of ducks and waders launched themselves skywards and circled around in a state of high agitation. I looked up, and quickly spotted the cause. A peregrine soared over the edge of the lagoon and then stooped on its unfortunate prey, eventually flying off to a nearby field with the teal clasped in its talons.

As the raptor settled down to pluck its prey, a trio of carrion crows ambled close, the bravest of them even pecking at the peregrine’s tail in an attempt to get access to the kill, but thwarted each time by the powerful bird. After a few minutes, the peregrine tired of the crows’ interference and flew off, carrying its prey into the distance to feed in peace, while calm gradually returned to the wetland.

Visit Martin Walters’ author page for more articles like these

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