Season Ends, Tranquility Returns

Now that our river trips have come to an end, our visits to the river will become less frequent. We shall however, endeavour to keep you informed of how our beautiful Broadland is changing through the winter.

On Thursday, our skippers Giles and Tobi ventured out on bright and chilly morning to ferry contractors from Salhouse Broad to Hoveton Great Broad Nature Trail as part of the Hoveton Wetlands Restoration Project. This gave us a perfect opportunity to see how the wildlife has been affected now that the boating season has effectively come to a close.

Whilst heading across Wroxham Broad, two particular groups of birds stood out. Near the Yacht Club were four Great crested grebes; usually these birds are quite territorial and upon closer inspection it turned out that one of the grebes was still showing the stripy head feathers of a juvenile, hatched this year.

At the downstream end of the Broad a large group of fifty or more Tufted ducks were gathered. This was a welcoming sight as the Tufted ducks had seemingly disappeared last week, most likely due to the hustle and bustle of the October half term. They are quite shy birds, as you can see in the photo as they scarpered when the boat got too close!

The autumn colour found on our riverbanks is ever changing: at the end of September we showed how our Silver birch is turning from green to golden yellow (below, bottom right). We are now seeing the colour cascading down the tree with many leaves falling and littering the river, joined by the red rosehips on the  Dog rose (below, top left) and even brighter berries on the Guelder rose whose leaves are a deep purply red (below, top right). The final picture in our quartet shows the brightest of reds and a fantastic addition to the bank, particularly when the rest of the leaves have fallen, leaving the banks drab and bare. This is the Dogwood, a native to this country, is mostly found in hedgerows but also gardens in our local villages as well as the river banks.

In addition to our usual suspects, flying overhead we have seen flocks of field fares and a ‘desert’ of lapwings. At one point, a sparrow hawk was even spotted! The Lapwing holds a ‘red’ status and whilst resident, isn’t usually seen in our area during the summer but moves from upland areas to lowland fields for the winter. The extensive farmland surrounding the Broads and grazing marshes gives them plenty of options. The Fieldfare is a type of thrush which looks and acts like a mistle thrush. It is worth looking out for these birds as they move to different feeding areas.

One of our boat builders, Brian, reports sighting a Hen harrier flying over Wroxham, spotted whilst he was having his lunch. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time! Hen harriers are another species on the red list and seen more during the winter around East Anglia. In 2010, 617 pairs were recorded, so it’s really special to see these once severely endangered birds. By comparison, the Marsh harrier which is not necessarily considered a rare sighting in these parts has national numbers of 320-380 breeding pairs, which is less even than the Golden eagle (440 pairs)!

We will aim to keep you updated with photos and observations on the progression of winter on the Broads, so watch this space!

Broads adopt a new persona

As temperatures tumble the Broads is taking on a wonderful new persona.  Not only are the leaves of the riverside trees a blazing red and orange colour but new species are migrating to the Broads.

One of the most interesting visitors was a Gadwall duck on Salhouse Broad.  This very grey coloured dabbling duck is a little smaller than the mallard and can be easily identified by its black rear end. The bird is best seen close up as its grey colouring is made up of exquisitely fine barring and speckling. It’s also a fairly rare bird on the Amber watch list.

Tufted ducks, which are rarely seen in the summer, are forming large groups on Wroxham, Salhouse and Hoveton Great Broad.  Seeing these ducks growing in numbers as the days draw shorter is one of the real joys of winter approaching.

Another interesting sight on Wroxham Broad is Great Crested Grebes, which are usually seen in pairs, forming in groups of more than a dozen birds.

On the subject of grebes, we are occasionally spotting Little Grebes at the downstream entrance of Wroxham Broad.  This small, dumpy grebe with a fluffy rear end is rarely seen in the main sections of the Broads in summer as they are shy and hide in wild areas such as Hoveton Great Broad.  But as the boat traffic reduces in the autumn the Little Grebes gingerly venture out into once busy sections of the Broads.

Cormorants, a large black sea bird that come into the Broads to take advantage of our plentiful fish supply, are also forming in increasingly large numbers.  The birds can be seen fishing and then spreading their wings in tree tops to dry themselves after swimming in the water (as they have no natural oils to waterproof them.)

As more cormorants join a group the way they fish changes.  They start to work together almost like a pack of wolves rounding up prey.  The birds move together in a wave to herd and trap fish and then gorge on them when they have the fish cornered.

Fish themselves are also on the move.  As temperatures fall they seek deeper, warmer water and this means that many of them are already packing into our boat basin.

This has led to some great sightings of their predators, otters and pike, which follow the prey fish into the basin to hunt them.

One of our trip boat crew members, Donna, got a great view of a large dog otter hunting confidently in the basin around lunchtime.  The fact that the otter was swimming in open water in the middle of the day shows just how confident this once endangered species have become.

One of our trip boat skippers, Oli, also saw a large pike of around 15lbs jumping out of the water as it struck a shoal of prey fish from below.  While this behaviour is not unusual, it’s usually the smaller male “Jack Pike” which are active enough to strike like this.  The larger pike, which are always females, are usually happier to scavenge more sedately on the river bed.

Watch this space to see how the Broads change as winter draws in.

Conservation project is great news for wildlife on the Broads!

Broads Tours gained a fascinating insight into an exciting environmental project and ground breaking ecological research when they helped to facilitate a special site visit to the Hoveton Great Broad restoration project for the Institute of Fisheries Management.

Hoveton Great Broad and the surrounding Bure Marshes nature reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is a fantastic wilderness area.  The broad has been cut off from boats for more than a century and can’t be reached by road.

Hoveton Great Broad can only be accessed by coming to special moorings on the river Bure.  A trip is certainly recommended as the broad and its surrounding marshes are home to many rare species including Swallowtail butterflies, Norfolk Hawker dragonflies, a colony of Common Terns and we have even seen Ospreys there recently.

Despite its good credentials Hoveton Great Broad has become very shallow, typically 2-3ft deep, due to sedimentation from algae, which forms a cloudy, sulphurous mud that is very difficult for plants to take root in.

Much of the Broads national park had pollution problems in the past with too much algae growing, due to artificial fertiliser and sewerage entering the water.  This clouded the water, which killed off many of the water plants and therefore deprived the waterways of oxygen and a place for insects to hide. Although this pollution (known as eutrophication) has been very successfully reduced the algae in the past fell to the bottom of the river and silted up the Broads with a mud which is inhospitable for plants to grow in.

Hoveton Great Broad has received £4.5m of national lottery and EU funding to resolve the siltation and eutrophication problem with a two part project, which was the subject of the Institute of Fisheries Management open day.

  • Firstly the broad will be dredged to remove the silt.  The silt will then be pumped to another area of the nature reserve, where it will create valuable new land for reed bed habitats, which are ideal for some of some of our endangered species including Swallowtail butterflies and Norfolk Hawker dragonflies.
  • Secondly a process of ‘natural engineering’ will be used called biomanipulation to reduce the algae in the water and make it clearer.   This will be achieved by removing about 75% of the fish in the broad.  This is because fish eat small plankton in the water called water fleas or daphnia.  The water fleas eat algae but are currently in low numbers because they have few plants to hide in and keep getting eaten by the fish.  So with many of the fish removed the water flea numbers will boom and this army of water fleas will eat most of the excess algae.
  • With a newly dredged bottom and clearer water (thanks to the water fleas) the broad will be restored and water plants should flourish again.   These will then provide a natural home for the water fleas to hide in and we can then return the fish to the broad.

Ground breaking research…Good news for fish!

Biomnapulation project have taken place successfully on the Broads in the past but always by physically removing the fish via electro fishing.  Now new research from the Environment Agency, which has helped us to understand fish movement like never before, suggests that we can simply have a fish barrier which we open like a farm gate when fish are moving out of the broad and shut behind them so that they can’t move on to the broad again.

The Environment Agency is using new echo sounding technology which shows fish under the water (see picture at the top of the article).  Although ‘fish finders’ have been used for many years the new systems are now so accurate that they shows the fish in incredible detail under the water, almost as if watching it on a video screen.  The Environment Agency’s research has involved setting the eco sounder up across the entrance to Hoveton Broad (as well as elsewhere on the Broads) and videoing this on a laptop for up to two weeks at a time.   This has provided a huge amount of new data and amazed the scientists with their findings!

The research shows that fish move far more than ever thought before.  In fact the images show tens of thousands of fish moving out of Hoveton Great Broad on to the river at night and back in to Hoveton Great Broad during the day time.  The videos are so dramatic that it almost looks like bats moving out of a cave at night and returning before daybreak.

This revolutionary new research is completely changing the way we look at fish movements and can be used for many applications.  Not only could it change the way fish are ‘passively removed’ at Hoveton Great Broad it could have lots of other uses.  For example many fish get killed in pumping station when the pump is switched on.  However now we know that fish are likely to vacate the pumping station at night we could only run pumps at night, when most of the fish have moved onto the river, and save a lot of fish deaths.

Adding to the research Norwich Pike Club (fishing club) were on hand at the open day to demonstrate their fish tagging project in partnership with the Environment Agency.  Members of the club measure, sex and then tag pike after they have been caught.  This show how the fish move around the Broads and grow if they are recaptured with the tag.

The whole open day proved a fascinating insight into preserving our special national park.  The Broads are now in the best ecological condition they have been in for years due to a lot of dedication from ecologists resolving pollution problems over the last thirty years. It was great to see this work continuing in new and exciting ways.

Rare sightings

Now is a wonderful time to be on the river.

What was suspected to be a pair of ospreys were spotted hovering above Hoveton Great Broad and Woodbastick recently by Skipper Tobi.  The fantastic fish eagles – with a 5 ft wingspan – were extinct in the UK until 1954 until a successful breeding programming on Lake Garten in the Cairngorms (Highlands of Scotland) encouraged them to return to Britain.  Although they do not breed on the Broads, ospreys have been visiting Cookshoot and Ranworth Broad in the spring and autumn for the last few years on their annual migration from West Africa and back.

It is hoped that ospreys will eventually return to the Broads in greater numbers and perhaps even breed here in the future.  The Broad’s wilderness areas and abundant fish population offer the perfect habitat for the fish eagles and a special nest was even built on Ranworth Broad a couple of years ago to try to encourage them.

Another stunning sight – which we are seeing in increasing numbers at the moment – is the kingfisher.  They are usually seen as an electric blue flash flying fast and low over the water– so you have to be quick to spot them!  Fortunately kingfisher’s shrill whistle gives us some warning to keep our eyes peeled.

One passenger who took a boat trip with us for his birthday and saw a kingfisher said the sighting was the best birthday present he could have had!

Perhaps the most impressive sighting, by our Skipper James, was four kingfishers sitting together on one branch, which is likely to be a pair of adults with two young.  James said: “I saw two kingfishers flying near the entrance to Wroxham Broad so slowed the boat down and gently went up to where they had landed amongst trees so that I didn’t frighten them.  To my surprise there were not two, but four kingfishers, perched one behind the other on a branch, which is a very rare sight indeed!”

Based on this sighting, one theory for why there are so many kingfishers being seen at the moment is that they are having late broods this year.  Kingfishers are also very sensitive to cold temperatures, so the snowy conditions we had in April followed by a hot summer may explain why we are seeing them in larger numbers later in the year.

One interesting fact about kingfishers is that their bright colouring is not due to pigmentation (in fact it is brown) but due to iridescence as light splits into blues and greens by the different layers of kingfishers’ feathers!

Another species of bird we are seeing a lot of at the moment is herons – particularly juvenile birds, which are distinct from their parents due to their greyer colouring.  We think this is because their parents are now pushing them out of the heronry to find their own territories.

Adult heron

Juvinile heron – distinguished by its lighter pigmentation than the adult bird

 

In previous blogs we have expressed our concern that there doesn’t seem to be as many coots around as in previous years.  Well not anymore!

A large group of coots have flocked to Salhouse Broad as shown in these pictures.  They can be seen diving for freshwater muscles, which seem to be their main food source at the moment.

A quirky sight we have noticed is swans displaying territorial behaviour by fluffing themselves up and seeing off other wildlife and rival swans.  Usually you would only expect this behaviour in the spring when they are breeding, but our theory is that because the daylight hours at this time of year are similar to the spring some of the birds are getting a little confused!

All of the cygnets in our swan families have done very well this year and many of them are starting to develop white feathers like their parents as shown in the picture below.

We expect the cygnets to hang around like teenagers for a couple of years before pairing off and starting families of their own.

The greblets that we have followed in this blog since they were hatched in the spring have really grown up and are starting to become less distinct from their parents.  While the greblets used to look very different to the adult grebes (due to their cute black and white stripy faces and punk hairdos) the only thing that sets them apart now is that they have a slightly less vibrant, more grey head dress with less ginger as shown in the picture below – with the mother to the right and the greblet to the left.  The second picture below shows another greblet, looking quite grown up!

As you would expect, the greblets are becoming increasingly independent and are now spreading out on their own and fishing for themselves. One greblet has even been spotted up at Decoy Staithe, venturing far from his Salhouse hatching ground.

Another real hit with passengers is our growing otter population, which we are continuing to spot on a regular basis, particularly on the section of river between Wroxham and Hoveton Great Broad.  Some of our passengers got an unusually long glimpse of a female otter that emerged from the undergrowth near Hoveton Great Broad, just as Skipper Oli was turning his boat around in the middle of the river – what perfect timing!

Finally our bankside vegetation is providing a lovely splash of colour at this time of year with silver birch leaves turning golden and the berries of our riverside dog roses – rose hips – ripening into a deep red colour

Rose hips are known to be particularly high in Vitamin C and are commonly used as a herbal tea, and an oil is also extracted from the seeds.  While they have a number of medicinal properties they can also make delicious preserves and rose hip wine. Apparently in Sweden rose hip soup is popular!

Written by Oliver Franzen and Tobi Radcliffe

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First signs of autumn

Despite last week’s unseasonal heatwave, which boasted the highest September temperatures on record, we are now seeing the first signs of autumn creeping in.

Cormorants are gathering and Canada geese have disappeared.

The reddening  berries of geulder rose are highlighting Wroxham Island  with ‘Hawes’,  Hawthorn berries, ripening on the banks further down river too.

The changing leaf colour is a typical sign of autumn and in the last few days we have noticed the paling of the dogwood- now turning a lime green-yellow instead of its rich summer green.   The reeds that line many of our river banks have also been flowering, showing their delightful red plume, which eventually fades to a silver colour later in the season, as shown in these lovely pictures taken by Skipper, Tobi.

Perhaps surprisingly, wild hops are hanging from their creeping vines like singular grapes – lending a splash of pale, lime green amongst the bankside alder trees.

We all know that hops are used in in the brewing of ale, and Norfolk is known for its microbreweries. It is possibly for this reason that we see the wild hops growing on the edge of the river; one theory is that some seeds escaped while hops were being transported by wherries (an iconic trading vessel) hundreds of years ago!

Yet, with summer temperatures staying with us, we are still seeing the last few damselflies, demoiselles and dragonflies around, with occasional specimen getting lost and finding themselves stranded in the wheelhouse of our trip boats!  Skipper Tobi found a Damselfly on the Queen of the Broads and managed to take this picture before returning it to the wild.

A recent sighting in Wroxham village of a single Mandarin duck in mid malt indicates the migration of some birds taking place at this time of the year. In this case, the solitary duck seems to have got lost on its way, taken refuge in Wroxham for a couple of weeks before continuing its journey.

This isn’t the first occasion of a lost bird in these parts; last winter we regularly saw a grey phalarope which had been blown off course. It stayed around for a week, gaining strength then continued on its way.

Don’t miss our next blog – out soon – for details of an increasing number of kingfishers, herons and coots as well as an update on how our young greblets and cygnets are growing up!

Words:  Oliver Franzen and Tobi Radcliffe

Pictures: Tobi Radcliffe

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If you have taken any wildlife pictures on our trips we would love to share them on this blog. Simply send them to info@broads.co.uk or via Twitter @BroadsTours or Facebook by searching Broads Tours or Instagram norfolk_broads_direct