First day of spring signals wildlife spectacle

Today is the first day of meteorological spring and wildlife is bursting into life right on cue.

Male swans are getting really territorial, puffing up their feathers and seeing off the competition.

One pair of swans have even been spotted trying out the nesting spot shown below in a secluded area of Wroxham Broad, although this seems to have been abandoned.

Wroxham Island, a narrow strip of land that splits Wroxham Broad with the river Bure, is now a cacophony of activity with Canada and Greylag geese noisily squabbling and jostling for the best nesting positions. The island is a much coveted nesting spot for geese as it affords good protection from predators such as foxes.

Currently the Canada geese seem to be the most aggressive at staking their claim on the island and are certainly getting the best of the Greylag geese, which are still moving in large numbers as shown landing on Wroxham Broad below.

Another interesting phenomenon is some of the Cormorants (which crowd onto the imposing trees on Wroxham Island) developing white patches in their plumage.  The birds with white patches are the mature birds that are ready to breed in the spring.

A little further down river, on Salhouse Broad, Great Crested Grebes are continuing their delightful courtship routine.

Great Crested Grebes very rarely come to land because they have their feet on the back of their body, making it difficult for them to stand, which is why they build floating nests for their eggs.

However rules, as they say, are ment to be broken and we recently spotted a Great Crested Grebe climbing on to the bank – a very unusual and slightly ungainly sight as you can see in this picture!

Another notable point on Salhouse Broad is that there are unusually high numbers of Pochard ducks as you can see below.

The Pochards are mixed in with other winter species, such as Tufted Ducks and Gadwalls, which are still remaining on the broad for now.

On a final note we had to rescue a swan yesterday, which became dangerously tangled in fishing tackle.  The vets took it away and thankfully it is recovering well in the care of the RSPCA.

Words and images by Oliver Franzen

Half term trips are a treat for wildlife

Our half term kids go free* boat trips are in full swing and children and adults alike are being treated to a wonderful display of wildlife.

Topping the list was an otter popping up in our boat basin to the delight of passengers – who got to see one of the Broad’s shyest and most enigmatic creatures before even reaching the river!

Every trip has been a riot of wildlife activity, with some birds starting their spring courtship rituals but other shyer species, which are usually only seen in the winter, still present in large numbers.

A real highlight has been watching Great Crested Grebes performing their courtship ‘mirror’ dance.   With their beautiful headdress fluffed up – as if showing off their best clothes on a first date – the male and female birds face one another and copy each others movements giving the appearance of looking in a mirror.   It’s a truly magical sight that will soon be followed by Great Crested Grebe pairs making a floating nest for their eggs and, eventually, successful mothers carrying their cute little ‘greblets’ around on their backs.

 

Other signs of spring include mature adult cormorants heads’ turning from black to white to signal that they are ready to breed and male swans starting to act territorially as they look for a mate. Elsewhere we have even seen one pair of swans already making a nest on a remote and inaccessible corner of Broadland (Alderfen Broad).

Equally as exciting is the way we have been spoilt with lots of rarer winter species.  In particular, there are still very large numbers of Little Grebes emerging from the riverside undergrowth.  These cute, fluffy little creatures that are a constant buzz of activity (forever diving and hiding) are hardly ever seen for most of the year because they are so shy.  Fortunately for us they clearly feel confident enough to venture out onto the river at this quieter time of year.

Another highlight is that there is a full complement of rarer ducks to spot.  Although we are seeing many species on Wroxham Broad perhaps the most productive area is Salhouse Broad, where there are large numbers of Gadwall,

Tufted Ducks

and a few Pochards.

Not to be outdone, Teal are putting in a welcome appearance on the river between Salhouse and Wroxham close to where the Little Grebes are being spotted.

Perhaps the most majestic moments have come from watching marsh harriers gliding through the air, as shown by this one that was unusually high over Wroxham Broad.

If you haven’t come to our half term boat trips yet don’t miss out!  Trips run until Sunday 19 February at 11.30am and 2pm. All trips last 1.5 hour from Wroxham to Salhouse Broad taking in the open vistas of Wroxham Broad.  Colouring in sheets are available for the ‘little ones’ too!

For more information contact 01603 782 207.

Finally we will leave you with a couple of pictures of the ever charismatic herons in Wroxham village!

*Maximum of two free children’s tickets available with every full paying adult.

Arctic aura

With arctic conditions upon us causing many Broads to freeze over now isn’t the most obvious time for a boat trip.    But, in the interest of investigation one of our skippers, Oli Franzen, wrapped up warm and headed out in a small day boat to discover what the Broads had to offer at this unlikely time of year.  He found that fortune favours the brave and was rewarded with the waterways teaming with wildlife.

As I donned an extra jumper and thick coat ready to climb aboard my day boat – the weather forecast was broadcast on the radio.  “A high temperature of zero today…but it will feel like minus 5”, they said. Oh great, perfect for a boat trip I thought!

Fortunately I didn’t abandon my plans because it turned into one of the best boat trips of the year.  My route was simple, heading downstream to Salhouse Broad via Wroxham Broad and back again.  It’s a route that I do every day in my double decker trip boat during  the summer season but one which took on a completely different persona in the winter – not just due to the blocks of ice floating downstream set against the stark winter scenery – but because it was alive with wildlife.

What was immediately obvious is how much more wildlife has moved into Wroxham  village than you would see in the summer, perhaps because there’s much less boat traffic to disturb shy species but also because fish tend to shoal up in boatyards at this time of year and  the water birds that feed on them follow their prey.

In addition to an extremely cold and grumpy looking Heron (any suggestions for an amusing picture caption of what this heron is thinking would be gratefully received!)  there was a surprising number of Great Crested Grebes and Cormorants fishing.

On Wroxham Broad things got more exciting.  Water birds have flocked together in huge numbers and I had a magical moment, when my boat was completely surrounded by hundreds of Greylag geese, as shown in this panorama picture.

There were also huge flocks of Tufted Ducks, which are shy and rarely seen in the summer:

The Coots had come together in large numbers too, with some diving into the cold water to catch and eat zebra mussels, as you can see in the picture below.

Next I headed back out on to the river towards Salhouse Broad, revealing perhaps the most special moment of the whole trip – lots of Little Grebes which I encountered in pairs every few hundred yards downstream.  Little Grebes are notoriously shy and we hardly ever see them during the summer months, so to see so many pairs feeling confident enough to come out in the open due to the lack of boat traffic was wonderful. I stopped on each occasion to take some pictures of these beautiful, but notoriously difficult to photograph birds.

On reaching Salhouse Broad – one thing was immediately obvious.  Half the broad was frozen solid!  These pictures show somewhat confused Black headed gulls standing on the ice.

In fact, I was reminded later that Salhouse Broad was frozen even more thickly than this in 2010, as shown by this lovely picture featuring a puzzled swan taken by James Greasley.

Elsewhere on the bank rather more sensible Black Headed gulls than the ones on the ice huddled together on a fence for warmth.

By the end of my two hour trip I felt about as warm as those gulls but delighted I had made the effort to head out on the water and can thoroughly recommend it.  Even if you have been out on a boat with us in the summer, you will see a completely different World at this time of year.  So wrap up warm, bring a hot drink and hire a day boat for a couple of hours!

Winter wonderland…and a brazen heron

In the last nature blog we focused on the ‘adventures of the Grey Heron’, both in our boatyard and on the far flung shores of Sri Lanka.  Well, the bird we sometimes call ‘The Harnser’ here in Norfolk is still stealing the show.

While our skippers Tobi and Oli were carrying out checks on our trip boat ‘The Queen of the Broads’ a brazen young heron perched right above their heads on top of the wheel house!  Check out these rather amusing pictures of Tobi and the Heron.

The Heron stayed for some time before becoming rather less welcome when it decided to drop off an unpopular surprise that ran down the Queen of the Broad’s windscreen just after Tobi had cleaned it!  Needless to say, Tobi wasn’t amused, and testing the horn soon after meant that the Heron found a new perch….

That wasn’t the end of the story though, as our boat builders got quite a surprise when the bold young heron wandered into their workshop.  They duly ushered it out before it hurt itself!

The Heron wasn’t the only wildlife we spotted before in the basin.  Pike were striking young fry fish on the surface, which shoal up in vast numbers in basins at this time of year.  A quick chat with some fisherman also revealed that there are some monster predators lurking in the area – apparently they had caught a 22lb and 25lb pike that morning!

While we only run a few boat trips in the winter they are perhaps our favourites – often revealing far more wildlife than in the summer as the waterways are much quieter at this time of year and many shy species come out into the open.

Our mince pies and mulled wine tour on 2 December proved no exception, revealing the Broads in its wonderful winter cloak.  These pictures of a rainbow framing a fabulous winter scene on the trip seem to summarise the essence of the broads at this time of year.

Amongst this stark beauty we got really lucky with the wildlife.

Top of the list was two separate sightings of otters.  The first was at the bottom end of Wroxham village where we got a really good view of a female otter swimming along the river, before finally taking cover in the undergrowth when she spotted us.  We saw the other otter sunbathing on the bank a little further down river, close to Hoveton Great Broad.  The first sighting was especially clear, with nearly all of our passengers delighted to have spotted this beautiful mammal.

Tufted ducks are known as a winter species because they usually hide away during the summer before forming in ever increasing numbers through the winter.  That’s certainly the case on Wroxham and Salhouse Broads where there are ever expanding groups of these lovely birds on the water as shown in these pictures.

Interestingly it’s only the males who have tufts on their heads – which one of our skippers Richard jokes makes them a tuftless duck, or maybe just ducks!

On Wroxham Island increasing numbers of Cormorants are gathering amongst the trees as shown in these pictures set amongst a stormy sky.

A little further downstream on the river, close to the bottom entrance of Wroxham Broad, there are a growing number of Little Grebes.  These beautiful birds are much less frequently spotted than the larger Great Crested Grebe, but as winter presses on the shy little birds are venturing out more and more.  See 31 October blog for more on Little Grebes.

Another good spot close to this area was the elusive, yet brightly coloured kingfisher sitting on a branch and we also saw an acrobatic kestrel hovering over the reeds before perching on a tree.

A welcome sight in this area was the single cygnet that was hatched as an ‘only child’ during the summer on Salhouse Little Broad and which we have followed closely on this blog.  As all the other cygnets hatched in the spring in groups of six, this single cygnet has been the smallest and most loveable on the river this year.  It’s size doesn’t seem to have held it back and, as shown in the pictures below, it is doing well.

On Salhouse Broad we were lucky enough to spot Gadwell ducks flying close to the much more populous tufted ducks.  The Gadwell is a pretty rare grey coloured duck with a black rear end, but if you get the chance to see it close up it becomes apparent that its grey colouring is made up of exquisitely fine barring and speckling.

Overall everyone on our 2 December boat trip was delighted to see such a wide variety of wildlife and, while we run far fewer trips at this time of year, it underlined our view that the winter is a great time to be out on the water.

The adventures of the Grey Heron

Spotting a Grey Heron is one of the highlights of a holiday on the Broads.  But it seems that this familiar sight on our waterways can also be seen in rather more unfamiliar locations – as one of our skippers Oli discovered while on safari in Sri Lanka.

Here we have two pictures of Grey Herons perched on holiday cruisers in our boat basin.  The second picture shows two birds together– which is quite unusual as they are usually solitary birds.

 

But it seems that Grey Herons can be seen in even more exotic locations than our boat basin!

One of our skippers Oli was surprised to see a Grey Heron at the world’s largest gathering of elephants in Sri Lanka.  Oli explained: “More than 300 elephants come together in the dry season to drink from and bathe in a lake close to Minneriya National Park in what is known as ‘The Gathering’. Initially I was spellbound by the sheer number of these jumbo beasts enjoying the water at sunset but then noticed a rather smaller and more familiar creature fishing amongst them – The Grey Heron.”

 

 

A few days later Oli spotted a grey Heron amongst Pelicans and surrounded by large Crocodiles at a lake in Yala National Park in the south east of the island!

There was also another favourite Broadland bird fishing from a branch precariously close to Crocodiles – The Common Kingfisher.

It’s a little known fact that although we only have one type of Kingfisher in the UK there are actually 90 species of Kingfisher in the world – seven of which live in Sri Lanka.  These are the Pied Kingfisher (pictured below flying above the crocodile pool), the Common Kingfisher, the Ceylon Blue-eared Kingfisher, the Three-toed Kingfisher, the Stork-billed Kingfisher, the White-breasted Kingfisher and the Black-capped Purple Kingfisher.

It’s not just Sri Lanka that is home to many of our favourite birds found on the Broads though.  Another of our skippers, Tobi, spotted Grey Herons on Safari in Tanzania, East Africa a few years ago.